stray

by Katrina Prow

It was the Sous Chef, Valentino, who first told Pepper he had heard cats in the afternoon during prep. He was the only one clocked in that early, hours before service, organizing the meats and vegetables for each dinner shift.

            The prep room smelled sour and wet, and Pepper plugged her nose with her fingers mouthing, Gross, as she passed him with a clipboard to do the inventory. The Chef had been busy with his family lately—texting Pepper and the owners things like FAMILY EMERGENCY when he was going to be late—so Pepper offered to help for the overtime. Valentino agreed to come in early because teamwork.

            Pepper watched as Valentino ripped and pulled fish skin from meat, the sound of Velcro releasing. He cut the fish into small rectangle portions, filets for dinner, and then slapped them one by one on top of the scale to check his work, extra trimming if one weighed an ounce or so more than the other. Pepper passed him on her way to the walk-in where she had to count the limes. Over $100 dollars for a box because the Cartel had invaded farms and halted produce sales, so they couldn’t be wasteful—not even with one—no extra wedges on a gin and tonic, no lime for employee Coronas. She bumbled around the cold, metal storage looking at what was there, and what wasn’t—she swore they got an order of pork loin last week—and then she went back to her office, where she shed an extra pashmina and turned on a space heater under the desk for her feet. She liked feeling toasty when she did the spreadsheets. It helped her type faster.

            But Valentino still heard them, among the sounds of gutting, damp trash slapping into the plastic dump bin, the pitter-patter of their paws like tiny skeletons sweeping above. He was always telling Pepper about strange noises from the kitchen, how the back bar locks unhinged minutes after his very keys had locked them. He heard something scurrying in the rafters above, claws going scrape scrape scrape on the ceiling as he cleaned and cut and weighed the pieces of salmon. A loud cry escaped from the overhead vent, and Valentino put the knife down slowly looking up, not even the blade against cutting board made a sound.

            Cats have a very good sense of smell, Valentino said when he told Pepper about it in her office. I saw it once on TV—they know I have dinner below, he said. Sometimes I hear them wail and it sounds like babies, like my baby when he was little and hungry in the crib. They’re loudest when I do the fish, he said.

            Pepper spun around in her chair behind the table. She took off her blue readers and held them in one hand as she said, Really? Cats—in the ceiling? She put her readers back on and tended to the pile of reports in front of her. She typed some numbers into the calculator and watched as the receipt tape expanded and grew with sums. You know what I think, Pepper said. I think you sniffed a little too much before work today. She shot him a glance and tapped her nose with her index, and then the office door closed again, the way she liked it. She heard a slap of clothing and Valentino saying, Fucking bitch, whatever! as he walked back into the kitchen to finish the work.

 

Pepper spent most evenings in the office—door locked—watching The Walking Dead on her iPad, which she propped to cover the desktop computer screen, the inventory and the spreadsheets. She kept a mug big enough for soup in her hands, though soup was rarely inside. She preferred meaty cabs by the bottle this way, two mugfuls would drain one down to drippings. She picked the “special” wines, the ones advertised on the lobby chalkboard that she ordered at wholesale for $20 a bottle, sold for $75, a steal! She opened one during pre-shift for the servers to taste, said some nonsense about tannins or legs though most days they all tasted more or less the same, poured a short round, and then another, before she took the thing back with her to the office, to the television. This one tastes a little corked, she’d say, but no one was convinced. On a quick glance, the deep red could look like regular brown. Nothing wrong with a restaurant manager sipping coffee. No one really believed it was coffee, though, and it’s not like Pepper had to keep up with the charade. In this industry, it was rare that a restaurant manager would have coffee in her mug. She was trained to taste with her guests, to try the wine before each pour. No one actually uses a dump bucket. Corked, she’d laugh, and her servers would hand the bottle right back.

