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By Arthur Carey
Bill Hampton rolled over and focused blurry eyes on the clock beside the bed. 4:42 a.m. He groaned. What had…There…He heard it again—a scratching sound followed by a muted cry...“Fire! Fire!”
“What?” Still foggy from sleep, he rolled out of bed and stumbled to the bedroom door. He had stayed up late doing the laundry and ironing, stricken by conscience and a lack of clean shirts.
As he opened the door, a bitter, scorching smell hit him. Something was burning!
“Quick, Lame O! There’s a fire!”
He looked around to see who had spoken. There was only an agitated cat. It ran toward the hallway leading to the laundry area and cried loudly.
The smell assailed his nostrils again. Ironing! Hampton dashed to the laundry. The iron sat on a smoldering shirt. He lifted the iron by the handle and jerked the cord from the electrical outlet. He used the hot iron to push a blackened pile of cloth into a washbasin and turned on the water. Fumes rose. Disaster averted, he set the iron upright and looked around. The cat was gone.
He found it in the kitchen, waiting impatiently by an empty food dish, its tail sweeping a half-moon pattern on the floor.
“Fluffy! I suppose you think you deserve a reward for waking me?” he said.
“Yes, great provider, the cat that saved your house from burning down would like a reward. Hey! How about a whole can of food? Do we have any more of the seafood classic?”
Hampton straightened in shock and gaped “You’re–”
“—talking?” said the cat. “Like I had a choice with my home about to go up in flames. And don’t call me Fluffy. I hate that name. Ellen gave it to me when I was a kitten. Do I look like a kitten now?”
They both fell silent at the name of Hampton’s wife, who had died several months before in an auto accident.
“Ellen always gave me a full can of food,” the cat complained. “She wasn’t chintzy like some two-legs I could mention.”
Hampton opened a small can of food and put it in a dish. The whole can. The cat began to eat noisily. When the dish was almost empty, the cat stopped and burped. It looked at Hampton.
As usual, he wondered if the animal was thinking cat thoughts or just bored and enjoying a full stomach.
“Tell you what,” his pet said, “just call me Cat. Anything is better than Fluffy.”
Hampton’s eyes widened. His jaw dropped. The cat was speaking—again!
“Besides you owe me one,” it said.
“Owe you one!” he retorted. “You’re a rescue animal, plucked off the street where you faced a brief, hungry life. I got you out of a wire cage at the animal shelter.”
“Okay, okay, you get points for that,” the cat conceded, “even though it was your wife who picked me out. And I’ll give you a pass on the fire thing” The cat yawned. “Woke me up, too. Sleep is important to cats, you know?” The cat looked away for a moment as if deciding what to say. “No, I mean you owe me one because the fire forced me to speak. Thing is, cats only get to do it once in their lives, and I had to waste my opportunity playing fire guard.”
“Well…” Hampton began and stopped in mid-sentence. Was he really holding a conversation with a cat?
For a moment, he flashed forward and saw himself on late night TV, sitting across from Jimmy Fallon, holding the cat on his lap, smiling and saying, “Yes, Jimmy, training felines is never easy, but—”
“Don’t get your hopes up. This conversation will not be repeated,” the cat said. “It’s a one-fer.”
The cat rolled its eyes. “You’ve heard of two-fers, haven’t you? Getting two of something for the price of one? The second one is free?”
“This is a one-fer. Cats can only talk once in their lifetimes. That’s the rule. Don’t ask me why. It’s one and done, like losing and being eliminated in the NCAA basketball tournament. You do watch basketball don’t you?”
The shock wore off and irritation took its place. “Of course I watch basketball. And what’s with the ‘lame o” and ‘great provider’? Hampton snapped. “That’s insulting.”
“My bad,” apologized the cat. “That was stress talking. Sorry, but you need to remember to turn off the iron. If the house burns down, you get to live in a nice hotel spending the insurance money. Me? I’m back in prison camp with dogs barking all night long.” The cat flicked its tail. “And who’s going to take a middle-aged, nondescript male cat home when all those cute kittens are sucking up to visitors? Nobody, that’s who.”
