What Might Have Been

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Of all the words of mice and men,
the saddest are, “It might have been.”
Kurt Vonnegut ~ Cat’s Cradle

The mouse scurried across the kitchen floor and Jay’d had enough. He threw his coffee mug at it. The only result was one less mug and another mouse running rampant in his house.

“God dammit!” Jay howled when he got up to go for the broom. He hadn’t yet decided whether it was to sweep up shards of ceramic or to swat the rodent. In his rush, he placed his bare foot on a piece of the cup bearing the toothy face of his old cat, Teddy. From time to time, Teddy would stab a claw or fang in Jay’s feet. The feeling now was much the same, including Jay’s anger at stampeding mice. Teddy was a conscientious objector in the war of feline versus rodent.

But Teddy was gone. Two weeks before, Jay had let the old cuss out the back door one night and he never came back. A pack of coyotes from the hills behind his yard or some other predator must’ve made a stop for some tabby-to-go, Jay figured.

“Leave it to you become the prey instead of the hunter,” Jay said when he found the bloody shadow left of Teddy in the dirt by his mom’s last hydrangea next morning. He always tried to sound so tough, so alpha male, even while talking to himself, but Jay cried for a couple of hours that morning. He didn’t leave his place to go look for Teddy because he wasn’t sure he could take finding him. He called in sick and retired to his bed, as mice as bold as they were silent raced through the house.

“Didn’t want to find you one way or another, you lazy old cat,” he said to the picture of Teddy decalled his coffee mug the next night. It was the only photo Jay had of Teddy. Jay’s mother took the picture and had the mug made for Jay as a birthday present just before her heart attack. She left her home to Jay and, by extension, Teddy. And Jay left her room just as it was the afternoon she died. It wasn’t difficult. He just closed the door and barely ever looked inside.

Now his Mom was gone, Teddy was gone, and the nexus of both of them in his life, that mug, lay scattered on the kitchen floor. An ear lay in front of the sink, Teddy’s calico butt and stub of tail by the fridge. Just for a moment, Jay’s regret surged a bit, realizing he was responsible for Teddy’s tail-ectomy, having closed it in that very refrigerator’s door one night after a date with Cassie. He’d heard a short yowl but thought he’d once again stepped on one of Teddy’s five orange toes on a forepaw. The next morning, Jay’s Mom about fainted when she found four inches of tri-colored Teddy lying in the lower door tray next to her half-and-half.

So now the only pieces of that mug carrying a decent portion of their portrait was one with Jay’s forced smile and suspicious expression giving a new figuratively missing piece of Teddy the side-eye. The piece with Teddy’s face had elicited Jay’s “God dammit” when it became stuck in the sole of Jay’s bare right foot.

Jay hobbled over to the corner where he kept his broom, grabbed it and swept what pieces of Teddy he could see into a pile near the trash can. That was the one from behind which he saw the instigating mouse make a sprint for the space beneath the stove.

“I really gotta clean this place up,” Jay said to Teddy’s blood-stained face he held in his hand. He washed the blood off Teddy and off his own foot, bandaged his cut, but leaned that last piece of his family against the dusty vase of straw flowers on the kitchen table.

“What do you think, Ted? Should I get a new cat or just put a bunch of traps around the place?” Jay said to the pixellated picture of his late companion. The cheap decal Mom had paid twelve dollars for had begun to crackle soon after his birthday and Jay’s smashing of the mug just about finished the job of giving Teddy’s portrait the appearance of a calico crocodilian.

“I mean, just like with Ma, no one’s ever gonna replace you. I’ll put a few traps out tonight and see if we can’t smash us a mouse or two. What do ya say?”

The next morning, Jay found a fat mouse beneath a flipped over trap. It was the one he’d placed against the wall next to the trash can. Jay had slept fitfully and thought he’d heard some commotion around 4:00 AM, but didn’t want to move. He figured nature, a dab of peanut butter and that length of squared and coiled steel would take their course.

