by Kim Magowan and Michelle Ross
This morning, I euthanized the cat I adopted a week before I met my husband. The cat was twenty, which means my relationship with Jeff is twenty years old, too. The difference is my marriage isn’t dead, not yet. But that doesn’t mean I haven’t thought about killing it. I thought about euthanizing my cat for three years before I made the appointment. Three years Caspian’s been on medication. Three years he’s been so blind and deaf that he couldn’t find his food unless I led him to it. Then seven months ago he started urinating just outside his litter box, and I realized just how good I’d had it, after all. Seven months is a long time to tolerate the smell of cat piss in your laundry room, to clean up puddles of cat piss with gloved hands and Clorox wipes. When the kids said they couldn’t believe I was going to kill the cat, I told them I was doing right by the cat, the cat was in pain. But the real reason I euthanized Caspian was that I was tired of cleaning up cat piss.
My friend Martha and I call our vet “Dr. Hollywood,” because he’s ridiculously handsome, in an old studio way—long-lashed eyes, a cleft down the middle of his chin like a pleat. ‘It will soothe him if you pet him,’ he told me, so I stroked Caspian, crouched on a fuzzy green blanket on my lap. I’d avoided petting Caspian for weeks. He couldn’t clean himself anymore, so his fur was greasy, and he was so bony, poor guy, that I could feel the knobs of his vertebrae, the flared bellows of his ribs. Caspian felt more like something architectural than a living creature, like one of the model planes Jeff begins building and then abandons. Also, he had these nasty little spots, lesions Dr. Hollywood called them, on his ears from all the time he spent sitting on windowsills. Solar dermatitis. The first time Dr. Hollywood biopsied to check for squamous cell carcinoma, he recommended I rub sunscreen into Caspian’s nearly hairless, pink ears whenever he sat in a window. I did that twice maybe. Then I stopped.
The euthanasia took place outside on the little patch of fake grass that I’d only ever seen through the windows of Dr. Hollywood’s exam rooms. There’s a hummingbird feeder out there and a real tree, lilac. Now in late May, it still has a few blooms left—heavy masses that make me think of clumps of grapes.
Dr. Hollywood sedated Caspian before bringing him out there to me—’so she doesn’t try to bolt over the wall,’ he said, and I laughed because 1) Caspian can’t even leap up onto our sofa anymore and 2) despite having taken Caspian to Dr. Hollywood for eight years now, he and every technician in that clinic believe Caspian is female. Jeff says it’s the name I chose—it’s feminine. ‘What about it is feminine?’ I’ve asked, but Jeff never offers up anything concrete to support his point. He says that just because he can’t explain it doesn’t make it untrue. ‘It’s like how you talk about photography,’ he says. ‘You just have a feeling. You just know.’
On the patch of fake grass is a wrought iron bench, painted a cheerful orange. This is where I sat holding Caspian on that fuzzy green blanket, which encased a pee pad. Dr. Hollywood warned me that it’s not uncommon for animals to urinate or defecate as the pentobarbital enters their system.
Caspian looked up at me with his light blue eyes: the prettiest thing about him, the feature that made me pick him out of the litter twenty years ago. They went somehow with his grey fur, like gas jets flaring through smoke. Dr. Hollywood loomed over me. He’s one of those formal vets who always wears a white coat and tie, unlike my dentist Timothy, who gossips with me about his husband and sends me texts asking for my Moroccan spice rub recipe.
I felt like Dr. Hollywood was judging me. I knew it was stupid to feel that way—how many hundreds of animals had he put to sleep, after all? But maybe they were actually in pain, as opposed to merely old, greasy, and incontinent.
Caspian’s eyes looked accusing, but perhaps light blue eyes always do.
Our daughter Bridget gave me the hardest time about killing Caspian—’killing,’ she said last night, with a snap, when I had said ‘putting him to sleep.’ Bridget is fourteen. Lately conversation with her feels like a complicated sword fight, both of us doing back flips and swinging on branches to achieve higher ground. ‘He’s in pain!’ I said, and Bridget glared at me and said, ‘He’s just old!’ Then she launched into a whole treatise from that animal rights ethicist, Peter Singer. Animals weren’t there for our use, Bridget said crisply, like every word was a bite she was taking from a tart green apple; animals didn’t exist to sustain and entertain us. In response, I looked pointedly at her leather Doc Martens. ‘Mini-me,’ my friend Martha used to call Bridget, because she was such a Mama’s girl, wanting to do whatever I did: knit, hike, take pictures. These days I’m the one inadvertently mimicking her, except it’s the chilly sneer, the eyebrows incredulously raised.
Bridget wasn’t out of bed yet this morning when I shoved Caspian into his carrier—even at under six pounds, he doesn’t go into that box easily—and I was grateful. In fact, nobody was up when I left the house with Caspian, not that I left particularly early. A quarter til nine. The sun had been up for three hours, as had I. My nine-year-old, Parker, may have been awake reading in bed. He’ll stay in bed reading until past lunch on weekends if we don’t force him to come out and eat something. Jeff, well, he’s practically nocturnal these days. What’s weird is that for years, it was the opposite. I was the night owl. Jeff was the one who was fussy about his bedtime. When did that change?
After making coffee, I gave Caspian a special meal—chunks of salmon that had been preserved in a vacuum-sealed plastic pouch. Expensive, froufrou food that I only ever bought for him a couple times a year because, like my friend Martha says, cat food shouldn’t cost more than human food (though I imagine Bridget would have something to say about that assertion). After I held the bowl close to Caspian’s face, he inhaled it just as he inhales the gloppy canned paté I usually give him. I wondered if he tasted the difference in price.
