|SMOKEY THE THERAPY CAT|
by Andrew Miller Last week Jeff Streeter drove me to the clam flats in his Ford Model T to scatter Patricia’s ashes. We went before sunrise, her favorite time of day. Jeff stayed with the car, one foot on the running board, while I trudged along the shore toward the Deer Isle Bridge. Patricia’s ashes, light gray, gritty like coarse sand, slid through my fingers. She and I had strolled this coastline often: slogging through mud, knee deep in pools, over coarse gravel, rockweed popping under our feet. Never in a hurry, plenty of time to poke under flat rocks, watch crabs scoot to safety, marvel at the numbers of periwinkles. The air thick with the aroma of mud, sunbaked seaweed, and dried fish.
This is where her ashes were meant to sleep, to become the stuff of soft-shelled clams and intertidal worms. It had been quick: three weeks from cancer diagnosis to a double handful of Patricia’s ashes in a silver-colored cardboard box. We had been together 36 years.
After that morning, life in my house in the spruce forest settled into a dreary dullness, leaden and gray. I spent much of the day on the front deck, hands deep in my pockets, a cup of cold coffee at my side, staring at the gray-green spruce thicket beyond the clearing. Gloom sustained me. It gave me an excuse to turn down dinner invitations, to skip get-togethers with friends at the coffee shop. I even ignored the garden, stood by while the zucchini turned woody, green beans dried on the vine. The less I did, the worse I felt.
Now it was just me and Smokey, our male Maine Coon cat. Three years ago, Patricia and I adopted him from the Ark Animal Shelter near Cherryfield. He was a soft, light-gray ball of fluff. After a year his fur had darkened and now it was about the shade of a weathered granite rock. We always owned cats; Smokey replaced our 12-year old black and white short-hair that had died a few months earlier.
Jeff reappeared a few days after Patricia’s memorial service. Usually he calls first, but this time he just showed up. Patricia and I met Jeff at a library function 20 years ago. She fell in love with his energy and voluble personality, I with his love of antiques and his 100-year-old car. The three of us went for rides in the T at least once a month. We’d visit old friends, cruise into Blue Hill, stop for a picnic lunch or a lobster roll at a drive-in restaurant.
Today he drove the Volvo, which meant he had something on his mind. I brewed a fresh pot of coffee and we sat out on the deck. We chatted and watched Smokey stalk a grasshopper.
Eyes on the cat, Jeff set his cup down. “Alex…have you ever thought of enrolling Smokey in the Pet Therapy Program?”
“Therapy—for my cat? Since when do cats need therapy?”
“It not for him, it’s for kids. You take Smokey to the hospital—visit children waiting for surgery, recovering from an accident, getting cancer treatment…”
Smokey crept toward the grasshopper. His belly fur scraped the grass.
“Isn’t that for dogs?” I pictured a Pomeranian or Welsh Corgi racing up to a kid, licking his hand, anxious to be petted, begging for a treat. But a cat?
Jeff shook his head. “You’ve forgotten that Smokey is the only cat in Maine that talks.”
“Sure, like that time you and Patricia put on the ventriloquist act for Randy.”
Last summer Jeff brought his ten-year old nephew over for a visit. Randy had just broken his leg and was in a deep funk because he couldn’t sail or play baseball. Patricia and I entertained Randy by making Smokey talk.
Smokey: “Randy, how come you’re walking around with those sticks?”
Randy: “I fell out of an apple tree and broke my leg.”
Smokey: “How were the apples—any good?”
And so on. It was obvious that Randy was more comfortable talking to Smokey than to adults.
Jeff continued, “Take Smokey to the hospital and do your act with kids. Tell jokes, sing songs, read stories. Get them talking. Like you did with Randy.”
When my grandfather was a kid, he saw a ventriloquist act with a dog instead of a dummy. That gave him the idea of putting on comedy shows using live animals. From then on, his pets always talked. I picked up the idea from him.
After Patricia and I got together, she joined in.