“Uh…I suppose so,” Hampton said.
The cat shrugged, skin rippling back and forth along a shoulder. “Ellen... She was okay, that lady. Knew how to treat a feline friend. Lots of lap time and brushing. Always used the soft bristles on the brush and not the pokey metal thingies. Never forgot to put down a towel for my comfort in that torture box that you use to take me to the vet. I get carsick! And how would you like to be humiliated with a thermometer shoved you know where and then stuck with needles?”
Hampton shook his head. “No sympathy. I belong to an HMO for medical care. There’s no box, but I have to wear a cheesy gown in the E.R. and get stuck with needles, too.”
“Are you smarter than other cats?” he asked, growing more comfortable with the idea of having a conversation with his cat. “Is that why you can talk?”
“Well…I do watch TV a lot and pick up stuff quick,” the cat replied. “You don’t seem to have any friends, so you’re home most nights watching the tube. And when you leave on a business trip you leave the TV turned on so a burglar might think you were still here.” The cat cocked its head. “Do you think that really works? It would have to be a dumb burglar. Next time you’re gone, would you leave the TV tuned to the “Animal Channel” or “National Geographic”? I don’t get a lot out of “Fox News.”
“I have friends,” insisted Hampton. “I just don’t invite people over often.” Why am I defending myself to a cat? This is weird!
The cat nudged the food dish, which was now empty. “All cats understand some things even if they don’t know what the words mean. You can pick up language beyond that if you try. ‘Here…Kitty, Kitty…’ usually means ‘come in’ or ‘it’s feeding time’. ‘Stop!’ means don’t claw something, or kill it, or go out the door, or not to do whatever you’re doing. When you raise your voice, I know that it means ‘Stop Now!’ We get the message most of the time. It’s a survival skill, like pulling in your tail when someone is shutting a door behind you.”
“Yeah, but you knew what the word ‘fire’ meant.”
“I hear it watching local news on TV,” the cat explained. “They’re big on fires. Lots of things burning up. Good visuals. I like the cop shows, too, except for the loud noises when they shoot guns. Maybe I stuck that word ‘fire’ away in my mind as a precaution. Who knows why we do what we do sometimes?”
Hampton’s jaw dropped again. Philosophy? From a cat? It had to be a dream. He’d wake up any minute.
He pulled up a chair. “Why do most cats slink around pretending they don’t understand what people say? Why don’t they talk?”
Cat wrinkled a shoulder. “Most house pets don’t need to recognize more than a few words they hear every day. We’re lazy and spend most of the time sleeping. What’s the upside in talking when you have a good thing going by just shutting up?”
Hampton looked at the clock again. 5:36. He groaned. “Look I’ve got a presentation to make at work in a few hours. I need to catch a little sleep. Let’s save the chit chat for later.”
“You snooze, you lose,” the cat said. “I told you this was a one-fer.”
Hampton winced. “You snooze, you lose?”
“What?” He recognized uncertainty in the cat’s voice. “I heard that on ‘Modern Family’ once. Everybody laughed. It’s funny, isn’t it?”
“Not coming from a cat. It’s also trite. Overdone. Overused. Clichéd.”
“That’s French, I think. It’s…Oh, never mind.”
“It’s not as if I get to hear other languages a lot,” the cat said defensively. “Just you. People don’t come here often to hang out.”
“Maybe it’s the cat hair,” Hampton shot back. “Some people are allergic to it.”
“Hair is a problem,” the cat agreed. “My Mom made me spend a lot of time grooming myself.”
“What did your father teach you?” He was curious. How much of an animal’s behavior is self-learned and how much is passed on through generations? Did lion and tiger cubs learn whatever lions and tigers needed to know the same way domestic kittens do? He knew from watching animal programs on the BBC that females in the wild had to train their young for months if not years in survival techniques. Humans gave their kids smartphones and warned them not to talk to strangers and to call 911 for help.
“What did you learn from your father?” he repeated.
