Tommy stood over a cast-iron skillet of sizzling butter, rosemary and garlic. Suzie stood in the doorway watching, confused. She folded up her resume and stuffed it into the pocket of her down vest and forgot that she was here for a job.
Tommy waved the smoke toward his nose, which twitched like an animal’s. His thick fingers, chewed nails and stubbled chin, the smells that hung in the air – all of it made her uneasy. She felt an unfamiliar clench and pull, just above her pelvic bone, of fear and attraction. She forgot to chew her gum. Her mind went blurry. Her body focused sharply.
Tommy raised his eyes and Suzie could feel him sizing her up. She worried if he had noticed how her chest was narrower than her waist, or if he could tell that she was just eighteen. He smiled at her, then back down at the plump, raw scallops that sat on a metal dish in front of him. She was aware of just tipping over a cliff that she wanted to fall off of, whatever lay below, the ocean, rocks.
Placing the raw scallops, one at a time into the hot pan, he pressed them into the butter so that they spit and sizzled. He turned one over and Suzie could see the crisp edges of a perfect sear, the flecks of brown butter across the scallops’ white cheeks. The chef’s grin, sweet and terrifying, hovered in the smoke as if he were about to laugh. She felt herself being pulled like a kite, pulled and pulled.
He took down two bowls, ladled stew into them and placed a single, perfect scallop in the middle, pouring a circle of cream around each scallop like a fence.
“Bouillabaisse,” was the first word he said to her, handing her a bowl. Did he know who she was, that she was just a stranger looking for a waitress job? Did he think she was someone else?
“Bouillabaisse,” she whispered. The ceramic bowl felt warm like a bird just fallen from its nest. She could almost feel its heartbeat. Tommy wiped his hands on his apron. They took up their spoons and stood, staring at each other, bringing spoonful after spoonful, wordlessly to their mouths.
By the time she swallowed the last bite Suzie had been permanently seduced. She would work whatever hours he offered her, for whatever pay. She knew, like a surprise, that she was the kind of girl who would be loyal to someone who never cared about her loyalty. In retrospect, she’d known it all along – that she would not be able to make demands of him. The hair sprouting from his nostrils, the smear of something oily across his T-shirt, the crumb of butter she only just now noticed in the stubble by the joint of his lips that were smiling at her crookedly … she was done. He had finished her.
As she filled out her W-4 form in his office, Tommy said, “There’s no ingredient beneath contempt. A real chef can make the plainest thing sing like a truffle.” He wiggled his eyebrows at her, causing her to blush and keep her head down over her paperwork.
College was starting for Suzie in a couple of weeks. Because she needed money, she didn’t mind being put on brunches at Q, even though they were exhausting. Lines of people stretched around the block. Brunch customers were needy, asking for extra butter and endless coffee refills. They demanded little cold pitchers of milk next to warm pitchers of maple syrup. They would ask, “Is the orange juice fresh?” in a way that implied they were emotionally invested in the answer. Suzie memorized lists of exotic herbal teas to recite like a litany. “Lavender, peppermint, jasmine,” she would intone, “Golden chrysanthemum, blood orange.” What was she praying for?
By the end of brunch shifts, Suzie was sticky from artisanal jam. Her hair was sweated down. Her hands smelled of coffee grounds and wet rags. As the last customers filed out onto Hudson Street, their expensive coats from Barney’s draped over their drowsy, super-skinny frames, she felt like slapping someone.
On weekend mornings when she left her shared apartment near Bryant Park, it was still dark out. Suzie watched a doorman down the block, in full doorman regalia, hunting among the rain-soaked garbage bags, stabbing at rats with an improvised spear, while the rats did figure-eights just out of his reach. At first it shocked her, but becoming a New Yorker meant accepting that there were rats in the city, emerging before the sun rose. She was proud that it didn’t fluster her, except for the one time that the doorman actually hit one with his spear. Then she had looked away.
Q sat amidst the cobblestones of TriBeca just below Canal. Suzie walked past Bryant Park and West across Times Square, empty on early weekend mornings, with litter blowing through the streets. She headed down and West, through Chinatown, where plastic Lucky Cats sat in every shop window, their left paws bobbing back and forth, promising prosperity to everyone, over and over again, offering a constant, factory-made benediction to the people and litter and vermin skittering past.
