Joe Ashby Porter
The man wanted to buy the cat but couldn’t because his wife was allergic to it. The allergy produced sneezing fits and watery eyes, and worsened at each exposure. Neither Chicklet daughter suffered from the malady, nor did the stringbean son. The youngsters, more or less sharing Popsy’s wish, and excoriating Momsy behind her back, hatched a plot to post announcements at the supermarket, at the quiet ski lifts for early snowbirds, and under the bridge to give tramps a fair chance, announcements of an unspecified prize for the development of a super-loud cat bell together with comfortable sound-damping cat earplugs, but no contestant applied.
The cat would have washed its brindled face contentedly in the bustling family room or on the wife’s pillow, or in the window of the man’s woodworking and ski repair shop, as it did across the street in the window of its owner’s millinery shop, where it had lived since it was a foundling kitten brought there years before by the milliner, herself already wizened then, whose turtle had expired and who, nocturnally scavenging for inspiration down back streets under a harvest moon, had heard a mewing at her heels. It continued around a corner, along an alleyway, around another corner, so piteously that the milliner stopped and peered back at the little beast.
Eventually she dropped it by the scruff of its neck into her work-basket and shut the cover. An hour later she let herself into her shop, set the basket on the worktable as was her wont, locked up, and climbed the spiral stair at the back of the shop to her living quarters. She was sitting on her spindle bed combing lint out of her hair when a faint mewing reminded her of the kitten. She donned a nightie and slippers and returned to the shop with a dish of warmed milk. The kitten lapped as the milliner improvised a litter box. Thus the kitten took up residence among wooden blocking heads. As the milliner worked, it toyed with ribbons and thimbles. Before it reached maturity the milliner had it declawed, to spare her livelihood.
The cat’s mind tracked seamlessly across present variables, noting changes to the most minuscule, fleeting, and intangible—atmospheric pressure, magnetism—and effortlessly screening out all that settled into predictability, with scarcely a trace of self-consciousness, yet with a certain hovering retentiveness. It almost knew its name. Down the years, sometimes of an evening in the shuttered lamplight of the worktable, the milliner absorbed in a new confection, the cat gazed at the bright, lined face, pins protruding from the whiskered mouth, with something approaching recognition, as ancient laughter subsided, surfacing in the white static of the pictureless television the milliner used for a radio.
The man had grown up in a spacious high-rise apartment decorated with photographs of dairy cattle, and next door had lived a retired cardiologist and her sagging bulldog. At eastern schools, at the last of which the man and his wife met and fell in love, more than one acquaintance had had an animal companion, spaniels, a lame rhesus. The man associated these details the Wednesday when, the ski season winding down, he closed up shop early and stepped across the street to help his wife select an Easter bonnet, and first noticed the cat. On a needlepoint footstool it stretched and yawned. Scarcely had the man entered the shop, behind his wife, who went directly to the display window to consider a raspberry straw boater, when the cat trotted across to him and curvetted between his ankles as though he were a friend of yore. Thenceforth into the summer the man found excuses—the mayoral election, the billboard issue—to visit the milliner’s cat. By July he had discovered in himself a need to own this cat.
His wife, knowing her disability, had taken the precaution of airing her bonnet behind the chalet a good twenty-four hours, and even so had found it necessary during the Easter morning service to stifle one sneeze and to release another in the guise of a hallelujah, and to dab her eyes as if in response to the minister’s eloquence, so that there could be no question of her cohabiting with the cat, as the man well knew, but he thought it might live in the playhouse, a scaled-down version of the chalet that the triplets had outgrown, assuming the milliner would be willing to part with it, or else his wife might agree to undertake the costly and timeconsuming series of tests that might—no way of knowing before the fact—produce a serum for her allergy.
She declined the latter solution but agreed at least to entertain the former, albeit with misgivings, for even assuming he could shower and change after each visit to the cat house—he envisioned installing an adult shower at the back, supplied with water from the buried sprinkler system, heated in a water heater installed under an eave against the shower, which could drain over the gneiss down the mountainside—and he envisioned using environmentally friendly space-age soap—and the same plumbing could serve the laundry he envisioned installing next to the shower, so that he himself could tend to his contaminated vestments—even so, she thought, and even with any number of other shifts, still she would have to live with the real possibility of waking in the middle of some dark night unable to breathe.
She told the children, “I wouldn’t give it a moment’s consideration if I didn’t love him up one side and down the other. One day you’ll understand, if you’re lucky. It won’t necessarily be spouse number one, or any spouse for that matter, and given your age (eight) I wouldn’t want to lay money on what gender or race it might be, for instance, but trust me, you’ll know how lucky you’re fortunate enough to be if it does eventually happen to you. Who knows, you could conceivably stumble on a foretaste next week even. Stranger things have happened.”
“Cut to the chase, Ma.”
