One day, Rufus simply stopped killing mice.
He’d once taken great pride in his work, sitting for days in front of the oven, waiting patiently—stealthily still—for a mouse to venture out from under the warmer-drawer or in the recess between the oven and cabinets. The target would poke its head out several times before running out and back in. This is where most cats would lose patience and, consequently, their quarry. But not Rufus. He waited—statuesque and frozen—until the mouse walked out and felt comfortable enough to sniff around for food.
He didn’t pounce; he struck. Rufus would transform from a meditating cloud, sitting up beside the cabin’s kitchen wall, into a gracefully immediate death, striking an utterly unsuspecting subject. He’d promptly eat most of his prey, saving only tiny bite to trade for treats. Which I would give him. He had a job to do, and he was good at it.
Then, one day, I came home to find Rufus sitting on the table, looking toward his food dish. The dish had been fine china that I bought at a Goodwill, and the food was multi-flavored hard chunks of petrified meat shaped like the mammals it supposedly tasted like. The dish was on the floor, and the food was being eaten by a mouse that swiftly ran away when she saw me.
She? Yeah, the mouse.
Rufus looked at me. I had disturbed something, a hunt I had thought at the time. Regardless, Rufus was obviously angry. Not just a little perturbed. He was pillow-humping mad. He meowed at me, a quick and violent meow like he’d just coughed up flaming brimstone. He, then, turned up his little hairy lip, jumped down from the table, and made his way over to the couch where he had his way with a blue throw pillow. He humped it hard and violent, like it owed him money. Ten seconds later, he left it there on one side of the couch and staggered over to the other side to take an angry nap.
Far from being a fluke, Rufus’s affection for the mouse seemed to escalate. At first, I thought he’d just spilled a few bits of food around the bowl. I cleaned that up, but then, he pulled out more, making a trail from the old console radio to the bowl. And he would sit on the table and watch.
One day, I came home and stopped in my tracks at the kitchen’s threshold, watching Rufus watch the mouse. He was sitting, shoulders raised above his back as he does when he strikes. He’s back to his old form, I thought. Relaxed and ready…. But the mouse ate in peace until she’d had her fill. Then, she spun clockwise in a tight circle, sniffing the floor. A gray mouse with white wiggly whiskers turning—sniffing or maybe bowing. Finally, in fits and sputters, she ran back past the trail of food Rufus had left her—ran off to the console radio that she apparently lived behind or in. I didn’t know at the time. I hadn’t opened it since my partner died.
She’d been an antiquer, a swapper, a trader. She had a weakness for the obsolete, things that’d not only passed their usefulness but that made people wonder how they were ever really useful. She collected those Oliver typewriters that look like a medieval mousetrap. We had a console radio in every room of the house. She’d traded one of her Burroughs Adding Machines for a white and gray cat. The cat—Rufus—came with an enormous pet bed that was mainly white with blue dog paws for decoration. I don’t know why a dog bed came with a cat that wouldn’t sleep in it, but I have my suspicions. Rufus never slept in the bed but always lay beside it, and unlike the rest of the soft, fluffy living room doo-dads, he never humped it.
Her collections contained legacies without the burden of purpose. Her cancer, conversely, was clear in its purpose. And efficient. Quick and yet merciless.
At any rate, Rufus was clearly done with killing mice.
One day, Rufus simply stopped not peeing in the house.
Several weeks before that, though, I’d basically stopped walking through the dining room, which had become the domain for Rufus and his new friend. At that point, when the mouse found time for Rufus, he and she even ate together.
Well, not together-together. That’d be insane. Rufus had managed to pull several bits of food up to the table, and when the mouse came out, they ate together—at the same time and about four feet away from one another. I witnessed this when I peaked in from the threshold between the living room and the dining room. The dining room had become an inner sanctum, like the inner sanctums where only the high priests can go. I went in there only to re-food the dish; Rufus left the sanctum only to be let out. He refused to use a litter box. We had one. Well, I had one. It was immaculate.
When I wanted something from the kitchen, I went out the front door and came in the side. Even when it rained. Sometimes I would be hungry but would decide that the effort was not worth the pay-off. I lost ten pounds. Oddly, even from a distance, I could tell that the mouse had gained weight, giving me hope that maybe Rufus was just fattening her up.
Extreme as these measures may seem, they kept Rufus from violating the throw pillows. I didn’t feel right moving them from the couch. They weren’t mine. And this is what made me mad the day I came home to the pungent smell of cat urine.
The urine, by the way, was not his most important legacy.
