Fiction by M Teresa Clayton
"Black cats... unlucky, that's what they say about 'em. Don't let one cross your path." The old man was almost faced- down in his drink... "They say, if one steps in front of you, just turn around and walk th' other away. Whatever you do, don't look back!"
"Harry, what the hell is he talking about?" Someone shouted from the other end of the bar.
The dust covered bottles that lined up in front of the mirror had long forgotten how to reflect their sharp staggering images. The mirror itself was covered in a brownish yellow film from years of heavy smoke and the occasional thrown drink. There was a crack that splintered from the bottom, across the last third of the mirror and out the top. If you looked at it just right, tilting your head a little to your left and squinting your eyes slightly, it looked like an old woman hunched over, in silhouette.
The bar was long and ran the length of the room. Three tables, each one had a matchbook under one leg for balance, with mismatched chairs were lined up along the facing wall. There was barely enough room for a man to walk between the tables and bar stools. Maybe this was done on purpose. It stood to reason that you could get shit-faced drunk and still be able to stagger upright to the loo without once losing your footing.
Tess was a regular here. An attractive woman, she never seemed to sit on her stool, but rather perched there; her long legs pooling over the edge of the seat. She came in about ten every evening to mingle with the other well established members of this lonely loser's club. She always left alone.
Marv and Al were roommates living in the apartment above the tavern. They came in every night for exactly four beers each before politely excusing themselves and heading upstairs. It had been decided years ago that the two were much more than roomies, though it was never confirmed.
Burt was a large man. He held court every night at the far end of the bar. His seat was sagging from years of abuse from his ample backside. It was also the only bar-chair in the place, made of imitation black leather, with a swivel! He expounded on a multitude of trivia without much debate. It wasn't like Burt to ever sit quietly and listen to the jabber amongst the other barflies. He was a book of useless information.
There were several others who would stagger in on their way to another bar two blocks away. There seemed to be a tavern on every other corner in this part of the city and the drunks would work up a thirst meandering from place to place. Eventually they would have to find a comfortable spot to lie down and snooze it off. Park benches were definitely out of the question, as were sidewalks; loitering was breaking the law. However, on cold winter nights, it behooved a sotted soul to be carted off to the pokey for the guarantee of a warm shelf to lie on and a dried up cake donut with black coffee in the morning before they were shuffled back out onto the streets.
I was a newbie. Not new to drinking, just new to this part of town. This made my third visit to Harry's Hangout on the corner of Hample and McArdle Street. This tavern didn't look much different from any other on the north side of town, but those others didn't have Tess.
I was put out of the house by my, now pending, fourth ex-wife. Jobless and unmotivated, I managed to set up temporary housing at the shelter several blocks away. "Getting on my feet." I assured the man at the reception desk of what was once a cozy hotel lobby before becoming the Saving Souls Mission. Yeah, right.
My first wife ran away with my best friend, my second with my sanity, the third with her best friend and the fourth was making away with my soul. I didn't have anything else to save.
The only thing I made away with was two plaid shirts, one pair of jeans and one pair of underwear. I managed to get my shoes but totally forgot about socks. The young lady I was with that night barely got out alive.
"Black cats? What does this guy have against black cats?" the question on everyone's mind was finally thrown out there by someone at the bar.
The old man at the far table looked like death warmed over. He kept up his sermon on black cats all evening, stopping long enough to throw a glance Tess' way.
Who wouldn't want to look at her? She was stunning and definitely out of place here in Harry's Hangout. Still, she didn't really seem all that interested in me or anyone else here. Try as I might to make conversation she always gave me the standard two or three word answers. Definitely, not interested.
Harry hobbled his way down to Burt and replaced his empty bottle with a new cold one. Without so much as a word, Harry picked up two quarters from the bar top in front of Burt.
Turning to make his way back down the length of the bar to the cash-register he looked up at Marv and answered, "I have no idea, he's been babbling about cats for two weeks now!"
I asked Harry what the old man's name was.
"That's Charley." He grunted. "He must have got hold of somethin' bad about two weeks ago. He came in here one morning shakin', eye's lookin' a little crazy, and talkin' 'bout some kinda shape-shiftin' he saw the night before out back in the alley."
Something... bad? Did I hear him right? "Drugs?" I asked.
