“A strange cat was in our kitchen when we got home from the store,” Kate says. She puts three glasses of water on the table and goes to help Josie, who keeps squirming off her chair. “I was worried we’d startle it so I stopped in the doorway, but it wasn’t scared of me at all.”
Frank doesn’t look up from his plate. “Wonder how it got in.”
“Through the cat door. But he just sat there in the middle of the kitchen floor licking himself like he had all day, didn’t he Josie?”
Josie nods vigorously, wrinkling her nose in disgust. “He was orange.”
“I have a joke for you,” says Frank: “Why does a cat lick his balls?” Neither Kate nor Josie venture a guess. “Because he can!” He laughs and cuts himself another forkful of meat.
A couple days later, Kate finds orange dander on Josie’s favorite blanket, so she does an extra load of wash.
“Whose cat is it, anyway?” Frank wants to know. “Is it a stray or does it belong to someone?”
“I don’t know. I think I smell cat piss in here. Do you smell anything?”
“No one’s going to come in here and pee just to piss you off. Ha, ha.” He makes a big show of sniffing around. “Besides, Tchaikovsky will protect her territory. That’s how cats are. They work things out, gato a gato.”
“You can’t get that smell out, you know.” She mutters. She’s down on all fours scrubbing the baseboard, the pockets of her jeans twitching violently. “Cat piss is forever.”
He comes home from work to find her banging around in the kitchen. After picking Josie up from school, she’d returned to find the orange cat sleeping on the sofa. “I screamed at him but he just swaggered out the cat door like he owned the joint. He had eaten all the cat food. Every last crumb.”
Frank laughs, shaking his head. “If we adopted him, maybe you wouldn’t get so upset about it.”
“Before he went through the flap he turned around and gave me a look of pure derision. Like he was flipping me off. I am not shitting you.”
“We should just give him a name. How about Prince Charming or Buddy or Foo Foo?” He winces as she slices into a carrot. “Foo Foo is cute. Josie’d like a Foo Foo. Anyway, it’s just a cat. You’d think we were talking about a terrorist or something.”
“We haven’t seen Tchaikovsky for days so Jo and I went to all the houses in the neighborhood, but no one has seen her, and no one claimed the orange cat either. I swear I smell cat piss, so maybe I’m going crazy. You really don’t smell it?”
After dinner, Tchaikovsky shows up with two mangled ears and one eye leaking puss. Josie swaddles the cat in her blanket and croons softly all the way to the vet. The bill comes to $923.
Every Wednesday, Frank and Tim meet at the YMCA. After spin class, they meet in the steam room for a chat.
“She’s obsessed with a neighborhood cat that keeps coming around,” Frank says.
“She swears it gave her the finger.”
“Cats don’t have fingers.”
“This one does. He carries a crowbar and a can of spray paint. He has premeditated criminal intentions.”
“A real bad cat.”
“It wouldn’t be such a problem if she didn’t make it one. It’d just be a cat.”
“A cat that wants to make your house its territory.”
“That’s no crime. I’d want to live in my house, too. It’s a nice house.”
“But would you want to live there with an animal who wipes its ass on your pillows and won’t take no for an answer?”
“We don’t know what’s going to happen. Let’s give him the benefit of the doubt.”
“You’re remarkably open-minded.”
“You think this whole thing is a big joke,” Kate says. It’s Sunday morning. She’s toweling her hair dry. Josie is watching a show downstairs.
“Well, it is sort of funny when you think about it.” Frank looks up from his laptop. “I’m sorry you don’t think so.”
“So I don’t have a sense of humor.”
“No, it’s just that he has become such a big deal.”
“It comes into our home, licks the butter, scratches the upholstery, barfs in my shoe, shits in our vegetable beds, attacks our cat, and sprays everywhere. Why isn’t it a big deal?”
“I just don’t feel the same as you. He’s just a cat being a cat. Besides, I’ve never actually seen him do any of those things.”
“So the problem is all in my head.”
“I didn’t say that. We just don’t see eye to eye.”
“So I’m on my own here.”
“Oh come on, you know I always support your decisions.”
“Fine then. I’m getting a gun.”
“What are you talking about?”
“Not a gun gun. Maybe a bb gun or something like that.”
“What, so you can kill him?”
“I don’t want to kill it, I just want it to go away forever.”
“That’s crazy,” he says. Or maybe he doesn’t say it out loud. Maybe he just thinks it.
When they get home from the park there’s a long, dangerous-looking package leaning against the front door. Kate uses scissors to slice the box open. She tells Josie, “This is only for mama to touch. It’s not a toy.”
“Your mother is going ballistic,” Frank explains. “Your mother is going to save us all from the evil orange beast.”
Kate and Josie go into the back yard, while Frank watches from the kitchen window. They put the box the gun came in on the top of the fence for target practice. If she pumps the action once, the pellet doesn’t leave a mark; two pumps make a dent, and with three the pellet punctures the cardboard. “We’ll only need one pump, right?”
“But will it hurt him?” Josie wants to know.
“Just enough to give him the message not to come in our yard.”
Kate practices loading, aiming, and shooting until she can do it without fumbling. She sets up a chair where she can see the whole yard and brings out a blanket. She sits and waits with the rifle laid across her lap. She doesn’t come to bed until late.
They’re at the dinner table one evening when they hear the hissing. The sliding door shows Tchaikovsky backed against the fence, moaning long and low. The orange cat—ears flat and tail raised—darts forward to attack. He has his teeth sunk into the nape of her neck when Kate grabs the gun, pumps once, and pulls the trigger. The splitting crack of bullet against wood stuns them all.
Except the orange cat, who stands with his ass aimed right at them. He glances over his shoulder as if to make sure they’ve gotten a good look at his bright pink asshole and his hard, furry balls, then slinks over to the fence and hops nonchalantly over. Josie screams and runs out to find her cat.
When Kate finds the bullet hole in the wood, Frank confesses: “I gave the gun some extra pumps the other day.” When she asks him why, he explains, “I didn’t think you were going to actually shoot him.”
“If you’re going to do something, you might as well do it right,” he tells her. “I was just trying to help. Besides, we’re all tired of hearing about that stupid fucking orange cat.”
In the steam room after spin class, Frank is unusually subdued. Tim tells a few jokes to cheer him up.
“By the way, how’s Kate? Are you guys still having a fight?”
“There was never any fighting.” Frank insists. “She’s just gone to stay with a friend for a couple weeks, that’s all.”
Tim is sorry to hear that. “What about the kid?”
“Yeah, Josie went too. And the cat.”
“That stray she was so upset about?”
“No, they took Josie’s cat.” He pauses while the room fills with steam. “But that orange cat has been coming around. He meows at the door when he wants to come in.” Frank stares into the steam like he’s reading clouds. “I think he just wants a little attention.”