DECEMBER IN THE CAGE He almost didn’t see the car. The headlights glared through the snow on 28th glowing eyes under a cover of white. Mike stopped himself from stepping off the sidewalk just in time as faint smile crossed his lips, an expectant grin; the driver honked.
The snow, dusting New York City’s sidewalks, had begun to fall just as school let out—for a long winter break—and had hastened since he’d left the gym a few minutes ago. On another night, he might have stopped to admire the muffling, chilly blanket, and the way it hushed the city, covering the skyscrapers, the cars, the parks, even the graveyards. But he couldn’t stop tonight.
“Aren’t you cold?” It took him a moment to realize the guy was talking to him, looking him over.
Mike noticed his eyes were the color of dark olives, his skin too tan for the winter. Hair was cropped short on the sides, longer on the top. Broad shouldered, he had a shy, lopsided grin. No, not shy, but coy. And that was the last thing on his mind.
“I’m fine,” Mike said, realizing that the question was in reference to his wearing exercise shorts in the snow. Just shorts and a royal blue peat coat, with bourbon-colored buttons; he felt guilty for owning something so expensive. Jon, his boyfriend, had given it to him for Christmas and insisted that Mike throw away his old button-up. This new coat felt too tight around him.
After working out, Mike had taken his keys and wallet, but left his best suit and dress shoes in an empty locker. Maybe the guy who moped the floor would inherit them.
“Do you always were shorts in the winter? Or just showing off your legs?” Dark eyes persisted, leaning closer. Mike stared at the way the snow had been packed into the ground, tucking his hands into his pockets.
The light turned green, a gentler pastel in the obscuring weather, and Mike began to cross the avenue, trying to fit his shoes into the empty spaces left by people walking ahead. He focused on walking without slipping, his thin sneakers not suited to snow. Dark eyes walked next to him.
“Coming from the gym,” Mike said.
“I know. I mean I saw you there,” dark eyes said, still grinning, making Mike feel even more naked in the cold. “You a teacher?” he asked, seeing the name of a school on his bag.
At the end of the school day, Mike had watered the bamboo on his desk and stacked essays into neat-enough piles for each period. He had thought about writing a note to his students, but didn’t. Most of them slept through class anyway. A plan for the rest of the school year sat on top of the essays, and he decided to leave the single picture of his family on his desk in its frame.
He smiled, thinking of Emily Dickinson arranging her poetry in delicate stringed fascicles. Then he quickly frowned, worried that dark eyes would get the wrong idea.
“I’m sorry, I have something important tonight.” Mike said, then walked faster despite having little traction.
When he reached the other side of the street, Mike noted how the hair on his legs stood straight up from the cold and then, as Dark eyes disappeared around the corner, he felt the stiffness in his neck release.
Walking past the bakery and barber shop, then to the animal shelter, Mike’s focus was on the trees, not the forest. On the details of things. He would need to check the shelter’s hours.
Shivering, he read the sign on the door; open until eight, which was just enough time to pick up his cat, December, and drop her off here. He’d adopted her a month earlier, after the shelter found her locked in an abandoned cat carrier by 25th and 8th.
Just a half block more to the apartment. Mike was the first one to walk this sidewalk in a few minutes, and he noticed how his thin sneakers left fresh prints, a trail. Stopping at 22, he opened the front door. One flight up. He felt a strange pang of nerves once he reached the apartment, not the relief one would expect to feel at being home. For the first time in the day, he allowed himself to think.
Frozen in the doorway, he stood, brushed back the single hair that had fallen out of place. An anonymous neighbor hustled by and he pictured himself—his shorts on in the snow, his face creased, but carefully shaven.
He walked into the apartment, sat on the floor and unlaced his shoes, prying them off with a wet jerk. Tossing them aside instead of opening the closet and putting them away, he slipped his phone into his shorts, threw the coat on the floor.
December was no where to be found. As he scanned the studio for her, Mike permitted himself to realize how little was there. Thoughts about tonight crept in, like cold through the windows.
A bed, a couch, a desk, a computer. Thick blue curtains, with a slant of light coming in from the street. On the three levels of a bookshelf next to the bed were a few empty picture frames and unsigned yearbooks, some James Baldwin softcovers and moleskins, a stack of short stories, a dime bag of weed, a bottle of Jimmy Beam; on the bottom shelf, blank legal pads and a loaded .38 revolver, which he’d gotten a week ago.
