This story was originally published in Stonecoast Review
Issue #13 Superstition
“Not now.” Wayne had just plopped onto the sofa with a beer when Rocky climbed into his lap. He tried to push the cat off, but Rocky gouged his claws through Wayne’s chinos into the flesh of his thighs. His gaunt gray body seemed to convulse in the ecstasy of his purr.
You wake in the morning with a job, a paycheck and a standing in the world. You return from lunch and the head of human resources escorts you to the elevator in the walk of shame. Unfortunately, we’re eliminating the position. Fifty-three years young, more than a decade away from social security, and Wayne was back on the job market peddling his obsolete skills in print production. Bottom feeder. Lowest on the food chain.
His beer was bitter and bubbly. He finished in a long swallow and half-rose to fetch another but Rocky shuddered with a snakelike hiss. Poor old Rocky, even lower down the food chain than Wayne.
“You’re not marketable either, are you pal?” He pressed his palms on the curve of Rocky’s ribcage.
Rocky thrust his head forward. “What happened?” he cried. “I danced with a thousand stars. I floated on the dust of the cosmos. I was the goddam cosmos! But look at me now, trapped in this aching four-legged body.”
“The fuck?” said Wayne.
Rocky wheezed and went still.
“Hey Rocky?” Wayne jiggled the cat.
Rocky was dead.
As the afternoon sun angled across the carpet, Wayne considered his own death, floating on the dust of the cosmos with Rocky, an appealing prospect. He couldn’t move. His back ached. His ankles were swelling.
“Hello! I’m home!” Margaret’s voice knifed through the hush. “I got your text. It’s not a surprise, is it? You hated that job since you started.”
She dropped her shapeless purse on the floor by the door. As a third-grade art teacher who’d abandoned both her motherhood dreams and her artist dreams, Margaret generated a pragmatic get-on-with-it energy that Wayne relied on.
“They didn’t know I hated it.” He gazed up at his wife, absorbing her gray front tooth and deep-set green eyes with her keyhole-shaped pupils, symptom of cat-eye syndrome, a chromosomal abnormality. Her eyes were mysterious and beautiful, magnified behind her glasses. Now they welled with tears.
“Is he gone?” She knelt down, pressing her face into Rocky’s. “Bless you, sweet cat, for the love and joy you’ve given us. Do you want to say a few words, Wayne?”
He couldn’t tell her Rocky had spoken to him. “Do you think I’m getting dementia like my father?”
“No.” She stood and plucked the dead cat from his lap.
“Do you think we’ll ever have sex again?”
“Maybe you do have dementia!” Margaret laughed her loud, honking infectious laugh.
“Ha ha,” said Wayne.
Eighteen years ago, he and Margaret had lounged on this sofa, while Wayne flicked around a rod and string toy he’d crafted with a starched piece of denim at the end. Rocky, their newly adopted fluffy gray kitten, chased that denim until his pink tongue hung from his mouth and he collapsed onto his belly, raucously panting. Margaret had been pregnant then, leaning into Wayne, hands clasped on her belly, laughing her deep-throated, snorting laugh Wayne loved because it was so genuine.
After the stillbirth, Margaret carried Rocky wrapped like a baby in a bunting, wandering from room to room, Rocky purring so zealously Wayne could hear him everywhere.
With a squeak of her foam-soled shoes, Margaret carried Rocky’s body into the kitchen. Wayne heard drawers opening. She returned clasping a bundle wrapped in a plastic bag and wordlessly strode by, letting the front door slam behind her. He heard the porch steps creak.
Then he spotted Rocky asleep near the door, dear sweet cat. His heart slammed. “Rocky! Talk to me, man.”
But Margaret’s purse emerged from the nestled shape. The wall sloped inward. Like a fist in his chest, Wayne understood he would never again witness the infinite perfection of Rocky’s sleep.
When Margaret returned, she was wiping her hands on her skirt. She must have tossed Rocky in the trash at the end of the driveway. Their stillborn daughter had been cremated. Maggie, they’d called her in the womb.
Margaret’s voice seemed to come from the far end of a telescope in a universe several light years away. She rummaged through her purse, humming no romance without finance, and pulled out a typed-up list. “Job leads. I asked around the teachers’ lounge. You could start making calls right now.”
Once upon a time, Wayne remembered, Margaret had been inconsolable, drinking red wine by the gallon from a box with a spigot, and weeping an ocean of tears. She wouldn’t get off the sofa until Wayne cajoled her with a song and two-step, and Rocky draped across his shoulders. No woman, no cry. Everything’s gonna be all right.
