Sofia's Cat

Joseph was all alone. His wife of 50 years passed on, slipping away as if she were just going down the street to the butcher. The day she died Joseph found $23 in her apron pocket. After he closed her eyes, he called for an ambulance.

While he waited, he looked though her pocketbook and found $11. Joseph quickly put all the money under his underwear in the highboy. He went to the couch, knelt before his wife and draped his upper body over hers. She had always had a sweet smell of raisins in her hair and skin.

As Joseph placed his face into the crook of her neck, he was startled to discover that she still smelled of raisins. The reality that Sophia was so close to being alive caused him to let out a high-pitched erratic moan that sounded like a man falling off a mountain. His scream was undulating as it rode on the currents of the wind.

It was three days before Joseph realized he hadn't fed Puccini. "At last," he said to the cat, "now I can get rid of you." He'd always disliked the animal, with his hair all over, and the box outside the bathroom door.

Joseph could still see Sophia night after night in the wing char, Puccini cream-colored and fluffy. Sophia would stroke him and talk to him in her small voice. Puccini had so deeply ripped the arm of that chair that a piece of its wooden frame stuck out. Even though Sophia stuffed the hole with cotton and covered it with an old piece of tapestry, Joseph could still see the wood and its torn layers of cotton.

He had shouted to Sophia, "Get rid of that cat!" Sophia turned to get the china from the closet, and in a voice as flat as the cloth she said, "It's just a chair, just a thing, Joseph. What are you going to do, take it with you?"

At first he was amused that the cat never jumped up on his lap. In the evening when Joseph watched the news, the cat stood against the kitchen door, waiting for his dinner. He sat with his front paws together, his eyes on Joseph, never blinking, all stiff like a cast-iron doorstop. Joseph thought Puccini took on this pose to imitate and taunt him, the way a child makes fun of someone's limp.

Gradually Joseph would lift his body from the chair, his joints stiff from arthritis. He would then open a can of food and tell the cat news of poor people out in the cold, old people like himself, being mugged and robbed. And finally placing the dish on the floor, he'd threaten the cat and say, "I'm going to have to get a good watchdog."

When his daughter visited, she said, "Dad, you've got to get rid of Mom's things. Give them to the Salvation Army." Joseph looked at her and said, "The only thing I want to get rid of is that cat."

Sitting at the edge of his bed, Joseph thought his daughter was invading his privacy as she rummaged through the drawers. As he waited for her to leave, he realized he really didn't want Puccini to go, too.

Joseph felt uneasy, as though he held some secret, a secret only the cat knew. He fingered the lipstick he carried in his vest pocket. Sophia had once put her lips to it, and soon he would press it against his own lips, to taste her, to get a sense of her, and yet he knew that once he rubbed it across his mouth he would take the very life from it, the very thing he savored.

Next to the wing chair Joseph kept a tin box filled with photographs. He would listen to Mozart and look at the pictures. At first he'd shake from the tears that came so easily, but then, as he went deeper into memories, he would feel a sense of peace. Memories became alive, more alive than the lipstick in his pocket.

In on photograph his arm was around Sophia. Her arms were folded and she looked away from him. In the background was the Bridge of Sighs. The photograph was from their only trip to Europe. Sophia had loved Venice and begged him to stay.

"Just two days," she said. They were scheduled for one day in Venice; one of them had to think about saving money.

He remembered that air of sacrifice about her, always giving in without a fight. He remembered that look as the water taxi left the Grand Canal; her eyes were fixed on the lions of Venice. Joseph had said out loud in Italian, to be sure the driver understood, "My wife is like a spoiled child."

Now as he looked at the photograph, the guild swelled inside him. He cried himself to sleep that night, asking Sophia for forgiveness, wanting to believe that somehow she could hear him.

It became more and more curious that the cat wouldn't come to him. When Joseph tapped his hand on his thigh as Sophia had, the cat just stared ahead. Sometimes in the middle of the night, when Joseph woke to use the bathroom, Puccini would be at the foot of his bed. The cat would jump from the bed and stand with his eyelids half open, blinking, waiting at the opposite end of the room.

Soon, Joseph found himself prolonging his need to urinate in the middle of the night. He would lie still, feeling his overgrown toenails scratching against the flannel sheet, annoying him the way the oak tree whose branch scratched up against the bedroom window annoyed him. In his old mind he was confused and sometimes thought they were the same, and the next morning he'd forget to cut his toenails. He'd lie still, listening and becoming part of the rhythmic rumbling of Puccini's purr.

