There is something in the unselfish and self-sacrificing love of a brute, which goes directly to the heart of him who has had frequent occasion to test the paltry friendship and gossamer fidelity of mere Man.
I got the healing touch when I was sixteen years old kneeling over my dying cat Benjamin in my bedroom. He was trying to crawl under the bed to die, but I wouldn’t let him, hauling him out and wrapping my body around him, my forehead pressed against his. He was a year older than me. He’d been there my whole life. I couldn’t imagine life without him. He stopped breathing, his heart stopped, and I prayed for him, though I rarely prayed then, and I never pray now, squeezing him, imprinting my will on him, picturing him raised from the dead, alive and well. I didn’t know what else to do, sobbing, absolutely heartbroken, torturing myself with Joan Baez singing “Old Blue” on the stereo:
… Old Blue died and he died so hard
Shook the ground in my backyard
Dug his grave with a silver spade
Lowered him down with links of chain
Every link I did call his name
Here Blue, you good dog you
Here Blue, I’m a-coming there too!
Benjamin stirred under my hands, his heart beating hard and steady against my palm. I released him, and he rose and walked to the door, his tail erect. He wanted to go out. An hour later, he wanted back in, and he was hungry. He looked good. He looked real good.
I took him to a vet after his healing to get him checked out. I didn’t take him to his regular vet, Dr. Diderada, who Ben had been going to since he was a kitten, figuring he’d never believe this was the same half-blind, stiff-legged neutered tom living on borrowed time he’d basically given up on a week before. I told this new vet Ben was a stray I was adopting, and he guessed him to be about four, in perfect health. All the vets over the years guessed him to be about four, in perfect health. That’s twenty-eight in cat years, not a bad year for me. Benjamin seemingly picked an age he liked and stuck with it. I, meanwhile, kept getting older. I quit taking him to the vet years ago, having exhausted all the convenient ones. Ben was over it, and I couldn’t see spending the money to be reassured semiannually that my cat was immortal. He never even had an ear mite or a flea, as if even the insect world knew he was operating under a special dispensation.
Thirty years later, I was forty-six, and I still had Benjamin. I’ll do the math for you. He was forty-seven. That’s 329 in cat years. Even if you gave him nine lives, that made each one more than thirty-six years. No. Benjamin was not a normal cat.
Back when Ben was seventeen, my parents readily believed Dr. Diderada had resurrected him with some good vitamin supplements. They were wish-upon-a-star, somewhere-over-the-rainbow kind of people, but even they wouldn’t believe a forty-seven-year-old cat. After I left home, I didn’t see them on my own turf very often, but I always lied and said Ben was a new cat. They thought I was odd for naming every cat Benjamin, but they already knew I was odd—I was their son. It helped that Ben was a fairly generic gray tabby with white boots and a nondescript meow. My ex-wife Penny knew Ben for seven years, living with him for five, but she never noticed he never aged. She wasn’t a cat person. She wasn’t any kind of animal person I ever discovered. She liked watching monkeys in the monkey house, but that’s not the same, is it? I know it sounds weird, but that’s one of the reasons we broke up. I just couldn’t be with somebody who didn’t like animals. When it came down to it, she didn’t like people all that much. Which makes sense—people are animals, smart, worrisome animals, but still animals.
Anyway, she peacefully coexisted with Ben, and he was never an issue. I never dated anyone else more than a year or so, and nobody who spent much time around Ben. Then at forty-six, I started going out with Shannon. That didn’t last long—the just going out. Our third date started Friday at four—she took off work an hour early—and ended Tuesday at noon. I told Benjamin it was the closest to a resurrection I’d experienced in my life, and maybe it would help me understand him better. He pointed out, however, that death was a necessary precondition of resurrection. He played dead and sprang back to life, a favorite trick of his, flicking his smartass tail. I’ve always talked to Ben. He hasn’t always answered.
For some time, Shannon and I had been practically living together, shuttling back and forth between our houses, but she preferred my place because Benjamin lived there. Benny Boy, as she called him. If he’d been a man, I would’ve been insanely jealous. To say they hit it off is to say Juliet was sort of into Romeo. He was equally passionate about her.
This was all good. She loved me too, Benny Boy’s lifelong companion and confidante, the cleaner of the cat box, the keeper of the can opener, not to mention healer extraordinaire. But then she started asking questions. “Isn’t he due for a checkup? Shots or something?”
I made the mistake of just putting her off, and then she saw a little reminder card from one of Benny Boy’s many vets in my mail, this one saying he was at least eight years overdue on just about everything. So she called and made an appointment. That’s kind of how Shannon was, which was one of the many things I liked about her, except insofar as it pertained to Benjamin, because I’d always figured that sooner or later reality was going to catch up with me. It was like I made a deal all those years ago that I couldn’t handle my cat dying right then, but Some Day there’d be no choice, and it would hurt even worse when it finally came. But somehow, if I could just keep his death and persistent life a secret, nothing had to change.
“How old is he?” Shannon asked when they met. About four, I said, never anticipating I’d be caught in my convenient lie. So how could he be eight years behind in his shots? I feared every step I took down this road with Shannon meant Some Day was coming soon. But I couldn’t stop myself. I couldn’t stop her. Benjamin, closed up in his carrier, in his stoic, dignified way, neither stopped nor started, but was carried along by the tide of events—and by his carrier of course—to the vet.
