Introduction by Halimah Marcus
In Nick Otte’s “Eau de Mims,” the narrator’s deceased mother occupies the mouth of Jodie, a cat living in the alley behind her Brooklyn building. Mims, as her mother is known, is stubborn and opinionated, even in this feline purgatory. In life, she was dazzling and unpredictable, as prone to impromptu adventures as she was deep depressions. In death, she continues to jeopardize her daughter’s stability, as the neighbors organize to have her evicted for her unsanitary cat feeding habits.
But no matter her mood or the state of her mental health, Mims always had a signature scent. Some elusive perfume, the name of which the narrator cannot remember. Eventually the narrator’s father committed Mims to a mental hospital because he “couldn’t maintain her anymore.” All Mims wanted when she was there was her perfume. “I could understand why,” Otte writes. “The place had no smell. Just the flat sharp scent of cleaning chemicals, that subtle sting, as if someone had scrubbed and scrubbed until you could almost forget there were ever human beings there at all.”
Scent conjures humans. Memory being so intertwined with smell, it’s cruel that the narrator can’t remember the perfume brand and just go out and buy it. And though she can have a conversation with her mother through Jodie, she can’t evoke her, breathe her in. All she has is the scent of cat urine on the sidewalk.
What dwells in the cat’s mouth might be a spirit or a ghost, or Mims’ essence. Or, the narrator might be slowly losing her grasp on reality, just as her mother did before her. The beautiful triumph of fiction is that it doesn’t matter. Parallel dimension, haunting, or crack-up: each provides the same window into a peculiar grief, and a love so real you can smell it.
– Halimah Marcus
Editor, Recommended Reading
Mom’s Ghost Is Trapped in the Mouth of an Alley Cat
Eau de Mims by Nick Otte
Mims has been complaining a lot lately that Jodie’s breath stinks like dead fish left too long on a hot stoop. She’s not wrong, but I’m tired of hearing about it, so I tell Mims, “You don’t have to haunt Jodie’s mouth, you know. No one invited you—certainly not Jodie—and if you don’t like it, you can go ahead and ascend.” But she won’t. Stubbornness, some have said, is a mark of the women in our family. I guess it’s the kind of mark you carry with you into the next life, as you shuffle up to the great beyond or boogie down into the cat’s mouth. I’d have preferred a big nasty scar across my cheek for all eternity, not that anyone asked.
Jodie is a tabby, marble-eyed with orange peel stripes along her back. I feed her and the other kitties in the alley beside my building every morning. They rely on me to eat, you see. It was fun for a while, that is until Mims took up residence behind Jodie’s sharp little teeth and started carrying on.
Sometimes I wish Jodie would pick another alley, maybe somewhere over by the park where people can afford to give her the good stuff: chicken liver pâté, smoked salmon, sardines swimming in imported Italian oil. Some well-off widower might even snatch her up and let her have the run of a chic park-side pied-à-terre. But I’d miss Jodie if she left. Mims too, I guess, though she’d never catch me saying so.
I know what the other tenants say about me: that I’m a kook, the bat-brained cat lady, the reason the whole block smells like piss. They avoid me in the stairwell and kick around my welcome mat, showing their resentment in small, neighborly ways. 2-B is the worst. One of those young, spoiled transplants who expects the neighborhood to be all curtsies and rosebuds like his parents’ place in Mayberry or Mayfield or wherever it is he came from. He takes out his garbage at the same time every day, just in time to watch me feed the kitties breakfast before heading to my shift at the City Fresh. He lives alone, so no way he makes that much trash. He’s only there to fix me with his disapproving stares and remind me that the landlord has a strict no pets rule that I’m in dire risk of breeching. He asks if I know how many parasites stray cats bring around the building. Says he can show me reports that prove they’re no better than rats. Calls them an affront to his senses. So I say, well excuse me your majesty but I didn’t realize I lived above the Archduke of Brooklyn, which hardly patches things up between us, but gets him off my case for another day. Fancy guy above his knees, 2-B, but he never wears socks with his shiny leather shoes, so what does he know about odor management?
