Stories

Mau – Naomi Brauner

It’s during Boon’s first couple weeks back at home that he develops a flirtation with a local stray cat. He names the cat Brick because it is brown, and when I ask him how the cat is, he says, This Brick is something special. Before he moved back, various stray cats would walk through the yard and neither I nor Mom noticed. But Boon is fixated on Brick. It’s hard to tell what’s the shell shock of being laid off and what’s just Boon’s limited verbal skills. We don’t know when his job officially ended, just that the city told him they don’t need cartographers anymore. When he talks to the cats it’s with this forced frown on his face. When I got kicked out of school and moved home I didn’t make everyone feel sorry for me. Boon does his calisthenics in the garden and Mom comes out with a glass of his favorite guava juice and she says Mmm, that’s a good kitty, every time one of Boon’s cats rubs against his legs. She wants him to know she’s not judging him. 
        When he first told Mom he was moving back home she said she’d been hoping he’d say that, and she said it genuinely because she doesn’t care that he’s in his thirties or has no savings. When I moved home, Mom asked me if I thought therapy might shake me out of my funk. She wanted me to re-enroll in school, take whatever remedial coursework was necessary, but I knew she was going to need a caretaker soon, even if she didn’t. I didn’t want to get a job because my real work was at home. She was in fine health but I knew it would take a turn eventually. It was the responsible thing to do. I told her not to think of my education as something I was sacrificing for her and she would always say, That’s not at all what I think, but I insisted on staying at home and eventually she dropped it. We both knew deep down that my return was ultimately a gift.

 

Boon decides he wants to stay in the old garden shed, for privacy reasons. From my bedroom window I can see him making it up so it’ll be comfortable enough to live in. He brings in a camping chair, a hot plate, a solar-powered lamp, a radio, and he doesn’t let any of us inside. He tries to get Brick to sit in his lap on the sunny bench outside his shed but Brick just pees on the bench’s leg and wanders away. Boon makes a habit of chopping fresh turkey giblets to woo Brick. 
        When I ask Boon where he sleeps, he tells me in a soft voice that he actually uses the old tool shelf as his bed, right next to the shed’s only window. He says it has the exact dimensions of his body, plus a couple inches for spreading, and with his sleeping bag, it’s the perfect hideaway. I ask if I can see his cocoon and he wanders off without answering. 
        Brick the cat doesn’t come back one day and Boon is lashed by the abandonment. He mopes for days. When I see him in the garden he just hums into his hands. He’s obsessed with different versions of push-ups, sometimes against the wall of the shed using only his index fingers, sometimes doing an approximation of the worm on the dirt path. I ask him why he doesn’t go to the pound and adopt a cat and he hums some more. Mom says he just needs some time to grieve, that this is the normal course of things. I remind her that we’re all adults here and she scoffs. She says, Junie, will you please do your dishes in the sink. During his morning workouts, when Boon hangs upside down from the pull-up bar for minutes on end, Mom pats his foot and says, Nice job. I don’t know what he’s accomplishing with his calisthenics routine but I know better than to ask. Boon thinks that if he’s in the sun for enough hours a day he’ll be replenished vitamin-D-wise and his mood will perk up, so he just sits there for hours after his workouts. He only dries his clothes in the sun because he thinks it’ll sanitize them. Every time I look outside he’s sitting on his bench, surrounded by bleached t-shirts, waves of heat rippling around his shadow. 
        So I go to the pound myself. He’s letting himself get these enormous burnt shoulders and Mom can’t admit she’s worried. I pick out a cat that seems docile and kind of morose. Its name is Orange Kitty. When I drive home the cat growls the whole way and I think I made a mistake. I imagine Boon helplessly doing sit-ups in the sun, self-medicating with his prematurely-harvested cannabis plants, beginning to cry when the cat hisses at him. I let it out of the crate at the bottom of the driveway and only half-heartedly hope it can smell its way to Boon’s shed. As it slinks away, I shout after it, Be nice!
        Boon happens upon the cat in the garden and begins making excited pissing noises with his mouth. Boon says, And who are you? The cat says, Mau. That does the trick. Boon is all riled up and brings out a tasting: kibble, wet food, and Boon’s specialty, freshly chopped turkey giblets. Boon does not cook human food. Mau goes for the giblets. After the giblets he rubs himself on the fig tree and sniffs the remainder of Boon’s dying cannabis plants before falling asleep in the sun.
        After Brick, Boon wants to be wary. He tells me this in the garden, as he’s chopping giblets. He says he keeps telling himself Mau is never going to come back, preparing himself for the inevitable. But every day, there is Mau, and within a week Boon has completely let his guard down. He tells me that Mau has this open, inviting expression on his face that he can’t deny. I snort when he says this and he looks at me, confused, and tells me cats are quite complicated. I tell him I think he and the cat deserve a good life together. Mau wanders up and says its name against Boon’s ankle, and Boon hums down to it, having his version of a conversation. It’s nice that he has some way to experience pleasure.
        Mom comes into the garden and leans down to pet the cat’s head. She says, You’re a very lucky kitty. I say, Mom, do you think that cat has an inviting face, and without looking at me she says, Sure he does. It’s a little much, though, I say, to think the cat can emote like that. She says, Mau is a very thoughtful cat. I say, Well, whatever. You’re limping again. No I’m not, she says. It seems like your knee is acting up again, I say. No, she says, it hasn’t for months. I don’t know why you’re so intent on me having a knee problem that I don’t have. You shouldn’t be on it, I say. She says, my knee is fine. I say, Mom, you should really rest. For God’s sake Junie, she says, it’s completely fine, I don’t know what you’re talking about. Boon hums into his hands. 

