Advice is the vice of the wise. In Martinez’s story, a wise old nuisance of a cat indulges in the vice with some characteristic feline viciousness. It’s hardly a crime to reveal that the cat is dying– the author has declared his cards in the title itself– or that the story is about dealing with the unexpectedness of death; that is, the utter fairness it. Or is it? As I read the story, I became less sure. The narrator of the story– the one who has to put with the cat– has a girlfriend. The more I thought about their relationship, the less certain I became that the cat wasn’t getting at something else. This kind of writing, which seems to be perfectly transparent, but get murkier when we decant it out of an excess of caution, is the perfect greater vehicle for a feline Buddha.
The Bombay Literary Magazine has published a number of stories around cats. I am reminded of what Brillat-Savarin said of fish: “In the hands of an able cook, fish can become an inexhaustible source of perpetual delight.” So too, it seems with authors and cats. Enjoy!
— Anil Menon
The Bombay Literary Magazine
Jane had acquired the cat from her ex-boyfriend, who had succumbed to a series of tragic, but not unpredictable circumstances. He died at the age of thirty-one after swerving his Prius underneath the unforgiving wheels of a Kroger semi-truck. The truck contained approximately eighteen thousand heads of lettuce which spilled all over the highway. A needle in a haystack situation. I will spare you the other gory details of the scene. I met him once at a party and even then, I could tell that he was on a collision course with an early exit. He reeked of bourbon and stale cigarettes, and it seemed to me that this was his default mode of operation as he floated around the room. Still, I didn’t take his keys away from him when given the opportunity and ever since then I’ve been slugging around a knapsack full of guilt. Jane says to talk about it, that there was no legal obligation, no holy writ, no divine proclamation handed down from some venerated cloud. Dramatize if you must but detach it and move on or else: enjoy the sinking.
“Don’t worry about it, I do it all the tiiiiiime,” he slurred as the party was wrapping up, letting that final word linger ominously.
I’m certain he did it all the time, but that didn’t alleviate anything for anybody listening in on the conversation. He was buried at noon the week after in the green grass of the Gravesend Cemetery. Everyone agreed that the funeral was… adequate. So, Jane assumed responsibility for the aging animal and shortly after, she and I moved in together and began dating. But there was an odd air about the creature, with his thick gray fur and small polite face, as if he were suspicious of me in some way. I considered my own capacity for paranoia, but when his own failing health started to become apparent and the ferrying back and forth between the apartment and various specialists became too much, I believe that he finally snapped. The cat began speaking to me when no one else was around. But what was strange about it was that it wasn’t at all the typical things that you might imagine a cat would say. There was no casual interest on his part about discussing the nature of playing with toys, or his take on various treats, or which spot on the floor was the most conducive to lapping up the sun, which shone through our large living room windows. He would mostly grumble around the house like a bitter old retiree whose children had long stopped calling. His complaints could be described as the typical grievances of a caged animal, except in one bizarre monologue when, as his tail lazily but repeatedly slapped against the sofa, he articulated to me a surprisingly scathing critique on The Death of Ivan Illyich.
“Bladder tumor, ughh maybe in the ballpark of six thousand dollars for the surgery. It might, and I stress might buy you another year,” the young veterinarian doctor was telling Jane and I at the emergency hospital in her relaxed neutrality and tightly pulled back bun. We exchanged a look that is well known to people who immediately shift to plan B after hearing six thousand dollars.
He thrashed about and made the entire examination stressful for Jane and it was terrifying to watch the struggling. But he had started to slow down in his advanced age and we both knew that it was coming eventually. The slick white paper on the examining table was torn to shreds by the end of that first visit and the little animal sized testing machines looked like children’s toys under the cold fluorescent lighting.
“Give him this in the morning. Gabapentin. This is for pain. Fill it up to here,” the nurse tapped at a little black line on a plastic syringe, “And put it in his food,” she said.
Jane and I sat in the back of an Uber, the cat safe in his carrier between us. We carefully delayed the outpouring of emotion until we were back in the privacy of our home.
