Mr. Rubits and The Cat

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When I was little, there was a man living next door to me by the name of Mr. Rubits. He was entirely bald but for two scraggly chunks of hair poking out of his puckered scalp above each ear, like a pair of dead thorn-bushes. In contrast, he sported a badly overgrown beard and neglected sideburns, not to mention the long tendrils of prickly black hair extending from each nostril like the feelers of a beetle.

When I was too young to be left home alone, my mother had Mr. Rubits look after me while she was at work, despite my adamant protests. Every day I trudged over to his house with slow reluctance, and he waited for me on his front porch, his eyes squinting against the dim morning sun and a wooden pipe clenched tightly between his yellow teeth, always inexplicably unlit.

Mr. Rubits's cat delighted me from the moment I first laid eyes on the scruffy little thing. Its owner had never taken the time to think of a good name for him, and so was always referred to simply as The Cat. It was a shy little thing, wide eyes always darting around anxiously. Usually it cowered underneath Mr. Rubits's rickety old rocking-chair, its tail twitching like a snake in its death throws. I tried countless times to coax it out, but the animal would only eye me distrustfully and kneed its sharp claws on the dirty beige carpet.

The Cat would only emerge from its nook under the chair for food. Every couple of days, or whenever he remembered, Mr. Rubits emerged from the pantry with a can of sardines and worked the lid off with a pocket-knife. The rancid stench of the vile fish wafted across the room to where the starving animal hid. It slunk slowly out of its hiding place, its belly pressed against the floor, ears flattened down on its head, eyes wide and alert. A string of drool dangled precariously from the side of its mouth.

Mr. Rubits smiled sweetly at The Cat, revealing sparse and rotted teeth. “Come on, you,” he cooed earnestly. “Come get the nice fish.”

The Cat approached warily, a thin line of hair sticking straight up like a dorsal fin off of its bony spine. Its whiskers quivered as it crept forward with claws extended, closer, closer, until its pink nose just barely brushed the jagged edge of the can, and then, very slowly, it opened its mouth and took a bite of fish.

With a grunt of effort, Mr. Rubits brought his foot forward and kicked The Cat sharply in the ribs, sending the animal flying wildly across the room, legs sprawling in all directions, awful screeches tearing from its throat in fury and humiliation. It hit the floor with a loud thump and disappeared in a flash of gray back under the chair, shaking like a leaf in the wind.

A loud, cackling laugh erupted from Mr. Rubits's mouth, resembling the ugly rasps of a crow. He put his hands on his knees and laughed and laughed until his face was bright pink and his breath came in wheezing gasps. Then he threw the can of sardines at The Cat. It struck the side of the chair and spilled out slimy fish and their foul-smelling juices onto the floor. Still chuckling hoarsely, Mr. Rubits hobbled out of the room.

The Cat, terrified and demeaned, crawled ashamedly to the overturned can and began lapping at the fish. I heard the tiny bones crunching under its sharp teeth as the emaciated creature devoured its meager meal.

How I pitied the poor animal. Once, when Mr. Rubits's loud snores announced that he had fallen asleep in his recliner, I decided it was my civic duty to free The Cat. Determination flashing in my bright young eyes, I flung the front door open wide, and golden sunshine streamed in and brightened the dim gray room.

“Go on,” I whispered to The Cat, visible only as a pair of shining eyes staring out from under the chair. “You can escape and live off the mice. You'll be free. He won't ever hurt you again.”

But The Cat just stared fearfully at the open door, tasting the sweet spring air wafting into the room and crouching lower in its roost under the chair. I continued to call to it, but The Cat stayed rooted firmly in place.

Frustrated, I grabbed a dusty old broom, squeezed behind the chair, and gave The Cat a gentle nudge. It growled in annoyance but didn't budge. I tried again, this time with a quick swat. The animal arched its back, hissed ferociously, and moved a few steps farther away from me before sitting back down.

Angered that The Cat was rejecting my act of kindness, I smacked the creature harder in the rump with the broom. It let out a squawk of surprise and darted out from under the chair, avoiding the open door and instead hiding in a corner. I chased the terrified and confused animal around the room for several minutes, while the peaceful snores of Mr. Rubits drifted in uninterrupted from the other room, before finally managing to force it out the door. The Cat ran off into my mother's lush vegetable garden next door and disappeared, its tail vanishing behind it like a ribbon of smoke.

