Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Mark Jacobs, "The Emperor’s Cat"

Mark Jacobs

The Emperor’s Cat

This morning I saw the cat again. I went out to the porch at seven to pick up the Gazette and there it pranced on the shoveled sidewalk, in all its calico glory. White predominates in the cat’s long fur, followed by a molasses shade of brown. Here and there a splash of black stands out like paint flung onto a canvas. The large tail is imperious, as one would expect the tail of an emperor’s cat to be. I stood there looking at the regal creature as it leapt from the sidewalk and began making its way across the snowy yard of the emperor’s house. A hard skin of ice has covered the snow, so the cat either skated or punched small holes with its paws, depending on the thickness of the ice in a given spot as it went.

This winter will never end. Or if it does, I won’t be here for the thaw. Shall I say that doesn’t bother me? It bothers the hell out of me.

I waited on the porch for a few minutes in the cold hoping I might catch a glimpse of the emperor. No luck. Sightings of him are rarer than the rarest of comets. When the cat made its way into the back yard, I went inside to work. But I was unsettled and knew it would come hard.

I am a historian. Not a professional -- I lack a sinecure, not to say an ideology -- but not an amateur, either. I’m writing the history of the world. Such a daunting challenge requires a steady vantage point, however arbitrary. For me there was never any doubt. I chose this place, Niagara Falls, the city of my birth as the anchor of my narrative. I might just as easily have chosen Montevideo, or Kiev, or the Thar Desert in India, but in me the heart rules. This is my home. Still, I try to stay on the right side of the line dividing sentiment from sentimentality. Living alone, I have to be careful not to blow things out of proportion. My disappointments are the same size as my triumphs. Both of them are invisible to the populace at large. The eyes of the populace at large are generally closed.

I sat at my desk in the study and read an article about Charles Dickens’ visit to Niagara Falls in 1842. I took some notes. I tried to put myself in a Dickensian frame of mind. The chapter I’m working on has to do with how succeeding generations have viewed the falls, beginning with the creation myth of the Seneca Indians. (My favorite period is the Romantic Sublime, when the thundering cataracts were seen as an example of God’s majestic personality.) As a non-specialist I’m free to include whatever I feel like throwing in, as long as it hangs together in the narrative. Some days it does, some it doesn’t. Today, in an hour’s straining effort I was not able to come up with a single convincing sentence. Dickens will have to wait until tomorrow.

To date I have amassed somewhere between 2,000 and 3,000 pages of manuscript. I quit counting years ago, when it became clear to me that nobody cared, and nobody was going to care. I live alone in the bottom half of a duplex on Fifth Street that my grandparents bought back in the Thirties. It used to be a nice neighborhood. Now it’s the perfect synecdoche for the blighted disaster that is my city. I rent the upstairs apartment to a single woman, a young African American named Clarice, who works nights at the hospital to put herself through community college. The rent money comes in handy, and proximity to a member of the opposite sex, no matter how tangential, is one of the handful of things that keep me sane.

I want to believe Clarice does not see me as the dirty old white guy who lives downstairs. I am her landlord, and a gentleman. I’m also handy with tools, so if anything in her apartment breaks down she knows she can call me and it will be fixed the same day. Once, she sat at my kitchen table drinking a cup of tea and asked me what I was writing. She seemed genuinely curious and asked six or eight smart questions. The beauty of her brown hand spooning white sugar left me weak, then made me strong. The boost to my spirits lasted a week, and I finished a chapter that had bedeviled me for months.

I wasn’t always a recluse. In fact I used to be married and lived a regular sort of life. We played pinochle with friends, and went out for pizza and beer at Michael’s on Pine Avenue, and worried about our sex life as the years went by just like everybody else did. My wife’s name was Mercy. After twelve years with me, she liked to say, there was none left in her. She changed her name to Diana and now lives in Phoenix, where she makes a comfortable living grooming other people’s pets. The obituary of our marriage should include the fact that it produced no children. Not, as they say, for lack of trying.

