By Wayne Hall

Nonchalantly Melvin Langley pressed the green button on the over-sized remote causing the television to come to life drowning out the silence that loomed throughout the small apartment like a thick fog. He showed little care for what infomercial or movie played on the television but only that it was loud enough to take away the sharp edge of the quietness. While a man with a thick mustache spoke loudly about the world’s sharpest knives, Melvin walked into the kitchen where he placed a frozen dinner into the microwave. He thought of nothing particular as he watched through the glass door while the frozen dinner turned round and round, as graceful as a ballerina before a captive audience.

He caught a glimpse of his reflection in the microwave’s glass door and noticed a crumb in his otherwise well-groomed beard before walking into the bathroom to examine his reflection more closely, with the help of a mirror with proper lighting. Melvin plucked the crumb from his beard and held it between his fingers. The crumb looked to be cake; then he remembered that today had been Rachel’s birthday, she worked two cubicles down from Melvin. At lunch, the office had surprised her with cake and ice cream. He looked at the crumb one more time, ‘ Strawberry cake with cream-cheese icing,” he thought as he checked his beard for more crumbs but found none. Finding cake in his beard that had been there since before noon caused him to feel a little embarrassed but also sad that no one at the office cared for him enough to let him know he had food in his beard. Looking in the mirror one more time, he remembered he had bigger problems to deal with than cake in his beard.

Melvin poured a small amount of scotch into a glass and walked into the living-room before settling into his well-worn leather recliner. He had never been much of a drinker, but he enjoyed the way the heavy glass felt in his hand. As he swirled the brown liquid around, he was pleased he had never acquired a taste for hard liquor. He knew that his addictive personality could not take one more obsession, and it would most likely send him over the edge, but in his mind, he had no doubt the edge was there and close enough as things stood now.

While placing the drink that he had yet to taste on the end-table, Melvin noticed the red blinking light on the answering machine. ” You have one message,” a mechanical voice proclaimed when he pushed the button next to the annoying red light. ” Mr. Langley, I don’t feel I have to tell you who this is or why I am calling, but since you have not contacted me I think it would be safe to say that your horse did not come in yesterday? So, here is what needs to happen; you need to meet me Monday evening at nine o’clock, you now the place, and Mr. Langley, please bring all of my money. Just remember you were the one that came to me, I never begged you to take the dough.”The man’s voice sounded cool and collective as if he had been ordering a pizza or some other daily task, but he wasn’t ordering a pizza; instead, he was making a statement, a statement that Melvin understood loud and clear.

Melvin picked up a pamphlet that lay on the table next to the answering machine. The pages were dog-eared and worn as if they had been read over many times. In glossy print, the front page read, ” Horse Racing Every Thursday- Sunday come enjoy the fun.” He thumbed through the first few pages until he found race number nine. ” How could his horse not win?” he thought. He placed his finger under the print that read 2-1, ” The odds were near perfect, and the horse was gray, so how could she lose?” as he mumbled to himself he remembered how his Grandfather had said, ” Never bet against a gray horse.” Crumbling the pamphlet and tossing it onto the floor, he wished he had not followed his Grandfathers advice; he wished more than anything he had bet against the gray horse.

Later that evening, Melvin paused in front of a green door directly above his apartment to read a wooden sign that read, ” Happy Cats Live Here.” He pressed the doorbell and listened to the sound of footsteps shuffling across vinyl flooring. The door opened slightly still secured by a brass chain; through the opened slit he could see an eyeball and one-third of a smile before the door closed again reopening without the security of the chain.

” Well, if it isn’t Melvin Langley who lives downstairs,” Mrs. Pingington said. She always addressed Melvin this way, if they met while checking the mail or at the local grocery store and he supposed if they met any place else, though they never had, she would greet him the same as Melvin Langley who lives downstairs.

Mrs. Pingington was an older woman who had been a widow for longer than Melvin had known her. Even though she was older, she moved in quick sneaky spurts: one moment she would be in another room the next right behind you with a cup of her special tea. She was a small shapeless woman though it was hard to tell with the quilted housecoat draped over her body, reminding Melvin of the way furniture would be covered while stored in the attic. She wore large curlers in her white hair, and round wire-rimmed glasses covered her pale blue eyes.

” Come on in, before someone thinks you are a Bible salesman,” she said speaking around a filter-less cigarette hanging from the corner of her poorly painted red lips. She pointed towards a worn plaid green love-seat before shuffling off to the kitchen with her fuzzy slippers gliding across the vinyl floor. She reappeared the way she had left gliding on fuzzy slippers only this time she carried two matching cups and a glass picture filled with special tea. She carefully poured from the picture filling the cups to the rim. ” Drink up before it turns hard,” she said forming a smile around the ash ridden cigarette hanging from her lip.

