The New Generation of Classic Short Stories

Vol. 10, No. 3

Cat Fancy

by Kathryn Harrison

Christmas Eve 1972. An only child, I've lived in Los Angeles with my grandparents since I was born, in 1961. My flighty, teenaged parents lived with them too, for a little while, but they've long since fled. My father left California for parts unknown, and my mother, who took off in the blast aftermath of an explosive fight with my grandmother, lost altitude quickly and landed in an apartment only five or so miles away. At first she kept her address secret, but once my grandmother began paying the rent my mother was forced to reveal the location of her hiding place and even invite my grandparents and me for dinner once or twice a year. It's a tidy little apartment that came prefurnished, which I find curiously discouraging, as I cannot yet put words to the particular sadness a laminate dining set inspires in me. But there's no plastic covering the brown and orange plaid couch, and as both rooms are painted off-white there is no wallpaper hanging in strips. The drapes are not shredded to grass skirts, and during this yuletide season her decorated Christmas tree is not, like ours, on its side in the middle of the living room.
     Our tree is lying on the floor because the cats pull it over, once a day at least, sometimes by climbing it, but more often by pulling on the cord that delivers electricity to the colored bulbs burning among its needles. We have a lot of cats, as many as nineteen one year, but that tally included two litters of kittens. In 1965 my grandmother, whose snobbery takes various and unexpected forms (she knows, for example, the tonnage and stateroom plan of every Cunard and White Star ocean liner), discovered pedigreed Himalayans, and now, seven years later, she breeds and shows them, preserving the papers that document their lineage in the same locked box with her citizenship and her dead parents' passports. In the breeding and showing of cats, as well as other endeavors, I am my grandmother's accomplice and servant. I'm eleven, she's seventy-three; I have quick legs and sharp eyes, she's arthritic and has cataracts; I'm subservient, she's autocratic. And, to be fair, I'm devoted to her and she's sufficiently charming to convince me to do anything, almost.
     My job, this winter morning in Los Angeles, sun streaming through drapes slashed by rappelling kittens, is to—I'm sorry, there isn't a way to put this delicately—remove the tinsel that issues from the tiny, pink, puckered assholes of six white kittens that appear completely untroubled by their plight. Not so my grandmother, given to hysterics.
     "Help!" she cries, "Help! Help! It will cut their intestines to ribbons! Please! I beg of you!" Having chased and corralled them into the very room where the tree lies incumbent, she collapses, breathless, on the frayed chintz sofa. A cloud of dust rises around her little body. Among the tattered presents, whose wrappings and ribbons have been clawed and chewed, one kitten sits swallowing more tinsel. The five others whisk among chair legs and over the coffee table, their manic activity trailed by what looks disconcertingly like the silver streamers that decorated the handlebars of my first bicycle.
     From a distance, the impression given by the excreted "icicles" is that the strands of the stuff are unaffected by their passage through the feline digestive tract. In fact, the tinsel looks the same as it did when hanging from the upright tree: silver and shiny and, well, just as tinselly as tinsel that hasn't been eaten and eliminated. But, worried that a closer inspection might render this opinion false, in a manner on which I'll not elaborate, I uncharacteristically refuse to heed my grandmother's stricken pleas.
     "You know, Nana, I don't think I should."
     "Yes! Yes! Oh, you must! Just pull it very gently, darling, that's all. Oh, I beg of you, please! Anything! I'll give you anything you like, if only you will!" But there's nothing I want enough to perform this service.
     "I think we should just let it... um, you know, just come out on its own. Otherwise it could hurt them. If I pulled."
     "But it's hurting them now!" my grandmother wails, genuinely prostrated on the couch, a gnarled hand over her rheumatic heart. "It could kill them!"
     "It doesn't look like it hurts. They're acting pretty much like they always do." Climbing the drapes and swinging from their slack cords, sharpening their needlelike claws on the prone tree's trunk, continuing to strip wrapping from the presents, batting loose ornaments across the rug: only their icicle-trimmed derrieres distinguish them from the kittens they were the day before.
     My grandmother struggles into a sitting position to consider the litter gamboling about the rumpled white sheet used, with questionable effect, to suggest a bank of snow beneath the tree. As she includes her cats in her intense hypochondria, their complaints inspire such anxiety that I am the one who performs household veterinary functions. I preside over the confinements and labors of expectant females, administer oral medications (in liquid or pill form), groom, and trim claws. I can, when necessary, give shots. With respect to medical assessments, I am my grandmother's trusted counsel, second best only to the vet himself. "Well," she says, "if you're sure they're not in pain..."
     Released from a hideously unappetizing chore, I set to work cheerfully on a different and much preferable one: righting the tree and stripping it of whatever tinsel is left.