• • • •
Ben enjoyed crowded veterinary waiting rooms, the more crowded the better. He delighted in the spectacle. This day, there was a special treat, a harlequin Great Dane lurching about out of control, his suited keeper helpless to stop him from sticking his great nose in the random crotch, body-blocking anyone coming in the door, terrifying every animal in the place—and I’m including humans as animals—except Ben who watched from inside his carrier, purring, purring, the deep rumbling purr I know as laughter. Ben enjoyed watching foolishness. He saw a lot of it at his age.
“He’s so calm,” Shannon marveled, peering inside his carrier, stroking his untroubled brow with her finger, keeping a wary eye on the Dane. “Is he always this calm?”
“Oh yes,” I reassured her, and then we were next, and she wanted to go in too, and how could I refuse?
• • • •
After a lengthy examination, the vet, a kind, fatherly gentleman, maybe a decade older than Ben chronologically, but a mere child in cat years, broached the subject cautiously. He looked over the end of his reading glasses, up from Ben’s near-empty record of perfect health. “According to our records, I last examined Benjamin twelve years ago?”
I couldn’t lie, not with Shannon beside us scratching Ben’s head with both hands the way he likes, waiting for my answer. “Yes.”
“Which makes Ben”—he looked back at the record—“nineteen?” He couldn’t quite keep the incredulity out of his gentlemanly voice. Shannon’s hands froze on Ben’s noble head. All eyes were on me. Even Ben’s.
Ben and I had liked this guy, so we stuck with him for three years. The math checked out. He was the last. Ben was thirty-five, ready to do without vets—the shots and the thermometer up his ass anyway. He found the rest interesting. At least I wasn’t dealing with Ben’s first vet. No bluff possible there. “That’s right,” I said.
“Would—Would you mind leaving Ben for a few tests? An hour or so? No charge, of course.”
Ben gave me an unmistakable look. No fucking way is a precise translation. “I’m afraid not,” I said.
“Why not?” Shannon asked. She’d done a little math of her own. In her reality, Ben was six, tops, and of course, he looked four, as always.
“Nothing’s wrong with him, right?” I asked the vet.
He shook his head no. “Quite the opposite. He’s the healthiest cat I’ll see this year. This is the same cat?”
I considered lying, but couldn’t imagine explaining the lie to Shannon in some way that wouldn’t sound sick or pathetic. “Yes. Same cat.”
“He’s the healthiest nineteen-year-old cat I’ve ever seen—and we don’t see that many. There aren’t even any tartar deposits on his teeth.” He bared Ben’s teeth, pointing with a ballpoint pen at the gleaming fangs, an indignity Ben graciously endured.
“I know. I think he’s had enough for one day.” Ben chimed in with a low moan, that if you know anything about cats means his patience is spent, and you’re in immediate peril from the aforementioned fangs and the hooked razors that sprout from each paw on demand, the envy of every badass who ever lived. The vet got the message immediately, putting him back in the carrier with a fistful of treats.
I wasn’t looking forward to the ride home. No well-timed moan was going to get me out of this one.
• • • •
There was a moment, when Shannon was already in the car and I was about to put Ben in the backseat, when we were alone. I put his carrier on the roof of the car and pretended I was having trouble finding my keys, though I didn’t think Shannon was paying any attention to us. She was staring out the windshield with a determined look on her face. Ben and I spoke in low tones through the bars of his carrier door, our faces inches apart. The traffic flowed by behind me, ignoring me and my cat.
“What do I do?” I asked. “She’ll never believe you’re nineteen.”
“Tell her my real age,” he said.
“But I can’t prove you’re forty-seven. She’ll never believe me.”
“Proof doesn’t matter. You’ll see. She senses I’m no ordinary cat. We have a special bond.”
“Oh please. Does she sense you’re a manipulative little eunuch?”
“For a cat, I’m not so little.” He laughed at his own joke. Cat humor, very sly.
I put him in the middle of the backseat, so he could see out the front like he likes, got in, immediately started the car, and put it in gear.
“How can Ben be nineteen?” Shannon asked.
We were parallel parked, my eyes glued to the side mirror, waiting for a break in the traffic. Following Ben’s advice—I’d never known him to be wrong—I told her. “He’s not,” I began, “he’s forty-seven.” I pulled into traffic.
There were certain advantages to telling the tale while driving. I wasn’t expected to make eye contact; a brisk, even telegraphic style was perfectly acceptable; and she wasn’t inclined to interrupt, argue, or question while I was waiting to make a tricky left turn across a steady torrent of oncoming traffic. The downside was I didn’t have a clue how she was taking it until we were back at my place, and I turned off the engine and looked over at her. You might think she would’ve refused to believe me, end of story, but Shannon wasn’t like that. Neither was she some wacko flake who believed any madness I spouted just because she loved me.
“Okay,” she said. “I want to figure this thing out.” She turned to Ben and looked at him through the bars. Has Benny Boy been keeping secrets from his Shannon? He looked right back. Hell. What did I know? Maybe they did have a special bond.