The probability that there were rats in Q’s basement didn’t worry Suzy (she was sure there were), nor did it stop beautiful people from swarming the place. All restaurants in New York City probably had rats, and people weren’t going to cook for themselves.
The customers in TriBeca were different from the ones in Bryant Park where she had worked bussing table. There were no scrubbed up tourists in TriBeca, no crowds on the sidewalk gawking. Here there were movie stars and models and bankers who lined up at Q for huevos rancheros, for the ten-inch tall slices of carrot cake that fell over with a whipped cream pouf when the waitresses slid them onto plates.
Tommy told Suzie, “Ignore the stars. Treat them like everyone else or they’ll stop coming here.” It was easy for her to ignore them. She was focused elsewhere, on the just-about-to-be-ness of her life that she couldn’t yet name. She ignored, too, the giraffe-like models with enormous rings and bracelets like pieces of turquoise-studded armor. Tommy was right. Famous people liked to be ignored. They came back with their famous friends and their neglected children, and sipped Bloody Mary’s garnished with pickled okra. They ran their beautiful fingers, manicured by strangers, along the empty plates that had once held apple pie. They sucked the sugar and butter off those finger-tips while they made deals and looked at the nannies disdainfully when their own children made too much noise.
They slept together once, Suzie and Tommy, right after he hired her, but it hadn’t stuck. It happened late one night after a dinner shift she covered for someone. They were the last two in the restaurant and Tommy pulled down the metal bars over the windows and locked them. Then he brought out a bottle of Jägermeister and poured them each half a coffee cup full. “Drink it like a shot,” he told her. She spit out her Trident gum and they tipped their mugs back. Suzie marveled at the sugary mixture of licorice and tar. It felt brave, experimental. They walked to his apartment around the corner and up the three flights of stairs. She hovered in the no-man’s land between giggles and sighs.
Her expectations about sex with Tommy (or anyone for that matter) were murky, but still it wasn’t the way Suzie had imagined it would be. Tommy gently removed her glasses and held her face with both hands and smiled down into it like she was a poaching egg in softly boiling water. She chose to trust him. He was so gentle with eggs, pushing his calloused finger-tips into their yolky-hearts to see if they were ready. His fingers barely left an imprint on them. Like a blind man, he could sense when they would ooze properly if pierced with a fork. Suzie gave herself over and he was kind, kinder than she’d expected. He was. Yes. He was kind to her.
After they slept together, she didn’t know what to do, how to take their relationship from one thing to something else. She had hoped the sex would change things automatically, but when it became clear that she would have to do something to make it so, she knew she wouldn’t be able to pull it off. She didn’t even know what to try. Should she be bossy? Elusive? She felt like a used car salesman unable to close a deal, awkward and stupid and desperate.
When it was time for her to work with Tommy again after the sex, she stole some of her roommate’s expensive conditioner, but Tommy treated her just like he always had, ignoring her for most of the shift, and then asking her to smoke with him afterwards. Their friendship absorbed the one time they slept together, and Suzie decided that friendship with Tommy was enough, was what she had wanted from him in the first place anyway. Things just fell back to how they had been before and her hopes (for what exactly, she couldn’t say) faded a bit.
It was just after Christmas, several months after the bouillabaisse and the W-4 form and the sex, that Suzie and Tommy saw the rat. It was after a busy Sunday brunch, and Suzie’s apron was full of crumpled dollar bills. It was lumpy around her midriff and unflattering. Every last bit of appeal had been wrung out of her, and her appeal, what little she had, was based mostly on cheerfulness, and so was not something she could count on. Her glasses, which had a thumb-print of syrup on them, had slipped down her nose as she bent over a table, chewing her Trident gum, scrubbing at some spilled maple syrup.
Tommy came out of the kitchen, his apron caked with hollandaise. He poured himself a mug of coffee and came up behind Suzie, putting a hand on her waist. She shot upright as he whispered in her ear, “Come down to the basement and smoke with me.” His breath on her neck, his hand on her waist, the way he stank of burnt coffee made Suzie want to ease back against him. She said, “Sure,” like she wasn’t interested really and followed Tommy to the steep, rubber-coated stairs that led to the basement. None of the other wait-staff even looked up.
