The Striped Orange Cat in the Turtleneck
fiction by Michael Lockett

I’d been talking about the striped, orange cat a lot—well, the cardboard duct tape spool stuck around his neck. So, when I burst from the back stairwell next to the office lunch table, Arby’s bag and a fountain drink in hand, Maria paused with her soup spoon just below her mouth.

“Any luck?” she asked.

“No,” I said. “But, I’m so close. Within reach.”

“It’s only taken, what, five days?” she asked.

“Yeah,” I said. “Near zero degrees, and I’m out every night trying to get close to a feral cat.”

I put my lunch on the table, flung off my coat and put it over the back of a chair. I yanked off my winter hat and sat across from Maria. The chicken noodle soup in her bowl teetered as I jarred the table. Maria wiped the splash of chicken broth from her phone screen, then smiled forgivingly, like no foul.

Maria was my best work bud, really my only work bud. We were both entry-level social workers on the children's psych ward of a big hospital system, both poor-kid transplants to Pittsburgh from two different small towns in Central Pennsylvania . . .if small towns can be classified as different. We grew-up consuming the primetime TV sitcom version of city life and connected around our love for our favorite shows. Think Will and Grace, Friends, Sex in the City. We came with big ideas, but soon realized that Pittsburgh, recovering from its own big exodus, sort of fit the bill of someone else’s small town. What was left? Well, unnecessarily long bus commutes, old Victorian houses chopped into overpriced, slum apartments, and few entry-level professional job opportunities, especially in the ever-low-paying mental health field. Not to mention Pittsburgh's reputation for the least days of full sun out of any city in the U.S.

I caught Maria’s eyes roll the moment I heard her cubemate Stacie and her cronies—two girls Maria and I referred to as the mutes because they never spoke directly to us—burst in the door behind me. They made their way to the far end of the lunch table with a fake-assed hi. 

“Stacie. Ladies,” I said with a phony smile, thinking of how I walked in on them the other day making fun of Maria, recounting all the gory details Stacie had eavesdropped of Maria’s recent condom break and pregnancy scare. Think mean-girl antics. There’s a line in an Annie DeFranco song that says, “Everyone harbors a secret hatred for the prettiest girl in the room.” Maria was a knock-out of a brunette. I was the token gay on the ward and had the sense that Maria was to most girls what I was to most men, the lone wolf the gender pack longed to maim and run off. People like Maria and I had an almost sacred alliance, dependent on each other to survive since middle school lunch. 

“I brought in that tuna,” Maria said, flipping her hair, then sipping more soup from her spoon.

“You want money for it?” I asked.

“No,” Maria said, glancing down at her phone. “I grabbed tuna in oil instead of water. I don’t want it in my house.”

“No one does,” I said. “Hopefully, it will keep the cat in one place long enough.”

Maria smiled, then finger-scrolled through the notifications on her phone. 

I gulped  my soda through the straw. It made that loud slurpy, suctionny sound as I drew the last bit of Pepsi from the ice at the bottom of the cup. I noticed Stacie making a face, like gross, so I sipped even louder, all petty as fuck. 

“Mature,” Stacie said, opening a foam carton of lo mein.

Then, Maria started to slurp her soup, real obnoxious-like, until we both gut-laughed and choked a bit at the same time. 

Stacie shook her head and huffed.

“I still can’t figure out how the cat got the spool stuck around his neck,” I said. 

I pulled my phone from my pocket and tapped my photo gallery to show Maria a picture I snapped of the striped, orange cat the night before.

I recalled the first day I saw the cat—well cats (plural)—out of my attic apartment window, next to the old leaning garage by the ally. Amidst all the rubbish, a calico mother cat nursed her tiny kittens. One was the orange cat. The orange cat's siblings disappeared over time. So did the momma cat. I’d like to think they just moved on, but the hawks seen circling the yard, the nightly growls and hisses of cat and racoon turf wars gave me other ideas and a sick feeling in the gut. The striped, orange cat, though, stayed and always emerged when I came out the backdoor shaking a bag of cat food.

“Awe,” Maria said looking up at my phone. “Definitely reminds me of the Seinfeld turtleneck episode.”

“Told you so," I said.

“Let me see,” Stacie said, peering up from her food. 

I flashed my phone screen, reluctantly, to Stacie and the mutes.

