If 7 A.M. isn’t an ungodly hour to start work, it’s at least agnostic. The upside was, I didn’t have to commute. But working at home has its own set of downsides, and one was just then pawing at my face. I really needed to work. But Rex was insistent, by both inclination and natural aptitude. I sometimes think he was designed to interpose himself between a human and a computer screen, though it seems unlikely when I think about it.
I’m sure he blamed me. After all, I could have run the records the night before, but instead I’d wasted five hours sleeping. Now he was hungry and I was sitting there in my underwear, uselessly earning an income. I put up with it for several minutes, then I gave in. Like I do.
“Fine.” I shoved him off my desk and stood. I didn’t really need to shove him off the desk to stand, but if I had to get up, so did he. I wasn’t capitulating without a little spite. (Spite is important with Rex; it’s one of the few things he respects.)
I went into the kitchen, opened the cupboard, and did a Mother Hubbard. I looked down to find I’d been followed; over half a dozen pairs of eyes were on me. I said, “Don’t look at me like it’s my fault. You’re too many mouth to feed.” I cocked my head. “I don’t suppose I can interest you in lentils?”
That idea went over about as well as expected.
“Alright,” I said to nobody, with determination. “This is going to require pants.”
I don’t want to give you the impression that I’m a shut-in. I don’t actively avoid human company. I just seldom go looking for it, and when it turns up it generally keeps me from doing things I’d rather be doing instead, like, for example, spreadsheets, or making the bed, or clipping my toenails. So when I say that it took me a few moments to find pants, please bear all that in mind.
Finally dressed, I slipped into the hall, habitually careful not to let anyone sneak out with me. (Not that it was likely; I’m not the only one who prefers the comfort of home. Usually.) The shutting of a door upstairs and the spicy-musky-jasmine perfume still hanging in the stairwell told me that Abby had just gotten in. I breathed a sigh of relief; I didn’t expect anyone else to be in the halls this early, so this should be an easy outing.
Three flights down, and I burst onto the street with a spring in my step; not yet too hot, birds tweeting, I was actually glad be out. For a half second. Until I saw a blur and heard a “Thank you!” to my left. I turned, and saw a man and woman, of modest appearance; he, in a blue suit of the sort I associate with church ushers and JC Penney, was holding the door I’d opened, while she in a green and brown floral print dress was holding a purse. Both seemed in their late 40s, without taking any pains to look younger. I didn’t recognize them, but I probably couldn’t recognize most of my neighbors. Then I spotted the stack of Watchtowers under her arm. Oh no.
I rounded the corner with greater than usual speed. The best I could hope for, as I saw I, was to get away immediately, and not be identified as the one who’d let them into the building.
By the time I’d reached the corner bodega two blocks away, I was feeling safe, if still regretful. But it had been an accident, after all — it’s not as if I’d held the door for them. As I looked over the pet food options for something without tuna, I did the math in my head. It was a five-floor walkup, with five apartments per floor. Call it a minute at each door to be rejected, maybe two minutes if no one answered, if these were optimists (and in my experience, optimism is a key attribute of anyone selling anything door-to-door, spiritual or otherwise). A liberal estimate, but better to overestimate than under. Ten minutes had already passed, so killing another 20 minutes in the neighborhood should make me safe.
I brought the pet food and a quart of milk to the register. Amir was behind the counter, as he usually is, 7am or 7 pm. “How are you today, boss?” he asked with a curt nod.
(When I first moved here, years ago, I thought this was a term of respect, and it made me uncomfortable. I’ve since realized that it’s just so he doesn’t have to learn anyone’s name, and now I feel much better about it.)
“Morning, Amir,” I said. And then I ran out of things to say, so I handed him my money.
Amir was much better at small talk. “More for the kitties, ah? Always eating, you just bought a bunch of cans two days ago.” (It had been three days, but Amir’s always seemed proud of his ability to keep track of his customers, so I never correct him.)
