"The Last Cat," He Said by Peter Toeg

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Jacob would die in November. His pain would be controlled and he could stay at home, the doctor assured us.

First, he would experience neuropathy in his extremities and skin changes. As biological systems failed, he would endure surges in emotions and restlessness, some disorientation. Mobility would not be lost until nearly the end. Joints would swell. He would sleep more and probably experience hallucinations. Finally, the insidious disease would take his heart.

“Better to know in advance when you are going to die, right Hon?” Jacob said to me in June, on hearing the news.

I couldn’t argue. He’d lived a full life and wanted to go on his terms.

My husband chose to die without advanced treatment and extreme measures. The alternative the doctor explained was “ghastly” (my word). “It might buy you another six or eight months,” he’d said. With intense treatment, the side effects could be “devastating” (Jacob’s word). The “with treatment” timeline, however, was indeterminate.

“Can you be that precise in a diagnosis, doctor?” Jacob asked, sounding ever upbeat.

“Medicine is a science. There is a natural and predictable progression of this disease. We will be monitoring you for any changes,” he assured us.

Death seemed so orderly at the time.

***

Two years before Jacob’s diagnosis, we adopted Ellie. It had been a few months since we’d lost our previous cat, one in a string of two-dozen dogs and cats.

Ellie was Jacob’s cat.

I took the spot as the first cat person in the family, dating to our college days in Pennsylvania. I’d been raised with cats and dogs—a houseful of pets coming and leaving us.

Jacob took to our first cat, albeit with some caution that, only now, I found curious. Gus slept with us. I sometimes awoke in the night to find both Jacob and the cat awake facing each other. I never gave it much thought at the time.

We had maybe a dozen cats over our forty years together, sometimes three cats at a time. All were indoor, and many found a lap or the bed to be a resting place.

Jacob once instructed our son Tommy to, “never to stare at a cat.”

“Why?” Tommy said. He’d been rough-housing with one of our males.

“Cats see you a threat when you look into their eyes, Tommy,” replied Jacob with a little more intensity than required. “They can attack.”

Tommy said nothing.

“That’s not quite right, Hon,” I said to Jacob. “Cats in the house are not predators.”

“What’s pred-a-tor?” asked Tommy.

Regardless, we all survived and no cats cornered us when play got out of hand. OK, I recall a few swats.

Surprisingly, Jacob spent more time with our cats than I did. I’d find him in discussion with one, both on the floor in relaxed positions. Not unusual. I called it a genuine love for cats. He even selected a couple from the pound—all rescues—and took the ever-hopeful approach to train them.

“Dogs have masters. Cats have staff,” I reminded Jacob on more than one occasion.

As we aged, the burden of keeping cats took a toll: the bending and cleaning, care, and vet visits. Feline deaths were the hardest and Jacob, a man once wary of cats, became a best friend to many. A loss of any of those friends made him unable to function for a bit. Most importantly, neither of us wanted a cat to outlive us.

We ended up catless by attrition. A few months afterward, the vet called asking us to consider taking an abandoned, middle-aged Calico.  Jacob jumped at the prospect like a man desperate for a friend.

I didn’t agree with his plan. We would be sacrificing our freedom to travel. We’d worry, as in the past, about a cat in someone else’s care. I yielded, reluctantly.

Jacob lit up at the opportunity to work his charms on his furball friend. “The last cat,” he said, before we ever took Ellie home. His appeasement of me. “I promise.”

I dismissed the statement. The man was smitten by anything with four legs.

But, Jacob knew. The “last cat” would be his last cat.

***

That final summer into Fall, Jacob and I spent time reminiscing and reflecting on life’s lessons. Old memories revived, questions never asked now answered, mysteries unraveled. Animals, a topic of conversation, as always.

I knew Jacob had a dog as a youth.

“Oh, yeah. I was seven or so when Pudgie arrived as a pup. We had a lot of years together. We bonded. He slept with me and followed me as I rode my bike around town, even to school.”

“He stayed at school?” That didn’t make sense.

“By my bike. Outside. The entire day.” Jacob looked so lost in the telling. An old friend in memory. “Winter challenged my mom to keep him inside. He’d break free and find the school on his own and sleep in the snow.”

“Wow. The quintessential dog story.”

“He was the only dog in town allowed in the public library,” said Jacob proudly. “He made a fuss at the door the first time I started doing homework there. The librarians relented. They knew Pudgie.”