The cat shook its head. “Right… Like that was going to happen. I’m a rescue cat. Only pedigreed cats ever find out who their parents were. Me, I never knew who my father was. Male cats aren’t into parenthood much.”
Hampton weighed his options: Get some sleep or listen to an arrogant animal. But how often did you get to hear a cat talk?”
“Wait,” he said. “I need a glass of milk.” He opened the refrigerator and pulled out a milk carton.
“What about me?” said the cat. “Or are you going to be a poor host as well as a careless homeowner?”
Hampton flinched. “What do you want? Milk, too?”
“What have you got? Any ice cream? You can melt it in that earsplitting cooking thingy. Ellen always did that for me. You two-legs swallow the stuff cold and get less flavor. We lick it. That also avoids tongue freeze. Ever have that? Nasty.”
“I’ll think about it,” Hampton said.
“Ellen wouldn’t have treated me like this,” the cat sniffed.
“Oh, we’re going to play the guilt card now?” laughed Hampton.
“This from an animal that shamelessly played up to her at the animal shelter, whining and licking her hand?”
“We had a mutual attraction,” the cat replied.
“Ha! It was a con job, that’s all.”
“Some people recognize inner beauty,” Cat said in a lofty tone.
“I suppose,” said Hampton. He re-appraised the animal he saw every day. Horizontal black stripes along its back broke up a sea of light-colored hair. Along the legs, black bands alternated with brown, and the only splashes of white were on downward curving whiskers and mouth. It was a cat like many other cats.
Shaking his head, Hampton opened the refrigerator again and reached into the freezer, pulling out a half-eaten dish of strawberry ice cream.
“I was saving that,” he said to underline the sacrifice. He nuked it briefly in the microwave oven and set the dish of melting ice cream on the floor.
“Finally, a thoughtful care provider,” observed the cat.
“Think of it as appreciation.” The cat slurped away, a pink tongue darting in and out while the tail swept back and forth, dislodging dust motes.
Hampton frowned. I’d better sweep again.
He poured some milk in a glass and sat down. No coffee now, he decided, since he’d be drinking lots more later in the day at work. Should he tell his co-workers about snacking with a talking cat? Probably not. They’d think he was off his rocker. They probably thought that anyway. For him, every day was Casual Friday. While the supervisors and engineers did the shirt and tie thing at work, low-level techies like him got away with wearing jeans, sweat shirts, and tennis shoes. Hampton had realized long ago that he wasn’t on the promotion track. He hadn’t even left the starting gate and didn’t care. His boss, an uptight, focused woman who had finished in the top 10 per cent of her graduate school business class at the University of Michigan and made sure everyone knew it, had cornered him one day.
“Don’t you have a suit, Hampton?” she asked in exasperation after a marketing meeting. “Or at least a shirt and tie?”
“I save dressing up for job interviews and funerals,” he replied.
With tight lips, she stalked off. Later, she dinged him on a quarterly assessment for lack of professional behavior; but she also left him alone since his work testing computer program upgrades was done efficiently and on time—usually.
Hampton got up and stretched. He walked over to a window and opened the blinds. A tinge of red leaked above houses beyond his backyard fence. Night had lost its authority. Day had begun to assert itself.
“Do other cats talk?” he said, settling back in the chair. “Not that I’m complaining. I enjoy silence.”
The cat ignored the dig. “Mostly, we don’t talk, except in an unusual situation. First, it’s a pain in the butt to learn more than a few frequently used words. Also, our mouths aren’t shaped like yours. So even cats that can speak a little don’t bother. You wouldn’t have found out I could talk if you hadn’t been dumb and left an iron plugged in that almost burned the house down. Let’s face it. A house cat’s life is usually boring. Sleep… Stretch… Scratch… Eat. It must be exciting to be a lion and chase your dinner."
Hampton stiffened. “The iron was supposed to turn off automatically,” he said. “It malfunctioned.” He grunted. It was disconcerting to be dinged by an animal you opened and closed doors for.
“Right,” the cat said. “A malfunction. Or, was our flirtation with death due to the beer you were drinking last night before you went to bed? I never understood the appeal of that. It must be really tasty because it doesn’t smell good.”
