The Beautiful Breadcrumbs
Henry Maples hadn't been called by his given name in nearly fifteen years. In this neighborhood he was known simply as Bottle-cap. Sitting on a green park bench, his long salt and pepper beard flowing down before him, he looked like a destitute sorcerer who'd forgotten how to conjure the spell of cleanliness. As he surveyed the sea of hungry pigeons at his feet, he tore small pieces from the heel of wheat bread he’d scavenged that morning and tossed the bits into the fray.
In his right hand he held a battered old 9-iron. Where the grip had once been, Bottle-cap had wrapped a series of brightly colored pieces of tape that had, with time degraded into a grim, underachieving rainbow. Sometimes the club was used as a cane and sometimes as an instructional aid. Occasionally, when he felt like showing off, it was used to perform tricks with found objects in lieu of golf balls. His favorite of these was to bounce a bottle cap over and over off the face of the iron while he moved the club between his legs or balanced on one foot. He'd become so proficient over the years that he could carry on full conversations while barely paying any attention to the bouncing cap. Through this continual exhibition (coupled with a general lack of knowledge as to his origin) Bottle-cap had received his current title.
"Remember, gentlemen," he said with professorial conviction, "it's all about the journey, not the destination." Bottle-cap took a deep breath in and puffed his chest out with satisfaction. It was a good day for learning. The weather was warm, he'd found a decent breakfast, and his afternoon class was in session. His students, as usual, were restless.
Today’s lesson was about determination in the face of overwhelming odds. Bottle-cap had awoken that morning from a night of restless sleep. His dreams had been plagued by the nameless faces that often came to him from beneath the fog of his broken memory. Instead of letting the faces drag him down into a foul mood, Bottle-cap had decided that day to rally against their taunting stares; to use them instead as a tool to inspire his class. So far it was going well. His students bobbed their heads eagerly as he paced back and forth in front of the park bench thrusting his 9-iron in to the air to accentuate important points in his narrative.
His star pupil Heathrow, a speckled white and brown bird, pushed forward through the crowd and began to peck vigorously at a small leaf that had become lodged in a jagged crack in the pavement next to Bottle-cap’s boot. Bottle-cap eyed his favorite student and smiled, unable to contain his pride for the enthusiasm the young bird showed. It was moments like this when he felt like he was finally making a difference.
Since he taught for free and his students had never once offered payment, Bottle-cap often did odd jobs around the neighborhood for meals or for the use of a shower. He would watch parked cars at night to ensure they weren't broken into or he'd wash dishes. But his favorite job by far was cleaning up Mrs. Feldstein's Pampered Pretties Pet Wash at the end of the day. It wasn't that he particularly enjoyed the work but the company was more stimulating than what was to be found around his shelter under the bridge. As the sun was setting over the city’s jumbled rooftops, Bottle-cap wrapped up his lecture, dismissed his students, and made the three-block journey to the Pet Wash.
Inside the shop next to the cash register in a circular bed surrounded by a dense perimeter of orange fluff, sat Mrs. Feldstein's tabby Mendax. Mendax, a morbidly obese, surly, and dismissive cat, had (despite his moral inclinations) become something of a friend to Bottle-cap over the course of their many meetings. When the store was empty and Mrs. Feldstein had retired to her studio apartment upstairs, Bottle-cap and Mendax would discuss the events of the day as Bottle-cap swept stray orange hairs in to a pile on the floor.
"You're wasting your time with them, you know." said Mendax as he absently licked at a small tangle of fur on his belly.
Bottle-cap stopped sweeping and shot a disapproving glance at the throw pillow of a cat. His face softened then as he managed to let the insult drift away without doing all of its intended damage. "You don't know the first thing about education, fatso."
"Perhaps not. But I know your 'students' and trust me, they aren't worth the effort." Mendax leaned further forward and eyed the small twist of fur he had been attempting to lick into submission. Finding that his toils had only exacerbated the knot, he flopped back on to his side, exhausted.
"Well, thanks for your opinion on the matter. But I think I've made a great deal of progress already and I'm not going to stop just because of a few naysayers."
"A few naysayers?" Mendax raised a fuzzy eyebrow, "So I'm not the only one who thinks this is all a bunch of nonsense?"
Bottle-cap pursed his lips and stared at the floor as he swept the remainder of the dust and hair into a small pan and emptied it into the garbage. "This discussion is over. Goodnight." As he flicked the light-switch off and locked the door with the key that Mrs. Feldstein had given him, he heard the lawnmower purr of satisfaction signaling that Mendax believed he had bested his opponent. It wasn’t often that Bottle-cap let Mendax get under his skin but part of him thought that the cat was right. Sometimes, despite his best efforts to engage his students, he felt like he was just talking to himself.
