The Mockingbird Hunter.
That a cat would stand in the way of their divorce was unimaginable. Over a dog they might have fought viciously for custody. But over a cat, and this cat specifically? No. Neither of them was taking that goddammed feline, not for any amount of money or stock or property or apology. On these other items they could easily reach agreement, but when it came to the cat they were at an impasse.
Poor Cat, who would never have any name other than Cat, had been unwanted from the beginning. She had appeared on the front porch of their one-bedroom apartment, the first February after they married. They arrived home from work, in the days when they still shared one car, and found Cat, with her mangled ear and bobbed tail, curled up on the green wicker porch chair that her mother had given them when they moved into the apartment. (“Just one chair,” he’d said. “Where the hell does she think the other of us will sit?”)
The porch was more of a landing, large enough for a few chairs, some potted plants, and a Weber grill or two, with doors on each side (one theirs; the other for the apartment next door), and double doors in the middle, leading to the staircase that led to the two upstairs apartments.
There was nothing unusual about finding a cat on that porch. The apartments were in the middle of the city, close to a drainage ditch, across the street from a park (which is why they picked this apartment), and bordered by a wide, gravel alley behind the fence that lined their parking area. In the ditch and the alley there were rats, and since there were rats there were also cats – cats who were not entirely unwelcome, solely because of the rats. That one of these rat-fattened cats might curl up on their porch was more than likely.
The other logical explanation, of course, was the neighbors. They’d lived in the apartment long enough to be friendly enough to know that occasionally one of those neighbors might have decided to put out a can of tuna for those strays that slinked in and out of the drainage ditch at dusk and dawn, just in case there hadn’t been enough rats on that particular cold, dark February night.
Cat’s first appearance was on a Tuesday, they would both remember, always, because Tuesdays back then were their early days, the days they agreed to leave work with enough spare time to go for a walk or cook dinner or do something companionable. On this particular Tuesday they parked the car, wound their way around from the rear of the building to the front, walked up the three front steps to the open porch and found an orange cat comfortably sleeping in the green chair by their front door.
Come Wednesday morning and then again Wednesday night, Cat was still there, still curled up in the same cushionless chair. She stayed until Friday night or Saturday morning (they weren’t sure which), and then, as unexpectedly as she arrived, she was gone. Her owner must have been traveling and come home, they reasoned, or the cat had moved on in search of more warmly responsive humans. They didn’t think much more about it. They had other things to do than worry about a stray cat.
On the first Monday in March, it snowed. The temperature, which the week before had promised an early spring, plunged to single digits and made everything a cold, icy mess, compounded by falling limbs and downed power lines. Resigned to their circumstances (they were still flexible, then), they foraged through the pantry and freezer and made beef stew by candlelight, grateful for the apartment’s ancient gas stove.
They were huddled on the sofa with a tray between them, playing gin rummy by a shrine of flickering candles and drinking a second bottle of wine (the last one in the rack) when they heard scratching on the other side of their front door. Cat had returned, seeking shelter.
“We’re not letting that fucking cat inside,” he said, at about the same time that she said, “I fucking hate cats,” which should have been the end of it right there. But Cat was persistent and relentless, and finally they agreed to put a spare blanket on the porch, outside, on the seat of the wicker chair, so the cat would have a warm place to burrow (and stop that annoying clawing).
The next morning, Tuesday, two weeks after Cat’s first appearance, the day after it snowed, they found a dead mouse lying outside their front door. He was the first to discover the prize, when he was walking out to warm up their car (because he knew she hated the cold). “Your cat left a thank-you gift,” he yelled back through the door to the bathroom, where she was finishing her make-up and thinking about wearing a second pair of tights. “What?” she yelled back, but he was already gone.
The day after that, there were two mice.
No one admitted putting food down for the first time; and no one would ever admit to having done it. But one morning, after many offerings of dead mice, well after the early March snow had melted, a shiny silver metal bowl filled with dry kibble appeared next to the corner of their front doorstep. From that day forward, as long as they lived in that apartment, the bowl would empty and then be refilled as if by magic, sometimes with multicolored, star-shaped pieces, other times with little brown pellets.
It wasn’t long before this became routine, expected even. In between their going to work and coming home each day, the same things would happen almost every day: food in the silver bowl, Cat sleeping in the wicker chair, and, from time to time, trophies from hunting, usually mice though sometimes snakes, always in the exact spot, placed neatly by their monogrammed coir doormat (a wedding present from her uncle in California).