Boon and Mau develop a special morning routine. Boon sits on the sunny bench and he holds the bowl of freshly chopped turkey giblets. He shakes them around until Mau jumps in his lap and begins to eat. With his elbow bent and the bowl of giblets at chest height, it looks like Mau is licking the gelatinous meat chunks directly from Boon’s body as if Boon’s sprouted a mammary of giblets. Suckling at Boon’s breast, Mau purrs and kneads Boon’s legs, and Boon pets the cat’s long striped back. Someone walking on the street could look over the gate and see Boon and Mau nursing, and Boon wouldn’t know to be embarrassed. I make a point of avoiding looking out my window in the mornings.

He was like this as a kid, too, quiet and odd and obsessed with befriending animals. Always getting a pass. I thought it was because he had Asperger’s. I told him that when we were kids, saying Ass Burgers specifically to insult him, but he didn’t react, instead he just said, Okay, and walked away. Mom doesn’t think it’s anything like that, she says he just isn’t as interested in talking to us as he is in other things, mostly animals. As kids, every day before school Boon would stare at his bowl of oatmeal and only look up when he saw a deer nibbling at the figs or if a cardinal came to the birdfeeder. He couldn’t figure out how to ask someone a question. Mom said he was just shy. He couldn’t even play during recess, he would just pace around the blacktop, attempting to collect enough acorns so the squirrels would come to him, but he had a hard time identifying acorns on the ground, so he began bringing rice to school. It turns out that squirrels can’t eat rice, and soon there was a rule about poisoning wildlife on school grounds. It was funny until I became publicly known as Murder By Rice’s Little Sister, an identity that stuck even after Mom put Boon in a private school. I never went to private school because I could play during recess.
        Boon wakes up early every day to feed Mau. He opens his little shed door and feels needed. This is a series of decisions they make together as a family, down to the size of giblet pieces and the orientation of the sunny bench. Boon tells me that Mau also has some baggage relating to grief and companionship, which makes Boon feel a deeper sense of kinship and duty. He knows Mau has attachment issues like him because Mau only sleeps in the dirt of the raised cannabis beds or in the sunny patch next to the shed, but never inside it. He comes in and paces the small floor space, says his name to Boon, and walks out. So Boon begins to keep his door open all night, and I can hear it rattling back and forth in the wind. He tells me he leaves fresh giblets on the floor and hopes Mau will come in and make himself comfortable, which, after a couple nights, miraculously happens. Boon tells me this in the morning with big bags under his eyes. With his hands folded in front of him and such pride in his voice, he tells me this as if he’s discovered he’s pregnant. 
        After Mau has spent several nights licking his whiskers and sleeping on the floor of Boon’s shed, it occurs to Boon, he tells me, that the reason the cat isn’t sleeping with him, in his bed, is because there is no way for the cat to get up there, on the old tool shelf. I don’t bother asking why Boon doesn’t just sleep on the floor, which seems just as comfortable as a shelf. Instead Boon is all excited about the idea of making a kitty ladder. When he tells Mom this, she asks if he needs help laying out a bed for the cat. He nods and she goes around the house gathering pillows. I tell her the pillows won’t even fit on the shelf, and she should take it easy on the stairs, and she says, Oh, enough. If I weren’t here the two of them would burn the house down. I mutter that and she says, Junie, please.
        I’m sitting in the garden on the phone with Mom’s doctor, who won’t fill her prescription. I chip in by solving problems, even if no one asks. Boon comes out of his shed with a bunch of two-by-fours and a bag of screws, and then he goes to his car and gets a whole plastic sawhorse out of the trunk. He wears a pair of dollar-store sunglasses and puts his headphones in, and he’s got a little smile on his face. He starts using a dull saw to try and cut a two-by-four, which makes this grating, rough noise. It’s really loud, so I can’t hear the doctor. I ask Boon what he’s doing and he shouts that he’s making Mau’s kitty ladder. I don’t bother bringing him the measuring tape or a straight edge. It’s good for him to learn.