            Pepper had tried the other lives that unsettled women try: amateur painter, yoga instructor, gourmet grocer, apothecary sales, housewife, mother, but she woke from each one still unsettled, until one night, Pepper was given a line, a hook. A friend of a friend needed a restaurant manager—a nice place—expensive dinners and import wines. She had been a cocktail waitress when she was still young and beautiful, but more importantly, Pepper knew about nice dinners and fancy wines, so a new life began, one that afforded responsibility like rationing Cartel limes and reorganizing dining rooms, the pointed corners of each table in a straight line like tic-tac-toe. That was five years ago—in the beginning she only ran the back bar, and then the general manager for the restaurant just stopped showing up, phone disconnected, and so there she was in the center of it, leading pre-shift because who else would? And she covered for the owners while they held interviews, but after a week or two, another cocktail waitress was running the back bar, and Pepper started answering phone calls as the manager. Sometimes the days move so fast that she can’t tell when she is working and when she is not. She finds receipts and server books in her living room couch cushions, post-its about inventory on her home fridge, she even moved her favorite picture frames from her bedroom to restaurant office, so she could see her friends more on the weekends.

            It’s hard for Pepper to understand how she got to West Texas, to this little town and neglected restaurant. I used to be a housewife and a mom, she would think, and then she’d remember the laundry and dishes—different from the kind of laundry and dishes she tended to now. Her children were grown, married with children of their own, away in Dallas and Austin, cities with real industry, where public schools were better. They would never say it, not in the yearly Christmas cards or birthday phone calls, but she had the feeling that they didn’t need her anymore. She had employees for that now: children who were always suffering some kind of catastrophe that Pepper could solve with her code and comps and storied wisdom. She mothered them with tough love, tougher words, molding them into people who would become too good for her restaurant, and when that happened, she resented them more.

            Five years and now, her memory was starting to slip. She could barely recall what life before the restaurant was like, what her wedding dress was made of: lace, maybe? and she couldn’t tell you what song was playing during their first dance. Or how old her daughter was when she lost her first tooth, if there was even a tooth fairy back then, or if Pepper just gave her a crumpled ball of ones, leftover from her own cocktail shift. She only remembered one part of the recipe: cream of chicken soup for a casserole her husband used to push around the plate—when her career was making an appetizing dinner that no one would eat. The scrape of his fork on their chinaware until the plop of it into the trashcan, the jangle of his keys and the patter of boy and girl feet as they ran into his pickup for Whataburger. The children liked him better, especially after the divorce. Pepper could remember the open bar at her wedding, the bartender’s face when he cut her off and she slurred, It’s my day. She used to laugh at the picture of her falling on the dance floor in the wedding album, but now when she thinks of it, she wonders where her husband was, why no one stopped to help her up. She didn’t know about the baby then, but when her son came seven months later, she cried like all other mothers. Yes, it was that instant type of magic love, but also a growing, oh shit oh shit oh shit oooooshit.

            The only thing the kitchen didn’t fuck up these days was the cheeseburger—gourmet, but still frozen fries and a plastic-bag bun. Her servers could be lazy and preferred gossiping with each other over servicing their guests. The host staff was too young and dumb to understand real work, uploading self-portraits in front of the restaurant instead of wiping down dirty tables in the dining room. Some days Pepper slept until 4:00pm. She would call her senior employee, the bartender Lydia who started managing the lunch shifts and doing bar inventory, and say, I can’t make it today—my code is 1121, the keys are in the host drawer, and Lydia would respond K, alleviating her from the stress. With Lydia around, the others were in good hands, she still cared about this job, about feeding. Pepper could stress nap for hours and hours. She would wake up in the dark and wonder what year it was, what planet she was on, if things were any different. But in the mirror, she would see the same woman in the same house, the one her ex-husband gifted to end the bitter negotiations. She was looking older, her hair becoming less blonde, more gray. The skin around her eyes settling in ripples because she didn’t believe in injecting toxins. Where did the time go? Pepper sometimes took her catnaps in the office. She used wine distributor receipts on the desk with a lost and found scarf for a pillow.

            When the bottles emptied and the guests were gone, Pepper and the staff could unwind and laugh about the absurdity of this work. Her well steak was too well done, eh? Well, that’s just lovely. And the corkscrew would extend from between her fingers as her mug filled again, everyone’s glasses clinking like good music. The lobby furniture would expand to create a dance floor, The Walking Dead off—radio pop music swirling as Pepper and a nineteen-year-old hostess bumped rears.

            She had the feeling then that her employees liked her, even Lydia, though her pretty face wore the permanent scowl of expectations. Pepper knew that Lydia wanted more from her, and maybe that’s why she was Pepper’s favorite, why she gave her the hardest time. We’re a family, Pepper would often say during pre-shift. We don’t have to like each other, but we have to love. She expected them to work hard, even if she wasn’t in the mood. Do as I say, not as I do, she told them. Other times it was, Just say okay. When I am telling you something, just say okay. She meant every single word when she told them, I know that you didn’t want to be doing this with your life, but it’s what you’re doing now, so do a good job dammit.

