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Wildside Press

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Cats Sneak Peak

 

A special preview of Pamela Sargent's new novel, SEASON OF THE CATS—
coming from Wildside Press in September 2015 (Hardcover) and February 2016 (trade paperback).

 

ONE

Gena sensed it. Something had taken up residence in her home, invisible and malign.

She argued more often with Don over trivial matters. Sometimes it seemed as though she wasn’t speaking to her husband at all, but to someone else entirely.

When they had first moved in together, Gena and Don vowed that they would avoid the disputes that broke up other couples. In particular, they solemnly swore, their finances would never become a bone of contention. A small part of Gena’s money was hers to spend as she pleased, as was Don’s. He would have his own checking account, as would she, but they would also maintain a joint household account for savings and shared expenses.

That seemed fair to Gena, even if it meant leaving Don largely in charge of their fiscal affairs. He knew more about such matters than she did, so it was better to let him make the big decisions, even if lately that meant overlooking the flashes of resentment that afflicted her whenever he grew too controlling.

Their household account was used to pay the rent, phone, and electric bills, and also covered the cost of groceries and other essentials. When Gena and Don decided to get married, which was after they had agreed that she would continue to use her own last name of Lawlor as long as she was “Mrs. Martinson” to Don’s parents, the household account was also paying for any new furniture. After they moved from their apartment into one half of a rental in a two-family house, their meager savings were consigned to a household savings account. When they finally managed, with the help of a loan from her parents, to make the down payment on a small brick house that had felt like the perfect home for them the first time they had set foot inside it, “Household,” as they now called their joint savings account, bought them a new lawnmower.

By then, Don and Gena had been married for over five years, and determining what was and what wasn’t a household expense had become more complicated. If Gena rented an evening’s entertainment, the cost came out of her own money; if she and Don were together and agreed on the choice of a movie, they split the cost. Gradually it dawned on her that since Don often worked late and she was usually the one to rent the DVDs on her way home, she was paying for most of the movies on top of coughing up half the monthly cable bill and half of whatever they spent with Netflix.

It wasn’t fair. She was making a good deal less than Don to begin with, and the expense of the movies left even less for her to spend on herself. If both of them watched the movies, why wasn’t their admittedly modest cost a household expense?

“I think,” Gena said to Don one night, “that it’s time Household took over paying for something I’ve been paying for.” She said it playfully, in the same way Don spoke of the household account, almost as if it were a person sharing their home with them. They sat on the floor in front of the sofa, with a pizza they had both paid for sitting on top of their glass-topped coffee table. They had just finished watching “Die Hard with a Vengeance,” one of Don’s favorite movies, and it occurred to her that she was usually guided by his taste and not her own when selecting their entertainment.

Don said, “I was thinking the same thing. I mean, about Household covering an expense I’ve been handling.”

“Oh?” The grim tone of his voice disturbed her. Their personification of Household had begun as a joke, but lately Don sounded more serious whenever he invoked the name of their joint account.

“You first,” he said as he reached for another slice of pizza.

“It’s about the movie rentals. I’m the one who always pays for them.”

“Not always.”

“Almost always. The last time you brought home a movie and paid for it was almost a month ago.”

“Three weeks ago if you count from yesterday,” Don said, with a certainty and exactitude that annoyed her. “Besides, it’s easier for you to pick one up. You get off the bus at Chock Full o’ DVDs on your way home.”

That was true. Since moving to this house, she had found that it was easier to take the ten-minute bus ride to her job at the financial offices of St. Luke’s Hospital; using her car meant either a major hassle finding a place to park in the nearby neighborhood or else paying for a space in the hospital’s parking lot. The bus stopped at a strip mall two blocks away on the return trip, where the Chock Full O’ DVDs store was located. She could walk home from there and feel virtuous about supporting a struggling local business.

“It’s not picking them up that’s the problem,” Gena said, “it’s paying for them. Seems to me that if we both watch them, it’s a household expense.”

“That’s ridiculous.”

“Household paid for the TV.” She waved a hand in the direction of the flat screen on the wall.

“That’s because it counts as furniture, and Household covers furniture. Movies—well, that’s a recreational expense, like a concert or going out to dinner.”

