Many years ago, when I was a student, I traveled across the United States, seizing every opportunity to work and earn some money just to make sure my trip would last long. After two month of hard work in Maine, I arrived exhausted in New-York, where I had planned to have a few weeks rest. I found a nice apartment overlooking a grim street in Soho. The neighbourhood I did not mind, all I asked for was two small rooms and – that was compulsory – large windows letting the sun shine in. This actually proved to be a mistake : I had never figured out how hot the summer was in New York, and never bothered asking for an apartment with the air-con. As a result, I left my windows open all day, looking at the traffic in the street below, hoping for a slight breeze to cool me off. This is how I noticed the black man.
He was sitting in a dark alleyway across the street, where the shadow, I assumed, would make him feel a little less uncomfortable. He did not seem to beg, in fact no one ever went through this passage, so he would remain almost alone, concerned with some business I did not understand. He had a little black cat (or the cat had him, I never figured out), a really young one, filled with as much curiosity and energy as a young cat can have without bursting in flames. They seemed to get along quite alright, all by themselves, and the old man talked to the cat for hours, explaining things I could not figure out.
One day, as I came back from the grocery store, I stopped at the entrance of the passage and watched them. The old black man was sitting on the concrete, fumbling sticks in front of him while talking in a low tone to that little charcoal-black cat. I heard him from the distance :
– This is a B, kid, yu hear me ? Don’t yu mistake it for a D, that’s no D, no Sir, just a plain B, hear me, kid ? OK, and now this is a C, just like in “cat”, understan’ kid ?
As he was slowly moving the sticks in the dust, rearranging patterns I could not see, the little cat stared at the black hands and the wooden sticks, sitting as still as a statue, apart from some occasionnal twitch in his tail. I slowly backed up and found myself on the street again, almost hit by the clamor of the crowd and the sun. As I waited to cross the street, I still heard the low voice :
– OK, now lissen, kid. This ain’t no C, this ain’t no G, so whadisit ? … No kid, no … Yeah, kid, you’re right, just a plain O… That’s good. That’s good…
One fine day, I gathered enough nerve to enter the passage and meet them. The black man and the black cat turned their heads and watched me coming.
– That’s a fine cat you have … What’s his name ? I asked.
– … Scat’s the name … My friend Scat.
I had kneeled down and in a short while, I was stroking the young cat’s head in silence. I looked up and saw the old man lost in a reverie.
– Excuse me, sir … What do you teach him exactly ?
The man looked at me and paused a little, then he said :
– … I teach the kid how to read’n’write… He’s young and I’m old, I try to give him the best I know… Yu see, he’s so little, he needs some help to make it through this life …
I nodded in silence, the man was right. After a time, I put the cat down and said goodbye.
From this day, I came often to see them, we would sit and talk while the youngster played with the sticks, or the old man would remain silent, his hand resting lightly on the cat’s head.
Then one morning, some days before my departure, I came in the passage and saw only the young cat. The old man was nowhere to be seen. I kneeled down in front of the little furry blackness, he sat with his paws under him and watched me intently.
– Hey Scat, where did the old man go ? …
The dozen sticks laid scattered in the dust not far from the cat, but the old man had diseappeared. I went to the other end of the alleyway and checked the doorsteps in the neighbourhood, I could find no trace of him. After a few minutes, I came back to the cat. The sticks had been rearranged on the ground, and it read “HE LAFT”.
The cat was sitting still, almost at the same place than before.
– What do you mean, kiddo ? Did you write that ?
The cat remained motionless, just closing his eyes when I scratched his head. After a while, I came back to my apartment to get some milk and a bowl. When I returned, the cat was gone.
I’m still not sure about what he meant in these two words. He left ? He laughed ?
He lift (to heaven) ?
I left some days later, without ever seeing them again.
Je recherche la photo en noir et blanc (je crois qu’elle est de Willy Ronis) qui a inspiré cette nouvelle : un noir et un chat dans une allée. Si quelqu’un l’a vue sur le web…