By Tom Larsen
It was always autumn when Charlie Sikes emptied the machines at North Shore. He could still recall that first year driving the lake road through flaming trees, listening to the World Series on the radio, the sun warm on his left arm and Drysdale setting them down in order. Some men would envy him, he remembered thinking.
A lot had changed in forty years. They played the Series at night now, for one. For another, the resort they’d planned for North Shore never really panned out. The ski lift and lodge hung on a few years, but the real skiing was two hours north where the resorts knew how to play the game. It seemed to Charlie that the effort to change had taken a toll on North Shore. More places went broke than broke even, and the locals had the hangdog look of the snookered. Too bad for them, Charlie snorted. A year from now he’d be in Tampa and North Shore would be someone else’s problem.
One more year; the blink of an eye.
The machine at Pike’s Chicken Shack was of the new style, weatherproof, graffiti proof, lots of jazzy colors. He’d brought it up himself two summers ago to replace the round-shouldered box that had been there since God knows when. Pike’s hadn’t changed much, still family-style, still socking enough away each summer to shut down after Labor Day. When old Pike died his kids made a go at year round, but the hunters and the truckers proved more trouble than they were worth. Pulling into the gravel lot Charlie could see the awnings had been taken down and the windows shuttered.
It only took a minute. He unplugged the machine, taped the coin slot and loaded the bottles onto the truck. Mindful of the significance, Charlie took in the breeze and the rustle of leaves. Not likely he’d be up this way again soon. So intent was he on marking the occasion he didn’t see the cat slink around the corner, poke his nose along the open Coke machine door then slip inside. Had anyone been watching they might have called over, maybe shared in a laugh at a cat’s lack of sense. But no one was watching, no one called, and Charlie shut the door with resounding thunk.
“Well,” he said out aloud, feeling slightly foolish. “I guess that about does it.”
He stepped up into the cab and sat filling out the inventory report. Drysdale won that long ago game he suddenly recalled. He’d listened to the last out right here in this parking lot, joking with the Pikes and sneaking a beer in celebration. Hadn’t given it a thought since the day it happened. How many guys put in forty years humping a delivery truck? Not too many he suspected. Paperwork finished, Charlie lit the cigar he’d saved for the occasion and took a long last look around. It was still pretty country up here, but too far for commuters and not far enough for a weekend toot.
“Luck of the draw,” Charlie whispered to himself then circled the lot and took off down the road. Two kids trailed after him on bikes. A stone truck thundered past. A pair of crows swooped and squabbled.
Inside the Coke machine the young cat crouched in the delivery chute. The door had stunned him and the mouse he’d been chasing was lost to the darkness. If he were human he would have seen the hopelessness of his situation. With no way out panic would have seized him. But he was a cat and his thoughts were of the darkness, total and absolute. In the time it would take him to die or be rescued his eyes would be of little use. Reduced to sound and the smell of molded plastic, gear oil, the stone trucks, and the mice. The cat stood up, circled once and sat staring. The darkness gave him nothing. He washed one arm and the back of an ear then circled back and settled on his haunches. The wind signaled the change in seasons. His mind went blank and he fell asleep.
The smell of water woke him and he sniffed out a puddle in the lip of the frame. He lapped away then stretched as best he could. Turning around he tried to force his head past the delivery flap, but the slot was too narrow. He reached a front leg between the chute and the door, but it wouldn’t fit. He lapped at the water. Again he tried to reach his leg through but nothing had changed so he slept.
Through the night he alternately stretched, turned, fit his leg through the gap, and slept. He missed the nightly dollop of cat food and the table scraps the woman gave him, and the crumbs of TV snacks and puddles of ice cream at the bottom of the bowl. His was an easy life. He wanted for nothing and nothing was asked of him. Had he killed the mouse he wouldn’t have bothered to eat him.
He’d eat him now.
The cat’s home was through the woods behind the Chicken Shack. He didn’t come to Pike’s for the garbage. He was a hunter not a scavenger, though he made an exception on Crab Cake nights. He came for the mice, stalking, pouncing. The first time he saw one something clicked, his raison d’etre right there gnawing a French fry.