Mercy blamed our childlessness on my obsession with history. Although I knew that was a crock, scientifically speaking, I never contested the point with her. My history of Niagara Falls is expansive enough to include the science of emotion, according to which she was probably right. On more than one occasion I have seen mist rising from the falls in such a way as to suggest that time and space are lovers after all. There is a reason that our city was known for a time as the honeymoon capital of the world.

I have no wish to live unsatisfied and die alone.

To return to the cat: from the moment it first appeared on the sidewalk I have entertained rich mixed feelings about the animal. Once last summer I watched it stalk and slay a grackle, a bird I am particularly fond of because of its prosaic ordinariness. The grackle is a city bird, a neighborhood bird, the kind of bird that rose in clouds from the grass in the front yard when your grandmother started beating rugs on the front porch during her rite of spring cleaning. Last week the cat narrowly missed a cardinal. Against a sun-dazzled snowbank the bright red bird seemed to be a trick of the eye, and then it was gone. Afterward, wet clumps of snow clung to the fur on the cat’s chest, and it skulked away embarrassed.

As for the emperor himself, I have seen him twice. Once he was walking to the inconvenience store on the corner. The second time he stuck his head out the front door and whistled for the cat the way other people whistle for their dogs. Two times in all these years, and at a distance! He must have his reasons for keeping such a low profile. His mustache inclines me to think he may be of Asian descent. It’s not easy to see; it’s the kind of mustache you have to intuit. Naturally I would like a closer look.

To stay honest, I regularly ask myself the hard questions. The most important one is: am I nuts? Have I been warped out of shape by solitude and my desire to write the world’s history? I’m convinced the answer is no. The reduction of human experience to categories of the sick ward is a failure of the imagination.

I’m sixty, or will soon be. To keep body and soul together, I work thirty hours a week selling auto parts behind the counter of what used to be Hutchins’, across the street from what has always been Page’s Whistle Pig, near the intersection they used to call Six Corners. (That’s how a historian sees a place.) We stock a warehouse full of parts for all makes and models, including domestic and foreign although that’s a distinction without much of a difference, any more. The computer list of things we can special order is as vast as cyberspace.

I sleep in disappointment. I cover myself with obscurity. On my low days -- today is one; perhaps because I saw the cat, which always sets off a chain reaction of longing in me -- I am tempted to recite from memory the pages of a catalogue of replacement parts. The purpose of that act of self-abasement would be to demonstrate just how full of shit my self and soul and consciousness have become. But being your own buffoon is a cultural cliche, and I won’t give my enemies the satisfaction.

I don’t really have any enemies, unless you count an indifferent world. Years ago I used to send an outline of my history, with two sample chapters, to people in the publishing business: agents and editors, for the most part, although several times to professors of history who had written books I admired. My cover letter was straightforward, and not too long. The voice I employed was briskly professional. In the beginning I thought they were just not good at writing back. They were careless, or preoccupied, or their secretaries were. Then I learned they got together at a bar in Manhattan and burned every page I sent. They drank their expensive whiskey and laughed and watched all that paper and ink and me go up in flames. They were doing their job.

I was forty when Mercy left me. For the first year or so I used to call people up and tell them how lonely I was. I could write a book on loneliness, I would say. You want the definition of forsaken, you call me. No one knew how to respond, and I quit calling when I realized how uncomfortable I made them. Now, if I called anybody, I would tell them it’s hard to catch a glimpse of the emperor, but I often see his cat.

I have rehearsed ad nauseam a scene in which I invite Clarice down for dinner. She is ambitious and works too hard to waste her time dating. Besides, the pool of eligible men for a classy woman like her must be sadly small. She has a future, and the men in her world mainly cling to the past. A meal with me would be anything but threatening, but I can’t seem to bring myself to take the plunge. I won’t describe the way Clarice looks. That would be a betrayal of her privacy. But she is good looking in a one-of-a-kind way that I’m a sucker for.

My sexual fantasies got stale years ago. Most of the time I can ignore them.