When summer finally settled in, warm and perfumed from the privet hedge that surrounded the drainage ditch, they woke one day to find a handwritten note wedged into the frame of their screen door. “Cocktails on the Porch @7!” it read, and it was signed with great flourish, silver pen on black paper, by John and Jerry, the upstairs neighbors whom they knew barely at all other than to say hello or have a good day. “How can they invite us for cocktails on the porch when they don’t have a porch?” she asked, and then realized it meant their porch, the shared porch, the place they’d come to think of as Cat’s home.
That was a Thursday, and they were usually still working at 7 on Thursdays, because working was mostly what they did then. But they didn’t want to seem rude, so they left early, just this once, came home in time to change clothes, assembled a tray of cheese and crackers, and joined the party at a fashionable 7:15.
John (who, they would learn, was a very popular local decorator) had set up blue and white metal folding chairs, and matching small folding tables, and a silver tray with a pitcher and six martini glasses (though they four would be the only ones to gather that evening). The green wicker chair, they noticed, had been tucked back in the corner and was unoccupied.
Jerry, who wrote television commercials for car dealerships (another of the evening’s discoveries), followed their gaze and said, “I hope you don’t mind that we moved your cat’s chair.”
“It isn’t our cat,” they both said, slightly out of sync, but with conviction.
The long, slow shift began in August when they landed their first big account. Ten days later they got two more. By the 14th of November, while they were eating the freezer-burned top layer of their wedding cake, they decided it was time to buy a house. They were working practically non-stop by then, and the apartment had no room for a home office.
And they had dreams: They would buy a house with an office and a pool and a spare bedroom and some privacy. They would get a dog and a home gym and a built-in icemaker. So they ate cake and drank Champagne and had sex on the old, dirty linoleum floor and started counting down the days to the rest of their lives.
Their dreams did not include Cat.
The moving truck arrived on the 7th of January, two days later than they were expecting it, because there had been a threat of bad weather (which never materialized) and a snafu in the scheduling office, so the day the truck and the movers finally appeared, just after 7:30 in the morning, was a day on which neither of them was able to stay home and supervise. John and Jerry, who had been quick to seize the opportunity of an open downstairs unit, saw this as a way to speed up their own progression. “We’ll take care of everything, don’t you worry; we’ll watch that packing like hawks,” John said, as he walked them to their car and kissed their cheeks in a grand farewell.
That was how Cat, who wasn’t their cat, ended up making the move to their new house. Midafternoon, when the apartment was empty and the last stack of boxes was being carted to the truck, Jerry remembered the wicker chair, still tucked in the corner from the summer cocktail party, guarded by a very watchful Cat.
“We don’t move animals,” one of the movers said, when John said, “Oh, God, don’t forget their cat.” And Jerry said, “It isn’t their cat.” And John said, “Well of course it’s their damned cat.” So John picked up the cat (who protested only mildly) and put her in his car and followed the moving truck to the new house with the pool and the private porch and the uncertain future.
It was almost a full week before they realized Cat had come with them. She had taken her time, apparently, to survey her new surroundings: an enormous yard, a tool shed, a pool deck, an open porch at the front and screened-in porch around the French doors in the back. The previous owners had a small dog, so the porch in the back, screened to keep bugs out, had a small pet door built into one of the lower panels. It also had an outdoor fireplace, which they were planning to enjoy that night, the fifth or sixth night after they moved in, while eating dinner with friends.
He was in the middle of setting up a folding table (they hadn’t yet bought new furniture) when he noticed Cat sleeping on the old wicker chair. “The fucking cat followed us, 30 miles away,” he said as he walked back into the kitchen. They would believe this falsehood for the next two days, until they bumped into Jerry and John at a party and learned how their old neighbors had betrayed them.
Cat settled in more easily than they did. She had a routine (closely matching the old one) within a few days of her reappearance. She still slept in the old familiar chair. She left presents (mostly chipmunks now) by the back door. Every so often she would vanish for a few days, but she always (to their chagrin) came back eventually. Often they would notice small sores on the top of her orange head, but Cat seemed not to mind these small injuries in the least. She ate, she slept, she hunted. For the most part she seemed to ignore them (and they her, in return), whether they were getting along or arguing, which seemed to happen more often now that they had ample space in which to spread out.
