I first noticed him in the late afternoon, returning from the gym to my older brother’s apartment, my temporary home at the time.
While I couldn't hear what they were saying, I could read his body; I saw him nodding from across the street while I waited for the light to change. Biting my tongue I broke into a half-jog.
She turned, as though surprised. Her eyes told me I should have taken a walk around the block.
“Mr. Grainger, this is Kenny’s younger brother, Jack. Jack, this is our landlord.”
I shook his hand firmly, knowing how old men felt about such things.
“I’m Jack, and it’s a pleasure to meet you,” I said, meeting his eyes.
He looked odd standing next to my brother’s wife—short and leather-skinned, as he was; hair thin and gray—while her legs and red hair went on forever. I placed him in his mid-sixties. His carpals were working overtime so that I was glad he released his grip when he had.
“So, Jack, you live in the neighborhood?” he said.
“Yeah. Just moved here”
“Oh yeah? New to the city?”
“Jack just moved from Long Island City,” said Debbie.
“I see. So you moved to the block to be near family. That’s good, I respect that.”
“Actually Mr. Grainger, Jack’s apartment flooded and Kenny's going away for a while on business, so we were wondering if it’d be alright if he stayed with us for a little while.”
He stopped smiling.
“Well, I don't know. How long would this be for?”
“Only a month or two,” I answered for her. “I’m not the one to take advantage of family.”
“I hope not, Jack. I’ve known Kenny and Debbie for a while. I don’t know you.”
“Yes, but he has Kenny and me to vouch for him,” she chimed in putting her hand on his arm.
“Oh, I dunno. You don’t smoke, do you?”
Debbie mouthed a ‘No’ so he couldn't see.
“Nope. Nasty habit,” I replied.
I watched my sister-in-law break his will with a simple touch of her hand.
“I suppose it'd be alright.”
“Oh, thanks Mr. Grainger! You said so yourself family comes first,” Debbie said.
“Well you got me there,” he said smiling.
“Thanks, Mr. Grainger,” I said.
“Don’t thank me, thank her. Debbie here’s a good woman. You’re lucky your brother’s so smart.”
“I’m lucky in that respect.”
“Thank you so much Mr. Grainger. I just don’t know how to repay you.”
“A kiss on the cheek will be just fine, Miss Debbie.”
She closed her eyes and gave an audible smack of the lips on his face. He broke into a wide grin.
“We’ll get Jack here back on his feet,” he said, slapping my back.
“So what was it again, Jack? Your apartment flooded?”
“Yes,” I lied, “it was a basement apartment,”
“Hard way to learn not to live in a basement,” he laughed, shaking his head at the ground. “But I guess now you know better, Jack.”
“Yes, Charles, I suppose I do.”
He grunted in affirmation. “Well, I’m going to go inside, let you get settled. I’m sure Kenny’ll be home soon from work.”
“Actually Kenny has to work late tonight to get ready for his trip tomorrow,” she said.
“I see. You got a job, Jack?”
He paused at this, both of us waiting for the other to say something, my hands beginning to fidget.
“Okay Debbie. Don’t forget to drop in sometime for a cup of coffee.”
“I will, Mr. Grainger. Thanks again.”
He turned and nodded to me.
And he went inside.
“I don’t think your landlord likes me much.”
The landlord’s attention had made her more radiant; my sister-in-law apparently had the coquette inside her.
“He just takes a while to warm up to people,” she said as I followed her in.
2. I sat at the kitchen table, watching Debbie fix a plate for Kenny’s late return; I shoveled a forkload of wild rice into my mouth and laughed, choking.
“Nothing. You were just funny with the landlord.”
“I’m just glad he agreed. I don’t think we could get away with you sneaking by him everyday.”
“You’re welcome. It's a difficult time.”
“Yeah, I didn’t really feel like telling Charles the whole story anyway. Probably wouldn’t've made me look so hot.”
The story being of a man with few prospects and a bachelor’s degree, having married right out of college, and recently tossed out by his wife.
“Actually he only goes by Mr. Grainger.”
“Old Charles doesn’t like his first name?”
“Maybe Charles and I should go for a beer,” I said.
“No, I’m serious, Jack. He corrected Kenny once. Even I call him Mister Grainger and he loves me.”
“Fine, fine. I don’t want to ruin anything with your landlord.”
I was chewing meat off the bone when she spoke again.
“So, I’m guessing since most of your stuff is still back at your old place, the dog is there?”
“You would be guessing correct.”
“You’re not gonna bring him here, are you?” she asked.