"I'm going to come back as one of your grandmother's cats," Libby tells me. My mother's first governess and my sometime babysitter, Libby disapproves of pets, especially those, like my grandmother's, whose needs are considered before those of their human housemates. Her studio apartment on La Cienega Boulevard is very clean, and I am not allowed to sit or even lean on the twin bed under its emerald spread.
     She's old, nearly ninety, and frail, and speaks often of death, and of how for the past thirty years my grandmother has "looked out" for her—bought groceries, paid bills, left money on the little folding table where she eats. I know she's joking when she speaks of her plans for reincarnation, but her voice sounds somehow serious, as if she means it.
     Practically speaking, Libby cannot babysit—she can hardly walk—and when I am left with her I wonder what I should do were she to die while I am in her care. "Do you have any relatives?" I ask her once, diplomatically eschewing the phrase "next of kin."
     "A nephew, in the old country." The old country is Russia, the nephew therefore of limited use. In my family of displaced Europeans, only my grandfather uses the words "Soviet Union," as the rest of us serve the quaint conceit that the nineteenth-century monarchies persist. I decide that I'll call the police, if I have to.
     "Off," she says of her bed, to which I am drawn as it is forbidden, and also because the lustrous, quilted fabric of her bedspread mystifies and tempts me for its lack of cat hair. "Don't stand there," she says, looking fastidiously at my navy wool blazer. It doesn't take young eyes to see that the application of yards of masking tape has not removed all the long white hairs from my school uniform.
     Cat hair has infiltrated our entire house; such volumes of it are washed and dried along with the laundry that when I get out of the shower and cover myself with a fresh towel, cat hair sticks to my damp skin. The explanation for my generally good humor about such blights is best evoked by the old maxim "If you can't beat them, join them" and my understanding that beating the cats is no more possible than triumphing over my grandmother herself.

My grandmother and her fellow cat fanciers have organized themselves into a club of women in and around Los Angeles who breed and show Himalayans, a hybrid of the Persian's squat body and long coat and the Siamese's markings. The tacit agenda of these meetings is to gossip about other breeders, some of whom go so far in their pursuit of the perfect feline as to euthanize substandard kittens in their freezers, an idea I find so shocking that I avoid opening the door to our own innocent appliance, seeing the white vapor within as small ghostly animals sitting among the frozen peas and cartons of ice cream.
     The cat club is exclusively female—the husbands, as far as I can tell, either dead or so self-sacrificing as to be dead. My mostly silent grandfather, for example, who hates my grandmother's cats, has built them what my grandmother calls their "garden house"—a concrete foundation beneath a wood frame strung with chicken wire. He outfitted the structure with wide shelves on which the cats can relax while being "aired," offsetting the boredom of a life spent indoors and aiding the growth of their thick coats, the latter a highly theoretical benefit as the balmy Southern Californian weather never approaches anything that might occur in the Himalayas.