During the walk back to his shelter under the onramp of the bridge, Bottle-cap balanced a small round rock on the face of his 9-iron. With a few blocks left to go he stopped at the edge of the sidewalk and closed his eyes as he waited for the light to change. He thought about what Mendax had said. Sure the cat was an antagonist, a lousy misanthrope at best, but wasn’t there often truth folded into the steel of his words? Was he really just wasting time with his students? He had noticed lately a trend away from good natured debate toward a heavy focus on pecking at crumbs, but it wasn’t anything he hadn’t seen before. There was a cycle that all creatures must follow. A time to sow and a time to reap and all that. Still, what if he was wrong?
The question began to ache inside him like hunger. The more he thought about it, the more he began to doubt himself. The negativity of the evening pulled him further into a downward spiral that threatened to crush him entirely as reached the steep concrete embankment that led up to his make-shift home. Bottle-cap pinched the skin between his eyebrows and rubbed the leathery knot of worry that had formed there as he pushed aside the blue tarpaulin door to his home. The continuous rumble of traffic flowing over the bridge above, that was for him usually a sort of lullaby, tonight became angry roar. Just another burden to curse and forget. Wrapped in a pile of discarded blankets and jackets, Bottle-cap tucked his knees close to his chest and rocked back and forth as he attempted to find sleep.
One by one the nameless faces appeared behind his tightly closed eyes like shadows on the wall of a cave. As they swirled around him they were silent, their eyes cold set in judgement and their mouths downturned in disgust. The totality of Bottle-cap’s misery in that moment was beyond his understanding. And as sleep continued to withhold its relief, the echoes of Bottle-cap’s child like whimpering bounced off the cold concrete of the onramp and out into the night where they were swallowed whole by the hungry city.
Bottle-cap awoke disoriented and cold. A thin crust of dried saliva at the edge of his mouth cracked as he yawned. He clasped his hands together and rubbed his numb fingers to try and bring them back to life. The first ember of the rising sun was slipping out from under the cool grey horizon as he emerged from his shelter. For a moment he lay motionless watching the thin whips of steam rising from each breath as they lingered in the still morning air. Falling asleep to those nightmarish visions and waking to find them gone was like a perpetual rebirth for Bottle-cap. He took a deep breath and smiled, baring his yellowed crooked teeth to the promise of the new day.
Invigorated, Bottle-cap grabbed his 9 iron, put on his old leather boots and trotted down to the sleepy street below. This was the hour of delivery. Mid-sized white trucks zipped to and fro carrying their various wares. Despite his minimal participation in the system, Bottle-cap appreciated the organization and structure of capitalism. He thought of these trucks and the stern men who drove them as complicated pieces of an immense machine. In his mind this machine shifted shapes constantly, swapping pieces and rearranging conveyor belts to suit the needs of a ravenous market. He envisioned a small group of well dressed men in an office high above the factory floor where the machine toiled. He watched them with great pleasure as they pushed buttons and pulled levers to alter the machine’s function. All the while telling their partners they were quite sure that they were in control of its output when in fact every decision was nothing more than a guess.
Bottle-cap was still gleefully envisioning the glorious machine as he reached the park and sat down on the green bench to ready the day's lesson. 'Inequity', he thought stroking his bushy greying beard; today’s lesson would be about inequity. It was time the students understood the true ways of the world. He looked out across the empty pathway in front of him, over the poorly manicured patch of grass at the center of the park and then down at his wrist where a watch would have been if he'd owned one. His students were late.
"Ah, to be young again." Bottle-cap mused as he thought of the mischievous nature of youth. It wasn't entirely unexpected for his students to show up on their own schedule so Bottle-cap sat back into the bench and pulled out a stale crust of bread from his pocket to nibble on as he passed the time. The sun continued to rise over the tops of the buildings east of the park and the coolness of the morning began to lose itself to the coming day. Finally, after what seemed like hours, his students arrived en masse. As the loft settled in, Bottle-cap stood up and took a mental role call. Thirty one present, one absent. He surveyed the group again. Patches, Notch, Pamela, Animus, Dickens, Cupcake... Heathrow. The small brown bird was nowhere to be found. Bottle-cap made a note of it and began his lecture as his students bobbled and cooed.
Over the next few days Heathrow’s continued absence began to worry Bottle-cap. When the rest of the class had flown off for the evening, Bottle-cap would sit on the park bench and wait for the bird to appear. Under the pale glow of the one working light in the park, he sat, night after night, shivering as the temperature dropped. On the morning of the fifth day, he cancelled class and instead of sitting vigil in the park he went to see Mendax.
As he opened the front door to the Pet Wash, Bottle-cap waved to Ms. Feldstein whose minuscule form, save her blue-tinted perm, was completely concealed behind the antique cash register on the counter. She leaned to one side and looked at him as she licked her wrinkled thumb to turn the page of her Reader’s Digest.
"Morning, dearie," she croaked, managing her best interpretation of a smile. A dour woman by design, Mrs. Feldstein tried to be on her best behavior around those she felt were less fortunate. "Would you mind watching the shop for a minute while I have a smoke?"
