How to Become a Cat Lady

“A Cat Called Grievous” by R. L. Maizes, recommended by Electric Literature

AN INTRODUCTION BY HALIMAH MARCUS

I’ve always enjoyed a particular mode of short story, let’s call it domestic realism with a wrench in it, in which a relationship or a homelife is disrupted by a lightly absurd or even unrealistic problem. With stories like “The Enormous Radio,” “The Country Husband,” and “Good Country People,” John Cheever and Flannery O’Connor are, for me, patron saints of the genre: what happens in these works would be unbelievable if it weren’t so emotionally true.

Here, in R. L. Maizes’s “A Cat Called Grievous,” we find a familiar situation: a couple, unable to have children and growing bored with one another, adopt a cat and name her Grievous. Or, the cat adopts them, as it so often goes. People are fond of saying that “dogs have masters and cats have servants,” a statement that is mostly true, and, I will argue at the risk of revealing myself as a cat person, makes cats richer subjects for fiction. Dogs are loyal, and cats are indifferent. Give a cat an owner, and there is already a conflict.

Give a cat an owner, and there is already a conflict.

That conflict is heightened in this story because it is triangular, Eugenia and her husband, Weldon, have different attitudes toward Grievous. Weldon is pragmatic and unsentimental when it comes to animals; Eugenia feels personally violated by imposing any rules on their pet. When Grievous kills a rabbit, Eugenia wishes she had picture to carry in her wallet as “a reminder of nature’s ferocity.”

When baby Neda comes along and teams up with Eugenia and Grievous, what was once a disagreement between equals becomes a battle for the home. As their marriage grows contentious, Maizes explores, with a surprising blend of subtlety and absurdity, what it means to be feral. An alternate title for “A Cat Called Grievous” might have been “Cat Lady.” Eugenia does not fit the description for cat lady; she is neither a spinster nor a hoarder. The phrase is baldly sexist, but of the connection between felines and females, Maizes is not derisive. Rather, she sees the lesson one might learn from cats: to be truly independent, one must be indifferent.

Halimah Marcus
Editor-in-Chief, Recommended Reading

 

How to Become a Cat Lady

“A Cat Called Grievous”

by R. L. Maizes

In the end we were a family. Not like yours, maybe, but one that suited us, and we stayed together a long time. Like most families, we began with two. Then, when Weldon and I had been married for seven years, he discovered the cat, curled inside a fleece-lined boot on our porch. We could have named her Boot.

“Eugenia, come see her,” he called. Excitement saturated his voice, which was ordinarily tentative.

The boot lay on its side. The cat was hidden, all but her face, a mass of black fur with a streak of blonde down her nose and yellow eyes. Hiding places were plentiful on the porch — boxes half-filled with newspapers to be recycled, empty planter pots — but nothing as warm as the boot.

“She’s had a litter,” Weldon said after she crawled out, teats stretched like putty and hanging low. His lips trembled, and I thought he might cry.

I took his hand, squeezed the rangy fingers, rubbed a thick knuckle with my thumb. Under other circumstances, we would have called her Mama.

Her kittens were gone, eaten by coyotes, perhaps. Every day she prowled through snowdrifts that hid the withered Colorado landscape, wailing as she searched for them. She returned at night, wet fur pasted down, shivering. Ignoring the bowl of warm milk and plate of sardines we put out, she crawled into the boot.

After a week, she stopped going out. She sat on the porch, long neck stretched toward a shark gray sky, howling for hours. We called her Grievous.

Another snow fell. It topped Weldon’s tractor-trailer and the hulking machine loomed even larger. Thick flakes swirled around the house, stuck to the windows in clumps, and slid down leaving watery trails. Drifts buried the boot. Grievous crouched behind a box on the porch, taking shelter from the wind.

“What do you think?” Weldon asked. “Should we let her in?” I nodded. He held the door open, jiggling the knob. It was his nature to feel rejected, so I knew he was concerned she would refuse us. As I backed up, clearing a path, she crept in and settled under the sofa.

In the room we called the nursery, its pale pink walls stenciled with sheep, I slipped a mattress from the empty crib. Above, a black and white solar system hung cobwebby and desolate. On the opposite side of the room stood a dusty changing table and a dresser that had never been used.

“What are you doing?” Weldon asked from the doorway, his voice wavering.

“Grievous can sleep on it.”

“What about the baby?”

“What baby?”

I tucked the mattress in a corner of our bedroom, a luxurious cat bed, but Grievous ignored it.

