"And this," said Bertrand Stumpf, Ph.D., playing his thin fingers over the visible spine on a mangy cat, "is Timmy." Polly ran a tentative hand over the cat's greasy head by way of petting him. He stood up taller on the kitchen counter and rubbed each of his thin-skin-covered bones against her arm. "Timmy is the only outdoor cat." Bertrand stabbed at the six pages of pet sitting instructions with his index finger as if they were proof that Timmy—heavily medicated and perhaps dying—was, in fact, the only of his cats allowed out of the house.
Up to this point of the initial house tour and instruction giving Polly had seen three of the herd: Mona, May, and now, Timmy. The other two were skittish and had spirited themselves away under beds and in closets in the four-bedroom home.
"This is an old house," Bertrand said. It was, indeed—small windowed, low-ceilinged, crooked door framed. In fact, the house was not just old, it was dank and creaky and dying. Bertrand turned a page on the instructions and plucked a rogue strand of red hair from his lips. If he were a cat he would be one of those long, sleek Egyptian cats—the kind that stare out of large yellow eyes, fastidious and graceful. The lecture continued, "If there were a fire, we are fairly certain it would go up like that." Bertrand snapped his fingers and looked at Polly, who figured a nod was an appropriate response. But maybe not. Maybe it would be appropriate for her to say something witty about Alexander Pope, the humpbacked poet of the Augustan Age of English Literature with whom Polly felt a special kinship. (She felt the whole of her five feet two inch frame unattractive and deformed. She believed, too, that she was often an object of scorn and ridicule much in the same was Pope had been. Secretly, she considered herself brilliant but taunted.) One could never be sure.
"Right. So if there is a fire what we would like you to do would be this . . . " Bertrand took a deep breath and gave Polly a don't-fuck-this-up look. "Take the cats—as many of them as you can carry at once—and put them in your car." In her mind, Polly crawled through the dusty hallways, smoke encroaching on her as she sought out poltergeist cats in the crooked rooms. She then took each one—cat by writhing cat—out to her Ford Tempo until it was thoroughly cat engorged and her lungs shot from smoke inhalation.
"Okay then. That should about do it." Bertrand flipped over the last page of the instructions and handed them over to Polly, who accepted the instructions, both palms up. She was keen on showing Bertrand just what a remarkable pet sitter she could be.
There is that moment of hesitation upon walking into another's house to which one has the key. That fear that the homeowners are lurking behind a partly opened door, waiting to see if you will paw through an underwear drawer or find the secret porn collection.
Polly checked the driveway again and noted the lack of vehicles other than her own, meaning the occupants of the house were well on their way to a fabulous four weeks at an internet-free villa in Portugal. She opened the door fully and stepped in. Something wiped against her shins. It was Timmy out the door, once again claiming his right as the only outdoor cat.
She watched his scrawny haunches slither into the tall grass by the side of the drive. An issue-free pet sitting experience would be the perfect opportunity for her to get in Bertrand's good graces and the only thing that stood between her and the glow of being adored was Timmy of the questionable health.
At this point in her thus far anemic academic career, key to Polly was attaining the adoration of Bertrand Stumpf, professor of Neoclassical English literature (roughly 1660-1785) and possible thesis advisor. If she got Bertrand on her side her thesis would soar to the heights of which she was not sure it was capable as things stood.
Timmy scooted into the underbrush and was gone.
There was a note.
Thanks so much for taking care of our babies for the month. We'll ring periodically to make sure everything is going well. Please remember that Timmy is the only outdoor cat.
Joanie was one of those outgoing girls—the type who marches for causes and sends letters for Amnesty International. A vegan with flawless skin, an affected British accent, a flat belly, and shiny hair, Joanie was the type of girl you just knew had been to Africa.
Joanie's passion was drama.
A Shakespearean scholar, she easily caught the eye of Bertrand Stumpf, Ph.D.—who had been known to dabble in the Elizabethan Era—when she presented a colloquium on her thesis topic: "Shakespeare's Madonna, Shakespeare's Whore."
Joanie was not only brilliant and gregarious; she was gorgeous. And on top of all else she was not only Bertrand's favorite graduate student; she was his lover as well. Polly tore up the note and stuffed it into the trash.
