Here lives a nice family. They just had a boy. Their first child. His name is Edgar.
He’s a good baby, doesn’t cry too much. At least not at night. Sleeps most the way through. His mother breastfeeds, I think. No, I don’t think. I’m positive, actually.
The gas line runs right along the wall, just a few feet from where I lay my head each night. The baby cries, Edgar I mean, he cries and the footsteps drub-drub-drub softly— you can tell she’s trying not to wake him even though he’s already crying, isn’t that just like a mother? And then there’s the groan from the crib when she picks him up and then a few more wet squeals and then… almost nothing. Just a soft gurgling sound from somewhere below. And a whispering voice. She sounds tired but kind. Sometimes I can hear her patting his back. But I never hear the gas spit to life and whistle through the pipe, so I know there’s no milk warming on the stove. That’s why I’m positive it’s a she taking care of the baby. She is breastfeeding. How else do you explain the quiet soothing of that child? Or the smell of her milk?
Yes, they are a nice family. The father has a guitar and he plays it well and sings in a low voice, sings lullabies to the child. He sings—
Keep on the sunny side, always on the sunny side, keep on the sunny side of life…
I remember the sun. I once stood under it as a child, long long ago. Now the sun hurts my eyes. Very much.
And the father sings—
Our house, our house is a very, very, very fine house…
And it is a fine house. It was built sturdy and strong. I recall the day it was built, watched the foreman whip the horses, force the creatures to pull at their yokes and strain against the hemp, pull the rafters high… stout rafters, stout house. Always has been. Always will be.
The father sings, almost every night. Then different noises in the morning— their cabinets opening and closing, hands scuttling around for important things… probably food. Probably food they push into their mouths. Do they lick their fingers? I don’t know. But I wonder. I listen for that. I listen hard. Mostly I hear them speak to each other, kindly, in a sing-song sort of way…
we need milk
oh I can get it
what no something’s wrong, what is it?
no, something is wrong, just say it
I don’t feel pretty anymore
you’re beautiful, you’re so beautiful and I love you
I never lie
but what about
I don’t lie anymore, you know that now please stop with that bullshit
don’t shout, don’t shout in front of Edgar…
And then the baby will cry. But that’s what babies do, that’s what they do when they’re not sleeping or feeding. They cry.
So Edgar cries sometimes. And that’s understandable. It doesn’t bother me. Nor the father’s yelling. Nor the mother’s weeping. These things happen. Life is hard. I just wish they had a cat. I really, really wish they had a cat.
The world is hard and cats make life easier. The woman who used to live here (many, many years ago, long before Edgar and his nice parents)— she was a solitary person and the home was always silent, but she had a cat. I could hear its tiny paws slinking across the floor. You could tell it was trying to keep quiet, that it was hunting things. Mice and roaches and sometimes even a rat. People think rodents and insects have little brains and that they can’t think, that their brains are too small, but they do know how to think. They know to run and hide when they smell or hear a cat coming. And the only place they have to run and hide? It’s the tiny spaces between the big rooms. Into the walls. That’s where I live. There’s not much room in the crawlspace, among the rafters and wall studs, but that’s okay. I don’t need much room. I’m skinny and good at crawling. And when the little animals run from the cat and try to hide in here, I catch them. I like people with cats because then I never go hungry.
It’s a shame the nice family doesn’t have a cat. Their little home is full of rodents. I hear them, all down below me, nibbling in the breadbox, licking crumbs from the gaps in the hardwood floor. I hear their pink little tails slapping on the linoleum. I hear them eating.
ALL NIGHT LONG.
And it makes me hungry. It makes me angry. Sometimes, I can’t help myself. Sometimes, I slide through the dust with my ear pressed to the family’s ceiling. I follow the little things step for step. The building is old, almost as old as me, and if I move too fast, the dry wood will creak and groan and every once in a while the mother will wake up and I can hear her whispering to her husband—
Did you hear that? Something’s in here. Something big. Can’t you hear it? Maybe it’s a ghost. Do you think it’s a ghost?
