Margo parked below the bend where Milpas Street turns into Anacapa Street. This was meant to give the appearance she was attending the concert at The County Bowl. Her nylon cat carrier? Could be mistaken for a picnic container, couldn’t it?
If she was recognized after she turned onto Charlie’s street, she could say Phyllis had gone missing. So, here comes Margo to comb the neighborhood.
And ha ha. Just like Charlie, wasn’t it, to name a cat Phyllis?
But when she turned onto Figueroa, Margo felt her purpose screech to a halt, then scurry from her, the way Phyllis would when she attempted to thrust Phyllis into the cat carrier, then zip it closed.
Phyllis never scratched or hissed at her, but Phyllis did make dramatic exits from persons she’d previously approached. Tail up at full vertical, a skitter prance, making it seem she couldn’t wait to get away. From everyone except Charlie. How was it Charlie never tripped over Phyllis or stepped on her tail?
Now, with Charlie at a signing for another of his books, Margo felt herself a trespasser. Wasn’t her absence from the book signing a dead giveaway?
“Hey,” a male voice called from behind her, resonant in the night dampness. “What are you doing? Here, I mean.”
She turned to see a man she’d noticed before at Charlie’s. Rangy, maybe mid-forties, a dark baseball cap pulled low on his brow. Mike? Something with a M. “Mort?” she said.
“Matt,” he said. “Matt Bender.” He carried something he tried to keep her from seeing. “Shouldn’t you be at Chaucer’s for the signing?“
“Phyllis,” she said. “Gone missing.”
“Excuse me?” Matt Bender said.
“His cat. Gone missing. I’m here to look.”
“I know his cat,” Matt Bender said. “Phyllis is probably at home right now. Phyllis may be independent. Phyllis is independent. She goes out. But she does not go missing.”
Margo started to ask Matt Bender why he was not at Charlie’s book signing. But the sight of the cat carrier he’d tried to hide gave her a tingle of advantage. “If Phyllis doesn’t go missing, why do you have a cat carrier?”
His body twisted into a mime of conciliation. “We seem to have got off on the wrong foot.”
She was aware of him trying to place when he’d seen her at Charlie’s, perhaps even with what specific group of Charlie’s friends. But then she felt the shift of power again, this time away from her. “Isn’t that a cat carrier you’re holding?” he said.
“What if it is?”
He retreated a step, as if jostled. Then he was back with sweeping gestures of friendliness. She placed him. “You’re the actor.”
“An actor,” he said. “Hardly the actor.”
“What are you doing here, Mort?”
“Matt,” he said. “Matt Bender. I could ask the same of you. Why here? Why now?” He let his cat carrier slip to the sidewalk, then kicked at it dismissively. “I think we need to find a place where we can get some coffee.”
Margo saw herself stepping back to watch while her surrogate Margo stood on Charlie’s street when Charlie wasn’t even on it, staring down an actor with the same kind of cat carrier her surrogate self was clutching. “Why would you say that?”
“Because,” Matt Bender said, “we have something to talk about and coffee—“
“Because now I remember. You were at one of Charlie’s parties. People were drinking and stoning, but there you were, Charlie’s World’s Best Writer cup, clutched in both hands as though your life depended on it.”
“You have a good eye for detail, Matt Bender. Coffee, it is. We’re practically in Charlie’s.”
“But Charlie isn’t here.”
Margo held up her key ring, gave it a jangle, and felt back in control “We don’t need Charlie, do we?”
“This puts a different spin on things,” Matt Bender said.
Margo opened the front door to Charlie’s, then waved him inside. She grunted at the way the kitchen appeared dominated by pizza boxes from Sal’s down on Milpas, crowned by a Sal’s Three-Cheese Special with one slice removed. These were surrounded with used cereal bowls, an opened can of Dinty Moore’s beef stew, a fork still plunged into it. God knows how long the Crock Pot had been flashing its “Warming” sign.
“Or you wouldn’t—“
“I wouldn’t have a key?”
“And thus,” Matt Bender said, “considerable managerial skills.”
