The Cat Whisperer – a story by Leah Mueller

                                             The Cat Whisperer

Vashon Island looks its best in early autumn—fading, yet still dark green, with crumbles of brown around the edges. Evergreens line both sides of the bumpy, curving main road, so dense that they block the clouds at higher elevations. The massive branches exert an invisible pressure that lowers my energy level. I’m often exhausted by mid-afternoon.

Another month remains until the wet season. I can feel precipitation straining at the end of its leash. The prodigious rain will start in mid-October and continue until early July. I savor the sun’s bittersweet warmth because I know it won’t last much longer.

Vashon has a central, commercial hub, where everyone buys what they need to get through the week. Fertilizer bags, slug bait, and shiny, overturned wheelbarrows clutter the supermarket entryway. Neighbors stroll through the aisles, talking animatedly about compost and left-wing politics. An enormous rack offers a selection of wool socks and long underwear. Even hippies need to be practical in the rain.

I drive towards home, after completing my shopping ritual. The usual haul of yogurt, orange juice, bread, fresh seafood, coffee, sparkling water, and a few other essentials. Two half-full paper bags jiggle in the back of my car. I can never remember to bring reusable ones. I live beside a rocky beach, at the bottom of a steep stairwell with 122 steps. If I forget something, I’m unlikely to go back to retrieve it.

I spot an elderly man at the side of the road. He holds a thumb in the air and clutches a cloth bag with his free hand. Two bulging sacks rest beside his feet. They look like they’ve been used many times.

Hitchhiking is common on the island because everyone knows their neighbors. I’ve never seen this guy before, however. He reminds me of an elf—diminutive in stature, with tattered Carhartt overalls and a wool cap pulled below his ears.

I swing over to the side of the road and cut the engine. The hitchhiker approaches my vehicle with a surprisingly forceful gait. He appears to be about eighty, with watery blue eyes and deep creases in his cheekbones. “Thanks for stopping. I’m glad I didn’t need to wait long. It’s getting dark, and I missed the last bus.”

The man hurls his bag into the passenger seat. Then he snatches the sacks from the roadside and tosses them into the back. “Are you going to the south end? That’s where I live.”

My rented house rests at the southernmost tip of the island. Pohl Road flanks the waterfront and offers an unobstructed view of Mt Rainier. It’s almost worth risking my life on that stairwell. 

I nod at the hitchhiker, and he settles into the passenger seat. At first, he stares at the highway, as if deep in thought. A couple of miles later, he becomes more animated. “My cats will be happy to see me. I’ve been gone for almost a week.”

“Are you sure they’re okay?” I somehow intuit that his pet situation is under control. Despite his advanced age, the hitchhiker exudes strength and competence. Still, a week is a long time for a brood of hungry cats.

“Sure. They’re used to my absences. I rent a room in Seattle and have another place here on the island. Each time I come home, I bring food for them. They never run out.”

Relieved, I return my attention to the highway. I pass familiar landmarks—the Minglement, site of the original Seattle’s Best Coffee roasting plant. The Country Store, with its hilarious signage offering classes in chicken maintenance to transplanted urbanites. The little town of Burton, with its overpriced grocery store and sweeping views of Puget Sound. 

I glance sideways at my companion and try to figure out his story. What possible reason could he have for renting a room in Seattle? The guy’s much too old to hold any sort of job. Perhaps he just enjoys the change of pace. He might even have a girlfriend in the city. Hopefully he doesn’t spend all his time alone.

The man notices my side-eye and smiles. “I taught martial arts for forty years. Retired a few years back. Now it’s just me and the cats. How about you?”

I’m not sure how to answer his question. My life seems permanently stalled, like the abandoned cars I see along the I-5 corridor. Despite my bucolic surroundings, I’m often depressed and anxious. My husband Russ makes the long ferry commute every morning from Vashon to his desk job in downtown Seattle. He doesn’t get home until 7:30. Meanwhile, I’m glued to my recliner, staring at the gorgeous view, trying to get up the energy to climb those steps. 

“My husband and I recently moved back to Washington after living in the Midwest for a few years,” I explain. “I’m not sure why. Probably just a midlife thing.”

The hitchhiker laughs. “Yeah. I remember that well.” Declining to elaborate, he goes back to staring out the window. The trees tower overhead like sentinels. It won’t be long until we reach the end of the island.

