Chapter one of "Queen of the Jungle," from Publish and Perish
Something was wrong with Paul and Elizabeth's cat, Charlotte. She was peeing outside of the litterbox, and driving her owners to distraction. Neither of them was certain what the problem was, but they both thought that it might have something to do with their complicated domestic arrangement. Paul lived in Bluff City, Iowa, where he was finishing up a three-year postdoc in the English Department at the State University of Iowa, but Elizabeth lived four days a week in Chicago, where she was tenure-track at Chicago University. Charlotte, their cat, stayed with Paul in Iowa. She was an indoor cat, ten years old, with no front claws. She looked black and white at first glance: black across her back, and over her eyes and ears like a mask, and as white as ice cream across her chest and jaws and along her forelegs. But in direct light the black turned out to be blended with fine brown hairs that spread in faint stripes down her head and back, faintly ringing her tail like a raccoon's. Her eyes were rimmed in black, as if by kohl. She was intelligent and high-strung, and she wasn't particularly affectionate, even for a cat, hissing and scratching at strangers who tried to pick her up. Even when Paul or Elizabeth lifted her, she would endure it for roughly a count of ten—by Paul's reckoning—and then scramble out of their grasp with a petulant croak, only to sit a few feet away with her back to them and her raccoon tail out straight behind her. Sometimes, though, on the nights Elizabeth was away, Charlotte would settle in with Paul, sprawling across his chest as he lay reading on the couch, or nosing her way in under the covers beside him in bed. Lately she had taken to winding slowly between his legs as he sat at his computer, or when he stood in the kitchen preparing a meal. The first couple of times this startled him, but he had gotten used to it. He even looked forward to the warm, silky, gliding pressure against his calves, the little throaty purr.
Within the last couple of months, however, Charlotte had begun to pee where she wasn't supposed to. At first it was on the carpet at the top of the stairs that led up from the front door to the apartment, then on the sofa cushions and Paul's secondhand easy chair, and finally, by an inevitable progression, in the bed—on the pillows, in the middle of the mattress, among the rumpled sheets in the morning while Paul was still in the shower. The first time it happened, on the stairs, Paul did not tell Elizabeth about it. By time she made it back to Bluff City that particular weekend, Paul had blotted up the stain and the smell with a combination of baking soda and an enzyme he'd bought at a pet store. But the second time, on the sofa, happened on a Thursday night, and when Elizabeth came home on Friday morning, she stopped short inside the door with her bag still slung over her shoulder and wrinkled her nose at the sharp tang of cat pee.
"Oh my God," she said. "Is that what I think it is?"
Paul came away from his desk and nodded. Charlotte was nowhere to be seen.
"Charlotte did that?" Elizabeth lowered her bag and looked about for the cat. Her immediate response, Paul could tell, was concern for Charlotte's well-being, with little to spare for what her husband might have had to put up with while she was gone. Though they no longer spoke of her as such, Charlotte had been Elizabeth's cat long before Elizabeth had married Paul. She was the offspring, in fact, of an even older cat of Elizabeth's, long deceased, named Emily. Elizabeth loved to tell the story of Charlotte's birth, the whole litter born one icy January day in the back of Elizabeth's closet, in her first apartment. The birth had ruined a pair of suede shoes, in honor of which, ever since she was two, Charlotte had worn a green suede collar that matched her eyes.
Now Elizabeth moved through the apartment with her head down, clicking her tongue for the cat, passing the couch without patting the damp spot or even glancing at the stain.
"Are you all right, Charlotte?" she crooned from the bedroom, where Charlotte had a hiding place. "What's wrong, boo-boo?"
"It's not the first time, okay?" Paul raised his voice even though he knew that Elizabeth wasn't listening. She never listened when she was baby-talking to Charlotte.
