By: Andrew C. Miller
I’m in a maple tree, claws dug in, staring down at Mrs. Cavendish’s fluffy little Shih-Tzu. If I hadn’t been worrying about Mr. Krumholtz, this wouldn’t have happened. It started yesterday morning when he snagged his walker on the carpet, fell, and banged his head on the coffee table. He spent the rest of the day on the couch. Last night his breath started to smell like green apples. That’s how it was with Josefina right before she died.
The Shih-Tzu’s name is Reagan, and everybody thinks he’s a real cutie. The bald guy who lives across the street is nuts about him. You’d think Reagan was a human baby. It’s his eyes. They’re soft and beseeching, like a kitten begging for cream outside a dairy barn. And his silky fur. Draped around him like a dress. Mrs. Cavendish ties up his head fur in a bun with a red ribbon. When they’re out walking, people say, “He’s so precious.” Even his turds are special. After he drops one, Mrs. Cavendish tucks it in a bag.
Reagan’s usually on a leash but he must have gotten loose early this morning. He surprised me while I was eating a beef and bean burrito someone dropped on the sidewalk. Munching while fretting about Mr. Krumholtz. Not good. When Reagan charged, I dashed for the tree. Now the little twerp is zipping back and forth, barking and snarling. Every so often he pees on the bark. Disgusting.
Mr. Krumholtz said it’d snow this afternoon. He’s probably right. The wind is howling, and the sky is stuffed with black clouds.
I’m not going to stay up here all day.
That didn’t take long. I dropped on his back, flipped him over, locked my forepaws around his neck. Pump-pump-pumped with my hind legs, claws fully extended. Shredded that fleshy underbelly, soft as a muffin. Pump-pump-pump. He howled, yelped, and struggled. Then I worked over those bonbon eyes with my foreclaws.
He won’t forget me.
Mrs. Cavendish came flying out the back door, shrieking and waving a broom. She swung at me a couple of times but missed. I arched my back, hissed, and spat. She snatched up Mr. Puffball and took off. I ran back to Mr. Krumholtz’s. He had a special door built for me—the puddentrance—that leads into the kitchen. A neighbor boy installed it a couple of months ago. It saves me lots of aggravation. Used to be I had to yowl and yowl at the front door.
I checked out my bowl. Empty. It’s been that way since yesterday. Mr. Krumholtz stores kibbles in a cupboard by the refrigerator. Last night I jumped up on the shelf and tried to claw open the bag. But I lost my balance and tumbled back down. Took a bunch of soup cans with me.
Most mornings I lounge on the table while Mr. Krumholtz fixes breakfast. Usually, he eats a bagel loaded with cream cheese or peanut butter, piled with jalapeño peppers or pickled okra. Sometimes he adds a huge slice of red onion. For lunch, he’ll have beef stew or turkey noodle soup right out of the can. Or chomps crackers, one after another, followed by spoonfuls of tuna. He lets me lick out the can.
This morning he was still on the couch. Newspapers, magazines, and socks were scattered everywhere. On the coffee table was a mug stuffed with half-eaten dill pickles. Part of a sandwich lay on the couch. The ham wasn’t much good—too gristly—and the bread was moldy. After I ate, he scratched under my chin.
“How’s my little buddy?” His voice creaked like an old door. I purred and rubbed my nose against his fingers.
His breathing was loud and scratchy like dried oak leaves kicked up by the wind. I settled next to him and started my lick bath. I was about to doze off when the school bus stopped out front. Mr. Krumholtz heard it but didn’t get up. Most mornings he leans on the windowsill and watches the children climb aboard. Today he just stared at the window. A while back, two boys started to fight one boy. Mr. Krumholtz grabbed his walker, rolled down the sidewalk and stopped them. He brought the littlest one, who had a smashed lip, inside and cleaned him up. Today he’s in no shape to break up fights.
After the bus left, we slept and didn’t wake up until a car door slammed. I leaped off the couch and wedged under Mr. Krumholtz’s floppy old chair. I knew it was Henrietta, Mr. Krumholtz’s daughter, and her husband, Joel. They show up every few days, but don’t stay long. Joel usually sits in the car and Henrietta comes in by herself. She sweeps and vacuums and puts clothes in the washing machine and loads the refrigerator with fresh vegetables and fruits. After she leaves, Mr. Krumholtz tosses everything in the trash. Today, Joel and Henrietta both came inside.