He doesn’t see what I see. He doesn’t see the tourists and the couples out for strolls who stop when they see the kitties perched on handrails or staring from behind the chain link. They coo and giggle or stoop to scratch behind an ear before moving on, taking smiles with them. I feel like the work I do taking care of them is good work. Brightens things.
Anyway, it wasn’t me that started feeding them. Some were here before me, and some will be here when I’m gone, but for now they rely on me, and I’m not going to let them down.
“Good luck with that,” says Mims.
Jodie blinks up at me, tail swishing on the stained pavement. I bend down to her mouth, getting a face full of that low-tide stench, and ask Mims: “Why’d you have to go and bring that up?”
She’s always reminding me of how I left things between us, as if I could forget.
We never had pets growing up. Mims wouldn’t allow it.
“Pets bring mayhem,” she’d say, hipshot, a Salem pinched between two fingers. “They’re impolite by nature. They break and tear and bite and yowl and there’s simply no benefit to having them around.”
Our narrow house in San Francisco’s Presidio Heights was tactfully strewn with various valuables that were to be admired, but never touched. It felt like living in a museum filled with relics of a bygone and presumably superior era—one that surrounded us daily but was hardly ever spoken of aloud. A time called before. Keepsakes and tchotchkes from holidays, framed photos showing semi-alien likenesses of a younger Mims and Fred, all bathing suits and boat decks, arms intertwined beneath marquees, backs to alpine vistas. Snapshots of the whirlwind adventurers they used to be. Sometimes I’d catch Mims sighing over them, bending toward the photographs as if trying to soak up the youthful glow radiating from her erstwhile skin.
I used to wonder what it might feel like to tear at the photographs with my teeth, to overturn her seashell collection, to squat on the oriental rug and leave a puddle to settle into the fibers.
“To invite an animal into the home is to elect chaos,” Mims said on the one occasion that I dared to ask for a puppy. Fred looked up from his paper to remind her that they used to have a very obedient greyhound that liked to sit at their feet and was never any trouble at all, to which Mims replied: “One is plenty.”
She didn’t need to explain what she meant. It’s a wonder she carried me to term.
This morning I wake up and go down to feed Jodie and the others before my shift, same as always. I’m not two steps out the door before Jodie runs up and Mims starts mewling over how cold it’s been getting at night, even though the leaves have barely started to change.
I’m feeling mean so I pat Jodie’s skull all gentle and say: “You know I could bring you inside where it’s all nice and warm, give you a bath and let you sleep on the bed. Wouldn’t that be nice?” Jodie purrs against my knuckles. “It’s just too bad I wasn’t raised that way.”
Mims grumbles something in response, but Jodie has started cleaning herself so I can’t hear what it is.
She always had a knack for slinging insults. If a nervous young hire at Fred’s firm came for dinner she might remark that he had a handshake like a wilted petunia. People that talked too loudly or too much were rattle caps or clack boxes. Politicians were pigeon-livered, toddlers were interminable fussbudgets, and almost everyone other than Mims was, at one point or another, nuttier than fruitcake.
Fred had Mims admitted to the bin in ‘69. I was ten. Fred said he just couldn’t maintain her anymore. He always talked about her like that—like she was an antique car or some faulty appliance.
The bin was actually the San Francisco Towers Mental Health Treatment Facility, but nobody liked to say all those words back then. Words like that put it too plainly. Nut house, loony bin, kook castle … these names just lightened the mood.
We would visit her twice a month. Fred called them confabs. I’d sit in the waiting room and pretend to read while he talked with the doctors, then they would show us to a big room with a couple of card tables and a TV that was never on, and there would be Mims—face upturned to a wire-netted window, dressed all in white, posture perfect. There was always a super big guy watching from the corner who looked ready to intervene if we tried to attempt a daring escape. We sat across a table and never touched. Mims was never big on hugging, but I remember knowing that if the urge should suddenly come over her to scoop me in her arms and hold me, she might be stopped.
She didn’t talk much, just listened to me yammer about school while Fred went about filling an ashtray. I guess I thought that as long as there were words filling the air between us then things were all right. As long as I talked, she would have to sit and listen. The two of us tethered together, solid and whole.
At the end of these meetings Mims would always do two things: politely thank us for coming and ask that next time we bring along a bottle of her perfume.
