Alicia’s neighbor was a college student whose name she didn’t know. He had knocked on Alicia’s door and, when she answered, pointed to a black cat lying crushed in the parking lot next to a dumpster. Alicia ran outside in her nightgown and picked up her cat. The college student offered to take them to the vet. She nodded. The nearest vet was fifteen blocks away, but it seemed to take forever—every traffic light was red. He told her, I’m very sorry about your cat, but I’m afraid I can only drop you off, I have to be at a rehearsal. Alicia studied her cat. It was dying. There were tire tracks in its abdomen. She asked, Who did this? In a pained voice, he said he didn’t know.
Alicia ran into the veterinarian’s office carrying her cat, but the vet said there was nothing she could do for the animal, that its injuries were too serious. The vet prepared a syringe and injected a pinkish fluid into a vein in the cat’s right foreleg. She told Alicia to stop by the receptionist on her way out. Alicia asked the doctor for a blanket to take her cat home in, but she said, You can’t take your cat, I’m sorry. The receptionist took down some information and told Alicia that they couldn’t bill new customers, that payment was due at the time of services. Alicia didn’t have any money or credit cards with her. The receptionist asked Alicia if she could come by after she went home and cleaned herself up and bring a check? Alicia promised that she would, and the receptionist told her to wait one sec while she printed up a bill.
Walking north, toward home, Alicia watched the tires of the cars and trucks as they sped by and imagined herself caught under one and squashed and killed, her insides coming out of her anus and out of a serrated tear across her belly. Those cars didn’t look so heavy, how could they hurt anyone? She used to dare her little brother to ride his bike over her hand and he would and that didn’t hurt much at all, and Alicia was just a little kid then. But Alicia knew those cars were heavy. Who at least once in their life hadn’t taken a shot at lifting up one end of a car by the bumper, just to see?
Walter, who quietly practiced oboe during reasonable hours, came out of his apartment early one morning to drive to a dress rehearsal for Vivaldi’s Concerto for Oboe and Orchestra in C Major, RV 451, for which he felt he was not prepared. He was dressed in his formal black pants, his jacket slung over his shoulder. In the parking lot was one of his neighbor’s cats—Delia was it?—playing with a locust. Another neighbor, Mrs. Duggin, was idling in her car nearby, a silent black Lexus. There were no other cars that were that nice in the complex; Walter wondered why she lived here, where rent was only $425.
Walter locked his door and walked down the stairs. The cat darted after the cunning locust, pausing just behind a rear tire. Mrs. Duggin slipped the car into gear and began to back out, pinning the cat and briefly stopping the car. She continued to back out, crushing the cat, then ran over it again with her front tire. She finally stopped, the front fender a cold balcony over the dying animal.
Walter ran over to the car.
“Oh oh oh oh,” said Mrs. Duggin, holding her cheeks and squeezing her breasts together with her elbows. “Is that yours?”
“No,” said Walter, bending down and looking closely at the cat’s wounds. “It’s hers, in that apartment.”
Walter pointed to apartment 240.
“God, will you tell her? But wait, I have to go. Don’t tell her it’s me? I couldn’t stand to have someone hate me, not now.”
“I’ll tell her,” said Walter, who wondered if there were other times when the woman could stand being hated.
Mrs. Duggin drove off in her silent car. The cat tried to lick its crushed belly but couldn’t reach. It laid its head down.
Walter knocked politely but urgently at 240. He was nervous and had never dreamed that this was how he was going to first speak to his new neighbor, whose name he knew to be Alicia, because he’d heard one of her friends call her that, a big strong man who wore shirts so tight the veins in his muscles were visible beneath the fabric.
Alicia answered the door in a T-shirt that fell past her knees. She looked at him without saying anything. She didn’t look as if she’d been asleep. She smelled of cigarette smoke and beer. Walter stood directly between her and the disaster thirty yards away.
“Hi, I think your cat was run over?”
Walter stood aside and pointed.
She ran toward the stairs, beginning to wail, and Walter followed.