Jay snagged the trap with the hook of an unwound wire shirt hanger he’d mostly straightened and kept in the closet just for such occasions. He picked up the deceased, the trap still attached to its broken neck, it’s stiffened tail and legs sticking out like some cartoon creature smashed by an ACME sledge-hammer, and headed with it toward the back door. It wasn’t that he was fearful or squeamish, Jay always convinced himself. He just didn’t want to catch any fleas, hantavirus, tularemia or hemorrhagic fever with renal syndrome. The fact that the latter had never been seen in the United States was beside the point to Jay, who was certain the borders were sieves for all kind of vermin. He’d heard that on his Mom’s kitchen radio, another of her possessions he chose not to disturb.

He opened the back door and was about to toss the dead mouse in his large outdoor trash container, the one he padlocked to keep bears away, even though no bear had been seen thereabouts in fifteen years, when he heard it. And then almost stepped on it.

It was a high-pitched meowrr, meowrr. In the dim dawn light—- Jay couldn’t sleep any more anyway—-he saw the little ball of grey fur with black spots and stripes.

“Holy shit,” Jay said, dropping the hanger, trap and mouse next to the trash can. “Where the hell did you come from, little guy?”

Jay scanned the yard as the sunlight ran over the horizon and through the trees to his back door like a wind from the east. He kneeled down and placed his hand on the kitten just as it opened it’s black rimmed grey-green eyes and bit down on his finger, giving it a healthy suck. He flipped the little one over and saw that its umbilicus was healed and dry and found no other physical issues with it except it was minus its mother.

“Well, little one, if ever a prayer was answered, not sure if it’s yours or mine, this is it,” Jay said. He scooped up the kitten, which let go with even louder meeowrrrrs and hisses, scratching Jay’s hands with its needle-sharp claws, and carried it into his house. While he secured the kitten carefully but firmly in his armpit, he fished about in the cupboard and found a dish which he filled with milk and set both kitten and dish on the floor next to his chair.

The kitten began to lick at the milk but wandered away from it in a few minutes to curl itself around Jay’s stocking feet. If Jay moved his foot, the kitten would move along with it, always staying close, as if feeding off his body heat.

Jay was uncertain what to do. He knew the kitten needed to eat, but didn’t seem interested in the milk. He remembered he still had some cans of Teddy’s cat food left on the shelf, so he walked over to the cupboard, pulled down a Fancy Feast and opened it, all the time trying not to trip on his new house guest and shushing its incessant meeowrrrr.

To Jay’s surprise, the kitten dug right in to the cat food.

“You must be a little older than I thought, weaned at least” Jay said. “Well, how’d you like a nice warm home here with me? I’ve got a nice bed for you and food and toys and a clean cat box…. Cat box! Oh, man, I gotta go through all that again?”

Then the kitten wrapped itself around Jay once more, closed its eyes and fell asleep. To Jay, this cemented the deal. In about ten minutes, Jay also fell asleep. When he woke up, around 2:00 PM, the kitten still lay at his feet, but was whining quite loudly.

“You still hungry or are you hungry again?” Jay asked the kitten. He ladled out another blob of cat food and the kitten tore into that with more ferocity than even before.

This intimate domestic situation went on for two days. Jay was pleased that his new kitten’s gentle nature, but not how it demanded all his waking time. It wouldn’t leave his side and would whine and practically growl every second he left it alone.

“Jesus, can’t a guy even take a piss around here without you tagging along?” Jay said. Then the kitten would cuddle up to him again and all would be forgiven.

But Jay knew he had to go to work. He decided to close the kitten in the mudroom by his back door with all the food and water it would need for eight hours. He peeled the kitten off his leg, gave a gentle toss onto Teddy’s old bed and said, “You be a good boy, uh, uh Mickey,” and quickly closed the door.

When Jay got home, he found the mud room tossed like a thief had broken in searching for valuables. But he also found pieces of a couple of mice and blood smears here and there, as well as on little Mickey’s mouth fur.