On the outside Mims had moved on a cloud of the stuff. You could smell her coming rooms away. I never got lost in the grocery store—all I had to do was follow my nose. Fred said she couldn’t have it in the bin on account of the glass bottle. We would bring other things from home—paperback mysteries, the latest National Geographic—but all she wanted was the perfume. I could understand why. The place had no smell. Just the flat sharp scent of cleaning chemicals, that subtle sting, as if someone had scrubbed and scrubbed until you could almost forget there were ever human beings there at all.
When I get home from my shift at City Fresh there’s a note pinned to the building announcement board:
The following tenants respectfully request that anyone involved in unsanitary or otherwise harmful activities within or around the building please desist immediately, or management will be informed.
Below this idiotic proclamation are a couple of signatures, but not too many. 2-B’s name is right at the top, written in a big Hancock flourish.
I tear the note down, crumple it, and leave it at 2-B’s doormat on my way upstairs.
“How’s that for unsanitary,” I say, hoping he’s right on the other side of the door, eye pasted to the peephole.
I’m worked up, so I go to my room and open my sock drawer. I’ve got an old necklace box in there, with a clasp and a neat golden trim. Fred gave it to me as a gift on my eleventh birthday, after a dinner of baked potatoes and Campbell’s cream of whatever was about to turn. I promptly lost the necklace, but I still liked the box. One day I snuck into their bedroom, stole some of Mims’ perfume, and sprayed it over the box’s velvet lining—three quick spritzes—then placed it back on her nightstand so it would be just as she had left it when she came home.
I think about opening up and taking a whiff, but I decide I’d better wait. I’ve only opened it a few times and I don’t know how many good whiffs the box has left. I can’t remember the name of the perfume or I’d buy some more, fill the box up regular or carry it around in my purse All I remember is that it had a bell-shaped bottle and some froufrou little French name. La something. I don’t wear any myself, but sometimes I walk down the aisles at Macy’s and let the ladies spray me, just in case I recognize the scent. Maybe I could cook some up at home with spices and scented candle shavings, bottle it and sell it. Eau de Mims.
It would probably smell better than cat breath.
I’m up before my alarm and can’t keep still, so I go down early to see what sort of mood Mims is in.
2-B is already outside, swiping at the garbage and tufts of kitty hair on the sidewalk with a broom. Sissy, a gray Abyssinian with a bite-sized chunk missing from one ear, comes up to sniff at him, probably thinking he’s got some tuna hidden in his pockets. 2-B whips the broom over his head and stamps his feet and makes a sort of bark-growl-shout, at which point Sissy retreats behind the compost bins.
I feel my face go hot, like it does when you’re close to a fire, skin all shiny and tight. I think I might go over and hiss at him on her behalf, but I don’t like the way his hand looks, wrapped all tight around the handle of the broom, so I wait until he leaves for work before bringing out the kitties’ breakfast. It takes some time, but eventually Sissy comes out and eats with the others.
I’m already late for my shift, but I sit for a while on the stoop to watch them play. When the tins are empty Jodie finds a patch of sun by my feet and spreads her body out all flat so I can scratch her belly. My fingers move through her ginger hair and skate the ridges of her rib cage, visible beneath her shifting skin.
“You really should do something about your nails,” Mims says. “You know how bad biting them is for your teeth, don’t you? And do you know what’s on your hands, what’s on everyone’s hands? Feces. That’s what.”
I tear a ragged chunk from the nail of my left pinky and grin with it clenched between my teeth. A group of kids clatter down the block, scaring Jodie back into the alley. There’s hissing from the shadows. I’m not sure if it’s Mims or Jodie or both.
Mims had good nails, while living. Not super long and colorful, but always very neat and clean. Everything about her was neat and clean, especially after she came home from the bin and Fred took off once and for all. He’d managed to keep her shut away for nearly two years, but they wouldn’t take her off his hands forever. I guess her return was the push he needed. He was packed before Mims walked through the door, his things boxed up and labelled, his life methodically carved from ours. Just like that, like a lancing, he was gone and Mims was there, moving through the rooms of our house, no longer an occasional phantom.