One of our cats: “Who’s going to feed me?”
Patricia: “There’s food in your dish, go look.”
One of our cats: “I’m sick of that old Turkey Fixin’s in Giblet Gravy; it’s cold and crusty. Open up a can of Salmon Florentine with Garden Greens in a Delicate Sauce.”
Patricia: “Since when do cats know about fancy salmon dishes?”
I’d hear her scrape his old food into the garbage and open a new can.
Patricia: “There, Salmon Florentine and Garden Greens in a Delicate Sauce—hope your satisfied.”
After eating: “I’m not being well-cared for.”
Patricia: “Oh, come on.”
We did this often, taking turns being Smokey’s voice. But Smokey quit talking when Patricia was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.
Jeff broke into my thoughts. “Want to give it a try?”
Smokey pounced on the grasshopper. He had it pinned, then in a flurry of beating wings, the grasshopper buzzed into the tall grass. Smokey reared up on hind legs and gave chase. Watching the cat gave me time to think.
Finally, I said, “I hate to jump into things. Give me some time to think.”
Jeff didn’t press the issue. After he left, I did a little research on pet therapy programs. The animals had to be healthy and up-to-date on all their shots. No problem there. Most were dogs, but they did take cats. They all had to wear a vest and walk on a leash—Jeff hadn’t mentioned that detail. Smokey didn’t have a leash and had never walked on one. But he was a smart kitty. I was sure he could learn.
“Smokey, what do you think about getting into the therapy business?”
Smokey broke his silence.
“Therapy for kids?” he said. “Sounds like dog’s work to me.”
“They take cats.”
“Me—in a hospital? What if I catch a disease?”
“You can’t catch human diseases. Besides, some of the kids might be recovering from an accident, getting ready for an operation.”
He rolled over on his back, stretched out his fore and hind legs. I rubbed his belly, listened to him purr.
“I miss Patricia,” he said. “I wish she was here.”
I took a deep breath. “So do I, Big Boy. It was so sudden.” I picked him up and squeezed. He squirmed out of my arms, dropped to the floor.
“Quit squishing me. I hate to be force-purred.”
“All right, all right.”
He jumped on the couch.
“Maybe…” he licked his right forepaw twice, “maybe that therapy stuff wouldn’t so bad after all.”
Later that afternoon, Jeff called, asked if I had thought more about the Pet Therapy Program.
“Yes,” I said. “Smokey said he’d try it. How do we get started?”
“You have to take him to the Blue Hill Veterinary Clinic and sign him up.”
“Can’t we do this over the phone? Smokey doesn’t like travel.”
“A vet has to check him out. They’ll need to review his medical records.”
“There’s nothing the matter with this cat.”
“It’s just a formality.” I could hear him drumming his fingers on the table. “I’ll drive you in the Model T. Afterwards, we’ll have a picnic at Mariners Park.”
His words clutched at my throat. This would be my first outing with Jeff in the Model T since we scattered Patricia’s ashes. It would be just Jeff and me. No Patricia.
He gave me no time to unpeel old memories. “Bring a bottle of wine and I’ll take care of the rest. Your appointment is at eleven o’clock next Monday.”
“You made an appointment for us?”
“I figured you’d say ‘yes.’”
“Why do we need an appointment?”
“You can’t just walk into a pet screening unannounced.”
“This is starting to sound like a big deal.”
“I’ll pick you up at ten. Tell Mr. Smokes to be on his best behavior.”
Smokey dropped off the couch, ambled toward the front door and yowled. I held it open. He stepped part way through the threshold, then stopped, sniffed the mat.
“Hurry up—going out or not?”
Not just one sniff, but many long sniffs along the entire edge. What is it about cats? They rush into the house but must be coaxed out.
He glared up at me. “What happened to the frog I brought in last night?”
“You told me those things were no good—cold and clammy.”
“I never said that.”
“Hurry up, I don’t have all day.”
“Don’t rush me—I’m sniffing.”