A few days later, I sawed a hole in the front door and covered it with a rubber flap. Grievous came and went as she pleased, while at a nearby worktable I stitched dresses and tailored suits. I paused each time I heard the slap of the rubber, glad she had her freedom, relieved when she returned.

We took her to the vet to be spayed. As I lugged the cat carrier, I imagined it was a bassinet. I thought a baby would coo pleasantly, but the cat moaned, protesting her abduction.

“Too many cats already,” the vet said, smiling in a way that told me she enjoyed extracting reproductive organs and mopping up blood. She was small and energetic, with pointy ears, like a bat.

The steel examination table shone, and I had second thoughts about interfering with nature. Grievous had lost one litter already. Afterwards, I admired the neat cuts the doctor had made.

Grievous recovered and hurtled through our neighborhood, pouncing on mice and chipmunks. Outside our dining room window, she caught a rabbit. Her head vanished inside the creature and then reappeared, pink intestinal pasta dripping from her whiskers.

“She’s something, isn’t she,” I said.

“You want me to take a picture?” Weldon asked.

He was joking, but I did. If not to display, then to keep in my wallet, a reminder of nature’s ferocity, which I admired. But it seemed indecent. I shook my head no.

Weldon wrapped his long arm around my shoulders, pulling me to him. I remembered the way he had comforted me early in our marriage when I failed to get pregnant, telling me that without a child we could continue in the way of newlyweds. “We won’t have to share our bed,” he said. “At least not yet.” He kissed my eyelids, throwing me into a welcome darkness. Unbuttoning his shirt, I grasped his springy black chest hair, pearled his nipple between my teeth. I mounted him on the couch, pleasure erasing our disappointment.

Back then when he was on the road, hauling dry goods to Mississippi and New Jersey, he’d call me when my favorite song, Shania Twain’s “Any Man of Mine,” came on the radio. We’d sing it together, road noise backing up his airy voice. He enjoyed the weight of the truck beneath him and how responsive it was. Rarely did he return home without a gift, not from gas station shops, but from boutiques he had ferreted out in unfamiliar towns — an antique perfume atomizer, rare fabrics for my work, a picture of the two of us inked on a grain of rice. In those days, I greeted his return with the delight of a young child.

In the spring after Grievous came, Weldon and I took walks after dinner. We struggled to find things to say to each other, the years having exhausted our best stories. How many times could I hear that Weldon had nearly drowned in a reservoir when he was eight, discovering too late that the shore had receded and his friends had abandoned him? He already knew I had been expelled from high school for puncturing the fuel tank on an English teacher’s car after she gave me an F. We remarked on the weather and the damage winter had done to the roads.

One evening, we passed a toddler riding a tricycle in front of our house. In a neighboring yard, a Doberman hurled itself against the chain that secured it to a tree. We had gone only a few steps when the chain snapped and the dog leaped onto the child, knocking him from his seat. The dog lunged for the boy’s soft neck, and the child screamed. Before we could reach them, Grievous appeared and vaulted onto the dog’s back, raking claws through its hide. The dog spun from boy to cat. We grabbed the toddler and ran inside, while Grievous escaped up a tree.

The next night, the child’s mother brought Grievous a pot of catnip, setting it on our porch. She pulled a tissue from her pocket and blew her nose. “He cracked a tooth in the fall and his palms were bloody, but thanks to you and your cat, he’s alive. He’s my only child. You can’t imagine what it’s like.”

What did she mean by that? I pushed the plastic pot toward her with my foot. “Grievous doesn’t like catnip.”

“We’re just glad she could help,” Weldon said and led me inside.

Our house was large, with three bedrooms in addition to the nursery, a playroom, and a formal dining room. It was crammed with heavy furniture, heirloom secretaries and mahogany dining and bedroom sets. Before Grievous, it had felt empty.

We had planned to have a large family. Weldon and I were only children, and we had inherited all our parents’ material goods and all their hopes. My father had been an astronomer, and I fantasized about girls in velvet jackets winning the science fair and curly-haired boys discovering stars they named after us. But after years of noting my temperature on a chart, of harvesting and implanting and miscarrying, I gave up. Not so with Weldon, who continued to hope for a miracle.

“Maybe we should sell the house. Get a condo,” I had said over breakfast, the last time science failed us. I scraped charcoal from my toast with a knife, raining black ash onto the pine table.

“Kids need room to play.” Weldon drowned his oatmeal in milk and rowed a spoon through the mush.