They used to love dancing as a young couple, hitting the clubs, particularly a place called The Reggae Lounge, where they grooved on the rhythm in a cannabis haze, coolest place in Poughkeepsie, long defunct now. Hard to imagine.
“Just throw me in the trash when my time comes,” he said. “No funeral.”
“Don’t succumb to despair,” said Margaret. “Don’t let them win.”
A week later, for a vacation planned before he’d been fired, Wayne and Margaret flew to Santa Fe. No cat sitter necessary. Wayne wanted to stay at the hotel they’d originally booked, him and Margaret, merging.
But the hotel cost money, Margaret said, and her friend, Vivian would put them up for free. Margaret had pals from as far back as kindergarten. She seemed to collect new people with each new interest—from yoga to doula group to Weight-Watchers, from life-drawing to hiking to politics—which meant, vicariously, that Wayne did too. His own friends had fallen away.
Margaret referred to Vivian as “my successful artist chum,” because Vivian made good money painting pastel landscapes. Wayne didn’t point out that Vivian’s success hadn’t extended to her personal life — she was thrice divorced — because he feared Margaret admired Vivian’s ability to cut her losses.
Vivian threw a boisterous, wine-fueled pot-luck dinner in honor of their visit, though Wayne didn’t know any of the guests and Margaret didn’t seem to know them either. They were all artists except for Wayne and Margaret, who could have been one.
“They’re our future friends,” whispered Margaret. “Make an effort.”
“It’s my vacation,” he said. “I shouldn’t have to make an effort.”
He couldn’t follow the strident debate on acrylic paint versus oil. He imagined retreating to a warm cave where he watched the shadows on the wall, Plato’s cave.
“Excuse me?” He realized the wispy woman beside him was speaking directly to him, not broadcasting to the group like everyone else was.
Her voice was high like a child’s and he had to strain to hear her talk about volunteering at a hospice. She brought art therapy to the dying. There was a cat at the hospice that stretched itself alongside ill people, hours before their deaths. She had witnessed this. If the door to the room of a dying person were shut, the cat scratched at it, keeping vigil. If the person weren’t dying, the cat sniffed and walked on. Some of the hospice workers loved the cat but others considered it evil and hated it.
“I want to meet this cat,” said Wayne.
“Cats have wisdom that transcends our puny human knowledge.” Vivian barged into their private conversation.
“Actually,” said Wayne. “Cats have a tubal structure on the roof of their mouths that enables them to analyze air molecules. Their sense of smell is fourteen times stronger than humans. Maybe this cat has a sensitivity to the odor of death, which is caused by bacteria in the pancreas.”
“You need more wine.” Margaret refilled his glass, stone-faced. She hated when he went into “factoid delivery mode” as she put it.
A pompous man at the far end of the table boomed out, “Ah, memento mori. Vanitas still life. Death, where is thy sting?”
“Life, why sting so nastily? Am I right?” Margaret honked.
The wine aggravated Wayne’s acid reflux. So did Margaret’s laugh.
Vivian’s white cat, Raindrop, approached Wayne with a jaunty, arthritic strut and eyed him with a sneering expression that seemed to say, They’re all a bunch of bombastic assholes. Yes, they are, dude, Wayne replied in his mind. But he knew the lip-curl was a display of the Flehmen Response, a feline process of analyzing scents and pheromones. He reached down to lift the almost weightless body into his lap. Raindrop began to purr. He smelled woody, damp, like lichen on a cave wall.
At some point, as Wayne stroked him, Raindrop’s woody scent turned sulfide, and Wayne knew—one moment alive, the next moment extinguished. He realized he’d wanted Raindrop to talk to him. Instead the cat had died without a word. He stood with the body in his arms. Where could he go? Away. It was all he could think of.
“Honey,” Margaret called. “Where are you taking Vivian’s cat?”
“He died,” said Wayne.
At first, they laughed. Then they gasped. “You killed Raindrop,” said Vivian.
The squeaky art-therapy woman said, “You were chosen. Cats are shamans. I truly believe that.”
Wetness trickled down Wayne’s cheeks. He couldn’t swallow. He realized he was crying, yet he felt nothing.
“We lost our cat last week. And Wayne lost his job,” announced Margaret. “You’re traumatized, honey.”
She stood, the teacher in her taking control. “Should we each say a few words in honor of this beautiful cat?”
Everyone else stood, too, clasping hands.
“I’ll start,” said Vivian. “He had a good life, he was king of the hill for a time, and the mice won’t miss him.”
“Farewell, spirit guide,” squeaked the hospice woman.
One by one, they went around. Wayne stood separate, holding the dead cat, as if he were the one being eulogized.