Mice were so easy he sometimes signaled his presence or gave a head start. He liked when they hid beneath the Coke machine, the waiting game they couldn’t win. Too frightened to freeze they’d make a mad dash. That’s when he’d get them. Always he would get them … except this once.
The next day his stomach churned and he howled in frustration. The mouse he’d followed in had managed to escape, Leon could tell from the absence of smell. Most of the time it was quiet, if you can call birds in the morning, locust and stone trucks all day, tree frogs and crickets into the wee hours, quiet. He knew the cycle instinctively, but only the birds held any interest. He’d caught his share, but their wings were an advantage. If it was a young bird he was after the others would gang up and more than once he’d taken a hit. The blue jays were the worst with their screeching and dive-bombing. All things considered, he preferred mice.
“Leee – on! Here kitty-kitty. Here Leee – on!”
The cat yowled once then mewed pitifully. She’d named him Leon after a character in one of her children’s books. The little girl loved Leon with all her heart. He loved her too, but what he missed most was the man of the house, football double headers, pizza and lunchmeat. The man would rub Leon’s stomach obsessively, pausing only to hoot and holler. It wasn’t affection, more like ritual and nerves, the closer the game the more the man rubbed. His motivation didn’t matter to Leon. Hoots and hollers were a small price to pay.
“Leee-on! Here boy!”
The calls came no closer. He whined a few times, but no one could hear. Soon the woman shouted something and the calls stopped. Leon turned, stretched and settled back down. Just before dusk, a sliver of sunlight seeped through a crack in the door seal. He rose up to give it a sniff. In less than a minute the light was gone.
When Leon had to pee he backed down the chute to give it some distance. For three days he resisted moving his bowels, but he’d always been regular and on the fourth day he relented. It was humiliating. With no litter or grass to cover his business he did the only the thing he could. Rearing up, he braced himself and kicked it past the delivery flap.
Leon stopped grooming to conserve moisture. He spent his time sleeping, though positions were limited. Once he dreamt the little girl was feeding him ice cream. His tongue rounded the bottom of the spoon then shoveled it off the concave center– vanilla, his favorite. When he woke and realized he’d been fooled he whined the night away. At least he thought it was night. With no light except the brief sliver, he was fast losing track. He only knew it was high time to eat and drink. That was what he thought about when he wasn’t sleeping. Not the pain of hunger but the act of eating; not thirst, but the sound of the faucet running. The little girl turned it on for him every night while she brushed her teeth. She was very thorough about brushing, which gave Leon time to drink his fill.
The mice knew something was up. They hadn’t seen the cat in days, yet he was still here, the smell and sound of him. Mice may be skittish, but they have to eat, and before long a few ventured forth. Leon howled his presence, but when he didn’t appear the mice grew bolder. The old dumpster had been a mouse haven for generations serving up a smorgasbord of scraps. Now and then a cat would raid, but never for long and never like this one. This one never missed. They didn’t know what he was doing in the box, but they soon figured out he couldn’t touch them. In a matter of days the dumpster was teeming.
What sounded like heavy fingers tapping turned out to be rain. At first he thought the mice had gotten in, but the thunder rumbled and he knew what it was. All the same to Leon, something new to listen to so he listened to it. Before long the lip of frame filled with water and he drank to his heart’s content. To the extent a cat can ruminate, the rain made things interesting. He knew the mice were still out there. A little rain wouldn’t put them off. When the wind kicked up he could hear the leaves rattle and the old pines groan in the distance. Farther still a fawn was bleating, and beyond that he could hear the creek. After a while the mice gave it up, the fawn fell silent, the wind died down, and he was left with the rain.
Since mice have to eat they’ll search out anything to find food, even a tiny crack in the Coke machine’s frame. Leon could smell the foolish little mouse and the mouse could smell Leon. Getting in wasn’t hard, but getting out in the dark, in a panic proved too much for him. Trapped and terrified the mouse simply died of fright and after a bit of a struggle to reach him, Leon ate the poor thing, bones and all. A week later it happened again. Among mice word spread of the missing and thereafter they stayed away.
Every so often someone stopped for a Coke. Leon tried to cry out but his croak would not project and the tape over the coin slot soon sent them on their way.