“Something modern.” I bit into the dry toast.

When Grievous joined our household, I forgot about a condo. I hated to imagine her trapped in three small rooms, a litter box wedged between the tub and the toilet, and no access to the outdoors. In our house she had free reign. I fed her in the kitchen, brushed her in the living room, and in the bedroom talked to her in that high singsong reserved for babies. No matter that she sharpened her claws on the legs of the eighteenth century armoire and sliced the thick tweed on the settee. We hadn’t selected these elegant furnishings ourselves, after all.

Weldon seldom called me from the road anymore. But one night, piloting his tractor-trailer on three hours’ sleep, chomping microwaved cheeseburgers from 7-Eleven, I heard from him. “Could you check if I set the DVR to record the hockey games,” he said, though I knew he would never forget that.

“Let me see,” I told him, and stood before the recorder for the time it would have taken to press the right buttons. “All done.” I waited for him to get to the real reason for his call.

“Remember to take your prenatal vitamins,” he said as if he had just thought of it. He put them out for me every morning when he was home.

“Right,” I said. I almost laughed. Except for one occasion of frustrated, side-by-side masturbation, we hadn’t had sex in nearly two months.

I no longer bristled when clients ordered dresses for christenings and bar mitzvahs. Bold darts flew from the waists and bosoms I sewed. Grievous hopped into my lap at night, softening everything: the armchair, the roar of a passing motorbike, the tick of my pulse. But after a few minutes she grew impatient, wriggled to the floor, and licked off my scent.

She slipped out each morning. I didn’t know where she went, though once I saw her drinking from a concrete birdbath. Afternoons she ascended a giant oak, sprawled on a high branch, and spied on prey.

“You want me to call the fire department?” a neighbor asked, as the sun set, and Grievous remained in the tree. An elderly woman with ropy arms who always hosted three generations at holiday meals, she knew nothing about cats.

“Best time for hunting,” I said.

I thought Grievous was indestructible, but one day she was hit by a Corvette, her femur fractured, bone jutting through skin. We heard the whump of the impact, followed by a cry of rage. Unsure if she would survive, we raced her to the vet. The doctor pinned the bone and sewed her up. The accident shook us from our routine. That night, we cradled Grievous and each other.

Later, we tiptoed to another bedroom. “Do you think we’ll wake her?” I asked, but we were already shedding our flannel pajamas. I didn’t think I could become pregnant.

Six months later, we scrubbed the nursery, and Weldon hung the needlework he had bought in an arts and crafts shop in Nebraska: “Welcome Baby.” Grievous wove between the legs of the crib, marking them with her scent. She rolled on the beige carpet, seeding it with black fur.

She had slept in our bed since the accident. “We might want the baby in bed with us,” Weldon said that night. He pulled the covers to his chin and flipped the TV to a show about prisoners. Grievous tapped his hand, but Weldon refused to pet her.

“There’s room for all of us.” Sitting at a table across the room, I cut out letters of the alphabet for a quilt. The sex of the baby was still a mystery. I pictured a perfect, pink-cheeked infant like the ones on baby food jars, bundled in the quilt.

“She might scratch the baby.”

The utility knife slipped, and I sliced off the top of the W. “She wouldn’t. Not intentionally.” I had grown large and hated to bend down, so I didn’t bother to retrieve the severed fabric.

“Grievous won’t mind. She’s always been very independent.” Since Weldon had learned he was becoming a father, an unwelcome confidence had crept into his manner.

I tried to object, but he lowered Grievous to the floor.

She didn’t fit on my lap anymore, and I was too tired to hold her in my arms. I had been having trouble sleeping. Every night, just as I was about to doze off, the baby would kick, waking me. During the day, I nodded over my sewing machine, wearing the only clothes that fit me, tent-like dresses I made myself. My nails grew so fast they were like claws no matter how often I cut them.

We brought the child home, a girl named Neda. Weldon juggled diapers and a bassinet, while I hobbled into the house, aching where the baby had torn me, resisting her entry into the world.

“I wonder where Grievous is,” I said. I felt an inexplicable longing for her.

Weldon stroked Neda’s cheek, stared into her gray eyes, and cooed.

“I’m sure the cat’s fine,” he said.

The baby cried, a grating sound. Her face flushed. I took off my coat and lifted my blouse.

