Carol put her spoon on the table by her cereal bowl. “Xander, I want a cat,” she said then folded her hands in her lap and waited for his response.
Xander, on the opposite side of the table and hidden from Carol’s view by the morning newspaper he held open at full spread with both hands, didn’t respond.
“Xander,” she said, louder this time, “I should like to have a cat.”
He lowered the newspaper and peered over the top of it at her. “A cat? For heaven’s sake, Carol, did you say you want a cat?”
“Yes, I did.”
“A cat is out of the question.”
“Why?” She sat with her hands still in her lap, an expectant child-like expression on her face.
Xander folded the newspaper, put it on the table then took a drink of coffee. He put the coffee cup down before saying, “Our lease agreement does not allow pets.”
“It will be an indoor cat. No one will know.”
“We live in a one-bedroom apartment, Carol. We don’t have space for a cat.”
“Cats don’t take up any space at all. Cats are almost invisible.”
Xander sighed, got up, fetched the carafe and filled his cup. “More?” He held the carafe toward Carol.
“Yes, please.” He filled her cup, returned the carafe to the brewer and sat down.
“Pets are difficult. They require attention. Especially cats. Nobody ever owns a cat; you only borrow them.” He drank some coffee. “Besides, we will be violating our lease agreement. Do you remember what happened to us the last time we violated our lease?”
Carol waved her hand in dismissal and continued to stare at him, the child-like expression still on her face. The vivid blue of her eyes startled him. He did not remember them being so intensely bright, or so fevered, this early in the morning.
“We got evicted, Carol. We were lucky to find this apartment after that ordeal.”
Panic grew in him as he recalled being evicted from their previous apartment because of her increasingly erratic behavior. Why did it have to be bagpipes? If she wanted to play a musical instrument why couldn’t it have been the harmonica? Xander groaned at the memory of that nightmare.
Carol’s father had been an enthusiastic piper and played in a pipe and drum marching band. She had shown little interest in following in his footsteps, even though she kept the pipes when he died. For years the pipes were stashed in a box, forgotten in the back of her closet. After the economic collapse of 2009 wiped out their assets and reduced them to living on their Social Security income, they sold their house to have access to some ready cash. When they moved into the senior-living apartment complex the box surfaced and Carol discovered the pipes. That’s when their life took an unexpected turn.
Carol decided she was going to play them.
Every morning Carol went to the concrete deck surrounding the swimming pool and marched back and forth, playing the pipes. The shrill music ricocheted off the four-story buildings surrounding the pool, bounced back and forth, growing in volume until the noise shrieked like a jet engine at take-off speed.
The morning sessions in the courtyard annoyed the other residents. When they asked her politely to stop, Carol said, “Bagpipes are always played in the morning as homage to the gods of creation and to the rising sun that sustains life. No one who is a true piper ever plays any other time of day.”
Carol continued to ignore the complaints. In response, the residents banded together, rose up and demanded she cease that hideous goddamn noise immediately.
Xander implored her to stop. She ignored his pleas. Nothing he said could convince her to give it up.
Xander reminded her the economic collapse of 2009 had ruined them financially and nearly reduced them to living in their car, or worse, in a tent under a bridge or on the street. They were so strapped for money they could scarcely afford to pay their bills now. Additional bills, like legal fees fighting an eviction notice, would be the tipping point from which they could not recover. Carol ignored his explanations and pleas. She continued to play the bagpipes. She even accused him of joining forces with ‘that group’ whom she thought was nasty, unfriendly, mean-spirited and completely lacking in music appreciation.
When it became clear Carol was not going to give up the bagpipes, the group met with Mr. Metzgar, the apartment manager. Chérie, leader of the vigilantes, forced the issue when she said, “See,” shaking a piece of paper in front of him, “it says right here in our lease agreements that anyone deemed a nuisance by a majority of the residents can be asked to vacate the community. We took a vote. Carol and her music are a nuisance. She has to leave if she won’t stop playing those fucking bagpipes!”
Mr. Metzgar met with Carol and told her she could be evicted if she continued to annoy the other residents. “We are, after all,” he said in an unctuous voice, “a loving, caring community and we must make every effort to get along with our neighbors.”
Mr. Metzgar’s pleas did not work.
