Mary pulled her sedan up to The Prince, a cocktail lounge in Koreatown. You can’t get more west from Manhattan nor more crowded than this corner. She circled the block twice looking for parking and called the valet. No answer. Instead of circling again for a legal spot she decided to stay parked right where she was. Like an Uber. She put her hazards on, locking the already parked cars in their spot, and walked through the open lips of the brass and velvet archway, outpacing the hostess’ index finger in the air by pointing her own at our table and sitting down by the grand piano. Everyone looked at her. Her hand shook. Not because she was scared, she was proud of what she had done and made sure the whole table heard about it.
I turned towards Thomas, but when he said nice to meet you I told him we’d already met. He remembered and said, everything that happened in L.A. could be traced back to the downtown repertoire theater, a reference from the book he had recommended I read last time we met at a party. I had nothing to add about the theater even though I had read the whole book. Sometimes my mind drifts for pages on end and I miss stuff, plot twists, easter eggs, theaters, big stuff. Maybe I even misheard him. Thomas used to be a stand-up comedian, but he quit because he could never nail the capper––the last joke of the night which is the only joke anyone can remember. His cappers left the audience with nothing to remember, so no one came to his show more than once on purpose. He had just come from the memorial of one of those kids who always wanted to do it, who when he was young he would say he just didn’t want to live. The memorial was short. Few people cried. The death’s inevitability left little reason to linger. He only brought it up to explain his wool suit jacket. Then after all that he asked me how I’d been.
One of the three houses in my neighborhood that burned down this winter was Michael’s house. Michael kept to himself, so we knew very little about him except that he was always under the hood of the Dodge he never drove. He was the only one on the block who used a weed whacker on his little allotted rectangle of grass. The rest of us assumed our landlord refused upkeep on our rectangles because we always paid rent late and had unauthorized boyfriends coming and going, so that even though it would be nice to have some green grass or even some drought tolerant perennial that cost $12.99 at Home Depot and needed no irrigation, the kind of plant all the rich neighborhood landlords called succulents, we didn’t ask for shit. We were placeholders. Our landlord was just buying time renting to us before the people from the next neighborhood over, who had no idea what to do with their money but to pay extra rent to live near a bar that served drinks, but also had games, would start moving this way, renaming it The Corridor since we already shared a zip code with other neighborhood with barcades, and we would be pushed to the neighborhood to the east, for a small cash buyout, and once relocated out there we would ready ourselves for the neighborhood to our west to swallow our blocks in $12.99 succulents from Home Depot appreciated to $15.99 by then, and we would once again submit to movements east until we were retiring out by the fallowed meadows that line the 5, tended to no better than the rectangles, in an apartment complex thrown together out of a box and tossed onto one of the burned up Valencia orange orchards where we will sit bent at the elbows over our unfinished screenplay until you know what. Death.
Not Michael. His desire was bare. He wanted a home. A home to die in. One could guess that when the sheriff put that eviction notice on his door for everyone to see that he felt something not unlike shame for assuming a position of dignity in an undignified arrangement. Whatever it was, he rigged the apartment, wired the doorknob to the gas valve of his hot water heater to be the one who had the last say. When the landlord showed up with the sheriff to evict him, the door was deadbolted. They began drilling through the deadbolt and the house blew up. No one was sure, though they all made guesses, if he had meant to die in there but he did. His dog too. The sheriff and landlord only suffered minor burns. Someone tagged his charred house “Dang Cop Love” but because of the artist’s lack of punctuation it was hard to determine whether the inscription was because Michael had spared or harmed the sheriff.
Catherine refilled her glass to the top from the table’s bottle of wine and hit the call button to order another. She pulled herself back toward the wall of the booth. Maybe you should do that Thomas, she baited, since you don’t want to witness what’s ahead.
I finally got out of the booth to visit the wallpapered powder room at the back of the bar and figured it was more trouble to get back in the booth than to just leave out the front door. I got in my car and when I turned on the headlights, I saw another double-parked car just like Mary had done. She was already gone, left when one of her lovers got called back home. I started the ignition of my 2001 Kia Sorento. Had I left the bar too soon? Sometimes these days I leave parties too soon.
