The worst day of my life was when I gave him away. He was sacrificed at the insistence of a woman who could not live with him, and so in my search for a good home I subjected four baffled prospects to interviews. Two of the people left before I finished, another left after the advertised subject vomited in her handbag, and the fourth was so evasive I had to believe she was hiding something from me. I ended this last interview by telling the woman I would get back to her. She then informed me my cat could go to hell.
A neighbor soon after suggested what sounded like an ideal situation. She housecleaned for a wealthy, recently widowed woman on Vermillion Road, and after receiving the necessary assurances that he would be kept indoors at all times and given the proper attention, I brought Fyodor to Mrs. Koivisto with minimal misgivings but overwhelming sadness. She now had a cat, and I would now have a wife. At least I would until my fiancée confessed to being in love with someone else. Clearly offended that the blow-up she’d anticipated was not over losing her, she became the second woman in as many weeks to tell me my cat could go to hell.
It was too late in the evening to contact Mrs. Koivisto, and upon arriving at her door at what I deemed a reasonable hour the next morning, found her bewildered and still in her robe. Fyodor was in the middle of a stroll across her mantel at the precise moment she ushered me into her great room, and a pair of beaming Hummel children plunging to their early demise gave him pause to look down with unrepentant distraction and then register my arrival. Amazingly, none of this seemed to register with Mrs. Koivisto. She graciously seated me in her “husband’s chair” and retreated to the kitchen to pour us some coffee. Fyodor leapt from the mantel, taking yet another figurine with him, and bounded across the floor and into my lap. There was no mistaking his expectations as he stood with paws planted firmly on my chest and face peering into mine.
Mrs. Koivisto, having returned with our coffee, now seemed to think I’d stopped by for a social visit. I affirmed her thoughts on the recent weather but interrupted her discourse on the cost of funerals.
“Mrs. Koivisto, there’s something I need to discuss with you.”
“My fiancée told me she’s having an affair with a married man.”
“Oh, my. I think I’d call off the wedding.”
“Yes, we have called off the wedding. The problem is I gave away my cat at her insistence, and I’d really like to get him back.”
“Get him back?”
“If you don’t mind.”
“I’m afraid that’s just not possible. He and I have become very close.”
Fyodor was now on the floor and proceeded to bite her on the ankle, which elicited such a cry of pain my immediate impulse was to reach down and swat the cat’s backside. But he darted out of the room, and Mrs. Koivisto’s recovery was remarkable.
“Would you like more coffee?” she asked.
“Mrs. Koivisto, the cat just bit you.”
“Oh he did, didn’t he. He’s just a little bit naughty this morning.”
“Mrs. Koivisto,” I continued, determined to impress the hard truth of the matter, “the cat hates you.”
“Hates me? Bubbles doesn’t hate me.”
Now I was speechless. My cat, a proud and incisive carnivore, was being referred to as—
“Bubbles? You call him Bubbles?”
“But you can’t … you can’t do that.”
“Theodore was such a silly name, at least for a cat.”
“It wasn’t Theodore, it was Fyodor, as in Dostoyevsky, and it is not a silly name. It is a dignified name, just as every cat deserves. T.S. Eliot even wrote, a cat spends hours contemplating his name. And now … you expect him to contemplate Bubbles?”
“I beg your pardon, Mr. Edlund, but my father chose that name for our family’s Pekingese when I was just a girl. I chose it not only to honor the memory of poor Bubbles but the memory of my father, who was a doctor, and well-loved, and who would be quite offended by your denigration of a perfectly delightful name.”
“The cat’s name is Fyodor, Mrs. Koivisto.”
“The cat is no longer yours, Mr. Edlund. And his name is Bubbles.”
There was such emphatic resolution in her tone that I realized arguing further would be fruitless. I foolishly offered her money, but she quite obviously had plenty of that already. When I asked how she could become so tenaciously attached to the cat in just six days, she simply replied that he was “a darling.”
Something was not right. Not only had I witnessed the cat attack her, I’d also spent six years tolerating slightly less disturbing behavior, and “darling” was just not a logical endearment for this animal. Over the next several weeks I phoned Mrs. Koivisto regularly, convinced that at some point her patience was bound to wane, but she guarded her claim more fiercely each time I called. And my neighbor’s reports on the situation did little in illuminating the widow’s mysterious attachment to the cat. She told me Fyodor would sometimes engage in preying upon Mrs. Koivisto, when not hiding for hours on end, and any affectionate overtures were promptly rebuked with a lightning-swift swipe. But she seemed to withstand the rejection valiantly, even rewarding his abhorrent actions with treats and toys.
