In this work of fiction, a tomcat and a server come together at a brunch joint in Tribeca.
Suzie slept with Tommy once, right after he’d hired her. It happened late one night after a dinner shift she’d covered. They were the last two in the restaurant and Tommy pulled down the metal bars over the windows. Then he brought out a bottle of Jägermeister and poured them each half a coffee cup-full. “Drink it like a shot,” he told her. She spit out her Trident gum and they tipped their mugs back. She noticed the hair on Tommy’s face, his bitten fingernails, the butter across his shirt. He was disgusting and grown-up and adorable.
They walked to his apartment around the corner and up the three flights of stairs. At eighteen, her expectations about sex with Tommy (or anyone, for that matter) were murky. But he surprised her with his sweetness, with the way he removed her glasses and smiled down into her face like she was a poaching egg in softly boiling water. Suzie gave herself over and he was kinder than she’d expected.
After they slept together, she didn’t know what to do, how to take their relationship from one thing to something else. She had hoped the sex would change things automatically, but when it became clear that she would have to do something to make it so, she knew she couldn’t pull it off.
When it was time for her to work with Tommy again after the sex, he treated her just like he always had, ignoring her for most of the shift while he shouted orders in the kitchen, and then asking her to smoke with him afterwards. Their friendship absorbed the one time they slept together, and Suzie told herself that friendship with Tommy was what she had wanted all along.
Q Restaurant sat amidst the cobblestones of Tribeca. On early Sunday mornings Suzie made her way downtown through a post-apocalyptic Times Square, litter blowing against the buildings, couples sleeping on mattresses. She headed down and west, through Chinatown, where plastic maneki neko lucky cats, sat in every shop window, their left paws bobbing back and forth, promising prosperity to everyone who passed.
There were no scrubbed up tourists here. No, in Tribeca there were movie stars and models and bankers who lined up at Q for the ten-inch tall slices of carrot cake that fell over with a whipped cream pouf when the waitresses slid them onto plates.
Tommy told her to ignore the famous people, and he was right. It made them come back with their famous friends and their neglected children. They sipped Bloody Marys garnished with pickled okra, and ran their fingers, manicured by strangers, along the empty plates that had once held apple pie. They sucked the sugar and butter off their fingertips while they made deals and looked at the nannies disdainfully when their own children made too much noise.
It was after a busy Sunday brunch that Suzie and Tommy saw the rat. Suzie’s apron was full of crumpled dollar bills, lumpy around her midriff and unflattering. Every last bit of appeal had been wrung out of her. Her glasses, which had a thumbprint of jam on them, had slipped down her nose as she bent over a table, chewing her Trident gum, scrubbing at some spilled maple syrup.
Tommy came out of the kitchen, his apron caked with Hollandaise. He poured himself a mug of coffee and came up behind Suzie, putting a hand on her waist. She shot upright as he whispered in her ear, “Come smoke with me.” His breath on her neck, his hand on her waist made Suzie want to ease back against him. She said, “Sure,” like she wasn’t really interested, and followed Tommy to the steep, rubber-coated stairs that led to the basement.
It smelled of Clorox and puddles down there. Tommy had turned over two white buckets, and they sat on them, just sort of collapsing over their cigarettes. Suzie wasn’t a smoker. She only smoked with Tommy, and didn’t know how to inhale right. She held her cigarette the way she might hold something unreliable.
“The new busboy,” she said, trying to sound like she knew something, “he doesn’t know what he’s doing.” Suzie pushed up her glasses and took the clip out of her hair to try and look pretty.
“Jesus,” said Tommy, “did you see that new waitress? Did you see her tits? Holy mother of God.” He laughed and blew smoke out of his nose in two thick streams. “What’s her name?” he asked. “The one with the tits. What’s her name?”
She didn’t know.
“Did I hire her?” he asked, and without waiting for her to answer he said, “Well, good for me.”
“Yes, you hired her,” Suzie said. “And you’re gross. Seriously. You’re disgusting.” She beamed at him.
“I know,” he said. “But I’m right, right? She’s unbelievable, right?” He laughed.
“I guess. And I’m sure she’d really be into you.” She waved her cigarette at him. “You’ve got ham on your face,” she said. “Is that ham on your face?” She laughed and shook her head as though she didn’t know what anyone could possibly see in him.
All of a sudden Tommy leapt up and screamed, so loud and high-pitched that Suzie screamed too. He danced from foot to foot and pointed across the room. Suzie turned to see what he was pointing at, and there it was, on a white pipe just above eye-level. The rat. He was the size of what, a loaf of bread? A runt piglet? His tail curled around the pipe for balance and Suzie could hear its nails click on the pipe as he crawled toward the wall.
