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A Maow Story — #1 in a Series

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It should surprise no one that I have an occasionally volatile temper and a frequently expressed penchant for profanity. The luxury of working from home for as long as I did is that I could express the upper registers of my outrage and artistry without shattering the presumed civility of an office environment and being summoned to H.R. for a lecture or my dismissal.

The downside of this arrangement was the proximity of my lone, entirely innocent office mate: Maow. When jackasses at work stressed me out, it caused me to stress out Maow, which was the very last thing I wanted.

So after unleashing a torrent of obscenities, I would often find myself kneeling down to Maow, stroking her fur to calm us both, and apologizing to her as soothingly as possible: “I’m not mad at you. I could never be mad at my Maow.”

Flash forward to the terrible last month of her life. She had spent an entire week, more or less, in seclusion behind the gold brocade chair, but as time went on and she rebounded a bit, she returned there only periodically, instead spending most of her time in the dining area or on the couch with me.

I wasn’t working then but would from time to time drop an F-bomb or spew a flurry of invective — a computer crash here, a Trump sound bite there.

On at least three of these occasions, my outbursts prompted Maow to emerge from behind the gold chair, as though she knew I needed to stroke her fur and come down from my anger.

Pets. What did we ever do to deserve them?

This has been a Maow story.


Written by Shepcat

November 16, 2017 at 3:00 pm

Posted in Life, Love

Tagged with

My Accomplice and Muse, First of Her Name, Queen of Our Realm, Owner of My Heart

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When the love of my life left for Hawaii, she left in my care, as it were, the last great love of my life.

Adriane’s rationale was that at Maow’s advanced age, the sedatives, the long transoceanic flight, and the stress of relocation would wreak too much havoc on her tiny heart and her short- and long-term health. And I agreed.

Adriane decided. I agreed.

Because a drowning man doesn’t politely decline the offer of a life preserver. More than that, it was a great sacrifice Adriane was making for me, an act of love, of trust, of kindness — the single greatest gift anyone has ever given me.

Without Maow, I’d have roamed that empty house alone like the aged, diminished Kane in his Xanadu. It would have seemed cavernous and isolated, haunted, unmoored and adrift, like a ghost ship tossed about the dark waters of the gray, gloomy Pacific Northwest. Maow imbued it — and me — with life.

I woke every day knowing I could get through it with her at my side. “It’s going to be a very pretty day,” I would tell her, “because you’re in it.”

It was too much to ask of this tiny, chatty, cranky 7-pound bundle of bones and fur, this sentient miracle of evolution, that she bear the weight of my love and grief and anger and self-loathing. She took me on as her project anyway.

She kept me afloat and helped me find our desert island. I was Crusoe, and she was my Friday.

In the beginning, she was called Trixie.1

When Adriane discovered her in a shelter in San Diego in January 1999, she learned that the 8-month-old kitten had belonged to a sailor whom the Navy shipped out to another port and who had cried, heartbroken, when he had to return her to the shelter.

Adriane, whose genetic predisposition toward pragmatic pet names has always been a source of wonder and humor to me, brought her home and rechristened her Kitty, and Kitty she was for the next 11 years or so.

Some months later, an enormous, fluffy Maine coon entered their lives. Adriane named him Big Cat2, or B.C., and though he was afraid of virtually every other thing in the world (e.g., the ceiling fan in our bedroom, hilariously), he would proceed to be Kitty’s bully and tormentor for the remainder of his life.

Adriane and I moved to Sacramento together, and after six months I had only just begun to develop a relationship with B.C. — though not so much with Kitty, who habitually made herself as invisible as possible so not to invite any more of B.C.’s attention than was absolutely inescapable — when we had to euthanize him at Thanksgiving.

Within a few days, upon realizing that B.C. was gone and was never coming back, Kitty came out of hiding and out of her shell. With a vengeance. Previously resigned to silence, she began to speak up and express herself as though for the first time. And would not. Shut. The fuck. Up.