I should also mention that I quit paying the phone bill six or eight months ago. Lately I’m economizing. What I make hawking auto parts doesn’t go far, not even when I add Clarice’s rent to the kitty. I could get more for the apartment but like letting her live there cheap because she is a student, and because she is Clarice.

Sometimes I wonder whether my desire to see the emperor up close is healthy. Even strong and successful people experience doubt. Only the fundamentalists appear not to, and they might be repressing theirs. But healthy or unhealthy, the longing to see the emperor is what makes me who I am.

Once when I stayed home from work, sick with a migraine, I happened to see a veterinarian come out of the emperor’s house, which is four doors down from my place and on the other side of the street. She looked at any rate like a vet and carried a medical black bag. I admit there is something psychologically fishy about the agonies I endured thinking the cat might be ill. And of course there is the question of whether vets make house calls.

Other times I have wanted to give the cat a name. But I won’t. I’m afraid naming it would diminish its luster.

When I was fifty I would have considered the most succinct jeremiad beneath me. Any more, who knows? Some mornings I wake up to face another blank page and find myself wanting to throw things, to rage and curse and break glass. Perhaps I could kill, if a suitable victim were at hand. The only good thing about my anger is it forces me to understand why Mercy divorced me. She saw this coming, all of it. Good for her that she got out.

Last Thursday, I think it was, I heard Clarice vacuuming upstairs. She had come home from class to fix something to eat before she went back out for the evening shift at Memorial. She must have had a few free moments, and it is like her to fill them with work. It took every ounce of willpower I had not to rush upstairs and pound on her door. Listening to the vacuum moving across the floor, and Clarice moving furniture as she cleaned, I worked myself up into a weird frenzy. I was convinced I needed her advice, that I could not go on living another day without asking her: has the time come? Shall I give up my history of the world? Is my dream finally dead? I long ago tired of asking myself those questions, but I was sure she had answers to them. Luckily my self-control stood me in good stead. I sat in my recliner until I heard her footsteps coming down the stairs, and then the sound of her engine turning over as she drove off. I will not make a fool of myself.

It’s a superstition to believe that the winter will never end. But my history of the world has room in it for superstition. In fact some day the snow may melt. I may live to see the thaw, although I don’t believe I will. If I live to seventy -- we die young in our family; I come from a long line of working-class fatalists, and we are Irish and blackly Catholic to boot -- I hope to provide a detailed description of the emperor.

At work I’ve been told I need to improve my communication skills, verbal and non-verbal both. The store belongs to a national chain. They recently hired a consulting firm to assess all their employees with an eye to boosting sales. They have put in place a system based on what they call the customer-satisfaction quotient. They want people to walk out the door happier than they were when they walked in. A tall order, in the world as I conceive it. The thing is, I can put on the facial tic at will. It stands to reason I could remove it just as easily.

I won’t inflict my dreams on you. Suffice it to say that in my one recurring dream the emperor appears obliquely. I’m always catching him from the corner of my eye.

I worry about the cat crossing the street. It seems oblivious to its surroundings in an uncatlike way. They are animals. One expects them to be instinctively alert. In case of an accident what would I do? The phone company cut my service months ago.

I have made up my mind. I could give up my history. I’m not saying that I will, just that I could. Or I think that I could. But I cannot and will not depart this life without having seen the emperor up close. I will feast my eyes. I will impress the features of his noble face on my memory, the way a blind lover reads the face of his beloved with fingers that trace and, tracing, see all. I will absorb everything there is to absorb. I will assess his mustache.

The vigil starts now. In the Florida room. It will last as long as it needs to last. When I see the emperor -- not if, but when -- I will need to approach him respectfully. No doubt he is besieged by courtiers, lackeys, office-seekers of all kinds. I’ll probably come across as the contemporary equivalent of a peasant with garlic on his breath. He will assume I have an ulterior motive for bothering him, so I need to know exactly what I’ll say when the time comes.

