After prayer and fantasy, I went through several other phases in trying to cope with Charles' disappearance. If you have ever mourned the death of a loved one, you will recognize them: denial (same as prayer?), rage (well, anger and touchiness), guilt (who had given him the idea of running away?), projection (perhaps his running off somehow echoed my own occasional urges to disappear), and, finally, acceptance. With the last phase, I even began to contemplate a replacement. But even a month after Charles had abandoned me -- us -- I was not yet ready to look for a surrogate cat.
Instead, I went into what could be called my default mode: reason. I began thinking about such matters as the nature of cats and the history of my relationship with Charles. I began with some soul-searching, possibly a vestige of the guilt phase.
"Hmm," I thought, making the archetypal gesture of scratching my bearded chin. "Maybe, I enabled Charles' sneaky, tricky side." I readily identified two cat archetypes in my own psyche: Felix and Simone Signoret. As a child, I had counted Felix among my favorite tricksters, along with Bugs Bunny and Charlie Chaplin. As for Simone Signoret, she possibly represented a far more complex model for my relationship with Charles.
From "Cat People," a beloved horror movie, I recalled her as a sexy seducer who, once you were seduced, turned into a black panther and jealously attacked both you and any rival for your affections. The wonderful scene of menace in the indoor swimming pool (filmed, as it happens, five blocks from my own brownstone, in Manhattan) still had great resonance for me, perhaps because, over the years, I had watched the movie several times.
My feelings about this resonance are, I confess, extremely vague, but I think I may identify the pool with my garden, and the rival fleeing the pool with my pets scampering off. What I clearly remember from the scene is that a kitten morphs into a panther, which in turn becomes the Simone Signoret character. It is left unclear whether it is panther or woman who rends the bathrobe of a rival. As the blonde attendant comments to the victim, "Gee, whiz, Honey, it's torn to ribbons!" Finally, is it worth mentioning that this movie originally came out in 1942, the year of my birth, and that the birth was attended by jealousy on the part of my paranoid father, who thought I looked like the obstetrician?
Jealousy -- was that it? One afternoon, without bothering to don my raincoat and dark glasses, I rushed to a local bookstore, where I bought an armful of those odious, neo-Readers' Digest magazines about pets. Back in my chair, I read that cat owners who introduce a "companion" into their cat's habitat often inadvertently trigger stress in the first cat, sometimes taking the form of skin irritations and bladder infections. Since Charles had already been my pet kitten when I introduced puppy Muffin into the apartment, could the disappearance of the former have been caused by long-simmering resentment of the latter? But how could I even begin to determine if this were true? (Asking Charles to lie down on the couch would be quixotic, not to mention redundant.)
After reading several more articles about feline jealousy and somatization, I was still in the realm of vague speculation. What my reading did reveal was that very little is known about the cat-human nexus. What is known is that people and dogs have much more fully developed relationships. So, quixotic as ever, I decided to consult Muffin. What harm could it do? Snapping my fingers, I summoned him from his bed.
Stroking him once or twice, I asked, "Muffin, was Charles jealous of you?" The dog's brow furrowed, and he whimpered. But, of course, since he did not nod his head in the affirmative, or shake it in the negative (both of which he had done in the past), I was really no closer to an answer than I had been before. If anything, the whimpering might have meant that he still remembered, and missed, Charles. Or, to stretch a point, it might have been an expression of empathy with my own loss.
So I hit the magazines again. Amidst all the sentimentality and half-baked speculation, I arrived at two more solid facts: cats are undeniably playful, and they will only run away if sorely mistreated. Putting these facts together, I drew an inference: Charles might have jumped out through the garden door that night to play a joke on me, but he would not have stayed away, at least not of his own volition. That led right back to the pair of sad possibilities I had considered at the outset: either he was dead, or he had been kidnapped. (I won't say, "cat-napped.")
Questions always seem to lead to more questions: whose idea had it been to run out into the garden in the first place? To that, my answer was, perhaps surprisingly, Muffin. Dogs are more sensitive to their owners' thoughts and feelings. Muffin might even have heard in the ill-fated story I wrote and read to them, a fugitive wish on my part to make my pets run away.
But why would I have wished for that? Well, to be honest, like any relationship, this one had its negatives. I enjoy travel, but owning two pets and having no close friends whom I could ask to care for them, my traveling was limited to a maximum of two nights at a time. On these occasions, I would leave food and water for Charles, but Muffin required an expensive kennel stay, from which he always returned needy and sad.
Why the kennel? The first time I had gone off for a weekend, to a distant cousin's funeral in (yes) Charleston, I had left food and water for them both. Perhaps it was because I had not known much about puppy and kitten training, but I had, in no way, prepared my animals for this separation. When I got home, the place was a mess. Charles had used his box, eaten most of his food, and drunk most of his water. But Muffin had shat on the floor next to his box ?a statement?and had tipped over both his food and water bowls, creating another smeary mess on the kitchen floor (luckily, tile).
Thus, my hypothesis that, if either of them had instigated the garden scamper, it must have been the dog. Of course, it was a short step to explaining what happened next. Muffin's loyalty brought him right back inside, whereas Charles' playful independence precipitated his leap to freedom.
Asking, again, why my well-treated cat had not returned to his food source by now, and combining that question with all of my newfound ideas, I was led to a plan of action: I would methodically question the neighbors to find out who had kidnapped, and possibly murdered, Charles.
There are three other apartments in my building, which I own: rentals on the second, third, and top floors. Emulating the literary detectives I admire most (Lord Peter Wimsey and Philip Marlowe), I would begin with the most likely suspect. Once before, Charles had escaped and tipped over a milk bottle, breaking it and spilling the contents onto the mat in front of the door of the second-floor apartment. The tenant is a choleric old woman whose only child, a grown son, lives in Florida and never visits, never writes or calls, never so much as "sends his mother a goddamn email!"
At nine-thirty on a Wednesday morning, thirty-three days after Charles' disappearance, I climbed the stairs to the second floor and rang the bell.
To be continued...