Emergency and Kischka were not getting along. The Reverend Arcade Jones had bought Emergency as a puppy from a motel proprietor in Jeremiad Springs. Fifty bucks. Reverend thought it was the best fifty bucks he ever spent, especially because it was the church’s money and no one ever asked him for reimbursement. He was a tiny little quivering thing, but so damned friendly. Fit right in Arcade’s ample palm. Puppies grow up quick, and Emergency was just about full-grown now. He was dog-sized. Some dogs are as big as horses, or small as rats; Emergency was the size of a dog. He had a short coat that was rust-colored in some lights, dirty-blond in others. Floppity ears, and he did not loll his mouth open with his tongue draped out when he walked around, instead jutting his bottom lip up like he was contemplating a big purchase. Emergency was a thoughtful looking dog, unless he was gnawing on his own leg. It is difficult to look thoughtful while gnawing on your own leg.
The Reverend was getting along just fine with Emergency. They were inseparable except for in the actual church part of the First Church of the Infinite Christ. Can’t have dogs wandering around during the service, the Reverend thought. He didn’t know whether that was hippie bullshit or white people bullshit, but there were not gonna be any dogs roaming about while he was giving his sermon. Emergency stayed in the offices, and upstairs in Arcade’s apartment under the belfry. (The belfry contains the church’s bell, which is named the Calling Judge and is ten feet in diameter. It begins its hourly duties at 8 am, but Arcade is always downstairs and into his day by then. Emergency tried to sleep in one time; the Reverend warned him. When the bell tolled, the dog shot five feet straight into the air and down the stairs and he was whimpering under Arcade’s feet for the rest of the day. Emergency was an early-riser after that.)
There was as much training as there was spoiling, and Emergency was a spoiled animal. Congregants bought toys for him, and the Reverend taught him to put them all in his box at the end of the day. Locals stopped to fawn over him on the Main Drag, and the Reverend taught him to shake hands like a gentleman. Unless it was raining, they walked to the Verdance every day with a chewed-up Nerf football. Emergency only knew one pattern, the fly, but he ran it like a Hall-of-Famer: Arcade would boom HUTHUTHIKE and he would go shooting across the grass of the Grand Lawn, looking back over his shoulder every ten paces; the Reverend would take a five-step drop and SAAAAAAAIL that gnawed ball high and arcing towards where the dog might be, and he always was; he would twist around 360 in the air while still going forward and not lose a step with the ball now in his mouth and then he would make a sharp corner back to where the Reverend was and give the ball back and his ass would quiver until he heard that magic sound HUTHUTHIKE and off once more. The Reverend was considering teaching Emergency how to run a buttonhook.
Heel was the best one. Sit was important, and down was vital, but heel was the best command there was. Heel meant “Walk with me.” Partner up. Arcade had one of those leashes with the long, retractable leads and all he had to do was say “Heel!” and Emergency would be there under his right hand, matching his pace. The dog picked up commands quickly, and Arcade knew that he no longer needed to praise her for heeling, but he did anyway. Arcade liked telling him he was a good dog.
And he was. Emergency was not just a good dog, but a very good dog. Yes, he was; yes, he was. He chewed up only that which was designated as chewable, and he pooped outdoors every single time. (Except every 18 days, when it rained. Emergency would not leave the church when it rained even a tiny little bit. The Reverend tried carrying him out a couple times, but the dog went limp or spazzed out of his grasp or whined or any number of dog tricks; Arcade was wise enough to pick his battles, and just laid out newspaper after that.) He was gentle around babies, and tolerant around children, and boisterous around teenagers, and patient around old folks. Emergency was a good dog.
So he did not understand what he had done to deserve Kischka’s presence.
