more articles like this
He Likes Cats
updated: Nov 20, 2010, 8:45 AM
A short story by Frank Frost
It was a truck driver who first saw him standing there by the side of the road, sun coming up in Orange County. Jimmy Morin had started to drive around five in the morning from Temecula in his Dodge pickup with a load of produce for the farmers' markets up north. He was going to hit San Luis Obispo, then work south for a few days, until most of his load was gone. Jimmy always liked some company on a long drive, so he pulled over, pushed the passenger door open.
"Hey, pal, get in. How far you going?"
The young man didn't say anything, didn't seem to have any kind of pack or bag with him, got right in and pulled the door shut, then just stared out the windshield. Jimmy let out the clutch and the truck moved on out down the highway.
"You comin' from the Vets' hospital back there?" Jimmy asked. "'Cause I picked up a few guys there now and then. ‘Ghanistan, Iraq, even some from the old Gulf War. They got some stories!" Jimmy was grinning, inviting whatever memories his guest wanted to share. But the young man--maybe not so young, Jimmy thought, just young looking--didn't respond, didn't even look at him, just relaxed against the old sprung seat with the fruit stains on it, and looked straight ahead. He had clean clothes, at least, jeans, a long-sleeved plaid shirt. Hair was combed and he didn't look crazy.
"So. You seen some bad shit, I guess. Don't want to talk about it. Well, that's okay, man. I understand. Would've gone myself back then, the Gulf war, but I had three kids, you know? They're big now, two in high school even. Funny, that war didn't seem that long ago. Anyway..."
Jimmy kept talking all the way up the coast. After about two hours he pulled off the freeway to a convenience store.
"Always stop here for a coffee. Can I get you one, pal?" The man looked at him but didn't answer.
"Okay, I'll take that for a yes. I'm guessing cream and sugar. Right?"
But when Jimmy came back, juggling two steaming foam cups, the passenger was gone.
He walked down a long two-lane road, something pulling him that way, toward the ocean. There were hills on both sides of the road, a few houses up there peeking behind the trees on the slopes from time to time. A cold foggy day, and not much traffic to the beach.
The county park entrance beckoned and he walked into the parking lot and to the low bluff overlooking the beach. Grey waves were rolling in. A few brave surfers in full wet suits were challenging the cold water of early spring. To his right were the empty tables of a seaside restaurant, deserted this morning in the wind and fog.
He walked down the steps to the beach, looked both directions, and then started west, into the wind. It was a long beach beneath high cliffs. Seabirds thronged the wet sand, dodging the foaming breakers as they kept rolling in. There were piles of seaweed here and there, torn up and washed ashore by the last storm. He was a almost a mile from the park and the restaurant when a cleft in the cliffs attracted him. A tall stand of reeds almost concealed the shadowed opening. He stood in the narrow space for a moment, protected from the wind. Then he sat down and rested, his back to the cliff. He sat there for several hours, not moving, not sleeping. A few gulls wandered into the cleft, curious. One approached, cocked its head in all directions, hopped a little closer, finally gave a gentle peck to an exposed ankle.
He didn't move. But the gull was aware that the thing was alive, not ready to eat, and it flew away with its followers.
In the afternoon he emerged from the cleft and looked up and down the beach. At the foot of the cliffs were mounds of driftwood, from little sticks to huge eucalyptus trunks. Every size and shape. He began collecting sticks, first longer ones that he held upright and pressed down into the sand. Then he gathered smaller branches and piled them up against the uprights, with no artistry, just making a screen from the beach. Then he made a hollow in the sand behind his screen and lay down, curling up on his side. In a few minutes he was asleep.
The moon was out over the ocean when he woke from pangs of hunger, shivering with a sleeper's chill. He stood, brushed the sand off, and walked back down the beach to the restaurant. They were turning the lights off inside and the last guests were leaving. The kitchen door was in back right up against the cliff. He stood there, smelling the food. There were several garbage cans and he lifted a lid. This was mostly a seafood restaurant and the remains of fish and shellfish had been sitting in there all day. They stank. So he put back the lid and just waited. A young dishwasher came out of the kitchen door with a bag of garbage and almost ran into him.