“But no cats in your life.”

“Nope. As a kid, I kept my distance” he said. A soft hesitation in his voice.

What an odd remark. “Kept my distance?”

Jacob looked like he’d been waiting to tell me something. That “can’t-keep-it-in” look on his face.

“Pudgie didn’t do well with cats?” I asked.

“No.” Long pause. “Actually my mother decided we would not have cats. Never, at least until my brother got older.”

Hmm? “Tell me why?” I asked.

“I was six and Mom had just given birth to my brother. I’d been begging for a cat for weeks. Something to do with a cute cat commercial. Before the ubiquitous cat videos.”

“Ah, so getting a cat at that time would be a trouble for Mom. Underfoot, breaking it in…”

Uh oh. I sensed a confession coming. All of Jacob’s facial muscles sprung into action.

“Not exactly. Cats, my mother told me, can suck the breath from a baby when he sleeps.” He didn’t smile. “Well, not all cats—and not all babies.”

“That would have set off a few alarms, I guess. For Mom. Maybe the authorities would have to reduce the domestic cat population.”

Jacob didn’t laugh. In the spinning of his story he became lost in thought—or a medication haze.

No response, followed by no basis for this fact. “My mother said I needed to know. At some point, I would have children. You know.”

I nodded. Jacob and I had Tommy. He survived. “But clearly you never took her advice?”

He looked at me as if to lighten this up, a little eye roll.  He probably saw me relax a little and smile. “But, I believed her…at first.”

“Are you telling me you know of a cat that sucked a baby’s breath?”

“Oh, no,” Jacob said quickly. “I wouldn’t accept that theory until I could prove it. Or rather, disprove it.”

I checked the clock. This discussion might end up a marathon. “And how did you prove it, or disprove it?”

He looked at me as if I had the answer. “Experimentation.”

“I see.” I didn’t.

He said nothing.

Until I could prove it No! It dawned. I stood involuntarily. “You watched Tommy while he slept? And the cat? Our child? That was the experiment?” Anger as a strange emotion in our relationship burned inside me. “Why didn’t this come up when Tommy came along? Why not tell me?

Jacob looked as though he were in physical pain. “I’m sorry, Hon. I didn’t think you’d understand.”

“You didn’t think to—“ I shook my head to maybe clear it. His disease would excuse only so much.

“This was the third year of our marriage. I plead stupidity.”

Any anger vented and I relaxed. I did not want to argue with my husband as he approached death. Tommy turned out okay. The idea of the cat behavior made no sense.

“Plea accepted.” And that ended it.

***

The waning weeks of Jacob’s life raced by. Lots of talk. Good food. Visitors. Even a few short outings.

Tommy came often.

“If only all our days could go so well,” Jacob admitted.

I agreed.

He seemed to have a firm grasp on his situation.

“I envy you, Jacob,” I said to him one rainy September day. “You’ve not given up control of your life. Others clutch wildly any means to prolong the inevitable.”

Jacob looked directly at Ellie by his side on the loveseat, one paw extended with a sonorous purr action. “We have choices and means. And with age and illness comes wisdom. Some revelation comes late in life.”

“What are talking about? Means? Wisdom? Are you keeping something from me, Hon?”

He smiled, almost playful. “No, you’ll find out in your time. That’s the way life works.”

I did a double take I felt in my neck.

I’m almost certain the cat said,“Yep,” to that.

Jacob looked so placid. Still talking to the cat. Or sitting quietly in breathing in synchrony with the beast. It had to be the meds.

Yet, the disease advanced with more symptoms, all as described by the doctor. When Jacob slept, as he did more often, I tended to affairs of the house. Jacob made many arrangements and sometimes I found myself duplicating his actions. The man never told me everything.

I loved cats. Always have. This last cat acted as aloof as any cat, but I could not bridge the gap.

When I entered the room where she slept, she invariably fled. When with Jacob, she stayed under his protective arm, but with one eye peeled. Ellie did not take to my touch. That was mildly annoying since I was the one who initiated Jacob to cats.

Sometimes she watched me. Those moments when you know you’re being watched.

***

Jacob had maybe six weeks to live according to the schedule. In October, he had lost much of his mobility as muscles weakened. We managed pain. I experienced growing weariness. Waiting for—an end.