She was a mackerel tabby. Striped like a tiger, but gray and black instead of orange, and black fur in the shape of an M on her forehead between her eyes. Earnest Hubbs rescued her from the Hotel Synod as a kitten. His guy was in Room 312, which is the back. Enter through the glass doors on Clarke Street and nod to Frankie Teakettle behind the front desk and up two flights of steps–the elevators in the Synod were disloyal and worrisome–and down the hall to his guy. It was a regular appointment. Earnest Hubbs bought dope like Europeans buy groceries: just enough for the night. Friendly knock. Tap tap TAP tap. His guy took care of him. Buy four, get the fifth free. Fresh points. Addicts can trace their life through their guys. This one was all right, Earnest thought. Nice enough, but about business. Didn’t make you sit there and talk to him if you didn’t want to. He bought four bags, with the fifth free, and took three clean needles and thanked his guy and out the door and down the hall back to the stairs.
Earnest had not seen the open door to his left. There was a woman with a shaved head and leather boots. She was holding a tiny kitten, a tabby.
“Hey,” Earnest said.
“I’m gonna kill this. This little fucker. I’m gonna kill it.”
The woman had tan eyes. Color of khaki, wheat, sand. A sharp nose and a kitten in her hand.
“Don’t do that.”
“We’re past ‘why?’ We’re so far past that.”
There were seven or eight people in the room behind the woman, as Earnest could count. They were engaged in acts. The kitten was barely weaned, and still had sleepy and trusting eyes. It yawned. Tiny fangs flashed.
“Gonna kill the little fucker,” the woman said, and she smiled.
Earnest shot his hand out and snatched up the kitten by its scruff before she could move, and then the animal was cradled against his chest and he stared in the woman’s tan eyes.
“Yeah, fuck you. Go back to your fucking devil orgy.”
She did; the door shut. The hallway of the Hotel Synod was quiet, and shabby. Earnest could hear typing coming from behind the door of the corner suite. He walked down the raggedy carpet to the stairs, and out of the lobby onto Clarke Street, and north on the Main Drag, and west onto Rose Street and down the stairs to his basement apartment in the synagogue of Torah, Torah, Torah where he was the handyman; he fixed, and then he had a cat. She (Earnest had looked) did not seem bothered by her travails. She was, in fact, dead asleep on his pillow. If a person had done that, Earnest would have stabbed their ass, but he just sat in his chair and stared and cooed.
“Kischka. You gonna be called Kischka,” he said to the napping kitty. Earnest liked Jew food. Rabbi Levy had told him not to call it “Jew food” in public, and so he didn’t, but he still thought of it as Jew food. Pastrami and tongue and kippered salmon. Challah bread slathered in spicy purple horseradish. Kugel and knishes and kasha varnishkas. Kreplach. And kischka, too. Rabbi Levy asked him why he named the cat Kischka.
“Love me some kischka,” Earnest answered.
And he loved him some Kischka. She had free reign in the temple. The first pew got direct sun in the morning, and she would stretch out on the dark-blue padding and snooze. In the afternoons, the light came into the rabbi’s office, and she would nap in there while he prepared his sermon or argued with his brother-in-law. Kischka avoided the Hebrew School classes and services. Once a day, she patrolled the front yard in between the synagogue and Rose Street. There were neatly-maintained bushes and two lemon trees, one on either side of the path leading to the door. She sniffed at them, marked them, clawed them. They were her trees. Once in a while, she’d kill a wren. She would bring it inside for Earnest. He was terrible at catching wrens; she had never seen him do it once. Kischka had her synagogue and her yard and her trees.
And then she didn’t.
Moving can be traumatic for people, but it’s catastrophic for cats. Kischka had just got Torah, Torah, Torah smelling the way she wanted it to when the building burned down. It was the only home she’d ever known, and now she was cast out into the wilderness. Ostracized like Themistocles, Kischka did not think because she was a cat. That her new home in the First Church of the Infinite Christ was right down the street–you could see the ruins of the temple from the church’s front yard–did not matter. Cats have different senses of geography than humans. There is home, and then there is the void. Kischka spent the first four days in his new digs hiding under Earnest’s dresser.
(Believers from up and down Rose Street donated to Earnest Hubbs after the fire. New furniture and clothes. Several broadswords, for some reason.)