“Be careful,” warned Hampton, “or you’ll be eating dry food for a week.”
The cat rolled over and began licking between its hind legs.
“That’s disgusting,” said Hampton.
“Oh, do you bathe every day? Besides, you still owe me for the fire warning. That’s not part of the pact.”
“Pact?” Hampton’s eyes narrowed. “What pact?”
He smiled. “Do you mean complicated?”
“Yes,” it continued, “an agreement has existed between cats and people ever since we started hanging out with humans.”
“Well, at first it was practical. We kept down the rodent population that was feasting on the grain that you two-legs grew, and you fed us in return.”
“Not so much any more,” Hampton countered, “unless you live on a farm and raise corn or oats or…whatever grain they raise on a farm. Fewer people are farmers today.”
“Well…” The cat conceded the point.
“What do you do for me now?"
The cat considered the question before answering. “I provide satisfaction, affection, and amusement. Also acceptance, stress reduction, and companionship.”
“Hmm…” Hampton murmured. “So would a dog, and they bark and chase away burglars.”
The cat shook its head. “And you don’t have to take me out for walks at night, worry that my barking will bother the neighbors, make pickups in the backyard after I leave unsanitary deposits outside, write big checks at the vet’s, or worry about me getting in fights with other cats.”
“Huh?” said Hampton. “What’s that screeching I hear at night?”
“Well, except during mating season,” the cat corrected itself. “And I’m a bargain to feed. Small appetite. Better eating manners, too.”
“I never had a dog as a kid,” Hampton mused, regret in his voice. “The only reason you’re here is because Ellen had a kitten as a kid. Face it, dogs offer more advantages than cats.”
“Oh?” said the cat.
“You can walk a dog on a leash.”
“Only because cats have more dignity.”
“Dogs provide protection.”
“Cats avoid confrontation in the first place.”
“Dogs are on watch 24-7.”
“Did the house burn down?”
“Dogs are man’s best friends.”
The cat yawned. “If you need a dog as a best friend…Never mind.”
“All right!” Hampton said, growing tired of the tit-for-tat argument. “I’ll concede cats have their uses. Here’s your reward…a new name. If I can’t call you Fluffy, what should I call you?”
“Mafdet,” responded the cat without hesitation.
“There was a cat named Mafdet that was worshipped in the First Dynasty in Egypt. We got lots of respect in those days. Don’t you remember that History Channel show we saw? Oh, wait… You probably dozed off at the end as usual. Anyway, those Egyptian rulers revered cats, not like today.”
The cat wrinkled its nose. “Too much sometimes. Some of the pharaohs had their cats buried with them. Can you imagine?” The cat shivered. “The live burial thing I could do without, prestige or not.” It sighed, which sounded like weak sneezing.
Hampton shook his head. “No way. I’m not going to call you Mafdet. It’s Fluffy or Cat. Take your pick. I’m a creature of habit and convenience—my habit and my convenience.”
“Cat will have to do.” The cat cocked its head. “That’s what I am. Just lose the ‘Fluffy.’”
The first rays of sunlight seeped through a kitchen window. The cat walked over to the door and looked at him patiently. “This is your cue to let me out, remember? I don’t have a convenient disposal device like most two-legs. When I gotta go, I gotta go, and you never look happy cleaning the beach in a box.
“Beach in a box? Hampton said. “Oh, you mean the litter box?”
“Whatever. But please try to clean it more often, okay? When you take off for a few days the stuff starts to clump up.”
”I’ve seen cats on YouTube use toilets,” he needled.
“Did they flush them, too?” the cat fired back? “No? I dig holes and bury the stuff.”
“Oh, all right.” Hampton walked to the glass patio door and opened it. The cat stuck its head out and looked around.
Impatient, Hampton said, “What are you looking for?”
“Predators and other unwelcome visitors. Hawks…No eagles around here… The odd skunk or opossum or even a raccoon… Other cats. I’m not about to get into a turf fight. It’s a jungle out there.”