It will put him at ease if I bring up the cat. With a multitude of weighty matters oppressing him, he cannot be blamed for giving less than his full attention to the comings and going of a household pet. He may not even notice the blithe disregard with which his cat steps into our street, which draws a lot of traffic crossing between Walnut and Ferry. I’m willing to go so far as to rehearse my lines. If he’s half the emperor I believe him to be, he will recognize that I am telling the truth and keep the cat inside.

Fond as I am of observing the creature, it will put me at ease to know it’s safe, not out in the street where any idiot in a muscle car can kill it in an instant of thoughtless reflex.

With the cost of fuel oil being what it is, I don’t normally heat the Florida room, but I’ve turned on the thermostat and will run it at sixty five so I can watch in comfort. In a flannel shirt and sweater, I’m comfortable. I have vacation time to burn. I’ll take the week off. Now that I’ve made the decision, the idea of actually speaking with the emperor excites me.

I’ll heat a can of soup for lunch. Tomato. The crackers are stale so I’ll crumble them in the bowl. I don’t find much difference of taste between Campbell’s and the store brand, which is cheaper. Later I’ll go out and pick up some groceries. Steaks. Two of them. One for Clarice and one for me. Baked potatoes, fried onions, green beans with slivered almonds. A bottle of good red wine. If I invite her to have dinner with me this evening, if I tell her I need an honest friend, she will not let me down.

I like a New York strip steak. I hope she does, too. We could make it a habit. Dinner every other week, say. I’m betting she’ll enjoy the break in her routine, not to mention having somebody else doing the cooking once in a while. We’ll talk about the things that matter to her: her job, college, what she plans to do when she graduates. Where she would like to be in five years, in ten. Not until she has told me everything she feels like telling will I bring up the question of my history. And I’ll do it in a casual way, as if I don’t care much about it. That will make it easier for her to respond. Clarice has a lot of what they call emotional intelligence. She’ll get it. I’m hoping she’ll say keep going, don’t give up. I think that would be enough to get me through the winter.

There it is. The emperor’s cat. Three doors down from my place, chickadees have settled on a feeder. In the stalking animal’s absorption, its absolute concentration on the birds as it approaches the feeder with slow stealth, I recognize a difficult beauty. Still, it’s not the emperor, is it? It’s only his cat.


Mark Jacobs has published over 70 stories in commercial and literary magazines including The Atlantic Monthly and The Iowa Review. His most recent book is A Handful of Kings, from Simon and Schuster. He plays lead guitar in The Double Crossed Band


Unknown said...

Yes, sing it brother. Unique and contemporary. Strikes a tone I hear very well.

A short story as good as anything I’ve read by Updike, Cheever, Carver etc. - to me better because of what I’m personally drawn to in literature; elements that bring to mind Dostoevsky, Beckett. Great story.

Anonymous said...

Reads like something written one night while drinking Scotch alone. But then, most good literature's like that, isn't it? For a short piece, the depth of understanding we reach concerning this man is incredible. The tension in his brain builds slowly until you are sure something awful is bound to happen. It subsides for a bit, then it comes back again. Something awful will surely happen later. But not here on this page. We're spared. But we've been given a glimpse that will cause me to shudder for the rest of the day.

Anonymous said...

Like a scary movie, the monster is always in the next room. I hung on every word, and wished there was more.

Nemo said...

Wonderful depiction of a very small world that threatens to crack wide open. I usually avoid people like the narrator for fear that the cracking open will happen when I'm near. But, this story makes it safe. Makes me the voyeur's voyeur. Warmly creepy. Excellent!

Anonymous said...

I liked how the reader was gradually drawn into the narrator's world and exposed to the narrator’s delusional thoughts. I especially liked the way the situation shaded over into dangerousness at the very end.


Anonymous said...

reminds me of the delicate specificity of Issac Babel. He would also write of awful things i a understated voice. Great story.

Anonymous said...

This story is compelling. It got my attention immediately. I felt like I do on a cold Sunday morning with no plans or intentions- the best time for daydreaming.

Anonymous said...

Great story. The imagery resonated with quite a few things that have been happening to me of late. Keep the good work coming, cuate.