Pay This Amount
(excerpt)

“Hello?”

“Is this Gary’s Grooming?” came a woman’s voice. Gary thought she sounded a little familiar. He also thought the pleasantness of her inquiry sounded a little forced. A lot of the people he dealt with sounded that way. They knew how to put on airs, but their true selves were never far below the surface.

“Yes it is,” he said.

The woman gulped a breath, then seemed to choke on it a little. “You filthy, lying bastard!” she said. “-- You weaselly little hick -- !”

Gary recognized her now. He said, “And how are you, Leila?”

“If you think for one second that I’m going to let you get away with this...!”

“Get away with what, Leila?”

“Don’t play dumb with me, you...” She was threatening him, that was clear. But Gary doubted she would follow through on any threat. The poor woman couldn’t even finish her sentences.

“Leila, I’d love to chat but I really do have to run.”

“I’ll take you to court! That’s what I’ll do!”

“Oh now, Leila. You’re talking crazy. You know you don’t have any grounds to do that. Now, really, I’m in a big rush.”

She sputtered some more obscenities. Gary hung up.

He felt remarkably calm. He was glad, really. He believed he was making enough on his own now to get by. He didn’t need her anymore. He grabbed his jacket. He really did have an appointment to get to. But then the phone rang again. He would have to get an answering machine.

He figured Leila, in her anger, had forgotten to fire him. He decided to answer it though, so he could quit.

“Hello?” he said.

“Yes I’d like you to come and groom a cat, please.”

“Oh.” It was a man. “Yes, sir.”

“I’m free tomorrow.”

“That’s a little tight for me. How about Wednesday?”

“It’s tomorrow or nothing.”

“Alright. Is one o’clock okay?”

“No. Better make it twelve-thirty.”

Again, this was the type of person that paid someone to come groom his cat. Gary was getting used to it.

“Alright. What kind of cat is it?”

“Um. It meows and it has a tail.”

“Okay.”

“It’s not mine. I don’t even like cats.”

“I see. The basic brushdown is seventy-five dollars. That includes the twenty-toe manicure and the whisker trim. Flea-and-tick treatment is thirty dollars extra.”

“Well she doesn’t need that. She never leaves the apartment.”

“Yes, sir. It’s just that sometimes they can pick up parasites from other cats, or even people.”

“Don’t try to bamboozle me.”

“I never would, sir. Your address?”

“It’s the townhouse at 24th and Ninth, northeast corner.”

Gary went silent.

“Hell-o?”

“Yes, sir. 24th and Ninth. Isn’t that...”

“Excuse me?”

“...in Chelsea?”

“Yes of course it’s in Chelsea.”

“I mean, is that the townhouse with the potted plant outside the door?”

It was Eldra Twitchell’s place. He had gone along her street when he distributed flyers. He had stood for several minutes at her steps. He had climbed the steps and slipped one in her slot. He had stood for several more minutes at the door before moving on. He never expected anything to come of it. A man was calling, yes, but he was most likely her assistant, the Mr. Peter Thompson. He had even said that it wasn’t his cat. He was simply carrying out his boss’s orders.

Gary was nearly trembling when he hung up the phone. Suddenly, the very reason he came to New York in the first place was real again. Imminent, in fact. He had never exactly given up on meeting her. The act of slipping her a flyer was a nod toward that faint hope. He had even tried to write her a letter, but again he struggled with words and could not finish it. He didn’t even know how to start it: “Dear Miss Twitchell” or “Dear Eldra” or “Dear Grandmother...” And he found he had so much to say to her -- who he was, what he had done, her only daughter’s death, the check she tore up... He didn’t know where to begin. So she seemed truly unattainable. And that unattainability had encouraged a sense in him that, for the time being, just knowing where he could find her was enough. Meanwhile, he had gotten involved in his new business, and had almost no time to think of her. But now, having at last gained access to her, he returned to the feverish state which gripped him when he first arrived, an all-consuming desire to meet Eldra Twitchell and get was coming to him. He lay awake that night trying to figure out exactly what to say to her.

-- from the novella “Pay This Amount” from the collection Pay This Amount