• • • •
It was early yet, and Shannon had me dig out Ben’s vet records, and while I was making breakfast, she called every vet he’d ever been to. The second one was dead and gone, the third seemed to have left town. She made appointments with the rest, booking Ben solid for the day. I wondered if he figured on this when he told me to tell her the truth. I certainly hadn’t. I checked my credit card balance, and we were off.
I got pretty good at telling the story economically. I left out any mention of prayer as such—there were no priests on our itinerary, only men of science. It was amazing how many incredulous vets remembered Ben. It was the no tartar thing that seemed to impress them most. All of them, however, dismissed immediately the possibility of a forty-seven-year-old cat and denied there was any way he could be the same cat despite the resemblance. One guy got pissed off, like I had something to gain by paying an exorbitant fee for ten minutes of his time to tell him a story I knew he’d never believe. Was he an idiot? Couldn’t he see I was doing it for love? Most of the vets were nice, cutting looks at Shannon—Are you crazy too? Shouldn’t you be getting him help? Shannon just wanted the facts. She examined the records of Ben’s perfect checkups with care, except the pissed-off guy’s; he threw us out before she got the chance.
Ben’s first and favorite vet, Dr. Diderada, interestingly enough, seemed to come closest to believing my story. He was last on Shannon’s itinerary. He probably should’ve retired years earlier. He had a distracted, dreamy quality, like an old cat. He gave us pretty much the same lecture the others had—why it was impossible for a cat to be forty-seven—and certainly not one in Ben’s condition. But this time there was something quixotic about the narrative, some sense that among all the dead and dying cats there might be one who lived forever and never grew old, but of course, you couldn’t expect a scientific professional to speak openly of such a creature.
He bent down, looking Ben in the eye, scratching Ben’s trembling chin with his index finger, in a beckoning motion, as if he hoped to lure the true cat out into the open. “Some cats are special, aren’t they, Benjamin? The world is their oyster.” The combination of the chin scratch and the mention of oysters—one of Ben’s favorites, especially fried—proved irresistibly seductive, and a resonant rumble issued forth from deep inside him so intense it made the gleaming examining table hum like a struck tuning fork, and both Diderada and Ben smiled like the Buddha. The walls behind them were plastered with lurid posters of cat anatomy, the color of rare roast beef. A plastic cat skeleton on a stand smiled too.
Shannon turned away, whispering, “I’ll wait in the car,” and hurried out.
“Lovely woman,” Diderada said.
• • • •
Last stop on Shannon’s fact-finding expedition was a visit to my folks, the only witnesses to Ben’s resurrection I knew how to contact. Any angels who may or may not have been in attendance had steadfastly refused to reveal themselves over the years, and my official policy toward them was blissful ignorance. I managed a cranky ignorance most of the time. I never achieved blissful, though I avoided, for the most part, totally pissed off. Still no angels, no answers. I loved living with Ben, but I didn’t like living with an unfathomable enigma.
Mom and Dad loved Shannon, of course, and didn’t mind at all that she’d called that morning to invite us to dinner. They were also quite delighted to see Benjamin. After their last cat Angelina died at sixteen—toothless, blind, and with daily IVs—they’d decided to forego cats indefinitely, but they missed having a feline presence about the house.
As I mentioned before, my parents weren’t into grappling with reality. They slept under a pyramid and wanted to believe that breathing exercises and dietary supplements and the well-placed crystal would keep them forever young, though down deep they knew better. As much as they liked to flirt with the flaky, they proved immediately resistant to the notion that this Benjamin was the same cat who moved out almost thirty years previously. Metaphorically, spiritually, teleported, time-warped, reincarnated, alien-abducted, cloned, whatever the hell, maybe; but not literally the same cat living his life ever since, one day at a time, a few months past his forty-seventh birthday. That would be crazy.
Ben, who’d had a half-dozen thermometers shoved up his ass already that day, was not overly invested in the proceedings until dessert. He rubbed up against Mom’s legs while she was whipping cream, and when she was done, he stood on his hind legs, his forepaws extended in supplication, and “danced” (an awkward stumbling turn from the usually graceful Ben) and she gave him the beaters. I pointed out they used to go through this identical ritual when I was a kid—Ben got both damn beaters then too—but Mom insisted it didn’t prove anything, that any cat would do the same.
Shannon maintained an aloof silence during all of this, only asking an occasional question, clarifying some detail, never venturing an opinion herself. Over dessert, Mom suggested a therapist she knew. “I went,” Dad said. “I had suicidal thoughts.” He popped a strawberry in his mouth. “Not anymore!”
He told us about his “crisis”—which as far as I could tell consisted of realizing that we all grow old and die. He acted like this would be news to us young people, though he was the one who said, “You’re only as old as you feel, right?” Wrong. Clearly the man had forgotten Angelina. Dad now took antidepressants to make him feel good, guzzled various mood-altering teas Mom bought from websites, and he felt like a new man. I kind of missed the days Dad smoked pot in the basement and thought I didn’t know, while I experimented widely. I’d often speculated that some bizarre conjunction of chemicals in my body expressed in my breath and tears might have affected Ben in some inexplicable way to resurrect him. Might as well believe in fairy dust. God’s will? Divine Plan? Come on. He’s a cat. And if he had a mission on this earth other than enjoying himself with the least possible bother, God failed to inform him of it. Go forth and lick both beaters, my chosen one. I didn’t think so.