Xander told her getting evicted was a serious matter and would be disastrous for them. “We might not find another apartment we can afford.”
Carol continued to play the bagpipes.
Several calls to the police were not enough to make her stop. During the last police visit she said to Sergeant Garcia, “Why are you badgering an old woman who is playing beautiful music? Am I a criminal now?” Then she held out her arms. “If I’m a criminal, you better put handcuffs on me and take me to your jail.”
“Mrs. Jenkins,” said Sergeant Garcia, a look of desperation plastered on his face, “we are not going to take you to jail.” Small beads of perspiration salted his upper lip. “We don’t want to take you to jail, but we do want you to stop annoying other residents with those bagpipes.”
“You may as well put me in jail and lock me away in the dark.”
Sergeant Garcia turned to Xander, who was standing next to Carol. “Who are you?”
“I’m the husband, Alexander Jenkins. Folks call me Xander.”
Sergeant Garcia turned pleading eyes on Xander. “Can you help?”
“I’ll try.” Xander took Carol’s hand. “Let’s go inside, dear.”
“Yes, Douglas,” Carol said.
He was shocked at being called Douglas. He blamed her mistake on stress caused by the police presence, but a worry-worm began to wiggle in his brain.
When Xander suggested she might see her doctor for a wellness check, she scoffed at him. “There is nothing wrong with me. I’m perfectly fine.”
The police stopped responding to calls from the apartment manager. The 911 dispatcher said to Mr. Metzgar, “The city police department is two hundred officers short because of the current economic downturn, low pay, and early retirements. Recruitment numbers are off to boot because nobody wants to be a cop anymore. A complaint about bagpipe is not considered an imminent loss-of-life situation requiring an immediate response by armed officers.” The dispatcher added, “But if she bludgeons someone with the bagpipes and inflicts grievous bodily harm, or death, of course the police will respond immediately.”
Two weeks later Carol and Xander were evicted from Quiet Life Senior-Living Apartment Community.
After a desperate search they found a one-bedroom unit in Pleasant Haven Apartment Living for Seniors, at five hundred dollars more per month than they paid at Quiet Life.
The added expense alarmed Xander. He cautioned Carol on how close to the edge they were financially. His attempts to make her understand they could not absorb another financial hit and maintain their very modest standard of living went unheeded. Carol brushed his worries of monetary ruin aside. Xander feared she did not comprehend the difficulties they would face if things soured here and they were evicted because they had violated the terms of their lease.
Xander was relieved the turmoil and confusion caused by their eviction from Quiet Life and search for a new place to live made Carol forget about the pipes. Xander helped her forget by hiding them then donating them to Goodwill as soon as he had the chance. When Carol mentioned the pipes, Xander convinced her she had given them away right before they moved into Pleasant Haven Apartment Living for Seniors. That explanation seemed to satisfy her and the pipes were forgotten.
But now she sat across the table from him at breakfast, demanding to have a cat for a pet. Her expression was so…so innocent, as if asking to have a cat was a perfectly normal request. And he knew it was a normal request, but the deliberate violation of their lease was not something a rational person would do, given the possible repercussions.
“You needn’t worry, I have plenty of time, more than enough time, to care for a cat.” Carol picked up her cup, took a drink and put it down before saying, “I want a cat, Douglas.”
Xander sucked in a breath, stunned that she called him Douglas again. “Who is Douglas?”
Carol looked perplexed. “I don’t know.”
“You just called me Douglas.”
“No, I didn’t. I’m sure I didn’t. Why would I do that?”
“But you did.”
“I didn’t mean to. If I did, it was a slip of the tongue. I must have been thinking of something else.”
He fretted over her response, then convinced himself it really could have been a slip of the tongue. People make those things. What are they called, Freudian slips? Yes, that’s it.
But deep down, he knew it was more than that.
“Do you know who I am?”
Carol snorted. “Of course, I know who you are. What a silly thing to ask me.”
During dinner two weeks after she had first asked to have a cat, Carol said, “Douglas, why can’t I have a cat?”
