Not That Kind of Cat Lady
by Heather J. Frederick
He was the one: the legend, the myth, the world-famous cat who ruled the streets and ate creamed salmon from polished silver bowls, he who refused his box unless it was lined with the completed crossword from The New York Times (Jerri had learned last week’s was okay). He disappeared for months, only to show up with new scars, half his remaining tail, and an air of mystery. He chased rats, chased cars, chased rats from cars. For all she knew, he smoked cigars and played poker with Labrador retrievers in dimly-lit halls of ill repute. Most certainly he won.
Borders held no meaning for him. As in, none. If he were human, he’d be the kind who carried passports from five different countries in five different names; as it was he could show up on either side of a wall at will, yet when Jerri was up to her elbows in chopped onions, he’d sit at her door and howl. If she opened it, he’d run away and try the same trick someplace else.
Everyone was glad he was someone else’s, until they saw the holes in their gardens and nests in their sheds. In winter, huddled under the deepest down, there was nothing like the flesh-crawling skitter of near-weightless paws to make you appreciate a mouser. They called him a cad, a rascal, a scoundrel, and worse, a predator, and of course they were right on all counts.
And then there was the pee. His was as pungent as her famed Limburger garlic pâté, but decidedly inappropriate for guests. Henry, her once-fiancé, had declared the screened porch a level-one biohazard, but it was her house so he couldn’t say much. The cat was, let’s be honest, a dirty secret, one she could never tell her mother about. But he looked like that Egyptian statue, like that Roman god, looked right through you like you weren’t even there, as if he weren’t even there. She honestly never knew what he was looking at, but he looked ruggedly magnificent doing it; she’d always had a thing for black cats. And despite having his pick of terroirs, he always ended up back in her yard. She liked to think it was her cooking.
Then there was the time she left the door open to air out a burnt avocado-bacon experiment and, two days later, found him in the closet on the second shelf from the top, tucked out of sight on a cashmere sweater. Henry hadn’t been happy when she installed the cat door, but it wasn’t like she wanted him trapped in the house again.
Their relationship might have survived that, if not for the blizzard. Sharing one’s house with a terrified cat was a lot to ask of any man, but nine days pushed both their limits. She’d never had to provide regular meals to anyone but herself — Henry, a hospitalist, preferred the night shift — much less clean a litter box. The cat had clearly never used one but eventually recognized its usefulness when the only alternative was seven feet of ice and snow. Lining it with the pile of old crosswords was an act of desperation but seemed to help. Half that week he spent cowering under the bed and the rest yowling from on high, daring her to make a grab for the sweater. Neither she nor Henry could figure out how he got up there, but the real problem was that only she cared about how he got down.
She said it was too far a jump; Henry said cats had nine lives. She said there was no need to go through them recklessly; Henry said that was an odd thing to say about a cat whose appearance suggested he, when not fighting for survival, roamed dog parks, napped under combines, and picked fights with rabid raccoons. She said those were things she couldn’t control and this was something she could, although perhaps she didn’t say it as nicely as she could have.
In the end, what it came down to was that Henry said there was no room for the step-ladder in the closet, but there was certainly a lot more after he moved out. But Henry was right, at least about the nine lives part, and somehow the cat — once the weather thawed — always came back, at least to the porch.
Until, one day, he didn’t.
It was a spring Saturday, not a very warm one, a good day for a hot breakfast. She whipped up a creamy dill sauce, started a pan with some oil, a dash of salt, a pinch of lemon. And despite her having done this a hundred times before, the salmon was overcooked. Well, no point dwelling on it. Half on her plate with some wilted kale and the rest in his bowl on the porch, sans vegetables, plus a little bit of au lait, just the way he liked it. The legend lived on, but the truth was his wandering days were over, and it had been over a year since he missed a meal, even if it wasn’t one of her best.
The crossword was two days old and half done — Thursday’s were the hardest, but lately he seemed to appreciate the effort. Sometime she caught him staring meaningfully at the answers before he scratched. There had been months where he never used it, but now the box in the far corner of the porch was due to be changed and, fortunately, there was a week’s worth of Arts sections standing by.
Half an hour later she’d gone on-line to look up the cast of The Maltese Falcon, trying to crack open the bottom right. She couldn’t remember eating, but her plate was empty. His bowl was not.
