Carla had a thick blonde cat that I could never get used to, even after the wedding. Peeper was just a fur ball when we started dating, and I feigned admiration, patting it and making noises about it going after a toy in the living room of her double-wide, the one we decided to share for its spaciousness. Thing was, I never had any pets as a child and I guess that’s why I could never cozy up to one the way Carla could. She came from a “family of cats” was how she put it, keeping five or six of them at any given time. My folks worked too much at the lumber mill in Tollhouse to ever give a pet the kind of attention it required, what with walking it, feeding it, scratching its jaw. It was enough just to keep me fed and dressed and scratched. My school friends all had dogs and mice and fish growing up, but I never even bothered asking for such a thing because I already knew the answer. A “luxury” was what my folks would have called a pet. We didn’t have too many luxuries apart from the General Motors self-cleaning oven and the smoker, and I knew my father harbored a healthy, open resentment for folks who did, people who put in half the work at clean jobs and bringing in twice, sometimes three times the cash. I suppose I ended up with a lot of his resentments, even some of the ones I never much cared for as a boy. Animals were dirty. Cats pissed and shat all over. Dogs, too. Pets never had to follow the rules of man even though they shared the same roof. That never sat right with me.
What ate me up most of all, though, was the way little Peeper always got in between my lady and me, like it knew what it was doing. Cat was addicted to attention. Didn’t matter where we were in the house—that cat just had to be there, too.
“Carla, can’t we put it in the other room?” I begged one evening. We were in the middle of M*A*S*H, hitched four months by that point. The cat had been crossing back and forth along the top of the sofa behind my head bumping into me every other second and I was starting to see red.
“It?” Carla said, reaching an arm behind her without moving her eyes from mine and bringing Peeper down into her lap. “It,” she said, in a matter-of-fact tone that sounded like one of her prissy customers at Win Co., “has a name.”
“I don’t like your tone of voice,” I said, aiming a finger at her.
“Hush, Allan,” she said. “You can just stop this very instant.”
My eyes dropped to her hand, the one that was stroking Peeper’s head between its pointed ears, and you better believe it was looking right back at me the whole time with its yellow eyes, thumbing its damp triangle of nose at me as if to say, “name’s Peeper, fat ass—learn it.” I turned back to my program mad as a mill rat, and shoved my hand down into the chips bag between my legs just to keep it from flying out at her. I wasn’t the type of man to strike a woman, but I could understand the wanting to. I seized onto three or four gnarly Cape Cods and shoved them in my mouth. I started to munch but stopped, noticing something. “Dang,” I murmured through my cud.
“What now?” Carla demanded.
I pushed up from the sofa and lumbered out into the kitchen where I spit it all out in the sink. “God,” I cursed.
“Watch that mouth,” Carla yelled from the living room.
“That cat,” I hollered. “It dropped its hairs in my chips.”
“You’re just being ridiculous now, Allan.”
“The hell I am,” I said. “That cat has it out for me and so do you.”
I was startled to see her standing behind me all of a sudden. Carla could be deadly silent when she willed it. “What’s gotten into you?” she snapped.
“Nothing’s gotten into me. I just get to wondering sometimes who it is I married: you or that damn cat.”
“You’re not even making sense now.” Her expression had gone flat, and I knew I was in the doghouse no matter what I said next, so I just said what I felt.
“God dammit all to hell,” I roared, heading for the door.
“Take that foul mouth of yours out of my house this minute,” she screamed after me.
“I’m taking it,” I hollered, “taking it to where it’s appreciated.”
“And where’s that exactly?”
She laughed at my friend’s name and I could have killed her. “Perfect. Enjoy yourself, hear?”
Without words to come back at her with, I put all the strength I owned into slamming that front door so hard she’d know just how I felt about everything, and maybe scaring that asshole cat of hers into a catatonic state with the noise of it. She had a wit on her like I’ve never seen in another woman. Probably she acquired it from having to hold her own against all those troglodytes at the deli counter.
I made it over to Nut’s parents’ place to find Clive Cornish’s truck out front. Clive was a fishing buddy of mine but we hadn’t fished the river much lately because the fish were gone. I think Clive liked to fish the hole a lot more than he cared to discuss, fiendishly and without limit. I’d never confront him on the topic, but sometimes I’d notice things in the woods, familiar boot marks, little spats of sunflower seed shells clinging to the tall grass. You can just feel it when a friend is being sneaky.
