The Boiler: Unfortunate Side Effects
By L.C. Stair
The Boiler: Unfortunate Side Effects
By L.C. Stair
My first short story was inspired by an NPR writing contest where the story submitted had to contain the following words: button, cat, and city or some shit (I can’t remember the third).
I wrote a story not intending it to be a children’s story and I’m not sure it is, but, my daughters loved it and each declared it favorite. A reviewer of it for a literary magazine submission called it lovely, said he was engaged throughout, and wrote, “…it’s the greatest strength was also its greatest weakness – sentimentality.”
It was the first feedback I had received about my first ever attempt at fiction. I felt crushed. The story stopped. I gave up on it; it’s probably six years old by now. Recently, though, I reopened it and thought to myself, I still like it and so do my children, and even my good friend Marie, so screw literary magazines – I’ll just put it out in the universe.
So children’s story, or no; overly sentimental or no – I only hope someone feel’s lost in a good story when they read it.
So without further ado, I give you the story no one wants to publish, but I like it so what does that matter (note: After reading it, I recognized grammatical errors and the rushed feeling it has – perhaps I’ll clean it up – but probably not):
LITTLE RED BUTTON AND THE CAT
The little red sewing button had been glued to the frame of a 1930′s telephone nook since 1963. The other objects around her accused her of a variety of unwelcome behaviors, including, being an atheist and acting quintessential. In truth, she was used to being stuck to the wall but wanted more. She had too many years of loss and isolation that brought her to question the purpose of living within the confines of an apartment. She dreamed of being lucky enough to be sewn on the button-up, or jacket of a person who’d go in and out where she’d travel, and it would bliss. But like her siblings before her, she felt her time was nearing. Her solitude broke when the tall woman came home, placed her keys on the shelf of the nook, as usual, and bent down to release a fuzzy black kitten. The woman referred to it as Lucky-the-Cat.
Many of the other apartment items felt the kitten was crude and messy. Not Red, though, Red enjoyed him. The pillow and sofa hated when Lucky cleaned himself on them, and the rug became unraveled when Lucky played at its corners. Red was amused, though. Other than the ceiling and door fixtures, Red had more apartment history than the rest of inhabitants. For as long as she could remember, she was part of an extensive art project where a hundred or so colorful buttons were glued around the framing of the apartment’s telephone nook. They were an artistic sentiment that tenants left on the wall. Time passed and only Red remained. Next to her were traces of spotty and worn glue that reminded her of her former life with her button family.
Red was about the diameter of a dime with wearing down glue between her four symmetrical holes. When she listened to the rest of the objects chit-chatting about what ought, or not ought to be, it became clear that she was not like many of them. She voiced her opinions but often felt the other inhabitants hesitate after hearing them. The traditional pieces, like the refrigerator and the stove, felt weary of listening to her because she talked about change. The newer tenants, with their plastics and polyesters, like the sofa table lamps, were uncomfortable getting involved. An ivy plant crept to the window just to tell the books pressed against a pane to give no mind to Red. Red, the ivy claimed, was missing purpose and was an apartment annoyance.
Like Red, Lucky also felt alone. Lucky thought of his mother and wished to show to her his adult cat teeth and how tall he was. She would be so proud. More than anything, though, Lucky yearned for freedom from the stuffy apartment, he wanted a life outside. In a garden like where he was born, where a cat could dream in a dense lawn or sing in the undergrowth with an orchestra of crickets.
He threatened birds from the glass of the fourth story window, but he could not feel the joy of a winning pounce, and in the end, the birds mocked him. His disappointment with apartment living insulted most everyone but never Red. They became friends immediately, united by a longing for new things. As Lucky clowned around with the frills of the vintage high-back chair, Red laughed and at the recoiling and uptight furniture who labeled the cat a terrorist.
One day they were commiserating on the staleness of the apartment and the curmudgeon within it and agreed to escape. Lucky used his playful demeanor and jumped up at Red to loosen her until she fell free from the wall. She felt movement for the first time and made herself travel round, rolling along across the living room. When she stopped spinning and fell over, she looked up at where she had spent her lifetime, up until now, and saw four spotted-crusts of glue. The art project was no more.
Their escape came when their tall woman opened the front door to take out the trash. On the same time of every Thursday morning, she’d propped open the door with her foot and she reached back for her house keys, nearly forgetting them, again. The ceiling light flickered to signal the opportunity.
“The door is open,” Lucky said.
Red didn’t have a moment to say goodbye as they were dashing down a flight of stairs that went round and down at intervals of twelve steps a floor. At the bottom, a pair of double glass doors stood before them and a series of metal boxes with keyholes watched them silently. The keyholes had seen Lucky a year earlier when the tall woman brought him into the building in her arms. In unison, they whispered at his growth.
Ignoring them, he set Red down. There were many apartment doors down a long hallway.
“What now?” said Red.
“We find a way out of the building.”
