Once again, she’d misread the sign. The sign outside St. Cornelius Catholic Church on Foster Avenue announced, in actuality, “Eucharist Adoration.” She, however, saw the ridiculously paired words of “Aquarium Addictions” instead. She took a long drag from her clove cigarette and indifferently noted the single file of traffic-jammed vehicles ahead of her. She turned on the radio and turned up the volume of the car stereo two notches in response to the announcer’s promise that the first act of Wagner’s Siegfried would conclude after the commercial break. These kinds of drive-by misinterpretations have been occurring with a frequency that was beginning to disturb her somewhat: “Trauma” instead of “Truman College” while zipping south on Lake Shore Drive; “Prior Experience” instead of “Panda Express” by the Lake Forest Oasis; and, most nonsensical of all, she managed to transform a billboard’s message of “Diamonds Are Forever” into “Demons Wear Burberry.” Disquieted, she began to wonder if the process of turning into her father had begun. She’d built a steady portrait, going back to when she was very little, of her father the motorist acquiring a dubious track record of missing freeway exits and misidentifying businesses, arriving at wrong street addresses, interpreting stop signs and red lights as optional, and cussing, cussing, cussing at other drivers. To this day, she smiles to herself while recalling the bumper sticker he used to display on his beloved diesel-engine Toyota pick-up truck (the vehicle, her mother asserted, that he loved more than her and the rest of the family combined!): “If You Don’t Like The Way That I Drive, Stay Off The Sidewalk!”
Well, she thought, grinning, perhaps she wasn’t that bad yet. But why all these misread signs? Her lifelong better-than-20/20 vision has been her bread and butter; 11 years of editing (electronic as well as printed text), of hunching over galleys of printers’ proofs and gazing at Quark, Acrobat, and Word files, bringing order out of chaos time and again, had not made her the worse for wear, optically speaking. Could it be from chronic stress? That was a viable culprit. Edginess has been a mainstay in her life for at least the past month—she took up smoking to counteract the sensation of high-strung nerves—and she honestly couldn’t remember the last time she truly felt happy. A dysfunctional work environment that was sinking into the miasma of hostility, a chronically disappointing dating (she didn’t dare term it “love”) life, financial goal setbacks, the decline and fall of her parents’ health—she had many routes by which acute, chronic stress could seize her. She would sadly, perhaps even bitterly, shake her head at suggestions from well-meaning individuals to “just lighten up”—as if that would cure her mother’s leukemia or wipe out her debts to the billing offices of two Chicago-area hospitals. (Emergency room bills were the most outrageous forms of assault against the uninsured. I’m definitely in the wrong profession, she thought, as she stared in horror at the $4K “Balance Due” section of the bill from hospital no. 1.)
With few exceptions, her mood was one of gravitas. She loved the word itself—uncompromisingly non-frivolous. Balanced in its tripartite syllable structure. It was an ancient Roman virtue she was proud to be the harbinger of in what she saw as a glib, insubstantial society that lay far too long under a hollow consumerist spell.
She exhaled slowly, billowing plumes of sweetly scented smoke around the dashboard of her economical and environmentally friendly compact car. On the airwaves, the booming voice of Wotan—surely the embodiment of gravitas in the world of opera—engaged Mime the Nibelung to a contest of riddles. The shattered remains of the magic sword Nothung, it turns out, can only be forged by one who has never known fear. Naturally. Tolkien would never have gotten very far in his career without having Wagnerian operas to draw from as source material, she noted.
As she snaked her way westward on the avenue and the commercial district of her neighborhood came within view, she made a point of looking closely at all the signs of the various restaurants and shops. How many of these names would she screw up? “King’s Gyros, Established 1972.” “American Windows.” “Walgreen’s.” “Palermo Liquor.” “4 Hermanos Mexican American Restaurant.” “The Blue Angel.” Nope—she didn’t mess any of those up. Ah, another church sign, but this one’s Protestant—Baptist, in fact. Mildly repulsed, she chose to look at the sign anyway. It exhorted all passers-by to be mindful of the fact that, “For Every Sin, Satan Has An Excuse.” She rolled her eyes. The only sin that she knew of was that this rush-hour traffic was keeping her from getting food into her cats’ bellies.