“Damn, bud, let’s not go freaking native my first day back to work. Teddy would sleep all eight hours except to have a little lunch, a drink and hit the cat box. Then he’d do it all over again when I got home. That was his life, except when I’d let him out in the yard for a stroll,” Jay said in a half-stern tone that turned to pure love when Mickey cuddled up close again.

It went like this for the next week, except on Friday Mickey, who seemed to have grown fifty percent bigger on cat food and mud room mice, had somehow forced open the door to the kitchen. When Jay arrived home and saw the open door, he ran inside to find the kitchen in shambles, but with more signs of mice having met their maker.

“Well, at least you’re earning your keep, Mick,” he said. But once again, Jay could barely leave the kitten’s sight without it whining or, something new, throwing a tantrum like a two-year-old child. Except Mickey’s tantrums were those of a two-year-old with a pre-teen’s strength and teeth and fangs sharp enough to slice through leather.

The following Tuesday, that’s just what happened. Jay came home to find the living room scattered with debris and his father’s old leather easy chair butchered and eviscerated, right down to the mouse blood on its old white stuffing that lay strewn from its wounds to the kitchen door.

“Mickey! Look what the hell you’ve done to my place. Man, you better come correct or it’s off to the shelter for you,” he said. Mickey curled around Jay’s shins, purred his peculiar purr and licked each of the four toes on both his front paws.

At the end of his third week with Jay, Mickey had grown even more. He put away twice as much food as lazy old Teddy ever could, as well as eradicating every mouse that dared show its pointy snout even a half-inch into daylight. And Mickey dug his claws through a section of Mom’s bedroom wall to excise a nest there and all its inhabitants.

“You’re a beautiful beast and probably the greatest mouser ever, Mick,” Jay said one night, “But Dude, I’ve gotta find some way to dial you back or I’m gonna have to let you go.” Mickey gave a growling sort of meeeowrrr and wrapped his great front paw around Jay’s ankle, essentially pinning him to his chair. There would be no letting go from Mickey’s end of their relationship.

This was Mickey’s latest maturing behavior, his establishing ownership of his domain. Jay thought about it one night as Mickey slept against his back, just like his ex, Cassie, did before she ended what had been an eleven-year relationship that began when they were ten and her family moved next door.

“Jay, I think we’d better move on with our lives,” Cassie said three months before Teddy disappeared. “I’ve always loved you, but I can’t see much of a future for us until you see someone about…things. I mean look at this place.” Cassie pointed to the piles of pizza boxes, empty bottles, newspapers, mouse droppings and the detritus of a man who’d given up on “things.”

“Maybe when you can open that door again,” Cassie pointed to Jay’s Mom’s bedroom, “then you can call me and we can be Cassie and Jay again…but not until and then we’ll see how things go.”

And Jay just nodded and didn’t even look as she walked through the mud room and out his back door.

Now, since Mickey had come into his life, Jay had rectified some of those “things.” He’d begun taking better care of the house, keeping everything picked up and clean lest Mickey go on one of his terror raids. There were no more mice. There was no more mess. Jay looked up from Mickey at the open door down the hall.

“You were the one opened Mom’s door, you big lug. Crap, you opened more than that. But that made me fix things up. Maybe I ought to give Cassie a call,” Jay said to lightly snoring Mickey. “Maybe she’d come back to me if she knew I had the most majestic cat, the greatest mouser in the world, and the house was a rodent-free bastion of our inter-species primacy, Mick. Because, Dude, as much as we have our own special thing going here, there’s a hole in my life bigger than the one you dug into the basement.”

So Jay called Cassie, feeling her out and casually dropping, “I’ve got a great cat to succeed old Teddy around here, ya know. Great mouser, the best. Helped me clean up a lot of things. I think you’d love to meet Mickey, Cassie. How’d you like to stop by and see how we’ve straightened up the place?”

