The Malcontent

Max heard the other bed creak and cracked an eyelid. The room was still dark. Good. He pressed deeper into the blankets. Thirty seconds later, the bed creaked again, and he watched through slitted lids as his roommate sat up, stretched, and padded across the floor toward the bathroom. Please, he prayed, save me from early risers.

He wondered for the thousandth time why fate had paired him with Sam. The two were as different as night and day. Max liked to sleep in. Sam rose before dawn. He preferred indoor comforts. Sam was an avid outdoorsman. He was cautious—Sam, bold and brash, afraid of nothing.

The noise of Sam urinating grated in Max’s ears, followed all too soon by the sounds of breakfast. He sighed. Might as well get up; there’ll be no sleeping now. And of course, there were THE RULES OF THE HOUSE.

Everything came with a price. If you’d ever been homeless, regimentation seemed a small price to pay for a roof over your head and food in your belly—even the boring (but surely nutritious) institutional nourishment that comprised their usual fare. As Sam repeated more often than Max liked hearing, “Hey buddy, you were eating out of a dumpster before you found this place.”

So, after breakfast, it was up and out for the day while their meager-but-adequate accommodations were cleaned and readied for their return in the evening. Max suspected the room was periodically disinfected as well, but then he tended to be thin-skinned on matters alluding to his personal hygiene.

Max got up reluctantly, went to the bathroom, and had a quick bite while Sam paced impatiently by the door. Then they were outside. Max sat on the edge of the concrete porch and hunched his shoulders against a light but nippy morning breeze.

Sam plopped down beside him and sniffed the air. “Another glorious day in the neighborhood. What do you want to do?”

“Go back to bed,” Max muttered.

Sam turned and glanced back toward the door. “Well, can’t do that, so … what?”

“Look, you can do whatever you want. I’m going to sit right here and wait for the sun to come up.”

“Don’t get all irritable,” Sam said, “I’m just trying to include you.”

Max said nothing. He closed his eyes and waited. When he peeked several minutes later, Sam had gone and the sun was just clearing the high wooden fence bordering the back of the property. He tilted his face up to meet its welcome warmth and let it bake into him. After a while, he sprawled on a nearby bench and dozed off.

—§—

“Hey, wake up,” Sam said. “It’s nearly time to head back in.”

Max blinked a few times, stretched, and sat up slowly. The sun had moved on and he felt just the beginnings of a chill. “Let’s go wait by the door. Maybe they’ll let us back in a little early.”

They waited, and saw plenty of activity inside, but were ignored as usual.

“So what did you do all day?” Max asked, still yawning. He felt much better after his long nap.

“Just cruised the neighborhood, mostly. I met a really sweet young thing over in the next block—the tan-colored house with black trim? She played a little coy with me, but I think she’ll come around.”

“Are you kidding?” Max shook his head. “What could you do if she did “come around?”

Sam frowned. “Why are you always so negative? Anyway, what do you know about what I can or can’t do? I may be old, but at least I have a life.”

“Yeah? Well, I seriously doubt it’s going to include anything sweet, young, and female.” He studied Sam for a minute. “You’re pretty gray, you know? Just how old are you?”

A skittering noise came from the boxwoods below the fence and Sam wandered over to check it out. Max watched, amused by his colleague’s fascination with creatures of all kinds—bugs, birds, squirrels, whatever came along.

Max glanced at the door again. Seeing no indication yet for an early return to the warmth of indoors, he sidled over to where Sam was still studying the boxwoods. A bright red Cardinal suddenly launched from the shrubbery and flew to a perch in a neighboring maple.

Sam eyed the bird for a moment, then turned to Max. “What did you say?”

“I said just how old are you?’”

Sam leaned well into Max’s personal space. “I’m still way young enough to kick your Tabby ass.” His eyes narrowed and his mouth stretched into a thin, menacing smile. He flicked out a half-inch long, razor-sharp claw and held it so close that Max’s eyes crossed looking at it.

This was nothing new. Max had been here before. He pulled his head back a few inches and smirked. “Oh, listen to the big, mean Asian Bengal-Siamese mix. You know what that makes you, don’t you? A half-breed—that’s right—a half-breed.” He put both paws up in the air. “Oh, look at me. Puss is shakin’ in his boots.”

Sam leaned forward again. “Well, you should be shaking, Mister Domestic Short Hair. Do you know what that implies? Domestic means tame.” He smiled again and his cobalt-blue eyes glittered. “If there’s one thing I’ve never been it’s tame. I’ve got the scars to prove it, too.”

“Oh, puh-leeze!” Max said. “Don’t start with the scars again.”

Behind them, the door opened and a cheery voice beckoned. “Okay, come on in, boys.”

They exchanged looks, counted silently for six beats, and turned toward the door. Max ambled forward slowly, stopping once to stretch, showing a nonchalance that belied his desire to rush back inside.

Sam followed a few steps back, pausing just before they reached the threshold to glance back up into the maple. “You know what would be good?” he asked.

“No. What?”

“Cardinal-flavored cat food.”

“Oh, right,” Max complained, “like that’s really going to happen.”

Ω

Bob Strother  Bob Strother's website Forty years in government honed Bob Strother’s cynicism and heightened his appreciation for irony. His short fiction has appeared in a number of literary journals and magazines. He has just completed a second novel and a collection of related short stories.

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