Cat With a Young Woman
by Bill Prindle
After her fiancé dumped her and married her best friend, Junie was so baffled and hurt she could no longer bear to live in the Vermont town where she’d grown up and to which she’d returned to work and, she thought, to marry.
With a recommendation from the owner of the small advertising agency where she had worked for three years, she moved to Boston where she knew no one. She quickly landed a job as a writer in the marketing department of a software company.
Starting her new life in an unfamiliar city was exciting but lonelier than she’d anticipated. One weekend, she drove to a nearby animal shelter and surveyed the cats available for adoption. The younger cats were lively and appealing, but she chose an older, large tiger cat with an inquisitive gaze. From the scars on his nose and a jagged left ear, the tip of which appeared to have been bitten off, the cat had clearly experienced some hard knocks.
You and me both, she thought.
The attendant said the cat’s name was Fred.
Junie drew close to the cage and said, “How’d you like to live with me, Fred?”
Fred flicked his tail languidly as if in response.
Junie placed him in her new cat carrier, which she had furnished with a fleece bed and cat toys. While driving home, she was startled to hear a voice say, “We’re gonna have a good time, you and me.”
She checked the radio, but it wasn’t on. She peered into the carrier. Fred looked up at her.
“You heard me, hon,” the cat said. “But you gotta decide if you’re okay with a talking cat, because if it freaks you out or you think I’m your ticket to fame and fortune, turn around right now and take me back.”
Junie pulled over to the side of the road. She was feeling a bit light-headed.
“So what’s it gonna be?” he asked.
“I’m surprised, is all,” she said.
“Of course you are.”
“Do you talk a lot?”
“You want to talk, we’ll talk. You want quiet, open a window and let me roam.”
“Well,” said Junie, “do you have a favorite brand of cat food?”
He said he wasn’t particular, but if he were to name a preference, he actually liked canned dog food.
“Not the organic stuff, though,” he added. “It plugs me up, if you get my meaning.”
* * *
Living with Fred was less peculiar that Junie thought it would be. Most evenings she’d stretch out on the couch, read mysteries, or solve crossword puzzles, Fred dozing next to her or curled up on her feet, his warmth and purring providing her with a reassuring companionship.
After two months, Fred observed that Junie didn’t go out much.
“You’re all the company I need,” she said. “Plus you keep my feet warm.”
“Don’t kid a kidder. What’s going on?”
She confessed that since her fiancé had rejected her, she still felt wounded and wary of dating.
“I’m not sure I want to be around anyone else,” she said, “at least for a while.”
“We’re perfect for each other then,” the cat said. “Sometimes I don’t care much for people either, present company excluded.”
“Did you say ‘purrrrr-fect’?” Junie said smiling.
“Hon, you’re a laugh and a half.”
* * *
When Junie occasionally wanted to vent her frustrations about work, Fred listened without interrupting and asked questions that showed he was paying attention. She appreciated how he didn’t try to fix her problems but let her ramble on until she figured out a solution on her own. On rare occasions, he made suggestions.
When her department was reorganized and she was assigned to a difficult and demanding manager, Junie thought about applying for a job at another company.
“I don’t want to deal with a mean boss, Fred.”
“Let’s think this over,” he said. “From what you’ve told me, this guy is a pain because he has high standards for himself and the people who work for him. So my advice is, you walk into his office and tell him you know he expects a lot from himself and you’re the same way and you want to help him and the department succeed. Whatever he needs you to do, you’ll do it. He’ll eat it up. Of course, then you’d better deliver. ”
Junie liked challenges and decided Fred’s idea was worth a try. “It’s a pretty bold thing for me to do, though,” she said. “Not really like me.”
“Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t. Let’s find out.”
The next morning, Fred wouldn’t let her leave the apartment until she’d rehearsed what she was going to say.
“You’re gonna be nervous, but he’ll like that. Shows respect. But you gotta say the words with confidence. Conceive it, believe it, achieve it, right? Okay, one more time.”
That evening Junie came home bubbling with excitement. Her boss had been so charmed by what she’d said, he’d taken her to lunch and asked her for ideas about upcoming projects. He also assigned her to the product launch team.
“Fred, you’re my magic feather! I couldn’t have done it without you.” She picked him up and kissed him on the nose. “Let’s celebrate! Is there something special I can make you for dinner?”
“Salmon would be nice,” he said.
She ran to the deli down the block and returned with some lox for him, bagels and cream cheese for her.
Over dinner, she asked him how long he’d been talking.
“Long time,” he said. “An autistic kid read to me a lot and that’s how I picked it up. But I didn’t talk to everyone I lived with. For instance, I didn’t say a word to the last guy I bunked with until he did something so stupid I had to speak up.”
“What’d you say?”
“‘Get down, you idiot.’”
“What was he doing?”
“Standing on the top of a step ladder while he painted the ceiling.”
“Did he fall off when he heard you talk?”
“No, but then he thought he’d make a million bucks off me, put me on television or whatever, so that night I beat it.”
“Don’t worry,” she said, “I’d never do that.”
Fred recounted how he’d alternated between living as “an alley cat,” and “a pussycat.”
“I keep my options open,” he said. “If I feel boxed in or bored, I’m gone. Sometimes, though, it’s just time to move on.”
