“Bill and I,” by Eric Robert Nolan (flash fiction)
“That cat ate my wedding band.”
Big Bill studied the moving black flame of the accused as it tiptoed nimbly across the fence separating the alley beside McCarthy’s Bar from the alley beside Baxter’s Furniture. I love the way cats look when they climb. Their feet lead them lithely and certainly over high surfaces – like the flimsy rampart of that green picket fence. Cats will flicker along their improbable paths as weightlessly as fire itself.
“That cat did nothing of the kind, Bill.” That was my job – talking sense into him. You take a summer job as a busboy at an Irish bar in Queens, you wind up with unexpected responsibilities.
I’d been assigned as Bill’s chaperone on my first night, by Clay, the weeknight bartender: “Tell ya what, Mr. Psychology Major – if you’re so smart, you can keep Big Bill out of trouble when he goes to take a leak in the alley. Whenever he goes out, you make sure he gets back in.” The guys at the bar guffawed, so I gathered that this was some onerous task.
But it wasn’t. Bill liked to be listened to. Most people are like that. We’d chatted about his late wife. I’d asked him why they called him “Big Bill” (he was of average size), and he laughed amiably back at me that he didn’t know either. I made sure he zipped up when he was finished urinating, and I made sure he didn’t drop his keys or his wallet.
“Everything okay?” Clay gaped upon our first return. The guys at the bar looked like they were waiting for the punchline of an excellent recurring inside joke.
“Fine.” I started wiping down the tables again.
“No crazy stories? No craziness at all?”
“None. Sure, he’s drunk. Just be polite to him and he’s fine.”
Clay regarded me with disappointment, black and keen. He placed his palms flatly on the bar and pitched forward. The light reflecting on his bald head made it glint like the head of a torpedo.
“Okay, Mr. Psychology Major. If you’re so smart, figure ME out.”
But everything was not okay tonight – not when Big Bill saw that cat.
“I’m TELLIN” you – it ate my wedding band!” His watery eyes fixed on it with real injury in them, and with what looked like genuine recognition. His trembling right hand clutched the nest of silver curls that sprawled in disorder upon his head. The grief upon his features was as heavy as the palpable scent of alcohol that released with his every breath.
“Cats don’t even do that, Bill. C’mon.” That was correct, wasn’t it? Only dogs were stupid enough to swallow things that they shouldn’t. When I was nine, my dog swallowed the head of my G.I. Joe Desert Warfare Specialist action figure … also a good-sized rock one day, too, for some damned reason. Duffy just bolted it, when I was walking him, right out of the blue. He fell upon it as though it were a Milk-Bone.
“This one DID,” Bill insisted, “just this MORNING. Stole into my house through my bedroom window, swallowed my wedding band and ran right back out.” I realized now that he was close to tears. He began to shake. And his eyes would not move from that pitch-black cat on its silent walk.
Its svelte and winding flame paused not a moment.
“WHAT, damn you?!”
“Look at your left hand … your wedding band is right there. You’re wearing it.”
His gaze finally fell away from the cat to chase desperately across his hand. There, on the pale flesh with the liver spots, was the wedding band, thick and gold and shining, like a bright-faced sentinel among the faded palisades of his trembling fingers.
Bill snapped his fingers and pointed at me, smiling like newly fortunate gambler. “You’re right, boy!” he chirped happily, as though I had just expertly answered some riddle asked of both of us. “The mind plays tricks!” He spun precariously on one drunken heel and marched back into McCarthy’s Bar.
I remained there, pondering what I’d seen.
The attraction of alcohol’s chemical magic is this – it’s usually predictable. A man knows how it will make him feel, most of the time; otherwise, he wouldn’t drink it. A man can drink to feel strong or brave, and he can find just such resolve, halfway into his third gin-and-tonic. He can drink to forget – driven on his a glass-bottle ship to the very same island of forgetting that eased Odysseus’ sailors. He can drink to make the women around him more lovely or charming – the more that he drinks, the more their common features will subtly arrange to arouse him, the more their middling words will startle his rapport.
But had tonight’s drink instead made Big Bill psychotic?
Or had I just witnessed dementia – or even a schizophrenic episode?
Life is a crapshoot. You can wind up being the guy who hallucinates in the alley beside a bar. Or you can wind up being the guy who looks after him. Neither is an especially happy existence, but one is clearly better than the other. What bothers me is this – it doesn’t really matter how good a person you are. You can wind up either man, regardless of the life you lead.
None of this mattered to the cat. It was a slim and spiraling, fluid onyx shadow, substanceless and out of reach. It was as noiseless as smoke. It was as indifferent as the darkness that falls over all the world, and all of us, when the day ends. To its own golden eyes, Bill and I probably looked about the same.
I wish that I could envision my feet leading me lithely and certainly over high surfaces – flickering along an improbable path, as weightlessly as fire itself. But I can’t.
“Eric!” bellowed a voice from the bar. It was time to go back in.
(c) Eric Robert Nolan 2023
Photo credit: Graham Crumb/Imagicity.com, CC BY-SA 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons