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April 15, 2024

Reader, I Read To Him

By Ron Singer

"Reader, I married him." Charlotte Bronte, Jane Eyre, chapter 38.

Part One

One evening (not dark, not stormy) about a month ago, I decided to read to my cat. Since I'm not completely crazy, I realized this was a quixotic idea. But since I always talk to Charles, anyway, reading aloud would give me something new to say. Besides, Charles is very smart. I mean, he once dragged the leash of his fellow pet, Muffin, a dog, over to me, when it was time to walk him (Muffin). He also has a habit of playfully ambushing the dog, who is three or four times his size. Each time Charles leaps out at him, Muffin looks as startled as he did the first time. Maybe, he is playing, too.

"Charles, Charles, pss pss pss." The small black neutered male with the white blaze and white paws opened one green eye. He was curled up in his usual place at one end of the couch, opposite my armchair. Seeing that no food was in the offing, and having had his fill of petting for the day, he closed the eye. But Muffin, a Golden Lab, immediately unfolded his large body from his dog bed in front of the couch, and ambled over to me. Muffin is affectionate, even for a dog. This time, his normally kind and alert expression looked as if he were consoling me for Charles's indifference. After I had thumped his side two or three times and scratched his forehead, Muffin returned to his bed.

It was time to read. Too lazy to walk over to the bookcase to find something suitable, I settled for the opening of a novel I was already reading. Clearing my throat, I began:

When young Mark Robarts was leaving college, his father might well declare that all men began to say all good things to him, and to extol his fortune in that he had a son blessed with so excellent a disposition. This father was a physician living at Exeter.

The passage produced the non-reaction I had anticipated from Charles. Actually, he twitched once or twice and looked annoyed. Muffin, of course, kept right on panting. Since it was a warm evening, his tongue also flapped, and his big brown dog eyes gazed ardently at me -- and at the rest of the world. Of course, it was unlikely that either animal's non-reaction had much to do with Trollope, although, come to think of it, the non-reactions may have mirrored my own feeling that this writer is something of a plodder. In different ways, both of my pets have sensitive antennae, to use a metaphor that conflates insects with animals.

I probably should have stopped right there, but I stubbornly decided to push on. Isn't this what real scientists do? For instance, I once heard of a trick used by the Curator of Great Apes at a celebrated zoo. In order to stimulate a sluggish male to mate, he first tried projecting a pornographic black-and-white film, with human actors, onto the wall of the ape couple's cage: no reaction. Next, he tried images of apes mating: again, nothing. The third time, he tried human porn again, but this time in Technicolor. Bull's eye! The apes went, well, ape.

An interesting sidelight to this story is that the Curator, himself, is a burly, hairy man with long arms. Perhaps that helps explain his empathy. A mutual acquaintance also shared a rumor with me: when the unmarried forty-year-old Curator is about to leave town for a conference, or something, he always calls his mother to tell her his itinerary. I'm not sure what, if anything, that has to do with the ape-mating experiment.

Inspired by the Curator's success, I decided to go cat-centric. Like him, too, I would improvise. This time, I paraphrased the Trollope passage:

When young Tabitha reached the age of seventeen weeks, Margaret Robarts realized that the time was fast approaching when the attractive feline would be crossing over from kitten-hood to maturity. Stroking the cat under the chin, her indulgent mistress declared, "You know, Tabby, one of these days, I'm going to have to get you spayed. But, first, I'd love for you to experience the joys of sex and motherhood. I know! I'll consult the vet."

By then, Tabitha was purring like an expensive sports car right after a tune-up. Opening her eyes, she gazed at Margaret in a way that almost suggested she had understood her mistress's kind words.

Well, Tabitha (and Muffin) may have expressed interest in these shenanigans, but not Charles, who dozed on. Abandoning the experiment for the moment, I hoisted myself out of my chair and headed for the kitchen to make some popcorn. Of course, both pets now dogged (sorry) my heels, and treats were duly tendered. I never tease them about food.

I'm sure that, by now, Reader, you think I should have consigned my experiment to the scrap heap of bad ideas. Since I did not, let me justify myself, to a degree, by admitting that I'm a retired widower with few friends, one married daughter who is always busy, and not a single grandchild.

