Getting Rid of January
Alison Sloane Gaylin
Wherein our protagonist discovers the dangers of taking snapshots, playing Scrabble, and doing a favor for a friend.
Emergency rooms intimidate me, which is a problem because I'm in them a lot. I'm not sickly, just accident-prone.
Since I still haven't gotten around to finding myself a doctor, I go to the emergency room whenever I get hurt. My injuries are frequent and stupid. I tore ligaments in both ankles after I slipped on some water in an Arby's restroom. I got a minor concussion from sitting down too vigorously in a high-backed chair. One time I got a second-degree burn from lentil soup.
When I go into an emergency room, it's like a bad dream. You know, the kind of dream where you show up for a black-tie party in a terrycloth robe and try to pass it off as an evening gown.
There are people with heart attacks and bullet wounds and mangled legs and sharp objects stuck in their eyes. I'm sitting in the waiting area with a lentil soup burn, thinking, "I really have to find myself a doctor with an office."
The worst accident of all happened yesterday. The police were involved. I had to lodge a formal complaint against my best friend, who happens to be on vacation in the Bahamas. He's going to hate me.
My best friend is named Walter. Walter has a cat, a white Persian called January. January hates the world. It hisses and spits at everyone--except Walter. It claws. It bites. It often draws blood. When you go to Walter's apartment, you have to stand in the doorjamb while he tiptoes around, muttering "Where's my Jannie? Where's my Janniepoo?" until the cat comes out of its hiding place and bumps its head into Walter's leg. Then you're safe, so long as you don't try to approach January, or walk within one foot of where it's lying.
I made that mistake once. Walter and I were drinking port and playing Scrabble. And I was winning. I don't know what made me do it--maybe it was the thrill of victory, which believe me, I do not experience often. Maybe it was the port, which I find so perfectly sweet and cozy that I always wind up having one glass too many. Whatever the reason, right after I dropped an e and a t on the end of blank and Walter said "Oh, you bastard," because the t happened to be on a triple word space and I was now three points shy of winning the game, after which I planned to put the theme from "2001" on the stereo and do a victory dance around Walter, who I knew would try to hit me and/or crawl under the couch and hide, either of which would have been equally satisfying for someone like me, who hardly ever wins anything at all. Anyway, that's when I noticed January, lying on its back against the wall behind Walter, wiggling its fuzzy white feet, actually looking playful. It was an arresting sight. It made me go all warm and Christmasy inside. I couldn't help it. I had to cuddle with that cat.
My speech thick and slurry from port, I cried out, "Oh, look at the babeeee!"
Before Walter could stop me, I slid up to January, reached out my hand to rub its stomach--
I had never seen anything like it. The cat actually seemed to levitate off the floor, its claws aimed at my face like laser death guns. Then there was the sound. To call it a hiss or a growl wouldn't come close to describing it. It was more like the detonation of a thermonuclear bomb.
"No, Jannie, no!" Walter shrieked, as the cat affixed itself to my face with its Satanic claws and scratched and scratched and bit and scratched.
I could hear Walter yelling "No!" and "Stop!" and "Shit!" under the continuous deadly whir of the cat. I almost felt as if I was having an out-of-body experience.
When Walter was finally able to locate his gardener's gloves, which he kept in his apartment solely for the purpose of dislodging January from his friends, I was shaking from fear, but bleeding a lot less than I should have been. Fortunately, I'd managed to protect my eyes.
"Are you okay, Ellie?" Walter had whispered.
My eyes still closed, I moaned, "It hates me."
So, three days ago when Walter asked me if I could go to his place and feed January while he went on his Club Med vacation, I was shocked. "But January hates me," I'd said.
"Actually, she likes you better than most people." That, as pathetic as it sounds, made me feel privileged. So I agreed to feed January, and listened carefully to Walter's instructions on how to do it: "Unlock the bottom lock first, then the middle, then the upper lock. Upon opening the door, clear your throat twice. January will notice any departure from this routine--she's very smart. The gardener's gloves are in the upper right hand kitchen drawer, conveniently located over the cupboard that holds the cat food. Put on the gardener's gloves before opening the cat food cupboard. January takes two even measuring cups of dry food, mixed with one half cup wet. Two can openers are located in the cat food cupboard. Use the blue one only in emergency--January's accustomed to the red. Stay close to the cupboards as you pour the food. As January approaches, hold your breath and stand perfectly still. You can leave after she has begun eating. The food distracts her."
Walter had finally inhaled. "Got that?"
"Yep," I'd said. Because I had. I'd even taken notes.
"I'm sorry she's so high-maintenance."
"That's okay, Walter."
"I know you'll be able to handle it, Ellie," he'd said with his black eyebrows pressing into each other. I'd wondered why he sounded like he was trying to convince himself.
Everything went fine the first day. I'd done all the steps right, down to the throat-clearing and the red can-opener. And January was so focused on the food and so happy with it that I almost felt like sticking around Walter's apartment and seeing maybe if it would watch TV with me. I sort of felt lonely for Walter, and it would have been nice to sit there on his zebra-striped couch,watching TV with his beautiful cat like we were waiting for him to come home from work. But I didn't.