“Holy fuck,” Tommy whispered. Suzie tossed her cigarette into a puddle where it sizzled and went out. They watched as the rat disappeared along the pipe and folded itself inside the wall, tail and all.
They ran up the stairs whispering so that the rest of the brunch staff, who were filling the salt and pepper shakers, wouldn’t hear. Tommy fumbled in his pocket for money. “What are you going to do?” she asked. Was he planning on getting a gun?
“I’m going to the pound,” he whispered, leaning right into her face, “and I am getting us a fucking cougar.”
She liked that he’d said “us,” and got the pound’s address online, writing it out for him and pushing it into the pocket of his T-shirt. “Wait for me, will you?” he asked.
“I’ll wait,” she said.
Suzie and Tommy walked through the dining room, past the waitress with the tits, who didn’t even look up. “Get a big cat,” Suzie told him as he hailed a cab. “Not a kitten, right?”
When he returned the sky was darkening and the restaurant was almost empty. Tommy’s arms were full, his jacket draped over a cat carrier. “Come have a cigarette with me?” he asked and she followed him down to the basement.
“Check out this motherfucker,” he said as he opened the gate on the cat carrier. “Come on Killer,” he said sweetly. “His name was Pickles, but I figured he’d get his ass kicked with a name like that.” Out slunk a large white tomcat, his belly low to the ground. He had a torn right ear and one eye had pus leaking from it. She wanted to run her hand along the cat’s spine, but didn’t want to scare him off.
Killer stayed low, his whiskers quivering as he edged along the wall to the shelf of paper goods, where he slid beneath, and disappeared.
A week after Killer arrived at Q, Suzie got a call from Tommy just before five in the morning. She was startled but glad to be the one he called in an emergency.
Tommy’s voice was shaky and high-pitched. “It’s Killer,” he said. “I think the rat got him.” By the time Suzie got to the restaurant, Tommy had made a pot of coffee and was pacing. The baker was in the back making apricot scones, but she didn’t speak English so Tommy didn’t bother to whisper.
He grabbed Suzie’s elbow. “I went down in the basement,” he said, “right before I called you. I went down in the basement and I don’t know what I saw. I mean, I can’t believe what I saw.” He was chewing his thumbnail and kind of laughing. He pushed Suzie toward the basement door.
She whispered, “Ow,” when he grabbed her shoulder, but she didn’t shrug his hand away. As they reached the last step, Tommy pointed at the middle of the concrete floor a few feet away. The single bare bulb hanging from the ceiling cast a dim light, and Suzie had to squint, and then take a step closer to whatever it was on the floor. Then she said, “Noooo,” in a long whisper, and then said, “Is that–?” She turned to look at Tommy who was biting at his thumb again.
He said, “It’s Killer’s leg, isn’t it?” He was almost giggling. “I mean, it’s his leg, right?” He hovered between laughter and hysteria. “Right?”
Suzie turned back, her head tilted to one side like a bird considering a worm. Tommy was right. It was Killer’s leg there on the concrete floor. She felt a surge of terror, as though a rat might come out of hiding and rip her leg off next.
Tommy said, “I’ll go find a clean bucket for the leg,” over his shoulder as he took the stairs two at a time.
“Get some ice, too,” Suzie said, and her flash of terror subsided. She told herself to breathe. She was fine, actually. She was fine.
She understood that Tommy had gone for the bucket because he needed to get out of the basement. It all seemed familiar to Suzie, her down here with the mess, and Tommy upstairs far away from the heartbreak, running around in circles. She could handle this. She was handling this.
Tommy came back with a little bucket of ice, which he put down so he could light his Marlboro. The break upstairs had composed him momentarily. “Put the leg in here,” he said, as though he were in charge. Suzie inched over and picked the leg up between her thumb and index finger. It was the shape of a small drumstick, fluffy without much blood. She let it dangle there a moment and felt its weight, like a little bag of almonds, before placing it in the bucket of ice.
“We need to find Killer,” she said, pushing her hair behind her ears and adjusting her glasses. A faint meow came from the elevator shaft a few feet away. Suzie pointed at the gap beneath the door and whispered, “Big enough for a cat to crawl through.” Tommy, whose courage had already leaked away again, was having trouble getting the wad of keys out of his pocket. Suzie took the keys and opened the padlock that was meant to keep people away from the grinding elevator machinery.
