"Hey, bud," cried the bus driver. The other passengers had gotten off, but the balding, sunburned man in the cheap jacket stared into space. A long-haired cat peered out of the duffel bag on his lap. "Last stop, bud: Port Authority, New Yawk."
"My name is Walt Blanken," he replied dully, "and I don't want to go home."
"But I do, Walt." The burly driver lurched towards him. "I'm dog-tired and my wife is waiting up."
"She must love you." The driver gripped Walt's arm. "I'm going, I'm going." He shuffled down the aisle.
"Got anything stowed below?" The open luggage bins looked empty.
"No, I just have my cat, Chessy."
"Well have a good night, you two."
"You too," Walt echoed, and pushed through a door to the station lined with dark red brick. 1:15 AM. Where was the escalator down?
A dog growled, and Chessy cowered. The huge, brindled mutt on a chain link leash blocked Walt's path. His purple-haired human lay curled across three seats, head propped on an overstuffed rucksack, a guitar case at her feet with the sticker "Open City Now."
"Get back here, Hulk." She sat up and tugged his leash, and reluctantly he lowered his bony bottom to the floor. "We scared your cat, mister; I'm sorry," she muttered as Walt sidled past. Her eyes--violet as Elizabeth Taylor's -- sought his, and he stopped.
Would she beg him for a dollar? When she smiled, a lovely, toothy smile, he asked lamely: "Miss, are you waiting for a bus?"
She chuckled. "If I had the money for a ticket, mister, I'd buy myself a better wig right now." She twisted her purple locks with her fingers, making side curls that didn't hold. Her jeans were tattered and her sneakers dirty, but her face looked clean.
Walt sat down beside her, and Chessy, as if surrounded by dogs at the vet, held his peace. "So why do you need a new wig?"
"I'm supposed to sing in Bryant Park tomorrow," she said with pride. "In the Open City Talent Competition."
"I read about that in The New York Times. It's for the homeless, isn't it?"
"Right. The top three winners get free rent for a year, and I sure could use a place to stay. The shelters won't let me bring my dog." She patted Hulk, whose ears stuck up from his skull and then hung out to the side, like a cross between German shepherd and floppy puppy ears, and he licked her hand.
"I bet that dog's expensive to feed," Walt ventured. "Must weigh about as much as you."
"Naah, Hulk'll eat anything: pizza, pretzels, cats ..."
"I guess we should be heading home." He tried to stand up, but she grabbed his sleeve and held it.
"Only joking," she said brightly, as the scrawny dog sniffed his Gucci loafers. "Hulk's a sweet guy and he protects me. He'd never bother a flea. Unless he has one of his fits."
"I figure somebody beat him up when he just was a pup. If he sees a stick, he goes crazy; he's got a split personality. That's why I call him Hulk, like the comic."
Walt considered the dents and gouges in her guitar case. Bite marks? Dogs like to chew on things. "I never knew pets could be so complicated. This weekend I've learned so many new things, and it's only Sunday morning."
Hulk yawned, flashing yellow fangs, and Chessy sniffled deep inside the bag. Reaching in Walt stroked his back, and the old cat settled down. "Don't worry, Chessy; I'll protect you." The woman released Walt's sleeve. "What's your name, by the way?" he asked.
"Lily Trump." She flashed a radiant smile. "That's my nom d'artiste."
"Pleased to meet you, Lily. I'm Walt Blanken. I think I'm having my midlife crisis."
"Walt, if you've got a home to go to, what can be so terrible?"
He blushed, considering the six-room, Fifth Avenue apartment he shared with Attila the Hen, and the stainless steel German fixtures in her kitchen and Persian carpets in the hall. His wife never stopped pecking at his liver for her daily nutritional requirements. He closed his eyes and groaned.
"What I don't understand is," Lily went on, "why are you wearing such expensive shoes? Gucci loafers, when the rest of you ..." She let the thought dangle and he confessed:
"I lost my good jacket in Atlantic City, after I gambled away the money I'd saved to leave my wife. The Salvation Army sold me this jacket, and Chessy and I slept on the beach. Then we had a good time in Ocean City, but sorta ran out of things to do after I decided not to kill myself."
