Monday, November 14, 2011

The Pianist's Cat (Short Story)

One bright sunny morning, Roger opened his email while leisurely going over his huevos rancheros in a corner café in Cozumel, Mexico. He was in Cozumel because he was a pianist on a cruise ship. The ship’s name was the M/V Mississippi Mermaid. At the moment it was docked at the pier half an hour’s walk from where he was enjoying his breakfast.
     The company called Roger a “guest entertainer”. Although to other musicians the designation was pretentious, even an oxymoron, to him it sounded right and proper. After all, the title gave him perks other ship’s musicians did not enjoy. He did not have to attend boat drill or fill up daily those dreadful forms that ordinary crewmembers had to mark with X’es.   He could walk around the ship in torn jeans and floppies without getting daggers looks from the staff captain. The company paid him handsomely. He looked with pity at the Filipino waiters who received fifty dollars’ salary a month plus whatever tips they could scrounge from increasingly penny-pinching passengers.
     He was in this self-satisfied mood when he opened his laptop to access his Yahoo account.
     Satisfaction gave way to shock.
     The e-mail came from Durbin, his lover who was keeping his condo for him in Fort Lauderdale. Durbin was a masseur he met in Pattaya, Thailand. Roger engaged his services and, delighted with the results, decided to adopt him and bring him to the States.
     Roger, the message read. Don’t screem. Pamela ded. She run flat by car last night. I find her on street. What to do. Sori, love, Durbin.
     Roger’s world plunged into darkness. He felt dizzy. His hand flew to his chest.  He thought he was going to have a heart attack. He also noted how bad Durbin’s English was. If that Thai wasn’t so good with his hands….
     Pamela was a Siamese cat dear to his heart because she had saved him from becoming, literally, toast. In those days before Durbin, he lived alone and wanted a companion other than the occasional needy surfer. He was 50, loved ice cream and was deathly afraid of being featured in a news bulletin that read: “Cruise ship pianist found in his condo thirty days after suffering a massive coronary. The body was in an advanced state of decomposition.”
      A cat seemed a good idea. He went to a pet shop in Sawgrass Mills and found a sleek looking Siamese cat glaring haughtily at him from behind a Plexiglas cage. He liked her and bought her on the spot. He named her after Pamela Anderson for no particular reason.
     One early morning, Pamela woke him up from a deep slumber with a meowing that he only heard from cats in heat.  He smelt smoke. He saw something flickering on the table. A scented candle that he had left burning on his side table had flared up and set fire to the cloth cover. He quickly doused the fire, but not before the alarm had gone off and his nosy neighbor, Mrs. Shania Vain, had notified the Broward County fire brigade.
     He cherished Pamela even more after this incident. Sometimes cleaning up after her proved to be an annoying chore, but he never considered giving her up, not even when Durbin came to live with him and expressed a dislike for cats.
     “I no like cats,” whined Durbin.
     “Durbin,” Roger said firmly,” I’ve adopted you to live with me and Pamela, not the other way around. Live with it, or go back to Bangkok.”
     “Oh, she’s nice. Here Pam, here kitty kitty..”
     Now the cat was gone. What to do? Buy another one? Get a dog maybe? That will have to wait till he got home.
     He picked up his cell phone and called Durbin.
     “Durbin,” said Roger,” you can have Pamela cremated. No, don’t burn her yourself; bring her to the funeral parlor. Have her ashes placed in an urn and we’ll have a ceremony later. No, an urn is...they’ll know what to do. No it wasn’t your fault. Pamela had a mind of her own. She was probably looking for some action, the slut.”
     He listened to Durbin complain on the phone for a while, and then said goodbye.
     “She’s only a cat,” he sniffed.
     He finished and paid for his breakfast and ambled up the street towards the town square where souvenir vendors had set up their stalls. It was a hot morning. He sampled the goods on display, picking up a silver pendant here, touching a poncho there, and found them all tacky. He saw a ceramic cat painted in the gaudy native style and briefly considered buying it in memory of Pamela. “Fifty dollars?” he exclaimed when told the price. “You must be kidding,” he snorted and left. The Mexican vendor looked at him impassively.
     He found himself in a market shaded by large acacia trees. Crewmembers from ships often made their way here to buy cheap beer and carne asada. He had always disdained going into this place but he surprised himself now by going in and sitting at an unoccupied table.  Pamela’s death had produced a kind of stupor in his brain that made him compliant to wherever his feet led him to.