Henrietta ran over and hugged her father. While they talked, Joel hustled around the room. He picked up the magazines and newspapers, arranged them in a neat line on the coffee table. I know he saw me under the chair. Meanwhile, Henrietta gave Mr. Krumholtz a glass of water. He tried to stand up, but she wouldn’t let him. She talked to someone on her cellphone. Afterword, she and Joel spoke in quiet voices.
“Dr. Blake said Dad might have a concussion and we should take him to the ER.”
Joel fixed his eyes on Mr. Krumholtz. “Then what?”
“What do you mean?”
“After the ER—what?”
“We’ll see what Dr. Blake says.”
Joel shrugged. He pointed to the chair where I was hiding. “I’ll get rid of that cat.” He grabbed my hind leg and yanked. I dug my claws into the chair fabric. Joel ripped me loose, tucked me under his arm and stomped toward the door. He dropped me on the front porch and slammed the door, almost crushing my tail. I scrambled up an oak tree. The second time today I’ve been up a tree.
I slept on a branch until a green van parked out front. A couple of ladies carried mops and brooms into the house. When Mr. Krumholtz calls clean-up ladies, it means he’s going to have a party. But he won’t be throwing a party today. After the ladies went in, Henrietta and Joel helped Mr. Krumholtz into their car and drove away.
When the clean-up ladies left, I slipped through my puddentrance and into the kitchen. My bowl was still empty. I’d better to up to Yank Sing’s Bistro and get something to eat. Back in the Josefina days, I went there every day. There’s a big dumpster out back that usually overflows with plastic bags crammed with leftovers. A couple of claw strokes is all it takes to rip one open. I’d feast on shrimp fried rice, cashew chicken, moo shu pork. But today the dumpster was empty. Not even a fortune cookie. I sniffed around the parking lot and found part of an eggroll. I had just gotten started when Ginger Cat—his name is Olred—showed up. He doesn’t have to be here; Olred lives with a family and gets plenty to eat. I yowled at him, lashed my tail, crouched low, ready for a fight. He growled back and we were about to go at it when the back door of Yank Sing’s banged opened and out came a cook. I’ve seen this guy before. Something is the matter with his one leg, and he wears a special shoe. Usually, he clomps around the parking lot like a wounded workhorse, smokes cigarettes and cusses the inside people.
“Hi there, little puddies.”
He set a plate down on the sidewalk. Olred and I ran over to investigate. It was heaped with shredded chicken and pork-filled wontons. Olred went for the wontons, and I started in on the chicken. We growled as we ate. The cook stood by the door, cellphone in hand. “Stick around boys,” he said, “and you’ll be in for a surprise.”
When the chicken was gone, I raced back home. Still no kibbles. I could hear voices from the bedroom and peaked in. Mr. Krumholtz was in bed and Joel and Henrietta sat beside him. I hopped up next to Mr. Krumholtz. “Hey,” he said. “Hey, big fella.” His voice was soft, like underfur. I sniffed his fingers, left a wet streak along his palm with my nose.
Joel stood up. “How’d he get in?”
I ran into the kitchen and shot through the puddentrance. There’s a shed behind the house where Mr. Krumholtz stores tools and old boxes. The door doesn’t close all the way and it’s easy for me to squeeze inside. I spent the night on a stack of old newspapers under a worktable. Next morning, the ground was covered with snow. I tried to get back inside the house but my puddentrance was blocked. Joel must have done it. I clawed up an oak tree by the front door. A car stopped in the driveway and a lady carrying a gray satchel got out and went inside. After a while, Joel and Henrietta drove away in their car.
I ran over to Mr. Krumholtz’s bedroom and jumped on the windowsill. The new lady, all dressed in blue, sat on the bed. She was helping him drink water through a straw. I stood up on my hind paws, scratched the window and yowled. The glass was smooth as ice. I kept on clawing and yowling. Finally, she saw me and stood up.
She opened the front door and called, “Here kitty-kitty, here kitty-kitty.” I ran around to the front porch. When she opened the door, I crouched down low. You can’t be too careful.
“Take your time, why don’t you?” She stood back, held the door open. “I’ll count to five. One, two, three—”
I streaked past her and into the kitchen, paced back and forth in front of my bowl. She followed and began opening and closing cupboards.
“Where does Mr. Krumholtz keep your food?”
She found the bag of kibbles and filled my bowl.
