Musetta pounced and her prey went flying. All across my kitchen table, the once-neat pile of overdue notices, envelopes, and vaguely threatening letters scattered into disarray.
“Kitty!” I grabbed at a phone bill that balanced on the table’s edge and retrieved a final notice from the floor. October still had two weeks to go, but the paperwork had been piling up for over a month—to my discomfort but, apparently, my pet’s amusement. I watched as my athletic little cat settled in on top of an auto insurance form and began licking an envelope. Beneath her white boot I could make out the words “Second Notice.”
“Never mind.” I reached over to stroke her sleek black head. “It’s no good anyway, kitten. We’re broke.”
Pushing aside an envelope edged with ominous red lettering, I let my other hand settle into her thick neck ruff. I called her “kitten,” but it was only a term of endearment at this point. My young cat had reached her full growth, developing into a full-bodied beauty, and as the weather cooled into a New England autumn, that included a dense coat as glossy as a seal’s. Unconcerned by our looming financial disaster, the round face that looked up at me could have posed for Currier and Ives, were it not for the off-center white star on her nose. That made her look slightly cross-eyed and goofy, but eminently squeezable. And after an early kittenhood on the streets she suffered fools of my sort gladly, letting me rub her neck and the base of her ears until her green eyes closed and she purred to the point of drooling. To strangers, especially those who didn’t appreciate simple healthy beasts, I skimmed over her stray youth, introducing her as a medium-haired random-bred Jellicle, after T.S. Eliot’s fanciful naming of “tuxedo” cats, and let them make of it what they would.
It was harder, I had to admit, to come up with such attitude when describing myself. Thirty-three and feeling it, these days I was lacking the fire my red hair was supposed to signify. Partly that came from being a rock fan in a college town, a longtime habitué of the nocturnal world where the denizens all tended to look younger as I grew older—a shift particularly noticeable as each fall brought a new crop of students to flash their fake IDs and flood my favorite clubs. Partly that came from being a freelance writer, a free agent who had lacked the good sense not to alienate my one reliable source of income.
“It wasn’t my fault, kitty.” Musetta had laid back on the pile of paper, lulled into near-sleep by my constant petting and the taste of glue. “Well, not totally.” Something about a cat compels honesty, and her green eyes, half-closed, demanded the truth. “I mean, you’d have bitten him, and that’s what I did in my own way.” She didn’t respond, but that didn’t stop me. I’ve always talked to cats. Who knows what they understand? And besides, nobody else would believe me.
When it happened, two months before, I hadn’t thought it would be such a big deal. It had been one of those humid late August afternoons that make you either sleepy or mad. I’d been leaning toward the latter when I’d gone down to the offices of the Boston Morning Mail, the newspaper where I’d toiled as a copy editor for close to seven years and for which these days I did the majority of my freelance writing. I went as much for the air-conditioning as anything else, since the cavernous plant tended to be chilled to the point of absurdity all summer while my third-floor Cambridge apartment held heat like an oven. I figured I’d pick up the accumulated fliers and other junk that tended to fill the mailbox that still bore my name. Maybe say hi to some of my former colleagues, and just cool off. I hadn’t looked for a run-in with Tim, the features editor. But when I saw him gesturing from his glass-fronted office, I’d put on the best friendly-eager smile I could conjure, pulled at my still-damp T-shirt to erase some of the creases, and made my way over to the messy little room, waiting until he sat behind his desk before lowering myself gingerly onto the pile of press releases that covered his one guest chair.
“Krakow,” he barked by way of greeting, his gruff voice cutting through the air-conditioner roar. Most of my friends call me by my first name, Theda, but Tim had affected a Lou Grant-style grumpiness recently to match his expanding waist and receding hairline. Despite the chilled air, his button-down shirt looked rumpled and his neck was chafed red. I assumed the weather had gotten to him too, if not the constant noise. “That idea you had? You wrote me a note? I’ve been thinking about it.”