Roar. Spook. Ignite. Dream. Those were the names of her four cats, formerly feral felines that had entered her life at various stages. She wanted them to have the names of action verbs that were closely aligned with their personalities. Roar was the largest of the group, weighing in at just under 25 pounds. His charcoal-colored long fur augmented his girth and framed his face in a leonine way. An extremely vocal cat, he took a keen interest in everyone’s business at all times, typically sounding out long, drawn-out notes of displeasure. Yet he had a comical side and a playfulness that precluded him from being a completely threatening beast. Spook was a slender cat, mostly white with patches of gray, who lived in the element of surprise, for she was always sneaking up on the others during moments of play, causing them to leap when they were caught off guard. Ignite was a rust-colored tabby with marmalade-hued tiger stripes; surprisingly long but not terribly lean, he gave one the impression of a tame tiger who was not always up to performing circus tricks on command. Dream was a black-and-gray tabby with semi-long fur, including lynx-like tufts at the tips of his ears, and a very pointed face. During the day, he was the most dog-like in his behavior, from greeting guests at the door to chasing his tail in circles until uncoordination reigned supreme and he’d invariably bump his head onto an unpleasant edge of wooden furniture. At night, Dream was all mystery and the most affected by lunar rhythms of the four. He also displayed a fondness—sometimes bordering on impatience—for wanting to enter the room that was reserved as a temple/meditation space; this earned him the nickname of “Ritual Kitty” from friends of the human who took him in when he was just a few weeks old.
“Babies, I’m home,” said human began to coo, even before the key had completely been turned in the lock. She knew that all four cats would be lined up in a row, their heads tilted up to meet her gaze. Roar was already announcing his irritation over the tardiness of his evening meal. “Baybeeeez…” Roar’s wails were joined by a chorus of complaint ranging from piteous meows to Dream’s raspy squeak-screech. They swarmed the legs of the weary figure who was in the process of tossing her work tote on the couch and kicking off her heels. “I know, babies. Dinner’s late and I’m sorry.” Roar had an irrevocably pissed-off look seemingly plastered onto his face—the look of feline outrage and contempt. Unmistakable! His green eyes narrowed. His whiskers of asymmetrical length seemed to spike upwards. Is it possible for cats to have furrowed brows?
Appeasing Roar had always been a top priority. Perhaps a cheer was in order. She lunged to the ground and sprang up again, startling Spook and Ignite in the process. The cheer was accompanied by the flailing of arms; with fists upraised came the cry, “Hardcore! Let’s hear you, Roar!” Roar’s harsh expression didn’t waver. She tried it at a slower pace, as if the cat were a simpleton, deliberately breaking down the syllables of the words into clearly enunciated phonetic bits, delivered with a slight Southern twang, no less: “Ha-werd koh-wer! Let’s hear you, Roh-wer!” Roar’s facial expression now seemed to convey, You’re an idiot. The Universe must hate me to have placed me in your care.
A staring contest between amiable woman and uncompromising cat could have ensued at that moment and lasted for several minutes, but she chose to head for the kitchen and start the cat-feeding ritual after dumping the day’s junk mail into the recycle bin. Three of the cats had already gathered, forming a semi-circle around their respective food dishes, just before she was about to pull back the lid of the aluminum can.
She squinted at the blue label—there was a typographical anomaly, as she was certain she didn’t purchase a case of cans bearing the Friskies logo and the flavor of “Ongoing Dormir.” It was Ocean Delight! The cats’ meows were imploring, dainty. Roar was slowly approaching from the dining room but then stopped by the side of the oven, a conical mound of fur and splayed-out, asymmetrical whiskers. He observed everyone disinterestedly. She divided the can’s malodorous, oily contents into four portions and plopped them into the dishes. Spook, Dream, and Ignite plunged their faces into the plastic and devoured their dinner violently.
“Roar, why aren’t you eating, little buddy?” she asked, whirling around.
“Quite frankly, little lady, I’m not fond of eating upon immediately awakening from a nap,” came the saucy reply.
She steadied herself against the microwave cart, convinced that she was on the verge of fainting. She really didn’t just hear her tomcat speak, did she? Is this how dementia progresses—from misreading signs and labels to auditory hallucinations? she wondered. Am I that lonely that I have to project voices onto my pets because the only other forms of interaction during the day are based on commercial transactions?
“Now you look as though you should eat something yourself. You don’t look steady on your feet,” Roar dryly said. The can slid from her fingertips, splaying the linoleum with oily goo and the processed remains of what were once tuna fish. “Butterfingers,” Roar announced. “You really are a klutz, you know. People should be relieved that you don’t work in the food service industry; you’d make a lousy server.”
With an exasperated sigh, Roar stood up on his haunches, and, walking upright, went to the refrigerator door to retrieve a kitchen towel that was loosely tied around the door handle. He blotted the oily floor tiles, picked up the can by its lid with his teeth, and then stepped onto the pedal of the trash can. As the lid sprang upwards, he tossed the can and towel into the garbage. Once his right hind paw was removed from the pedal, the lid clamped down quickly with a clanging sound not unlike a small gong.