Gena frowned. Don shouldn’t have mentioned that. Whenever they went out to dinner, they split the bill fifty-fifty, and that increasingly struck her as unfair. She almost always ordered one of the lighter entrées, or else an appetizer and the soup of the day, while Don loaded up on appetizers, steak or prime rib, and colossal salads, often followed by coffee and dessert that they could have fixed for themselves at home, where the expense would have been covered by Household. Even with reasonably priced ethnic food of all varieties at restaurants around town, Don managed to find the most costly items on the menu. Whenever he dined out, he ate as though he might never eat again, as though his plain and scanty childhood meals, prepared by a mother with only the most rudimentary cooking skills, still haunted him. His meals always cost more, and yet Gena was paying half the bill, which amounted to subsidizing his overindulgence.

“Maybe Household,” she said, “should pay for dinners out, too. After all, it already pays for groceries. And if it paid for the TV, it ought to pay for what we see on it.”

“Household didn’t pay for the DVD player,” Don said, “and that’s what we use to watch the movies.” He tilted his head. Don looked very appealing when he tilted his head, cute and blond and just adorable, as if he really were still a boy instead of rapidly closing in on thirty-five. “But you have a point. Let’s leave Household out of it and split the cost of the movies from now on. Besides,” he continued, “there’s another expense I think Household should cover.”

Gena lifted the top of the pizza box, but Don had already devoured the last slice. “What?”

“My car.”

“Wait a minute.” She drew up her legs and wrapped her arms around them. “Why your car? Why not both our cars?”

“Because you almost never use yours except on weekends. That makes it personal. Almost every time you drive, it’s personal business.”

“Not when I go to the supermarket.”

“You do that once a week, and I pick up plenty of groceries myself. And when I drive, it’s mostly to go to work or get stuff we need or pick you up after work when I can get out early enough. I mean, I could make a case that I almost never use my car for purely personal things.”

“I don’t drive to work,” Gena said, “because it’s easier to take the bus.”

“Then how about this? Household covers my car and your bus fare.”

“No.”

“Why not?”

“Household doesn’t cover transportation.”

“It covers household expenses,” Don said, his voice rising.

“A car isn’t a household expense.”

“It is if it’s used for household business.”

Gena leaned forward and rested her arms on her knees. “Give me a break, Don. You can call almost anything we do household business.” Keep going down this road, she thought, and pretty soon they might as well have joint accounts for everything, which was what they had hoped to avoid. Joint accounts for personal expenses only meant more opportunities for arguments, and they were not going to contend with each other on the financial battlefield where so many other couples had fallen in combat. So they had hoped, but now Household was becoming an entity threatening to dominate them.

Household. Just hearing that word rattle around in her mind seemed ominous. For a moment, she again felt that something else was in the living room with them.

Don shouted, “All right, all right!” He picked up the remote and turned on the local news.

They were just in time to catch the end of the first story, which appeared to be about a murder. Some man had allegedly strangled his wife and been arrested while weeping hysterically over her dead body. There was a quick shot of a ranch house that looked vaguely familiar and then the face of a young blonde female reporter appeared.

The newscaster said, “Neighbors are shocked at the tragedy. There are reports that Harman was still screaming that someone else had committed the act even after he was restrained by the police. There’d been some trouble lately between him and his wife, and reports that police had been called to the house, but nothing to indicate the potential for such violence.”

The face of an older woman filled the screen. She said, “They seemed like such a nice young couple. I remember when they moved in last year, why that Pete Harman came over to clear my driveway with his snowblower after that big storm and didn’t even ask for anything in return. And then, well, after a while they started having more fights and I guess things just weren’t going so well.”

The blonde newscaster reappeared. “And now Peter Harman is in custody, his wife Brenda is dead, and their neighbors on Carlton Street are left wondering about two people they thought they knew. Kerry Saletan for WKTG News.”

“Carlton Street,” Gena said. That was just around the corner from where she and Don had been living before they bought their house. That fact was unsettling, as if such violence might erupt anywhere without warning.

They watched the rest of the news in silence, until WKTG’s chief meteorologist Vince Fantuzzo promised them warmer and sunnier weather for tomorrow, and then Gena meowed softly.

“Meow,” Don responded.

“Here, kitty, kitty.”

Don crawled to her side and rubbed against her, raising his rump as though to flick an invisible tail. “Meow.”