“Maybe you’re supposed to be figuring it out for me, Jeffrey,” Ben said once. “You’re the one who cares about this religious crap.” It was true, but I couldn’t figure it out. What possible use could God have for a cat who had so little use for Him? I’ve always wanted to believe but never quite pulled it off except for transitory spasms of awe—what most people call agnosticism. If Ben made God more likely, he also made it more likely that He’s totally batshit nuts. Give me agnosticism any day. And if I wanted something to believe in, my folks always had something new on offer. This time it was some mini-messianic therapist with a nimble prescription pad. My folks were almost becoming conventional.
Shannon was no more interested in hearing about Dad’s rebirth than I was, so we didn’t linger after dessert. At the door, Mom put the therapist’s number in my shirt pocket and gave it a little pat. I couldn’t begin to describe how swell that felt at my age.
Shannon asked one more time, holding him up as Exhibit A, snoozing in his carrier, his face and forepaws sodden from the post-whipped-cream cleaning he’d given himself, “But this does look exactly like the Benjamin you remember, right?”
“Yes, dear,” Mom said. “But it can’t be, can it?” She gave my shirt pocket another pat to let Shannon know she held her responsible for getting her crazy son to a therapist as soon as possible. I would sooner have gone to Dr. Diderada than any therapist my parents would’ve recommended.
• • • •
Shannon was silent all the way home to my place, staring out the window at the night streets like she was a stranger in town feeling homesick. Every once in a while something would snag her vision, and she’d turn and follow it like she’d never seen it before.
I could only imagine what was going through her mind. How did you keep sleeping with a guy who thinks his cat is immortal? How did you let him rub your feet, make you breakfast, adore you, write you bad poetry, without doing something once the miraculous cat was out of the bag? Flee, fix it, lock me up, something. She loved me, loved my cat, even claimed to like my parents. But did she sign on for me being flat-out crazy? I couldn’t imagine so.
I halfway expected her to say she was going to get in her car and drive home, sleep at her place tonight, think things over, dump me tomorrow. Not Shannon.
When we were inside with Ben, she kicked off her shoes, pulled him out of his carrier, and cradled him in her arms, nuzzling his face. She put her whole body into it. It was kind of erotic, actually. “Benny Boy, I wish you could talk,” she said. He just purred like there might be something to this only-as-old-as-you-feel thing. Then she set him down and watched adoringly as he sauntered down the hall to the bed where he slept every night and half the day.
She poured herself a glass of wine. “Want one?”
She poured. A lot. She drank. “I believe you,” she said. “I can’t see you having some weird serial cat fetish. Showing up at all those different vets with different cats over a twenty-year period is just too strange—and for what? So you could convince me now? It has to be the same cat. It has to be Ben. It’s the only thing that makes any sense. Dr. Diderada thought so. Don’t you think?”
I couldn’t believe Ben was right again. I shook my head in wonder. “I did. He said he didn’t, but there was something . . . It was like no time had passed. I was five, I think, the first time I remember seeing Diderada with Ben. He gave me a lollipop when he gave Ben his treat, but Mom wouldn’t let me eat it. Sugar was poison.”
“I bet you were adorable.”
“I was afraid you’d think I was crazy. I’d think I was crazy if I hadn’t been there.”
She laughed, shaking her head. “It was a miracle. A blessing.” She looked me in the eye. “Have you ever tried—You know—”
“No. No way. Once was enough. Once has been more than sufficiently weird enough. I couldn’t deal with it. At first I tried to convince myself it wasn’t Ben who came back that night, but even if an identical cat who acted just like him showed up then, he’d still be thirty—210 in cat years.”
She made a face, unhooked her bra, and pulled it out her sleeve. She hung it on a chair back. “I thought they changed that. That because of medical advances, it’s more like five to one.”
“A hundred and fifty, then. Looks twenty. What’s the difference? He doesn’t age. I can’t explain it.”
“So he’s just stayed exactly the same all these years?”
“Not exactly. He looks the same, but he changes, experiences new things, learns . . .” I almost said evolves, but I stopped myself. I’d said too much already.
“Like what?” She poured more wine for herself. I hadn’t touched mine.
“Uh. Just things in general.”
“Give me an example. One thing he does now he didn’t do when he was seventeen.”
There were dozens of simple things I could’ve recounted, but I couldn’t think of a single one of them. They were all blotted out by the enormous eclipsing mass of what I didn’t want to say: He talks. Would I then go on to explain he’s fluent in English, speaking softly, in a half-whisper, like a breathy purr. Not really built for speech, it took him awhile to perfect his technique. He understood what I said long before he talked back.
Would I go on to explain he reads voluminously, has a passion for discussing politics, and expresses his political opinions in unique ways, like pissing and shitting on every Hummer foolish enough to park on our block?
