Winner: 3rd place in the 2015 Yorkfest Adult Literary Competition at Yorkarts, Pennsylvania
“That cat's going to die!” Moisture from her breath froze in the air as she looked down at me.
“His name’s Sheridan.” He purred and buried his nose in my armpit.
“I don't like lying and I don't lie to children, so believe me when I tell you Sheridan’s going to die out here!” She fastened the latches on her black fur coat.
“Momma won't let him in the house.”
“Why the hell not?”
“He got fleas over the summer.”
“Infested with fleas. He became infested over the summer. If you're ever going to make it out of this fourth rate neighborhood in this God-forsaken town you'd better start working on your speech, young lady.”
“He became infested with fleas over the summer so momma don't want—I mean doesn't want him in the house.”
“It's mid-January. The fleas have frozen to death by now, eggs and all. Is your mother a sadist?”
“Nope, Presbyterian. What's a sadist?”
“Never mind, but that cat's going to die, I’d bet my mink on it. Build him a little shelter underneath your porch so at least he stands a fighting chance.”
“Momma won’t allow it.”
“Then build it under my porch, I’ll allow it.”
I sucked on the scarf around my neck. “Can I come in, Miz Capone?”
“Sorry kid, I’m heading out for the evening.”
“I’m off to see some friends. And it’s where, not where to.”
“What do you do with your friends?”
She placed a pink cigarette with a shiny gold filter in the tip of a long black holder. “A little singing, a little dancing, a little recreational flirting—stuff you’re too young to hear about.”
“Can I come in your house tomorrow?”
She clicked open a silver lighter. “Sure, but not early, okay? I plan on being out late then sleeping late.” She pulled her hat tightly over her ears as a long shiny black car drove up to the sidewalk.
“Who's that?” I asked.
“What kind of friend?”
“The only kind worth having, kid—a rich one!”
The driver hopped out and opened the rear door. Once she sat inside, he shut it then hopped back in and drove off.
I put Sheridan down on the sidewalk then ran inside my house where I quickly got to work. First I went into the kitchen and emptied out the big cardboard box of food the church people had sent. Next I quietly opened a can of tuna. Our apartment was small—first floor one bedroom, no yard. Momma let me have the bedroom and she slept on the couch. That was fine with me cuz I didn’t wanna sleep on that couch—it was there when we moved in and it smelled funny. I didn’t have a bed but I did have a mattress I got to share with Sheridan until he got himself all flead-up.
I tip-toed into my room and grabbed my pillow, blanket, and Raggedy Ann then headed back outside, being careful not to wake up momma.
Building the shelter under Miz Capone’s porch wasn’t that hard. It was kinda fun. I slid the big box sideways all the way to the back, used two of its flaps as doors, and put my pillow inside. Then I laid the blanket over the whole thing to keep out the wind. Lastly I kissed Raggedy Ann, tucked her stuffing back in the hole in her neck then placed her on top of the pillow.
“Don’t be afraid, Annie, you won’t be alone for long. This is Sheridan’s new house. He’s gonna sleep in here with you tonight. Now be a brave little solider and don’t cry.”
I ran fast back into the house to get a bowl of water, but I was too fast and forgot to hold the door as it closed. It slammed loudly and momma woke up with a jolt, sending her into one of her sneezing fits.
“Lee? Is that you makin’ all that racket? What are you doin’?”
“Don’t you nothin’-momma me, little girl!” She wiped her nose quickly back and forth and pulled the hair away from her eyes. “What time is it?”
“Didn’t you have school today?”
“I did. I’m back.”
She picked up a glass of water next to the couch then searched the floor in front of her.
I pulled a small plastic bottle from in between the couch cushions. “Here ya go, momma.”
She snatched it from my fingers and popped open its cap. The pills rattled as she dumped a few into her hand. I hated that rattling.
“Now that I’m woken up, I may as well talk to you.”
“Enough with the sighing, and don’t give me that face of yers neither.” She dug through the ash tray on the floor for one that wasn’t all the way gone. There weren’t any. I had flushed them down the toilet.
“I spoke with yer father last night.”
My heart dropped into my shoes.
“Him and me are gonna give it another go. I think it’s the right thing to do.”
“But it isn’t! Momma, no! He’ll only mess us all up again. Please don’t let him come back, I don’t want him here!”
“He’s NOT coming back here.”
“We’re going out there.”
“We’re gonna go live with him. He’s got himself all cleaned up and bought a cozy little trailer in a respectable all-white park. It’ll be real nice, don’t you worry.”
“But I don’t wanna leave!” Tears welled up then gushed down my face. She’d done this before. Nothing with daddy ever worked.
“Now hushen you up! Don’t git all disobed’nt with me, it’s gonna be just fine.”
I sniffed hard and swallowed. “Where is he this time?”
“Little town called Briarwood.”
“Just over the border. He says it’s real nice, you’ll see.”
“The border between Indiana and Ohio.”
“We’re leaving the STATE?” I started crying uncontrollably. “Can I bring Sheridan?”
“Hell no! Daddy and me are gittin’ ourselves a fresh start. We don’t need no flea-catchin’ critters messin’ it up.”
“But I don’t wanna move! I don’t wanna leave my friends!”
“Now you listen here: yer gonna start a packin’ and git yer attitude in line. I ain’t puttin’ up with no drama. We’re gonna go move in with yer daddy and that’s that!”
I threw myself on the floor and kicked and screamed.
“Knock it off, Lee. Where’s momma’s brave little soldier, huh?”