The cat wrinkled its nose. “Lots of—what’s that you call it…ozone? Looks like rain. I’ll be back soon.”
Cat stepped cautiously outside. “See you later.”
Hampton took a shower, put on fresh jeans, and returned to the kitchen. Cat stood waiting outside the glass patio door on a mat that also served as its outside scratching pad.
“Birds are up,” it said upon re-entering the house. “Noisy start to the day. The squirrel must be sleeping in.” It stretched out on the floor. “Where were we? Oh, you were discussing the advantages of dogs, which I suspect you never had or you wouldn’t be so complimentary.”
Hampton shifted uneasily. His father had vetoed getting a dog because a neighbor had one that barked too often. Instead, Hampton had been given a goldfish in a small bowl. Eventually, the fish had gone belly up and wound up being flushed down the toilet.
“For an animal that’s dependent on people, you can be pretty irritating,” he commented. “I’ve been pretty easy on you. What about the hair on the couch? Rips on the drapes?”
“That was during my kitten days, the drapes,” the cat said, a hint of apology in its voice. “I’m sorry about that. Just testing my claws is all. No more. I love that mat outside the kitchen door. Beats a dumb scratching post for convenience. What do the words say?”
“Wipe Your Paws.”
“Clever. Wish I could read.”
“Uh-huh,” Hampton said. “I didn’t want a cat in the first place. It was my wife. Her choice.”
“Women tend to recognize our value more than men,” responded the cat. “It’s an awareness of subtle qualities— Intelligence, higher standards of behavior, deserved affection, better grooming, improved toiletry. I could go on.”
“Dogs are better companions,” Hampton countered stubbornly. “Some even mourn their owners when they die. Now that’s loyalty.”
“Owners?” Its ears pricked up. “Nobody owns a cat. Try giving one orders some time. Roll over? Fetch? Beg? Dogs want to please humans. Cats tolerate them as a critical link in the food chain. Sorry.”
“You get room and board and health care,” argued Hampton. “What do you do to earn it? Tell me, have you ever caught a mouse?”
The cat shuddered. “Do you realize how unsanitary those things are? Not much meat on the bones, either. Get a mouse trap, Hamp.”
“Don’t call me Hamp,” he growled. “In fact, don’t call me anything.”
The cat yawned. “This has been interesting. Too bad our little talk had to end, but rules are rules. It’s time for my early morning nap. I’ll catch a few Z’s on the living room couch by the window.”
Hampton paused, struck by a thought. “Maybe I should get another cat. A cute little kitten to keep you company. You’d like another cat in the house for companionship, wouldn’t you?”
The cat, tail swishing rapidly back and forth, studied him through slitted eyes and padded away.
Hampton yawned. He changed his mind and made a pot of coffee. The clock read 6:30. Time to get up except he was already up. He poured granola into a bowl, added milk and raisins, and sat down to breakfast. When he finished, the cat had re-entered the kitchen and sat silently, impaling him with an unwavering look.
“I’ve been thinking…”
“Wait a minute!” said Hampton. “Remember the rule? You said cats only got to talk once. You went outside. That ended the conversation. Now you’re talking again.”
The cat rolled its eyes. “Got me there. Yeah, I bent the rule a little. Only time I ever had a conversation with a two-legs. But I see this as an extension of our previous conversation.”
Hampton sneered. That’s thin.”
The cat ignored his words. “Getting a kitten might not work out well. Kittens are a bother—like babies. No sense of sharing. Too much energy. Destructive. More expensive trips to the Pain Factory and shots.” The cat shook its head. “No, I definitely wouldn’t get a kitten.”
Hampton rubbed his chin. “Maybe you’re right. Kittens can be exasperating, especially if they grow up and become difficult pets that think they run the house. I don’t think I could put up with two animals doing that.”
The cat opened its mouth and shut it.
Later that day, Hampton bought a new iron that shut off automatically 15 minutes after use. He made sure it worked. From then on, when he watched “Animal Planet” or a nature show on TV, the cat sometimes curled up on his lap. They watched together. Without speaking.
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