Pier Paolo Pasolini did not like other beasts. Those she did not trump in size she bested with spirit, always ready to use her spark-quick claws in a spat. I once witnessed Pier Paolo defend her territory against the invasion of a wild possum. The possum was an ugly creature, with a gas-funnel snout and vinyl-hard claws that sank into the wood floor and left not scratches but gashes, and a way of hunching into the ground as if playing both offense and defense at once, shoulder girdle pointing straight to Hell. The possum was a strong and violent animal, but Pier Paolo dug clumps of gray-white possum fur right out of it. When the possum finally fled back out the window, Pier Paolo’s coat was still sleek, whole and cinnamon orange. The possum fared worse. The floor was littered with tufts of possum fur feathered with maroon-red blood streaks.
In an apartment search, the presence of a mere cat, no less one the likes of Pier Paolo Pasolini, can prove a liability. I credited Providence when I found a house with two cats, each belonging to a woman. That my new roommates worked at the County Animal Welfare Department seemed an auspicious sign. Animal lovers.
Three women, three bedrooms, three cats. It was a beach house. Upstairs was my room-technically the master bedroom and a sleeping porch, which was Star’s: Star Divinity Carolina. There was another bedroom downstairs, behind the living room, Eustace’s: Eustace Darling Smith. On my first day I took a moving day off work and my housemates left in the early morning. I shut Pier Paolo in my bedroom and walked the rooms. It was all windows and morning sunlight, breakfast nook and tiled bath. Downstairs, Eustace’s cat, Slam Dunk, was stretched out on Eustace’s bed. Her short fur stood up in several directions, giving her the scruffy look of a cat who is either very old or stricken with some strange kitty disease. I sat on the bed to pet Slam Dunk; her coat felt rough, and she yawned. Some fleas jumped around her fur like Mexican jumping beans, and I noticed the mattress was covered with filmy tan hairs and the little dark rocklike flecks that mean a cat has been infested by fleas. I brushed off my clothing and moved on.
Star’s cat, Elvis Presley King of America, was on Star’s bed on the sleeping porch. Sunlight filtered between the branches of a towering eucalyptus outside and through ceiling-high windows, and Elvis basked in it. She was a short-haired cross-breed of Burmese and something else, all black and deep brown but for a tuft of white under the chin. I pet Elvis, who purred and then licked my fingers until something snapped in the wiring of her brain, like a zigzag of lightning electrocuting her eyes. She grasped hold of my wrist with her teeth and a steel jaw so resolutely clamped when I lifted my arm she dangled. “Fucking devil!” I screamed, shaking her off my arm. Elvis plunked back onto the bed and licked herself, her eyes set on mine. Blood welled from scratch marks on my forearm, and I contemplated what kind of twisted wile, what ambivalent misanthropy, had possessed Elvis Presley King of America.
I kept Pier Paolo in my room several weeks before I dared unleash her on the other cats. Finally, I opened my door one evening, allowing Paolo to creep out. She sniffed at the steps and then lowered herself, one paw at a time, until she reached bottom, gravitating toward the scent of the cats downstairs. A door separated the steps from the living room, and I opened this cautiously. Star and Eustace sat in front of the tv, each with her cat in her lap. Paolo tiptoed to where she could stare at the cats. Both looked up, their ears wiggly. Slam Dunk slinked off to Eustace’s bedroom. My roommates did not look up, their eyes fixed on a sit com. I sat on the steps, watching Elvis and Paolo walk toward each other noiselessly, circling. The women were rapt on the tv.
“Sweetie,” Star said without looking up. “Shut the door there’s a draft?”
Eustace nodded. She turned to address me but looked away before she spoke. “Door’s got to be closed.” When I stood it startled the cats. Which cat howled I couldn’t tell, but it made a sound more human than animal, a long low-pitched moan that resonated with the agony of war. I looked up at my roommates, who appeared as startled as the cats, and by the time I looked back Paolo and Elvis were so tightly intertwined I couldn’t distinguish Paolo’s orange fur from Elvis’s black, nor the cats’ yelping from each others’ or even Eustace and Star’s. For an instant, everyone looked up, as if surprised by their own voices. In that second I collected Paolo in my arms and whisked her upstairs.