I nudged him with my foot. He stepped out on the deck.
“What do you want for dinner—some fancy salmon dish?”
“Let’s go simple: Beef with Gravy.”
If Smokey was going to be a therapist, he needed a vest and a leash. The nearest pet store was in Ellsworth, almost an hour away.
Several hours later, I returned with Smokey’s new vest. Black as ebony, sprinkled with multicolored stars, it was the fanciest one in the store. It was tough getting him into it. First, I stuffed his legs into a couple of holes in the front. Then I held him steady while snapping two flaps over his back. It was hate at first feel. But no matter how much he walked backwards, writhed on the floor or scrapped against door jams, he couldn’t shuck it. When he calmed down, I attached the leash and carried him outside.
Once on the ground, he refused to follow; just sat back on his haunches and sulked.
“Come on, Smokey, you’re supposed to walk beside me.”
“I am nota dog.”
He refused to move until he spotted a grasshopper. Then he dragged me over to investigate. After that, he started leading me around the yard. After 30 minutes of zig-zagging here and there, I decided that Lesson Number One was a partial success.
We worked with the leash over the next few days. He began to follow me, rather than the other way around. He still tended to wrap around tree trunks or dash under bushes. But he only had to be on the leash for a few minutes with the vet. This might work after all.
Late Sunday afternoon, a thick shelf of black clouds rolled in from the southeast. Wind ripped over the island, poplar leaves chattered and snapped, paper birch and spruce saplings dipped and swayed. Heavy rain pummeled the roof. Water cascaded off the cedar siding and rushed onto the deck. When the wind let up Monday morning, the yard was strewn with broken branches, flattened bracken ferns, and shallow puddles. Right after breakfast, a light breeze picked up and the clouds began to disperse. A perfect day for a picnic. A little soggy, but that wouldn’t bother us.
I heard a muffled yowl from the deck. When I opened the door, Smokey looked up at me, a deer mouse dangled from his jaws.
“You can’t bring that in here!”
“Is it dead?”
He crouched down, turned his head sideways and began to chew. Bones cracked and crunched; it sounded like someone stepped on a wooden strawberry box. When he stopped to swallow, I kicked the remains off the deck and nudged him through the door.
“Hey—I just gotten started.”
“Forget that mouse, your breakfast is ready.”
He dashed over to his food dish. After filling up on Roasted Chicken and Gravy, he jumped on the window sill and began to wash his face.
He stopped in mid lick when he spotted the carrier. “Are we going somewhere?”
“This is Pet Therapy Screening Day—don’t you remember?
“Oh…that.” He went back to licking.
“Jeff will be here at ten.”
“Are we still going on a picnic?”
“Yes,” I said, “But you have to be screened first.”
“I don’t want to be screened. I don’t like vets.”
“This is not a big deal. They need to check your records. Remember—you’re going to be a therapist.”
“Did you pack my Roast Chicken Flavored Yummies?”
“And my water dish? I might get thirsty.”
“Yes. Don’t I take good care of you?”
Smokey yawned. “Not as good as Patricia. She used to warm my food in the microwave. Salmon in a Rich Creamy Sauce is no good straight from the fridge.”
Smokey settled into the bread loaf position, all four paws and tail tucked under.
“Is Jeff driving us in that funny old car?”
“That’s the plan.”
Smokey turned to watch birds. I set his carrier out on the deck and then printed off an article on childhood diseases.
At ten o’clock we heard a rhythmic chug-chug-chug from the Perez Crossroad. Smokey stood up and stretched, fixed his eyes on the driveway. When the Model T burst through the spruce trees, I stepped out on the deck. Jeff waved, stopped with a metallic screech. He set the emergency brake, popped out of the Model T.
“Hey Alex—you and Smokey ready for the big day?”
He bounded up on the deck and gave me a quick hug. I told Jeff that we were ready, went inside and slipped the amateur therapist into his vest. He struggled when I pushed him into the carrier.
“How come I gotta wear the straight jacket and ride in this little jail?”