“You are just the cutest thing,” Gena said as she scratched Don on the back of his neck. As he curled up at her side, she began to purr, or at least to offer the best imitation of a cat’s purr that she could muster.

But later, before they went to bed, Gena spent a few moments studying the two china cats on top of her dresser. They were in their usual position, front paws and noses touching, so that they almost seemed to be kissing. Gena picked up one of the china cats, then set it down an inch away from its mate.

That was the first time she had ever separated them.

 

TWO

 

On their first wedding anniversary, Gena and Don had adopted a cat from an animal shelter run by Operation Whiskers, a local organization of cat lovers. Gena had been a volunteer at the organization’s shelter for several years, cleaning out cages, changing cat litter, feeding the cats, and soothing animals that seemed frightened or distressed. She was on the verge of adopting a pair of brother kittens when Don entered her life, and by the time she discovered his shared fondness for felines, the two kittens had found another home.

Almost a year after their wedding, a small long-haired male cat with black and white fur, a cute little face, slightly oversized paws, and beautiful green eyes arrived at the shelter.

The other cats were intimidated by him. With just a cold stare, he silenced even the most obstreperous of the kittens; the older cats shrank away or rested their heads submissively on their front paws whenever he glanced in their direction. When Gena held him, he gazed up at her face as if peering deeply into her soul. The cat had been at the shelter for only three days when Don dropped by, and the animal had immediately padded over to him and uttered a commanding meow. Impressed by the intelligence and self-possession of the furry little creature, he had insisted that they give him a permanent home, and she had quickly agreed.

Gena, who disapproved of cutesy names for pets, had given their cat the name of Vladimir. Gena’s mother had a theory that people who gave their animal companions human names would be less inclined to treat them only as animated toys, and Gena had no reason to doubt that hypothesis. Her family’s former cat, a much-loved and overindulged short-haired male with fur the hue of butterscotch, had been dubbed Cameron by her mother and was regarded as a member of the family for the fifteen years he had shared their home before kidney disease took his life.

Vladimir was given a diet of assorted dried and moist cat foods, served to him in his own ceramic and porcelain bowls, and his long fur was brushed and combed daily. His veterinarian, known around town as the Catwoman, was the appropriately named Dr. Caterina Lucci, who limited her practice to cats. Never would Gena and Don have dreamed of raising their voices around Vladimir. Gena would not even pick him up to pet him, but waited until Vladimir deigned to leap into her lap.

Vladimir was such an appealing little fellow that both Don and Gena were soon wondering aloud why people could not be as dignified, intelligent, and cute as cats. One thing led to another, and soon the two of them would be meowing at each other, crawling around the floor in imitation of Vladimir’s movements, and curling up on the sofa―but only when they were alone; it wasn’t the kind of thing to do when somebody might unexpectedly drop by, and they’d had to keep their voices down so that Mr. Bowes, their landlord on the other side of the two-family house, would not hear them. They had been relieved to move into their own house, where there were fewer impediments to their catlike conduct.

By then, they had developed a complex imaginary world populated entirely by cats, which Don, in a fit of inspiration triggered by a recent Discovery Channel program about Barcelona, had dubbed Catalonia.

In this feline utopia, small domestic cats of all kinds were the only inhabitants. Like the world dominated by human beings, Catalonia had cities and towns, resorts and restaurants, banks, businesses, and transportation systems; unlike the human world, Catalonia lacked injustice of any kind. This entire realm was ruled by an imaginary tomcat that had blond fur not unlike Don’s hair in tone, and by a female cat with black fur, since Gena was a brunette. Don had hit upon Nicholas and Alexandra as appropriate names for these feline sovereigns. History was not his strong suit, so Gena refrained from reminding him that the historical figures of Nicholas and Alexandra had ruled Russia incompetently before being executed by Bolsheviks. No matter: their Catalonia had nothing to do with that region of Spain, either.

Vladimir had escaped the burden of a too-cute kitty name, but Catalonia was soon infected by cuteness. Within its environs, cats traveled to cities such as Mew York, Mew Orleans, Catlanta, and Los Angorales on the luxurious trains of CatTrak. They dined at a chain of restaurants called the Fish and Flagon that specialized in fresh seafood, took care of their financial affairs at Kittibank, and vacationed in Catcún or Kittybunkport. Catalonia, in all of its accumulated detail, rapidly became almost as real to Gena and Don as anything in the actual world around them.