“No, she’ll take care of him.”
“Do you think she means it this time?”
“I doubt it. She’s done this before.”
“Just as long as you’re not thinking of bringing him here. Mister Grainger hates animals.”
“I’m just saying he won’t allow animals in our building. It’s on our lease.”
“Does he hate all animals?”
“Well, I don’t know. I know he doesn't like dogs.”
“Are cats allowed?”
She paused, her eyes narrowing.
“Cats are animals.”
“Yeah, but they’re quiet and clean. Small, too.”
”Jack, listen to me…no.”
I sat tapping a cigarette on the filter as she cleared the table. I thought of a grey kitten, a fine gift of gratitude to relieve her boredom. A hand took the cigarette out of my mouth.
“Don’t let Mr. Grainger smell or catch you smoking,” she said, walking into the living room.
3. Kenny left for Japan the next morning. I drove them both to Kennedy Airport; a last, tearful goodbye at the passenger drop-off, and then Kenny and I spoke alone for a minute in front of the sliding door, alone.
“Take care of her and yourself. Call Jenny. Maybe she’ll take you back.”
“Nah, I don’t need to.”
“Well, if she takes you back don’t forget to check in on Debbie from time to time.”
“I will. I mean won’t.”
We shook hands, hugged; he slapped my back I thought of Charles Grainger's hand stinging on my shoulder.
“See you in a month” he said.
I merged back into the slow traffic circling the airport. The ride back was quiet, both of us listening to public radio. At one point she opened her mouth to speak, but let it pass, letting her head rest against the window.
After dropping Debbie off, I drove into Manhattan, where I met animal rescue volunteers at a pet store; they grilled me on my ability to care for a cat. I casually lied, but walked out before signing any papers.
Back at the apartment it was too hot to cook, so we ordered a pizza and watched a nature documentary. I watched her absent-mindedly stroke the arm of the couch and inched closer. After the program ended, I walked to a corner bar to watch the Mets, and drink a beer, leaving her to a book and wine.
I returned early, before midnight, to find her curled on the couch, the bottle and glass empty. I lay awake for an hour, picturing my wife asleep in our bed, glad of the space.
The next day, a Sunday, I took a long walk through Prospect Park, watching families feed mallards, while Debbie stayed at home and did the crossword puzzle. Back at the apartment I fell asleep early, before the sun even set. I awoke in the middle of the night to find a plated dinner wrapped in plastic on the kitchen table. Dawn was breaking as I closed my eyes in a last effort to fall asleep. I suddenly wished I was a cat as I rolled over to one side, smiling at the thought of someone scratching my stomach.
4. “Morning, Jack,” the old man said, without turning around in his chair.
“Morning, Ch-, Mr. Grainger.”
“Took the day off?”
I stopped on the sidewalk and looked at him.
”I said, are you taking the day off?”
“No, I’m going to work now.”
He took a sip of coffee.
“Oh, okay. I just figured the way you were dressed, you took time off to maybe look for another place.”
“No, I work for myself, so I can dress how I want. I’m looking for places now.”
“You’re your own boss? That’s good. That’s nice. Of course, now you get to hear it from Debbie when you get home,” he laughed.
“…only, you’re lucky, 'cos she’s smart and she aint a nag,” he continued, never breaking eye contact.
“She sure isn't. I mean is. Listen, I hate to do this, but I've got to go Mr. Grainger. I’m late.”
I took a few leading steps.
“No, that’s fine. Don’t let me hold you up. Tell Debbie I said hello.”
While waiting for coffee, blocks away at the cafe, I picked at my t-shirt and jeans: the last of my clean laundry, which my wife usually did; both, presents from her.
“It’s just an age thing,” I thought. I shuddered, picturing him with Debbie, and sat down to my laptop.
I worked slow in the corner near the front window; news and email read, several hours later, I found myself looking at profiles of felines for adoption in New York. Kittens, seniors, calicos and ferals, all in need of homes. Inexorably my mind wandered to Charles Grainger again; the orange tabby on the screen, Weezy, now sounded old, and loud.
“I told you no animals, goddammit!”
I come out of my reverie and emailed the link to Debbie. The subject line read: “Charles says hello by the way.”
I walked home, my usual jittery self in the late afternoon, half-expecting to see him on the stoop, and of course, he was.
“Hi Mr. Grainger.”
“Heyyy, it’s the boss.”
I opened the door for him, letting him shuffle ahead of me into the hallway. Walking up the stairs I checked my watch.
