BY BRUCE JOHNSON
The wife wanted a cat, so they got a fish. They called him Bubbles, or Bubs for short. It was after a character in a TV show.
You go to work all day, the man told his wife. Who would take care of a cat?
The man was having trouble finding good work. He had a master’s degree with a concentration in 18th century German philosophy, and taught intro courses at the local community college. He didn’t work that much and when he did work it wasn’t very hard. So they got a fish and he grew to love the fish. He got it an underwater castle to swim in and out of. Feeding it fish pellets was a welcome break from his day. Then the fish died, and he was angry with the wife.
He wanted to say a lot of things, but he didn’t know how. What are we going to do with an empty fish bowl? he asked her.
She was standing outside the bathroom. The empty bowl was in her hands, the toilet still running. We should get a dog, she said. Its life span is longer.
Absolutely not, the man said. Dogs are expensive and they slobber all over everything. Plus we don’t have a yard. Dogs need a yard.
They settled on a box turtle and an aquarium to put it in. The man bought it a large water bowl and took the castle from the fish bowl and put it in for decoration. The wife didn’t tell him how out of place it looked, and he was happy for that. They called the turtle Rafael.
Every day the man walked to the pet store down the street and bought a bag of live crickets. He tossed them one at a time into the aquarium and watched the turtle go on the hunt. When it caught one it extended its neck out of its shell and its beak-like mouth cut the crickets in half. The man would smile at that and dump another one in.
Then one day the man woke up and there was a small bump on the turtle’s neck. The next day it swelled bigger. The day after that it was the size of a small grape. They took it to the vet and it didn’t make it back home with them. The husband was distraught. Now it’s a whole aquarium! he said, fighting back tears. It seemed such a waste. A glass aquarium in the corner of the room, empty except for the water bowl and toy castle. An emptiness that stared back at him stubbornly, after all the trouble he went to making such a comfy home for Raphael.
There there, the wife said.
What she really wanted was a baby, but she knew better than to ask for that just yet. So instead they got a cat, and named it Kyle MacLachlan. This the husband did not like.
The cat was friendly with the wife, but all day while she was at work it just lazed around. It would nap on the sofa, then the bed, then the kitchen table. If the husband wanted to sit down somewhere, that’s where the cat would be napping. He tried to give it treats, and the damn thing just stared at him. He tried to pet it, and it hid under the bed. The man frowned. What was the point of a cat, anyway?
Then there was the meowing. Incessant, that was the word for it. When it wasn’t sleeping the cat would trail him around the house, glaring up at him, letting out short sharp meows like
the barks of a dog. He tried to read. Meow! He tried to grade papers. Meow! He tried giving it more food, more water, more toys, more anything it could want. Meow! it still said. Meow meow!
What!? the man yelled finally one day. What do you want from me!?
The cat rubbed itself against his leg and meowed insistently. Then it hopped up onto the back of the sofa and stared out the window, still meowing. The man thought he understood. For a moment he felt very sad. There was a whole world out there the cat could see but never touch, never smell. Cars zoomed by on the street, planes flew noisily overhead, the sun painted the sky new colors each day. Leaves grew green on the trees then withered and fell away. A whole world spun by outside without them.
But he couldn’t let the cat go outside. You can’t train a cat, not well. They won’t wear a leash. And out there, beyond the window, beyond the home they had made, there were all sorts of dangerous things. Coyotes, disease, hapless drivers. So many neck growths and empty aquariums.
Please, just be here with me, the man whispered to the cat. Let me be enough for you. He put his hand to the back of its neck. For once, the cat let him pet him.