Sunday, August 1, 2010
It hit Jane the hardest when the cat died. It was on a Friday, luckily, giving her the weekend to grieve. The thing that stayed with her about it all, the thing that even years afterwards she would bring up at parties, was the coldness with which she felt the vet handled it all.
“It was old,” he’d said. “Its time just ran out.”
“Just like that, he said it,” she would say, “like he was talking about a lawnmower that had broken down.”
At first, she didn’t believe it, didn’t think something like this would happen to her. It had been an absolutely normal day. She’d been at work— she worked at a temp. placement agency, finding jobs for other people, something she tried for years to relate to the cat’s death but just couldn’t— and she’d done nothing at all interesting that day, or even that week. She’d simply sat at her desk and done her work, met with a few applicants and met Laura for lunch at a new Italian place they’d both been dying to try— another detail she sifted through looking for sinister foreboding, but found nothing.
After work, it had been a short drive home, avoiding the overpass and its infestation of traffic, her street, her driveway, her garage, and inside the house her beloved Tonya lying on the floor, her dusty gray paws stretched out in front of her stiff and awkward. Jane walked in and snatched the cat up in a hug, only to find Tonya’s body already cold, unwieldy. And then— this is something she never mentioned at those later parties— she dropped the body straight back on the floor, for only a second, which she excused by taking the opportunity to run and grab a towel, before snatching it back up, draped in the towel just in case it decided to let itself be warmed, pleading with the cat every second of the frantic drive to the vet, only to be told that it was dead. It. Then back home to wait on Ted.
She carried the body still wrapped in her blanket, set it on the couch, and saved her grief up to dump on him when he walked through the door. All he could say, after they got back from the vet and she’d cried herself out and allowed him enough silence to speak, was that maybe it was time that they take that vacation they were always talking about.
“Maybe I should call my brother and make sure Dad’s old cabin by the lake is all fixed up and everything.“ He said this in a slow voice, choosing his words carefully. ”We could go up there next weekend, maybe even stay over for a whole week if you can get time off.” He pondered what he’d said, already planning it out in his mind. “But first I guess we better bury her,” he said, flinching in expectation of another fit. But she turned ugly red eyes up to him and nodded.
The weekend went slowly. She drifted through it in a daze, not paying attention to much of anything. On Monday she met Laura for lunch again.
“I just haven’t been myself since Tonya died,” she said.
“Oh my God. I’m so sorry. Was she your…sister? Tonya?”
“My cat,” Jane said, sniffling and taking a sip of water.
“My brother’s dog died a few weeks ago,” Laura commented. “The kids were upset for days until he finally got them a new one.”
Jane eyed her. “That’s a man’s answer to everything,” Jane said, “if something gets old or dies, just throw it out and get another one.” She sipped her coke bitterly.
It was worse at home. Jane knew that Ted was trying to be understanding, but it bothered her that he wasn’t grieving as much as she was. It made him seem cold, and that wasn’t the way she wanted her husband to be.
“You loved Tonya,” Jane said. “You named her.”
“I suggested we name her tuna, cause that’s all she wanted to eat,” Ted said.
“And we did, except we changed it.”
“But…” Ted started to say, and then stopped, thinking better of it.
Tuesday, Jane woke suddenly to the darkness of two a.m. with the sure feeling that Tonya was lying curled at her feet on the bed. She listened quietly, thinking that she’d heard Tonya jump to the floor and run out of the room just as she woke, as she had when Jane or Ted woke suddenly in the middle of the night and scared her. She nudged Ted awake.
“Tonya was here,” she whispered.
He grunted and rolled over. Soon, she heard him snoring and laid back down herself, determined not to sleep again in case Tonya came back.
Jane was sure it was important; she was sure Tonya was coming back to warn her of something, like a cat on a TV show she’d seen once whose ghost appeared to warn a family that their house was filling with radon gas. Tonya didn’t come back that night, though, and eventually Jane had to drag herself out of bed, dry-eyed and moving slowly, to face the day.
Wednesday, Ted brought her a box with holes poked in the top and handed it to her.
“What’s this?” Jane said.
“A cat,” he said.
“Oh,” she said, setting the box on the couch, which made her uneasy, so she set it on the floor and carefully opened it. At the first sight of light, the cat inside tore free of the box and ran out of the room. Jane watched its furry haunches round the corner into the bathroom with an expression of calm finality on her face.
“It doesn’t like me,” she said.
“It’s just scared,” Ted said. “I got it from the pound. They were going to put it to sleep. We saved it,” he added.
Jane gave him a weak smile.