In short order, we began referring to her as The Mouthy Broad, the cranky, bitchy, opinionated soul of our home.

Alternately, because of her habit of crossing her little white paws in front of her (they looked to me like the dress gauntlets women of high society wear to the opera), we called her Fancy, a diminutive of her full title, The Disapproving Fancy Who Disapproves.3 (When she lay with just one leg stretched out in front of her — see above — she was “half fancy.”) And though officially still Kitty, we continued to call her Fancy off and on for about a year or so, up to and after our next move, to the Pacific Northwest.

During that time, I began to develop a closer bond with her, slowly earning her trust, giving her as much attention as she’d allow as she sorted out whether my attention was as toxic and unwanted as B.C.’s. This included my grabbing and squeezing her rear haunches in the transaction that would come to be known as grabass. Amazingly, she indicated that she liked this particular bit of attention. Instead of fleeing me upon release, she’d walk a few steps, stop, wait for me to grab her butt again, repeat. This became the hallmark of our daily interaction, prompting Adriane to remark, often, “You two have such a weird relationship.”

I also developed a habit of conversing with her in her own language. As long as she now had so much to say, I wanted her to know that the home office heard and understood her concerns. So when she maowed at me, I maowed back at her, and before long she became, inevitably, indelibly, Maow.

Now you know.

I never liked cats.

I understood all too well that other people did — adored them, in fact — but they just seemed like furry little assholes to me. With rare exceptions, they still do. Asked if I’m a cat person, my typical response is, “No, I’m a Maow person.”

The first cat I ever loved was my cousin Jeff’s cat, Lindberg, with whom I forged a fierce, unbreakable bond after a harrowing day together — and apart — on my very first day in Los Angeles. I became his go-to sitter for the last five years of his life. He was affectionate and willful, playful but corpulent and leisurely, and more than a little vindictive if you crossed or slighted him. He was, I’m almost entirely certain, the reincarnation of Orson Welles.

After Lindberg left us, I went back to not having any use for cats. Until Adriane.

Inasmuch as any creature, let alone a 7-pound ball of fluff with a brain the size of a walnut, can understand human language and human love, I repeated certain phrases as often as possible (see “pretty day,” above) in the hope that they would begin to imprint themselves on Maow’s DNA, so that she would understand at a molecular level that I loved her, and how much.

In Casablanca, Leonid Kinskey portrays the Russian bartender Sascha, endlessly infatuated with and solicitous of Madeleine Lebeau’s icy and manipulative Yvonne. Though she repeatedly, coldly fends off his advances, Sascha always cheerfully responds, “But, Yvonne, I love you.” And it was in Sascha’s voice, a little mockingly but entirely truly, that I first responded to Maow’s objections, “But, Maow, I love you.”4 Before long I ditched Sascha’s voice altogether.

That said, Maow lived in dread of our more demonstrative displays of affection. As someone once pointed out on Twitter, the reason cats are so pissy is that they’re God’s perfect killing machines but they weigh only 7 pounds, and we keep picking them up and kissing them all the time. Despite the rare occasions when she’d purr, Maow hated being lifted into our arms, suspended 5 feet above the floor and cuddled until we got our fix, burying our noses in her fur and inhaling deeply. (Always a fastidiously clean cat, Maow had the best smell, though hard to describe — a little smoky, a little like fresh laundry, not like an animal at all.) It became my habit, just before kneeling to release her from the indignities and encumbrances of my affection, to whisper into her ear, “Thank you for letting me love you.”

And though, whenever we left town, we left her in the care of others who would check in with her regularly if not daily, she would roam the house in our absence, looking for us, yowling her plaintive little yowl until her voice was hoarse. We’d return home to find her waiting, pissed off, expressing her discontent with a series of raspy little exhalations where words ought to have been. Depending on how long we had been away, it would sometimes take days for her voice to return. The length of time during which we’d await her forgiveness became shorter with each subsequent trip, and I want to believe that it’s because I told her often, “I will always, always come home to my Maow.” Even if I was just going out for groceries or to the movies or into the city for an evening of drinking with my fellow Men of a Certain Age, I would announce upon my return, “Who always comes back to his Maow? This guy.”