“Someone should put the thing out if it’s misery,” Stacie said, eyeing the mutes, who raised their brows, nodded their heads.

“What the fuck?” I huffed and quickly flipped my phone back. 

I shoved a handful of cold curly fries into my mouth.

“Cunt,” Maria mothed.

Just then, the unit director of the ward peeked her gray head out of her office door down the hall. She looked at her watch through the bottom of her glasses. She circled the lunch table like a hawk, lived to shoo the unit staff away when we lingered too long. God forbid we actually enjoy our forty-minute break.

“Jesus Christ,” I said, snatching up my Arby's bag.

“Oh well, I need to do a critical incident report and call some parents. I had a biter in group therapy. Left a hell of mark on another kid,” Maria said, standing, gathering her phone and her soup bowl. 

“Well, the little poop-smearer struck again on the boy's unit bathroom wall this morning,” I said, standing also, gathering my things. Of course, I said it loudly, my eyes locked on Stacie. “I have my own paperwork to do.” 

“Gross,” Stacie said. “People are eating.”

I stuck out my tongue at Stacie, sure she and the mutes didn’t see me, as Maria and I walked away from the table.  Maria didn’t notice either though. Instead, she paused with her eyes fixed on her phone. She gave me a look that drew my eyes to her screen which had a notification that read message from Antonio.

Maria kept me attune to her misadventures with Antonio the same as I kept her up-to-speed on the striped, orange cat in the turtleneck. Antonio was a prestigious neurosurgeon Maria met when she interned on the floor above us, before she landed on the ward with all the other bachelor-level Psychology schmucks. Problem was, Maria inevitably discovered that Antonio, who lived more of a Frazier lifestyle, was actually married with children. This was after Antonio wined-and-dined Maria for months, groomed her to be his sidepiece. A lot of those nights I was along for the ride, for a V.I.P. night at the club where I’d lean against the bar scrolling through a sea of torso pics on Grindr, trying to avoid the gross sight of Antonio shoving his tongue down Maria’s throat. Of course, Antonia would foot the bill for everything. He even put Maria up in a sweet open floor plan condo. At least, Maria found something adjacent to the big city fantasy. Think of every naive, work-a-day girl on a sitcom who ends up wooed by a high-powered hunk. I’ll admit, I was a bit envious of Maria’s plotline. I always fit the bill of supporting cast, but in real-life. I’d expected at least a crack at a relationship from my city move. That was the whole point: in a city I could be openly gay, unlike a small town where everyone knows everyone and for half the population gay is an insult, viewed as maladaptive, right up there with pedophile. But, no surprise, Pittsburgh was nowhere near Queer As Folk's depiction. Pittsburgh's limited gay gene pool made for an almost incestuous dating scene, and I was the boyish-looking gay that older, no-kissing men just wanted to top. I got endless messages with dick pics on Grindr then ghosted when I didn't bait on a random hook-up.

So the latest drama with Maria and Antonio, post-pregnancy scare: About a week ago, Maria had stopped talking to Antonio. This was after Antonio slapped her during a tiff. They were in his Porsche on the scenic city overlook of Mt. Washington, near the condo. A bystander who saw it called the cops, which landed the whole incident in the police log. Since then, Maria had found herself dodging relentless phone calls from a local reporter ready to sink his teeth into a hot story on the misconduct of one of the city’s highest paid surgeons in one of the city’s biggest hospitals. To boot, the hospital system was getting a lot of public flack for its billion-dollar earnings, even though it still passed itself off as a nonprofit. So, just imagine how the exposé about Antonio and Maria would play-up how the hospital bankrupted the sick to overpay scum.

“Ignore him,” I said. 

That's what I'd done when Antonio called my work phone three times since the incident, I’m sure, to get a message to Maria. However, I realized, walking astride Maria, she’d already clicked the message inbox icon. Her eyes widened as she read the screen, walking clumsily down the hall toward the office kitchen with her soup bowl.

I continued on, ahead of Maria.

“Tuna’s on the top shelf of my cubicle,” Maria said from behind me.

“Thanks, on behalf of the striped, orange cat in the turtleneck,” I said, looking back to find Maria had stalled, tucked her bowl in her elbow. Her thumbs tapped away at her screen.

“You’re so good,” Maria said, smiling, though not looking up from her phone.

