If man could be crossed with the cat
it would improve man,
but it would deteriorate the cat.
At first, I felt sure I did not want to go. To enter their world of shadows, to cross the veil, I would suffer losses to body and soul. But when the call comes, who can pretend not to hear? So, I begin this story on the morning I heard the voice. And I give my word, I will speak what I know—and I know more than most.
On the fourth evening of summer vacation, Len stopped killing people just long enough to feel a cereal-shaped hole in the pit of his stomach. Without remorse, he shot four more times, watched his victims collapse, and then, calmly, he turned off the video game. He slammed his leaning chair from two legs to four on the floor. Rising slowly, he slouched his way into the kitchen, breaking form with a karate kick against a wingback chair along the way.
As Len opened the refrigerator door, he saw his sister, Angie, sitting at the table, looking out the window. Unnoticed by her, he took in her “perfect” hair, “perfect” clothes, and—at least if his buddies were to be believed—her “perfect” profile. These flawless qualities reminded him of her ridiculously high GPA and chummy relationship with their parents.
He looked inside the fridge at the orange juice, shriveled celery, and day-old mac and cheese. Then he saw a jug of milk. He grabbed it and plopped it on the counter so hard the top popped off. He flipped a plastic cup out of the cupboard, clanked it down next to the milk, and snagged a bag of Oreos from the pantry. He glanced over at Angie. Then he noisily ripped open the bag, crushed three Oreos into the glass, and poured in some milk. Angie didn’t flinch.
Len took her lack of response as a personal challenge. “Angie, I don’t know what I’m going to do with you. You’re so embarrassing. I have friends, you know.”
“What do you mean?” she asked, her left arm resting blithely on the table.
“I have friends. Friends are people who hang out together. Don’t you know that?”
Angie squinched her eyes up and shook her head sarcastically.
“You’ve just got to quit acting like you’re from Jupiter’s third moon. People talk about what you say.” He burped. “Look, I’m not spying on my baby sophomore sister or anything—but you know that Jim guy who’s always staring at you ’cause he thinks you’re so freakin’ gorgeous? He overheard you talking to some girls in the quad the last week of school.” He smiled to show off the chocolate bits dripping down his teeth. Angie turned away. “He said you said that you loved the ginger cat with the warm green eyes. What’s with that? You said that the fabric of the world was stretching or tearing or some such nonsense.” He drained the glass and slammed it on the table. “Do you realize how crazy you sound?” He got a new glass out of the cupboard and poured some Coke in it. “Do you want some?”
“Sure, half a glass.” She turned back to face him. “Len, I don’t see why I should stop talking about what I see.” She hunched over as if some revelation were about to appear in the palm of her hand. “More and more, the world seems to be awakening deep longings, and I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s some good reason.”
“I can’t believe you actually defend yourself. And what’s with this ‘reason’ garbage. That’s never exactly been your specialty.” Len handed her a glass of soda, then opened the pantry door and grabbed a bag of tortilla chips.
Angie pushed back her chair and stood up. “Maybe you’re just jealous you don’t see the things I do.”
“Angie, you are so clueless.” Her confidence irritated Len. “Why would I want to see what’s not there? You don’t even realize how hard this is on me.”
Angie set her Coke down. “Just because you just graduated doesn’t make you God or anything.” She placed both hands on the table and leaned over, catching Len’s eyes in what he took to be a stare-down. But it wasn’t a competition. Angie seemed to be looking past Len’s eyes into deeper places. Her intensity made him uneasy. He backed up, bumped into the open pantry door, and dropped the bag of chips. “What I realize,” Angie said, “is that the fabric of things is changing. Maybe it’s not stretching or tearing. Maybe it’s something else. I don’t know. What I do know is that I am glad the ginger cat with the warm green eyes came into our backyard.”
“Why me? Why did I get born into this lame family?” Len kicked the bag of chips into the pantry, got out another glass, and poured orange juice to the top.
From the living room, Charlotte Bartholomew called out, “Would you guys come in here for a minute?”
