I didn’t know if we were going to observe Christmas or exchange gifts. We never talked about it, but I bought her a few things anyway.
And then the cat died. The week before Christmas. He’d gone out that Friday night and didn’t come home. Saturday morning, she got out of bed early and went out to look for him.
And then she stormed angrily back into the bedroom while I was still asleep. She screamed at me: “Get up!”
Half awake, I muttered: “What’s going on?”
And she screamed at me again: “He’s DEAD!”
When she’d first brought him home several years prior, Ann was determined that Wonkie was going to be an indoor cat. Wonkie never got the memo. At night he’d sleep between us in our bed, but in the morning he pawed at the windows and pounded on the pet door we’d nailed shut. He was a predator. He needed to go outside and kill things. That was Wonkie’s buddha-cat nature, but she was determined that he would be what she wanted him to be. Buddha be damned.
She eventually relented and we started letting him outdoors . He’d hide under the pine tree in the back yard, jump out and pounce on birds and chipmunks, then scatter their feathers and bloody entrails around the house.
But giving Wonkie more time in the prison yard came with an unspoken price: if ever he didn’t come home, that was gonna be my fault.
He’d be a little slow to come back to the house some nights before we went to bed, but we had a rattle – cat treats in a sealed glass jar – and we’d call him and rattle that jar and eventually he’d show up and then we could close the door and he’d come upstairs with us.
In the summer of 2016, Ann decided she needed to be closer to her two grown sons and only granddaughter. After nearly 20 years together in the same house, she packed up her SUV and moved to Portland, Oregon in what was understood at the time to be a one-way trip. She left the pets (two cats, one dog) behind. There was no indication that she was ever coming back for them. They were my concern now. Since I was rarely home, I had to foster the dog, and eventually sent her out to Oregon. The cats I kept.
The second cat was a recluse. She just hid in the basement. Wonkie was a companion.
At night, Wonkie often perched on the pillow over my shoulder – in the place where Ann’s head was supposed to be.
Eight months later – when things in Oregon didn’t work out like she’d expected them to – Ann came back to Tennessee. Much as the decision to depart had been unilateral, so was the decision to return – but she really didn’t come back to the marriage. She came back to the house. There was no amount of counseling or therapy could close that disparity.
And then it finally happened. Wonkie and I had been fine, alone together or all those months. But that Friday night, a week before Christmas, Wonkie went out and didn’t come home. Ann got up the next morning and found him frozen in the ivy bed at the end of the driveway – like somebody had hit him with a car and placed him there.
She found him and came back into the bedroom where I was still sleeping and she screamed at me “He’s DEAD!” Like I’d gone out while she was asleep and run him over with my own car.
Like penance, I was compelled to dig a hole under the pine tree in the back hard and bury him in the frozen ground.
The following week, come Christmas morning, there were gifts waiting for her. But there was nothing for me.
Not even the lump of coal I surely deserved for killing her cat.