“That water must be ready,” I thought, snorting as I walked from the window.
The front door opened as I stirred tomato sauce, watching the pasta begin to cook.
“Smells good in here. Did you make this?”
“No. Bought it on my way home from the Italian deli.”
Moments later we both sat down to eat across from each other at the kitchen table.
“You know, it’s funny, Kenny and I never eat dinner in the kitchen.”
”You’ll have to try it when he gets back.”
She poured another glass.
“Did you get my email today? You never responded.”
“Yes and honestly it isn’t funny anymore, Jack. I talked to Mr. Grainger just now and-”
“Yeah I heard you two. Does he wait for you to come home now Kenny’s gone?”
“Look, sometimes Mr. Grainger comes out to say hi to me, but he does it to Kenny too. He’s a nice old man-”
“Oh come on. Don’t you see the way he looks at you?”
“Keep your voice down,” she hissed.
“Yes, I know he has a little crush on me and so does Kenny. That’s not the point. The point is that I can’t have you being rude to my landlord, Jack.”
”Rude? Who’s being rude? He insulted my clothes!”
“All I heard was you were in a big rush this morning and then when you got home, you snubbed him.”
“Is he crazy? I apologized for being in a hurry, and I said hello to him when I got home! I even held the door for him!”
“Look, he’s an old man, just please be nice to him.”
We sat in silence as we cleaned our plates. She brought out a pound cake from a neighborhood bakery and cut me a thick slice. I glanced at the front page of a magazine as I craved a cigarette.
“What are you doing tonight?” she asked, looking up from the sink.
I thought about the orange tabby from before, begging and rubbing against our legs at the table.
“Going up the street to watch the game. Why, you wanna come?”
“You’re just gonna be watching the game?”
She shut the water off, putting the last dish in the drain board.
“No, that’s okay. I think I’ll bring a slice of this cake down to Mr. Grainger.”
I wanted to say something, but bit my tongue and looked at my watch.
“Game’ll be on in a few minutes. I need to get cigarettes on my way there.”
“Don’t let him catch you smoking on the stoop, he keeps his windows open.”
“I don’t have any smokes right now. See you later.”
Six beers later the Mets beat the Braves by five runs and I stumbled home past identical looking brownstones, thinking about pound cake and purring cats.
6. A livery car’s honking horn woke me up. Finishing a bottle of water, I checked my phone for calls or messages and there were none.
Slipping on basketball shorts and flip flops: “Oh, my fucking head,” I murmured. The apartment lay empty and dark, the noontime sun hiding behind clouds. A big breakfast then a trip to the gym suddenly felt like a great idea. I was dressed for it, anyway. And it had been a while.
With gym bag and cigarettes in hand, I started out.
The old man didn’t turn around when I opened the front door. Otherwise he would have seen me drop my keys as I shoved the pack into my pocket. But apparently he didn’t need to see.
“Hey, Mr. Grainger.”
This time he acknowledged me.
I thought of my head and then Debbie on the bottom step, turning around.
“Nice to have a break from the sun,” I said.
He didn’t move. I stood next to him.
“We’re gonna get rain,” he said. “I can feel it in my knees.”
”Oh, yeah,” I said, looking up at the sky and wondering if I could leave. I stepped down to the sidewalk.
“Well…” I began.
“Where’s your little computer bag?” he asked, eyes locking on me now.
“Oh, this is my gym bag. I actually did take off today.”
“I thought so. Well, that’s good. Boss needs a day off too. Guy your age should be keeping fit. You sweat out the booze, you don’t get fat.’
My heels began to turn to leave again.
“Although….” he paused, “…smoking will still kill you in the end.”
My smile dropped as I approached to face him at eye level. He barely moved from his chair.
”I just mean you should quit while you still can.”
“I told you I don’t smoke, Mr. Grainger,” I stammered.
He held up a hand.
“Hey, don’t bullshit me. I smelled it in my bedroom window when you came in here stinko last night.”
“I didn’t mean to lie, Mr. Grainger. It’s just with Debbie…” I blurted out.
“Look, just don’t disrespect me or my home. It’s simple as that.”
“It won’t happen again.”
Now I could leave.
“Well, I’ll see you later,” I said with a half-wave. He didn’t respond.
At a diner three blocks away, I sat stirring cream into coffee. By the time I was chewing my last strip of bacon at the counter, I made up my mind to call Debbie.
Outside of the subway entrance, I dialed her work number.
“Yeah, what’s up Jack?”
“Nothing, it’s just your landlord….”
