WHAT THE CAT DRAGGED IN
I have a cat.
His name is Mr. Zuckerman.
But I really freakin’ hate cats.
So it’s funny that I would come to have a cat at all. Well…not exactly funny. Not like ‘ha-ha’ funny. More like ‘sardonic twist-of-fate’ funny. Or ‘horribly macabre, Twilight Zone, how the hell could this have happened’ funny. Which really isn’t very funny at all.
Nonetheless, I have a cat. A black and white, medium-sized, common house cat. Who turned out to be not so common after all.
You see, the aforementioned Mr. Zuckerman originally belonged to my girlfriend, Carmen. My fiancee, actually. She was a nutritionist and fitness instructor at a local health club called Flex Appeal. She was pretty much a health nut, so you can imagine how unexpected and ironic it was that someone like that could be taken away in the prime of life by cholesterol.
She was run over by a doughnut truck. Sorry. Dark humor keeps me from going insane.
Anyway, I was a little less than enthusiastic when I became the owner of a cat. (The term ‘owner’ may be a bit of an overstatement when it comes to felines. Perhaps 'roommate' would be better. Or 'obedient servant'.) You need to know that I have a rather sketchy history when it comes to pets. When I was a kid, I had a goldfish. For about two weeks. And then he went belly-up in his tank one morning. I cried and cried, so my parents bought me some ice cream and got me another goldfish. This one lived long enough for me to become bored with feeding him and changing his water. I secretly prayed that he would just die so I could get some more ice cream. And before very long, of course, my prayers were answered. Goldfish are not particularly hearty creatures. It’s a wonder they survive the car ride home from the pet store. Anyway, long story short, by the time I was in the third grade, I was only getting them for the ice cream.
I guess the point I’m trying to make is that, given my prior experience with pets, I wasn’t thrilled about coming into possession of Mr. Zuckerman. Especially since the only purpose he seemed to serve was to remind me on a daily basis of the tragic loss of my girlfriend. Deep down, I suppose I resented him even being there. And I think he knew it. But, being the dutiful bereaved, I kept him around and fed him and occasionally acknowledged his presence by kicking him off of the couch or letting him out at night.
This went on for a number of weeks, while I slowly adapted to the loneliness of my new life. I cried a lot during that period. Not just for my own personal loss, but also for the realization that without my lovely Carmen, I didn’t have much else in the world that gave me any pleasure. I had no interests, no hobbies. I didn’t have any friends, either. What passed for ‘friends’, in actuality, were merely acquaintances. Like my neighbors. Or co-workers.
I was never what you would call 'the life of the party'. I'm not very good at connecting, I guess. With animals or people. My focus had always been on my work and my career. I’m a claims investigator for an insurance company. I travel around and examine the cases that people file for grievous loss or injury. Whenever something really, really awful happens in somebody’s life, I get sent out to take a good hard look at it. Sort of misery voyeur, if you will.
I’ve investigated car crashes and vandalisms. Burglaries and beatings. I’ve seen family homes burned to the ground. Or carried away by tornadoes. I’ve seen severed arms, severed legs, even a severed head. (That’s pretty much the ‘Holy Grail’ for investigators. You’re not really ‘in’ until you’ve seen your first severed head.) I’ve seen the dozens of ways in which the human body can bleed, break, fracture, rupture or fail. I’ve seen bodies that were opened up and their contents poured out like the purse of a woman who’s frantic to find her Prozac.
The point is, it’s not a job for the sentimental or the soft-hearted. You can’t be ‘affected’ too easily or it would be all but impossible to do the job. Especially since my ultimate responsibility is to poke and prod my way through all of this suffering, to stick my hands in the warm guts of other people’s tragedies and write it up in a report for the corporate vultures whose job it is to figure out how not pay these people what they owe them.
Again, it’s not a job for the squeamish.
But it’s the perfect job for someone like me. Someone who doesn’t empathize too readily. Someone whose emotions are a little more, shall we say, remote. Someone dispassionate, as Carmen used to say. I sometimes think that may have been girl-speak for heartless bastard, but I never quite knew for sure.
So that was my life; eight hours a day of soaking up other people’s sorrows, then home to an empty house where I could spend the evenings mired in my own. Big fun.
It was at this point that the cat started getting weird.
I guess Mr. Zuckerman had finally come to the realization that Carmen was never coming home again, so he had better do something to ingratiate himself with his new owner, Mr. Emotionally Unavailable.
See, cats have this thing they do. They like to give their masters little presents. I’m told it’s a sign of respect. Some kind of bonding ritual. They go get something that they think you’d like and bring it home to you. I’m sure it’s a wonderful gesture and all, but what they usually bring you is something quite disgusting.