For the rest of the week Jane moped around, putting a brave face on at work and spending her evenings trying to coax the cat out of the bathroom. On Friday, Ted came in early and started packing. She stood in the bedroom, staring out the window at the cross Ted had nailed together and pounded into the soil of their lawn to mark Tonya‘s grave.
After awhile, he came into the bedroom. “You ready?” he asked.
“Yeah, I guess.” She took a slow sip from the cup of tea she was holding. “What about the new one?” She hadn’t bothered to name the cat, since she hadn’t been able to hold it for more than a few seconds, and so couldn’t get fully acquainted with it, which she felt was essential for naming a cat.
“Already taken care of,” Ted answered. She turned to catch that smile that she was beginning not to like.
The two hour drive to the cabin was quiet except for the occasional warbling mewl from the back seat. The cat sat back there, in a travel cage they’d bought for Tonya months ago but never used. Ted had spread several layers of towels over the bottom of the wire frame cage, and the cat lay on them, moaning feebly.
“Do you think it will be all right?” Jane asked.
“I only gave it half a pill,” Ted said.
“I didn’t even know they made valium for cats.”
“Actually it’s a dog valium, that’s why I only gave it half.”
Jane looked at him, shocked.
“The vet said she would probably be all right with a whole one, but I didn’t want to risk it.”
“I’m sure he knows what’s best,” she commented, turning to glare out the window.
They drove in silence the rest of the way to the cabin. The cat fell asleep halfway there, and did not wake until Jane dragged it out into the living room of the cabin, shaking it worriedly. She held the cat, mewling to it and stroking it while it grasped at wakefulness. It tried to jump out of her arms. She set it on the floor, and it immediately sat down hard. Jane picked the cat back up, and it let her. A smile of delight spread over her face. “I’m going to name you Val,” she said.
“That’s a really great view, out there. I had forgotten how nice it is,” Ted said, entering the living room with a lot of noise. “I had my doubts, but Frank did a really good job fixing up the dock. You should come see it.”
“I’ve seen it before,” Jane said, afraid that Ted’s noise would frighten Val.
“Yeah, but it’s all fixed up now.”
The cabin was situated on a hill in a ring of hills that guarded over a dark, cool lake. Jane and Ted stepped out onto the balcony and could see bits of the water between trees. Over the tops of the trees, they could see the water jostling the bank on the far side where the ring of hills closed and towered over everything.
“It looks like a giant pool,” Jane said.
She heard rustling below her and stared into the gloom between the trees, finally picking out small furry shapes running around like crazy ants.
“Chipmunks,” Ted said quietly. “Better watch the cat so that she doesn’t get out and start chasing them.”
“Tonya would have liked this,” Jane said. “Why didn’t we ever bring her here?” She turned teary eyes to Ted.
“Because it was a dump. And now Val can like it,” Ted said.
The valium was wearing off. Jane took Val back inside and stroked her absently until she sank her claws into Jane’s arm and struggled to be free. Jane dropped the cat, who ran to the kitchen and couldn’t be coaxed to come out.
“It’s just going to take her a while to get used to us, that’s all. The same thing happened with Tonya,” Ted said.
They spent much of the day inside, watching what they could see of the water through the living room windows. “The kids would love this,” Jane said, after a while.
“Oh, you know, any kids.”
Ted nodded and looked out at the treetops.
“Wonder what’s on?” He said and turned the TV on. They watched “Die Hard,” for awhile and ordered pizza.
In the morning, Ted noticed that the sliding glass door in the living room was open. He absently pushed it closed and went into the kitchen to make coffee. The cat ran between his legs and into the bathroom.
When Jane woke, she spent a half hour trying to cajole the cat into letting itself be picked up. Finally, she steeled herself, came outside and did twenty minutes of Pilates. Then she and Ted sat in the living room staring at the tree tops once more. Every so often, Jane sniffled, and Ted finally turned the TV back on to drown her out.
After breakfast, Ted drugged the cat. He took Val into the bathroom and ran some water to cover the sound of her complaining as he forced a whole valium into her mouth. He watched her carefully for a few minutes. Then he brought her into the kitchen and laid her on the table.
“Honey,” he called, “look who’s decided to be sociable.”
When Jane came in and saw Val, she yelped and ran and scooped the cat up. She blew raspberries on Val’s stomach and took her to the living room and laid her on the couch.
“Let’s watch TV,” she said.
They’d brought a VCR and she slipped in a tape she’d made for Tonya of cat food commercials and snippets of movies and shows that prominently featured cats. She’d made several of these, but this was the first one she’d ever made for Tonya. They watched it until Val fell asleep.
Later, Ted convinced Jane to visit the docks with him, and they sat and watched the water. Jane took his hand in hers until it grew clammy.
