The Rusty Toque | Issue 3 | Fiction | October 12, 2012
EVERYONE LIKES A LITTLE GUY
He had soft orange hair, and he was big. Not fat; just good strong bones. He’d clearly been tramping through the muck, and all over he was burrs and bits of grass. He had a collar on—bright purple—so he was someone’s lost friend, not a city-smart street-cat. Plus the rain had hardly stopped all day, so he’d gotten matted and muddy. The saddest thing was the leaf on his back. It was a big fat maple, green and gleaming from the rain, riding on his spine as he picked his way along. What bothered me was the indignity, that he might not know he had a silly green flag bouncing along on top of him.
He paused behind some straggly looking Queen Anne’s lace, then seemed to see me and panic. I dipped my shoulders, curved my back, tried to seem smaller and less scary. After a moment, I realized it was the cars whizzing behind me that bothered him.
Night was coming on, and the rain had started pattering down again. The cat still trembled in the weeds with the stupid leaf trembling too. How could the little guy last the night by the side of such a busy road if he couldn’t even get a leaf off his back? When I sprang across the sidewalk and knocked the leaf into the dirt, the cat cringed but didn’t run. He didn’t even squirm when I scooped his heavy body against me—to hell with the linen suit—and scurried up the sidewalk, clutching him. All I could think was, “Thank goodness.”
I think he felt warmer right away in the lobby, and by the elevator he was starting to come to life, nosing around, putting his paws on my breasts and shoulders for a better view. So we were both a little muddy when I finally got home. I dropped my briefcase at the door and hustled us into the hallway bathroom before he could protest. He firmly dug his claws into my forearm as soon as I turned on the tap. Poor guy! So we compromised on me cleaning only as much as I could do with my fingers. I figured he’d tongue-clean himself the rest of the way when he was ready, anyway.
Of course, as soon as he was clean and dry, all he wanted was to go exploring, not be pent up in the bathroom. He made just the tiniest croaking sound—like the squawk of an oven door opening. I let him out, and while he wandered around sniffing and snuffling and probably finding all the dust-bunnies in the whole solarium, I went out to the kitchen and put some water in a dessert dish and some tuna in another. I knew it wasn’t great to give him tuna because of the sodium, but I did rinse it carefully.
He immediately started chowing down—I love that clicky sound a cat makes when he’s chewing. I slipped into the laptop nook and Googled “lost cat Riverside,” to see if I could find out who the little guy was. The Humane Society site was more confusing than it should’ve been—those poor distraught folks who lost their cats must’ve been going around in circles of clicks. But I was a finder not a loser, and I eventually found the long—too long!—list of lost cats. It was so sad scrolling through tabbies and gingers, Peteys and Oreos and Adriannas, knowing they were all lost in the big city, scared of cars, hungry, cold, and tonight damp, too.
Of course I started to tear up a little, looking at those lost fuzzy souls. Right then I heard the key in the door and Jamie walked in with Quentin banging around behind him. I heard Quentin dash off down the hall, yelling about Beyonce and Rhianna and who knows what awful Top-40 stars. I had told Jamie to keep the car radio turned to classical. I didn’t turn, figuring Jamie’d still be mad from our disagreement before work. It seemed one or the other of us was usually mad, these days. But then he did the most unusual thing—he came over and put his hand on my shoulder like he knew just how sad I was. His hand was warm through my damp blouse. It was quiet in the blond wood laptop nook, the sheers blocked out the grey rainy night, and I could hear the little guy chomping away at his tuna, and suddenly I felt so relaxed.
Jamie had just leaned over—maybe to whisper something into my hair—when there was a high, querulous squawk, like we probably hadn’t heard since Quentin was a baby.
Jamie was still leaning over me, so he only had to whisper, “What’s that?”
“That’s a cat,” I whispered back.
He didn’t say anything, and then I felt his breath pull away. “A cat? In here?”
I pulled him into the kitchen where Mitchell (I’d named him in my heart already; couldn’t help it) was munching away. The rain had dried off his fur, lovely soft sunset orange against the cream tile. Jamie stared at him, quizzical, as if he was falling in love, or could have been. Quentin wrecked a nice moment by shrieking, “Avast, me hearties!” from the bathroom.
“Oh, Lise, I don’t know—”
I didn’t let Jamie get any further. “He was out in the rain. He was so scared of the cars on Parliament, he could barely move. He had a leaf on his back.”
Jamie crouched beside Mitchie. It was a sweet picture, and rare: whenever we tried to make a cuddly pose with Quent, it was all dancing and singing. Even in couple poses, we usually looked about as friendly as strangers waiting for a bus. He put a heavy hand down on Mitchie’s soft orange back. The cat turned his head to this new person, miaowed angrily, and then went right back to eating, entitled as the king of England.
