I let myself into my parents’ house through the front door. Paper towels litter the carpet, sporting brown and yellow stains from hairballs my mother hasn’t gotten around to cleaning away yet. I count about ten before disgust compels me to just ignore it and step over.
Spotty is lying on the couch. She’s so thin I can see her skeleton in clear definition beneath her fur. The brilliant orange and white pattern of her coat contrasts less sharply than I remember it. The orange is dimmed, the white is yellowed. She’s growing more muted with each day.
Her breath rattles in her ribs. I pet her behind the ears and it’s a full minute before she acknowledges me. She strains to look up, with eyes clouded over with discharge. I stroke her softly, and she makes a hacking sound before lying her head back down.
My father’s cat leans beside her. She’s old too but not as old as Spotty. Every few moments she leans over and licks Spots behind the ear. Dad’s sitting on the couch beside her, sniffling.
“Is the carrier ready?” I ask him.
He takes off his glasses and makes a show of wiping at his eyes with his finger before answering. “No, not yet. I’m gonna grab a quick smoke before we head out. I’ll grab it when I’m done. Give ya some time to say goodbye.”
I don’t want to enable either addiction, so I just walk into the kitchen to the pantry. The cat carrier is tucked behind the trash can, and I grab some old newspapers to line it with.
“Oh, I can do that,” Mom says. She scurries over. “I think your daddy wants you to be able to say goodbye to Spots.”
“I know what he wants.” I stuff paper into the carrier. “But we can’t sit around. The vet closes in thirty minutes and it’s a holiday weekend. We have to get this done quick.”
“Yeah.” My mom pauses for a bit, then asks: “I just wish I knew we were doing the right thing.”
“We have to, Mom. Her kidneys are shutting down.”
“I know. I just wish we could know one way or the other if she was going to get better.”
“No, it’s old age, Mom. She’s not sick.”
“What about that medicine he gave us?”
“It didn’t work, remember? That’s how he knew it was old age. He can’t treat her. Her kidneys just don’t work anymore.”
“Didn’t you say something about him suggesting surgery?”
“There’s nothing to repair. They just don’t work anymore. The vet said outright it’s just old age. You can’t treat that.”
“No, you know. She’s old.”
“Missy was twenty-one before she died.”
“Yeah. Missy was really fuckin’ old too, Mom. Cats get old.”
“Oh, I wish you wouldn’t swear!” she whines, and I ignore her as I make my way back to the living room.
“You ready to go, Pop?”
“Don’t you want to hold her a little bit before we go?”
“We don’t have time.” I’m not joining his histrionic ensemble piece. I gently pull Spotty into my lap. When she was younger she would race across the house whenever I sat down and dive bomb me, before curling up to go to sleep. She’s completely limp when I lift her up. Limp, but breathing. I lean over and open the top of the carrier, and set a couch pillow inside. I carefully lift Spots and lie her on the pillow. She doesn’t change position the whole time.
“Ryan, did the vet think about her gingivitis?” Mom asks suddenly, bolting into the living room. Her eyes are wide, like something huge has just occurred to her.
“Maybe she’s just not eating because her gums are bothering her. I think that’s why she’s so weak. Ask the vet about her gingivitis when you get there!”
“It’s not gingivitis, it’s her kidneys.”
“No, Ryan. Her gingivitis could affect her kidneys.” She affects the idiot note of condescension, the way people do when they have nothing else to stand on. “Gum disease causes a lot of problems.”
“I’ll run the AC in the car a bit.” My dad fumbles with his cane and his keys.
“Dad, I’ll just take her. My car’s right outside.”
“No, no. I…I want to be there.” He forces his voice to crack. My own prescription of antidepressants is nearing his in dosage size. Will I need to supplement them the way he does, with liberal doses of melodrama?