On a sunny day late in mid-October, Jacob lay dead. He reclined on the loveseat in the sunroom. As if frozen in place. Reminiscent of a painting of a lord by some Old Master only this was my husband.

The sunlight artistically framed Jacob against a backdrop of brushes of green and fading colors through the windows. Flowers losing bloom, hanging on. Season’s end. Life’s sunset.

Only the pillow lay askew on the floor below him. Next to the cat who glared at me.

I knelt at the loveseat and took the mirror my husband used to comb his hair. When I held it at his open mouth for half a minute, no fog formed. His eyes were wide, empty.

Unbeknownst to me, Jacob had willed his body to medical science—a grandiose beneficiary—and pathologists descended on his remains in the two days after his death. Arrangements were made, and his body was transported.

They made their examinations and cuts and recorded their conclusions.

They had not expressly been looking for it, but cause of death was determined.

Afterward, a few questions remained. For some people, the cause mattered a great deal.

Asphyxiation. Not expected. His lungs and airway were clear. Other people took an interest. One, a lawyer. Technically, an inquiry was conducted, but not an investigation.

One day in early December, with snow covering leaves that Jacob would have raked, the inquiry ended.  Officially.

My son had left for Madison after a visit. Ellie and I occupied a chilled house. The noisy furnace needed attention.

This is the last cat.

I awoke that night in the light of the Long Night Moon filtering through my bedroom window. I lay flat on my back, hearing breathing, my dream blending into life. I had been running free. An animal, leaping with eyes wild. I slowed my breathing, but it was not mine I heard. The rhythmic trill continued.

I opened my lids at that instant and looked up. Just over the top of my pillow. The green eyes. Wild.

Wisdom. Ah, Jacob. The cat got it, at last.

Movie Night by Marie McCloskey

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I eased myself onto the oversized seat. My back popped and my knees locked up, but I clutched my goodies tight. A few kernels of popcorn sprinkled the floor and I nodded to my assist dog, Sally. “All yours, girl.”

The stiff chair didn’t offer as much comfort as my old recliner, but I hadn’t been to a movie in years. I was determined to enjoy it. At fifteen dollars a ticket I’d have to. I knew prices had gone up, but the concession was so high there should have been gold in the popcorn.

I got extra butter to stick it to them. Piled on the salt and took enough napkins to wipe my mouth for the next year too.

The ex would have glared at me at me. Not that she would have dared to leave her couch. Her precious Netflix shows widened her ass as fast as my injury grew my gut. I shook my head at the thought. I missed being able to walk without pain. Found myself hating the joggers I drove past on the way here.

At least the divorce is almost done. I shook my head and jammed a handful of popcorn in my mouth. The salt danced on my tongue. I gulped my drink letting the cherry coke dissolve the popcorn and fizz before swallowing.

Now I can at least enjoy some of my life again. I patted Sally on the head. She rested her face on my lap and I sat back thinking of all I’d missed out on since I got married.

“No bacon on the pizza if you want me to eat it.” The first time she said that, it was cute. After twenty years of marriage it felt like prison.

I grinned to think of how I handled her walking out on me. “You’re not the same anymore, Chuck!” she shouted.

I can’t believe I was so mad at the time. “Of course I’m not.” I slapped my leg. “I can’t do the shit I love anymore.”

“I can’t do this anymore. All we ever do is fight.”

“Only because you won’t accept me as I am. Sickness and health were just ideas to you, huh?” I’d growled.

She stormed out and I ordered and extra-large pizza with triple bacon.

At least now I can die happy, I told myself, shoved more popcorn in my mouth and belched loud enough to make the kids behind me giggle.

I turned to wave at them. “I haven’t been to a movie in years.”

A little five year old girl waved back, but her mom ignored me.

Just like Jillian.

When not arguing, she had pretended I didn’t exist. The pain in my leg stabbed all the way up my spine and she just ignored my groans. I should’ve known not to trust her. She didn’t even like dogs. I can barely trust people who don’t like dogs or at least cats, and she didn’t like any animals.

“We can’t have a dog destroying our nice home,” her fighting words came right after the wedding.

“You loved, Willis.” I gaped at her. “He was the best. Slept at the foot of the bed to keep my toes warm. And I never had to clean up spilled food. He made a perfect vacuum.”

Jillian rolled her eyes.