In the case of Mr. Zuckerman, it turned out to be the mangled body of a little gray mouse. I remember the first time it happened was on a Thursday, about six-thirty in the morning. I had just woken up and stepped outside to get the newspaper. And that’s when I found my dear Mr. Zuckerman waiting for me on the front step, his teeth clamped tightly on a lifeless little mouse-gift. He took a couple of steps forward and gingerly set the present down at my feet.
“Ugh,” I said. I grabbed my paper and went back inside. I think I may have even slammed the door.
I didn’t really think about it again until the next morning when, once again, Mr. Zuckerman had either found me another mouse or brought the same one back around for reconsideration. This time, I picked up the matted corpse by its tail and carried it over to the trash bin can near my garage. The body was cold and hard. I dropped it inside the container and closed the lid. Taking no further notice of Mr. Zuckerman, I retrieved my paper and went back in the house.
The following day, I actually felt a little anxiety as I went to my front door, certain that I would once again find my cat with something unpleasant. And sure enough, there he was with another mouse. Apparently, I had not been showing the proper amount of appreciation for these fine offerings, so on this day Mr. Zuckerman took it upon himself to run into the living room with his prize as soon as the door opened. I tried to stop him with my foot but he slipped past me.
Once inside, he sat down on his haunches in the middle of the living room and waited for me to come and get my present. I reached down and pulled the thing from his mouth. However, it turned out that this mouse wasn’t actually dead yet and it bit me. I dropped it in shock and pain and the disgusting little rodent scurried under the couch.
“Dammit!” I shouted, shaking my finger and checking to see if I was bleeding. Zuckerman just sat on the carpet, his head cocked slightly to the left. He looked at me as if he was confused. He had gone to all the trouble of bringing me a nice, juicy mouse and acted like I didn’t want it. What the hell is wrong with you? - seemed to be his attitude.
I spent the next forty-five minutes shoving a broom handle under the couch, trying to get the mouse to make a run for the open door. When it finally did, Mr. Zuckerman just watched passively as it escaped, apparently still baffled by my ingratitude.
“If you’re trying to get on my good side,” I said to him, “You’re going to have bring me something better than that!”
Mr. Zuckerman merely cocked his head to one side again and stared at me. A few minutes later, he meowed to be let outside and I didn’t see him again for the rest of the weekend.
Monday morning arrived and I was running late, so I didn’t get a chance to get the paper. I just got dressed and hurried out the door, Pop-Tart in hand.
I was horrified to find the unflappable Mr. Zuckerman waiting patiently for me with a rat. A huge fucking rat. The biggest goddamn rat I ever saw. It was easily half the size of Mr. Zuckerman himself. And I hate rats. Even more than I hate cats. I literally leaped to one side to avoid this abomination as the front door slammed shut behind me and I ran to my car.
I fired up the Crown Vic and backed out of the driveway. Then I stopped and rolled down the window. Shouting at my cat from the street, I said, “Bigger is not necessarily better! If you want to be my friend, bring me something good!”
Mr. Zuckerman let the rat fall from his mouth and gazed at me, almost dejectedly. ‘Something GOOD,’ I reiterated at the top of my lungs and raced off. From inside the safety of my car, I shivered. I really fuckin’ hate rats. But then, who doesn’t?
Well, Carmen didn’t, I guess. She could never hate anything, come to think of it. She could see the beauty in just about anything. Or in anyone. It was like the whole world was a little bit of Eden and the rest of us simply couldn’t see it. Carmen's funky paradise. I always wished I could be more like that.
But back to the story.
That evening, I returned to a ratless driveway and a solemn-looking feline. I let him in with me, but I was in no mood to forgive and forget. When he tried to sit on my lap as I watched The Death of Western Civilization, I pushed him away. (By the way, The Death of Western Civilization is not a TV show, that’s just my term for all television programming.) Mr. Zuckerman needed to learn that you don’t just give someone a dead rat and expect them to get over it any time soon. Plus, I couldn’t help thinking about all the lice and fleas that a rat might carry. Mr. Zucker-dude would not be getting on my lap for quite a while.
So he just sat on the floor all evening, resigned to his shunning. Careful not make eye contact, we ignored each other until about ten o’clock when he asked to be let out. I’m sorry. He demanded to be let out. He is a cat, after all.
The following morning, I looked out the front window before daring to leave the house, not wanting to take the chance that some even more repulsive critter-gift might be awaiting me. This time, however, what I saw was possibly more surprising than the rat had been.
