Andrew Nicholls

 They Were The New Cats

They were the new cats.  They were Cats of Great Authority.  Driving cars around the country, supervising lane closures and intersection full-stops, chastening speeding scofflaws.  Why cats?  Because they were expendable.  Because they were already some kind of cops.  Cats behind billboards.  The reason they hadn’t liked car trips before was, meow meow.  Who could interpret that?  They didn’t steer, they “initiated in-car metrics.”  They were the Bold and New and Brave Cats.  An observant being was required.  A being paid in tuna.  My mother with her chin twisted to one side like Edward Norton in that movie said Jesus Christ on a hot dog bun now she could die, she could die because now she’d seen everything.

They rolled down the window and stared at you.  The cat cops, frisky, accusing.  Being sirened over by a cat driving a Crown Victoria, let me tell you.  Standing against the green on a curb while the black and white whistled through the red.  That cat at the wheel with the radio buzz and grack.  Citizens called for accountability.  Nobody asked us… (curse, wheeze)  I’m not giving my license to a fucking cat.  You didn’t have to, you fed it in a slot.  The cats didn’t leave the car.  They were welded in and couldn’t even nose a tempting finger.

You had to walk back to the cruiser.  The power window would slide down and there’d be a cat merling at you.  Inside a wire cage, with access to its six buttons:  window, siren, speed, food, dump, shoot out tires.  As low as you could be, as low as you had ever imagined yourself being, with GPS plus budgets stretched thin plus two people in front of a bathrobed Arizona judge at midnight you could now be lower than and answerable to a cat.

The automated voice told what you’d done.  The ticket printed.  While the whole time, the fucking cat.

They worked long shifts and pulled over to dump their ejecta.  Piles of sand in the gravel beside fence-bent sideroads and outside your house.  This Drains To The Ocean but no one told the cats.  A button they clawed and out it went.   It was the Google Map car with attitude.  You bet they’d shoot out your tires.  Better not speed with your dog along.  There were Late Night jokes, barely adequate as a means of toweling-off the nation’s wet horror.

They said the cars could not crash but I tell you, looking in the rear view mirror and seeing a sharp-eared slit-eyed thing bearing down on you with the siren going?  They had an option for braking slowly, which the new cats never chose.  They drove full-bore as though they wanted to annihilate you.  The Decisive Cats, the Powerful Cats, overpraised all their lives, thinking they were brilliant drivers.

The country had outsourced everything else, trimmed the doily edges of municipal services, out with adornment in with practicality, privatizing jails, Help Centers, medical advice, rape crisis.  There at the bottom of the slippery slope was a set of smiling teeth crushing a mouse’s skull.  Pushing a button to tell you have a nice day.  Meow.

The world lost definition when it happened.  Hot August days were vaguer somehow, browner, time was less easy to understand as time.  People my age stayed inside.  What was next?  Owls in banks?

To make the cats new they gave them the dog pill.  The cats got friendly, by itself a strangeness, but also smart and strict, able to ticket you and not feel remorse.  No more sob stories, no more okay this time I’ll let you go.  A pill that lasted weeks and then they qualified, the warm body the loophole in the law required at first in Tempe then all the other states grandfathered-in.  We howled that we were tricked but who cared.  There is no law that says you can’t be tricked, smiled the cats.  Remember that cone you made me wear?

Everyone had stories.  Their own cats, their adoption cats.  I couldn’t have been going sixty.  Pookie you got so big, don’t you remember me?  The I-Don’t Care-Cats, the ticket tonguing from the slot like cash beside the roaring road, the recorded voice saying please move along and the cat face inside the cage inside the car, bored with your anger.

O! how they loved a high-speed chase.  You think you can escape me?  I bring down sparrows on the wing.  On the pills they slept less and seemed to want something with the leg-rubbing fervor of old but the thing they wanted now was your submission.  To see the falling dough of your face as you walked back losing equilibrium.

Sometimes on a hot night two cat cop cars drove side-by-side clawing at their cages, synchronizing and screaming and speeding through lights like rut-eyed lovers and we didn’t even have a word, watching in cafes and on sidewalks, we had no phrase for the enormity of this.  What else was there in the world that we foolishly believed we’d domesticated?  What else was waiting with volute tooth and claw to say please step out of the vehicle?

Andrew Nicholls has longer fiction in the most recent Santa Monica Review, Black Clock and Kugelmass, and online at McSweeneys, Los Angeles Review of Books, Literature For Life and elsewhere. He is a longtime TV writer for Johnny Carson among others.