Occasionally, objects in the real world seemed to be Catalonian manifestations, as if their imagined world were somehow leaking into the actual one. Gena definitely felt that way while in a stationery store buying a card for Don to mark their fourth anniversary. The card of course had a feline motif, and Gena was thrilled to discover two darling china cats among the store’s collection of tchotchkes. Indeed, one of the cats had painted golden fur that looked just like the fur she envisioned for Nicholas, while the other was as black as Gena’s feline alter ego Alexandra. Gena could not resist buying them and kept the pair on top of her bedroom dresser, where, every morning, she and Don could wake to the sight of the two china cats, the totemic representation of their marital bond.

The world of Catalonia would be theirs alone, never to be shared with anyone else. This was largely because anyone else getting wind of this invented cosmos of cats would assume that Don and Gena were not only besotted by cuteness, but deranged as well. But their private world was also a comfort to evoke after a bad day at work or during an episode of self-doubt. In the world of Catalonia, where cats were free to do as they liked, Don could forget that his main professional purpose in life was seeing that people collected as little as possible on any insurance policies they bought from his company. In Catalonia, Gena could envision herself as a fiercely independent feline in a position of authority instead of as a woman who still lived in a house only a twenty-minute drive from the home of her parents.

Catalonia bound them together. Gena often felt that she had fallen in love with Don because she had sensed his gentle and imaginative side at their first meeting. To break up with him would mean abandoning their beloved realm, which they had created together. Gena was convinced that any divorce would subject Catalonia to the devastation of quakes, storms, and environmental disasters, while Don viewed the inhabitants of their cat world as potential allies in a battle that he trusted would never come.

“If we ever broke up,” he often told Gena, “I’d call you up and meow. I’d remind you that if we weren’t together at Christmas, you’d miss decorating the tree at Rockefurry Center.”

“And miss a visit from Santa Paws, too,” Gena replied.

Catalonia became their consolation for Vladimir’s treachery, when he escaped outside to wander the few blocks back to their old neighborhood not long after they had moved into their own home, abandoning them to take up residence with their former landlord Mr. Bowes, who had often fed Vladimir such forbidden foods as shrimp, albacore tuna in oil, and baked Virginia ham whenever Don and Gena were out. “A cat is a free being,” Mr. Bowes had insisted when Gena went back to pick up some belongings she had stored temporarily in the two-family’s basement. “You cannot hold a cat against his will, he is a free being,” and Gena had reluctantly conceded the point. Vladimir, sitting in Mr. Bowes’s bay window, had stared balefully through the glass at her as she left, perhaps comparing the healthy but more limited diet she and Don had offered him with the taste treats he consumed now.

If their actual cat had betrayed them, those in Catalonia would not. Those kitties were always there, ever prepared to welcome Gena and Don into their complex but kindly universe.

Even so, Gena missed Vladimir, especially when she was alone in a house that seemed colder and more oppressive in the cat’s absence. Her home’s good vibes, the warm and welcoming feeling she had experienced when the real estate agent first showed her the house, had departed with Vladimir who, she now recalled, had taken up the habit of snarling at dark corners and howling in the night even after he had curled up between them on their bed. Perhaps another cat would restore the lost warmth; there were so many at the shelter that needed homes.

But Don seemed content with matters as they were, and adopting another cat would cost them. They and Household, since Vladimir had been treated as a household expense, already owed Caterina Lucci a fair amount of money they had not yet paid for Vladimir’s medical care and repair of injuries he had sustained in battle with other cats; they didn’t need to tap into the little they had been able to save to take on the expense of another cat.

Lately, the household accounts had taken over Don’s conversation. She had thought he might ease up on that subject now that the last of his college loans was almost paid off; instead, he had grown even more obsessive.

“We have to think of the future,” he would say. “Maybe it’s time to cut back. I remember what it was like for my father, always having to worry and barely scraping by and not being able to get even a little ahead when Devlan and I were growing up. That sure as hell isn’t for me.” Occasionally she had the feeling that she was talking to some money-grubbing entity that had temporarily taken on Don’s form, and imagined a figure much like the one depicted on Monopoly game boards but with a much meaner facial expression, a large fat man in top hat and morning coat with a walrus’s fat mustache, looming behind Don and clutching a briefcase full of currency—Household, the device created to keep themselves from fighting over money, but now a creature who was too often Don’s ally.

