Out of the Bag
By Floris M. Kleijne
I recognize the hissing. Full, almost guttural, like he really wants to growl. No tom hissed quite like Jones. The sound lurks at the edge of my hearing, somewhere inside the apartment, maybe even outside, taunting me to come look, to see what vapors and megrims have raised his hackles this time.
I pause the HBO episode I’m not really watching. Setting my tumbler on the coffee table, I note the warmth spreading through my belly, the love flooding my heart. I begin to rise.
Ridiculous, of course. Jones has been dead ten years today.
I sink back into my ratty armchair and grab my drink once more. Tumbler raised to the grimy ceiling, I speak my time-worn toast before I down the third-rate Scotch.
“To Nana. May she die a thousand horrible deaths.”
I lower my face in my hands. Hear the memory of a splash in my head, loud and final. A painful tightness constricts my chest. I squeeze my eyes shut, but I ran out of tears half a decade ago.
David keeps asking why I miss my cat more than my parents. I keep lying back on his couch and failing to answer him. I suppose the whole therapy is pointless without that answer, but any answer will be a summary, almost obscene in its incompleteness. I could tell him I feel abandoned, but that is too simple, too one-dimensional. Well David, I could say, they died, didn’t they? They died and left me, literally willed me, to Nana’s cold mercy. How can I ever make him understand the depth and width of her abuse?
And Jones was there for me, through all of it. Jones would find me sitting on the edge of my bed, back straight to keep my T-shirt off the bleeding welts. He would climb gingerly onto my lap, nudge my bunched fists with his head, and curl up. I’d unclench my hands and stroke his shiny black fur, and that magical engine in his chest would start up, his back vibrating with a deep, rumbling purr. The blissful sound would permeate my body, loosen my tightened muscles, ease the edge off the pain. The day she made me step outside naked because I’d dirtied my clothes playing in the lot, Jones found me pressed deep into the corner of the couch afterwards, claimed his petting rights, and knead my belly with his delirious paws until the tickling broke my face into a grudging smile. In the deepest, paralyzing despair of my loneliness, when all I could do was lie on by bed and weep, Jones would snuggle up to me, and speak soft meows, as if to tell me I wasn’t completely alone after all.
How could I not miss him more, is what I should ask David.
Switching off the TV, I rise after all, to refill my glass from the cheap bottle in the kitchen. When I step through the beaded curtain, I hear the ghostly sound of Jones sharpening his nails on the doorjamb. Gladness erupts from my center once more, gladness soiled with a fear akin to panic. But Jones still isn’t really here, and Nana isn’t around to curse him out and kick him in the ribs for damaging the door, to belt me for failing to keep my cat in check. It’s just me here, in my sorry excuse for an apartment. Nana is still four blocks east, in the house where she raised me, if one can call it that; the house I fled five years ago, the moment I was old enough.
From the buzzing of the fridge and the Brownian hum of the air, my ears fabricate a whispered meow.
My ears repeat the hallucination. My eyes join in the madness, offering up an ethereal feline shape stretched up against the fire escape door, as if reaching for the knob. I move to unlock the door but stop myself at the last moment.
Get a grip. Jones is dead.
Nana kicked him once too often, that time. That time, Jones didn’t run from her slippered foot. He spun around, green eyes ablaze, and buried his teeth, his claws in her ankle. Blood ran as I screamed, Jones, no! He didn’t stand a chance. I heard his claws rip through her skin as she pulled him off by the scruff. She must have prepared for the moment, been ready for the day he drew blood, because she grabbed the burlap sack from under the sink with her other hand without even looking, shoving in first Jones, then two of my late Gramps’ old cast-iron ashtrays. She dragged me along to the park. I alternated between screaming in counterpoint to Jones and pointless pleading. She tossed Jones into the pond, pulling my ear to keep me facing the squirming bag until it disappeared under the surface.
Jones is dead, but he’s also scratching the doorjamb to be let out, and the craziness won’t abate, because I watch my hand open the door, see a cat made of pale smoke worm itself through the gap, hear a growl that’s more lion than feline.
See it—see him sprint east.
I stand frozen in the doorway. Glance towards the bottle. There’s no such thing as ghosts. And even if there were, the ghost of Jones couldn’t harm Nana. Could he? And even if he could, would I even want to stop him? Ghost or no ghost, Nana deserves whatever vengeance Jones can deliver, for his own sake as well as mine. Doesn’t she? Haven’t I been wishing her dead with each lonely toast? Wouldn’t Jones be meting out judgment? I turn away from the scratches in the doorjamb and reach for the bott—
Scratches in the doorjamb.
Jones damaged the doorjamb.
I’m out the door and down the fire escape before my next conscious thought. I run headlong after my dead, beloved cat. For the first block, I fool myself that I just want to watch her die. But by the time I’ve crossed Fourth and then Third amidst angry honking, I’ve admitted the truth to myself, the truth of why I sprinted after him.
I don’t want Jones to kill her.
The wind of my speed dries the tears on my cheeks. Further down the block, Jones’ phantom trots on at a leisurely pace, throwing glances back at me, jerking his semi-transparent head in a challenging come-on gesture. Maybe this is even the reason he came back: to give me a chance to stop him. My pace slows. I come to a hesitant halt. Jones turns around, sits back on his haunches. I marvel at the way the crowd swerves around his smoky shape.
I can’t move on through letting Nana die. I can only move on through letting her go. Not forgiving her; forgiveness is beyond me. But letting go of my hold on her, and so freeing myself of her hold on me. Jones is still taking care of me, not through vengeance, but through release.
Even over the hubbub of the night life, I hear his meow. He licks a paw, and when he wipes his face, it looks like a wave. I raise my hand and wave back. Tomorrow, I think. Tomorrow I’ll try to answer David’s question.
I know what Jones is asking. I nod firmly as tears blur my vision. I blink, and when my sight clears, he is gone.
Tomorrow, Jones, I whisper. Tomorrow I’ll get a cat. I walk home to the ghostly sound of a deep, rumbling purr.