            When Pepper clocked out for the night, Lubbock was asleep though the restaurant was still alive and humming. And then she became the walking dead, grocery shopping at 24-hour marts for flour and eggs after locking the restaurant doors, making an omelet at 3:00am, slicing peppers so thin and watching them sizzle on their bellies as old records played and she danced in the kitchen, wine from her stemless glass to purple lips, sleeping through day until the sun went down, going outside when the rest of the city had moved in, waking to feed dinner to those with real lives, with real families, and jobs in office towers downtown. Again and again and again. Her skin was beginning to pale. The work felt less like work each night and more like a chain, something that tugged and pulled and kept her under while others continued to float.

 

Before the restaurant was a restaurant, it was a hospital—the first and only one in town. The letters J and M are engraved in the marble floor representing the hospital’s name, their investors. The last leg of the letter M is covered by a wall and extra dining room chairs, but just think: check-in desk, lobby. The bar in front was where the babies were born, the bar in the back was once a morgue, or maybe that was the basement, Pepper’s heard so many stories that the truth feels a little unsure. Pepper’s oldest guests, the most faithful regulars who came for the Sunday crepes, claimed they were born here, their parents died here, they were sick once in paper-lined beds with fevers and chicken pox here. When she went to do a table touch, to check on their meals, they would pull her down to eye-level by the sleeve of her blouse. My great uncle choked on a fish bone here, they’d say. It took two doctors heaving on his chest to finally push the sucker out.

            Maybe it’s the building or something else Pepper can’t explain like West Texas weather, but the kitchen lights turn on and off by themselves, even after her staff has gone home and the curtains have been drawn. The liquor cabinets fly open, wine glasses loosen from their spots under the shelves and shatter.

            One night the Chef, tired and upset after a busy Saturday, felt cold fingers kneading and kneading into his shoulders.

            Thanks, he had said. I needed that. But when he turned around, there wasn’t a server or a Sous chef in the room.

            Spooked, he left early, before completing the food order, and when he arrived the next morning, the bundled, clean polishing towels had exploded over his desk like a thick blanket of snow. He retraced his steps: the towels were here—the top shelf of a metal rack organizer—they were wrapped in plastic, folded. The Chef shook his head and laughed. I must be going crazy, he said to the empty room. I must be losing it, he said.

            But Pepper did not believe in the ghosts or the stories. She thought the Chef was nothing but a drunk. The whole idea—the haunting—made her feel tired. She didn’t believe ghosts would do anything specific unless provoked. She knew about the Chef’s indecencies, but thought he wasn’t deep enough for the paranormal to occupy. How boring, she once told Merle, a server, To come back from the dead and see a bunch of drunks and cokeheads? Still, she cleansed her office with burnt sage, lit prosperity incense, and meditated between shifts, something to keep her head on straight after the years in hospitality. Pepper said it was bad energy, not supernatural. She told the Chef, Quit your bitchin’ and clean the mess already. She said, I wish I could blame ghosts for not doing my job. She said, It’s the ghosts’ fault you can’t make a sandwich, right?

 

Lydia saw little eyes glowing when she clocked in to set up the bar. They were yellow and quick up where the wall met the ceiling, gone in a flash, then moving over to the ice bin, behind the glassware. She pulled the bottles from their locked cabinets below to the counter, starting clear then moving dark to whiskey. The ceiling squares above her head rattled and shook. One of them fell to the floor on the other side of the bar, crumbling a little on impact. Lydia stood on a bar stool and wedged the thing back up where it belonged. The square was uneven in the ceiling, and a sliver of gap remained above the service well. Lydia covered it with her palm, and then found some duct tape for sealing.

            This place is falling apart, she thought. The ice hadn’t been burned since the night before, and beer bottles were still sticking out of the slop like weeds. The other bartender, Adam, never cleaned after his shift and she hated him for it. She knew what was happening where her eyes couldn’t see, bacteria growing in the melt, but she filled the bin again, telling herself, Not my monkey, not my circus. She listened to the sound of shifting below new rocks. When the ice settled, and congealed on the old pile, it would be as if the soup below never existed. They were great pretenders. That’s how they did things at the restaurant.

