Take It Away
Frank follows the snake of tail lights stretching up the hill
and longs for a single radio program that would help him
forget he is on the 405.
He glances up at the tiny train
caterpillaring up to the Getty, a small, glowing filament of
light. Slung above the freeway, it looks as though it's moving
through a different time.
A black Mercedes pulls in front of him. He brakes and checks
his rearview mirror. The car behind has already stopped. Frank
is anxious about being rear-ended.
It has been eight months since the
accident, but he still feels the anxiety in his chest whenever
someone follows too closely. The back of the van looked like a
set from Bloodfeast.
The hospital was furious with the supplier who vented her
anger on Frank's boss who didn't care about Frank's whiplash.
Let me use simple language for you, Frank: don't fuck up. Or
Frank is determined not to fuck up. He is a fetch and carrier
for his employer. He calls it cargo.
The traffic fidgets over the hill
where the Valley lies under a bed-fluff of smog. He takes the
exit to the 101 west and enjoys a brief exhalation of speed of
thirty-five mph before he catches up with the rest of them.
Then it's the usual shuffling and inching forward until he can
escape the freeway and make his delivery.
He drives past Balboa Park and the evening joggers still
hamstering their way around the five mile loop. Insistent
honking, a roar of tires and an egg-yolk yellow Mac truck
swerves past, a muscled arm with a jabbed middle finger at the
window. A high-pitched scream and Frank sees something fly off
the side of the truck and bounce into the curb. A child?
Frank snatches at a four-second space between cars and lunges
into the far right lane. He waits for an eighteen wheeler to
grumble past in the center lane, then parks and jumps out to
investigate. The cat is tucked into the curb like an old throw
cushion. The body seems intact, but it cannot move. Its legs
might be broken. A rosette of blood flowers around its nose.
Its wide eyes stare around and past him. Its breathing is
rapid. How can anything breathe so quickly? The cat's eyes are
open; it's probably dying. He will sit with it until its eyes
But its eyes stay open. He cannot spend hours sitting with a
dying cat. The cargo will be damaged.
The cat's breathing continues, fast
and shallow. If it were in the street, he could back the truck
up and run it over properly. But what if he runs it over and
it's still not dead?
Maybe he could just throw it into the
hydrangea bushes outside the Balboa Residential Home; but
maybe someone's watching from inside, ready to report him to
He sighs. "Okay, cat. We better get you to the
hospital." The cat yowls quietly.
He has never been this far north on
Balboa. He passes a gas station, a 7-11, dirt fields behind
wire fencing, a series of small stores - Martha's Millenium
Nails, Hanson's Fish and Bait, Amos Taqueria, Sunshine Tiles.
Tacked onto the end of the tile store is a small structure,
like the kind of queasily tilting pre-fab offices on
construction sites. Slowing down, he can make out the
lettering, Alice's Animals. Is it a clinic? And who is Alice?
He had hoped for a man, someone who could be decisive and say
Let's put the poor bastard out of its misery.
He hauls the cat out of the van and it swipes at his face with
extended claws. A single claw catches his left eyelid. More
claws attach to his hand and rip as he unhooks his eyelid. A
teardrop of blood trickles into his eye. He would like to drop
the cat on the doorstep and leave, but the door is slightly
He pushes his way in. "You pull one more fucking move
like that and I'll dump you. I don't care who sees." The
A short woman in a dirty green tunic and long gray gloves
greets him. "Whatcha got? Road kill?"
"Almost. Someone hit it."
She leads him into a room that looks
like a lounge - flowery curtains, two sofas, a standard lamp
with pictures of Hawaiian dancers. On one side is a tall metal
table with a pack of cards fanned out.
She pushes the cards aside and eases
the cat off the jacket. He is glad to see the cat swipes at
her, too. The cat's claws slide off the gloves. The woman
smiles at Frank. "Useful part of the uniform." She
sees Frank's swelling eyelid. "Better wash that before it
gets infected. They got dirty little claws." She turns
back to the cat. "You are one sorry case, mister."