The next day, Mr. Rubits once again scrounged up a rank can of sardines from his cupboards and called out to The Cat. No one came. He called several times, his voice sugary and full of false love, but there was no movement from under the chair. I stood beside him wearing my best poker face, watching in silence.

Scowling, Mr. Rubits crouched down on all fours, his arthritic knees creaking in protest underneath him, and stuck his head under the chair. “Cat?” he called. “Come on, Cat, you under here?”

He sat there for a long time, searching for a creature which was obviously gone, eyes hopelessly scanning the small space, over and over. When he finally stood up, I thought I glimpsed an expression of genuine sadness hovering over his haggard old face, before it returned to its usual grimace of general irritation. He limped on wobbly legs out of the room, more slowly than usual, his eyes cast downward at the filthy grayish carpet, not even noticing the slime dripping from the open sardine can all over his hand. For a moment, I almost felt sorry for him.

“He'll be back,” I heard him mutter under his breath. “He can't survive without me. Probably be back tomorrow. All cold and scared. He'll be back tomorrow.”

But The Cat did not return the following morning, and it did not return the day after that. The days turned into weeks and the weeks into months, and still The Cat ran free.

“Probably got himself killed,” Mr. Rubits told himself with strained apathy. “Stupid da** beast.”

I didn't think The Cat was dead, though. There were plenty of mice and rabbits for it to eat, as they swarmed to munch on the crisp vegetation of my mother's garden, despite the feeble wire fence she'd erected around it, and our small and sparsely-traveled street made the chances of the animal being killed by traffic slim to none.

I hoped The Cat was happy, wherever it was. I felt proud of myself for freeing the defenseless animal. A real heroine, that's what I was. The empty space under the rocking-chair made my eyes shine with triumph.

And then, The Cat came back.

I could hear it meowing loudly at the door, like a solicitor knocking impatiently. I opened the door and there it was, perched on the tattered welcome mat like a king on a throne. The past few months had been kind to it, for it was now fattened up on plump mice, and its fur had filled in more and was carefully cleaned. It was no longer a mangy-looking bag of bones. The Cat was beautiful.

Gently, I reached out to pet it. The animal recoiled instinctively at first, and I froze with my hand in midair. Then, hesitantly, The Cat leaned its head forward into my waiting palm. I stroked its soft ears, my smile beaming brighter than the summer sun. The Cat purred luxuriously.

“Well, I knew you'd be dragging your sorry butt back here one day, didn't I?” Mr. Rubits reached out from where he'd been standing behind me and snatched The Cat up by the scruff of its neck. It meowed angrily in protest.

“Be quiet, you pathetic piece of s***.” He tossed The Cat roughly onto the floor and kicked it hard in the head. “Why'd you run off?” he demanded. “Why'd you leave me when I took good care of you? You little s***, you're not going to leave me again!”

His foot connected again with The Cat's small skull, and I saw a flash of bright red blood. “Stop!” I cried, tears spilling out from my terror-widened eyes. “Stop it, you'll kill him!”

I don't think he could even hear me. His face was stretched taut and his eyes bulged from their sockets. Over and over he kicked The Cat where it lay helpless on the floor, his lip curled up in a vicious snarl, and I heard the crack of fragile bones snapping in two. I screamed and sobbed in absolute horror, but his eyes never left The Cat's broken body, limp as a wet rag as it quivered under each crippling blow.

With a final roar like that of some untamed beast, he threw The Cat against the wall and stormed out of the room, his face blood-red and his breathing hard and labored. The shattered mass of bloody fur slid down onto the floor, leaving crimson streaks on the wall's white paint. A puddle of blood oozed from its shredded skin where jagged bones had ripped through, and the carpet grew soaked in red. The Cat lay still.

***


Mr. Rubits died of a heart attack two weeks later. His final breaths were choked by the rank stench of the rotting animal in the next room, suffocating him in his own tortured guilt. I dreamed that he begged the empty room for forgiveness, but there was no reply. They found his yellowing corpse gaping blankly up at the ceiling like a petrified fish, one hand clawing at his now-silent heart, the other reaching upward desperately, fingers straining and pulling but unable to stretch any more, like he was trying to touch the face of God.

The Cat and its master are dead, each no less so than the other. But in life, their hearts beat one and the same, twin pulsations of a single twisted entity, two mirrors facing each other and reflecting into infinity. They died the same death, and for the same cause. Their story will be repeated until the end of time.

Or the end of love.

“Odit verus amor, nec patitur, moras.”
“True love hates, and does not suffer, delay.” -Seneca





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