“You’re just going to let them kill her, aren’t you?” My mother’s eyes flash, the way I remember them flashing when I lived here. The cold gray rage she can only briefly mask. I was always guilty of something. Once she told me I rustled my comic book so I wouldn’t have to hear her yell at me. She had to keep me out of school for a week while the bruises faded. “You little bastard.”
I keep myself from laughing so as to avoid a spittle-flecked tantrum from her. She’s 5’1 and stooped. I could probably lift her with one hand and put her on a shelf if I wanted to. It wasn’t bastard that surprised me. It was little.
“You little brat!” Her lips are peeled back, showing yellowed teeth. Half of them are implants. The strays they’ve collected since my sister and I left home scatter to hide. “You never even took care of her! What gives you the right?”
They’ve gathered about twelve strays since I moved out. None of them are sterilized or inoculated. They scratch constantly at fleas. It would have been eighteen cats if not for me and Aggie. Spotty would have been mauled by the strays each of us adopted if we’d taken her out of the house. Aggie’s wrapping up her Master’s, so I foot the bill for her three’s vaccines each year.
“Please!” my father moans. He covers his face with both hands. “Please, let’s not make this any harder…!”
“He’s always criticizing!” Mom snaps to him. “Have you gotten them their shots?” She uses a bizarre, high-pitched tone to mock me, even though my voice is pretty deep. “Like we don’t know how to take care of our animals. We can’t afford to get all of them shots, Ryan.”
That affected condescension again.
“That’s right. You can’t afford to get them shots.”
“Do you see how he does?” my mother screams to my dad. My father wails behind his hands, to hide the fact that he’s not actually weeping. My parents bicker. I quickly slip outside and take Spotty to my car.
The vet gives Spotty the phenobarbital and throws the needle into the sanitizing bin. “I’m sorry for your kitty,” he says, and I can tell he means it. He leaves right after. The place is packed and they close the doors in five minutes.
Spotty’s breathing slows. I feel her heart stop. The vet’s aid cries a little. I don’t mind. I wrap Spotty in a towel, set her in the carrier, and walk out.
“Oh no,” one of the patrons moans, when she gets a look inside the carrier. She’s pale, wrinkled, her gray hair tied back but still somehow messy and everywhere.
“I’m so sorry.” She reaches out to grab my arm. “Can I get a look at your kitty?”
She grabs my elbow, and I swat at her hand. Not hard. I swing the way I did when I housebroke Spotty, when I’d pat her on the rump with a newspaper if she peed outside the litter box. My fingertips barely touch her knuckles, but I get the desired result. She yanks her hand back, shocked. I go out into the hot, noisy day with my dead cat. I was fourteen when I first took her to this place. I carried her in wrapped in a towel. When I handed her to the aid to get her fixed, she hooked her claws into the collar of my shirt, and mewled when they finally carried her into the kennels.
My mother is silent when I get back, and after a few moments of scowling in the kitchen she scurries down the hall to her bedroom and slams the door. Twice. My father has finally managed to produce actual tears, and he tries to pull me into a hug as I pass. I work my way out of his arms and go out to the back stoop for a smoke.
Mosquitoes buzz just out of reach of my cigarette. Two houses down, I can hear an old woman bellowing about the “Arabs” that live between her and my parents. Her adult son is trying to calm her down. The neighbors she’s complaining about are actually Pakistani, but I doubt she’d appreciate the difference. They live in a house that was only built two years ago, but it looks every bit the same age as my parent’s home. Everything ages fast in this part of town.
The carrier with Spotty’s carcass sits on the bottom step. Tree frogs duel cicadas in the trees. My clothes stick to me. I decide I won’t tell my parents I’ve left when I’m finished. I stub my smoke and grab a shovel from the garden shed. I don’t cry while I bury my cat. I do that later, in the privacy of my apartment. There, the memories of my childhood pet are felt in service to no one but myself. My cats sit in a ring around my ankles while I grieve. Later, when I go to bed, they all hop onto the comforter, and lie across my legs while I sleep.