She has a nice smile. Frank likes the way one front tooth
slightly overlaps the other, a casual invitation.
"It's a male?"
"You can tell by the
Frank steps back as though she's
about the whip the penis out.
The cat stares up at Frank. He says, "I have to go. I got
stuff for the hospital."
"What kinda stuff?"
"Organs. Kidneys, livers. Gotta
get them into storage."
"Yeah. Can't let that stuff lie
around. What you want to do about your cat?"
"It's not my cat."
The woman looks up at him. "He
came in with you. He's yours."
"But I don't want a cat. I got
nowhere to put a cat. My landlord doesn't allow cats."
The last is not true.
The woman ignores it. "Listen.
This guy's badly injured. I'd say terminal. We could make it
easy for him."
"What's wrong with him?"
"Busted spleen, torn liver. It's
amazing he's still alive." He likes the way she says amayssing.
She doesn't look up. "Costa
He says. "I'm from Iran. My real
name's Farid. Everyone calls me Frank."
"I like Farid better. It's more
real, you know? I'm Madelina." He appreciates her help
and the fact that her tunic is tight over her chest. He's
almost sure he can see the outline of a lace bra.
The cat is ridiculously alert. He turns his head, following
Frank says, "You sure we can't save him?"
"We don't do operations. We're a
shelter. But even if you took him to a hospital he probably
wouldn't make it."
Frank thinks about the vanload of organs outside; nothing
shrink-to-fit, nothing you could cut in half, like a butcher,
and say How about this?
"So. He's going to die is what
She looks at him, waiting for him to
make a decision. It should be simple. This cat is so horribly
injured it wouldn't survive surgery. But he can't say Kill it.
The cat watches him.
She says, "I had a friend who
got a donated kidney. Or maybe it was a liver or something.
She died anyway."
"That's too bad."
"You just never know. She was on
a list for three years. I guess a heart's gotta be more
expensive than, say, a kidney. But to the person waiting for a
kidney, it would be worth more than a heart. Because they didn't
need a heart, they needed a kidney. You know what I'm saying?
I bet you could get a lot of money for a heart. I mean, if you
sold it to someone."
"They do sell them."
"Yeah, but to other people. I
bet you can get hearts on some kind of hospital e-bay, but I
wouldn't trust no e-bay heart."
The cat continues to look at Frank. Frank says, "How
about you give him something for the pain?"
"I tell you what I can do."
She opens the table drawer and brings out a shrink-wrapped
syringe. "I'll put him to sleep if you bring one of them
organs in here so I can take a look."
"I can't. It's against rules,
you know? And everything's all locked up in boxes. Sealed. I
can't just break into it like I'm getting a beer from an
"I just want to see. I work with
all kinds of little stuff. I never see the big stuff."
She touches his hand with her rough glove.
He indicates the animal with his chin. "Give him a shot
for the pain."
She holds the syringe in front of
her, pointing up like she's holding a gun. "We got these
ones for putting them down. We don't got nothing for
"At least make him
She shrugs. "It's nothing to do
with me." She takes off her gloves and touches his hand
again. "How about something to make you
comfortable?" She walks out.
Is this is an invitation to have sex?
Should he follow her? Is there another room with a bed? Is she
going to get a condom? He hopes she doesn't want to have sex
on the metal table. He can try moving her towards one of the
sofas, although they don't look that inviting.
He remembers the cat, and his cargo
sitting outside. He needs to make the hospital delivery or
he'll be out of a job.
On the other hand, the brown corduroy
sofa looks better than the tweed one. Maybe she'll be okay
with a quick in-and-out.
She comes back holding a small plastic baggie with
familiar-looking papers and a small tin. She rolls a joint
expertly, lights it and inhales the smoke deep into her lungs,
then hands him the joint. He inhales, too.
He says, "I bet I stink of
She thinks this is very funny and, after a moment, Frank
realizes it is. She clutches at his shoulder and he puts his
arm around her. They keep passing the joint even though he can
barely smoke for laughing.