It smelled of Clorox and puddles down there. Tommy had turned over two white buckets, and they sat down on them, just sort of collapsing over their cigarettes. Suzie wasn’t a smoker, really. She only smoked with Tommy, and only cigarettes she bummed from him. She didn’t know how to inhale right and held a cigarette awkwardly, the way she might hold something unreliable.
“The new busboy,” she said, trying to sound like she knew how things worked, “He doesn’t know what he’s doing.” Suzie pushed up her glasses and took the clip out of her hair. She wanted Tommy to notice, but she was embarrassed to toss her hair around the way she had seen pretty girls do. Finally, she just tucked it behind her ears and decided that she didn’t mind that he hadn’t noticed.
“Suzie, Jesus,” said Tommy, “did you see that new waitress? Did you see her tits? Holy mother of God.” He laughed and blew smoke out of his nose in two thick streams. “What’s her name?” he asked. “The one with the tits. What’s her name?”
“I don’t learn the names of new people until they’ve been here at least a week,” Suzie reminded him.
“Did I hire her?” he asked, and without waiting for her to answer he said, “Well, good for me.”
“Yes, you hired her,” Suzie said, “and you’re gross. Seriously. You’re disgusting.” She beamed at him.
“I know,” he said. “But I’m right, right? She’s unbelievable, right?” He laughed.
Suzie said, “I guess. And I’m sure she’d really be into you.” She waved her cigarette at him in a sweeping motion to take in his overall appearance. “You’ve got ham on your face,” she said. “Is that ham on your face?” She laughed and shook her head as though she didn’t know what anyone could possibly see in him. He rubbed his chin, missing the ham. “Ham stuck on his face,” she muttered, smiling, shaking her head.
They sat there silent and smoked, stared into the middle distance, shifted their asses on the hard plastic buckets. Then all of a sudden Tommy leapt up and screamed, so loud and high-pitched that Suzie screamed too while Tommy jumped up on his overturned bucket and screamed into the hand that he clamped over his own mouth. He danced from foot to foot, still screaming through his hand, and pointed across the room. Suzie turned to see what he was pointing at, and there it was, on a white pipe just above eye-level. The rat. He was the size of what, a loaf of bread? A runt piglet? He seemed unperturbed by Tommy’s screams, the rat’s tail curling around the pipe languidly for balance. Suzie could hear the rat’s nails click on the pipe as he crawled toward the wall.
“Holy fuck,” Tommy whispered. Suzie tossed her cigarette into a puddle where it sizzled and went out. Tommy jumped down from his bucket and placed himself so that Suzie stood between him and the rat. He put his hands on her shoulders and she shrugged them off as the rat disappeared along the pipe and folded itself inside the wall, tail and all.
They ran up the stairs and into Tommy’s office and whispered so that the rest of the brunch staff, who were filling the salt and pepper shakers, wouldn’t hear. Tommy fumbled in his pocket for money. Suzie noticed that his hands were shaking. “What are you going to do?” she asked. Was he planning on getting a gun?
“I’m going to the pound,” he whispered, leaning right into her face, “and I am getting us a fucking cougar.”
She liked that he’d said “us,” and got the pound’s address online, writing it out for him and pushing it into the pocket of his T-shirt. She took a fresh piece of Trident from her apron and handed it to Tommy. “Wait for me here, will you?” he asked. She smiled and nodded, suddenly shy.
“I’ll wait,” she said, getting out a piece of gum for herself. She wondered if a cat would even dare to take on a rat the size of a piglet.
Suzie and Tommy walked nonchalantly through the dining room to the street. The waitress with the tits was doing her cash report and didn’t even look up as they passed. Suzie and Tommy were in the middle of something they wouldn’t forget. No one else needed to look up to make it so. “Get a big cat,” she told him as he hailed a cab. “Not a kitten right?” He better not come back with a kitten. Maybe this would change things between them.
