Do you need comfort? Is the world getting you down? Need company during the lockdown but don’t want the risk? Do you need a quick fix of unconditional love but don’t want the commitment? Then you need Kitten Balls, the latest from XCorp in artificial pets.
The infomercial caption continues scrolling on the video wall as Jason pushes the broom across the barroom floor. “Kitten Balls.” He laughs. “Who figures these names out?” Even though the bar has been closed for several hours, the digital entertainment keeps on cycling and blasting music over the sound system. He sings along, “What’s so funny ‘bout peace, love, and understanding?” However, Jason likes to change the lyrics to, “What’s so funny ‘bout pea sludging understanding?” It always made him laugh, but he never got around to looking up whether pea sludging really existed. He scratches his nose and catches himself in the mirror above the bar. He ruffles his unruly afro and adjusts his black-framed glasses. The combination of hair and glasses gives him the appearance of either mad scientist or eclectic musician, both of which he is happy with.
Your special Kitten Ball comes in many colours and temperaments.
An image appears on the video wall of a tabby Kitten Ball on a kitchen table, gently mewing. The actor strokes the Kitten Ball and accidentally knocks a bowl of milk and cereal with his elbow. The Kitten Ball rolls back slowly, licking up the milk spilled on the table.
In the apartment above the bar, Kay stares out her window. She is a striking figure, sitting or standing. She is tall with broad shoulders and cascading salt-and-pepper hair. Her crystal blue eyes juxtaposed with her dark complexion are visually captivating, but it is her overall composure that really makes her stand out. Over her long career as a jazz clarinetist, she mastered the art of drawing attention, even if she wasn’t playing. This resulted in the aura remaining long after the performance and carried wherever she went. Even first thing in the morning, though there was no one around to see it today.
Kay is glad the pandemic restrictions have lifted so that her bar is open again, but she doesn’t miss the late nights. The noise from the digital system in the bar below her is just enough to rouse her from sleep. She gets up rather than try to go back to sleep. She considers her brisk morning walk through the cemetery, a routine she started when the lockdown first went into effect and she had to close her bar. It isn’t easy to get up these days as she often would not get to bed until 2 A.M. after the bar shut down.
The digital video system helps with business. The video wall can be seen from the outside or inside and acts to attract passersby. It is almost like the old drive-in theatres. Kay set up a small cafe stand to serve anyone who watches the video stream while sipping a coffee and eating a pastry or a small sandwich. It was just enough business to help cover some of the rent.
Jason is singing along with the song, “‘Cause each time I feel it slippin’ away, just makes me wanna cry!” Pea sludge was no doubt slippery.
Kay notices she feels hungry. She throws on the clothes she had tossed to the floor, runs her fingers through her hair, and tucks it under a hat. She glances out the window at the street. The early sun’s hue reflects off the fresh snow on the road. Kay slips on heavy boots and grabs a coat, scarf, and gloves from the floor near her front door.
Just add water, and your Kitten Ball comes to life. Three quick squeezes, and it goes back to sleep. When stored properly, your Kitten Ball will last for months.
The announcer’s voice is still muted, but the caption continues for the infomercial.
“Good morning, Missus Klover,” Jason says as he stops sweeping. “You’re up early today. Was I making too much noise?”
Kay smiles. She dislikes being called Mrs. Klover. Her surname and forename's alliteration were an unfortunate outcome of a drunken conversation with her first manager, who felt the rising young musician needed to change her name to be recognized as a star.
“And on the clarinet, Kay Klover! Doesn’t that sound much better than Katherine Esterhazy?” she remembers her manager saying. The buzz from the intoxication stifled any argument she could muster.
The video wall reconfigures with the infomercial in a small window at the bottom corner. The rest of the screen fills with black-and-white stills from Kay’s first performance at the Senator Jazz Club some thirty years ago. While the singer was the headliner for the band, it was clear from the audience that most people were there to see Kay on the clarinet.
“Just hungry, Jason,” she replies, glancing at the photos, “and good morning to you as well.”
