There are only a couple more nights left of cable as Ernest, who paid for it, is no longer in his life. Angelo flips impatiently past Serengeti lions and Obama-arguing commentators to settle on a black and white courtroom scene from his grandmother’s generation, but it doesn’t make any sense as he’s ridiculously stoned.
The radiator bangs apocalyptically, his bedroom swelters, and he’s switching back to a reality show with Los Angeles teenagers when Leonora appears in the room.
Slithering slowly in through the half-closed door, she mews melancholically at the foot of the queen-sized bed. Looking at him with subtle recrimination, she pulls her enormous grey tabby frame up into the tangled sheets. Prowling across the bed to where he lies, she butts her proud face into his cheek, her snout cool and comforting against his face, unshaven since he lost his job the week before
Her next jump lands her on his stomach, her slightly odorous booty too close to his nose, so he delicately turns her around so that her head faces him instead. Settling comfortably onto his chest, she begins to knead him. His plump breasts tingle as her claws penetrate his threadbare white tee-shirt.
Ernest argued that gender identity in animals was a human invention, yet there had been something ineffably girlish about the cat they’d found abandoned in alleyway just after moving in with each other. While Ernest, one of his first male lovers, was fucking him in their bed, he would listen to her faintly asthmatic purring nearby, maternal, sororal, familiarly female in his brave new masculine world.
Yet tonight she seems distracted, restless. Abruptly ceasing to knead, she jumps down from the bed and leaves the room altogether. As Angelo smokes more of the powerful marijuana and goes back to channel surfing, he hears her yowling at the front door of the apartment. He has failed to let her out for her customary stroll around the building so she feels particularly pent up. She stops for a moment, allowing a peaceful silence to wash over the apartment, but soon starts again, louder than before.
The once grandiose art deco building, the Maria Manor, where the cat (most days) is allowed to stroll lies in Bay Ridge, a netherland deep in Brooklyn that Ernest and he had selected for its affordable space. To the left of the Manor is the similarly lofty Cleveland Castle, but the large garden to its right is down on its luck: overrun by a dense canopy of bushes, vines and trash. Saint Mary’s, the adjacent Catholic church, hasn’t had funds to keep it up for decades.
Once during their early days at the Manor, Angelo and Ernest had found its gate open and taken several damp, dirty steps inside before the rustling of animals -- probably squirrels but possibly rats -- had scared them away.
Out from the churchyard into the cavernous lobby of the Manor and up several flights of stairs, this latest blast of marijuana intoxication puts Angelo on edge. The dry radiator heat suffocates him, the endless channel surfing dizzies him.
If he sleeps, it will soon be tomorrow, and tomorrow stands some chance of being better than today. Pulling the sheets around him, he scans the room first to make sure everything is in place. The television stands on the small wooden platform that Ernest had built for it. The photos from their trips to Italy still line the walls.
But his heart races when he closes his eyes. Sweat pours down from his armpits and sideburns. He’ll die if he can’t breathe cool air.
In one efficient if slightly melodramatic gesture, he leaps off the bed, dashes to the window, which looks out upon the fire escape, and pulls it open. The cold wind is flowing ecstatically through his body when he hears a familiar sound right nearby. A warm fuzzy presence brushes past him through the broken screen.
Removing what’s left of it, he sticks his head out.
“Leonora, you come right back here!”
She mews ironically from the fire escape.
“Psst, psst, psst, Leonora, vieni qui,” he whispers in his and Ernest’s private language, Italian, which also happens to be the language of his ancestors.
Her ears perk up, and she moves a step closer, just out of arm’s reach.
“Vieni qui,” he repeats, “a papa, vieni qui.” He sounds affected to himself, a little effeminate, but the cat moves another tiny step forward.
“Bene, molto bene,” he praises, “che brava!”
But when he reaches to envelop his praiseworthy animal in his arms and take her back to bed where she may (depending on her mood) cuddle with him under the chaotic sheets, he feels a sharp pain in his arm and hears a shriek, a hiss. She has scratched him and retreated to the edge of the fire escape.
“Leonora, you bad, bad girl!”
After a high-pitched protest, she tumbles down the fire escape into the darkness below.