"That or somethin' worse." Harry chuckled. "He was never nothin' but a drunk so far as I know, but the story he told me was outta-this-world! Must be drugs or the man's brain just shorted out!"
"Superstitions!" Tess spoke out from behind her Gin- Rickey with a slice of lime.
Charley froze and stared at Tess for a moment then looked down. Did I see a hint of fear on his face?
"Something about a black cat, a woman, drums, and then she just vanished into thin air! Bam! Gone!" Harry shook his head, "I dunno, it was some sort of hallucination if you ask me."
"Is the whiskey goin' bad?" Al suggested.
"That man's insides are pickled in cheap alcohol!" laughed Harry. "It ain't the whiskey... no, this ain't nothin' of the drinking variety."
I looked over my shoulder toward the man slumped down in his chair. Charley. He seemed like any other drunk I'd ever seen, maybe he was just misunderstood. Lord knows I was misunderstood. We had something in common, so I ordered two shots of the cheap stuff with beer chasers. I had a story to listen to...
"Heard you had an encounter with a black cat!" I spoke as I sat down across from him, "Name's Jack, glad to make your acquaintance." I extended my hand for a shake. He just looked up at me and squinted his eyes for a moment.
"Yes sir!" he said after a long pause to size me up, "Cat- woman. That she was!"
"A cat-woman you say? I'm all ears, Charley... and I'm not superstitious... tell me about your black cat-woman." I prodded him.
"I'll admit I was sotted, but no more than usual and I don't do no drugs!" he assured me in a stern voice, pausing long enough to shoot Harry a look before he continued. "I'm not crazy either!"
I wasn't so sure, but I'd sit through anything at this point to cut the boredom. And, it didn't look like I was getting anywhere with Tess.
Charley's story started with a whispered introduction, "It was closing time and I knew I'd have to find a spot out back and hunker down 'till mornin'. There are a few guys who make it a regular habit to get some shut-eye in the condemned remnants of the garage behind the bar, but it was such a nice night and the moon was full... I decided to catch some Z's in the alleyway that night so I pulled some bags outta the dumpster and made me a pillow to lay my head on..."
Charley took a deep breath and coughed. Was it my imagination or was he aging right in front of me? I decided it must be the light, or lack thereof, back here in the corner.
"It was about three o'clock in the morning," he continued, "and I was staring up at the most beautiful sky I'd seen in years. It was so... peaceful..." He stopped and threw back the shot of whiskey, then wiped at his mouth with the back of his hand. "The full moon was casting odd shadows in the alleyway. Hadn't really noticed it before, but then, who am I but an old drunkard barely capable of noticing whether or not I've pissed myself."
Charley stopped and tilted his head as if he were listening for something. I watched him closely for a moment and noticed a small twitch run across his face.
"Charley, you okay?" I asked him.
"I'm fine," he assured me and went on with the story, "I had this edgy feeling, like you get just before someone hits you over the head and runs away with your last dollar. You get a sixth sense about things when you take to the streets."
Charley looked up at me for some sort of validation before continuing. "Though the alley was glowing under the moon's light, there seemed to be something moving in the shadows. I couldn't get a focus on it. It kept moving from one side of the alley to the other, crouched low, and coming closer."
I could see that Charley's hand was shaking. He hesitated, seeming to catch his breath, "I don't remember passing out there, nor waking up! It was more like I was hypnotized or somethin'. Again, Charley looked up. He didn't see me this time; he was looking in Tess' direction. I let my eyes follow his. Tess was still facing the bar seemingly disinterested with Charley's story. Harry was busily emptying ash trays. Marv and Al were silent and still. Burt was mumbling to himself about some war.
"I listened for some sort of clue but couldn't hear nothin' out of the ordinary..." Charlie explained. "I gotta tell ya, son, I was shaking like an old man with palsy! I could sense it, there was something coming and it was getting closer." Again Charley stopped to listen. His hand was shaking noticeably now.
I called over my shoulder for Harry to bring us another shot of whiskey. The story was getting interesting and I wanted the storyteller to relax and remember every detail.