The photos shuffled into a still montage with the bar's logo emblazoned over it: Regal Heights Jazz Bistro.
“I’m almost done here, Missus Klover. Do you want to go to Louisa’s for a bite? She just opened, I think.”
Kay is pleased by Jason’s offer. He is usually reluctant to make such social gestures.
“Sure, that sounds great. And please, Jason, call me Kay.”
Jason chuckles. “Cool. Let me put the cleaning stuff away and get my coat.”
He attaches the broom to the side of the wheeled trash bin and glances up at the video wall. The infomercial begins a second cycle while the image of the bar’s logo remains static. “Hey, did you get one of them Kitten Balls?” He gestures to the video wall.
“I did — two, in fact. Mainly thanks to your insistence. You’re quite a persuasive salesperson.”
“Hah! Well, I’m glad you got ‘em. I had to stop using mine. My hands are so sweaty that I was always accidentally turning it on. I reached into my pants pocket one day to get my keys, and the damn thing activated. Next thing I knew, my pants were purring.” Jason laughs aloud, pushing the trash bin to the rear of the bar.
Kay looks down at the floor and shakes her head while smiling. She imagines the odd bulge in Jason’s pants as the activated Kitten Ball expanded from golf ball to tennis ball.
“Okay.” Jason grabs his jacket and walks to the door, tucking his curly black hair under his winter hat. “Let’s go.”
The morning air is not as chilly as the snow predicts. Kay steps onto the sidewalk first, and the fresh snow moves like dust around her feet. She has on the wrong boots but doesn’t care. She and Jason walk in silence down the street to Louisa’s restaurant.
Louisa is a short, round woman who looks much older than she is. The lockdown was not good for her. She lost both of her sons. One contracted the virus and died far too quickly. The other became increasingly despondent, both by the loss of his brother and the continued threat from the pandemic. The desperation got the better of him. He committed suicide. The deaths put a rift between Louisa and her husband. They stayed together, but their relationship became distant. Her husband’s delivery service took him out of town a lot, which reinforced the emotional distance.
Louisa got through the turmoil by focusing on her restaurant. She was fortunate that her menu was flexible enough to do fast and easy dishes that required minimal preparation. Her takeout business thrived where others could not.
She made efforts to give back to the community. She had “pay-what-you-can” lunches where she made manakish, empanadas, and small salads. Many out-of-work families appreciated it. Despite being short on cash, many still insisted on paying a small amount for the meals. Louisa would slide in extra empanadas sometimes.
When the restrictions lifted, she hired a few more staff to help in the kitchen. She wanted to keep the connection to her customers and resisted hiring waitstaff. She thought she could wait tables better than anyone. “I can teach anyone to cook a good empanada, but I can’t teach good manners,” she would say. Her customers were her family. “You don’t want your family to be welcomed by strangers.”
Jason walks into the restaurant and holds the door for Kay. “Hey, Louisa!” he calls out.
Louisa wipes her hands on a towel and walks out from behind the diner counter. “Well, hey to you, too! Both of you today and so early.” She glances at the clock. It was a little after nine.
“I have a serious craving for one of your empanadas,” Jason says, stomping the snow off his shoes.
“Ah, sorry. The empanadas are not ready yet. I don’t have them until closer to noon, when you usually come in. How about I make you a nice Shakshuka?”
“Sounds wonderful,” Kay replies. “Is it okay if we sit at a booth? My old bones can’t handle the stools at the counter anymore.”
“Pssh, old nothing,” Louisa says back. “Kay Klover, you look like you could be my daughter!”
Kay appreciates the compliment and only smiles in response.
As they sit, Jason asks, “What did you order? It sounds like a dance or something.”
“It’s basically poached eggs in tomato sauce.” Kay laughs.
“Nice! I hope Louisa will serve it with cornbread. It’s awesome.”
“I guess you’ve been here a lot?”
“Yeah, sort of. I’d come by after I finished at the bistro to help her out. With both her boys gone, I figured she could use the extra hands.”