Gradually Joseph tried to get closer to Puccini. When he fed him, he'd hold the dish in his hand, hoping to get close enough to pet him. But Puccini, patient and stubborn, stood at a distance. Once Joseph lost his temper and threw the dish down, spilling some of the food on the floor. Puccini ate only the food in the dish. The next morning when Joseph got down on his knees to clean the floor, he saw the cat at the end of the foyer, sitting stiff and watching him - like a soldier on duty.

Another time Joseph crawled under the table to tighten the loose phonograph plug. It was the first time he was so close to the cat. He could almost feel the air move around the cat's twitching whiskers. Suddenly Puccini began to rub up against Joseph's body, purring. When Joseph tried to pet him, he stopped and backed away.

Preparing for winter seemed more and more like a conscious effort of survival. Joseph moved about the apartment slowly, listening to La Boheme, checking the valves on the radiators and the locks on the windows. Puccini was at his heels watching Joseph's slippers flop up and down. Joseph stocked up on cans of soup and powdered milk. He bought cat food and extra bags of kitty litter. On the news he saw lines of old people waiting outside a mobile treatment center for flu shots. "Like sheep," he told Puccini, shaking his head, "they do whatever they're told to do."

When he began to sneeze, he told Puccini that he must be allergic to cat hairs. He began to cough. He was chilled on minute, sweating the next. At night he dreamed of Sophia and would awake to find the sheets soaked with perspiration.

One such night he opened the bedroom window allowing the night air to fill the room. As he lay still, hearing people talking around his bed, someone remarked that the colors of the afghan were too loud. His eyes popped open on the word loud. In the bathroom light his skin was the color of a day-old clam. He crept back to his bed, knowing he wasn't himself and was unable to do anything about it.

The morning brought a strange gray light and the knowledge that something had changed. At first Joseph thought it was because snow was approaching. He sipped a glass of orange juice and realized he was feeling better.

From the kitchen he heard Puccini crying and when he went into his bedroom, he realized the cries were coming from outside his window. He looked out and saw that Puccini was perched on the thick branch of the oak tree. His fluffy coat looked oily and flattened; his eyes were opened wide, and his ears went back like a dog's. The only part of him that moved was his little mouth.

Joseph leaned out the window, trying to persuade the cat to come back in the house. He thought of shaking the branch to make him move forward, but was afraid to take a chance. He spoke to Puccini, "If you managed to get out there, you can manage to come back in." Joseph held Puccini's dish of food out in the cold air, his arm strangely suspended. He called the fire department and said that his wife's cat was stuck up a tree. The firefighter told him they didn't rescue cats from trees, that they eventually come down, and then - as if to prove himself right - the man asked Joseph if he ever saw the skeleton of a cat up a tree.

When Joseph returned to the window, Puccini was gone. He sat by the window, waiting and watching the snow. Before going to bed, he removed the center leaf of the kitchen table and extended the board out onto the branch of the tree, the other end resting on the edge of the windowsill.

Now there was no music or purring in his ears, only silence, a silence that seemed so long and loud that Joseph could hear his own eardrums flutter. He opened the night table drawer and removed Sophia's hairbrush. Her long white hairs still twirled around the bristles. He moved the brush along his cheekbones and touched the hairs with is fingertips. He brought it to his nose and tried to smell the raisins. "God help me," he cried, "now they're both gone," and strangely, he began to think that maybe some of Puccini's hairs were mingled with Sophia's.

He was almost asleep when he heard the scratching. In his old mind, he though it was the branch, but then he remembered.

Puccini peered at Joseph through the closed window. Joseph slid the window up slowly. The cat was wet and his back legs were slipping on the wet board. Each time Joseph went to grab him he slipped further back. He knew what to do; Joseph walked away from the open window to the far side of the room. Puccini, still wide-eyed, stood on all fours, and then he suddenly leaped from the window to the floor, then onto Joseph's bed. Joseph quickly pulled the board in and closed the window. "So you've returned. You've returned," he said as he watched Puccini twist his head around to wash the snow from his back.

In no time the cat was asleep. Joseph knew that in the morning there would be a large wet stain at the foot of the bed and that it would take days to dry. The cat was already purring. Joseph sighed deeply, frail and thin, his whole body quivering like a newborn who had found its mother's breast.