Melvin took a small sip and felt the liquid burn until it reached his stomach, causing a warmth to spread throughout his entire body. From what he could tell, Mrs. Pingington’s special tea contained ninety-nine percent vodka and one percent green tea. He took another long swallow and immediately felted more relaxed; even the worn lumpy green loveseat felt comfortable.

Mrs. Pingington sipped properly from her now half empty cup extending her pinky finger each time the cup tilted upwards. Melvin could tell from her glassy eyes this was not the first time her cup had been filled that evening. ” What brings you upstairs on a Friday evening? A young good looking feller like you should be out painting the town with a car load of girls,” she said while refilling both cups.

” The fact is Mr. Pingington; I don’t know one girl, much less a car load, that would be seen riding in a car with me. I guess it just dawned on me today that I have no friends,” he said.

” There must be some young people you work with who are your friends?

” No, I don’t think so. I mean we all get along fine, but I wouldn’t say we are friends.In fact, I don’t think they care for me at all,” he said.

” Melvin, I am sure that is not true,” she said. ” Maybe you are just shy.”

” No, I have always been a loner and to tell you the truth it has never bothered me until now. But I guess I am starting to see the benefits of having someone to lean on when times get hard.”

” Maybe you need to start with some cats,” she said. ” Cats are good companions and hardly any trouble. You could pick one up at the animal shelter, that’s where I got Bailey and muffins, I can go with you if you like,” she added with a smile.

” I don’t think I am ready for that kind of commitment,” he said.

” Well suit yourself, maybe one will just find you like I said I got Bailey and Muffins at the shelter, but Mr. Whiskers, the gray one rubbing up against your leg he just found me.” as she spoke Mr. Whiskers leaped into Melvin’s lap and gave a raspy meow.

When Mrs. Pingington looked away to take a sip from her special tea, Melvin pushed the gray cat from his lap. The truth was he disliked cats and always found them to be annoying even needy the way they always rubbed up against you and demanded to be petted. ” Now dogs, they are man’s best friend,” he thought. ” I could see myself having a dog that would be an upgrade from my fish,” his thoughts were broken by the gray cat now rubbing against his leg again. The special tea had caused him to relax and almost forget the reason he had come upstairs, but now he remembered and felt an urgency to get on with the conversation he had come to have with Mrs. Pingington.

” Mrs. Pingington I have a favor to ask you,” Melvin said.

” Well, go ahead son ask away, I won’t bite,” she said while lighting another cigarette.

Melvin dreaded asking for the favor, not because he thought she would say no but because he knew that in asking he would be opening up to more questions, some he did not want to answer. ”

Well, it looks like I may be leaving for awhile, maybe for good, and I don’t know where I will be staying at first, so I was wondering if you might keep my goldfish, Trudie?” As he spoke, the gray cat jumped into his lap and began to knead its paws on his thighs. Without even thinking about how much he despised cats, he began to pet the felines soft fur.

” Trudie is welcome here and I am sure will get along fine with the rest of the family,” Mrs. Pingington said through a cloud of smoke as she exhaled.

The room grew silent while Melvin waited for the questions to start; instead, Mrs. Pingington began to tell a story about her cats, the gray one to be precise.

” Melvin, did you know that cats are worshiped as Gods in some cultures while in others they are seen as instruments of the devil? Yes, they are strange little creatures but very in tune with their surroundings, some more so than others. Mr. Whiskers, the one there in your lap, he is special, even one of a kind I would say. I will never forget the day I found him or rather the day he found me.

” It was only about two months after Mr. Pingington had passed, and I was sitting in the park feeling about as lonely as a soul could get, in fact, I was wondering if I could face another day with no one to talk to, when just out of the blue this scraggly gray cat showed up and jumped right up into my lap, just the way he is in yours now. Immediately I felt I had a new friend. So, I took him home with me, and he has been here ever since. For a long while, I couldn’t explain it but felt very connected with the old gray cat almost as if he was trying to communicate with me. Then, one night when I couldn’t sleep I was just flipping through channels while petting Mr. Whiskers, and I came across this television show about this pet psychic and she said that some pets, cats in particular, had the ability to communicate with their owners if that was the person they were supposed to be owned by anyway.

Well, I sensed right away that Mr. Whiskers was one of the few that had the gift. So, at night when I was petting him I would try to concentrate on what he was thinking, and before I knew it I started to hear his thoughts, not out loud but telepathically I guess, that is what the lady on television said anyway. At first, it was just the little things I would hear him saying to me; he would let me know that the tea kettle was boiling or that it was time for the news on television, little things like that. But it was later, much later, when I discovered that Mr. Whiskers was very wise. You see when Mr. Pingington was alive he took care of all the bills and investment stuff when I opened the file cabinet and tried to make heads and tails of all that investment mumbo jumbo it just made my head spin, but Mr. Whiskers started to give me advice and made things a lot easier. Come to find out, the old cat is very wise when it comes to money and knows the Bible about as well as I do.” Mrs. Pingington took another long sip of special tea and waited for Melvin’s reaction.