They took her to the vet, who tested Charlotte for urinary disease and several other things, but there was nothing physically wrong with her. She put Charlotte on a special diet anyway, to no avail. Every three or four days Paul trod barefoot on a new wet spot in the carpet, or made an unscheduled trip to the laundromat with the bedclothes. Back at the vet's Charlotte glowered up from the examination table as the vet knit her brow and asked if there had been any recent, sudden changes in household routine—was there a new cat in the house, had they moved the litterbox, changed the brand of cat litter? Elizabeth stroked Charlotte's head and glanced at Paul, who shook his head.
"I have to ask," the vet said, crossing her arms. "Are you guys okay? No problems between the two of you?"
"Oh no!" said Elizabeth. "I mean, we're fine."
"Absolutely," said Paul.
So Charlotte got her own prescription sedatives, two tiny pills every day, and the peeing stopped. But her first weekend home after the pills started, Elizabeth saw Charlotte stagger and walk into a wall, and she dumped the rest of the pills down the toilet.
"Did you see her eyes?" Elizabeth said. "She's just a zombie."
"I know," Paul said. "I don't like it either."
On the phone the vet threw up her hands, so to speak.
"I've done everything I can do," she said. "Unless..."
"Unless what?" Elizabeth said, as Paul listened in from the phone in the bedroom.
Their veterinarian had a vaguely New Age aspect to her; the magazines in her waiting room promised spiritual release of a generally nondenominational sort, and the speakers flowed with drifting, tuneless music. Paul and Elizabeth had noted this, and decided to ignore it, because the vet was so good with Charlotte.
"I have a friend," the vet said, "who's had some success at connecting, directly, somehow, with animals..."
Paul stood up from the bed and walked to the limit of the phone cord; he caught Elizabeth's eye down the length of the hall as she stood at the phone in the kitchen. Elizabeth was tall—an inch or two taller than Paul, in fact—with sharp features and an open expression that belied her increasing gravity. She had a long, slender neck that Paul had first noted covertly across a seminar room, and now, as she listened to the vet on the phone, she pressed her narrow palm to her throat. Sometime in grad school Elizabeth's hair had gone prematurely grey; Paul had assured her that he found the grey attractive, to which she replied somewhat tartly that she likewise found his receding hairline endearing. In the end, she decided not to color it because it gave her the feeling of being a step up from her grad students, most of whom were only slightly younger than she was. It was that same self-conscious gravity that made Paul certain that she'd scoff—politely—at the vet's suggestion. If anything, Elizabeth had less patience with this sort of New Age occultism than Paul did. It smacked of the sort of essentialist, nurturing, womanist stuff she reviled gleefully and at great length in her own articles on feminist theory. Paul widened his eyes at Elizabeth in incredulity and mouthed the words, "A kitty psychic?" But Elizabeth had a sentimental streak where the cat was concerned; she wouldn't be caught dead with Vogue or Glamour, but now and then Paul glimpsed an issue of Cat Fancy in her briefcase. She twisted her long neck and turned away from him, the phone nestled between her shoulder and her sharp chin.
"What's your friend's number?" she said to the vet.
