This was when Carl had two cats. They weren’t his cats. The woman he’d been living with had gone to Colorado for what she called an “indefinite period of time.” Said she’d return when she wrapped her head around what the hell they were doing in Chicago. It was beyond Carl how living in one place might help someone understand another place any better. But he didn’t say anything. They’d said everything already and had gotten into the habit of repeating themselves.
Carl said he’d keep the cats. He didn’t know anyone in Chicago and thought he’d be lonely. Really, though, Carl hoped she’d miss them and come back. And see how well he’d taken care of them. The cats both had names, but Carl called each one of them Man. As in Man, what’s your problem, man? One, a smaller tabby, was like a cat. This one normally had goo stuck in a scabby teardrop from his left eye. The other one, black, was a miniature child covered in fur. You could see the human being in his lips and shoulders.
It was a summer of recurring hot spells. When she left, Carl going crazy was a slow controlled burn. Methodical. Self-destruction devoid of mania. He no longer ate properly. He drank every time he had the chance.
It soon became clear that no calls, no notes, no inquiries about Man and Man would be forthcoming. From various social networks he gathered she’d been having nothing but fun, hiking in the Rocky Mountains, playing pianos in the street.
He decided to drink all her liquor. The first to go was the bottle of Russian Standard he’d given her for her birthday. That went on for a couple of days, and then he moved on to the wine she’d bought for other people, then the wine she’d gotten from other people, the wine they’d hidden in their suitcases from Italy, and what her parents had given to them for Christmas. Those were the expensive bottles. Carl drank them two at a time.
Carl ate white beans from a can or handfuls of pecans whenever he thought about it. When he wasn’t drinking, or working, he was running. He ran five miles to the office, five miles back, and stayed up late driving the cats mad with a piece of string attached to a wire, getting drunk.
In the mornings he woke up on a bed soaked in sweat, always before five. He didn’t have an air conditioner. Chicago in the summer is like the Philippines.
He tried to go back to sleep, but the cats heard him stirring. Their methods of getting him out of bed included jumping repeatedly on his chest, slowly releasing their claws into his cheek, biting at his toes, fingers, ears, hair. When he threw them out and closed the bedroom door, that was even worse. The black one, like a kid, was the most vocal. He mewed right through the crack in the bedroom door.
So Carl burst out and Man and Man scattered to the kitchen to their little aluminum bowls. There was always food in there from before. They didn’t much like the food she’d left them with. Carl poured new food on their old food and they ate as much as they could stand of it. Then they stepped away to lick their paws. They were always hungry.
Instead of getting back into his sweat-soaked bed, Carl drank cup after cup of black tea and looked out the window until it was time to go to work.
At the end of June, Carl put up a guy going to a Marxist conference at UIC. He knew him from another job they’d had a long time ago. The friend being around didn’t change the routine much. Carl still ran to work and back. Carl still got drunk, except he and the friend went out to the Irish bar sometimes. There’s no lacking for crappy bars along Lincoln Avenue.
The friend stayed longer than Carl had expected. He didn’t get annoyed with his friend. It was just the friend didn’t have any money. And Carl had run out of things to talk about. The cats, though, were distracted by the friend, and assaulted him first in the mornings.
On the day of the parade Carl and his friend filled a glass water bottle with three parts vodka, one part Squirt. The route was about a mile from the apartment. They walked and sipped from the bottle on the way to the intersection. A daytime drunk is a different animal than a nighttime drunk. You feel at peace with the great soft world. The impulse to rage or break things is minimized. Through the lenses of Carl’s sunglasses, everything took on the sepia tones of the historical American West.
This was a bigger clusterfuck than most parades around which Carl had stood slack-jawed and bored. Everyone else was drinking and you couldn’t get past the crowds. But at least it was easy to locate the bathrooms. They finally found a place to stand and wait behind an old couple splitting a bottle of wine. A guy in briefs and another guy in angel wings stood next to them.
