Cat With a Young Woman
by Bill Prindle
Part 1 appears
in this issue.
Finding a man she liked was not at the top of Junie’s to-do list. She wanted fulfilling work, a pleasant place to live, some new friends, and when she’d saved enough money, she thought it would be exciting to travel to Europe because she’d never been out of the country.
But she knew in her heart that some day, she’d like to have children. She’d been raised in a happy family and had taken care of her two younger siblings, so being a mom appealed to her. Although her best friend back in Vermont had decided to have a child without getting married, Junie couldn’t imagine herself doing that.
After a few more disappointing dates — none of them as dramatic as the one with Bob but Fred had accurately predicted how each guy would fall short — she wondered why she couldn’t attract a nice, interesting guy whom she liked and who liked her. Maybe he’d have fun hobby like sailing or kayaking or cooking, something they could do together.
When she’d voiced her hopes to one of her friends at work, the woman said, “Look here, dearie, you’re talking about having a gay friend. There aren’t any straight men like that anymore. At least not any who can cook.”
One evening, while sharing a meatball and spaghetti dinner with Fred, Junie confessed her disappointment. “You’ve warned me about every guy who’s come through my door, and you’ve been right each time,” she said. “Now I want you to do the same thing for me — and I promise I won’t get mad or be hurt. Tell me what’s wrong with me. What’s missing? What do I need to do to attract a man who’ll like me?”
Fred nibbled ruminatively on a slice of meatball.
“Nothing,” he said and continued eating.
“Come on, Fred, I’m counting on you. What do you see when you look at me?”
Fred blinked his eyes lazily and looked up at her. “Here’s what I see. You dress good, you’re pretty, and you’re smart as a whip, which probably scares off half the jerks out there. I see a sweet, small-town kid, a little naive and corny, which I like even though I’m a cynical SOB.
“I see someone who is open and trusting, which is actually good, but some guys might think they can take advantage of you. But, hon, I wouldn’t change a thing. You’re perfect just the way you are. Of course, that’s just one cat’s opinion.”
“That’s the nicest thing anyone has ever said to me. Honestly.” She reached across the table and held his paw.
“So now,” he said, “I have a question for you. Maybe we can narrow things down if you tell me the kind of man you want to meet. Kinda hard to hit the target if you don’t know what to aim at.”
“Wow, I’d never given it much thought, not that way,” she said. “I always hoped it would just magically happen.”
“Sometimes the magic needs a little help. Close your eyes and describe Prince Chow Mein. Pretend I’m not here.”
“Sense of humor is important,” she said. “Not a guy who tells jokes all the time but someone who can see the humor in situations. A person who’s easy to talk to and listens, and when he talks, he’s not trying to one-up you but has something interesting to add. A thoughtful person but not too introspective. He doesn’t have to have a lot of muscles, but a guy who makes me feel safe would be nice, someone I know I can count on. A guy who might like to work on a puzzle on a rainy Sunday afternoon.”
As she was speaking, a tear escaped from her closed eyes, dampening her dark eyelashes and glistening on her cheeks. “Someone like you, Fred.”
“You left out getting married and having kids,” he said.
“Yeah,” she snuffled.
“So it really can’t be someone like me, then,” he said.
She reached over and scratched the top of his head, and he collapsed in a warm heap against her leg.
“I wish you were one of those fairytale cats I could kiss and turn into a handsome prince.”
“You’re thinking of a frog, hon,” he said, “but I have an idea. Meeting the right guy is a numbers game.”
He told her to pick up a couple of items at the nearby pet supply store and sketched out a plan for the coming weekend.
* * *
Saturday morning, Junie knelt down and slipped Fred’s front legs through a dark leather halter and attached it to a matching leash.
“It’s hand-rubbed English leather,” she said. She could tell from the way he was tensing up that he hated it.
“Mmm,” he said.
“Are you sure you want to do this?” she asked.
“For you, yes,” he said. “Anyone else, no.”
It was a sunny autumn day, crisp and just breezy enough to put a bite in the air. Half of the leaves still clung to the trees, and the rest danced and skittered down the sidewalks. Junie and Fred left her apartment and walked toward a small park in Brookline surrounded by well-kept, brick apartment buildings. Handholding couples walked by with no destination other than being together. College students were throwing Frisbees, and mothers watched their kids play in the leaves.
“Fred, are you going to be okay if a kid tries to pet you?” she said in a hushed voice.
“No problemo,” he said. “I’ve got the easy part. You have to engage, but remember: easy does it. This is only a compatibility reconnaissance.”