Rolling his eyes, Len turned his head in the direction of his mom’s voice. “‘Guys’ is sexist, Mom. We learned that in McEachen’s English class. You teach English, don’t you? You should know.”
“Fine. I’m glad to hear ‘y’all’ are learning to become sensitive. Now, would you and Angie be sensitive to your dear old mother and come in here?”
As if he were resisting a gravitational pull to keep him in the kitchen, Len forced himself into the living room and leaned the back of his legs against one arm of the blue corduroy sofa. After his slow-motion free-fall onto the cushions—not spilling a drop—he pulled his backwards hat down so that it covered his eyebrows. Angie followed him into the room. She picked “the ginger cat” Percy off the seat of the maple rocker, rubbed his head, and sat down.
Charlotte sat up straight in the rose-colored wingback chair. “I want to read you the beginning of my story.”
Len sighed. “So, why is this necessary right now? I’m getting hungry.”
“Because I need a focus group, that’s why.” Charlotte counted the pages in her lap. “I tell my own students in writing class to do the same.”
“You don’t need to get testy, Mom.” Len stretched his legs on the sofa.
“I’m not testy,” Charlotte said testily. “I just thought you’d be more interested in listening to me read my manuscript. Maybe you think it’s beneath you.”
“Artists.” Len took a breath for his next attack.
“OK, Mom, we’re ready now.” Angie glared bug-eyed at Len. “Percy and I will listen, won’t we, Percy? We can’t wait to hear it. Really.”
Charlotte smiled at Angie and sneered at Len. Then, she began to read aloud.
THE NEW AND IMPROVED ADVENTURES OF PERCIVAL P. PERKINS III AND BONES MALONE
CHAPTER ONE: The Golden Brooch
A solitary figure strolled confidently down an apartment corridor. “Ho, ho. Hum, hum. Oh, I know, I shouldn’t enjoy this so much. What would Mama say? Dear me, wouldn’t the Old Noodle wiggle over this one . . . Hey, what’s this? Could it be the door to Mrs. Markle’s fabulous furnishings? And the lock looks so lonely. ‘Won’t you please pick me, Ollie, pretty please, with easy tumblers on top?’”
As Ollie Ollie Otterson’s banter twittered on, he picked the lock and slipped into the apartment.
“Now, where would she keep that gorgeous golden beetle brooch?” Ollie examined items on the mantel. “What have we here? A vase from some ancient Chinese Dynasty? Well, ting-a-ling-a-Ming. What’s this inside? ‘Handmade by Arnold Fishbeck.’ That’s just toodly-too bad.”
Ollie dropped the vase with a crash on the floor.
“Lenny.” Charlotte slapped her manuscript loudly in her lap. “Len!”
“What?!” Len rose like Dracula from the couch.
“Wake up. It’s not a lot to ask.”
“C’mon, I heard every word.” He rubbed his eyes and yawned.
Charlotte gave him her I-don’t-think-so grimace. “Angie was attentively listening. You were in snooze-ville.”
Angie smiled and batted her eyelashes.
Len gulped some orange juice. “OK, you smarty-pants queens. There’s a goofy-named character doing goofy stuff. Ollie is stealing a golden brooch, just like Bennu keeps talking about.”
Charlotte said, “Bennu keeps talking about Ollie?”
“No, he’s obsessed with some stupid ancient beetle. Something he read about in his nerdy AP history class. Go on, OK?”
At the same time, outside of the Jewel of the Nile Apartments, Captain Henley Hornbrook confided in Percy Perkins. “We overheard some toughs talkin’ about Mrs. Markle’s rather loaded jewelry box: ‘Nobody can get at it, no sir,’ they said. Then one of ’em said ‘Nobody ’cept the Master.’ We was certain they meant that schemin’ bandit himself, Otterson. So we sent for you and came over ourselves.”