“Who did this?” she looked up at Walter. “Did you do this? Was this you?”
“No,” said Walter. “I don’t know who did this.”
Alicia tried to touch her cat, but it bit her.
Alicia carefully picked up the cat, who lashed out feebly and drew its face back in the posture of a hiss, but no sound came out. As soon as she had the cat in her hands, she began to run in the direction of the street.
“Wait,” said Walter. “I’ll take you to the vet.”
Now her T-shirt was slick with blood. The cat was limp, but kept opening its mouth. Alicia got in the car.
“Hurry,” said Alicia. Walter took off as fast as common sense allowed.
At the vet, Walter ran to open the door for Alicia but she’d opened it herself and was already heading toward the office.
He examined the passenger seat for blood, but there wasn’t any that he could see. He couldn’t wait for Alicia; he was running behind. He drove to campus. The rehearsal did not go well, and the other musicians avoided him afterward.
He drove to the Blue Hen, where he worked as a waiter. He was late. In his car he changed into his work clothes, which he kept in the backseat. The clothes were saturated with the grease that was always in the air at the coffee shop. As he folded his formal clothes, he noticed a smutch of blood between the second and third buttonholes of his shirt.
In the booth at the end, by the Snapple cooler, sat a woman who usually tipped well, who never quite fit in with the usual crowd of students and teachers. She often wore jewels and tight-fitting clothes; evening clothes, he thought. Walter wondered who she was. She smiled at him coldly when he refilled her coffee. Every morning, she ordered something different from the menu.
Walter wished he had someone to talk to about what had happened today, but he didn’t feel that he knew any of his coworkers well enough. He thought he might sit down with the woman, to tell her what happened, even though his boss would not have liked that at all. He smiled openly today and asked how she was. She smiled back in her usual way.
It was busy, and Walter ran around. He brought the woman her bill. The next time he looked up, she was gone. She had turned her glass upside down, and on the upturned bottom sat his tip: a twenty-dollar bill folded into an origami box that Walter picked up and examined—a little coffin, with a lid that opened. Nothing was inside.
After his classes, Walter returned to the apartment complex. Mrs. Duggin’s car wasn’t there. Walter glanced at the place where the cat was hit, but it looked as if nothing had happened. The locust was lying upside down nearby.
After Walter showered he did his scales, quietly, before it got dark. Neither Alicia’s nor Mrs. Duggin’s apartments bordered his, but he was sure every note got through somehow, so he strained to make them quiet and beautiful at once. He wondered if the sound penetrated the back wall, which he shared with an unknown neighbor on the other side of the building. He knew none of those people; they had their own balconies and parking lot and community that did not intersect with his.
At eight he lay on his bed and read. He put the book down, picked up the origami coffin, and opened and closed the hinged lid. It was an unsettling thing to receive from a stranger. What could it mean? Widowhood? Suicide? Or was it simply a virtuoso feat of paper folding that she wanted to share with him? And why him? Carefully he unfolded it, trying to recall how to fold it up again, but got lost at a certain point. He flattened it out, and felt the complicated geometry of creases across its crisp surface. Although it bothered him somewhat to have failed, he was glad not to have a coffin in his home, and to have a twenty in its stead.
The next morning, a Saturday, when Walter thanked the woman for the huge tip, her mouth flickered at the corners, forming a new sort of smile. She sipped her water. She tapped on her coffee cup with a fork. Walter refilled them both. He asked her how she managed to fold paper like that.
Walter glanced at her slender fingers. They were straight and smooth, as if she had no knuckles. On the back of one hand she had scribbled something in blue ballpoint ink.
In the parking lot after his shift, he found the woman leaning against his car.
“Hi,” she said.
“Would you like to do something together sometime?”
Walter paused. The woman lit a cigarette.
“Yes,” he said, not knowing how to say no, and not at all sure that he even wanted to decline.
“Good,” she said. “Here’s me.”
She handed him a business card. Her name was Kelly Barry, and she was a personal shopper. She didn’t ask his name.