I tossed a couple of yummies into the carrier. “Here, and don’t mouth off like that when we get to the clinic.”
Jeff dropped to his knees and peered in at Smokey. “He doesn’t look very happy.”
“He’ll be okay.”
“That’s a spiffy outfit he has on.”
I maneuvered the carrier into the back seat. The T shook with anticipation. Jeff released the emergency brake, advanced the hand throttle, and put us in low gear. We leaped forward. He shifted into high gear and we careened onto the Perez Crossroad.
Jeff slowed the T as we approached a stop sign. “Is he OK—not too noisy, is it?”
“We don’t want him to be nervous and fail his screen test.”
Once on the Pressy Village Road, we edged into the left lane to pass a black pickup parked on the shoulder. In the bed were coils of yellow rope, a stack of worn pine boards, a roll of hardware cloth, and half a dozen five-gallon buckets. Back in the right lane, we swept by a muddy cove strewn with clumps of rockweed, a row of Cape Cod houses surrounded by blocks of lichen-encrusted granite, a smattering of scraggly apple trees.
After we crept out of Deer Isle Village, I began to think about our appointment at the clinic. I needed to prepare.
I turned to the back seat. “Smokey, how do you plan to entertain the children?”
Smokey’s ears were back, his claws deep into a faded beach towel in the bottom of the carrier.
“I’ll tell them about all the mice that live in our garden—how tasty they are.”
I remembered the sound of bones crunching. “Don’t be too graphic; that might frighten the kiddos.”
“I’ll tell them about the wood pussy we saw last night.”
“What?” Jeff turned to me. “What did he say?”
“He means a skunk.”
Jeff frowned. “Mr. Smokes, you better clean up your language. That kind of talk won’t sit well with parents.”
Smokey said, “Make that, ‘wood puddy.’”
The fur on the back of his neck stood up; his eyes were wide.
Jeff stayed in the car while I picked up the carrier and hustled into the clinic. The Pet Therapy Program Director met us in the waiting area and led us into her office. She peeked in at Smokey.
“Maine Coon cats are so handsome.”
She glanced at his medical records, handed them to an assistant to copy, then said, “Everything looks fine. Let’s go and get him screened.”
Then I realized there would be more to this than just marching around her office on the leash. We followed her down a dark hallway and into a large room. Inside were more than a dozen chairs arranged in a circle, with an adult or child in each. When we entered, every head turned. The director motioned toward the chairs.
“Lead him around, let him greet the children.”
Walk around a strange room and greet people? We were not expecting this.
I got down on my knees and opened the door. Smokey was scrunched in the back, ears flattened. I dragged him out, towel clinging to his claws and clicked on his leash. It was obvious he was not about to walk, so I picked him up and set him in front of two girls. Did he purr, rub against their ankles, beg to be picked up? No. He ignored them, strained on the leash, eyes fixed on the exit. When I picked him up, he buried his head under my arm. There was nothing else to do but carry him around the room, stopping in front of each chair. I could feel him quiver, trying to burrow deeper into my arms. The adults, who were probably seasoned pet therapists, smiled. They were thinking: nice guy, attractive cat, but no therapy team.
“He seems a little shy,” the Director said after we circled the room.
“He wasn’t expecting so many people.”
“Has he ever been around children?”
She nodded, flashed a quick smile. “Try again next year.” Her eyes narrowed. “He needs to get used to children if he is going to be in this program.”
Smokey slunk into his carrier, dug his claws into the towel. I grabbed his records from the office and toted him back to the Model T.
Jeff stuck his head out the window when he saw us. “That didn’t take long. How did it go?”
“No! How did that happen?” He started the engine.
I explained as we lurched out of the lot.
“I was afraid you started off with a wood pussy story.”
I shook my head. “It’s hard to put on an act when the major attraction has to be dragged out of his carrier. Didn’t even want to be petted.”
“Any chance for a retest?”
“The Director said he needs to get used to kids. Then we could try again next year.”