“I just needed more time,” she said, falling into me and dropping her things on the tile floor of our kitchen. And I knew what Jane meant; She wasn’t prepared for this. Who is? To comfort her, I told Jane that people had devised all kinds of ways to avoid dealing with death: from outright denial to our vapid obsessions with youth. A poor attempt at poetry, but what I meant was simply that death should not be this all-consuming fear.
“You’re not helping,” she said.
The coming weeks became progressively more challenging. The tumor seemed to move at an alarming pace as it got harder and harder for him to urinate. He would move around the now sullen apartment in a way that showed his discomfort and when Jane left to run an errand or meet a friend, he began to unburden himself to me.
“Why do you watch so many documentaries and sad ass movies?” he would ask.
“Why are you so critical, what do you care?”
“I don’t care about documentaries, turn something else on,” he said.
He had ideas about me too. He told me that it was just his opinion that I seemed to be a tragically sad person who was wasting my time watching movies all day, and listening to depressing music. He spoke like a discerning parent and often dismissed my own inquiries about the inner workings of the mind of a cat. The back and forth grew tiresome.
“So, which bar you going to tonight? The goth bar, or the seedy little one on the corner, the one by the House of Yes?” he asked me.
“Wait, how do you know about that?”
“I hear things,” he said smugly, as he laid his head down on the couch and put his little paw over his eyes to block out the afternoon sun. The sharp tips of his tiny claws protruded from the delicate appendages like retractable pocketknives.
He had a condescending temperament which was a stark contrast to the irresistible little meows that we had grown accustomed to. We thought that a short one meant hello, the medium one meant feed me, and the longer one, the louder and more pitchy one meant: so, help me God, if I don’t get a treat right now, you’ll both pay! When I asked him about the accuracy of these observations, he shook his head and was aggressively dismissive.
“Got a couple of rocket scientists over here,” he said.
This routine went on for some time and we lived, while Jane was away during the day, and I working from home, like an odd pairing of roommates who were beginning to resent each other. It wasn’t that he was wrong about anything he was saying, I just didn’t want to hear it. My own lack of inertia was a constant struggle, and it was offensive to me to have to defend myself against the blatant judgements of a free loading animal. Still, the thought began to bloom in my mind that this unnatural set of circumstances could function as a kind of lesson for me. What was he trying to say through all the vitriol and off-handed remarks? That I should take better care of myself? Maybe. That I should open my heart back up to the people around me? That I should stop feeling the crushing weight of guilt with each and every movement of my body? Or maybe, he was just a miserable old man who started to sense that time was slipping away.
He became progressively more morose as the days went on. Jane and I debated whether or not leaving for a weekend to get away was a wise decision while we were dealing with this situation. When we returned home that Monday his mood turned even more grim. When Jane left the apartment to refill his prescription, I discovered that he had been occupying himself with some of the books I kept around the house. He asked me if I knew that Trotsky had led the Red Army during the Russian civil war, asked me if I knew how long humans had left on this planet, asked me once, in a suggestive tone, if I had ever considered how tall one Jesus Christ was. But he was always able to expertly turn his bizarre orations into some critique of me personally. And what right did he have to do this?
“Ya know, it’s easy for you to say all this. You don’t have to get up and go out there every day. You are taken care of. You don’t have to stand in lines or do your taxes or work all day and then have to deal with some indifferent jerk off in your home,” I said, and then he paused for a moment.
“Touched a nerve there, huh?” he said.
I thought about discussing all of this with Jane, but it was a risky calculation. I couldn’t bear to add to her grief. I thought about telling the girl at the coffee shop, the one with the short black hair and the eyes of someone who still had their whole life ahead of them. I could not risk that scenario either, as I greatly enjoyed how they chose to roast their beans. After some time, I had begun to accept the reality of the unlikely situation and thought that I had no choice but to keep things to myself. So, I did, but on the freezing winter nights when Jane was away, he crossed that terrible line into unhinged territory, a likely side-effect from the drugs and his decaying and ancient body.
“Top me off would ya?” he asked me while nodding at the bottle of liquid pain killers on the counter as I seared a sirloin steak as big as his torso.
“You’re not allowed to have anymore… according to that doctor,” I said.
“That doctor!” he said, working himself into a tizzy, “She didn’t know what the hell she was talking about, I’ve taken harder stuff than this! The things I would do for a drink and a cigarette right now?” he said.
