October 11, 1985: Waiting for the veterinarian to call back about his cat, Pal, Roscoe Swift sat at his old wooden desk. His breath was shallow. He stared at a blank sheet of paper as he struggled to listen to a radio report about one of his heroes, cinema luminary and champion prankster Orson Welles, who had just died.
As the tension gripped Swift's neck and radiated into his arms, he sought refuge from his mounting sense of dread in the realm of memories and imagination. Closing his eyes he saw the foreboding scene that sets the mystery in motion in Welles' masterpiece, "Citizen Kane." There was the mansion, Xanadu, and inside it publishing mogul Charles Foster Kane was dying alone in the shadows.
With his pen Roscoe sketched Kane's slumped body, but with the head of a cat. The artist drew a dialog balloon next to the cat's face. In it he put Kane's ambiguous last word: "Rosebud." He had fashioned the cat's look after Zig-Zag, the little stray Roscoe and his ex-wife, Julie, had taken in a few weeks after their marriage in the summer of 1970. A neighbor on his way to class tossed the kitten in Roscoe's Studebaker to save her from a pack of dogs. Later, Roscoe found her hiding under his seat.
Four years after Zig Zag's unexpected arrival, she disappeared. Eventually, Roscoe found her under a bush in a back yard down the street. Her latest paramour, a black tomcat, scampered off as Roscoe approached. Lying on her side, Zig-Zag was stiff and her eyes were glazed over. Maggots were having at her guts. Patting her head and whispering her name, he carried the body home on a unfinished plank he found.
Through the kitchen window Julie saw him coming. She rushed out onto the back porch and began to sob. Without a word Roscoe placed the board on the porch. Then, as Julie crouched and touched poor Zig-Zag, quite unexpectedly, the cat moved. She was alive!
Roscoe ran inside to call a veterinarian. But seconds later, with Julie holding her, Zig-Zag cried out, arched her back, and gave up the ghost for good. Julie seemed comforted by the notion that Zig-Zag hadn't died alone in another yard. Roscoe mentioned her tomcat friend had been nearby when he found her.
The next day Nixon resigned. Three summers later Roscoe and Julie split up. The sound of the radio broke through his time-trance, abruptly, so he switched it off. Then he noticed loud footsteps, overhead, in the apartment above him. His new neighbor, a woman in her mid-30’s, had a heavy-footed walk.
Pal had made her first appearance at Roscoe's English basement apartment shortly after his longtime job as manager of the Fan City Cinema evaporated on the last day of 1982. Virginia Commonwealth University bought the old converted church building and dismantled it to build on the lot. He and his sometimes-live-in girlfriend, Tess Dailey, were having breakfast on an unseasonably warm winter morning, when a peculiar noise got their attention. They discovered a determined gray cat squeezing its way through the chicken wire stretched across the outside of the window.
Roscoe didn't want to encourage the animal to stay around, but playful and charming Tess insisted on feeding it something, which turned out to be his leftover pizza. The next day, ignoring Roscoe's wishes not to name the cat Tess started calling it "Rosebud."
Well, it turned out Rosebud was smart and would eat anything Roscoe would eat. Then, only a month later, Tess, the kid-sister of his old friend, Finn, announced she had given her notice on her art gallery job. Beyond that, she had decided to move to New York to pursue her career as a dancer/choreographer.
"I gotta go before I'm too old and scared to do it," Tess explained.
They hadn't had any sort of squabble, but Roscoe, 35, knew the drill well. She'd seen all his moves and heard all his jokes. Smart, pretty girls her age, 23, know when to say, "when."
Later, in the airport parking lot she leaned her back against his Volkswagen bus, as they kissed goodbye. Roscoe held her chin and couldn't resist using his Bogart imitation: "We'll always have Paris, Schweetheart."
Tess laughed, cried and made him promise to reconsider keeping Rosebud. And, that he did, except he renamed the cat "Pal."
Ultimately, Pal proved to be a good companion. Their morning ritual at the kitchen table, as Roscoe slowly drank his coffee, was rarely changed for any reason until she got sick. Pal always insisted on curling up on the parts of the Richmond Times-Dispatch he had finished reading. She would get up each time he needed to put another section on the used pile. Then she would park herself on the newspaper stack again, to doze. Pal was waiting for him to push his cereal bowl toward her, so she could drink the milk at the bottom.
Taking a break from the numbing fog of nostalgia Swift opened the door, to step outside and check his mailbox. It was noticeably colder than it had been earlier in the day. He found only junk mail and his telephone bill. "It'll keep," he muttered, shutting the box.