My loyal buddy was laid to rest in the backyard just before our wedding. He was there now, rotting under the manicured lawn I worked so hard to keep up to my wife’s standards.

“He was nice.” She had scoffed at me. “But named after a terrible actor.”

I could accept pizza without bacon and didn’t really want to replace my awesome dog, but there was no compromising with a woman who insulted Bruce Willis, no matter how type-cast he is sometimes.

Out of duty and the nature of societal pressure, I somehow got through it. Two decades I endured that…that woman. I shoved another handful of popcorn in my mouth. Kernels littered my belly. I tried to grab the ones that fell into the cracks of my seat but they escaped my clutches.

I bent forward to try and contain the mess. A fart squeezed out of me. I sat up and looked around.

No one said anything, but the couple a few seats down got up and moved further away.

More room for me, I guess. I fanned my nose.

Sally lay down and rested on my foot.  

“No woman was ever as good to me as you.” I carefully leaned forward clenching my butt to keep kamikaze gas at bay. “Go ahead.” I waved at the popcorn on the floor and she munched it.

The lights went down and the screen filled with sweaty bodies. They morphed to a woman buttoning her jeans over gaunt hips, then cut forward to a car racing along a sea-side road. I squinted and scratched my head. A single line whispered at the end. The breathy voice confirmed that I had survived yet another unbearable perfume commercial.

And people wonder why no one pays attention to this junk. I laughed to myself. They’re more useless than ever. Anything that’s gonna sell doesn’t need commercials. I marveled at the shiny smiles plastered on the people onscreen.

Jillian hated commercials almost as much as I did, at least. Netflix got that right, but they’ll probably be running ads soon too. Just like cable. The whole point of buying that was originally to avoid ads in the middle of a show, but then the providers wanted more money and killed that dream.

I rubbed my pocket, glad to have a thicker wallet without Jillian. What had started out as seven or eight dollars a month became added packages, more streaming services. Hulu. HBO. All the networks wanted to suck me dry. They left little to help with the doctor bills after the accident.

I had grown so indifferent to new shows: Amazon originals, Netflix series. They lacked something, but I couldn’t describe what. My inability to articulate the emptiness of flat storylines and mass media consumption annoyed Jillian to the point that she wouldn’t watch anything with me.

I guess I had grown a little cynical. But who wouldn’t?

I happily turned to books for entertainment. The classics were still there full of intelligible ideas and characters so real they became trusted friends. This movie was it, the one I had been waiting for, for half a decade. Hollywood finally got off the remake/nostalgia-porn train and put stock into new stories again.

Based on the book of all books, it couldn’t fail me. The story felt so real I empathized with the characters more than the woman I had married.

Thinking of all the attempts I made to get her to read the book still made me shake his head. “Just try the first page and if it doesn’t hook you, I’ll leave you alone.”

A callous cloud darkened the hue of her hazel eyes. She shrugged me off. How could something that meant so much to me not even interest her a little?

I despised how easy it was to imagine her─leaning against the arm of the couch─controller in hand. Her finger hovered over the play button to resume binge-watching her favorite garbage.

I froze in my seat. For a moment, I feared I would reawaken to the nuptial nightmare. But the theater screen plastered a PG-13 rating before us all. My breathing steadied, and the previews began.

I zoned out during scenes for the next big comedy flick. It looked like something from Idiocracy. Poop jokes, and stupid faces were all the comedic world had to offer? I couldn’t accept that. I cracked my knuckles and rubbed my knee.

The other trailers were a circus of explosions, women crying, men screaming, and a one giant eyed alien. None of them impressed me. I checked my phone to see how long we’ve been waiting. Twenty-minutes. I paid to watch twenty minutes of ads trying to get me to watch or buy something else.

I forgot why I even decided to go to a movie.

A hum of hushed voices surrounded me. I scanned the shadowed heads, wondering what they would think of the film. At least this movie will be different.

Sally smacked her lips and rested her chin against my ankles.

I shoved more popcorn in my mouth and gulped some soda. I sloshed the cold liquid around my teeth like mouthwash.

Mouthwash. My old morning routine came to mind like a movie on the screen. Jillian rolling away from me before I could kiss her.

“Morning breath.” She moaned.

She never kissed me unless my teeth were perfectly polished and my mouth was minty fresh. I grew to resent peppermint. I despised fluoride.

