The couple, Mr. and Mrs. Baumgarten, prided themselves on being thought kindly. Though both had led rather wild lives in their youth, theirs had been a friendly wildness. Mr. Baumgarten, who had for a long time ridden a large black motorcycle around the Western states with a posse of like-minded friends, could honestly say he had never perpetrated undeserved violence on any person he had encountered, drunk or sober; while Mrs. Baumgarten’s extravagances tended more to the passively aesthetic, especially during her extended punk phase, when she wore spiked pink hair and facial piercings and expressed a carefully-structured affinity for nihilistic music. These were, it is true, accompanied by dabblings in drug use, under, however, subtly controlled conditions, with her then-boyfriend, a rigidly sober revolutionist, watching devotedly over her in spite of his disapproval. But time had carried them forward despite themselves; Mrs. Baumgarten’s revolutionist had become stodgy and fat and had been abandoned to his egalitarian dreams, while Mr. Baumgarten’s motorcycle had been sold and replaced with a cheap car and an expensive bicycle, which, Mr. Baumgarten often noted, when added together and averaged out, amounted to much the same thing.
Mrs. Baumgarten’s tattoos were fortunately in places that would not be visible when wearing ordinary clothing that lacked the artful rips and tears of the wardrobe she required in her early twenties, and Mr. Baumgarten had in fact never accepted to be inked. Although he still favored the hirsute presentation of his younger days, the beard was shorter and turning gray, and the long hair limp now, without the wind of the road to frizz it, while Mrs. Baumgarten, still slim, no longer favored the stiff pastes that she adduced to her coif back in the day, and she now kept her breasts and inner thighs mostly covered. Mr. Baumgarten, who had met her when she was still a punk, noted frequently that he did not consider this latter change in sartorial practice an improvement, but as their love life was still thoroughly aerobic, he felt he could tolerate it. He himself was still rangy and, to the more timid neighbors, daunting, but his dogged persistence in doing quiet favors had won them over. They were the kindly couple of the block. In any case, said block counted two artists among its denizens (one of them a potter who favored clay-spattered tie-dye muumuus), as well as a cat lady, and also hosted an old man who had run unsuccessfully for mayor seven times, basing his campaign solely on the concept of making the bus system free of charge; and so their little bit of street was considered more or less officially a community of eccentrics.
Equally eccentric was the Baumgartens’ aging cat, Hilda. Hilda was a gray tabby of modest dimensions who would cuddle up to any human, even children, if they conformed to her exacting standards of behavior. One false move, however, earned the perpetrator a growl; a second one, a powerful bat of the paw with, however, the claws retracted. No one had ever tested what a third transgression would result in. Hilda was, however, fastidiously delicate with babies, never doing more than delivering a soft but startling wallop when pushed too far, to the point that young parents would bring their infants to visit Hilda and learn the proper manners to engage in with small predators, without danger of bloodshed. Hilda would often be found amid a group of romping children in the Baumgarten’s yard, tolerating the bump of an occasional errant bouncy ball and the inevitable shrieks that accompanied play when the majority of the newer generation was in the realm of six years old.
Hilda’s attitude towards other animals was also celebrated, for quite different reasons, as she had beat up two dogs, one of them a German shepherd, with a fighting style that resembled nothing so much as the onslaught of an intelligent tornado; this resulted in the canines fleeing to their own yards, where she would not follow them. Borders mattered to Hilda, and she respected them. She was no less exacting with her own: Mr. Baumgarten often told the story of the day he petted the neighbor’s cat, Hilda’s bitter territorial rival, and turned to see Hilda watching him with eyes wide and fanged jaws hanging open, and how, for the next two days, she would turn her back to him every time he entered a space where she reigned. The Baumgartens, who did not excessively seek tranquility in their lives at that time, felt that Hilda’s glories reflected well on themselves, and doted on the little beast, who, in the manner of her kind, blandly accepted their homage.
In fact they extended their sensation of paternalistic kinship to all beasts, refusing to use poisons in the yard, and accepting the depredations that insects and small birds inflicted among their carefully-nurtured tomatoes and kale. Mrs. Baumgarten had recently initiated the practice of vegetarianism, which, as she was the ruling spirit of the kitchen, mean that Mr. Baumgarten abstained from meat as well, at least when eating at home. This did not rankle him, as he accepted the principle’s validity and made an effort to restrain his appetites even when dining out in the world on his own; consequently, he felt the glow of benevolence towards all life warm his bones, eventually finding himself detouring around spiders and beetles on the garden path, and directing friendly smiles towards the local crow flock, which, however, remained suspicious of his motivations and rejected his attentions with irritable caws. He also found a soft spot in his heart for reptiles, as the yard hosted a community of lizards, primarily the sleek but undeniably stupid alligator lizards, two of which he had had to corner in the kitchen, capture as gently as is possible with such swift, writhing creatures, and carry outside while they nipped ineffectually at his fingers.