Mr. Zuckerman was sitting triumphantly in front of the house with a brightly- colored candy bar in his mouth. It had the yellow and red wrapper of a Mr. Goodbar. I opened the door and bent down warily to verify what I was seeing and, by god, that’s exactly what it was. A Mr. Goodbar. I laughed. It was something ‘good’. Just like I’d asked for.
I patted Mr. Zuckerman on the head and took the candy from him. “Thanks, Zuckerman,” I laughed. “GOOD job. Get it? I like this present. Bring me more good stuff.”
He simply tilted his head to the left and stared. I got in my car and drove away, careful to wait until I was out of sight of the house before throwing the Mr. Goodbar out the window. After all, who knows where it might have come from? But it still beat the hell out of another mangled, bleeding rodent.
I thought that the cat and I had begun to turn a corner. That maybe he was starting to understand the difference between a good gift and a bad one.
Such was not the case, I’m afraid, because the very next morning I was greeted by the sight of my wanna-be bestie sitting happily on the driveway in the middle of a big, black car tire. This new present had only one large, legible word stamped into it.
Something ‘good’. I guess...
I sighed. Perhaps we were not making progress as quickly as I had imagined. I didn’t even try to figure out where he might have found the tire or how on earth he managed to drag it to my house. I simply picked up my newspaper went inside.
I stared out the window at my freaky feline. He just looked so damned proud of himself. Give the gift that says ‘I love you’, I thought to myself. Give the gift of vulcanized rubber.
I wondered if it was possible for a cat to suffer from dementia.
Over the next several days, my little buddy brought me a lot more ‘good’ stuff. One day, it was a Mr. Goodwrench decal. The next it was a Good Charlotte CD. Then he brought me a Dwight Gooden baseball card. Rookie year, actually. Semi-valuable. In the middle of the evening on a Tuesday, he presented me with a season two compilation VHS tape of the 70’s comedy series ‘Good Times’. I’m guessing he had to time-travel to find that one.
There was a bunch of other stuff as well, but I don’t remember it all. Maybe I have blocked it because, frankly, the whole thing was starting to creep me out a little.
That weekend, I was feeling particularly depressed because on Friday, my job had taken me to the home of a couple who had lost everything they had in a flood. They were very glum about it. The wife was especially sad. Glum and glummer, I suppose. And I didn’t blame them. Especially since I knew that their claim would be rejected on the basis that the flood had been caused by levy break during a tornado and they only had flood insurance, not tornado insurance. Of course, if they had actually had tornado insurance, the company would have rejected the claim because the damage was due to a flood. Let me say this again, the insurance game is not for the soft-hearted, kiddies.
Anyway, some of their glumness had rubbed off on me and so I spent most Saturday afternoon just laying on the couch watching the television. I’m not sure if it was even on, I was just watching it. Anyway, Zucker-bro came up to me, cautiously, and acted like he wanted to get up on the couch, too. I was ready for some company, so I let him lay on my stomach and he actually began to purr. I couldn’t remember him ever purring before. At least, not since Carmen had died.
It was nice. Really.
After a while, I addressed him in a semi-affectionate tone. “You’re not so bad, Zuckerman. Just kind of weird.”
He cocked his head to the left and stared at me. But he didn’t say anything. Thank god.
“Tell you what,” I continued. “Forget about bringing me anything ‘good’. Why don’t you just bring me some money instead. I need to quit my job. It’s too depressing.”
Mr. Zuckerman still had his head tilted, like he wasn’t quite getting it, so I pulled some coins out of my pocket and held them out for him to inspect. “See? Money. I need more money.”
He sniffed the coins and then jumped down and ran to the door. I figured, ‘What the hell? It’s about time we became a two-income household again,’ and let him out.
Within an hour, he returned with a wet quarter in his mouth. I laughed and said, “Okay, okay. You’re on the right track. But I need a lot more than that. I need lots of money.”
That evening he brought me a roll of quarters. They looked like they had just come freshly-rolled from a bank. It made me a little nervous. I looked to see if anyone was following him, but no, he was alone. My little 'cat-burglar'.
I really started thinking about it now. Clearly, there was a communication problem here, but maybe I could make this situation work for me. I just had to figure out how.
I sat down on the floor next to Mr. Zuckerman and took out my wallet. Pulling out a crisp one-hundred dollar bill, I waved it in front of him. “This,” I said dramatically, “This is what I want. Get me all of these you can find.”
The cat sniffed the bill and responded with a loud, “Meow,” and immediately left for the evening. I looked out the window for him every now and then, but I didn’t see him again until daylight.
At seven a.m., he was waiting for me on the sidewalk surrounded by several items. A book. A Ken Burns DVD. A box of Revolutionary War action figures and an ad for wire-rimmed glasses. And they all had one thing in common.
