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Yammie the Cat

By Bruce Holland Rogers

On the subway ride back to their apartment, Beverly squeezed Karl's 
hand.  She said, "Let's get off here."
         "Here?"  The train was stopping at the Rosedale station.  They 
were miles south of their stop.
         "Here.  I want to walk."  She gripped the handrail and stood.
         Beverly wouldn't be able to walk long, Karl thought, and then 
they'd probably end up hailing a cab.  He didn't really feel like a 
stroll.  Still, it was good news that this late in the evening, walking 
appealed to his wife.  Ordinarily, she couldn't stay up this late, much 
less go out to dinner and a play.  Most nights, the pain in her muscles 
drove her to bed hours earlier.  Today had been --- still was --- a good 
day.  Sometimes when he bought two theatre tickets he had to leave one 
unused, recounting the play for her the next morning over 
breakfast.  Mornings were her best time.
         She held his arm as they made their way along the platform.  They 
didn't dawdle particularly, but the young couples and singles hurrying past 
made Karl feel slow.  Slow was all right.
         Outside the TTC station, the night was warm.  They crossed the 
street and walked along Yonge past darkened store fronts.  Beverly said, 
"Her hair."
         "Yes," Karl said.  "That was impressive, wasn't it?"  The actress 
in the lead role alternated between scenes of mental health and mental 
illness, and the condition of her clothes and hair instantly conveyed her 
state.  The play skipped forward and backward in time, but it was always 
clear when a given scene was.  "Of course---"
         But Beverly was already saying, "Yes, she was 
brilliant."  Beverly's grip on his arm was strong.  Her stride was 
sure.  This was one of her better nights.  "I do wish we had known at the end."
         "I liked the lack of resolution," he said.  "The important things 
were resolved."
         She laid her head against his arm.  He liked how that felt.  This 
was his fourth marriage, but when Beverly did little things like 
that---leaning against him as they walked---it was as if none of the other 
women before her had meant so much by the gesture.
         Ahead, a door was propped open at a storefront that glowed with 
red light.  A bar.  Suddenly, Karl knew which bar it was.  He looked up to 
be sure.  The crooked letters above the street spelled out "Yammie the 
Cat."  Karl halted.
         Beverly said, "What?  Want to stop for a drink?"  She 
smiled.  "I'm in favor."
         For years, Karl had avoided this place.  But it had been a long 
time, such a long time...