When they came back up for lunch, Val was sleeping and Jane didn’t bother her. They ate quickly, and left that afternoon on a short hike. When they returned, Jane was so excited by a fox they’d seen, that she didn’t even notice that the cat was hiding in the bathroom again.
“I’ll feed Val,” Ted said, already reaching for the prescription vial.
“I want to,” Jane said, stepping into the bathroom. She noticed the pills in Ted’s hand. “You’re still drugging her?” she said.
Tears were already forming in her eyes. Ted spoke quickly.
“Just until she’s used to us,” he said. “I think she’s jetlagged. Or, you know, whatever you call it for cars. If we can keep her calmed down until she gets used to us, that’s all.”
Jane shook her head.
“It’s not good for her to be freaked out all the time,” Ted said.
“No, but is valium good for her?” Jane said, turning big, glowing eyes up to him.
“It’s not bad for her,” he said.
Jane shook her head and walked away. Ted waited to see if she was coming back, then opened the vial.
Ted brought the cat out and laid it on the couch. At first, Jane ignored it, choosing instead to read a book she’d seen advertised on the side of a bus. The book was a semi-autobiographical account of a Ugandan refugee who came to America after her family was brutally murdered. The girl was attending a university and having a hard time fitting in and meeting Mr. Right. The advertisement on the bus had said that the book was a “thoughtful examination of issues of culture and race,” and “a sexy romp.” They were making a movie out of it, starring the girl from American Idol and Angelina Jolie as her teacher and only friend.
Jane was reading the bit where the young refugee is invited to her first kegger after a political rally on campus, when she absent-mindedly reached over and started rubbing Val’s head. She didn’t notice for several pages, and when it dawned on her, she drew her hand away in horror.
“It’s not her fault,” Ted said from the chair across the room, where he’d been pretending to read the new John Grisham novel. “She’s a cat. The only way she’ll get used to us is if you pet her and show her some attention.”
Jane stared at him angrily. He raised the book, effortlessly ignoring her until her eyes dropped back down to her book. After a moment, she began stroking the cat again, but she refused to look at it this time.
“I want to do it,” Jane said. It was evening, and the cat was getting frisky again. “I don’t trust you. You’re going to give her too much.”
Ted offered the vial to her. The cat was in the corner, as far behind the toilet as it could go. It had a dazed and worried look about it, partly tranquil and partly terrified. Its fur stood on end, but its eyes kept drooping closed.
“How were you giving them to her?” Jane asked.
“I just popped them into her mouth.”
“You’re such a man,” Jane said. She went into the kitchen and returned with a package of yogurt. She crumbled a pill into the yogurt. Then she set this in front of the cat. Val watched Jane’s hand, tensing when it approached. Jane sat back on her haunches, watching the cat. It paid no attention to the yogurt, watching Jane, instead.
“Maybe if we rub a little on her lips, she’ll realize she likes it,” Ted suggested.
Jane didn’t answer, but she reached and dabbed some yogurt on her finger.
“Want some?” she said, offering it to Val. The cat drew away from the proffered finger. “Here’s a trick I know,” Jane said. She reached in and wiped the yogurt onto the cat’s fur on the side of its face..
The cat watched Jane retreat, then set to grooming itself, licking the yogurt from its fur. Jane dabbed some more on her finger, and carefully reached out to the cat. Val sniffed at the yogurt and tentatively licked it.
“There,” Jane said. “Who’s your new friend?”
* * *
Ted found the body in the morning, as they were packing to go home. He stood in the doorway of the bathroom, stunned, unable to think of a way to tell Jane, when she shouldered past him, herself, and discovered Val.
“She was sick,” Ted said, later, when Jane’s crying had become manageable. “That’s why she was at the pound. She must’ve had something wrong with her. That’s why she acted so weird.”
Jane turned blood-red eyes on him, listening.
“We were good to her. We fed her; we loved her. We made her last days happy. It’s my fault,” he said, nodding. “I don’t know how to tell these things. I picked a bad cat.”
“No,” Jane said, sniffling. She reached for him, drawing him into a tight hug. “You didn’t know.”
They buried Val by the dock, so her spirit could forever chase chipmunks. Ted loaded the car while Jane sat on a fallen log by the grave, watching the water move against the dock. “We’ve learned something, at least, from all this,” she said, to no one, and made no mention of what that might be.
They listened to the radio on the ride home, each of them lost in thought. Several times, Ted started to speak, but was unable to break the wall of silence.
“Next time,” Jane finally said, “I’ll go with you. We’ll pick out a cat together.”
“Thank you,” Ted said, more at the sound of Jane’s voice than at what she’d said.
Posted over on Troubadour 21