 

 

THREE

coworker of Don’s had recommended that he start thinking about investments. Don made that announcement in what sounded to Gena like the voice of Household. Shouldn’t they start to save more? Didn’t they want to be able to provide for the children they might have someday? Didn’t they want to get ahead and not have to live from paycheck to paycheck the way Don’s father had for much of his life? Didn’t they want to be prepared for harder times, given the ever shakier state of the economy? Didn’t they want some financial security in their old age? Didn’t Gena want to be able to consider a move later on to another part of the country, even if that might be a temporary drain on their finances?

That last argument had been the convincer. Maybe that was because Don had offered it right after Gena was off the phone with her mother, whose calls were always at least an hour long and often left her feeling totally bummed. If her mother just couldn’t resist hinting that Gena had not quite measured up to her expectations, then living at some distance from her daughter might at least keep her from doing so three or four times a week.

Gena’s resentment, simmering all day, finally boiled over during a trip to the mall with her best friend, Tracey Birnbaum. On a rack inside an emporium called The Clothes Horse hung a silk blouse in Gena’s favorite shade of pale blue.

“Damn it all,” she muttered as she tried on the garment in the fitting room, “this would go perfectly with my long navy blue skirt.”

“Buy it, then,” Tracey said. “It looks great on you.”

“Can’t afford it.” But she could, if she borrowed from Household. If only she could figure out a way to make the silk blouse a household expense.

“Well,” Tracey said, “are you going to get it?”

Gena took off the blouse and hung it up again. “Can’t.”

Tracey sighed. “Let’s go get a soda. I’ll buy.” They left The Clothes Horse and headed toward the mall’s Burger King. “My philosophy is that you buy what you want to buy, within reason of course, and worry about the bill later.”

“Not Don’s philosophy.” Gena’s voice trailed off. Tracey knew something about how she and Don handled their finances, although Gena had never gone into detail about how their joint account had morphed into an immaterial but increasingly dictatorial Household.

They picked up their diet sodas and sat down at a side table. Tracey looked a bit happier. That pleased Gena, whose main reason for going to the mall with Tracey was to cheer up her friend, who had admitted to being very depressed since the breakup of her marriage.

“I might as well tell you,” Tracey said as she brushed back a lock of long brown hair. “It’s definitely over between me and Johnny. We’re going ahead with the divorce.”

“I’m so sorry,” Gena said, having long expected to hear that unsurprising news. Tracey, who occasionally had her own lapses into cuteness, used to refer to her soon-to-be-ex-husband as her “Poopsie Sweetums,” even in public, before he had abruptly walked out on her, proclaiming that he needed his space. Her most frequently used term for him now was “that fucking bastard.”

“The fucking bastard’s already moved back to Chicago,” Tracey continued. Her voice was hard, but her eyes glistened, as if she might suddenly burst into tears. “He doesn’t have a job there, but he’s moving anyway.” She sipped her soda. “At least I won’t have to go to that goddamn marriage counselor any more.” Her voice shook, and Gena feared that Tracey’s brittle exterior would crack. “I always had the feeling she was taking his side. And I’ll be free of the son of a bitch forever in a year.”

“Are you going to keep his name,” Gena asked, “or go back to Tracey Sussman?”

“I don’t know. Wish I could ditch Birnbaum, but that might not be such a good idea.” Tracey was an artist and illustrator, a profession that still struck Gena as exciting and romantic even though Tracey rarely discussed anything that sounded even remotely artistic. She had done cover paintings for romance and mystery novels and illustrations for magazine stories, but most of her work was for children’s books on such subjects as medieval clothing, the Plains Indians of the nineteenth century, famous racehorses of the twentieth century, elves, fairies, dragons, and flowers. Her conversations about her work consisted largely of complaints about contracts, fees, royalty payments, reproduction rights, copyright violations, online postings without permission, gallery owners who screwed artists on sales of paintings, and other financial and legal transactions, some even involving what sounded like blackmail and bribery.

“Trouble is that my audience,” Tracey went on, “such as it is, knows me by that fucking bastard’s last name now, so I may be stuck with being Birnbaum forever. You were smart to keep your own name. You won’t have that problem if you and Don ever split.”