She traded her starchy white bin digs for patterned dresses and pearls, taking time in front of the mirror each day, making sure everything was in its right place. She was quicker to smile and, to my initial horror, even started to laugh. She chatted with neighbors, held marathon phone calls with old acquaintances, greeted me at the front door after school with orders to sit with her as she went about unspooling the fascinating story of her day. I would sit and listen, nodding here and there, noting the way her eyes seemed to widen with a renewed hunger for life and all its little wonders.
I wasn’t buying it.
I knew the real Mims, and this cheery broad was no Mims. This new woman, whoever she was, was trying to prove something. Maybe she thought that if she fixed her hair and sported the latest styles of shoes, she could play her way back into the world, convince herself that she was really a part of it all. It was a performance, and I wanted no part of it.
In fact, I worked to counter and disrupt her efforts wherever possible. I smoked cigarettes by the fence after school. I liberated twenties from her purse and blew them on records. I skipped showers, cut out makeup and tweezing, and pronounced myself philosophically opposed to bras, claiming them as movable prisons. I fashioned myself into a negative reflection of all things correct and polite. An anti-Mims.
The effect wasn’t all I’d hoped. Mims was never shy about showing her disproval of my stained jeans and the way I did my hair, but the only times she really insisted I fly right was on Sundays.
That was another thing: this new, post-bin Mims got all interested in God. We’d never gone to church before—Fred wouldn’t hear of it, said he left God in a river in Korea—so all this holy business was new to me.
Church is where I learned to cover my mouth when I yawned, where I memorized when to stand and sit so I could spend the in-betweens thinking about things other than stoning and plagues and what it might feel like to try and touch your fingertips together with a rusty spike jutting through your palm.
Mims liked the music best. With Fred gone we couldn’t afford opera tickets anymore, so I guess it was the closest she could get. She wouldn’t sing along, of course, but she would shut her eyes and listen every time the organ started up. The sound made me picture a flock of geese being throttled behind the altar, but Mims didn’t seem to mind. Each time we stood for a hymn her breathing would change, get all slow and low. Once or twice, I caught her staring off into the middle distance, lost in the sound of mismatched voices straining to praise in unison.
In those moments—lips pulled together, hands clasped tight before her breast—I could almost believe her.
I feel like I’ve been pretty hard on Mims lately, so on Sunday I dig this old portable radio out of the closet. There’s usually a church service on one of the AM stations. I think maybe I’ll bring it down and ask if Mims might like to hear some music, but when I get outside 2-B is there, spraying down the sidewalk with a hose.
The kitties are nowhere in sight. Probably hiding out so they won’t get blasted. I wonder if he’s blasted them already. I cross my arms on the stoop and clear my throat, loud so he’ll hear.
“Oh,” he says. “Good, it’s you.” He turns a squealing valve and the hose goes limp. “I’ve discussed your behavior with the other tenants. Maybe you saw our note?” I can see he’s practiced this little speech in front of his mirror. “Well. We’ve tried to be civil, but the next time I see you putting out food for these animals I’ll have no choice but to report you.”
I suck my teeth at him like, report me for what, hot stuff?
He points the drooping hose at a tin of yesterday’s Friskies, floating in the gutter.
“Littering fines can get awfully expensive.”
He grins all sly and shiny to match his pressed white button-down shirt.
I wait for him to go off to brunch or wherever before setting out fresh food for the kitties, one extra tin each. A regular Sabbath feast.
After the sun has had a chance to dry the sidewalk Sissy and Jodie and the rest come padding out and soon enough they’re eating and the people on the sidewalk are pointing and smiling. Everything churning happily, working as it should.
“Hose this,” I say, arcing a glob of spit in the direction of 2-B’s window.
“Lovely manners,” Mims says, but I think maybe I can hear a smile in her voice, so I give Jodie a good scratch and tune the radio to a gospel channel. It’s not much like the Lutheran tunes I remember, but I don’t hear any complaints.
I’m not sure if Mims and I ever dropped the act, stepped outside our rival roles and faced each other head on, but if we did, it might have been the day of the whale.