[Dear Reader, please see Part I of this tale in the March l5 Piker Press].
"Why kill yourself," Lily asked, "if you're still healthy? I never would ... It's not like you can't cope, Walt. You're not sitting here hallucinating, like a poor wino in detox. You're having a conversation." She smoothed her wild purple locks with her fingers.
"But my life is over. I don't have a performance to look forward to, like you."
"Every day's a new performance, Walt."
"What do you mean?"
"Wait until tomorrow, and I'll show you."
He giggled, and Hulk thrust his bony head into his hand. Walt petted him carefully. "OK. My wife doesn't get back from her business trip till Monday night. Olympia sells bonds on Wall Street."
"Lucky girl. I sell my voice in the streets, for a cup of change."
"Can I buy you some coffee, Lily?" The homeless were always drinking coffee, even in the middle of the night. "There must be a place still open downstairs."
"No thanks, I need my beauty sleep. Gotta look my best tomorrow." And she lay back down with her frizzy head in his lap and shut her eyes. Chess shifted around in the bag till he got comfortable sharing the lap with her, and then he started to purr.
Walt sat for a while, perplexed by this peculiar turn of events. Hulk, who smelled like a musty mattress, sagged against his legs and snored.
What would Olympia say? "You've lost what remained of your mind," she'd cry. Maybe she'd be right.
Still he felt comforted, nestled in the fragrant warmth of these fellow creatures. We all want the same things: kindness and comfort ... His eyelids drifted shut.
He dreamed he sat cupped in his armchair at home with a copy of National Geographic, while his wife repeated a litany of complaint, in her voice like nails scratched down a blackboard: "Walt, you forgot the dry-cleaning again. Walt, did you take your Statin today? Walt, did you forget to give Chessy his asthma pill?"
Meanwhile the cream-colored old cat, with the color point pattern of a Siamese, ripped deep into the divan's puce velvet, underneath the oil painting of himself as Best in Show ...
"Stop it, old man," Walt mumbled.
"That bald guy's talking to himself," cried a child, and Walt woke with a start. He peered around at new lines of passengers forming with their bags. Buses were leaving again, with people going hopeful places. A little blonde girl pointed at him, where he sat all alone.
Where was Lily, and her huge dog? Where was the duffel bag with Chess? Groaning, Walt rubbed his eyes -- and felt in his jacket for his wallet: gone. Of course; he was a fool, as Olympia never tired of telling him.
"If you trust anybody in New York, you get what you deserve," she always said. This was worse than losing at baccarat, he thought. He should have known.
At least he still had his keys and Chess's pills. He'd find a policeman and lodge a complaint. How they'd sneer at him in the station house: "So you're the guy who brought a live cat to the baccarat in Atlantic City. You lost a fortune rolling high, and then broke up the game when he escaped ..."
And poor Chess had been catnapped, and maybe Lily would hold him for ransom -- unless her starving dog ate him for breakfast first.
Walt's stomach growled and the little girl smirked. It was almost 8:15. Time to get on with his sorry life. And they call these the "golden years."
His father was a happy vegetable, with a fine, rosy color to the end. Senility has its advantages: you no longer fear what people think ...
Walt lurched to his feet and went looking for a men's room, where he drank some water and splashed some in his face. He glared at himself in the finger-printed mirror. With his two days of beard, and his cheesy jacket -- which covered his torn shirt at least -- he looked scuzzy, almost homeless. Without his wallet and license and credit cards would any jaded cop believe his tale? Truth can be mighty strange.
Peering around for a member of the NYPD, Walt rode the escalators down and stumbled out an exit, onto busy Eighth Avenue. Dark, heavy clouds crowded the sky. Would his courteous doorman from Guatemala advance him the fare if he took a taxi home?
He felt mortified beyond the pangs of accustomed martyrdom. How his wife would flay him with her sharp tongue, while he repeated "Yes, dear" for hours, like a talking doll ... Now he wished he could tumble down a rusty subway grating, into the afterlife. Even if he landed in the suburb of Hell reserved for smiling hypocrites, at least he'd enjoy a pause before Olympia caught up. A health and fitness nut, she always played tennis with her business pals at the Purgatory Club.
