Edgar

A flicker in the bottom corner of my eye, too quick to identify but slow enough to determine speed and direction. It’s source: the dried goods shelf where oyster and hoisin sauce cans are stacked in rows; it’s destination: the small, irregular hole at the baseboard behind the stove.

Unperturbed, I continued sliding blocks of jicama down the blade of a mandolin, the white meat separating into matchsticks with each swipe. I had never tasted jicama until I began working at the Noodle House. The Mexicans in the kitchen enjoyed the root vegetable dressed with lime, chili powder, and salt, but it was just as delicious unadorned, the crisp, floral-scented flesh tasting like sweet dirt, but in a good way. I was adding the sliced jicama to a pan of ground pork for egg rolls when Rachel, the kitchen manager, breezed in through the back door on a Marlboro cloud. She replaced the cigarette pack in her cleavage and stuck her phone between me and the pork.

“Look,” she said. “My new dog sitter’s come to take Zippers for a walk.”

The phone’s screen showed a live video feed taken from the spy camera in Rachel’s living room. Centered in the image was a pit bull dozing on an oversized sofa. Provoked by an unseen presence off-camera, the dog spurted to life and began dancing lavishly atop the sofa cushions. Just then a figure entered the frame, the dog sitter. Rachel explained that she’d found an app that could connect her with a sitter in her neighborhood. The app could unlock her apartment door when the sitter arrived and even log the exact coordinates of her dog’s shit. A self-confessed technophile, Rachel adored apps and gadgets. She once bought a set of light-up buttons that promised to allow dog owners to communicate with their pets. Supposedly a dog could be trained to paw or nose a particular button to indicate a particular need, say red for hunger or green for want of a walk. Rachel swore Zippers had been making progress, stringing together entire sentences expressing her needs and desires, until one day the dog decided to eat the buttons.

Rachel, who was also a social media addict and who admitted to wasting an unreasonable number of hours watching Tik-Tok videos, had threatened many times to “unplug,” to divorce herself from social media and to pare down the techno-wizardry in her life once and for all. She had even considered replacing her smart phone with a flip phone, like the one I’m made to use as a sex offender banned from accessing the Internet. But of course she never did any of those things. How could she in a world that has convinced us we need security cameras in our homes and computers in our pockets with which to spy on our pets?

On the phone’s screen I watched in real time the new sitter pat the dog’s head. He was tall and lanky yet carried a significant paunch barely contained by a T-shirt. His dark hair was long and stringy and, even at low resolution, looked unwashed. The graininess of the footage and overblown exposure lent the video a certain seedy, pornographic quality that made my stomach tighten.

“So you’ve hired Buffalo Bill to walk your dog?” I imagined the sitter waltzing around naked in Rachel’s living room with, his junk tucked between his legs, while “Goodbye Horses” played on the stereo. “He’s going to turn Zippers into a skin suit. This app offers credentials, right?”

Rachel swatted my arm. “Of course he has credentials!” But she didn’t look so sure. “You ought to get yourself a dog,” she said putting her phone away. “You must be awfully lonely living by yourself. I didn’t think I wanted a pet until Zippers came in to my life. She filled a hole I didn’t even know was there.”

I sunk my hands deep into the pork, churning them like rototillers. “I don’t have the room,” I said. “I’d feel guilty keeping a dog cooped up in my tiny apartment.”

“Or how about a cat or a fish or a lizard?”

“Speaking of pets,” I said, measuring out the soy sauce, “I saw our little friend a moment ago. He ran behind the stove.”

“Another rat?”

“Mouse, actually.” The mention of rats always put me in mind of prison and snitches. Snitches get stitches.

“Did you kill it?”

I nodded to the pan of pork. “My hands were full.”

In truth I had no intention of killing any mice. I was content to leave them to multiply in the walls and above the drop ceiling and behind stove nearest the warmth of the blue pilot lights. Plenty of others in the kitchen were willing to participate in the blood sport of stomping the rodents, skewering them with broom handles, and hosing them down with caustic degreaser to die slow, burning deaths.

Undoubtedly the most impressive, most grisly kill belonged to Pete, the bartender. Pete was a beefy, brooding man who’d spent time in a Florida state prison. It was no wonder then that his chosen weapon had been a sack filled with limes pulled from the bar fridge. With this he clobbered and stunned, then stomped the offending mouse. I’d always been a little frightened of Pete. I wondered what kind of inmate he’d been, what his hustle was, what car he ran with (Aryan Brotherhood?).

“Poor mouse,” I said to Joey, the dishwasher, after Pete told us the story.

“What do you mean, ‘Poor mouse’?” Joey said. “If we let them run around, the health department will shut us down. We’d be out of our jobs.”

True. And yet I would have had no qualms with the restaurant closing. Dallas was full of restaurants, more per capita than any other city, and many hired ex-felons. It would have been nothing to find work in another kitchen, one that paid more than thirteen dollars an hour.