Nut lived in his parents’ old A-frame set back in the woods, and he’d had the house to himself for the better part of a week. His folks were out of town celebrating their wedding anniversary at Disney World down in Anaheim, and Nut was finally cooling off about the fact that he hadn’t been invited along.
They dealt me into a game of five-card stud and Clive passed me a can of Shaefer beer. Nut’s hair was a mess from band practice and the air around the table was rank with yeast and body odor.
“Hey, at least you’re married,” Clive pointed out, shuffling the deck. “Nut here still lives at home and I can’t get within five yards of a woman without scaring her blind. You got a good thing going, Al, and don’t you forget it. A cat?” He waved his hand as if wafting away a scent. “Water off a duck’s ass.”
Clive wasn’t drunk yet and the points he was making were well heard, but in my gut the unrest still simmered. He was making generalizations. You couldn’t generalize about a cat being easy to manage the same way you couldn’t generalize about all children being well behaved. Children and cats had a lot in common. Both required discipline. Structure. A cat had to be directed to act proper the same way a child had to be directed on how to use the can instead of its own underpants. Carla let that cat run wild, making it bold, and it had grown accustomed to freedoms I felt imposed on the relationship I was trying to build with my new wife.
At some point a Great Horned owl touched down on the chimney and its long, sad hoots filled the house. Nut was buzzed in the living room plucking at the strings of his bass without the amp turned on. Clive was in the kitchen fussing with the packaging on a large frozen pizza. I sat in Nut’s father’s recliner nursing my last beer of the evening, dreading a sleepless night on the sofa with work in the morning, Carla sealed off in the bedroom with Peeper warming my side of the bed, turning its cat ears like radar dishes to the sounds of my tossing and turning.
In October, just before the first forecasted dusting of snow, Jocelyn, Carla’s mother, choked on a French dip sandwich at an Arby’s restaurant in Fresno and sustained three broken ribs when the mechanic lunching nearby elected himself to initiate the Heimlich maneuver. Carla hadn’t taken the news well and flew into a tizzy of confusion and tears, insisting she leave as soon as possible to be at her mother’s side.
“How long will you be gone?” I asked, jealous of her sense of urgency.
“Four days,” she mumbled, starting for some reason to cry all over again, “a week? I really can’t say, Allan. Mom needs me, even if she’s too stubborn to admit it.”
Right then, as if introducing the next topic of discussion, Peeper slinked into the room and brushed against the side of my leg, the high cane of its tail at my hamstring. I looked down. “And what about the cat?”
“Peeper!” Carla cried. “Can’t you ever call him by his name? Jesus, Allan. Pardon me, Father.” She only ever took the Lord’s name in vain when she was truly sad (or drunk). “You’ll just have to look after him while I’m away.”
“Cat sit?” I said, and I was angry then. “Carla, I understand you’re upset, I see it, but didn’t you think that I might want to be there also? To support you as your husband?”
“But you have work.”
“I know I have work,” I stammered. “I know I couldn’t go anyway. Still would have been nice to offer.”
“Oh, Allan,” she said, coming close and throwing her arms around me. “I wish you could be there, I do, but it’s not sensible. We can’t both afford to take time off.”
I kissed her head. She was right. We were making ends meet but we were far from getting ahead. I rubbed her back and said, “I know, boo-boo. You have to go where you’re needed. We’ll hold the fort down. Me and Peeper, that is.”
Her eyes shimmered, lips making a smile, and slipped her tongue in my mouth. “I love you,” she sighed.
“I love you,” I said, holding her close, and I meant to connect with her emotionally, but I was distracted by a third presence. The cat. I couldn’t ignore the firm muscle of it weaving in and out between our legs.
On the eve of her departure, Carla filled the whole side of a tablet sheet with instructions for Peeper’s care and well-being. She’d purchased all of the dry and wet food it would need for up to a week. Can I say that I started missing her even as she stood there in front of me? We’d been married just shy of a year and hadn’t spent a day apart in all that time. I was used to the routine of having her in my life and I realized then just how much she meant to me. In addition to Peeper’s food, my sweet wife had gone ahead and picked up all of my own provisions using her employee discount at Win Co (everything bought at cost and with twenty-percent taken off the top). The unusual circumstances for some reason heightened our arousal and brought us together one and a half times that night in the bedroom. For breakfast, before I went to work and she to Fresno, I cooked off half a pound of the good, thick-cut Applewood bacon I ordered special from the butcher, scrambled half a dozen eggs, and whipped up a batch of my Grandma Tanner’s famous peanut butter-banana flap jacks from scratch.
