When the woman dropped the milk it was a full gallon jug she dropped and it quickly spread into a cold white pool on the dark green kitchen floor. The cat, quietly, wisely, slipped away while the mopping up took place. The cat was very pleased with its existence in this house, but did not understand the dynamics of geriatric humanity. The cat, for instance, did not understand that the kindly woman who fed it and petted it and kept its box clean and saw that the water dish was always fresh no longer knew her cat’s name, or where it had come from, or even if there might be another cat living in the house. There was not.
Exactly how cats think is something that cannot be said with certainty, although it seems likely they do not use language while they are at it. Thus, a cat might “know” things, might know that several years ago it had been lost and feral, then found and taken to a shelter, perhaps several shelters (it would never tell) and during those adventures it must have learned all about veterinarians and those smooth metal tables you cannot dig your claws into. The cat would certainly know it had recently been on such a table, more ill than any cat should be, and might, if only marginally, understand that the pink medicine the woman and her husband had squirted down its throat twice a day for more days than any cat can keep track of had somehow helped it feel alive again. A cat might feel something resembling appreciation for their efforts, but none of this would occur in words.
In the kitchen, the man and his wife mopped. The man looked for detergent, the woman offered him cooking oil. “No, no, my dear,” he said, as gently as he could, and found something on the sink he hoped would do. Then he mopped and she tried to help but mostly kept stepping in his way and he did his best to remain cheerful, even though his breakfast was still sitting on the table, half eaten. “No use crying over spilled milk,” he said, and he was pleased to see that this made her smile. In his ancient years he was finally learning the lesson nuns had tried to teach him long long ago in the cold dark years of his childhood. Patience. Offer it up to God.
The cat had no word for patience, yet it knew patience. It knew when to stay out of the way. While the man practiced patience, the cat leaped up on that little table by the living room window and looked out. Sometimes it would see a bird, or a squirrel, or once or twice, some other less acceptable rodent, all of great interest to a cat. As were the people who passed by, and the dogs they walked on leashes. The cat did not need words to know the things it knew.
When the activity in the kitchen died down, and the mop had been returned to its proper place, the cat dropped off the little table, and made its way back into the kitchen, instinctively looking for its dishes. The woman had picked these up for the mopping and now she did not remember where she had put them. They could not have gone far, the man said. Why not look in the microwave? No, they were not there, a cake was, oh yes, last night they had baked a cake, using store mix, and frosted it with chocolate, and now it was in the microwave oven. But the cat’s dishes were somewhere else, and there was no telling where.
The man sat down and finished his breakfast, really no more than a couple of spoonfuls of now soggy cereal. The woman would find the cat’s dishes herself, she always did, and this time was no exception. “Where were they?” he asked pleasantly. “I don’t remember,” she said, and he heard another question in her voice, a question neither of them could answer, because neither knew how to put it into words. “Oh, don’t worry about it,” he said. Did it matter? Did any of it really matter?
The cat decided that it wanted no more than a single dainty morsel. It was enough to see things in their proper places. It rolled on its back and showed its belly which the veterinarian had shaved when the cat was sick and now was growing out. The man nudged the cat with his toe, and it accepted this, purring, and neither he nor the cat needed words to think the thoughts they had.
“No sense crying over spilled milk,’ the man said, hoping to see his wife smile again, and she (what must have been in her head?) replied, “What milk?”
“The milk we just mopped up,” he said.
“We spilled milk? I don’t remember that.”
The cat heard these words, but did not understand a one of them, and never would. It rolled on its side and showed its newly furry belly and purred. And purred. And purred.
© Paul Pekin
[This piece was selected by Valerie Waterhouse. Read Paul’s interview]