I’d been a regular music stringer for a while by then, filling in for the staff pop and rock critics whenever one of them felt like a night in or a night off. Writing about live music, trying to translate those one-of-a-kind moments for those who missed them while also adding some perspective for fans who caught the show was the best, and I loved the rush of reviewing on deadline for the next day’s paper, too. But such assignments were still few and far between. So to augment the reviews, I kept a steady stream of feature story pitches in circulation, ranging from two-paragraph outlines to a page or two from actual stories that I’d started writing.
Not having any clue as to which of a dozen such pitches Tim was referring to, I sat waiting as he shuffled papers. He cursed under his breath, and I fought a growing urge to shiver or at least roll my eyes at his disorganized ways. I had to. Being a freelance writer—I preferred the term “hired gun”—had its high points: the freedom to explore any topic that caught my fancy, the ability to research and conduct interviews the way I thought they should be done, the opportunity to structure my days around my writing. Even though I was paid by the piece, and not much at that, quitting my editing job the previous winter seemed like the right move for me as a writer. Selling my work, though, that’s what tended to trip me up, and sitting there, waiting for Tim to find my proposal made me all too aware of what I lacked. As much as I believed in my stories, I found it hard to muster the marketing part, the smooth sell—hell, the sheer effrontery to pitch properly, effectively to the powers-that-be. Thirty words or less: that’s what editors wanted to hear, and god help you if you didn’t have a hot hook in there somewhere. Sex or drugs, these were needed to sell even rock ’n’ roll these days, and what any of that had to do with writing a good story I never could tell. But at least I could keep a lid on my impatience. As I stared at Tim and waited, I could feel goosebumps begin to rise and crossed my arms. If only I still had my office sweater. Or a book.
“The behind-the-scenes piece at the cat show?” I knew I was shooting in the dark. I didn’t think Tim would care for a story about high-end breeders and their cut-throat competitions no matter how into it I was, but I couldn’t remember what else I’d tried to sell him recently.
“No, no more cats, Krakow. You’re getting obsessed.” He waved his pencil at me and started working through the papers piled in his “In” box. Yes, he was right that I liked to write about felines. But people liked to read about them, too. Tim paused, running his finger inside his collar, but I knew better than to jump in. “The club thing.” He pushed aside a coffee-stained napkin, which landed neatly in “Out.” “Oh, here it is.”
“‘Night Lines,’” I said aloud, nodding as I recognized the query letter I’d dropped off months earlier. This idea was special to me. A weekly column covering the music scene in the Boston area, I proposed it as half review and half preview, with news about local happenings—which band was breaking up, who was drawing record-label interest—for spice. I’d been hopeful about this one when I’d typed it up. With more than a decade’s worth of nocturnal wanderings to draw on, I had the contacts to make it work and felt confident that my reporting chops would help me to ferret out the doings of those who made the Boston clubs thrive. I knew and loved the music scene and by now had written enough critical pieces to be able to describe what I listened to in a way that would help readers hear what I heard, maybe even love what I loved. As the weeks went by and the pitch had gone unnoticed, I’d almost forgotten about it. But the timing made sense. I’d heard the same rumors as everyone else in the newsroom: The Mail’s circulation was sinking, especially among younger readers. Tim would have to start making some concessions to the thousands of students and recent grads who called the city home. What better way than running a new weekly column on the clubs?
“Yeah, ‘Night Lines.’ I like that. It would be regular, too, so we could get rid of some of those damned reviews. I mean, the show’s over. Who cares? But I’m thinking of calling it something different.” He tapped the paper before him with a pencil. I could see that at least two different hands had scrawled notes on it, and leaned a bit closer to decipher them.
“Something younger. More hip.” Tim flipped the page over, so I sat back. “‘The Boston Beat’?”
I bit my tongue to stop a groan. “Um, I think that might have been used before.” At least a dozen times.
“Anyway, younger. That’s the point, Krakow.” I waited. “You’ve probably heard about the focus groups we’ve been hosting?” He didn’t pause for an answer. “Younger, that’s what they found. Our demographics are skewing too old. Too many soccer moms in the suburbs with their minivans and groceries.” His voice took on the disparaging tone of someone who’d always had someone else to do his errands. Who brought his groceries home? My tongue was starting to bleed.