After a weekend of litter box sifting, cat hair vacuuming, and Timmy-inspired dread, Polly humped her way into the English House where she held the summer assistantship. She got there early for once and had the coffee brewing before her boss Liz arrived.
"Someone's an early bird," Liz sang, making her way to her spotless desk with two overflowing monogrammed tote bags. Working with Liz—a fiftyish divorcee with several fully-grown children—had taught Polly about the true goings on in academia. Through Liz, she learned of the backbiting and the pettiness among the professors. She learned that one always had to remind Professor Schubert to do up his fly (and how this reminder titillated him). She learned of Professors Smit and Lundgren's marriage of convenience—Lundgren had a fondness for some of his prettier male students. She learned of Professor Mulch's drinking problem and the adjunct, Lupine Helm's penchant for prescription painkillers. According to Liz, all of this scuttlebutt reflected what was pretty standard fare for any department across campus.
A few weeks of this talk left Polly deeply depressed. When she had started grad school she thought that finally she'd made it into the club of great white hope. She thought there would be discussions of literature over wine and cheese, not gossip about who was spending the summer in rehab.
Still, it seemed Liz, possibly unaware of Polly's depression, took great pleasure in doling out information in greedy little bits over her daily lunch of iceberg lettuce with ranch dressing. At this point, halfway through the summer, Polly feared that Liz was running out of material and dreaded where the conversation would lead when the stories dried up.
"Your mother called on Friday after you left," Liz said as she unloaded her bags into the refrigerator. "She said she had no idea where you were." Liz turned and issued a parental stare, then swung back into action, stacking tubs of cheese and bottles of Ranch dressing. "She's worried. Says you're always out and about going into the city and traveling here and there and she has no idea where you are half the time." Polly blushed. Of course, she had lied to her mother about her fabulous social life. Of course, Polly had told her mother of her coterie always whisking her away to this play or that concert. She had, in fact, led her mother to believe she was quite the bon vivant.
One Monday, when Liz left early for a dentist appointment, Polly stood at the sink washing out the coffeepot when Professor Schubert shuffled up behind her and stuck his penis between her khaki pant covered ass cheeks, sweaty in the afternoon heat.
Polly dropped the pot into the sink where it splintered. Liz would be pissed.
Professor Schubert lifted a shaking, arthritic hand to the side of her face and pushed her hair behind her ear. "Pretty," he said, bouncing into her from behind. She wasn't sure whether she should move or not—away or stay—to laugh or to smirk or to cry.
"Professor," she whispered. She felt she should say something more, like don't but she couldn't get any words out. And it was odd because she realized that she liked that he had sought her out to do this thing to. This dirty thing.
His hand tickled her face. It smelled of pipe tobacco and some other, sour thing. His lips were at her ear, "You remind me of Mama," he said, a hand snaking around and fondling the roll of fat below her breasts. And then he was gone. She hadn't seen him since and, oddly, found that she missed him.
She lied to Liz about the coffeepot. Said it was because she used too much dish soap and it had slipped from her hands.
The summer assistant job was understood to be a bit of a boondoggle as far as actual work went. The lucky assistant was meant to spend most of his or her time engrossed in thesis research—a blessing and a curse for Polly.
She should have been a lot farther along in her research than she was. In fact, at the very least, she should have been working on rewrites of her first chapter. She eyed the pile of books on her desk, picked the thinnest one and opened it to a random page.
She was bored. Bored of her topic, "The Wit and Wisdom of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu: as based on her epistolary relationship with Alexander Pope"; bored with the Neoclassical Era; and bored, utterly and entirely, with academia as a whole.
The books, the learning, the lectures, the arguments, the zealousness, the theses and the minutiae were starting to weigh on her like the pounds of extra fat that covered her body. The knowledge upon which she had gorged herself was, in fact, turning out to be as unsatisfying as finishing a whole box of Oreos in one sitting. What one is left with are crumbs, the blood in one's veins leaden with overindulgence.
Still she had a standard to uphold. If not for herself, then at least for Liz, who looked over her shoulder from the phone conversation she was having with the Psych Admin. Polly held up the book and smiled. Liz gave her a thumbs up and turned back around.