“Why didn’t you tell me?”
I tore into the kibbles, barely stopping to chew. “Slow down,” she said, “I’m not going to perform the Heimlich maneuver on a cat.”
After cleaning out my bowl, I went into the bedroom and jumped on the bed. The lady in blue said to Mr. Krumholtz. “Your kitty-cat is here.” I started a lick bath. Mr. Krumholtz stretched out his hand. It shook like branches in the wind.
The lady sat in a chair next to the bed. “What’s his name? He wouldn’t tell me.”
Mr. Krumholtz’s lips fluttered but made no sound.
“Does the kitty take good care of you?”
“Yes,” his eyes said, “yes—yes.”
I clawbreaded and purred, long deep, rhythmic purrs that ended in tiny squeaks. My purrs spread out, filled the room. They surrounded Mr. Krumholtz like a warm blanket.
The front door opened, sending in a blast of cold air. In came Joel, Henrietta, and their daughter, Erica. The lady in blue went in the kitchen.
Joel looked at me. “Why’s that cat in here?”
Erica pushed past her father. “Grampa loves Tabby Cat—let him stay.” She sat on the bed and brought her head close to mine. She whispered in my ear, “It’s all right, Sweetie.”
Joel slapped both arms against his legs. “Whatever,” he flopped down in a soft chair. I moved closer to Mr. Krumholtz. His breath smelled of roses, green apples. The lady came in with a tray. She asked how the roads were for driving. Bad, they said. Her eyes flicked back and forth between Mr. Krumholtz and me.
“And how is Mr. Tabby?” she asked.
I rolled over and stretched all four paws toward the ceiling. She rubbed my belly. Joel trudged into the living room, turned on the television. He flicked through a few channels, then chose one with people talking. When he made the voices loud, Henrietta told him to make the noise go away. He watched for a while, then asked if anyone was hungry. He wanted to get takeout. Maybe he’ll go to Yank Sing’s. But they didn’t want anything, so he went back to the living room. After watching the television for a while, he came back in and sat next to Henrietta.
Suddenly, Mr. Krumholtz’s breathing became loud and ragged; his eyes narrowed to gray slits. Erica and her mother leaned forward. I dug my claws into the bedspread, slid up close, pressed one paw against his cheek. Joel wanted to put me out, but Henrietta shook her head. I pressed my nose against Mr. Krumholtz’s cheeks, sniffed his lips. His breathing rasped like a saw cutting dried branches. The lady in blue went out and closed the door. I scooted closer to Mr. Krumholtz. After each beneath, a long pause. The pauses grew longer and longer.
A school bus stopped out front. The brakes whooshed and huffed; the door screeched open. Children laughed and shouted as they clambered down the steps. They threw snowballs that thunk-thunked against the bus. The engine growled and the driver honked the horn.
Bus sounds grew fainter and fainter. Now the room was silent except for icy snow tap-tapping the window. Mr. Krumholtz had stopped breathing. First Henrietta, then Erica touched their lips to his forehead. Henrietta held his hands.
Erica walked over to the bookcase. She picked up a framed picture of Mr. Krumholtz surrounded by children.
“Okay if I take this?”
Henrietta said yes.
Joel glanced at the books, then at a rifle on the wall. “Let’s take a break,” he said, “get something to eat. We’ll come back.”
The lady in blue stood at the doorway. They didn’t say anything, just walked past her and into the living room. When they were gone, the lady held Mr. Krumholtz’s wrist, then touched his eyes. She laid one hand on my head. “Hey,” she said, “Hey.” When she opened the door, I jumped off the bed and followed her to the front door. She put on her coat and said goodbye.
When she opened the door, I rushed past her, down the steps. “Goodbye, Mr. Tabby,” she said. Then she called out to me again, this time louder.
It was too cold to spend another night in the tree, so I ran around to the storage shed. But the door was nailed shut. I tried to think of a warm place to sleep. Maybe under a woodpile, an old house, or steps leading up to a porch. Once I slept next to a tire under a big truck. There might be another family close by. They’d invite me in for something to eat like Mr. Krumholtz used to do. Anyway, tomorrow, after the sun rises, it will be warmer. The snow will melt. Then I’ll go up to Yank Sing’s. I’m sure the cook will set out food for me in a little dish. Chicken lo Mein or Seafood Delight—whatever. But I better get there early. Before Olred shows up.
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