Should I then tell her the first time he met her he told me, “She’s the one for you, Jeffrey”? That would’ve been way too Son of Sam, don’t you think? Ben suggested from the beginning, and I’d always agreed with him, that any mention of his linguistic abilities to anyone would be a very bad idea, and he’d never spoken clearly in the presence of others except for a stray word or two, easily explained away as a fluke. He was convinced if word ever got out he could talk, he’d be jailed for all eternity or until they finally carved him up to discover his secrets. He’s always had a flair for the melodramatic, but I’m afraid he was right on this one. But how could I not tell her? At that moment, Ben walked back into the kitchen. He gave me the look, the same look he gave me when Dr. Whatsit who started all this with his frigging reminder card wanted to do tests.
“He tells me when his box needs changing,” I offered. “He has a—a special meow.”
She picked up Ben and cuddled with him. “Is that right, Benny Boy? To what do we owe the honor of your company?” She looked over his purring head at me. “I just realized. You’ve lived your whole life with him.” I wasn’t sure what all she meant by that, or what it might mean to her, nor did she care to elaborate. “I’m going to bed now.” I followed her into the bedroom. She put Ben in his usual place, stepped out of her jeans and left them lying on the floor, pulled back the covers and crawled into bed beside him. She was asleep in moments, the two of them breathing in unison.
I got into bed on Ben’s other side.
When I turned off the light, he scolded me in a soft sing-song, “You almost told her.”
“Oh fuck yourself, Ben.”
“Neutered, re-mem-berrrr?” He chuckled softly, enjoying his own humor, enjoying his endless life.
I lay awake listening to them snore together like an old married couple, wondering how these revelations were going to affect our lives, then drifted off. I dreamed Shannon was in a terrible accident, and I healed her, but when she woke up, she no longer spoke, not a word, and she blamed me. You could see it in her eyes, lonely and furious and afraid.
• • • •
In the morning, Shannon came right to the point. “Jeffrey,” she said. “Would you help Aubrey?”
Ben, returning from a crunching good time at the cat food bowl, jumped onto the sofa, and flicked his tail—Careful.
Shannon’s younger brother Aubrey was in a car wreck five years earlier at the conclusion of a high-speed chase involving drugs—both in his person and in the trunk of the car—and he’d been in a persistent coma ever since. Until that moment, he was a mere fact of her existence from before I knew her, like the name of her childhood dog or where she went to high school. She never went to see him. He was as good as dead. There’d be no point. Not until now. Now there’d be a point. “You mean—”
“Heal him. Like you did Benjamin.”
“I didn’t do anything to Benjamin. It was just a weird one-time thing.”
“How do you know? You’ve never tried to do it again. I can’t believe you’ve never tried to do it again.”
There was a light in her eyes that made me uncomfortable. This wasn’t just about Aubrey, who everyone in her family pretty much agreed was an obnoxious little shit whose final, completely typical screw-up was not to have the good sense to die when he had the chance. “Believe it. Listen, Shannon, I think this is a really bad idea.”
“But this is my brother. You could save him. I know you could.”
“Let me think about it, okay? I have to think about it.”
“Okay. How long do you need?”
Some counselor once told impatient Shannon it was okay to ask for clear time limits—deadlines—if it would help her wait more patiently. I’d gotten used to it. She was much more patient with a deadline than without. But this was different. I hadn’t been able to figure this thing out in thirty years—how it happened, why it happened, how I felt about it, anything at all—and she wanted to know how long I needed? Longer than I had obviously. “Tomorrow. Tomorrow night after dinner. I’ll cook. I have a Rachael Ray recipe I want to try with that chicken.”
“You sure it’s still okay? It’s been in there a while.”
“I just bought it a couple of days ago. It’ll be fine.”
“You don’t think I’m being selfish for asking you to help Aubrey?”
“Not at all. How could asking to help somebody else be selfish?”
“If I wasn’t thinking about how it might be hard for you. I don’t want you to do anything you don’t want to do, Jeffrey. I love you. You know that?”
“Okay then. Tomorrow after dinner.” She sipped her coffee. “So you watch Rachael Ray every day?”
“She’s on when I break for lunch. What can I say? She’s hot. You’re going to love this chicken.”
• • • •
To tell you the truth, I couldn’t remember Rachael Ray’s recipe exactly, but it involved some chopped herbs and garlic and olive oil slathered on chicken parts which were then baked. I recalled the close-up of Rachael Ray’s hands slathering breasts and thighs. She was always using her hands. I loved it. I’m a whole bird man myself, but I liked the concept. I figured baked was good, so I wouldn’t be standing over the stove while we were having this discussion. I didn’t expect Shannon to wait until after dinner to bring it up. My tarragon plants looked like they were up to a chicken-size harvest, and I threw in a little white wine, some chopped mushrooms, a dash of nutmeg, some salt, lots of black pepper and crushed garlic, and (of course) extra virgin olive oil. It made a fine green goop.
I’d decided to say no to Shannon’s request that I attempt to resurrect Aubrey. Here was my reasoning: Most important, I suppose, was my gut said no. This was no surprise. It’d been saying no loud and clear for thirty years now—no wavering. But with Shannon’s petition, I’d been forced to rationally examine what I thought about it—in other words, to come up with some likely sounding reasons to validate my gut. If your mind doesn’t work like that, more power to you, and hurray for rationalism and all of that, but for me reason lives to serve the gut. In this case, it was persuasive as usual.