At home Walter lay on his bed and thought of Alicia, Mrs. Duggin, and Kelly Barry. He tried to study for a test on topology but kept reading the same strings of symbols over and over. He stood in the very center of his apartment and began to play scales. He figured that the center of the room was the quietest for his neighbors, but, to his ear, it also produced the most somber and funereal notes. It made him sad to practice there. But it didn’t matter much tonight; he could concentrate on neither math nor scales.
It began to get dark. It was a summer Saturday, and the rest of the city was preparing to make the most of the evening. Walter had no desire to go out, but even less to be alone.
On the edge of his bed he examined Kelly Barry’s business card. The type was raised and shiny. There were three phone numbers. One was for an office, but the other two were not designated.
A car started outside. Walter recognized the quiet engine as Mrs. Duggin’s. He looked out through his blinds. She rapidly backed out of her spot. As soon as her taillights disappeared around a corner, Walter heard a neighbor’s door creak. Alicia. She shut the door behind her, and came into view at the head of the stairs. She wore overalls and carried a big stick, like a club. She walked with her head down. Soon, she too disappeared into the dark. Walter wished he hadn’t lied to her, that he’d insisted Mrs. Duggin take responsibility. But Mrs. Duggin had seemed so distraught.
Walter had other neighbors in his complex, none of whom he knew, except for the young couple at the end of the first floor, who always waved to him. The wife was pregnant, and she liked to go into the parking lot to sweep up leaves and trash and the cigarette butts that the other residents tossed off the balconies.
One by one, the building emptied out. The couple left with an old, skinny man wearing a stingy-brim hat. He was carrying two bottles of beer. They drove away in the old man’s truck.
Now it was an hour past dark, and loud music could be heard coming from cars along the streets. Sirens occasionally, and screeching brakes a dozen blocks away. Soon, it would be too late.
He remembered that he hadn’t checked the mailbox. He walked past Alicia’s door and, downstairs, Mrs. Duggin’s door, without looking at either. In the mailbox was an ad for an Internet service in a thin aluminum box and a letter from his mother, who didn’t like e-mail.
On the way back from the staircase, he glanced at Alicia’s apartment. Her blinds were drawn, as always, and two eternity plants strove on the sill. Of course Delia, who used to spend much of her time between the plants, blinking sleepily into the parking lot, was gone. Walter’s mother called such cats window lions.
Walter stopped. A thin shaft of pale yellow light shone from between the blinds. Had Alicia come home and he hadn’t heard? No, he’d been listening. He went quietly up to the light and looked in. There was nothing to see but the edge of a futon, a cushion perched on one end. A foot kicked it off.
Walter jumped back and walked quickly back to his apartment. Through the blinds he noticed a car come into the lot. Mrs. Duggin was back. Both her door and the passenger door opened before the car came to a stop. Laughter spilled into the parking lot. Mrs. Duggin and a man wearing a white turtleneck sweater stumbled out. Walter heard the door to her apartment slam shut.
Had Alicia’s guest seen him? Walter couldn’t tell. He read the letter from his mother. They were always the same. Your little sister loves you. Ever since you wrote and said you have allergies, she sneezes and claims to be allergic to everything. Perhaps you should use the money you have saved on stamps and call home. Or have you bought pizzas and beer?
Walter put down his mother’s letter and picked up the phone. It was eleven-fifteen. He dialed the second number on Kelly Barry’s card. A man answered.
“Hello, I am trying to reach Miss Kelly Barry,” said Walter.
There was no sound on the other end of the line, except a very distant siren. Walter experienced a moment of vertigo when he heard the siren in both ears. He sat down heavily on his bed. He then realized an ambulance was passing down his street and must be near Kelly Barry’s street, too.
“Kelly’s asleep,” said the man. “Message?”
Walter began to say no thank you, but he heard a voice in the background.
“I’m up, Len. Lemme have the phone. Hello?”
Walter looked at his mother’s letter. She always drew little diagrams and pictures of cats and flowers and teapots and bicycles in the margins. In the lower corner she had drawn a glass of iced tea, a lemon slice stuck on the rim.
