WASHINGTON, D.C. — I have just written a check. It is for $400, an amount that seems commensurate with the offense for which it atones. I have sent it to Tom the Butcher, my editor.
Some time ago, Tom warned me that he would dock me money if I ever again wrote about my horrible cat, Barnaby. He had my best interests – and, frankly, yours – in mind. I had written seven times within a year about Barnaby. It was enough. Even I understood it. This issue has remained a sort of a joke between Tom and me, and when I last week mentioned Barnaby in a column, he graciously ignored his threat.
And yet, the following occurred yesterday, in the life of someone who makes a living writing columns and is perpetually in desperate search of subject matter:
I went to my veterinarian's office. A young woman named Nesha was at the desk.
"I'm here to pick up food I ordered for my cat," I said. "Please do not say out loud how much it costs. You can whisper it if you have to, but I'd prefer if you just put it on the bill and leave the amount unarticulated. You may give me a receipt if you are required to, but I will shred it into tiny pieces and drop it into this trash basket."
Nesha did not seem to think this was at all unusual. She is a professional. But I felt I needed to explain why it was bothering me to shell out the money: "My cat is a complete jackass."
Nesha laughed and so did the two other people in the waiting room. They were apparently cat owners.
When he was a kitten, Barnaby alerted me to a health problem he had. He did it by ceasing to urinate in his litter box, and, instead, using the white porcelain bathtub. The pee was red. He was bleeding and would die fairly soon if I didn't help. It turned out his problem could be solved with specialized food that costs an astonishing amount of money and will continue to cost an astonishing amount of money until he dies, probably when I am 85 and he is 20 and a whiny, drooling incontinent invalid. (Barnaby, I mean.)
My daughter, who is a veterinarian and a small-animal expert, told me this bathtub thing was not uncommon – that cats often somehow instinctively know when and how to ask for help.
It's not that Barnaby is brilliant. He is stupid, but that is not all he is. He is also an incorrigible jerk and a punk, and, when you get right down to it, as a cat, is a preposterous object to have around the house. As I realized recently in the kitchen, he is structurally indistinguishable from a rabbit, an animal people keep in the refrigerator, dismember and eat. He moves smoothly between loving modes and attack modes with no warning. He will attempt to claw you while you are feeding him, which is the opposite of sanity, even in lower life forms. Even maggots probably understand gratitude. When he is hungry, he wakes me at 4 a.m. by jumping from a table onto my groin. He bolts from the house if there is ever a chance of escape, and when he gets outside, he looks around in panic, realizing the world is huge and scary, and runs back inside. Jackass.
The key to cats is that even with their limited IQs, they seem to understand that you love them not despite their flaws but because of them: They are arrogant and conceited, undaunted by the lack of any reasonable claim to arrogance. They seem to mythologize their paltry lives with a constant running heroic narrative – "Here's Barnaby The Great, waking up and coming downstairs!" – and we see that as entertaining and charming, and they realize that gives them license.
Anyway, Nesha, at the vet, just processed my bill. She never said aloud how much it was, for which I am very grateful. That was the deal, and she was a pro. Also, Tom just cashed my check.
Well, OK, he then donated the money to the ASPCA. But he took it. A deal's a deal.