“Well, what do you want to do, keep him? We don’t know about Quentin’s allergies or how he’d adapt, or…”
“Oh, no, we couldn’t keep him. This is a house cat, obviously—see the collar? Someone’s out there looking for him, and we have to get him back to them. Obviously.” I gestured towards the screen full of lost cats, but Jamie was focused on stroking Mitch’s back. “C’mon, Jamie, help me sort this out.” I wanted his hand on my shoulder again.
He flicked the silver tag under Mitchie’s chin, pulled him away from his food a moment so he could read it. “‘Remember us with no familiar name’? That’s not helpful. Pretentious hipsters.” He stood up, shaking his head.
“Oh, I don’t know, I think it’s kind of—”
Just then, Quentin came roaring in. He was wearing some sort of plaid fabric wrapped round him like a toga.
“Mama, quick, watch, I learned a dance.” He had his little boom box in his hand; it was the one doing the roaring.
“I think they did some folk dance at daycare,” Jamie whispered, patting Quentin’s head.
Quentin was trotting back and forth on the spot, the plastic handle of the boom box rattling. The actual music wasn’t much better than the rattle: a lot of drums and bells. Suddenly he saw the kitty and went running into the kitchen to touch him.
“Hey, my friend, let’s not be aggressive,” said Jamie, grasping him firmly by the t-shirted shoulder.
Quentin, startled by the grab, dropped his boom box. It made a plastic crack on the tile floor, but Jamie’s sister bought him the cheap children’s one, even though it’s garish orange and made in Taiwan, so no real harm done. Quentin patted that cat with the flat of his hand—patpatpat. I was aghast that he doesn’t know the basic skill of stroking a cat—how could we have left this gap in his sensitive upbringing?
“Is he a boy cat or a girl cat?” Quentin asked without looking away from Mitch.
Jamie’s crisp grey shirt creased as he leant forward. “Uh, dunno. Why do you ask, buddy?” He put the hand back on the shoulder.
Quentin shrugged. “Is the cat Lucky?”
“His name is Mitch, sweetheart,” I said firmly. Quentin had the hardest time with names.
Jamie abandoned the shoulder, moving instead to rummage around in the freezer.
“But is he a lucky lady? Or a sad guy?” Quentin’s petting was pressing Mitch belly-to-the-floor now, and he’d stopped eating. One pat was kind of like a smack, and then I yanked Quentin away.
“Quent, I don’t know what you’re talking about, but you’re not ready to sit down for dinner. I can see your face is dirty and what is that you’re wearing, a picnic cloth?”
“No, it’s normal clothes. It’s my dress.”
“Well, it most certainly isn’t.”
“C’mon, friend-o, and get ready for dinner. I gotta go back downtown to the office later, so let’s hup-to!” Jamie waved a stack of frozen dinners. “You can have whichever one you want.”
“C’mon, Jamie, give me half an hour and I’ll make us a real meal.”
“Sorry, Lise, I need to give this campaign some concentration, and it’s getting late.”
Quentin had picked up poor little Mitchie while I was glaring at the sodium count on the back of an organic frozen dinner. He was kind of twirling around, the little guy squirming and the cloth billowing around them both. I put an immediate stop to that and pulled the cowering kitty into my arms.
“Leave Mitch be and go get yourself presentable before we sit down.”
As he stomped off, Quentin’s toe made contact with the boom box—accidentally or on purpose, I couldn’t tell—and the thing caromed off the wall. At least the drumming stopped.
I had to take Quentin with me to the Loblaws, even though he was always impossible there. The daycare was very strict about lateness penalties, and it was getting expensive—a trip to the pet food aisle is not worth a dollar a minute. But, oh what a hassle—he could not keep it together in public places. He started pulling anything he could reach from the shelves and bringing it to me for a consumer assessment.
“Is this a good one?” He whacked my thigh with a box of Vegetable Thins.
“No, no, Quent, those have trans fat, I think.”
“Oh.” He turned to trot off, which was a momentary relief but of course not permanent—you can’t send a three-and-half-year-old two feet by himself in this town before the morality police descend.
I snatched his hood to hold him back, and the unzipped jacket pulled away from his body.
“Quentin Tyson Mulganey-Swiss, what are you wearing?”
“That shirt is not your shirt. It is for your cousin, Jaycee. Your father must have laid it out for you by mistake.” Though wasn’t a mistake I could imagine my anal-retentive husband making: the wrong closet, the wrong colour, with delicate ruching at the chest, neck, and cuffs. Not to mention still wrapped with the tags on. In fact, I could see a tag still peeking out the collar.
“Quentin, is this the shirt Daddy laid out for you to wear?”