* * * * * * * *
On that night long ago, he was in the shadow of a first date that hadn't gone well. He had met the woman through a dating service. She was a relocated prairie girl. An old prairie girl. A widow. She hadn't read any books that he had read, and over dinner she spoke at length about Saskatchewan people he had never met. His heart wasn't really in dating, anyway. His third wife's departure was recent enough that his shame was still fresh. Strike three. He had signed up with the dating service with a sense of fatality---he might as well fail a fourth time. He seemed to have a knack for finding just the wrong person to marry. In any case, he had less to offer than ever. His hair was mostly gone. He carried the baggage of those earlier marriages, the obligations to children. He was too lonely to be very attractive. If he gave up, if he resigned himself to being alone, there would be a sort of peace in that. After making his excuses for an early end to the evening with the prairie widow, Karl had started walking. Cabs passed. He didn't hail one. In time, he walked out of the bustle of the city's heart. He wandered along Yonge. By the time he encountered the bar with the strange name, he had decided to call the dating service on Monday to see if he could get part of his money back. The bar, Yammie the Cat, was small. There were two little side tables with their own dark lamps, and seven or eight barstools. It was, he saw, a true neighborhood bar, the sort of place where the patrons knew one another. People looked up when he stood in the doorway, then looked away. There was no one behind the bar. It was, he thought, a place where he would like to stay, if only he knew one of the locals. Karl started to turn to leave. "What'll you have?" Karl turned. A young woman---she could barely be old enough to drink---was emerging from the back room, a tray of glassware in her hands. Her eyes stayed locked on his as she set the glasses down. Blue eyes. Or maybe green. And the expression on her face... He hesitated. She waited, never looking away. What was the word for the way she was looking at him? She glowed. "Martini with an olive, dirty," he said. "On the way." She was still looking into his eyes, smiling. When she finally turned and scooped ice into the martini shaker, Karl stared as he groped his way to the bar. He watched her hands, the way she caressed the cold chrome of the shaker. She looked his way again and smiled. The polite thing, the proper thing, would have been to look away. He couldn't. She was stunning. He stared, knew he was staring, and couldn't stop. She put the drink down in front of him. "Dirty martini," she said. "Thank you. You're an angel." She winked at him, then surveyed the room for empties. He watched as she went to wait on customers at the two small tables. Karl told himself not to stare at her. He thought, I have a daughter almost her age. He thought, I'm making an ass of myself. But from time to time she glanced his way and gently smiled. Every smile made her even more beautiful. No one else seemed to have noticed how Karl was staring. What was it about her? Karl considered her features, her body, her hands. There were any number of young women who were beautiful in any number of ways. Why was he suddenly stunned by this one? There was no good reason for it. It wasn't the particulars of her skin, her hair, her shape. There was something about her that was... Again, he didn't have the word. He drained his martini so that he could watch her make another. Before that one was done, he ordered a third. Setting that one down before him, she leaned forward and said, smiling, "Careful." He watched her lips as she spoke. Her perfect teeth. "You don't want to drink so much that you can't remember tomorrow that you were here." "No, indeed," he said. He looked at her ear, a curl of hair, her neck. "It's going to be okay," she said. That startled him. "Sorry?" "Everything will work out." She stepped back, her gaze on his gaze. The air around her twinkled. He wanted her. He wanted to hold her, smell her hair, be with her, be with her, be with her. She took away his empty glass, and he made himself look at the surface of the bar, keep his gaze on the surface of the bar. He had to get out of there before he acted like an idiot. He got money out of his wallet, doubled the price of the martinis, and rounded up. He exited Yammie the Cat without looking back, walked briskly to the Summerhill station. And laughed. He laughed as he dropped his fare into the turnstile. He laughed now and then as he waited for the train, and once he was on the train, he laughed so often that people seated nearby looked nervous. She wasn't coming on to him, of course. He would have been an idiot to suppose that she was. That would have ruined everything! But she was right. Everything would work out. He wasn't meant to be alone. He loved women. He just hadn't chosen the right one to live with, not in years and years of trying. He felt giddy. By the next morning, the happiness lingered. He couldn't remember when he had last felt this, the joy of knowing that life was good. Why? What had happened? He tried again to figure out what it was about her. He had said, You're an angel. He'd said it out of habit, an elaborate thank-you when she brought him his drink. But now angel struck him as the right word. The expression of her face, the sum of her beauty, the way that she unashamedly acknowledged his gaze as if she were far, far beyond taking offense...it was angelic. There were people who told stories about encounters with "angels." The man whose car breaks down at two a.m., and the only car he has seen in an hour stops. Two handsome untalkative men just happen to be going to where he needs to go. Or a strange man follows a woman in a bad neighborhood. She prays for safety, and a big dog appears from nowhere and walks her home to her apartment. And the angels then disappear. The untalkative men can't be traced. The big dog is never seen again. The circumstances might turn out to be ordinary, just a matter of chance. There is no way to know. Yes, he decided. She was an angel. She appeared so that he would not become a hermit, would not keep himself to himself for the rest of his life. He felt so good thinking this that he wanted to believe she would fit the pattern of angels. He wanted to think that if he went back to Yammie the Cat, she would not be there. If he asked for her, it would turn out that she had appeared to fill in when the regular bartender was sick, but she had only worked that one night. No one would know where she had come from, or where she had gone. And that was why he had avoided that stretch of Yonge Street for a long time, and why, if he had found himself there by chance, he had always hurried past the place without a glance inside.

* * * * * * * *
"Well?" Beverly stood in the open doorway, waiting. Karl followed her. The red walls were as he remembered them, but seemed dingy now. The tables with their dim lamps were the same. The patrons might have been the ones he had seen that night. The woman tending bar was his own age, he guessed. Her eyelids drooped. She took a drag from her cigarette, rested it in the ashtray, and exhaled a cloud into the already gray atmosphere. She had the papery skin of a lifelong smoker. Dark circles under her eyes made her face skeletal. No one---not the woman behind the bar, not the older patrons on their stools---seemed to notice Karl and Beverly standing just inside the doorway. A bar could not be more ordinary. A bartender could hardly be less attractive. Beverly waved her hand in front of her face, as if she could clear the smoke. "Not here," she said. "Let's try someplace else." Karl took one last look around the room. It was such a homely little bar. No, not even homely. Ugly. Nothing special at all. He smiled and took his wife's hand. Out on the street again, Beverly said, "At first I thought it looked rather charming." Karl said, "I had a more favorable first impression, too."

Bruce Holland Rogers has taught fiction writing at the University of Colorado and the University of Illinois, but now writes full-time. Some of his stories have been honored with the Nebula Award, the Bram Stoker Award, and a Pushcart Prize, as well as nominations for the Edgar Allen Poe Award and the World Fantasy Award. He lives in Eugene, Oregon. www.shortshortshort.com

Contact Bruce Holland Rogers at: bruce@sff.net

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