"What's the world for you if you can't make it up the way you want."

-Jazz, Toni Morrison

The Ugly Cat

The Ugly Cat

I first noticed the cat in a fringe of ryegrass at the head of the trail where I walk my beagle, Casey. It was dusk and I wasn’t even sure it was a cat. He had no ears, not that I could see anyway and he carried his backend low, defensively close to the ground. Could it be a ferret I wondered? The buff coat and dark face suggested a Siamese. When he scurried across the road, I was sure of it. Soft touch that I am, I left a handful of dry dog food by the trail before nightfall.

I can read the irritation on my friends’ faces, the wrinkled brows, the pursed lips, a sniffle or sideways glance, when I mention my son, Owen. It’s usually just in passing, such as “Oh Owen and I saw that movie.” It’s as if because he’s twenty nine and still with me and sick, I should pretend he doesn’t exist. They’ve given up on coming over to the house. I meet them for dinner at restaurants or we’ll take a bus into New York for a show. Can I blame them? They got tired of him charging into the room, spitting as he rattled off his flat earth theories, arcane names and facts connected to the JFK assassination, 9/11 or warning of secret societies that manipulate world powers. Now I am his audience as he arches forward, on the balls of his feet, as if he’s run up against some invisible wall and perhaps he has. Did I mention he’s six feet and one hundred and thirty pounds – a human question mark in more ways than one?

He, the cat, yes it is a cat, has deformed ears, the feline equivalent of what they term cauliflower ears on a boxer. Is he the product of a breeding experiment gone awry or is it an out of control infection? He’s arrived for a drink at the iron trough I keep as a bird bath under the window of my home office. Once upon a time I was a real estate appraiser, a job that’s a blur in the rear view mirror now. Our eyes lock, bold on his part. Blue eyes, Bermuda blue, I think, recalling a secluded cove from a honeymoon that was too soon over. He’s thin and rangy with a scruffy tail shy some fur at the base. My peace offering was probably his first meal in a while. Against my better judgement, I place a bowl of canned tuna, juice and all, outside of the patio door. Casey, the beagle, has taken note of the interloper, but at fourteen is largely uninterested.

I know anxiety like soldiers know death. It’s in my blood, in my bones. I remember my mother scratching her arms red with worry. Only food and valium could mitigate the hurt.

“You can’t be thin and raise kids today, what with the drugs and all,” she’d say, stuffing slice after slice of butter bread into her mouth. Yes, she was a starch addict, later a diabetic. Did she hear the avalanche coming? I do. Powder migrating over ice, particles of what is unknown and unknowable shifting over what I believe to be solid and true. The whumph. Then no air, no light, only sound without voice. Great energy creates heat and then steals it away. Thoughts unravel like gauze flying off the spool. But because of Owen I have to try and break through the crust, even if it’s just with my little finger.

I’ve been calling him Bucky after a cat in a cartoon I read in the morning paper. I sit on the brick steps under the porch and he comes to me, leaping from a stone wall, landing on his back feet first, something I’ve never seen a cat do before.

“What in the hell happened to you? They threw you away, didn’t they, you mangy guy?” I scratch his head and snap a photo with my phone. I’m going to put up posters at the market, the post office and alert the shelters.

On a bookshelf in my office is a collection of old VHS tapes. Alongside movies starring Meryl Streep and Deniro is one featuring an engaging eight year old Owen leading a tour of my ex in-laws home, an 18th century grist mill. “This is the dining room,” he booms. “The rug is from Persia. They call it Iran now. And there is Pop Pop working the crossword puzzle. He does five of them every day.” It concludes by the pool with him making funny faces and hurling himself into the water. The family is laughing and drinking wine and not worried about the future. We were proud when he said he wanted to grow up to be a reporter and travel the world. Parents tend to put these juvenile announcements up in the sky like fireworks. And to think, as an adult, he rarely leaves the house without me. Sometimes I watch it when he goes to visit his father and stepmother for a dinner he will invariably not eat because his diet consists entirely of cereal and Szechuan noodle soups. I view it the way a parent might the film of a child missing for years, but with considerably less hope.

Since barely making it out of high school he’s talked hours and dollars away with psychiatrists, psychologists and even a few social workers. They have a Scrabble game of letters behind their names, but no answers. And the darts are all over the board with the diagnoses – anxiety, obsessive compulsive, schizoaffective disorder. It doesn’t matter, they don’t appreciate failing. They quit the game when he goes off his meds or walks away from the low skilled jobs (busboy, stocking shelves at the grocery) he manages to land when he’s in counseling and compliant, or perhaps even curious about the so called normal world.

My cousin, Katy, up from Virginia last summer, wanted to know if the guest bedroom had a lock. “Is it safe?” she whispered. What she meant was, Am I safe with Owen in the house?

It’s been a couple of weeks and no one has responded to my posters or called from the animal shelters about Bucky. Worried about rabies I took him to Casey’s vet for shots and to have his ears treated. They wrapped him up in a fuzzy towel, poured a disinfectant deep into the ear canals, stuffed cotton balls inside and squeezed. He wailed and squirmed but had quieted down when they went in with a gigantic swab, extracting wax, pus, mite debris - you name it. Finally he was able to shake his head, dousing us with what was left of the cleansing agent and nasty goop before getting a syringe of antibiotics.

