The Cat Lady
“I just love the cat,” Louise said to the mail lady. “A rescue,” she boasted. Louise’s face- all cheekbones and forehead- was serious with conviction. “My cat, a rescue!” she yelled to the elderly neighbor slapping her cane down the sidewalk. She hung a bony finger in the air, pointing to her house as though transformed into a sanctuary.
Most of the days, the cat was nowhere to be found, hidden between the bags lining the stairwell, stacks of books, duplicate pots and unnecessary pans. Since Roger left, she nurtured a preoccupation for filling every empty space, any spot that could potentially remind her there was only one coffee mug on the breakfast table, only one pair of slippers beneath the bed. She had collapsed in grieving pain over the smell – or lack thereof – from the hamper, the absence of his bib overalls wreaking of fish from long hours on a trawler, and in that instant slid inescapably into a dedicated era of disguising the void. The cat left clues as to its whereabouts -chewed edges of old check books and white strands of fur on the pile of sweaters. “What a dud!” she yelled, after jiggling a ribbon tied to a clear stick with no response. She chucked the plastic doo dad across the room.
After waking in the armchair with a sore neck, Louise ambled down the hallway and plodded into her bedroom to retire for the rest of the night. She was awoken again a few hours later to the feel of the cat’s large body on her back. The sunrise peeked through cracks in the aluminum blinds. Not once during the three weeks the cat lived in her house had it approached for a rub, a pet, a brushing. And now, at the break of dawn, the cat made its appearance, purring as though they were comrades. How long would it stay there, she wondered? What on Earth was it doing? At the first rustle of the covers, it scampered down the hall introverted and manic.
It would have meant nothing, of course, had Louise not read about those nursing home felines with the extraordinary ability to smell out death. A sickening sixth sense. Lingering in the hallways, meowing for treats at the nursing station, until the aroma of cells breaking down in spleens and livers and hearts, would send their paws clapping down hallways to locate the liability and sit sternly at the end of the poor sap’s bed. Weighing down their yellowed comforters with the morbid message of “you’re next” and purring upon their ankles until a last breath. Was the cat trying to tell her something? Was she at the end of her rope?
The next night, she made sure to make it to the bedroom for a proper night’s sleep. She grabbed the lump of blanket at the foot of the bed and spread it over her tiny body, once much bigger and stronger, she recalled. While Roger used to trawl the Salish Sea, she was stationed on the tender, heaving 30-pound Chinook onto the scale, packing them with ice, her fingers numb beneath her orange rubber gloves. After the big runs, she returned to being a housewife, a mother, the salt spray imprinted in her pores, an intertwined sense of pride and peace. A life full of attachments: to people, to nature, to the weather, to her children, to the sound of Roger’s breathing in bed at night – knowing he was safe and warm.
She reached into the drawer of her nightstand, fumbling until she caught the straps of a ratty night mask. In one last moment of the day, she peered from the bottom edge searching for the cat. Her head cocked back quite far, eyes opened fully like glass beads fearing the drop of a hammer. With no sign of the furry feline, she fell asleep comfortably.
When she awoke in the morning the cat was on her back, and with one exaggerated, pugnacious reflex, she shook her whole being, sending the cat off the bed in a panic.
“How’s the cat?” asked the mail lady, sliding a stack of coupons and credit card advertisements towards her along the porch wall.
“Funny thing that one. Funny thing,” Louise announced. She rubbed her finger beneath her nose as though she had the sniffles. “Ever hear about those cats? Those cats that can predict the future?”
The mail lady, already two steps away, looked back and raised her brow, “Like some sort of fortune teller cat? Or a wizard?”
“No, God no what do you think I am, crazy? I’m talking about those cats that,” she paused with emphasis, “in a house full of old people, pick the one closest to death and lay with them until they die.”
“Is your cat some kind of magic cat?”
“Look, I’m not talking about my cat. I love my cat.” She stood from the rocking chair and with a whip of her neck and a brusque purse of her lips, said goodbye. Before slamming the door, she added, “It’s a rescue.”
She shuffled through the hallway, each member of her family staring blankly at her from the picture frames. Her great-grandfather and his wife Marlena. The Waymouth cousins digging in the sand for clams. Roger playing the piano. “It’s fine!” she yelled to their beady eyes, scurrying to the far countertop to locate her wallet. “It’s still fine. Nothing has changed,” she asserted as her hands shook to reach the old piece of leather. The pile of keys flattened as she searched for the one to her car. The cat appeared as quiet as an apparition, standing on the landing to the basement. The floorboard creaked as Louise approached, her back hunched to make herself small, her fingers splayed in every direction to encourage a pat on the head, and in an instant the cat disappeared. “You cockalorum!” she hissed. She would go get answers herself. If the cat was indeed one of those cats, she needed to know.