The night I took Maow to the emergency veterinary clinic, they let me go back to the big examination room where she was being processed, to see her before I left. All sharp angles and gleaming surfaces, the room was bright and noisy, and there was a yelpy dog in the cage next to hers. She was absolutely miserable, burrowed into the blankets, already smaller and weaker because of her illness, but she summoned enough energy to raise herself a little when they let me open her cage door. I loved her up and rubbed the bridge of her nose and spoke to her as reassuringly as I could, and when finally I willed myself to leave her in the clinic’s care, I reminded her one last time, “I’ll be back for you soon, because I always, always come back for my Maow.”

I’ll always feel bad that the last six months of Maow’s life were so stressful.

When Adriane and I finally put our house on the market, the daily peace of The Silent J was shattered and life suddenly accelerated into overdrive. Workmen came to floor our bathroom, steam our carpets, clean our windows. Maow’s once vast, open landscape became strewn and stacked with boxes as I packed for our move. Our real estate agent dropped by frequently, and the staging of our home meant that furniture and other familiar items disappeared from view and were replaced by alien presences not to be trusted.

Our first weekend on the market, as other agents and prospective buyers invaded the sanctity of our made-over home, Maow was incarcerated multiple times and removed to the park uphill from our house. Though it was only five minutes away, she hated her carrier and rides in the car and the fear and uncertainty they portended. Even though I often fretted that her world was so small, she fretted even more the wider world outside its boundaries. As objectively pleasant as our park and the time we spent there were, she was so distrustful of it that on our first visit she never emerged from the carrier she so hated.

Then came moving day, on which her world was invaded and pillaged, even her hiding places removed as she cowered under them in panic. Then she was left alone for a few hours in the completely empty house before I returned, incarcerated her again and drove her across town to our new apartment, the familiarity of all our things in one place providing no comfort to her at all.

Next, just as we were settling into our new environs, came the bedbug infestation, which didn’t victimize her, thank God, but which resulted in multiple exterminator visits, more incarceration and removal to distant places, more moving of furniture and vacuuming upon our return.

Then a visit to the vet.

One stress- and/or diet-related question to which I sought an answer prompted the office’s suggestion that it was about time for Maow’s annual wellness checkup and that we could get a fuller picture if I brought her in.

Incarceration. Car trip.

She was examined by the charmless lead veterinarian, the more coldly clinical, less comforting of the office’s three vets, who referred to her in the abstract as “the geriatric kidney patient” and “the individual” as he talked through her various conditions — the ongoing but not as yet prohibitive decrease in her kidney function (“stable” was the only prognosis we had received from her most recent bloodwork), the discovery of a heart murmur and a slightly accelerated heart rate since her previous visit, the possibility of hyperthyroidism and decreased metabolism, and other age-pertinent generalities to be on the lookout for as she declined. Which she did, almost as if on cue.

Not long after that appointment, Maow stopped eating, stopped pooping, became withdrawn and disappeared for long stretches behind the gold brocade chair (once my grandmother’s, adopted by Maow as her preferred perch after the move), as though she was trying to make herself smaller and invisible all over again.

I called our charmless vet to express my concern, and when he returned my call at day’s end, his only suggestion was to mix up her diet as much as possible, to try to entice her with new things. Which worked, however briefly and if only in small amounts. I allowed myself to be encouraged that Maow was eating again at all, but even that was short-lived, and she continued to become weaker and smaller.

On the advice of a vet Adriane knows in Hawaii, we made an appointment for subcutaneous hydration, which we hoped might also stimulate her appetite. The tech informed me that Maow had lost 2 pounds in the last month — which I knew, hence the appointment — but seemed otherwise indifferent, offering no suggestions and deflecting any questions I had, saying that our charmless lead vet could answer them all when he called back with the results of Maow’s latest bloodwork.