For the Santa Monica Cat Show, my grandmother's favorite on the show circuit, her best cat friend, Marjorie, arrives in Los Angeles, staying in a nearby motel that accepts feline guests. A widow whom we call, privately, "Once for Love and Twice for Money"—the compressed matrimonial history she delivers in lieu of more conventional introductions—Marjorie is someone for whom I have affection, a feeling perhaps inspired by her ability to make my family seem, comparatively, less peculiar.
     She carries an undisclosed fortune in a little chamois pouch hung between her hanging breasts, which she clothes not in a brassiere but in one of her departed husbands' undershirts, and shows off the pouch each time she visits. Despite her abbreviated, unsentimental recitation of the gentlemen who have widowed her, Marjorie is not without emotions. In fact, she seems to harbor rather too many for my grandfather, whom she calls "Daddy" and whose culinary offerings she praises with moist eyes whenever she comes to dinner.
     "Don't mind me. You all go right ahead," she says, waving her ringed fingers as she chews her favorite dish, my grandfather's bunless hamburgers, or as my grandmother calls them, "bullets." Marjorie looks longingly at the bottle of Heinz ketchup my grandmother has placed on the table as a test, considering this condiment to represent the worst of American culture. A saving sixth sense prevents Marjorie from reaching for it.
     My grandparents, each a survivor of the Darwinian scarcity of boarding school repasts, learned long ago—he in a previous century—to eat quickly so as to secure the rare second helping. Marjorie, however, eats very slowly. She has false teeth that require periodic manipulation under cover of napkins, and is infamous for having once removed the sets entirely, uppers and lowers, to rinse in a water glass at the table, a performance I am waiting fervently for her to repeat, knowing as I do that this would require her to "take leave of her senses"—my grandmother's explanation for the previous, egregious lapse in etiquette. To be truthful, it is only my hope for madness and disgrace that sustains me through the everlasting dinners with Marjorie.
     The bullets, of course, don't help. For an hour or more we sit waiting for dessert in the fiercely uncomfortable wrought-iron chairs grouped around our glass-topped kitchen table, sighing, fidgeting, but never, alas, excusing ourselves. Whenever I slouch, a lumpen iron rosette in the back of my chair digs into the tender place between my shoulder blades, teaching me the value of good posture.
     Surprising, given her delectation in the overcooked bullets, that Marjorie's one culinary recommendation, which she shares with us one evening—providing anecdotal fodder for years to come—is the economy of hanging Baggies of raw ground beef from her fruit trees, where they frighten off birds that might otherwise destroy her crop of cherries even as the meat warms in the sun, approaching by dinnertime something akin, she says, to steak tartare. Like the unexpected revelation of her two sets of teeth sunk in their red plastic gums, the idea is grotesque and yet it fascinates me.
     My mother, who usually stops in a few times a week but makes herself scarce during show weekends, refers to Marjorie and my grandmother's other cat friends as "freaks," a fair judgment and yet one at which I take umbrage, in that it seems to imply that I, so thoroughly under my grandmother's sway, am at the least a latent misfit.

Why do I like cat shows? Do I like cat shows? I never ask myself the question, nor do I bother to consider if I like the cats themselves. Neither is in any way avoidable, my preferences in these and other areas entirely beside the point.
     Typically the shows take place in fairground halls or armories, cavernous rooms whose atmospheres slowly fill with cigarette smoke and dander and the smells of used cat litter, scorching coffee, and disinfectant. We wake at 6:00 a.m. in order to arrive by 8:00 a.m. to register our animals and queue up before the veterinarian's table for the required examinations; as soon as we find the cages we've been assigned, my grandmother sends me to find coffee for us both.
     Perhaps as an attempt to increase their potential to deliver amusement, cat shows are themed. They are Hawaiian, or they are Haunted Mansion, or, worst of all, Vaudevillian. My grandmother, however, does not stoop to "piffle," "twaddle," or "meaningless frivolity," so once I am revivified by the coffee, I dress her cats' cages as always, disguising their bars with specially tailored blue and mauve satin draperies, a fringed cover above, and a square of carpet below. If there is any irony in the pristine preservation of these satin curtains, dry-cleaned after each use, in contrast to those in the windows of our home, it is something I see only years later, with that clarity famous to hindsight.
     Into the blue cage goes the Blue Point Himalayan, whose ears, nose, paws, and tail are a frosty gray-blue color; and into the mauve cage goes the Lilac Point, whose analogous parts are a warmer color, not lilac in my estimation, but what in the world of show cats makes sense? Each cat has its own miniature brass bed on which to recline and, to guard the privacy of feline elimination, a litter box screen made of cardboard covered with flowered contact paper. As my grandmother will attest, not gratefully, the cats love these screens I made; they love them too much. Once transferred from carrier to cage they leave their brass beds empty, preferring to crouch in the litter, hidden from the eyes of potential admirers.
     As far as I can tell, cat people are divided into flagrantly homosexual men, and women who are either very fat or very thin. Even though, at eleven, I do not understand what fundamentally distinguishes gay men from straight, I recognize the men at the shows as those whose interest in women is friendly rather than romantic, men who are neither husbands nor fathers and who incline toward ascots, waistcoats, and other foppish attire that my grandmother ranks as "swish," "beaucoup swish," or "de trop swish." Too, they are given to make remarks that are—sorry, no other word suffices—catty. The thin women, like my grandmother and Marjorie, have fat cats. Fat women, many of a girth that drives my grandmother to a fever pitch she experiences only in their company, have emaciated Siamese or Cornish Rex that they drape over their massive shoulders or around the creased corpulence of their sweating necks. The sight of their huge buttocks quivering under yards of fabric excites my grandmother to flights of mathematics she can't summon for any other cause. "Ten! No, fifteen!" she cries, helpless to stop herself or even to lower her voice adequately. "I tell you, I could get fifteen pairs of trousers from just one of hers!"
     Such calculations whet her appetite, but as there is no restaurant within walking distance, nor time to drive to one between judging events, we're forced to either go hungry or eat terrible food from the venue's concession: withered hot dogs turning on grease-slicked rollers; flabby, limp-bunned burgers; doughnuts with jelly bleeding through their sugared sides. "I suppose I'll just have to perish of indigestion," my grandmother says at every show. "We really ought to have brought a picnic." But we never do, for which I'm grateful, as it is my general purpose to remain as anonymous as possible—quixotic, given whom I am with—and my family's picnics involve a level of paraphernalia that raises them from meal to performance. Many of the exhibitors avoid all but the scorched coffee and chain smoke with whichever shaking, nicotine-stained hand isn't holding a cat. At night, when we come home, our hair, clothes, and animals all reek of cigarettes. We let the cats out of their carriers, and they immediately streak upstairs to hide under the beds.