Shortly after Halloween, the weather turned cold. By then Leon’s muscles were withered and when he turned, which was seldom, he was frail and unsteady. His fur was greasy and his breath sour. He slept entire days away and didn’t move his bowels for weeks at a time. Hunger no longer hounded him, only the cold. Positions were limited to a tight curl on his left or right side with his paws tucked and head curled under. Awake, his mind clouded with misery.
The cold held on into November and a week before Thanksgiving it snowed a foot. Snowplows used the lot for dispatch. Motors rumbled, men milled about in the brittle morning light. Leon heard none of it. By now his life signs were dim and his breathing intermittent. But Leon wasn’t dead. He’d lost all contact with the living world, but he was still a part of it.
Life in North Shore blundered on. Two days after Leon’s senses shut down Audrey Lane spotted her neighbor at the roadside mailbox on her way home from the supermarket. She pulled her car to the shoulder to share a bit of gossip, but misjudged the distance and ran her right over. The rumor spread that Audrey had a drinking problem, and in her remorse the rumor came true.
A week later a flatbed trailer backed into a job site and made off with the county’s new grader. Police rounded up the usual suspects but the culprit came from out of state and the grader was never recovered. The rumor that the chief of police was involved eventually cost him his bid for reelection.
Over at the North Shore High a new boy pulled a knife on the school bully and threatened to “cut his balls off.” The new boy was sent to the juvenile center but returned in a month to a hero’s welcome. The bully’s father filed a lawsuit, but a dozen kids testified to their torment and the case was dismissed.
Just a stone’s throw away from the Chicken Shack a little girl awoke on her birthday to find a kitten wrestling with one of her slippers. She was a sentimental girl and in memory of her first pet she named the kitten Leon.
The rains returned soon after Christmas. For weeks the skies ran steely grey. Temperature hovered just above freezing and the storms turned the North Shore lawns to lagoons. Basements flooded, roofs leaked and housebound children drove their folks crazy. No one could remember a winter so wet. Inside the Coke machine water pooled on the coin box housing. More than enough to quench any cat’s thirst, but Leon was lost in a dreamless void. In his suspended state Leon registered nothing. But the spark of life still flickered and every now and then an ear would twitch or a muscle quiver. As the weeks turned to months his fur grew thicker and his claws curled over his toes. Any colder and he would have frozen, but the winter wore on as the warmest on record.
Most people would think it impossible. Nothing living could survive such a thing. But the cat is a confounding creature and the myth of nine lives has some basis in fact. In free fall a cat’s limbs will billow. They’ve been known to fall ten stories and walk away. A cat would never think to chase a car or run into a burning building. Unless it’s old, sick or badly injured a cat doesn’t know how die.
So Leon held on by a thread. Christmas came and went and the old year passed into the new. By mid-January the girls’ basketball team was the hot topic, and further north ski lift operators cursed the snow-less skies. Across the woods the little girl tired of her kitten’s bad behavior and banished him to sleep in the garage. She often pined for her Leon, but only the mice knew what had become of him.
Then one night, for reasons undetermined, the Chicken Shack gas line sprang a leak. And lacking Pike Senior’s attention to detail, Junior had left a pilot light on. The blast lit up the North Shore sky and blew the Coke machine across the parking lot. The place was an inferno when the fire trucks got there so they shut down the road and let it burn. In the smoking haze of daybreak a pair of firemen sat on the toppled Coke machine. The younger one thought he heard a sound from inside. They listened for a moment then took a crowbar to it. Leon curled away from the light.
“Well I’ll be damned,” the older man shook his head in wonder. “How do you suppose he got in there?”
“Probably kids,” the young one ran a hand over Leon’s ribs. “Hardly nothing left of him.”
“This place has been closed up for months,” said another. “You don’t think he’s been in there all that time, do you?”
“I wouldn’t put nothing past a cat,” the older man cackled. “My sister had one disappeared for over a year. One night she heard something at the back door and when she opened it there he was. Sumbitch had one eye missing and an ear chewed off, but other than that he was good as new.”
“Worthless goddamn animals,” a fourth spit in disgust. “We ought to just toss him in the coals.”