A couple of miles later, he points to a spot at the side of the road. “That’s where the bus lets me off.”  I glide to the shoulder and turn on my flashers. The hitchhiker hesitates, and then asks, “Could you take me all the way home? These bags are heavy.”

I can feel the gravitational pull of my house, inexorably sucking me towards my living room. The idea of spending a few more minutes in my car is almost more than I can bear. Still, I can’t say no to the poor man. I imagine him trudging down the road with his heavy cargo, while I recline in my comfortable armchair with a slab of carrot cake. I wouldn’t be able to stand myself if I did something so selfish.

“Of course I will. Just let me know where to turn.” My voice sounds exhausted, resigned. I inch back into the highway and accelerate. The sun has almost disappeared behind the grove of trees, and long shadows stretch across the asphalt. I don’t like to descend the steps to my house after sunset, even though the stairwell has sensors that turn on a series of lights. I’m always afraid something bad will happen and the lights will fail to illuminate.

The hitchhiker points at an opening on the left-hand side of the highway. It’s barely visible, surrounded by dense hemlocks and blackberry bushes. “Just a bit further,” he assures me.

The new road is narrow, covered with ruts that are half-full of murky rainwater. It appears to be flat, at least. Many of the island’s thoroughfares are steep and terrifying. They lead to shadowy destinations you can’t escape unless you’re fortunate enough to own a four-wheel drive. 

I proceed with exaggerated care, slowing each time my tires encounter a new rut. As the surface turns from gravel to dirt, my companion smiles. “Almost home. First thing I’m gonna do is feed my cats. I can hear them now.” He gives his bag a confident pat. “Got enough food here for an entire month.”

The road ends abruptly behind a massive clump of weeds. A shack sits on the righthand side, cobbled together from an odd assortment of weathered boards. Its moss-smeared windows look as though they haven’t been cleaned in years. Two bent metal stovepipes protrude from the roof, one on each side. Beside the door, a pile of firewood molders into the damp ground. 

The hitchhiker turns towards me. “I can’t tell you how grateful I am.” He peers through the car window with a hint of anxiety. “I don’t know where those damn cats are, though. They must be out foraging.”

As if on cue, a gray tabby pokes its nose around the edge of the porch. A second cat appears from behind a bush. The creatures move warily at first, but when they spot their owner, they break into a giddy run. Both cats look muscular and healthy, like they’re used to spending a lot of time outside. They’ve probably become experts at hunting for prey. After all, the feline species has only been domesticated for 10,000 years.

The man grabs his bags and descends from the car. Turning to face me, he extends a grubby hand for me to shake. His grip is firm and confident. I can feel his strength seeping into me like juice from a battery. “I’m Sean O’Toole. It’s been a pleasure meeting you. I hope we see each other again.”

I am taken aback by the mention of his name. In fourth grade, I was tormented by a bully named Sean O’Toole. He used to beat me up every day, while his cabal of friends stood around, jeering. Sean continued his ritual of abuse until I hit him in the face with a book during math class. He chased me home after school, but his friends were nowhere in sight, and I was able to outrun him. Sean never bothered me again.

The hitchhiker is much too old to be the same person who caused me so much pain. Still, the coincidence feels fortuitous, like I’m closing a wide circle that began decades ago. There must be a deeper reason for our ride together, but I can’t imagine what it is.

I grasp Sean’s hand and smile. He takes a couple of strides towards his house. Several more cats emerge from behind the trees and greet him with a chorus of yowls. Sean shakes one of his sacks at the group. His pets go into a frenzy, jumping and spinning in mid-air. Finally, all of them break into a gallop and charge towards the house, stumbling over each other in their haste.

My services are no longer needed. I turn my car around and head down the dirt road, away from the ecstatic reunion. Russ won’t be home for an hour, and my steep stairwell is already dark. Still, I don’t dread the descent. Sean has given me a surge of energy, so I know I can make it to the bottom without falling. 

For the first time in weeks, I look forward to an evening of isolation. I don’t even mind the prospect of another rain-drenched winter. These obstacles pale in comparison to my own, habitual inertia. I have finally figured out how to overcome gravity’s pull. Just don’t think about the descent.

Leah Mueller‘s latest chapbook, “Land of Eternal Thirst” (Dumpster Fire Press) was released in 2021. Her work appears in Rattle, Midway Journal, Citron Review, The Spectacle, Miracle Monocle, Outlook Springs, Atticus Review, Your Impossible Voice, and elsewhere. Visit her website at www.leahmueller.org.

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