He decided to take a walk around the block. Swift breathed deeply, the crisp autumn air smelled good. A pair of pleasant, fragile-looking old ladies offered him a religious tract. He politely said, "No, thank you." Red, orange and yellow leaves were blowing about the street as he considered, once again, the role of irony in the grand scheme of things. Fresh thoughts began to fall into place, his stride quickened.
Back inside, the artist and occasional no-budget filmmaker -- who for his income depended mostly on a part-time position as special events coordinator for a charity -- pulled out a few blank sheets of paper. After a flurry of writing he put the pen down and went to the refrigerator. Breaking his new weekday rule -- no beer before 5 p.m. -- he cracked open a green can of Heineken.
Staring into a poster of a Degas ballerina painting, which was over his desk, another bubble of realization popped: Yes, it had been far too long since he had gotten laid. Roscoe sighed/chuckled, as he reached for the paper to read over what he had just written:
It would be easy to continue to see all of life itself as God. For me that's been a comfortable notion for many years. I have thought of it as a soft-edge brand of existentialism that avoids dwelling on doubt and debate. However, at this particular sad moment I find it more interesting, perhaps more useful, to see God in a different light. What about The Creator as the totally unpredictable random factor that causes change?
Thus, I submit – the ironic God. This God is itself another dimension – fifth, sixth, take your pick. Since it has no form or action we are capable of corralling to measure, it remains beyond the grasp of our reason. Perhaps we sense it most when we take risks, when we are in uncharted waters.
In many ways the biggest risk we take is falling in love. The playful, musical laughter of young lovers -- off, in their own dimension -- may be as close to being at one with this mysterious force as human beings are likely to get.
Putting the page down, the author rubbed his eyes. The text before him seemed to have been written by another hand. It excited him. After another swig of beer he grabbed the pen. Again, the words poured out, effortlessly:
The spark that set life in motion on this planet stemmed from the magic of the aforementioned force -- a force that creates anomalies as it wafts its way, hither and yon, and into the cosmic gears of order.
Who knows? Who knows if it cares about what it does? Who knows what else it can do, if anything? Preachers say they know, then they ask for money. I say nobody even knows what entity created order, in the first place, so it could then be tweaked by this ironic force of change? We just know that nothing stays the same, and payback is a bitch.
What the hell does that mean?
Maybe everything, or nothing. Maybe Rosebud. If there is inevitably a yes, no, and maybe aspect to all earthly propositions, then perhaps God is a kaleidescope of ever-changing maybes.
Change -- a big bang? -- caused mass to emerge from what had been only energy. Then came more change. We move from single cells, to dinosaurs, to mammals, to whatever is next in line; no doubt, something that will thrive on the poisons my species has unleashed on nature.
No matter how comforted people are by their worshiping of order and predictability, the existence of the species is owed to mutations through the ages. Without the random changes which fall like leaves one time, and a ton of bricks the next, the short life we struggle to live wouldn't even exist.
The phone rang. Walking like a zombie, Roscoe picked up the receiver: "Hello."
He listened to the vet's report: Pal's infection was so massive it was a medical wonder she was still alive. She had not responded to the antibiotic, nor had she regained any interest in eating. Fluids had been pumped into her. She was only getting weaker.
"I'm sorry to have to tell you this," said the careful male voice, "but the quality of, ah, your Pal's life, in whatever time she has left, is only going to continue to deteriorate. Do you want to take her home for the night and see what happens? Or, you might consider putting her down today. It's your decision. Mr. Swift."
"There's no good in prolonging her suffering, " said Roscoe, "if the situation is hopeless. She must be so confused, and..."
"I understand," the vet said. "If you want, we can take care of it in about an hour, including disposal of the remains. But you can still come to see her to say good-bye, or whatever..."
"How do you," Swift cringed, "I mean, will it be lethal injection?"
"Yes," Roscoe heard from the receiver, as his heart sank.
"OK, I’ll be there in a half-hour," said Roscoe. "And, yes I'd like to spend a few minutes with Pal before you put her to sleep. And, well, I’m not so sure about the rest, because I can't... After she's kaput, I'll take her body with me."
"That's fine, I understand," said the man. "And, I'm sorry we couldn't make her well."
"Thanks," said Swift. He hung up. Tears spilled onto his cheeks as he sat at his desk again. He began connecting to other sad times, disappointments, losses, deaths, melancholia. The phone rang, again.
On cruise-control, Roscoe listened to an artificially perky woman he didn't know.
"This may be YOUR lucky day! If you qualify and register now, you will be eligible to win an all-expenses-paid vacation in HAWAII. That's SEVEN sunny days and romantic nights for two in paradise. How does THAT sound to you Mr. Roscoe?"