“That wasn’t much fun,” Smokey said.
I turned. “You were supposed to walk around the room, purr and be pleasant.”
“That place was crawling with kids. And they didn’t look sick to me.”
“That was a dry run,” I said. “A time to show your stuff.”
An icy chill settled over us. All this talk about Pet Therapy had given me a boost. We never thought that Smokey wouldn’t cooperate. I looked over at Jeff, saw the disgruntled look on his face. He rubbed the back of his neck.
When we passed the clam flats where Patricia’s ashes lay, my eyes wandered over the tidal pools and clumps of rockweed. I could feel Jeff’s eyes on me. A few miles later, just outside Deer Isle Village, he lifted his fist to the bump position. “As my father used to say, ‘we’re not retreating, we’re charging in a new direction.’ It’s time for Plan B.”
We bumped fists.
“Plan B?” I asked.
“I’ll explain once we open the wine.”
Just past the village of Deer Isle, we swerved onto Haystack Road, then shot past the entrance to Mariner’s Park.
“You missed the turn.”
“I found us a new place.”
I knew why he wanted to skip Mariner’s Park. It was one of Patricia’s favorite spots. A few hundred yards down the road, we slowed, darted onto an overgrown two-track lane. We slid to a stop in front of a wide puddle. Two muddy tracks, slick and oily from last night’s rain, wound up the hill. A sagging barn slouched at the top.
“Is this it?”
Jeff nodded. “There’s an awesome view of the Reach at the top.”
“It looks slippery. We can’t make it.”
“Nonsense.” He revved the engine.
The T growled, reared up and splashed through the puddle. Left rear wheel churning, the car swaying from side to side, we charged. I bounced up and down, gripped the seat with one hand, reached around and steadied the carrier with the other. The car bucked and snorted, spewed a stream of mud from the left rear wheel, then the right rear wheel. Near the top, we slid off the tracks and whooshed through a wild raspberry thicket.
As we came to a stop by the barn, Jeff smiled. “I believe we widened the approach.”
We spread out a blanket next to a fallen oak. Jeff had brought chicken sandwiches, two packages of cheese, and a box of fancy crackers. I set out a can of mixed nuts, a bottle of red wine, and a bag of cherry tomatoes from the farmer’s market. I tethered Smokey’s leash to a branch, poured the wine.
Smokey sat up, licked his lips. “Where are my roast chicken yummies?”
I tossed a handful of yummies onto a paper plate. When Jeff and I touched glasses, he said, “Here’s to Mr. Smokes, the Almost Pet Therapist.” We each took a drink. He gazed up at the sky. “What a wonderful day: wind from the northwest, blowing out the storm.” He unwrapped the cheeses, opened the crackers and poured nuts onto a paper plate. The hillside, littered with maples, oaks, and pines, dropped away to a ribbon of black rocks and white surf. Sailboats dotted the water.
“Tell me about Plan B,” I said.
He spread brie onto a rye cracker.
“You know that every so often I visit the Island Nursing Home; give folks rides in the T?”
“Sure, once we went together.”
Jeff stared at the label on the bottle. “I love a good Merlot.” He swirled his glass, watched the legs creep upward. A handful of puffy clouds drifted overhead. The sun was hot on my forehead, the Merlot warm in my throat. Jeff popped a couple of tomatoes in his mouth, picked up a sandwich.
“Plan B is you, me, and Mr. Smokes visiting folks at the Island Nursing Home.”
I shook my head. “He flunked his test.”
Jeff laughed. “The Island Nursing Home doesn’t screen their volunteers. You just show up. What say you, Smokey?” He raised his glass. “And, the old guys would love wood pussy stories.”
Smokey glared at Jeff. “Will I have to walk around a room packed with old folks?”
Jeff set one hand on Smokey’s back. “You meet one person at a time, in their rooms or on the porch.” He spread more cheese, then continued, “You’ll like old people. They’re quiet, move slow. Not like children.” He bit down on the cracker.