She thought she heard one of them meowing later, when the bar was full of patrons and her tickets had curled from the machine into a bubble of orders drinks cash. She heard the noise again and again, each time looking up to the sky, to that faulty square, looking for a long tail curling down or some fur. The duct tape had released from the ceiling, hanging down like a hand. It must have been the sound of glass squeaking against the marble bar she decided, of stems and bottles, the ice breaking down and moving, the crash of empties hitting the bottom of the trashcan just as the song overhead shifted and a momentary silence filled the room. She found a tiny grey one, no bigger than a fist, behind the ice machine in the bar’s storage closet. She reached back to hold her, but the kitten screamed.

 

Lubbock was overrun with cats, and this was a problem. The feral ones were violent and dangerous. They multiplied in empty buildings, dots of yellow eyes growing inside the boarded-up windows. They lived under dilapidated houses, squealing and crying when the temperature dipped at night. They lived for only two years, three at most, but the rapid reproduction of cats made it seem like they were immortal and endless, their numbers never shrinking, never ceding to the harsh dirt and outdoor conditions. A male and female cat can create a population of 400,000 in less than seven years. There was always a cat outside with you. Mysterious things—they appeared out of nowhere, from the bushes or behind a parked car. It was not wind, it was a cat, it wasn’t dead leaves, it was yellow eyes peering from the alley dumpster. They curled under the engines of cars, waited for streets to quiet before they joined waking life. They were night dwellers, bush dwellers, tree dwellers. They enjoyed elevation. That rustling sound you heard while walking to your car at the end of a shift was them, always them, the cats and a new life developing. They hid in the shrubs around the building’s perimeter, you heard their whispers and watched the plants shake as you came inside for the night. Sometimes, you left out bowls of food for feeding.

            Feral cats are not the same thing as those who have been abandoned, the strays. A feral cat is wild and unpredictable. It does not want or need human contact. A feral cat is a predator, it will hiss and growl, tail down, shoulders arched when cornered. It does not want to be touched. It does not need your food or milk. Feral cats eat rabbits, lizards, birds, and house mice. A stray, though, might take a bowl of milk, might crawl inside your hand if offered.

            You should not approach a feral cat, but if you do, it’s best to get low, to crawl. Place your head to ground like theirs. Sustain eye contact. After a few minutes once the feral cat knows you are not a predator, close your eyes slowly, then open. If the cat returns the slow blink, she is trusting, she can be domesticated and socialized.

 

Pepper felt one nudge between her ankles at night as she finished counting the safe. She shrieked and jumped from the chair, but there was no cat. On her hands and knees, she crawled the perimeter of the office, her head knocking on the desk, the safe, a roller chair. She saw dust bunnies in the corner. She found a stack of unopened beverage napkins against the wall beside a fully plugged power strip. Once she was back at the desk sitting, she saw the thing kissing the floor: a slip of receipt paper had loosened from the rest, floated from the table to the ground in a leisurely waltz, tickling only when it got to the naked part of her ankle. Pepper grabbed the receipt, one of Lydia’s from that evening, the word CASH scribbled on the line instead of a tip. She rubbed the paper on her hand, but only felt its sharp edge. It wasn’t soft. It didn’t feel like fur. She put the receipt back with the rest and found her sleeping iPad on the table. She pet the screen with her index and it danced awake. She pressed play and the room was alive once again with its sound.

 

The next morning, the restaurant smelled like urine, bad cat. It was heavy in the air, a wet blanket, and Pepper covered her nose with her palm as she walked around inspecting the grounds. She never got used to changing diapers, made her ex-husband do it, said, This is gross, and then, I won’t touch it, neglecting the shit so much that sometimes her children had diaper rash, which she felt sorry about, sorry enough to drive to the drugstore for the cream, then the liquor store next door for a six-pack.

She was at the restaurant early and tired, real coffee inside the cup after just a few hours of sleeping, sunglasses inside instead of readers. The liquor distributors were to be there any minute, and she would have to sign for the new bottles, for the boxes and crates because Chef couldn’t be there—something about his wife and his son and minutes into his voicemail Pepper stopped listening. She wondered why people even left voicemails these days and didn’t just do the text thing. A gin retailer promised her a box of free limes if she tried a new brand of botanical gin—the liquor was blue and Pepper couldn’t see her geriatric regulars straying from the well spirit they had drank for the last 40 years or understanding the color of their once clear booze, but she needed the limes. Worst-case scenario, she could use it in a drink special, or take it home, sell it to her staff at cost.