If you’re fortunate and don’t know this smell, don’t imagine regular urine. Cat urine doesn’t smell like other urine. It smells more like a house that has burned down a month or two ago. The fire department water has led to mildew, and everything in the pantry has rotted. If you’re not an insurance appraiser and you don’t know what that situation smells like, it smells like cat urine. Like guano, cat urine should have its own name. It doesn’t waft like a smell but rather pervades like….
She used to say that I had no focus, especially when I didn’t want to deal with something.
It was everywhere—the urine. Little bits—not a lot. Dribbles—at first. My chair, the couch, throw pillows, the remote, the throw rug. Not on the bed. His bed. The one he never slept in.
And he did this every day, piddles becoming puddles despite going out two times a day and once at night, until one day I was sitting in my chair in the living room watching the mouse eat. I could see it from my chair. To be honest, I had moved the dish three-quarters of an inch every day until his dish—their dish—could be seen from my chair. Like Rufus, I kept my distance but for some reason developed a habit of eating when she ate. It just seemed polite until one day the mouse stopped eating and ran to the console before I heard a thud. A hard, dead thud like a weight dropping.
What has Rufus thrown into the floor now?
Nothing unexpected was on the floor except Rufus. Standing, he looked straight past the food dish into nothing. He wasn’t looking at the wall or where the mouse had gone or at anything. He was just looking. Not really seeing at first. Not blind. Not yet.
Rufus was a white cat with gray, smoky streaks. His leg furs fluffed out like he was wearing fancy pants, and he could jump from tree to tree like a squirrel when he was younger. He was light, until that one day when he dropped from the table like a weight. He staggered, then, toward the front door, but as I rushed to open the door, he flooded the throw rug with urine. This is the first—not the last—time I saw him do this. It was also the first—not the loudest—time he let out a terrible yell.
I tried to make him feel better. I petted his little white head, but he didn’t want it. I said words, but he didn’t listen. I opened the door, and he moved slowly out. Before I went out with him—a new activity we would share for…for a while, I noticed his mouse had peeked out from the console. Puns suck, but she knew there was nothing she could say to console him. The distance we keep is mandated either by the gods or the lack thereof.
When your partner dies during a pandemic, as it turns out, it doesn’t matter that she doesn’t have the virus. You can’t go in there. You can’t really say goodbye. You just stand there under a console like a mouse, following the rules because you don’t want to upset the patient. The nurse will remind you of this.
I’ll spare you the vet visits because I don’t want you to hate all veterinarians. Some are good, but the James Herriot method is bullshit. Retro is chic unless you’re doing retro health care. No one wants retro health care.
Metaphors suck, too, but I believe Rufus had some type of cancer because he eventually went blind, so I had to carry him out to the yard. He would sniff around and find his way to a narrow corner overlooking the valley. He wasn’t looking at anything, but the breeze was always stronger there. His little fluffy fur and his fancy pants fluttered in the breeze like feathers. He stared out into the void, preparing us both for it. Blind, he found the same spot every trip.
Then one day, I came home to find Rufus lying under the console radio. He’d peed for the first time in the dining room, and I heard squeaks for the first time inside the console. They sounded like painful little squeaks.
I picked Rufus up and washed him off, trying in vain to rid Rufus of that urine smell. He pretended not to like it, and I took him outside. I expected to see blood on his bushy gray mustache. There was no blood on his bushy gray mustache.
We sat one last time feeling the breeze overlooking the valley where, today, a small pine tree grows above a sacred place. I wonder if “red” has any meaning in the word “sacred.” Usually, anything sacred requires…
She used to say that I had no focus, especially when I didn’t want to deal with something.
One day, after planting a pine tree above a cardboard box that lay deep within a rocky plot, I walked back in the house and wished that Rufus had simply not stopped peeing in the house.
One day, Rufus’s friend wasn’t fat no more, so I set traps.
I had to finish the job. Just once, I wanted something to end on my terms with patience and focus.
I placed some bits of cat food, mostly shaped like fish, inside little yellow-brown one-way-door traps my partner had bought before she traded an antique adding machine for a cat. When I came home to find Rufus’s friend making a ruckus in one of the traps, I scooped three baby mice out of the eight-track holder in the console radio. They were wiggling around blind, naked, and hungry. I put the whole family in a small cage that my partner had bought for a bird she never owned. It was oversized like Rufus’s dog bed, but the mice would have to use the cage. Distance is important.
I took the family out to sit with me by the pine tree and look out over the valley. This became our new habit for a few weeks. One day, even the babies were eating little bits of food shaped like various mammals. They had grown bigger, and Rufus’s partner had weaned them.
They needed their distance, and they’d grown big enough. I knew the rain wouldn’t drown Rufus’s legacies, so I set them free in a world Rufus had made better for all of us.