Frank sees the cat staring at him and
this is also very funny. He can hardly speak to point it out,
but when the vet sees where he's pointing, she collapses
against him and they slide onto the mustard and marmalade
carpet. He likes the way she laughs, heeheeheehee like a
cartoon. He tries to tell her, but gives up while she laughs heeheeheehee.
She finishes the joint and holds up
the roach. "You want it?" Still laughing, he shakes
his head. She pinches the end, chews and swallows it. "My
mother taught me not to waste anything." She kisses him,
pushing her tongue into his mouth. He tries to breathe in but
her face is angled across his nose. Just when he thinks he's
going to have to push her off, she releases him. "Let's
This seems a reasonable idea and he
tries to open the tight tunic but he can't manage the buttons.
He says, "You wearing lace under
She laughs her cartoon laugh and he
laughs with her. Maybe she'll take the tunic off herself, but
she can't manage the buttons either.
She says, "Of all the fucks in
all the world."
Is this meant to be funny? It's not
even a sentence. He stops laughing.
She says, "Hey. Let's get a box
from your truck."
Even though he knows something is wrong with this, they go out
to his van and bring in one of the silver and white metal
cubes. She takes it from him and puts it on the table next to
She admires it. "What a
He is impressed that she has such an
She says, "Let's open it."
To open it would ruin its beauty. He
puts a hand out, but she says, "I can do it careful. What's
in here anyways?" She squints at the label. "Can you
read this? I can't read this."
She eases off the sealing tape and
pries the lid open. "Fuck me. Look at this."
Frank looks inside; a liver in a
liquid-filled plastic pouch. He says, "Let's close
"This thing is huge." She
slips on a pair of surgical gloves and pulls out the plastic
pouch. "Hey, Farid. This ain't no human liver. I don't
have nothing inside me this big. This is cow liver, man."
She looks up at him. "You gotta report this. Your people
sending animal organs to hospitals. Maybe they do it all the
time. Maybe there are people walking around with cow livers
and dog kidneys inside them."
He is nervous. "Can we put it
"I want to see what it smells
like." She opens the pouch and sniffs. The cat is
interested, too. She holds it for the cat to sniff. "You
like that?" The cat jerks its head back. "See? Even
he knows it's cow liver."
Frank says, "Don't do that. What
if cat hair gets on it?"
She reaches inside and pulls the
liver out onto the table. "Look at this fucker. This
would do for ten people." The wide, rolling sweep of
liver glistens on the metal. There is something heart-breaking
about the color, its intricate curves and thin sliced-off
Madelina produces a small scalpel and carves off a four inch
"What are you doing?"
"They won't miss this little
bit. And once it's in the new owner, it'll just grow back.
Liver does that."
She deftly slips the liver back into
its liquid womb and tucks it back into the box. She re-seals
the box, the tape carefully realigned. No one would know. She
examines her piece of liver.
Frank snatches the box up and takes it back out to the truck.
What if she wants to get the kidneys out? What would she do to
He is about to get into his truck
when he remembers the cat. If she can slice up a human liver,
what will she do to the cat? He pushes open the door and
smells something cooking. She's frying onions. As he follows
his nose to the back, he glances in at the cat. The liver is
no longer on the table, so she's probably thrown it away. The
cat stares at him.
He follows the smell to a small back
room. "You cooking up the liver?" He's trying to
make a joke, but he sees the liver slice, neatly sectioned,
next to some chopped tomatoes and a pile of green onions.
She says, "I'm starvin' like
"You can't do this." He can't
remember the word that means eating people. "It's
illegal. You can go to jail for this. You're cooking someone's
"Oh, relax." She slides the diced liver in with the
green onions. The sizzle increases and the smell makes his
stomach hurt. He could eat anything, a ham and pineapple
pizza, a boiled pig's ear, a steaming bowl of menudo. He tells
himself I'll leave, but finds he's moving closer to the hot
plate where she's busy stirring.