At five o’clock I untied my apron and abandoned the egg rolls. While clocking out, Rachel shot me a sly smirk. “Another date tonight?”

“Maybe.”

“Same guy?”

I smiled shyly.

Pulling another cigarette from between her cleavage, she wished me luck and stepped outside for another smoke.

We had met at a restaurant, the two of us sitting at adjacent tables, me with a friend and he with another well-groomed man who I presumed was his date. And yet throughout the course of our meals, while his dinner companion talked endlessly about real estate, the man and I shared a number of glances, his brown eyes crinkling in the corners whenever he smiled.

Our checks arrived at the same time and, sensing an opportunity slipping, I commented to our waitress that I wished I were the type of person who had the confidence to ask a guy for his number.

Whose number did I want? she asked. I indicated with my eyes the neighboring table. “The Latin one,” I said. “But I can’t tell if they’re on a date.”

“He’s heading for the restroom now. You could follow him in and ask.”

I laughed grandly. The grapefruit margarita I’d had with dinner had been rather strong. “I can’t ask a man for his number in the bathroom! It would give the wrong impression.”

The waitress’s eyes flashed. “I could ask him for you.”

I laid my hand on the check. “I left you twenty percent, but there’s another ten dollars in my wallet if you can get me his number.”

“Deal,” she said. Minutes later she returned and slapped a slip of paper down on the table. On the note was a number, alongside the man’s name—Edgar. I pinned a ten beneath the salt shaker.

Edgar’s dinner companion turned out to be only a friend, and we met the following evening at an upscale bowling alley where we bowled and drank gimlets and made happy fools of ourselves. He was from Peru, he said, and had immigrated to Texas only three years earlier, not knowing English. He found work, learned the language and soon enrolled himself in business courses at a community college. He got a job in a warehouse and was quickly promoted to a desk job. I was in awe of his bravery and fortitude. I was taken by his brown eyes.

We talked about Peruvian culture and my Italian roots and about food, wine, and music. After scoring a lucky strike he celebrated by placing a hand on his waist and swaying his hips seductively. Did I know how to dance? he asked. No, I said, but for him I would try. And so we left the bowling alley and went dancing, and in the spastic flicker of strobe lights I moved with all the passion of a metronome and stepped all over his poor toes and we held on to one another and kissed there in the close heat of a hundred envious club-goers.

Back in his car I told him about my past. He didn’t mind, only kissed me harder before pulling away and admitting that he too held a secret. “But,” he said, “I am not ready to talk about it.”

No matter. I was in love. And on our second date, lunch at a taqueria, he brought me a dozen red roses and we made love back at my apartment, in the middle of the day, with the blinds open.

But Edgar’s secret gnawed on me like grit in my kitchen boots, which I now clapped together over my apartment’s balcony, loosening from the treads a grand buffet of smushed vermicelli and shrimp. I shed my greasy clothes and ran a hot shower. I scrubbed, douched, moisturized, perfumed, dressed. I missed this most in prison, this pampering and ritualized care. Before leaving for Edgar’s place I grabbed from the fridge a key lime pie I’d baked the night before.

Edgar lived in the suburbs just north of the city in a surprisingly affluent neighborhood of two-story brick homes. In a soaring entryway I was greeted by a gray mastiff with a club tail and whose giddy leaps and yips suggested she might have been most happy cradled in my arms like an infant. Behind the animal stood Edgar dressed in a white linen shirt unbuttoned at the chest.

The kitchen smelled uncomfortably of other people’s cooking. I sliced the pie into crisp wedges while Edgar poured wine. We settled in the living room on a deep leather sofa, the dog stretched out beside me. I sipped my wine and looked around. It was the kind of shared space whose decor was so democratized that it turned out bland, impersonal, the walls white, the coffee table inoffensive, the television stand the sort of stock laminate piece that comes for free with the TV. Across the room above a dry bar was a framed diploma, from the University of Michigan.

“Is your roommate home?” I asked.

Edgar took a bite of pie, the yellow custard flecked with lime zest. It had been the Assistant Warden’s favorite dessert, back when I was a baker in the Officers’ Mess Hall. “He’s away on business,” Edgar said of the roommate.

“Ah.” I set my empty plate on the coffee table beside a small picture frame in which I could make out two people but dared not look too closely. Edgar drew my attention to it anyway, and I was relieved to see that the photo was of us, taken that night at the club. In it our arms were entwined and bars of scarlet and amber light fell across our faces. It almost gave me hope.

I downed the last of my wine. “Edgar, about this secret of yours—is it something that would prevent us from being together?”

He peered into his glass. “This depends.”

His phone, which had been lying on the coffee table, went off then. He silenced it with a quick tap, though the screen remained lit.

“Are you married, Edgar?”

He stared at a point just over my shoulder and nodded.

“Is that him calling now?”

Another nod. They had an agreement, he explained: Edgar would have his citizenship and, in return, the older man would have a friend, a companion, and occasional bed partner.

“Does he know about me? Does he know I’m here?”