"Not at all, Mrs. Feldstein. Lovely day we're having..."
"What’s’at, dearie?" Mrs. Feldstein said as she rummaged through her purse in search of her lighter, her arm shoulder deep in its cavernous maw. Her face lit up as pulled the dented brass Zippo from the depths. To Bottle-cap her smile looked as if someone had pulled back the edges of a faded theater curtain. Before he could say another word Mrs. Feldstein shuffled past him and out the door into the parking lot and lit her cigarette.
"Isn't she just the most lovely thing?" Mendax purred from his basket, his eyes peering over the rim. "All the charm of a chainsaw, that one."
Bottle-cap walked over to the basket and surveyed the mess of orange fluff surrounding Mendax's bulging form. He clucked a small sound of disapproval, "You know, I don't see you going out to get your own food, or cleaning up your own mess. Why, I don't think I've ever seen you outside of that basket. Maybe you should be a little more thankful for what Mrs. Feldstein does for you."
Mendax yawned and stretched his considerable forelegs out from under his furry folds. "Oh, it isn't that I'm not grateful. I suppose I'm just growing a bit tired of the tedium of our arrangement."
"Well you could always come out and stay with me. See what it's like to fend for yourself for once. Maybe work on losing a few of those comfort pounds." Bottle-cap poked a finger into Mendax's squishy haunch. Mendax hissed and leaned over to free his paw but by the time he'd gone through the trouble, Bottle-cap had pulled his hand out of striking distance. Mendax stared at him icily and slowly licked at a spot of fur above his shoulder as he composed himself.
"Thank you for the, er, gracious offer, but I’m afraid I must decline. I find my constitution to be that of an indoor sort." Mendax paused mid-lick and turned back to face Bottle-cap. "What is it that brings you by the store so early? Usually I don't expect you until near closing. Is everything all right?" Mendax's eyes widened at the words 'all right' and he begin to knead his claws into the pad beneath him in anticipation.
Bottle-cap sat down on the stool behind the counter and looked out the window. "It's Heathrow. He hasn’t shown up for lecture in almost a week and I'm worried something awful might have happened to him.”
“Oh, my. That is terrible news.” Mendax rolled the “r” around on his tongue like a warm marble as he turned to look Bottle-cap in the eye. “If you think I had anything to do with it, I’m afraid you are grossly overestimating the reach of my influence. In any case, I can’t think of a single reason why I’d involve myself with anything so uncivilized as a kidnapping.”
“Kidnapping!?” Bottle-cap shot up from his seat. He hadn’t even considered the possibility of foul play. His mind began to race with terrifying scenarios of ever increasing depravity. A van with blacked out windows, a dark room, its stained walls lit only by a single yellowed bulb, Heathrow tied to a tiny chair with a tiny sock stuck in his beak muffling his cries for help. Shadowy men, their faces concealed from view, laughing at their victim’s futile attempts to free himself.
Mendax watched calmly as Bottle-cap frantically paced back and forth spouting off partially audible sentences punctuated with words like “vigilante justice” and “capital punishment.” Mendax sat up in his bed as the majority of his mass slid down and pooled around his paws so that he resembled a giant, orange Hersey’s Kiss.
“I say, perhaps we should take a step back before we jump to any conclusions,” Mendax offered, the entertainment value of the spectacle before him quickly fading. “Eh, how about this? I’ll keep an eye out, inquire if any of our customers have some related information and then let you know as soon as I have something useful.”
Bottle-cap slowed his pacing and lowered his 9-iron mid-gesticulation and turned toward Mendax. “You’d do that, really?” A warmth poured over him as he rushed over and wrapped his arms around the suddenly horrified cat. The doorbell chimed as Mrs. Feldstein entered the store to find Bottle-cap and Mendax locked in an awkward, struggling embrace, the folds of Mendax’s ample girth spilling out around Bottle-cap’s dirty field jacket. She stood in the doorway for a moment and then cleared her throat.
“Maybe you two should take that somewhere private.” Mrs. Feldstein waved her hand dismissively and disappeared into the back room. Mendax ripped his face free from Bottle-cap’s ripe bosom and bared his considerable fangs as he wheezed in protest.
“Good God, man. Control yourself!”
Still smiling, Bottle-cap released the cat who plopped down on to his bed like a water balloon. Mendax swayed and blinked his eyes slowly as he recovered from the shock of exertion.
“Ok, fuzz bucket, I’m going to canvas the neighborhood to see if I can find some leads. I’ll be back later today to check in!” Bottle-cap was out the front door and around the corner before Mendax could reply. The cat sat in the empty store staring through the large window to the street as the door clanged shut.
