These are unusual times. We’re isolated. Apart from each other. Searching for something that will help us maintain our sanity. My oldest granddaughter came up with a super suggestion. “Why don’t we write a story together? I’ll contribute a few paragraphs, then you take the story up from there. Turn it back over to me and I will follow your contribution with more….and we’ll just see where it goes from there.” So we did. And this is the result. It was fun! And it was brain-stimulating as well. So here it is in its entirety. I hope you enjoy reading it as much as we enjoyed writing it.
Melanie, or Mel to her dwindling network of friends, spent most of her days in a minimalistic apartment hugged by eggshell white and empty walls. It’s rarely dark, but it’s never bright, as she enjoys the unchallenging neutral color of cream. Décor to her means a half dead plant on a wooden stand damaged by a rather large network of water ring stains. Those stains, oddly enough, are a point of pride to her as it proves at one time she was at least trying. Her laptop showed its age by its weight. Her legs go numb as she sits crossed-legged on a hand-me-down couch pounding away on a keyboard where the space bar doesn’t respond a majority of the time. Mel would never dare label herself a workaholic. However, as her days slide from one to the other, face constantly illuminated by technology, the truth is intolerably clear to her roommate. Hank remembers taking naps where the computer now sits all the time. And where Mel sits like a Buddha, cross-legged, engrossed as usual in social media. Facebook, maybe. More than likely e-mail.
Time now is measured in BC and AC…Before Computer and After Computer. When they met three months ago, thanks to the ad in The Village Voice–“single woman seeking roommate to share two-bedroom flat in Chelsea”–it was BC. Melanie insisted that they talk over lunch from a little deli just beneath the High Line not far from her office in Chelsea. Hank was good with that. Even though it was mid-October the days were warm, the sun brilliant. They grabbed a table under the stairs leading to the High Line and spent two hours talking about Sundays in The Park. The Philharmonic. Free exhibits at MOMA. Even crowded subways. Noise. Traffic. Likes and dislikes. All alike.
“You can see the apartment tomorrow since I don’t work Saturdays. And if you approve, you can move in the following week.”
Price was right. Location great. Simple as that. “Wow. Must be Karma,”Hank thought. A laugh, an awkward handshake, and the Saturday date was sealed.
As fed up as Hank was, he was also a devastatingly non-confrontational person. He would rather leave a chair parked on his foot than look at the offender and ask them to move. He did, however, specialize in the fine art of a singular form of passive aggressiveness, one in which he would have plausible deniability to. He read through the lease and solidified his plan.
When the two spoke about this seemingly perfect arrangement, no one ever brought up pets. Neither had one to begin with, probably because taking a dog out in inclement weather isn’t anyone’s idea of a pleasant experience. No go for a dog. Fish were far too inconspicuous; birds were too expensive, and rats were pretty much a communal pet in New York City anyway. This left one perfect retaliation animal: a cat.
Hank marched out of the apartment unnoticed and imbued with a sense of karmic pride. He didn’t search the ads for this roommate. His weapon of mass distraction needed a personality of a road-tested trucker hopped up on cheap gas station energy pills. Savvy, savage, and painfully independent, this cat’s origin story should be reminiscent of a Hunter S. Thompson novel.
Eyes narrowed to slits, evil seeping from the corners, Hank began his search for the perfect feline. Maybe one with an overbite like his own (his uncle once told him “Hank, with your overbite you could chew the bumper off a bus.”) Maybe a cat with toenails as long as Oriental opium scoops. Maybe a moldy beige like the monotonous monochrome apartment. Should be independent with an I-don’t-give-a-crap attitude. He forced a grin and nodded at his own astonishing intuitiveness.
Five pet stores and one shelter later, disappointed, frustrated, Hank stopped for a sandwich at Hale and Hearty. Noon and the place was packed with pasty-faced office workers. Seating only outside, the sign said. He frowned, grabbed his order from the clueless kid behind the counter and found a table on the sidewalk. Hunched over his lunch, he did what he should have done before he started this foolishness. He questioned the whole stupid idea.
“What the hell am I doing screwing with my own sanity just to get back at Mel and her indifference?” Fully half his tuna salad sandwich slid silently from the bun and plopped to the sidewalk. A swift flash of dusty orange from beneath the unoccupied table behind him and something invisible scrambled across his shoes.
Meanwhile, back at the apartment, Mel was furiously typing when everything went black. The rare, but familiar experience of feeling everything electric around you suddenly die, washed her in a mix of emotions. She hated being interrupted and losing control over how long that might be. However, maybe this was the universe shaking her out of her apartment.