"Eee-ho! Man, you scare the sheet outta me, you know?" The dishwasher looked closely at him, frowning. "You a 'omeless guy?"
He didn't answer, just turned his expressionless face to the little dishwasher.
"Man, I bet you 'ongry, Jus' a minute, you way." The little man went back into the restaurant, came right out with a plastic bag. "I got some old 'amburger buns. Lotsa fish off the plates, you know. Piece of steak the guy don' finish." He put a hand on the man's arm, looked around, lowered his voice.
"Leesen, you slippin' on the beach? You better go down long ways. Focking sheriff, they been rousting pipples."
He started to walk away, but the little dishwasher followed him a few steps.
"An' you want some water? Bat'rooms right over there. Take it easy, man."
He walked back up the beach, putting his hand in the bag, pulling out old stale buns, pieces of fish, whatever, and gnawing on them. Halfway to his shelter he realized he was thirsty, really thirsty, so he backtracked to the restaurant and found the restrooms. He drank water out of his cupped hands for almost a minute, then resumed his trek up the beach. Someone had left a dirty old beach blanket crumpled up and he took it, shook the sand out of it. Back at his hole in the cliff he rolled the blanket around himself and lay back down in the depression he had made in the sand.
Voices woke him instantly in the morning and he sat bolt upright. Some people were calling to each other. Then he saw that early morning surfers were down at the edge of the water, inspecting the waves. He relaxed, and after a moment looked around for the plastic bag. There were still a couple of buns and a cold greasy piece of steak. He finished everything in the bag. After his breakfast he began walking up the beach westward, away from the restaurant. When he reached a promontory poking out into the ocean the tide was high and breakers were rolling up to the base of the cliff. Without hesitation he walked through the shallow waves around the point. From here the beach was deserted as far as he could see. He sat for quite some time on the sand, then came to a decision. He took all his clothes off, walked across the sand and into the ocean, pausing when breakers came in, and finally wading out beyond the breaker line. He swam strongly and easily, at home in the sea. The water was frigid, but he gave no sign of feeling it.
After putting his clothes back on he continued up the beach. He had reached an affluent part of the coastline and there were large homes with luxuriant landscaping perched on the high cliffs above. A woman came down the beach from the other direction, accompanied by two large dogs, a Lab and some other kind of retriever, both off the leash. He kept walking, not looking at her or the dogs.
The woman stopped. She was in her fifties, dressed in warmups and running shoes. Strands of silver hair escaped the scarf around her head. She gave him a hostile glance, not worried, confident with her two big dogs.
"This is a private beach, you know..."
He paid no attention, kept walking. The two dogs now circled him, lowering their heads to sniff at his shoes.
"There's nothing but private homes up here, you know, you'd better go back." Her voice was angry and the dogs picked up the vibrations, backing up now, and confronting him.
He stopped and looked at the woman. The two dogs were immediately alert, looking toward their mistress, waiting for instructions. Then he turned and walked back down the beach toward the distant restaurant. One of the dogs ran along beside him for a few steps and he stopped, reached down and patted the dog, who wagged his tail and bumped up against his leg.
"Bruiser! Come back!" Now for the first time the woman's voice betrayed fear. "Bruiser, Mindy! Come here!" The dogs obediently ran back to their mistress, who crouched down to hold their collars. She looked terrified.
"You! You get out of here! I'll sic my dogs on you."
But he ignored her and just kept walking slowly back down the beach. The tide was beginning to go out and swarms of shore birds were feeding on the wet sand, running inland to avoid the last tiny waves of foam from the breakers offshore, then chasing them back to snatch the little creatures the water had brought to the surface.
Late that afternoon he walked back to the restaurant and the park ranger station as the day was dying. Behind the ranger station there was a lawn, reclaimed and cultivated out of the surrounding wild underbrush. Three older women were feeding cats on the lawn. They were carefully spooning out little lumps of cat food from cans, spacing the lumps so that many cats could come eat without fighting over the food. One of the women looked over her shoulder and saw him.
"We feed them every night," she confided. "People get rid of their unwanted kittens here. It's terrible, just dumping a little cat like that. We pick up some, little kittens that are sick and weak, you know? Have to put them down, only humane. If they're healthy we have them fixed, take them to the Humane Society. But the grownups are too wild, won't come near us."
