Trivial Pursuits {?} - Chapter 11, Part 1

She thought it was a mouse—the limp, dark gray little sack of a creature hanging upside down in the cat’s mouth as he rammed through the cat-door headfirst, like a diver anticipating a belly flop.

It wasn’t supposed to look quite like this. The cat flap was supposed to be spacious enough to permit a free range of movement in a normal-sized cat, allowing the cat to simply walk through. But for an overfed, borderline obese animal like Cataclysm, it was a tight squeeze, and this gave the whole thing an additionally creepy effect. He was struggling, with an odd undulating movement—a sort of half-writhe, half paddle--to propel his massive body through the small plastic aperture without forfeiting his kill. Finally, he managed to wriggle himself through, mouse intact, his fatness clearly contradicting his need for additional rodent calories.

She screamed, naturally. “Damn it, Cat! Get out of here with that!”

Greg, who was given to embarrassingly heavy-handed wordplay, had named the cat Cataclysm in an attempt to be clever. Yet most of the time, they lazily defaulted to the abbreviated Cat. Amy found it amusing that Greg’s effort at original, distinctive cat naming had essentially been neutralized into the most generic cat moniker ever. “It’s like we never even named him at all,” she liked to tease.

Greg had installed the cat door as a convenience, so they wouldn’t have to constantly open and close doors at the whims of the incredibly fickle Cat. But he hadn’t considered that allowing the animal this degree of freedom would bring other, undesirable consequences, like the parade of dead animals Cat insisted on bringing home as trophies. Most of the time, this type of event seemed to occur on Amy’s watch.

“Get out, get out!!” she screamed, trying to steer Cat back out the door as he stubbornly progressed toward the living room. When her screams finally managed to startle him, he did the worst possible thing: he dropped the mouse at her feet. Worse yet, it was still alive. Skirting past her, it slipped under the couch, every movement sheer horror.

She screamed again, with near-apoplectic panic, feeling every bit like the pre-feminist cartoon of the lady who squeals at the sight of a mouse and jumps onto a chair. She was not proud of it, but lately she’d gotten used to doing things she wasn’t proud of. This was nothing.

“Shit,” she shrieked. She knew, logically, that a mouse couldn’t harm her, except possibly through subtle germ-spreading means. But logic got pushed out the cat door the moment Cat had waddled through it with a wild animal in his mouth.

She knew the mouse was under the couch, and that she’d need to move it aside if she was going to snare the thing. Why was Greg never home at times like this? Somehow, he always managed to be absent when it mattered, physically or otherwise.

She could feel herself trembling as she prepared to make her move. Cat was sniffing her curiously; he seemed delighted that she was participating in his favorite game, like it was a team sport, like there’d be a paw hi-five if they succeeded.

She thought about how the scenario would play out. She would move the couch aside, and one of several things would happen. First off, the mouse would be there. That alone was hideous. All of a sudden, what was concealed and abstractly known to her would be in plain sight. Just revealing the thing seemed unbearable to her. Second, it would, more than likely, do something; it would respond. Most likely it would run, or even worse, it would jump. Perhaps it would make squeaking noises. Possibly Cat would jump in and continue his sadistic horror show in her living room.

And yet, it needed to be handled. Greg would be at his friend Marc’s house playing Trivial Pursuit for another hour. She reminded herself: you’ve looked into your own daughter’s lifeless eyes. You sat with your daughter while Greg called an ambulance for P.J. And you knew, as you sat with her, that the hospital would also be contacting a funeral home. You knew she was dead.

Cataclysm the cat had been there that night, too. He’d loved P.J., and had quickly put to rest their early concerns of rivalry and resentment and other old wives’ tales about cats and babies. He was always tentative and gentle toward her, despite her frequent habit of grabbing his ears in her little fists and twisting them, laughing delightedly. He would often sleep just outside her crib, as though standing guard over her.

That night, when it happened, Cat was outside, conceivably on one of his hunting expeditions. During the confusion, someone must have let him in; this was prior to the installation of the cat door. He’d found Amy in the living room, cradling P.J. in her arms in shocked silence.

When a tragedy happens that changes your life, the memory tends to do a strange thing. You don’t necessarily recall the more dramatic, life-altering moments, the elements that make up the obliterating loss, the irrevocable grief. What will haunt you instead are the strange little details, the moments in which the ordinary facts of your ordinary life collide with the immense, the unfathomable. For even in the face of the most hideous, heart-stopping losses, the banality of daily existence churns on; clocks tick, weather forecasts are made, coffee is measured out in scoops. It’s in these moments, the moments in which inconceivable tragedy intersects with quotidian details, that the tragedy becomes your own. It’s the details that personalize it. Yes, the hugeness of tragedy is always there, it will hover around you always, but it eventually will fade into the abstract, will be shared by every other person who has lost, will be jointly owned by every sad movie, by every tragic news story. But those lesser details, the smaller moments that make every other day forgettable, will on that day be fused with meaning, will be stamped on your memory, will become for you the shape and the story and the fingerprint of your devastation.