“Go lay down,” I told him through clenched teeth.
I sat under the reduced lamplight of the living room; I had added an extra CC to his pate of mashed salmon which arrested the apartment in a repulsive odor, and he paced around for a time in a woozy-like trance until finally retiring to his favorite spot on the couch.
“I know I’m gonna die, I’m not an idiot… like you,” he said.
“I think you’re addicted to that stuff,” I said.
“Sounds like a Hallmark card,” I said.
“Don’t test me, I’m cookin,” he said.
His main point of contention was that he didn’t understand the guilt that I was carrying around with me. He explained that I didn’t have the courage of my convictions behind me. I asked him why he felt it was important for him to relay all of this to me, shouldn’t he be focused on his own demise?
“I’ve made peace with it all,” his tiny head bobbing back and forth under the influence now, “You… on the other hand,” he said while nodding off.
I had reached a breaking point. I was not going to be spoken down to any longer and I laid awake in bed later that evening with my thoughts at odds with my desire for sleep. He had become more aggressive in recent days in the demanding of his medication, and even though he was large, and his soft belly nearly dragged on the ground when he pranced around the apartment, he began knocking things off surfaces to wake us up in the middle of the night. And he would wail in agonizing pain which, despite my recent annoyances with him, was still heart breaking to process. Jane and I sat at the coffee shop on the corner with the sounds of his gurgling still fresh in our minds. It was time to make a difficult decision.
“It’s time,” I said.
“I know,” she conceded as she dropped her eyes in defeat.
It was important for Jane, and to a slightly lesser degree to me too that we had the animal euthanized. Too many people jump ship when things get difficult, you hear stories all the time: Dog found, if yours call this number. It wasn’t six thousand dollars, but it wasn’t cheap either, and anyways, he was as much a part of our patchwork family as Jane or me. And despite his recent crassness and our private little battles, and before he could speak, he was a singularly loving animal which we were not ready to let go. Jane had found a service and had made all the necessary appointments.
“So, they come to your house, and then do it, like in our apartment. And then they wrap him up and cremate him and then we get the urn in seven days. In the mail or something,” she said, choking back her tears.
Jane’s own ability to handle the business of death in face of these circumstances was suddenly and shockingly inspiring to me. Jane lived in the practical world, she didn’t feel the need to romanticize dusty books scattered all over the apartment, or to find some deeper meaning in the dissolution of biological forms. This was a gift I didn’t possess and in the absence of this ability, I had always felt like I was carrying a heavy curse around me. We discussed the engraving, the complimentary paw print, which would be taken at the moment of truth, and the ways in which we would honor him going forward.
“He’ll always be with us,” I told her, dusting off an old cliché.
In his final days, leading up to the appointment, he started to suspect that something was up and despite his previous attempts at a cool and collected bravado, I could see that his own mortality was starting to catch up to him.
“What would you do if you had a week to live?” I asked him one night.
“OK, good question. Let me think,” he curled up on my lap for the first time in weeks and began to speak through a gravelly voice and with a fading energy.
“The first thing I would do is host a poetry reading at the wine bar at the Whole Foods… the one on 6th Avenue,” he started, “And then, just as the first speaker started, I’d hop up on the bar and knock all their wine glasses onto the floor,” we both erupted in laughter.
“Can you imagine the horror, so self-important?” he said.
“That seems pretty mean,” I told him.
“OK, how bout this? I would have liked to have been a person of interest in a police investigation, I think. Now, mind you, I wouldn’t have wanted to be arrested or anything. Just a passing person of interest. Just once in my life. And then maybe a couple weeks go by and then they clear my name. Just long enough so that it’s an act break in one of those terrible documentaries you like,” he said.
When Jane got home, we ordered him six pieces of sashimi and he scarfed it down with a reckless abandon as he tore through the pink flesh and made a loud smacking sound as he ate. We watched his eyes flicker after he fell asleep and wondered out loud what he might be dreaming about as we tried to enjoy our last moments with him.
“He’s dreaming about the sushi,” Jane said, a smile creeping across her face for the first time in a month.