Elizabeth ignored Paul over the next day or two as he joked about swarthy women in colorful head scarves, about crystal balls with one of those suction-cup Garfields clinging to the inside, about "pawreaders" and little kitty tarot cards. Finally, on a bright, frigid, February afternoon, the psychic came to talk to the cat. She turned out to be a large woman in a tailored suit and a quilted parka, and mounting the stairs to Paul and Elizabeth's second floor apartment, she arrived at the top both breathless and grave. Her name was Andrea, with the emphasis on the second syllable—just Andrea, nothing more, like Roseanne—and she had a deep voice and thick dark hair and a solemn Mediterranean mien which was broken only once by a hearty, throaty laugh. She did not ask to be shown the cat right away—Charlotte had hidden immediately at the sound of a stranger's voice—but instead weighed down one end of the couch and caught her breath and asked questions about what Charlotte did all day and where her favorite places were. Elizabeth sat at the other end of the couch, all elbows and knees, leaning forward and intently answering each question. Paul brought them all tea and sat across the room. The two women looked like a before and after picture of some sort, but Paul wasn't sure who was before and who was after. Andrea had a surprisingly pointed chin for someone with such a round face, and she fingered it and looked off into space as Elizabeth nervously answered each question in great detail. Andrea never said much in response, with the result that Elizabeth went on and on to fill the silence, running out of things to say finally and gesturing at the air as if to conjure a sound from the psychic. Then, after an endless pause, Andrea nodded and simply said, "Uh huh." This, and the fact that she scarcely made eye contact with either Paul and Elizabeth, convinced Paul—as if he needed proof—that she was a fraud. He twisted in his seat, trying to catch Elizabeth's eye himself, hoping to lure her into the kitchen for an urgent whispered conference. But then, to his surprise, he felt the silken pressure of Charlotte winding between his calf and the chair, and before he could say a word, Andrea brightened and laughed deep in her throat. She patted the cushion next to her, gazing intently at the cat and clicking her tongue.
"This is Charlotte," Elizabeth said tremulously, as if she were introducing a troubled child.
"I'm surprised she even came out," Paul was about to say, when Charlotte further astounded him by jumping up on the couch next to the psychic, sitting on her haunches with her back to Elizabeth, and looking up at their visitor. She gave a plaintive meow, and Paul and Elizabeth looked across the room at each other in astonishment.
"Could you leave us alone for a few minutes?" Andrea said, the cat and the psychic gazing into each other's eyes with a similar demeanor. After a moment of speechlessness, Paul and Elizabeth retired to the bedroom down the hall.
"How much are we paying this woman?" Paul said, shutting the door.
"Did you see that?" Elizabeth said in a low voice, getting up to reopen the door a crack. "Have you ever seen her do that with a stranger? Just jump right up?"
Paul sat on the bed.
"Okay, well maybe she has an affinity with animals or something," he began, lowering his voice, "but you don't really think she reads their minds, do you?"
They whispered back and forth for several minutes, sitting together on the edge of the bed, glancing down the hall at the doorway to the living room. Elizabeth touched Paul on the arm every few seconds as if she heard something, but there was nothing to hear. Paul started to riff on the idea of doing the Vulcan mind meld with a cat, but he could tell that Elizabeth wasn't listening to him.
"I can't stand it," she hissed finally, and stood, but just then Andrea hove into view, turning out of the living room door and into the hall with all the solemnity of a minor planet, blocking the afternoon light from the kitchen window at the far end of the apartment. Elizabeth caught her breath and stood in the bedroom door, and Paul looked over her shoulder at Charlotte nestled contentedly between Andrea's arms and her massive bosom. Instinctively, Paul began to count to ten in expectation of Charlotte's petulant growl and leap, but Andrea just kept coming down the hall with the cat in her arms, plucking gently with her short fingers at the back of Charlotte's head. Over the creak of the floorboards under Andrea's feet, Paul could hear Charlotte purring.
"Well, she's upset," said Andrea, stopping just outside the doorway.
"What did she tell you?" Elizabeth said. Paul could tell his wife was serious by the tension in her spine. If he were to touch her backbone just now, she'd twang like a plucked string.
"They don't think in words, dear," said Andrea, still avoiding the gaze of the humans, looking intently at the cat, who gazed serenely out from behind the rampart of Andrea's forearm. "They think in pictures."
"What does she see, then?" Paul said, flashing on the image of mounds of kibble like sand dunes, and Elizabeth, without looking, reached back and gave him a touch which meant, don't interrupt.
"There's a woman who's always coming and going," Andrea said, "and this coming and going disturbs her somehow."
At this, the psychic at last looked up and met Elizabeth's eye, and Elizabeth pressed her hand to her mouth. Paul felt his heart begin to race.
"Oh my God," Elizabeth said in a small voice, through her fingers, "is it me?"
