By Charles Booth
The momma—a scrawny, black and white cat with a little Hitler mustache—started hanging around the house that winter, just as our marriage was coming to an end. Remedies, such as couples therapy or a trial separation, were hinted at, but neither of us was ready to admit how grim the situation had become. Then, on a mild December afternoon, after too many holiday cocktails, I picked up the St. Francis statue from our garden and smashed it on the cobblestone patio. One of the saint’s hands bounced off the ground and struck Rachel in the forehead. She’d just announced that she was pregnant.
Three years earlier, when I believed our marriage was strong enough to shrug off such pettiness, she’d fallen in love with the assistant principal at her school. I sometimes comforted myself with the fact that he never loved her back, but the sourness of those distant months still curdled my stomach.
“When was the last time we even did it?” I yelled as she ran into the house, pressing her hand to her forehead.
We named the momma cat Eva, after Hitler’s wife, and fed her crackers and chunks of tuna. When Rachel saw her stretched across our patio, nursing Churchill, Roosevelt, and the runt, Little Stalin, she added cat food to our weekly grocery list.
“Shouldn’t we save that money for Junior?” I protested. “Those are turning into the fattest goddamned stray cats I’ve ever seen.”
Rachel said she wasn’t cold-hearted like me, and as long as they stuck around, she’d take care of them. Her stubborn desire to love the hardscrabble creatures of this world was part of what attracted me to her in the first place. The night before our wedding, she called my hotel room to remind me she was a Catholic and didn’t believe in divorce. She slurred her words, and I heard bridesmaids giggling in the background, but her tone was serious. “We’re taking on a sacrament.”
“Are you trying to convince yourself of something?” I asked.
When she didn’t answer, I understood that our marriage might just be an act of charity on her part, and this realization had me whispering sweet words back to her, hoping she’d show up at the church the next morning.
I moved into the bedroom across the hall. Its fresh sheets and uncluttered nightstands made me feel like a stranger in my own house. A week later, while watching television, a scrolling bar at the bottom of the screen warned me that a storm was heading for the Tennessee/Kentucky border. Ice knocked lightly against the house. The cats sat in clumps on the windowsills, seeking warmth, and for some reason, I decided to help them.
On the back patio, I set up Blue’s old dog kennel and spread blankets across the bottom. Then I ran an extension cord to the shelter and plugged in a heating pad. The blankets still smelled like Blue’s shampoo, and black electrical tape held together the extension cord the dog once chewed through. When I finished setting up the cat shelter, I stepped back into the house, shivering in my wet clothes.
“You’re a mess.” Rachel sat by the kitchen window. “I didn’t think you liked those cats?”
I didn’t. Every time she demanded I let Eva and her little Yalta Conference inside, I told her I wouldn’t expose our unborn child to the ammonia stench of cat piss. But now, they felt like my last shot at making her happy. “They deserve a fighting chance, I suppose.”
Rachel told me to undress while she went and retrieved a towel. When she returned, I blushed as she covered my nakedness.
“Get in the shower before you get sick.”
Later that night, in the guest bedroom, I tried to picture a happy reunion between the two of us, but my mind kept dredging up images of Rachel and her assistant principal in our king-sized bed. These thoughts caused me to feel nauseated and aroused, and I didn’t know if I wanted to cry or jerk off or both.
Outside, the ice softened into snow. Around midnight, the power went out. The room grew cold, and I imagined pipes bursting, washing away everything we’d built during our nine years of marriage. In the laundry room, I discovered a breaker had been tripped, and with the flip of a switch, the house groaned back to life.
Early the next morning, while Rachel felt the first kicks of our unborn son, I went to check on the cats. Snow covered everything, stretching like a white plain over unseen roads and sidewalks. Inside the shelter, I found the cats looking like neglected stuffed animals, the smell of burning hair making my nostrils twitch.
The black tape had come loose during the night, sending electric currents into that sleeping family. Little Stalin, my favorite, resembled one of Blue’s old chew toys. As I stared at him, I knew of only two ways to protect Rachel. Later that day, I’d leave and begin the process of ending our marriage. But first, as she laughed at the movements inside her belly, I quickly tossed the cats into the woods behind the house, hoping to prevent her from witnessing the terrible consequences of my good intentions.