Breathing Cats: A Short Story

[I wrote this short story a long time ago. It’s still one of my favorite pieces of writing that I’ve done.]

Two men sit in a room. They sit like statues, neither moving nor talking. They try to speak but they can’t. The chairs are comfortable, perhaps a little worn on the armrests, and one man sits on a spring that pokes him. Their posture is erect but not consciously so. The brown-haired man is not smart, nor is he dumb. The black-haired man is a touch smarter but in no way a genius. Neither man can see the other although they both have perfect sight and face each other. All of their senses are intact. They feel, they hear, they smell, see and taste but neither can detect the presence of the other.

What restricts each man and makes this room different is that it is filled from wall to wall and floor to ceiling with live, squirming, furry cats. Each cat fits into the others like a piece of a jigsaw puzzle. They inhale together and they exhale together. As strange as it may sound, the men and cats live and breathe in that room. The cats on the bottom are still alive. In any other room they would have been crushed but they are very much alive. One cat has her wet nose buried in the bum of a particularly large tom. The tom doesn’t mind because that same cat has always had her wet nose buried in his bum. The men don’t mind because neither has lived a life without a cat in his face, and a few in his lap, and two or three in his armpits. The black-haired man has so many cats under his arms that he looks like a scarecrow in a cat field. He would look like that if you could see him but you can’t. The cats block the view.

Since the beginning of this story the two men have been sitting in those chairs surrounded by cats. One morning the black-haired man said, “Hrmph mmph!” The brown-haired man was quite miffed that day and failed to respond. He hadn’t, in fact, even heard the black-haired man’s comment because he has always lived with a cat paw in each ear. Several days later he did manage to speak. It was a sunny day and the cats squashed against the window could see the sunlight streaming through the trees at the top of the hill across the yard. They had a little variety. The ones on the floor never had any variety but the cats by the window had a little variety. All day the brown-haired man concentrated on talking. Late in the afternoon he made the attempt. The calico cat under his nose felt a vibration and thought he heard something like, “Hunf ta!”

Two days later the brown-haired man was still proud of that speech. He thought he might make another statement. He was wrong. The brown-haired man was allotted only one chance to speak and he had used it. If I wanted, I could kill him at this very moment, just make his heart stop beating. Or, perhaps, slow and lingering suffocation would be more apt. But I think he ought to be kept around.

The cats and men share the same room but each one lives uniquely. The two men might be identical twins except they aren’t related and their hair is shaded differently. Although the black-haired man is smarter, he has a spring in his chair. The cats, however, vary in shape and size and differ in degrees of comfort. The ones near the window know the most. They see there is something more in life than a room filled with cats. The ones near the ceiling have less weight to bear and feel a lightness that makes their days easier. The cats on the bottom, though, live much more horribly. The weight of all the other cats rests on them and, as I said earlier, would have crushed them if they had been in another story. Some of the cats are on their sides, others upside down, and one is spread-eagled with her back on the floor and her nose buried in a tom’s bum. If the cats by the window had known there was a life as poor as hers they would have tried to break the window and free her from her misery. But they never will because the window is unbreakable. That pretty cat was meant to live with her nose buried in the other’s bum.

The men are complete individuals, knowing only the furry warmth surrounding them and those thoughts a person might have who lives and breathes cats. They sit in a room like statues, trying to speak but failing, facing each other but not seeing, and the brown-haired man mumbled, “Hunf ta!” but was not heard.

I can picture the door opening, swinging out, and a tidal wave of live, squirming cats pouring from the room. They wash against the walls, cascade over each other, and flow down the hall. Their freedom dazes them but they soon discover their legs and dart in as many directions as there are cats. The pretty one realizes there are sweeter smells. The ones by the window are the last out but they adjust more quickly than the rest. All the cats take off in a pack for the top of the hill. Two cats chase a squirrel up a tree and all three face each other across the branches, frozen in place as if by their stares. Others frolic in the fallen leaves but most lie in the plush grass, licking clean their fur. Occasionally, they lift their heads to glance confidently around then tuck in their chins to lick some more.

And what of them men? They squint their eyes at the light and rub their arms and legs. Then each one slowly rises from his chair. The black-haired man stands and realizes how much the spring hurt him. He drops his arms and feels his chest. The brown-haired man, though, rises more slowly. When his sight finally adjusts to the bright light he feels a deep sense of loss. They walk cautiously through the door, go down the hall, and follow the cats to the top of the hill. The black-haired man is smarter and responds to the light like a chameleon. The brown-haired man mopes along. He knows he has lost something. He just follows the cats as the light drives away his memories and the brown-haired man will never say, “Hunf ta!” again.

I promise I will eventually free the men and cats but even now, at the end of this story, they remain in that room – squirming, breathing, living.

Spring 1982

SOTW: Number 7

Honda UnicycleLast Wednesday, Honda debuted the U3X, a motorized unicycle that self balances, can move in any direction, and lets you sit at eye level.

It is an divine axiom of good writing that you describe the world around you using your senses. As readers, we want to hear, smell, see, feel, and taste our environment because that’s what gives us the full meaning of the place we’re describing. Hemingway’s short story, “A Clean Well-Lighted Place” carries that axiom in its very title. Hemingway’s writing itself was the perfect example of the greatness of this concept.

But the copywriters for the Honda U3X–competitor for the much more popular Segway–seem to have lost their way in their own surroundings. Clearly, they’re trying to differentiate from the Segway and its elevated position for the rider, putting the user above the masses in the same way that a horse placed the nobility above the peasants. But to describe this position as placing a person at “eye level” is clearly wrong.

Why? Lots of reasons.

  • Eye level changes depending on our own position. So a Segway puts a person at eye level as much as the U3X. 
  • From the image, it’s clear that the eye level of the user is below that of where she would be if she were standing. So, by their ideal, the U3X places the person below eye level. Not the message they want to send.
  • If I’m sitting at eye level, as the copy suggests, am I really at eye level?
  • Museums and contractors put paintings and mirrors at eye level. This is a tenet of good design. But as a taller than average person, I find museum installations and residential mirrors to be anything but eye level.
  • Besides, what’s so bad about being above everyone else and having longer sight lines? I’m not even certain this point is an improvement.

Okay, perhaps I’m fussing over some of the details here, but the main issue stands. The copywriters didn’t say what they meant. They said what they wanted to imply. Their copy was neither precise nor specific.

How would I make this point? Simple. I would end the sentence at “and lets you sit.” Sitting, after all, is a very comfortable position and what we do in every other transportation device we use except for the Segway. Why not make that the differntiator?