I can’t find the damn cat. I’ve called out the front door, called out the back. Don’t remember exactly when I let him out. He walks so slowly these days, it takes him forever to do his round trip to the bushes. Why he can’t use the litter box in this freezing weather, I don’t know. Once, a couple of years ago, he did disappear all night in a blizzard. I phoned the neighbors, the animal shelter, stayed awake past midnight trying to paint and every ten minutes checking the door. He finally showed up at two the next afternoon, looking warm, dry and slyly content. He wasn’t even hungry. So I’m happy for him if he has some secret place, but the insensitivity of it really irks me. Tonight of all nights to keep me waiting.
Well, hell, I’ll go have another look at the painting. I wish I could get it right. Those brush strokes near the tail—they look more like quills than cat fur. And the expression on my face—it’s supposed to be a smile, not a smirk. But if I try to fix it, that stupid tremor will only make it worse. Never mind, Kate will like it. The cat was her idea, anyway. She didn’t even warn me, just showed up with this tiny tabby kitten and dumped it in my lap.
“A cat?” I shrank back in distaste from the squeaking ball of fluff. “What the hell do I want a cat for?”
“To keep you company,” said Kate. “Now that Dad’s gone you’ll be in this big house all alone. A cat would make a good companion.”
“I don’t need company. I can take care of myself. I have my painting, my garden—”
“Yes, Mother, I know.”
“Besides, we’ve never had pets. They’re expensive, they drool, they shed.” Already the kitten was curled up and yawning, and I lifted my hands in a plea for Kate to remove it.
She ignored me. “Cats don’t drool, Mother. I got everything you’ll need, food, kitty litter, a bed, information pamphlets.” She pulled a batch of colored brochures from her purse and put them in my hand. “The woman at the animal shelter said you can call them if you have any questions. Try it for six months, and if it doesn’t work out, I’ll take the cat. Now I have to get going.” She indicated the sleeping kitten. “As long as you’re stuck there, why don’t you think of a name for him?”
Hmpf! I can think of a few choice names for that animal right now. It’s already dark, it’s starting to snow. I’ll flip on the porch light. Unless…uh-oh. What if he’s staying away on purpose? They say animals can sense when the end is coming, and he surely isn’t happy about all those trips to the vet, the medicines, the shots. What’s more, I’m positive he understands about the For Sale sign in the front yard. How he glared when they put it up! He scrunched down under the fir tree, gold eyes gleaming malice. Every time that poor young real estate man came to show someone the house, the cat hissed and spat, and the fur on his back rose up like a demon.
“Stop that, you old terror!” I scolded, but the truth was, I wished I could do it myself.
I’ll wait five more minutes. Come on, he wouldn’t desert me like that. He has to give the painting his final seal of approval. Maybe I could have done better if I still had my studio upstairs with the north light. But Kate was right—after that tumble I took it made sense to move everything to the first floor and seal off the second story to save heat and electricity. Down here we have the fireplace in winter; in summer we can step out to the garden to smell the flowers. One year I planted catnip, and you should have seen him—fifteen pounds of purring fur, rolling like a drunkard in the herbs. I laughed myself silly, and he was so offended. Then he staggered off bleary-eyed to recuperate. But this year he barely touched the catnip mouse I bought him for Christmas, just poked it a little with his nose to tell me he appreciated the gesture.
Do you know that once—it was the first anniversary of Harold’s death—I was in the kitchen and I started to cry. I was fixing supper, thinking how well I’d managed so far on my own, and the next minute I was blubbering. Well, he’d been sitting on the stool waiting for tidbits, and he got up and walked across the table and began to lick my tears. Have you ever heard of anything so un-cat-like? I thought it must be curiosity—he wanted to know how tears tasted—and in anger I pushed him away. But he came back and sat beside me, and in his eyes was a look of such sympathy, I could have sworn he knew my pain.
Pain—we’ve both had enough of that lately.
“How much is he suffering, Dr. Brennan?”
The vet stroked his hand over the thinning fur and shrugged. “I can’t say. The limp’s definitely worsening, yet he manages to get around. Animals can be quite stoic, not unlike certain people.” He raised his eyebrows at me, and I snorted in acknowledgement. “You’re giving him all the medicine?”
“Doctor, between us we have so many pills, I’m surprised I haven’t swallowed a few of his by mistake.”
Dr. Brennan chuckled. Then he said, kindly, “There’s no need to rush this, but maybe you should prepare yourself for the possibility of euthanasia.”
“I suppose.” I added my petting to his, the tremor in my arm making the motion a feeble effort. “Kate’s found some little apartment in an assisted-living community, but it’s No Pets Allowed. I just can’t keep up with the house. It needs major repairs to the roof and the heating system. We’re all getting old, Dr. Brennan, the house, the cat and me. I only wish we could all hang on together until the end.”
“Well, you’re pretty close,” he said with a last gentle stroke. “Eighteen years is a fine long life for a cat.”
“And I have taken good care of him, haven’t I?”
“No one could have done better.”
Well then, damn it, where is he, the ingrate? It’s freezing with this door open, shouting into the night. Is he hiding in one of his lairs, like behind the forsythia bush where he waits for unsuspecting birds? Not that he’s caught any lately. But he used to, even though the bell I put on his collar makes him clank like a cow. Neutering did not turn puss into a fat, lazy house pet. I’d watch him from the window, stalking his territory with the powerful glide of a jungle predator, sniffing the myriad sharp and subtle smells of our noble half-acre. He would bring me feathered offerings, held delicately between his teeth, and deposit them on the porch steps. At first, I ranted and stamped my foot. “Don’t do that! Bad cat! No, no! You’re not supposed to catch birds.” He’d twitch his ears to flick away the irrelevant words, while his eyes absorbed my strange behavior. But of course I am, his expression replied. Now please do your part. Then he would sit, tabby tail curved neatly around his paws, wide face gravely awaiting my pleasure. “All right, good boy,” I would murmur and stroke his head, accepting his answering purr. After a while, I learned to do it right.
Well, the birds will be safe now. Hell, what am I going to do if he’s lost out there in the snow? Everything’s ready, the painting, the note for Kate, the gas valve set to turn. Could he possibly have read the SOLD sign and decided to hit the road? After all these years, how could he think I’d leave him that way? Of course, we’re going out together, you old scoundrel—if I could just lay my hands on you. Now I’ll have to put on my jacket and go outside to search—
What? Do you mean to tell me you’ve been here curled up on the bed all along? I don’t remember letting you in. Look at the fur all over the quilt! You’re the only animal I know who can shed in the dead of winter. All right then, let’s do it, and don’t give me that look. Hmpf! How was I to know you were waiting for me?
(Copyright©Arliss Ryan, 1994)
Sidewalks, Fall/Winter 1994-95