Jason’s kindness impresses Kay. They really had talked little outside of work.
“She won’t let me cook, so I bus tables and clean dishes for a couple of hours,” he continues. “She usually pays with some empanadas or a Cubano sandwich made with her cornbread.”
“I don’t understand how you stay so skinny,” Kay comments.
“Here’s some coffee for you.” Louisa puts two cups on the table and fills each with fresh coffee. “The food will be here soon. And I will bring some cornbread, too.” She winks at Jason.
Jason continues talking about his life outside the bistro. He lives alone on the third floor of an old house that had been converted to apartments. He helps his landlord with the building maintenance in exchange for a cut in his rent. In the late afternoon, he goes to the local high school and helps with the basketball team as a sort of coach and trainer. The school lost many of its staff because of layoffs, so Jason volunteered to help.
“I never finished high school but learned a lot from my old coach about how to help other people. I wasn’t too good in class but did okay in sports.”
Kay marvels at his story. Having worked with him for the last six months at the bistro, she had no idea how full his life was. She assumed that, like her, he simply went to the bistro and then back to his flat.
“Wow, you keep busy! When do you sleep?” she asks.
“It’s not that bad. I got into the habit of sleeping a couple of times a day instead of one long one. It’s kinda like the sleep breaks up the different things I do, so I wake up a different person than when I went to sleep. Jason, the dude at the bistro. Jason, the one who buses tables for Louisa. Jason, the one who coaches basketball.” He is beaming.
Louisa brings a large skillet and a basket of cornbread covered by a white towel. She sets the skillet down on the table between Kay and Jason.
Four eggs float in a sea of red tomato sauce, like white eyes with yellow pupils. The red is punctuated by flecks of cilantro, sliced black olives, and yellow peppers. Louisa’s Shakshuka isn’t traditional, but it is delicious.
“Oh, my God, this looks and smells amazing!” Kay exclaims.
“And don’t forget to dip the bread!” Louisa says.
“Hey, if you had the empanadas, we could use them to scoop this.” Jason smiles, pointing to the skillet.
“Hah! You’re incredible, boy! You always make me laugh.” Louisa steps back. “Now eat, eat. It will get cold fast.”
They tear into the Shakshuka, taking turns scooping out a bit of egg and then using bread to get extra sauce. In the five minutes they take to devour the meal, they do not speak.
“I’m guessing that since I hear no talking, you’re liking it?” Louisa calls from behind the counter.
“It is fantastic,” Jason responds.
“Or better, ‘was’ fantastic.” Kay cleans up the last bit of sauce with a piece of bread.
“You make me very happy.” Louisa approaches the table and reaches for the skillet. “You sit tight. I may have some other treats for you.”
“Louisa, you’re going to get us fat!” Kay says.
“Of course! That’s my master plan to make everyone fat like me.” Her laughter trails off as she walks back into the kitchen.
“She’s such a happy person. You’d never know she lost her sons just a few months ago.” Kay looks over at Jason.
Jason nods. “Yeah, I asked her about that one time, ya know. Whenever I came in, she always had a smile on and would laugh at my stupid jokes. I asked if she wasn’t sad about her boys. She said that she misses them terribly, but it does no good to anyone to be lost in the sadness. She said people are very good about sharing their sadness, and there was more than enough of that to go around, so it’s her duty to share happiness. I guess her idea kinda motivated me to pay it forward with the basketball coaching. It definitely makes the kids happy.”
“Here.” Louisa reappears. “Fresh from the oven. Four empanadas.”
“Oh, wow, Louisa. I don’t think I can eat another bite right now. Can we take them with us and have them later? It would be perfect before I start at the jazz club later,” Kay asks.
Jason had already eaten one. “Uh, I can take this one for later.”