I was on the verge of resigning myself to my loss when my neighbor delivered her most curious update yet.
“I happened to walk into a little conversation, or what have you, that Mabel was having with the cat yesterday. He was sitting in the window looking at her, and she was in her chair telling him she could never marry again.”
“That’s not so unusual.”
“But then she told him he was the only man she’d ever loved.”
This was unusual.
“She said, and these were her exact words: ‘No one could ever take your place, Aimo.’”
Aimo. Aimo? “Her husband?”
With this I decided enough was enough. Whatever was contributing to her delusions, however bereaved or lonely or nuts she had to be, did not concern me. I was focused exclusively on the well-being of my cat, and willing to abduct him from under her nose if necessary.
Arriving at the house, I rang the bell but got no answer. I checked the door, found it locked, and began pounding. Still unsuccessful, I peered through several windows but saw no sign of either widow or cat. I then rounded a corner of the house and spotted Mrs. Koivisto at the bottom of her back lawn, kneeling over something with her back to me, and became mortified as I advanced and saw that she was digging. But I quickly discovered she was not digging a grave but uprooting a bed of perfectly spectacular gladioli, excoriating them with each yank. I stood behind her and spoke her name. When she turned her head to acknowledge me, I could tell she was disoriented.
“Mrs. Koivisto. It’s Joe Edlund.”
“Joe Edlund? I’ve come to discuss Fyodor.”
“Fyodor!” I shouted.
All of her confusion was compressed into one deep groove between her eyebrows.
“BUBBLES! THE CAT YOU SEEM TO THINK IS YOUR HUSBAND!”
Her face cleared, and she even managed a laugh as she struggled to her feet. “My goodness. You just won’t give up on this business of the cat, will you.”
“I had given up on it until I learned you’ve been calling him by your late husband’s name.”
“That is really none of your business. But I can explain.”
“It is well documented that cats often harbor the spirits of the departed. And there’s no doubt in my mind. Aimo chose Bubbles.”
“Then you must have had a very bad marriage.”
“No, we had a wonderful marriage. It’s just that Mr. Koivisto hates being dead, and takes it out on me.”
“Mrs. Koivisto, I’m taking the cat home. Right now. Where is he?”
She gazed around her yard, head bobbing faintly.
“Where is he?” I again demanded.
“I’m afraid I don’t know.”
“What do you mean, you don’t know?”
“I kicked him out of the house this morning. I just couldn’t deny him his freedom any longer, he wanted it so much.”
Reduced by a swirl of shock in my body, I was beyond incredulity or even words.
“Why,” I finally managed to ask her, “didn’t you just call me?”
“Oh, you wouldn’t have understood. Seeing him scratch at the door, hours upon end, with that single intention.”
“What single intention?”
“I had hoped dying would have reformed him. But no. He wanted to … how do I put it. Prowl, I guess.”
“Prowl? He’s been neutered, Mrs. Koivisto. For the sole purpose of eliminating that urge!”
The groove reappeared, and I could see the wheels turning in her poor deluded head.
“Mrs. Koivisto, do you have children?”
“Do you see them often?”
“Hardly at all. They both live so far away.”
“Then why don’t you have a nice reunion. Tell them about Mr. Koivisto, that you just kicked him out of the house and he’s currently on the prowl. I’m sure they’ll be most concerned.”
“I can look for him.”
“Don’t look for him. I’ll look for him.”
And I did, immediately upon leaving her property, and well into the night. Vigilantly I scoured every alley and street and public space within a half mile of her estate, calling him by both names. I had an unmistakable feeling that somewhere in the course of my search he’d heard me, watched me defiantly from some spot I’d overlooked, determined to punish me for my betrayal while savoring the novelty of his freedom. So I continued looking for several nights afterward, knowing his freedom would turn into the sobering inconvenience of survival, and hoping he was spoiled enough to shrink from that reality. I even hoped he might be one of those cats with a miraculous instinct guiding him back to his original home. But when I decided he obviously was not one of those cats, I cursed his stupidity.