Taxiing home from the airport after an Amalfi vacation two summers before, slightly pickled from wine on the plane, Angelo and Ernest had lounged exuberantly in each other’s arms. But back in the apartment, their mood had shifted radically when they found that their cat sitter had neglected Leonora’s litter, leaving the apartment stale and shitty.
Then Angelo had opened the window to let in fresh air, and she had burst through the deteriorating screen, leaving the cat-sized incision that remains today.
But problems were more easily solved in Ernest’s day. Though Leonora had run down the fire escape into the courtyard of the Manor and over the stone wall into the murky churchyard, she had returned immediately after Ernest had gone down and summoned her: dirty, odd-smelling but safe.
She’s gone back to her haunting ground.
Angelo grabs the flashlight from the kitchen cabinet, forces his sockless feet into sneakers and doffs his ridiculous leather jacket from the eighties. Then he slips out into the hall towards the stairs.
Like a gentler roller coaster, a Ferris wheel, he careens down the banisters from his fifth floor apartment, catching fleeting glimpses of the hallways passing by.
On the second floor, he almost crashes into the young blond woman who had just moved in. He can’t tell from her face if she’s annoyed or just bemused but slows down anyway to avoid making a spectacle of himself. His heart galloping, he sneaks down the final flight of stairs, peering warily around each corner to see if anyone is watching.
Pushing open the creaky double door, he finds the courtyard empty in the dim moonlight. In front of him stands the stone wall over which his cat has climbed.
He catches his breath and dismisses his fears. Nobody could really have reported his stoned condition back to Ernest, and nobody even knows the phone number of his parents in their gated south Florida community.
Meanwhile, Leonora creeps further and further into the wild.
Angelo looks back into the Manor to confirm that no one is there and approaches the wall. “Leonora, mia cara gatta,” he says to the dark churchyard on the other side, “vieni qui.”
His flat Brooklyn Italian may be what’s discouraging her.
“Leonora, my dear cat, come here,” he repeats in English.
“Psst, psst psst.”
The faint mew might just be the rustling of the wind, but he grabs hold of the wall, pulls himself up so his head peaks over it, and shines his flashlight into the churchyard. The beam catches only vines and torn white fast food containers until, like a vision, Leonora suddenly appears. She looks straight at him, mews ambiguously and slips back into the darkness.
Disconsolate, he goes back to calling. Cold air rattles through his leather jacket into his bones, but he can’t allow himself to wake up tomorrow in his disheveled sheets without a furry, accepting creature to alleviate his suffering.
Calling is worse than pointless. He must go after her. The stone wall is only a few inches taller than he is, and he high-jumped in high school. Tossing the flashlight over it to free his hands, he moves to the back of the courtyard to give himself room for a running start.
Counting silently down to three, he charges back towards the wall, grabbing its pointy triangular top and hurling himself feet first over it. His torso glides easily over, but his left leg gets tangled on the way down. An epileptic jerk of his lower body sends him tumbling shoulders first into soft, funky-smelling vegetation.
He catches his breath and takes account of his wounds. His right hand stings from the top of the wall, his left leg aches dully from where it had been stuck, but he hasn’t leaked much blood. He closes his eyes but opens them right back up again, feeling the urgency of his mission. Shot down over North Vietnam, John McCain soldiered on. It took hundreds of bullets to even slow Clint Eastwood or Steve McQueen in the movies Angelo had watched when home sick from school. He’s on a recognizance mission. Leonora must be brought back alive.
His flashlight shines within easy reach only a few feet away. Pulling himself unsteadily to his feet, he walks into the churchyard. The vines don’t seem as thick once he’s inside them. Brooklyn isn’t the jungle, and there’s nothing to fear.
After a few non-eventful minutes floating quietly forward, his face gets caught in a tangy-smelling spider web, his feet touch something hard under the weeds, and his injured left side smacks into what fees like a rock formation. He grabs it with his hands to steady himself and feels a sharp, cold point.
His flashlight reveals a nose, the Virgin Mary’s nose. She sits serenely on a stone pedestal in an abandoned shrine that must belong to Saint Mary’s next door. Half of her child has crumbled away.
The wind rises wildly through the vines, and a clap of thunder thunders far away. God visited saints in bygone days, but could the flexible modern deity be appearing to him now: stoned, skeptical, homosexual and searching for his cat. Maybe so, he concludes, never has anyone been more in need of guidance.