The next day at Miz Capone’s house I told her about having to move. She made me a cup of hot chocolate and started painting my nails. I loved being at Miz Capone’s. Her house was filled with soft things. Soft chairs, soft pillows, carpets and curtains. The front room smelled like peppermint and lavender. Her kitchen didn’t have a table or dishes. Instead she kept a piano in there next to a day bed. She told me she always ordered take out and didn’t cook.
“I wasn’t put on this earth for my domestic talents, Lee,” she had said. “I’m more like a highly skilled hostess—an entertainer.”
Miz Capone entertained a lot. Her friends brought her flowers and little presents. I liked the ones who brought candy because she usually ended up giving it to me.
“I’m really gonna miss you when I leave,” I said as she glided clear polish on top of my right pinkie nail.
“I’ll probably miss you too. Didn’t know I had a maternal side until you knocked on my door.”
“What’s Ohio like?”
“Why do you want to know about Ohio?”
“Because that’s where momma’s moving us to.”
“Stop ending sentences with prepositions, dear. And Ohio’s a step in the wrong direction.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean if you want your life to get better you should be headed west not east. California—the place where they make all the movies. Hollywood—where there’s lots of opportunities for blondes like us.”
“But New York City is east, right? Aren’t there lots of opportunities there?”
“Of course, but New York’s a much tougher town to break into. Hollywood’s a bit easier. Never go for first best when second best is easier and just as good. Plus it’s warm there all year round. That’s where I’m headed.”
“Soon. I have a few ties to break here, but once I’m done I’m off to Tinsel Town, kid. Bright lights, clear swimming pools and red carpets to snag with my heels!”
“Maybe that’s the place for me.”
She lifted my chin with her soft fingers and looked me in the eyes. “Make it a goal and it will be. Don’t let anyone get in your way—ever, and find me when you get there.”
She finished my pinkie and I blew on it to dry.
“Miz Capone, can I ask you a favor?”
“I’m not taking in that cat.”
“But why? You’re ain’t allergic, are you?”
“Don’t say ain’t.”
“You’re not allergic, are you?”
“Give me five minutes, I’ll practice developing an allergy.”
“Please?” I begged.
“Pretty please?” I begged harder.
“I can’t, Lee, I just can’t. I’m out all the time. I prefer wearing animals to feeding them. It would die of thirst. I don’t do vet bills. It would spray. I can’t have it shedding all over the place. It would claw up my stockings and urinate in corners. I’d step on it while drunk. I don’t even know its name.”
“Right, I don’t know Sheridan’s name.”
“But he’ll die outside if someone doesn’t take care of him!”
“I’m sure he’ll be fine.”
“But you said…”
“I know what I said, but Spring’s right around the corner.”
“Many months from now.”
“Yes, any day now. Soon he’ll be munching on mice and baby birds and lapping up rainwater.”
I felt my cheeks turning red. I didn’t expect this. Not from Miz Capone—the one person on which I thought I could count. I knew she’d say no in the beginning, but I thought it was the type of no that she’d take back when she caved in and said yes! By the expression on her face she wasn’t changing her mind.
“I thought you were my friend.”
“Lee, I am your friend.”
“No you’re not! You’re just as bad and mean as everyone else!” I got up from her couch and stomped over to the door, hoping to get out of her house before tears burst from my eyes. “I’m glad we’re moving. I hate you and don’t ever wanna see you again!”
I stomped down her porch steps and up my own. This was the worst day of my life!
Two days later was the worst day of my life since the last worst day of my life because it was moving day, and moving day was always the worst day of my life. Momma had wasted no time in packing the few things she wanted to take. She always left lots of stuff behind whenever we moved. I finished packing my suitcase and thought about getting Raggedy Ann. I didn’t wanna leave Sheridan all by himself, but if he died then Raggedy Ann would be by herself and that wouldn’t be fair to her. I also thought about apologizing to Miz Capone before we left, but I was still so mad at her.
Momma called out, “Come on, let’s git goin’! That bus leaves in half an hour.”
Goodbye mattress, goodbye room. Goodbye kitchen with dirty dishes and gnats in the sink. Goodbye smelly old somebody else’s couch.
My heavy suitcase thumped down the porch steps. “Gimme one second, I wanna say goodbye to Sheridan.”
I crawled underneath Miz Capone’s porch, lifted the blanket and opened the cardboard door but Sheridan wasn’t there. I looked out in the street and thankfully didn’t see a smooshed-up cat body. His water dish was frozen solid and I pictured his poor little tongue getting stuck to the ice when he tried to get a drink. Raggedy Ann shivered on my pillow, all by herself. Sheridan didn’t usually go far. This was bad.
“Sheridan!” I called out. “Here, kitty boy-boy! Where are you?”
“Lee, I said we have to go. Now quit yer foolin’ ’round!”
“Don’t you but-momma me, come on!”
I didn’t know if my swollen eyes could take any more tears.
I peeled Raggedy Ann’s frozen body from the pillow, tucked her under my arm, and crawled back to the sidewalk.
As I stood up and brushed dead leaves from my knees, I glanced at Miz Capone’s house. She was standing inside her front window and to my surprise, Sheridan was in her arms! He looked happy. I mouthed the words ‘thank you.’ She blew me a kiss and winked.
Dragging my suitcase behind me, I followed momma down the street toward the bus station. Suddenly I felt better, stronger. As long as Sheridan was safe and warm I’d be safe and warm too—not on the outside, but on the inside. And maybe someday I’d get to Hollywood. No, not maybe, definitely. Definitely someday when I go to Hollywood I’ll look up Sheridan and Miz Coco Capone. They’ll take me in for a few days. We’ll drink hot chocolate and talk about old times: rich friends with flowers, soft curtains and carpets, shiny black cars and freezing cold Indiana porches.