Which he never did.

Rather than wait until Monday for answers from someone who showed no urgency for or interest in our pet, rather than spend the entire weekend watching Maow starve herself to death, Adriane frantically consulted yet another veterinarian, and we ultimately settled on my taking her to the aforementioned emergency clinic. In the 48 hours she spent there, and again upon our return, I dealt with no fewer than nine different people — receptionists, technicians, nurses and doctors — each of whom went out of her way to be warm, considerate and comforting to both Maow and me. Adriane and I will be forever grateful to them, even as we remain perplexed and outraged that we didn’t feel one-tenth of that consideration from Maow’s own vet.

Maow rebounded in their care, however little and however briefly, and was discharged to me Monday night, with our hopes that I might have at least the coming week with her, to make her comfortable and spend as much quality time with her as possible.

It wasn’t to be.

At 9:44 p.m. Tuesday, November 14, 2017, Adriane and I said goodbye and let go of our brave, patient, perfect girl.

I had woken that morning to find that Maow was still lethargic and unresponsive, dismissive of food and oddly distrustful of water, though she’d at least make herself drink occasionally. Three times in the ensuing 24 hours she had urinated on the carpet where she lay, too weak even to walk 3 feet to the litter box I had brought out to her. Any energy she still had was spent resisting my attempts to pry her tiny jaws apart to medicate her. Twice she spat out the Prednisone tablet I was trying to force her to take, and after a failed third attempt I couldn’t will myself to continue fighting her. Even though the vet who had called with her ultrasound results said it was a matter of days, plural, I knew I couldn’t make her endure another day, singular. I called Adriane and told her I’d take Maow that night to be euthanized.

I decided. Adriane agreed.

It was the worst feeling I’ve ever experienced, knowing that I was escorting Maow to her death, but Adriane assured me repeatedly, however counterintuitively, that I was doing her the greatest kindness I would ever perform for her, thanked me for being her caregiver, apologized repeatedly for making me go through it alone. We had discussed the possibility of her catching the next flight out from the islands, but it quickly became apparent that we’d be making Maow hold on for hours that would become increasingly painful to endure.

We had a nice last day together. At least, I hope some of it felt nice to Maow — that she felt love — through the fog of her pain. Adriane FaceTimed with us in the morning and again that evening before we left, so she could say her goodbyes to the perfect creature whom she had loved for half her own life. In between, Maow and I spent the long, quiet day together in our favorite place: in our ratty old leather wing chair with Maow on my lap, as we had spent so many long Sundays while I drank coffee and proofread, awkwardly reaching over her whenever I needed to type or use my trackpad, and most evenings in front of movies and ballgames on TV.

When we took our last ride together, she was too weak to require incarceration. I removed the lid and gate from her carrier and padded it with a towel. I drove with one hand and stroked her with the other the entire trip.

Upon our arrival, a surge of adrenaline made her hyperaware of her surroundings, and I had to steel myself against this false resurgence of life, calm her down, soothe her nerves, and get on with the terrible task at hand. We spent a quiet half hour together, I reasserting my impossible, undying love for her, before I summoned the doctor.

I held Maow on my lap, and the first injection put her to sleep in a few seconds, her weary little head slumping over the side of my leg. The second injection — the coup de grâce — was quick and painless. Maow’s tiny, remarkable heart finally stopped, only because I told it to. Only because I let her go.

Thank you for letting me love you, Maow.

What I owe you is beyond evaluation.

1 An aside to those of you who knew Maow: God, can you even imagine?

2 In the years during which Adriane and I fell in love and were separated by a thousand miles, B.C. would occasionally enter the room while we were talking on webcam. Adriane would pick him up, and as he went limp his full weight would go completely square in her arms, like an enormous, furry suitcase. Hence, forever after he was Suitcase to me.