An infuriate yowl interrupts his reverie, followed by a low menacing hiss. Directly behind the virgin, between an old metal chair and a rusting mattress spring, crouches a straggly red cat and a larger, greyer one, Leonora, engaged in an amatory stand-off. Angelo immediately lunges for her but is too far off the ground, and she scampers easily away.
Then the red cat hisses possessively and pounces on Angelo’s leg. After digging its sharp paws into Angelo’s jeans, he slips back into the bushes. Glancing up at Angelo in exasperation, Leonora disappears after him, her libido in tact despite the delicate surgery of years before.
The Virgin and half child forgotten, Angelo takes off after them. More cobwebs, more branches, the side of that same metal chair brush against him as he treks further and further into the wild, inhaling the florid odors of leaves, cat piss and fermenting trash. A soggy bag of festering food lands on his shoulder, a small winged creature buzzes briefly in his hair, but his flashlight reveals only vines, and his ears pick up only silence as even the wind has gone to sleep.
As he is awkward and far above the ground and she graceful and small (relatively speaking), he has to get closer to her level to catch her. Slipping to his knees, he crawls tentatively forward. His shoulders graze a tree stump, his hand squishes something organic, but he’s tapping into his four-legged ancestors. Breathing shallowly to keep out the smells, he moves gradually faster. Ernest once called him a prissy queen, but look at him now.
He’s really picking up speed a few moments later when his hind legs, his ass, slide sharply down from his torso, and he lands with a painful thud on a metal grating a few feet below the ground. The vines and the trees look sardonically down at him, mocking his animal pretensions, as a miasma of take-out Thai food seeps into the air from all his farting.
He traces his torso down to his knees to make sure that he’s still connected to himself and grabs the sides of the hole with his arms to push himself back up to solid ground. Crawling a few tentative feet backwards he finds his flashlight, and shines it on where he had fallen: a basement space below the grating, which must belong to the church. Down there: old hymnals, broken down pews, what looks like a piece from an altar.
His latest mishap has punctured his spirit. His animal nature is as out as of reach as his escaped animal. Fatigues washes over him, the depressing beginnings of not being so stoned. Pulling himself up to the ground just make him dizzy, his limbs rubbery, so he collapses back down, puts his leather jacket over his shoulders and closes his eyes.
The characters from the last several hours appear to him as he drifts away: the blond girl in the hallway, the stone Virgin and her crumbling child, the mangy red tabby. Of course, his love visits him too, in all her plump grey glory. Every few moments he rises briefly to the surface, twists, shivers and slips back into sleep.
In the dim light of early dawn, he opens his eyes to see a broken down chair and several empty cans of soda. Stiff, uncomfortable but not so ominously hung-over, he breathes cold air through his stuffed-up nose.
Then a rumbling sound comes from just behind him, a purring. He turns over onto his side and finds her sitting comfortably in a patch of sun only an arm’s length away. She mews quizzically. Here I am, she tells him, take me home.
She does not yowl in protest when he picks her up, nor squirm, nor bite when he scratches the erogenous zone just above her tail. Carrying her in his arms, he jaunts noisily towards home.
But the stone wall stops him in his tracks. He can’t make it over with her in tow, and she won’t necessarily come to him if he cajoles from the other side. After stomping his foot and telling the wall to go fuck itself, he looks more carefully around him, taking in all he could not see in last night’s darkness.
An indentation, a sort of path, appears in the opposite direction from which he had been walking, vaguely delineated through the vines. It leads to a human-sized hole through a chain-link fence into the church’s property. After squeezing himself and Leonora through it, he easily makes his way out onto the street and back into the lobby of the Maria Manor.
All in all, he thinks, the deliciously stuffy apartment air seeping into his bones, the evening had not ended badly. No one had attacked him while asleep outside in the night. No one had even noticed him.
Lying down on his bed, he gazes out the window at the churchyard, tangled but innocent looking in the dawning light. Leonora leaps into his arms and settles, ass-first, digging her dirty nails back into his chest.
It could have been the Virgin or Leonora’s own good will. What was lost has now been found.
He squeezes her with his arms not quite hard enough to hurt and peacefully closes his eyes.