“Yeah, I know Jack. He heard you talking last night on the phone and said you were-“
“Wait, he heard me on the phone?”
I vaguely remembered leaving a voicemail on my wife’s phone.
“Look, can’t we talk about this when I get home? I’ll be home early today. I’m really busy right now…”
“Okay. Do me a favor and make dinner again tonight, I’m exhausted. Bye.”
7. At the gym on the eleventh floor, I watched a boxing match on the overhead television as I stepped down on a stair machine. Minutes after my timer was up, the boxer in striped shorts went down after a right hook to the head.
What was he saying to Debbie about me? What went on in his apartment? What would Kenny say?
Stepping out into the street, which was covered by even darker clouds now, I saw that it had begun to rain; I covered my head with a free newspaper and ducked into a multiplex. With no desire to see anything playing, but with an equal desire to stay dry, I bought a ticket for a comedy.
“Something relaxing,” I thought, pocketing my change as I walked in.
Soon I found myself in a stadium seat in front of a huge screen, exhausted, but tense; the film, struggling with a weak plot. An hour later I opened my eyes to a brunette actress looking into a window and stroking an orange tabby.
My legs jerked, knocking over the remainder of my soda and popcorn.
“Yes!” I yelled out.
A solitary old woman shushed me. I left the theater and the multiplex, breaking into a stride to the nearest subway in the pouring rain.
8. Back in Brooklyn, I ran down 5th Street, the rain accompanied now by thunder; and, a block away from the apartment, lightning flashed and was, surprisingly, followed by the sounds of a cat crying out. I stopped, my clothes soaked in the steamy afternoon storm, and leaned over the fence to find a slick black cat looking for something at the foot of the basement stairs.
I approached in a slow crouch, staring my solution in the face. The cat, though skittish, was eager to mark its teeth on my fingers. I unzipped my gym bag in silence as it began to purr, which turned to shrieks as I shoved it in. The zipper closed in one pull and I was back on the sidewalk, the animal thrashing and loudly mewing inside.
“Shhh, it’s okay, cat. We’ll be home in a sec.” The now howling cat's claws put tiny holes in the nylon and, as I went along, ran, I felt myself smile for the first time in weeks.
My heart began to pound as I walked up the stoop, talk radio drifting from the House of Grainger’s bedroom window. Key in hand, I ran in and up the stairs, slamming the front door behind me like a child home from school. Up on the landing, the cat mewed again as I turned the knob; to my alarm, it was unlocked.
“She’s home early,” I thought, walking in.
She didn’t even need to speak. The look on her face said all.
But she did anyway.
“What the fuck is that?”
“Oh, just something I found on my way home.”
The bag thrashed and mewed.
“Jack, did you bring home a cat?”
My cellphone went off and as I opened the bag to retrieve it the cat emerged and began running around the house in search of a place to hide.
“Goddammit, get that thing Jack! You don’t know what it has!”
I checked the phone. It was my wife.
“Yeah, gimme a second,” I said, awash with fear. Was this the call I'd been waiting for?
“Gimme that!” she screamed. She grabbed the phone out of my hands and I watched it dent the wall next to the front window.
“Get the cat out of here before Mr. Grainger hears it!”
On hands and knees in the living room, I reached under the couch and felt around, eventually grabbing what felt like the cat’s torso. It mewed violently and scratched at my arms as I dragged it out. There was a loud knock on the door and Debbie’s turned white.
As I gripped it tightly it drove its back claws deep into my chest; I darted around looking for a place to hide it and Debbie stood, waiting for my solution. Finally I settled for covering it with my t-shirt. She opened the door and Mr Grainger’s face was red.
“Hi, Mr. Grainger! What brings you here?”
The cat ripped through my t-shirt as I finally let go. I swore and bled through the white cotton and the three of us stood there and watched the streak of black disappear into Debbie's bedroom.
“Jack,” he nodded.
The son of a single mother nurse, Eric Nelson came of age in the concrete jungle of New Jersey, eating iron ore and spitting out grenades of Mickey’s Malt. Nelson’s fiction and non-fiction has appeared in Volume 1 Brooklyn, We'll Never Have Paris, ILOANBooks Review of Letters, Constellation magazine and Zine World; and his book of short stories, The Silk City Series, was released in 2010 by Knickerbocker Press. Nelson is also co-curator of the reading series, Fireside Follies, in Brooklyn; a volunteer at ABC No Rio and a founding member of the 1441 Writers Collective. He is currently trying to sell his first novel and has read up and down both Coasts.