Good? Maria’s words stuck with me for the rest of the day. Getting that spool off the cat wasn’t some act of altruism. At least, that wasn’t how I saw it. I didn't know if the spool even necessarily hurt the cat. It was more of an irritation, the idea that it didn't belong on him. Did Maria think I was playing-up my efforts for a best-guy-ever vote? I didn’t note any sarcasm in her voice. Otherwise, I’d have thought she was just being facetious, hinting that she was tired of hearing about it, just like I’d tired of hearing about Antonio.

“Here orange cat,” I called. I pulled a tuna can from my coat and peeled back the tab on the tin lid. The pungent smell of tuna managed to cut through the bitter air. The striped, orange cat in the turtleneck peeked his head from a hole in the garage with the thick cardboard spool still around his neck.

That night, after work, I went out the back of my apartment with the pop-tab cans of tuna-in-oil loaded in each pocket, like a cowboy’s pistols rest in his holster. I could imagine the wild west whistle theme song from The Good, the Bad and the Ugly as I stepped out onto the icy back walkway. “Here orange cat,” I called. I pulled a tuna can from my coat and peeled back the tab on the tin lid. The pungent smell of tuna managed to cut through the bitter air. The striped, orange cat in the turtleneck peeked his head from a hole in the garage with the thick cardboard spool still around his neck. (I always had the hope that, at any point, he may just show up with the spool off). He stretched long down his spine through to his paws. Then he ran his safe distance away when I set the tuna can down in the snow.

“OK, buddy, let’s not keep on with this game,” I said, rolling my fingers in my gloves. (Couldn’t have been more than ten degrees out). 

The orange cat in the turtleneck twitched through the balls of his mouth, his whiskers fully erect signaling the tuna smell. I stepped two feet back as he cowered low to the ground, sniffing hard. He moved in on the tuna, growled at me as he chomped and lapped it up.

I still played it slow and easy, bending slightly forward and backward, just so he’d get used to me moving about at less than two feet away from him, still cognizant of the risk of him darting off at any moment.  

As I stood waiting, I looked over the ramshackle, old houses of the neighborhood under the gloomy sky. What have I gotten myself into? I thought. Wait! That was it, my big epiphany! The cat. The spool. The degree. The job. The move. It was all symbolic of my situation in Pittsburgh, the idea that it all led to some ideal life, shaped by some delusions on what I believed from TV. I stuck my head into a big fantasy and found a harsh reality.

I pushed my freezing fingers back through the tips of my gloves and grabbed for the spool. I latched onto it, pulled it over the cat’s head, but it was so snug that it lifted him off the ground. His claws shot out and he flailed his hind legs with a loud hiss. When I yanked the spool, I sort of flung him out of it. He skidded across the snow. He cocked his head back curiously when he grounded himself, then he licked hard at his chest and shoulders.

Mission accomplished! I stood, spool in hand.

I kept the spool. That night, I kept glancing at it on my coffee table. Even though I clicked on the TV, I didn’t really pay attention to it. I thought about Maria, Antonio, the cat, the spool.

I worked four-tens on, three days off, so when I went back to the ward, I took the spool for Maria, thinking she might appreciate the gesture, appreciate that her tuna worked. I wrote THANK YOU around the spool in black Sharpie. I anticipated that I’d explain to Maria later at lunch the symbolism of the spool to my life. I cornered the area of cubicles where Maria sat to put it on her desk. But when I got there, Maria’s cube was empty, cleared of all her personal stuff. This left me a bit stunned.

“Wait. Maria didn’t tell you?” Stacie said from her adjacent cubicle. She stopped typing and looked away from her computer screen.

“Tell me what?” I asked, looking into Stacie's gum-chewing face, thinking maybe Maria had just packed-up and went home without a word, which I could imagine her doing with everything going on with Antonio. Hell, maybe HR packed up her stuff and gave her the old your-services-are-no-longer-required-here spiel.

“Your best friend got a promotion.  Lead social worker, upstairs, in the neurology department. Miraculous, isn’t it, especially since the position was never posted on the job board,” Stacie said with her head cocked, her jaw wide, her gum rolling across her tongue.

“Good for her,” I said, though I wondered why Maria didn't let me know.

I slipped the spool snugly over my hand and onto my wrist. I about-faced.