3 This is why, when Facebook insisted on a vanity URL longer than four letters, her presence there was signified by /disapprovingmaow.

4 Look, I’m a movie guy. I can’t help myself. When I imagined what Suitcase might say to me if he could talk back, for reasons I’m helpless to explain I always imagined he would speak in the voice of the French actor Jean Gabin from Grand Illusion and Pepe le Moko. And in my mind he always referred to me as “the tall one.”

Written by Shepcat

November 15, 2017 at 7:17 pm

Posted in Life, Love, The PNW

Tagged with

So That Happened: A Vignette in One Act

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Doorbell rings.

It’s the kid next door. Good kid, unfailingly polite, takes care of Maow whenever I’m out of town. Always rings the doorbell like this to ask if he can get a ball out of my backyard, as he does today. I’d be fine with him just going back there to retrieve his wiffle and tennis balls whenever I’m not quick enough to get out there and toss them back over the fence, but him always ringing to ask is a sign of his polite upbringing, so it’s worth the trip to the door.

But this also happens: He comes to door alone, but as often as not, it’s him and one or two other kids I see running past my windows in the backyard, ostensibly to retrieve a ball.

One ball.

Once, one of his friends was parkouring onto and off of the rocky terrace in our backyard, and all I could picture was the kid twisting an ankle and eating rock or crashing to the yard below and breaking a tibia and some parents suing me for medical damages because their kid’s a spastic moron to whom I didn’t give express permission to be in my yard.

Today, though, it’s only two of them — the neighbor kid and one friend — who go darting past my windows. The friend — these are 12-year-olds, by the way — is carrying some sort of clear plastic container in one hand and its lid in the other. And they’re back there awhile — like, long enough that I wonder was I really so engrossed by work that I didn’t notice them leaving the yard. So I get up and walk toward the dining room, and I don’t see them through the curtains in the part of the yard where I expect them to be.

But I hear voices.

Now I go over to the living room–side window, where the blinds are completely clapped shut and I’d look really obvious and creepy if I try to separate two of the slats to look out there and see what they’re doing. Still, this muffled conversation is taking place that sounds a lot more detailed and intricate than anything involving the retrieval of a ball.

One ball. With a lidded plastic container.

I should note that there’s absolutely nothing of value in the backyard that they could cart out without my noticing. So honestly, whatever’s back there that they can fit into this container they’re welcome to.

But the mystery persists.

And yet I’d be the creepy asshole in this picture if I just asked them point blank why are they really back there and what the hell’s with the container.

… and scene.

Written by Shepcat

August 29, 2017 at 5:50 pm

Posted in Life, The PNW


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I’ve always respected the principle of living within one’s means, so my concept of wealth has never revolved around living in a big house, belonging to a country club or driving an expensive car.

My idea of perfect wealth is the ability to buy 200 pairs of boxer shorts and put 185 into storage, hedging against the absolute certainty that, by the next time I need to buy underwear, the manufacturer of my preferred brand will have completely changed its design to something uncomfortable or otherwise objectionable, if not ceased production altogether.

Thus, the cornerstones of my capitalist manifesto are:

  1. True wherewithal is measured by one’s ability to outpace and outthink the free market.
  2. No matter where you live, no matter where you go, you’re always at home in comfortable underwear.

Written by Shepcat

August 6, 2017 at 11:35 am

Posted in Life

Perchance to Dream

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Last night I dreamed I was entering a beachfront bar when Susan Sarandon approached me and said hello. I was surprised she remembered me. (In the subtext of the dream, we had apparently met briefly or worked on a film set together once.)

After a moment it became apparent that she wasn’t merely being gracious but actually wanted to continue our conversation, so I asked if I could buy her a drink.

At the bar we ordered, and as I opened my wallet I discovered I had misplaced my credit card. So I reached for cash, and instead of a couple of neatly folded 20s, I produced a wadded-up fistful of small bills, counting to make sure I had enough, then handing the lump of cash to the bartender, as though I was a 9-year-old who had been saving up his allowance, not to put toward a baseball mitt or a new bike but to buy drinks for Susan Sarandon.