And that makes me laugh, but I always try and cover my mouth. Ghosts. How silly. Everyone knows there’s no such thing as ghosts.
Light hurts my eyes, but sometimes I get so hungry and I have no choice. I listen for the door to slam shut, for the locks to bolt, for the family to leave for the day. And then I go down and wiggle my way into the family’s home.
A long time ago I chewed away the nails in a length of floorboard. It took a while and hurt my teeth, but now the slim piece of wood hidden behind the kitchen cabinets behaves like a door. I can open and close it whenever I wish.
I try to catch the mice, but the rooms are so big and the little rodents are fast. They always get away. Maybe if I were as quick as a cat, but I’m not. My legs are short and they don’t work so well anymore. Only good for crawling and sometimes climbing. I’ll trap a cockroach now and then, but my how they’re clever. They flatten their bodies and squeeze into cracks and even though my fingernails are long, very long— usually it’s impossible to pry them out.
I’m not proud to say it, but the truth is… I steal from the family sometimes. Only when I’m very hungry and the roaches are too clever.
They’re a nice family but I guess they’re busy, because sometimes the sink is full of food. I wish there was meat in the sink, but there never is. Mostly egg shells and peach pits and the stems of grapes and tomatoes. The family eats healthy, too healthy if you ask me. I really wish there was meat. Red meat. Fresh meat. I’m starting to feel weak and sleepy all the time.
Some meat, some protein. That’s what I need.
That’s why I’m hoping a new family will move upstairs soon. A new family that owns a cat.
The apartment above me has been empty for so long now. Ever since… ever since the bad thing happened. I’m free to wander around it at night. I made a little door in a baseboard up there as well, but there’s nothing much to do there, nothing much to see, nothing at all to eat. No furniture. No people. No people, so there’s no food. And no food, well, that keeps the mice away. It keeps everything away. Nothing can live without food. Without food there is no hope at all, is there?
But yesterday, yesterday I started to feel hopeful again. I heard people upstairs. I was tired, I might have been dozing off. It’s hard to tell lately. I heard the footsteps and I rose from my stupor. They knocked and jimmied and scuffed their way across the wooden floor, sometimes right above my head, big heavy feet and a few tiny ones as well. A man was speaking. He had a big drum of a voice and it thump-thump-thumped from one side of the home to the other—
Would you look at those views of the church, are you religious people, no, well that’s still some old world charm, can’t put a price tag on antiquity.
I don’t know how the man found time to draw breath, he just kept on talking.
Working fireplace, great around the holiday, a perfect place to hang a little stocking for junior here and I hope I’m not being too presumptuous, but maybe for the one on the way? Ha, ha, ha, yeah kids are great and look over here, master bedroom with a nursery right off the bathroom, no bumping those shins in the middle of the night.
And on and on he went.
Uptown living on a downtown salary!
Whatever that meant.
Long and storied history.
Yes, I can attest to that.
Clawfoot tub, original fixture, turn of the century, came with the place!
I don’t know about that particular detail, but I must say— he sure did make the place sound good. And he probably would have kept at it, all through the day and well into the night… but softer voices finally interrupted, thanked him, said they’d be in touch. Then the door closed and all was silent again.
Oh, I hope the family takes the place. I hope they have a cat. Temperatures are dropping and I need more food. Egg shells and stems and fruit pits all through the winter— no, that will not do. I’ve been forced to take pets before. Pets and worse. And I don’t want to take the little one.
Sweet. Little. Edgar.
I really hope it doesn’t come to that again. But I will if I have to. Life is precious. Yes. And it’s oh so hard. One does what one must to get by.
ZG Watkins was born in Oakland, California and earned a journalism degree from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. For the past 20 years, he has been a working TV and commercial writer. After working abroad for several years in Europe, he now lives in Los Angeles with his wife and son. He recently finished his first novel and is currently drafting his second.