When he returned the sky was darkening and the restaurant was almost empty. Sunday dinner shifts were dead, and although her shift was long over, Suzie sat with the two night waiters lighting candles for their tables. Tommy’s arms were full, his jacket draped over a cat carrier. “Come have a cigarette with me?” he asked and she followed him down to the basement.
“Check out this motherfucker,” he said as he opened the gate on the cat carrier with his thick fingers. “Come on Killer,” he said sweetly. “His name was Pickles, but I figured he’d get his ass kicked with a name like that.” He made clicking noises, and finally, out slunk a large white Tom cat, his belly low to the ground. He had a torn right ear and one eye was smaller than the other and had pus leaking from it. She wanted to run her hand along the bones in the cat’s spine, but didn’t want to scare him off.
Killer stayed low, his whiskers quivering and his belly almost touching the floor as he edged along the wall to the shelf of paper goods where he slid beneath and disappeared.
They didn’t see Killer again for a week.
The waitresses loved the idea of a cat in the restaurant, even if they hadn’t actually seen him. They didn’t know about the rat so Killer was a source of theoretical delight for them, until after everything went wrong. But even without physical evidence, the waitresses brought in toys and pieces of string for him like they wanted something to take care of. They went down to the basement between shifts and put treats in his bowl to lure him out of hiding. The food disappeared and the waitress with the tits said to Tommy, “See? The cat’s fine.”
But Tommy gave Suzie a knowing look. “That rat is eating the food,” he whispered to her over a cigarette. They smoked outside that whole week instead of in the basement, despite the cold. Suzie hoped that Killer wouldn’t solve the rat problem. “Killer better be getting himself ready for battle,” said Tommy.
A week after Killer arrived at Q, Suzie got a call from Tommy just before five in the morning. She was startled but glad to be the one he called in an emergency.
Tommy’s voice was shaky and high-pitched. “It’s Killer,” he said. “I think the rat got him.” He wouldn’t say more than that. Suzie didn’t push. She fumbled for her glasses and made it to the restaurant as quickly as she could. By the time she arrived, Tommy had made a pot of coffee and was pacing. The baker was in the back making apricot scones, but she didn’t speak English so Tommy didn’t bother to whisper.
He ran over to Suzie and grabbed her elbow. “I went down in the basement,” he said, “right before I called you. I went down to the basement and I don’t know what I saw. I mean, I can’t believe what I saw. It can’t be what I think it is.” He was chewing the nail on his ring finger and kind of laughing. He pushed Suzie toward the basement door with his elbow as he gnawed at his cuticle.
“What did you see?” she asked, but Tommy just held her like a shield against whatever he thought he had seen. She whispered, “Ow,” when he grabbed her shoulder, but she didn’t shrug his hand away. She didn’t have to encourage his need for her now. She was just eighteen, and knew in some undefined way that this moment, and the others, the bouillabaisse, the cigarettes, the rat and Killer (whatever had happened to him), bound her to Tommy in a way that she thought (as only an eighteen-year-old could), would be forever. It was a trauma only they would share. Perhaps this would cause him to help her figure things out.
As they reached the last step, Tommy pointed at something in the middle of the concrete floor a few feet away. The light, just a single bare bulb hanging from the ceiling, was dim and Suzie had to squint, and then had to take a step closer to whatever it was on the floor. Then she said, “Noooo,” in a long whisper, like she needed a second, and then without moving she said, “Is that–?” She turned to look at Tommy who was biting at the cuticle on his ring finger again.
He said, “It’s Killer’s leg, isn’t it?” He was almost giggling he was so freaked out. “I mean, it’s his leg, right?” He hovered between laughter and hysteria. “Right?”
Suzie turned back, her head tilted to one side like a bird considering a worm, and leaned toward it. Yes. Tommy was right. It was Killer’s leg there on the cold concrete, a powder puff of fur with enough weight to it to pin it to the floor. She felt a surge of fright, as though a rat might come out of hiding and rip her leg off.
Tommy said, “I’ll go find a clean bucket for the leg,” over his shoulder as he took the stairs two at a time.
“Get some ice, too,” Suzie said, and her flash of terror subsided. She told herself to breathe She was fine, actually. She was fine.