She pulled the door open as far as it would go to let in some light. There he was. Sinking to her knees, Suzie said softly, “Don’t worry, Killer, it’s just us.” She wanted to call him Pickles, but she didn’t want to confuse him. He lay in a little puddle of light, one leg short. “He’s alive,” she said to Tommy, who was hopping from one foot to the other behind her.
The cat let out a low sound, half hiss, half yowl. She could see that his eyes looked glassy and that there was blood on the floor by him.
Suzie said, “Go up to your office. Get one of the clean aprons.” Her voice sounded calm to her. In contrast, Tommy’s every move seemed frantic. He lurched up the stairs.
Kneeling by the cat she whispered, “Yes,” and, “What a brave cat you are.” She leaned closer but didn’t touched, knew that when she did touch him, she would have to be ready, in one motion, to hold him so he couldn’t get away. There might not be another chance to save the cat, if there was even a chance to save him now.
Using the same voice she used with the cat, she said to Tommy, “Spread out the apron right next to me, nice and slowly, right Killer?” She smiled at the cat even though her face was in shadow. “You’re calm, aren’t you, Killer? Yes you are.”
She took a deep breath and leaned toward the cat, murmuring. The cat, sensing her closing in on him let out a protracted moan. Once Suzie started moving she kept moving, sliding her hands beneath the rice bag of his body, lifting him up just a bit off the floor and swiveling to place him on the clean apron. She kept one hand on top of him, as she used the other to fold the apron around him until he was immobilized and fully swaddled. He did not struggle. She pushed him against where she thought her heart was, had heard somewhere that babies were comforted by the sound of a heartbeat.
“Yes,” she said, “We’ll go upstairs now.” The cat moaned faintly against her. “Get the bucket,” she whispered to Tommy, and they climbed up the stairs and out onto the street. “Hail a cab.” She knew to be firm with Tommy, who stepped out onto Hudson Street in the cold morning light and put his arm up in the air, jumping up and down until a taxi pulled over.
“Get in,” she said, and when he sat down, Suzie placed the bundle in Tommy’s lap. Suzie’s hands began to tremble, and her chest felt full like she might cry as she watched Tommy cradle the cat’s head in his big paw of a hand.
Tommy was sniffling as she closed the car door. He rolled down the window with his free hand and said, “Jesus Suzie, I love you, you know? Holy shit, right?”
“Right,” she said. “Holy shit.”
The driver left for the animal hospital uptown, and Suzie stood on the cobblestone street, the sun not yet risen but the sky pinking up. She went to open the restaurant for the customers who would soon be lining up for their scones and lattes.
Tommy called Suzie at home that afternoon. “I dropped three grand on that cat,” she could hear him exhaling cigarette smoke into the phone, “and they threw away the paw. The vet looked at me like I was crazy and said, ‘Yeah, well, we don’t reattach limbs here.’”
Suzie came by Tommy’s apartment to help the cat get settled in to its new home. “He’s back to Pickles,” said Tommy. Pickles looked better in daylight. The rip in his ear wasn’t as pronounced as she remembered. The pus was gone from his eye. “Look,” Suzie said, rubbing the cat’s forehead as he pushed up into her hand, “he trusts us. We didn’t ruin him.”
“It’s a fucking miracle,” said Tommy, chewing his thumb. “Salmon and cream from now on, I swear to God.”
A week after the cat came home from the hospital, Tommy slept with that waitress. He told Suzie he felt he deserved it after everything he’d been through. Suzie said, “Good for you,” and she didn’t totally blame him. The waitress’ breasts were nice. She saw Tommy differently anyway, or she wanted to.
Suzie quit the week Tommy slept with the waitress, not because he slept with her, she said, but just because. She told him, “I got a job up by Columbia. It’ll be easier.” She felt around in the pocket of her down vest for some gum. “And I quit smoking too.”
They were standing just outside the restaurant on a sunny Saturday after brunch. There were people all around and a few still in the dining room sipping their breakfast cocktails. Tommy reached over and took the collar of Suzie’s down vest with both hands and kissed her right on the lips in front of everyone. “Trident,” he said with a wink. “Yum.”
Suzie hoped for a second that Tommy would try to talk her out of quitting, but he didn’t. She knew that Tommy would own the story of the cat one day. At first it pained her that she would be written out, that Tommy would tell it a thousand times to pretty waitresses he wanted to impress, but she came to understand that for the story to work for him, she couldn’t be in it.
She wound her hair up and clipped it in a bun at the back of her neck before beginning her walk up Hudson Street. Chinatown – she’d walk up through Chinatown where all of the lucky cats would be in the windows, offering her their silent, gold-pawed blessings over and over again as she headed uptown.