THE DEAD CAT is starting to smell. Ignoring the sour stench of death, I confidently hold its carcass up in front of the judge. The tabby’s eyes bulge and stare back into mine. Under the table my left hand has gone from pins and needles to completely numb. I try shaking it to no effect. This is what happens when you use lidocaine recreationally.
“Your Honor, clearly the feline had expired prior to making contact with the undercarriage of my client’s car.”
My wife’s constant sobbing is distracting.
Bill, my lawyer, continues making our case to the judge. “Your Honor, a close examination of the animal’s abdomen shows no signs of bruising at the impact site where the tire made contact. Mr. Peterson, please rotate the cat so His Honor can take a closer look at the animal’s stomach.”
Holding the animal by the tail with my right hand, I raise it to face level, gingerly pinch the cat’s ear, then turn it ninety degrees so the judge can see the tire marks.
“Please note, Your Honor, that although the torso has been flattened and the tires left considerable indentation in the ribs, there are no signs of bruising. Were the cat alive at the time of the accident, all the grooves left by the tire would have pooled with blood resulting in visible bruises. However, since the animal had expired previously, the blood had already congealed and did not flow to the site of the trauma, proving my client’s contact with the animal to be posthumous.” Bill pauses to let his point soak into the room.
“Now, if you’ll review the pictures which have been included as exhibits to my client’s response, you will find a close-up of the entrails which were evacuated out of the cat’s mouth and anus.” The stenographer’s fingers whistled along the keyboard not missing a word of the brilliance spewing forth in my defense. “As you can plainly see, although there is plenty of gore, there is no blood.”
Bill is lying of course, and I’m paying him good money to do it. Friskers absolutely died under the back tire of one of the finest automobiles ever crafted by man, a fate far better than the little orange turd deserved, but I don’t think Bill knows he's committing perjury or whatever it’s called when a lawyer lies to a judge. It’s been hard to keep track of all the things that come out of my mouth. Life, lately, has had a way of getting hazy on me.
Bill Johnson is so fully lathered up now, worked into a state where the truth is almost beside the point. A small amount of spit gathers at the corners of his mouth as he spins this yarn for the judge, continuing to blow minds with his knowledge of feline anatomy. I wonder where he learned all of this. Some unfortunate paralegal in his firm must have an interesting internet search history.
He struts through the mostly empty room with circles of sweat beginning to stand out around the armpits of his metallic silver suit. His luxurious salt and pepper hair is carefully combed back with one lock meticulously hanging down across his forehead. Bill is a peacock in full plumage stuck inside a drab cage at the zoo. Puffed up with this much pride, Bill seems much bigger than his 5'6” frame allows. His eyes shift around the room: to the judge, making sure these punches hit home, to my wife's attorney, making sure she fully comprehends the futility of the situation she is in. Bill winks and gives me a slight knowing grin, exposing just a hint of beautifully white, perfectly capped teeth.
Surely we are winning. This is epic stuff.
My wife's sobbing gets louder. Reacting to her client's deteriorating state, her attorney opens her mouth to object to some portion of this circus, thinks better of it, and instead settles back into her chair.
I remember the sound Friskers made when I backed over him with the Porsche. It reminded me of the last squeeze of the ketchup bottle, except wetter. SQUELCH! Like Bill said, when I got out of the car, I saw the cat's guts had sprayed out of his ass all over my bumper, regurgitated like an overfed tick crushed by tweezers, but nothing had come out of his mouth. Friskers was still wearing his collar tightly around his neck, and it seemed to have kept any of the animal's guts from spilling out of its mouth. Liquid under pressure will always seek the path of least resistance. In Friskers' case, that was his cat ass.
I consider interrupting Bill to clear up the minor discrepancy about the ass and the mouth, but it's probably not that important. He is too deep in the flow now, up to his knees, wading through the expensive words he learned at law school and honed to a sharp point through twenty-five years of practice. Now satisfied that the scientific portion of his performance is hitting home with the judge, Bill begins explaining the legal significance of Friskers being dead before I popped him like a tube of toothpaste. I let him go on, at $450 an hour, it’s best to leave it to the professionals.
I turn my attention to my wife across the table. She holds a napkin tightly in her hand, trembling as the sobs wrack her body. One small piece of translucent snot yo-yos in and out of her left nostril. She looks terrible. That's probably my fault, too.
I sit mesmerized by Mary's show as Bill drones on. This is some performance. Mary is the Best Supporting Actress Academy Award Nominee to Bill's scenery eating, leading man bombaster-y. Maybe she really did care for that cat. Even after twelve years together, ten of them married, two kids, thousands of hours spent sleeping side by side and hundreds of unfulfilling sexual encounters, I still have no read on her. Every emotion shrouded in mystery, we might as well be strangers. Roommates.
Adrenaline hits my veins like a Mack truck as the cat suddenly starts slipping out of my grasp. Distracted by Mary and the snot above her lip, I failed to notice the fur has been sloughing off his tail and Friskers has been slowly making his way down. It’s too late to do anything about the nightmare taking place between my fingers. My left hand sits dead beneath the table, content to watch its twin fail spectacularly.