She threw her tangled mess of hair in a bun and slipped on some shoes. On her way out, she caught her reflection. She wished she looked better, but deeper than that, she wished she cared enough to do something about it. Walking down the concrete steps with no plan other than to have sunlight touch her skin, she felt a pull towards some sort of peace.
As soon as her feet touched the sidewalk, she paused to close her eyes and take a deep breath. A series of taps right above her ankle jolted her eyes open and down. Peering back up at her was a pigeon. Not an unfamiliar sight in the city, but certainly odd for one to be so forward.
“What’s up little guy?” she asked receiving a series of coos and jerky head movements in response. “Nice day, huh? Well, have a fun day being a bird!” she said feeling a little dumb for conversing with a pigeon.
Mel started off on a walk but the pigeon remained by her side. She stopped periodically to look down— it would always be right there looking back, moving its head from side to side like a curious dog. Something about its black little eyes grabbed at her heart strings and she wondered what lengths the thing would go to follow her. She climbed the steps back to the apartment. It followed. She went into the apartment building, leaving the door open. The bird stopped there, and she laughed to herself at the absurdity of it all. But it suddenly became confident, crossing the threshold, taking its place at her feet once again.
“This is nuts.” Mel rubbed her eyes to make certain she wasn’t seeing things. Sure enough, the bird was still there, cooing, looking up at her–now and then fluffing its wings in a sort of “Hi, there.”
“What can I do for you, bird?” She sat on the edge of the chair in the entry hall to get a better look at the feathered visitor. It—he? she?–how do you tell the gender of a bird?–was fat and healthy. It didn’t show any sign of fright that a frizzy haired human was staring–hard–at it. In fact, it made itself at home, padding softly into the living room, bobbing its head as if approving of what it saw.
“Oh my God!” Mel’s hand flew to her throat. Just yesterday she had read a story online about a deceased relative appearing as a possum to some guy in the Bronx. He was certain it was Grandma Lilly. Everything about the animal spoke to that possibility. It was grey. It had a long snout and beady eyes. It snarled when it was angry.
“Could this be….no!…. maybe….no, it can’t be… arrrgggh! I’m crazy….I need to get out more.” Suddenly she heard Hank whistling his way up the stairs. “Oh, geez. What do I do now? How am I going to explain this to him?” She bent down closer to the bird. Closing her eyes, she whispered…. “Malcolm?”
Hank walked up to the apartment building. The box he had been struggling with was now eerily still. For the last four blocks or so, the thing contained within had been launching itself against the sides in an all-out assault for its freedom. Hank had to walk with concentration and purpose as the box balanced and unbalanced itself in quick succession. He was also losing the battle of ignorance towards the chilling low rumble growling sounds seeping from the box, as they did not seem to belong to an earthy creature.
His doubts about this plan were now sprouting shiny new doubts. It’s just, again, this seemed too perfect to not pursue. Yet upon further reflection, the last seemingly perfect thing is what led him down this path. But it had simply appeared. He had just changed his mind yet the universe opened a door and placed his desires at his feet. How could he disregard that? So he yelled for help. A few fellow empathetic diners rushed in. A waiter dashed inside for a box while two others helped Hank corner it. It clawed at the air, it hissed, it generally did not look like it was consenting to this capture. “You sure this is your cat, dude? Cause he doesn’t to be digging this?” a diner asked. Casually, Hank lied. “Oh yes. He’s a rescue. I’ve been trying to work with him.” After a heroic struggle which left two people bleeding and a small child in tears, the cat was in the box. The diner yelled “Good luck with demon Garfield.”
Now, standing in the shadow of his building, arms shaking and heart pounding, Hank dismissed his doubts and went up the steps. “Here goes nothing!” he sighed. As eager as he was to put the box down and massage his numb arms, he was equally uncertain what fate waited for him behind the apartment door. He had seen one of Melanie’s temper fits before and it wasn’t pretty.
“This could go either way,” he told himself, chewing thoughtfully on his lower lip. “I could be Napoleon at Waterloo or I could be Lincoln at Gettysburg.” There was no time to consider which one Fate had planned for him because–out of breath, disheveled, and exhausted–he was immediately in front of the apartment.
