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The Romanian lived next door in a storage shed he’d converted into a fairly livable space. He had an electric heater that ran off an extension cord plugged into the main building and even a small TV that he’d rigged up to a car battery. He’d salvaged an intact armchair from the abandoned house and scrounged an old mattress from God knows where. It was raised off the floor on pallets. Sometimes at night, when Carl and I were plunked down in some dank pub, I wondered about the Romanian, out there at the farm, staring at his TV in the storage shed. He barely spoke English. What was he watching? And why did he know how to rig a TV to a car battery? How did people figure these things out? Moreover, why not just plug the TV into the extension cord along with the heater? Were the fish farm people actually charging him for the electricity he used? I mentioned the Romanian to Carl almost every night, asking these and other questions, but he just shrugged in his usual way.
One night a cat turned up and started gnawing at the old nets. The Romanian, in a fit of loneliness, fed him some of his own food and the cat decided to stick around. The Romanian called him Orange Juice. Maybe it was actually a Romanian name that sounded like Orange Juice in English, but since the cat was orange I figured he got the name from his color. Anyway, everybody else called him Orange Juice, too.
Right away he became our mascot. As we sat around the fireplace on rotting sofas and chairs with the stuffing ripped out of them (sometimes I felt like one of a band of marauders who had slain the townspeople and pillaged the town), we dropped tidbits of food on the floor for Orange Juice, sinking us further into a surreal realm of parodic domesticity. Somehow the presence of the cat—and he was a very cool cat—unified us. We were far from turning into one big happy family, but, with the cat, we were more than just a bunch of weirdos sitting around a wrecked cottage eating sandwiches.
During the week leading up to Christmas, Orange Juice rode with us throughout the day inside the tractor on the beach. While we got out and struggled against the incoming tide, he slept in the tractor’s cab or stared at the water, which struck me as an odd thing for a cat to do. I’d never seen a cat at the beach, much less a cat in a tractor, and I’d never imagined that any cat would stare like that over the ocean at the horizon. Sometimes he watched us with impassive interest as we fought to rip up the nets before the tractor ran us down. I’d glance over my shoulder, and there would be Orange Juice, bearing down on us through the window. For some reason this made the whole ordeal a little less grueling for me.
The Nigerians were amused. They thought it was very funny that we had adopted a cat, as if people in Nigeria would have nothing to do with cats, but even they fed him, and if it wasn’t for the cat provoking them into talking we probably never would have learned that they were brothers. Lim let the cat sit in his lap as we rode. For some reason Orange Juice always chose to sit with Lim. The Romanian claimed to be jealous, but also said that it was good for the cat to sit with Lim because Lim was silent and looked like a cat himself. I didn’t think Lim looked like a cat—and didn’t they eat cats in Asia? someone asked—but Orange Juice liked Lim and managed to draw him out of himself a little. With Orange Juice he’d mutter a few English words and smile. He said “cot,” meaning cat. Once one of the Irish supervisors said “yum, yum” and everybody laughed.
The Romanian gave me money to buy flea powder and a collar in town, among other odds and ends. Orange Juice slept with him on his pallet bed at night and the fleas were bothering them both. He yanked up his sleeve and showed me the underside of his wrist: it bore a constellation of little red sores—and also a frightening jagged scar that I didn’t dare ask about.
Then one day, as we were eating lunch, the cat jumped into the Frenchman’s lap, and the Frenchman (whose name was Johan, but nobody ever called him by his name) grabbed him by the scruff of the neck and hurled him against the wall. The cat screamed like a child as he spun into the stone wall beside the chimney. Then he crashed to the floor near Carl’s feet, clawing a pair of trench marks into one of his boots as he skittered and crackled out of the house like a tiny electrical storm.
Johan was still standing when the Romanian lunged at him from the corner. The Romanian was small but he shoved the tall Frenchman with the full force of his anger and Johan toppled backward over a chair and hit his head against the fireplace. He lay on the floor without moving or making a sound, his eyes open at the ceiling, and for a moment I knew that he was dead. It had happened so fast that there was no time for thinking, only knowing. Then he blinked in pain and rage.
The Nigerians did not move. Carl did not move. Lim stood up. The two Irish supervisors grappled the Romanian out the door. The Frenchman clutched the back of his head with both hands, cursing in French. No one would help him. He remained in the middle of the floor at our feet. Carl took a bite out of his sandwich as if nothing had happened and stared out the doorway as he chewed. I sat in my chair, wondering, nervous, in the grip of a strange energy. It was as if I’d been electrically charged by observing such violence. I could feel something pulsing below my rib cage, as if some kind of primeval organ had been activated and was beating away under my ribs like a second heart the size of a duck’s egg.
Then the Frenchman was on his feet. He grabbed a shovel and strode out the door. It was raining now, and the enraged Frenchman stood in the mud, gripping the shovel like a baseball bat, twisting his neck right and left into the green landscape surrounding him. The Romanian was gone, hustled out of sight by the two Irish supervisors who had reacted with a swiftness that suggested they were following a strict protocol devised for just such occasions. Maybe they had a manual somewhere that told them what to do when a Frenchman threw a cat at a wall and then a Romanian knocked the Frenchman into a fireplace. No doubt these things happened now and again, but who was ever prepared for them? The more I thought about it the more it amazed me. Perhaps they were so in tune with their lives on the farm—they were natives, after all—that they had access to knowledge that extended into an ability to sense the future. Their antennae were more suited to this place than ours.
Johan whirled around suddenly, like a man doing a hammer toss, and the shovel flew over the roof of the house. Then he shucked off his oilskins like he was done with them forever and stalked off down the road through the trees.
The Nigerians grimaced in unison, clearly disturbed. Lim sat down and listened to the silence in his headphones. Carl looked at me and said, “Now what would you go and do a thing like that for?” His voice belied his cool exterior. He was irked, maybe even angry, but I wasn’t sure if he meant throwing the cat against the wall or swinging the shovel in the rain or just walking off into the trees. Sometimes Carl was deliberately opaque, even cagey, but I had the feeling that in this instance even he didn’t know what he was asking. Maybe he was simply wondering why God or the universe would create a man so angry and cruel that he would throw a cat against a wall.
After lunch we went out in the tractor, but Orange Juice was gone and the Frenchman was like a beast lurking in the woods: a threat or a promise.