When the man at the far end started waxing poetic about Raindrop shuffling off this mortal coil, Wayne hit his fuck-it point. “We should all be so goddam lucky. The cat’s in the fucking cosmos now. He’s whizzing through galaxies. Why the hell are we stuck on earth? What’s the point?”
“Big questions,” said Margaret. “With lots of quarters for the swearing jar.”
Vivian extricated the cat from his arms. He noticed how blue her eyes were, brimming with tears.
“Hush now. He was twenty. It’s a relief we didn’t have to put him down.”
Wayne retreated to the living room and slumped in an armchair with his face in his hands. His palms smelled like lichen. Through his fingers, he could see the corner of the leaky blow-up bed where he and Margaret would suffer another sleepless sexless night, hip bones thudding on the floor.
He sensed Margaret by the cracking of her knees as she came in and crouched by the chair. “Please come out,” she said. “I can’t keep doing this. Have a glass of wine. Choose life.”
“Doing what?” said Wayne. “What can’t you keep doing?”
“Maybe we need some time apart when we get back, you know? I could stay with a friend, let you recoup.”
“Recoup? Let’s get a kitten when we get home.”
With a sigh, she stood and left the room. Death was a flickering light in a dark cave.
He remembered sitting in the doctor’s office after the stillbirth when they learned Margaret required a hysterectomy. Margaret screamed so piercingly, the receptionist had dashed in with a tranquilizer shot.
Later, Margaret said, “Our plans are fucked. You can leave me. I wouldn’t blame you. Go have kids with someone else.”
The idea hadn’t occurred to Wayne. Better or worse, sickness or health. “I don’t want a family with someone generic. It’s you I love. More than children.” He’d never wanted kids was the brutal truth. But he couldn’t have told her that.
Back home, at a library fundraiser Margaret had badgered him to attend, Wayne perched on a sofa, balancing a plate full of hummus and salad on his lap. He was on his best behavior, fearful of the “time apart” threat hanging in the air. Above him, people babbled and gesticulated. He knew he was supposed to network but the noise level was deafening. Plato’s cave beckoned, shadows flitting on the wall.
Across the room, song erupted from a group gathered around the baby grand, snapping fingers, camping it up to Lady Gaga’s Bad Romance. Margaret’s voice crooned through the din. I want your ugly, I want your disease. She waved him over. “Come sing with us, Wayne!”
Love, love, love I want your love. Before he could rise, a voluminous tortoiseshell cat materialized behind him, stepping daintily onto his shoulder, nudging the plate away, to nuzzle into Wayne’s lap.
“Not now. I’m choosing life.” Wayne extracted the cat’s claws one by one from his khakis.
Margaret’s colleague from school, a widower, wedged himself next to her at the piano. The man’s bald head shone like an illuminated orb. His reedy voice engulfed Margaret’s.
Wayne placed the animal on the floor to sidestep his way between the sofa and the coffee table toward Margaret and the interloper. But a clog-shoed woman banged through with a breezy “Scuse me!” overwhelming Wayne with an impression of flurried skirt and clomping steps as she tripped over the cat and continued onward.
The cat flattened like a hissing viper. Its eyes were clouded with cataracts.
A white hot flash of pain in his sternum sent Wayne back into the sofa. He lifted cat onto his thighs. It weighed so little, as if its bones were hollow beneath the bushy coat. Long fur matted its underbelly. “I’ll look out for you,” said Wayne.
“I’ve been the wind that bends the grass and I’ve been the grass acquiescing,” cried the cat. “Now I’m trapped in this mangy fur, half blind and kicked around by heedless beasts.”
“Amen.” Wayne felt the pulse in the cat’s throat, a quick, shallow rhythm. “Are you dying? Is that why you chose me?”
“Hell no,” grumbled the cat. “We’re all suffering, dude. You can’t pretend otherwise.”
Wayne recalled the impossible perfection of his stillborn daughter. Those fingers, those toes, those fragile curved earlobes. She was there in his lap weighing almost nothing, no breath, no air, no soul. Just silence. And there was silence, now. The singing stopped. Everyone was staring. Wayne realized he was sobbing, heaving. “Don’t mind me. Carry on. I’m fine.”
He buried his face in the cat, who smelled like loamy clay. He couldn’t stand it. Being wrung inside out, like a suction. Harsh sting of tears. Pain. The cat pressed its face into his palm, licking his fingers. “Yessir,” said the cat. “You betcha.”
Piano music tinkled below harmonizing voices. Wayne wove his fingers through the downy fur. His heart pumped blood through his limbs. The unknown universe pulsed and fired.