Yes, Edgar said. He knew all about me. He knew Edgar had invited me over and that we’d be having this very conversation tonight. And now he was calling to know if I was interested.

“Interested?”

Interested, yes. Interested in coming into the fold. Interested in being the trois in their ménage à trois, interested in living with them in their bland suburban home, in sharing with them my life, heart, and body. I imagined what my sex therapist might think of such an arrangement. The absurdity of it made me laugh so abruptly that I scared the dog off the couch.

“Edgar.” I leaned in, suddenly very sober. “I don’t share.”

I excused myself and in a guest bathroom off the entryway I splashed cold water over my face and looked around. It was an alarmingly dirty bathroom—yellow spots around the toilet, pubic tumbleweeds behind the door. Oddly, it was the filth that cemented my decision more than anything. How could I be with someone who doesn’t clean his bathroom before inviting company?

We made love that night anyway. He led me first to his bedroom, which seemed tragically stark, under-furnished and under-decorated, as though he were afraid of getting too settled lest his life there dissolve at any moment.

“Does he ever sleep in here with you?” I touched the bed spread tentatively. “Do you share this bed with him?”

He did, and so Edgar led me upstairs to a spare room even more sparse, and on white scratchy sheets we had sex, though it wasn’t like the first time. Our bodies seemed to have changed shape since that afternoon; no longer did they fit together quite right. Afterward in the dark, lying damply across his chest I asked if he was happy being there in that house, in that marriage, with that man. I felt his shoulders move—a shrug. “We have an agreement,” he said. Outside the closed bedroom door the dog whined. “No,” he added a moment later. “I am not happy.”

I got lost driving back to the city. The landmarks and intersections had reshuffled themselves in that thick darkness particular to the suburbs, and I had no smart phone to point me in the right direction. While attempting to read a street sign I lost track of the road and hit a median, striking the underside of my car. It felt like a slap from God, for being so foolish. Just the other day at a Barnes and Noble I bought a Spanish-English dictionary and overpriced Peruvian cookbook. I’d planned to make Edgar a traditional ceviche, Peruvian style, with sweet potato. In an empty amber-lit parking lot I crouched before the car’s bumper to inspect for damage but found nothing more damaged than my pride: I’d fallen in love with a married man, a kept man. I remembered then that I’d left my pie plate back at their house.

The next morning he texted me to ask if I’d have dinner with him. I pocketed my phone without replying and went back to washing the morning’s rice. Lupé meanwhile chopped onion, humming along to Alejandra Guzman on the kitchen’s radio, while the morning cook Luis browned prehistoric-looking beef femurs in a tremendous stock pot. From the prep sink I heard him cry out suddenly. I thought he’d burned himself.

“Did you see him?” he called. He came round to where I stood, wiping his hands on his apron. Luis was young and squat with a wiry beard that smelled perpetually of pot. He spoke fluent English and Spanish but could neither read nor write. He used to claim that he’d lost his pen whenever he’d ask me to write out the labels for the beef broth. Now I made out the labels beforehand to spare him the embarrassment.

“Did you see him?” he asked again. “He ran out from beneath the range.”

We both saw him then, a tiny gray thing ambling unhurriedly across the the dish pit floor toward the freezer. Luis and I exchanged a look. We were of the same mind when it came to the mice. We saw them as we saw ourselves, creatures of circumstance trying to carve out lives for themselves the only way they knew how. We couldn’t bare to see them pummeled with limes.

Luis shimmied the freezer away from the wall and we knelt on opposite ends to peer up into the guts of the machine. Luis asked if I saw him, and I said I did as a matter of fact. He was resting on a steel strut, inquisitively nosing the air. He was smaller and seemingly less afraid than the other mice I’d seen in the kitchen, a young thing who hadn’t yet learned the terrible things we were capable of. Lupé had stopped chopping vegetables to stand over my shoulder. She gave a squeal. “Ratta!

On my haunches I saddled up to the critter, hands outstretched, which was rather ridiculous. Did I imagine I might be able to scoop the mouse up or that he might willingly step into my open palm? It hadn’t occurred to either Luis or me what we might do with a mouse should we catch one. Would we let him loose in the alley behind the Noodle House? Surely he’d find his way back inside. Perhaps we ought to release him outside a competitor’s kitchen; there was a Laotian place just up the street.

I crept closer. The mouse spooked and ran. Lupé screamed. Luis removed his apron and made like he was going to cast it out like a net, but the mouse changed direction, ran up my pant leg, leapt onto the hand sink, and shimmied down the drain pipe to drop behind a box of detergent.

“I have an idea,” I said grabbing a takeout container. Luis caught my meaning and nudged the soap box with his foot, and when the mouse tried to flee I dropped the container cleanly over top of him, tail and all. With a menu I righted the container and capped it with a lid in which I’d popped holes with chopsticks. The small weight of him sloshed from side to side like water in a pale as I carried him to the office. I placed him on Rachel’s desk with an enticing note which read, DO NOT OPEN.