“Well, you know,” I said, knowing full well he didn’t. “Lot of mouths to feed. All that.”
“We got a sale on the Ocean Mix, you should try that,” Amir said with a helpful nod in the direction of the pet food where I’d just spent the last three minutes, in case I’d forgotten where it was. “Ananda loves the Ocean Mix. Purrs like a kitten!” Ananda was the apparently ancient bodega cat, of whom many of the customers were wary. I’d never seen her, I suspect because she’s always smelled Rex on me and hidden.
“Oh, no, Mr. Mondays can’t have fish. Stinks up the litter something awful.”
“Ah,” Amir nodded sagely as he gave me my change, then drew his finger and thumb over the sharp edges of his trim goatee and said, “You can just feed him the beef and chicken, and feed the fish to the other ones.”
I put on the smile that I use to show people that it’s been really nice talking to them. “Well, best keep it simple, I figure. Have a good day, Amir!” I pushed out the door and window-shopped at the other delis and bodegas, which were the only stores open that early.
Before long, I was glad for the need of the morning walk. Nice weather, uncrowded sidewalk, and I stopped at another corner store for a bacon egg and cheese on a roll just before turning up on my block. I let myself in the building, tantalized by the bacon smells wafting from the bag. A door open in the hall behind me as I thumbed through the keychain for my apartment key, and I froze for a moment as I heard the voices.
“Thank you so much for visiting!” the familiar voice called, unfamiliarly cheery.
Fear struck, and was confirmed when the voice that had recently thanked me for opening the door replied, “It was our pleasure! God bless!” Mrs. Scagnetti! How could I have forgotten to factor her in? She’d talk to anyone who’d have her.
I resumed fumbling and got hold of my apartment key, but it was too late. “Oh, good morning!” I could hear the voice turned to me. I opened the door, reflexively trying to squeeze the, though I can’t say this time whether I was trying to keep someone in, or out. If it was the latter, there was no point. The smiling strangers, flush with their nominal victory in talking to Mrs. Scagnetti, were standing in front of me. He began, “Hello again!” She finished “It’s good to see you again!” It was disorienting, and I felt compelled to nod a hello in response.
“Is everyone in the family in good health?” he asked, amiably.
I answered despite myself. “I, ah. I live alone…” Then without thinking, “Well, mostly. Alone.” I grimaced a smile and held up a can of Friskies as if to ward off questions with it.
“We stopped by to share with you a thought on the Bible.” she said
I was inside now. All but my face. All I had to do was pull my head in and shut the door, and it would be over.
“Do you have a moment to talk?”
It was no use. I’m just not a person who can simply slam a door in someone’s face without being angry or offended; it’s gotten me into situations before. I heard myself say, “Why… why don’t you come in for a minute?”
I lived in a one-bedroom, but it was fairly spartan, so there was space. I led them to the maroon fold-out couch, which I never bothered to fold out anymore because it was more comfortable to sleep on as a sofa than as a bed. “Make yourselves comfortable,” I said. “I am. Have to go. Just for a minute.” I held up the can again, like it was a talisman. “It’s why I went out.” They just sat, and smiled, and nodded.
In the kitchen, eyes regarded me with contempt. I knew I was being blamed for this as well, but this time I was in agreement. If only I hadn’t let them in. Or if I’d waited longer before coming home. Or if I’d stocked up more on Friskies. Or if I’d checked in more on Mrs. Scagnetti so she wasn’t so desperate for company.
It took a while to empty several cans onto several plates; there’s a science to it, to keeps fights from breaking out. In the end, though not forgiven, I was for a while forgotten.
“I’m sorry about that,” I said as I came back, while wondering why I was apologizing to people who shouldn’t even be in my home. “Can I, ah, get you anything? Coffee? Water?” Hot water with creamer?
“Oh, no!” the man said. “You’ve been kind enough already, letting us into the building, letting us into your home…” Rubbing salt into your wounds…
“How many cats do you have?” the woman asked.