He could see the cats cautiously coming out of the underbrush, the young ones running for the food, the older ones cautious, looking in all directions. They were joined by a puppy, a shorthaired mongrel, chestnut with white patches, who came trotting out of the brush and tried to join the cats eating the cat food. But he was met by snarls and was batted on the nose by the cats already at their food. He sat back on his haunches and whined.
One of the women told him, "You see that puppy? Someone abandoned him here too. He's been here for over a month. Now he thinks he's a cat."
He watched the cats eating for a while, seeing the dog steal a bite now and then, wagging its tail, trying to convince the cats that he was one of them.
The women had now noticed that he was strange. One of them whispered to the others and they sidled over closer to the ranger station. He paid no attention, watching the cats eat and the dog trying to convince the cats to share.
After a while he walked over behind the restaurant, used the men's restroom, then just waited outside the kitchen door. After a while the same kitchen helper came out to dump garbage.
"Shee! You still here? Hol' on man...see wha' I can fin'"
A few minutes later he came out with a foam container. "Lady lef' half a cheecken, som' feesh'n cheeps, copple rolls...You getta way now, boss see you I'm fock, you know?"
Instead of going back up the beach, he went back to the lawn where the cats were eating. The dog was forlorn, lying down with his head between his paws, watching the cats clean up the last scraps.
He reached in the bag and pulled out the chicken breast. The dog's ears perked up, his head lifted, and he looked around quickly. Some of the cats smelled the chicken and started to mill around his feet. But he held the chicken out until the dog sidled closer. He lofted the chicken breast to the lawn in front of the dog. Two cats pounced on it immediately and the dog backed up, whining. But the piece of meat was too big for cats to drag away and while they were contemplating their next move the dog moved in quickly, grabbed the chicken and wolfed it down, then looked up rapidly.
He reached in the plastic bag and came up with a handful of fishy fried potatoes. The cats were not interested and the dog came closer, gobbled a pile of fries off the lawn, looked up now and wagged its head, smiling.
"It won't come near you," one of the braver women said, over by the ranger house. "We've been trying to catch it for a week, take it to the Humane Society."
If he heard her he gave no notice, but turned back to the beach, carrying his greasy bag. The dog watched him go, and after a moment's thought trotted after him. The women saw him walking up the beach, the setting sun casting his shadow against the cliffs, the smaller shadow just behind.
"I think he's a nut case," said one of them.
"Homeless," said another. "And most of them are mental. I saw on Channel Three, a week ago."
"Well, the poor guys have to live somewhere. Better than downtown, begging all the time," said the third.
"Why in our town? And here on the beach? They should give them all a bus ticket somewhere else...inland, somewhere. Fresno, or something."
"Bakersfield," said another and they all laughed. "No. Let's be reasonable." They laughed again, watching the two small figures walk out of sight around the cliff.
He woke up in the night and felt the dog sleeping against his leg.
The next few days he continued his routine, walking up the beach, swimming, returning in the evening back to the restaurant and waiting by the kitchen door. But now he was trailed constantly by the dog. One day, along the beach, the dog ran ahead and picked up a stick, then ran back and crouched playfully in front of him, dropping the stick, wagging his whole rear end and waiting for him to notice the game. But he paid no attention and continued walking up the beach.
Another day the younger ranger, the guy on the early shift, caught him walking with the dog down to the eastern part of the beach, toward the town and the harbor.
"Hold it a second," the ranger called, and came trotting out with a large black plastic garbage bag. He gave him the bag.
"You know, you're going to be around here, give me a hand with the cleanup. County cut our budget fifty percent. Just pick up the cans and paper down there and toss'em in the dumpster there. Okay?"
He took the bag without any expression and walked down the beach, just holding the neck of the garbage bag as if it was his luggage. It was low tide and there were some large rocks exposed along the beach. He was walking along the tide line when a soft drink can washed up in front of him on a wave, sparkling in the sun, resting there on the sand in front of him. He paused, and the dog ran over to sniff the can, then looked back curiously, to see what he would do.