A pretty girl walking a large cat on a leash did attract a fair amount of attention. Some of the dogs out for their walks strained against their leashes, choking themselves in fury at seeing a cat out and about.
“I’m starting to enjoy this,” Fred said over his shoulder. Junie shushed him.
Old ladies approached them, and Fred received their tentative pats with equanimity. A few children stared at Fred but were reluctant to come any closer. A homeless man shuffled up to them and got down on his knees to talk to Fred. He told Junie how he’d once had a cat just like hers, but it ran away.
“Just as well,” the man said. “Didn’t have no name so I called him Cat. He was better at living on the streets than I was. I was holdin’ him back.”
As they continued their walk toward another park, Junie asked Fred if he knew the ragged man.
“Yeah,” he said. “He and I teamed up for a while, begging, but there wasn’t much I could do to help him. The shelters wouldn’t let me in, so I took off.”
“I’m sorry, Fred.”
“That you’ve had such a hard life.”
“But now I’m here with you, having all this fun.”
“Come on, I know you hate being on a leash. You want to go home?”
He said they weren’t going home until she’d met at least five guys.
From ten until four, they walked around Brookline, took a coffee break at an outdoor café, wandered through a pet-friendly bookstore, and crisscrossed bustling Coolidge Corner. They met a lot of curious young women, college students, and elderly, but the three promising young men were with their girl friends.
When they returned home, Junie rubbed her aching feet, but Fred was undaunted.
“Tomorrow,” he said, “Boston Common, the Public Garden, up and down Newbury Street and Comm Ave if we have to.”
“I’m not sure this is going to work. I mean, what am I supposed to say? ‘Hi, I’m out walking my cat. You want to have a drink with me?’”
“No, Junie, you ask them if they have a pet and maybe follow it up with, ‘Are you from around here?’ and they’ll say yes or no, and you say you’ve just moved to town and you’re getting to know it and do they know some good places to go and so on. It’s not that hard.”
“Maybe not for you, but I am way out of my comfort zone doing this.”
“You ain’t the only one.”
* * *
It was another perfect New England fall day, and the streets and parks were filled with people. Fred thought Newbury Street looked promising, so they started up the north side.
After going three blocks, Junie met two guys who chatted with her, and one of them asked if she’d like to go to an animation festival with him next weekend. She said maybe and gave him her email address.
She bent over Fred and whispered, “It’s working! What’d you think of him?”
Two blocks later, a guy came jogging up behind them.
“Are you a cat walker?” he asked.
“Well, yes,” she said, “I’m walking my cat.”
He said his name was Joe but that everyone called him “Dub.” He asked Junie her name and if it were okay to pet her cat. She said it was and hoped Fred wouldn’t react badly.
Dub spoke to Fred for a moment, and then ran his hand along Fred’s spine. Fred arched his back and turned around in a tight circle, coming back for another stroke. Dub asked her where she got the cat.
“He’s a rescue,” she said. “But, like they say, he rescued me.”
“Hey, I’m filling in for a friend — it’s the luxury pet store back there — Happy Tails — and I have to get back, so why don’t you come in. Maybe Fred will find something he likes.”
They accompanied Dub back to the store, which was stocked with expensive toys, leashes, beds, snacks, chewables, and frozen treats. Fred poked at a cat activity center — “Loads O’Fun!” — and a Turbo Scratcher, while Dub and Junie engaged in precisely the kind of chat she and Fred had rehearsed. Dub was an artist, a painter and, to make money, he painted house interiors and just about anything else.
“Frescoes, strié, dry brushing, faux marbling, portraits, landscapes, nudes — you name it, I can paint it.”
A couple of customers came in, but he told them he was closing. He asked Junie if she’d like to have a drink with him and she accepted. Fred appeared from the back of the shop, holding a bright yellow banana-shaped toy in his mouth.
“I see you’ve selected our Atomic Banana, Fred. Filled with organic artisanal catnip, grown in Colorado. Potent stuff. Consider it a gift for your patience.” He eased the toy from between Fred’s teeth, placed it in a small shopping bag, and handed it to Junie.
When she returned to her apartment that night, Junie asked Fred what he thought of Dub.
“What do you think of him?” Fred replied.
“I think I’d like to see him again.”
“Well, there you go,” Fred said. “You mind getting that banana thing for me?”
* * *
Over the next two months, Junie saw a lot of Dub, going to galleries and movies and dinner with him. One night after she returned from a movie, Junie called Fred over to the couch.