     He recognized some of the men dining there. They worked on the ship with him. They were surprised to see him there. They greeted each other with polite, impersonal nods. They considered Roger a snob.
      A waiter came over to him to ask him what he wanted. He ordered a Corona.  Flies buzzed about. They tried to land on his table, on his beer and on himself. Disgusting. Strangely, Pamela’s death seemed to have taken the edge out of his disgust. Today he could care less about flies or anything at all.
     A man from the next table was staring at him. He did not recognize him. He seemed to be local. He was slim, had dark hair and not bad looking.
     “You like da beer?” the man asked.
     “’S okay.”
     “Corona. Muy bueno. You from the chip?”
     “I’m a pianist. Musikero.”
     “Que bueno.  Where you from?
     “ Ju look  sad? Por que ? ” he asked.
     None of your business, Roger wanted to answer but found himself saying instead:
     “My cat died.”
     “Ah,” he said. “El gato. You love the cat?”
     “Yes, I loved the cat.”
     “Lo siento. Maybe you need something to cheer you up.”
     “What is that?”
     “Anything you want.”
     Anything I want, Roger thought. Right now I’d like to get on a plane and see to the remains of poor Pamela. He was worried that Durbin might forget that the ashes were Pamela’s and flush it all down the toilet. Why do I care so much about that darned cat, anyway? he asked himself.
     “Anything I want”, Roger repeated slowly.
     “Yes,” the man said, a big aw-shucks grin on  his face, “anything.”
     Roger considered this proposition briefly. He could a) say gracias, amigo and leave that place immediately or b) stay and find out where this all led to.
     He chose to stay.
     “Okay, I’m game,” Roger said.
     The man winked at him, stood up and walked out with a sidelong movement of his head that said,”Let’s go.” Roger paid for his beer and followed him. The man was waiting for him outside the market.
    “My name is José,” the man said.
   “ Uhhum,” murmured Roger.
   José led Roger to a café further down the road and into a backroom.
   He produced a plastic sachet.
   “Is good stuff, man.”
The stuff looked like macerated dark-green tea leaves.
   “How much?”
   “Fifty bucks.”
   “I’ll take it.”
     There was no hesitation in Roger’s voice. He gave the man his fifty dollars and put the sachet in his side pocket.
     “Is good stuff, man,” the man who called himself José repeated. Roger merely grunted in reply and went out of the café. He did not see José smile a strange kind of smile that was more like a serpent’s than anything else.
     Roger went out into the street astonished at what he had done. He, the star and toast of the M/V Mississippi Mermaid, had broken the law and was actually thrilled by it. Surprise gave way to exhilaration, then doubt.
     “What have I done?” he thought.
     Then: “What if I get caught?”
     His senses were alive with the thrill of the transaction.  The longer he strolled about, the less worried he became about ship’s security. What he had in his pocket was little more than a gram of the “stuff”. Besides, he was a guest entertainer. He was ship’s nobility. Security would automatically wave him through.
     To calm his nerves and delay his inevitable return to the ship, he took a taxi to the other side of the island where the Mayan temple rose above the turquoise waters of the Caribbean. He took a dip in the sandy area between the ruins of the temple of the moon goddess and the observatory. The ocean felt cool and cleansing. When he left to take a taxi back to the pier, the swim seemed to have washed away whatever apprehension he felt about “the stuff” in his pocket. There will be a burnt offering tonight for Pamela’s feline soul. The idea was slowly growing in his mind that maybe one cat was enough in his life. A Shih Tzu or a terrier would probably do just fine as Pamela’s replacement. Durbin would be thrilled.
     After he had paid the taxi and gone up the ship’s gangway, he immediately saw the dog, an ordinary tan mongrel, sitting quietly on the floor beside the entry-pass machine. Beside him stood a short, fat Mexican policeman who was talking with Phil, the tall, Irish chief of security of the ship.
     “What’s that dog doing there?” Roger wondered.
     The dog suddenly jumped up and started barking furiously at him. Momentarily freed from its leash, it made straight for Roger’s side pocket, not biting but pawing at it as if trying to dig something out. Then it stopped and sat whining at Roger’s feet, eagerly thumping its tail on the floor, its nose quivering with the scent of discovery. The officers turned to stare at him.
     At that instant, Roger swore, in his heart of hearts, that he would never, ever take a dog for a pet even if they put him in jail.

(This short story can be found in the book: "Footprints: Travels of a Cruise Ship Musician" available at  in both printed and ebook editions.)

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