That last part was a still a bit of a white lie. While most of the house was neat, Mickey had by that time torn up the sofa, Mom’s mattress, a wall in the bathroom and half of Jay’s shoes. But Jay figured he could throw a little camouflage here and there, just to get Cassie back to see how the place cleaned up.

“Well…. Maybe I can stop by on my way home from work,” Cassie said “I would like to see how you’re doing, Jay, and this cat sounds like a miracle worker. And I want to believe in miracles.”

It was around 5:30 that Thursday that Cassie parked her Hyundai in Jay’s driveway, noticed that the old hydrangea had actually bloomed this year and how quiet it all seemed around Jay’s place. Not even birds sang in the old maple Jay would climb out on to sneak a peek, and eventually sneak himself, into her bedroom window next door.

Cassie rang the back door bell, since that was how she always came over, and could hear Jay padding his way out from the living room through the kitchen. He opened the door and invited her in with an awkward hug.

“Maybe just for a sec,” Cassie said. “I thought it would be nice to say hi and see this new cat you were…”

From the living room came a crash. Cassie could hear the scratch of claws on linoleum and the growling morrowrrrr. The kitchen door sounded like someone threw a sack of topsoil against it. Then it burst open.

Cassie stood transfixed as twenty-plus pounds of spotted fury looked around the open door. In one twelve-foot leap, Mickey reached them, beat a paw against Jay’s leg and chomped down on Cassie’s shin. The inharmonious sound of the trio meeting in one spot: soprano shriek, baritone ‘No!” and a guttural exhalation served as puncturing punctuation to the hoped for reunion.

The back door flung open by Cassie’s backward fall, Mickey twisted his head, released his jaws from her leg with a sickening slash and bolted over top of her, across the yard and in one more athletic leap, over the fence and into the woods.

“Jay. Why…?” Cassie cried as she clutched her bleeding leg.

Jay stood stunned looking down on the girl he loved and then out the door as Mickey’s short black-tipped tail melted into the woodland shadows as if he’d dived into a pool without a ripple.

Once the various emergency services vehicles — fire trucks, ambulance, animal control, state wildlife department truck raced to his front door and then left one by one, Jay sat in the old easy chair which he’d covered with a sheet, explaining to police about the kitten he found near the trash bin in his backyard and how it was the greatest mouser he’d ever seen.

“Honest, officer, Mickey was a one-cat extermination service. And affectionate? Why, he’d never hurt a fly. I mean maybe he was feral once, an orphan who didn’t know any better, but he slept by me every night for a month,” Jay said.

“Look, buddy, that wasn’t a feral cat, wasn’t some stray that wandered into your yard. The wildlife guy said it was almost certainly a bobcat kit that’d lost its mama, maybe to some motor vehicle or illness. I mean poor Cassie is gonna have to go through rabies treatment in addition to sewing her up and relieving some of the horror she experienced today.”

“I’m sorry, I didn’t know. Sure, he was a little aggressive, but we don’t know he went through to get to my back door. And now he’s gone, just like Teddy. Just like Mom. Just like…Cassie.”

“C’mon with us, man,” the cop said. “We’ll let the brass decide what all to charge you with. Possession of a dangerous animal without a permit. Assault with a deadly weapon. Stupidity.”

“It wasn’t supposed to be this way. You don’t understand. Mickey was… I was… The mice… It was all just…what might have been.”

As the cop took Jay by the arm and led him into the waiting cruiser, a field mouse, curious and entranced by the flashing lights poked his head out of the hole beneath the ash tree behind Cassie’s old house.

He never knew what hit him.

Written in response to the prompt quote at the top of the story for my friend Annie’s Writing Outside The Lines. And yeah, it’s long.  But it’s only Draft 1.2.

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4 thoughts on “What Might Have Been

    • I don’t know about more, Annie. But this thing sure as hell could use a good revision and polish. Unfortunately, those are skills I lack and wish I could learn…soon.

    • Thanks. The first sentence came to me and the rest revealed itself over two days. The cat part was strictly kismet, considering the quote apparently comes from Vonnegut’s “Cat’s Cradle.”

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