She moved out of her body, then, and knew – knew that Tommy had gone for the bucket because he needed to get out of the basement for a second. It all seemed familiar to Suzie, her down here with the mess, and Tommy upstairs far away from the heartbreak, running around in circles. She could handle this. She was handling this.
Tommy came back with a little bucket of ice, which he put down so he could light his Marlboro. The break upstairs had composed him momentarily. “Put the leg in here,” he said, as though he were in charge. Suzie crawled over and picked the leg up between her thumb and index finger. It was the shape of a small drumstick, fluffy without much blood. She let it dangle there a moment and felt its weight, like a little bag of almonds. She placed the leg in the bucket of ice and reached for Tommy’s hand to help her up.
“We need to find Killer,” she said, pushing her hair behind her ears and adjusting her glasses. A faint meow came from the elevator shaft a few feet away. Suzie pointed at the gap beneath the door and whispered, “Big enough for a cat to crawl through.” Tommy, who’s courage had already leaked away, was having trouble controlling his hands to get the wad of keys out of his pocket. He shuffled through them looking for the right one. Suzie gently put her hand over his and took the keys, opening the padlock that was meant to keep people away from the grinding elevator machinery.
She pulled the door open as far as it would go to let as much light from the dim bulb into the shaft as possible. There he was. Sinking to her knees, Suzie said softly, “Don’t worry, Killer, it’s just us.” She wanted to call him Pickles instead of Killer, but she didn’t want to confuse him. He lay in a little puddle of light, one leg short. “He’s alive,” she said quietly to Tommy, who was hopping from one foot to the other behind her as she became more deliberate.
The cat’s chest moved up and down and he let out a low sound, half hiss and half meow. She could see that his eyes looked glassy and that there was blood here. She took it in, pushing her glasses up again.
Tommy started to take off his T-shirt to wrap around the cat, but Suzie said, “No.” His T-shirt wouldn’t be clean. She said, “Go up to your office. Get one of the clean aprons.” Her voice sounded calm to her. In contrast, Tommy’s every move was spastic, and she could tell, even in the way that he lunged up the steps, that he was close to tears.
Kneeling by the cat she whispered, “Yes,” and, “What a brave cat you are.” She leaned closer as she spoke. “What a good cat.” She hadn’t touched him, didn’t want to startle him, knew that when she did touch him, she would have to be ready, in one motion, to hold him so he couldn’t get away, that she had to be certain in her actions, and clear. There might not be another chance to save the cat, if there was even a chance to save him now.
Using the same sweet whisper she used with the cat, she said to Tommy, “Spread out the apron right next to me, nice and slowly, right Killer?” She smiled at the cat even though her face was in shadow. “You’re calm, aren’t you, Killer? Yes you are.”
She took a slow, deep breath and leaned toward the cat, murmuring. The cat, sensing her closing in on him let out a deep, protracted moan. Once Suzie started moving she kept moving, sliding her hands beneath the rice bag of his body, lifting him up just a bit off the floor and swiveling to place him on the clean apron. She kept one hand on top of him, as she used the other to fold the apron around him until he was immobilized and fully swaddled. He did not struggle. “That’s right,” she murmured as she picked up the white bundle, pushing him against where she thought her heart was. She had heard somewhere that babies were comforted by the sound of a heartbeat.
“Yes,” she said, “yes. We’ll go upstairs now.” Suzie closed her eyes. “You hold on.” The cat moaned faintly against her. “Get the bucket,” she whispered to Tommy, and they climbed up the stairs and out onto the street. “Hail a cab,” She knew to be firm with Tommy now, that he was at loose ends. He stepped out onto Hudson Street in the cold morning light and put his arm up in the air, jumping up and down until a taxi pulled over.
“Get in,” she said to Tommy gently, and when he sat down, Suzie placed the bundle in Tommy’s lap. She said, “Good kitty” which sounded stupid to her, as though she has just said “good kitty” to Tommy, and Suzie realized that her hands had begun to shake. Her chest started to feel full like she might throw up or cry as she watched Tommy cradle the cat’s head in his big paw of a hand. Things were shifting.