She’d fared all right. There were clumps of black fur in one claw and there was blood on her side—but it was not her own blood, I didn’t have to examine her closely to know. I closed the door behind Paolo and crept downstairs alone. Star was huddled over Elvis. Eustace was as rapt in front of Star and the cat as she had been in front of the tv, and Star was not looking up. “Your fucking devil cat,” she said, apparently to me, “has drawn blood.”
I kept Paolo in my room after that, spending more and more time in the room with her myself. I got a hot plate and a dorm refrigerator so I didn’t have to use the kitchen downstairs, and I installed them beside Paolo’s food dish. What little I knew of my housemates made me content to fathom Star’s and Eustace’s presence through the sound of their murmuring conversations, their tv blaring nightly sit corns through the paper-thin beach-house walls so loud that I, too, could sit slackjawed before clunking one-liners. Paolo, too, seemed content in her obliviousness to the other cats’ presence, only occasionally sniffing at them through the door drafts or playing kitty boxing by batting her forearm under the door crack.
One evening in a fit of guilt, I ventured below to make time with my roommates. Star was sitting alone before the tv, Eustace napping in her bedroom with Slam Dunk. Star remained as rapt as ever, never looking up, though she did address me with some plea that began with the word “sweetie” and ended with a plaintive “okay?” She’d meanwhile inched perceptibly toward the center of the couch, eyes unblinking on the tv, as if to suggest there was surely no room should I think to sit. This particularly annoyed me as the couch belonged to me. That night, though, all seemed resolved: We inhabitants, cats and women alike, were unanimous in our cautious truce.
Sometimes, I listened to my roommates. One Sunday morning they started clattering dishes in the kitchen at nine, an ungodly hour. I could hear them from my bed as they bickered over whether to put the blueberries in the pancakes or on the pancakes. They were like a married couple. They spoke in the rhythmic shorthand hums of a secret code between intimates, and though their voices were not soft, they were unintelligible except in every third word.
“You wa’ the s’rup ‘on?”
I began to wonder about my roommates, the way they spent every hour together at work and at home, though they did not seem to be living as lovers. I wondered whether their ability to speak without words revealed a charming unspoken understanding, or if it merely underscored a lack of anything worth saying resulting from so much time in one another’s company. I’d read in a study once that ninety percent of what married people talk about is household trivia. People talk about what to buy at the grocery store or where to take the car for engine work. The entire dialog of intimacy involves nothing that can’t be communicated on a to-do list.
My roommates seemed intent on excluding me from this communication, a mutual dependency rooted in breakfast trivia and sit coms that I had no interest in being a part of anyway. But where did people like this come from, figures so benign, working for an agency as seemingly benevolent as animal welfare? No, these were the people gossiping past the edges of cubicle walls at work, sitting around scarfing donuts while the rest of us listened to neighbors whaling on dogs and wished for their welfare. Who are the agents of animal welfare? They are the people presiding over the electrocution deaths of orphan dogs and cats, those people you curse. Those agents are Star, they are Eustace. They are people with cats at home who mumble to each other and speak in code.
More and more, I became aware of my roommates symbiosis. They looked alike. Because I didn’t see them every day, I detected changes that otherwise might have seemed subtle. They were turning in to each other, the way man and wife do, human and pet. Each was plum shaped and a bit too tall to stand comfortably at the kitchen counter. Since I’d met them, Eustace started growing her hair and Star had cut hers, so each had the same in-between short and long haircut of a person in the process of becoming someone else. At first sight, what distinguished one from the other was that Eustace was brown-haired and Star blond, so if not doubles they looked like the mirrored halves of a theater mask, one smiling while the other frowned. In fact they did this, for a costume party. They dressed as happy and sad harlequins, using whiteface and eyeliner for their expressions. Posing for a picture, they put their faces side by side, one jeering while the other cried. You only had to know their cats to know which woman jeered, which woman cried.