        When I look out my window later I see he has Mau on his lap again, but instead of a bowl of giblets he has a ruler in his hand, and he’s measuring the distance between Mau’s front and back paws. He takes a pen from behind his ear and writes a number on his hand. Then he measures the distance between the two front paws, then the two back. He writes these numbers on his hands again and draws a stick-figure cat next to the numbers. Mau begins to lick Boon’s leg. 
        The sawing goes on for hours, just incessant. I come down and ask how it’s going and he says the sawhorse is too rickety and he hasn’t done the measurements properly so the kitty ladder won’t be done by tonight. There are roughly cut pieces of wood all over the ground and he’s looking determined, like a little kid with a bunch of broken crayons and a sheet of paper covered in scribbles. I tell him it doesn’t seem like he knows how to make a ladder. He just hums and begins sawing off another two-by-four.
        He leaves the door open that night, as usual. I wake up to the sound of it banging against the shed, the wind off the Bay slamming it closed over and over. I look out to see Boon in his boxers, opening the door again and putting a sawed-off piece of wood in the jam as a doorstop. He whistles for Mau, looks up and down the garden, and goes back inside. 
        I don’t know if I was ever asleep. All I hear is screaming. Boon’s voice is high and still soft, so his scream sounds like an aria. I look out the window and see him in the dark garden, bending over the live oak’s roots. It only takes me a couple seconds to get outside. The panic of his aria makes me feel like I am going to shatter. In his hands he holds Mau. Or it seems like Mau based on the tail, but with only three legs and no ears, and his mouth hanging open. The cat’s eyes move around like bingo balls being shuffled, and its tail is twitching all the time. Its belly rises and falls sporadically, so I can tell it’s still breathing, but it does not make a sound.
        I push Boon to the car. He is still holding Mau and Mau’s fourth leg, the blood all over his boxers. I can’t really look at either of them because I might faint. The whole drive to the vet he holds Mau’s face up to his, nose to nose. The cat’s jaw just keeps dangling there, appended but flayed and limp. I think I see Boon try to touch the jaw and the cat feebly scratch at him with his remaining legs. Boon screams Mau’s name and it sounds like the last sound on Earth, too melodic and ancient to be possible. I don’t think he can hear himself at all. I begin to feel the vomit building in my throat. He screams Mau’s name over and over. I drive through every red light. The cat’s tail keeps twitching. I’m worried my vomit will spray the cat’s exposed leg bone and ruin any chance of reattachment. The cat looks at me with this warning look. Boon screams Mau.
        He screams some more inside the vet’s office. I tell the receptionist, Something happened to my brother’s cat. She says, Yes. Boon screams and a vet comes out and takes the cat from Boon’s bloody arms. I sit in a plastic chair and Boon paces the waiting room. He is completely covered in cat blood, moaning nonsensically. His vomit rinses the plastic chair next to me, a sparkling projectile of fruity acid. I don’t think he knows I am here. I say, Boon, Jesus Christ, and he says, Mau. All I can see is him bending over the roots of the live oak, fingering Mau’s leg meat made to giblets, his paroxysmal scream. 
        The vet comes out of the back room and looks at Boon the way a plumber looks at a hoarder’s toilet. He gives Boon a paper cup of water and asks him to sit down. Then the vet’s face softens and he says, This is the third time this week. Coyotes, they have no natural predators here. I’m sorry. The cat, the vet says. Mau, Boon says, and the vet says, Okay, Mau, there was no way for him to survive. He was in a great deal of pain. His bottom jaw was cracked. That’s why he wasn’t meowing. We could not, there’s nothing to do for a cat when the cat cannot eat. Boon says, What, and the vet says, I’m sorry, sir, but the cat is dead. Boon says, What, and the vet says, Your cat Mau did not survive because a coyote tried to eat him and then stopped halfway through. Boon says, Who? And the vet pats his shoulder.