Everyone had gone to bed. The stillness brought to focus the strobing effect of the busted streetlight. And then, beneath the flicker, the red glow of yet another set of blinking hazard lights appeared. Then another. And within another block, another, two more blocks then another and another. I pulled over to look in the window to see if anyone was inside. No one was inside. I passed Michael’s old house, rolled down the window to hear a mockingbird mimick the sound a car makes when you lock it, as if to tease, “you won’t have this pleasure.” The mockingbird, whose species in previous generations, had mocked, in no particular order: scrub jays, the meow of a cougar, a child playing in the street, a bomb––original and the copy as in a video game, a UPS truck backing up, the conductor’s bell announcing the shift towards modernity, and of more recently the throaty caw of maroon parrots chasing each other out of the dry thickets of exhausted palm fronds and into the doomed and dirty sky. I circled a few more times. Then I felt ready. I slid into a parallel position, lined my car up alongside another, like we were walking hand in hand and turned off the ignition. I put my knees up on the bottom edge of the wheel and stared into my phone. The only text I received all night was a Telegram message from my drug dealer with an updated menu of the daily specials: Afghan Kush OG $40 eighths, $200 ounces; Punch Bars 225 mg/bar (9 doses) $30 each; XTC 180mg $20/each; Pregabalin Pfizer 30mg, and DMT vape pens––inquire about flavors.
DMT, the psychedelic drug with an authority on the opposite of life. One big hit simulates a near-death experience and can also have the long-term effect of ferrying habitual users into oceanic boundlessness. In this total dissolution of ego boundaries, users see almost every border—between life and fairy tale, mechanical and natural, doll and self—as permeable. And in this selfless space, those perpetually near-death DMT smokers often find coincidences where others would not. With the ego discarded, what remains is a metaphysical correspondence across these escaped borders that is expressed perfectly by spontaneous coincidences. Users almost unanimously report seeing angels. Coincidentally. After a lengthy review of the menu, I ordered nothing. There’s no way I could get any sleep wondering if every bang outside my window was the tow truck ramp descending beneath my bumper. I leave my car right where it is and head up through the gate.
There she is. One bright eye, one dented eye, both of which are staring at me like a trespasser and blocking my path to the apartment door. Most strays around here stay low and scurry away at the sight of me. Not this one. She’s got a gait like she just graduated from Bard college with an award for her honors thesis. “Meoooow,” she yells and lunges forward. When I see a cat, any cat, I think of fleas, long slash marks from claws rich with viruses like toxoplasmosis, but also other yet-to-be named viruses that one gets just by sniffing the dander of a cat. My friends, at times, while we drink wine at their house will say, look at her. Isn’t she so cute? And we all turn to look at the cat. It’s not doing anything! Across the room, too far away to see any of the markings of cuteness: sapphire eyes, extra-long whiskers, stretching legs, none of that, the cat is just a silhouette in a far off window, no cuter than a dollar store Halloween decoration. My analyst says my anger towards cats is teaching me something; she says I should get into the anger and figure out what that something is, some psychic material from my unconscious childhood carrying important messages.
This particular cat has slowly, perhaps through mind control, taken over my apartment building. Everyone in the building group chat is engaged in the chase to catch this stray using her first name to refer to her, June. The dented eye is infected, and they plan to treat her with antibiotics. They have set out traps for this purpose, carceral-looking things full of coupon newsletters and canned fish. I can sense that the other members of the group chat have noticed my lack of effort towards getting the cat into the cage. But I don’t believe she is helpless; stray cats don’t need vets, they survive by limping, one-eyed or not, through this warzone between the streets and death. But there she is, and tonight is different, tonight she is staring at me like she stares at the others, with need.
Back at The Prince, Thomas had told us that his ex-girlfriend’s parents still send him an ecard every holiday. Even on Valentine’s day. Then they sign it, we LUV u, even though he has never once written them back. Maybe what my analyst wants me to admit about cats is not the obvious other women or my mother but that I am jealous of the cat receiving an abundance of love which it will never return. Nor is there any expectation that June will ever give anything in return for the love she receives—she’s free and she doesn’t have to pay. Neither in money, nor love, nor any other things.
June jumps down one more level to join me. What if I did catch the cat tonight? For nothing. That’s the ending to a night worth experiencing twice. I get down on my knees and construct a net of compassion, cast low and gentle like reiki, kneeling, vibrating with care I stare into her eyes. The cat lowers too. To an uneasy hunch, at first, but then after a moment, the cat drops, reclines as if the concrete is a couch and I a television, and she flips to the docile position, belly up, full wingspan stretched out. I look around to see if anyone is watching.
I can see the flashing lights of my hazards against the gate. Dim but steady, a cautious orange from the blurring of yellow tail lights and red brake lights. All is calm. We are alone. A truck with a loose carburetor speeds past playing Red Hot Chili Peppers followed by a mini bike, but neither of these intrusive sounds can dislodge the connection between me and June. From where we lay the cage is only about 250 feet due south in the courtyard behind us.
Chloe Watlington is working on a nonfiction novel about what happens after funerals.