He picked at the flap of the Vegetable Thins. I would have to buy them now; the cardboard’s bent. Plus Quentin had gone wobbly lipped, and it’s not worth the scene. I might never know how he got his hands on the shirt.
After a day all alone in our big condo, I expected the little guy to come zooming out to greet us, but he was nowhere to be found. I sent Quentin off to change into his lumberjack shirt and also to colour a card for his cousin since she was getting a slightly used blouse for her birthday. Then I started riffling the long drapes in the living room, peering behind the bookcases, shaking the little resealable pouch of tuna treats I bought for Mitchie. But really, though, the rattling sound was probably something that a street cat could not identify, unlike those sweet ads on television.
I wandered into the bedroom, calling “Mitch, Mitch, Mitchie,” in a little singsong so I wouldn’t scare him. I’ve been told I have a nice voice. We have a high sleigh bed with a few satin-y throw pillows—not too many, I know those women. It was tightly made up, but for a moment I thought about taking the treats and just hopping in to wait for Mitchie to curl up beside me. Of course I didn’t.
When Jamie got home Quentin was resolutely separating his edamame peas out of the quinoa even though I knew he didn’t like either, and I was beside myself with anxiety. Not only had Mitchie still not emerged, I had found Quentin weeping into his cousin’s shirt instead of writing the card like I told him to. I could not get out of him what the problem was—probably something conjured up out of thin air as he so often does. And he was actually weeping on the shirt too, so now it would have to be laundered, and my sister would definitely notice that. We would have to buy something else for the birthday party and this would essentially be a waste of money.
After all that, I could barely get the spoiled child to the table, and of course he wouldn’t eat a thing. I didn’t even bother to enlist him in the search for the poor little kitty—it would be straight to pajamas after he finished pretending to eat. Jamie set down his briefcase and bent to take his shoes off, so I had to talk to the hump of his spine when I announced, “Mitchie’s missing.”
He straightened up and toed his shoes off before saying, “Who?”
“The cat, James. The stray cat that I took in and that we are trying to reunite with his owners. I looked all over the house and I can’t find him. What if he got out?”
“Don’t say house.”
“It’s a condo. We can’t afford a house in this fucked up city. You looked all over the condominium.”
He wasn’t looking at me but rummaging in the fridge for the burgundy-lidded Pyrex he knew would contain his supper. I was always making him supper and letting it cool so the Pyrex doesn’t steam up, then piling everything delicately, sealing it tight with the burgundy lid.
“What did you make? Quinoa? I love quinoa.” He hipped the fridge door shut and opened the microwave.
“I hate quinoa,” Quentin yelled from the table. Then more quietly—but not much—he asked his father, “What’s a penis for?”
“Uh, a penis?”
“Yeah.” Quentin slammed down his fork, scattering peas—guess who was going to have to pick those up?
“Well, a penis is for pee. You pee out of it, right? And that’s how you say it: peenis. Right?”
“No. Cause girls have a vagina and they can pee out of that, too, but it’s not called a peegina. So that’s not why.”
The microwave pinged and Jamie turned, leaving me to ask, “Why what?”
“Why I gotta have a stupid penis. Cause I could pee just as well without one an’ it’s so ugly.” He rolls a pea across the table with the tip of his finger, then mashes it flat.
Jamie muttered with his mouth full, “This is so good, Lise,” and wandered into the living room. He went through the kitchen door, not the dining room, so he could disappear into the bowels of the house--condo—without passing either of us.
Quentin turned to me and says, “You’re lucky. How come I didn’t resemble a vagina from you?”
I didn’t know how I was going to answer that. I didn’t know how I was going to stop Jamie from eating in the den and getting sauce on the champagne-coloured couch. Quentin was just staring at me like I was a broken video game and all the horrible healthy food that I didn’t even like was congealing in its bowls, and it was hours and hours until I could go mercifully to sleep.
My heart stopped when I saw the little guy come running through the living room towards us in the kitchen. His fur was sleek and gleaming in the orange sunset through the balcony doors. I couldn’t imagine where he’d been, but it seemed nothing was wrong—he was cheerfully trotting over the traditional Berber rug with a little bounce in his step. He came into the kitchen and immediately spotted the pea that naughty Quentin had thrown on the floor. He snarfed it right down, and then licked his chops while looking around for more. The moment was all I could’ve asked for.
REBECCA ROSENBLUM'S fiction has been short-listed for the Journey Prize, the National Magazine Award, and the Danuta Gleed Award. Her collection, Once, won the Metcalf-Rooke Award and was one of Quill and Quire's 15 Books That Mattered in 2008. Her first chapbook, Road Trips, was published by Frogs Hollow Press in 2010. Her second full-length collection, The Big Dream, was released from Biblioasis in 2011 and was recently long-listed for the Frank O'Connor International Short Story Prize. Website: www.rebeccarosenblum.com