Eleven is too old for a babysitter; I tell my grandmother, but she disagrees, leaving me with Libby on long summer afternoons when she is at cat club meetings, my grandfather out visiting his family from a previous marriage. Whenever I see Libby she takes me on the bus to the La Brea Tar Pits in Hancock Park, which I find a melancholy pilgrimage. The pits are always the same, black and oozing, with gas bubbles that rise so slowly we stand at the chain-link fence surrounding the lake of tar and use Libby's wristwatch to time how long it takes one to burst. This is our only amusement.
     The pits have a sinister, acrid smell, conjuring disabled automobiles and stranded travelers, and Libby always makes me read the signs aloud to her, even though she knows what they say about the animals that died there during the Ice Age, and how Native Americans used tar to waterproof their canoes. The family tree of ancient mammals hangs before our eyes, illustrations of mastodons and sloths and other ungainly creatures that look as though they would have been crushed by the weight of their own lumbering disappointment no matter what they stepped into. I suppose Libby, who feels she is shirking her babysitting obligations if we don't go outside, might take me to a different park; but suffering the assumption that Libby doesn't know how to get to anyplace except the tar pits and lacking confidence in my own ability to navigate what strikes me as Los Angeles's occult bus system, I never suggest another destination.

"Libby says she's coming back as one of your cats," I tell my grandmother, when she picks me up from what turns out to be the last time I see Libby in her apartment.
     "Libby doesn't like cats," my grandmother says, almost pityingly, as if this represents further proof of Libby's impoverishment.
     "But she's worried that she hasn't been wicked enough to be demoted."
     "What piffle!"

Apparently the nephew in the old country has money, enough to have Libby installed in a nursing home, a move my grandmother had considered financing but found prohibitively expensive. "How odd," my grandmother says upon learning of her friend's change in circumstances. "I thought no one there had money."
     When we visit Libby in her little linoleum-floored room, she herself tells my grandmother that she's coming back as a cat. For a long time my grandmother doesn't answer her but sits silently by the chrome rails of her bed, looking out the window.
     "What kind?" she finally asks.
     At this I begin laughing; I can't say why—at least not while we're in the room with Libby. "Because," I answer my grandmother. "Because."
     In the car I explain. "It sounded as if you'd only take her if she came back as a purebred, a cat with a pedigree."
     "Don't be ridiculous," my grandmother says.
     "Why ask, then?"
     "I was curious, that's all."
     "No, you were—you were being a, a--"
     "A what?"
     "A snob. A cat snob."
     My grandmother begins to cry, on purpose I suspect. "How can you? How can you say such beastly, cruel things to me? To me, who took you in?"
     The fact that she did, as she says, take me in—relieving my mother of a responsibility she was inclined to shirk—is my grandmother's trump card, and she always plays it.
     "Throw me out!" I sometimes reply. "If that's how you feel about it." We both know it's a hollow threat.