Carl didn’t see the new mayor during the parade, but he did see the governor on foot, flushed in the heat. There was one dyke on bike dressed in a kind of Wonder Woman outfit Carl and his friend both liked. They saw her later in the crowd, but she fled when Carl tried to trap her in a conversation about comic books and motorcycles. In the lines to the port-a-potties, Carl listened to a description of numbers from a musical based on Jersey Shore. The guy next to him in line had been cast as The Situation.
Stretched end to end, the parade ran about two million miles. You could have a parade to the moon with this thing. Carl and his friend drank from the green glass bottle. The sun was a constant fist between their foreheads and their nostrils. Carl and his friend talked about how monks were probably gay, even if it was only platonically. They all preferred the company of men. People who were the most anti-gay were most likely the most gay. Everybody was gay. It wasn’t an original sentiment, but it made perfect sense at the time.
And the parade went on. The crappy floats, the pounding music of Gaga and Katy Perry, the crowd now serene and plastered, erupting in brief intervals of enthusiasm. Empty cases of beer clogging the sidewalk. Couples making out with abandon. The vodka was almost gone. Carl thought, if someone doesn’t put a stop to this, I‘ll go ahead and pull down my pants myself.
At the eighth or ninth hour Carl focused, in a wavy and uncertain way, on a plodding float done primarily in aqua green and blue. It was for one of the night clubs downtown. The entertainers wore short dresses in the same aqua hues. While a few of them danced at the head of the float, the most matronly sat on a raised chair on an elevated backdrop. It was supposed to look like a throne.
Out of the three dancers up front, Carl could not look away from the one in the center. She had long black hair, thick and irradiated in the sun, that whipped across shoulder to shoulder as she moved. She paused once to reapply lip gloss. The float crawled on, and Carl watched her black hair move from behind. The way the parade slowly went down the road, Carl got a long, good look. “Teenage Dream” was playing.
A couple days later, after Carl’s friend had gone on to live in someone else’s spare room for a while, Carl went to the pet store. He’d been feeding the cats food they resented long enough. The cheapest bag he saw was a special formula to protect from urinary tract infections. It had a wholesome picture of a wheat stalk on the front. When he dumped scoops of it into their bowls, the cats went at it like they hadn’t eaten for weeks. Carl was surprised that anything with such an untasty name could be so delicious to them. He poured the old food, the salmon-flavored kibble they despised, into the grocery bag where he’d shoveled their used-up litter. After the cats were fed, he got drunk and took the El to the nightclub.
The club was set up like a showroom from the Seventies—white-clothed tables facing a stage with a purple velvet curtain, a long bar above which, all of them turned off, silver and glass chandeliers hung. Carl sat at the bar and began a long chain of Miller Lites. There was a group of middle-aged women at one table, and a black family at another. When the MC, a large woman with a limp, took the stage, Carl went into the bathroom so he wouldn’t be asked where he was from.
Carl emerged from the bathroom after the beginning of the first act. The MC hunched over the other end of the bar and watched him. He raised a beer in her direction. The show continued.
The woman Carl had seen on the float was third in the lineup. She started off with a Beyonce number in a short dress, her hair pulled back behind her, thrusting itself up, down, in, out like a fifth limb in sync with her other movements. While maneuvering in high heels. The lip synching seemed extraneous to such beauty.
The other performers were similar to the MC, in that most had to be 50-something with faces fossilized by makeup and plastic surgery. One kept doing versions of 80’s era Whitney Houston. Another kept doing Adele. The outfits were far from fabulous. Aside from the dancer Carl had come to see, the club was a kind of pasture in which these old ladies lived out their last days, not working too hard.
One by one the performers came off the stage and lingered near the bar. It happened to be the bartender’s birthday, so a few ate pieces of mud pie. When the songs got boring, as was more often than not, Carl looked down along the bar—a couple of them were playing Photo Hunt on the MegaTouch machine—and made small talk with the bartender. He asked if Carl liked to play tennis. The entertainer Carl had come to see sat on a stool near the exit, texting on an iPhone.