It was all over the news. You might remember: a humpback came wandering into San Francisco Bay and couldn’t find her way out again. Gray whales weren’t uncommon further up the coast, but this one had come right in, started knocking around boats in the marina and doing laps around Alcatraz. The radio said people were flooding to the water’s edge to try and see it. I had been sitting on the floor by the radio, listening with the volume low, one ear pressed against the speaker. I didn’t know Mims was home until I shut it off and saw her standing in the kitchen, watching me.
“Sounds like a bunch of crap,” I said, my face reddening. I didn’t want her to see that I’d been taken in.
Mims removed her spotless apron and hung it on a peg.
“Let’s go have a look.”
It took half the morning and Mims’ makeup was running with sweat, but we eventually made it to the bridge. Hundreds of other people had the same idea, but with some gentle shoving we were able to squeeze into a spot against the railing. I held on tight, stared over the edge. The paint was fresh and left a blush on my palms.
Everyone else was looking out across the bay, pointing and squinting, watching the surface for the littlest break, a fin or plume of mist. Mims was staring straight down. The ridges of her spine stood out along her neck. Her hair, done up with a jade pin, was coming loose, falling around her face. She stared and stared, dream-eyed, into the black water. It was the same way she would gaze at her old pictures, eyes softening wide, as if waiting for something to shift or change, or maybe for a hole to appear, a hole big enough for her to fall into. I could see that she was holding her breath.
I put my elbow in her ribs. She looked up at me with a sharp little gasp.
“Watch this,” I said and stood on tiptoes, leaned over the railing, and spit.
I waited for her to clap me with a cold stare, to grab my arm and haul me back through the crowd. But she didn’t yell, or laugh. She just stood there and watched my saliva silk down through the air toward the water. Our hands clutched at the railing, fixed apart like stubborn magnets.
Over the hum of the crowd I heard her breathe again, clear and even in the salt-sweet breeze.
We watched the water all day, even after most of the other people had given up and gone home, even after the boats that had disappeared beneath us started to return, newly adorned in light.
A piece of paper slides under my door, followed by the sound of shoes clopping down the hall.
Even the shitheel’s walk is smug.
I’m pretty sure I know what the note will say, but I pick it up and read it anyway. It’s a new building memo. This time almost every tenant in the building signed. Traitors. The phrases risk to general well-being and zero tolerance pop out like little hirsute moles. At the bottom is the number for animal control and an extension for our local precinct.
I go to my dresser and take out the necklace box. I bring it to my face and crack it open. I breathe in as deep as I can.
All I smell is clean socks.
Through my window I watch 2-B whistle his way out the door and down the block, then I go into the kitchen and burn the note over the range. My apartment fills with the smell of smoke, black trails of signatures burning. I keep the window closed, locking them in with me, breathing them until there’s nothing in my hand but dancing flecks of ash.
Before I left for college I promised to call Mims every day. We both knew it was a lie, but we went ahead and pretended. It was the polite thing to do. I did manage to call most Fridays before going out with friends or taking weekend trips. I knew she’d be home. She was always home unless there was something special going up at Town Hall or Stern Grove. By then Fred had remarried some young thing named Montana and started sending enough bread so Mims could afford a ticket now and then.
“Montana,” Mims snarled once into the phone, “a perfect name for something big and empty.”
For a while Fred would mail me monthly checks—spending money scrawled in the memo. I sent them back in tiny bits. I didn’t want him getting the idea that I was his to maintain too.
Mims and I kept on all right for a while, a long time really, even after I graduated and moved to New York, trading crisp nights and bay fog for hellfire blasts of subway grates and cancerous curbside snow. If she considered me traitor, she never said so out loud. We did Christmases and birthdays whenever I could swing them. Gradually the visits were replaced by calls, shorter and shorter as we found a script that worked and stuck to it.
Me: How’s things?
Her: Fine, fine.
Me: Miss you.
Her: I you as well.
I promised to see her more. She insisted she was fine all on her own, that, no offense, but she preferred it that way.
Then one day I got a call from someone telling me to take down a number and address where Mims could be reached for the duration of her treatment.
It took me a minute to hear each word, stitch them together. Last I heard Fred was off growing grapes in Mendocino, so I asked how he’d managed to wriggle his nose back in Mims’ pudding. The voice on the other end of line filled me in.
“According to our records, your mother had herself committed. Same as last time.”