“Ah. None,” I answered. Too-honestly. Like I do.
Her face scrunched, puzzled. Like they do. “A dog?”
I put on my smile again. “It doesn’t really matter,” I said. “Rex doesn’t like people much. He’ll probably just hide away–” which was true right up until I said it out loud, because if there’s anything Rex enjoys more than making a liar of me, he hasn’t thought of it yet; they gasped as the scarlet blur bounded out on onto my lap.
As I started scratching to soothe the half-purrs, half-yowls, I could watch them trying to make sense of what they were seeing. I’d watched it before, on others. The red is the first thing they always see. And the size, more like a bobcat than a housecat. Then they realize it’s not a pet sweater. Then they realize there’s no fur.
“What is that?” the woman asked.
Then they notice the heads.
“Are those… heads?” the man asked.
“Yes,”, I answered. “Seven.” I found I was suddenly relaxing, maybe because the shoe had dropped. “You have to scratch them in the right order,” I explained. “Or some get jealous.”
And right about now…
“Are those… horns?” the woman asked, still staring in puzzlement.
“Ten,” I said. “Don’t worry about them, though; it’s the claws that shred the furniture.”
“That… that looks like… something.” He sounded like he didn’t seem to want to keep going, but was compelled.
“Yes,” I answered, looking up at last. “I imagine you’ve read about it in a book.”
He looked at me, the back to Rex. Then he shook his head. “That isn’t literal,” he insisted. “It’s all symbolic language.”
“He seems pretty literal to me” I said. “I call him Mr. Mondays sometimes,” I said helpfully. “But only as a joke. His real name is Rex. Insofar as he has a real name, that is; of course, it’s… just what I call him.”
A few minutes passed while they sat in silence, staring as I scratched, before the man spoke again. “I… thought it would be bigger.”
“Oh, I’m sure he’d be bigger if I fed him as much as he wants,” I assured him. “But someone has to be the responsible one.”
“Rex is also kind of a joke,” I explained. “‘Rex Mondays.’ You see, Rex Mundi is the Latin for “King of the World’. It’s a little syncretic, though, because it’s a Gnostic term, and actually the Gnostics considered Jehovah to be the–“
“Why do you have the Beast of the Revelation for a pet?” the man demanded with admirable precision.
“Well,” I chuckled, “he’s not so much a pet as an inconsiderate roommate.”
The woman asked, “Where did you…. get it?”
“Oh. I found him years ago. Or he found me. The company I was working for had acquired a smaller company in Jordan, and they wanted me to go there to oversee installation of the new network. Once it was done, my flight wasn’t scheduled for a few more days. So one night, I went out into the desert. I don’t know why. I used to hike a lot back then. Also I guess people would have asked me about it, and I didn’t want to say I’d gone to the Middle East and never experienced the desert, away from the cities, and so I took a sleeping bag a few miles out of Irbid, and lit a campfire. It was nice. Hot in the day, it turned perfect at night. And after a while, he just wandered into the firelight and decided to stay. And he’s been with me ever since.”
“This is a trick,” the man said, less confidently than probably he intended. “It’s ridiculous. It’s not a real thing. It’s a metaphor. Are you gong to tell me the Whore of Babylon is walking the street too?”
I thought it best not to respond beyond, “Such things aren’t my business.”
They gave up. Rex pretty much speaks for himself.
“How did you get him into the country?” she asked.
“In a pet carrier. He seemed to understand what it was for, so he got in. Wasn’t happy about it, but then, he isn’t happy about much.”
“He likes scratches, though,” I admitted.
“There are quarantines…” the man began. “Er. Aren’t there?”
“There are inspections,” I agreed. “But people tend not to look too closely at him if he doesn’t want them to.” I smiled. “He must like you!”
As if on cue, Rex jumped down and stalked pointedly off to the bedroom.