What he’d meant as a tribute to her ability to have key holder status with Charlie fed her own sense of being at some remote landscape where there were no street signs or landmarks. Besides, the coffee was not where she’d left it. Either Charlie was simply being Charlie, or one of those young hanger-on types had put it someplace where they knew she’d have to look for it.
When she found the coffee—in the pantry, next to Charlie’s Cheerios boxes, not in the freezer, where it made sense to keep coffee—it was not the Santa Rosa blend she always bought from The French Press. Instead, this label was from The Handlebar. Had Charlie even noticed the difference? Would Charlie ever evolve beyond his binary of caffeinated and decaffeinated coffee?
Her contribution, the Bialetti coffee maker, still on the stove, hadn’t been cleaned from its last use. When she brought it to the sink to wash out the used grounds and inner gunk, she saw Charlie’s The World’s Best Writer cup; its half-filled contents now a filmy blotch.
“Maybe,” Matt Bender said, “we should have gone somewhere down on Milpas.”
“And maybe,” Margo said, “this wasn’t such a good idea.”
“Maybe instead,” Matt Bender said, “we should get to the point.” He looked beyond her, then began to laugh.
She watched him try to rein in his smile. “I don’t see the humor.”
Matt Bender pointed to the doorway between the kitchen and what Charlie liked to call the breakfast nook, where Phyllis sat, licking a paw. “She’s the reason we’re here, isn’t it? Each of us with a cat carrier. That’s what’s funny.”
“Not funny at all,” Margo said. But when Phyllis approached her, began to rub against her foot, Margo began to laugh.
“She likes you,” Matt Bender said. “She walked right past me to greet you.”
Margo shook her head. “She wants to be fed.”
Matt Bender seemed to be working at some inner puzzle for a moment. “You haven’t been here for a while, have you?”
“How could you know that?”
Matt Bender scanned the room for a moment before he looked down at Phyllis. “The more I think about it,” he said, “things seem to have reverted.”
“The times before you got your key.”
Margo opened the cupboard door where she expected to see a display of Fancy Feast cat food cans. She tried two other doors with similar results. After a moment of consideration, she tried the refrigerator door, where she found, behind a jar of cornichons, an opened can of Trader Joe’s cat tuna.
“Fuck,” Margo said.
“Most cats don’t like opened, refrigerated cat food.”
“Fuck,” Margo said. She scooped the remains of the can onto a saucer, then microwaved it for thirty seconds.
“Shrewd,” Matt Bender said. “That sometimes worked with Taxi. My last cat.”
Margo considered the image of this man, this actor, calling out for his cat and the bewilderment of neighbors at the sight of a grown man calling for a taxi. She spread the cat food over the saucer, set it before Phyllis. For a moment, she believed Phyllis would venture a taste, possibly eat the entire portion. But Phyllis turned from the dish as though it were an offense. Her tail lifted, she moved gingerly past Matt Bender, toward the breakfast nook.
“No telling how long that tuna was in the fridge,” Matt Bender said. “If I know anything about cats, they always work us for fresh—even risk missing a meal for dramatic effect.”
“I’m thinking I understand what you’ve already guessed,” Margo said. “Sometimes I can be slow about things. We’re both here when we know Charlie won’t be, because he’s off at Chaucer’s, autographing books.”
“Do you have any experience putting a cat in a cat carrier?”
“This is my first time. And you have experience?”
A smile Margo interpreted as nostalgia danced across his face. “Which is why—“ He reached into a back pocket for a pair of thick gardener’s gloves. “—I have these.”
Margo made coffee which, from its seductive cinnamon aroma, made her wonder about the person who’d brought it from The Handlebar, perhaps thinking to install it as her house blend.
She and Matt Bender sipped at the kitchen counter while watching Phyllis, who stood her ground, a manipulative step beyond the saucer with the offending tuna, waiting for Margo to make the next move.
“I’d call her expression reproachful,” Matt Bender said.
“More like entitled,” Margo said with more emphasis than she’d intended. “Some things don’t change, do they?”
Matt Bender set his coffee on the counter, stood, sent a shake down his body as though trying to dislodge some stubborn parasite. “Look,” he said, “you’ve got more invested in this than I do. I can get a marmalade cat from the animal shelter. I’ll help you get Phyllis into the carrier and you can be on your way.”