In Hell he'd be punished properly for wasting a fortune at baccarat. He'd have to pay in full for the clever tax plans he'd devised, over the course of his legal career, so his wealthy clients could avoid paying their fair shares to Uncle Sam ...
But even as he tested a promising subway grating with his foot, Walt felt a pang: What about poor old Chessy? Lily couldn't feed him his asthma pill; she didn't even know he was sick.
Just at that moment he heard a sweet yet powerful mezzo-soprano, rising over the traffic like an angel proclaiming the certainty of love: "You are so beautiful to me?" she sang, and he heard her guitar's warm chords--followed by the atrocious howling of a ravenous wolf!
Walt dove across 42nd Street, while buses honked and drivers of yellow cabs bellowed at him in seven languages: "Are you out of your mind?"
And there, on a stool in the middle of the sidewalk, purple hair frizzing straight out like a clown's, Lily sat playing her chipped guitar and singing with all her heart: "You are so beautiful to me ..." Chessy lounged on a piece of cardboard, his leash twined around her foot. She was addressing her dog, however, and Hulk howled back at her with enthusiasm, even as knots of pedestrians gathered, laughing at this outrageous act.
When a meaty policeman came pushing through, Walt followed him and tapped his shoulder: "Officer, I'd like to make a complaint. That young lady singing to her dog just stole my Himalayan Persian cat, and my wallet too."
"Just a minute, mack." He roared at Lily: "Move on, miss; you're blocking traffic. You need a special license to perform in public space."
"But I'm just warming up for later." She flashed her toothy smile. "Hi, Walt." Hulk kept on howling as she pulled her Open City invitation out of Chessy's bag. The policeman snatched the xeroxed page, crumpled it and tossed it down.
"You can't do that," Walt protested. "Officer, you have no right."
"I may look like a bum, but I'm a retired partner in the Diddle & Squatt law firm. We make a donation every year to the Police Benevolent Association. Maybe the young lady has no right to sing here, but you have no right to destroy her property."
Lily had picked up the invitation and was smoothing it.
"I thought you said she stole your cat." The policeman's eyes narrowed to slits.
"I just borrowed him, for a prop," she explained. "People like to see beautiful cats, and Chessy doesn't mind these crowds. Walt, look at all the money I made this morning." She held out a paper cup brimming with change. "Enough to buy us breakfast at Oozy's Pizzeria."
"Why didn't you wake me?" His eyes prickled. "Why did you leave me all alone on the third floor of Port Authority?"
The big cop snickered and rolled his eyes.
"I wanted to buy us coffee," Lily said. "I wanted it to be a surprise."
"Sir, are you dropping your complaint?"
"I guess so, officer."
"Good luck." The cop shrugged and strode away.
"Lily, I don't understand," Walt began, but just at that moment rain came splatting down and Chessy tried to climb his leg.
"Let's run into Oozy's," Lily urged breathlessly. "He lets me bring the dog." She handed Chessy's leash to Walt, who packed him squalling into the duffel bag, while she thrust her guitar back into its case and shouldered her heavy rucksack. "This way!" She rushed off, Hulk bounding at her heels.
Walt followed, blinking in the rain, while Chess meowed complainingly. "Why are we doing this?" Walt muttered. "Why don't we just go home together? Our doorman is kind; he'll pay for the cab. But I don't want to go home yet, do you? This is kinda fun; we're learning things; and I want to hear Lily sing."
"What are you doing to that poor cat?" Lily asked through her pizza mouthful, sitting at the tippy table in the low room painted with the Gulf of Naples. Vesuvius puffed cheerfully while their drenched clothes dripped on the floor.
"Chessy needs his pill." Walt cradled the old cat while Hulk gazed darkly from under the table.
"Is he sick?" Lily asked with concern. She offered the dog a pizza crust, which he wolfed in one bite.
"He will be soon if he doesn't take this pill. Chessy gets asthma attacks. He was doing better on the Jersey Shore, but perfume, even hairspray sets him off."
Chessy blinked his pale blue eyes, as if signaling in Morse code.
"He sure doesn't want that pill," she said, and Walt set it down on the rim of his plate. It was starting to dissolve. "Try again, and I'll distract him."