Weeks passed before I abandoned my search. A trip to the animal shelter proved too horrifying to endure: two entire rows of cats and kittens confined to drawer-sized cages, all of them peering out at me with cold and anxious doubt, and I sensed how few of them held out much hope for themselves. Fyodor was not there, and I left the place hating my unwillingness to rescue one of the others. But it was still too soon.
Then one morning while driving to work I spotted the distinctive peach-and-white tabby markings in the middle of a busy thoroughfare and my heart stopped. In a frenzy of dread I applied my brakes and got out, hurrying to the lifeless body and kneeling beside it. He had just been hit, and I lifted his head to get a look at his face, but before I could react to my discovery I heard a deafening screech and the clean smack of metal against metal and the side of my head was absorbing the impact of my car’s front bumper. Lying half under the vehicle, inches from its wheels, I heard a commotion around me and saw several pairs of feet and I cried. I did not cry because I was hurt, though I was: I cried because I was lying next to a dead cat I had thought meant more to me than any human. And the dead cat everyone now failed to notice in this inexplicable rush of concern for me wasn’t even Fyodor.
During my hospital stay I decided a change was in order. I made every effort to be pleasant and appreciative, both with my visitors and the medical staff whose artificial charm would ordinarily have brought out the worst in me. This was the start of a fresh chapter in my life: the animal phase ended, the human phase taking its place. Everything was going smoothly, in spite of the wired jaw making it almost impossible to communicate verbally, until my neighbor surreptitiously withdrew a puff of fur from her handbag.
“Isn’t she cute?” she chirped, setting the tiny Persian on my chest. Although I was unable to articulate my repulsion — not so much at the sight of a cat, but a breed of cat I’ve always detested — I am certain she got some inkling of it when I picked up the kitten and thrust it back at her. She stood looking at me with hurtful eyes.
“I paid $50 for her. What kind of heartless bastard are you?”
Emphatically justifying my actions through locked teeth as her incomprehension turned to concern, she left the room and just moments later a large orderly and a nurse wielding a needle forced me to assume a most degrading position. I felt the needle go in, continuing to vent my frustration, as the nurse consoled me in her sickeningly cheerful fashion.
“Now Mr. Edlund. When you wake up we’ll have a nice Salisbury steak with peas and whipped potatoes; no more IV. Doesn’t that sound yummy?”
I fought the ominous cloud of unconsciousness every step of the way, wondering as I succumbed how my human phase could have failed so quickly.
It didn’t take me long to realize my transition was little more than idealistic folly. Upon returning home I found the stillness of the place — the absence of that inconvenient mass wedged between my legs each morning when I awoke, the sight of the yellowed tiles of my kitchen floor unsullied by stray kibble and cat puke — too depressing for words. I had to convince myself that Fyodor was lost forever and that a replacement was the next best thing, only this time I would forgo the luxury of allowing myself the pick of some warm and cozy litter and find a cat whose existence so far in this world paralleled my own. I then braced myself for a second visit to the animal shelter.
The same girl who had led me past the cages the first time came out to greet me in the office. I explained to her that I had given up the search for my own cat and was now seeking to adopt another. But as she was about to lead me through the door which led to the kennels, and a dissonant chorus of animal sounds echoed from the confines beyond, I stopped. She turned to me with gentle understanding.
“I’ll tell you what,” she offered. “I’ll bring a cat out to you. A very special cat I know you’ll like.”
“No,” I replied.
She looked at me quizzically.
“I don’t want a special cat. I want the scrappiest excuse for a cat you can find, a cat no one else could possibly want. A cat you know beyond a shadow of a doubt will have to be put down.”
She was still puzzled, but said nothing. She entered the kennels without me while I returned to the office and sat down. I was paging listlessly through an old copy of Modern Dog when she reappeared in the office holding an animal fitting my description right down to its glowering green eyes. I rose from the chair. It was indeed one of the most pathetic cats I’d ever seen: emaciated, flea-bitten, gunk-eyed, with one ear a saw-toothed war casualty and just a few clumps of fur still clinging to its tail. He stared at me hard, but there was no trace of relief in his gaze.
I took the cat in my arms and held him close, whispering his name into his ear, his true name, and stroking his dingy, matted coat.
“Fyodor,” I repeated, over and over, until he looked into my face with that familiar vibration, as if to agree it was indeed a dignified name.
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