My faithful pets followed me back into the living room, and we resumed our positions. Fortified by a few mouthfuls of warm popcorn, I proceeded to Plan C. This time, I decided to paraphrase a passage from another, more exciting book, which I had also been reading. I would add to the suspense by once again personalizing -- feline-izing -- the passage. The original describes a small Spartan force preparing to face the Persian hordes at Plataea.

Only the claws of cats like Charles, clotting the earth of Platea with the butchery of a blood-sacrifice, could possibly have secured the victory over the swarming hordes of mice. For those claws belonged to cats that had been steeled from birth to fight, to kill, and never to yield. Charging across the kitchen, Charles and the other cats smashed into the front line of mice.

Looking up from the book, I saw Muffin gazing at me, as usual, with uncritical adoration. Of course, if he had been the subject of the experiment, I would have inserted his name and species into the narrative, but I doubt it would have made any difference. As for Charles, my emphatic reading appeared to have acted as a soporific: he was sleeping more deeply than usual, with a look of intense concentration on his face that suggested he was dreaming.

In hindsight, I'm not surprised by the failure of my experiment, which had one final, disastrous incarnation. In a way, however, the experiment was also a success. I'll give you a hint: do you remember what I said about the dog's leash and the ambushes?

Critiquing my third attempt, I felt I had been correct in tailoring the reading to my auditor, but that, intelligent though this auditor may have been, I had overestimated his capacity to relate to unfamiliar experience. After all, my house is so clean that I doubt Charles had ever so much as seen a mouse. Now I would try to come up with something that would require no such leap of imagination.

This called for a narrative created from whole cloth. Opening my smartphone, I began tapping away, and thirty minutes later, the passage was written. I leave it to you, Reader, to decide whether you could have done better.

Once upon a time, there lived a widower with two pets, a cat, Charles, and a dog, Muffin. The man loved his pets dearly, affording them every possible comfort and pleasure. One evening, however, he awoke in his armchair to discover that neither animal was in its accustomed place. Where Charles usually lay, on the couch, was an empty indentation. Although the indentation was larger, Muffin's dog bed on the floor was similarly empty. Shifting his gaze to the French doors across the room, which had been left open to allow the entry of air on this warm evening, the man saw the curtains swaying in the breeze. Muffin and Charles had disappeared!

Having recited the passage, I looked up, hoping to see my dear cat gazing at me alertly. To my chagrin, however, I discovered something much worse than his previous indifference: not only was he gone, but so was Muffin! Rushing across to the open French doors and looking out, I was just in time to see, by the light of a full moon, the two animals scampering off toward the far end of the garden.

"Muffin! Charles! Sit!" For a moment, this worked. Both animals stopped in their tracks. Muffin looked back at me, awaiting further orders. But Charles, I could swear, winked, and then, with a single raucous "meow," leapt through the open door at the back of the garden and disappeared into the night.

As I mentioned at the beginning, these events took place about a month ago. If Charles were less resourceful, I am certain he would have returned to his food source by now. And doesn't he know how much Muffin and I miss him? Every night, the poor dog keens for hours, while his poor master suffers in silence. Of course, I have posted notices all over the neighborhood, offering a large reward for Charles's return. God forbid, could he be...?

It has reached the point where I find myself praying for an extremely unlikely coincidence: that some other fool has taken in my wonderful cat and at some point, will stumble upon the same disastrous idea I did. I cling to the hope that Charles's new master will find a story, and read it to him, about a runaway cat that, dearly missing his owner and fellow pet, determines to find his way back home. There must be some children's book where that happens.

To be continued...

Note: The first three passages are taken from, or based upon, the following:
-- Trollope, Anthony.
Framley Parsonage (Harcourt, Brace and World, Inc.: New York 1962, p.1)
-- Holland, Tom.
Persian Fire (Anchor Books, New York, 2005, p.35)

Article © Ron Singer. All rights reserved.
Published on 2015-12-14
Image(s) © Mel Bramble. All rights reserved.
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