“So, we’re going to go with it. At least for a trial run.” He must have heard my intake of breath, seen my eyes light up, but he stopped me with a raised hand. “But we’re giving it to one of our new hires, a bright young thing named Jessica.” His eyes wandered to the glass wall and I collapsed back in my chair, deflated. “Real bright, that girl.” With an effort I closed my mouth and followed his gaze out the window. A buxom young woman, made to look even younger by the long braids that held her dark hair, was smiling in at us. She waved, one of those cutesy little finger wiggles, and the flush on Tim’s neck rose to his face. My smitten editor waved back and with a visible effort swung around toward me again. To do him credit, he didn’t even try to meet my eyes. Instead, he started shuffling through the papers on his desk.
“Anyway, we want you to show her the ropes. You’ve been around. Get her up to speed on what’s going on. We’ll pay you for your time.” He started stacking things, my silence coming through loud and clear. “How about, oh, I don’t know…maybe a hundred bucks a week for three or four weeks until she figures out which end is up?” More silence. “We could maybe squeeze out a hundred fifty.” He dared a glance up at me. “We really value your expertise and you’d be a great source for this column, Krakow. Give it a real sense of perspective. You know, give it some history. You’re old enough.”
So that’s when it happened, and when I looked back on it two months later, I didn’t see any way I could have played it differently. Sure, I could have watched my language. I didn’t have to tell him to screw himself, the paper, and any willing portion of the focus group. I could have declined his offer with a polite “no, thanks” and made my exit without slamming the door so hard those glass walls shook and at least one shelf collapsed behind me. And, yeah, I didn’t have to explain my displeasure quite so loudly when Ralph, the staff pop music critic, and Shelley from the copy desk both came over to inquire about the noise. If I’d voiced my frustration in a more modulated tone, the rest of the department might not have heard me. And then I probably wouldn’t feel quite so shut off from ever going back into that chill warren of cubicles and glass. But my tongue hurt, as did my ego. And what would I have done if I’d stayed? What would my future assignments have been, now that I’d been relegated to the has-beens, the too-old, and the unhip? An endless series of smaller and smaller service features, undoubtedly. The kind they give to those suburban moms, or any writers they perceive as such. Friendly little stories on rainy-weekend tips or child-care-on-a-budget. A dozen things to do with paper bags. The kind of assignment that had broken the spirit of better writers than I and sent them scurrying from the newsroom into public relations jobs.
Well, I wasn’t going that route, not that any big publicity firms would be courting me in the current economic climate. But I wasn’t going back. I didn’t blame Baby Jessica, as I’d taken to describing her to my friends. I couldn’t in all good conscience. The job market was tough these days, you did what you had to, or at least she had. Although when I tried this line out on Bunny, my best friend, she started to argue that neither of us would have taken a gig out from under a sister. Since leaving her childhood Catholicism for the nature-based Wiccan religion, Bunny had become both more ethical and more stringently feminist. Maybe in part because she still worked at the Mail, where we’d met, and seen how the paper was changing. And I’d thought I’d be okay. I mean, all the whole Tim debacle had proven was that my ideas were commercially viable, right?
But then I Do magazine had stopped calling. I didn’t know what I’d done to fall out of favor at the glossy wedding magazine. I didn’t think I’d cursed out any of their editors. All I knew was that the big features—a grand or more for articles on shoe dying or whether to have a plated or buffet meal—dried up, leaving me without my other major source of income. And the bills kept coming, until I’d ignored them long enough to scare myself. Which brought me up to my morning of penance and thoughts of penury, as I finally opened all those piled-up, red-bordered envelopes and watched my calm kitty lick the sticky bits.
“What’s with the adhesives, Musetta? Are we going to have to get you into a program for this?” Lying on her side, she turned her head upside down to look at me. I could see her petite fangs peeking out of her half-opened mouth and chucked her fuzzy chin. The glue seemed to have left her slightly stoned. “Leave some on the envelopes, okay?”
