“I know you think I’m crazy, but I’ve found myself.”
He’d gone over and was in real trouble; I mean Jack Nicholson Shining trouble. And when he said crazy I heard a whisper in my ear—you are NOT a trained psychologist. Yes, beyond my capability to help, way beyond.
Yet, I grew up with my kid brother; I took care of him all the way through high school. Our dad worked at the mill double time, and Mom passed when we were both kids. So it was up to me, Dad said, when he wasn’t around, which was always. It was the little things I remembered more than the bad stuff: making James pancakes with blueberry syrup, packing him up with his Spiderman lunch box, dropping him at school. Hang in there kid. But this cat thing? The best approach was tread lightly.
And now the Brooklyn apartment showed worrying signs. The dishes piled up were actually crusty, clothes were discarded on the floor, and the walls were bare. The window (only one) was covered with what looked like tar paper. When night came, I saw why—the motel across the way blinked ‘VACANCY’ in red letters, a pink glow pulsated into the room. Yes. tread lightly.
So I said, “I don’t think you’re exactly crazy. What does crazy even mean James? I do think you need to see someone.”
James didn’t give me a response. He rose from the dirty white sheet covering the couch, strolled to the kitchen, and opened the refrigerator. The white interior light spilled out, his face blank. He was a tall man, powerfully built. And then seeing his arm muscle ripple as he drank from a half-gallon milk carton, his neck muscles flexing with each gulp, it brought back how he moved when we were young. Graceful. An athlete. He finished the carton and tossed it in the sink.
And what exactly was it with the cats? He’d never really told me. Dodged the question. Four, no, six: one on the couch, was that a Siamese with all four legs sprawled out (how do they even do that?), a tabby at the window ignoring me looking like a baby lion, a poofy gray by the door grooming disgustingly, a black in the liter box with his (why his?) back arched. The hairs on my arms tickled.
I’d never known my brother to have pets and now, what was he, not a cat lady but a cat man? And the landlord? Do they even allow pets? A tawney with a white diamond on his chest rubbed my right calf as it moved against me, padded by, then turned and moved back against my leg again.
My brother came back to the end of the couch and sat on the arm. He looked like he did back when we were kids; the time he confessed about stealing all the Christmas tree lights in the neighborhood; just a prank, but the police brought him home. He had the ‘I’m guilty and nobody knows this but you, and especially don’t tell Dad’ look.
He said, “I went to this woman a year ago when all this started. She told me I was depressed. But I don’t feel depressed.”
Best to get it out on the table I thought at the time. “But James. Let’s be real. A metamorphoses of some kind? You are not, I repeat, NOT turning into some kind of cat. That’s ridiculous.”
“I am though.”
So now my brother was telling me he’s turning into a cat. And that smell! Sour, warm, the odor of sand mixed with urine, permeating. He did look tired. Really tired. Bags under his eyes, a white pallor to his skin. Maybe it’s best to just keep this till morning. I’ll take him to breakfast. No, get up early and clean the kitchen, go out for eggs and fixin’s and bring it back. Like I used to when we were kids. How does it go? Everything looks better with a good nights sleep. “It’s late. We can talk about it tomorrow.”
He nodded agreement. Little did I know. “You’ve got the couch. I’ll get you a blanket.”
“Thanks brother,” I said, thinking we could maybe get back to just being brothers, when we were both sane.
James brought a blanket and pillow for the couch.
“How 'bout we have breakfast tomorrow? I’ll make you pancakes like I used to.”
“Sure. Morning then.”
I made up my bed on the couch, stripped down, picked up the pillow he gave me, smelled it, set it back on the floor, then rolled up my jeans to rest my head on. Yes. Tomorrow we’ll figure this out. As I settled in, the tabby jumped on my feet and curled up. Must like the warmth. A gray cat I hadn’t seen before rested on the back of the couch, another on the arm, a third lay under the coffee table. Cats. Who would have guessed my brother would be a cat person? I drifted off.
I woke at two-fifteen. Going down the hall to use the bathroom I saw the door to my brother’s bedroom barely cracked. A computer monitor glowed at his desk; his dark back was hunched in the chair. Playing computer games in the middle of the night? I peeked through the paint-chipped door; it’s none of my business really, and I was careful not to jostle the door.
What is this, Rosemary’s Baby? He was on his computer; there were no lights on, but one candle burned with wax piled on the desk, just the screen glow and one candle flickering in the dim light. He was wearing headphones, but it was seeing him in the hood that spiked my anxiety with an 'uh oh'. He wore a shiny black hood pulled up over his head, like a slicker. The edges on each side pointed up above his ears—and he was staring in the screen with a low throated hum. I could see he was on Zoom or something. Six screens looked back at him, six hoods with faces under them, six sets of eyes in their monitor's reflection, peering out white from under hoods. Maybe it’s a computer game, I was thinking, hoping, doubting. Bring it up at breakfast. Tread lightly. I stepped back from the door and almost fell, a cat tripped me up between my legs. A quick meow and it padded off. This is out of control. Tomorrow. Tomorrow we need to talk.
