THE PYTHAGOREAN THEOREM
Two people walked behind me, talking about the city’s grid and how easy it made it to find everything. They headed east, the same as me. Soon I turned south and lost them, even though technically they were the ones following me. A good detective, I assumed, had to learn to tail from the front because it would be unexpected. Not that I was a good detective or even one at all.
I thought what they said to be logical, especially for two out-of-towners, but then I thought that if the city had roads that went both east and south, I would have taken that, as it would have saved me both distance and time.
The average city block was one-tenth of a mile. So if I wanted to travel one block east and one block south, I would have to walk two-tenths of a mile. Or, more simply, one-fifth of a mile.
After some calculation, if a block cut through the city’s square blocks at a perfect diagonal, one could travel one block east and one block south in about one-seventh of a mile, which is less than the one-fifth it took.
However, I would no longer be traveling one block east and one block south. I would have simply traveled one block southeast. The entire city would be different. The buildings, the build-up of traffic. There would be lost tourists everywhere.
By the time it took me to figure all that math out, I was home, holding my keys in front of my door. I didn’t remember the rest of my walk after I turned south, nor did I remember taking my keys out of my pocket. Like most events, I knew they’d happened simply because there was no way my life could be as it was if they hadn’t.
COUPLE OF OUTDOOR CATS
The neighborhood cats were a mix. Some were strays, raggedy and ribbed; others were well-groomed and, though collarless, had owners that gave them their occasional freedom. Regardless of background, the cats began to meet in my small concrete backyard to piss and fight.
Before the cats took hold, I'd sit out back, pitching cigarette butts into a planter. But the cats came and pissed on everything, so I retreated inside, where I blew the smoke out of the window that overlooked the backyard. I slept in the stale, mousy odor of stubbed-out cigarettes.
My next-door neighbor, whose small backyard abutted mine, got himself an outdoor cat to add to the backyard menagerie. He named this orange and white kitten Sam, which is, coincidentally, my name.
Although I’d been living next door for three years, I guess he didn’t know this. It made sense, in a way. I was quiet and kept to myself. Still, though, I knew his name (Charles) and all about his time in the Navy, his various neighborhood gripes, and the heroin habit that killed his brother.
The first day he got Sam the cat, Charles let him outside. I didn't know about the cat yet. So when I heard my neighbor whistling and calling my name, I went to my back door and opened it. “Yeah?” I asked.
Charles said, “No, I’m calling Sam the cat.”
“My name is Sam, too,” I reminded him. “Who's Sam the cat?”
Charles told me that he’d never liked cats, but that he got a kitten to keep him company. Then he went on calling for the cat. Sam the cat didn't come, though. I went back inside and smoked a cigarette in the back room. I saw Sam the cat through the window. He had crossed over into my backyard, where he was exploring the smells.
Sam the cat was small then. As I had once been small. Too small to have a backyard of my own and too small to smoke cigarettes one after another and too small to understand that I didn't have to stop and smell everyone else's piss. That it wasn't, like, a requirement to mess around in the muck. That I could live decently, or at least with a bit of self-respect.
Sam the cat grew up quick. Came around with cuts and black eyes. Well, not black eyes since cats don't punch each other as far as I know, but he would come around with scratches. At night, in bed in the stale smoke with the window cracked to “air it out” (it never aired out), I'd hear cats screeching.
Some, I figured, wanted to fight. Others wanted to fuck. Either way, the cats all made basically the same noise. A horrible, prolonged screech. I couldn't tell, when the noises stopped, if they had just fought or fucked. Either way, the need or the pain had been dealt with temporarily.
During the fights or the fuckfests, I’d hear my neighbor out there whistling for the cat, but Sam the cat only went inside when he wanted. Never for Charles’s whistling. Still, Charles would be out there calling my name.
“Sam, Sam, Sammy,” he’d call. “Come on home.”
Some days, it was enough to pretend to be loved. Others, it was heartbreaking. I’d see myself out there wandering the city from scent to scent. Much later, I'd scale the fence and sit outside the door, now closed. I'd let out a tired cry. Come on, man, open up.
THE GLUE TRAP
Several mice, expired, were stuck to a glue trap. Both the mice and the glue trap had been discarded on the sidewalk in front of my apartment.
The next day a cat, tempted by the free meal of fairly fresh mice, found itself stuck alongside them. It screeched out in angry than sorrowful tones, but anytime a passerby came close enough to assist, the claws on the cat’s free paw lashed out and the samaritan would reconsider.
The following day, a pit bull braved the cat’s claws and went in for the kill, but it too got stuck to the glue trap. It barked wildly for hours before it faded to a whimper, which was far worse to listen to than even its loudest barks, but the whimpers eventually ceased, too, leaving only the cacophony of the city streets.
The pit bull’s owner finally showed up. Even though it was too late, he ran for his dog, realizing too late what had killed him. By then the owner had lost his balance and his shoulder stuck to the glue trap. After struggling against the glue for a few minutes, he wriggled his free arm around to his pocket for his cell phone.
Two of his friends arrived to try and free him, but found themselves in the glue alongside the man, the mice, the cat, and the dog.
There were now three people out there stuck to the glue trap with the dead mouse, cat, and dog. We brought them food and water for a while but the stink got so bad from the animals going through the stages of decomposition, the whole block eventually shut their windows to it. With the windows shut and the blinds drawn, it was easy to forget what unfolded directly outside.
After a week or so, we were sure it was over. But as the summer dragged on, the glue trap snatched up people, animals, trash, even a corner of a bouncy castle that had been rented for a since-cancelled block party. Everyone agreed that it wasn’t the time or place for a party, but whoever was supposed to cancel that vendor had forgotten to call.
I told the occasional friend, when they came to visit, to watch out for the trap mostly hidden behind the bouncy castle. When they showed up at the front door it was the first thing they mentioned. I mean who wouldn’t talk about some skeletons baking on the sidewalk?
I told them not to worry about it, though, because if they’d been smart enough to avoid it on the way over, they’d be smart enough to avoid it on their way home.
“It’s not that,” they’d always say. “Why didn’t anyone try to help them?”
“They did,” I’d reply. “And got caught themselves.”
“So everyone just gave up?”
“No. We tried. I mean, the cat, the dog, the dog’s owner, and the dog’s owner’s friends all tried and looked what happened to them. Isn’t that enough?”
We’d get to doing whatever it was that we did, which depended on the friend. Mostly it was drugs. Soon enough we’d forget all about the dead things gathered outside.
“I never knew the body could break down like that,” Adam, the most curious and fearless of my friends texted me after he left one evening. Then I knew he’d been out there, long after I thought he’d gone, bending and poking like an amateur medical examiner at the remains behind the bouncy castle. I reminded him of curiosity, specifically in how it killed the cat.
“I saw the cat,” he said.
“And how’d things go for him?”
“Is hunger a type of curiosity?” I wondered aloud. We’d finished that night’s drugs and I was down to cigarettes and booze in the house.
“Curiosity? Maybe sometimes. Mostly I find comfort in hunger. I was thinking about stopping for some food on the way home, even.”
“You can eat?” I asked. “Even after seeing all that?”
“Always.” I listened to the noise of wind come through the phone, thinking about how the universe—or whatever we call being gnawed upon by such low-level yet constant extinction—behaved the same. It could always eat. I’d found myself looking up from the bottom of a greasy bag, surrounded by the ruins of spent wrappers, doing the math on the remaining light. Whatever it was, it wasn’t much.
Sam Price (he/him) lives in Pennsylvania.