“You can talk to any of the girls if you want,” the bartender told him. It was the end of the first show. The two tables were emptying.
“I have to get out of here,” Carl said, and drank the end of his beer.
“No, you can stay,” the bartender said. “For the second show.”
There were even fewer customers for the second show than the first. One woman in an electric wheelchair set herself up next to one of the tables, and a group of three drank wine near the stage. This time, Carl remained on his stool for the MC’s opening. He’d already become acquainted with her. When she asked his name, he made something up. When she asked where Carl was from, he made something else up.
The acts in the second show were almost identical to the first. Whitney again, and Adele, and one particularly old lady dancing halfway out the curtain flap to Bonnie Raitt’s “Something to Talk About” in a white suit. Despite the repetition, Carl began to have fun. He handed three dollars to everyone who took the stage. He left bigger tips for every beer he drank.
One performer actually had an adventurous streak in front of the six or seven people in the audience: a busty, curvy black woman in a wig evocative of Tina Turner in the early Nineties. She started torch-synching numbers two at a time, first with Mary J. Blige’s cover of U2’s “One,” followed up with her version of “Stairway to Heaven,” unabridged. Carl had never seen nor heard anything like it. The closest he’d come to witnessing that kind of nakedness of expression was a Portland stripper swaying nude to “Flume” by Bon Iver.
She, the one with the hair, the one who danced and was better than all the others, called over the bar during the second movement of “Stairway.” She’d been watching the latest round of Photo Hunt.
“Having a good time tonight?”
“Sure,” Carl said. Some muscle in his abdomen tightened in that moment and remained in an excruciating twist the rest of the night. “I’m really into this music. You don’t get this kind of thing every day.”
“Slow night. Everyone’s doing what they want to do.” Her eye makeup was dark and heavy. Even in the dim bar light Carl could see her eyes were a golden brown.
“You were doing a great job up there, by the way.”
“Thank you. Where you from?”
Carl told her. She asked his name and he made something up. Then she came to sit next to him.
Carl was mildly wasted, but also clenched into himself with adrenalin. In order to make some kind of conversation, Carl did what he would normally do with a beautiful woman. He bought her drinks and encouraged her to drink them.
She left for her performances but returned into the third show. She told him the ages of her colleagues, all of them much older than they seemed, which was pretty fucking old. A group of four from England made up the audience in the third show. They kept asking Carl to sit at their table. They’d have to stand him a drink or four before Carl did anything like that.
“What, this song again?”
“It’s like this every night,” she said. She worked Wednesday through Sunday.
Carl drank two beers to every one of her raspberry vodkas with Sprite. She saw him looking at the roots of her black hair, which were reddish brown.
“I know, I have to dye it again,” she said. She lifted the whole long black mass from one side of her face to the other.
Not long after Carl was gushing, lovey dovey. He complimented her on everything she did. He asked about her family. He told her he had to see her again. He asked her for another drink after work.
When she scrubbed off the makeup and changed and came back to the bar, she didn’t look the same. She looked like a guy Carl knew from a couple of college classes.
“Ready to go?”
“Lead the way.”
She knew an open place down the block.
Either on the way to the bar, or at the bar, Carl kissed her. It went on like that for the rest of the night.
Carl ordered a Guinness, she the same thing she’d been drinking. She showed him pictures of her parents on her phone. She told him about the brothers she didn’t talk to anymore.
Carl left her at the table to use the bathroom. On his way out, he was held up by a fat man.
“Hey, man. I seen her before. She comes here a lot, man. I wanted you to know—she’s a man.”
“A man?” Carl said. To be honest, it was the first time he’d thought about it that way.
“Yeah. I just didn’t want you to go home, get all butt naked and shit, and then you’re looking at two swinging dicks.”
Carl thought, well she is and well she isn’t. It was F. Scott Fitzgerald said “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.” Carl felt he could follow through with the first part–the second, no fucking way.
“Interesting.” Carl patted him on the shoulder and went back to the table.