Charley coughed hard a few times. I thought he might have actually spit up into his lap. Then he spoke, "Out of the blue I heard this high shrill scream. It didn't stop either. I wanted to cover my ears but couldn't move my arms. That awful sound would fade a bit and then come on strong again. Sounded like one of them hyenas at the zoo...or a cat being gutted...a cat...black cat..." he coughed again and slammed back his shot of whiskey.
The old man closed his eyes and when he opened them again I could see the popped blood vessels turning the whites of his eyes to red. He stared into space without batting an eye. I thought I'd lost him there. I waved my hand in front of his face and his lower lip began to tremble. He sucked in a long breath and looked directly into my eyes. "...then the screeching stopped cold."
Charley's eyes were taking on the look of madness, "She crawled slowly out of one of those darkened doorways and into the middle of the alley where she slowly crouched down like she was getting ready to pounce. She was staring directly at me. I couldn't move. I was afraid to move. I felt like a mouse being tested by a hungry cat."
"So, it was a cat?" I asked, "A black cat?"
"No ordinary cat, no sireeee..." he corrected. "A cat the size of a carnival pony! Biggest panther I'd ever laid eyes on and black as onyx." He sucked in another breath. "I could see her powerful shoulders twitch a little every time I exhaled. The moonlight reflected off the glossy shine of her sleek black hair. She flipped her tail carelessly to the left and then to the right."
He swallowed hard and continued, "Her eyes were reflecting the light like hundreds of sparkling emeralds... She didn't move for a long time; just kept staring at me."
I noticed Charley was sweating so much that it was now dripping off his chin and onto the table. He took a hanky out of his shirt pocket and wiped it across his forehead once, then folded it and wiped at his chin before returning it to its cubby- hole.
The room didn't feel especially warm to me. I looked to see if anyone else was showing signs of being hot. The room felt eerily distant. No one in the bar was talking. Perhaps they were listening to the story. Yet, no one moved to light a cigarette or to take a swig of their beer. The room looked unreal... staged.
I turned back to Charley and motioned for him to continue. He shook his head and took another rattled breath. "It was like watching a movie in slow motion as she got to her feet. It was hot as hell in that alley. I don't know if the night air had gotten warmer or if I was just hot from my incessant shaking. Gotta tell ya, pal, even my toes were vibrating."
There was a small thread of blood trickling from his right eye and gathering in one of the creases that ran down the side of his nose. I wanted to stop him but couldn't make the words exit my mouth. I felt like I was under his spell.
He shuddered once and gasped, "The air... I couldn't breathe. I was choking and I could feel something being pulled from my chest."
Charley put his hand up to his throat for a moment as if he was reliving it. "I kept thinking to myself, if only I could move my feet and run. I was frozen like a statue to the place where I was. The panther grunted out a couple of breaths... oomph, oomph, oomph, and then she threw her head up and stood on her back legs."
Charley shook his head and began to speak slower, more deliberately, "As she took one step toward me I noticed something happening to her skin, it was changing. It seemed...it looked like it was beginning to liquefy. Every step forward produced more and more of that black inky fluid."
The old storyteller's voice began to crack, "She was a huge beast standing there before me. Almost the size of a bear and then, in the blink of an eye, she morphed into the shape of a woman! I couldn't believe my eyes, she was beautiful!"
My eyes didn't leave the old man for a second, "Did you say... woman?"
I looked around the bar and nobody seemed moved. Not one sound could be heard from the otherwise talkative Burt. Everyone was in the trance, except for me. "What's going on here?" I shouted into the muted silence. "What is this all about?" The room seemed to be closing in around me.
I turned back around to Charley who was beginning to look very gray in the dim light of the room. I started to lean forward to speak to him when he began again. "She was a raven-haired beauty," he whispered as if he could see her standing right behind me. "Her skin was as white as alabaster; opalescent and almost translucent it was."
"I knew better than to touch her, yet my hand was reaching out for her in spite of it. She was so near that I could hear her panting and feel her exotic breath on me." Charley's hand was now at his chest and he was fingering the collar of his shirt. The sweat was still dripping from his chin onto his hand and running down his elbow and onto the tabletop.
"She danced... for me." He choked the words out. "It felt good... whatever she was doing to me there, didn't matter, it felt so good."
"Are you okay, Charley?" I asked him. "Do you need a glass of water?" I turned to see if someone was coming to help. No one moved.