Once, Star slipped a note under my door. “Sweetie,” it started. “We were thinking it’s not fair we all pay the same rent.” Star’s reasoning was that since I kept a hotplate in my room I had the advantage of living in a studio, which would rent for more than a bedroom and should therefore garner higher rent. My hotplate might meanwhile jack up my share of the electricity bill. I scribbled a response saying that if mine was a studio theirs was a two-bedroom, which would also cost more. Then I pressed Paolo’s paw into a stamp pad and pressed it onto the paper to sign off with a pawprint. Paolo’s claws curled into the paper when I did this, so when I placed the note on Star’s bed beside a sleeping Elvis, there were neat little claw holes above the pawprint.
The persistent alienation of my housemates and their cats from Paolo and me did grow to concern me, however, if for no other reason than Paolo’s psychic health. It wasn’t good to keep her cooped up in a single room, and I worried that the household discordance weighed on her. She’d become sluggish and was sleeping too much even in cat terms, and she frequently left her food dish untouched. I had plans to take a drive to visit my mother, and I decided to bring Paolo there to stay. One cat, one woman, the way it should be. Not three cats. Not three women.
Soon after, Eustace took a trip to visit her own family. I had never grown fond of her cat, in part because Slam Dunk had what turned out to be a skin condition that made it extremely unpleasant to pet her or even let her brush up against you. It was a form of kitty excema that gave her a gaunt and scaly appearance, one I’d overheard Eustace describe in seven a.m. calls to the vet as “scabby.” Slam Dunk was not a cat to cuddle up to, though in Eustace’s absence she became solicitous for affection. Eustace’s first day gone, Slam Dunk sank deeply into the grips of codependent withdrawal. She mewled at the entrance to Eustace’s room and then staked out the short hallway upstairs connecting my room and Star’s to our bathroom. Slam Dunk howled, for days on end, at night and during the day. Nothing would calm Slam Dunk but the return of Eustace, which all four of us grew to long for equally: Star, me, Slam Dunk and even Elvis the King, who abandoned her habitual terrorizing of Slam Dunk and came to stage solidarity howls on the hour with the other cat.
Our common purpose created an opening for renewed household camaraderie, and what with Star lonely for the constant companionship she’d grown accustomed to, she too became more solicitous with her affections. Star took to knocking on my door and suggesting trips to the farmers market on weekends, and though I discouraged her overtures much as I discouraged Slam Dunk’s, I did start spending more time downstairs. There, I came to better know Elvis. As I learned to navigate the cat’s mood swings, I developed an admiration for her gutsy and creative mettle. In time, it seemed we knew instinctively how to be around each other—to be warm without becoming suffocating, to cuddle until just that moment before Elvis lashed out.
In Eustace’s absence I discovered which of the two women performed the bulk of their domestic labor. The kitchen became fetid, the cats uncared for. Because I missed Paolo and didn’t especially mind the chore, the care of the cats fell to me. Not a day went by when I didn’t mourn the empty spot in my bedroom where Paolo’s food bowl had sat. While I fed the cats downstairs, Slam Dunk rubbed her itchy hide against my legs. Elvis stared plaintively at my ankle, perhaps calculating whether the food would come in time for her to spare me my leg. I remembered Pier Paolo Pasolini before her own food bowl. There was always plenty of water on the floor surrounding Pier Paolo’s water bowl, because Pier Paolo Pasolini would drink only water that shimmered. I’d often find her Staring at her water bowl without drinking, waiting for that magical way water caught light when it moved. Finally she’d grow impatient and begin batting the side of the bowl. Then, as the water sluiced from one side to the other and picked up refracting rays of sunlight, it would spill gently to the floor. Only then would Pier Paolo lean delicately in to the bowl, lifting small swallows with her tongue.
Melancholy, I stepped out the kitchen door to meditate on Paolo. If I thought hard enough about Paolo, would Paolo remember me? I imagined us engaged in a daily correspondence carried over invisible wires. I’d hum out a kitty Morse code that only Paolo would understand, and her purrs would reverberate back to me with little earthquakes that only I could feel.
Suddenly, I saw a whoosh of black fur as Elvis slipped through a gash in the screen door and belly-scurried into the field beyond our house. I looked for her, but I did not find Elvis. And Elvis did not return. Slam Dunk, apparently suffering shock, immediately desisted from her nightly howls, and Star became frenetic and wordless in her constant searches through the field and in the contiguous neighborhood. As much as I was glad to be released from the torture of the regular howls of both cats, I, too, mourned the absence of Elvis, and I willed the cat not dead but merely liberated.