Seeing the pill in Walt's fingers again, Chessy cocked his head and set his jaw. "You are so beautiful to me," Lily sang softly, soothingly, and the cat gazed up at her pale, rain-streaked face. "You are so beautiful ..."
As Walt stuffed the pill into Chessy's cheek, Hulk barked -- and he gulped it down.
"Great, that's done," Walt said with relief, and bundled the cat back in his bag. "Lily, can I ask you a question?"
"Does your dog always make noise when you try to sing?"
"Yes, it's part of the act. It's funny, so that's what people remember."
"I think they should remember your beautiful voice."
"That's sweet of you to say."
"I mean it though. When you sing in the show this afternoon, I think you should leave Hulk out."
She rumpled her purple hair with both hands and looked like she might cry.
"What's the matter?" he asked anxiously. "Did I say something wrong?"
"It's not you, it's me ... To tell you the truth, I need somebody with me when I sing -- or I feel so scared. I can't sing without my animal, Walt."
He folded his hands on top of Chessy; through the bag he could feel him breathing. Walt peered up and studied the pattern of pocks and cracks in the ceiling.
There had to be a solution. He just had to fit the pieces together, as if working out a tax problem. People are much harder, though ...
Lily slurped the last of her diet soda, and Hulk whined from under the table. "Do you mind?" She pointed at Walt's plate. He shook his head no, and she fed his pizza crusts to the dog.
"I've got an idea," Walt said suddenly. "I'll loan you my cat as a prop again. I know he'll sit still while you sing; he's an old show cat and loves attention. His ribbons and cups fill a case at home. Maybe he'll bring you luck."
"I could use some."
"And he can do one funny trick my wife taught him to do while she reads in bed."
"You think you're the only talent in New York? Watch this. Come on, boy." Gently he lifted Chessy from the bag and draped him around his own sunburned neck, paws and tail dangling like a whole fox fur's from the 1920s.
Chessy, whose breath reeked of anchovies they'd fed him off their pizza, opened one eye but lay quite still, as if dozing off.
"And it's comforting, Lily. You won't feel alone."
"Chessy's better than a brand new wig! Who can hold Hulk, though, while I sing? He's such a stubborn animal, and if anybody waves a cane --"
"Don't worry, I'll take care of him. We'll stand in the back together and watch. He just needs a muzzle so he can't howl."
"I have one in my pack somewhere. He doesn't like to wear it though. Ooh he's gonna be so jealous of the beautiful cat."
"It's just for this one performance, so people can hear how you sound."
"Hear that, Chessy?" She stroked his side and he opened his other eye. "You're gonna be my security blanket." Hulk whined bitterly, as if he understood. "Oh don't you be jealous of my new kitty."
"You can trust me to take care of him.
"I know; you have honest eyes. Besides I know you won't steal my dog, since you already love your cat."
Smiling at this logic, Walt waved to a wandering waiter. "Oh dear, I lost my wallet in the station."
"No you didn't." Lily plucked it from the waistband of her jeans and laid it on the table. "I just borrowed it, to keep it safe. You looked so sweet asleep, easy pickings for a thief."
"I guess that's a compliment," Walt said modestly and paid for the food. "Don't you think we should head for Bryant Park? It's almost 2 pm."
The Open City Competition includes the best acts you can see in the New York Subway: the Silver Sopranos, the Hip Hop Homeless, Wizard Wally and his Feathered Friends. Bryant Park looked crammed, and the peddlers who came late couldn't get through with their carts.
Gripping Hulk's chain link leash, Walt stood just behind where the paid seating ended, with a fine view of the temporary stage set up behind the Public Library. The big, brindled mutt kept shaking his head, rattling his wire basket muzzle. He could whine, but he couldn't bark; that was the plan anyway.
As soon as the Juggling Gigolos stopped tossing around their empty wine bottles, Super Cookie, the dreadlocked announcer, strutted to the mike in his pale green jumpsuit: "And now we want to welcome a folk singer with an unusual companion. When's the last time you saw a pretty woman wear a live cat as a sexy collar? Ladies and Gentlemen, please give a hand to Lily Trump -- with Castlewood Cheshire of Dempsey!"