Bill, gesticulating wildly, is back on the hard science, explaining to the judge the technical aspects of rigor mortis in the common house cat, but everyone in the room is staring at me, realizing what was going to happen before I did. They watch enthralled as Friskers slowly slides out of my grip and thumps down loudly on the table in front of me before settling in my lap. His tail, worn down to the bone, still extends above my face. My hand is slick with the cat's bright orange hair. My lawyer is the last one to notice the slow car wreck taking place in front of me. Realizing the room is no longer wrapped around his little finger, Bill pauses mid-sentence, pivots towards me and faces the horror.
Friskers is sitting in my lap, well, most of him. On the way down, his head clipped the table and with an audible POP! disconnected from his brittle little body. The cat's face now turns towards me, bulging eyes still staring back, his mouth opens, and says, "This is not going well, Joel."
Oh, fuck off, Friskers.
"You should get some sleep. You've been slowly falling apart for a while now, but it's becoming obvious how strung out you are."
Nice, a dead, decapitated cat is critiquing me.
At the back of the room a man with stringy blond hair sips coffee and quietly nods. I don't know what right he has to agree with this cat. I don't know what right Friskers has to be dispensing life advice. As far as I could tell, his existence centered around his tongue and asshole. Dead cats don't have interesting opinions.
Rubbing my face with my furry right hand, I notice Bill is shooting me a look and mouthing, "Pull it together."
Even though he is now in two pieces, I must admit that little orange fuck is right. I don't sleep anymore and haven't for days. At night, I lie in bed watching SportsCenter repeats until the sun comes up, memorizing that day's top ten plays in nauseating detail until it's washed from my memory by the next twenty-four-hour cycle. Rinse and repeat.
I can't believe Bill convinced me to keep the cat in my freezer for the past three weeks.
I look up at the rest of the room through my fingers and can feel Friskers' hair stuck to my eyebrows. Everyone’s full attention is settled on me but Bill's gaze bores the deepest hole in my skull. Interrupted, his performance castrated, he begins to shrink back from the glorious heights he had reached proselytizing in my defense, no longer the peacock. I can't wait to see his invoice.
I look around the room trying to gauge everyone's reactions to Frisker's speech, but the eyes are focused on me not the cat corpse lying in parts. Surprisingly, no one is afraid to make eye contact with me. To date, I think this has been my most public break from reality. I would assume a man talking to a dead cat in a courtroom would be threatening, but there are smiles hidden around the room. Apparently, I am more clown than serial killer.
This is just the latest form my emasculation has taken.
Also, it is probably not the best time to explain the cat had it coming.
Unable to meet Bill's murderous gaze, I turn my attention to the judge. Desperation. Silently, I beseech him to end my misery. Bringing down his gavel and calling an end to this madness would be a mercy I don't deserve but one I desperately need. A euthanizing bullet for a horse with two broken legs.
The judge peers down from his platform across the room at me. Doesn't he have a gavel? There is no gavel. He isn't wearing a robe. I don’t think this is even a real courtroom. Things hadn't gotten that serious yet. After a moment, the judge stirs out of his trance and starts processing the catastrophe in front of him.
"Mr. Peterson, quite frankly, I'm not entirely sure what to make of this situation. I think I speak for everyone when I say this performance today has been extremely unsettling."
Include me in that ‘everyone.’
"I will remind you and Mr. Johnson there is no need for evidence, props, or any of the production we witnessed here today. This should be a straightforward matter handled by two adults, like two adults. Do I make myself clear?"
"Yes, Your Honor," I reply. A piece of Friskers' hair falls from my eyebrow and drifts onto my tongue: the world's most disgusting orange snowflake. He makes good points. It turns out that carrying around dead cats is not a winning strategy.
"Good. Then let's end for the day. Our staff will be in touch with respective counsel to schedule another meeting next month. I do not wish to prolong the proceedings and fully expect that by the next time we meet some significant progress will have been made by each side." The judge looks down sternly one last time then disappears through a door behind his desk.
I collect Friskers' head and torso back into the large freezer lock bag I used to bring him into the courthouse. Bill reaches for my elbow and whispers something into my ear. I can't focus enough to absorb anything he's saying.
Bagged cat in hand, I beat a path to the door before everyone else. My wife's muffled sobs trail me as I navigate the labyrinth that is the recesses of the Cumberland County Courthouse. Breezing past the security I hit a heavy metal door marked "EXIT" and stumble outside.
The sunlight is blinding and fresh air refills my lungs. It's a beautiful day in southern Maine. One of the seven days a year which justifies living with the other 358 days of pain. I should be in the moment. I should stop and enjoy a day like this. A seagull circles lazily above me. Holding up the bag I look at Friskers' dumb, decapitated cat head. I wonder if the seagull is hungry for a snack. I can't keep my wife's face, red and swollen with tears, upper lip glistening with snot, from butting its way back into my consciousness. I need to find a distraction.