Roar turned around and appeared to be dusting off his paws. As he glanced upward, his green, almond-shaped eyes were met by wide-eyed brown ones. An index finger came within a few inches of his forehead. “You…you…know how to walk upright?! And you are able to speak?!”
Roar chuckled good-naturedly. “‘Baby talk, baby talk—it’s a wonder you can walk’—remember that Brady Bunch episode?”
Alarmed, she shot a quick glance at the trio of cats who, having finished eating, took themselves to grooming by the kitchen door.
“Oh, they can’t talk,” Roar declared, dismissively waving his paw. “It’s just me. I am an enlightened being.” He grinned, showing his jagged incisors—the right eyetooth was chipped in a scuffle that he had had with a Chow mix in the back alleys of Chicago’s Edgewater neighborhood before an organization named P.A.W.S. Chicago rescued him.
“Have you always had these abilities?” she asked, no longer sure if she cared that she had completely gone crazy. Roar squinted and smiled again, mouth closed. It was one of those ear-to-ear grins of pure bliss that cats wield before and during their sessions of purring—grins that are typically associated with kneading movements. “Shall we go into the living room?” he politely asked. “There’s much to discuss.”
And he courteously half-bowed as he pointed towards the pair of reading chairs that flanked an ornately decorated antique wooden table, which was used as a tea table for visiting friends; otherwise, it was where she sat with her clients and gave tarot card readings. Given the dire economy, she had a steady stream of people wanting to know, for the most part, when their fortunes would improve. She was very grateful for the word-of-mouth referrals and welcomed the modest supplement to her income. Everyone who came to see her as a reader remarked upon the beauty and uniqueness of her cats—at least Ignite, Dream, and Roar since Spook was skittish and fled for the bedroom whenever the doorbell rang.
Now I can see the marketing materials already! she laughed inwardly, embracing her insanity. “Part-time intuitive in Northwest Chicago features talking cat on weekday evenings!” How’s that for a headline??!?!
Roar paused during the walk to the living room and meditatively raised his left paw to his chin. Gazing at the carpet, he said, “Yes, you do have something there. Sometimes it really is all about the marketing.”
“You read thoughts too?” She doubled over, laughing. “Oh, this is too much—too much!” She hugged her abdomen tightly. “Oh, oh, I…I haven’t laughed this hard in a long time. Oh good grief, I’m laughing so hard I’m crying!” Her face contorted with an explosion of wrinkles as she laughed, and she stood upright and began to dab at the corners of her eyes with her shirt sleeve. “Fuck,” she spat. “I’ll call the employee psychiatric services on Monday. For now, I need a drink.” She let out a heavy sigh and then patted her cheeks with her hands.
“Capital suggestion. Would you like a Manhattan? I believe there’s some bourbon left in the liquor cabinet. Fortunately, the doors are low so I can go check.” Roar dropped to all fours and sprinted towards the dining room. She tottered towards her reading chair and nervously sat down. She tried to earnestly pretend that she did not hear the sounds of a five-year-old neutered cat humming the overture to Bizet’s Carmen while he, standing upright like a person, mixed her favorite cocktail. Minutes later, Roar, looking like the perfect waiter or butler, with a white washcloth draped over his folded right forepaw, sauntered into the living room, extending his left paw to proffer a crystal glass that bore her poison of choice inside. The small ice cubes clinked together merrily.
She kept her gaze on the ice cubes swirling in the booze. The words that ensued were slowly drawn out. “So, it’s been nearly three years since I adopted you.”
Roar interpreted her pause after the last word as an invitation to affirm her statement. “Yes,” he said.
“And…you’re just now revealing to me that you are capable of walking upright and speaking—English, no less—like any person?”
“Ah, pleurez-pleurez mes yeux, Et sortie ton tombeau. La moitie de ma vie Est peut-être en Châtellerault,” Roar recited, dreamily, his right paw held up to his heart.
“I see. You speak French also.” She took a massive gulp of the drink, nearly straining her esophageal tract. “Was that some verse from Baudelaire?” she asked, not sure if she was in a state beyond shock or not.
Roar looked offended. “I wrote it!” he hissed with a slight flattening of his ears.
“Oh,” she said dully. “Do forgive me.”
“Ego te absolvo,” Roar said in a sing-song voice, momentarily studying her face before he began to rummage around in the small drawer of the table. He nonchalantly extracted an oblong, hand-carved linden wood box from Poland that contained the Hanson-Roberts Tarot Deck.