This voice probably belonged to a perfectly nice person who was simply doing their job and didn’t deserve what I told them to do to themselves before slamming my phone into the cradle.
I flew out of JFK the next day.
On the plane I imagined what awaited me. I watched the scene unfold again and again, clearer and more certain with each refrain: I would walk inside and there she’d be, just as she had been before, calm, collected, and proper. I’d cross the room and sit with her, only not too close, careful not to take her hand in mine. Then I would say something. The perfect thing. The magic words to make it all okay. I would talk and talk and she would sit and listen and there would always be more to say.
When we landed I got a room at a Holiday Inn for the week, dropped my luggage on the bed, and took a car to the Towers. The place had changed. The sign above the door was painted cheery colors, and the lobby had been dressed in fresh flowers—or convincingly life-like plastic ones—that brightened every corner. It reminded me of Mims’ Sunday getups, and I felt my mouth go dry. Someone noticed me pacing around the waiting room. They handed me some papers, had me sign my name a few hundred times, and walked me down a web of identical halls. We passed the common room without stopping. I peered inside and saw a few people laughing around a card table, and a few more grazing by the sealed windows, but no Mims. Finally, we stopped in front of a door. My guide knocked twice on my behalf then went squeaking back down the hall, leaving me alone. I reached out my hand and pushed inside.
She was in a bed, propped up on a mess of fat white pillows. Her hair was thin and greasy, matted to her forehead, graying at the roots. I must have made a sound because she rolled her head and looked at me. Her eyes seemed to stare right through to the wall behind me, which like all the walls was bare and sickly white. Her hands—could those really be her hands? So vein-riddled, so restless—clutched at the blankets. She looked vacant, and yet exposed. No disguise. No armor. I knew she was waiting for me to speak. I opened my mouth, but shut it again, afraid that I might choke, or scream, or laugh, or say what it was that I was thinking. Out in the hall someone started calling out the name Louise. Over and over, as if trying to conjure them up. Louise, Louise. A last-ditch incantation.
Mims’ eyes followed me as I went to the table and switched on the radio; an old AM box that used to live beside her bed. There were no pictures. No keepsakes. No other traces of home. Music leaked from the speaker, throaty with static. A familiar mixture of strings and horns. It mixed grotesquely with the calls of Louise still coming from the hall. I turned it up too high and let it play, grateful for a sound to fill the room.
For a long time we sat and listened, both of us quiet and so still that we were hardly there at all, only the sound and that same smell of nowhere and no one hanging in the air between us.
After a while Mims closed her eyes and pretended to sleep. I let her. I watched her breathe. Watched her eyes move beneath their lids. When I couldn’t watch anymore, I slipped out. Quiet and easy. Halfway down the hall the sounds of the radio and the calling voice faded, and I found that I could breathe again.
I got my things and called the Towers from the airport. I told them my plans had changed, that I had to fly back home immediately. They asked if they could contact me should anything serious come up. I produced a vaguely affirmative grunt, bought a jumbo pretzel, and waited at the gate for my flight home.
The phone rang three days later. It rang again the next day, and the next, regular as church bells. I picked the fabric on my couch until it started to fray. I chewed my thumb down to the quick. I guess I thought, if I don’t answer then nothing can be wrong. As long as I am quiet, and still, and far away everything can stay just as it is. Fine, fine. There would always be time to go back. Time left to say something, anything, the perfect thing.
Then one day the ringing stopped.
That night I opened the necklace box. A shade of her aroma still lingered in the lining, already frail and thin. I breathed in, held her in my lungs until I was dizzy, until little galaxies danced over my eyes. I listened to the noises from the alley outside my window. The hissing and moaning, the million small sounds of things out there, moving in the dark, scrounging for something to see them through the night.
Todd, City Fresh supervisor extraordinaire, comes by my register and slips me a check. Says today’s my last day on the team. Late arrivals, inventory unaccounted for, reports of so-called moodiness from trusted clientele. Asks: is there anything he’s missing? I hand over my name tag. He says keep it, so I leave it on top of the machine by the door, the one that spits out temporary tattoos and handfuls of knockoff M&Ms.