Behind the door, unaware that Hank was now outside in the hall, Mel scrambled to find something to do with the bird. The visitor obviously didn’t share any of the apprehension that electrified the air. It eluded Mel every time she lunged for it. Cooing and gurgling, the pigeon waddled from room to room, making itself totally at home. Like the man who came to dinner–and never left–the bird had decided this was where it belonged. If this were Marsden Hall, the rambling English estate once occupied by his ancestors, a butler would have approached him swiftly, gliding to a heel-clicking halt. “May I take your bags, M’lord?” From the drawing room would have come the welcome “Is that you, Malcolm, darling?”
But this was not Marsden Hall. It was not even England. It was a monochromatic apartment in Chelsea U.S.A. on an innocent Saturday in early fall. And it was the calm before a cataclysmic storm that was only seconds away.
Hank’s hand was on the doorknob, the box at his feet. Before he opened the door, he took note of whispers from within. While the walls tended to bleed sound, the door was a tunicate and he couldn’t parse anything other than frantic tones.
He opened the door to Mel duck-walking around the couch. As soon as it registered the door was open, she sprang upright.
“Uh, hi” she said breathlessly. Her eyes quickly changed from caught in the act to curiosity. “What’s in the box?” The previously still box was no longer still.
“Oh, ha, yeah it’s a…” and before he could get the sentence out, a pigeon confidently strode into view.
“Wait, what’s that?” Hank asked as the appearance of the pigeon nearly erased from his mind what he was holding.
Before anyone could explain themselves, the force within Hank’s box could be contained no longer and an angry orange streak shot through the folded top of the box like a signal flair. The cat landed between them, back up and claws out. There was a fleeting moment of calm when everyone’s eyes met in utter disbelief and worry. But the moment was just that, fleeting, and in the next breath, the room erupted into chaos.
Hank went for the cat, the cat went for the bird, the bird took flight and Mel screamed helplessly as she watched the melee. Feathers rained down on them as if their apartment was a snow globe and the universe gave it a cruel shake.
“What the hell, Mel, why is there a bird in here?” Hank screamed over the hissing and pounding wings.
“Why is there a cat in here, Hank?” Mel yelled back at him, frustrated.
The half dead plant was now fully dead as the cat knocked over the stand, using it to launch itself into the air. It had only been seconds, yet the destruction was mounting and the panic was palpable.
“I can’t believe you brought a bird in here without first asking me!” Hank angrily blew a pigeon feather off his upper lip.
“I…what? And why did you bring that vicious creature in here without notifying me that you were violating the lease?”
“Doing what? What the hell are you talking about? There’s no NO PET clause in that lease.” By now, Hank was in full attack mode– red-faced, feathers in his hair, claw marks bright red on his hands.
“Of course there is. Do you think I’m an idiot? I would never have a roommate without a NO PET clause in the lease.”
“Well, lady, you just did. And now I understand why your army of friends ran out on you. It’s your way or the highway, right?”
Suddenly a very British voice, clipped, slightly high-pitched, but unmistakably Coventry, interrupted. “I say, chaps. I thought this was such an ideal arrangement. I was gratified to be included. I’ve inspected the premises and find them to my liking…..but not with you two exploding on each other like a pair of faulty rockets.” The pigeon, by now perched on the back of the couch, bobbed its head and took a sideways step. “I insist that this folly stop.”
From the coffee table came another voice, unmistakably Bronx.
“Yeah! WTF! You took me away from my digs in Chelsea, smothered me in a box that smelled like pickles and dragged me here so I could be embarrassed by a bird. Get it together, dudes, or it’s gonna be lights out.”
Open-mouthed Melanie could only stare in disbelief. Hank fell back against the wall, eyes as big as dinner plates.
“Whasamattah? Cat got your tongue?” The naughty feline fell off the table laughing at his own irony.
The bird bobbed up and down, chuckling loudly. “One might think someone gave you the bird. Hohohohoho!”
Hank looked at Mel. Mel looked at Hank. Mel shrugged, Hank shook his head. There were no words. Silence except for a bird and a dusty orange cat laughing.
“I….I….” Hank began.
“And…and” Melanie interjected.
In the madness, Hank had forgotten to close the door and a man in a tailored black suit appeared. He was wearing thick black Ray-Ban’s and sported the most perfectly manicured goatee. Honestly, it didn’t seem natural for someone to put that much effort into their facial hair, but it wasn’t natural that animals were talking, so who knew what was possible at this point.
The man pressed something in his ear and said, “It’s happening in here as well. Send the team” and he walked away without acknowledging anyone in the room.
