The first morning after the cat escaped, the neighbor girl tells you she couldn’t sleep because she heard you calling “Maggie” all night long. You’d gone to bed at 11, so, technically, it wasn’t all night long. But you say nothing.
At 10 p.m., you’d sat outside, covered with black cats — black cats that wanted to be with you, unlike the missing black cat that was probably hidden in the darkness, watching all the other black cats sitting on your lap, becoming even more agitated.
The pet-sitter had been horrified to discover Maggie had escaped. Technically, Maggie had been on top of the carport shortly after you arrived home, but she wouldn’t come inside the house. You’d gone to pick her up, she’d taken off running. You’d followed her. She’d turned her head and scowled, angry you had left town.
Maggie and her kittens had been living with you for seven months, but this was the first time you had spent a night away from home. Thinking about this now, you feel a bit like a loser. Not one night away from home in seven months? What’s happening? Are you turning into one of those people? You’d been gone only three nights. There had been three other cats and two dogs home. They had known you’d return.
Maggie had never been an easy cat. It took months of her sitting in the hot carport, covered with fleas and mosquitoes, as you had fed her and her kittens, trying to coax them inside so you could take them to be neutered and spayed. Once you had finally gotten the cats to go in the house, Maggie would jump through the window screen, then return the same way she left. Day after day, you’d fixed the screen, and the neighbors commented on how you were getting good at repairing screens.
One night, Maggie was wailing, upset about something. You opened the door and let her out, trying to prevent one more repair job. She continued to wail. You let her kitten Ziggy out, figuring he’d comfort the mother, and then you’d bring them both back inside. Ten minutes later, they weren’t on the carport, which was odd since they had been there all summer. Early the next morning, a neighbor texted: Your black mama cat is dead in my yard. Please bury it. But it wasn’t Maggie. It was Ziggy.
After Ziggy died, Maggie quit leaving the house.
A friend tells you to quit looking because she’ll return on her own. The advice sounds plausible, but doing nothing seems reckless, irresponsible. Neighbors are tired of seeing you peering in their yards, their carports, hearing you scream her name, and they say the same thing: “Your cat will come home.” They want you gone. One neighbor tells how someone shot his black cat with a pellet gun. “Cost over 600 bucks at vet and she still has pellets in her leg.” Another neighbor says maybe your black cat was the one sitting on her golf cart. She shooed it away. “Too many damn cats running around here.” Another friend says: Once a feral cat, always a feral cat. “Probably screwing her brains out under a shed.” But Maggie’s spayed, you answer. “Screwing for fun then.”
You remember what happened to Ziggy and continue your search.
On the third day of her absence, you borrow a trap. Time to get serious. The phone rings. Long Distance Lover calls. You update him about your trip to Boston. About Maggie. He’s planning on visiting for a week in a few days. You think you see Maggie and say you’ll call him back. “Wait. Don’t go!” He sounds urgent. You listen. He tells you that you have too many pets and he’s tired of the long distance relationship. He doesn’t admit that he has found a new lover.
You get up again and again that night and release five cats from traps. Two cats are in the trap the last time you empty it. You let the calico free, but aren’t sure that black cat hissing at you isn’t Maggie. You need to see if the tail is crooked. It’s not. The cat races across the street where the kind neighbor feeds all the strays. These cats won’t return to your yard.
You hurry home from work every day, come home at lunch, never leave the neighborhood. Always looking for that cat. It’s you who is trapped. Maggie is probably having way more fun. Maybe she has found a lover, one without so many damn humans in her life.
After four days of not seeing Maggie, your daughter sees the cat — the cat she’s never been able to pet. Not once in seven months. You go after Maggie and she returns to where you first saw her last summer, under the next-door neighbor’s shed. You grab your glass of wine, figuring it may take awhile, and try to coax her out with the salmon you made for dinner. She grabs a bit, then retreats. You ask your daughter to grill a salmon filet for Maggie. Your daughter groans. “You spoil her.” You hand her your glass for a refill. She brings the salmon and a glass of wine for herself. She grudgingly hands you your glass and laughs when you swallow the fly, then rip your shorts on a nail. The neighbors wonder if you will ever get the cat and leave their yard. “You can watch our tomatoes grow,” Neighbor says dryly. You drink more wine. Daughter tweets about your stupidity. Neighbors shut their window, protecting their children from your drunken cat fiasco.
It gets dark. You set up the trap, certain you’ll catch her. You return home for refills of wine and warm coats. You hear Maggie check out the trap. But she’s seen that trap filled with cats in your carport. She’s not that hungry or stupid. When the wine is finished, Daughter grows bored. She goes home for a shower. Eventually, you go home too. Fifteen minutes later, the salmon is gone, the trap has been released, and the cat is running free.
Four hours later, your daughter goes to bed, you put the other three cats in her room, the dogs in your room, prop the kitchen door open, sit in the dark — and Maggie walks inside the kitchen as if she’d never been away.
During the night, she jumps on the bed, just like she has for the past seven months. The other cats move over a bit. You open the window. It’s hot beneath the cats. Is this what Lover didn’t enjoy?
Walking the dogs the next day, you and Daughter get caught in a thunderstorm. Returning home, you find the porch door blown wide open. “Oh, no!” you both screech. But Maggie is cowered beneath the couch. No interest in leaving, especially in a storm. You both sigh with relief.
Your daughter packs her suitcase for her spring break trip. “This weekend home has been nothing but Maggie. Damn cat.”
Maggie jumps on the chair. She looks triumphant.