I didn’t process my husband’s question for a moment, as I was completely engaged in trying to decipher a recipe. I understand cooking instructions about as well as the nuclear launch codes, but it was Thanksgiving weekend, and I was determined to contribute something to our autumnal bounty.
“Shadow? I haven’t seen him all morning,” I replied while hacking away at a brick of brown sugar with a carving knife.
Shadow was our cat. Or rather, we were Shadow’s humans. He ran the house, and, as long as that was clearly understood, we were free to meet his every demand. Upon reflection, I realized I hadn’t stepped over him in hours. A search was initiated, and I immediately heard the concern in my husband’s voice when he announced, “Here he is.”
Shadow was in Bob’s closet, crammed into the farthest corner he could reach. My heart dropped when I saw the clouded look in his eyes. I crawled toward him and extended my hand. Instead of the cheek rub and throaty purr I had come to love, he was still and silent. Something was wrong.
Bob leaned in and got hands on him, drawing him slowly forward with gentle words of reassurance. When the cat came into the light, the problem became clear. One side of Shadow’s face was bloated out so far he could only squint with that eye. His fur bore a long, angry-looking slash mark that parted the perfect black sheen of his coat. Bob tilted Shadow’s head as gently as possible and whispered, “Who’d you get this from, Shad?” The lump was warm to the touch, an infection for sure.
As a former resident of the streets, Shadow had learned to defend himself and usually gave better than he got when he tangled with a fellow feline. But this round would go to his opponent.
Remembering the holiday weekend, I called our vet’s office with little hope of a response. Sure enough, I got a recorded message, directing me to call the emergency vet in another town. After a description of what we were facing, the vet said, “Yep, sounds like he’s got an abscess. Can you get him here?”
“Here” was twenty miles up the interstate, but there was no discussion. Of course we were going.
I cradled Shadow in my arms without resistance and felt a stab in my heart when he just lay motionless, no meow, no leaning into me in affection. He was one sick kitty. “Do you want the carrier?” Bob was putting on his jacket, one foot heading to the cellar stairs, but I shook my head.
“He doesn’t have the strength to go anywhere,” I answered. “I’ll just hold him.”
“This will be the first long drive in the new car,” Bob mentioned as we went out the door.
The new car was a beauty, a Jeep Grand Cherokee that Bob had brought home less than a week ago. It was midnight blue with a gray interior and rode like you were sitting on the living room couch.
We joined a steady traffic flow of holiday travelers. Shadow was still as a statue in my lap, showing none of his usual curiosity about his surroundings. My husband and I spoke softly to each other, the concern for our beloved pet hanging heavy between us.
We had only gone ten miles when I felt a strange sensation of warmth on my leg. The next moment brought a downright uncomfortable feeling of something wet. I shifted Shadow a few inches to investigate my left leg and was startled into immobility by what I saw. Shadow’s abscess had ruptured. The vicious claw mark from his adversary had opened, and bright green goop was pouring from his face onto my jeans.
“Bobby! Look!” I had found my voice and was trying not to frighten the animal in my lap, while simultaneously spurring the man next to me to do something. Anything.
Bob managed to keep the Jeep in the lane while stealing glances at my predicament. A second later, my problem became our problem when the smell of the cat’s infection ballooned in the vehicle. (Marriage is all about sharing, you know.) Think of the most vile, putrid thing you have ever smelled. Think of the time your child left a gallon of milk in the trunk of the car in June and you didn’t find it until August. Or when your son came home at Christmas and opening his duffle bag confirmed for you that he had yet to find the college laundromat. You could bottle that and call it perfume in comparison to what had, by now, filled the interior of the Jeep. I was fighting a losing battle to contain both the cat and the slime on my lap, rather than let it contaminate the interior of the new car.
“Do we have paper towels?” I was hissing at my husband through clenched teeth, in an effort to not breathe through my nose or open my mouth too much.
“Not so much as a Kleenex,” he responded.
For his part, Shadow had sat up straighter and was showing signs of life. In fact, the lessening pressure on his face was making him feel so much better, that he decided to hurry the process along by rocking his head back and forth. Quickly. Streams of the green stuff flung around the cabin, hitting the dashboard, the roof, the side windows and me. Bobby, benefitting from a life spent in emergency response, managed to duck and dive around the bombardment, all the while keeping us in the center of the road. It was as if his body had gone into a serpentine pattern—moving targets and all that. He was making fish-like movements with his mouth and, I felt sure, thinking fondly of his firefighting gear in the back.
I was desperate to get the cat to sit still. “Shadow! No!” I held him tighter and felt the sticky gunk seep deeper into my sleeves. I considered opening a window, but was too fearful of Shadow deciding he no longer needed medical attention and jumping. My eyes began to water and my Eggos were gonna leggo of my intestinal track in another minute. My husband and I looked at each other in that special, unspoken language of long-time couples. My message to him was, “I don’t care if they ban you from owning as much as a skateboard for the rest of your life. Do whatever you have to do to get to that vet’s office.”
The marriage mind-meld was intact, for, a moment later, the Jeep started eating pavement like a hobo on a hotdog. I think we took the final turn on two wheels and screeched to a stop at the door of the animal clinic. In dismay, I counted six other cars already parked.
When we walked in the door, Shadow now ruining the front of Bob’s favorite leather jacket, it was their noses, both human and animal, that turned every head to us. A cloud of green air floated around us. My jeans were blackened and shiny, hair matted, jacket sleeves bearing evidence of an apparent battle with a vat of pistachio pudding. All was silent. When the door opened and the assistant questioned, “Who’s next?” every finger came to us.
Shadow survived that day—and many more battles—to live out his years with us. Since then, Barnes Family tradition dictates that every new vehicle is christened with floor mats, an Atlas, and paper towels.
Lots of paper towels.