At the door, she and Peeper had their own special little goodbye. I couldn’t take my eyes off of Carla. It was her affection. So contagious. It just bled from her in a way that I was incapable. I loved my wife but I didn’t know how she could love with such contagiousness, and for something other than me. Her eyes went soft for that cat in a way I couldn’t understand.
When the door closed behind her, I looked across the room at the cat and it was already staring back at me, frozen, like it just couldn’t believe the turn of events that had led it to being left alone in my care. Even I was amused by its feline intuition. I smirked and chortled in my throat, my hands methodically pulling tight the laces on my cement-dusted boots and tying them off. When I rose, the cat bolted past me into the sitting room and under the sofa. “Good thing, too,” I muttered, walking into the kitchen to freshen my coffee, and peek at the feeding instructions set out between the pot labeled “Sugar” and the one labeled “Flour.”
Wet food in the morning. Dry at night, the list instructed.
In the pantry I found all of the cat chow stacked neat on the shelf right there alongside my Chex Mix and Mallomars. I took a can of the wet stuff off the top and went to its dish outside the washroom. I noticed that it already had enough water as I peeled the foil from the can. I took a knee with some degree of difficulty and shook that nasty pinkish crap up and down trying to break the bond it had with the can. At last it slid loose with a soft sucking sound, landing can-shaped in the plastic dish, the same way it looked in those damn Purina cat commercials that melted Carla’s heart. I turned my head and whistled to it. “Here, here, dummy,” I said. I whistled again, eyeing the black space under the sofa for movement. Nothing. Then I checked my watch. If I didn’t get a move on I was going to be late. And what was I thinking sitting there appealing to it the way my wife did? It was supposed to be such a smarty-pants animal, wasn’t it? Back in the pantry, I snatched out a bag of Cape Cods and pulled my two-liters of Pepsi cola from the fridge. Checking over my shoulder one more time, I headed out the door.
Nut and Clive wanted to get a beer at the tavern after work, and I agreed, but “a” beer turned into three, and of course Clive wouldn’t let anyone leave until we joined him in a final round of Jim Beam shots. It was then, as the liquor burned its way down, that I remembered the cat. It would need feeding by now and there was probably some work cut out for me in the litter box. Damn cat had me altering my life around to suit its own, and who was in control here? I said my goodbyes in a timely fashion—deflecting Clive’s swears and pleas to stay (“Cat daddy!” “Pussy!”)—and wound my way home through the mountainous dark.
Keying into the house, I expected to see it waiting right there next to our shoes the way it did when Carla came home, but it wasn’t. “Peeper,” I called, “come here, cat.” I went to the pantry for the dry food it was supposed to eat for supper, removed the bag, and gave it a little shake to entice it out from hiding. I waited. He didn’t come. “Spoiled cat,” I huffed, carrying the feed bag over to its dish, figuring, once again, that prince puss would come and get it whenever the mood took him. God knew I wasn’t going to wait around all night fussing over it to come out, come out, wherever it was. The light from the entryway didn’t reach as far as the washroom where its dish lay, and my eyes didn’t trust pouring out the dry food in semi-darkness, so I felt along the wall for the light switch and flipped it on. What I saw brought heat to my face. The wet food from the morning was still right there the way I’d left it without so much as a nick taken out.
I’ll be the first to admit that alcohol can make me irrational, which is why I generally don’t drink much, and the sight of that untouched food felt like a personal attack. It was a slap in the face. Cat was pulling a hunger strike just to spite me. I swiveled hard on my heels and made straight for the sofa. Little bastard was going to eat this minute. There wasn’t going to be anymore coddling. I was commander and chief here and not the other way around. My hand went straight underneath the sofa, reaching deep enough to where I could feel the hard back edge, and scanned side to side. My fingers found an old sock and one of Peeper’s expired catnip pouches, but no cat. Getting back to my feet I pushed the whole deal over.
No dice. Nothing.
