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The pool belonged to a neighbour, an older woman who lived sometimes with her ex-husband. The story was that they had once been married, he had left, and years later, long after the divorce, he had asked to come back. And she had let him. He was a sour sort and people often wondered if she had been right to let him back in.
The house was tucked in under the trees, a lovely Italianate villa from the 1920s set among redwoods. It had been the guest house for the mansion next door where she had been born. He admired her for the gracious way she lived in that house of hers, forever volunteering at the hospital, dressing for evenings at the opera, driving her Jaguar XJ6 in stately fashion down the curving streets. But probably he admired her more for letting that surly old husband of hers back for the last years of his life, swiping away with that slender, braceleted hand whatever had come between them once.
Since she no longer used the pool, she allowed those neighbours she liked to swim there. The first times they called before going over, but she dismissed such formalities with the jangling bracelets and prevailed on them to come without calling.
In summer, the children went often. By mid-afternoon, the sun ducked behind the majestic trees, cutting short the frolicking and sending everyone shivering into their clothes. Parts of the water, because of those trees, never felt the sun. Sunlight and shadow drew broad swaths on the water’s surface. It was, as Cameron said, like swimming through night and day.
One day, Mrs. Chartreuse asked him to look after her cat when she went away to an opera festival for two weeks. He accepted gladly and made the nightly duty of feeding the cat into an excuse to try out the graciousness of her life on his own slim shoulders. He would walk over after dinner. He carried his book bag, but did precious little studying. Instead, he would put on a tape of arias from Carmen and sit on the couch and look out the windows into the garden.
He loved being there alone, imagining that it was his house and that his life consisted of sitting on the couch by the fireplace and looking out to the garden instead of going off to the inane routine of high school. When he described those evenings in loving detail to one of the neighbours, she suggested that he might be abusing the situation. He said no more to anyone after that. He knew Mrs. Chartreuse would understand even it the others wouldn’t. Mrs. Chartreuse became his secret ally against all those who cast aspersions and didn’t listen to opera.
Lost in his reverie, he paid little attention to the cat, though he never failed to set out fresh food and milk. Vaguely, he noticed that the cat didn’t have much appetite and often left the food untouched. The day Mrs. Chartreuse returned, he received an anxious call asking what he had done to the cat. Nothing, he replied. “He’s sick,” she said, “I’m taking him to the vet.” Later, he learned from the neighbour who had wondered whether it was right that he make such use of the house that the cat had suffered from an impacted bowel. While it was not exactly his fault, he hadn’t bothered to look at the cat enough to notice that it was puffing up like a balloon. Mrs. Chartreuse never again asked him to look after the house or the cat and the ally he had gained against the philistines was forever lost.
And all because of a damn, bloated cat.
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