            At the bottom of a desk drawer made for files but filled with junk, she found a phone book. I have a problem, was all Pepper could get out when the exterminator answered. She taped a handwritten sign to the front doors reading: Closed!! but every few hours there was whispering at the front, the doors jerked but stayed locked even after the pulling.

            When the exterminator arrived, he walked the perimeter of the restaurant. He rapped his fist against the walls, he used the lobby couches as a boost to reach the ceiling.

            My mother was born here, he said. He pointed to the front bar. Right over there, he said. He was an older gentleman, his head bald and shiny like an ice cube or a polished window.

            I think we’re infested, Pepper said, holding her palm over her nose. Her breath was damp and hot against her skin as she spoke.

            It’s territorial marking, the exterminator said. Cats only spray when they feel threatened.

            Pepper shrugged. She shook her coffee cup in his direction. Well, she said. This is my place. Someone is leaving and it’s not me.

            The city does a catch and release program, the man said. But Pepper shook her head, no.

            What I’m looking for is a catch and dead, she said, and the exterminator nodded. He put on his gloves.

            He used a ladder in the back and climbed up to the rafters through the kitchen. They kept old menus and overstock to-go boxes up there, sometimes old silverware and linens from the restaurant’s past life. Pepper didn’t like to throw things away, especially those that could be recycled or reused. Her employees called her a packrat, but to her, they were wasteful, and there was meaning in the old stuff even if they thought it was junk. She never knew what could be useful. She said, It’s vintage, bringing down candle holders from the 90s. She said, It’s on trend.

            The exterminator used a flashlight, and Pepper could hear him crawling above her as she stood by the fryers waiting for the claws and the squeals. Instead, she heard the pull of the exterminator’s jeans, the sweeping of dust gathering in fabric as he moved around. She focused on the roof, waiting and waiting and waiting for the mother, for the tails and wild ones to come running out. She had read somewhere that cats could run up to 30 miles per hour. She had the back door propped open with a brick, ready.

            Got one, the exterminator called below. He exhaled a deep sigh and Pepper heard more movement.

            Only one? she asked. They could be hiding, she said. Look for their eyes. Look for droppings.

            There was shuffling, an echo of Pepper’s voice in the room.

            You got a lot of stuff up here, the exterminator said. Pepper heard the crashing of boxes, the silverware rattling. Can you pass me a towel? Or something? he asked. I think I found an opening, he said.

            Pepper held the ladder below as the exterminator climbed down, one hand holding a gathered plastic bag and another cradling a mess of dirty towels.

            I patched up your hole temporarily, the exterminator said, but it won’t last forever in this wind. What you need here is a new roof, he said.

            Pepper shrugged. She rolled her eyes. She had been trying to get the owners to fix the A/C every year before the summer, she already knew they would find another solution for the roof. She imagined both owners bringing hunting rifles and handling things their way, as they did with business. They had a leak one winter and one owner showed up with a can of something called, LEAK STOPPER. Pepper rolled her eyes then, too, but was surprised after an hour on the roof that it actually worked—stopped the leak entirely. The owners never let her forget it either. This roof is just fine, she told the exterminator. I think it’s fine, she repeated.

            The exterminator scoffed. Health services would have a field day, he said. The roof’s unstable, a breeding ground for the cats. He lifted up the bag, which sunk from weight at the bottom and said, It’s really cruel actually, once they get up there, they can’t get out, and then they just starve with all your old boxes and stuff. The exterminator shook his head and looked around, his eyes following the path of the ceiling as it curved toward the front of the house. There might be more, he said, but I can’t get back there. He smiled and rubbed the widest part of his belly when he spoke.

Pepper could smell feces in the towels. She held her fingers tight to her nose, the way she did when she smelled the raw fish, anything she found unpleasant. She offered to pay him extra for the work, patching up the hole and all, but the exterminator refused, still musing about how the place had become a kitchen. He was vaccinated here for the measles and the mumps.

            Pepper gave the man a $50 dollar gift card in addition to his hourly fee, saying, It’s least I can do, and he took it, promising to come back for the tuna melt.

