James Cato

James Cato is an environmental organizer outside Pittsburgh raising his baby snake, Sleeves. He has stories in Tiny Molecules, Atticus Review, Gone Lawn, JMWW, and Daily Science Fiction, among others. He tweets humbly @the_sour_potato and his work lives on jamescatoauthor.com/fiction.

MEN WHO CAN’T HUNT by James Cato

Who but Leatra would sashay onto my lopsided porch late for a 6 PM appointment, her pink top with ribbons tied tight across the front. I didn’t correct her when she called me a masseuse but felt the beginnings of dislike before she lay naked with a towel slack at her hips on the table. Resisting the urge to yank her platinum braid, I ran grapeseed oil on her back in a drizzling loop. 

Who but Leatra would tighten at the mention of my brother Ely. I told her how this therapy studio had been his bedroom before he vanished, before we slid posters in windshield wipers, before he was no longer considered missing. We had found and buried something. But he was not found. My body moved with my hands over her bony landmarks. The lingering spoor of Ely clung in this room on hot days like today with no AC and damp towels and blackout curtains. 

Ely had been hellishly fixed on Leatra back in high school. She’d knocked him flat on his ass—in one long scroller text she stated he could not be with her, ever, he was unfit, too passive, too cockeyed, too short; he should get the notion permanently scrubbed out of his brain. I’ve often wondered if her cruel words helped punt him down his dark path. Even a big sister beer-run failed to console him. I wanted this patient of mine to make amends.

And who but Leatra would change the subject as I cleaved her spine with my hands in blades, her sweating shoulders soft as tomatoes in the oven. She described how she dated Ammon, Benny B, and Lela on and off and sometimes all at once, because, and this went unsaid, Leatra Feridun needed the affection of not one but three of the most attractive people in town. I chewed ice while I rubbed and she complained about its glacial creak against my teeth. I was attracted to her. I understood Ely’s sickness for her unflinching demands.

And she had talent as an open ear. I kneaded her trapezius which puts most patients in a trance yet she listened thoughtfully to my theory about how skin-walkers in the woods had taken Ely when he walked into the trees with dad’s gun, how once he’d disappeared box turtles started bobbling through my yard with smiley faces and stars drawn in mud on their carapaces. Even in pre-colonial times, stories of shapeshifting skin-walkers had haunted these hills and it was crazier to doubt centuries of indigenous accounts than to believe them. 

I wondered: what would Ely think of Leatra undressed here in his old bedroom, speculating about his fate? I shared how the graffiti on the wildlife wasn’t the only sign of Ely’s spirit while pulling her shoulders away from each other, believing her honey skin could disguise ill will as well as any deer skull beast screaming for help in the night. Ely’s online profiles also persisted as if linked to his soul. His cell phone gathered dust and voicemails of garbled wind. I even drove by roadkill mutilated, skinned and headless.

“That’s just the men who can’t hunt,” she butted in. “They drive around and steal the antlers and hides and heads and mount them in their garages. Ammon told me. He’s a real hunter; I know because he invites me sometimes to come along and watch. I don’t mind deer or the killing of deer, but I never go.” 

Just like Leatra Feridun, I thought, to not mind a thing and also not mind the killing of that thing. But there was excitement in her voice. Because maybe my brother Ely who never hurt an animal in his life really did stroll into the woods with a gun and had his essence eaten. Maybe he’d actually convinced his monster to feast on rumble strip corpses rather than stalking live victims. I noticed skin crumpled under Leatra’s ear, a scar from a bottle thrown by real hunter Ammon, gossip the whole town had heard but tuned out. I liked her more than when she first walked in. It was important to her to believe, even a little, with me.

When she left she took a fistful of mints from the bowl and I waved her croupy truck down the slithering road until it was eaten by trees in the dusk. Her face gave nothing away except a tilt toward the forest. Mosquito larvae flexed in the birdbath as if celebrating with me. I swept a flashlight across the creek-rippling reeds on the edge of the yard. The beam caught the eyes of a standing animal and I held the contact for a few seconds. Then I clicked it off, leaving the night darker than ever. 

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DELICIOUS by James Cato

Like most Saturday mornings, I’m alone cleaning the streets. The morning sun hurries through the cloudless sky, already buttering me with sweat, though Las Vegas sleeps. I slog around with trash pincers and make peace with the place through solitude.

Before, I worked afternoons and wore my baseball cap with the army patch. People asked questions. Where was I deployed? What’s it like being a woman in war? Did I ever shoot someone? War stories drew people in. They tried to stare through the ugly by looking at me.

I’m picking up after a parade; I can tell by the debris. Streamers stick to the sidewalk like snakeskin. Buzzards hunch atop asphalt burgers and chicken bones, sharing sticky leftovers with lizards and scorpions. I call it desert-dessert. Delicious. They help me clean.

When I wore my hat, some people would blame me, yell at me. Others would thank me. Nobody knew any better. I came from a small town, the only way out spelled A-R-M-Y. At eighteen I copied the boys and picked up my M16 with dreams of returning to a big city. I guess it worked—Vegas, baby.

I pause, my sack heavy with trampled food, fancy pants, a sparkly shoe, ragdoll condoms, a brunette wig, and Everclear in a grenade bottle. A creepy plastic bag crinkles in the center of the road, juddering in the heat mirages, weighed down by a shrouded cylinder. I drift toward it like a hooked fish.

I was asked if I got flashbacks. People heard of IEDs disguised as garbage, but they hadn’t heard of daisy-rigging. That’s when one decoy IED, planted somewhere obvious, is linked to another, hidden. You never have a clue. To those asking, I just said: It gets easier. 

My jeans swish against the steel under them, long jeans because my legs don’t get hot anymore. A vulture beats her wings to defend her breakfast. I promise her I’m not interested. A scorpion scuttles by, tail up. I give my pincers a few clicks in solidarity. A spiky lizard pauses in my shadow. He can only go a few minutes exposed without cooking alive, so I rest, offering my shade. I eye the heat weeping from that ominous bag.

Some people were curious; some were killing the cat. The latter quizzed me on my childhood. Where I grew up, we'd placed dime bets on lizard-scorpion fights in jelly jars. “So you’re a tomboy,” the people replied.  No. I always chose the lizard, and I always lost. The scorpion was daisy-rigged too; it distracted the reptile with mean claws then stuck them with the flagpole stinger. One girl chided, “If you hadn’t trapped them together, lizards and scorpions would never fight.” I agreed with her.

Nowadays I rarely see anything but downed drunks and desert-dessert out here. Even when I do, my head is naked to burn, no more army hat. Still, there’s that familiar horror. It’s everywhere in Vegas—bodily fluids, confetti, meat, clothes, sun, photos, torn food, glasses, vomit, tamped dunes, smoke, torn packaging, friends, sere vegetation, shattered porcelain. Remains of a night gone wrong. The striking indifference of the desert.

A few men with chapped lips liked my figure, and I stared at their legs. They looked at my shirt sticking to my chest or at my hair curling in the heat and made sly intimations, but I just stared at their legs. Stared as if there were nothing else, no man, just calves sliced like porpoises through a propeller, toes pointed like fairy shoes, two dogs with eager snouts. They gave up eventually. Probably after telling me they had the world’s longest tongue.

This bag on the center line has a prim little knot to cloak its contents. I reach down and work it free, hand shaking. Inside, glowing in the sun, is a full angel cake in plastic armor. I smile at it for a full minute before I bring it to the curb. Yes, an untouched angel cake, forgotten, a gift from fate with no strings attached. I join in desert-dessert with the vultures—delicious. Like remains of a night gone right.

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