Nights her bawling woke me from dreams in which a companion and I dined on herring in cream sauce and salmon filets. Deprived of sleep, my work suffered. Seams veered right and left, unraveled behind missing knots. Erratic cuts ruined bolts of fabric. I left pins in hems and delivered a wedding dress to a man celebrating his fiftieth anniversary.

I would lay Neda on the couch while I worked, admiring the thin auburn curl I had arranged in the center of her otherwise bald, floppy head. Baby acne dotted her face, fat pooched her cheeks, and she stuck out her tongue. She didn’t look like a girl who would one day win a science fair.

We saw only brief glimpses of Grievous, but evidence of her was everywhere: scratches on the nursery door, bite marks on the crib, and mice piled high on the porch, babies that looked more stunned than dead.

One night we heard the childlike wailing of a cat fight. A red-haired EMT who lived down the block said she was coming home from an emergency call and saw Grievous swipe a bobcat.

The owner of the Corvette, a televangelist whose megachurch was blocks from our house, claimed Grievous slashed his tires. He sped through the neighborhood without regard for pets or children and had been the one to injure Grievous. “I saw her sniffing around the car,” he said, “and the next day they were flat.”

I could tell Weldon suspected me because of the English teacher, but didn’t have the heart to accuse his wife. I let him believe what he wanted.

How I missed the days when Grievous would snake around my legs while I pedaled the sewing machine. Feeling the gentle pressure of her body, my heart had expanded, and I understood what it meant to love without words. Neda woke screaming from her nap, and I trudged off to change her.

The little girl grew. When he was home, Weldon sat on the floor with her, plucking a toy piano while she sang “Twinkle Twinkle” off key. He tried to teach her the sounds of the animals, but she declared moo when she should have cried baa and quacked when she should have roared. When he counted on her fingers, she poked him in the eye. She fell asleep on his lap, listening to stories of his childhood on a Colorado ranch.

But he was often away, and then it was just the child and me.

One day, as she played on the living room floor, she pointed under the breakfront and squealed, “Kitty, Mama!”

Grievous sauntered out and circled Neda.

I paused in my sewing. “Good kitty.” I hadn’t seen her in a long time and was relieved she looked healthy, eyes clear and coat shining.

“Good kitty,” Neda said.

Grievous stepped onto the child’s lap. Her claws were like scythes. Brushing Neda’s arm, they carved lines in blood.

“Oh dear.” I wiped the blood with a fabric swatch.

“Oh dear,” Neda said.

Grievous purred. I had forgotten what a soothing sound that was and closed my eyes to listen.

Neda trailed the cat all afternoon, over couches, under beds and armoires. Dust bunnies clung to her hair, her jumper blackened. When I lay her down for an afternoon nap in the bed we had just bought her, she called for Grievous. The cat ambled across the nursery floor and jumped in bed. I was glad they were getting along.

That night, I set a plate of tuna casserole in front of Neda, and she spooned half onto the floor for Grievous. After the cat ate, she cleaned herself, licking her paws and rubbing her face. Copying her, my daughter smeared spit on her cheeks.

Grievous disappeared through the cat door, and Neda tried to follow. She jammed her head through, but her shoulders got stuck. As I pulled her inside, she swatted my hands. She yelled for the cat and was inconsolable, weeping so hard she wheezed. The next night was the same. Not for the first time, I thought how much easier it was to love a creature whose habit was silence.

When Weldon returned a few days later, he sealed the cat door, trapping Grievous inside. We watched from a few feet away, Grievous and I. “It’s wrong,” I said. “She’s wild.”

“You’re the one who complained Neda was upset,” he said through the nails in his mouth. I should have known he would do anything for the child.

I had always read to my daughter before bed, but now she shoved Pinocchio and The Velveteen Rabbit aside and patted her belly, insisting I scratch it. When I did, she murmured, a throaty hum. I liked to imagine she was Grievous’s littermate, a second cat we had rescued from the snow. Grievous slept under the covers, her tail in Neda’s face.

Perched on the window ledge, Grievous stared at finches. She stalked a squirrel, lifting her paw to trap it, but it was Grievous who was trapped on the wrong side of the glass. She crept behind Neda, who was unaware of being followed. I couldn’t help but admire the cat’s stealthy movements, the way she rotated her ears to pick up every sound. They played together, and Neda shrieked and laughed.

So what if the child never went to the park or McDonald’s anymore — she howled if separated from Grievous — or if I had to put her plate on the floor next to the cat’s to get her to eat? She could learn a lot from Grievous.

“Do you know she pees in the cat box?” As he interrogated me, Weldon held up a diaper Neda had torn off.