The next day, I showed up at the same time, and unlocked Walter's door--bottom, middle, top, just like he told me. I stood in the doorjamb, and said, "Ahem. Ahem." I thought I heard a rustling, so I barely entered the kitchen. I got the gardener's gloves out of the top drawer. As I put them on, I noticed something out of the corner of my eye. I turned (pivoted, actually), leaving no room between the cat-food cupboard and my body, still remembering Walter's rules, as I squinted to make out the shape on the top of the refrigerator. (Did I mention that I need to get myself a good optometrist, too?) It was a picture. Framed. Of Walter and me. Even though it was blurry, I still knew what picture it was because I took it. It was Walter and me in front of the Public Library. Each of us has one arm around a stone lion. I'd set my camera on automatic timer to take the picture, and it's one of my favorites. I took it this past summer. My copy is framed and in my bedroom.
I'd never even thought Walter had kept his copy, let alone framed it and put it on top of his refrigerator. He isn't a picture-framing sort of person. He isn't fond of clutter. It has to be a really, really special picture if Walter is going to frame it.
I wanted to hold it in my hands.
Forgetting momentarily every single one of Walter's rules, I moved away from the cat-food cupboard and headed for the refrigerator.
My eyes were glued to the picture. I didn't look down.
That's how I tripped over January.
I don't know how to explain it. One minute you're thrilled to discover that your best friend thinks so highly of you and your photographic ability. The next, you feel this furry, twitchy thing near your ankles and the linoleum's rushing up to hit you in the face.
"Oh, God, another concussion," I thought. Then I felt the claws and teeth and angry cat limbs in my hair, and I managed to roll over on my back, with January still battering me. I saw one claw graze the corner of my eye. Then I felt it. The sting. The blood. I was becoming very bloody. I could taste it in my mouth. I could feel it, oozing out of the side of my nose.
The only lucky thing was that I was wearing the gardening gloves. I pulled January off my face with both hands and threw it across the room. There was blood all over Walter's nice linoleum. All over his nice gardening gloves. I'd probably need stitches.
Still wearing the gardening gloves, I ran to the emergency room, which is just a few blocks away from Walter's apartment. For once, I was the only person in the waiting room. Wouldn't you know it? The one time I have visible injuries. The nurse took one look at me and said, "Don't worry about the forms. Just go back there!" She seemed to respect my wounds.
The nurse showed me to a bed with a curtain around it, and a young doctor with a curly mustache came in and said, "What happened?"
"I tripped over a cat," I said.
"Looks like the cat got you back," he said.
I said nothing.
"Cat got your tongue?"
The doctor chuckled. I chuckled, too.
My vision's blurry enough to begin with, so I couldn't tell if the cat had gotten me in the eye or near the eye. I told the doctor as much.
"Has the cat had his shots?"
"Well," he said as he cleaned my face with some kind of painful antiseptic. "Since your injuries involve an animal, you're going to have to fill out a report. Do you know the cat's name?"
"Yes. It's my friend's cat."
"Well, okay then. I'll call the police."
The police? I thought.
I didn't want Walter to get arrested.
"Please don't arrest Walter," I told the policewoman when she showed up with the forms for me to fill out.
"We're not going to arrest him," she said. "We're just going to force him to keep his cat in his apartment for six months. It'll be quarantined."
"Oh," I'd said. That wasn't so bad. As far as I knew, January didn't leave Walter's apartment anyway. So I told the policewoman January's name, and Walter's name. And I described how I'd tripped over January and eventually pulled it off my face with the gardener's gloves. The policewoman nodded in a sympathetic way and said "Thank you," before she left with the forms.
I did not, the doctor said, experience damage to my cornea. I did require, and received, three stitches.
As I walked back to my apartment with the cold wind creeping under my bandages and pinching my wounds, I thought about Walter, and how he was going to come back from the Bahamas and there'd be a message from the NYPD on his answering machine, telling him to keep his cat indoors. I hoped he wouldn't get too angry.
This morning, I woke up, and took some of the bandages off. The wounds had almost healed. Except for the head trauma from the linoleum, I really felt much better. "That antiseptic must have done the trick," I thought.
As I made myself coffee, I realized that I had to go back to the scene of the crime today and feed the criminal. I remembered the blood on the linoleum, my blood, which I would need to clean up after January had been sufficiently distracted by its food. I remembered the attack, the claws near my eyes. I remembered how I'd thrown January off my face, how I'd seen the blood on the floor, how I'd hurried out Walter's door and headed for the hospital. Hurried out Walter's door without locking it.
Without closing it.
I think of January, roaming the cold streets of New York, a criminal on the loose. Prowling. Searching through the dark alleyways for its next victim. I picture January, creeping up a fire escape, finding an open window.
Walter's going to hate me.
Alison Sloane Gaylin (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a graduate of Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism. She covers entertainment for several publications and Web sites. She and her husband reside in upstate New York. They have a dog and a very nice cat.
InterText Copyright © 1991-1999 Jason Snell. This story may only be distributed as part of the collected whole of Volume 8, Number 2 of InterText. This story Copyright © 1998 Alison Sloane Gaylin.