In the men’s room, come five o’clock, I changed clothes, washed the beef tallow from my arms, and doused myself with cologne. Rachel wagged her brows at me, believing I had another date, until I reminded her that it was Wednesday and I was due for my treatment session in a half hour. (I didn’t bother to tell her that Edgar and I were through.)

The therapist’s office lay on the western edge of the city, past the airport, between a cabaret and strip club. David stood in the vestibule holding the doors, which locked automatically at sundown against the neighborhood’s encroaching debauchery. Last week I ran in to him at a grocery store in the gay district. It was disconcerting seeing a member of the group outside of our Wednesday circle. The context was all wrong, like seeing blood in the toilet. He’d been aiming for the self-checkout lines when our eyes clicked, and in that way that gay men have, we discerned in a blink the other man’s worth, his needs, desires, and availability. It occurred to me that the men’s room in this particular grocery store was a well-known cruising ground. On any afternoon one could spot a shifty, pockmarked character sniffing outside the bathroom door, pretending to examine the frozen tilapia and discounted wines. But no sooner had David and I spotted each other and made our assessments and calculations did the horror of recognition set in and we came to realize one another for what we were: two porn addicts and convicted sex offenders in the same sex offender treatment group.

Was it too late to feign nearsightedness? The wheels on my cart couldn’t seem to decide which direction to turn. It was against the rules to fraternize with fellow peers outside of group sessions, but cordiality wasn’t out of the question. We approached with caution. Our carts kissed. The pleasantries were short and stricken, and we ended with the promise that we would see each other the following Wednesday.

I had no intention of mentioning the encounter during group checkins, but we were moving clockwise around the circle and when it came David’s turn it was the first thing he mentioned, as though he were aching to get it off his chest. And probably he was, for we all feared that holding on to any small thing might cause us to stumble during our next polygraph. To that end, David was keen to tell the group and therapist that our encounter had been kept brief and did not extend beyond small talk.

He went on to say that he was looking forward to visiting his parents next month for Christmas and that his probation officer had approved the Safety Plan he had shared with us at last week’s session. Many sex offenders on probation are made to submit Safety Plans when they travel. Formally, the document states the purpose of the trip, accommodations, participants (especially minors), and contingencies should a car break down or lightening strike. Informally, the plan is a strategy for limiting or eliminating entirely any interactions with children. David’s plan included household sleeping arrangements—where and with whom his adolescent nieces and nephews would sleep. This struck me as unnecessary, as David had never touched a child. But the terms of David’s probation forbade him from having any unsupervised contact with minors. The restriction was true for many of us.

While on the subject of Safety Plans the therapist told us about an offender in her three o’clock group who was made to write a plan for attending Sunday church services. He’d been exceedingly proud of his plan, which had included a hand-drawn map of the church with X’s marking each bathroom in case one happened to be occupied by a child. Many Sundays passed without his ever encountering a child in the bathrooms, until one day the man came across a boy standing at the urinals, and he panicked. So blindsided and terrified was he by the reality of having actually stumbled into a child that all contingencies and good intentions left him and, in a clouded stupor, he entered the bathroom anyway. In sharing the anecdote with our group, the therapist meant to convey that even our best-laid plans can be stymied by inaction. Which was true enough. Though I wondered: if nothing happened to the boy, was the plan even necessary? Was it necessary that he live in fear of children?

Although nothing insidious happened in the bathroom, the man had felt pressed to “confess” the transgression to the therapist and his probation officer before taking his next polygraph. This, it seemed, was the main purpose of group checkins, to clear our consciouses of occasionally real but more often perceived wrongdoings which might set our pulses aflutter the next time we are bound to the polygrapher’s chair. A man confesses to seeing a bare breast on TV. Another admits to being aroused while marking down bras at the department store where he works. Another man tells us that he touched a child: a woman wearing a back brace asked if he wouldn’t mind lifting her toddler from her shopping cart, and as a good Samaritan he submitted, but not without experiencing considerable doubt, fear, and guilt.

Lately, the group’s collective paranoia had begun to rub off on me. There was a time before prison when I hardly noticed children. Now they seemed to be everywhere—at the grocery store, at the mall, on the streets—and I’d find myself fleeing their presence. Recently while using the bathroom at the Noodle House, Lupé’s twelve-year-old son, out of school for the summer, walked in. I recognized his neon Van’s beneath the stall door. (Was it of any significance that I had noted the boy’s sneakers?) I stilled myself as he saddled up to the urinal and unzipped his fly. (Was I a pervert to have heard so intently the sound of his zipper?) I considered wiping my ass, bolting out the door, not even bothering to wash my hands. But that was silly, wasn’t it? Surely I was being silly.

I looked across the circle now at David and wondered what he thought about all this—about treatment and polygraphs and public restrooms. Did he get sweaty when passing a mother and her child at the mall? Did he feel self-conscious when driving through a school zone? Did he take seriously the validity and rationale of the Safety Plan as his own neatly typed and bullet-pointed plan seemed to imply? Or, as in a game of Uno, was he merely playing through his hand, patiently waiting to lay down that final card, at which point he could dispel himself of the games, be discharged from treatment and eventually probation?