As the purple-haired young woman, guitar in hand, staggered onstage, overcome with dread, Chessy, lolling around her neck, offered the audience a big, pink yawn, as if proving he was no stuffed cat.
"That's the spirit, Chessy!" Walt called out, and a pair of plump nuns standing nearby eyed him with dismay.
Lily strummed a few major chords and plunged into her song, and soon her sweet voice soared over the crowd like the soul of Joan Baez, clear and strong and passionate to tame Midtown's unending din: "You are so beautiful to me," she sang, and the noise of the crowd subsided. Young men gawked and old ladies smiled, and Walt beamed like a pudgy lighthouse.
Everything was going so well. Lily had the crutch she needed to perform, while Chess lounged around her neck like a movie star basking in adulation. Of course he probably thought all these people had gathered to see him. Cats are such silly egotists. Dogs, on the other paw ...
Hulk whimpered pitifully in his muzzle, as if unburdening a broken heart.
"Muzzles are cruel," one nun remarked.
"The problem is," Walt explained, "if I take it off he'll howl like an Indian in an old John Wayne Western."
"You mean a Native American," the other nun prompted.
"I suppose." Hulk had dropped his head and was working on the muzzle's straps with both paws.
"Look at that: Houdini with four legs," a man in a charcoal suit observed.
"Listen to the singer," Walt said ardently. "She's a wonder, a natural talent."
But Hulk, having freed himself, pointed his nose straight up, curled his lips and howled. He howled like a wolf in a Dracula film; he howled like a soul misplaced in Hell. Walt tried to drag him backwards through the crowd, Hulk resisting with mule-like strength.
"Excuse us, folks, I'm sorry," Walt kept repeating, as he steered towards 42nd Street. If only he could drag Hulk out of earshot, before he ruined Lily's act!
"You are so beautiful to me," she sang with wistful tenderness. That's almost all there is to her song, but sometimes it's enough.
"Shoot that dog," cried a large man in overalls, and a teen in a mini-skirt piped up, "No, he needs pet therapy."
"He just wants to sing along," Walt explained. "He used to be part of this act." He pulled Hulk towards a wooden police barricade. "Come on, don't spoil her chance!"
Walt bumbled into the barricade, which toppled over. "Hey, Mack," cried a cop astride a glossy horse. "Can't you watch where you're going?" As the horse stepped towards where Walt lay entangled with the dog, the weathered old cop -- who'd survived traumas with Doberman Pinschers -- pulled out his ASP.
"Please, don't wave your nightstick!" Walt warned. Holding Hulk's leash he scrambled to his feet.
"You telling me how to do my job?" The cop brandished his ASP.
Ripping the leash away Hulk leaped like a lion, bit his boot and hung on. The startled horse reared, and people screamed and his rider clung to the saddle with both hands as the horse galloped off down 42nd Street, Hulk still hanging from the policeman's leg.
"Come back!" yelled Walt and chased them east, as buses blared and taxis honked, and hordes of Chinese tourists gawked or took photoes with their phones. "Please, let me borrow that -- just for a minute." And he grabbed an aluminum scooter from the hands of a startled teen and sped after the horse -- who galloped straight through tape marking off a construction site, and rammed a flower cart at the end of the block, depositing his rider in its pink, plastic canopy, which collapsed.
As Walt came gliding up, out of breath, past the overturned buckets of roses and carnations, the flower seller, a silver-haired old lady in an "I Love New York" T-shirt, yelled bloodcurdling curses at him in Korean.
"Oh I'm so sorry!" Walt exclaimed. "It was an accident. My dog lost his muzzle."
"That's the guy who stole my scooter!" cried a stylish, buzz-cut teen, marching up with two cops in tow.
"I only borrowed it." The horse, carnations in his mane, was eating red roses out of a bucket, scattering petals from his jaws. There was no sign of Lily's dog.
Gently a petite cop with a moustache just like Saddam Hussein's lifted his comrade from the pushcart's canopy. "Ow, my knee," the fallen one lamented. "That's the guy who sicced his dog on me!" And he pointed at Walt.
