This Magazine

Progressive politics, ideas & culture

January-February 2021


Fiction from our January/February issue

Conor Kerr


There are bed bugs in my apartment building, so we have to flee, fucking posthaste. I pack my roommate’s cat up in her little crate and hop into my inheritance from old Auntie Doreen, a blue ‘98 Chevy Lumina. We barely make it out before they have the white and blue bubble wrap covering the building and the chemicals pumping in. The landlords told us about five minutes before all these exterminators arrived looking like astronauts and stomping around in the building. Push everything out from the walls, they kept yelling, like we had all the time in the world.

I think the plumber yelled the same thing last time the building flooded out. We’re ground floor, too, so all the shit from the three stories above us floods in. I told the landlords to call a fucking plumber a few days beforehand when the sink was gurgling and spitting, but, nope, they couldn’t understand what I was saying. Wasn’t speaking in dollars. But shit, what can you do, it’s all slumlords everywhere. An English prof told me once that Thomas King wrote about stories and it’s all turtles, all the way down. Well this is slumlords. It’s fucking slumlords all the way down.

I drive my car from the Avenue of Champs down to the university area. Thank god I put some change in the gas tank on Monday, discount day at the Domo. It’s cold, like my balls have gone back inside my stomach cold. The cat’s purring away in her little crate.

Prairie and I make it to campus and people are looking at me like, what the fuck, why is this guy walking through the Humanities building carrying a cat? And I see them snickering. All the other students without cats in crates. And it occurs to me for the first time that this may have been a bad idea but I didn’t think about it, I never think about it, unfortunately, until it’s too late. But fuck it, I smile back. I got nowhere else to go and I don’t want this cat to get fumigated or freeze to death in my car, so we’re both gonna hit up my Indigenous Literatures class. The cat might get more out of it than I will. Because right now I don’t know where those turtles are.

“Why do you have a cat with you?” Professor Gladue asks me.

“Why wouldn’t I have a cat with me?” is what I wish I had the confidence to say. Instead I mumble something along the lines of, “I’m sorry, I can leave if you want.”

“No, it’s fine, just sit in the back, ugh,” she replies. I head to the back as she instructs, and take a seat. Professor Gladue is very intimidating. Knows a lot about everything related to Natives and, I assume, everything else. She’s from out east, some ‘Nish rez, I think. Though there are Gladues all over this area. Part of me wishes—okay, all of me wishes—that I had my shit together and could impress her with a story or a poem or something. Instead I got a cat and half a pack of Canada Goose smokes.

No one sits by me. But no one ever does. I’m straight up that kid. I used to be popular back in our ghetto-ass high school and during summers back at Buffalo Pound. That kind of popularity doesn’t translate to the university, though. Here, it’s all about the money and not being the smelly guy, reeking like old cigarettes, plastic bottle whiskey and Old Milwaukee’s, and carrying a cat. Who’s thinking, that dude’s the shit, when I’m carrying a fucking cat around. Prairie’s cool with no one hanging by us, though. She just chills, purrs a bit, then goes to sleep. Makes me wish someone was carrying me around. I’d reverse our roles in a heartbeat. Then I think, shit, I just wish I had somewhere or someone to go to right now. But I don’t.

Class goes by slow. I can barely concentrate on the best of days. Today is not one of them and I spend most of the class sticking my fingers through the crate door trying to pet Prairie. She’s having a great time, all snuggled up and purring away in her sleep, just out of reach of my flailing fingers. I want to open the cage up and pull her into my lap, but I think that might be the last straw with the prof and that would be it for my university experience. The other students in the class ignore me and I watch as they put up their hands and answer question after question.

Professor Gladue watches the students as they drone on. I watch her watch the students. She ignores me. The cat continues to do a combined snore-purr, ignoring everyone.

Class ends and I have nothing else for the day. I step outside the Humanities building for my after class smoke, just to feel that the sun hasn’t warmed anything up and it’s still biting cold. I had been entertaining the idea of sleeping in my car but, in this temperature, we’d be dead before morning. The cat wakes up and I let her out of her crate to run around on the frozen ground. The cement freezes her paws and she darts back into the crate. I realize that I forgot to grab cat food in the mad dash. My bank account is reading really low, so I’m hoping that the cat will eat some leftovers I can scrounge up from the garbage cans around the university. I guess if worse comes to worst I can try and steal some food for the cat from the grocery store down the block. I’ll be fine. It isn’t my first time going without for a few days and I’m not above my classmates’ leftovers. Never have been, not going to start now. Last time the building was getting fumigated, they made us stay out for three days. I’m assuming that’s our timeline this round, too. No one mentioned otherwise, not that they would—those shady fucks, they don’t give a shit. They would probably prefer if none of us ever came back to the building so they could just live in this weird little fumigated slumlord kingdom with no slummies to worry about.

Prairie and I find some food, then we set up shop down in the library computer area. I don’t have my own computer, so I use this forced time at the university to actually do some homework for once. It’s getting late and the library is getting down to the weirdos. There’s some old guy watching dude-on-dude porn in the corner. His computer screen is just one big cock with another guy’s hand stroking it. A crew of Korean kids are playing video games a couple computers away from him. I’m sitting here with a cat. We’re a motley crew. Each time the cat shifts in her crate, I start thinking she’s going to start losing it, since she’s been in this box for most of the day. And I want to lose it and I haven’t even been in a box, at least not one this confining. There’s an offset room, one of those study ones that students can use. I roll in there with Prairie and let her out again. First thing, I turn off the lights. Hopefully security will be lazy tonight and not do proper rounds. It’s so fucking cold outside. I really don’t want to sleep in the car. If you sleep in the car, you wake up just fucking frozen. I don’t have enough gas to run the car all night to keep the heat going either.