“As I was on the verge of saying, it has to be love, otherwise I’d deliver an ultimatum, it or me. If he turned out to have his priorities upside-down, your Denver auntie would be happy for me to move in with them. For that matter, I’ve kept myself up and this isn’t twelfth-century India. The manicurist always says he’s never seen such beautiful nails.”
“Give us a break, Ma.”
“Tell you what: I will go so far as to inquire as to whether shaving the cat might do the trick. I have a feeling the hair’s at least the vector, and maybe the causative agent. And after all, hairless cats exist, I’ve seen pictures of them grooming the imaginary pelt, or coat.”
“You betcha, Ma.” They nickered after she left the room.
As the man steamed, bent, glued, and clamped laminate, as he turned spindles, as he leafed through Snowboardirg, he mulled over strategy. The main question, as he saw it, was axiological. While he felt willing to pay the milliner many times the cat’s objective worth, assuming that could be determined, he well knew that people sometimes called pets priceless. Furthermore he had an uneasy suspicion that courts somewhere or other—something he had read in a law review at the dentist’s?—had at least entertained the possibility. Thumping a watermelon at the greengrocer’s, he reminded himself of infungibility: probably the milliner would balk at replacing her cat with another, however similar, even a clone whose maturation could somehow be accelerated, if that was a requirement. When push came to shove she would probably prove no readier than, come to think of it, he, to be satisfied with another cat. For that matter, an alternate cat would likely provoke similar reactions in his wife. Then there was the problem of game psychology. Even supposing (what was anything but evident) some threshold such that the milliner would be unable to refuse any offer above it, it might be extravagant, for probably there was a much lower range of sums she could refuse but wouldn’t. Call these two ranges D (the higher) and B. Below B of course lay A, sums so low she would certainly refuse them. He could discount them but not the more problematic range C, of sums low enough to refuse, and which she would refuse because they seemed insultingly high. The ideal offer would be in the B range, high there, yet not so high as to risk straying into C and putting the royal kebosh on the whole undertaking. He sighed and doodled with a forefinger in the turnings on his worktable. After all, before talking figures it might be prudent to feel her out about the possibility. He glanced at the cuckoo clock: 10:00 A.M., as good a time as any in a July Wednesday to hang up his leather apron, close shop, and amble across the cobbled street for a chat.
In the milliner’s display window, opaque paper domes still protected her confections from the morning sun. There among them, attracted by the warmth and perhaps also, the man thought, by the look of what might seem a dozen covered birdcages, snoozed the cat. The jingle of the doorbell waked it, and it came to sharpen imaginary claws on the man’s gabardine pant leg as he sat on the fitting stool before the milliner. She pinned a clump of russet cobweb to a dusty pink felt toque. “Send your Ms. by for a gander at this number,” she said. “In my apprenticehood folks said redheads oughtn’t wear pink, but nowadays it’s the exact reverse.”
“Mmm,” said the man.
“How long have you two been married, incidentally? Unless I’m assuming too much, and you’re one of these newer couples that turn their nose up at matrimony.”
“No, I wouldn’t say we turn our ‘nose’ up at much of anything, really. Seventeen years solid next month.”
“Hats off to you.”
The man shrugged. “I know what you mean, and thanks, but the truth of the matter is, we never seemed to have a choice.”
“I suppose you dated other carrottops first.” She laid a medallion of crushed auburn velvet against the brim, considering.
The man tugged an ear and smiled. “I generally think of carrottops as green. But no, and not any other color either. It was love at first sight, freshman year. Before, at a unisex prep school, coed now of course, and so much the better, I did escort the odd young lady to a prom or flick, but not anybody repeatedly enough to call it dating.” He pulled the ear once more. “You probably won’t believe this, but I lost my virginity with my wife-to-be. Did you ever ski yourself?”
The milliner sniffed. “Do I look as if I ever skied?”
“It’s not too late, you know. I see women older than you on the slopes. Men too.” He scratched the cat’s back. “The fresh air does wonders, and the beginner slopes couldn’t be milder.”
“I do believe you’re trying to make a sale.” She replaced the medallion with a sprig of mock parsley.
“I could give you a deal, for sure. Make you the envy of the mountain. I think we ought to scratch each other’s backs. Hell, I’d be happy to make you a gift of a pair, it would give me such pleasure to see you out on the subtoboggan run in powder, against the frisky conifers. I suppose you’d want to design your own ski bonnet, but as for . . .”
“My niece skis.”
“Well then, maybe she . . .”
“Ah. You don’t say.”
“Both nephews, now I remember, the grandniece as well. Papa too, and both brothers did. You might think I had it in the blood, but I never was athletic. I’m legally blind in one eye, so I lack depth perception.” She sewed on the sprig at a Tyrolean angle. With a spot of Superglue she affixed a triangle of iridescent vinyl nearby—not so near the sprig as to make one figure, yet near enough to invite mutual reference. “But your wife, was she equally inexperienced before that frosh lightning bolt? I assume you and she had similar upbringings. Your school admitted only boys then, but it’s easy to imagine a finishing school for her in the same region.”