First, I doubted I could do it. When Ben came back to life, I really wanted it to happen. I’d never willed anything so strongly before or since. As for Aubrey, I could try to want his resurrection because Shannon did—though she seemed to have gotten along fine without him in the time I’d known her—but it wasn’t happening. Deep down, I felt if Aubrey were going to make a move, it should be in the other direction. So if my will and desire had anything to do with whatever process brought Ben back to life, there was little chance of success with Aubrey.
Assuming I was able to bring him back to life, the questions just began. Ben regressed from being a dying seventeen-year-old to (by all appearances) a four-year-old, and had remained unchanged for thirty years and counting. Would Aubrey, who had his accident at twenty-six, find himself a permanent six-year-old? What effect would five years of unconsciousness have had on him? And as Ben pointed out, death is a necessary precondition of resurrection. Technically speaking, Aubrey wasn’t dead. He was in that huge gray arena known as, “as good as dead.” Even my silly father had casually described himself thus over dessert the previous night—but there’s no such thing, is there? A prescription and some psycho-babble away from a cure isn’t dead. Nothing’s as good as dead. Dead is unique, no known therapy or cure.
But let’s just say, everything were to go perfectly. Aubrey awakens from his deep sleep a new man of sound mental faculties who lives a long fruitful life and dies at a respectable age like the rest of us, a credit to his species, despite his previous sociopathic tendencies, having seen the light or whatever revelation the resurrected are privy to, and has been utterly transformed by the experience. Did I really want to be the guy who raised him from the dead? I wouldn’t make it out of the hospital before they’d be doing tests on me, driving me out to the cemetery to see what I could really do. No thanks.
I didn’t know why Ben came back to life and continued to live. I hadn’t a clue. Until I figured that out, that’s as far as it went. God might have a plan, in which case I was sure I couldn’t do anything to screw it up, lacking any clear instructions otherwise, but if God had no plan, I didn’t feel obliged to come up with one other than the status quo: Everyone dies. That’s the way things are. Except for Ben.
Would I get a chance to say all this to Shannon after she hears no? Would it matter to her? Would I lose her? That’s all I cared about: I just didn’t want to lose her. I knew I should care about her brother, but to me he was an extra out of an old movie with Geneviève Bujold. I couldn’t bear to lose Shannon, however. As Ben prophesied, she was the one for me. Trouble was, she had just one tiny little favor to ask, and I couldn’t do it.
And there she was, coming in the kitchen door with a bottle of wine, a half hour early, as I should’ve known she would be, and here I was with my hands dripping garlic, olive oil, and tarragon, anointing the chicken inside and out, lost in thought, reasoning and seasoning. If I could only manage to throw the bird in the oven before Shannon rushed straight to The Issue, we could talk while it baked.
She kissed my cheek, careful to avoid my slathered hands, and opened the bottle of wine, giving a half-hearted account of her day. Traffic was lighter than usual, she claimed, to explain her early arrival. I pretended to believe her.
Ben, who’d shown up to observe the preparations the minute I took the chicken out of the fridge, didn’t even glance her way. He was seated on a stool, eye level with his share of the bounty, the bag of innards I always gave him—liver, heart, gizzard—laid out on the cutting board awaiting preparation once the bird was in the oven. He liked them sautéed in butter and garlic with a splash of Worcestershire, devoured them like a lion on the veldt, if the lion had a chef. I kept the neck for making stock. I didn’t treat him to such delicacies often. He liked the Chow, he claimed. “I think they put something in it,” he said. “It’s highly addictive. Perhaps some extract of catnip.” Ben’s always had a serious nip habit, but we all must have our vices, I suppose.
Shannon poured, laughing at Ben’s rapt attention to my labors. She scratched the top of his head, and he lifted it to press against her hand, arched his back to her touch, as her hand glided firmly down his back, but his eyes never left the prize. “I hope you washed your hands,” Shannon said. She held my glass to my lips to give me a sip of wine, careful once again to avoid my glistening green hands and the oily bird. “I’ll put your glass over here.” She set it on the counter out of the way and took the stool next to Ben’s. “So have you thought about Aubrey?”
Damn. “Of course. Let me get this in the oven first, okay? Then we can talk.”
“Okay.” She idly petted Ben a few strokes, growing pensive. She wrapped her hand around his tail, and he slowly pulled it through, like a napkin through a ring. “It must not be yes. If it was yes, you’d just go ahead and tell me.”
As I recalled, the deadline was after dinner. I didn’t count on being elbow deep in dinner when she arrived. “I’m almost done here. I just need to get this stuff off my hands and get the bird in the oven.”
“Why won’t you do it?”
“Can this wait five minutes?”
“I suppose so. I’ve waited five years. We all have. I just can’t believe you won’t . . .”
I body slammed the chicken on the counter and splattered oil and tarragon everywhere. “Believe it! No! The answer is no! I don’t even know I can do anything!”
“You’ve never even tried!” She touched my oily hands.
It was an eerie moment, her ivory hand laid upon mine as if it weren’t smeared with goop, oblivious to the globs clinging to her beige silk blouse. I felt like the Swamp Thing. Somebody loved him too, as I recall. I looked into Shannon’s eyes, and there it was again. The light. She wanted me to try out my powers more than she wanted to save her brother. Let’s face it. Some brothers aren’t missed. But people wait their whole lives to witness a miracle. “Is that what this is all about? You just want to see me do it?”