It was thanks to the profounder than usual stupidity of one of these handsome fellows that the Baumgartens finally admitted themselves to be shocked by a universe they had theretofore viewed as loving in overall structure, though undeniably deficient in kindness when examined in detail. This particular alligator lizard, one of modest dimension, no longer, even counting its tail, than Mr. Baumgarten’s forearm, and so perhaps the equivalent of a teenager in terms of its species, had found its way deep into the house, where Mrs. Baumgarten discovered it lurking in the recess under a chest of drawers, in the bedroom. Mrs. Baumgarten’s benevolence, while encompassing all life forms, did not require her to tolerate the possible company of decidedly non-cuddly wrigglers in her bed, and so she appealed to Mr. Baumgarten, who had accepted the mantle of lizard-catcher, to corral the beast and return him to a more appropriate environment. Mr. Baumgarten, who celebrated his own ability to catch not only reptiles but the occasional bird, responded with typical alacrity.
So the two found themselves crouched on the bedroom rug, trying to coax the intruding squamate into the open where he could be nabbed and transported. Mr. Baumgarten was briefly distracted by an incipient tattiness in the weave of the rug, and was commenting to Mrs. Baumgarten regarding the possibility of a replacement, or at least a deep cleaning by the specialist they favored, when Hilda chanced into the room. Hilda, exhibiting the curiosity universally attributed to her people, had detoured from her course to determine the reason behind her housemates’ untypical posturing, when the alligator lizard, most likely sensing the distraction of his human observers, made a run for it. Perhaps he had not noticed the presence of an apex predator, albeit a small one; perhaps he was merely exhibiting the bravado of all adolescent vertebrates, but in any case he chose to run past the cat. This, it is to be noted, was a grave tactical error. Hilda, old and experienced, calmly followed his progress until he came within range, reached out with a swift but tranquil paw, and flipped the hurrying reptile into the air. The scaly escapee described a perfect aerial trajectory that landed him head-foremost into Hilda’ s now-gaping mouth, which, with a few artful convulsions, encouraged his further progress into the digestive realms. Mr. and Mrs. Baumgarten, meanwhile, were still attempting to track the lizard’s progress, but by the time their human nervous systems had processed the calculus of their intended rescue, the poor fellow was bathing in stomach acids and not likely to be retrieved before his suddenly advanced expiration date. Hilda, after surveying the property to verify the lack of further snacks, resumed her progress towards the bed, onto which she leapt, curling around herself to revel in a spell of post-prandial lassitude. She went, as almost always, to her favorite napping spot, between the pillows of her human servitors. The window at the head of the bed was open, a soft breeze sifted in, and the occasional chirp of a bird could be discerned by any who was listening. That Hilda was listening, even in sleep, was evidenced by the occasional change in attitude of an ear, to keep track of further gustatory opportunities.
Mr. and Mrs. Baumgarten slowly recovered from the hebetude imposed upon them by the sudden flurry of events.
“Well,” Mrs. Baumgarten said, “that might explain why she doesn’t seem to eat much for a cat her size.”
Mr. Baumgarten nodded dumbly.
“Guess she’s been feeding herself all along.”
“So it seems,” her husband agreed.
“What a little monster.” Mrs. Baumgarten may have felt a sense of disappointment in the cuddly killer on her pillow; her expression could have been read that way.
The kindly couple was still on hands and knees on the floor, staring at the cat curled up on the bed, and thinking of the deceased reptile now curled up in Hilda’s stomach. “Did you hear it?” Mrs. Baumgarten said. “The crunch of bone with that first bite?”
Mr. Baumgarten nodded. He had led a vigorously physical existence and was not squeamish, but an image of leopards springing towards his primordial ancestors rose in his mind. He realized that, despite the years of vigor and circumstantial violence he had endured, and of which he was vain, he might not have lived even as long as he already had in a less-structured environment, where cats weighed more than nine pounds. He expressed this thought to Mrs. Baumgarten. “True,” she said. “But that poor lizard might have had a better chance in the back yard, where he could have run under a shrub where Hilda woudn’t fit.”
“It was his own choice, to come into the house. Unless you think we’re complicit in his death, just by having a house for him to blunder into?”
“And for having a cat. It’s a dilemma, isn’t it?”
“Well,” she said. Mr. Baumgarten recognized her shift into speculative lecture mode. “If they were both human, society might condemn Hilda to death. Is that not so?”
Mr. Baumgarten, still on hands and knees, nodded.
“But then,” Mrs. Baumgarten went on, “is not the executioner equally guilty?”
Mr. Baumgarten nodded again.
“So where does it all stop?” Mrs. Baumgarten said.
Mr. Baumgarten knew the answer to this query, which had been addressed to him before in a similarly rhetorical manner. He emitted the proper answer: “Well, I guess it stops with us,” he said. He was, of course, thinking of dinner.
“Help me up,” she said.
Mr. Baumgarten arose, suppressing a groan, and offered his arm to Mrs. Baumgarten. They stood on the rug, holding hands and staring at the cat. It was quiet in the back room of the house, with the garden in view through the windows. It was so quiet they could hear Hilda’s purring from the head of the bed. A slight breeze still drifted through the window, smelling of peace. They had no idea what to think, and so they didn’t.
About the Author
Richard Risemberg was born to a mixed and mixed-up family in Argentina, and dragged to LA as a child to escape the fascist regime. He’s spent the next few decades exploring the darker corners of the America Dream and writing stories, poems, and essays based on his experiences.
He has published widely in the last few years, and details of his works can be accessed at: http://crowtreebooks.com/richard-risemberg-publications/.