“She grew up in Budapest and Maryland, me in Minneapolis, and the upbringings differed quite a bit. Me an only and late child of dairy farmers, she next-to-youngest of four products of a bohemian life in the lower ranks of the diplomatic corps. No surprise then that she’d had two or three premarital flings.” The cat groomed his wrist with its tiny rough tongue down into the palm, along the destiny line still welted from carpal tunnel surgery. “But don’t worry, that’s never been a problem. Love irons out lots of wrinkles.” He picked the cat up. He felt its ribs under the sliding furred skin, like a delicate cage for a birdlike heart. “It conquers all, I might almost say.”
The milliner shook her head. “I can’t buy that, Buster. The world’s too big. Present-day India alone, not to mention her larger neighbor to the northeast. Did poverty and illness slip your mind? Oh please, let’s not babble. Conquest? In my experience love knuckles under to just about anything.”
The man let the cat wriggle free. “To money?”
The milliner set aside her creation. “Well, I’m not exactly sure what you have in mind.” She patted her lap. “Here, puss-puss.” As if by telekinesis the cat translated itself there, where it curled and purred. “In any case, love (whatever we mean by that) gets bowled over by desire. Not to mention need. Not even in the same league, really.”
The man thought, if she refuses, I could catnap it early one Wednesday afternoon while she’s dozing. Leave a bogus ransom note? No, why take needless risks? Cats wander off all the time, it’s in their nature. They lack canine loyalty and stick-to-itiveness. Under lock and key, under wraps during this milliner’s remaining years, my family sworn to secrecy, in the playhouse it and I could spin out its remaining days like birds in a gilded cage. I could learn to meow. He felt a catch in his throat.
The milliner leaned forward. Motes meandered in a swath of sunlight. Between thumb and forefinger she pressed imaginary claws out of their sheaths. “This one would leave its signature if it could, on my chapeaux, on your leg.” She laughed inaudibly.
The man thought, but what sort of example would that set for my family? The stringbean means to be a banker, a good one I feel sure, but with a background of concealing a purloined feline, one Friday at closing time in the vault, wouldn’t he be tempted to pocket a wad? Wouldn’t the Chicklets stray too? And who knows, the milliner might run mad with grief, after all. He nodded. “Did you ever have another pet?”
“Insects as a child, arachnids, segmented worms. Then zilch until some summers ago I was down in the valley trout fishing—I tie my own flies—and I opened my creel and what do you think?” The man pictured a buzzing tray of bluebottles in bondage. “Not a clue.”
“A turtle had somehow crawled in, and didn’t want to crawl out until we came home. I gave it the run of the place. At supper I leave the back door open and it could have taken a powder but it never did. Maybe it preferred the catfood I gave it, to acorns or whatever it could forage in the wild. Inside though it disappeared for weeks on end, sleeping or hibernating behind a broom. Then I found it in the pantry, all closed like when it slept, but when I set food before it nothing happened. After a week of that, I borrowed a stethoscope to check for breath or a heartbeat. It was in the spring, so I set it on the back stoop just in case. Through that summer and fall when I happened to notice it I’d pick it up and shake it. It seemed to get lighter. The next summer the shell blistered.” She shook her head, clucking. “It had to croak for me to miss its company. So when this abandoned kitty-cat adopted me, I was ready.”
As the man told his wife that evening, at this point his heart sank. Even buying the cat now seemed quite out of the question, even supposing the milliner could be persuaded to sell, it so evidently belonged with her. The man’s heart sank and he seemed to feel his hair thinning. “Stiff upper, though?” he told himself in the ensuing months, “It’s not the end of the world, for heaven’s sake. And time heals.” And yet as months lengthened a certain bleakness refused to lift, not even after his wife bought him a Chia pig for his workshop. He gave it good light and watered it dutiflly, and as the terrra cotta flanks sprouted, they sometimes brought a wan smile to his lips in the vestibule where he stamped the Febrary snow from his boots, the March and April snow. Once he went so far as to give the foliage a light tousle.
For the sake of his family and friends and customers the man did his best to maintain a cheerful demeanor. Yet his wife knew that stronger measures were needed. Thus on Easter morning, the triplets gathered to witness, she presented her beloved husband with a baby bunny rabbit. It buoyed his spirits immediately.
Black and white, like his parents’ dairy cattle, it grew quickly to the size of a cat, and well beyond. It keeps the man company during his workdays, leaving clean, odorless little turds about the shop, munching lettuces. He enjoys its hopping, on floors or grass or snow, and he especially enjoys its long moments of reflection as it watches him, not moving an ear, not a whisker. Life seems good. The triplets attend ivies of their choice; one hardheaded daughter majors in lapidary science, the other, with an eye to membership in the first human Martian settlement, in agronomy, and Stringbean, an ace pole-vaulter, in economics. The man counts him- self lucky above all in a wife to thank for these blessings. True love, man-to-man he tells the stringbean, is money in a bank.