We all watched him leave before I turned back to the guests. Yes, I was now completely at ease. There was something about their bewilderment that I found calming. Maybe it was a kind of schadenfreude. Or maybe it was just the certainty that I wasn’t the most confused person in the room.
“So,” I said, “what did you want to talk about?”
They looked at me, speechless for a moment. The man tried to gather some words, but failed. The women finally asked, “How does no one know about this?”
“What, Rex?” I asked, jerking my head toward the bedroom. “Well, he’s pretty much a homebody. He’s gotten out a few times, but never goes far. Besides, if people were to notice, I guess they’d figure they should… well. You can see how it would work. To tell anyone.”
Apparently they didn’t.
“Well, I mean… the most likely thing would be that no one would believe them. They’d be seen as crazy. And that’s actually the better possibility.”
“What’s…” The woman shook her head suddenly, as if she had water stuck in her ear. “What’s the other?”
“That someone would believe it,” I said. They stared. “Well, I mean… imagine the government were to get it into their heads that a being associated with the end of days were actually here. In my apartment. What do you think they’d do?”
I let it sink in.
“What would the government do with the Beast of Revelation? Any government. I mean, governments haven’t been particularly good actors in the whole story, have they? Or anyone, really. I can’t imagine it would be much good for anyone. “
“But… it’s going to be… out there. Isn’t it? At the… end? Doing the… Apocalypse?”
“I suppose,” I said. “I don’t see him getting up anytime soon, the lazy thing.” I shrugged, and admitted, “I think that’s part of what I take care of him. It just seems best for all concerned if he stays where he’s content to get food and scratches.”
I waited a bit, then said, “Do you mind if I have my breakfast? A bacon egg and cheese loses a lot when it gets cold.”
This seemed to startle them out of their reverie. “Oh, no, no,” the man began.
“We should really get going,” the woman finished. “We… we have a lot of other neighbors to get to.”
I put on the smile and found I meant it this time, and I showed them out. When I got to it, the bacon wasn’t crispy anymore, but the egg was still warm. Slightly above body temperature, anyway. I decided to count it as a win.
The rest of the afternoon was productive. Strangely so. It was only with evening that I began to wonder how I’d gotten so much done, and realized it was because I’d been uninterrupted for hours. I called to Rex. There was no response — not even the disdainful silence that he can fill a room with if he wants to give me the cold shoulder. I started to wonder what the morning’s discussion might have triggered, and told myself not to panic. He’d vanished before, on occasion, and always showed up in a day or two.
The knock at the door kept me from thinking about it. I don’t normally use the peephole, but the morning’s unwanted visit had me spooked; as I bent to look through, though, it turned out there was no need, though, because the spicy floral smell hit me just as I looked through it into Abby’s emerald eyes, framed by the most luxurious of lashes. I opened the door with my usual mix of hope and trepidation. “This belong to you?” Abby asked, holding Rex. Then she smiled.
There’s this about Abby: I can never remember exactly what she looks like, because I can only ever focus on one thing about her at a time. It’s as if my head’s filled up with any one aspect of her, and I have to scan around for another. When she smiled, all I saw was glistening, crimson lips pulling back from teeth like pearls.
I cleared my throat. “Thanks, Abby,” I said. “I hope he wasn’t much trouble.”
“Not at all,” she said, and her lips danced over her dazzling teeth. “He and I have always gotten along. Haven’t we?” He purred — honestly purred — as she scratched him under the chin. Then she looked back to me, and pouted. “How come he’s the only one who ever visits me?”
I put my smile back on, and took Rex. As I did, her hand brushed mine, and I felt the caress of warm sand, smelled the scent of myrrh, and tasted the wine-soaked dates of long lost Babylon. Then it was gone.
“Thanks again… for taking care of him!” I managed as I eased the door closed. I slid the bolt in place, pressed my back against the door, and sighed.
I’ve picked up enough strays.
© Sean Miner 2022