This has been a story about how even in my most sensational dreams I exude the same suave, worldly sophistication I possess in my waking life.

Written by Shepcat

April 8, 2017 at 10:41 am

Posted in Life

In Which Maow Throws Up on Some of the Things but Not All of the Things

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gak \ˈgak\ v. to whork up a hairball or other vomitus, as a cat does; also, n. the substance thereof
gakked; gak•king; gak•ker

I’m a fairly heavy sleeper. As such, I long fretted fatherhood, certain that I would most likely sleep through the wailing of my child and later face the wrath and recriminations of my sleep-deprived wife.

Then cats entered my life.

At which point I learned that the clutching, gulping, premonitory sound of a cat in the throes of gakking up a hairball — though much subtler and more subdued than a baby’s shrill cries — is enough to pierce my veil of sleep and catapult me into action.

Of course, Maow used to sleep with us, right there on the bed, so we were more likely to hear her when she went into her prelaunch countdown. But as we fumbled out of our slumber, from zero to 60 in mere seconds, we still faced two immediate challenges:

1. Could we get the lights on quickly enough?
2. Could we find a magazine quickly enough?

The latter of these, of course, is the critical element. The availability and proximity of a magazine or newspaper — long since read and kept on hand only to be sacrificed so that our carpet or comforter might be stain-free — is paramount, particularly the part about proximity. Because every second counts, and the fewer seconds devoted to a panicked search, the more time available to give one’s cat an approved target.

Because periodicals tend to be filed away neatly, tossed aside indiscriminately, or relegated to the recycling bin, I had suggested that perhaps we should buy a dustpan and hang it from a nail or hook on the wall. A solution dedicated to a singular problem, situated in a place where we’d always be able to find it when time was of the essence. One for the bedroom, one for the TV room — the two rooms in which we passed the most time — should do the trick.

We never executed this plan. We fumbled for light switches and darted across rooms and back again, sometimes more successfully than others. But we never followed through on any kind of emergency gak protocol.

And so it occurred last April or thereabout that the Spring 2016 issue of my alma mater’s magazine, The Jayhawk Journalist, arrived in the mail. After I had paged through it and read at length about the retirement of a favorite professor of mine, I set it aside and didn’t think much about it … until the next time Maow started to gak.

There it was. Right place. Right time. That time and, well, every time thereafter.

Because after the magazine caught the first of Maow’s gaks, I just rinsed it off at the bathroom sink, let it dry, then returned it to a discreet but convenient location until such time as it was again needed. For the next eight or nine months I did this, and over time the magazine became warped with repeated usage, rinsing and drying.

The spring issue’s cover subject was a fellow KU alumna who is now associated in some capacity with a vineyard and winery in Oregon. More than once I entertained the notion that I might someday cross paths with this woman and pause — “Excuse me. Don’t I know you from somewhere?” — until it occurs to me that, “Oh, yeah, you’re the woman my cat throws up on,” at which juncture I must sheepishly remove myself from the conversation.

Finally, a month or so ago, I sojourned to Bed Bath & Beyond to pick up a few items, and at long last I procured a new plastic dustpan. It’s a little bigger than the task requires — I had only the one to choose from, as, oddly enough, Bed Bath & Beyond doesn’t offer a selection of dustpans that aren’t attached to brooms — but it is an exemplar of its form, a damn fine American-made dustpan.

Except that Maow is terrified of the thing.

The drill has always been, whenever she begins expelling something from her esophagus, I’ll kneel beside her and put a hand softly on her back — partly to calm her, partly to keep her in one place — then slide the magazine in front of her until she defaces it. There are usually two or three stages to this, so I may have to follow her a few steps while she works up her next expulsion, but she’s always been pretty cooperative.

Until now.