The hairs are what woke me, brushing against my lips, bristling, twitching. I opened my eyes and two green-evil orbs glowed at me, so close I could see blooded veins, feral looking eyes above a snout, sniffing my face, the nose crinkling, the room strobing in the pink light. My elbow lashed out, a reflex reaction, and I knocked the cat away, a dead hit, flipping it through the air. It landed on its feet, turned back, crouched, hair straight up on its back, sharp white teeth in a snarling maw, a low growling. A claw swiped across my face, a weight thudded into my chest, claws dragged down my belly. I could feel warm blood dripping down past my rib cage. As I rose, full strength, in a panicked scream (who wouldn’t?) a dark figure fell on me, pinning my arms to the couch. James’ white-gray sweating face was right in front of me, his garlic breath, his eyes dead. For no reason, I remembered for a second when we were kids, him big enough to pin me down with his legs on my arms, letting his spit drip slowly onto my forehead, my mouth, letting the drips hesitate, then fall one by one, taking his time. Brothers.
But this was different. This was not playtime. The biggest black cat I’d ever seen, six feet if an inch crouched in next to him. Sure, I know you're asking. Six feet? Maybe I was out of it by then. Maybe. James put the open palm of his hand across my forehead and held my head steady, his elbow hard against my shoulder. The huge cat leaned in; a foul rotten milk smell struck me. I gagged. The snout got closer; James held tighter. From the throat of a black muzzle came a vibrating hum rising in pitch, nostrils flaring, excited. And then it was just the cat. I flailed my legs, tried to spiral my body, and could tell I was kicking cats. I could feel the bodies, them springing back with their claws in my naked calf, my thighs. I could smell the fever, a rotten jungle humid rot. Cats were all around me then, squealing their frenzy, like fighting for fresh meat. And then a matted, quivering, slimy fur was on my mouth, around my mouth, and pressing in, tighter, tighter still, a hollow rushing sound as I realized the air was being sucked out of my lungs. I was coughing, gasping, hacking to get a breath. But there was no breath and I was held tight. I tried to pull in air but the force was pulling, pulling, out my lungs. I know I passed out. I thought I was gone and welcomed it to be honest.
It was daylight when I woke. The tar paper was off the window and sunlight poured in. I was lying on the couch and James was sitting by my side gently dabbing the claw marks on my body with a tissue. He dipped the blooded tissue in the water, squeezed, rinsed, wiped a little more.
“Some of these may need stitches,” he said. “Let’s just keep a compress on them and keep a watch for a day or two.” He threw a white cloth onto my chest. Two cats at the far end of the couch, a gray and a black, stared at me with slowly blinking eyes.
I tried to get up. James quickly took his index finger and pointed up, like saying a quick ‘no no’. I tried harder and an empty feeling in my chest hit me. For a second I couldn’t get air. Then it eased.
“Let’s not get frisky,” James said. “Not till we have an understanding you and I.”
When he said 'you and I' he glanced quickly at me, like it hurt to look in my eyes. It was long enough though and I didn’t need a psychology degree. The James I had known, the brother I raised, the innocent kid who stole Christmas decorations, was gone. In his place was this thing. Or maybe I was crazy? If I wasn’t crazy why couldn’t I just get up and leave? Why, with just a raise of his finger, could he suck the air out of my lungs? I’ve thought about that for a long time.”
James leaned in and sniffed around my ears. He whispered, “so what do cat people like you do with cats?”
“I don’t know, James, what do they do?” I was exhausted.
“Jamsey is my name. Call me Jamsey. Cat people take care of cats, ’s what they do. And you are going to take care of me.”
James handed me a vanilla file of all things. "Here are all my cat needs." He opened the file like his Christmas list when we were kids. "For me and my friends: blue, not white balls of yarn, a Goody Box Springtime Toys and Treats Basket, and here, the exact brand of milk we need. We're lactose intolerant. Well, it’s all in there. My bank and routing numbers and weekly draft amounts. Yes, it’s all in there.”
“What if I don’t want to?” My chest was emptied. I gagged. I struggled for air like being hung with a rope. Then it eased up.
From nowhere, the gray cat jumped on my chest with a half-eaten dead mouse in its teeth, the smell acidic, bitter, putrid.
“Oh, Tommy loves you! He’s bringing you a gift. He’s so proud. You should be honored.” The cat dropped the dead mouse on my neck. It was wet. “Now what is it cats don’t do? It’s an easy answer.”
“I don’t know. You tell me.” Something collapsed in my mind. I just let go, ok with whatever he wanted. At some point you know who you are. At moment, right then, I knew who I was. A cat person.
James picked up the tawney and stroked his head between his ears. “They don’t work. They lie in the sun, they eat, they defecate, they ruin your couch with their scratching. But what they don’t do is work. For that we have cat people. And YOU are a cat person. When you get back from your shopping get the place tidied up, empty the litter, you know. Pay particular attention to the hair balls under the bathroom sink I noticed. Don’t bother me. I will be napping on the roof in the sun.”