” Mrs. Pingington, I am glad you two found one another, it seems Mr. Whiskers is great company for you.” Melvin tried to keep a straight face as he spoke because part of him thought that the old lady had gone completely mad, but he also felt a twinge of jealousy, ” at least the old lady has a friend to talk to, he thought.”

” I tell you what Melvin, let’s me and you have one more cup of tea while you tell me just what kind of trouble you have got yourself into,” she said while filling both cups to the rim.

Mr. Whiskers gave a raspy meow as if he agreed with what Mrs. Pingington said.

Melvin cleared his throat before beginning his story. ” I guess I have always enjoyed gambling,” he said. ” I had a twin brother; I don’t guess I ever told you that, most people that live around here don’t know since I was raised two states over. When we were young we were very competitive and would bet on the smallest things, who could swim across Ledrick’s pond the fastest, or who could eat the most pickled eggs in on sitting, I won that one and still have his favorite marble he lost to me, even though I threw up later.

When we were older, my brother lost his interest in gambling, but mine just got stronger. I never had much interest in sports, but I would still bet on every game. Then I discovered the horse track and my life changed forever and not for the good. Jimmy, that was my brother’s name, he begged me to give it up, he even staged an intervention along with my parents, but I wouldn’t listen.

By the time I was twenty years old, my gambling had gotten so bad that I had stolen a diamond ring from my Mother and sold it to pay my bookie. My parents kicked me out of the house, and I haven’t spoken to them since. That was also the year that Jimmy was in a bad car accident, the girl he was with she died instantly, my brother died two days later in the hospital. I can still remember standing in the rain at his funeral while the preacher read Psalms 23, and I checked my phone to see if my horse came in.

So you see Mr. Pingington, I have a problem, one that drove my family away and now has me owing a certain man fifty thousand dollars, and this man is not the kind you want to owe that much money.”

” Oh, my! That is a lot of money. Melvin, if I had it to give I would offer it to you, but I am afraid even with Mr. Whiskers great advice on investments I just barely get by,” Mrs. Pingington said.

Melvin began to speak and planned to tell Mrs. Pingington how he would never take money from her, but he was interrupted by the gray cat giving three raspy meows.

” Well, I am just an old woman and no little about what to do in life, but Mr. Whiskers has something to say about your situation. If you want I can tell you what he thinks.”

Melvin gave a nod of agreement and tipped his half empty cup toward the gray cat who now had left his lap for the comfort of Mrs. Pingington’s.

” Well, Mr. Whiskers says, and I happen to agree with him, that once you start running, you can never stop. You will always be looking over your shoulder afraid of every stranger you meet. He thinks you need to face up to the man you owe, and tell him you don’t have his money, and maybe he will let you pay it out. If he kills you, he won’t get a dime, and besides, you have a good job and could pay him a little each week.”

” Well, tell Mr. Whiskers I said thanks for the advice, but if you don’t mind I will be bringing, Trudie, my fish by tomorrow before I leave.” Melvin kissed Mrs. Pingington on her cheek which seemed rosier than before maybe due to the many cups of tea and said goodbye.

Monday morning Melvin called in sick for work. He really could not explain why he called he had no intention to ever return to his eight by eight cubical again. If he hadn’t called in, he wondered how long it would take for his peers to realize he was missing. He smiled as he imagined weeks going by before someone  asked, ” Where is Melvin?’

In the afternoon, Melvin methodically packed his clothes into a suitcase he had bought on sale but never used. While folding one of his shirts, he remembered it was his brother who had taught him the correct way to fold without getting wrinkles. Jimmy had worked at a large retailer while in high school and how to fold correctly may have been the only thing he learned during that summer. Melvin’s thoughts were interrupted by the phone ringing, but he decided to let the answering machine get it. After the beep, he heard a familiar voice, ” Mr. Langley, I hope you remember what day this is, and I hope you have my money, all of it. You know the place, eight o’clock sharp. Let’s do this the easy way; I like to keep things clean and simple.” Melvin continued to pack while pondering the man’s words, clean and simple. He wished more than anything things could be clean and simple.
At precisely eight o’clock, Melvin stood at the west end of a long dark alley, his suitcase and goldfish were both still sitting in his apartment. In his pocket, he had one hundred and forty-three dollars, a far cry from fifty thousand the man he presumed would be waiting at the end of the alley would be expecting. ” I hope you are right Mr. Whiskers,” he whispered out loud as he turned and walked into the darkness.

About the Author:

wayne hall

Wayne Hall is a native of Arkansas who has a passion for reading and writing short fiction. Wayne’s other interests include beekeeping and long distance hiking. In 2014 he completed a 2,185-mile hike along the Appalachian Trail. Though his writings are fiction, he hopes they capture the spirit of the small towns and people he met as he walked from Georgia to Maine.