He picked up the can, put it in the bag, and continued down the beach. After a quarter mile the beach rounded a corner and he could see steps in the cliff coming down and people on the beach. So he turned and walked back. Now he saw a candy wrapper, picked it up and put it in the bag, then another can, and a plastic bag. The dog now understood the game, and all the way back up the beach he would run and crouch at every piece of human refuse, looking back and barking, until it was picked up and put in the bag. Back at the restaurant and ranger station he hesitated, looking around, finally just standing there motionless. The ranger spotted him, came out and yelled.
"Over there in the dumpster."
He put the bag in the dumpster and was walking back down the beach when the ranger caught up with him.
"You know, you pick up like that every day? I'll get you something from the restaurant, okay?"
But he didn't listen, and continued down the beach.
The next two days he accepted the garbage bag from the ranger and went up and down the beach. One day the ranger just brought him a bag with a burger and fries in it. He took it and looked at the dog at his feet.
"Oh, I got them to put in an extra patty. For your dog. Okay?
He didn't look at the ranger, just took the bag back up the beach with him.
They came in the night, the sheriff deputies. There were two of them, and he woke to find his arms pinioned in back of him and then roughly handcuffed. He jerked wildly for a moment, then gave up all resistance. The dog was dancing around the perimeter of his little shelter, barking madly.
One of the deputies, an older man, told his younger partner, "Give him a whiff of Mace, quiet him down."
"Hell, he quit fighting, Duffy. He'll go easy."
And they walked their prisoner down the sandy beach, one on each side holding an arm, the dog following behind, only barking once in a while now.
Parked in the entrance to the county beach was a large black van. The older deputy unlocked the rear door, then stood back with his pistol in his hands.
"Okay, Reese, put his ass in the van."
There were almost a dozen prisoners on the benches lining the sides of the van, all cuffed, no one struggling. They looked with mild curiosity at the newcomer.
He stepped up into the van without urging and sat down next to the last man on the bench. The deputies slammed the back door and locked it and the van moved off.
"Where'd they get you? The beach?" asked his seat mate, a large Latino.
He made no response, just sat there, looking down at his feet.
They drove away from the beach, took a ramp onto the freeway for a few miles, then off and up a hill to the county jail. There was a television van waiting there in the night, the reporter and the cameraman ready to roll. Deputy Duffy stepped to the rear of the sheriff's van and started to open the doors.
"Just a minute," said the TV guy. "Let me interview you, just a few questions, then we'll shoot them coming out of the van, okay?
"You got it."
"Rolling..." said the cameraman, and a glare lit up the two deputies and the back of the van.
It seemed there had been numerous complaints in this prosperous seaside community about the homeless, sleeping in doorways, in parks, or on the beach. It hurt tourism, they said, and business of all kinds. So the sheriff had decided to do a sweep and call the media to show how well he was protecting property values. He hated the paperwork it would generate but he thought maybe once every six months would cut down on the complaints.
The bums, drifters, drunks and others caught "camping illegally" were led out of the van and booked.
"What's your name?" they asked him. But he just stood staring at the wall as they took his picture. He was searched, but he had nothing in any of his pockets.
"We can send his prints to the Feds," suggested a jail deputy.
"Can't afford it, every bum like this."
"But you know? He looks like a vet to me. I was in the Gulf, you know. Just something about him says Army to me. Maybe Marines. Maybe he needs help. Whadya think?"
"Sure! The supervisors cut our budget, then make us go on homeless patrol! You wanna fill out more reports?"
"Okay. Then call Mental Health. See if they want him."
There was a lone woman on the desk at County Mental Health at that hour. She was not enthusiastic.
"If he's a danger to himself or others, we can take him for a seventy-two hour hold. That's it. You wanna fill out the forms?"
"Why don't you just let him go? You got tons of extra room at the jail?"
Everyone knew they didn't. He was marched with his fellow campers to a large cell already crowded with over twenty detainees from the evening's drunk driving, bar fights, gang disturbances, domestic complaints. The new arrivals were greeted with groans and curses.
"There's no place to sit already!" And so on.
Most of the newcomers sought out a vacant space on the floor and just flopped. He stood just inside the gate, where the jailers had left him, until he was noticed.