Bottle-cap thought he’d begin his search by speaking with the other homeless men and women who frequented the park where he held class. By chance the first two he came upon were Lefty and Carl, a couple who earned a meager income performing what they called “free-form hip-hop beat-jams” for busy passersby. They would often set up their buckets and other various implements of percussion on the corner behind Bottle-cap’s bench much to his dismay. Over the years the three had gotten in to a number of heated confrontations, Bottle-cap asserting that the drumming and shouting the couple produced were not conducive to a proper learning environment. The last time they’d spoken, Carl had called Bottle-cap a “nonsensch spewing fascisch who talks to birdsh,” and Bottle-cap, seeking a final resolution to their disagreement, had punched Carl square in the mouth.
As Bottle-cap arrived, the two men were in mid-performance, Lefty banging a splintered drum stick against the rim of an up-turned 5 gallon paint bucket and Carl shouting atop a blue plastic milk crate. As he spoke, Carl bounced his head back and forth and slapped his thigh in and out of sync with the upbeat.
“Brothersh, aha! Shisters, aha! The time ish now! We musht come together!” Carl’s tongue poked out like a prisoner trying to burrow its way through the gap between his missing front teeth. When he noticed Bottle-cap approaching he jumped down from the milk crate and pointed a filthy finger dead center between Bottle-cap’s eyes. “Beware the defuls and falsch prophetsh! Beware the liesch they schpew!” Carl lunged forward and blocked the path of a well dressed man wearing wire-rimmed glasses. “Beware, schir!” The man, assaulted both by Carl’s physical form and the phantom of his stench, recoiled, doubled back and crossed the street clutching his briefcase to his chest.
Bottle-cap stood by and leaned on his 9-iron as Carl worked himself up to a fever pitch and then slowly sputtered out. Eventually he came to rest a few feet from Bottle-cap. Lefty lowered his drum stick to the ground and crossed his arms and prepared to witness what he was sure was going to be the most interesting event since the night prior when he’d stumbled upon two drunk women peeing in the alley next to where he had planned to sleep.
“What do you want?” Carl’s left eye squinted closed as he trained his right eye down the barrel of his finger toward Bottle-caps head.
Bottle-cap cleared his throat and straightened his posture but found it hard to look Carl in the eye. Usually this was due to the tendency of Carl’s left eye to drift ever so slightly off center, but today it was the embarrassment and shame Bottle-cap felt in having to asking this buffoon for assistance that cast his gaze downward. “I have some bad news,” Bottle-cap paused to let the words sink in, “one of my students has gone missing.” He looked up from the ground to Carl and saw in his face a mixture of contempt, confusion, and ketchup.
“One of your schtudentsch... oh, you mean one of thosch got-damn birsch? Good! Good riddensch to that nashty beasht.” Carl began to laugh and looked over to Lefty who continued to sit, armed crossed, waiting.
“No. You don’t understand. He’s been kidnapped!” Bottle-cap took a step forward and felt as if he might start to cry. The word “kidnapped” sparked a hundred terrible images in his mind and at once he became overwhelmed by them.
Still laughing, Carl turned back to Bottle-cap and in seeing the pain on his face, began to laugh harder to the point where he was wheezing. “Who would kidnap a shtupid birsch?!
Bottle-cap’s embarrassment started to boil into anger as he watched how Carl delighted in this misfortune. For Heathrow’s sake, and his sake alone, he attempted to remain calm. “Look, I was just wondering if you’d heard anything that might help me track him down.
Carl was bent over now coughing and gasping for air between each raspy string of laughter. With his hands on his thighs he started doing a jig, hopping from one foot to the other. In a flash he jumped forward, his nose inches away from Bottle-cap’s and eyes wide he whispered, “Even if it wasch your dear ol’ mama that wasch missching, I wouldn’t help you find her.”
When Carl opened his eyes again he was gazing at single white cloud in the middle of a light blue sky. He blinked and sat up and felt a warm, wet sensation on his throbbing lower lip. He licked his lip and as his tongue passed by the open gate between his front teeth he noticed that yet another of their dwindling number had lost its purchase in his gums and now wobbled sadly around its socket. Looking out in the distance he saw Bottle-cap’s diminishing form. “You son of a bitsch!” He cried as blood and spit spattered his shirt and the sidewalk. “I hope ever schingle one of your shtupid birsch get poisoned and dies in a puddle of itsch own SCHIT!”
Bottle-cap rubbed his sore knuckles and cursed himself for acting so foolishly as he walked away from the scene he’d created. He spent the rest of the afternoon going from one cluster of homeless to the next and ended the day with exactly as much information as he’d had when he began. Tired, dejected, and hungry he returned finally to the green bench in the park as the sun was setting behind a curtain of thick, grey fog. In the fading light of this miserable day, he rubbed his red eyes and felt his skin crawling with a nervous energy that radiated between his shoulders. Bottle-cap took a deep breath and then began to weep silently, his chest heavy making each inhalation a struggle. The strength that had carried him through the last few days drained from his limbs and suddenly he felt old in his bones. Perhaps, he thought, the world would be better off if he died right there on that bench. Or better yet if he crawled off to some forgotten shadow deep in the gut of the city where no one would be bothered to find him. Without consent, while his mind rummaged through the possible scenarios of his untimely demise, Bottle-cap slumped over to his side asleep and began snore.