        I fear this kind of thing will become increasingly common, the vet says. Mau, Boon says. Their population is skyrocketing, the coyotes, the vet says. I would discourage all of my clients from having outdoor cats, the vet says. What, says Boon. It’s too risky, the vet says. I clear my throat. I’m not totally sure why they do that, the vet says, the coyotes, they’re related to dogs, as you know. I think maybe he thought your cat Mau was a chew toy, the vet says. I don’t know why else the coyote would stop halfway through, the vet says, maybe he thought your cat was a possum or something more suited to his tastes. Can I see Mau, Boon says. Well, the vet says, I was actually going to say. Your cat, Mau, of course he is in bad shape right now, the vet says. I want to see Mau, Boon says. Boon No, I say. The cat is in terrible shape right now, sir. You might remember from when you brought him here. Is he okay? Boon says. No Boon, I say. No, sir, he’s not okay, the vet says. He is dead, the vet says. But, now that he is out of his misery, I was thinking. Once we get him cleaned up, you might like to see him, the vet says. Yes, please, Boon says, I want to see Mau. Maybe not, I say. Yes, sir, we can do that for you, the vet says. There’s actually a couple options here. We can give you Mau’s body so it’s in proper burial condition, wrapped up nicely, the vet says. Okay, Boon says. Great, I say. But there’s another option, the vet says. Like I said, the coyotes are starting to be a real problem for outdoor pets. It’s really awful, the vet says. We’re seeing that owners of mauled pets suffer from shock and sometimes even PTSD, the vet says. Where’s Mau, Boon says. So to help ease that shock, the vet says, we’ve had a couple clients request a special service, something that helps erase the violence of the mauling. What, Boon says. Well, the vet says, it’s up to you. The idea is that you can return to some happier memories with your cat. Yes, Boon says. The vet smiles. Would you like to take Mau home with you? 
        The vet says it will take up to a week for Mau to be ready. Boon asks if he can stay in the waiting room while they work and the vet says, It might be a good idea for you to get some sleep. I give the vet my number because Boon is too busy crying. By the time we leave it’s light out. Boon lets me direct him back out to the car, which is half on the curb. The inside is dark with Mau’s blood so I put my jacket on the passenger seat. He sits on it and puts his head in his hands and moans. 
        At home he goes inside his shed and Mom brings him apple slices. I tell her, He’s not a baby, and she says, Junie, remember when you moved home? That was different, I say, I was dealing with something. She says, Alright. The days pass and Boon doesn’t come out so I go to him. The shed is rank with the smell of old cat food. His radio is in the middle of the floor, quietly playing classical music, and he’s on the old tool shelf, looking out the window, his head on the crook of his elbow. 
        Boon, I say. You gotta get it together. He doesn’t turn over but he says, Mmm. Okay. No, really, Boon, I say. This is getting old. He says, Why would I? I say, What, and he says, Junie, did you see his jaw? I say, I’m trying to help you, and he says, Why? And I say, Because, Boon, no one else is gonna be honest with you. He says, Maybe no one is being honest with you. I say, What, and he says, I’ll be honest with you back. I say, Okay, and he says, You’re not helping me at all. I say, Well, you refuse to be helped. I’m doing what I can. He says, You really shouldn’t, maybe. I say, What’s wrong with you, and he says, You’re not helping me, really. I say, Well, no one else cared enough to get you a cat. He says, What, and I say, I cared enough to get you a cat. He says, What, and I say, Jesus, Boon, I got Mau from the pound and brought him here so you would get over Brick. Now I’m going to have to go to the pound again, but I guess not, because apparently I don’t help anyone. He says, What, and I say, Yep, you’re welcome, and he says, Get out of my house. 

I’m the one who gets the call that Mau is ready to be picked up. I tell Boon even though he’s not talking to me, and he silently gets in the passenger seat of the car. When we get there, the vet comes out, holding Mau. Mau has all four of his legs arranged in a prancing pose, smooth dark fur where the ears once were, the jaw jaggedly made whole. Mau is forever grinning up at Boon, about to say his own name. I cannot help it. I cover my mouth. Boon pets the stiff back and purrs. I cannot help but laugh.