"Hey man! Grab some floor. We can fit you in."
"Nah! Look at him. Guy's nuts."
"Got a nice shirt, man. Maybe he'll give it to me."
A bearded man with a large gut advanced on him.
"Leave him alone."
The bearded man whirled. "Who the hell you talkin' to?"
An Hispanic man stood up. "I'm talkin' to you, jerkoff. The guy looks like a vet. And we vets stick together."
Half a dozen other prisoners stood up. "Just forget about it," one of them said. "Leave him the hell alone."
After a while he sat down with his back to the bars.
In the morning he was the subject of argument in the booking office.
"He's got no name, we don't know if he has a record, Mental Health won't take him, what does that leave us?"
An older deputy was in charge of OR--release on own recognizance. "We just let him go, tell him not to sleep on the beach again."
"But he'll just be back--"
"Yeah, if you wanna walk a mile down the beach in the middle of the night to bust him again. What you wanna do, make us more work?"
"Not me, Sarge!"
He walked out of the jail doors at seven that morning. He looked around briefly, then headed downhill. On the frontage road leading east from the jail he felt the sea air to his right so he crossed the first overpass over the freeway and found his way to the road out to the county beach park. It was still early in the morning, foggy at the beach and only a few tourists were braving breakfast outdoors at the beach café. A different group of women were feeding the cats and they paid him no attention. There was no sign of the dog. After a while he walked over to one of the benches by the beach and sat down looking out to sea. The ranger found him there, still sitting, in the middle of the morning.
"Your dog's not here. You know what, the sheriffs called Animal Control and they came and got him. Probably out at the Humane Society." The ranger looked dubious. "If you can get out there, they're going to charge you twenty-five bucks to get him out."
He didn't acknowledge the information. Later in the day he walked back up the beach. He looked out to sea for a long time before finally taking his clothes off and entering the water. He walked through the surf, not avoiding the waves, just letting them smack him, until he was out beyond the wave line, where he began to swim. Today he kept swimming, out past the first patches of kelp, not slowing down until he reached the heavy belt of kelp almost a quarter mile out. Here he paused, tiring. There was a slight overcast, no wind, and the surface of the sea was glassy. He looked back at the shore. A flight of pelicans went by, on their way up the coast. Some gulls were attracted by the unusual presence of a land animal this far out to sea and they landed in a small circle to the west. He stayed there, treading water, as if waiting to come to some decision. Finally he turned slowly in the water so that he was facing out to sea again. He started to bring his legs up in order to swim when suddenly, ten feet in front of him, a seal broke the surface and stared at him, whiskers twitching. Neither made a move for a handful of seconds. The seal examined him with large brown eyes, its sleek black head dog-like in expression, before it sank slowly back beneath the oily swell and disappeared.
He turned once more to face the land and began to swim slowly back the way he had come. Once on shore he got dressed and walked to his shelter in the cliff. The sheriffs had partially kicked it apart, so he spent some time rebuilding it. As dusk began to fall he walked back toward the restaurant but this time kept going toward the entrance of the county park. As he reached the gate a white pickup stopped in front of him.
"Hey, pal?" It was Reese, the younger of the two deputies who had arrested him, but now out of uniform, wearing jeans and a T shirt.
"Hey, I got a friend of yours here." He opened the driver's door and a brown shape leaped over his lap and to the ground, barking and then leaping up on the man, who finally leaned down and tried to pat him, as the dog gyrated around him and kept jumping up to lick his face.
"I heard Animal Control got your dog, so I was going by there anyway and picked him up for you. Figured you might not have a ride."
Neither man nor dog paid attention so the deputy closed the truck door, leaned out the window.
"I know you won't be sleeping on the beach again," he grinned. "Take her easy, guys." And he drove off.
After the dog calmed down they walked together toward the restaurant. Two women were watching the stray cats. In the twilight some kittens had come out and were playing, dashing back and forth, as the grownups started to assemble, expecting their evening feeding. The women noticed him coming with the dog.
"Now, don't you let your dog chase the kitties," one woman warned.
He stood still for a moment watching the cats, then looked down at his dog.
"It's okay," he said. "He likes cats."
# # # #