“Then why were you here in the first place?”
Matt Bender shrugged his way into reflection. “Phyllis reminds me of a parting gift from someone who still means a good deal to me. I knew nothing about cats. I’m more a dog person. But this goddamned cat—” he pointed at Phyllis. “—she got under my skin. She reminds me so much of my cat, and Charlie—”
“Charlie treats her the way he treats everything, doesn’t he?” Margo said. “He won’t notice she’s gone. Even if he does, he won’t miss her.“
“That’s the thing about Charlie. If he does miss her, someone will go get a cat for him.”
“Ouch.” Margo hadn’t intended to respond. “He said he’d always fancied—note the word choice—fancied a marmalade cat.”
Matt Bender palmed his forehead. “I have this way of bringing conversations to a halt. Phyllis was a gift from you?”
“She was neutered, marmalade, microchipped female when I got her. Charlie named her.”
“Was there some real Phyllis?”
“If so,” Margo said, “Charlie isn’t talking. At least, not to me.”
“Maybe he has to be like that,” Matt Bender said, “to write the books he writes.”
“You should have her,” Margo said. “My mind’s made up. I won’t take no for an answer. Your motive is pure sentiment. Mine is vindictive and selfish.” She reached for Matt Bender’s cat carrier, unzipped the top, then dropped to her haunches, calling out to Phyllis in a vocal high pitch that surprised her. “Come, come dear kitty. We’re going on an adventure.”
“I can’t,” Matt Bender said. “Not after knowing she was a gift from you.”
From her position by the contested Trader Joe’s tuna, Phyllis met Margo’s invitation with enough interest to begin a tentative but not suspicious movement toward her.
Margo watched the wariness scuttle into Phyllis’ posture at the sound reminiscent of a hockey player being body checked into the wall of a rink, followed by “Well, I’ll be damned,” which had all the necessary markers of Charlie in a state of uncomfortable surprise.
Phyllis altered course toward Charlie’s voice, and Matt Bender said, “Busted.”
A moment later, Margo heard Charlie say “What the fuck,” then another sound of stumbling. Margo began to laugh. “The mountain,” she told Matt Bender, “has just come to Mohammed. From the sound of things, the mountain won.”
Charlie lurched into the kitchen. “Well, I’ll be damned,” he said. “Two of my favorite people. Margo and Mike.”
“Matt,” Matt Bender said.
Charlie waved it away. “Whatever,” he said. “Nice to have you here,” he said. “As you can see,” he said, “I stopped next door after the signing. For drinks. Harry’s,” he said. “The way they pour, one would have been enough, don’t you think? Lucky to have made it home without being stopped.”
“Lucky Charlie,” Margo said.
Charlie noticed their coffee cups. “Any more of that? Might be a good idea.”
“Plenty left in the pot,” Margo said. “Go for it.”
Charlie sunk onto a counter stool. “So,” he said. “Good to see you guys. Missed you at the signing.”
“Right,” Matt Bender said.
“Everything okay?” Charlie said.
Margo felt herself jostled by her surrogate Margo again, explaining how Charlie was waiting for her to pour coffee for him. With two dollops of whatever passed for milk in the fridge. “Everything’s fine,” she said.
Charlie argued himself off the stool. He seemed to accept the fact he was not going to be served coffee. “Fuck it,” he said, “I need bed more than coffee.”
“No worries about us,” Margo said. “We’ll see ourselves out.”
Shelly Lowenkopf is emeritus from the graduate-level Professional Writing Program, University of Southern California, where he taught fiction and editing seminars for 35 years. He has recently completed a visiting professorship at the College of Creative Studies, UC Santa Barbara, and has lapsed into modern lit and fiction courses at Santa Barbara City College. He’s held major editorial positions with five book publishers, served on the editorial board of literary and genre magazines, and run the Los Angeles office for a major massmarket paperback house. His The Fiction Writer’s Handbook is forthcoming as a revised second edition. His most recent fiction is a collection of stories, Love Will Make You Drink and Gamble, Stay out Late at Night.