My own turn to check in was nearing, and I scoured my brain for some nugget to contribute. I could have told the group about Edgar and his absurd proposal, which would have gotten a good laugh. Or I might have admitted to having broken the rules of treatment by sleeping with him on only our second date. Such a minor confession would have conceded to the checkin’s purpose without giving too much away or inciting too much, if any, fallout. Such a confession would have made a happy stand-in for the truth, which was that I had returned to my old habits: I’d looked at porn. I’d patronized sex shops. I’d violated the terms of my probation, and my life was crumbling once again.

But then it was Clark’s turn to speak and he told us, miserably, head in his hands, that he’d failed last week’s polygraph, and he spent the rest of the session trying to convince the group and the therapist that he’d told the truth, that he’d committed no wrongdoings. I wasn’t sure whether we believed him.

It was dark by the time I got out of treatment and the sign above the cabaret was lit. Three disembodied X’s burned red in the night sky above me like an accusation.

I drove with the roof open, letting the evening wind wash my skin clean. On Harry Hines I passed seedy bars and sleepy pool halls, pawn shops and loan sharks, liquor stores and motels that charged by the hour. Just past the antiseptic white lights of the hospital complex I turned east on Mockingbird toward the sex shop where the clerk knew my face and kept my number on file for the store’s rewards program. My points had earned me a fifteen-dollar discount on an eleven-inch realistic cock called “Bruno” which had required double-bagging in the store’s discreet unmarked black bags. The clerk, a black man with a kind face incongruous to his line of work, texted me later that evening to ask how I was enjoying my purchase and whether I required a hand. I declined, but didn’t immediately delete his number.

I drove past the sex shop, past golden arches and bearded colonels, and turned onto Cedar Springs. Even on a Wednesday night the queer district was ablaze. Bass lines thrummed the air and a drag queen spat barbs over a loudspeaker to drunken laughter. Technicolor throngs in jersey, mesh, leather, and sequins paraded down both sides of the street and across the blinking crosswalk painted in rainbow stripes. I continued past the blaring beats and shouts into North Dallas past restaurant valets, luxury nail salons, posh gyms, and high rises with twenty-four concierge desks. To drive through the city was to see one’s state of mind reflected. When depressed about working at a dead-end job I saw a city of Maseratis and penthouse suites. When anxious I saw relaxed and happy crowds. When lonely I saw couples intertwined. When horny I saw a city eager to offer up its porn shops, men’s rooms, and watering holes.

I wondered: Was I always so broken? I remembered a time, before the interrogations and courtroom dramas, before I lost my career, relationship, and trendy loft, when I felt hopeful about the future, when I felt I had mastery and control over my life. My therapist would have objected to this latter assertion. That control, she might have said, had only been an illusion, a lie which every person afflicted with the disease of addiction tells himself. Of this, of being diseased, I had no doubt. How else to explain a man who returns to the same habits that led him to be locked up for a decade? I was sick, for sure. And yet I couldn’t recall, in the time before prison, ever feeling so desperately alone. Or fearing an empty apartment. Or having breakdowns for no reason in grocery stores.

When I was locked up I could convince myself for, sanity’s sake, that prison had certain merits. Prison could be a humbling experience, an antidote to the shallowness, self-centeredness, and consumption that plagues the modern world. Prison could help a person reevaluate his priorities and enlighten his way of thinking. At the very least prison might provide me time to sober up, to flush my system of its bad habits. Though widely available, I never once touched porn in the ten years I was locked up.

But it was a waste; I saw that now. A waste of years, money, stress, emotional energy. A waste of paper and ink, these very words. A waste of a life. The imposed punishment—the prescribed medicine—only masked the symptoms of my addiction while the side effects made me sicker, burned through my liver, weakened my heart, muddied my mind, perhaps irreversibly. My hands clenched the steering wheel tighter as the edges of the city dissolved and the traffic lights bled together in a copper, red, and violet haze that looked almost beautiful.

I parked in front of my apartment and pulled from the trunk my greasy work clothes, satchel, and a large takeout container punctured with holes. Inside the creature scratched. The small weight of him broke my heart.

Luis had made a big deal about my taking the mouse home. He’d slapped me on the back and called me a hero. What would I name him? he wanted to know. And would I make for him a cage with wood chips, wheel, and translucent tunnels? I could have told Luis some things about cages.

From the top shelf in my closet I pulled a plastic bin brimming with letters and postcards I’d saved from prison. I dumped these out and placed inside the tub a ramekin filled with water along with some morsels scavenged from the fridge which for no reason struck as mouse food—dried fruits and nuts, a fresh blueberry, a broccoli floret.

I peeled back the container’s lid. Two black pin-head eyes took me in. Tiny, translucent fingers like flower stamens rose and fell. His entire body seemed a furry trembling heart. I tipped him gently into the tub. I would release him in the morning, I decided. I would give him shelter for the night and set him free in the lot across the street.