On the first, Star left me a note saying they’d be moving: Star, Eustace and Slam Dunk, the three. The note consisted of three words: “Sweetie: We’re gone.” It was the diction rather than any salutation that made it clear it had been written by Star. I believed my housemates meant to humiliate me by leaving, but I felt like a winner when I learned the lease would fall into my name. They’d left me this bounty, all sunlight and beach house. I arranged for two friends who were married to move in downstairs. Pier Paolo and I would spread out between both of the bedrooms upstairs, and I’d pay more rent to live in the upstairs as if it really were a large studio.
Within the week, Star packed up and moved, leaving Eustace and Slam Dunk to follow. Star took everything except my couch and her microwave, transforming the house to an empty shell that echoed, like a seashell whispering secrets. She emptied the cupboards of every domestic relic down to the sulfur-encrusted bathroom sponges and the paper coasters and stirrers from a cocktail party that predated our tenancy. She took the ant traps, the used ones, with crusty arthropod carcasses that rattled when you shook them. On her last day, I passed Star and some rent-a-hulks with a U-Haul in the driveway. I entered my room preparing to drop myself down on my bed, but was startled to find my mattress missing. It took but a moment to step back outside and discover my mattress aboard Star’s truck. She seemed to be stealing it, in a final gesture of spite. I’d found the mattress in the garage when I’d moved in, the detritus of some earlier incarnation of tenants. It wasn’t technically my mattress, but it wasn’t Star’s to take either. It belonged to no one if not the house.
“Star,” I exclaimed. “My mattress.”
“It’s mine, honey,” she replied without looking at me.
I knew it was a lie, but I could also see that because Star held the lease in her name she’d chosen to interpret neutral property as her own.
“It’s the house’s,” I countered.
“Poor house owns nothing,” she responded, ducking behind a dresser and lifting with a mover up onto the truck.
The mattress: I didn’t need it. I walked inside and poured a vat of bleach and water and began scrubbing the sleeping porch, covering every inch of wall and floor and glass. I slid open every window. The room, just a glassed-in porch, seemed almost outdoors with the windows this way. I let the wind blow.
Then, I disassembled my bed frame and reassembled it on the sleeping porch. Without the mattress, I would sleep on the wooden frame, like an ascetic. I covered the frame with a stack of blankets, folded them in half and made them cot like beneath a twin contour sheet that sagged at its corners and dipped between the spaces in the wooden slats. Star: She could take her mattress that wasn’t really hers. She could take it to her new apartment and sleep on my memories, dream the nightmares I’d stored there, like a textbook under the pillow.
With the windows open at night, the sleeping porch was all wind and nighttime fog off the ocean, all summer’s watery air and insects. The late-night damp brought its lingering hints of fever, and for the next few days my mornings were soupy and slow with the ache of a new cold. Rather than slide shut the windows, I slept huddled in close to myself, capturing heat in the thin envelope between my belly and my knees.
The porch was abuzz with life. Every night, a two-inch long yellow-green praying mantis flew in and posted itself on the beam between the windows. One night I left my dirty clothes on the floor before I went to bed, and in the morning there were columns of ants marching through them. I attributed the pestilence to Star’s enduring presence, and as much as I respected the animals’ right to the sleeping porch, I knew I needed Star gone. There was a place I knew on Beach Boulevard that specialized in witchcraft. Here, you could find products to help you erase the memory or the smell or the ephemeral lasting essence that a person had left behind-spit their bad taste out like mouthwash.
I went there. There were shelves of candles molded into the shapes of serpents and lady figurines and even cats, line after line of colored candles with charts next to them coding the colors and explaining the ramifications of burning different herbs in different combinations with candles of different colors and shapes. “I’m looking for something to clean out my new bedroom,” I said to the clerk. The woman pulled out an orange candle in the shape of a cat and a sac of yellow herbs that smelled like streetcorner incense. I’d said nothing about cats, and wondered how she knew.
“Honey you need this.”
I left the paraphernalia on the counter. “I need something strong,” I said, a little disappointed by the cheap smell of the herbs. “Maybe something more,” I suggested.