Prairie scurries around a bit checking out the new digs. It’s a small room. Just a round table and six chairs. I push one of the chairs up against the door handle. A little security in case someone does try and get in here. Maybe they’ll get the hint if the door doesn’t open. I stretch out under the table and start cruising through my textbook from Professor Gladue’s class looking for examples of conflict between Tricksters and the characters.

The door slams open and the chair goes flying against the side of the wall with a crash. There’s a flashlight on my face and the lights scream on.

“Is that a fucking cat?” I hear a voice yell. Some dude jumps on me and presses his knee into my throat.

“What are you doing in here?” the knee asks.

“I’m a student, shit, I just fell asleep.”

“Do you have identification?” Knee presses harder into me.

“Relax. Fuck. It’s in my pocket. Can you get the fuck off of me?” The knee presses up but he keeps a lock on me. There’s a second security guard in the doorway blocking any chance for a run. They both look like cop school dropouts but are still trying to play the game, moustaches and the whole nine yards. I see Prairie in the corner checking it all out. She’s got her hackles up. What if she jumps up and scratches the shit out of this security bro. What would he do? It would be funny as hell, but he’d probably smash her. I didn’t want that at all. I reach in my back pocket and pull out my student I.D. card.

“See, I’m a fucking student.”

“Well, you can’t be sleeping here.”

“Where the hell else am I going to go? It’s fucking cold out there, man.”

“A lot of people sleep in that Tim Hortons/Wendy’s by the hospital.”

The security guard releases his grip on me. I walk over and grab Prairie and put her in the kennel.

“Either way. You can’t be in here anymore. You need to
leave campus.”

“What if I start studying or something?”

“No, you need to leave now.”

I grab my backpack and the kennel and start walking out of the library. There are still a few students at the 24-hour computers. They’ve all turned to look at me. The old dude and his porn are long gone. I should have just fucking sat at one of those computers, I think to myself. A couple students are sleeping on couches toward the entrance.

“What about those guys?” I ask security.

“They’re studying.”

Security walks me off campus.

Inside the Tim Hortons/Wendy’s, a cat is the last of anyone’s worries. It’s packed in there. One side of the eating area has been completely taken over by homeless people. They’re spread out on the benches and on the floor, under tables and in the lanes. Prairie and I find a spot under one of the only free tables and settle in. I use my backpack as a pillow. It’s uncomfortable as fuck and the floor is sticky, covered in something that’s definitely not double double. But, shit, it could be, too. At this point, I’m tired and my mind is clogged from eating only scraps and smoking cigarettes all day. I put Prairie right next to me. I’m not worried about anyone taking her since everyone here has their own problems to deal with. At this moment, we all just want to get through the night and this cat is the only thing bringing me any sort of comfort.

I never truly sleep in a situation like this. I’ll get a bit of rest and then I’m awake again, constant vigilance, you know. Never comfortable, cold and sticky, fluorescent lights burning down, and a stream of people from the university hospital and kids from the residence buildings coming in for coffees and Timbits. They all avoid looking at our little camp. Which is probably for the best, as I don’t want to see anyone I might be in a class with. It’s already embarrassing enough having a cat in class. Now I have a cat and I’m sleeping on the floor of the Tim Hortons/Wendy’s. Classic fuck-up right here.

One of the boys sleeping on the bench above me rolls over and belches. His breath is full of old nicotine and cold French fries and goes right into my nose.

“Rest up kid, they’re gonna come in and boot us out of here at six,” he says to me.

I roll over and face the other way, but it’s more uncomfortable on my side so I’m back on my back in a second, staring at the underside of the table. We’ve got a few hours at least, I think to myself. French fry breath starts snoring above me.

“Daniel, is that you?”

I close my eyes tighter. It’s just a dream. It’s just Prairie talking to me.

“Daniel. What are you doing?”

I know the voice: it’s Professor Gladue from Indigenous Lit. I open my eyes. She’s standing there a good ten feet away from the homeless area. With her are two guys and a lady. They all look fancy and clean, even though they’re just wearing winter coats and wool toques. But they’re those coats that are brown wool and have nice collars. None of them are doubling up on hoodies and wearing beer box freebie toques. They all just look clean, clean beards, clean hair, clean. I don’t think they have bed bugs or lice or fleas or meth-heads running around in their buildings.

“Hey,” I say.

“Are you okay? Do you need anything?” she asks. Her voice sounds different than it does in class. Less authoritative, friendlier, not hollow.

“Nah, I’m good.” Her crew are all staring at me. Their eyes are pitiful. “I’ll see you in class, thanks.”

“Is the cat with you?” she asks.

“Oh, yeah, right here.” I pat the hoodie draped over Prairie’s crate.

“Okay,” she says. Her crew starts walking toward the door. She follows them and at the last minute turns around and looks back at me. I’m trying to pretend I’m already asleep but I notice. And I’m thinking how fucked I am for next class now. She’s going to think I’m a real piece of shit. She’s not going to take a word that I write for the essay seriously. This is done. It’s too late in the semester to drop though, so I’ll have to take the F. With the academic probation shit, that’ll boot me out of school. But hell, it was never meant to be anyway. I close my eyes. Six a.m. comes too early in the winter. I can hear Prairie softly purring from inside her crate. She seems comfy, carefree, cozy. I would give anything to be able to crawl inside that crate with her and cuddle up.

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