I called Maria’s cell from my cubicle.

“Did the tuna work?” Maria asked as soon as she picked up.

“Yes! You know what you said about my being good? I wasn’t doing a good thing. I realized that spool around the cat represented life here . . . The big fantasy I stuck my neck into—” I said.

“OK?” Maria breathed out. “So you heard about my promotion?”

“You’ve got your head deep into a spool of your own with that one,” I said.

"Hey,” Maria snapped. 

“It’s true,” I said. 

Marie paused for a moment. Then she said, “We have this big-deal unit thing up here with a pharmaceutical rep. Otherwise I’d come down for lunch.”

“No worries,” I said, looking at the THANK YOU spool, still on my wrist, with all the feelings of a best-work-friend break-up. 

“I might go out this weekend,” Maria said. “You in?”

“With?” I asked. 

“Antonio,” Maria said. “And maybe some people from neurology.”

“Hard pass,” I said. “I might go home for the weekend.” (It was all I could come up with.)

“OK. Well, I gotta go. Let me know if anything changes,” Maria said.

I hung up.

I ate lunch alone that day with the spool on my wrist, using my McDonald’s bag as a makeshift plate, dipping my fries in the ketchup I'd squirted in my cheeseburger wrapper. I scrolled through torsos pics on Grindr while I ate. I also genuinely contemplated the five-hour Greyhound bus trip home, but then I imagined sitting around the family table at my grandma’s for Sunday dinner after church – the closet case with all the cousins married straight out of high school and their toddlers milling about. 

I’d just shoved a wad of fries in my mouth when Stacie and the mutes came through the door with their lunches. Shit, I thought, wishing I’d timed my break better. 

They sat down at the end of the table.

“All by yourself,” Stacie said.

I gave her a middle finger without looking up, thought, Go to HR. Who gives a fuck?

“Get bent,” Stacie huffed.

I heard a breath of exasperation coming from the mutes.

I focused on my phone. I noticed a message on Grindr. I opened it to find a dick pic from hardcock38 that said DTF?  Initially, I met the message with my typical, internal response that every mother should sit her pubescent son down and tell him no one, on the planet, ever, will enjoy his erect penis as much as he does. But then I gave it another thought. I want it bad. This weekend??? I responded, thinking that I’d even take it up the ass from some goon for – I didn't know, some human contact, no matter how desperate it was. I can host, I typed.

That weekend, hardcock38 hit me up, came over . . .TF. He was actually hot. He kept saying I was too tense, that I needed to loosen up. He handed me a joint. Worst sex I ever had, but it really fit my mood. I just needed to feel, maybe, bad, and I did. After an awkward goodbye, one where we pretended the sex was hot, that we’d def keep in touch, I laid in bed with the TV on, feeling numb. I imagined Maria, Antonio, and some replacement of me from neurology out on the town. I understood why Maria called Antonio back, even though it made me disappointed in her, even though it fucked up my lunch, cost me my best work bud. I binged on old sitcoms, mostly Will and Grace and Friends. I debunked the big, whitewashed fantasy. I had a rebuttal for every big line, mocked the laugh track which sounded annoyingly fake over time. When I had enough, I flicked the station, caught Doctor Who on SYFY. “Maybe the cat thought he was sticking his head into a portal to another dimension,” I said to myself, then laughed a bit as Doctor Who stepped from the Tardis into another dimension. There, two rubber-masked aliens held him up with space guns. The more I watched the show, the more it seemed a better representation of life, a perpetual string of bizarre places, little catastrophes, and creature encounters of all types that appear and vanish through time.

During a commercial break, I looked out the window for a glimpse of the striped, orange cat thinking of ways to lure him inside. "Doctor Who," I called from the window as the cat emerged from the hole in the garage. For sure, that was his name. I thrust the window open. "I'll be right down with your food," I cried out. I sprang for my coat and the cat food. I couldn’t get to him fast enough.

Michael Lockett has a B.A. in Communication from Clarion University and an MFA in Creative Writing from Carlow University. His stories are published in the Northern Appalachian Review, Prometheus Dreaming, Twisted Vine, Hive Avenue, Taint Taint Taint, Matthew's Place through the Matthew Shepard Foundation, History Through Fiction, and Quarter Press. His debut collection of shorts is In the Cut (Sunbury Press, 2023). 

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