“That’s not fair,” she said to herself, as her gaze fell on the patterns of light on the sycamore leaves dancing in the evening breeze. “I was educated in Catholic schools my entire life and Latin was never offered as a language option for study. And here you are, living an indolent cat’s life where you can sleep all day and shit in a box, and you know how to grant Absolution in Latin.”
Roar was enthusiastically shuffling the cards. “Mirabile dictu.”
She continued to stare blankly at the trees. She didn’t know if she felt like responding because she didn’t even understand what he’d just said. She opted to let the moment pass.
“I’m dividing the cards into stacks of three, laying them out from right to left. Now you rearrange them in any order you’d like, shuffle them, and then hand them back to me. We’re going to repeat this process two more times,” Roar announced. She did as she was told. At the conclusion, Roar began to methodically lay out the cards in a spread that she immediately recognized as the popular “Celtic Cross.”
Roar extended his paw to the middle of the table and turned over the first card: The Star reversed. “This is your significator,” he said. “I see the agonizing process whereby you’ve bid farewell to cherished ideals. A sense of hopelessness has set in, one that expands into spiritual dimensions—a dark night of the soul, if you will. This already sounds like a challenging description of your current state of being, so seeing the next card should be interesting.” He flipped the card over.
“The Five of Pentacles. Dreadful scene. It’s your poverty consciousness laid bare. This is the part of you that tells yourself that you’re not entitled to good things, to success, to well-being. There’s this sense of exclusion from communal systems of support, but you’re not seeing how you’re contributing to this sense of victimization and alienation. You need to retrain your brain.”
“Okay, exactly how many Wayne Dyer books have you read?” she sneered.
Roar ignored her. “Let’s see if we can determine the root of the matter.” With a flick of his paw, he turned the third card over: The Six of Cups. “You had a golden childhood and it pains you to see the discrepancy between the fullness and warmth associated with those pleasant past memories and the unfulfilling life you lead today. Yes, fullness—fullness is the issue here.” He pensively rubbed his right paw against his nuzzle. “In Gnostic terms, this represents the Pleroma from which you fell, and you’ve been lamenting your descent into matter ever since.”
“So you’re theologically astute as well?” she asked, an eyebrow arched in mock-surprise.
Roar looked puzzled. “How could I not be, considering that I’m your Holy Guardian Angel?”
“I’ve always thought that you hated me,” she countered. “You’ve done nothing but shoot me dirty looks whenever I came home and did my little cheer for you, first thing.” “I’m sorry, but that is rather retarded,” Roar interjected. “And not just during those moments. You’re just so incredibly pissy.”
“My dear, I’ve merely been biding my time, waiting for you to wake up. My messages have been a part of the plan.”
“The things you think you’re hallucinating when you look at signs. You know, business marquees. Billboards. Highway exits. Product labels. Even just now when you were feeding the others: ‘Ongoing Dormir.’ All those came from me.”
“Let’s go back to the reading and see how recent events have been shaping things. Card number four: The Hanged Man. The stasis that has been vexing you has been ordained from above. In this fallow time, you rest and await the moment when seeds of inspiration can be sewn. Now is not that time. Instead of dynamic externals, let’s shift you towards inner work, dreaming and planning. Don’t ‘do’—be.”
Roar neatly lined up the cards.
“How could a cat function as an emissary of the Divine?” she wondered.
“Do you really need further proof?” came the sarcastic reply.
Dream shot into the living room, a catnip-stuffed toy mouse dangling in his teeth. He spat it out just before the sofa and then smacked it underneath, a perfect hole in one. He took great pains to squeeze as much of both forepaws as he could in order to fish for the toy. His thrusts were manic; he began to exude the behavior that was categorized as “evening crazies” by the woman of the house. Spook took a keen interest in the fun. Partially hidden behind a bookcase, she peered from the corner and started to sway the lower half of her body as her yellow eyes intensely focused on Dream’s prostrate body. Her pupils dilated within a second. She was in full-on pounce mode; the hapless Dream didn’t know what hit him. Ignite was looking very Morris-like as he strode into the living room. If he had any thoughts or striking reactions upon beholding the sight of his long-haired elder dealing cards and emitting sounds like the human across the table, he kept them to himself. After a few seconds, he arched his back and did an impressive stretch before he claimed the plush cat bed beneath the southern window.
“The fifth card,” Roar continued, “will let us know what the best possible outcome is, and this may or may not have any bearing on the immediate future—shown in the next card—or the final outcome card.” He looked up but couldn’t register any discernable emotion on her face. “Oooh, the Fool. This is great; I sense your creativity is being birthed anew during this period of suspended animation that the Hanged Man”—and here he tapped on the card—“showed us. You carry the wisdom of your past experiences with you in your little hobo bag, ready to meet life boldly.”