"She danced and danced." Charley was breathing hard. "And she was using me. ME! She was sucking... the life... right out... of me!" The old man's eyes were rolling upwards and his mouth began to contort.
I jumped up and quickly made my way around the bar. I filled a glass with water from the sink for Charley and thought I must be in some sort of dream myself or something out of this world... and then I could hear it; the soft motor breathing of a cat's purr. Not a small house-cat purr... something... larger.
I froze. "Harry? Did you hear that? I asked over my shoulder. "Can anyone hear that?"
No one responded. The mannequins at the bar did not move. I found myself glued to the floor in front of the table as Charley stood up. "Charley?" I asked. "Sit down, take a sip of this and sit back down. You don't look so good."
The storyteller was getting paler and his face was becoming more drawn by the second. He was beginning to drool.
He coughed once more and wiped his chin with his hand again. "I heard music." He said. "Some sort of eerie low pipe sound and drumming. The drums were beating faster and then faster again. Her body was limber and bending into positions I didn't think the human body could conform to, but I don't think she WAS human. Not human at all."
His breathing was becoming labored. "The shadows seem to be dancing with her there in the alleyway. All the while, she was throwing her head back and writhing like a voodoo priestess before a sacrificial fire. I remember thinking that I might be the sacrifice that night, but she no longer seemed to even notice me there. She had what she came for."
He turned and looked one more time into my eyes before collapsing onto the bar-room floor.
The vacuum in the room seemed to be pulling at my chest and was becoming unbearable and then, at once, released me. The overhead lights flickered. Suddenly the tavern was alive again.
The lights flickered once more and Burt's engine roared to life. "Panthers don't come to the city!" he preached, "They keep to themselves up there in the hills; nothing down here for them, if they know what's good for them."
Marv and Al rose from their stools. Marv took his dollar bill off the bar leaving the change for Harry. "See ya, old man.
Time to go... morning comes early!" Al attempted a small wave and turned to follow his roommate out the door.
"SOMEONE HELP ME!" I shouted. Charley's eyes rolled under the loose skin of his eyes before they opened and focused on something behind me.
Harry was yelling into the phone on the back counter near the cash register. "Might be a heart-attack, hurry!" then slammed the phone back onto its cradle.
Charley coughed a couple of times and then his eyes fixed in their sockets. He was gone.
I stood up holding on to the back of my chair for support. It felt like my own legs had gone to rubber. "He's gone, Harry." I turned to see Harry's face a little paler; his eyes had that hint of craziness behind them.
Harry turned his head toward the spot where Tess had been sitting. She was nowhere in sight. Her drink sat on the bar untouched and there wasn't even the slightest hint that she'd ever been there.
"Where is she?" I asked. "Where did she go?" "Who?" Harry answered looking blank.
"Tess. Did she leave?" I inquired again.
"I don't know no Tess." Harry answered plainly. He had the look of shell-shock all over him. "There wasn't no girl here."
"Sure there was. She sat right here and this is her drink..." I insisted.
"No!" Harry screamed into my face. "NO GIRL!"
I could hear the sirens approaching in the distance. It wouldn't be long and the bar would be a bee-hive of questions.
"Harry... I saw her..." I whispered back to him, trying to make sense of all of this. "She was sitting right here... a dark haired woman, ivory skin, beautiful green eyes, long legs..."
Just then I saw it move, in the shadows near the back door; a large black cat running into the alleyway.
Three Months Later
"Hey Harry! Nice evening!" I greeted him as I stumbled through the door. "Marv... Al... How's everyone doing tonight?"
Al nodded and Marv beamed his yellow smile while asking Harry to set one up for me.
"Thanks Marv." I stammered. I was already three sheets in the wind by this time every night. This would be my last stop before I'd have to find a place to park myself and sleep it off.
Burt was expounding on the right to bear arms and how we needed to protect ourselves from E.T.'s because the government wasn't doing nothin' about 'em. "As a matter of fact, they are giving them food and shelter in exchange for uranium!" he quipped.
I took my shot of whiskey and beer chaser over to the back table and sat myself down in Charley's old seat. It was mine now. I was the storyteller.
I let my chin fall to my chest and let out a big sigh. It was almost time to close and I needed to get out back and dig for a bag of garbage to lay my head on.
I remember mumbling something to myself about black cats...