This could only mean that it was holed up in the bedroom, dropping hairs all over my pillow and possibly spraying. I knew it had a deathly fear of the washroom, and when I got my hands on it, you could bet its furry little ass was going to get locked up in there for the night.
I was up more than half an hour searching the bedroom. I checked under the bed, in the closet and up high on the shelves where we stored a lot of the cold season clothes. I even riffled our chest of drawers out of pure frustration. For peace of mind, I checked the washroom, but there was no sign of it. Had it slipped past me in my rush to get out the door that morning? Could I really have missed that? The answer was no. I wasn’t a fool. That cat was still in the house. And sooner or later it would have to show its yellow face.
They say sleep makes things better, but I slept like hell that night, sensing it in my dreams, toying with me like a yarn ball. I awoke hot with the same feelings I’d gone to bed with. They’d only worsened.
The bedclothes flew off in a wave and I crept slowly to the living room, hoping to ambush the little turd burglar at its dish. It must have tired and come out after a long night in hiding. Sometimes that cat did things that secretly impressed me when Carla was around and I was too proud to say so, like the time it had gotten up into the top cupboard next to the dishes I’d inherited from my mother (had to throw a pretend fit over the incident just to conceal my amazement). Cupboard or no, a cat was only capable of so much. It had gotten the better of me for the time being, but I had all the time in the world. I wouldn’t be going to work. Wouldn’t be opening any doors. Nothing until I had Peeper by the nape of the neck.
Its food was still in the dish, intact, if only slightly discolored now. The sight of it reminded me of my own appetite. There was still some bacon left over. Usually I just let it brown a little along the edges, preferring it wobbly, but today I was going to do it well, put a good burn on both sides, fill the whole damn house with pig scent to lure Peeper out of the woodwork and into my hands. I got the pan good and greased before dropping in the first of the slices. The meat tensed and spat. Smoke ghosted up from the pan and rolled out underneath the cabinets. I kept the hood fan off. There wasn’t a cat on earth could resist that smell. Didn’t matter how smart they were. Cat smarts wasn’t nothing to human smarts.
Did my little plan work? Did Clive drink on Friday nights? Was Carla in Fresno? Of course it worked. I took my breakfast plate and coffee back into the bedroom and left the door open wide, giving me a long view of the house through the living room out to the kitchen. I wasn’t half-through with my food when Peeper appeared on top of the sofa-back, exactly where it was never allowed. Only God’ll know where it had been holed up. My eyes narrowed. As long as I’d known that cat all it ever did was cross boundaries and mind game. I’d had it up to my eyebrows. There wouldn’t be anymore scolding it. Scolding didn’t work. Wouldn’t be anymore tolerating its nonsense and putting it out of my head for the sake of keeping matters civil between my wife and me, the woman who gave into that cat’s every whim, who rewarded instead of disciplined, who cooed to it as if it were a human child in the cradle.
Peeper had a sleepy look about it and kept hiking its pink star up in the air to stretch. This pleased me. Seemed I wasn’t the only one who’d had a rough night’s sleep. I’d been on that cat’s mind just as much as it had been on mine. When I finished chewing the last of the food, my eyes not leaving that cat for nothing, I rose slowly from the edge of the bed, holding the greasy plate out in front of me. “Smell that, Peeper?” I said in a girl’s voice, the one it was used to hearing from my wife. “Smells pretty sweet, don’t it?” Peeper stayed there atop the sofa back, paused, calculating what was happening here. It was a fool for letting me come close. It wasn’t smart. How could I have thought that? Its eyes were aimed hungrily at the greasy dregs on the plate. And then I was beside it, looming above. I set the plate on the sofa back. It took one lick and I snatched it up by the nape of its neck, turning it toward me. “You disrespected me for the last time, cat.”
In the pantry I kicked over the spud sack and let them all tumble out. I’d pick them up later. There wasn’t any rush with Carla not around to nag me about the mess. Until then Peeper had just hung limply from my hand, but now it had begun to thrash as I positioned it over the dark opening of the sack. “Hold still now,” I said in the girl’s voice before cramming it down. I don’t know which of its claws managed to get me as good as it did, but the inside of my right arm suddenly lit up like a grease fire. “Fair play, creeper,” I cried at the ceiling, withdrawing my arm to find two long, ragged blood lines. Red dripped onto the linoleum. The spud sack was going mad with Peeper unable to find up or down. I used a length of bailing twine in the back of the truck to tie off the sack and then I headed for the tree line.
