An Excerpt from "The Discarded Feast" by Scott Semegran
I slid the key into the dead bolt of the door to my apartment, turned the door knob, and in we went, to-go containers from the P.W. in our hands, smiles on our faces when we saw Mr. Whiskers waiting for us by the door. He always waited for me by the door. He was a good cat.
"Hey buddy!" said I, leaning down to scratch his head. He purred loudly. "I bet you're hungry."
I turned the lights on and we made our way to the coffee table, setting our food on it, plopping on the floor, our dining area. Alfonso noticed a gang of slaughtered roaches on the floor next to the couch, still twitching, almost dead, flopping on the carpet. Mr. Whiskers pounced on them, jabbed at them for the last time, then promptly ignored them. He lost interest for some reason.
This was a typical haul for Mr. Whiskers. When he was on the prowl, he liked to crouch low to the floor, digging his claws into the carpet, his tail slithering side-to-side like a snake easing through a forest, his eyes narrowing into focus, his whiskers spreading out, stiff, quivering, waiting for bugs. The roaches made their way from the sliding patio door to under my couch and my dutiful cat would watch them, the bugs tip-toeing around dust bunnies and cigarette lighters and waded up hamburger wrappers and sticky bent straws. My apartment complex was surrounded by oak and cedar trees, straddling creek beds that fed Town Lake a couple of blocks away, making fertile ground for bugs and rats and mice and snakes. To say my complex was infested with vermin was almost a stretch (almost) but it was not unusual for roaches to make their way daily under the sliding door from the rotting wooden deck behind my apartment, and that was where Mr. Whiskers would lay, crouched on the hearth of the fireplace next to the back door, his eyes aimed at the bottom of the door where the sliding rails were, looking for tasty bugs, waiting to pounce on them and rip their legs off. He was an effective insect exterminator. The roaches under the couch attempted to make it to the kitchen like starving idiots. Mr. Whiskers wound up his hind legs, sprang into action, jabbing his front right leg under the couch, and pulled the roaches out, his claws ripping the roaches open in one swift motion. As the roaches flip-flopped on the carpet, Mr. Whiskers licked himself clean, setting his paw on the roaches whenever they bounced around too erratically, keeping them in check until their demise. He would leave the bugs to die, alone, in the middle of the living room--or actually, Alfonso's temporary bedroom--as a symbol of his love to me and my new roommate. Fucking gross.
"Looks like Mr. Whiskers was going to have a snack," Alfonso said, opening his container of food, a large pile of lasagna inside still steaming.
"Yeah, we were gone a long time today. Good thing I brought you some food, little buddy," I said, pulling a wad of aluminum foil from my container, unwrapping it, then setting it on the carpet. Some chunks of baked fish were in it and my cat devoured his dinner as quickly as he could. I pet him as he ate. "Good work with the bugs, too. Keep it up!"
"He could at least finish the job he started. One roach is still moving."
Mr. Whiskers walked away, leaving the room, the bugs, and us behind. Me and Alfonso enjoyed our warm food--the only food in the whole place, our only meal of the entire day--after another long day and very little money to show for it, a routine we were both getting tired of. Alfonso folded his empty apron, wrapping the string-tie around it, and set it on the coffee table. Outside, the sound of click-clacking began to echo in our cranny called a patio, large drops of rain hitting the wood planks of the deck, at first a few at a time, then quickly a torrential down pour, loud like pebble stones falling from the sky, bouncing off the wood and crashing into the glass sliding door. Then thunder crashed loudly, shaking the floor, car alarm sirens erupting from the parking lot, dogs barking. I leaned back against the couch (a black, orange, and green-striped pull-out couch I bought for $150 at a second-hand store a few months before), pulling a box of cigarettes from my pants pocket, lighting a smoke with Alfonso's brass Zippo lighter, sucking the cigarette to life, blowing a huge plume of smoke into the living room air. Alfonso leaned back from his food and repeated the same ritual. We sat together, in our silence, except for the sound of the rain hitting the deck, the rhythmic pummeling, menacing and soothing at the same time.
"Would you have a problem if I stayed here for a little while longer?" Alfonso said, hesitantly.
"Stay as long as you need," I said, enjoying my cigarette.
"Are you sure? You keep saying that but I feel bad about it."