“Tsk, tsk,” Percy said, bopping his round derby that looked like a hamburger sitting on his head. “That Otterson is such a scalawag. As the brown book says, ‘You can’t tell a crook by his collar.’ Hornbrook, you take a few men up to the roof. While you set up, I’ll get my supplies and grab my dear friend Delilah Hob.” After opening the trunk of his magnificent brand-new 1927 Pierce-Arrow automobile, the renowned detective threw some rope over his shoulder and then picked up a six-pound turtle. He said, “Thanks for the offer to help, Delilah,” and put a rolled-up flag in her mouth.
With Hob and hemp in hand, Percy walked over to the lawn just below Mrs. Markle’s second story window, passing his friend and unWatsonian sidekick, Bones Malone, with a wink.
While Percy tied one end of his rope to Delilah Hob, he asked Bones to hold the other end. Rhythmically, Percy swung the rope back and forth until the brave turtle sucked all appendages into battle-ready absence. Then he flung the rope, and Delilah crashed precisely into the center of Mrs. Markle’s living room. Instantly, Delilah thrust out her legs and the flag, which read, “Surrender, Ollie!”
As Bones tugged on the rope and pulled the turtle back outside, a startled Ollie Ollie Otterson saw Percy out the window and sprinted out the door. He ran swiftly down to the locked stairwell door (Rattle. Bam! “Oh Mama!”) and frantically up to the roof (“I made it, Mama. Ain’t I brave?”). Wheezing heavily, Ollie ran right into the waiting arms of Hornbrook’s men in blue.
All’s well that the cooks don’t spoil, eh Bones?” Percy said in triumph, adjusting his pince-nez.
“To tell the truth,” answered Bones, “I am kinda hungry.”
The two comrades-in-snooping hopped into the Pierce-Arrow and sped away. Before Percy’s familiar green vest was out of sight, one policeman wondered aloud, “How does he do it? How does he know?”
Captain Henley Hornbrook tapped the tobacco tightly into his pipe. “As you might reckon, the question ain’t easily answered. Percival P. Perkins III is unlike most mortals. He draws upon waterfalls of knowledge, rivers of ancient wisdom (though not always well channeled), his own splish-splashing intelligence, streams of experience, flowing athletic skill, and he has a knack for being dry when everyone else is all wet. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that Percy is a cat.”
“Well, what do you think?” Charlotte had a way of asking this question that, to Len, snapped her in an instant from her role as Mom to her position as Professor of English at Willamette Community College.
Angie cocked her head. “I love it that you named the main character Percy after lil’ ol’ Percy here. It makes me think we have a real celebrity living in our own house.” She held a hand up to Len, as if to say, “Don’t you start in.” “I can’t believe he was a stray just a few weeks ago.” Angie rubbed the orange cat under his chin, and he lifted his head for more.
Inspired, Len scratched his own chin and pulled on the lonely whiskers growing there. “Thanks for sharing, Ang. That’s so special. Anyway, Mom, it’s not a bad start. I don’t get why you’re writing about talking animals. Is this just a comic book thingy or are you trying to ‘bury pop-philosophical ideas behind a playful facade’? I learned how to say that in McEachen’s class, too. I dunno. I think you need to work a bit on character development or something.”
Angie said, “Oh, Len, you can be so negative.”
“It’s not that I don’t like it,” said Len. He sat up and congratulated himself on this show of support. “You wanted critique, right?”
“Don’t worry about it. I get criticized by my students all the time. I’m fine.” Len knew she wasn’t. Charlotte straightened her pages and rose abruptly from her chair. “Just let me know when you like something, OK, Lenny?”
“Mom, please stop calling me Lenny. I keep telling you to call me Len. I’m not a kid anymore.” He stood and went eye to eye with her.
“You’re right. I keep forgetting. And you only remind me a hundred times a day.”
Len looked away and saw Angie wince. At first he thought Angie was taking his side, feeling his pain—and then he realized that, of course, Angie was objecting to the bickering.
As Charlotte walked out, Len stuck his hands in his jeans and called after her. “If a hundred times isn’t enough, Mom, you just let me know. I could make it a thousand.”
He winced back at Angie and left the room.