Bottle-cap’s body jolted. As he drifted back into consciousness he became aware that he was both angry for still being alive and that he’d been woken up by some meddling passerby.
Bottle-cap rolled over to face the back-rest of the bench away from the intrusive voice and farted in protest.
“Hey. Hey, pal. Can I ask you a question?”
Sure now that this stranger could not be ignored, Bottle-cap sat up and rubbed his eyes. “Christ! Can’t you tell when a man wants to be left...” he stopped when he realized he was talking to thin air. Confused he turned to look behind him and then down to his feet. Sitting at the foot of the bench was a short-haired Jack Russell terrier wearing a red leather collar. Its bright, young eyes glinted as it stared back panting with its mouth slightly open.
“Hey, pal. I’m lost. Do you know Brian? He’s my friend. But I lost him.”
The dog spoke in short, staccato bursts. He practically vibrated.
“Hey, pal. That’s a nice stick.” The dog began to dance around Bottle-cap’s 9-iron. “That’s a real nice stick! What do ya say we play fetch with that stick? Then we’ll find Brian!” He jumped back and forth nipping playfully at the club then crouched back shifting he gaze between the club and Bottle-cap.
“I don’t know a Brian...”
“You don’t know Brian?! Oh, Brian’s great. He’s the best. I was taking him for a walk yesterday. He left me to guard a tree while he went inside a building. Then I saw a bird! Oh! This fat, dumb bird! So I chased him and chased him. But he got away... then I couldn’t find Brian.” The dog was still for a brief moment then looked up at Bottle-cap. “Hey! We could find Brian!”
“Well I suppose we could ask around... hey,” an idea shot like a bolt of lightning through Bottle-cap’s brain, “what kind of bird was the one that you chased?”
“The only kind of bird there is. A dumb one.”
“No I mean what did it look like?” Bottle-cap’s knees cracked as we squatted down to get closer to eye level with the fidgeting dog.
The dog began to run in circles, jumping and biting at the air. “It was brown and white and dumb! For sure. Is this park good for bird chasing? Want to help me find a bird to chase?!”
Bottle-cap thought for a moment as he gazed down at the bristly little whirl-wind. He considered lying to the dog, who was obviously a bigot, and coercing him into helping find Heathrow, but then he reconsidered. “Actually, I think the bird you saw may be a friend of mine. A student of mine, in fact. He’s been missing from class for a number of days now. I’d thought something terrible may have happened to him but if he is the bird you spoke of then he’s in less danger than I had originally believed. That still leaves the question open, though, as to why he has been skipping class.”
“Wait, wait, wait... wait.” The little dog cocked his head to the side. “You’re friends with a bird?! Why?!”
“Well, why not?” Bottle-cap asked indignantly. “You’re friends with Brian, right? And he’s just as different from you as you are from a bird.”
The small dog sat motionless while he considered this. Then his head snapped up and he jumped up on all fours. “You’re weird. But I like you. Let’s go find your friend. And Brian!”
Bottle-cap smiled and thought that maybe he’d been wrong about the dog. A bit dim maybe, but probably not a bigot. He reached down under the dog’s collar and pulled the small brass name-tag to the side. “Baxter.”
“Baxter and Bottle-cap: Doctors of Investigation!” Bottle-cap exclaimed to no one in particular as the two wandered back in the general direction that Baxter had taken to the park. Along the way Baxter sniffed and prodded every crack and corner of pavement, approached each passing pedestrian, and left no fire hydrant unmarked. Bottle-cap swung his 9 iron merrily, his temper much improved, and day dreamed about his reunion with Heathrow. In his mind the case was as good as solved. Heathrow was out of danger and had merely embarked upon a unexcused vacation from his vigorous studies. Had he been pushing his students too hard, perhaps? A tinge of guilt pulled at Bottle-cap’s otherwise high spirits as he considered the possibility. For the rest of the afternoon Baxter lead Bottle-cap up one block and down the next, circling around occasionally when a tree or a smell seemed familiar. His enthusiasm never wavered but as night fell it became clear that the small dog had absolutely no idea where he was going. At a bus stop, not far from Bottle-cap’s shelter, Bottle-cap came to an abrupt halt and called ahead to Baxter who was still deeply invested in his quest.
Baxter turned his head around at the sound of his name but continued to trot forward to the end of the block and disappeared around the corner.