Polly resumed her typical activity, which was staring out the window of English House, waiting for something beautiful to happen—a lifelong pursuit, this quest for beauty. Her thoughts drifted to her desire for the most desirable of desirable men: Sedrick Brown, sophomore. The English department, fearing the brilliant Sedrick would tire of the undergraduate courses and transfer to a more challenging university, had coaxed him into several of the graduate level courses. Thus Sedrick became a de facto graduate student.
For months Polly had harbored a secret crush on Sedrick. It was on a sleet-filled, pre-Thanksgiving day that sexy Sedrick had gone out of his way to stop Polly after a Feminist Criticism lecture and told her that he appreciated her moderate viewpoints and liked that she was not afraid to startle people with her passivity. It wasn't what he said that charmed her, but that he had grabbed her upper arm by means of getting her attention and with that touch came a worm of an ache from her groin up through her nipples.
Still, it was clear that she was not Sedrick's type. His type was more of a Joanie. At least that's what she'd surmised from seeing the two of them horsing around campus, sipping coffee together, arguing about Hamlet, etc.
As always, the thought of Sedrick produced an egg in her throat that refused to go away—she felt unhungry and yet starving. That night she would order in pizza.
Litter changing day. Polly went from box to box lugging a large trash bag and carton of kitty litter. She had learned a few days earlier that this job was best performed wearing rubber gloves. As she was finishing up the dump of box number five, the phone rang.
It was Bertrand. "How are my babies?" he said.
"Fine," Polly said. "Just fine." But were they? Really? She had seen four of the cats. Flashes in the night or scatters when she opened the door after work. And then there was Timmy who, even in his death throes, managed to claw deep trenches down her arms whenever she fed him his pills. Timmy, the outdoor cat.
"He's Timmy," Polly said.
"Yes, he is and what a wovey boy he is." Polly cringed. "Is itty bitty kitty there?"
"I think so."
"Put him on will you."
"The phone. The Timmy. Put him on." Bertrand sighed.
"I'll just go see if I can round him up," Polly said.
Timmy was not in any of his normal spots: the kitchen counter, the toilet seat or on top of the fridge, instead he was lying on top of Polly's laptop, clogging its precious keyboard with his mangy locks. She scooped him up, careful not to crush him and brought him back to the phone.
"Dr. Stumpf? I've got Timmy."
"Hi Polly. It's Joanie. Bertrand asked me to hang on the line."
"So go on then and put Timmy on and I'll have a little chat with him." Polly eyed Timmy and then held the phone up to his ear. He lolled his head back and purred. Polly heard Joanie's squeals and giggles on the other end of the line.
The chat went on for a minute or so, long enough for Polly's arm to go numb from holding Timmy in position. Finally, she heard a change in the tone of Joanie's voice and, "Polly? Polly are you there?"
She put Timmy down and picked up the receiver. "I'm here," she said.
"Good. Good. Good," said Joanie in rapid fire. "I've got some splendid news for you." Polly waited, uncertain the news would be anything she would want to hear. "Bertrand and I were chatting earlier and it seems he's got no advisees this coming semester. He'd like to review your introduction to determine whether you two might be a match." There was no introduction. Instead there was exactly one paragraph followed by three pages of a short story she couldn't get out of her head. She could not respond. "Polly, do you know what having Bertrand as an advisor could do for you?"
"Oh yes," Polly attempted exclamation, but her voice withered in her ears. "I'm so excited about this really. When would he like it?"
"How about if you post it tomorrow?"
"We'll look for it sometime next week then."
"Good. Good. Good."
Polly hung up the phone and examined the empty litter box at her feet. A seed of panic nestled deep in her colon. Literature had been chosen because it had been easy for her and once chosen, latched on to as an opportunity to shine but she hadn't shone, not at all. Her motivation was gone, lost somewhere amongst Liz's tales of tragic scholars. Polly was in a quagmire of cat shit and footnotes. It was not pretty.
Each time Polly sat down to write the introduction, she wrote more of her short story instead. It was about a graduate student who couldn't write her thesis but instead stared out the window every day and watched the beautiful boy who was painting houses for the summer.
