My cat is dead. I know it even though I’m not looking at his still body.
I know this without having seen him. I’ve been unemployed for four months. For the past 121 days, when I’ve been home in the afternoon, which has been for most of them, Mittens, my cat, has come downstairs at around two o’clock to beg me for supper. It’s now five after two.
Usually, by now, he’s on my lap, in my face, meowing and pawing me to get my attention, three hours before I feed him. He’s not one to miss a meal, although he could go without, weighing in at nearly 14 pounds.
Starting a few weeks ago, he had been eating supper and then vomiting. I can only imagine what a sick child is like, but Mittens was vomiting everywhere: the kitchen, living room, his bed, outside his litter box. The worse was when he was looking out the sliding glass doors to the backyard and did it into the grooves for the doors. After getting him medicine for hairballs, the vomiting stopped.
I don’t want to go upstairs and find him dead.
When I was a teenager, my family had a black cat that was pregnant. I don’t recall her name. She was what most would consider a cliché black cat: thin (when she wasn’t pregnant), cold, aloof. An outdoor cat, she appeared on the front porch one morning, expecting breakfast, and obviously had delivered her litter. She spent the rest of the day lounging in the sun. Near the end of the afternoon, I started looking for her brood. In the unfinished attic over the garage, I found she had made a nest in some leftover insulation, and there were her kittens. I reached out and touched the closest one. It seemed cold as ice, considering I expected it to be warm and move at my caress. She had left them to die, I thought, so she could bask in the sun. Thanks to her, I knew what a dead cat felt like. I didn’t want to experience it a second time.
The rumble of a U.S. Postal Service truck catches my attention. I look out the window just to see the mailperson driving down the street. It is 2:15, but not like clockwork; the mail is delivered, on average, around 2:30.
I think I need to get out of the house, even for just a few minutes. I grab my keys and put on my sandals. Even though it’s October in Central Indiana, the weather has been unseasonably warm, still in the 80s, so I’m still sporting summer clothes: shorts and a T-shirt. Some may suggest I’m still dressing like this since I have nowhere I need to be. Having also not shaved in three months, the suggestion may be correct, though it still feels like late Summer and not Fall.
I open the door, and the sun is bright, reflecting off the concrete sidewalk and driveway. I step onto the porch and, as my eyes adjust, see my front yard: unmulched nor weeded landscaping and grass that is probably longer than the neighborhood association would like. I’ve had time to attend to the yard – a lot of it – but no ambition.
The neighborhood was created with multiple mailboxes located together. Though one of these is just 20 yards from my house, my mailbox is at the other end of the block.
I walk along the poor landscaping, onto the driveway, then the sidewalk by the street.
Being a weekday afternoon, no one is out. It’s a ghost town, actually a ghost suburbia. I half expect tumbleweed or, at least, some of my dead landscaping to roll across the street.
As I continue down the street, in the corner of my eye, I see a chipmunk scurry out from under a neighbor’s bush. I turn to him, and he inspects me, realizes I could possibly do him harm, and darts back into the safety of the bush.
Mittens hates – hated – chipmunks in the yard. Sometimes he would let out an ungodly howl, like a severe weather siren right in the house, if one of the little critters entered into what he considered his territory, which was every inch of the backyard that he could see. Even though he loathed creatures in his backyard, he was never an outdoor cat. He never tried to escape from the air-conditioned, freshly-scooped-litter, meals-right-on-time world of his house.
I stop, halfway to the group mailboxes. My stomach turns. I’ve already begun thinking of Mittens in the past tense, and it hurts so much I throw up my lunch in a neighbor’s yard. My eyes tear up: not from the feeling of loss, but due to the violent nature of vomiting. I haven’t cried in sadness for years. I gave it up and, now, can’t do it, even when I really need to. So, I wipe the wetness from my eyes and stand up to continue to the mailbox.
Taking a few solid steps, I think about how Mittens isn’t – wasn’t – even my cat, though I still love him. He was my ex-wife’s cat. She got my dog, a beagle named Sherlock, and I got her cat, Mittens. That’s how cutthroat the divorce was.
She picked out Mittens from a PetsMart and named him. I wouldn’t have named a male cat Mittens, but he was a grey tabby with white paws, so it was somewhat appropriate. He was a couple of years old when he wound up at our house. Now, he would have been nine years old.
I feel like I’m walking too fast, which doesn’t make sense, since no one is watching me and I’m just going to the mailbox. I slow my step anyway, decide to enjoy the warm sun.
