by Bruce Arthurs
He had been called Handsome Devil. That had been when he had a home, and owners who had fed and brushed him regularly, had played the fetch game with him on an almost daily basis. Then they had left in their car one day, and had never come back. Strangers in black clothing had entered the home after several days, bearing boxes into which they had solemnly packed his owners' belongings, sometimes breaking out in tears. Handsome Devil had hid from them, uncertain what their presence meant. One had opened a window, and failed to close it completely when the strangers left at the end of the day. Handsome Devil had squeezed out the narrow aperture, jumped to the ground, and gone to look for his owners.
He had been full-bodied and sleek of coat, then. Now he was thin, and his coat was dry and spiky; both ears were ragged from combat, and one leg still ached from the damage when a boy had deliberately ridden his bicycle into Handsome Devil. He had learned that the world beyond his home was a dangerous place, and that many of the people who lived there were not kind, and were best avoided.
Hunger was his constant companion. He caught the occasional bird or lizard, scrounged in trash cans, would sometimes chance stealing food from a dish left outside for a cat or dog who still had their owners. He drank from gutters and puddles. His owners were a fading memory, and survival was his predominant thought.
There were places where finding food was more likely, brightly lit glass-front buildings where people would stop for snacks, drinks, cigarettes and sundries. Handsome Devil could usually find a bit of hot dog, or at least a piece of the bun, dropped on the ground or thrown towards the garbage cans. Sometimes pigeons or sparrows would gather for the crumbs found there, and he would be able to stalk and ambush them for his own needs.
He was in the underbrush near such a place, eyes and attention fixed and tense upon a sparrow pecking at crumbs, when the man approached. The man walked with a heavy step, his head down, his thumbs hooked into the pockets of his worn jeans.
The sparrow looked up at the figure approaching across the asphalt. Handsome Devil began his move, rising and taking several quick panther-steps forward from under the bush, then stopping in frustration as the sparrow rose upwards in a fluster of wings.
The man stopped short as well. Cat and man stared at each other, one wary, the other surprised.
"Christ, puss," the man finally said. "You look like I feel."
The man slowly lowered himself into a crouch and extended a hand towards Handsome Devil; he made come-hither motions, strumming his thumb across his fingers. Handsome Devil stayed frozen in position, ready to flee but not sure this was the safest moment to do so.
The man ceased the come-hither motions. "Nah," he said softly, "you don't trust me. Or anybody else, I reckon. It's a hard world, isn't it, puss? A hard, crappy world."
He reached up slowly and pulled a cord from beneath his shirt. The cord went around his neck; a colored plastic disk was strung on the cord. The man held up the disk and looked at it.
"Ninety days sober, last week. I thought I was pulling things back together. And then..." He paused. "...this morning she told me she wanted the divorce anyway. She's going to take the kids and go to her parents back East."
He yanked at the disk, snapping the string. He rose back to his full height and stared at the storefront ahead of him. "To hell with it," he whispered. "To Hell." The man flung his arm to one side and cast the disk away.
The disk tumbled through the air. Sudden memory blossomed in Handsome Devil's mind as his eyes automatically tracked the colored object.
Fetch it, Handsome Devil, his owners would say, and toss the plastic bottlecap across the tiled kitchen floor.
He burst into a run across the asphalt. The disk struck and bounced, struck again, spinning and tumbling, and then Handsome Devil was on top of it, pinning it, capturing it, rising with it clenched in his mouth and turning proudly to display his catch.
And the man was disappearing into the building, the glass door starting to swing shut behind him.
The door almost closed on Handsome Devil's tail as he scooted through the shrinking opening and into the cooled air of the store.
The man was standing at the counter, staring past the clerk and at the rows of bottles containing amber and clear liquids. He raised a hand, started to point. "Give me one of----"
And stopped, and looked down towards his feet, where Handsome Devil was rubbing back and forth against his pant legs and purring around the disk still held between his jaws.
The clerk looked over. "How'd he get in here?"
The man leaned down and slipped a hand under Handsome Devil's stomach. He lifted him up, took the disk from Handsome Devil, and laid him against his shoulder. The man stared at the disk as he absently stroked the cat's head and shoulders.
Handsome Devil purred louder.
"If he's yours, you can't bring him in here," the clerk said.
The man turned his eyes toward the clerk. "Do you...?" he began. "Do you have any cat food here?"