The story was inspired by the beautiful thing she had been waiting for. It had happened on Thursday morning when one of the Victorians across the street from English House had a painting crew show up to it. The crew was made up of several buff young men, but the most buff and the most beautiful was none other than Sedrick Brown. She saw him ascend the ladder, paintbrush in hand, a ray of golden light encircling his perfectly-formed head.
Sedrick, then, was her inspiration—her muse—and she thought the short story might be a good one. She felt it in a way that she had never felt about her research and writing before. Writing the story was akin to the time when Sedrick touched her. The moment of wholeness, of her body not really belonging to her at all.
But it was Saturday night and the introduction was not done. She entered the inner sanctum of Bertrand's office and pulled an anthology from the shelf. Bertrand's desk was before her, an altar in the gloaming. She ran her fingers along its surface and sat behind the heavy oak, on the more modern and incongruous office chair.
This, she thought, is what it feels like to be Bertrand. She sat back and thought for a second, just a second, that maybe she could get this introduction written. It wouldn't take much to cobble together some research and propose her arguments. It wouldn't take so awfully much. She knew all she needed to know about Lady Mary Wortley Montagu: she was catty and she was backbiting and she was desperately mean but she was also terribly sensitive herself. Once one got into the core of who she was, Lady Mary wasn't so different from some of these professors Polly had grown to loathe. They hid their sensitivity behind their ability to argue. It was tedious.
She flipped open the book and there she was—Lady Mary Wortley Montagu. "You haven't a clue what you're doing," her doe-eyed gaze said. "You wouldn't know wit if it bit you on the arse."
Polly slammed the book shut and went back to the shelf. She scanned it for the answer, the savior; she scanned it for a clue as to what to do next. There, way up in the top left hand corner of the built in bookcases she saw it. A book like none of the others on the shelf, mainly reference, criticism and anthologies. It was fiction entitled, Come to Me and the author was none other than Bertrand Stumpf. It was not, Bertrand Stumpf, Ph.D. Rather it was B. M. Stumpf. Bertrand had another name. A life before this one. And he had written fiction.
Polly scrambled to pull the office chair over to the shelves and climbed it to get the book. She sat down on the chair right where she was and opened Come to Me.
Polly took the book in shaking hands and saw her future life stretch before her: the life in which Bertrand took Polly under her wing and revealed to her the opulent beauty of the writing life.
Things were looking up. Polly turned to the first page.
Her thighs were numb by the time she turned over the last page. She scowled and could not stop herself from throwing the book across the room. The book wasn't all that bad but it was far from the greatness she'd anticipated. Polly had wanted to find Virginia Woolf or William Faulkner between the pages of Bertrand's book and instead she'd found an irritating twenty-something like herself.
The limp and lame narrator, mincing his way through life, always questioning his motivations, his desires. She had thought, somehow, that the young Bertrand's pursuits would have been loftier. Would somehow have been sublime. Instead, they were mundane. They were just like Polly's.
Polly pulled the chair up to the desk and her blinking laptop, placed there in hopes of thesis inspiration. She opened up the document marked THESIS and she wrote and did not stop writing until it was done.
She read what she'd written a third time and smiled. The ending felt just right. She knew it was good because when she read those final few words the hair inexplicably stood up on her arms. Timmy minced into the office and jumped up on the desk. "Hello you," she said and poked him with her finger. "You still hanging in then?" He purred and licked his back leg. "I guess this is all I have to say then, Timmy. I guess it's done." Timmy blinked at her. Polly turned off her laptop and picked up the cat. She was feeling charitable. Tonight he would sleep next to her.
On her way to the post office, she noted that the Victorian had but a few clapboards left unpainted. And then, as if on cue, there was Sedrick walking around from the back of the house, looking sexy with paint can in hand. He noticed her.
"Hey," he yelled and waved his free hand. Polly glanced behind her to make sure he wasn't waving to someone else and waved back. Sexy Sedrick put down the paint can and jogged across the street, as he did he lifted the bottom of his shirt up to wipe his brow. Polly saw brown, flat, muscular, downy flesh. Oh, Sedrick!
