Some friendships need to be broken off. Rueben lives next door, in the bungalow beside my own on the New Hampshire side of the Connecticut River. A pleasant place, with views of Vermont, but none of the wholegrain feel.
For months, I'd avoided getting to know my neighbor. He'd moved into the bungalow two hundred feet upstream at the end of January. Even from a distance, the man annoyed me—the forest of potted ferns on his porch, the chimes that tinkled and clacked all day and all night, the wooden cardinal that always faced into the wind. But my bus was leaving at six the next day, and I needed someplace to leave my cat, Charles. I tucked the cat under my arm, walked the two hundred feet, and knocked on Reuben's door.
Boxers and yellow dish gloves. That's what he was wearing. His long grey moustache wrapped over his lips like a limp sweat sock. He held a mug of steaming broth with diced chives floating on the oil-speckled surface, and he wiped the hairs away from his mouth with the rubbery gloves after taking a sip.
"Hi Neighbor," he said, as though he was Mr. Rogers and I was four years old. I grimaced and pointed at the cat. "Necessary evil," I said, referring to the no-good cat as a way to control mice. But really I meant me standing on Reuben's step. Necessary evil.
He said he'd be happy to look after Charles. No sweat. I told him I'd be back with a sack of Seafood Delight in a few minutes.
Three Days Later...
Rube was smiling when he opened the door. I was relieved to see that he was fully dressed this time. I looked past him, into the tiny living room of his cabin. Charles was there, curled on a red silk pillow, fur done up in something resembling clusters of orange sausages. I'd never seen the cat looking so prim, and I thought to ask about it.
"Oh, we had a wonderful time," said Rueben. "Charles was a dream. Three happy days, and I'd do it again anytime."
I told him I was grateful, and that I'd have to return the favor someday.
"You know," Reuben said, "Charles didn't care much for that Seafood Delight." He looked at me, as if daring me to argue, then continued. "Didn't like it at all. Just took a sniff and walked away. It took a while, but I realized I was dealing with a picky eater."
"Picky eater? Naw, he'll eat anything you throw at him."
"Believe me, I tried it all," said Reuben. "Tuna, salmon, cold cuts, ground beef. Nothing. Maybe a lick, but not a nibble."
I was surprised. The Charles I knew took up any and all meat offerings. "What did you do?" I asked.
"Well, I'm a cat-man from way back," said Reuben. The way he said it made me laugh. "A cat-man, so I know all about how to get even the finickiest cats to eat. But Charles was a tough macadamia to crack."
First, he said, he attempted the Unagi Method.
I asked him if there were multiple methods, and if so, did one of them involve shoving a tube down the cat's throat?
Reuben didn't smile. He said, "Yes, of course, but that's always a last resort, isn't it?" He stepped out onto the porch with me and began fiddling awkwardly with a tail of one of the potted ferns.
"The Unagi Method," he said again. He'd driven to Concord and purchased a Japanese eel from a supplier he knew personally. "A pristine black specimen," he said, and I assumed he meant the eel. This he'd disemboweled with an obsidian knife discovered at the bedside table of Inca Emperor Huayna Capac.
I smiled, but Reuben didn't. He withdrew the brownish blade from his pocket, held it up for me to see, as though to dispel any thoughts (oh, I had them) that he might be lying.
Next, he'd made a pilaf of wild rice, organic spelt and quinoa. He'd tossed in chopped walnuts and apricots, the skins of a persimmon, and a dash of flax oil (omega-3 fatty acids to feed Charles' brain, he said). This pilaf he stuffed into the eel, binding it with gold wire and baking in on an apple plank at 358 degrees Fahrenheit for 42 minutes.
"Golly," I said. "So you ate it and gave Charles the peelings, or what?"
Reuben raised an eyebrow, turned on me with a sour face. He was surprised, he said, that I would accuse him of something like that. It was all for Charles--but no, Charles wouldn't touch it. Even after Reuben had blended it into a fine paste. The Unagi Method had failed him.
He'd fallen back on something he liked to call Hassenpfeffer Tactics. Rabbit daube, with special ingredients that vary depending on the color of the cat. Saffron for yellow cats, nutmeg and black pepper for Siamese, and in Charles' case (an orange tabby, he reminded me) turmeric with cumin and citrus rinds.
Complicated rabbit stew. He said he'd let the meat simmer in Pinot Noir, aged to perfection (he breathed the word out with a hot gasp) in an alabaster ossuary found in a cave outside Nazareth, Palestine. The ossuary, he claimed, was discovered in 1799 by a captain in Napoleon's army whose name he knew but that I can't remember now. Rueben had bought the bonebox especially for the occasion, knowing (as he claimed to know the most intimate folds of my deep desire to see Charles' epicurean fantasies realized) that I would want it to be so.
