2 A.M. at the Cat’s Pajamas

Marie-Helene Bertino

December 11, 2015 
The following is from Marie-Helene Bertino's novel, 2 A.M. at the Cat's Pajamas. Bertino is the author of Safe as Houses, winner of the Iowa Short Fiction Prize. An Emerging Writer Fellow at New York’s Center for Fiction, she has spent six years as an editor and writing instructor at One Story. A Philadelphia native, she currently lives in Brooklyn.

It is dark, dark seven A.M. on Christmas Eve Eve.

Snow flurries fall in the city. Actors walking home from a cast party on Broad Street try to catch them on their tongues. The ingénue lands a flake on her hot cheek and erupts into a fit of laughter. In Fishtown a nightmare trembles through the nose and paws of a dog snoozing under construction flats. The Rittenhouse Square fountain switches to life with a pronouncement of water while Curtis Hall musicians, late for final rehearsal, arpeggiate through the park.

The flurries somersault, reconsider, double back. The Ninth Street alleys bear witness as they softly change their minds. Mrs. Rose Santiago, shawl knotted beneath her chin, uses a broom to convince them away from her stoop. They refuse to land. She sweeps uselessly at the air.

In her room at the prow of her father’s apartment, Madeleine Altimari practices the shimmy. Shoulders, shoulders, shoulders. In front of the mirror, so she can judge herself, face sharp with focus. It is the world’s most serious shimmy. After thirty seconds, a flamingo-shaped timer trills and hops on its plastic legs. Madeleine stops shimmying and rejoins a Menthol 100 dozing in an ashtray on her vanity.

She exhales. “Again.”

On the record player, Blossom Dearie says she’s alive, she’s awake, she’s aware. Shoulders, shoulders, shoulders. After thirty seconds, the timer trills again.

Madeleine frowns at herself in the mirror. “Terrible.” On a list by the ashtray, she marks one minute next to The Shimmy, followed by a pert C minus. She drags on the cigarette. The other categories—Singing, Scales, Guitar—are unmarked.

Madeleine is two days away from being ten.

She wears a clothespin on her nose and the uniform for Saint Anthony of the Immaculate Heart: a maroon sweater over a gray jumper over a gold shirt over a training bra with lemon-colored stitching. Thick, maroon tights. She is number three in fifth-grade height-ordered lineups, behind Maisie, whose spine is shaped like a question mark, and Susan, the daughter of ballerinas. She read somewhere a clothespin worn religiously will shrink her unignorable nose. She thinks the occasional glimmers she can see through her window are snow flurries. She has trouble spelling the word rhythm. She likes when people in movies go to see movies. She cannot understand why the dime is worth more than the fatter, wider nickel. She needs a haircut. Her favorite singer is Blossom Dearie and her favorite bass is upright. She spent the previous night dreaming of apples. She smokes Newport Menthols from the carton her mother was smoking when she died the previous year.

Eggs cuss and snap on the kitchen stove.

The unofficial rule of Saint Anthony of the Immaculate Heart is that Madeleine is never allowed to sing again in church or at any assembly. Never, never, a whole page of nevers. Even though she had nothing to do with what happened at the previous year’s Winter Assembly. Still, it is going to be a gold star day. She will suffer through Clare Kelly’s singing in morning mass, the girl’s nasal notes and plosive p’s filling the church with godless noise, spritzing the first row of pews with every heretical t, BUT THEN, her class will be making caramel apples. Madeleine has never had a caramel apple and she wants to taste one more than she wants God’s love.

Clare, the sound Madeleine’s toilet makes when it’s dry. Madeleine is forever adding water to its basin when it wails, from the purpose-specific can she keeps under the sink.

Like a comet, a horrific afterthought, a roach darts down the wall. Its path follows indecipherable logic. Madeleine screams in high C and crushes the cigarette. She pivots, rips a paper towel from a roll on her nightstand. The roach halts, teasing coordinates out of the air with its antennae. It senses her and is rendered paralyzed by options. Madeleine closes her eyes, makes the sound of a train whistle on a prairie, and squeezes. Ninth Street Market roaches are full and round like tomatoes. This one leaves a mark on the wall but most of it gets flushed down the toilet. She scrubs her hands. Breathes in and out. Every day, more and more roaches. Every time she kills one, Madeleine worries she is a bad person. Stop worrying, she instructs herself. It’s time to sing.

She changes the record and releases the clothespin from her nose. She locks eyes with herself in the mirror and waits for the music to start.

Madeleine sings.

My name is Blossom
I was raised in a lion’s den.

* * * *

One hand is perched on her hip while the other swings back and forth, keeping time. Tucked into the mirror of her vanity, a picture of her mother singing: one hand on her hip, the other swinging back and forth, in time. Her mother was a dancer and singer whose voice could redirect the mood of a room.

My nightly occupation
Is stealing other women’s men.

After the cancer spread to her lymph nodes, Madeleine’s mother filled a recipe box with instructions on how to do various things she knew she wouldn’t be around to teach her. HOW TO MAKE A FIST, HOW TO CHANGE A FLAT, HOW TO WRITE A THANK-YOU NOTE FOR A GIFT YOU HATE, HOW TO BE EFFICIENT: Whenever you are doing one thing, ask yourself: what else could I be doing? On one recipe card, Madeleine’s mother listed the rules of singing.

The #1 rule: KNOW YOURSELF.

Madeleine knows she frowns in the silence between lines. She knows if she straightens her spine she can hit more notes than if she hunches. She knows she makes up in full- throatedness what she lacks in technical ability. She knows how to harmonize, with anything, with someone talking, that harmony is what melody carries in its pocket. She can burrow into a line of music and search out unexpected melodies. She can scat. She knows she scats better if she has eaten a light breakfast. She knows an empty orb hovers inside her, near where the ovaries are drawn on the foldout in her health textbook: the diaphragm. In the diaphragm, the weather is always seventy degrees and sunny. Unable to be shaken even when she shakes. Madeleine has trained herself to, when she falters on a high note, clasp the reins of her diaphragm and gather.

The song is over. In her flamingo notebook, Madeleine marks Blossom’s Blues next to Singing. The scatting was flat but had soul. B minus, she writes.

The eggs are ready. She slides them onto a plate and adds a square of toast and a spoonful of jam. She holds her breath as she steps into her father’s bedroom. He is sleeping, his back toward her. She clears medicine bottles, an ashtray, a half-empty glass of water, to make space for the plate on his dresser.

Normally she leaves his breakfast and skedaddles, however this morning she wants to feel close to something. She places her hand on his arm. It moves up and down in sleep. Madeleine breathes in and out, in time.

“Eggs,” she whispers.

In her bedroom, she peers through the curtains to confirm that the glimmers are flurries. Using mittens, boots, a scarf, and an umbrella, Madeleine turns herself into a warm, dry house.



From 2 A.M. AT THE CAT’S PAJAMA’S. Used with permission of Crown Publishing. Copyright © 2014 by Marie-Helene Bertino.

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