            When the exterminator left, the place didn’t smell anymore. It had all escaped through the backdoor or maybe that hole in the ceiling. The cats must have escaped too, she thought, back into the alley where they belonged. The restaurant was overwhelmed with the absence of things. Dark and empty and sterile. Pepper grabbed a pint glass from a rack in the side station and poured herself some water; it dribbled and hissed from the spout. She looked around at the dining room. It didn’t look like what it was, like a place to eat, and Pepper imagined it being someplace else. Perhaps, like the old man said, a place to die.

She finished the water in a swallow and went up to the front, to the host stand where her mug was waiting atop the open phone book. She would google another exterminator tomorrow, get a second opinion from someone more experienced. She didn’t even know why the restaurant still had the phone book or why she felt compelled to use it—a subconscious choice to stay with a local, small business and save money, she assumed. She looked at the rest of the ads in the yellow pages and wondered how many of them had gone under. There were some cleaners that she recognized on 34th, but some of the other names had escaped her, and she knew there were new builds in their place. She grabbed the mug and the phone book and headed behind the bar, the book slapped into the empty trash when she tossed it. The coffee in her mug was cold and stale by then, but Pepper poured a little Bailey’s inside to warm it up. She peeled the handwritten sign from the front doors, and the shrubs lining the building whistled with the howl of the night wind. Sometimes this sounded like a dog, other times it just sounded like wind, Pepper couldn’t put her finger on exactly what the sound was.

            From the chair in the office, she pulled the phone off the receiver, listening to the dial tone momentarily before she started the calls.

            False alarm, she said, and within an hour, the restaurant was alive again, just enough time for dinner.

 

Saturday night: the building was full of bodies, and Lydia’s bar was backed up all the way into the corners. She needed everything: more glassware, more vodka, a case of champagne, comps on her checks, six-packs of beer and wine—lots of it. The kitchen was failing to get the food out. The air smelled thick with worry. It draped along the walls like a scarf, pulling and pulling until Pepper felt the heat of it in the office, until she was suffocating and cooking in there beside her space heater. She had gotten to the wine early that shift, to ease her nerves and the full book of reservations, so when Lydia phoned the office for help, Pepper could barely stand, and she caught herself in the doorway before she began to walk to the bar. In front of the computer, in the midst of orders shouting and the noise, Pepper entered her code and stared at the numbers on the screen. She tapped her index on some buttons, holding herself up with a 10 and 2 grip on the monitor, as the scene began to whirl and flex and shift, a camera out of focus.

            What do you need again? she asked Lydia, but the crowd was rolling, bodies multiplying before her. Pepper felt her body double, then collapse under the weight of it, the stress, the POS screen that looked like something written in code. She stumbled into the cooler. Her heart vibrated and echoed in her throat.

            Just do something, Lydia snapped, she pointed to all the people before her, waiting, eyes glowing with the promise of booze and food. Pepper must have shrugged or not moved at all, because it only took a moment before Lydia said, You’re a joke, and her fingers went to work, highlighting and pulling up the tickets needing help. She printed a receipt for a man in a polo shirt across from her. Lydia smiled and said, Thank you so much, I appreciate it. She looked prettier than she usually did when she smiled, Pepper thought. She made a note in her head to remember this, to remind Lydia of smiling more later, being pleasant, how smiling made her eyes brighter and her frown lines less prominent. Pepper used to enjoy this, being pleasant with guests, making friends, but it all felt phony to her now, the hi y’alls and thank you so muches to these old money republican cowboys who hated women and trying new things. She’d been campaigning to take the microwaved crepes off the menu for years, to bring in food that wasn’t “American,” but these people wouldn’t try anything new, so Pepper stopped being so kind, she gave everyone what they wanted, the bare minimum. The man in the polo left a five on the wet bar and turned with the beer bottle to his lips. Lydia grabbed the keys from an expandable plastic ring around Pepper’s wrist and left the bar to get her own stock from the back.

            This place is a fucking nightmare, Lydia growled as she quick walked, hands full. She threw the key wristlet back at Pepper and went back to work, shaving the alcohol tag from an empty bottle with the serrated edge of her wine key before it crashed in the trash bin.

            Pepper tensed her shoulders. She stood rigid against the wall, beside the cooler. A champagne bottle popped and something crossed over. Lydia was coming toward her again, making her way to the cooler with a bottle opener for a glass of white wine. Pepper waited—still in the corner—tense and focused, an energy that required all her muscles to melt down and together like ice. She felt the room close in like the door of an elevator shaft. She made her body small and watched the people sipping, smiling, kissing the ones they loved. When Lydia was close enough, she pounced, scratching the back of her neck and loosening the hair in her ponytail.