“Certainly not.” She almost persuaded herself. She didn’t even come close to persuading me. Quite the contrary. It was too much. Years of guilt and mystery and feeling like a freak, and now the love of my life wants me to perform like a dolphin jumping through a hoop—while the saved, the eye of the storm, the miracle kitty, isn’t even watching, waiting only to eat some dead bird’s heart, cooked the way he likes.
“It is, isn’t it? It’s driving you crazy. A gen-u-ine miracle. Your boyfriend—with messianic gifts. How cool is that? Here. You want to see?” I scooped up Ben’s innards waiting to be sautéed and shoved them deep inside the bird, grasped its oily breasts in both hands and waggled it in her face, then held it aloft, clamping my eyes shut, filling my mind with visions of a perfect chicken pecking celestial corn, or whatever it is they peck, cackling its head off, or maybe that was me. Shannon backed away in terror, knocking over her stool. I squeezed harder, imagined more vividly, willed more forcefully. “Come on, you little fucker, live! Live! Live!”
And then I felt it, a squirming, writhing wriggling in my hands, and the bird broke loose, erupted from my grasp and hit the countertop, skittering wildly, huge drumsticks pumping footless oiled extremities across Formica. It was amazing how fast the fucking thing could go under the circumstances. Headless, it darted back and forth unpredictably, careening from coffee pot to toaster oven to food processor to bread machine, ricocheting off each white surface with a slimy green stripe. I lunged for it, caught a drumstick, but I couldn’t hold on. It hit the floor with a sickening smack and kept running. Then out of nowhere, an airborne Ben landed on its back, digging his claws in deep. Nothing could slip from his grasp. He opened his jaws wide and sank his fangs repeatedly into the bird’s thighs and chest, tearing away huge hunks of flesh and swallowing them whole, but still the bird struggled. The battle raged on, with the thing writhing to get free until Ben had consumed all but the bones. He stuck his head deep into the chest cavity, pulled out the still-beating heart, and devoured it in one bite.
There was a huge clatter behind me, and Shannon screamed again. She’d already screamed several times, as I recall. It was the stockpot lid hitting the floor. The goddamn neck was trying to leap out of the stockpot like a fish. I grabbed a long fork and harpooned it, tossing it to Ben on the floor, who polished it off in no time. No problem. I had plenty of stock in the freezer.
Ben was covered in green goop, as was I. The Swamp Thing and his Swamp Cat. The floor was a slimy, glistening extra virgin olive oil lagoon. Dear Rachael Ray, I tried your chicken recipe and wasn’t entirely pleased with the results . . .
I knelt down and started washing off Ben with a wet towel. He was jazzed, purring like an outboard motor, a prizefighter who’d miraculously gone the distance and defeated the champ against all the odds. Usually he preferred to clean himself, but the prize was worth any indignity. It wasn’t every day he scored an entire six-pound bird for his personal consumption. Shannon and I would have to go out for dinner, I was thinking, or there was always takeout. I was in a tiny bit of denial.
I’d been avoiding looking at her, though that must be her I heard whimpering. Finally, I looked up from my sopping, wild-eyed cat, still hyperventilating, his stuffed gut swelled out like he was pregnant. She was standing in the corner by the kitchen door, backed into the coat rack, still holding an umbrella cocked like a baseball bat. She’d picked it up when the reanimated chicken was headed right for her, before Ben leapt to the rescue. “Still want me to heal your brother?” I asked. In retrospect, not the best thing to say.
She looked at the umbrella as if she had no memory of how she came to be holding it. Judging from the look of terror on her face, she remembered, perhaps too vividly, what had just happened—the bizarre battle that had raged at her feet—two immortals in a battle to the death.
Ben took a step toward her. “It’s okay, Shannon,” he said. “It’s dead now.”
She threw down the umbrella and dashed out of the house. Her car started seconds later and roared off, tires squealing. I’d never known Shannon to drive like that.
“Don’t worry,” Ben said. “She’ll be back.”
“Yeah. What woman can resist us?”
The aroma of tarragon and garlic and death hung heavy in the air. I should mop it up, I thought, but I couldn’t face the prospect of reliving the moment just yet. The one for me, the love of my life, was gone. Ben had wandered off and was licking the floor. Maybe he can make himself sick licking up the residue of this disaster, I thought. But that’s right. He never gets sick. Remember-r-r-r? “I’m going out,” I announced.
Ben knew not to say a word.
• • • •
I walked over to the barbecue place and had chicken that tasted like vinegar and smoke, fire and brimstone. I drank cheap beer and listened to a steady stream of country and western whine, guy after guy pleading for their lovers to forgive them their sins, hanging on to enough hope to manage three chords and a catchy plea built around some outrageous conceit, but none of their desperate hope was contagious, and I remained hopeless. These guys strayed, lied, drank, whatever—typical fucked-up guy stuff. None of them had ever resurrected a six-pound roaster as a clearly hostile act in the midst of a rational discussion. No. At some point, the weirdness has to set off deeply rooted survival alarm bells to head for the hills and not look back. I didn’t know how anyone could just work around something like the ride Shannon had been on ever since she was just trying to help and made Ben an appointment at the vet.