Now when I slide the dustpan in front of her, she bolts from it, wide-eyed with terror, as though I’m the feline Grim Reaper bidding her to gaze upon her reflection in the blade of my scythe. Which, in the absence of a readily available alternative, is how I ended up with puke in three places on the TV room carpet today.

It may also explain her historical disdain of our kitchen lineoleum, which has always been right there, just a few steps away. Slick surfaces. Who knew?

The good news? It’s March. The Spring 2017 Jayhawk Journalist should show up in the mail before too long.

Written by Shepcat

March 8, 2017 at 11:13 pm

Posted in Life

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The Night Of: August 20, 1994

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a pre-Chronicles tale adapted from the journals of Brent Shepherd
The place: a coffeehouse called Insomnia Café, on North High Street in Columbus, Ohio, across from the university, with décor that I described as “sterile … with metal-topped butcher’s-counter tables and artsy, architectural-metal chairs. They served me a giant cappuccino that may have been brewed in hell and express delivered — it stripped the nerves off my tongue and still hasn’t cooled down some 30 minutes later. …

“There’s a huge American flag on one wall that may have been stolen from a Perkins restaurant. At any minute I expect George C. Scott to stand up over there and tell us not to let the bastards get us down.”

The time: Our story begins in earnest around 11:15 p.m.

I had decided I wouldn’t stick around long because I had an earlier-than-normal (for me) flight to catch the next morning, but I ordered an Italian soda and turned my attention to the book I had brought with me. Across the room, a lumpy, dirty but comfortable-looking garage-sale sofa was vacated by the trio of girls who had occupied it since my arrival, so I made my move.

I had read only a few pages when the guy whose picture appears next to the word dreg in the dictionary sat down in the chair opposite me with a mug of steaming-hot tea. He wore abused work boots, some kind of fatigue pants with cargo pockets, a T-shirt, and a leather jacket, even though the temperature was 80+ degrees in Columbus that day. He was attempting something like dreadlocks with his hair, which had aluminum-can pull tabs tied to the ends. (Don’t ask. I was hoping you’d tell me.) He had a sparse and stringy excuse for a beard, dirty teeth, and a glazed expression that extended from his eyes to his whole face. He looked like he had bathed once or twice that calendar year and had maybe been released from jail as recently as that morning on someone’s recognizance other than his own.

He took from his fatigue pockets a rolled-up graphic novel that was as ratty, stained and disheveled as he was. He unrolled it, opened it and read as he fiddled with his teabag. Occasionally he would mumble some question about the café to me as though I were a local.

He asked if Insomnia had a chess board. I told him I didn’t know. He asked if I’d be up for a game if he were able to find one. I said sure, why not. Much to my eventual chagrin, he found a board and pieces and we were all set to play.

I tried, somewhat successfully, to feign concentration while we played and thus kept conversation to a minimum. I spoke to him only when spoken to, which was difficult enough given his slurred speech. Nonetheless, he found things to talk about, asking me still more questions about Insomnia Café which I was unable to answer. Only much later in the proceedings did I venture to explain that I was from Kansas City and therefore not intimate with my surroundings, if for no other reason than to assure him that I was merely ignorant, not an imbecile. I chose to let my chess strategies speak for the imbecile in me.

To this point, I have neglected to mention one important feature of my opponent’s costume, a prop, if you will: the knife tucked into his belt.

Apparently no one in Insomnia minded that this most unsavory character was walking around with a knife handle in conspicuous view. You’d have to be Ray Charles not to notice this detail. Then again, probably everyone figured he could do more harm to himself than to anyone else, because of the way he wore it, the blade pointing straight down toward his genitals. (I have no idea whether he was wearing a sheath of some kind in his pants and was really in no hurry to ask. I didn’t want to know him that well.)