Douglas again. Xander wrinkled his brow and put down his fork. He didn’t recall Carol ever speaking of someone named Douglas. Perhaps Douglas was an old boyfriend he didn’t know about, or someone she knew in high school and was now remembering after what, sixty-two years? He tried to explain her odd behavior by convincing himself memories resurfaced years, sometimes decades later for no obvious reason. “Carol, who is Douglas?” he asked, expecting her to tell him of some friend from long ago.
“Why, you’re Douglas. Don’t you know who you are?” Her blue eyes glistened. He could almost feel the fever throbbing in them.
Panic seized him. He reached across the table and touched her hand. “I’m Xander, not Douglas.”
“Of course you’re Douglas. Who else could you be?”
“Xander, your husband.”
Xander watched comprehension blossom in her eyes. “Oh, silly me. I don’t know what I was thinking.” Color flamed in her cheeks and she laughed nervously. “Sometimes I get so confused.”
“Perhaps you need to see a doctor, just to make sure everything is all right.” He didn’t like the tone of his voice. It was accusatory, and the implication of his suggestion horrified him; Carol was slipping. Something terrible was happening to her mind.
Carol stiffened. “I do not need to see a doctor.”
He persisted. “We are due for the annual checkup. It’s a good idea for both of us to see the doctor. What if I call tomorrow and make appointments?”
“Xander, I do not want to see a doctor. I want a cat.”
“You know our lease prohibits pets. We’ve discussed that. We can’t have them. If we get evicted a second time we’ll be ruined.” He spoke patiently, choosing his words with care, like he was explaining to a child why something could not be done.
“That’s just… just, oh, I don’t know. That’s not right.”
He sighed. “It might not be right, but we have to live with it.”
“I don’t like it, Douglas. I want a cat and you won’t let me have one. I think you’re mean.”
Xander realized there was little to be gained by calling her on the incorrect name. Even though her use of it disturbed him, he let it slide. He believed she was not aware of what she was doing. Her accusation that he was mean startled him, and it stung, but it paled in comparison to her calling him a different name. He tried not to think of what that meant.
He didn’t understand the difference between dementia and Alzheimer’s but he knew they were ghastly mental declines some people experienced as they aged.
Is this it? Is this how it begins?
His hands trembled and he was unable to finish dinner.
Another week passed without any mention of a cat. Xander hoped Carol had given up, accepted that they could not have pets. And she had not called him Douglas. He hoped that was over and done with as well, but she still refused to see a doctor.
Then one night after dinner Carol brought up the cat again. “You know I want a cat. Why won’t you let me have a cat?”
Xander tried to explain the lease restriction banning pets.
“I don’t care what that lease says. I want a cat!”
They spent the rest of the evening in an uncomfortable silence sitting in front of the television. Instead of focusing on the television programs Xander tried to think of a way to convince Carol she had to see a doctor. A visit could not be put off any longer.
At nine, Xander said, “I’m tired. I’m going to bed. Are you coming?”
“No, I’m not sleepy. Give me the remote. Good night, Douglas.”
Xander swallowed his reply, went into the bedroom and closed the door against the sound of the television. Tomorrow we’re going to the doctor for sure. Before getting in bed he took 150 milligrams of Benadryl, far more than recommended, but he needed help sleeping tonight.
Shortly before midnight, Carol went into the kitchen, took the boning knife with the slender eight-inch blade from the knife block and went into the bedroom. She undressed and got into bed. Xander lay asleep on his back with his mouth open. Carol ran her fingers over his chest until she found the indentation between the ribs just below and to the side of his left nipple. She put the knife point in the groove and pushed the blade all the way into his chest. The blade sliced easily through his heart.
Xander’s eyes snapped open and he jerked upright with a loud grunt then fell back, his mouth and eyes still open.
Carol lay next to him and put her arm across his chest. Before going to sleep she said, “I’m getting a cat tomorrow.”
Robert P. Bishop, a former soldier and teacher, holds a Master’s in Biology and lives in Tucson, Arizona. He is the author of three novels and four short-story collections. His short fiction has appeared in Active Muse, Ariel Chart, Better Than Starbucks, Bright Flash Fiction Review, Clover and White, CommuterLit, Corner Bar Magazine, Fleas on the Dog, Ink Pantry, Literally Stories, The Literary Hatchet, Lunate Fiction, The Scarlet Leaf Review, Spelk and elsewhere.