Tommy was crying and sniffling as she closed the car door softly. He rolled down the window with his free hand and said, “Jesus Suzie, I love you, you know? Holy shit, right?”
“Right,” she said. “Holy shit.”
The driver left for the animal hospital just a bit uptown, and Suzie stood on the cobblestone street, the sun not risen but the sky pinking-up at the edges. Her trembling was subsiding and she felt the cab pulling away from her, like it was attached to a string tied just below her collarbone, to the cooling spot where the cat had been pressed. She watched the taillights move uptown, away from her, tugging at her like it was trying to tell her something. She went to open the restaurant for the customers who would soon be lining up for their scones and lattes.
Tommy called Suzie at home that afternoon. “I dropped three grand on that cat,” she could hear him exhaling cigarette smoke into the phone, “and they threw away the paw. The vet looked at me like I was crazy and said, ‘Yeah, well, we don’t reattach limbs here.’”
When Tommy brought the cat back to his apartment a few days later, Suzie came to help get the cat settled in to his new, permanent home. “He’s back to Pickles,” said Tommy as Suzie sat on the floor with the cat in her lap. Pickles looked better in daylight. The rip in his ear wasn’t as pronounced as she remembered. The pus was gone from his eye. “Look,” Suzie said, rubbing the cat’s forehead as he pushed up into her hand, “he trusts us. We didn’t ruin him after all.”
“It’s a fucking miracle,” said Tommy, chewing his finger. “Salmon and cream from now on, I swear to God.”
A week after the cat came home from the hospital, Tommy slept with that waitress. He told Suzie he felt he deserved it after everything he’d been through. Suzie said, “Good for you,” and she didn’t totally blame him. The waitress’ breasts were nice, maybe better than nice, even she could admit that. She saw Tommy differently anyway, or maybe she just felt let-down, or maybe it was something else, a pulling back from the precipice, or an understanding of the water below the cliff.
Suzie quit the week Tommy slept with the waitress, not because he slept with her, but just because. “I’m not coming back,” she told him, “I got a job up at Columbia. It’ll just be easier.” She felt around in the pocket of her down vest for some gum. “And I quit smoking too,” she said, putting the gum in her mouth.
They were standing just outside the restaurant on a sunny Saturday after brunch. There were people all around on the street and a few still in the dining room sipping their breakfast cocktails. Tommy reached over and took the collar of her down vest with both his hands and kissed her right on the lips, nice and slowly, in front of everyone. “Trident,” he said with a wink. “Yum.” She felt stupid for wishing that everyone had seen him kiss her.
Suzie thought for a second that Tommy would try to talk her out of leaving, and when he didn’t, she shrugged it off. She knew that Tommy would own the story of the cat one day. At first it pained her that she would be written out, that Tommy would tell it a thousand times to pretty waitresses he wanted to impress. She’d be written out of the story by him, and she came to understand that for the story to work for him, she couldn’t exist. It would be a better story for him without her in it.
Still, it was her story too, and she’d tell it later, but her version would have Tommy in it. In both her and Tommy’s version of the story, she realized, Tommy was the star.
She wound her hair up and clipped it in a bun at the back of her neck before beginning her walk up Hudson Street and decided the next story, whatever it would be, should star someone else, her maybe.
Chinatown – she’d walk up through Chinatown to her place on the park, the apartment filled with interchangeable girls all looking to begin their lives. Chinatown, yes, she’d walk through Chinatown with all of its lucky cats who would wave at her as she walked past toward home.
Lucky Cat was short-listed for best short story of 2014 by the Faulkner-Wisdom Competition
“Lucky Cat” by N. West Moss is part of a collection of short stories she’s written that are all connected to Bryant Park in New York City. Her first novel, “The Dove on the Door” is currently under agent consideration, and she is hard at work on her first YA novel, called “Camp Bibby.” She is a fellow at MacDowell and the Virginia Center for Creative Arts and will be in Ireland at Cill Rialaig writing over Christmas this year.
This story stuck with me. I found myself pondering the way it resonates against itself for quite a long while. The author plainly put quite a lot of thought into this piece, and the result is a strong story that rings in the mind like the echo of a bell. Brava.