Gena could not bear to contemplate such a possibility. To split up with Don—that was unthinkable, yet she was beginning to wonder if any of the couples they had come to know over the years would still be together ten years from now. Divorce might be like a contagious disease, easily spread to those who were exposed to it. She and Don were not immune.

But they couldn’t break up. They loved each other too much. Besides, what would they do about Catalonia? Their shared world would be torn apart, its cities, towns, businesses, and contented, extremely cute cats banished to oblivion.

“Oh, my God,” Gena murmured, feeling as though the black-furred Alexandra who was her Catalonian counterpart had suddenly been separated forever from her golden-furred mate Nicholas. Tears sprang to her eyes; she could almost hear Alexandra crying out to her with mournful meows of fear and despair.

“What’s the matter?” Tracey asked.

“Nothing. Just a passing thought.” Her marriage was now so bound up with a make-believe world that she was beginning to wonder what she cared about more, Don or their imaginary feline refuge.

Time, she told herself, for a reality check. Time to acknowledge that she still had a life apart from Catalonia and Don and Household.

“I’ve changed my mind,” she said to Tracey. “I think I’ll get that blouse after all.”

* * * *

Don never asked Gena about her purchase, although he must have noticed the withdrawal from the household account. He never even seemed to see that she had bought a new blouse. Within a month, her guilt over buying the garment had vanished in the face of Don’s far greater betrayal.

He had used some of Household’s money to pay for a new Wii, even though they already had a PlayStation. Gena had discovered his treachery while perusing Household’s records, something she had not done for a while. She was not one of those suspicious women who doubted her husband; couldn’t she trust him implicitly? Apparently not, as the household accounts revealed, and he had admitted his deed as soon as she challenged him, without showing a trace of guilt.

“Okay, I bought a Wii,” he told her.

“A Wii is not a household expense.”

“Sure it is,” Don replied. “Where are we going to use it? In the house. That’s Household.”

“It’s not.”

“Household paid for the TV, didn’t it?”

“We decided a TV was furniture. A Wii isn’t furniture, it’s a—a—” Gena searched her mind for the proper terminology. “—an electronic gaming system,” she concluded.

“So?”

Maybe, she thought, it wasn’t worth arguing about. Judging by the relatively modest sum he had spent, he had gotten a very good deal on the Wii and its games and accessories. Still, it was the principle of the thing. Unfortunately, she was on morally shaky ground, given the devious way in which she had purchased her silk blouse.

The Wii, she realized then, was his revenge for her purchase. He had seen that she would be unable to object to his new toy.

“All right,” she said, then batted her eyes. “This wouldn’t happen in Catalonia. You’d never have such wonderful creatures as those cats arguing over a Wii.”

“Of course you wouldn’t,” he said. “Their Wiis cost a fraction of what ours cost, plus they’re made by Kitsubishi instead of Nintendo. They’re so cheap that every cat and kitten can get as many as they like. You can’t walk into a Catalonian home without finding a Wii, which makes it a household expense.”

That wasn’t fair. Gena was about to object, but an uncharacteristically icy look in Don’s eyes made her hesitate. It was almost as if something else was suddenly sitting inside him, something cold and malign, looking out at her through his eyes.

The thought came to her, as it did more often lately, that she did not really know what her husband was like inside. Even here, inside their home, inside the house that had once seemed so welcoming, the man she loved often seemed alien, even threatening.

Household, she thought wildly. Household had enslaved Don—or perhaps her husband had bent Household to his will in preparation for taking over all of their financial affairs. Don, who had admitted early in their relationship that his parents had struggled financially, had always had a thing about money, but this recent obsession wasn’t just about money but about control. If he completely controlled his life and their affairs, he could stave off the worst; that need to rule was what drove him at bottom. His father had ceded too much authority to others, Don had told her, which had only added to his troubles.

Household was now becoming the instrument of his dominion over her and everything else. Strangely enough, she found herself thinking that Don—if he were fifty pounds heavier and had white hair and a walrus’s mustache—would look like Household.

“Meow,” she said, testing him.

He tilted his head, then curled his fingers and swatted gently at her, as if his hands were paws, but she knew that he was not about to back down.

“Okay, Don,” she continued. “You made your point.”

He smiled, looking self-satisfied and not Catalonian at all.

Before bed, she picked up her black china cat and set it down several inches away from its mate.