After her third dog passed, Lorelei adopted an overweight calico. The couple that had brought him in wrote on the form 12 yrs old, heart problems. The cat dealt with enough heft to make it impossible for him to clean his own back, so had dreadlocks down the spine and dandruff, too.
“Are you sure you want grumpy old Murray?” asked the boy at the desk.
“I want to help,” she said. “I can’t get attached to a cat.”
The cat was renown for hissing at the volunteers in the shelter, but when Lorelei let him out of the carrier in her living room, he sidled up against her legs and rubbed, weaving around her calves in fat figure eights as if he missed her. When he rolled on his back on the carpet, he looked like a seal. He slept on the end of her bed. Trapped her feet under the covers. Wheezed. Strangely, the sound helped her fall asleep.
After a few nights, she loved the cat as if he were a dog. She told him, “You’re going on a diet.” She put Special Recipe for indoor adult cats into his dish by the refrigerator. “Let’s slim you down. You’ll live longer.”
She cut out his dreads. She brushed him until his fur shined. He purred.
Lorelei’s next-door neighbor, Joe, came to eat dinner and watch East Enders on the BBC every Tuesday night. They had gone to school together as kids. In high school, Joe tried to date her, but she preferred the closeness they shared as friends. Both inherited their parents’ houses. Both moved home after their busted marriages. Neither had kids.
With Joe there, Murray hissed and hid beneath the couch, but he couldn’t fit all the way, so they laughed to see the cat’s doughy haunches and his thick tail whipping and slapping the rug.
“How do you like the new old cat?” Joe asked as he ate beef stew at her kitchen table.
“It’s working out pretty well,” she said. “Better than I thought.”
Joe nodded and chewed.
“He’s good company. He sleeps on the bed.”
“Really.” Joe wiped his mouth. He leaned back in his chair and called out in the direction of the living room, “Hey, Murray, what’s your secret, buddy?”
Lorelei laughed, covering her mouth with her fingers.
“Lori, you know I’d be happy to join you in bed anytime you’d let me.”
“I’m happy as we are.” She looked down at her stew. “You know that.” She looked up.
“I’m going to keep reminding you that we could be happier,” he said and winked.
“Let’s not mess with it.”
But she liked that he had called her by her childhood name.
Joe sat next to Lorelei on the couch to watch TV. She felt Murray’s tail thwack against her foot. She worried about Joe’s weight on the cat. Joe wasn’t fat, but he was a large man. In that way, he took after his father, but only in size. Joe could handle his alcohol. As long as she could feel the switch of Murray’s tail, she felt the cat was probably fine.
When the show ended, he helped her with the dishes. She walked him outside to the path through the hedge between their houses.
“Can I kiss you?” he asked.
“Next time,” she answered.
It was always the same, from when they were teenagers, their little joke.
In the living room, Lorelei propped a corner of the couch up with the dictionary and spoke sweetly to Murray. She used a treat to finally get him to spin around and crawl out. At bedtime, Murray did his seal-flop in the middle of the rug. He didn’t follow her to the stairs.
“You’re punishing me cause you think I have a new boyfriend, aren’t you?”
Murray switched his tail.
“But you’re my new boyfriend, Murray. You’re the guy for me.”
In the bathroom, Lorelei looked out the window to Joe’s house while she brushed her teeth. His kitchen was all lit up. She slipped into the guestroom, her old childhood room, where she could spy more easily in the dark. She saw him sitting at his kitchen table, one leg crossed over the other. He wore only denim-blue boxers and white socks as he talked on the phone. It was past eleven. He laughed, looked happy.
She remembered his body differently, young, hairless, playing Marco Polo at the public pool, always jerking around. She recalled thin tight muscles bulging from his soccer uniform. Now he looked soft and comfortable. Relaxed.
Who would he be talking to at this hour? Joe had friends and maybe someone special, more than just a friend, but she didn’t know.
Murray howled from the hallway. Lorelei fixed the curtains and headed for bed.
She passed Murray in the hall. “So, big guy, I guess I’m forgiven.”
He waited for her while she brushed her teeth.
The following Monday, Lorelei had an e-mail from Joe telling her he couldn’t make it on Tuesday. Something had come up at his crew club. There was a special meeting for the board.
She ate leftovers and watched East Enders with Murray curled on the cushion where Joe usually sat. She felt a tightening around her heart. She realized she missed Joe. In the kitchen, she made herself a cup of lemon ginger tea and sat down at the table.
After fourteen years of marriage drama, she longed for peace, some solitude. Joe didn’t push or cloy. They shared the one night a week. She imagined that sometime in the future they’d have sex, but she didn’t want to rush.
She startled when he rapped on a glass pane of the kitchen door.
“Oh.” She pressed one hand on her chest and beckoned with the other for him to come in.
He carried a paper bag. “Am I too late for dessert? I brought ice cream.”
“Murray and I thought we weren’t going to see you tonight.” Her voice was pitched and sounded giddy.
“I saw your light.”
Murray hunkered down on the threshold in the archway between the living room and the kitchen, ears back, scowling, his tail going.
“You’re all threats, Mister.” Joe teased the cat as he scooped ice cream into coffee mugs. “I dare you to do something about it.”
“Let’s eat at the table.” Lorelei worried about Murray hiding under the couch. “At least he’s not hissing.”
Joe told her all about the crew club meeting. Someone had spray-painted the boathouse.
“Apparently it’s not graffiti. Now it’s called Street Art.” He laughed. “Some of it is quite beautiful.”
“Remember in tenth grade when we painted the Civil Rights mural on the new gym wall?”
“Remember the senior trip to Mexico?” Joe wagged his eyebrows up and down.
“Let’s not go there.” It was the one time they’d made out and groped each other a little after they played Quarters for shots of tequila. She got up to rinse their mugs. “Let’s walk. I’d like to see it.”