            What the hell is wrong with you? Lydia asked. You wanna fight me? Lydia said, and it was threat about more than violence. Go right ahead, Lydia said, waiting for what she knew wouldn’t happen before she turned around and tended to her bar, before she went back to work. Here, she yelled. Is this what you want? she asked, waving a bottle of in Pepper’s direction. Lydia grabbed a pint glass from stack of many and poured to the rim, a move that made some guests nervous, an audible Ooooooooo from the crowd before a few of them settled into a whisper. When she shoved it in Pepper’s hands, a Merlot wave splashed over the glass edge and spilled onto Pepper’s blouse, white, sheer, one button undone past comfortable showing half an inch of bra.

            Pepper rubbed the wine in, she was trying for off, but rubbed anyway and thought, Well shit now I need dry cleaning. She steadied herself against the cooler, and didn’t make eye contact as she turned and walked away from the bar, away from the people who would tell this story tomorrow during church. She kept going away, slow at first, until she had regained some composure and could see the door of her office like a field goal. One stride forward and then another, her heel slipping out of her shoe every couple of missed steps. She heard Lydia saying, It’s better if she just leaves us alone, to the guests at the bar. We don’t even need her, Lydia said.

            Pepper’s hands were raw and white as poultry when she sat back in her chair. She thought she had broken skin, she thought there was blood, but when she licked her palm, it was only a wine stain from before. She pulled a sheet from her files with every intention of writing Lydia up for the scene, a week suspension, but she had a vacation planned for a spa weekend in Ruidoso soon and needed Lydia to close for her, so she shredded the form and decided on a long talk the next day before pre-shift. She sipped from the pint glass, closed her eyes. Another day.

 

They say binge drinking affects the memory of people from the ages of nineteen to forty. They say more than four drinks a day results in permanent brain damage, a loss of the short-term ability to recall facts and images. Pepper doesn’t know what happens to her days anymore. There’s voices that say, Show me the receipts, and others that ask, Are you okay? Her dreams have become so vibrant that she can’t remember when the waking begins. It’s an endless cycle of nightmares where she is always in the kitchen, guests banging their fists against the tabletops for more food, more drinks, less money. Sometimes she thinks she imagined the cats all together. She takes the dustmop from the hallway and bangs on the ceiling once everyone has gone home. Here kitty kitty, she says, but no one ever responds.

When she jokes about that Saturday night with Lydia, laughing about their cat fight, Lydia stares at her, puzzled, like she is speaking in tongues.

            What are you talking about? she’ll say.

            And Pepper will be laughing so hard that her eyes will close. She will slap her thigh and tears will gather in the corners of her face, black makeup running from the ends of her eyes. Pepper will say, That was wild, right? The shoving and scratching!

But Lydia, steady and aware, will keep staring at her. She will not blink. Not even once. Pepper will overhear Lydia telling her guests, This my bar, my house.

 

Here’s what Pepper remembers about being married, being a mother, a wife:

            Her husband worked late and long so she didn’t have to and could stay home with the kids, and she was still young and pretty, but terribly bored, so she lazed around the house, playing with the children and their toys, sometimes sleeping, sometimes watching birds fly by through the window.

            She was asleep in bed late at night when it happened. Her husband smelled sweet like White Russians or Mudslides when he crawled above her above the blankets.

            C’mon, he said. Wake up, he said bouncing on the mattress.

            But Pepper was tired, she did not want to play. She smelled the sweetest part of his forehead and rolled over to her side, readjusting her weight against the pillow. Her husband didn’t stop. He patted his hands fast around her body, kneading—he pulled at the sheets. He found her underwear underneath the covers, said, C’mon, and ripped. He scratched her skin with his fingernails—too long, she was always at him to groom them. He nuzzled his head into hers, repeating, You are my wife, you are my pet, dripping his sour sweat onto her face while the bed shifted back and forth and back again until it was over, until the sun showed lines through the shutter windows.

            A few nights like that.

