|Photo Credit: Morgufile by Duggan Arts|
By 10 am, the coffee tasted like ashes and spent purpose. Also, it was cold. Ever hopeful, Alice emptied the carafe into a mug and stuck it into the microwave. Reheated, it had the effect of a re-gifted fruitcake, wrapped up in a wrinkled bag. Wrinkling her nose, she tried it. Now, it tasted like the color brown. She placed the mug on the counter and moved on to other things.
She had spent the morning in service of tasks that nobody wanted to do, tasks that she hated, and which would all soon be undone. Sinks were scrubbed clean with the cleanser that felt like toothpaste and ground porcelain under her gloves. Floors were mopped at with mops that probably spread more germs than they took up. Everything lying on the ground was swept into a dustpan and tossed out. In the small house, bodies bumped into one another, let out deep, violent sighs and passed in anger on their way to straighten something else.
It was Saturday.
It was done now. It had reached the starting point again. Now the destruction of the house could begin from a fresh place. Alice's husband Bill had fled, disappeared into the bathroom or his office, some place where no one could ask him to do anything else. Her teenage sons wore headphones somewhere, unavailable and detached from the world of endless chores. If there was to be no coffee, she supposed she could make some tea. Or try to start her writing—her long-neglected fantasy novel. That got moved off the list every weekend. Nothing had been written on it for months. Alice picked a tea cup from the cupboard and looked out the window hopefully, as if for the presence of a distraction to save her from boredom of her house. It was then that she saw the cat.
What was unusual was that the cat was standing upright. She shook her head, closed her eyes tight, blinked hard and opened them again. When she opened them, the cat was still there. It stood on its hind legs, not awkwardly, but with perfect comfort, as if leaning casually on the post of a wooden fence. It was a tabby—ginger, ordinary-looking except for being large. It had shortish hair and an unkempt look about it, not neglected, but as if it had been busy doing very absorbing things. It turned then and looked at her. She dropped her cup.
The cat looked directly at her, the way she imagined Nixon might have looked at Kennedy. It met her gaze. Assessing her, it found her somewhat wanting but did not look away. You're the one to deal with here, its eyes seemed to say. It approached the door. Standing in her kitchen, surrounded by the three triangular wedges that had been her china cup, she tried to process what she was looking at. The cat walked casually, almost swaggered. Their legs, she thought, should not allow for upright movement. That should be impossible. Several old factual books on cats she'd once possessed traveled through her head. The cat, still walking, disappeared into the blind spot of her doorstep. She waited for a sign, a bell, unsure what to do, but no sound came. Finally, overcome by curiosity, she took a deep breath and walked toward her door.
Opening it, she wondered—should I say hello? And in what tone? Conversational? Inquiring? Hostile? As if talking to a child? As soon as the door was opened, though, the cat, without comment, sauntered past her into the house. It came in and entered the kitchen. How odd, she thought. How very odd. What next? Should I offer it some food? Will it like milk?
The cat wanted something. He stood there and stared at her. For half a moment, a chill came over Alice. Was she in a horror movie? What was this cat about to do? What could it do? It was a cat. What did it weigh—ten pounds? Twelve? She dismissed the thought.
"Do you want—would you like—some milk, perhaps?" she finally ventured, unsure what to do.
The cat's brow wrinkled—an expression of amusement perhaps, or assent? She wasn't sure. She walked the few steps to the open cabinet where bowls were carefully displayed and selected a green bowl for the cat. She opened the refrigerator and found a bit of milk. Would it have preferred the half-and-half, she wondered, as she poured a little in the bowl. This is two percent. I know they can get diarrhea. Is that from the fat, or simply from the lactose in the milk? Turning, she considered the problem of presenting the bowl to this cat. Should she offer a bowl on the floor to an animal who walked upright and entered her house with the self-confidence of a long-lost cousin come back home? No, she decided to set the bowl at the counter where there was a bar stool.
The cat accepted this. He strolled to the bar stool and climbed on up, then sat casually, lapping the milk with his curved pink sandpaper tongue with his front paw resting on the counter top What on earth shall I talk about, Alice began to fret.
"What brings you here?" she asked the cat nervously, as he finished up his bowl. No reply came immediately so she added, "Bill is allergic to cats." That was rude, she realized and reddened just a bit.
Still there was no reply. The cat looked at her. His gaze was penetrating. He looked right into her heart and soul. For a full minute, their eyes met in an exchange. At first, Alice was filled with anxiety. What meaning was she supposed to derive from this speechless stare? What was to be the nature of her reply? Then, all of a sudden, with full understanding, she knew.
She heard stirring upstairs. The bathroom door opened. Eminem could be heard blaring from a bedroom door. She looked away and back at the cat.
"There's very little time," she said. It nodded its assent.
She stood up, quickly, and grabbed her purse, then took her laptop and her writer's notebook, already in their case.
"I'm ready," she said to the cat.
The cat nodded again and waited while she opened the front door. The street was empty as the two of them got in her car. The cat did not buckle up.
"Show me where I'm going," she told the cat.
He nodded. They pulled out of the drive.
Inside the house, it was lunch time before Alice's absence was noted by her husband and the kids.
"Aaaaaalllliiiiice!" called Bill from up the stairs. "Where aaaare you?" But there was no reply.
"I want Mom to make macaroni," said one of the teenage boys, kicking the broken cup out of his way.
"Well, you do it, Paul," said the other. "I have no idea how."
Paul opened the refrigerator.
"Well, I can't. Somebody drank all the damn milk."