The Médoc Peninsula features a gravelly soil, which the winter wind, coming off the Atlantic Ocean, flings into the swells of rolling lowlands. Salt and grit, then, imbue themselves into the vine. The summer sun cooks the salt and grit after long, soaking rains drench the soil and the vines. The vines while away the summer by sucking everything that might be considered a nutrient into itself, the sun, the wind, and the sucking clasping hands together in a common effort to cause pollens of every sort of weed to be infused into the grapes, which are trampled and pressed, dumped into great vats to be left to the ravages of yeast consuming the sugars, then stored in wooden barrels in musty basements.
“It’s just that…” I hesitated. “It’s just that I’ve been eating a lot of garbage for a while. Pizza is a luxury now, while my wife and kids stay with her parents.”
“At least tell me the garbage you’ve been eating is name brand.”
I hung my head. “Generic grocery store brand mini-raviolis, mainly.”
“Dear God,” he whispered. Suddenly, his head snapped to, and his eyes grew bright. “Let’s go get some beers. I’m buying.” With that, we were out the door into the frigid air, and I was only just getting one arm into my coat sleeve.
In the car, I shivered. Sige adjusted his light jacket so that it closed around the neck. “It is a bit chilly this evening,” he said. My teeth chattered as I tried to bury myself in my thick coat. “How is it,” he continued, “that you are tramping about in this atmosphere, yet you are not accustomed to it? You must train your body, John. You must train! Look at me: the coldest night of the year—granted we have no wind in here—the coldest night of the year, and I’m gripping this icy wheel with bare hands! Look at you: ach! We’ll make a man out of you. Many cold nights, damp nights, and many other discomforts await the one who assists me.”
He stopped the car, pulling it onto the shoulder. He looked at me. “Tell me,” he said. “Do you want to do this with me? Private detecting is legwork, legs, and arms, and torsos, and then time to think. Think, think, think: hydrolysis, as I like to say. Reading. Lots of reading.”
“Yes,” I said, without hesitating. “I do want to do this.”
Although he was an extraordinarily stupid cat, he was a good kitty, after all.
It was apparent, eleven years ago, that we were finished having children. The two boys were growing and prospering in every way, and Deb was struggling with clinical depression of the worst sort: without medication she was sloth; with the medication, she was animated to do harm to herself. Recognizing these things, she decided to get a comfort animal, a kitty cat. I was opposed. I am not a cat person.
His name, you see, reflects a bit of tension in the marriage. Newton Jasper was my great grandfather’s name, and although there were seven grandsons to him, followed by two dozen great grandsons, none of them inherited his name, not that I know of. When our first came to pass, I was forbidden to name him so outrageously. I was, of course, offended. When the second came to pass, also a boy, I was compelled by my vocation to name him after myself and my father, an homage to the great Old Testament turnabout among the Patriarchs: the lesser receives the blessing.
And then the pause.
Deb went to the rescue shelter where there were two cats. One was perfectly ordinary. The other had two feet on each front leg. Polydactyl, is the word. Years later, we learned he shared the unambiguous honor of being known affectionately in the cat world as a Hemingway cat. Considering my wife’s condition, the cat’s condition, and Hemingway’s condition, the connection seems perfectly appropriate. And since we were having no more children, he was bequeathed the name of my great-grandfather: Newton Jasper. The other cat, the ordinary one, was going to be adopted without a doubt, and very soon, they had assured Deb. Therefore, the polydactyl cat with the brainless stare came home to us.
He loved us dearly.
Newton was the most sociable cat I have ever known. He purred gloriously if even you glanced toward him affectionately. He followed any and all through the house, prepared to glide, in that inimitable cat fashion, all over your body, demanding to show you affection interminably, granting, as a perpetual thanksgiving, his fur upon you.
He left his fur everywhere, upon every soft surface, all of which were his by adoption right, somehow. His claw marks are upon every door in the house because, according to his patrols, he must leave his fur upon that soft surface behind that door, be it carpeting, a bed, a throw pillow, a t-shirt left on the floor, your gloves, your hat, your scarf: all gifted in pure thanksgiving, in the only way a stupid cat can selflessly give.