 

The restaurant was full again, a weekend night one week after the incident with Lydia the exterminators the mess. Pepper was in the midst of a table touch, dirty plates in hand, when it happened—when the cats rained down from the ceiling. First there was only one, a domestic shorthair, solid black, through the faulty square by Lydia’s bar. It landed on its feet, knees bent, and shook once to reset its hair. Then there were many. They came in so fast that Pepper could barely keep track. The plates in her hands slipped and shattered on the floor below her feet. She pinched her skin and blinked with fury, but cats kept coming coming coming.

            They fell through cracks and holes in the wall’s old plaster, tiny ones with eyes that barely opened, landing on plates of pasta, clawing through a medium well steak. They fell down in a fuzzy, clouded thump, knocking the bottles of alcohol from the bar to the floor. Pepper heard cats crying and then the crash and break of exploding drinks, of cats attacking. Their long, accordion bodies kept knocking on things. Cats paraded around the tables and between the chairs, a large orange one lead several others into the women’s bathroom, and the women in the stalls screamed like cats, like scared little cats in an alley.

Pepper watched, hands over her mouth, as a grey Main Coon fell into the lap of an older woman inside a corner booth. It was a regular whose somebody had done something here in the hospital, but Pepper couldn’t remember just what. The cat looked at the woman and then the table before lapping up the last of a martini, an olive curling around the cat’s pink tongue like a body trapped in a wave.

            She grabbed a dining room chair and climbed above the rest. She closed her eyes and spoke slowly. She said something about refunds and not pushing, but scene around her was going in circles, a windmill of cats. The cats leapt from table to table. They roared. She said, Everybody calm down, but there was no one in restaurant. There were only cats.

            The cats hung from the light fixtures, they used their claws to rappel down the curtains. They crawled along the baseboards, a carpet of fur that moved and grew like sea of tall grass, like an earthworm. A hairless cat, a sphinx, was drinking iced tea straight from the pitcher in the side station. It stuck its wrinkled chin in the beverage, whiskers dripping, its body soggy and wet.

            Easy, Pepper said. Just be easy, she repeated, but the cats were rising. They were moving closer to her and the chair one by one. They were showing their claws, their fangs, tails down. They were growling. They were making the worst noise, the most inhuman, the most animal, from their guts, it felt wild to hear it. A white shorthair leapt from another chair to Pepper’s. It attached to her pants, holding her leg between its arms as it bit her calf back and forth as if it were corn on the cob. She held onto the chair’s high back and lost the cat after a minute of rough shaking. A Calico ripped and pawed at the chair’s upholstery, roaring and slapping its paw toward Pepper’s shoes. Everywhere was fur and claw, tails and talons.

            Valentino was right, she thought, they sounded like hungry babies, like tiny little babies crying in the other room, I want, I need, Help, Come Help. The room spun, and Pepper couldn’t tell if the noise she heard was cat or if the sound had sprung from her own dry throat.

 

When a housecat raises its tail, it doesn’t want any more petting. A cat will nuzzle and curl onto your lap, but don’t try to hold her. There is nothing a cat likes less than being restrained, being told what to do—say, discipline. A cat will not fetch. It knows no tricks. It will not come to you, for your housecat doesn’t love you. A cat, though a mammal, is extremely cold blooded. They do not miss their owners when they are gone; rather, they relish in this freedom. Cats enjoy it when you’re on vacation, when the home is quiet and dark and they can reclaim the space as their own. If you miss your cat, send her a postcard. If there is a room full of fifteen people and one cat, all the cat will see is prey, competition. They think: catch, no release. They are wild things. They need to hunt and kill. Take your cat outside for a while—watch her pounce, watch the dead pile at your door, watch her grin, this is natural. It is important to keep your housecat full and satisfied.

Katrina Prow

 

Katrina Prow lives and writes in Santa Maria, California. Her writing has recently appeared in Sledgehammer Lit, Taco Bell Quarterly, decomP, The Journal, Pithead Chapel, Redivider, Passages North, Nano Fiction, Juked, and elsewhere. She holds a PhD in Creative Writing, Fiction from Texas Tech University, and she currently teaches Creative Writing at California Polytechnic University, San Luis Obispo. Outside of academia, Katrina is finishing her novel about the restaurant industry after many years in the 'biz. She has been an writer-in-residence at Yaddo and Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. You can find her discussing pop culture (frequently) and literature (sometimes) on Twitter @katprow.

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— Marka Rifat

"Looking at the plain lulled her claw thoughts. The fields had long gone, the green crops sickened, the shoots yellowed, turned paper dry and blew away."

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