"How's your summer?" he said.
"Joanie told me you were stationed at Chez Bertrand. How's that working out?"
"Gorgeous place. Wonderful yard," Sedrick said. Polly nodded though she had not so much as set foot in the yard. She feared it, actually, its greenness and the dark woods that surrounded it where something lurked—perhaps a dying cat.
"How are the cats doing?"
"I don't know, actually. Well, I do know that Timmy's outside."
"Right because he's the only outdoor cat," Sedrick droned and rolled his eyes. They both laughed. It seemed Sedrick had spent quite a great deal of time with Joanie and Bertrand.
"I haven't seen most of the cats," Polly admitted.
"Yeah, they're funny that way." Sedrick seemed so easy in conversation, as though he didn't even have to think before her spoke. Meanwhile, her brain was blasting through all of the possible permutations of what she would say next.
"I could help you look for them." She had meant to say she was worried about her thesis and so she could not believe her luck. It had to have something to do with what she was mailing. She had chosen to do the right thing and so her luck was changing. But to look too eager was surely not the right thing to do.
"Okay," she said.
One of the other painters called out. "Well I better get back. Later." And he was gone. The package would fly itself to Portugal.
Sedrick breezed through the door, ducking for the low ceiling. He was wearing white pants and pastel shirt, more appropriate for Newport than a dusty antique house in the woods. After opening a bottle of wine and pouring them each a glass, Sedrick showed her where all of the inside cats were hiding. Then they went to the lawn to look for Timmy. Sedrick was so kind and intelligent, the attention he paid her made her feel more of a respected Lady Mary Wortley Montagu than a maligned Alexander Pope—still not beautiful (for poor Lady Mary had been left scarred and eyelash-less from smallpox) but at least more popular.
"Look," Sedrick said, dashing across the lawn. "Fireflies." Polly followed his lead. First they found one or two glowing flies and then they found tens upon tens of them. Sedrick smiled, exposing his perfect white teeth in the darkness. He spun around and around with his arms straight out, flashes of white and pink.
Polly felt dizzy watching him. His hyper twirls and leaps. She wanted to join in but her feet seemed planted where they were. Sedrick ran to her and lifted her. "You'll hurt yourself," she said.
"Don't be silly," he said, "You're light as a feather."
They collapsed side by side in the dewy grass and stared up at the stars until the light seemed to close in on them, a blanket tight. She felt that something beautiful was happening and it was just as if she had written it herself. She would end it then, just as she had ended her story, with the two of them kissing under the stars. She had the power to write her own history. To decipher her own text.
"Mmmm." If she had been a cat just then she could have crawled up on him and licked his moist face ever so gently.
"Would you kiss me?" She couldn't believe her brazenness and wished—as soon as she'd said them—that she could pull the words back into herself.
"Sure," he said, and lifted himself up on an elbow above her. Then his lips were gentle upon hers, as gentle as Professor Schubert's flaccid penis had been that day in the kitchen. As gentle as that.
Sedrick did not stop with the kiss. His tongue gouged into her mouth in a way that was almost unpleasant and would have been if he had not been him. And soon her shirt was off and her shorts unbuttoned and his fingers pulled and tugged at her underwear until she was but bare skin against dewy grass.
It was not unpleasant to have Sedrick on top of her but not exactly what she'd envisioned in her dark moments alone in Bertrand and Joanie's bed. What she thought of was not love or desire, but of Professor Schubert and his spongy need, squishing against her, like a cat rubbing against her arm, wanting touch, wanting to be fed. The last thing that she remembered was the white of his pants as he unzipped them and then the pale of the stars above her as he pushed against her.
He left quickly. Said he was meeting friends. Polly paced the house, lights off and stalking the shadows. She had just had sex for the first time. She thought she might be in love. She had not seen Timmy in two days.
Polly entered the office as unobtrusively as possible, Liz, on the phone, caught her eye and held up a finger. Polly stopped, stood motionless.
She thought of freeze tag, in the fading light of a summer's evening when the kids were shooed outdoors to get out of everyone's hair they would run like mad until the person who was It said "stop." When the command came they were meant to freeze in the position they'd been moving in and remain there until they were allowed to go again. If you moved, you were out.