“I hope you’re not thinking of leaving me,” she said.
“Nah,” he said, “we got work to do.”
* * *
Junie remained leery of dating, but finally accepted a fix-up, a Saturday lunch date with a guy named Darryl. He came by her apartment and waited on the couch while she finished putting on her make-up. Fred jumped onto his lap, sniffed, and stared into Darryl’s eyes.
“What’s with your cat?” Darryl called out.
“That’s Fred. Don’t worry, he’s friendly.”
When Darryl tried to pat him, Fred hissed and arched his back. Darryl froze and called for help. Junie lifted Fred off Darryl’s lap, carried him into the kitchen, and opened the window.
“What’s wrong?” she said.
Fred leapt onto the windowsill and said, “The guy’s a loser,” before stepping out onto the fire escape.
Fred was waiting for her when she came home.
“You were right,” she said. “He talked about his ex-wife all through lunch and then said we should split the check, even though he’s the one who asked me out. How’d you know he’d be such a jerk?”
Fred replied that he had a lot of experience with jerks. “I’ll help you sort ’em out.”
* * *
Since she’d been a little girl, Junie had loved puzzles of all kinds — jigsaw puzzles, crosswords, Sudoku, numerical problems, and so on. She’d seldom met anyone who enjoyed working on jigsaw puzzles, so she resigned herself to a life of solitary puzzling.
When she spread out an eight-hundred piece image of Monet’s water lilies on her card table, Fred was intrigued. She explained what was involved. With his hind legs resting on a chair seat and his forepaws on the table, he helped her find the edge pieces and then worked on one corner while she worked on the opposite.
“You really like puzzles, huh?” he said.
“I like how they make me feel when I’m working on them. Everything fits together and makes sense. Unlike my life.”
“Kind of a solo activity. You know, lonely.”
“Yeah, I suppose so,” she sighed. “It’s much more fun puzzling with someone.”
He slid a piece next to its mates and she fitted it into place.
“Teamwork makes the dream work,” he said.
“Oh my gosh — Fred, you’re a laugh and a half!” she said and scratched him under his chin, in the exact spot that made him close his eyes in contentment. “I’m so glad I met you.”
* * *
On Fridays, Junie’s work friends sometimes gathered at a nearby pub for drinks and dinner. They always asked her to come along. She didn’t drink much and would politely decline. But one fine spring evening, not wanting to appear unfriendly, she joined them. She enjoyed herself and was relieved that no one minded that she nursed her drink for two hours.
Over the course of a few Fridays, she got to know a guy in accounting named Bob. He had a nice enough sense of humor, and even though he was already balding at twenty-eight, she thought he was sort of handsome. One night, as the group broke up, Junie mentioned she was working on a 1000-piece puzzle, an image of Mont Blanc. Bob said he loved jigsaw puzzles.
“Really?” she said, her blue eyes lighting up. “I could use some help. If you want, I’ll make us some coffee.” She immediately blushed that she might have been too forward and sounded needy.
When they entered her apartment, Fred was asleep on the bed.
Junie brewed some coffee and brought out a tray with two mugs, milk and sugar, and Mint Milanos. She and Bob sat next to each other on the couch, but Bob didn’t seem that interested in the puzzle and slipped his arm around her and nuzzled her neck. She giggled and gave him a little push.
“Work on your corner, Bob.”
“Did you really invite me up here to work on a puzzle?” he said as he leaned into her, trying to kiss her. He undid the top button of her shirt.
“Bob, cut it out!” she said. “I mean it. Stop!” She tried to disentangle herself from him, but he wouldn’t let her go.
Just as he said, “I like hard to get. It adds spice,” Fred launched himself at Bob, landing on his back and raking his claws across Bob’s shiny scalp. Bob flailed wildly to get his hands on the cat, but Fred dug in his claws as Bob lurched upright and knocked over the card table, sending puzzle pieces, milk, sugar, Milanos, and coffee flying across the room.
“Fred, let go!” Junie shouted and tried to peel him off Bob’s shoulders, but Fred had his forepaws wrapped around Bob’s neck and was trying to sink his teeth into Bob’s ear. As Bob spun around, he knocked Junie to the floor, and finally pulled Fred up and over his head and hurled him into the kitchen where Fred landed hard against a cabinet.
“You should have that cat put down!” Bob said, dabbing at his bleeding scalp. Junie rushed into the kitchen to see if Fred were injured. As she cradled Fred in her arms, he curled back his lips, revealing his fangs, and growled wildly at Bob, who ran for the door and slammed it behind him.
“Oh, Fred, are you okay?” She set him down on the couch and sat next to him, stroking his back.
“A little banged up,” he said. “How about you?”
“I’m going to have a bruise on my butt.”
“The apartment’s a mess,” he said.
“Doesn’t matter. I’ll clean it up tomorrow. Come on.”
She carried Fred into the bedroom, placed him gently on the comforter, and lay down next to him, resting her hand lightly on his warm flank to feel the soft rise and fall of his breathing.
“Thanks for rescuing me, Fred,” she said wearily. “I love you.”
His deep purring seemed to reverberate throughout the apartment and soon they fell asleep.
* * *
Copyright © 2016 by Bill Prindle