Confessions of a secondary card holder

THE DEATH of Guido Michelini came as a shock, but not a surprise. I knew him fairly well. We lived in the same high-rise apartment building in Miami Beach, although he on a higher floor. We shared a bottle of Jack Daniel’s in his apartment a week before he died. Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos played throughout.

“I don’t see you out and about like I used to,” I said.

“No, I don’t get out much anymore,” he told me. “I stay inside with the cat.”

“Why is that?”

“The apartment is our refuge, our sanctum sanctorum. The cat and I are much alike. I eat like the cat—cold salmon on a small plate. I sleep like the cat—frequently and in various chairs. I’m even starting to look like the cat—whiskers, never smiling, just curious or crazy or catatonic.” He downed a shot of Jack. “There’s one major difference between us—she can’t write, therefore wastes no time at it.”

“Don’t be so hard on yourself. What do you do all day, you and the cat?”

“We wait for S. to come home. As you know, she works for a living. She’s a risk analyst for multinationals who do business in unstable countries. Pretty impressive, huh? Big bucks. She brings home the bacon—and the salmon. When she gets home we have sex. The cat watches, wondering why the sudden madness. She finds all the rumpus unnecessary.”

“Too much information,” I told him.

“Let me tell you. While it’s going on, the cat looks out the window, across Collins Avenue to the Atlantic. A flock of pelicans fly over in formation—nature’s own squadron—the point bird leading the others like a British group captain in World War II. The cat would like to eat him. She thinks he’s no bigger than a budgerigar. That’s another major difference between us—I know that distant objects are larger than they appear. The cat doesn’t know this. If the group captain were to fly into the apartment she would run under the bed.”

“Forget about the fucking cat, man—you seem obsessed with the cat. Tell me what you’re working on. That novel you’ve been writing for decades? What was the working title—the Jackdaw of Unreason?”

“One of them. In Mudboots, Fast Runner was another.”

“Will it ever be finished?”

“If I were to live long enough I’d be able to tell the whole story. About the cats before this one and the S.’s before this one. I have lived with four S.’s, and altogether known a total of six. Just a coincidence—it’s a common name.”

“I’ve read parts of the manuscript. There’s more to it than S.’s and cats.”

“But the S.’s are important. They have been good to me. Since they have each been the breadwinner, they hold all the cards—Visa, MasterCard, American Express, you name it. I have use of the cards, as the secondary card holder, but none of the responsibility. As an itinerant and a vagabond I have nothing of my own. No furniture, no leases, no car, no responsibility. Just my books and my clothes.”

“Some men would envy you.”

“While others would despise me. During these sojourns with the several S.’s, I am allegedly writing my masterpiece. But all I ever get published are excerpts, and random columns and op-ed pieces in newspapers and magazines, usually about my life so far. Were I to total up the damage, there has been very little—about 50,000 words of scattered autobiography over the years. A small body of work to be sure. No one ever accused me of being prolific.”

“Prolificacy can be annoying.”

“I’d have to live a long time to tell the whole story. The question is where to begin? The current S. gave me that at the beginning routine. I hate stories that begin, My earliest memory is when I was four, standing on the running board of my father’s old Ford; etcetera, etcetera.”

“You and Holden Caulfield.”

“Greasy kid stuff. I think one should start at the end. The end is death, of course, but we need to know the circumstances, the details, the cause, the how and the why and the where—and most importantly, the when.”

“Not many people would want to know that.”

“If we all knew when, we’d live our lives differently. Either that, or we’d blow our brains out and be done with it. Some people hate waiting for the inevitable. They especially hate waiting for a pastrami on rye with too much death on it, or for a lousy bowl of oblivion. The hell with it.”

“I’ll remember that next time I go into a delicatessen.”

“I know a lot of dead people. I don’t call them anymore. They come to me. We talk, we do things together, we live disfigured lives in basements, we drive over cliffs, we scream at each other, we go through hell together. Sometimes we dance.”

“Thank God for the latter. But you know what, so far you’ve told me nothing about the novel and where you’re at with it.”

“And you know what, Guillaume, if that really is your name—that’s it. I’m done. I’m telling the cat I’m no longer receiving visitors. She listens to me intently—but goddammit, she’s really thinking about tearing apart a pelican the size of a budgerigar.”

That was the end of the conversation. He walked me to the door and said, “Take it easy.”

A few days later, his body was found on the flagstone terrace twenty-seven floors below.

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