"What on earth are you talking about?" protested Roscoe. "Ah, listen, my last name is Swift, not Roscoe."
The anonymous voice began again, "That's SEVEN sunny days and romantic nights for..."
"You shouldn’t have called," Roscoe advised. "This is a ... Look, I'm trying to work. Whatever list I'm on, please just take my name off of it."
"This may be YOUR lucky day! If you qualify and register now, you will be eligible..."
Roscoe shouted, "Believe me, I don't qualify! You've got the wrong guy. Look! I never buy anything, and I don't even give a happy Shinola about Hawaii, much less whatever you're selling!"
Swift hung up and walked back to his desk to cut the radio back on. Mercifully, "Rhapsody in Blue," was playing. Pen in hand, he went to work, again:
Shrill voices and strident blather. Relentless telemarketing and talk-show crackpots. Constant accusations. Constant denials. Aggressive promos and seeping disinformation. When you add them all up, the combination becomes a cacophony that stands like a wall of noise, separating us from whatever quiet truths we might discover, but for it.
The wall of noise is more than a mean-spirited abuse of our sense of hearing. It's a greed-driven abuse of the most cherished of rights – Free Speech. In such a maddening condition one of mankind's basic universal pursuits – peace of mind – is all but out of reach.
During the fifteen minutes Roscoe spent alone with Pal, in the quiet pale green room in which she would soon die, he found the courage to push through his lifelong needle-phobia. He simply couldn't abide the idea of Pal having to go out without her only true friend at her side. So, he opted to stay on for the execution.
Roscoe gently stroked Pal's head as the vet, Dan Yost, prepared to shoot poison into the animal's veins. His assistant, Sally, held Pal in position by her striped legs. Swift avoided looking at the syringe, hoping to suppress the queasy, lightheaded sweats the sight of an injection -- anyone's injection -- always brought on. To block out his powerful desire to turn away from the nauseating specter, he focused totally on Pal's face, on her eyes that looked so weary.
"Easy there girl," Roscoe said, scratching behind her ears as she flinched from the prick of the needle. "Easy Pal," he said in a low tone that would ordinarily make her purr up a storm. Pal had never liked anybody fooling around with her feet. She struggled weakly to free herself from Sally's grip.
Panic made Roscoe's heart race as he saw Pal's dignity being compromised. Then she slowly turned her head to the side and sank her teeth into his right thumb. Roscoe didn't react. Seconds later, she was motionless.
When Roscoe's thumb began bleeding Dan was shocked: "I've never seen that happen. Hey, I'm so sorry, man. I didn't think there was any way."
"It's OK," said Roscoe. "She never liked being held down. She protested, even if she was ready to go, and she left me something to remember her by. I'm glad."
Dan was greatly relieved and said so. He cleaned and dressed Roscoe's wound and continued to apologize. Roscoe watched Sally's gentle hands as she carefully wrapped the lifeless cat in a white towel. Dan cautioned him to watch for infection and to go to the doctor if there was swelling.
Remembering he needed to call a friend about borrowing a shovel, Roscoe asked, "May I please use your telephone for a short call?"
"Sure, not a problem," said Dan. "And, watch that thumb."
At sunset, Roscoe and two of his oldest friends, Rusty Donovan and Zach Collins, buried Pal under a large oak tree in Byrd Park. Each of the three took turns digging the grave. The oak was located at a dogleg in the middle of the ninth fairway of their unmarked Frisbee-golf course, where their small group had been playing for ten years.
Roscoe showed off his bandage as he told them about what happened when Pal died. He thought of red-headed Sally, as he opened the towel and put the lifeless cat into the fresh hole in the ground. After they covered the grave the men toasted Pal with a ceremonial beer. Rusty, who was still always holding, broke out a joint. Stories about favorite pets were exchanged.
The three agreed to meet there the following afternoon for a round of golf. Starting with that next round's play, they began treating Pal's grave site as hallowed ground. It became routine for the players to meow and hiss, out loud, whenever a drive inadvertently smacked into the "Dead Cat Tree."
On a bright morning almost three weeks after Pal's burial, Roscoe saw Sally sitting alone in a new coffee shop that he'd been meaning to try. She invited him to sit at her table and asked about his injured thumb. He said it was healing fine and showed it to her.
Lingering over coffee, they shared his Washington Post. She pointed out a funny article about a wild celebration of the 47th anniversary of Orson Welles' "War of the Worlds" radio prank.
He told her Welles and Luis Bunuel were two of his biggest heroes. Then he recounted a punchy version of the story of Pal's name-change.
Sally tilted her head and raised a fetching eyebrow, "Do you hope the bite mark will leave a scar?"