On each, was a picture of Ben Franklin.
I shook my head and let out a long breath. “What we have here...” I said in my best southern drawl, “...is, failure to communicate.”
Mr. Zuckerman simply tipped his head to the left and stared at me. I returned his gaze for a few seconds and then, out of sheer frustration, I shook my head and muttered the words, “Lord, help me.”
About an hour later, he brought me a Bible.
On top of all of this, I was having a bad time at my job. I saw a six-year old who had lost his leg in a farming accident, an old woman dying of emphysema and a Shelby Mustang totalled in a crash. That last one really got to me. And the toughest part was that I no longer had anyone to talk to about this kind of stuff. I once tried calling Carmen’s parents, just to see how they were coping with their own grief, but that went nowhere fast. After a few minutes, I realized that, outside of their daughter, the Geddit family and I had very little in common. We promised to get together sometime for dinner, but I knew it would never happen.
And so I filed my reports, returned angry phone calls from people whose claims had been rejected and went out on assignments to inspect other people’s catastrophes, as I continued to wallow in my own. I just felt adrift most of the time. The pointlessness and the tedium were beginning to wear on me.
One night, after days of receiving more religious offerings from Mr. Zuckerman, like crucifixes, communion wafers, a Seventh Day Adventist pamphlet, a bumper sticker that said ‘Jesus loves you. But everyone else thinks you’re an asshole’ and - I swear to god - a full-sized pipe organ, I finally sat down and had a long talk with him.
“Look,” I said, “I don’t know how much of this you understand. Hell, I don’t even know how much of it I understand, but you obviously have some very strange and unusual abilities. Somewhere in that twisted little brain of yours is at least a glimmer of comprehension, so let me try to make this as clear as I can. If you really want to be my friend, if you really want to impress me with something, here’s what you need to do. Go get me something really valuable. Something extremely rare and exotic. Something that would be worth a small fortune. Hell, make it a huge fortune. Bring me a treasure! So I can quit my miserable job and do something else with my life. If you can do that, I’ll be your best buddy forever.”
Zuckerman stared. I had no idea what (if anything) he was thinking.
“Can you do that for me?” I asked. “Please tell me you can do that for me.”
He slowly rolled his head to the left. There was something of a twinkle in his eye, but I couldn’t quite get a bead on it. What the hell was going on in there? Was he getting any of this? Or was I simply losing my mind? Which one of us is really the one who’s crazy?
“Meow,” was all he had to say. It was a less than comforting response, but it was all I was likely to get, so I let him out.
He was gone for days. I was beginning to think he wasn’t ever coming back or that something might have happened to him, but then the gifts started to appear again. Mr. Zuckerman wasn’t even sticking around to gauge my reactions anymore; he would just drop stuff off and go out for more. Sometimes he would be gone for a weeks at a time. Things would show up at all hours of the day and night. Whether I was home or not. Strange things. Marvelous things. Some I recognized and some I didn’t. Some I didn’t dare think about too much.
There was the silver chalice. The glass eye. The Gutenberg bible. He brought me a cloth bag full of Phoenician coins, a Rare Earth LP, a Arabian zither, a square bowling ball, a Honus Wagner baseball card and a full-sized wood carving of a Tesla. (Designed for Amish drivers, I’m guessing.)
I received a human tooth with a gold filling, a vial of crack and a dying axolotl. A Byzantine suit of armor, a piece of the True Cross, a set of marked playing cards and a map of Munich with all of the Weinersnitchel restaurants high-lighted.
Much of this stuff I had no idea what to do with, so I just started throwing away anything that either had no value or would be hard to explain to the authorities. My garbagemen began to look at me strangely.
Over the weeks and months, it continued. A plastic baggie filled with oxycontin tablets, a small bar of platinum, an Escher drawing, two letters from the HOLLYWOOD sign, a coelacanth, a canister with the last remaining strain of the 1917 influenza virus and actress Mila Kunich. (I let her go right away, but she was really pissed.)
I came home one evening to find two men with a rendering truck loading a large, bloody carcass in my driveway onto a hydraulic palette. I didn’t even stop to find out what the hell it was. It may have been an actual white elephant. But I just kept on driving until I came to a diner and enjoyed a nice supper until I thought it was safe to go back to my house.
Then there came a solid gold kazoo, Hunter Biden’s laptop, a severed head (oh, please, not another one), a bottle of Johnnie Walker Gold Label Scotch, the brain of a Rhesus monkey in formaldehyde, a guitar once owned by Tommy Bolin, a six-pack of beer, four ounces of kyawthuite, Marilyn Monroe’s sex tape, two jeweled bongs and a goddam partridge in a pear tree.