“Baxter!” Bottle-cap yelled angrily, “Get back here!” Bottle-cap rushed around the corner after the small dog and in his hurry ran directly into a figure crouched over in the middle of the sidewalk. The impact of the collision knocked Bottle-cap off his balance and he fell to the ground landing hard on his elbow sending a lightning shock up his arm that burst like a firecracker behind his eyes. Dazed and reeling from the pain in his arm Bottle-cap looked up to see if the person he had run into was alright.
“I’m so sorry! I didn’t see you there.” Clutching his injured elbow as he stood up he saw that the man he’d hit was still standing and was holding Baxter up at eye level examining him. The man turned to look at Bottle-cap and when their eyes met, Bottle-cap’s heart sank.
Carl licked the bloody scab on his lip and sneered down at Bottle-cap. “Oh, isch thisch another little friend of oursch?” He looked back at Baxter, his left eye still pointed in Bottle-cap’s general direction. “You’re a real piesch of work, Cap. You walk around with your nose up like your schit don’t schtink, playing profeschor, acting like you’re better than the rescht of us.”
Baxter growled, bared his teeth and began to try wiggle himself free of Carl’s grip. Carl brought the dog closer face and laughed. Baxter recoiled at the stench of his hot, foul breath. “Looky here! Your little friend doesn’t scheem to like me very much. Don’t like hearing the truth do ya, doggy? That’s funny because it scheems like your maschter doesn’t like it much either.”
“Carl, I-I’m sorry about earlier.”
“Schut up!” Suddenly Carl’s face turned dark. His features morphed into something that was terrifying to behold. Baxter yelped as Carl tightened his hold on the dog’s neck. “I’m schick of it! Every few weeks you come around with schome harebrained scheme, schome myschtery, schome bullschit about a misching thisch or a misching that! You exschpect everyone to play along. Actually, no. You don’t even underschtand your own game. You schtupid old fuck.”
“What-I...” Bottle-cap’s head started spinning. His thoughts began to twist and coil around one other in a string of images familiar and foreign. From the confusion the nameless faces started to claw their way up until they swirled around him, a storm of spite and bitterness. Bottle-cap began to scream.
Baxter thrashed back and forth in Carl’s hands managing to free himself enough to swing his head around and clamp his teeth into Carl’s wrist. Carl cried out in pain and flung the dog away, hurling Baxter into a pile of trash bags. Carl snapped around and kicked at Bottle-cap who was grabbing both ears and screaming oblivious to the world aroundhim. Carl’s aim fell short of his target and instead stuck the base of the street light next to him crushing an exposed toe that poked out through a hole in his sneaker. Carl fell to the ground sobbing. From a distance the two combatants might have looked like a couple of poorly choreographed break dancers.
From the ground Carl, one hand holding his bleeding toe, reached his free hand out and grabbed Bottle-cap’s pant leg. “Got damn you! Schee what you did to me!” He then swung around, still on his back and began kicking at Bottle-cap like an angry toddler. “I’ll kill you!”
Bottle-cap felt each strike as Carl’s kicks landed on his shins and thighs but the reality of the moment came to him much slower than it was actually happening. In the hallucinatory kaleidoscope of lights and sounds that surrounded him, Bottle-cap could focus only on the struggle to keep a distance from the edge of the gloomy abyss that slowly pulled him closer.
Carl rolled over and grabbed hold of Bottle-cap’s jacket and yanked him to the ground. He straddled the old man as tears streamed down his cheeks and swung his fists down wildly. “You’re not better than me!” Carl chanted as his fists crashed into Bottle-cap. “No one caresch! No one wantsch to find you or be found by you!”
As Bottle-cap slipped out of consciousness he felt as if a weight was lifted off his chest. He thought he saw Carl’s body rise off of him slowly as if he was ascending into the sky. A blink or an hour later Lefty’s face appeared above him. In his eye’s Bottle-cap saw a lingering paternal sadness. Lefty leaned in close so his mouth was right next to Bottle-cap’s ear.
“Go see the woman at the shop. She has what you’re looking for.”
“Hey. Hey, buddy. Wake up.”
Bottle-cap moaned. Every fiber of his being cried outin agony as the world came back into focus. Rather as Baxter’s face came into focus. The small dog stood on his chest looking down at him, his eyes lighting up as Bottle-cap stirred.
“I chased them off! The two men. I made sure they left you alone.”
It was dark now. The street was deserted the only sound being that of a single siren calling in the distance. Bottle-cap gingerly touched his swollen cheek and lip. As he tried to move his left arm a searing pain shot up from his elbow.
“We have to get going. Brian and your friend are out there waiting for us.” Baxter’s tail wagged slightly as he tried to temper his inexhaustible enthusiasm.
“No one’s waiting for us.”
“Sure they are! Brian’s probably worried sick about me. Your friend Heathrow surely is about you. If we don’t keep looking we might lose them forever.” The concept of forever weighed heavily on the small dog as he climbed down from Bottle-cap.