"Smells good, huh?" She adds the tomatoes, salt and
pepper and a pinch of saffron. She leans over and inhales.
"I could eat it right out of the pan, but what we'll do
is I'll serve you on a plate and I'll have the bowl. It's one
of the bowls we use for the cats, but I rinsed it out
He doesn't want to ask what they use
the plate for. He watches her divide the food between the
chipped green plate and the blue plastic bowl. She hands him
the plate. He stares down at the food. The liver looks
She winks at him. "It's not
illegal if it's cooked." He watches her chew and talk. He
carefully puts the plate down. Even now that the liver has
been sautéed, he doesn't wish to drop it on the floor.
His thoughts spin like a slot
machine; what will the hospital say, what will his boss say,
can they sue him? But he can claim he knows nothing about it.
He is only paid to deliver the organs, not check on whether
they are complete.
"Sorry. I can't stay." He
lifts one hand. Should he say adios? "Thanks for the
joint. It was fun." He nods, trying to make himself seem
She watches him, chewing.
He says, "Okay. So. Gotta make
"Well. Glad you could stop
He finds his way back to the
examination table. The cat has slumped to one side, its eyes
barely open. At first he thinks it's dead, but it manages a
feeble mew when he wraps a towel around it.
Madelina shouts from the kitchen.
"Farid, you oughta taste this, man. I cooked it well
done. Is not like it's medium rare or anything."
He takes several more towels and lifts the cat gently. The cat's
eyes open wider, probably from pain. As he walks to the car he
hears Madelina shout again. "You sure you don't want
this? Okay. You had your chance."
He hesitates for a second, then puts
the cat on the front passenger seat on top of an old
sweatshirt. The cat continues to stare at him. He says,
"Look, not everything is my fault."
He stops at the 7-11 and asks for directions to an animal
hospital. There's one in Encino. He can get there in ten
Frank drives carefully to Encino Animal Hospital where his cat
is examined and given a shot. At first he is nervous, but they
reassure him it's just for pain. Apparently, the cat isn't
dying. It has a broken leg and several broken ribs, but the
lungs aren't punctured. He asks about the torn liver and
spleen, but the middle-aged woman shakes her head.
"Lots of internal bruising, but
everything's intact. He could have been a lot worse off.
Still, a broken leg and ribs are no joke. You'll have to keep
him quiet for a while. He'll be on antibiotics and pain meds
so he'll be dopey anyway." She speaks directly to the
cat. "No tomming around for you, young man. Not for some
time, anyway." She looks at Frank. "He's not
Frank shrugs one shoulder.
"Guess I never got around to it."
"He should be neutered."
"Hasn't he been through
"We can do it all at the same
time. He'll be okay." She looks at him again. "And
let me get you something for that eye."
"Cat got me."
"Yeah. They do that
Frank remembers something about
neutered cats gaining weight. He thinks about the cat growing
even bigger. And what if the cat blames Frank for its
neutering? Do cats remember things like that? This cat looks
capable of holding a grudge for a long time. But he nods
anyway. The cat is still breathing fast, but at least it's
closed its eyes.
Frank sits in the waiting room. He
holds the antiseptic pad to his throbbing eye. His delivery is
now overdue by an hour and the operation will take another
hour. He is definitely out of a job. He can't call the
hospital. They will call the supplier and the supplier will
call his boss. Perhaps the best thing for everyone is to make
the drop off and just keep driving, him and the cat.
He'll get rid of the van, maybe trade it for a compact, like a
Toyota or a Mazda. The cat won't like the desert, so they'll
have to drive straight through Nevada. Utah is supposed to be
nice; a man and a cat could get comfortable in a place like
The examining vet pops her head around the door. "I'm
gonna pick up a couple of sandwiches for the guys. You want
anything?" She sniffs. "You already had
He shakes his head vigorously. He is
"Someone's been in here smelling
of onions. Can you smell it? I love onions. So. You want a
steak sandwich with onions?"