His feet were beginning to feel again. He stood and flickered the light switch on and off. December was deaf. She’d learned to look for the flickering lights and, on cue, she crawled out from under the blue couch, a white puff with green eyes.
She sauntered over to him, brushing her cheeks against his cold legs. Jerky movements scared her, so Mike stood up slowly and cradled her. She purred and looked up, the soft sides of her mouth forming a grin. December brushed her cheek up against his. Like a child, he thought.
“Come on, darling,” he said, setting her down and walking over to her food bowl in the kitchen. Chicken Florentine, the label read. He emptied the can into her bowl.
Damp, he sat down carefully on the bed spread—he hated wet sheets—pulled out his phone and dialed his boyfriend, Jon. He expected to get a voicemail, and heard Jon’s strong voice ask him to leave a message. When he spoke, his own voice sounded disembodied, as though it were drifting in from outside.
“Hey, it’s me. I’m sure you’re still at work, but I hope this week has been going well. Hear it’s cold in Boston, and it’s snowing here. I got your blue dress shirt dry cleaned—it’s in my closet. And you left a manila folder here two weeks ago. It looks like it has a few of your lawyerly documents in it. Alright. But yeah. That stuff is here. Hope they’re not working you too hard, baby. Ok, bye.”
He worried that Jon would forget this stuff—that he might need it. These were a few of the details he hadn’t considered until today. Dropping it off was not an option.
Jon’s apartment was twenty minutes away, in the financial district, overlooking the Brooklyn Bridge and the seaport. God’s view, Jon called it. At night, looking out the window, New York looked like a tangled ball of Christmas lights.
He’d declined Jon’s offer to move in six months ago. The building had a grocery store and a gym inside of it, as well as a drawing room with a grand piano. But Jon thought the sofa was too expensive for them to have a cat.
“Fuck cats, they’re always up to something,” Jon had said. They’d been huddled close in the corner of a dark French Bistro, the kind with candles and a copper-top bar.
“That’s what makes them great. I haven’t lived without one since I was five,” Mike said. The waiter came and they ordered a bottle of wine.
“I don’t fit in that apartment. It’s too—much.”
“We don’t have to split the rent down the middle.”
“That’s not what I mean.”
The waiter came and poured Jon a sip of wine, to test. Mike always felt a strange pang of embarrassment while Jon swished the drink around like mouthwash. Jon accepted the wine and thanked the waiter.
“Well, what do you mean?” Jon reached across the table to take Mike’s hand off the wine glass and into his. “Listen, keep the cat. It’s just a sofa.”
Mike swallowed and studied the menu. “I’m not sure how to explain it.”
“Explain what? I said you could keep the cat. What is it?” Jon asked.
“I don’t know, but it isn’t just the cat,” Mike said.
Finished with her food, December leapt onto the edge of the bed and sat there, her white fur sticking to the blue blanket as she gently kneaded it with her paws.
Mike dialed his mother.
“Hi mom. It’s me, Mike. Snowing here in the city. Cat and I are good. Just staying warm. Sorry I wasn’t able to make it home for Christmas. Hope things are good. Ok. Bye.”
He hung up the phone and sat. December stared at him.
Stretching out his arm to the bottom shelf, he picked up the revolver. He was shocked by how the gun felt: cold, ice cold, and heavy—though the cylinder rolled out easily enough, and he flicked it around. He brought the barrel to his temple and shut his eyes.
A Google search had revealed the optimal place for shooting oneself, in the temple. A week ago, when he typed in the search terms, he half expected the computer to respond with gentle concern. Maybe you should get help, it would suggest. But it responded with cold, modern facts.
Putting the gun down between his legs, Mike picked up the phone.
“Hi mom. Me again. Calling to let you know, you’re gonna get a package in the mail from me soon,” he, said, thinking of the pictures that had been in the now empty frames. “So—keep an eye out for that package. It’ll come in the regular mail. I sent it two days ago. Just watch for it. And—I love you. Bye.” He hung up.
He became aware of emerging thoughts, the forest brushing against him. After his father died two years ago, his mother and he sat alone in the funeral home, pews empty except for the two of them. She told Mike how sorry she was, how she wished they all had gotten along better, and how he was the only thing she had left. It didn’t make a bit of difference. What he remembered most was that the funeral home was an obscene yellow—the color of a dying sunflower—and as his mother reached out to hug him, all he could do was wonder was why someone would paint a funeral home yellow. He almost laughed.
