SUSAN CLARKSON MOORHEAD
The girl is behind the dumpsters, she’s feeding the cats again. Sammy can’t stand the cats, the way they fight at night with themselves or with the raccoons trying to steal their food, those screeching yowls that tear through his sleep, make him sit up in bed shaking off a dream, trying to remember who he is. Where he is. Until he sees the glow of the giant neon sign that flashes Niagra Falls Car Wash next to his window, the misspelled name in vivid orange over an ever flowing blue and white cascade of electric water.
His brother, Mike, he has a friend who works there, wiping the wet off of the cars after they come through, shining up the chrome. Mike's friend said the owner boasts that he spelled it that way on purpose so he couldn’t get sued by the real Niagara Falls and that it was not a problem because no one can spell for shit anyway. Maybe so, but Sammy wonders who owns the real Niagara Falls and could they really sue considering they are a waterfall? Sure, said Mike, anyone can sue about anything. Well, maybe we could sue them because they never turn off that sign and no curtain has been made that is thick enough to hide the glare. His mother just sighs and says he complains too much for a young man and at least he doesn’t have to pee all the time like she does hearing all the sloshing water hitting the cars day and night.
Right now Sammy is standing at the kitchen window, raising the spoon again to his mouth, the cereal he’s eating for dinner the last in the box until his mother goes shopping. Mike is at his after school job so Sammy’s heated up a frozen dinner for his grandma, she is on the front porch where she likes her tray to be set up in good weather. She likes to watch the cars. Back when she was a girl, she says, you were lucky if you saw three cars an hour going down this road. Now it’s a nonstop rolling show except for the deepest part of night where there is finally a little peace. Until the damn cats yowl him awake.
The girl is opening cans and setting them down in a row. She’s pouring water into some of the empty cans. He has walked over there after she’s left previous nights, watched the cats, feral and spooky, make grinding noises in their throats as he nears, ears back but not running unless he throws something at them. She sits two rows over from him in English, never talking, her thumbs sticking out from holes she has cut at the end of each sleeve of her hoodie. It’s too big for her and she keeps the hood up over her hair unless the teacher says something about lowering it so she can tell if her students are awake. He’s watched her thumbs worry the black frayed fabric. She bites her nails. The few times she has looked up, he has liked her eyes. Blue.
Today, because he wants to, he adds his empty bowl to the dirty pile in the sink, opens the back door and steps off the last step to the one foot of lawn before the parking lot starts. The last thing his Dad did, before he went off to who the hell cares where, was to sell their back yard to the mini strip mall for extra parking. A CVS. a take-out Chinese, a nail salon, a pizza joint, all like little satellites off a big Staples and the big trucks unloading crap, and the side yard went to the genius who built the car wash. Now their house is perched on the smallest piece of dirt possible, just a few feet from the back steps and he’s in the parking lot.
She doesn’t hear him coming until he’s almost there and when she sees him she has that same look the cats get. If she could lay her ears flat on her head and hiss at him, she would.
“Hey,” he says.
She looks at him, looks down. She has only opened four little cans, he knows she’s got five or six to go. She’s debating leaving but the cats win, and she reaches into her backpack and takes out another can. “Hey, yourself.”
“You’re in class with me,” he says, feeling stupid saying it but he can’t think of anything else.
“You like cats, huh.”
She actually laughs at this, not a mean laugh though, and her face looks like someone turned on a light until she lowers her head and her brown hair slides in front of it, closing her expression off to him. He’s afraid of the cats, if the truth be known. He and his brother, Mike, have come out here and messed with them in the past, thrown their cans towards the bushes they hide in, tried to chase them away with a bucket of soapy water. He worries they have long memories.
“There’s a mommy cat I’m worried about,” she says. “She’s blind and I haven’t seen her for three days.”
He considers this, a blind stray cat, decides not to mention the dogs that run through the parking lot, not to mention the raccoons, the random coyote, boys like he used to be before he started watching the girl who feeds cats.
“Do you think I could get more water from your house? I only have the one bottle cause the other one leaked in my backpack.” She has shaken back her hair again, those blue eyes looking at him.
He thinks of the kitchen, the way Grandma can’t bend to clean so everything from waist down is filthy. It’s supposed to be Mike and him helping out especially after Mom took on the second job, but he’s been slacking lately, bad enough he’s got to take care of Grandma himself with Mike getting that after school job. And what if Grandma hears her, tries to come in the kitchen and talk.
“Sorry, we’ve got a dog.”
She looks at him. “Just because I like cats doesn’t mean I don’t like dogs.”
“You wouldn’t like this one. He bites. He’s totally crazy.”
The girl just stares at him and he wants to take it all back, but she’s opened her last can and placed it down, and is standing up, ready to go. “Maybe you could bring some water out later, you know, when your dog doesn’t want to bite anybody, and put some water in those empty cans.”
He toes the ground with his sneaker. He knows she knows there is no dog. “Yeah, I could do that.”
“Thanks,” she says, walking away.
He feels the space between them lengthening, about to turn to empty and gone, and he calls after her, “I’ll keep an eye out for that blind cat,” hears what he has just said and shakes his head. He looks up to the sound of her laugh.
“That was awful.”
“I know. As soon as I said it.”
She smiles, and he can breathe again. “See you tomorrow.”
On the front porch, Grandma wakes from a half doze as he picks up her fork and balled up napkin, the empty TV dinner. She looks confused, and he sits in the creaky wicker chair across from her, the faded floral cushions smelling of mildew. Maybe he’ll scrub the kitchen down, pick up a bit, between now and later when he’ll go and pour water into the little crusted tin cans, hope no crazy cat will jump at him.
“They say the Canadian side of the Niagara Falls is nicer than the New York side,” Grandma says, her voice sounds like she is auditioning for the role of calm grandma but there is still a little panic around her eyes.
“Maybe we’ll go there, see for ourselves,” Sammy says. “You and me and Mom and Mike in the car, we'll drive up there and stand on either side, we could make it a contest, you know, vote on it.”
She shakes her head, herself again in her smile and the ease in her face. They watch a blue van nearly collide with a speeding Subaru, a blaring honk, an angry gesture. By the side of the house, a Toyota spits out of the mouth of the car wash, sleek with water, and the towel guys start drying it off. “Think of it,“ he says, “Winner buys dinner.” And she laughs.