The late afternoon is always difficult for Kay. It’s the moment of anticipating the coming evening, distracting from the present. She tries to get her focus back to the moment. It is also usually the time when she practises her clarinet. She checks her posture in front of the mirror in the little studio she set up in her apartment. The room was meant to be a guest room, but with no one allowed to visit during the lockdown, she converted it to a rehearsal studio. Music was one of the few things that kept her grounded. At the peak of her career, practice felt more like a chore than an escape. Now that she no longer needed to perform to make a living, she could perform for herself, blurring the line between practice and playing for pleasure.
Kay raises the instrument to her mouth. There is no energy. The keys feel cold and lifeless. She has no breath. She stares into the mirror, puzzled by the person looking back at her.
“I could sure use a cigarette” pops into her head. She hadn’t smoked in decades. The thought surprises her, but the flood of memories of a fresh cigarette’s taste and smell made the fleeting craving a bit more pleasant.
She puts the instrument down. “Maybe a coffee will help.”
Jason is working up behind the bar, watching the night staff coming in. The video wall is swirling photomontages of the street. Old photos of horse-drawn carriages moving up the dirt road are superimposed with new pictures of the ultra-chic, automated trolley and folks on electric scooters. A sunset photo taken in the mid-1960s fades in and then is covered by another photo from Kay’s last gig at the Senator. She was decked out in a funky blue hat, a feather boa, and dark glasses.
Kay loves that photo.
“Hey, Missus, uh, Kay,” Jason catches himself, “ready for another evening at the bistro?”
“Not quite yet. I need a coffee.” Kay walks over to the espresso machine, an old Faema restaurant-grade machine she has restored. No matter how many new models she tried, the coffee from this one always tastes better. She pours two shots and adds a bit of warm milk.
She stands at the bar and takes her two Kitten Balls out of their sack. Both are sleeping and yawn as they rock on the bar. Felix is a black-and-white Kitten Ball who craves attention and explores with abandon. It has no fear of anything and treats everyone like a long-lost friend. Kay appreciates that characteristic, though it could cause some embarrassment when Felix would take the liberty of tasting someone else’s food. If everyone was a friend, then they should be willing to share food seemed to be the logic of Felix’s program.
Boris, a calico Kitten Ball, is far less social and far more territorial. It is very protective of Kay and their space and, while not physically aggressive, stares down anyone who enters their social bubble. Boris is particularly effective at deflecting unwanted attention that Kay would sometimes get from the persistent patrons during the later hours in the bar.
At the moment, Felix and Boris are more interested in sparring than anything else, playfully colliding like fuzzy billiard balls.
A man approaches the bar. Kay has her back to him but sees him approach in the mirror.
“The restaurant ain’t open yet,” Jason calls out.
“That’s okay. I really just want a coffee at the moment,” the man replies.
Kay turns. The man is unremarkable, with thinning brown hair and several days’ beard growth. The beard isn’t shaped, so Kay figures he just didn’t bother shaving. He wears the most interesting glasses, however. The top half of the frame is a dark metallic blue you could only make out if light reflected just right. The arms transition from blue to a soft white, which blends with the grey hair on his temples in a most peculiar way. The glasses match the deep blue wool scarf he wears under his black peacoat.
“What would you like?” she asks.
“How about a double shot with a touch of warm milk?” He gives a lopsided smile. Kay isn’t sure if he is trying to be suave or if it is his manner.
She turns back to the espresso machine. The man sits down at the bar and takes his smartphone out from his jacket pocket. He presses a button and turns it over face down on the bar. From his other pocket, he pulls out a small paperback book and opens it to a bookmark.
Kay puts the coffee down close to him. “Do you need sugar?”
“Maybe a little.” He doesn’t look up from the book.
She grabs a small bowl containing brown sugar and puts it down next to his coffee.
“You’re the owner of the place?” he says, placing the book down.
Kay nods. “Yep. Not just a poster girl.” She glances up at the old advertisement for one of her shows posted next to the bar.
“Sorry, I meant nothing by that. Conversation is still a bit awkward now that we’re all free to socialize again.”
“No offence taken,” Kay assures him. “I guess you were pretty isolated then?”