“He’s definitely dreaming of the sushi,” I said.
I took a walk around the block that evening. I was beginning to see that the next day would hold some exaggerated level of drama that I didn’t wish to confront yet. Though summer was a long way away, faces lined the sidewalks and there was a jovial mood in the air that I myself felt entirely detached from. On a Norway Maple, a red-winged butterfly like insect landed on the trunk of the massive tree. And I had remembered a report on the news about an invasive species, they called it a lantern fly. The Department of Agriculture had suggested that if you spotted one, it should be killed on sight. Lacking the constitution to perform my civic duty, I just watched it for a moment until it changed its mind and flew away. A group of people were sitting on their stoop as they drank from brown paper bags that concealed something. A car alarm began going off in the distance. Car alarm; Brown paper bag; Red lantern fly; Norway Maple; The Department of Agriculture; The faces and the jovial mood. I couldn’t sleep.
So, on the occasion of the death of our cat, we wore black in the traditional style. Jane decided that this was appropriate. A different and lankier veterinarian from the service called Jane’s phone and announced that she had arrived at our building. Jane brought her up the five flights of stairs and she hung her knee-length, tan, pea coat on the rack in our hallway. She spoke in low tones as she outlined the process for us:
“First, we’re going to give him a sedative, he’s just gonna get all relaxed and loving. Once he’s relaxed, we’ll have about fifteen minutes to say goodbye to him and then we’ll administer the thing that actually stops his heart,” she said.
The sequence of unfolding events played out like a bad movie: Too dramatic for words, too dramatic not to assign them, impossible to ignore the acting. I watched his eyes getting heavier as Jane held him on her lap after he received the first dose and then he bolted underneath the couch as the mixture of calmness and dread began to collide inside of him. We attempted to coax him out for a while, but we waited out his reluctance until the sedative started to win out. I laid on the cool floor on my stomach with my arms outstretched and tried to reassure him as our eyes met. There was no reassurance here, and we both knew it. As we finally moved him into position on the floor of the kitchen, I imagined that if he could speak one more time, that if Jane and the veterinarian weren’t there, that he would have told me not to swerve underneath that couch. That I was in mortal danger of getting crushed too. That within the guilt and mourning what I was actually doing was mourning myself. That the preceding events only served to puncture through for a second, to catch a glimpse of things to come for myself. That this was the true heart of the matter.
I still look at the urn on the bookshelf on days when the apartment is too quiet, and I feel so far from everyone around me. There is no catharsis to be found here, death doesn’t take that into consideration. There is only a momentary reprieve, which is sometimes eradicated violently by waves in unexpected moments when you’re standing in line at the grocery store or looking at an old photograph. I think about his judgey quips in the weeks leading up to his death and his rude, but ultimately in their own strange way, caring critiques of the life that I am currently attempting, and mostly failing to slog my way through. And I think about the ways in which I have projected my own thoughts and feelings onto something that wasn’t entirely true: That I had only met him once at a party. Deception is the key. And finally: the car getting smashed, and along with it, my inability to recover from the incident, and the keys splayed out on the marble counter at that party, and the blue knapsack that the doctor bundled him up in as she walked down the stairs and out of the building, and the formed tip of his crooked tail poking out of the soft fabric.
The banner image is from Shoeb Dastagir‘s painting “Clarity of the Leopard“. We reproduce it here with his kind permission. Shoeb’s paintings would probably be classified as magic realist by experts whose job it is to classify such things. In the artist’s own words:
“I give form to things that are intangible like atmosphere, mood & submission. I get my inspiration from nature and the profound silence of creation. Silence in nature speaks through to me .My paintings combine pictures from imaginary worlds intermingled with whimsical characters and dream like sequences which border on fantasy and mystic dreams. As an artist I work towards developing work of art that intrigues and speak to you at the same time. My work invites the viewer to move into my world of fantasy and delve into beauty that I see in my world.”
Shoeb lives and works in Bangalore. For more of his work, see: A Little On The Wild Side.
Matthew Martinez is a native of Phoenix, Arizona living and working in New York City. He writes fiction short stories in the mode of magical realism which often turn gothic. He is studying creative writing at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, New York where he is working on his debut novel.