Reaching the mailboxes, I put my key in the lock for Box #7, turn it and open the little metal door. Inside is a stack of envelopes that I remove and look to the back of the box just to make sure I didn’t miss anything, like the key for the large packages box. It’s empty, so I close the door, lock it and take my keys.
I’m not expecting a package, but always look for the key, just in case.
I’m also not expecting anything exciting in the mail I’m holding. All of my unemployment goes on a debit card, so no mailed checks. Standing in the shade of a maple tree, I flip through the stack of envelopes: electric and water bill, pre-approval for a credit card that I really wouldn’t get approval for, some coupons, junk mail from a landscaping service, and a very important looking piece of mail from my mortgage company.
I guess I did get a piece of important mail. The mortgage company sent me forms to fill out concerning my unemployment, so, hopefully, I could keep my house.
Starting the trek back to the house, I walk easily, in no hurry to start filling out forms. I realize I feel my lanyard hanging around my neck holding my employee ID card. Of course, I’m not, but I feel it all the same, like a phantom limb. Having that lanyard for eight years still affects me even though it’s been four months since I’ve worn it.
I can’t help but feel like I’m being watched. My anxiety is kicking in big time since I haven’t had health insurance, and therefore my medicine, for nearly three months. I was on a cocktail of three meds to help with Generalized Anxiety Disorder, depression and ADD, though I still don’t feel like I have a problem with my attention. My anxiety has been around for a long time. In high school, I would walk through the halls hearing other students talk about me. Of course, they weren’t; I wasn’t high in the caste system, so no one was talking about me, but try to tell that to my brain. This continued in college where, undiagnosed, I worried about everything from finals to girls. Now, my anxiety unchecked was keeping me up all night, thinking about my firing and what I was going to do next. Insomnia is a terrible thing.
I reach my front door, open it and expect to see Mittens, who does not make an appearance. My stomach churns again, but without the violent result of before.
Walking into the kitchen, I drop today’s mail on a stack that I mean to get to. Thinking better, I rummage through the stack and put the mortgage company’s envelope on top, so I don’t forget.
Suffering from the insomnia, I’d been taking afternoon naps, and I think about taking one, but my bed and CPAP are upstairs. I would have to walk by Mittens to get to them.
After turning on the living room’s ceiling fan, I grab a pillow from the end of the couch and lie on it, grabbing my phone. I set the phone’s alarm to five o’clock, because I will need to feed Mittens. Tossing and turning for a while, I finally lull off.
My dreams are always from the third-person perspective. I see myself walking with Anna, my then wife, and Sherlock. I recognize the woods; we’re walking on a trail along a creek at a state park.
This is one of our good days. Along with my at-the-time-undiagnosed mental problems, Anna has her own that wouldn’t be treated until after our divorce. Among which is a slight bit of genetically-inherited mania. I am neither anxious nor depressed, and she is somewhere in between the pattern of high (manic) and low (depressed).
We are talking about how nice the trees look and the babbling of the creek. Sherlock is sure to check out every tree near the trail and every deer path that crosses it. We are holding hands, while I hold Sherlock’s leash in my free one.
I’m happy. She’s happy. Sherlock is happy after he marks a huge oak.
We walk for a long time, not talking, just enjoying the moment. Even Sherlock has started to keep a steady pace instead of stopping at this scent or that tree.
Eventually, Anna says, “It’s five o’clock. We need to feed Mittens. It’s five o’clock. It’s five o’clock.”
I slowly open my eyes, and the phone’s alarm is going off, over and over: a few notes on a theremin from a 50s sci-fi movie.
It’s a couple of minutes after five, and Mittens still isn’t begging for his food.
Finally, I’ve had enough, been putting it off all day. Walking to the stairs, I begin to ascend, knowing I won’t see his bed until I’m two-thirds of the way up.
What will I tell Anna? I think for the first time today, taking a couple of steps. She’s going to be devastated. And I haven’t talked to her, for what, six months? She called me, just wanting to know if I was still alive, until her daughter, Sara, started wanting her attention.
With my anxiety, I think through conversations before I have them.
David, she says, what do you want?
Are we going to deal in divorce clichés?
That stops her.
What do you need? she finally asks.
I decide to just come out an say it: Mittens is dead…
I tackle a few more steps. The invisible lanyard weighs heavy around my neck, tugging me back down the stairs, reminding me I would just be leaving work and not wondering how cold my cat is going to be to my touch.
What happened? she asks.
I finally reach a step where I can see him.
In his bed, Mittens is sitting up, blinking sleep out of his eyes.
I pet his head roughly, asking, “What are you doing?”
He looks at me like, “As if you haven’t overslept before.”
I slide down to the steps in exhaustion and joy and cry for the first time in years, and it feels really good.
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