I hadn’t been to my spot at the river for a while because I was waiting for more fish to come down the pike and fatten there. I’ll never know why I told Clive about my fishing hole. I’m pretty sure he showed his eager face on my property the following afternoon. Clive was smart that way. He didn’t forget. Never took for granted a good opportunity. Accepted every invitation.
The path wasn’t really a path so much as the path of least resistance. Peeper had quieted down, not giving me too much trouble anymore. The gray flecks of its claws showed through the side of the bag, latched onto the inner wall the way it would have done my face if given the chance. It was furled inside, ready for any opportunity to survive even though there was none. I could feel it despising me in its state of faked surrender. The cat had almost given up, but not entirely, and that’s how it would leave this world. I wonder how many of God’s creatures cross over that way, with a lot of hope still trapped inside?
At the river, I saw a white spine of water about halfway out and pitched the sack. My aim’s never been good that way, like with horseshoes, and it landed a good yard in front of its intended mark. When it hit, the sack blew up on the surface like an airbag, turning with the mad logic of the top water. It drifted a short way before the water ate it from below and closed over the top. The rapidness of the whole affair left me breathless. My eyes turned to the sky almost expecting to hear some crack of confirmation. They turned guiltily to the woods at my back expecting to have been seen, but there was no one. I turned around and started away, already inventing explanations.
Just down river, Clive Cornish knelt beside his tackle box, eyes trained on the fat night crawler as it suddenly writhed under the prick of the hook. He looked up across the river at the slow, syrupy top water eddying under the shadow of a spruce that had, for at least a portion of its life, enjoyed the benefit of living half on land and half in the drink, its roots fastened into the riverbank positioning it over one of the best trout holes Clive had ever been privileged enough to find. He smiled. Couldn’t help it. He supposed he had Allan to thank for finding it. It was Allan who’d been good enough—or drunk enough—to tell him about the first hole of which he’d handedly fished out, but that would mean giving up this new hole that by all rights belonged to him. There had been no limitations placed on Allan’s original offer to fish this area and so Clive had allowed himself to explore it freely. He knew that Allan, for all of his generosity, had never fully appreciated the natural luxuries at his disposal, especially not since tying the knot with Carla. Marriage had made him lazy, crushed his passion for the outdoors, and shoved his friends onto the back burner to simmer for whenever Carla was acting out and he needed a place to vent. This hole belonged to Clive. He’d found it. He’d earned it.
When his line began to tug, Clive braced himself, and slowly began to reel. His excitement immediately plummeted at the heavy, lifeless drag. Probably he’d hooked onto one of those underwater roots that spread down like a hand along the river’s edge. He pulled back firmly on the rod to better determine the nature of the snag and it seemed to move. Some hope returned to Clive. It was free-floating whatever it was. Submerged but loose. Clive continued to reel, careful not to overstress the line, as the mass dully made its way in through the firm musculature of the current.
He could soon make out the color of it: an earthy brown. When it was close enough to reach, Clive set down his rod and plunged his hand into the brisk water.
The sight of it wrinkled his brow. For all of his flaws, Clive detested polluters, people who muddied up God’s green earth for all to see. His lips formed the words of what was printed on the side of the bag: Golden Idaho Baking Potatoes. Spuds. Upon closer inspection, Clive became confused.
While tied shut at the top, the bag had been forcibly torn open through the middle, shredded, really, as if by an onslaught of tiny knives.
Clive painted a picture in his mind of the person who had done this. He imagined a scrawny character hiding out by the river, wolfing spuds. A fugitive. Someone who had done something bad and was running from his punishment, only there’s no escaping, for justice is nimble and always comes dancing home.
“Criminals,” Clive spat, tossing the empty sack aside and baiting a fresh crawler. Re-focusing his attention, he eyed the shadowy, tree-guarded hole. He steadied his breathing. Gauging his cast, he brought the rod back and forth several times in preparation, at last firing the crawler, arching high and dipping in just under the lowest hanging branches where it landed safely in trout town with the softest, gentlest splash. He couldn’t have been more pleased with this effort. Clive’s lips spread wide into a smile. Slowly, his hand began to reel.