I glanced back at my cabin, wishing I'd left something smoking on the stove as an excuse to leave.
"Charles didn't take to this meal either, and it was necessary to pump his stomach." Reuben looked remorseful for a moment, then held up a finger. "But, no ordinary veterinarian would do."
Reuben went on to explain that an emergency gastric evacuation is a delicate procedure--one requiring an administrator so adept, he or she might be better called an animal artist. He then told me that he had attempted to call in a MEDEVAC, but all the helicopters were out on more important (he scoffed at the word) missions. After an adrenaline-saturated two-hour drive down I-93, he'd checked Charles into the Intensive Care Unit of the Feline Sciences wing of the John Winthrop Veterinary Hospital in Boston.
The animal artist who'd looked after Charles was named Dr. Çatalhöyük Anatoli, who had trained in Marseilles. He'd treated the cat using a variation on the Swiss Water Decaffeination process. The technique, which utilized copious amounts of benzene and brine, had been developed in 1903 by a certain Ludwig Roselius of Bremen. Roselius was regrettably (Rueben told me in confidential tones) a Nazi and a Hitler supporter, but also a fabulous patron of the arts, and therefore he couldn't have been entirely evil.
Dr. Anatoli had cautioned Reuben not to allow Charles to return to strenuous exercise too quickly. The effects of the benzene (Rueben insisted on referring to it as Frankincense of Java) were short-lived, but Charles could expect to feel all the usual symptoms: fatigue, lightheadedness and separation anxiety.
So Rueben had enthroned Charles on the silk cushion and not left his side since. That, he informed me, was the last three days of his life, in capsule form. But Charles was a lovely creature, and he'd do it all again.
"Sounds like a plan," I said, and I clucked at Charles. The cat hopped off its pillow and twittered towards the door.
"Oh," said Reuben, "don't go yet." He held out a piece of stationary. I saw words swirling across the page in large, looping letters. The paper smelled like cinnamon.
Japanese eel $27.50
Assorted fruit and nuts $7.75
Gold Wire $56
Rhinelander rabbit $22
Nazarene ossuary $540
Veterinary bill $720
[2 1/2 tanks of gasoline] $115.60
At least I knew the ossuary was a fake. Reuben jiggled the sheet, impatient for me to take it. "Fourteen ninety-three eighty-five," he said.
I gaped, choked on a bit of phlegm I hadn't known was there. Reuben's face was an ashy field traced with blue canals in the furrows and folds. His eyes gobbled me--I felt them fondling my wallet.
"Hey Rube," I managed to say, "I never asked you to do those things. I never asked for the Unagi and the stew, or the ossuary. You can't expect me to pay for it all."
I'd let a word slip, and Reuben was on it in a second, a man leaping from a trench-bound barge to a matchstick lifeboat.
"Oh, I don't know about paying for it all," he said. He accidentally tore up a handful of ferns. "I mean, I was happy to do it, and I suppose I did get a bit carried away here and there. Too much pent up love, maybe. My grandkids live all the way over in Phoenix." He paused, licking his moustache. "Tell you what. The food was my treat. My splurge, my cost. You just pay for the veterinary expenses."
That still left me with seven hundred and twenty bucks to shell out. All but about three of those bucks I just didn't have, it being the first of the month. This self-proclaimed cat-man was trying to take me by the coins.
"Look man," said I, "it's not gonna happen. I'm not going to subsidize your stupidity."
I wished I hadn't said stupidity. Rueben's skin looked the way mine does when I've touched burlap--raspberried. He was hissing like a goose, his tongue a grey chisel working at his slab teeth. He shuddered, and one of the ferns toppled to the flagstones below. Terracotta shards and soil everywhere. Charles bolted back into the cabin.
Reuben glanced at the mess. His eyes were desperate. I wondered if he might try to hit me, or smash the rest of the ferns. I imagined him destroying the wind chimes. Be he just backed away slowly, into the doorway.
"Fine," he said, and he gagged. "Fine. Be a bad neighbor." He made a dash towards Charles, and scooped the animal into his arms. His back was to me, and he glared at me over his shoulder. "But I keep the cat."
The bungalow seems quieter without Charles. The evenings, inhabited by the ghosts of Reuben's cooking, are longer. I dry the dishes after I wash them--used to let them drip dry. I listen to public radio and notice when it rains. I share the cool spring nights with Laurence Welk and his band, as shelves of ice shunt and groan on the Connecticut beyond my door. I leave a dish of Seafood Delight on the back step each night, and every morning I find it empty.
BIO: Jack Frey is a Canadian who has been told that he resembles Vladimir Lenin. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Shelf Life Magazine, Rose & Thorn Journal, Jersey Devil Press, and the Last Man Anthology, among others. Like many of us, he is currently pecking away at his first novel. (jackfrey.wordpress.com)