Somehow I knew this time, maybe for the only time, I was right and Ben was wrong. Shannon wasn’t coming back. I started crying, and the manager came over to tell me I had to leave. I couldn’t believe it. I ate his bad food, listened to his sad songs—whose composers would be out of work if they couldn’t rhyme die, lie, and good-bye with cry, cry, cry—and now he wanted me to leave because of a few tears? I could’ve done a whole lot worse than tears. I had a good mind to find his walk-in and resurrect his entire inventory, set it loose in the dining room to run amok in his crappy sauce, but of course, I didn’t. Wouldn’t. Ever again.
Benjamin and a chicken—that’s it. My healing career was over.
• • • •
All attempts to locate Shannon failed. She left town that night apparently, and nobody ever heard from her. Nobody who would tell me, anyway.
A few years later, Dad died, and Mom died the year after that. I held out some hope that Shannon might show up at their funerals, but of course she didn’t. Aubrey died, unplugged by his parents apparently. I read the notice in the paper. I lurked nearby in the cemetery, but only the parents and the preacher were there.
When I came home after, even Ben finally admitted we were never seeing Shannon again. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I should never have surrendered to my predatory instincts.”
“It’s not your fault. You’re a predator, for Christ’s sake. It was my fault. I had no business bringing that chicken back to life.”
He nodded in somber agreement. “True. True.”
We missed her terribly, but we rarely spoke of her. It was too painful for us both.
• • • •
My parents had left me a modest inheritance, which I invested in the stock market. After weeks fine-tuning voice recognition software so Ben could use the computer, I turned the portfolio over to him, and in no time he’d made us wealthy enough to retire and travel. We went everywhere. If Ben had read about it, he wanted to go there, and if he wanted to go, we usually went, and if we went, I never regretted it. We went to incredible places. We went to ordinary places made incredible by the wonders Ben knew we’d find there.
I soon discovered that if you have enough money, you can take your cat anywhere, especially when you get older. People put up with things from old people, probably figuring they haven’t got too long. An old man denied his desires by some heartless gatekeeper may have missed his last chance. What sort of old age might such a heartless individual expect when it comes his time to travel about pathetically with some old cat in a carrier, when the sign clearly says no animals allowed? What? An empty building? Do you think Homo sapiens aren’t animals? What then are they, I’d like to know! Oh yes, by the time I’m eighty-four, I can take my cat anywhere.
Trouble is I’m too sick to go anymore.
We’ve come to rest in Catemaco, a lovely town on a beautiful lake in Mexico, that teems with cats and brujas—witches—and is a favorite town of ours. We’ve rented a place with a balcony overlooking the lake. The fishermen still fish with hand-tossed nets from small one-man boats. I like to watch them at dusk, casting their nets into water and sky the color of burnished copper. The fish are delicious, embedded with cloves of garlic and fried whole.
They’re only a memory to me now. I can’t keep anything down. Everything tastes like ashes anyway. The doctor has come and gone. He’s said there’s nothing to be done to save me. He could admit me to the hospital, so that I might be more comfortable, but when I said I would be more comfortable here watching the fishermen with my cat, he bowed, in deference to my age, I suppose, and said he understood.
Benjamin, who’s befriended both cats and witches here, has returned with a woman named Hermalinda who brews teas for us both. He has broken his long silence with her, and she has agreed to come see to our needs. “Will it cure me?” I ask Ben of the tea she’s brewing. I’m surprised I can smell it. I haven’t smelled anything in a long while. I’ve had to give up cooking.
“Of old age,” Ben replies, but I’ve forgotten what I just asked him.
“I’m afraid,” I confess to my old friend.
“I know,” he says. “Everything will be all right. I’ll be joining you. Walk like an Egyptian.” He laughs at his cat humor, very sly, but I don’t get it. I wonder what Hermalinda is brewing for him. Probably nip. It’s always the nip with him.
Hermalinda props me up in bed so that I might look out the balcony at the copper waters, the fishermen’s nets like women’s fans opening and closing, leaving behind a glistening spray of memories. She holds the cup to my lips. It tastes of cloves and juniper. She patiently gives me the whole cup, sip by sip. The last sip is sweet, like honey, like roses.
She sets a saucer on the floor for Ben and quietly slips out the door. Ben quickly laps up his tea and jumps onto the bed, spry as ever, pushing my frail hands apart and inserting himself once more in my grasp. I can feel him through my skin, thin as paper, his heart beating, hard and steady, through my fingertips. “Good night, Jeffrey.” He purrs softly, and my hands tingle. I remember the tune from so long ago, centuries in cat years:
… Old Blue died and he died so hard
Shook the ground in my backyard
Dug his grave with a silver spade
Lowered him down with links of chain
Every link I did call his name
Here Blue, you good dog you
Here Blue, I’m a-coming there too!
Ben stops purring, and a moment later, his heart stops, and he’s gone just like that. He’s tricked me—knowing where he leads, I’ll follow—fleeing the unbearable emptiness of this world without him—he’s shown me the way. Some Day has finally come.
Everyone dies. Even Ben.
Spread the word!