“The Street Art.”
On the riverfront, Joe shined a flashlight, illuminating a painting of three women, larger-than-life, with over-exaggerated fleshy parts squishing out of red, white, and blue vintage swimsuits. The women lounged by a pool. They held up fancy martini glasses that were as wide as their heads. Cocktail stirrers in the shape of thin pink penises protruded out of the glasses. Gold fireworks exploded on the black sky background.
“Whoa, weird.” Lorelei stepped back to try to understand it better.
“It’s wild, isn’t it? It has this three-dimensional look,” said Joe, standing up close, gesturing at the picture with the weakening beam. “Inviting. Couldn’t you could step right into the party.”
She shook her head. The light on the painting made the women look clownish. The river chilled and dampened the air. She wanted to go home.
“I’m kind of freezing all of a sudden.”
Joe turned to her and shined the flashlight on her midriff, forming a circle of dull luminescence that enveloped them both. “Lori,” he said. “Can’t I kiss you?”
“Next time,” she said playing along.
“No, now.” He stepped closer and paused.
The kiss was warm, just long enough to show them both that now could be the right time.
She caught his free hand. “Come on, let’s go back.”
They’d left the lights on in the kitchen. Murray stretched horizontally on the linoleum floor just inside the door. He had not assumed his usual seal-flop position. Lorelei said his name, but his tail remained still.
“Jesus Christ, Joe, I think he’s dead.” Her fingers on one hand covered her mouth. She pressed the other to her chest.
Joe squatted and placed a flat hand on the cat’s torso. “He’s warm still. But I think you’re right. I don’t feel any up and down.”
“Okay, that’s it.” Lorelei sank into a kitchen chair. “This is my last pet.”
Joe petted the cat’s smooth back as if the cat were alive. She thought of the dandruff Murray had when she had first brought him home. The kitchen clock ticked.
The phone rang over in Joe’s house. She glanced at the clock. It was after eleven.
He stood. “I have to run over and grab that call.” He pumped his hands up and down as if to calm her, but she had not shown any agitation. She felt discouraged and cold. “But I’ll be right back,” Joe said. “Really, Lori, I wouldn’t leave you now if it wasn’t important.”
She shut the kitchen door behind him and locked it.
“Odd. Another eleven o’clock call,” she said aloud, but of course, Murray couldn’t hear; he was dead.
She grabbed a bath towel from the dryer in the laundry room, smoothed it flat on the floor, and rolled Murray onto the makeshift shroud. She swaddled him, leaving his head uncovered, and carried all twenty-three pounds of dead weight up the stairs to the guestroom. She set him in the middle of the bed and stood next to him in the dark.
Joe had surprised her, leaving when she had a dead cat on her hands. Now she couldn’t stop herself from peering at his house through the curtains. He stood in the kitchen wearing all of his clothes and seemed to be looking at her house, but he was still on the phone and he appeared to be laughing.
Standing there in the dark, she thought about a night when she was sixteen. First, she heard Joe’s drunken father singing outside. Then, through this same window, she watched him crash into the redwood bird feeder and fall on his back. He stayed in that position, unmoving, for what seemed like forever. Lori’s parents were out, and no one from next-door came to investigate, so she’d gone over to see if he was dead. He wasn’t. He was staring up at the moon, eyes wide, smiling. When she leaned over him, asked if he was okay, he grabbed her wrist and pulled her to the ground. He rolled on top of her. He called her baby girl. She yelled for him to stop. He shushed her. She couldn’t move. Lorelei felt knuckles press into her hipbone. When she heard the clinking sound of his buckle, fear clogged her throat. She could hardly breathe from the man’s weight.
Then Joe appeared. He kicked the side of his dad’s gut and yelled, “Get up you fucking bastard! Jesus! Lorelei!” As soon as she was free, Lorelei ran home and locked all of the doors. She showered and put on fresh pajamas. She sat on the toilet seat in the bathroom until she heard her parents’ car in the driveway then she went to bed. The next morning, when Joe came to walk her to work, he tried to smooth it over. “He doesn’t remember anything, Lori. Not a thing. I’m sure of it. He never remembers.”
She had held up her hand. “Stop! I don’t want to talk about it.”
“What were you doing out there?”
“I said stop it, Joe. You dealt with it. We’re all just fine.”
Though Lorelei did not think of that event very often, she had thought about it last spring, when Joe pulled up the parched cedar ground creeper that had pricked her through her lightweight pajamas that night. He replaced it with waxy-smooth periwinkle that bloomed a deep purple in the summer. The bird feeder out front at Joe’s was new, too.
Now she adjusted the curtain at the guestroom window. She leaned over the bed. “Our time was short and sweet, old guy.” She patted the mass of Murray’s body through the towel. “Great while it lasted.”
She shut the door behind her, closing the dead cat inside. She brushed her teeth, and went to bed. She missed Murray’s weight against her feet.
Twenty-minutes later, the telephone rang. Seven rings. She had expected as much. She turned to face the wall and drew her knees to her chest under the quilts.
Seven more rings. Then, silence. Then, seven rings. Then, silence.
Tomorrow before work, Lorelei would bury Murray next to her three shelter dogs in the back yard. She imagined Joe would see her digging a hole and come to help.
They’d start all over.
They’d start all over.
Jodi Paloni lives and writes in the foothills of southern Vermont. Her stories appear in Green Mountains Review, Carve Magazine, The Atticus Review, Whitefish Review, upstreet, Spartan, and others. She is the 2013 winner of The Short Story America Prize for Short Fiction and placed second in the 2012 Raymond Carver Short Story Contest. Jodi reviews fiction for Contrary Magazine and New Pages. She has an MFA in Writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts.
Read an interview with Jodi here.