It was a doomed nocturnal romance that lasted three nights. Every night ended with each of them in different cabs in different directions.
And the heat wave had really dug in, lying like a wet tongue over Chicago. Carl had been used to the cats bounding after him each time he entered a new room. Now they lay sprawled on the warm wood floors like withered vegetation.
Carl saw her next a few days later, at the club again, and this time everyone knew him, welcomed him back. Since he’d gotten to Chicago, he hadn’t found one place, definitely not work, where he was welcomed and liked. This time the club was crowded with bridal parties, most of them with mock-veil headdresses. Carl took a stool at the bar and embarked on another evening of perpetual Miller Lites. Between numbers she came out to sit with him. Carl asked her about her health benefits and how her boss treated her. When she took the stage, everyone loved her, whether she was Beyonce or Katy Perry.
“God, you really are good at what you do,” Carl told her when she came back sweating. You could see it all beaded on the thick makeup. She picked up a flyer from the club and fanned herself. “You’re like—I mean, you’re really good at this.” Carl wasn’t that good at anything.
“Thank you,” she said, nodding a few times. “It’s a specific kind of job.” The bridesmaids and the brides cheered, handing dollar bills up to the stage.
“You’re better than this place. You’re the youngest, you’re the best.” The rest of them, Carl supposed, had some kind of duchess gravitas going for them, but that was it. “And you look great in that dress, by the way.” She’d just returned from an ensemble piece synching something from Chicago, the musical. The dress was short and small, and made the most attractive features of her figure stand out.
“Yeah, I’ve got like fifteen of these dresses backstage.”
Some time later a round man, bald with t-short tucked into jean shorts, took the seat one space from Carl. He was alone. He drank Miller Lites. He stared at the stage and said nothing. Carl couldn’t help but to keep watching his spherical bulk. When the man saw that Carl also drank Miller Lites, he offered to buy him one. Carl refused.
When she sat back down, the new man shifted so he could stare and lean towards her. She slid her hand into Carl’s back pocket. Carl was in the middle of losing the ability to speak, so he kissed her. He could feel himself drawn to the negative end of drunk.
This new man at the bar—round back, round shoulders, round head—leaned closer, trying to capture some essence of her through his nostrils. Carl wondered who everybody was.
After the club closed, they went for food at an all-night diner. She ordered a chicken sandwich and Carl got some kind of wrap.
“I think they’re ladies of the night,” she said, nodding at two thin, heavily made up Asian women with a guy in a Blackhawks jersey.
“Yeah, why would they want to be with him?”
Why would anybody want to be with anybody? It was too much to think about. For the first time since the beginning of summer, Carl wondered how things were going in Colorado. Carl wondered who he was.
“Trannies, probably,” she said. “We know our kind.” She laughed.
While he paid the tab Carl remarked how they were exactly the same height. He then stepped out of the diner and was blasted by an inconceivable shade of blue emanating from between the skyscrapers. It was morning already, a morning populated by drink-worn stragglers rushing away from the night into cabs. Nobody was going to work. Everyone was fleeing. Carl kissed her once more against the wall of a bank before she hailed a taxi. Someone yelled something—it seemed to Carl that someone was always yelling something at them. He was standing on a street he’d never been on before, somewhere in the Chicago Loop, and all he wanted to do was escape the morning.
It doesn’t matter that the next day Carl woke up with his sheets soaked in sweat. He peeled a hot cat body from his side, one who’d crept in and lay under his arm after he’d collapsed at home. Nor does it matter that with great resentment Carl put himself on a bus and a transfer to Humboldt Park, to water some plants in a community garden. And it doesn’t matter that Carl saw her again, that he sang a song no one liked in a karaoke bar, whether he went too far or not far enough. Or whether the woman he loved returned from Colorado, and whether they tried once more to live with each other. At the bus stop on the way home from Humboldt Park, Carl laughed out loud to himself and the group that had accumulated and waited at the stop laughed too, thinking he’d overheard something they’d said in Spanish. For a moment, everybody thought they were laughing at the same thing.