“Did you put something in the coffee this morning, cause I don’t get what’s happening here” Hank questioned.
“Your guess is as good as mine. Everything was normal until the power went out.”
Hank suddenly realized that it was darker than normal, and the air lacked a familiar electrical hum.
Suddenly three people dressed head to toe in white protective gear burst into the disheveled apartment— now extremely crowded. One was holding a metal cage and one a net. The other was clutching a cattle prod, poised and ready for battle. This seemed excessive to everyone in the room.
“Oh nah, nah, nah, unless they are putting you three in that thing, I’m outta here” the cat said frantically as it dashed for the door.
“What the devil is that thing?” the pigeon pointed a wing toward the menacing prod.
Dumfounded, Hank stammered out a halfhearted “What the hell is going on?”
“Stand clear, sir,” shouted a man wearing Hazmat gear as he lunged for the bird. But Malcolm was too swift. In an instant, he was out the front door, joining HST, the dusty orange cat, in a race for freedom.
In the clear air outside the apartment, Malcolm did a swift fly-by over HST. “Ta-ta, friend. It was a distinct pleasure. I have work to do on Lafayette’s statue in Liberty Park.” Hunter S. Thompson lifted a paw in a half-hearted wave. ‘Yeah. Same to ya. I’m gonna Uber back to my digs in Chelsea. Back to my stash in Cat Scratch City.”
Meanwhile, inside the apartment–which by now was eligible for aid as a disaster zone–three members of the City’s ECPS (Eco-Containment Prevention System) angrily discarded their protective gear.
“Well, sir, congratulations. You just successfully thwarted an extremely important ECPS mission. You’ve turned two alien beings equipped with human speech loose in America’s largest city.” He sneered. “Only Providence knows where they’ll strike next. They’ll do it again. They’ll succeed in jamming our energy grid and there’ll be hell to pay.”
Hank frowned. “Do I look like a fool? Come off it, man. The grid went dark because of summer overload. And not all beings converse like humans. Although their communication modalities are different, they do converse with each other. It just so happens that Melanie and I” Hank nodded in Mel’s direction “as eco-scientists are able to translate animal sounds into human modalities.”
“Huh? What did he just say?” Dumbfounded, the ECPS men backed slowly out of the apartment and tumbled down the stairs backwards.
Flicking a pigeon feather off a cushion, Hank collapsed on the sofa in an exhausted heap. Melanie, laughing, plopped down beside him.
“Communication modalities? Eco-scientists? Hank, you’re genius. Where did that come from?”
He grinned. “Third grade science book, I think.”
“Well done, dude!” She gave him a playful nudge.
“But really—what was the bird about? I mean, I get that we both have some ‘splainen to do” he said with a poorly executed Cuban accent “but that’s just a little odd.”
“Honestly, I don’t know. The thing followed me. I stepped outside for a walk, it tagged along back to the house. I may or may not have anthropomorphized him, but that doesn’t really matter since he ended up doing it himself” she explained. “The cat though, come on, that’s a major decision that we should have at least discussed.”
“It’s not like you were taking all that much time to talk to me about anything lately. You’re always hogging the couch, typing away and you snap at me when I want to watch a show. I guess I just wanted a buddy, a buddy who may or may not have been a murderous distraction that would have wreaked havoc on us both.”
“Bold move. I mean, I’m not going to argue. This day has been total insanity. I don’t know what really just happened or how life is going to be normal after this, but maybe we…I mean I…needed this to break the cycle” she sighed “whatever this was.”
“Yeah I kinda feel like my brain was put into a blender and then poured back into my skull. I don’t know if I should laugh, cry, hide, move to Mexico…cut my bangs.” He frowned, looking at her hair.
Mel laughed. “Sometimes when a girl gets stressed, she does weird things to her hair. Give me a break. I guess this means I have to shave it off now.”
The hum of electricity was back in the air but the lights weren’t on. They were shoulder to shoulder locked in a stare. Their eyes flickered with silent messages for what seemed like an eternity. Hank broke the stillness. “Did you get to finish your walk?”
“No, no I didn’t.”
“Wanna go grab a drink? I’m pretty sure the lights are on down the street.”
“Let me check this email first.”
“Oh no! Not that again.” Hank was suddenly jerked back to earth.
“Juuuuust kidding” Mel laughed. She grabbed his hand and yanked him off the couch.
“I wonder what fresh hell awaits us out there” he said.
“I don’t know, but I’m dying to find out.”