Murder on Beach Road
by Sam Axelrod
Last week we were in Kaikoura, a small town on the South Island. There’s one main strip that runs through it, just off the coast––Beach Road. We went to dinner there––me, Zach, and Soren, the core group of dudes––at Black Rabbit Pizza, which shares a doorway with the sensibly named Kaikoura Indian Restaurant.
Boys’ weekend. I’d come seven thousand miles to see my friend and my godson, and we’d had a leisurely afternoon: walked some moors, seen some seals. This was one day and one week after the massacre in Christchurch.
Soren did not love the cuisine. He played with his toy cars, and was just the amount of disruptive as might be expected of a reasonable three-year-old.
We were seated in the back corner, by the bathroom, and by the time we were done it felt like we were the only diners left, but near the front of the narrow room there were still two tables active. One woman eating alone by the window, and another trio waiting on their food.
In New Zealand, they don’t bring you the check. As we’re paying at the counter, a small cat hurries in like she’s a frequent and entitled customer. With cats I immediately assume boy or girl, and I thought this tabby was a girl.
So, the cat’s acting as if she’s there every day, but the waitress-slash-hostess is like, No no, get out of here, while simultaneously ringing up our bill. There are fewer than ten people in the room, so this becomes the focus of everyone’s attention. The cat evades the waitress and trots toward the back and into the door-less kitchen, where she promptly gets shooed back to the front. She seeks refuge beneath the solo woman’s table, and the woman smiles in our direction like she’s not really a cat person, but that, no biggie, this is just a lighthearted moment between Kiwis.
Soren thinks it’s hilarious. He’s delighted by the sight of the waitress, and now waiter, unsuccessfully chasing the cat around the room. The cat comes to rub herself against our legs, but then gets shy. Soren reaches out to pet her, but she eludes him.
We’ve signed our receipts and are slowly making our way to the door, kind of looking behind us, waiting to see how this is going to play out.
The waiter traps the cat, scoops under her belly, and heads our way, arms out in front of him. I worried the cat was going to freak out and claw him, but she submits to his relocation plan. I realize this is probably not the first time this has happened. She’s skinny, the cat, maybe not fully grown. A teenager.
The waiter closes the door, and it’s just the four of us on the sidewalk: the core group of dudes, and the cat.
We’re parked directly across this wide thoroughfare. I’ve been in country for only a week, but I’ve decided it’s not a pedestrian-friendly nation. Cars never seem to yield to pedestrians, even at corners. (There are a lot of GIVE WAY signs, but not many stop signs.)
It’s Saturday night, twenty past eight, but it’s surprisingly quiet. And now it’s dark, and there’s no moon. I’m lagging behind Zach, because I feel bad for this scrawny, solitary cat, who’s silently looking to us for some charity. And clarity. To Zach, but more to myself, I say, Why does God do this? Why is this a scenario that exists? Zach murmurs a sympathetic I don’t know, but he sees his opening in traffic and starts across the street, Soren slumped over his shoulder. But because I’m so busy empathizing, I don’t cross.
Okay, Zach says, time to say bye-bye to the kitty, which Soren does in an exaggerated local accent. His little hand waves at me and the cat as father and son get farther away.
I’m dallying, but I’ve decided, as with many things, I’ll just feel rotten for a few minutes and move on. This cat will vanish from my memory by bedtime or teethbrushing time or, more realistically, ten minutes from now.
But before I move, the cat scurries into the street. It’s unclear what motivates her to do this. We’re the only people nearby, but maybe she’s got plans somewhere else, and it just happens to be in the direction of Zach’s station wagon.
At first I’m thinking, Okay, great, she has somewhere to go, somewhere to be. Good. But then I realize, No, she’s following Zach.
A car’s coming from the right, and I’m like, Oh this cat is in trouble. (Friendly reminder: cars drive on the opposite side down there.) She’s paused on the far side of the road, closer to Zach, who’s hurrying to strap Soren into his car seat. She’s sort of frozen up, crouching down in an awkward push-up position.
But then another car comes from the left, and I’m like, Oh fuck.
But she’s a cat, she must live on these streets, she’s obviously going to get out of the way. She knows what to do.
But she doesn’t. And the car just plows over her. I look away at the last instant, but I know the car has run her over with its right tires.
Because the cat walked out with us, it feels like we’re trapped in the middle of this nightmare narrative.
The cat walked in––the story begins––and the story’s still going.
And as the car continues on, I can’t believe this is happening. I always hope I’ll be brave in a crisis. Like I’ll know what to do. But I froze. All I did was cover my mouth and look away.
I look back and the cat’s still alive. Her legs are violently twitching in the air above her mostly flattened body. My mouth is still covered, and I’m mumbling Ohgod Ohgod Ohgod, and I just stay frozen, because there’s nothing I know to do. A man and a woman come out of the Indian restaurant, and we stand there, eyes wide, holding our mouths.
And then we spot a truck coming from the left.
Somewhere in my brain I’m thinking, Okay, good––because this cat is not getting up. And then––bfft––the truck steamrolls over her. The cat is in the perfect spot for the truck’s enormous tires to end her life.
And I’m still standing there, feeling paralyzed. Maybe smiling in shock. Still covering my mouth. I realize I’ve been holding a small pizza box this whole time.
After a long moment at peak impotence, I decide it’s time to walk past this now-carcass to get to the car, and I’m thinking, Well, I guess cats die like this every minute of the day all over the planet, and we just happened to catch an exclusive peek at this routine occurrence.
A hero from the Indian restaurant comes out with a big napkin. He tongs the cat by a leg and lays her near the curb, in front of Zach’s Volvo, so she can at least head to heaven with some dignity intact.
Zach cuts his lights and says, I’m really glad I got Soren buckled in two seconds before that. We share a look. Then he starts googling liquor stores. We need some whiskey, he says.
There wasn’t much to do. I didn’t have a ton of options. None of the cars even slowed down. You goad God, ask why he puts hungry cats into existence, and then God’s like, Oh you want to see some shit.
But I should’ve done something. I could’ve yelled at her to move, or run out into traffic waving my arms, or thrown the pizza box at her head. Something. But I did nothing. Only tell this story.
Sam Axelrod lives in Eugene, Oregon, where he’s at work on a novel, Brief Drama.