I slid an envelope out from under her and extracted the enclosed notice as she made a half-hearted grab at it. It was for sixty bucks, to our vet Rachel, for the spaying operation Musetta had had the month before. I looked over now at her exposed belly, the pink of her skin still showing through the growing fluff of white fur. I’d have to pay this one right away; Rachel was a friend as well as our vet, but I couldn’t disturb the resting feline further.
“Keep the bills. But I get the newspaper.” I started to slide the Sunday Mail out from under her hindquarters, spurring another flurry of pounces and paper. “Meh!” My feline colleague protested as I finally got the news section away from her, but then sat back on the rest of the paper to begin washing one white-stockinged foot.
Taxes, war, death, and more taxes. I leafed through the pages, looking for something that would distract me from my own mess. That’s when I saw her: Regina’s Princess Furbottom of White Eagle, a grand champion queen, that is, a breeding female cat. The star of her cattery, the aptly named Regina Ragdolls, the Ragdoll queen merited her own quarter-page photo with a big, furry body and the face of a startled Siamese. I’m not much on pedigreed cats, preferring instead the random shuffle of nature. But I do like generous animals and Botty, as the caption said she was known, looked like a puss you could seriously cuddle. Except, I read on, that she was missing.
I laid the paper flat and looked for the beginning of the story, which had jumped from the Metro front two pages earlier. There it was: “Cattery Robbed” read the headline. “$25k Queen Stolen” said the subhead, which proved to be misleading. Botty was a lovely beast, but valued at only eight thousand, according to the reporter’s research. It was the other cats—a second Ragdoll female and three champion-bred kittens—who brought the total up to twenty-five grand. Some copy editor would catch it for that headline, I thought as old instincts kicked in, and then turned back to the story. The thieves had been smart. The cattery owner, who lived in the nearby suburb of Newton, was a well-known judge. So well known, in fact, that she had been the star attraction at a well-publicized national show held over the previous week in Chicago. She’d probably been judging the all-breed finals when the robbers had struck, according to the police source, cutting the alarm system and making off with the two best known cats in the building. And the two with the most potential for profit. Both Botty and her sister, Regina’s Princess Ida, were relatively young and proven fertile. They’d both continue competing at shows, thus increasing their value, and producing healthy litters for years to come.
But why would someone steal pedigreed show cats? Without their papers or the history of their wins in the show ring, the cats’ monetary value dropped to nearly nothing. Without proof of their breeding, they were just big, beautiful pets, and if that was the case, why grab the females instead of the larger, even fluffier males? I flipped to the jump again and read down the column of type that flanked the photo of the missing kitty. Underneath her mitten-like paws was the scariest news of all. This break-in, said the cops, was not unique. It fit a pattern of cattery thefts that had been occurring throughout the region, eight in four months, and for which, the source admitted, the authorities had no leads.
I looked over at my own prized pet, now emitting soft snores, and felt grateful for small things. Musetta was a beauty and I loved her, but objectively a random-bred (or, okay, stray) had no resale value. Still, I’d be bereft if anything ever happened to her. That’s why I’d taken our vets’ advice and had her micro-chipped, the small computer tag inserted into the loose skin at the nape of her neck when she’d been under anesthesia for her spaying. Though the idea of scanning cats like the checkout girl scanned groceries seemed more than a little futuristic, a number of the larger urban shelters were now doing just that when animals were brought in. It beat the “Lost Cat” posters that were constantly stapled on the lampposts of my city street, leaflets all the more heartbreaking because of the detail (“a little shy” or “slight left limp”) included. If Musetta ever got out, if she ever got lost, I’d have a little more chance of reuniting with her because of that chip, that tiny nub, which I could feel when I pet her just right.
I did so now, reassuring myself by finding the pea in my princess’ fur. “Nuff,” she snorted, stretching one white forepaw into a yawn and shifting on her bed of mail. “Eh.” She stared up at me. I was disturbing her, the overanxious mother my own mom had often been. I was getting too much into my own head, my debt and the news both contributing to a major funk. It was time to get some air. I stuffed a check in with the vet’s bill and wrote out one more that I thought I could cover, then tromped down the stairs and out into a ridiculously beautiful autumn day.