“I think he’s quite an old man,” the vet tech, a young woman with a British accent and a severe blond chignon, pronounced. “He’s taken to you though, hasn’t he? His teeth are bad. A few of them will probably have to come out.”

“I’m not sure I’m keeping him yet.”

“I also thought I felt something during the examination. I’d suggest some blood work.”

“I’ll let you know.”

When I got home that night my brand new TV had been unplugged and moved from the stand in the living room. There it was parked in the foyer next to our winter boots and a basket of catalogs. Owen came storming out of the kitchen, shouting, “You’ve got to get rid of that thing! Now! Don’t you realize the government is watching us through smart TVs? Everybody knows that. What are you, an idiot? Mom, you’re an idiot.”

It’s my birthday. I’m fifty five today. My friend, Will, has brought pizza and a store bought yellow cake with purple icing. He’s a down-to-earth flannel shirt, flannel sheets type of fellow, a tile setter by trade. In his spare time he carves and paints wooden songbirds which he exhibits at wildlife art shows all over the Mid-Atlantic region. A perfect Cedar Waxwing on a flowering apple branch is his gift to me. He knows this is my favorite, not the most colorful, but distinctive, the way the brown melts into the gray and of course the scarlet fringe of waxy tips on the secondary wings.

“Owen isn’t it gorgeous? They look like they’re wearing a little mask.” Owen shrugs.

“I bet you didn’t know the male Waxwing dances for the female, offering her a fruit or an insect during mating season?” Will laughs.

“And I have to settle for a pizza?” I wink. He pulls a six pack of cola and a bottle of spiced rum from a cloth bag printed with the name of a bird conservation society. He fixes us a couple of drinks and then straddles a chair in the kitchen. Owen exits the room. We drink the bottle half down before he returns.

“Owen, my man, grab a soda,” Will says.

“I’m not your man and I don’t drink that crap. There’s human tissue in it.”

“Oh no, here we go again,” I moan. “Owen, give it a rest.”

“In the soft drink?” Will asks quizzically.

“Yes, in the drink, Einstein,” Owen spits. “I’ve been studying this.”

Will looks as if he might burst into laughter. “In the drink?” he repeats. “Come on, you know that doesn’t make any sense. Why would they do that?”

“Will, just ignore him.”

“There’s a biotech company that uses human cells for flavor enhancement. You can look it up.”

“You can’t believe everything you read online, dude.” Will shakes his head. “You know what you are? Gullible.”

“Will, please.”

“And you’re an asshole. A drunk asshole. She only lets you hang around because you give her stuff like that stupid piece of junk bird.”

“Owen, that’s enough,” I say as Will takes a step toward him.

“I’d like to teach you a lesson. I can’t figure out if you’re really crazy or just a con artist.”

“Then do it douchebag. Go ahead, show me what you got. Take a swing.”

“Will, you better go,” I say, sliding between the two of them, between the lungs and testosterone. The cake sets forlornly uncut on the table.

“Steph, you have to start looking out for yourself or he’s going to drag you right down with him.”

“I’ll call you later,” I say in spite of grasping the fact that Owen and I really are becoming a nation of two. Not being a parent, Will thinks there’s a simple solution. He sees my son as a chain that has grown into my bark and thinks he can just cut him out. He doesn’t understand, he’ll sacrifice the tree as well.

Bucky has cancer, kidney cancer.

“Do you want to put him down?” the vet asks.

“How long until...?”

“Hard to say. Three to six months.”

“Not yet. Let’s give him a few good weeks.”

Back at the house I set the cat carrier down in the kitchen and a light-footed Bucky emerges oblivious to his fate. Owen is curled up on the sofa in the living room. He’s fidgeting, clutching his abdomen and banging his fist against the pillow.

“What’s the matter?

“I don’t feel good. There’s something going seriously wrong with my insides. I can feel it. I keep trying to tell you this. It’s my stomach. I think I’m dying.”

“Owen, we’ve been through this. It’s your anxiety, that and your diet doesn’t help. Do you want me to make you a cup of tea? I have some of the Jasmine you like.”

“Tea? I don’t want any fucking tea.”

“Noodles then?”

I just told you I’m dying and you offer me tea. Noodles? You never listen.” Bucky jumps up on the sofa, rubbing his cheek on Owen’s leg. He bumps him off the cushion. “Ugly cat, go away.”

There’s a part of me that wants to go over there and take him by the shoulders and shake him, worse yet, slap him, yell into him as if he were a canyon where it would echo over and over again. I want to say, “You’re going to be curled up here when you are forty and forty five, then fifty and I don’t want that. You can’t want that.” But I don’t.

I scoop Bucky up in my arms. His head is soft under my chin. His purr radiates up through my jaw. We’re at the patio door, glancing out over the property on a dreary afternoon. No shadows streak the yard. A few sparrows hop about on the grass, flit from shrub to tree. Bucky spots them and immediately begins to chirp. I see you he seems to be saying. Nothing has changed. You could still be mine.

Linda Barnhart’s stories have appeared in The Briar Cliff Review, The Baltimore Review, Homestead Review, Columbia, Pearl and other literary magazines. She lives in the historic village of Charming Forge.

Cover photo by Yarden on Unsplash