There was one occasion, one of those which always comes to mind with regret, when he was following me through the house, demanding to pet me. I was sifting through some boards I had stored in the basement, and I think I was cursing, unhappily caring for my dear wife who could experience no joy, and whose medications had made things worse than they had made better. She was eating like a horse, and then sleeping like a log, and when she was awake, she was shouting at the top of her lungs that she would rather be dead. I had the two boys to care for, a few jobs to work in order to make money (this was after the crash of 2008 had caught me without a safety net, again, according to my vocation), and now this woman who was married to me but was not my wife. She was my patient. But who was giving care to me?
And so I was cursing, I’m sure, if not aloud, then in my heart, which held only curses at the time.
I heard a crash, a slight crash, the crash of the breaking of a beer bottle. Looking toward the sound to see what had transpired, I saw Newton, staring at me with those expressionless stupid green eyes, using my beer bottle collection as a slalom, and he had knocked one down. Filled with all the rage of all the past few years, all the failure, all the self-doubt, all the external injustice, as well as the frustration and nihilism and impotence welling up within me at all times, I struck him, and I struck him with all due force. I hoped to kill him.
I heard a hollow thunk resonate from his empty skull, and the damn thing looked at me, hurt, but unharmed, casting those vacant eyes upon the bottom of my soul. He could not fathom why I would say what I said and do what I did; nevertheless, he turned and hurried away. I cleaned up the broken glass and then threw out all the bottles, judging them to be a part of a juvenile futility. That night he did the same stupid thing he always did: he curled up and slept on my feet, which I hate, because my feet would overheat and I would awaken. So I kicked him off, not with any residual anger, just the usual discouraging, exaggerated shove from beneath the covers. He moved away a foot or two and resumed sleeping, as did I.
About five years ago, Deb started feeling better—not cured, but coping, one could say—she started feeling better without medication, so we decided to make more babies, hoping for a girl. Over the next three years, two more boys popped out in succession, but Newton Jasper the Family Cat already had the name of my great-grandfather, so we named the two new boys after Deb’s father and some grandmothers and aunts down the line, along with the name of a beloved deceased cousin: Walter Christian and Francis Daniel.
We changed his food bowl, you see, from an old cereal bowl to a regular cat food bowl. He refused to eat. Before we knew it, he developed that liver thing such stupid cats develop, and he was a lost cause. Alas, cats. Alas, the world. It is all vanity. Death came to Newton Jasper, the Family Cat, bringing the comfort of that great sleep.
There is some debate among those who believe in Jesus, as I do, whether animals have a place at the wedding feast of the Lamb, which has no end. It is a debate out of pure ignorance, for the authoritative scripture of Christians is quite clear about animals. When it comes to judgment, God says to Jonah: “As for me, should I not pity Nineveh, the great city, where…a man doesn’t know his left hand from his right? And much cattle?”
“Good fellow!” Sige said. “Mrs. Ciminelli further claims that her suspicions were aroused merely by a woman’s intuition. I remember her expression clearly: ‘I simply wasn’t feeling unwell.’”
“They want her out of the house,” I said. “At a particular time of day—a predictable time of day. They want her out of the house so they can be in it.”
“Very astute!” Sige exclaimed. “My mind exactly: they want her out of the house on Tuesdays between noon and four. They have a few people on the payroll. Now, what’s more, Mrs. Ciminelli managed to collect a sample of the treatment they were giving her. They had told her that it was some sort of nucleotide treatment, or some such nonsense, but I had a lab assistant friend of mine at UB test it for me—and would you guess what it was?”
“So,” I said. “A private detective, but not a Seamus. Are you in the line of Sherlock Holmes?”
“Pff,” Sige retorted, furrowing his brow. “The marvel of Sherlock Holmes is not his genius, but his encyclopedic capacity. Moreover, the thrill of the storytelling is not in the method of the character, but in the withholding of key information which the reader could never know, not unless he’d read a nonexistent monograph on the one-hundred thirty-five ash variants of cigars. I mean, really…”
“Well, then,” I asked. “Perhaps your approach is more like Hercule Poirot.”
“Pah!” Sige exclaimed. “Sigmund Freud with a Belgian accent. Freud! What a fraud! And red herrings stinking up the place. ‘It’s the psychologie, Hastings, the psychologie!’ Nonsense! You can’t systematize psychology, in the first place, and, in the second place, it’s wisdom, simply wisdom.”
“Fine,” I said. “Then you’re Frank or Joe Hardy.”
He scowled. “Droll,” he said. “Very droll. Mark Twain.”
“My model is Mark Twain. After all, he’s the one who invented fingerprinting.”
“I did not know that.”