No kitten arrives to either demonstrate or disprove Libby's promise of reincarnation, as her death follows my grandmother's retirement from breeding cats. I, however, torment my grandmother by encouraging strays—surreptitiously leaving dry food on the patio—and naming each of them "Libby." When I bring one into the house she catches it and puts it out.

I am thirty when my grandmother dies, having long since finished feeding, clothing, housing, and educating me at an expense not defrayed by either of my parents, one estranged, the other long dead. I throw out all the show ribbons and trophies she has kept, and I discard the remains of the cats that won them, all the little engraved urns from Cal-Pet Crematory that line her mantelpiece, as well as their archived pedigrees. Though I know it is a betrayal, intending the betrayal, I give the last of her surviving cats to a relative stranger—a nurse who made home visits to care for my grandmother toward the end of her life, who admired the ice-eyed animal and was thrilled to receive her.
     I, continuing in a grief marked by defiance, attempt to inoculate myself from becoming the freak my mother had seemed to predict by declaring myself a Dog Person—an identity that is theoretical, untested until the middle of our three children turns seven and we get him a dog. Then it becomes a conceit.
     "You just can't pick when love strikes," a veterinarian says to me, articulating an excuse that proves useful. She's referring to the animal on the examination table between us, an unfortunate combination of beagle (loud) and terrier (determined). As I'm not looking for ways to justify owning a dog, I apply her words to our cat. I didn't mean to. In fact, I meant not to. It was during a dinner party; I'd had a glass of wine, my defenses were down when we heard an animal crying outside. My husband went to investigate.
     "It's a kitten," he said.
     "Ohhh," said a dinner guest, trailing off in a sigh of sympathy.
     "If we take it in, that's it," I warned my husband. "We'll never get rid of it."
     "Why not?" He looked puzzled.
     "Because." Because I'd missed them? Because the idea of taking her in conjured my dead grandmother, my peculiar childhood? It was no more a happy time than she was an easy woman, and yet I missed them both. I said nothing except, "Because." So much of what we know arrives after the fact.
     My husband shrugged off the protest. Who could sit down to a dinner of scampi while a starveling begged piteously at the door? He retrieved the kitten, a scrap of a tabby weighing less than a pound, and the sympathetic guest donated one of her prawns, holding it out to the animal.
     "No, wait." I took it from her to wash off the garlic and mince it into a saucer's worth of morsels. Though I intended to remain aloof, unaffected, I couldn't take my eyes off the kitten and found myself wishing the guests would hurry up and go home. Then I could abandon my duties as hostess and immerse myself in what appeared, unexpectedly, a greater pleasure than human company. I watched as the kitten washed herself after eating—face, whiskers, paws—grooming all she could reach, and felt a kind of... what? Well-being, I suppose. If not security, then something close to that. Under what circumstances, however dire, would a cat forgo the rituals of washing?
     We carried dessert to the living room and the kitten followed, purring. Another thing I'd forgotten: the seduction of that noise reserved for happiness, contentment. I put down my coffee cup to examine her, looking in her ears and eyes, opening her mouth with my finger, running my hand along her spine. "Mites," I said of her infested ears, feeling the purr vibrate to the end of her tail. "I'll have to get some ear drops."
     "Did you have some kind of veterinary training?" one of our guests asked.
     "No. Why?"
     "Just the way you're handling it," she said. "Practiced."
     "Yes," I said. "We—I—my grandmother and I—we had a lot of cats when I was a child."
     I set the kitten on the floor and she regarded me coolly, eye to eye. I'd tried to love the dog, but who would have thought she'd be so predictably doggy? So ingratiating, so slavish in devotion? Considering the kitten, no longer purring, not two months old and already fully enigmatic, self-contained, discriminating in displays of affection, I found myself wondering if the dog didn't remind me of my child self: too eager to please. The dog had come from a shelter: did this explain why she seemed, each and every day, so grateful to have been taken in?
     As for the kitten, clearly she didn't consider herself the recipient of charity. In the midst of the dinner party she walked slowly among guests and furnishings, not so much taken in as deciding whether or not to stay. At this writing, she's eleven years old, asleep on the red velvet tuffet in my study. When she walked in, my feet were propped on it. She sat, silent, waiting, until I moved them.

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