I was on my knees in the laundry room, my eyes watering, scooping Shamu’s leavings from the litter box with my pink plastic shovel, when I saw it: a ballpoint pen rising, at a jaunty angle, from the sand, like the shaft of a beach umbrella, or the flag on Iwo Jima. Stuck in the pen’s top was a plastic flower: yellow petals, a daisy perhaps, or a black-eyed Susan, stem wedged in the tube of ink. I pulled the pen from the litter, gently, as one might withdraw a splinter from the finger of a child, and saw that the cap had been misplaced, or was perhaps dislodged, lost beneath the loamy surface. Litter cloyed the pen’s nib. Clear hexagonal body, blue ink, a cheap BiC, wrapped with a lime-green band-aid where your fingers might rest, ends crossed like a scarf around a woman’s neck.
When wet, the litter clumps for ease of scooping; the untainted sand is left unwasted, a nod to the ozone layer—or so I tell myself on a bad day, a day like today when my knees ache and the ammonia from the cat box burns my eyes and I don’t know where you are.
Look at this, I said, as if you stood behind me, as if you might appear in the doorway, your eyes behind a pair of goggles, nailgun in your hand. I held the pen aloft. Look: Shamu’s learning to write. I supposed, I guessed, that might explain it, this not being my pen, nor yours. I imagined the cat in the back of his box, hunkered by candlelight, ignoring the smell of his own waste, preparing a manifesto, listing his theses on a scrap of newspaper. Or perhaps he had drafted an indictment, charting our crimes against him. First would be his name, I’d think; Shamu is a cold name for a cat, even one so dappled and swollen. The next crime would be the overfeeding—how he’d been fattened like a goose at my hand—or, if not that, the time I went bowling and left him here, unfed. Or, perhaps, the cat has forgiven us, and is writing you a letter, pleading for one last chance, making promises he’ll never keep: no more hairballs, no more shedding, no more clawing the rattan.
I’ve given up that game, but he, perhaps, paws at hope, stubborn, like someone who has always gotten what he wants, stubborn as only a fat and literate cat can be. I turn the pen between the tips of my middle fingers. My heart beats slowly as a mussel shell, gasping open in a bath of steam.