I grabbed the mouthwash and stared at its alcohol content. I couldn’t decide if drinking the entire bottle would get me drunk or kill me but either seemed like a nice solution. Anything to stop Jillian from complaining again.

I wondered if any cases of death-by-mouthwash existed. I contemplated experimenting. If it would have gotten her to admit she was wrong, I would have died a perfect martyr.

Now glad to be a survivor, I wore the recollection like a badge of honor. I fought and endured. And now, I have won.

I scratched my receding hairline, glad to be rid of her constant suggestions for fixing that too. I didn’t want to be fixed. Nothing would stop time. Nothing could fix my age or what life had done to me.

I blinked hard. A video filled with cute disabled kids played, asking the audience to turn off their phones. I silenced mine and pushed it back in my pocket but all around, the glow of cell phones flashed like lightning bugs on steroids.

I couldn’t understand it. The theatre had been completely devoid of the damn things until the commercial mentioned them. Now everyone seemed to be checking texts and emails.

I leaned over my seat and squinted at what was so important to the lady adjacent to me. Bad idea. Bile rose in my throat. My ass twitched.  My spit turned sour as the image of a veiny dick implanted itself in my brain.

God strike me blind! I rubbed his eyes. My hands shook, but I managed to grip my soda and suck more down.

“Oh, yeah. It’s finally out,” a nasal voice sounded from behind me.

Everyone sat still, busy wearing out their thumbs typing. Maybe they’ll be done when the movie starts, I hoped, but not even the up-tempo song, or the comical opening credits deterred them.

My mouth went dry. My heart beat slowed to a hard angry thump. No one said anything.

No one was going to stop them.

I grabbed my cane and forced myself up. “I’ve waited too long for this.”

The brilliant illumination of angry faces sat framed with the glow of the screen.

“If you’re not going to watch the damn movie, then go home. I paid too much to sit here while you all ruin the show.”

A couple of people clapped, some turned off their phones and slumped in their seats.

It worked. I jerked my head from side to side. I’d never felt so good.  I was a hero. I had stood up for myself, my rights, and the rights of all mankind.

I stuck out my chest, stretched my chin forward, and drew an enormous breath. They were listening to me. I needed to take the opportunity and further educate them, since no one else would.

“And you know what? I wonder how many of you even read the book. You do know how to read, don’t you? Or are you too busy binge-watching your precious Netflix shows?”

Sally pawed at my leg and let out a low woof. She nipped at my elbow. I know I should have stopped and watched my movie, but I was trying to confront injustice. I couldn’t help myself.

“Excuse me sir.”

My heart froze and I turned toward the voice. A flashlight blinded my eyes and I held my hand up to deflect the glare.

“I’m going to have to ask you to sit down and be quiet, or you’ll have to leave.”

My body went cold. A couple of people clapped and I found it difficult to swallow. “Maybe I should go.” I grabbed my cane. But the little girl behind me, the very one who laughed when I burped stood and grabbed my hand.

“No Mr. Guy. You should watch this. It will be fun.”

Her mom grimaced. “Jilly baby, sit down.” She pulled her back.

“Jilly?” I asked.

The little girl nodded.

I apologized to everyone and sat back down. “You have a beautiful name,” I whispered over my shoulder.

I loved bacon. Loved my dog. I had loved my wife for a time. I contemplated that as the movie played.

The acting fell flat. All the best lines never came. My eyelids grew heavy and I nearly fell asleep in public like some kind of retirement home escapee.

I yawned and glanced around when the movie was over.

“Did you like it?” The lights went up and little Jilly smiled with curls tickling her chubby cheeks. “It was so fun.”

“It was perfect.” I waved to her and her mom forced out a smile.

“Okay honey, it’s time to go.” She ushered her away, but I stretched and scratched my knees.

Sally prompted me to rise. My stomach rumbled.

I stood and gasped at the shooting pain that hit my left arm. It burned a bit too, worse than my knee ever plagued me. “Come on girl. Let’s get some quadruple bacon pizza on the way home.”

We got the pizza on the way home. I sat in my chair and licked the grease from my fingers before the pain in my arm climbed to my chest and knocked me to the floor.

And that’s how I got laid up in this hospital. My ex didn’t deserve me or Sally, but maybe I can cut back on the bacon. Just a little.

Marie likes to let her work speak for itself.