But come morning I found the mouse writhing on his belly, making clumsy paddling motions as if trying to swim. I nudged him with a finger, yet he hadn’t the energy to cower or defend himself but only continued to writhe soundlessly in a puddle of his own piss. I knew then that he was dying.

I set his clenched body down in the lot across the street and crouched over him for many minutes like a little boy absorbed in the workings of an ant hill. It had rained the night before and soon his coat was caked in mud. The mud clogged his ear holes and clotted his pin-head eyes till I was certain he could no longer see. And still he persisted, still he struggled, though much slower. I rose long before he’d stopped moving and fled back to my apartment, legs tingling, the empty tub pressed to my chest.

I was scheduled to go into work at six that evening, which meant that I had seven hours to mill around the city searching for something to do and finding nothing until in that last minute before walking into the kitchen when suddenly I could think of plenty of things I’d rather be doing than working in a kitchen.

I masturbated fiercely with Bruno, showered, and made myself a cup of coffee. I was composing a reply to Edgar’s text from the day before—”Dinner’s not a good idea; we’d only end up in bed,” it began—when I heard a sound outside like an animal call and imagined, absurdly, that it was the dead mouse calling to me from across the street. But below my balcony, standing at the locked gate, I saw not a mouse but a man.

“Yoo-hoo!” he called again, which struck me as funny, like something a southern belle in a petticoat might exclaim while waving a handkerchief.

“May I help you?”

The man looked up. He had thinning beige hair and a single eye that refused to acknowledge me. In his hand he held a small pet carrier the same color as his hair.

“Do you know Dillan?” said the man. “I have his cat. I found him mewing on my porch this morning, the poor thing. I’ve been trying to ring your neighbor, but he doesn’t answer.”

I walked downstairs barefoot and opened the gate. The man explained that he’d taken the stray to the vet with the intention of adopting it for himself. “My partner and I have another cat just like him. They get along beautifully.” Only the stray turned out to be chipped and his owner was my neighbor, Dillan. “Is he home, do you know?”

I looked up at the balcony as if Dillan might be standing there. “I haven’t seen him,” I said. “But I could take the cat to him, if you’d like.”

Yes, said the men, that would be fine as he was running late for work. He handed me the carrier along with a printout given to him by the vet with the cat’s age, breed, and name. “Barley!” said the man. “Now what kind of name is that?” He gave me his phone number and said to call him if there was a problem.

I knocked on Dillan’s door, which was still festooned with black and orange crepe paper from Halloween. From inside his apartment I heard a small dog crying, which would have been Dillan’s Chihuahua, Clover. I was about to knock again when the door opened a crack and Dillan’s face appeared, dazed, bleary, and a little annoyed.

“I have your cat,” I said.

Dillan rubbed his eyes and looked suspiciously at the carrier beside my feet. “I don’t have a cat,” he said.

“You don’t have a cat?”

“Well.” He opened the door wider and scratched his bare chest. Clover wedged her sharp snout between Dillan’s legs and gave the carrier an angry sniff. “I used to have a cat. But I gave it away to a girl on Facebook. That was a month ago.”

Now we both looked down at the carrier. I said, “So you don’t want the cat?”

“I don’t want the cat.”

We stared at one another a moment, daring the other to blink.

“Okay!” And before he could change his mind I grabbed the carrier by the handle and hurried back to my apartment where I firmly shut the door and pressed my back against it as though I’d just pulled off a great heist. I set the carrier on the floor and crouched beside it. The cat reared back. His eyes were green and wide as saucers. A small daub of dark coloring around his lips made his mouth appear open, giving him a perpetual look of surprise.

“Hello, little fellow.”

I opened the carrier door, but the cat made no move. I stood and walked to the kitchen sink where I sipped coffee and pretended to read the label on a bottle of balsamic vinegar. Soon something brown streaked across the room to disappear beneath the bed. I lifted the duvet. The cat stared at me, head low with his tail tucked beneath his chin as though it were a security blanket.

“Hello, handsome.”

From outside I heard a familiar yoo-hooing. It was the man with the beige hair again. He looked aggrieved. He said, “Alright, bring me the cat. I want the cat. Dillan finally answered his phone and said he doesn’t want the cat.”

Downstairs at the gate the man grew frantic when I brought him the carrier and he saw that it was empty.

“Where’s the cat? He said he doesn’t want the cat. He said I could have the cat!” As if I were holding the cat hostage. As if I had the cat wired to a bomb upstairs.

“About the cat,” I said raising my hands. “This is going to sound strange but—”

“Let him have the cat!” Dillan, now fully dressed and looking quite hungover, came trundling down the stairs with Clover pulling at the end of a pink leash. “I told him he could have the cat. Give him the cat.”

Still a ways out of earshot I turned back to the man and continued my plea. “This is going to sound strange, but I just got out of prison, you see, and it’s been a really difficult adjustment and I think I could use some company right now.”

