"The Cat Came Back" by Joel Yanofsky
About the Brief Encounters series: We asked ten Canadian writers to imagine a vivid meeting or confrontation: A "Brief Encounter" in 600 words or less.
In the final story of the series, an open door leads to a rite of passage for a newly blended family.
The Cat Came Back
by Joel Yanofsky
In retrospect, there were two mistakes. Which, given the circumstances, isn’t bad.
The circumstances, well, they’re complicated. I’m pushing fifty, married for the first time and step-father to twin seven-year-old girls. Therefore, a couple of foul-ups—a moment of distraction, a tactless suggestion—hardly qualify as a big deal.
Still, I admit one mistake may have compounded the other. I’ve been on my own a long time and I’m not always attuned to the needs of other people, let alone their pets. So, yes, I let my new wife’s old cat out in the backyard for what was supposed to be a minute or two. Butch was threatening to cough up another hairball in the kitchen, my temporary writing office, and when I saw him, his body all gag reflex, I thought: not here, not now, not again!
So I let him out the back door: my first mistake.
I’d moved into Katy’s house just a month earlier; even so I should have asked more questions about the cat, the way I had, for instance, about the twins. What does he eat? How do I know if he likes me? Mostly, though, Butch and I, in contrast to the twins and I, had managed to steer clear of each other. Our encounters were brief by—I’m assuming—mutual agreement.
“He’s an 18-year-old Tonkinese house cat. He can’t go anywhere, certainly not outside in February,” Katy explained when she returned home from work and found the cat gone and her daughters crying.
“I thought he could use a break.”
“I was working.” What people don’t understand about writers is that a word like “working” is elastic. In fact, I was taking notes on Charlie Sheen’s latest internet appearance—his rambling dissertation on the new, unconventional family. What I call research.
“What did you tell the girls?” Katy asked. We could hear them in their bedroom, sobbing, not quite in unison.
“They kept asking about Butch so I looked up that song for them, on YouTube, the one by Fred What’s-His-Name—“
“Not ‘The Cat Came Back’?”
That, incidentally, was my second mistake. Butch was not coming back. He was, indeed, a goner.
Still, Katy took charge of our more or less conventional family and we got in the car and drove around the neighborhood for two hours. No promises were made, but Katy reassured the twins that in the morning, while they were in school, she and I would keep looking.
The next morning we found Butch several blocks away, on his side, frozen on a thin layer of ice in one of those backyard decorative ponds people buy at Canadian Tire. He looked surprised, like a figure skater who’d just missed an easy jump.
“We’re taking him to the vet,” Katy said.
Then she wrapped him in a wool blanket she’d brought just in case and got into the backseat of the car. Between giving me directions, Katy spoke soothingly to Butch; her words part eulogy, part apology.
“I know we’ve all been neglecting you lately. But things change. Families change. You deserved better.” Katy was crying, now, and laughing too. “Still I’ve got to say, Butch, I don’t know where you thought you were going.”
As I listened, I considered family life, how it changes, and how no one really expects or wants it to. As Katy went on talking, almost purring, I imagined myself one day on the receiving end of a similarly regretful speech.
The vet offered two options: group or private cremation. Instead, Katy took Butch home to bury him in her—I mean, our—backyard. The twins took the news well. They liked the formality of the occasion, the idea of wearing homemade black veils to the funeral. Before I began to chip away in vain at the frozen ground, Katy asked them if they had something to say. They both glanced at me and, this time, in unison, they began singing “The Cat Came Back.”
Joel Yanofsky is the author of four books. His latest, Bad Animals: A Father's Accidental Education in Autism, won the Mavis Gallant Nonfiction Prize and was shortlisted for the B.C. National Award for Canadian Nonfiction. Bad Animals is out in paperback and in the U.S. from Skyhorse Publishing.