Wednesday, May 29, 2013

"She's very old," Emma said. "And she means everything to me."

I don't know why I didn't piece these two little facts together before Emma left. I guess I was just excited by the prospect of pet-sitting a fluffy little cat, even if it was just for one night. I didn't realize that, at sixteen, Audrey was the feline equivalent of Skeletor, and that if anything happened to her I'd have to find a new apartment to avoid the seething bile of her parent, my neighbor, for the rest of my natural life.

I pet-sit for lots of animals in my building, but prefer cats for one simple reason: they stay in their own home. Their parents don't drop them by my place with tiny luggage, saying, "I'm sure you'll have a lovely time!" They just toss me a copy of their keys and say I should stop by a couple times a day. Leave out some food, remind the cat there are humans around, and let it resume its usual life of sleeping 28 hours a day.

Emma had one further requirement: since the cat was old, it needed to be prodded into both mental and physical activity. Maybe after feeding the cat I could play with it for a few minutes, Emma suggested as she handed over her keys. I focused on the cool facts (she was visiting friends in New Jersey, they were all going mountain biking, she was actually going to take a cab) and ignored the sticklers (Audrey was sixteen, Emma had gotten her as a kitten, in terms of durability Audrey made Austrian porcelain look like Jackie Chan). I was fixated on a night of feline fun when she said she keeps a man's razor in her medicine chest so she won't have to scrape away at her wrists with a Venus razor after little Audrey passes away.

I assured her it'd be no problem, until the door closed behind Emma and I realized it was. Audrey, it seems, is nothing but fur. This is not the body of a healthy cat, I realized as my hands ran over the lightly-covered bones. The evolutionary difference between this thing and an iguana was about thirty pounds of fur. She might look fluffy and soft and pretty, but spritz her with half a teaspoon of water and I'm pretty sure she morphs into a Giacometti with big blue eyes.

As I watched Emma's taxi drive away, it hit me: I was neck-deep in a nightmare. Audrey and I would probably have a nice night -- but what if Audrey died? There was no doubt in my mind that Emma would come after me with a Zippo lighter and napalm. I liked my apartment, but its charms would lessen substantially if my neighbor spent most of her days starting fires on my welcome mat.

Six hours later, when I let myself back in, I spent twenty minutes turning the doorknob. I cracked the door open half an inch. I don't think it's bragging to say I'm exciting enough to give an old cat a heart attack, even without removing my clothes. I did everything in my power to ramp down my natural charisma to the level of a Republican. "Audrey," I said in Jeff Bridges' voice, "I'm somebody really boring who's come to check on you. My pockets are full of mud and silt rather than dead birds or sardines."

She lifted her oversized head off the little cat-bed and gazed blankly at me. So far so good. I walked like Lurch to the refrigerator, suppressing the urge to say, "Where's my little kittie-cat?" or "What did snookie-ookums do today?" Before I pulled out the tub of cat food, I figured I should slowly get the critter up to speed. "Audrey," I said, "food will be appearing shortly. There may be lots of it, and it may be dolloped into a hand-thrown bowl. It might be salmon-flavored and it might actually contain chunks of garden-fresh vegetables." After I said that I felt particularly stupid, because even vegetarians don't have heart attacks at the impending arrival of, say, squash. Audrey shot me a look that confirmed I was somewhere between clog-dancing and frozen taquitos on the Excitement Scale, and I nearly high-fived myself.

Emma had told me to play with Audrey, so I'd bought a toy mouse from the local dollar store. "Audrey," I said as she lapped up dinner, "in a minute I will be bringing out a small toy. I have to warn you: it will look like a mouse. It will look like a mouse because it's a small rubber mouse, but it isn't actually a mouse. There's nothing interesting inside it except a squeaker and the name of a Chinese factory. It doesn't move of its own accord, so at any time -- should you become winded from your primitive 'play' -- you decide to stop, you will know that the mouse will remain exactly where you dropped it. You are under no obligation to kill, maim or otherwise injure this mouse, because it poses no threat to anyone. Okay?"

She looked at me like I was an idiot, which I learned from my last boyfriend means "I am totally fine with that." I extracted the rubber mouse from my pocket and set it in front of Audrey.

She didn't look remotely interested, and I gave myself another gold star. "Let's play fetch," I said in Ben Stein's monotone. "That would be really fun." I picked up the mouse, which I'd put near her right paw, and moved it toward her left paw. I might have seen just a flicker of happiness dart across her face, but it was gone almost before it appeared. In human terms it was roughly equivalent to hearing Al Roker is going to be on David Letterman. If I could have heard her thoughts, it would have been less of a "OHMIGOD IT'S A MOUSE MOUSE MOUSE!!!" and more like, "Oh, like that's one motherfuckin' whee."

Audrey didn't actually touch the mouse, which was fine with me. I mean, at ABC 99 I'd just about peed my pants when I realized it squeaked. She left it up to me to move the mouse around. Sure, maybe it wasn't exactly kitty aerobics, but you have to dampen your expectations when someone or something reaches this kind of age. If you've ever seen a senior dance class they don't exactly smack you in the thighs if you jitterbug too slow.

As her attention faded I sighed with relief, realizing my job was done. As a reward, I lifted Audrey up onto her owner's bed so she could have a restful night. Right before I closed the door I felt the mouse in my pocket, and I thought, "Oh, what the hell." I mean sure, the cat had barely touched it, but even I'm not cheap enough to return something to the dollar store. Before I could stop myself I tossed the mouse onto the floor, and in slow motion I watched Audrey's eyes engage -- first the rheumy yellow, then the glossy white. As I closed the door I heard what sounded like a porcelain tea service meeting its demise, and I made a mental note to stock up on welcome mats.

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