"You're under arrest." A lipless, green-eyed cop grasped the perpetrator's arm.
"But I didn't do anything," Walt moaned. "I just wanted Lily to get a fair chance. Her wearing the cat was my idea."
From an open manhole rose a piercing howl.
"That's the dog who started all this trouble!" As the green-eyed cop drew his revolver, Walt flung himself in front of the open manhole.
"Officer, you can't shoot this dog! He's unique -- irreplaceable. He should have taken part in the Open City Show. Oh it's all my fault ..."
"It's all your fault," Olympia repeated with grim glee. "You lied to me, Walt, about staying home." Fitted out in a navy business suit that made her look like a generalissima, the spare, athletic woman, on the far side of 50, stood with her arms akimbo just outside a holding pen in the Midtown South Precinct.
An obese policewoman with a lantern jaw listened, with a bored expression, as Olympia tiraded on: "Officer, I left my husband -- he's a retired tax attorney -- safe at home with our cat, I thought, while I flew to a business conference in Phoenix. I get back, and what do I find? I'm supposed to bail him out of jail, and our champion cat has been stolen -- along with our brand new silver Mercedes with burl walnut interior trim!"
"Would you like to report these items as stolen?" the policewoman asked sleepily.
"Wait, I can explain," Walt interrupted. "I mean, I know where I left our car. It's parked at the Babylon Resort in Atlantic City. I took the bus with Chessy."
"The bus?" shrilled Olympia. "Who takes buses anymore? Walt, what the hell were you doing in Atlantic City?"
"Chess and I went gambling. We played baccarat, just for the fun."
"Fun? When you've worried me half to death!"
Walt glowed with a child's delight. Attila the Hen, worried for once. "So I lost a little money," he gloated. "Money you never knew I had."
"Never knew? What about the cat? What have you done with my darling Chessy?"
"I loaned him to a friend to help her sing. She needs emotional support."
"I'll give you some." She reached through the bars, gripped his ear and shook him like a terrier shakes a rat.
"Ma'am, please calm down," the policewoman urged, "or I'll have to book you too, for assault." Reluctantly Olympia let him go.
"This weekend had nothing to do with you, dear." Walt rubbed his ear and straightened his clothes, while the other dozen men in the pen regarded him, amazed. "I just wanted to go off and live, for a change -- instead of listening to you nag."
"Say it, brother," mumbled a woozy man, whose liquor breath fumed the air.
"I should leave my husband here to rot," Olympia grumbled, and turned her navy blue back.
"Maybe you should," he called out. "I get peace and quiet in here."
At this, his fellow detainees burst out laughing and slapped high fives: "Peace and quiet in the holding tank!" they chorused, rolling bloodshot eyes.
"Pipe down in there," the policewoman scolded like a weary schoolteacher. She turned back to Olympia: "Ma'am you should post his bond and take him home. He doesn't belong in custody."
"I've been married to that harridan for 34 years," Walt shouted as the other men tried to hush him. "And I'm telling you I'd rather stay here than creep back in my cage!"
Now a handsome black policeman came strutting in and reported to the duty officer: "Three journos from The New York Post are here to interview Mr. Blanken. The clip of his dog with the mounted cop has jumped from You Tube to the Drudge Report."
"Where's Lily's dog?" Walt yelled. "He's more important than anything. I know she'll give me back my cat, but I owe her that crazy dog."
Lily (who'd won fourth place in the show) also made You Tube. She got invited to make a recording, and donate any money to next year's show.
"It's a good cause," she conceded sadly from a pay phone in Midtown. "But I'd rather have my dog back, you know. He loved me more than anybody."
Sunning himself on the Library steps, Chessy peered up from a cardboard box top and hissed at an impudent, low-flying pigeon.
"That's a beautiful cat," said a Botoxed matron in a fake leopard jacket and matching cap. "Is he for sale, dear?" she asked Lily.
"No, sorry." Lily squinted up from the Library steps. "I'm keeping him for the friend I lost, who's supposed to be taking care of my dog."
"What happened?" asked the woman sympathetically.
Lily patted Chessy, who turned his head so she could scratch him under the chin. "I dunno, you know. I really wish I knew."