“Now you do,” said Sige. “Totally invented it all by himself, then wrote about it in one of his later, pessimistic novels. Some police detective in Buffalo read the book, then started using it. The method spread like crime, and now everybody’s using it.”
“I thought DNA was the thing,” I said.
“Hm…” said Sige. “DNA will go the way of fingerprinting, you know.”
“It’s all probabilities, not certainties,” he said. “Nothing will ever replace eyewitness accounts.”
 See, I was right. You intended to ask the question not implying the popular caricature of the character, but implying the entire literary creation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Thus I answered it—SA.
I said. “Your hosts have good taste in furniture. It’s all properly sized, proportioned, and made of solid wood, none of this cheap laminate that passes for home furnishing these days. I particularly like the maple end table, which contrasts with all the darker-colored wood and upholstery. I’ll bet it shines like the sun when the lamp is lit.”
“I haven’t noticed,” he said. The door to his apartment was ajar, so he pushed it open. Before I saw anything else, I saw maps. Maps adorned the walls. Atlases were piled on top of each other. Maps were in various states of furl, strewn everywhere. He turned.
“Holy moly,” I said. I felt my mouth gape.
I replied, “Well, I should think so. Who couldn’t? I guess you like maps.”
“I’m in the middle of a research project,” he said. “But, yes, I like maps. Do come in.”
It became apparent immediately that he had arranged the maps on the wall so that the observer perceived that he was inside a world globe looking out. “These are old National Geographic maps!” I exclaimed.
“Yes,” he said, pleased with himself. “My father subscribed to National Geographic for as long as I can remember, and since the 1970s, I have pinched every map they published.”
I turned around and around, marveling at the intricacies of his arrangement of the maps, dozens of them, cut and aligned just so, to bring forward the effect of internationalism and isolation simultaneously. The Pacific Ocean occupied most of the dinette.
“Fascinating,” I said. “So you decorate with maps, but do you have to clutter with maps as well?”
“Ah,” he said. “We come to it at last. You’ll observe that every map is either of Niagara County or of France. More specifically, Niagara County, beginning during its early settlement, particularly along the Niagara Escarpment, continuing down through the ages, and maps of France, contemporary to the time of this region’s early settlement.”
 Not quite. Such an arrangement would have everything reversed from the way we’re used to observing, which would throw the observer into an intolerably disorienting condition—SA
In my mind, it seems incumbent—I’m at a loss for any other way to express it—what Sige has managed to do must be told. The subtlety with which he approaches the human condition and the artifacts of their existence is of such a nature that one is filled with hope, that not only is there an unmitigated good in this universe, such as it is, but that this good expresses itself, manifests itself, once in a while, in certain places, at just the right time, in a person who persists in good for the sake of good itself. Call it justice, if you will, or righteousness, or a sense of rectitude; whatever you call it, when you see it—I call it good—it may be that you are enlightened, and I don’t mean in the academic sense; I mean in the existential sense: you will be illuminated, a bit of your inner self will declare forthrightly that there is darkness, and lights occasionally shine in it. It is not true that Sige is this light, but that he embraces it, or it embraces him, and I don’t even know what “it” is, but that Sige brings it. He just does.
Sherri hung up the phone. “John Cyril is coming here!”
“You don’t say…” said Tom. “Do you need to go home to change into your poodle skirt?”
Sherri gave Tom another dirty look. “You’re just jealous he went to college and became a doctor.”
“Shucks,” said Tom, “anybody can go to college. It takes real knowledge to run a business.”
Sherri snapped, “That your dad gave you.”
“Hey, I run the place,” said Tom. “Hiring and firing people, if you know what I mean.” He shot a glance at Sherri, who continued to twist the phone cord, but her eyes burned. A car pulled in front of the store.
“Is that him? Is that him?” Sherri said, primping her hair. “I hope he remembers me!”
“It’s not him,” Tom said. “It’s just Nix. Don’t you recognize his car?”
It was Nix, with his wife, followed closely by Fat Walter Harcombe, Tom’s brother John (which was going to cause confusion again), J.R., and all their wives, most of whom were named Mary, all turning out to see John Cyril, who was on their heels. A great shout went up when he came in, followed by a piercing cry from Sherri behind the counter, “John, do you remember me?”
John looked at her with absolutely no recognition on his face, then he said, “Sure, I do, you were in…uh…we were…”
Sherri interrupted, “I was a freshman in high school when you were a senior!”
“Oh, that’s right,” said John, and everyone laughed.