Sometimes, he dreamed about yellow walls closing in on him.
December walked across the bed, eyeing the revolver. Her tail stuck straight up in the air, a long white exclamation mark. He reached out and scratched her cheek. She purred, the comforting sound of a humming engine.
Mike looked at his phone. It was time to pack December and take her to the shelter.
He got up from the bed, its sudden shuffling startling December, who pinched her shoulders together in something like a wince. He put the revolver back on the bottom shelf and walked, like a child trying not to creek the floorboards, over to the closet by the front door.
Pulling December’s cat carrier from the top shelf, above the coats, he set it down by the front door. She leapt under the bed once she saw it.
It was beige plastic with a metal door that pinched shut. Although it read ‘Cat Home’ across the sides, the swinging metal door clearly made it a cage. It frightened December to see the cage. The shelter said she never meowed on that street corner, not once, as she sat trapped on the side of the road, splashed by cars driving in the street. She sat alone, shivering in silence.
December shuffled but didn’t come out. While she was still hiding, he set a trap—opening the cage door and slipping a can of tuna inside. Guilt knotted his stomach as he flickered the lights on and off, sitting down with the carrier in front of him. Soon December crept toward the carrier, sniffing at the air. She crept forward slowly, each step growing more cautious as she approached the carrier.
Moving slowly, she rubbed her cheeks against it, craning her neck forward to peek at what was inside. She edged her way into the cage.
On his knees, he reached his arm around to close the metal door with December inside. But she managed to slip out, holding the can of tuna by the lid and heading under the bed again, looking triumphant.
“Dammit,” he said. It was impossible not to feel his doubts now, throbbing in the back of his mind. He got up and walked over to the bed, lifting the dark blue bed skirt and straining to see in the light. He caught the gleam of metal and snatched the can away from the cat.
This time, he placed the can deeper inside and left a trail of cat treats, like breadcrumbs, from the bed to the carrier. He flickered the light switch on and off, but December stayed under the bed.
Again, he flickered.
Nothing. No glossy white head, no emerald eyes.
Just a still, bare room.
Mike walked, covering his mouth with his hands, from the light switch by the front door to the bed again. He tossed a few treats under the bed. With an air of suspicion and indigence, December emerged, following the trail to the cage. He moved back to stand near.
As soon as she was inside, he picked up the cat carrier and tilted it upright, so that December would fall forward against the back and he could close the metal door. This was nearly successful until she tried climbing her way out.
Giving the metal door a forceful push and the cat carrier a forceful shake, he managed to close the door and spill tuna everywhere inside. What would the shelter think?
He set the carrier down and looked inside. December gave a betrayed, squeaky little meow—glaring at him. He felt nauseating guilt burning his throat.
December meowed again and he started pacing. For a moment, he considered not bringing her back the shelter. Then, he imagined her white coat sticky with his blood. It was too horrible to think about.
She had to go back, he decided. What time was it? A glimpse of his hair and face in the phone as he checked the time was startling—there was a piece of tuna on his cheek and his hair was a tangled ball of blonde yarn.
Hurrying, he slipped into his shoes, his jacket—no time to change clothes—and picked up the handle of the cat carrier.
December meowed in protest.
Setting the carrier back down, he knelt and put his face up against the metal door. It felt cool, like the gun.
“I’m sorry—“ he whispered to the cat.
This is ridiculous, he thought. December has a brain the size of his fist. This was an animal who purred at him on the toilet and thought a balled up Duane Read receipt tossed around was a fun game. But he didn’t want to let her go.
Still watching the cat, he took a deep breath and understood—maybe this was the forest coming into view.
“Here’s what I’ll do,” he whispered while she stared intensely. “I’ll open the cage, and if you won’t come out, we’ll go to the shelter. But if you do—we’ll stay.” His trembling fingers squeezed the latch to the carrier door between his thumb and pointer finger. In his periphery, Mike saw the gun gleaming on the bed. He opened the cage, waiting.
Mike Zimmerman is a writer of short stories and poetry, as well as an English teacher in the South Bronx. His most recent work, "The Nestling," appeared in Wilde Magazine. When he isn't writing or teaching, Mike is enjoying New York City with his partner and their cat.