I suppose he would have preferred a more helpless child. “It’s easier than changing her.”

He shook his head and closed his eyes. I could tell he feared he no longer understood his daughter.

When he tried to get Neda to play, to pummel the towers he erected from blocks or to gaze at the moon through a plastic telescope, she refused. “Play Grievous,” she said. And off she went.

Sometimes Grievous lay on the floor, feet splayed behind, content to let Neda brush her. But I found bite marks on Neda when I bathed her. Grievous could be savage, but Neda didn’t seem to mind.

My daughter no longer clung to my apron or watched me sew. Gone were the days of her reaching for the shiny blade when I cut leather and vinyl. She was off with Grievous, napping in sunbeams and chasing flies. She raked the furniture with her sharp nails and curled in a ball to sleep, her head hidden in her hands.

One day I heard snarling and yowling. When I went to investigate, I found Neda on the floor of the nursery. Scratches ran the length of her neck and hands, and her forehead was bloody. Fur erect, back arched, Grievous commanded the bed.

“Kitty won’t let me up,” the child whimpered. When I approached, Grievous hissed. I cleaned Neda up and tucked her into my bed. Despite their fight, Neda called for Grievous to join her.

When Weldon returned from his trip and saw Neda’s injuries, he waited until the child was asleep and kicked the cat’s bowl across the kitchen. “We’re getting rid of her.”

“Who, Neda?” I joked.

His mouth tightened.

“Neda would never forgive us,” I said. I couldn’t imagine life without Grievous. She was our first, and I wouldn’t give her up.

“We’ll tell her Grievous ran away.”

“It’s not the cat’s fault. You trapped her inside.”

When Grievous padded into the room, Weldon lunged for her, but she scrambled to the top of a bookcase. While he dragged over a stepladder, she leaped to the floor, dashed behind the refrigerator, and then vanished into the basement.

Weldon put out a fresh dish of cat food and watched it, but Grievous waited until we slept to eat. The next day he built a trap, cutting a hole in a wood chest and rigging a door to shut when the cat went for the tuna inside. He caught only Neda’s arm.

When he went back on the road, things changed. I lured Grievous with her favorite foods — raw chicken liver and kidneys — and we became a family again. She and Neda batted blocks around the floor, and I massaged Grievous with my toes.

Weldon phoned from the highway; I said I hadn’t seen Grievous.

The cat’s ears rotated toward the front of the house when Weldon’s truck rolled over the asphalt. As soon as he opened the door, she darted out. “Good riddance,” he shouted. When he turned back to me, he looked tired, as if he could barely carry his suitcase.

Neda tried to follow the cat, but Weldon clasped her arm with his free hand. “No more Grievous,” he said.

She sank her teeth into his fingers, and he drew them to his chest, his eyes narrowing. As she fled from the room, he dropped the suitcase, and it toppled onto its side.

That night, I slept with the covers over my face, missing Grievous, who had lain against me while Weldon was away.

Sitting on the couch the next morning, Weldon clutched a cup of coffee he’d brewed from a stolen motel packet in one hand, his other hand bandaged and resting on a pile of unread newspapers in his lap. “Sometimes I think you love that cat more than you love me.”

Distracted, I plunged the sewing machine needle through my middle finger. While Weldon drove me to the emergency room, I considered all Grievous had given me and how little she had asked in return.

Neda curled up on her bed refusing to eat or play. She yowled in her sleep, her arms and legs churning as if she were running on all fours. Half-moons darkened beneath her eyes.

Snow fell. I saw Grievous take shelter under Weldon’s tractor-trailer. I was glad she had found a dry spot. After dark, Neda and I snuck out with sardines. We kneeled in the snow at edge of the trailer, huddling together for warmth, and I set down the plate. Grievous allowed us to stroke her ears as she ate.

A week went by, and Weldon left again. He was headed to Missouri but made it only half a mile. Receiving a call about the accident, I remembered the gentle way he had with Neda and the happiness of our early days. I would miss him. The police officer told me his brake lines had been compromised — four neat slashes all in a row — and they tore as he rounded an icy curve. The semi careened down an embankment, landing in a ravine. Weldon died instantly.

Neda and I were glad to have Grievous back. I unsealed the cat door, and we watched her through the window, hijacking a house finch and biting the head off of a squirrel. I bought a taxidermy kit. We stuffed the trophies she left us and mounted them on the walls of the nursery after painting over the sheep.

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