Fortune was on his side, a familiar sound of a key unlocking a door brought a slice of outdoor noise. Lucky snatched Red up from the linoleum floor and hurried down the hallway toward a door with an EXIT sign nailed above it. There it was, the sunshine, revealing itself as a trouser-legged man in a pair of black polished shoes opened the door. Lucky rubbed the man’s feet as he went by.
Tall brick buildings underneath the great blue sky surrounded them and he couldn’t help but stop for a moment and stare at every part of its wonder. The air tasted different and excited him because it made him think of his mother.
Red felt as radiant as ever. She was wisdom in red. “I can’t believe we’re outside!”
Connected by a shared feeling, they craved beauty in a way that felt as lovely as the sky looked. They were excited to continue. Lucky picked her up in his teeth and placed her on the edge of a curb of a the street corner, “I want to carry you in my collar now but I’m not sure if I can get you there.” Obtrusive cars speed by and Lucky leaned into the concrete while pushing Red with his hind paw. He felt the smoothness of her never-ending side. She was helpful, despite her constant jibber-jabber, and together they got her tucked under his nylon collar.
“I’m comfortable,” Red said. She was like a child who loved rides. “Let’s find the place of your birth. Let’s find your mother! I had brothers and sisters once, as you know. We had such great laughs.”
It was very nice having a friend to care for and be cared for. As they moved further away from the apartment, he felt the weight of his engraved name and phone number dangling from his collar and wondered if his owner would miss him. She was nice to him and there were moments, before the planned escape, when he thought it might be better to stay.
Red came because she wanted anything new – something different was all that was needed to please her. There were mysterious and enormous things everywhere. She glanced up at where they had just escaped. Their apartment building had an unknown, unfathomable amount of windows. She said, “Wow, it’s in the form of a rectangle, like Refrigerator. Look! There’s our window with books and ivy plant.”
“I’m so glad we did this.”
“Are you in my collar good enough?”
“Um, yes, I’m good, ” said Red.
“Sit tight.” He leaped and landed in a run. His legs stretched and shoulders jutted— and on and on he went in a body meant for remarkable. The cars were faster and noisier than he had imagined and one turned sharp to avoid him at a crosswalk. The close call caused him to halt. Even though his heart was vibrant, he felt calm, for once.
“That was great!” Red said.
Lucky thought so too. He noticed some plastic crates and went slowly toward them, smelling his surroundings, he became aware of a presence and crouched into the opening between the crate and the brick building. There was another cat nearby. He scanned the surrounding. It was black and laying inside of a building’s first-floor window. He looked right at Lucky and flicked his tail.
“Red! There is another cat. He is all black.”
“Are there any buttons?”
“No,” Lucky said. “Not any buttons.”
“Cat,” Another voice hissed.
It was the black cat from the window. Lucky, puzzled said, “How’d ya do that?”
The black cat sat on his haunches. “Do what?”
“Come outside. We’ve only just escaped.”
The black cat said, “Who is this?”
“That’s Red, a button. She’s with me.”
“A button, no kiddin’. I’ve never heard a button speak before. Books are another story, they never stop going on and on about themselves.” He looked back toward his building. I don’t need to escape. My owner likes me to catch mice, so I’m free to go.”
Lucky wasn’t sure which surprised him most, this hunting arrangement or the freedom to go outside.
Lucky sat down. “I’m Lucky, who are you?”
“I’m Nightmare. Like I said, I am from that building.”
“Your name is Nightmare?”
“Yeah, cause I am so badass, you know?”
“I see. I’m looking for the park where I was born. It had birds’ nests in the trees and green grass that went on forever, Central Park they called it. Can you point me in the right direction.”
“Nah. There ain’t no grass around here, just concrete and asphalt. I heard once from a real nice kitty that her mother birthed her in Central Park. She said ‘birthed’ like it made her sophisticated, but she weren’t. That’s about as close to Central Park as I’ve been.” Nightmare went on talking and offering advice. He spoke of places where people threw their trash “real good finds” he called them. Red had fallen asleep while Lucky listened. “Need a place to stay for the night? You’se should keep out of da streets, those goddamn rats you know.”
Lucky felt his heart beat increasing, a feeling of unfamiliarity had him on edge. It was different. “Um, I think we’ll try to make it to the park tonight. Thanks, though.”
“Suits you. Further down the road here, cross from a Chinese restaurant with a big neon sign is a place that’s been empty a while. It’s a brick building, wid a busted up door on the side.”
Lucky thanked Nightmare and made his goodbyes. “Ready Red?” He asked. Before Red could remove the sleep from her eyes Lucky jolted forward. He stopped a few city blocks later and began to clean his hind paw when he heard the bell above a storefront door whisper about the night and its eeriness, it warned of being without shelter come nightfall. For the first time, Lucky felt fear. His curiosity came with caution or vice versa because one without the other is an unprepared fool.
They had traveled throughout the rest of the evening, dodging buses and cars, and stepping past extravagance in all manner of shapes and sizes. Red did not expect to end up on the streets, but she acknowledged she had it easy compared to Lucky, who was becoming uptight having to stay alert. She thought the park would have been closer, as did he, and so she did her best to keep his spirits up.