My spirits began to lift. I took another drink of wine. Jeff’s voice dropped an octave. “Mr. Smokes…want to give it a try?”
Smokey yawned, dropped his head to his forepaws. “I suppose…” His eyes closed. “Don’t bother me. Think I’ll snooze.”
Jeff stopped chewing, frowned. “Hey, what kind of nuts are these?”
I looked at his plate.
“You’re eating Smokey’s Roast Chicken Flavored Yummies. How are they?”
“Well goll-lee!” He spat a wad into his palm, tossed them into the weeds. Smokey’s eyes snapped open when he heard them fly past. He scrambled to his paws, strained against his leash. “He threw away perfectly good yummies!”
I tossed a few more at Smokey. He dug them out of the grass, then curled up and drifted to sleep.
Jeff took a swig of wine, smiled, stretched out on the blanket and gazed up at the clouds. Every once and a while he roused himself, refilled his glass. Smokey began to purr. I glanced at the Model T: mud spattered, knee-deep in clover and goldenrod.
Jeff saw me staring, hands in my pockets. “How are you doing?”
I had thought that riding with Jeff in the T, going on a picnic without Patricia would be painful. But it really wasn’t. I began to think about how Jeff had initiated this Pet Therapy business. He always seemed like a simple, straightforward guy. He took life at its own speed, never complained about much. Not planful; a lot like Smokey. But Jeff had just engineered a rehab program for me under the guise of entertaining sick kids. Smokey was supposed to be the therapist; I was supposed to be the facilitator. But as it turned out, Smokey would take care of me.
I remembered how Patricia loved to sit out like this, drink wine, eat cheese. It would please her to know that Smokey and I would go to the Island Nursing Home. She would smile at his star-speckled vest, be happy to know that he was conversing with old folks.
Guys don’t hug other guys at times like this. Instead, I grabbed Smokey, pressed him tight against my chest. I looked down at Jeff.
“Did you know that Maine Coons are especially loud purrers?”
“No, I did not.” Jeff dropped the leaned the wine bottle up against a clump of grass. “But you better not squeeze him so hard.”
We lay around for another half hour, then decided it was time to go. I unleashed Smokey and shoved him into the carrier. We stowed everything in the T. Jeff pushed the starter button; the engine moaned, then chattered as he advanced the throttle. We turned around and bolted for the hill. I tightened my grip on the seat as we shot off the top, skittered down the muddy tracks, then splashed through the puddle. Steam rising from under the hood, we sprang out onto the Haystack Road, sped for home.
Jeff helped us out, waved, then disappeared among the trees. Smokey scooted out of the carrier, raced over to a sandy spot in the driveway. He flopped down, rolled on his back, squirmed from side to side, paws in the air.
“There’s nothing like a good dust bath.”
I pointed to a fur tuft at the edge of the driveway.
“Where’d that come from?”
“What color is it?”
“Light brown, some white.”
He stopped rolling. “Probably from a deer mouse.” He sat up on his haunches. “Then again, it might have been a white-footed mouse.” Twigs, dust, and dried leaves clung to his coat. “Is everybody still mad at me for flunking out of Pet Therapy School?” He whacked his tail down on the gravel.
“Of course not.”
“When do we go to the Old Folks House?”
“The Island Nursing Home.”
“Whatever.” He scampered toward me, eyes wide.
I picked him up and scratched under his chin, stroked his neck. He twisted sideways, snuggled his head between my knees, made low murmurs deep in his throat. When I rubbed his belly, he began to purr, long, deep rumbles that ended with a squeak.
His eyes, two yellow slits. About the Author:Andrew Miller retired from a career that included university teaching and research in endangered species and aquatic habitat restoration. Now he has time to pursue his long-held interest in creative writing. Recent work has appeared in: Foliate Oak Literary Magazine, Gravel: A Literary Journal, Front Porch Review, Typehouse Literary Magazine, and Shantih Literary Journal. http://www.andrewcmiller.com/