This detail is important because early in our chess game we were approached by a trio of his friends, the leader of which was a perhaps more unsavory-looking punk with a carelessly groomed green mohawk, nose rings, a leather jacket and — you guessed it — a knife handle sticking out of his pants, also aimed precariously toward his genitals. (At this point, I wondered whether this was perhaps a local characteristic that I hadn’t been hipped to yet, and I glanced around the room to see if anyone else was wearing a knife in their crotch.) The mohawk punk’s knife had an elegantly curved silver handle, obvious without being glaringly shiny.

At one point in the conversation, the mohawk punk blurted out, “Oh, dude — I got a new knife.”

“Do you have it with you?” asked the dreg. “Let’s see it.”

At which point the mohawk punk grabbed the buffed silver handle and withdrew his new weapon to reveal …

“Aw, man — that’s a steak knife,” cried the dreg. Indeed, it was a steak knife that may have been lifted from a Shoney’s or a Ponderosa or some such place.

“Yeah,” spat the mohawk punk defensively, brandishing the knife. “But I could still fuck someone up with it.”

“But it’s a steak knife,” repeated the dreg.

The girl who had arrived with the mohawk punk spoke up then, something to the effect of, “You’re probably gonna end up stabbing yourself with that thing,” thus prompting the mohawk punk to threaten her with the excision of a certain part of her own genitalia. The girl seemed undaunted, but as the mohawk punk repeated his threat a few times, I imagined myself getting tangled up in violence among complete strangers. The girl wasn’t very attractive, but it seemed to me she could certainly do better for herself than present company. In any event, the steak knife was eventually resheathed (yikes!), and the trio bade their farewell.

The dreg and I resumed our chess game, which lumbered on toward closing time.

At perhaps 1:30 a.m. another of his derelict friends approached the table. This one was older, at least in his late 30s, unshaven and largely toothless in a hockey player sort of way, wearing thick-lensed horn-rimmed glasses. They greeted each other amiably, without wielding cutlery, and talked while the dreg and I played.

“Hey, look what I got,” the dreg said, producing the disheveled graphic novel from his fatigue pocket.

“Cool,” said the derelict, apparently recognizing it as subject matter in which they shared a common interest. He began to page through it. “When did you get this?”

“Today,” replied the dreg. I almost couldn’t conceal my surprise. This ragged, stained, shredded stack of pages had possibly been a crisp new periodical as recently as 12 hours ago. Maybe I care about printed material a little too much.

A digression: Earlier that evening, when I overtook the sofa, the group before me hadn’t picked up after themselves when they left. The table, nothing more than some particle board suspended by two milk crates, still held a mug, a cup and saucer, and a bottle of Arizona Iced Tea that was still about one-fifth full. The dreg and I had sat the glassware aside to make room for the chess board, but at some point during our game, he reached for the iced-tea bottle.

“Is this yours?” he asked.

“No.” I shook my head.

“Mmm,” he grunted in acknowledgement, then proceeded to top off his own still-steaming mug of tea with the bottle’s contents. “I’ve gotta cool this shit down. It’s too hot to drink.”

I was (probably visibly) appalled, thinking, You have no idea who might have backwashed into that bottle before you came along. Then I caught myself and imagined that, if the girl who’d left it behind returned to witness the spectacle, she would’ve been more grossed-out by the concept than the dreg would ever be.

Anyway: Closing time was drawing near, and the dreg and I were in a standoff. I knew we had to wrap up the game quickly, so I started playing kamikaze chess, trying to make things happen and force one of us to win or lose the game. Insomnia employees urged us to finish but were gracious enough to put up with us. I went after the dreg’s king.

The derelict became more actively involved and actually made the dreg’s final five or six moves until they were able to checkmate me (or I allowed myself to be checkmated). There wasn’t much fanfare. I bade an unceremonious (and probably unnoticed) farewell and vacated the premises.

It was 2:10 a.m. So much for getting to bed early.

At 3 a.m., back at my hotel, I called to request a 7 a.m. wake-up call. The night manager didn’t seem to find the request unusual.

Written by Shepcat

November 27, 2016 at 6:58 pm

Posted in Life, Travel