"You shouldn't. Shit happens."
"True. True." He sucked on his cigarette and exhaled slowly, like an ancient dragon getting ready to slumber after a long day of torching villages.
"When do you want to go to San Marcos and get some of your things?" I said.
San Marcos was where Alfonso went to school, at Southwest Texas State University--which used to be called Southwest Texas State Teachers College a long time ago--the alma mater of Lyndon Baines Johnson, the 36th President of the United States. Johnson famously bragged that he was kicked out of Southwest Texas State and Alfonso sometimes inferred the same fate happened to him, although the truth was much tamer. He just didn't have the money to finish college; it was that simple. His parents wouldn't help him pay for school and, for whatever reason, he couldn't get a school loan. That shit happens too. He was stranded in an apartment he couldn't pay for in a town with not many jobs, which led him to Austin and the P.W.
"Hmmm. Maybe next Monday or Tuesday. That's when we're off next, right?"
"I think so. Sounds good."
"I'll pay for gas."
"OK," I said, pleased at the offer from him to pay for gas, a precious and scarce commodity in my life.
"I wish I knew what was wrong with my car."
"It's been a good car for so long. Weird that it won't start."
"We could work on it instead of going to San Marcos," I said, taking a drag from my cigarette.
"No, I really need some of my stuff from my apartment. My lease will be up soon and if I don't go get some things, they'll padlock the door and toss my stuff."
"Yeah, fucking bullshit."
"When is your lease up?"
"The end of the month," he said, running his fingers across his tired scalp, the weariness in his bones showing. "You go off to college, you get a decent place and some help from your folks, then they get tired of helping you and set you free, then the shit hits the fan. I never thought I'd be in this spot, broke, no money for rent, one semester away from graduating. It sucks."
"Yeah." He was speaking the truth. Preach, brother.
"And I'm up to my eyeballs in debt and shit. I don't know what I'm going to do. I can't get a decent job without a degree but I can't graduate without a place to stay so I got this stupid job at P.W. to help pay the rent but I can't pay the rent because I'm not making shit. And now I'm stranded here in Austin cause my car won't start."
"Sounds like a country song!"
We both burst into laughter at the absurdity of it all, our miserable circumstance, our life rolling along in a clichéd fashion, just like a honky-tonk sing-a-long, tears in beers and shit like that.
"Yeah, it does," Alfonso said. "My life is like a goddamn country song. Great. That was not what I was aspiring to do."
"I was lucky my folks paid for my college so I don't have any student loans but I couldn't get a decent job after I graduated. All I found were minimum-wage office jobs. I had a hard time paying rent on minimum-wage. I thought waiting tables might be a better gig," I said, sitting back against the couch, smoking some more.
"Boy, were you wrong!"
We laughed some more, smoked some more, ate some more, played with the cat some more, and forgot about our shitty life some more, at least for a few minutes.
"Some days, I make good money," I said.
"Most days, I don't," Alfonso said. "I miss being at home sometimes."
"No worries when you're a kid, right? No bills, no responsibilities, no laundry."
"When I was a senior in high school, I couldn't wait to move away from home. I was itching to go! As soon as I could go, I went." He thrust his hand into the air like a jet plane taking off into the sky. "But now that I've been away for a few years, I miss home. I miss my mom, my family, my home. I never thought I'd say that."
"I miss my mom's cooking, my abuela's cooking too. Now that the holidays are coming up, I'm sure I'll be thinking about it more, missing home more."
"Yeah, this is my first time being away from home during the holidays. I have to work every day except Christmas and I'm not even sure I'll have the time to go home on Christmas Day either."
"We'll probably have to work doubles the day before and the day after too," he said, sighing, releasing the disappointment in his heart.
"What did we get ourselves into?"
"I don't know. If you're still here, then you can help me put up my tree and decorate it."
We smoked some more as Mr. Whiskers sashayed around the living room, his eyes on the roaches, a couple with twitching legs still, rain drops pummeling the wood deck outside. A bright flash of light lit up the sliding doors followed by a loud clap of lightning, shaking the apartment building roughly, catching Mr. Whiskers off-guard. He dashed out of the living room into my bedroom, probably diving under my bed, to wait for the giant rain monster outside to go away.