Bottle-cap remained on the ground looking up at the black sky beyond the dim orange glow of the street light looming over his head. He felt like he’d been lying there forever, a prisoner chained to the bottom of an empty well. Always looking up through the opening high above at the light trickling in without any chance of ever reaching it. “Just go. You’ll have better luck without me.”
Baxter latched on to the collar of Bottle-cap’s jacket and tugged on it gently. “Come on. You promised you’d help me.”
“I can’t help you. I can’t even help myself.” Bottle-cap felt around on the ground next to where he lay in search of his 9-iron. Finding it laying halfway in the gutter he used it to try and push the small dog away from him. Baxter jumped out of the way of the offending club and barked as it jabbed around him lethargically . Eventually he backed up few paces, out of the clubs reach, and sat down.
“Fine. I can wait as long as you can.” The little dog put his head down between his two paws to keep vigil over his fallen comrade. A few seconds later Baxter hopped up and started tugging on Bottle-cap’s jacket. “I can’t wait anymore! Let’s go!”
Bottle-cap sighed deeply and sat up, his head still spinning. He laid the 9-iron across his legs and rolled it back and forth slowly. What had he heard Lefty say? Go see the woman at the shop? Bottle-cap struggled to get to his feet without the use of his injured arm. With his other hand he shoved the lifeless limb into the pocket of his jacket to prevent it from moving too much. Grimacing he leaned against the brick wall of the building on the corner and pressed his forehead against it’s cool, damp surface. The solidness of the wall soothed his frayed nerves and he began to feel stronger having touched it. “Ok,” was all he said as he limped off under the red light in the alley behind the building. Baxter fallowed behind closely in his shadow.
It was daybreak by the time the two reach the Pampered Pretties Pet Wash. Baxter looked up at the front window at the cartoon painting of a dog with a mound of blue and white bubbles spilling off of its head. “Hey what are you trying to pull, pal?” He growled at the sign of this treachery.
“Relax. We’re not here for you.” Bottle-cap reached into a small zipper pocket in his jacket and withdrew a bronze key. With it he unlocked the front door and opened it slowly to avoid ringing the bell and waking Mrs. Feldstein. Once inside he crept across the white and black checkered linoleum and slumped into one of the empty orange plastic chairs that lined the wall. “Sit, boy.” He motioned to Baxter and promptly fell asleep.
A few hours later the morning sun was glaring through the front window, only partly obscured by the cartoon dog. The light that passed through cast a brown and blue shadow over Bottle-cap’s face as he slumbered, hugging himself with his one good arm. Mrs. Feldstein appeared at the bottom of the stairs from her apartment, an unlit cigarette dangling from her lips. In her arms she held what she could of Mendax, the rest spilling over at odd intervals, causing her to list to the side as she moved to place the cat in his basket. Through her blurry vision without her glasses she eyed the outline of a person crumpled in middle of the row of orange seats at the far end of the counter. Grabbing a stapler, she slowly approached the intruder and prepared to dispatch him with extreme prejudice. Before she could identify Bottle-cap’s face, his smell informed her well enough and lowered the stapler to her side. Mrs. Feldstein scuttled over and stood in front of the sleeping pair and squinted her eyes as she studied Bottle-cap’s battle weary face. “Oh you poor thing.” She croaked as she discovered the dried blood and swollen skin. In a moment of uncharacteristic emotion, Mrs. Feldstein reached out to brush a finger across Bottle-cap’s face. As her finger gently grazed his cheek Bottle-cap jolted awake and screamed. Mrs. Feldstein screamed and dropped the stapler. Baxter shot up two feet in the air and began to bark and run in a circle. Mendax rolled one eye open and yawned.
“Jesus H. Christ!” Mrs. Feldstein gasped clutching her chest and she stumbled backwards, the cigarette jutting straight up from her pursed lips like an exclamation point. Bottle-cap, mouth agape, stared blankly at her and then at Baxter who was still running in alternating circles in pursuit of his tail.
“Oh, Mrs. Feldstein,” he said as his thoughts began to fall in some semblance of order, “I’m sorry. You startled me.”
Mrs. Feldstein straightened up and collected herself. “No kidding,” she murmured as she flattened some imagined wrinkle on her fuzzy pink bathrobe.
Baxter slowed his pace and came to rest facing Mrs. Feldstein’s pink slippers. He found them enticing in a confusing way somewhere between physical lust and appetite. His tail wagged as he worked through the turbulent mix of emotions. Mrs. Feldstein eyed the small dog and bent stiffly at the waist get a closer look at him. “Who’s your friend?”
“This is Baxter. He’s been helping me look for my missing student.”
Mrs. Feldstein sighed deeply causing her to expel a series of rasping coughs. Bottle-cap recognized a shadow of sadness hidden just behind her aging grey eyes.
“What is this student’s name?”
“Heathrow. He’s my best pupil. I’ve been looking for him for days now. But I’ve come up with nothing.”