“Hello, it’s Walter, from the Blue Hen? Your waiter?”
“You’re supposed to wait a couple of days. Didn’t you see Swingers?”
“Is that a movie?”
“Do you have a car?”
“Yes, I have a car.”
“Do you like music?”
“Yes, I love music.”
“Name the place.”
Walter could think of only one place. He had heard of it and seen it mentioned on the flyers tacked to the hundreds of bulletin boards around campus, like ads for movies that he was certain he would never go see.
“I’ll see you there, at what, midnight-thirty? That enough time?”
“Oh, yes, that’s plenty.”
Walter had very little beard to speak of, and he liked to let what he did have grow; he thought it made him look older. But he imagined Kelly Barry preferred her men well-groomed, so in the shower he carefully sheared off the individual whiskers. He wondered whether the man who had answered the phone was clean-shaven.
He dressed in his funkiest outfit: black jeans and black sneakers and a T-shirt with the logo of Sun Records.
He drove downtown. He was ushered into a spot by a man with a flashlight.
“Ten bucks, my friend,” he said. “Be back by three a.m. or they tow this thing to Boise, man.”
“I’ll be back in time,” he said.
Walter paid five to get into the Tabernacle. He had imagined a filthy, body-jammed black box, with stage-diving and fistfights and shot glasses whizzing overhead, but the place was well lit and tidy, and the few people there seemed content and noncombative. A band was fiddling with instruments and wires on a tiny stage in back. He looked around for Kelly Barry.
The bartender gave him a napkin.
“Rolling Rock?” he said, before he realized the bartender was Alicia.
“What’re you doing here?” she said. It didn’t seem like an invitation to banter.
“Meeting a friend,” he said, not looking at her directly, but at her hands. They were veiny and strong-looking. He stared at them. They gave him no indication that she knew he’d lied about her cat; that he’d conspired with Mrs. Duggin to deceive her.
“Wanna start a tab?” she said, her dark eyes cool and unblinking.
“How are you doing?” he asked, but it came out sounding flirtatious. Alicia went into the well and brought up a Rolling Rock without answering.
Kelly Barry sat down two seats to his right.
“Hi, Kelly,” said Walter, smiling.
“Hi yourself,” she said, also smiling. When Alicia was at the far end of the bar, Kelly added quietly, “Bartender’s cute.” Walter was not sure how to respond, so he just kept smiling.
He was intensely conscious of the difference in their ages. He was twenty-two. A long-ago girlfriend had told him that the best way to tell the age of a woman was by looking at her hair. She said the thinner and stiffer and duller a woman’s hair seemed, especially from the back, the older she was. He guessed that Alicia, whose wavy dirty-blonde hair seemed to absorb rather than reflect the light, was thirty-two. He thought Kelly Barry, her red hair never softly lagging behind her movements, was thirty-six. In the light of the bar, Kelly looked younger and more at ease than in the diner. She lit a cigarette, which comforted Walter. All of his family smoked, except his little sister. He had a ninety-eight-year-old great grandfather who had been smoking Chesterfield cigarettes every day since he was ten.
“Why are you sitting way over there?” she said.
Walter picked up his bottle of beer and sat next to her. He was suddenly aware of a smell in his armpits, the sour, raw smell of fear, or fury, like before a fistfight or an argument with another driver shouted through a passenger window at seventy miles per hour. Walter kept his arms close to his sides. The uncomfortable position made it a risk to drink his beer.
Kelly picked up a squat glass with ice and clear liquid. Squinting, she put it up to her lips, which puckered at the rim of the glass in a way that struck Walter as childlike, as if she were tasting her first cup of hot coffee. Then she slurped, noisily, and put the glass down, a waxy half-moon of dark red lipstick just below the rim.
He had always been told not to slurp, to burp quietly, to chew quietly, mouth closed. He thought of Delia, her mouth wide open, unable to hiss, never to eat locusts again.