Miami in the late 80s had already dumped its faux Miami Vice look and was fast becoming just another American city, complete with tenements and slums teaming with characters of all sizes and shapes. Because it was cheaper than living in student housing at the University of Miami, I lived in a one room apartment above Lou's Dry Cleaning and 24-Hour Laundry on NW 46th Street which afforded me equal views of I-95 and US 1. If I twisted my head a certain way, I could see the riches of Biscayne Bay and Miami Beach in the distance. My neighbors were straight out of a Carl Hiaason novel: winos, hookers, low-rent mobsters and crooked politicians. Old Carl would describe these people as colorful, but they were in truth, utter failures in life. This was a bleak time for me.
The building next door housed the The Palm Tree Grill and above it The Ponce de Leon Hotel, which was supposed to make you think of the Fountain of Youth, but didn't. It was populated by hookers and retirees, but also Madame Woo and her 47 parakeets, and a mysterious women in her late eighties who was shaped like a pretzel with a hump on one side and made one trip a day from the hotel to the deli around the corner to purchase a single liverwurst sandwich. I won't go into Madame Woo's business now, or Carlos the Shoeshine at Pete's Barbers, or Dagwood the Dwarf who delivered mysterious hand signals to passing traffic for hours and hours for days on end before disappearing for three or four days and then returning for his stint as traffic cop. Not just now. Instead, I want to peel back the curtain on this Charlie Kaufman movie and talk about my encounters with the Cheshire Puma.
I swear the puma smiled, all the time. It lived in the apartment across from me with a hideous looking member of the hooker community and rumor had it that the puma leered at the hooker's clients with a wink of approval. When the puma wasn't smiling at the hooker's clients it spent its days roaming around the building, inside and out, smiling at every one. Any eye contact with this animal would instantly elicit a wider smile and a peculiarly riveting return of gaze. It gave me the creeps. I passed by this creature several times a day, always catching its strangely cheerful eye, which somehow fixed the two of us in a strange loop of mutual regard. The puma never made a sound.
Over the course of the months I lived above Lou's, my life slowly degraded into a routine of descending boredom and rising poverty, and I began to fear that I would end up like my neighbors, just another broken man, lost at the bottom of society. I was perhaps becoming as weird as my neighbors, gripped as I was by the apparent horror of becoming just another of the forgotten, like my neighbor above who shrieked from his window at passing trucks and buses and for fun would slam plates against his wall and stomp on the floor like some sort of whacked out Michael Flatley. But that puma, that grinning, leering, knowing puma came to hold a special place in that great vault of James’ neediness, at any point in the day I could walk of my apartment or look out the window and see its infernal profile turn slowly to deliver a great big happy look at ME.
My classmate and sometime girlfriend, Amanda, was pretty creeped out by the puma as well and the first time she set eyes on it fainted but not before screaming, "That's a puma! A fucking puma." After we talked for hours about what unimaginable thoughts might lurk behind those unblinking piecing eyes; and Amanda, too, became increasingly transfixed by the hellishly happy-looking animal. Then one day we were sitting outside of Sonny's Pizza splitting a stromboli watching the puma as it watched us, when it suddenly disappeared from the window ledge and then reappeared at the downstair door. The puma looked one way, then the other, took a hesitant step and another before trotting across the street to our table. The puma sat down in front of us. Amanda and I looked at each other in disbelief. I reached out to touch the puma, but it flinched in fear and turned away, retreating back to its apartment perch. Its owner, the hideous hooker, had been approaching us from behind and as she got closer shot us a death ray look as she went by.
It was right around that time, as soon as I finished school, I needed to leave town. And I did, never to return.
Jake James is a writer living in California.
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