She scrutinized the card. “The imagery isn’t complete. We don’t have the familiar dog yipping at the Fool’s heels as he strides along his mountain path. Although, I guess instead of a white dog, the artists should have drawn a smoky cat.” Her smile was faint but genuine.
Roar smiled too. “I’m feeling hopeful about you. Let’s see what the sixth card says is imminently on its way.” A quick flick of the right paw and then: “Ah, the Three of Rods! So it isn’t just your personal creativity, but your professional acumen that’s growing now. Your ambition will have you wanting to chart new horizons for yourself. This could possibly even indicate a literal move not just to a new work environment, but a whole new territory, period. But what are your feelings about all this?” He studied her face. As he expected, the hints of an anxious frown were on display.
Card seven was the Eight of Swords. She audibly winced. “Remember what I said earlier about needing to retrain your brain? Here’s where it’s very pressing: Stop sabotaging yourself. Get rid of this fear of success. You’re the only one literally repressing yourself. But you can untie your hands and remove that blindfold any time you want to. It’s all up to you. Now,” Roar continued, “let’s see what external forces you don’t have control over have to say about things.” He flicked the card dexterously.
How can he manipulate the cards like that? she wondered. She held up the Eight of Swords close to her face. He isn’t even leaving behind any marks, and it’s been ages since I last trimmed any of the cats’ claws.
“Oh! The Chariot—that’s a good one!” Roar applauded by clapping his Ewok-like paws together. “New horizons are definitely being affirmed here, psycho-spiritual as well as literal. And when was the last time you took a vacation?” She shook her head, stupefied. She couldn’t even remember.
Spook cried out in pain as Dream bit into her rump. He leapt on top of her and they began to violently wrestle. Spook kicked her way free and made a beeline, seemingly, for the bedroom. Just before darting out of the dining room, she spun a u-turn in mid-air and crash landed on Dream, who was in hot pursuit. Affronted at being the “bottom,” Dream wriggled out from under Spook and took refuge among the dining room chairs. In an instant, both cats leapt onto the radiator to perch on the windowsill and cry at the solitary sparrow that had landed there. The bird darted off, leaving the cats angrily twitching their tails as they scanned the skies.
“Hopes and fears are next,” Roar went on, completely undistracted by his peers’ antics. With you, it’s obvious that those two concepts will really be closely connected.” The ninth card turned out to be the Queen of Swords. “There’s no doubt about it, your fearsome intellect is a double-edged sword. The medium by which you create amazing word-worlds is also that which deals incredibly hurtful blows, to others as well as yourself. But you know how to cut through bullshit, with the powers of reason as your steadfast allies. Yet it’s lonely at the top, especially for someone as assertive as yourself.”
“How can I be sure that my gifts of reason have remained intact after going through this experience of receiving a tarot card reading from my cat? Isn’t it reasonable to postulate that I’ve gone completely bonkers and entered a state of severe psychosis whereby I project my own thoughts onto an animal and hallucinate having that animal articulate those thoughts back to me?!?! HUH?!?!”
“We really must get you to find ways to channel this pent-up anger of yours constructively,” Roar dryly said, wiping off her spittle from the fur on his chest. “Goodness gracious.”
She buried her red face in her hands and remained still for several moments. At last, she sighed and sat up straight. “I’m sorry for that outburst,” she said.
Roar smiled. “Again, ego te absolvo. Now let’s dispense with the suspense and see what the tenth card reveals your final outcome to be.”
The card was overturned. “Shit!” Roar exclaimed. The leering visage of the Devil appeared in eye-popping color. It appeared to be mocking all present.
“Yes, and?” she asked. “Bondage, eh? Excessive preoccupations with materiality, perhaps even hinting at addictions or other voluntarily chosen vices? Base instincts?”
“Game over. Well, that throws my rose-colored sunglasses all to hell. Literally.”
With a dour face, Roar leapt from the chair in disgust. “Do what you want. I’m tired of hanging around your sorry ass anyway.”
“Wow! These aren’t very angelic statements that you’re making. Hey, where are you going? Let’s talk some more.”
“No. I’m going to take a really stinky dump and not even bother to cover it with litter. Then, I’m going to jump up on the bed and cough up a hairball on all the unfolded, clean laundry that you’ve left sitting there since before you went to work this morning.”
“As I stated earlier, you are one pissy kitty!” she shouted after downing another gulp of the Manhattan and feeling the giddy onset of a buzz.
Roar turned around, all green eyes, charcoal fur, and venom. “I am Roar,” he spat. “Hear me Roar! Ha-werd koh-wer!”