For Amy, that moment was when Cat found her there with P.J.’s limp body. Amy was crying soundlessly, not bothering to stop the tears that were running sloppily into her mouth. P.J.’s warm heft was different, she knew that; there was no longer the pleasant restlessness, the stirring and squirming that happened even as she slept.

Cat had come directly up to them, and had begun to purr, as he always did, upon greeting P.J. Of course he couldn’t possibly understand.

“Go away, Cat,” she said blankly. But he came up to P.J.’s chubby little face, and rubbed his own against hers. It was a gesture of unmistakable affection, and it opened up the chasm of emptiness for Amy, showing her the vastness of this brand new emptiness. She released a choking sob that startled even her.

“Cat! Get out,” Greg yelled, frightened by Amy’s reaction, grabbing the cat and locking him in the bathroom. As she waited that evening for the ambulance, she remembered the muffled, steady sound of the cat crying to be let out. It was an utterly familiar sound; the sound of life as she knew it. That would be the problem; life as she knew it would continue, long after she ceased to know it at all.

“I guess it’s just you and me, pal,” she said now to Cat, who looked on expectantly, eager for her to finish the hunt. She could do this. If she couldn’t do this, then the suffering she’d endured, the horror she’d seen, was as worthless as it was devastating. This, to her, was unacceptable.

She grabbed an empty Kleenex box, which was the only receptacle she could find for her current purpose. With her trembling hands, she slowly scraped the legs of the couch to one side. She prepared herself for the situation of no mouse, no mouse, no mouse, and then suddenly – mouse. Her heart was beating furiously as the moment approached.

And then, there it was, dead—face-up, the claws of its little paws clenched in what seemed to be a paroxysm of terror.

Apparently it had crawled under her couch to die in peace, but it clearly hadn’t. In those brief moments, when she was steeling herself for the unwelcome sight of having a mouse under her couch, the mouse was dying in terror. She sighed, both with relief and something like regret. Cat, oblivious to the gravity of life and death, of having dispatched this creature from the mortal coil, of dignity and bravery, casually tapped the limp rodent with his paw, as if bidding it to reanimate itself so he could kill it again.

Now that she had a moment or two to look at it, she realized that it wasn’t, in fact, a mouse. It was a close relative to the mouse, the vole, which she’d only become familiar with since they’d moved to the suburbs. Voles had stouter bodies, rounder ears, and short, stubby, velvety tails – the main distinguishing feature from the long, thick, bald tail of the mouse. She much preferred the vole, although ideally she preferred neither to be dead under her couch right now. She’d always been especially freaked out by mouse tails, which almost looked to her like snakes tacked on to the end of an animal she was already scared enough of; it was like a composite of all of her fears.

The vole: yes, she remembered Greg talking about this animal. Even though it looked like a mouse, it was actually part of a subfamily called arvicolonae, which also included lemmings and muskrats.

“Lemmings are the ones who all walk off the cliff together, right?” Amy remembered asking him, the day he’d felt so compelled to discuss the various habits and characteristics of the vole. She was fascinated by lemmings.

“Yes. Voles don’t do that, but they have their own distinct behaviors that are quite interesting,” he said. “The prairie vole, for example, is extremely monogamous. Scientists study the prairie vole for its fierce commitment to mating for life.”

She remembered this particular trivia lecture well. It was last winter. At that time, she hadn’t yet taken up with Lynette, but was thinking about it, and felt strongly pulled by the tug of something new and exciting. Everything that happened, therefore, seemed to be a vote for or against the thing she wanted to do. The whole world, including innocent trivia questions and dumb little prairie voles, were part of a referendum on her self-absorbed dilemma.

“The male prairie vole mates for life with the female he loses his virginity to,” Greg said. “And not only does he remain faithful to this female, but a mated male has also been known to attack any extraneous female that approaches him. He defends the couple against potential home-wreckers.”

What a guy, this male vole! He didn’t stop at a polite no, thanks; he drove the point home by kicking some vole temptress ass. Certainly, among heterosexual males of any species, this was an unheard of level of not just commitment, but of lofty disapproval, of offense: what did you take me for? Mr. Vole seemed to be saying. Listen here; I’m not that kind of vole. To Amy, it seemed excessive: it had the overwrought feel of a homophobic straight man beating up on an unwitting gay guy who simply offers to buy him a drink. Defending himself against the implied insult more than anything else--having something to prove.

For the human male, to be approached by an attractive female is hardly an insult; quite the opposite. Most likely, Amy thought, the human male would not even be insulted, or even threatened, by an attractive female approaching his wife. He would be flattered that his wife was sexy enough to attract a sexy woman; he would be turned on by the new, exciting woman. Most men, she thought, would at least smirk with momentary satisfaction if a gorgeous woman came up to him and announced that she wanted to kill him. The key word, at least for a second or two, would be want.

Check out previous chapters of Trivial Pursuits {?} right here.

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