She nodded without breaking eye contact. “This is more. This stuff works. You don’t need more than this. You know how it works, right?”
I looked at her blankly.
“You know you write her name on parchment and throw it in the wax.”
Her? What did she know? “Parchment?” I asked.
“Honey, paper, anything. The whole name. Middle name. Without the whole name it doesn’t work.”
“What’ll it do?”
“Work. You wanted something that works. It’ll work.”
“How you want it.”
That night I put the cat-candle on my shelf without performing the attendant rituals and went to sleep with the windows open. A damp fog had swept into the sleeping porch, and I huddled under my quilt, remembering the scary exhilarated feeling of camping outdoors in the wild. I heard hums outside, and whistles, and I imagined the field outside frenzied with the movement of animals.
Several hours later I woke to the sound of a thud and then scratching and then a silence inhabited thickly with something alive. What thudded on the floor just sat there, and I sat up and startled it by shouting “Shit.” I could see by the moonlight illuminating the fog in the room that there was a cat, black and rangy and large, wide in the haunches, dirt smeared through the white of its bib. I didn’t recognize the cat and didn’t think it was Elvis, but perhaps it was my old friend, dropping in for a visit. Nevertheless, I jumped up to scare the cat out the window. It fled down the stairs and through the open door to the living room, beyond which Slam Dunk screeched and then made the desperate slipping sound of claws sliding backwards on wood floor, the hopeless flinging gesture of an animal grasping for footing where there is none. For Slam Dunk the deck of the ark had tipped to ninety, and out she poured.
Eustace’s voice downstairs was slow but angry, echoing in the empty space. “What the fuck?”
I ran down and opened the front door. The intruder cat fled instantly out of it. Then I turned to Eustace and her sleepy irritated lack of expression, Eustace muttering, “What did you...?”
“The fuck,” I said, and I went back to bed.
Star Divinity Carolina. I had to go through a box she’d left in the garage to find her middle name. Inside the box were some office supplies, a stack of magazines with blondes on their covers, and three boxes of canceled bank checks in precise numeric order. The name on her bank checks included her middle initial, but it was on Star’s birth certificate, at the very bottom of the box, that I found her middle name.
I left the box ajar and I brought the birth certificate inside to my desk. On a piece of notebook paper I wrote out Star’s name, then cut it out with a pair of scissors but then crumpled it and dinged it into my canister of trash. I wrote Star’s name again in all capitals and then again in black ink on another page. I cut out each again but eventually threw them all into the canister. Then I pulled a blank piece of stationery from my desk and blocked out her name again, in tightly joined capital letters, but threw this one away as well. Finally, I took the scissor to Star’s birth certificate and cut her name from the very parchment, and placed the handwritten script at the wick of the candle without lighting it.
I threw the remains of the birth certificate into the trash and, with a matchbook in one hand and the trash tin in the other, I walked into the garage and set the contents of the trash tin on fire. As it was burning I walked to Star’s open box and dug out the checkboxes. I walked back to the tin and opened each box and with two hands let the checks flutter noiselessly in the wind of flame. The text decomposed letter by letter: star d. carolina. When the checks were gone I went back to the box and unearthed the stack of magazines and threw these in the bonfire. The models’ faces grimaced and pocked and slit open at thin brown scars that turned to orange and then flame.
As the flame withered, I pushed the can with my foot over to the open box. Holding the lid of the cardboard box down with my foot and lifting the can quickly to keep from burning my hands, I let the can settle on top of Star’s box. I watched the pyre until the fire-hot tin base of the canister calmed to a charcoal color and the last model’s face played out all its repeating explosions, until all that was left were a few scraps of flesh-colored paper, and the charred parchment edge of the birth certificate, and random letters in my writing spelling out Star’s initials, over and over, out of order and in order, and every anagram you could make of it: star divinity carolina, perished in effigy.
I left the can sitting on her box and I went inside. I lit the candle, and I went to sleep.
On Sunday Eustace and Slam Dunk were moving. From the sleeping porch I saw Eustace and Star pull a moving van to the walkway in front of the back door, and soon I heard the sound of Star. “Sweetie you’re going to have to learn to pack boxes,” she was saying to Eustace, and it made me think of Star’s box and its effigy of charred letters and words. In a fit of remorse, I snuck out the front door and into the garage to conceal the violence I’d done to Star’s possessions.