“Fred, will you be okay if I ask Dub to spend the night?”
“Why wouldn’t I be?”
“I don’t know. It’s just that you and I are so close. I don’t want you to feel you’re being displaced or anything.”
“You mean will I be jealous?”
“Well, will you? Because you shouldn’t. How I feel about Dub doesn’t change how I feel about you.”
“Don’t worry about me, hon.”
But after Dub had spent a few Saturday nights and Sunday mornings at Junie’s, she noticed a change in Fred’s behavior. Of course, he didn’t talk when Dub was around and acted like the cat he was, but after Dub left, Fred kept on acting like a cat with little to say. Junie asked Fred if he were feeling all right, and Fred would say something like “Never better.” She was unconvinced. She took Fred to a vet who pronounced him perfectly healthy.
A few days later, while she was trying to distract herself with a book, she couldn’t stand Fred’s silence any longer. He was curled up on her feet.
“Fred, it’s been five months now and we hardly talk anymore. I know it’s because of my relationship with Dub. I don’t know if you’re mad at me or at Dub — who really likes you, by the way — but I thought we were best friends, and it doesn’t feel like it anymore.” She rubbed some tears away with the back of her hand. “I’m in love with Dub, but I love you.”
Fred crawled into her lap. “Let’s do a puzzle together,” he said. “That new one Dub gave you.”
It was an easy puzzle, only five hundred pieces, a Renoir painting entitled “Woman With A Cat.” The image was of a young woman with rosy cheeks, holding a small, disgruntled-looking tiger cat against her chest. By bedtime, they had completed about two-thirds of the puzzle.
* * *
The next day, when Junie left for work, she opened the kitchen window a crack as usual so Fred could climb down the fire escape and roam the alleys around the apartment building. When she returned home, Fred wasn’t there to greet her. She called out the window and waited, but no Fred appeared. She walked around the building, calling his name, her concern mounting.
Finally she phoned Dub to ask for his help searching the neighborhood. He brought two flashlights, and they scoured the surrounding streets, alleys, and doorways until after midnight, but they only succeeded in attracting the police, who thought they were burglars.
Fred did not return.
After a week, Junie went into mourning. Dub provided what comfort he could, but she seemed inconsolable. She went through the motions at work, came home, had a sandwich or a bowl of soup, and walked around the neighborhood, hoping to catch sight of Fred. Afterward, she would lie on the couch, reading, and then pull a throw over herself and would sometimes cry herself to sleep. On weekends, she called the shelters and nearby vets, inquiring after Fred, but no one had seen him.
* * *
Three weeks after Fred’s disappearance, Dub came by, made a pot of coffee and cooked an omelette aux fines herbes, which Junie nibbled at. She thanked him and apologized for her lack of appetite.
“You want to finish the puzzle?” he asked. Junie hadn’t touched the “Woman With A Cat” puzzle since the night she and Fred had worked on it. When she didn’t reply, he moved his chair over to the card table and began moving pieces around.
She stood behind him and rested her hands on his shoulders. He was very good at puzzling. “No fair,” she said. “You’ve got too good an eye.”
She wanted to tell Dub how she and Fred used to work on puzzles together but felt it would betray Fred to reveal his secrets.
She sat across from Dub, and together they fit the remaining pieces together, working towards the woman’s hands holding the cat.
Junie snapped the last remaining piece into place, but a piece was missing: the cat’s face. They looked for it — in between the couch cushions, under the furniture — where they found a piece of the Mont Blanc puzzle — and even under the rug. But it was nowhere to be found.
“Maybe he took it!” she exclaimed. “As a way of saying he’ll be back.”
Dub started to say something but didn’t.
“Or it’s a defective puzzle,” she said, looking crestfallen. “Fred wasn’t that sentimental. I guess he thought he’d done his job and moved on.”
“What job was that?” Dub asked.
“Helping me find you,” she said.
* * *
Six months later, Junie moved to Dub’s loft. When she’d put away her clothes and belongings, Dub handed her a glass of wine and directed her to an easel holding a large painting hidden behind a drop cloth. He let the cloth fall to the floor to reveal a portrait of Fred and Junie, expertly rendered in the style of the Renoir painting in the puzzle, but with a major difference.
Fred was quite large, occupying the place of the young woman in the original, and cradled in his paws was a cat-sized Junie, whom Fred was regarding with affection. Affixed to the bottom of the ornate, gilded frame was a brass plate with the inscription “Cat With a Young Woman.”
“It’s purr-fect,” said Junie.
Copyright © 2016 by Bill Prindle