"I can't tell," Andrea said. "All I can see is a woman who comes and doesn't stay very long, and who leaves almost as soon as she gets here."
By now Paul's heart was pounding, and he tried to edge into the crowded doorway between his wife, who was white-faced and wide-eyed, and the psychic, who was looking back down at Charlotte, stroking her behind the ears.
"My wife is in Chicago four days a week," he said, licking his lips. "I mean, she comes and goes, you know, all the time..."
"Oh Paul, I'll bet that's what it is." Elizabeth gave him a heartbroken glance, and she reached for Charlotte, cooing wordlessly. With the cat in her arms, she sat on the bed and murmured to Charlotte, "Oh boo-boo, mama's sorry." A moment later, Charlotte leaped out of her arms and scampered through the legs of the humans in the doorway and down the hall. Paul watched her go, with a growing sense of alarm. Andrea plucked at the cat hairs on the lapels of her suit.
"Do you people have a lint brush?" she said.
Elizabeth, biting her lip, followed Charlotte into the living room, and Paul led Andrea into the kitchen, where he helped her rotate into her parka and wrote her a check for seventy-five dollars.
"I could tell you more," Andrea said, buttoning the parka up under her chin, "but I'd have to spend all day with the cat."
Paul's hand trembled a bit as he wrote the check, and he moved so that Andrea couldn't see it.
"It would be a hundred and fifty, for the day," Andrea said in a monotone. "You'd have to be out of the house."
Paul handed her the check without meeting her eye and turned her toward the stairs. He glanced in the living room to see Elizabeth flat on her stomach on the floor, imploring Charlotte to come out from behind the couch.
"Mama's not angry," she was saying. "Mama's sorry."
"No, you've been very helpful," Paul said. "I think you've solved our little mystery."
Andrea moved as slowly down the stairs as she'd come up, gripping the rail, bending it under her grasp. On the step behind her, Paul wanted to scream, to give her a push. At the door, Andrea stopped and turned again on her axis, blocking even the freezing February air.
"I'm not sure it's your wife who comes and goes," she said. "It could be somebody else. I'd have to spend the day to be sure."
"We have your number," Paul said, squeezing her onto the porch and closing the door.
In the living room, with Charlotte still behind the couch and Elizabeth perched on the edge of it, Paul and Elizabeth argued.
"We just spent seventy-five dollars," Paul said, still trembling, "to find out that the cat misses you."
"How did Andrea know that I'm not here all the time?" Elizabeth said. She rubbed her knees with long fingers. "I didn't tell her that. How did she know?"
"Look at you," Paul said angrily. "You're practically in tears. Do you mist up when you think about me, all alone here four days a week?"
Elizabeth glared up at him.
"Paul, Charlotte's an animal. I don't expect her to understand about a dual career situation."
Paul looked at the ceiling.
"You know what I think about that," he sighed.
"You overestimate my position, Paul. I don't have that kind of clout." He could hear how weary she was of this argument.
"Lizzie, you're a star." He leveled his gaze at her. "You killed them at the MLA this year. You killed them. Walter"—the chair of her department at Chicago—"would do anything for you."
Elizabeth stood and they faced each other across the coffee table.
"When I have tenure," she said, her voice tight, "I will talk to Walter about offering my husband a position." She marched to the door, and when Paul turned toward her, held up both forefingers, canted her head away from him, and said, "I don't want to talk about this now."
Paul waited until he heard the bedroom door shut, and then sagged into his chair, sighing soundlessly with relief at having deflected the argument in a safe direction. His hands were still shaking, though, and whatever satisfaction he felt evaporated as Charlotte pressed herself out from under the couch and jumped up on the coffee table. She stood on all four paws, her tail lashing from side to side, and watched him with her green, kohl-rimmed eyes. Paul sat up, as if preparing to defend himself.
"What have you done?" he whispered to the cat.
Copyright © 1997 by James Hynes