The man sits back. “Yeah, I guess. I live alone, and as things got worse, I found myself withdrawing more.
“Don’t get me wrong. I have some good friends that I tried to stay in touch with, but all the conversations felt like they were just fillers until the next time we actually saw each other. Kinda like when you set up a dinner date and have a short chat a few days before to confirm the date.
“The problem was the conversations wore on me, like a reminder that we weren’t actually going to meet. I wanted to get back to people but then got deflated by the unbelievability of what was happening.”
Kay puts her coffee cup on the bar.
Jason pretends not to be listening to the conversation as he moves glasses from a dish rack to the shelves behind the bar. The light from the setting sun reflects off the glasses, sending dancing spots of colour, which Felix and Boris chase across the bar.
“I had the same thing, honestly. I decided I needed to get into a new routine to give me something to structure my day.” Kay glances over to see Boris almost fall off the bar.
The man raises his eyebrows. “Really? I would have thought having the business would be enough.”
Kay lets out a little sigh. “You would think, but the lockdown really constricted what we could do. I needed to shift the business model a lot. I basically scaled everything back to something I could maintain with minimal staff and keep to a set routine. At least that was certain.”
The man glances down at his coffee. “And now that things are resolving, are you opening things up?”
Kay frowns. “That’s where the problem is. I don’t know what that means anymore.”
There is a brief pause in the conversation's flow as the man considers his next words. “Maybe we’re all sort of in the same situation. Through this whole lockdown business, a lot of us were getting used to the sameness. Many weren’t so lucky — don’t get me wrong. My friend got laid off and was struggling to find odd jobs to keep afloat. And the health-care staff, I can’t imagine the stresses they faced every day.
“A lot of us got into a routine. I sure did. I’d wake up pretty much the same time every day, have a coffee, check my social media feed, and go for a run. I’d have breakfast then and find some work to do until lunch. After lunch, I’d read a book, take a nap, maybe go for a walk and then fix dinner that I ate while watching a movie or something. With all the uncertainty all around us, the sameness provided a little grounding, something we could control.
“But when the lockdown ended, the sameness stayed. I was used to it. The routine was good, but it was stifling a part of me. When I realized that, the routine went from being shackles to a foundation for me to grow. I still have the same morning routine, but after the run, I do something different. Yesterday, I read a sci-fi novel. Today, I called my parents to arrange a trip. Then I met my dear old friend for lunch, and now I am here in the Regal Heights Jazz Bistro having coffee.”
Kay prepares to reply, but his eyes catch her attention. She stares maybe a little too long and realizes that he isn’t really looking at her. He isn’t ignoring her either — it is more like he is looking beyond her to where she needs to go.
“Well,” she raises her coffee cup, “here’s to the end of sameness.”
The man raises his cup. “Well put.”
“Sorry to dump that on you.” He continues. “I don’t usually reveal my innermost thoughts like that.”
Kay smiles. “No problem. I hear a lot of good stories in this bar.”
“I bet.” The man glances down at his book. “My name is Kalman, by the way. Kalman Pados.”
“Kay,” she replies, “well, actually, Katherine. Katherine Esterhazy.”
“Good to meet you, Katherine.”
“Good to have been met, Kalman.” She almost winks. “I need to get upstairs to get ready for the evening shift.”
“No worries, Katherine. I’ll just finish my coffee and head out. Perhaps we’ll see each other again.”
Kay walks into her apartment with an internal smile, lost in thought. She deactivates her Kitten Balls and places them on a bureau. In the dormant state, they look more like multi-coloured golf balls than sleeping pets.
The conversation with Kalman was brief but triggered something that she needs. The fog surrounding her head that day is still there, but now, rather than obscuring everything, it sharpens focus.
Kay approaches the mirror and picks up her clarinet. She plays a few notes, and then a melody comes to her. A new melody. She continues, building a few motifs and linking them together.
She presses “record” on her smartphone app.
“I call this, ‘To the End of Sameness,’” she says and plays the new song.