Short Stories

Published in CREATURE COZIES, edited by Jill Morgan; ISBN 0-425-20127-9.

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They say a cat scratch can bring a deadly fever. One laid-back kitty would assert that’s just another scurrilous attack on his kind. People should mind their own business. Except they don’t. And when they don’t, when they go looking for trouble, raising chaos, generally disturbing the peace the way that only bipedal primates can, sometimes they need a lesson in common etiquette. If that doesn’t take, then nothing knows fury like a furry mammal of the feline kind, and Black Zak is the one to deliver it.

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Black Zak sat on the railing soaking up a patch of autumn sun.

Twenty steps away, under the wood canopy of The Chowder Inn, RuthEllen Morris tore open a new sack of cornmeal and grumbled at her helper, Smithy. “We’ll never get rid of that cat now,” she said.

“You know how many cats roam around here?”

“Too darn many, is what,” RuthEllen said.

“That there is one fine feline. Smithy knows his kitties.”

“You think.”

“Once in a while I do,” he said, “but I’ll try and correct my ways.”

A nanosecond-grin passed over RuthEllen’s face.

Eight months ago Smithy came upon the kitten under the dock. The wee thing was bedraggled and bespotted with some kind of undercarriage oil, and between his tiny toes lodged globs of sand-tar. Such a sorry beginning kept the furry thing from trusting anyone for long. Two friendly scratches behind an ear and he’d disappear like a shadow when the sun goes down.

“Fill the coffee urns yet?” RuthEllen asked over her shoulder.

“What I’m doing right now,” Smithy said, “if you’d quit worrying about that cat and pay attention to what goes on around here.” He could talk to his boss that way, considering what she could afford to pay. In truth, he did all right for himself from a combination of his tightwad nature, Social Security, and a pension from the bricklayer’s union. As for her sentiments about the cat, Smithy had twice spied her tossing tidbits to the stray herself.

“Where you want that crate of cod coming in?”

“Leave it outside,” RuthEllen said. “No time to deal with that now.”

“They’re about to power-wash out there. They want all the outside stuff inside.”

“Then put it inside,” RuthEllen said, widening her eyes as if the solution was a no-brainer. She hefted a box of potatoes onto the sideboard, tumbled some into the sink, the stainless steel ringing from their onslaught, then took to scrubbing the spuds with a brush.

Smithy came forward, wiping his nose with the back of his wrist. “No room.”

“Oh for cryin’ out loud,” RuthEllen said. She shook water off her hands and dried them on her jeans.

“More canned stuff coming too,” Smithy said.

“I know what I ordered,” RuthEllen said.

Opening the oversized pantry at the back of the store, she commenced to shoving around food boxes and jugs of cooking oil until she made room for the crate of onions and two bags of rock salt stacked outside the back door. She huffed and puffed until she came up with room on the lower shelf for the box of fresh cleaning rags that had also been outside a day too long, miracle they weren’t stolen. “See,” she said, “plenty of room. Let’s do the freezer.”

“No room in there either.”

“Those potatoes are growing eyes in the sink while you stand there and argue,” she said.

Smithy stood by her as she opened the lid to the big horizontal freezer. His sleeve brushed hers when he reached in, saying, “I’ll get this here.” It amused him to know she’d pull away as if she saw a frozen shark come to life. In that reticence she had much in common with Zak the Cat.

“Okay, then,” RuthEllen said, and strode back to her potatoes.

The way that woman kept the freezer you’d think harbor seals dined and nested there each night. Smithy unstacked the first two layers and re-stacked them, making much more room.