When I get home Jodie is in the alley with the other kitties. They’re all gathered around something, their haunches up, bristling. I step closer and see it, the carcass of a bird. None of them seem to know what to do with it. Each one is waiting for the next to make a move. I grab a plastic cover from a copy of the Times, swaddle its brittle body, and toss it in the dumpster.
The other kitties scatter as a street cleaner belches by. Only Jodie stays put, sniffing at a little stain where the bird had been.
“I should have stayed,” I tell her. “I should have been there with you. To see you off.”
“Please,” Mims says. I picture her disembodied eyes somewhere, rolling. “Don’t be gauche.”
My knees pop as I get down close to Jodie’s face and let her press into my knuckles.
“I wish you would have said something.”
“I didn’t want you to worry yourself.”
I open my arms to scoop her up. She lets me. I’m not sure if I should hug her or throttle her, so I just sort of stand there, holding her, feeling the thin bones beneath her skin squirm against my hands.
“Really,” Mims says. “You must do something about those nails.”
I’m trying to convince myself to sleep when I hear a crash outside my window. Trashcans spilling and rolling in the alley. I think maybe Sissy and the others are wrestling again. People will be mad if they make a mess, so I put on some slippers and head downstairs to pick up and maybe watch them play a while. It beats counting cracks my ceiling.
I come out on the stoop cinching my robe against the wind. 2-B is there, lit beneath a jaundiced streetlight. He’s doing this funny little dance, wheeling his arms, kicking his feet, nearly losing his balance. I wish like hell I had a camera. I think maybe I’ll call out to him, let him know how dumb he looks. Then he swings his foot and it connects with a shape on the ground, fuzzy and dull orange in the half-light. There’s a little whimpering sound and a not so little laughing sound.
I’m not sure, but I think maybe I scream because he jerks his head around and stares straight at me.
“Oh,” he says, words squeezing through his teeth. “It’s you.”
“I saw that, you shit!” I’m trying to sound mean, but I don’t know how convincing it is because he smiles, showing all his teeth, even the tidy bottom row. I’m feeling dizzy and I have to grab onto the stoop railing so I don’t topple over. I manage to look away from his pearly whites long enough to see Jodie. She’s trying to crawl away, back to the shadows of the alley, but her legs keep giving out.
2-B bends down and picks up an empty tin of Friskies. He holds it away from his body, pinching it between two fingers like it’s coated with disease.
“I warned you about this,” he says. “I’m going upstairs and call the landlord.”
He brushes past me on his way inside. I don’t try and stop him. I let go of the railing and go to Jodie, still struggling to stand. She hisses when I reach out a hand to touch her. Her claws curve out. Sharp little moons.
“You okay, Mims?” I ask but I guess she doesn’t hear me because Jodie just goes on hissing, like I’m some stranger. Like she doesn’t recognize me at all.
Pairs of eyes open in the shadows, shining like silver dollars dipped in gasoline. They’re watching me, wide and trembling. It looks like 2-B had a ball out here. I bet he was at it for a while before I woke up. I bet Jodie isn’t the only one he hurt. I feel my face going hot again—shiny, tight, burning.
There’s a brick in the gutter next to an overturned bin. I pick it up, test its weight in my hand, and chuck it straight at 2-B’s second story window.
Glass rains on the sidewalk. There’s a curse from behind the jagged hole in the pane, but I barely hear it because I’m laughing just as loud and as mean as I can. Loud enough that windows come open, framing heads telling me to pipe down. But I can’t. It’s all too much. I’m still laughing when 2-B comes back out on the stoop, his face a deliciously raw salmon pink.
“The police are on their way.” he says tramping down the steps toward me. “I should thank you. You just did me a big favor. I hope they lock you up, you—”
I swipe my ragged nails across his face. They come away with a bit of the skin from his cheek. Blood starts beading on his face before he understands what’s happened. He smacks a hand over his cheek like a bewildered housewife in some old movie, and another laugh leaps out of me.
“You crazy bitch!” He yips, his voice a creaky hinge on an old porch door. The blood is seeping between his fingers, flowing with lewd urgency. I don’t care. I’m watching Jodie drag herself into the alley, which seems so wrong because she loves the sun. But it’s night, I think. No sun. Just these blue and red lights, coming closer, lighting up the alley, bright as ocean glare. The other kitties have scrammed and she’s all alone now. All alone in that narrow dark.