Liz's finger was still in the air. Polly remained frozen, head pounding and backpack digging into her shoulder, she would not move.
"Uh huh. Uh huh," Liz said approximately one million times until she spoke for real, "Well, Bertrand." Oh God. Do not let it really be Bertrand. "She's right here if you'd like to speak to her in person. Uh huh. Uh huh. Okay then. Buh-bye." Liz shrugged and Polly sighed, backpack sliding to the ground, giving herself one second of comfort until she realized she had been duped and should not have broken her pose so soon. Liz handed her the phone.
Polly was now it.
"Hello," she said into the hard, cold receiver.
"Timmy's fine." She had started to flush Timmy's daily dosage of pills down the toilet so no one would suspect that he was missing as long as he had been. It had also been days since she'd seen Sedrick. It had only been ten minutes, however, since her visit to the campus clinic had confirmed that she had chlamydia.
"That's not why I'm calling," Bertrand said. "Don't get me wrong, The story is nice." Nice? "It's just that I was expecting your thesis introduction. And you sent me this other . . . thing."
"I sent the wrong package," Polly said.
"Okay," Bertrand said. Polly made out the tinkle of ice in a glass in Portugal. Gin and tonic, she guessed.
"If I had sent the right package it wouldn't have had the first paragraph at all."
More ice tinkles and swallowing sounds. "I'm confused."
"I know you are." Polly had meant this as a dig to Bertrand. She had wanted Bertrand to understand that she, Polly, had read the tedious bildungsroman and knew all about his proclivity for writing fiction. She wanted Bertrand to get that.
"Let me get this straight . . . "
"I haven't written my introduction."
"Okaaay. Fiiiiiine. But the thing is about your thesis . . . "
"I don't give a shit about the Neoclassical Era."
"Okaaayyy . . . "
"What I want to do is write stuff. Books and stories and stuff . . . " Liz swiveled around to face her, scowling, shaking her head, her raised index finger. "I do. I want to write."
"Weeeelll, you know that this is not an MFA you signed on for . . . "
"I'm aware of that. But I thought . . . " She thought that Bertrand might understand this drive having felt it himself. She thought that maybe Bertrand would foster her own burning desire to create.
"What do you want to write fiction for anyway? Why would anyone in her right mind want to?"
"Timmy is dead," Polly said into the phone and hung up. Then she turned to Liz and said, "I'm sorry," and ran out of the office and out of the building. Across the street, the house was painted. The scaffolding gone and Sedrick along with it.
Polly filled the cat dishes to the brim and dumped extra food and water into large mixing bowls. For good measure she left the bathroom tap (the one that Timmy liked to drink from) dripping so the cats could get to it if the water ran out. Her heart did break at the thought of poor, dear Timmy. The daily ritual of stuffing the pill down his throat had bonded the two and now she was heartsick that he might truly be gone.
She left the key on the counter, a night-light on. As the door clicked shut behind her, Sedrick pulled into the driveway, blocking her car in its spot. He got out of his car like a gangster, rapid fire, shoulders back, swagger. "What did you do with the cat?" he yelled as he approached her car, holding his finger up and sideways like a gun.
Polly sighed. "I did nothing to him." She moved to her car and opened the door.
"Joanie called me up in hysterics. You've broken her heart. They've booked an earlier flight home."
"Could you move your car? Please?" She wanted to tell him about the disease he'd given her. About what he'd done to her but she couldn't. Something in her said to be still, be quiet. To let things play and see what would happen when Joanie passed the chlamydia on to Bertrand.
"Oh," Sedrick said, now fully in control of his bad self. "Let me move that." He jogged to his car and backed it out of the way. When Polly reversed she was parallel to his window for just a minute. "Take care of yourself, okay?" he said.
She was moved again by the gentleness of this boy. Perhaps that was what had attracted her all along, that he seemed to have compassion. Perhaps she didn't need to consume beauty, rather to witness it was enough.
"I will," she said and as she pulled out onto the street, she saw Timmy, that old survivor, in her rearview mirror as he made his way out of the woods and into the waiting arms of Sedrick. "Thank you, Timmy," she said. "You live."