Dillan was upon us then, his snooty Chihuahua at his heels, telling me again that I needed to turn the cat over to the man. The man looked at Dillan and then at me. He opened his mouth to speak. “I’ve changed my mind,” he said. “You can have the cat, if that’s what you want. Is that what you want?”

“It is,” I said. I wanted that cat more than anything.

Dillan said he didn’t care who got the cat, he was done with the cat. I surprised myself by hugging the man. He hugged me back. And when I pulled away he looked at me with his one good eye and said, “I have been precisely where you have been, and I understand.”

At a pet store that smelled of feed and ferret I bought a litter box and litter and both wet and dry food. I also purchased a pack of plush toys in the shapes of bacon, eggs, and waffles. Cats are particular to breakfast, apparently.

Back at the apartment, I set my haul on the kitchen counter and crouched beside the bed, but the space beneath was bare. I checked the closet and bathtub. Nothing. Then I spied a brown shadow with green eyes behind the love seat.

“Are you hungry?” I cooed.

I filled the ramekin I’d used for the mouse with water for the cat. In another I emptied a can of chicken ‘n’ gravy and set the dishes beside the fridge, all the while making kissy noises humans believe all animals to understand as “come hither.”

He appeared eventually, slinking out from behind the sofa to survey the room’s ceiling, refrigerator, bookshelves, and other high vantage points. He was small, not much older than a kitten, and tiger-striped brown and gray with veins of orange. His wide eyes and daubed mouth added to his bewilderment. He sniffed at the chicken, took a few wet smacking bites. Then he turned and in a looping, roundabout manner he approached me, his tail feeling the air. He flattened briefly before allowing me to stroke his back.

He warmed to me quickly. We played chase around the coffee table and bed. He pounced on his eggs and bacon when I tossed them across the room. He was unusually affectionate for a cat and followed me wherever I went—to the fridge, to the sofa, to the bathroom—all the while mewing and threading between my feet. Before leaving that evening for the Noodle House I called the chip company and had the cat’s ownership changed. The agent asked if I wouldn’t also like to change the cat’s name. I didn’t hesitate. “Edgar,” I said.

“What a nice name,” said the agent.

The restaurant was busier than usual for a Thursday night. Yesterday evening’s rain brought with it a chill and a hankering for Asian comfort food—hot pho, spicy pad thais, fried pot stickers. The tickets lined the length of the window separating the kitchen from the dining room, and a daisy chain of yet more tickets hung from tiny printer beside the serving bowls. Almost every order demanded a substitution or special request: beef pho with the bean sprouts steamed and served on the side, fried rice with extra Chinese sausage and absolutely no onion, shrimp spring rolls sans cilantro and mint—a spring roll without the spring, a winter roll. I counted ten tickets requesting fried eggs on everything from ramen to sticky rice. I called to one of the servers, a young kid with a mess of curls and an upturned nose.

“Jesse, did the National Association of Bodybuilders just walk in? What’s with all the goddamned eggs?”

Jesse just laughed and walked off, his arms lined with steaming plates. I looked at the clock. It was barely nine and I was already pissy. I considered stopping by the sex shop after work to take the edge off. I wondered if they sold a cock bigger than Bruno—a Juan or Bubba or Kwami. But Edgar would be waiting for me, and he with his little daubed mouth would no doubt be astonished by my sexual antics. I imagined his tiger-striped paw batting beneath the locked bathroom door.

He was waiting for me when I arrived home, just after one in the morning. He sat in the middle of the room, his feet pressed primly together, looking sweet and unsuspecting.

“Sweet bean! What did you do!”

Beside him was a cord of wool pulled loose from the rug. He mewed happily when I knelt to scratch his head. “Instrument of Lucifer,” I cooed.

After scooping his litter box and showering I called to him from the bed as though he were a lover. In the dark I heard the hush of his leap, felt the air stir and his paws pressing sharp divots in the comforter. He flopped down beside me and nestled against my ribs, a breathing, furry hot water bottle of a thing, and we fell asleep, the two of us together, my hand across his belly.

Even before Edgar had come to be officially mine, even as I had hurried back to my apartment with his carrier in hand, conspiring of a way to keep him for myself, my mind worked to weave a romantic tale of boy-saves-cat, cat-saves-boy. The symmetry seemed clandestine: lost love and a small death, followed by renewal, life, and love found. The closing of a perfect circle. Like in any good story, there would be teething problems, of course. The cat destroys a rug, the boy’s patience is tested, his vision of a tidy life is upturned. But in the end he acquiesces and is taught lessons in friendship, forgiveness, and second chances. He is saved from himself by the selfless love of a tiger-striped stray.

Well.

The next morning I woke to a stuffy nose and a duvet pocked with pin holes. Edgar lay beside me, in the same place he’d settled the night before, wide awake and eating the bed.

I nudged him with my leg. “Shoo!”