The pet store wasn’t far, but the bus line would require a transfer and she didn’t have that kind of time, given the potential veracity of the feline death threat. There was also the question about dragging a purse full of live rodents home with her on a crowded weekend route. She resolved to drive. It had been years, but just like a bicycle the rhythm returned. Pride trickling into her being, as she made the left-hand turn into the plaza. The little oil lamp illuminated while she parked. Perhaps tomorrow, assuming the cat was normal, she would have time to pull into a Jiffy Lube.
The store smelled of mopping soap and kibble. A teenager in an apron cleaning the smudges of tiny hands prints shuffled along the bottom tanks.
“Mom used to bring us here. We got enough nature out with Dad and she wanted to show us the softer side, the pet side. Domesticity, I guess. That sort of thing,” she said to the girl. “We never got any,” her face content with memory, “– fish, that is- for a tank.”
“Do you need help with something?” she asked.
“You’ve got to be truly ready to take on another being. Timing is very important.”
“Where are the mice?” Louise asked suspiciously.
Louise wandered in the direction of the woman’s finger. After she collected her specimens, an aisle of shiny tin cans, alternating in every color of the rainbow, lured her down another aisle. Each can came adorned with a picture of a well-groomed cat, one paw in the air, smiling through its cat face, looking healthy and prim and proper. Perhaps she should purchase some cat food, some real cat food, perhaps the tuna and rice she fed her cat was too monotonous. She took can after can, stacking them upon each other until a two-foot-tall cat food tower wiggled erratically in her grip. She pushed the cans and the wiggling box of mice onto the checkout counter.
“What’s your cat’s name?” the cashier asked through cracking gum.
The thought of naming the cat never dawned on Louise. “Crystal,” she blurted.
“Aww, she must be sweet,” the lady smiled, pushing cans across the blinking red lasers.
Was it a girl cat? How does one inspect a cat’s gender? “Chrysanthemum. I said Chrysanthemum,” she hurried. Her favorite flowers. Perhaps it was a bit more gender neutral.
“Wow, quite the mouthful!”
Quite the mouthful? How dare she insult her cat’s name! The cat deserved more dignity, she thought, more respect. “It is a rescue,” she asserted, grabbing her receipt and hurrying out of the store.
Chrysanthemum hid beneath the couch while Louise set the mice in three separate areas. The one white as a ghost went into an old cage she found in the basement with peanut butter crackers, pinky white went with handfuls of cereal into a laundry basket she flipped upside down, lined with netting, and taped to the floor. The last one, the skinniest one, stayed in the box without food or water. In just two days, ghost and pinky were plumping up and the skinny one was sluggish with red stains like the mark of death around its eyes and nose.
“Go!” she begged the cat. “Use your powers. Sit with the one that’s next.” It stared back at her, not even cocking it’s head like one would assume a dumb animal might do when you try to speak English to it. It stared straight at her. Louise rubbed her forehead, aching with a headache, wondering if it were confirmation of the cat’s declaration, a tumor pressing against her frontal lobe waiting for the right time to multiply its deadly cells.
She grabbed the Tylenol and scanned the bottle for an expiration date but eventually gave up, throwing two into the back of her throat. When her head cleared, she wondered if she had gone too far. Perhaps the cat was eager to be a companion but its shy tendencies relinquished it to try to bond only at night. That seemed perfectly cat-like. Louise would need to make an effort to verify the cat’s desire for companionship and officially disprove this death forecast nonsense. Tomorrow, she could make an effort. She spent her whole life providing comfort for two wonderful girls and an adoring husband; simply because she was alone now in some sort of artifact museum of her own creation did not have to mean that she couldn’t provide companionship. She could do it, she told herself.
In the middle of the night, a loud crash sent Louise scampering into the living room. The laundry basket had been pushed across the floor and into the lamp, which crashed and shattered. The box with Skinny also had moved. Chrysanthemum snuck up behind her legs, weaving around her body and pawing at the laundry basket. Adrenaline ran through the mouse in an electrifying array of gymnastics.
“Stupid cat!” Louise grumbled. “Why can’t you just help me out here? I’m trying to figure out if you have super powers!”
Chrysanthemum stood atop the laundry basket and meowed.
“You’re just hunting for a snack.” Louise opened the front door and pushed the cage, box, and basket onto the front porch. “Good luck,” she yelled, opening their entrapments and watching as their tiny bodies scurried into the neighbor’s yard.
In the morning, she got right to work tidying the living room to make a suitable play space for her potential companion. As she hauled the excess out to the porch and then onto the patch of dead grass between the sidewalk and street, the tapping cane of her elderly neighbor put her on notice.
“Are you moving away?” the woman’s voice contorted from deep and raspy to optimistically bright. The smack of the marbled, laminated wood against the cement reverberated from across the street.