2-B is pointing at me with his free hand, yelling something. I feel two big hands come to rest on my shoulders. I want to explain, to tell them the little shit asked for it, but instead when I open my mouth all that spills out is:
I yell it like a bell.
The hands clamp down hard, discovering my bones.
I yell it like trumpet blast, like a cymbal crash.
I feel my body being lifted, dragged. The broken glass from the window blisters beneath my slippered feet.
I yell it like a hymn, like a flood. I yell it like a sermon.
It’s hard to breathe with the cop’s arm wrapped around me, pulling me toward those flashing lights, pressing me against the cold metal of his car, trying to cram me inside. I lurch forward against the dense wall of his flesh. He bounces me back like I’m nothing and I crack my head against the side of the car. I feel slow warmth move across my eye as he shoves me inside and slams the door.
There’s a woman in the seat beside me. She’s wearing colorful beads and a sequin dress beneath a nest of hair so tall it presses against the roof of the car. Her makeup is running—glittering blues and blacks drawing downward lines on her face, along her chin, staining her neckline. She’s humming to herself. I think I recognize the tune. She catches me staring, bats stick-on lashes that are coming unstuck.
“How do I know that?” I ask. My voice a nail on a far-off chalkboard.
A second, smaller cop twists in his seat, says, “Shut it” through the web of metal.
I try and wink but my eye is filled with blood, tacky and thick.
The car keens as the big cop gets behind the wheel and starts the engine. I can smell his sweat, ripe and seeping into his uniform. My head is floating, my body a vague and distant thing somewhere beneath. The world around me sways. Teeters. Whirrs.
I breathe in.
I can smell the expired freshener hanging from the mirror, the scent of Diet Coke, and too many cups of coffee. I can smell them, the cops. In this same car, day after day. I breathe in and taste the big one’s breakfast: French toast with raspberry jam, even though he’s supposed to lay off the sweet stuff. Bad for his heart, his wife says, and he knows it too. I can feel her skin on his, her cheek dusted with too much makeup. I breathe in and I know her worry, her love for him, and his love too. It’s suffocating. Sharp and big as life.
I breathe in and smell the flowery liquor on the breath of the woman beside be, the scent of other bodies still clinging to her skin; I smell the air outside the window, the sting of urine, the bite of fish scraps turning in the alley; I smell 2-B’s fine clothes, the detergent he uses to keep them stiff and spotless, the same kind his mother used when he was a boy.
I breathe in my building, the aroma of soup that fills the stairwell, the dusty carpet in my hall, the box on my dresser sitting open and empty. I breathe in and Mims is there, just as I knew her: upright before a mirror, tipping ashes that go skating the surface of a porcelain ashtray, swaying to the bleating of a detuned church organ, fingering her pearls. As she was before: skinny and sun-kissed in a pale blue swimsuit, leaping from the prow of a boat to search for shells. As a girl: squirming in the velvet chair of some grand opera house, craning her neck and sucking on caramels, unable to contain her joy. I am flooded with all of her, all at once. Notes swelling, colliding: smoke trapped in linens; dusted skin of plums; long dead lavender crushed between pages; salt on a pocketed shell, stolen from the sea—
“Hey,” I say to my new friend. “What’s the French word for ocean?”
She looks at me puzzled and, I think, a little afraid.
“You know,” I suck in my cheeks and purse my lips. “Where the fishes live?”
Her face softens to a lopsided smile.
“La mer,” she says.
That’s right, I think. That’s it.
I want to run and tell Mims. I want to tell her I remember now. I can bring it to her, that little glass bottle she loves. She can have all she wants, cover herself head to toe. Bathe in it if she likes. I’ll wear it too, move on that same cloud. But I can’t get to her. She’s away in the dark and I’m here in the car and the car is moving. My head is pounding. I lean against the shoulder of the woman beside me. She starts to hum again, and then to sing, blessing the redolent air. I close my eyes and press my lips together. I let myself sway, our bodies ebbing in unison as the car bounces on the road beneath us. Like this, we go, and it’s all right, I think. It’s all right because it’s late now and I’m tired, and anyway, she knows.