When Kischka finally emerged, she was pissed. This is not, she thought, my beautiful house. From the apartment, she padded into the basement proper, where there were chairs and tables and an old rickety piano. 12-step literature on the walls, which Kischka did not read; she was not a drinker. Absolutely nothing smelled the way it should. There was, however, a mouse. She took out her frustrations on it for far longer than was necessary. Naive liberals often castigate their own kind by saying that humans are the only animal to be willfully cruel; they had never watched Kischka with a mouse. She let it almost escape time and time again. When she got bored, she slammed it on the linoleum with her paw, sank her fangs into its neck, pulled. She ripped the mouse open and ate its liver and lungs, left the bloody rest laying there.
Up the stairs. Her tail pointed down to make herself a smaller visible target, and her head was snaking low. Full pupils to take in everything. A large room with a high ceiling, just like in the synagogue, but different. Raised platform on one side, pews in the middle. Same as the synagogue, mostly. Color scheme was all wrong. Some sort of statue of a man with his arms out floating above the stage. Kischka did not recognize him. She sniffed at a pew and did not smell any other cats, so she rubbed herself along the edge and then it was hers. The pew behind it, and the one behind that. It took Kischka around an hour to make the church hers. Naturally, this exhausted her and she lay down under the statue of the floating man that she did not recognize and slept.
“Why are you whining, Goofydog?”
The Reverend Arcade Jones sometimes called Emergency “Goofydog.” Other names the Reverend called him were Handsome Man and Mookie and Spaz and Sweetie Sweetums and Jerry Rice. (When Emergency made a particularly good snag when they were playing catch, the Reverend called him Jerry Rice. Emergency liked it when he got called that. It meant he did something good, and he liked to be good.)
Emergency did not know how Arcade could not smell that. An odd, unwelcome, and new scent. From the place he was not supposed to go. It was a small and prickly smell, and–most importantly–it was a smell that was not supposed to be there, An interloping smell. It was so strong! How can he not smell this? the dog asked himself. It was one of those things, Emergency thought. He had seen them in windows when they went on walks through the neighborhood. Or on front yards for a second before they went diving into bushes and under porches. Kinda dog-shaped, but not? You know: those things. Jesus, man, can you really not smell that fucker?
“Go! Out! If you’re gonna be weird, then get out.”
The Reverend pointed towards the door. Dogs understand pointing. We made them, so they understand pointing. Emergency left the office, and the Reverend Arcade Jones sat there with Mrs. Fong.
“I admire the way you work with the youth, Reverend.”
“That was my dog, Mrs. Fong.”
“In my day, boys like that were sent into the Army. Toughened them up.”
“Or killed them. Either way: no more whining.”
Emergency was a good dog, and good dogs know the rules. Here is for you, but there is not. To go there is to be bad, and Emergency did not want to be bad. He was a good dog. Still: that smell. That curious and out-of-place smell that did not belong and had not been here before. It was coming from the place he was not supposed to go. Emergency stood outside the office, on the precipice of the nave, shivering with confusion and desire. He looked back at the open door. Arcade was not looking. He crept towards the smell. Looked back again, then towards the smell, then back, and then he lowered himself into a crouch and moved towards that odor that was by now his entire universe: what the FUCK was that smell, man!? And who said it could be here?
He pawed up the left side of the church and up the two steps the raised platform called the bema and there it was. There was the smell. Gray and black and sprawled on its side. He had seen these things before, but never met one. Dogs can walk very quietly on carpeted floor, and he did, so the cat was still asleep when Emergency was right over her.
Kischka had never encountered a dog. They had passed on the sidewalk in front of Torah, Torah, Torah and she had watched them through the windows. A few times, she had been in the front yard when they came by; she dove into a bush or under the porch.
WHAMPWHAMPWHAMP the cat slapped the dog on his muzzle the second she opened her eyes. She ran downstairs and back under the dresser; he scampered back into the office and hid under the Reverend’s legs making scared little noises like,
“Broo broo broo.”
The Reverend Arcade Jones looked down and said,
“You met the cat, huh?”
And then there was a studied détente. Kischka lounged wherever she felt like, and Emergency took whatever was left. He stuck close to the Reverend. Kischka allowed Earnest to stroke her, sometimes, and other times did not. Cats and dogs lived together if they had to, and they chose to, in Little Aleppo, which is a neighborhood in America