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The next morning Carl refused to get out of bed. He was finished, he said. French Christmas would have to take place without him. He would hoist no more oysters. He would squeeze no more cockles. He lay in bed, complaining about his hangover, but I knew it was the cat. The night before, when he’d been drunk and candid, he had confided that what had happened to that cat had bothered him so much that he never wanted to sit in the abandoned room again. It was just so brainless an act of violence that he felt wounded merely to have witnessed it. A cat! A thing like that, he said, brought us all down a notch. I was surprised. He hadn’t looked so upset at the time—but then, he always looked the same. I reminded him that he hadn’t paused in eating his sandwich, and he said that he was always much more upset than he looked. Always, he said again. I mentioned something about cows getting their skulls bashed in with sledgehammers at the local slaughterhouses and he groaned as if I’d prodded his wound.
Lim and I waited outside the convent for the Nigerians, but they never came. The van driver beeped his horn three or four times, and I thought I saw a curtain twitch in an upstairs window, but the door was closed and silent. Lim shrugged and grinned helplessly as the driver jerked the van into gear and started up the road to the farm. It was just the two of us then, me and the Malaysian. We bounced on the iron wheel wells in the back of the van, trying not to stare at each other.
When we arrived at the fish farm, the Romanian came out of his shed and walked over to us very quickly, one arm extended as if he were an official welcomer rushing out to shake the hands of a pair of dignitaries. He looked upset, though. I thought he was going to tell us that Johan had come back and attacked him in the night, but that hadn’t happened. He gripped my forearm. The cat had never come home, he said. He’d waited up for him half the night, but there was no sign of him. What if he was dazed and lost? Or maybe the Frenchman had stolen him off into the woods and killed him. Overnight the Frenchman had transformed into a monster, an entity from a nightmarish fairy tale, no ordinary man. Lim looked at me and waggled his hands in the air—a strikingly helpless gesture—as if I might be able to translate for him. I shook my head no, and he looked at his feet, bowing his head like a man at a funeral.
It was two days before Christmas. We worked like fiends until eleven at night, loading a trailer with mussels, clams, and oysters. I had lost my gloves, and no one had a spare pair to lend. It was as if all the extra gloves had disappeared during the night. Over and over I cut my hands on the mesh netting so that by the end of the night my fingers were bleeding like I’d had to claw my way out of a grave.
When we finished, Lim and I took a taxi to the late bar. I thought I’d show off my wounds. I wasn’t sure if Lim knew where we were going (I mimed knocking a drink into the back of my throat and he nodded grimly, staring at me over his mustache) but he waited with me at the door of the bar while I rang the intercom and the barman examined us through his security camera. He even took his headphones off. Then the barman buzzed us in and we sat right there at the bar, smelling of mud and oysters and Christmastime in France, and we rapidly drank five pints of beer each. Lim smoked cigarette after cigarette, though I’d never seen him smoke before. By the time we tottered into the street we were communicating with perfect ease and refinement.
After gorging myself on a bag of greasy fries, I went home and took a hot drunken shower at three in the morning, scrubbing away what felt like an entire month’s worth of grime and stink, all of it swirling down the drain, away from me—and that marked the end of my career as a fish farmer. Christmas had come. There was no more work.
Lim lingered around town for a few months, prowling the streets in the rain, squinting at people from between his headphones, and then he was gone as if he had never been there. When I remembered him months later I was surprised I’d forgotten him. How was it possible to forget a guy like that?
I never saw the Nigerians again. Maybe their asylum-seeking claims hadn’t gone well, or maybe they’d moved to another city. Who knows—maybe they’d packed up and went home.
Johan the angry Frenchman cut somebody with a bottle and had to be taken away.
And the Romanian died in a fire. His charred corpse was found in the ruins of his trailer in Leitrim, or maybe it was Cavan. According to the newspaper the door had been chained from the outside. They said it was gang-related but they always said that about Romanians getting murdered. Albanians, too. Carl said it was Johan, but I’d already worked that out for myself. It was my first thought and the only way I could imagine it afterward. Whenever I thought about that fire, I saw Johan stalking out of the woods at night, drawing a chain through the trailer’s door handles and dousing the place in lighter fluid.
That spring I went out to the farm to buy a bag of clams. The two Irish guys were still there, but I didn’t know anyone else. The orange cat, they told me, had never turned up again. Maybe it was that spooky Malaysian fella, they suggested. He ate it! Or maybe the Romanian took the cat when he disappeared after Christmas—just split without a word of goodbye! And had I heard about what’d happened to him? Maybe the cat died with him in the fire.
They seemed to enjoy this possibility, but I doubted it was true. Gruesome details such as cats getting burned in fires were generally emphasized in our local newspaper’s disaster stories. If a cat had perished in that fire, it would have been noted. There might even have been a secondary story with its own headline.
The truth, of course, was that there was no way of knowing what had happened to Orange Juice. He was a cat and he’d vanished like cats sometimes do. Honestly, I didn’t really care. I’d never been a cat lover. For years, though, whenever I saw a stray orange cat in the street, I checked, out of habit, to see if it was him.