Louise grunted, dropping a bundle of sleeping bags. “Cleaning,” she declared.
“Hmm,” the neighbor replied. “Been awhile,” the words blended beneath her breath.
Louise kicked the snowshoes towards the curb before the tower of empty grocery delivery boxes toppled over on it. It had been a while. It had been eighteen years since Roger passed away, taken too soon, a danger of the job. Her harsh work persona, a necessity on the water in those days, the cutthroat attitude that attracted him to her in the first place, slowly overtook the warmth she cultivated in their home, the edges that had softened by true love and childbirth. It had been tidier, of course, when Georgia and Suzanna were around, but they left for university and then to live their own lives, brighter and filled with hope. The clutter didn’t bother Louise. She wasn’t attached to it like those hoarders she saw on the television. It wasn’t what was there that was important, it was what she couldn’t see.
The mail lady approached but Louise slammed the door and hissed something under her breath. Chrysanthemum’s startled jump disclosed its location, under the kitchen table, its body long and hair fluffed in worry. Louise sat down on the living room carpet, swatting small balls of foil and chanting “Come here, come here, come here.”
Chrysanthemum approached cautiously. Like a lacquered oak cabinet, the cat’s back was filled with swirls and stripes of creamy tan. Its citrine eyes, thick white whiskers, the hair on its ears forming a pointy, regal tuft at the tip. White fur lined its nose and throat, parading down its belly and dotting its paws, as crisp and clean as a thick snowfall before the people came. “You’re very pretty,” Louise muttered. In response, it swatted one foil ball a few feet, but it refused to chase after it. After a few failed attempts to engage the cat in some sort of fun, Louise walked to the cupboard and opened a tin of cat food. The feel of Chrysanthemum’s fur against her bare ankles startled her, but also calmed her. “What?” she yelled down to it, “It’s not like I can sit and play all day. I’ve got things to do.”
It would be an understatement to say the computer started up slowly but it took no time at all to locate a Cat Lovers’ forum. She clicked on the second option provided by the search engine, always wary of anything that asserts itself as first place. “Does your cat sleep on your back at night? If so, does it also desire companionship during the day?” Her fingers hovered above the keys, holding back while she pondered the boundary that she dared not cross. “And have you met a cat that can predict death? If so, what actions or characteristics identified its abilities?” Before she hit enter, she reread it and then added, “And how long did the person have to live?” Click.
In the morning, when she awoke, Chrysanthemum was there. Her body quaked with anxiety but the cat remained. Were her cells withering, imploding, dying? Were her organs drooping into mush, her heart like a lazy lump of red flesh ready to call it quits? Had she just gone to a shelter for a cat, the normal way, she could have inquired about its abilities, its past, even its name. But this cat came to her. Calling to her with little meows, little moans about life and the cold outdoors. Scratching endlessly at her back door. And who would want to come into her home? The mess, the overcrowding, the smells of grief and musk. This cat desired to come in, begged. Did it patrol the streets and smell everyone’s future and settle on hers being the most imminent? Did it even smell the elderly neighbor, her nasty eyes – filled with judgment and superiority?
“What do you want from me?” she begged of it. “Should I write a bucket list? How long do I have?” The cat stood. It stretched its fluffy legs, arched its back, and then curled up again, collapsing its weight onto her backside. “You know, I’ve done a lot with my life already. It’s not like I need a bucket list. Have you ever fished in Bristol Bay? Or sewn grasshopper costumes for an entire 3rd grade class? Seen the Lochness Monster? I mean, come on – that’s a joke, Chrys. But boy would we laugh when Roger would throw that plaster thing he made into the water by the kids’ canoe.” She moved slowly, so that the purring cat would not be too afraid, and repositioned herself to sit facing forward and upright. “I have so many stories I could tell you. If I clear out more of this shit, I can show you where Roger once put a hole in the wall trying to kill a mosquito. Or where he slipped on Suzanna’s roller skate and threw his back out for a month – we had to eat so many peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, you know without his fishing income you can’t justify fancy groceries, that we started putting chips and cereal in them just to make dinner more interesting. Speaking of which, you must be hungry.”
Louise got out of bed and reached a can of cat food from above the refrigerator. She made eye contact with the photo of herself on the end of the wall, holding a marlin by its gills, her young children clinging to her legs in simultaneous excitement and fear, her cheeks pushed up to her eyes, almost as though her eyes were closed.
After the grilled salmon flopped onto the ceramic plate, she put on a shirt she found in the spare bedroom closet, it must have been Georgia’s, because it was like new and fitted, along with some trousers. She brushed her white hair down with a splash of water. The local chapter of the Cat Lover’s Forum was having a gathering and to avoid being rude, she really ought to attend.