“Bogart” should fit in 63 Down. It didn’t, but for some reason she no longer cared.
He wasn’t under the porch, nor in the garden bed or on the neighbor’s roof. Her keys were exactly where she left them, and the car was still in the driveway. Though she’d barred the cat door after the blizzard, she made a thorough circuit of the house, even the closet, but no luck. She felt like crying, but didn’t know why.
One of the last things Henry had said before leaving was that now there was nothing standing between her and the cat, but it was never like that. The constant hissing, the rejection of every approach — it had worn her down. The last thing she needed was another roommate who didn’t love her. And yet, here she was, endlessly circling the block, calling for him. Of course, even she wouldn’t answer to “Here, human human human.”
Eventually she stopped looking, because as long as there was no body, there was hope. And also, it had started to rain.
Though she should have been working on next week’s recipe and blog post, she binged on The Food Network with a bucket of jalapeño-maple-bacon popcorn, a reliable comfort. Maybe she was overreacting. Maybe he’d gotten tired of salmon. Or maybe he’d gotten tired of her, and her life was a series of missed opportunities and flawed relationships. Then her mother called and, defying all common sense, she answered the phone.
“Mom, it’s not a good time.” ‘Brigid’ — would that fit the puzzle? Yes!
“I’m sorry, honey, are you with friends? Or... on a date?” Her naked hope was enough to raise a whole British Bake Off’s worth of soufflés. Her implied judgment was like pouring vinegar on crème brulée.
“Staying in then? Hopefully not alone!”
“I’m waiting for someone. It’s just... I’m worried because he’s late.” The bowl had remained full all day; not so much as a lick. After sunset she’d pulled it inside because raccoons that ate from trash cans didn’t deserve wild-caught salmon.
“I worry about you, honey. You’ve been so isolated since the divorce. I’ve got the second bedroom cleaned out. Why don’t you sell that place and move back home?”
“I’ve been here since college, Mom. This is my home.”
“Then is there anything I can do? I could come visit. Or stay!”
“No! I’m fine. I’ll call you Monday.”
Jerri got out old photos, the last before the Great Digital Assimilation. There it was, between graduation and that camping trip she’d rather forget, the one from the day she found him sleeping on the driver’s seat of her first car, closed and locked with the windows up. In the twenty years since, she’d broken up with endless boyfriends, quit any number of meaningless jobs, had her heart broken for real, all in this same old house. He’d been with her through all of it and never seemed to age. She knew, of course, that neither of them were young anymore, but for a cat...
Sunday was worse, plummeting temperature and unrelenting rain. On the porch she put out another fillet, this one tuna poached to perfection with a side of gravy. Back inside to stare hopefully out the window, but it stayed untouched. Surely he won’t starve. Remember that time he filled the empty garden pots with dried mouse heads, which she celebrated as a primitive form of jerky? Joann from Timber Lane swore he made an entire turkey disappear and, although it had already been cooked, it was still no mean feat. He was the one Joann’s husband accused of hunting the Virginia Black Squirrel to extinction, although climate change may have played a role.
Who was she kidding? She wasn’t the only one in awe of his survival skills but, the truth was, and it was time to admit it, he was just a cat. There was no way he jimmied the lock of a 1990 Camry, which she recalled had a sunroof that tended to stick.
Walking around the block was not helpful. The air was wet, the ground was wet, the umbrella was wet. But her hiking boots were waterproof and her fleece leggings were at least water-repellant, which was small consolation. Wherever he was, if he still was, he was wetter and probably not happy about it. At least she had Gore-Tex. What good was fur against rain like this?
What a miserable way to die. It was an appalling thought, but it had the cavernous ring of a truth. Maybe she should have kept him inside, no matter how much they both might have hated it. Anything to avoid this horrible feeling.
How could you lose something you’d never claimed as your own?
With every splashing footstep, an emptiness yawned in her chest telling her he wasn’t coming back. She’d wanted to believe he was bigger than that, indestructible, as powerful as his reputation. That an animal who could survive on these streets, walk through walls, levitate, and sabotage an engagement could do anything, but she’d clearly been seduced by the promise of past returns. When it came down to it...
He was just a cat.
An old, lonely cat.
And she was a middle-aged, lonely woman in the rain, looking for him.
And you know what they say about lonely women and cats. But you’re not one of those, are you?
Copyright © 2019 by Heather J. Frederick