The Real Story
by Bonnie Harris
There’s an alternate version of this story in which Ben is the hero.
But the cat is yowling piteously. One of its legs is bent at an angle. Another hangs limply. When Ben tries to touch it, the cat attempts to scratch him with the useless paw. There’s blood on the cat’s nose, like it’s gone a few rounds with Foreman, who beat the crap out of Frazier couple years ago, summer of 76, year of the tall ships and that rah rah America crap. It’s not his cat—Ben is cat-sitting for a woman who works in his father’s office. The woman went off somewhere with her boyfriend for the summer weekend.
In the other version of the story, Ben could’ve had a girlfriend—one who would’ve said, hang out with me, don’t cat-sit. But Ben isn’t anyone’s boyfriend. When he was in tenth grade, he’d grabbed Jenny Lynch’s non-tits—she was in seventh, he would get in life-changing trouble for sure, only Jenny was too ashamed to tell on him. He’s stayed away from girls since then, though he fantasized meeting one at this new job. He hasn’t.
Ben works as a messenger for a company that edits television commercials. The man who owns the company hired Ben as a favor to Ben’s father, who is a client. Ben gets lost on the way to deliver all his packages. The packages are three-quarter inch videotapes that need to be carried from the editorial house to different advertising agencies around the city. The editorial company is on East 48th Street. Ben, who can’t find his ass in his pants with two hands, as his former buddy said, gets lost and lost and lost, even when he’s going just to East 47th Street. The people who work in the office think it’s funny, that Ben is hilarious.
In the alternate version, the weather isn’t hell. But it’s 100 degrees. Record heat, people collapsing in the streets. The woman, the owner of the cat, Ben can’t remember her name (Katie? Carol?) told him to make sure not to open the window, to use the air conditioner—the exact opposite of home, where his father says shut off the air conditioner, you stupid. What, do I own the electric company? The cat, it’s a young cat, the woman (Kelly? Carly?) told him, doesn’t know enough to stay away from the window, there’s only the tiniest ledge and even though the cat is small—it has an annoying way of wrapping itself around Ben’s legs in the hot apartment—it’s too big to balance on the window sill. It sees birds in nearby trees, it wants them.
In the other, imagined story, the air conditioner isn’t opaque and inoperable. Ben hits a button and cold air comes out.
But the air conditioner will not turn on. It's fancy, non-American. It has many buttons, none of which say “on.” The top floor of this brownstone is hot as fuck. The woman is probably fucking her boyfriend, repeatedly, all weekend long. The woman told him that the air conditioner sometimes trips the circuit breaker and has to be reset. Ben doesn’t remember her saying this. The bleeding cat is having trouble breathing.
He calls his father. “What should I do?”
“Take it to a vet. Look in the yellow pages. It fell?”
His father doesn’t know about the instructions. “Don’t open the window,” the woman had said. “The cat is so interested in everything outside. Probably thinks she can fly.” The woman had laughed affectionately. She’d scratched the cat’s ears. The cat had purred, closed its eyes.
In the alternate version, Ben sweats heroically in the apartment with the cat. But Ben was hot. (It’s 100, 101, 104.) In this story, the real story, the one in which the air conditioner won’t turn on, Ben thought, I’ll be right here. I’ll watch the cat. He opened the window, turned on the TV. A little while later, someone shouted up from the courtyard below.
“Hello? There’s a cat down here.”
“She’ll need surgery on both legs,” the vet says. “I can’t tell about internal injuries yet.” The vet is a woman with curly hair, hair like many little springs. She looks like if you dropped her on her head, she’d bounce. The vet talks quietly, as if the cat could understand and be frightened by the extent of its internal injuries.
“How much?” Ben says.
“The leg surgeries, about 900. She’ll have to stay here for a few days. I’d say around 1200 altogether.” The vet strokes the cat’s head affectionately.
“I have to call my father.”
The vet hands him the phone.
“How much?” his father says.
In the alternate version, his father says, I guess we should pay it since you’re the one who caused the problem, you stupid. Ben doesn’t have this kind of money. His father does.
But what his father says is, “I’m sure Karen wouldn’t want to spend that much on a cat.”
“What if we?” Ben says to the vet.
“Yes, you could put her down. It’s understandable in this circumstance. It has to be something you’re comfortable with, though. She’s a sweet cat. Healthy otherwise.” The vet smooths the cat’s head while she speaks. “This must be horrible for you.” She thinks the cat is Ben’s.
“How much for that?”
His father is still on the phone. “Did you hear? 30 to put it to sleep.”
When Karen comes home from her weekend of fucking her boyfriend and Ben tells her that the cat fell out the window and he had it put down, she screams and screams and screams. She screams so loudly, you might have thought it was her fell out a window, broke two legs, had massive internal bleeding.
There’s an alternate version of this story in which nothing happens at all. In which his father doesn’t say, my son can do it. 50 for the weekend? He’ll be happy to watch your cat.
© Bonnie Harris, 2019
Bonnie Harris is the administrator for the MFA Program in Creative Writing at Brooklyn College, where she teaches writing and literature and serves as faculty advisor for The Brooklyn Review. Her nonfiction essay “Irene” (Profane Journal, Winter 2016) was nominated for a Pushcart Prize and named a notable essay in The Best American Essays of 2016.
The Real Story was read by Kira Davies on August 20th, 2019 as part of the 2019 Short & Sweet Flash Fiction edition.