“When do astronauts eat?” She asked.
“I don’t know when?”
“At launch time.”
Lucky gave a short chuckle.
The night was black and the streets were lit up, yet there were still people walking and stray dogs were amuck, competing for the attention of the pedestrians walking by. Do they ever stop begging? Red wondered. She felt Lucky’s heart quickening on and off and observed a pattern of it speeding up and settling down. He was becoming more nervous the further they were from their cozy apartment He stopped to lick his paws, again.
Their pace slowed as Lucky turned off the endless sidewalk into an alley between buildings. He made a bed within a stack of collapsed cardboard boxes that were leaned against a dumpster and an abandoned baby stroller. He was miserable. The night was long and lonely, even though Red was awake and talkative for much of it.
He was tight in his neck and shoulders and longed for the sweet sturdy back of Sofa, the comfort of the subtle hum of Refrigerator, and most of all, and his owner’s massage. What might his owner be doing now, missing him? He felt on the right path, though, even with its hazards, when he thought of his mother again and the light in her eyes.
Day after day, block after city block they traveled. Avoid calamity and making good and philosophical conversations. Lucky did not tell Red that he was beginning to have nightmares during his wakeful state, but Red informed him of her constant tiredness. She said it was a tired unlike any she had ever felt before. She was glad to be with her brave friend Lucky. He was an energetic and curious cat but more than that, he was kind. Red was inspired by Lucky’s determination to find his mother. She felt as one expects when everything is right in their togetherness, even though times were difficult.
Excitement and tiredness fueled them on. It was too late to go back and everywhere there were moments of such wonder that for hours later they’d discuss it, and discuss it again.
“Hey Lucky, what did the ocean say to the beach?”
“Nothing he just waved.” Red laughed at her own cuteness. Lucky licked a paw.
By the fourth night, Lucky was cleaning himself obsessively at every stop. A lick or two as he scanned the world around him and Red noticed that his licking was causing him to have raw skin. She felt it must be his way of dealing with his nervousness. She had yet to tell him she was beginning to have blackouts. It was an occurrence happening more and more, so much so that she couldn’t remember where they were last or how they arrived at where they stood.
This time when she awoke she was tucked into the front side of Lucky’s collar facing a great and beautiful lawn. “Is this it, are we here?” she said. “The lawn, it’s so green, the trees are so tall.”
Last week seemed forever ago. An apartment lost long ago was far behind them – a lush and fresh as Lucky talked about. Even the people seemed better than they did on the congested streets, it as though they were infected with a happiness showing even in the way they moved about. Red absorbed this enthusiasm and felt rejuvenated. Lucky gathered up energy and took off on another wild sprint.
They spent the day in the warmth of the sunshine, appreciating the place and the accomplishment of being here. Lucky walked along the edges of the greenery and inquired of his mother to each bird, squirrel, and flower. “She’s a black and white cat, with white down her nose and on her forepaws. She went by the name of Gumball.” But no one knew of her. He was still hopeful.
Red was aware of an unknown force summoning her energy from her inside her. She knew she would die soon and while Lucky talked about the love for his mother, Red thought about her life in the apartment, all those years, and different people, and what stood out most were her own button siblings laughing at the knickknacks over an unforgiving dust. She was thankful for Lucky and wished she could relieve him now of his worry. She told more jokes.
Lucky leaned into a tree. He felt he would never find his mother and the last brown squirrel assured him of this. “There aren’t old cats here. The Pound comes by and gathers them up in the winter.”
He did not speak to the button for an entire day, but when he did he said he was sorry. “We were warm and we were happy. I’ve never been so cold and alone as I am today. It was for nothing.” But Red did not feel unhappy and told him so. She expressed her worry for Lucky though, who was now scrawnier and mangy-looking at his paws. Worse was seeing his sadness overcome him.
Red said, “I’ve had as much fun as this in all my life, in every choice I’ve made, even the tough ones. I’ve been able to observe the behavior and attitudes of many, but only up until now from on the wall of the apartment. I thought I would go on forever in one place. You have given me experiences that seem impossible. With your help, I’ve flown on the breeze. I’ve slept on the streets. I am most thankful for knowing and loving you.”
“If we were inside, my belly would be full and these fleas would be on some other bugger,” Lucky said.
“You’ll come to understand loss, one day. And when you do, you’ll see that you outsmarted the world because of our willingness to be alive for the moment. You’ll make an understanding of your journey further down the road, and you’ll look back and fit the pieces together. I’m afraid,though, it won’t be with me.”
“What do you mean?” He asked.
But Red was silent and did not answer.
An evening passed quietly. In the morning, Red did not move. Lucky thought her sleeping at first and he lay next to her waiting for her to awake, but after a time, she became stiff and inanimate like a simply misplaced sewing button. Years later, in his remembrance of her, he thought of love and realized that love was a word that didn’t earn its definition until it touches you.
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