But somehow I got distracted. I checked the mailbox and found a letter for Star with the yellow computer printout from the post office indicating their new address. Apparently the post office misdelivered this bit of mail. I hadn’t known they were moving to Beach Boulevard, a street I knew well enough because it was where the herb store was, and it reminded me of some errands I needed to do nearby. I got in my car quietly so Star and Eustace wouldn’t hear me leaving, and soon I was scanning the low-slung apartments of Beach Boulevard, the dingy brown-streaked whitewash on Spanish-style apartment houses, buildings in need of either a new paint job or repair to wrought iron porch railings or replacement for the mortar inside cracked, Muslim-inflected arches and doorways.
There were cats, many of them, and most with the kind of crud-pointy fur one gets when it’s wet and then stays plain dirty. I was scrutinizing one Burmese with a particularly mangy brown and black coat before I noticed it was no stranger it was Elvis. I pulled the car over and got out to look at her, alone there with no name tag, scratching at her neck between glances up to me. “Elvis the King what the hell are you doing on Beach Boulevard?” I asked, but she just kept scratching. I left her there and went to the car to retrieve Star’s envelope from my passenger seat. I followed it to her apartment number, walking up a single flight of stairs to reach her door. I tried the door handle, and it turned.
Inside, the apartment was strewn with boxes and items I recognized from Star’s room. Out the back window I could see the silhouette of something long and rectangular leaning against the porch wall, and I knew then it was this I had come to see. On the porch I found my mattress-I recognized it by the red floral of the nylon, but otherwise my mattress would have been utterly unfamiliar. It had been clawed open. Wisps of white cotton clung to tips of dark metal coils that had been bent and protruded straight from the frame. The nylon skin hung from the corners in yard-long scraps. I say clawed because my associations first went to animals, to the image of my old living room after Pier Paolo’s battle with the possum, the gray-white tufts of batting tinged with blood-red nylon. The pelt of mattress was shredded like lengths of tanners flesh, still hot with violence and temper. But when I got up close I could see that the mattress had not been clawed but cut. The tears were razor straight and in lengths about the distance a female arm can travel in a single arc: an arm with a razor, not a beast of vinyl claw.
I got up close and felt the ribbing at the edges of the mattress. It had been gnawed in places, whether by rodent gums or the busy worrying fingernails of a human I couldn’t tell. Over the bite marks there was a maroon residue, something like blood though it was still viscous, like the sticky line of brown mucus a cockroach sometimes leaves in its trail.
I felt a tickle on my ankle and jumped, my heart racing. It was Elvis. I combed my fingernails through the feral gray of her bib. My hand came off of her wet, and brown with soot. She did not bite me. I thought about how I’d learned to pet Elvis without getting bit, how long it took, its process of trial and error, and I wondered if this could really be my friend Elvis Presley.
Now I sleep with the window closed, Paolo cocooned in my middle. It is hot, and I curse the architect who thought porches were for sleeping. Outside lately I hear birds. It is not the mellifluous chirping of song I hear, but squaws and screeches and heinous shouts, and sometimes I hear their knocking. Sometimes I see these birds in the eucalyptus beside my bed, red-winged, and sometimes I see their faces, black-eyed. It’s a single bird, I think, that I see most mornings as I lie in bed before I get up. First I hear it, brushing the side of its downy body against the window. Gradually it’s no longer brushing but knocking, and then its gestures turn louder and more insistent until they sound like the delicate crashes of a child’s fist against glass. Then the bird turns to face me and rushes, beak first, into the window, and Paolo will sit up to watch. The bird makes a slamming sound, and then without turning its beak from me flies backwards several inches and slams beak first again, and again.
I know most birds see from eyes on opposite sides of their heads, that they have to cock their heads to one side to see a two-dimensional you. But this bird it gazes forward, from eyes on a plane of face that is flat like any human’s. The face has a geometry-forehead, chin, beak, a collision of acute angles. And its circle eyes never flinch. The bird slams at us over and over. I start each day when I slide shut the shade, and then I listen for the softening brush of its body against the window, and the silence, the sound of animals watching.