Mrs. Feldstein motioned to Bottle-cap’s battered face, “And you’ve had help of some of your friends I see.”
Bottle-cap looked sheepishly at his tattered boots and rubbed his hands over his jeans. The rough skin on his palms scratched against the weathered fabric like sandpaper. “There have been a few... setbacks.” Bottle-cap’s eyes darted around the room unable to return Mrs. Feldstein’s inquisitive stare. In a low whisper, more as a reminder to himself than anything Bottle-cap added, “I was told maybe you’d be able to help.”
Mrs. Feldstein remained quite for a moment then turned around. “Wait here, dearie. I’ll bring you and your little friend something to eat.” She walked back up the stairs and the room was still.
“I was curious how long it would take you this time.” Mendax’s cool baritone cut through the silence from the recesses of his basket.
“Hush, cat.” The mere sound of the cat’s condescending voice drained Bottle-cap of what little energy he’d recovered during the short night’s rest.
“No disrespect intended,” Mendax continued as if he hadn’t heard Bottle-cap’s demand, “sometimes you’re quicker than others. That’s all. I suppose your friend there may have complicated things somewhat.”
Bottle-cap rolled his head forward, his eye lids droopy and sore, and looked over at the basket. The cat’s head was nowhere to be seen, the mound of his body bulged over the rim of the basket like the top of a enormous cupcake.
“But that’s just like you, isn’t it? Always putting others first, always looking out for their interests before your own.”
Bottle-cap groaned and ran this hand through his hair. The grey strands were slick with grime. He clutched a fist full of hair and yanked at it hard letting the pain burn in his scalp. The force of the disturbance dislodged a small leaf that fluttered softly to the ground between his boots. The movement caught Baxter’s attention and little dog trotted over to sniff the leaf then having satisfied his curiosity, committed to licking himself vigorously. Bottle-cap leaned down and pinched the leaf at the stem which was little more than a nub extending from it’s base. The edge of the blade was cracked and brown fading into a bright yellow then a deep emerald green toward the midrib. He twirled the leaf back and forth between his finger and examined it as if it were the first time he’d ever seen one like it. Lost in the beauty of it’s dying form, Bottle-cap didn’t notice Mrs. Feldstein until she was directly in front of him holding a tray carrying a steaming bowl of oatmeal on one side and a small dish with a cylinder of slick colorless meat paste on the other.
“This is for you,” she said handing Bottle-cap the bowl of oatmeal, “and this is for the pooch. It’s cat food but I’ll be damned if it isn’t the same lips and assholes they put in the cans for dogs.” Mrs. Feldstein placed the dish down in front of Baxter who gave little consideration to the origin of the wet mass before devouring it completely. Mrs. Feldstein looked at Bottle-cap and her wrinkled lips parted as if to speak but then closed again. Instead she sat down on the orange chair to his side and reached into the pocket of her robe. “I- this is yours,” she said softly as she withdrew a small brown envelope. It’s edges were worn and there were dirty smudges over the name handwritten on the front.
Bottle-cap took the envelope, placed it in his lap, and read the scribbled word. “Henry.”
“You can use the phone on the counter, dearie.”
With that Mrs. Feldstein stood up and walked to the stairs. She waited for a moment at the first step her head bowed. As she continued up the flight, Bottle-cap thought he heard the sound of a woman crying.
Placing the bowl and the leaf on the chair beside him, Bottle-cap opened the envelope. A warm throb of nostalgia began to glow in his chest as he pulled out the folded lined paper within. He smoothed the paper in his lap, carefully pressing the creases flat. Scrawled out in the same handwriting on the envelope was an address, a phone number a name: Heather. It all felt familiar like the punch line of an old joke he couldn’t quite remember.
“She’s expecting you.” The tip of Mendax’s tail twitched.
Bottle-cap stood up slowly and walked behind the counter. The tan rotary phone next to the cash register sat facing him, the long chord to its receiver braided around itself sloppily. Bottle-cap picked up the receiver and held it to his ear by pressing it against his shoulder and dialed the number from the paper with his good hand. He wasn’t sure why or who he was calling but the compulsion to connect was undeniable. The phone rang four times then a woman answered in a sweet voice. “Hello?”
“Um, yes, hello.” Bottle-cap suddenly felt awkward and childish. “May I speak with Heather please?”
There was a long pause on the other end of the line. A soft static hiss poured over the empty space. Bottle-cap tried to ease his anxiety by thinking of the ocean. When the woman finally spoke her sweet voice was low and mournful. “Hi, daddy.”
Henry and his daughter spoke for only a few minutes. When he hung up the phone he walked through the door of the pet wash leaving everything behind. Through the glass door Baxter whimpered and watched helplessly as the old man walked slowly out of sight.
“Don’t worry, friend.” purred Mendax, “This is just how it goes. He’ll be back tomorrow like nothing ever happened.”