Then I sat out on the porch taking measure of everything else that was dead or dying—the crunchy, pale brown sticks that used to be lush snap pea vines; the leggy squash plants that only ever put out male flowers anymore; the flimsy stalks of corn that I don’t know why I planted since the American diet is already 90 percent corn; the bolted parsley. It reminded me of a dystopian film: the city scape in Bladerunner, the buildings all abandoned and burnt, blown-out husks. For the first time in years, I longed for a cigarette.
Yesterday, I’d winced when the new hygienist Elaine was cleaning my teeth. My favorite hygienist, Mary Beth, had left the prior year when she had a baby. Jeff claimed Elaine was in fact a better hygienist—she got his teeth cleaner, he said, and I couldn’t dispute it—but cleanings had never hurt with Mary Beth, and she was much friendlier. She always asked me about my kids. She remembered not just their names but their personality traits, like the fact that Parker loved graphic novels. While Elaine aimed the water pic I lay there missing Mary Beth, thinking of the things I would have updated her on about the kids: that Bridget now identified as a Marxist, for instance. ‘How’s Jeff?’ she would have asked, and I would have rolled my eyes, making her laugh.
When my dentist came to check on me after Elaine had finished up, I pointed towards the corner of my mouth that had hurt, and Timothy nodded and said there was root exposure. He told me different things he could do, if it started bugging me at home: seal the exposed root. He pointed to the X-ray on the screen. My left molar had bone loss. ‘If it gets too bad, we can pull that tooth to protect the one next to it,’ he said. ‘Better to lose one tooth than to have it infect its neighbor.’
It was the same logic I’d applied to my garden when I uprooted the aphid-ridden kale a month ago, so that the aphids wouldn’t spread, not that I was confident the aphids wouldn’t manage to spread to anything else they wanted anyhow. After all, they’d appeared on the kale out of nowhere.
Caspian is the third cat I’ve had since I graduated college decades ago, but he’s the first I’ve euthanized. The first cat, Paul Bunyan, was hit by a car. The second, Sim, just disappeared. I like to imagine some lonely old lady adopted him, someone who would comb his fur with a special brush.
Jeff said last night, ‘No more cats after Caspian.’
‘What? No way,’ I said.
‘You haven’t enjoyed that cat for years. All you’ve done is complain about him,’ Jeff said, while he aggressively scrubbed our cast iron pan like he was punishing it.
I said nothing. I studied the splotch of red on and around the pimple on the back of his neck where he’d asked me to help him rub sunscreen in the other day. The range of motion in his right shoulder has been lacking since he tweaked it in the gym. I had been in the middle of photographing a hawk resting on a limb of a palo verde when Jeff came outside and asked for my help, his voice so loud that the hawk immediately took off. ‘You’re always ruining my shots,’ I’d said. Jeff had flinched. ‘Sorry for bothering you.’ He quietly closed the sliding door.
Before Dr. Hollywood connected the syringe with the pentobarbital to the IV protruding from Caspian’s right front ankle, which was wrapped in pink surgical tape, he first administered an anesthetic to put Caspian to sleep. Within seconds, Caspian’s body went limp and folded in on itself like a children’s jumping castle being deflated. Only his eyes were still open. They weren’t focused on anything anymore, but they still seemed to see. Dr. Hollywood said, ‘I forgot to warn you about that. They stay open even after death.’ Then he held up the second syringe and said, ‘Ready?’ I wondered if anyone ever changed their mind at this point. What would Dr. Hollywood say if they did?
I nodded, and I kept petting Caspian even though I knew he couldn’t feel anything. I kept petting him even after Dr. Hollywood checked his heart with his stethoscope and confirmed that it had stopped beating.
What I thought about as I stroked my dead cat’s thin, bumpy ears was Jeff’s sunburned neck. After a few minutes of sulking the other morning once Jeff scared off that hawk, I’d gone inside and taken the sunscreen from him, squeezed it onto my fingertips. ‘I just wish you’d pay closer attention,’ I’d said.
He’d kept his lips clamped shut, as if he were afraid if he opened them an inadvertent apology might slip out. Or perhaps something else that he’s afraid to say?
When I’d rubbed the sunscreen in, I’d cringed at the pimple smack dab in the middle of Jeff’s neck. I didn’t want to touch it. As I watched Jeff brutally scrub the pan last night, the sunburn looked round and almost inviting, like a button I might decide to press.
Kim Magowan lives in San Francisco and teaches in the Department of Literatures and Languages at Mills College. She is the author of the short story collection How Far I’ve Come, forthcoming in 2022 from Gold Wake Press; the novel The Light Source (2019), published by 7.13 Books, and the short story collection Undoing (2018), which won the 2017 Moon City Press Fiction Award. Her fiction has been published in Booth, Craft Literary, The Gettysburg Review, Smokelong Quarterly, Wigleaf, and many other journals. Her stories have been selected for Best Small Fictions and Wigleaf’s Top 50. She is the Editor-in-Chief and Fiction Editor of Pithead Chapel. www.kimmagowan.com.
Michelle Ross is the author of three story collections, There’s So Much They Haven’t Told You, winner of the 2016 Moon City Short Fiction Award and Finalist for the 2017 Foreword INDIES Book of the Year Award in Short Fiction, Shapeshifting, winner of the 2020 Stillhouse Press Short Fiction Award (forthcoming in 2021), and They Kept Running, winner of the Katherine Anne Porter Prize in Short Fiction (forthcoming in 2022). Her fiction has appeared in Alaska Quarterly Review, Colorado Review, Electric Literature, Witness, and many other journals. Her work is included in Best Small Fictions and Best Microfiction, among other anthologies. She is fiction editor of Atticus Review. She lives in Tucson.