He leapt to the floor and at once began to mew. I refilled his food bowl, which occupied him for all of seven minutes, at which point he found me brushing my teeth and continued his mewing, a monotone, restless whine that brought to mind a child hanging onto his mother in a department store.

So incessant was his bleating that I feared something might be wrong with him, an upset tummy, fleas, heart worm, feline AIDS, depression, or whatever it was that afflicted cats and made them cry. Yet as soon as I crouched and got level with him he would quiet, bat me sweetly with his tail, not perturbed but merely bored and wanting attention.

I played chase with him on all fours around the coffee table and armchair until my knees were red. I tossed his plush breakfast foods above and below the bed. I thought he might tire. He did not. For as soon as I rose to make lunch or clean house or take a piss he was upon me, crying, pleading, hanging. The one exception, the only time he left me in peace was when I showered, and even then he would sit and wait for me in front of the tub, solemnly staring at the closed shower curtain. Weren’t cats supposed to be independent, standoffish, and fickle with their affections?

Those affections, which were at first endearing and then only slightly annoying, eventually came to seem like an accusation of bad parenthood, neglect, or a deficiency; I hadn’t enough to give or none to give at all. What had made me think I could care for a cat when I couldn’t even care for a mouse?

It happened that I often stayed away from the apartment during the day because I couldn’t bear to be alone. Now I had another reason to stay away—a needy, codependent cat.

My routine, when not at the Noodle House, was to spend my afternoons camped at various coffeehouses throughout the city. Baristas everywhere knew my usuals. In East Dallas, at a place that served coffee in deliberately mismatched cups I ordered cappuccinos and a toasted egg sandwich. In uptown, at a spot frequented by college students and the upwardly mobile, I drank lattes with whole milk and a grilled mozzarella sandwich smeared with pesto. In the gay district, if the weather was warm, I sat at one of several picnic tables at an outdoor cafe sipping mochas laced with cayenne and cinnamon.

I sat there now with a blank notebook before me, trying to write, but instead finding myself watching the other patrons. Across the shaded lawn I saw and heard friends laughing, couples flirting, and young professionals my age conducting conference calls and Zoom meetings. I had noticed recently that many of the city’s young strivers had job titles that gave no indication of what they actually did for a living. They called themselves coordinators, advisors, managers, and influencers, and claimed to make their growing fortunes manipulating assets, resources, projects, and followers. But what did they do? What, if anything, did they build or create? While cooking in a kitchen was grueling, disgusting, thankless work, the result of all that sweat and labor was something tangible, something that could be seen, held, tasted, consumed. I hated my job, but I was adding something real to the world, and at times those stir fries and ramen bowls seemed the only mark of my existence.

One could be forgiven for mistaking this particular coffeehouse for a dog park, for in addition to making nothing it seemed that another prerequisite to living in Dallas was owning a dog. The coffeehouse lawn was overrun with designer breeds, which were really just overpriced mutts. Across the way I saw a labradoodle sniffing the ass of a pomsky, their owners all smiles. They were members of a club, these dog owners. They spoke their own language. They called themselves “pet parents,” and indeed they talked to other dog owners as first-time parents talk to other first-timers, expressing the ages of their dogs in months and discussing day cares, pet sitters, play dates, and potty training.

I wondered if I should have taken Rachel’s advice and gotten a dog instead. I might have enjoyed being part of that cult of dog owners. I’d have learned the language, filled my fridge with organic puppy chow, given my tidy apartment over to chew toys and vegan pig ears. I might have met someone at a dog park, a handsome consultant or market researcher. The leashes of our goldendoodles would become hopelessly entwined, and we’d have laughed and introduced ourselves and invited the other to coffee and then to lunch and then to dinner and then . . .

And then I wouldn’t feel so alone and isolated, so unmoored from the rest of the world. I wouldn’t have breakdowns at the deli counter. I wouldn’t need the sex toys and porn anymore. I’d be healed, or in recovery, or whatever it’s called. And then I could believe that the last ten years of my life weren’t such a terrible waste after all, because they led to this.

I pulled out my phone and finally returned Edgar’s text: “You don’t have to stay stuck where you are. I wish you happiness.”

Then I sent a message to the man with the beige hair telling him I could no longer care for the cat—”I’m allergic”—and would he still be interested in taking him in?

He met me at my apartment twenty minutes later. Edgar panicked when he saw the carrier and ran beneath the bed and then the sofa and finally into the bathroom where he backed himself into the far corner of the tub. The man chased after him, calling with false cheer, “Come, Ozzy! Here, Ozzy!”

Ozzy?

I might have gone after Edgar myself, but instead I hid in the other room, wringing my hands and staring down at the rug. I couldn’t face those wide green eyes, that astonished mouth which said, I trusted you. I trusted you and you tricked me.

After some minutes of commotion the man emerged from the bathroom with the carrier looking harried, his face piqued and beige hair sticking to his forehead. Down the length of one arm ran a long scarlet line. It was a small consolation to know that Edgar hadn’t gone easily but had fought to the end.