Across the parking lot the Porsche glints like an oasis in the desert - precision steel, glass, leather and rubber engineered into a 420 horsepower, 180-mile-per-hour sex machine. It invites me in, and I feel immediately grounded again when my hand touches the handle of the trunk. All this machine wants from me is to insert the key and twist it forward 90 degrees. The engine will spring to life in pleasure: spark plugs, rods and pistons all churning in ecstasy. When I put the car in gear and pump my right foot on the gas pedal, the drive shaft will engage and the car will glide forward. The harder I press the gas, the louder it will moan in pleasure. When I push on the brake, the car will slow and stop. When I turn the key back towards me 90 degrees, the car will turn off, and I can get out and leave it alone. The machine doesn't have any unrealistic expectations of me. It doesn't need emotional support or a partner. I can pay for it, fuck it, and that's enough, it's consistent.
I have the ability to drive this car because by most definitions, I have led a successful life. This mechanical surety is my one reward.
I fling Friskers into the trunk, then settle into the driver's seat. Turning the key, my breath catches for a second before the engine predictably roars to life reminding me there is a point to my struggle beyond crying wives, expensive lawyers and decapitated talking cats.
I pull out of the parking lot and make my way up Marginal Way towards Route 295 North. Safely ensconced in the car, I feel function return to my limbs again. Here in the womb of advanced engineering, for the first time the fog in my brain starts to burn off. No one else noticed the cat talking. Friskers wasn't smart enough alive to figure speech out; it's unlikely he evolved in death.
The Porsche moans through her muffler as I give her a little more gas: eager to please.
There are truths I have been actively fighting for the better part of my life. This whole nightmare is about more than money. It's about more than protecting the lifestyle I had worked so hard to create, the 4,500-square foot house in the posh suburb, the Porsche, or the $1.5 million sitting in cash and stocks that was tied to both of our names. I should say it's about my daughters, about fighting for something that's supposed to matter more than anything, but really it's just about right and wrong. The car and the money have always been the easiest parts for me. It's everything else I'm expected to maintain that's hard.
I pull the Porsche to a stop before the on-ramp to the highway. A homeless man is standing in the middle of the median with a sign that reads:
Out of Work
Father of two
Everyone needs a little help once in awhile
I don't have any cash in the car, but I read an article saying more than anything homeless people want to be treated like human beings, not castaways from society. The article claimed if you don't have any money to spare, the most humane thing you can do is to make eye contact with them and acknowledge they exist in the same space as you.
I am a good person.
Craning my neck towards the driver's side window I try to maneuver my face into his view, but he stares past me towards the other cars in line.
Either the Porsche is too low to the ground or he knows not to expect handouts from middle-aged white men driving six-figure sports cars. He doesn't understand we are brothers, men beat down unfairly by the expectations heaped upon us.
I watch him in the rearview mirror as he walks down the lane. Two cars behind me, a Prius lowers the window and a hand waves a bill towards him.
The bum looks weathered: beat up Nike tennis shoes, ratty jeans and a stained NASCAR T-shirt; the perfect costume for dropping out of society. Yet even a drop-out like him eventually crawls back and begs to be let in: begging to be given a taste of society and to swim in our currency, food, booze, shelter, women, drugs, to name a few. It's amazing all the things money can buy.
How did he get to this point? Is he genetically inferior to me in some important way? Dumber? Or did a series of small but serious mistakes lead him down to the bottom? I could easily afford to give him a $100 bill every day for the rest of his life. It would literally mean nothing to me and not affect my quality of life in any way. Yet to him, that money would lift him all the way out of poverty and provide a real chance for his kids, if they're real, to succeed. I could change the course of his life. To make that decision would require courage.
I am a coward.
I want to lower my window and reach out to him and explain that I wasn't always this way. That if I had any money on me, I would give it to him. That he should expect something from men like me. That when we pass in the street he should look me in the eyes, meet my gaze, and acknowledge me as a fellow traveler, as a brother, that this ... that everything ... is about more than money or providing for a family. Life is dirty and ugly whether you beg for change in a median or fill it with smog from an excessively-priced, internally-combusting chariot; differences are only a matter of degree.
Catching my reflection in the window, I become acutely aware for the first time of how horrible I look. Four days’ worth of stubble has grown in rough patches around my face. I touch my cheeks and pull down on the loose skin exposing the bloodshot whites around my pupils. I let go and the skin retreats into place reluctantly. These dark bags under my eyes are laying too many of my cards on the table for everyone to inspect. Even my expensive suit, usually impeccably tailored, hangs off me. The truth is I don't look much different than the man in the median. We're like Thanksgiving dinners: my side dishes may have been prepared by world-class chefs, but both of our turkeys are completely fucked.
He turns and starts walking back up the median towards my car. I stare straight ahead. The urgency of the moment has passed. I need to sleep. A dead cat was talking to me this afternoon.
The light turns green, and I navigate my machine away from the intersection.