The older man rose to his feet. “You lay a hand on that cat and I’ll toss you in the goddamn coals.”
The young fireman lifted Leon out. His spine was bent and his legs were drawn up, but his ears still swiveled and they took this as a sign.
“It’s okay, pal. We’ll take care of you. You just rest and we’ll have you back on your feet in no time.”
And so they did. Someone brought a cat bed to the station. They covered Leon with blankets and watched over him like parents. At first he could only swallow broth, but as his strength returned so did his appetite. Local cat lovers offered assistance and kids ran a fund drive to cover expenses. The vet pronounced Leon blind and malnourished, but his organs still functioned and his remaining senses were miraculously intact.
After heated debate the men named him “Sparky”. North Shore’s mayor alerted the press and reporters covered the story. Overnight “Sparky” was front-page news. Donations poured in along with offers of adoption, but the firemen claimed the cat as their own and, in a ceremony broadcast on the evening news, Sparky was named their official mascot.
Shortly after, the station house got another visitor. Flushed and breathless the little girl pushed her way through and, at the sight of her Leon, she fell to pieces. The men were so touched, and the girl was so sweet, the whole town beamed at the happy ending.
Turned out it was just the beginning. Within days the pair were featured on Good Morning North Shore and named grand marshals of the Memorial Day parade. Then the Internet got wind of it and by mid-summer the world knew Leon’s story. Bloggers dubbed him the Coca Cola Cat and his face graced the cover of People Magazine. The soft drink giant did their bit with a new fire truck and a scholarship fund for the little girl. In a summer of global tension and economic stress a lost cat story was made to order.
But feel-good stories have a short shelf life. By summer’s end the buzz played out and the cat resumed life as a normal, if sightless, household pet– which was fine with Leon. He didn’t mind being blind and had all but forgotten his four-month ordeal. Aside from a family ban on rearranging the furniture, his affliction had no lasting effects. In an effort to keep him from wandering off, the girl’s dad fitted a tracking device to his collar. But the gizmo proved defective and Leon soon managed to slip away. His recall of his former life was spotty, but one thing he could never forget. Using traffic sounds to gauge distance he kept to the shadows so the birds wouldn’t see. Clearing the trees at a trot, he crossed the clearing to the parking lot. The site smelled of smoke, lumber, and paint from the Cola Cat Shack, (Junior.’s bid to cash in). Leon stopped to think things through. He knew without seeing that the dumpster was gone. Moving closer he sniffed along the network of nests and furrows, but there was no trace of mice. At the Shack he checked the foundation, sorting through odors, none of them rodent. Then the smell of plastic struck a chord and he bolted to the high ground. With the sun on his back and his face to the wind Leon crouched and listened.
Before long a truck pulled in carrying Pike Junior with a ladder and a Grand Opening sign. Had he been human and not blind, Leon might have laughed at his Cola Cat likeness. But cats have a rarefied sense of humor and things like that don’t strike them as funny.
Junior paced the length of the building taking in his new sign from every angle. Then he sat in the car and looked at it some more. Leon closed his eyes and drifted in a doze, waking at the sound of Junior leaving. Seconds later a cloud settled over, exhaust, a bit of rot…
Leon’s eyes snapped open and his ears swiveled right. Scanning scents, he tracked location, zeroed in and began to purr. The mouse would panic, nothing else left for it, just a matter of when and which way. Leon closed in slow and slower still, a pause for the pounce then head first into Junior’s new handicapped parking sign. More staggered than hurt, he circled off and faced the darkness, fixing their positions. The mouse was still there. Leon knew it and the mouse knew he knew it. Down to this, the silence of time, deadly deep in the absence of man. The sun slipped behind a cloud. The mouse made his break. Leon stood, stretched and turned for home.
Who knows why the mouse was spared? The signpost may have stung more than Leon’s nose, or maybe the Coke machine finally spooked him. More likely it was age and who needs this anyway? Some might say it was compassion, but they’d be wrong. Cats know nothing of compassion.
Tom Larsen has been writing fiction for 25 years and his work has appeared in Newsday, Raritan, Best American Mystery Stories, The MacGuffin, and the LA Review. His novels, Flawed and Into The Fire are available through Amazon.