What followed that year and the next (and the next) was nothing and everything, a dramatic success in their business and a slow erosion of tender compassion. Many of their disagreements stemmed from ordinary, run-of-the-mill problems that might have come with any family: his evangelical mother; her swashbuckling drunk of a brother. But through this sandy topsoil ran a thin trickle of bitterness, a battle between principles and money.
Just before their fifth anniversary they received an unsolicited bid for their company. The amount of the offer was staggering. One of them wanted to sign before the buyer had second thoughts; the other wanted to seek other suitors, explore what the market might bear. Who was on which side is irrelevant.
They closed the deal three months later, neither of them fully satisfied with the outcome, but both finding solace in an easier lifestyle. He took up fishing; travelled. She took a two-week course at Haystack and stayed three months. He bought land; she bought art. Rumors started.
By the sixth Christmas after they married, hushed conversations followed in their wake. There were lovers, everyone was certain: a barista girlfriend half his age; a silver-haired professor she met at the museum. How long were they going to carry on this way? Who would get the house? They weren’t really suited for one another anyway, were they?
The knock-out punch came the following spring, as he was sorting papers to put through the shredder. He was looking through the file from that first big break, remembering that summer when they were still in the apartment, and a detail caught new attention.
The real customer, the individual, had hidden behind a shell – that much they’d known from the start. The name on the paper rang a bell now. It was something her mother had said at Easter dinner a few weeks earlier about the first time she’d ever bet on a horse. The odds had been high, and her bet was a gamble for independence. If she won, she could move out of her parents’ house. If she lost, she be stuck waiting tables and cleaning toilets until she restored her bank account.
He was trying to remember exactly why she’d told this story. What had prompted that particular revelation? “A woman needs to maintain an upper hand,” she had said, looking straight across the table at her daughter.
The name of their first big customer, the push that had allowed them to grow so quickly, expand and then sell, matched the name of that horse, the long-odds bet from long ago, and then a second bet, from not so long ago at all.
When he confronted her, shaking the paper in her face while he spat words, she denied knowing anything about it. He wanted to believe her, wanted it to be a mere coincidence. But it was clear to him, suddenly, how everything had always tilted just slightly in her favor, all these years. He had thought of her as charmed, a Midas touch in her fingertips. She wasn’t charmed; she was conniving, and he’d caught her.
And that’s why he wasn’t taking the fucking cat, wasn’t doing any more of her bidding.
Unfortunately (though later they had to agree, fortunately), she had no intention of taking the cat, either. Nor would either of them agree to finding a new owner. Euthanasia was entirely out of the question (“don’t be ridiculous”).
Eventually the lawyers had to pack up and move on. They’d salivated over the prospects of a large settlement, only to walk away, slightly stunned. It would become, for a while, a joke passed around during CLEs and bar foundation dinners: did you ask first if there were a cat involved?
One morning in late fall, right before their 13th anniversary, she walked barefoot onto the porch to join him for breakfast. He’d been sitting there quietly (today and several other days, she’d noticed), watching something out in the yard. It was the cat, she realized, lying very still on the warm stone edge of the pool deck.
A flutter of birds circled in the air above. In a flash, one swooped down, cackling, and pecked Cat on the top of the head. Cat didn’t move.
“Is she dead?” she started to ask, but stopped when he raised his finger to his lips. “Watch,” he whispered, “you’ll see.”
Another bird repeated the swooping and pecking, and then a third – or maybe the first again, it was hard to tell. There was a brief silence, a heartbeat, and then the commotion started over. They watched as one of the birds took the now familiar dive, straight down to the motionless cat.
This time there was a loud squawk, followed by the light but distinct thunk of the felled bird.
It was a game for Cat, a game of great patience and reward.
She looked up, bird in mouth, and paused (they would swear) when she saw them watching her. Then she turned, flicked her bobbed tail and headed for the bushes, a victor’s spring in her step.
This post is 9/56 in a self-directed challenge to write (or at least post) something (SOMETHING) every day – a birthday gift to me from me, because writing gives me a place to put the clutter that lives in my head. This particular post is a story that has lived in my drafts folder since 2017 and needed some fresh air to motivate me to keep going.
Love this short story. I can see it as a book- no pressure!
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