I also received the deed to a small, private island just off the coast of Senegal.
This had to stop. It was getting crazy. No, it was already crazy. I was losing sleep. I was missing work. My house and garage were filled to the rafters with bizarre crap from around the world. People in the neighborhood had begun to avoid me. Community leaders were circulating petitions to have me evicted. The garbagemen had stopped coming to my house altogether.
Then one night, after I had gotten up to use the bathroom, I glanced out the front door and spied Mr. Zuckerman dragging something up to the front step. I opened the door and hissed, “Zuckerman! Get in here.” My excitement at his return soon turned to horror as I realized what he had in his mouth. It was the limp and lifeless body of one of those little Keebler elves. Not the main guy, thank goodness, just one of the bakers. Closing the door behind him, I set out a bowl of Meow Mix and some fresh water. While he ate, I went out in the back yard and quietly buried the little elf under my lemon tree.
When I came back in, Mr. Zuckerman was still at his bowl, so I stretched out on the floor beside him and began to stroke his back as he ate. He looked a little gaunt, as though he hadn’t been getting enough nourishment. He arched his back against my hand when I petted him.
Poor thing. He was working so hard to please me. To make me like him. But it was time to put this perverse episode to an end.
I waited until he was done eating and then I carried him over to the couch. I let him sit on my lap and he purred gently. “That’s a good boy,” I said, scratching his head. He was the very picture of serenity.
“Okay,” I said. “Enough with the gifts already. You can stop bringing me stuff. I don’t want you to get me anything else. Okay? I’m sorry I made you do that.” Mr. Zuckerman meowed softly and let his chin rest on my leg. “I can see now that all you wanted was a little affection. That’s all any of us want, I guess. It was hard for me to understand. I’ve just been kind of a cold fish my whole life.”
I could feel tears begin to well up at the corners of my eyes. “So, I’m apologizing, alright? I want you to be me friend. I want to have someone I can talk to and...and to take care of. I’ve just been so lonely without Carmen. I’ve kept my emotions bottled up for so long.”
I was in full crying mode now.
“I guess I just never really knew how important she was. She was always so loving and caring towards me and I was such an ass not to see it. Not to return it. I’d do anything to have another chance. To show her how much I really loved her. I’m not sure if I can ever be happy without her.”
I put my head in my hands and began to sob aloud. “God, Zuckerman, I just want my girlfriend back!”
And with that, Mr. Zuckerman meowed loudly and bounded for the door.
I sat up straight. Like a bolt of lightning had been shot through my body.
“NO!” I screamed at him, suddenly terrified at what I had done. I leapt off the couch and scooped him up. “No, no, no, no,” I repeated. “Don’t even think about it! Do NOT bring her back to me.” I held him up face-to-face with me to see if he understood. He tilted his head to the left and looked at me quizzically. I had no idea if he was getting the message.
I ran to the closet and got the cat carrier. Putting Mr. Zuckerman inside and closing the little metal door, I did my best to try to block the dreadful images that were clawing their way into my head.
I checked the latch on the door of the cat carrier. Twice. Then I checked the lock on the front door of my house. Three times.
Then I went to make a phone call to American Airlines.
I have named the island that I own off the coast of Senegal after Carmen. I call it ‘Carmen’s Funky Paradise’.
Me and the Zuckmeister.
We are the only residents of the island, at least. But we sure get lots of tourists. See, I held the most bizarre freakin’ garage sale of all time and sold all of my weird and wonderful little presents. The gold kazoo, the Phoenician coins, the manatee. (Did I mention the manatee earlier? Maybe not. Zuckerman brought me a manatee. I told the buyers it had followed me home from Seaworld.)
Anyway, I sold all of that stuff and my house, quit my job and moved to Carmen's Funky Paradise. I used the money to open up a resort right here on the island. It’s absolutely lovely.
I don’t miss America too much. And I sure as hell don’t miss my old job. Being around other people’s misery sucks. It’s much better to be around other people’s happiness. It makes it much easier to connect with them. And to savor life.
Get this: around here, I’m considered the life of the party! Who’d-a thunk it?
As for Mr. Zuckerman, he seems to be enjoying his life. The kiddies love him. He’s getting fat again from all the terrific food we have here. And he manages to get his fourteen hours of sleep everyday. What more could an insane feline ask for?
But I always make sure that he’s locked up tight inside the house before the tourist boats go out at the end of the day.
Yeah, I make real sure of that.
After all, I don’t want to take any chances.
I wouldn’t want him to ever get off the island.
Who’s knows what he might drag back with him?