Her Beloved Cats
Manhattan, Sunday morning. The muffled honks of taxis floated over Central Park like rejected jazz chords. Far above the nervous traffic, the six richest felines in the world basked in the sun on their penthouse terrace. Their skeletal mistress, an ancient billionairess in billowing pajamas, peered through a telescope at the Hotel Pierre. She was focused on the front doors of the restaurant, Le Caprice. Driven into exile by her ailing heart, the widow Capstone was out of the loop. The telescope was a last resort, but more reliable than her downstairs hairdresser and the fair-weather friends who seldom called. Nine angioplasties and one defibrillator later, Our Lady of the Penthouse was easily drained but still an eager monitor of musical chairs. Even though she couldn’t eaves-drop, at least her eye in the sky would know who arrived with whom, and that was enough. Conversation at Le Caprice was tedious with martinis, and agonizing without.
If it weren’t for her felines, Mrs. Capstone would be in dire straits. In three short years she had gone from society doyenne to forgotten recluse. Yes, she knew she was torturing herself by spying on her successors, but she couldn’t resist. Right now, the two-faced Babe Buchanan was leaving a limousine with her great-granddaughters in tow, so pretty in pink. Mrs. Capstone winced and pushed the telescope away. As she sat down, a gust of wind caught her broad rimmed hat and hurled it over the balcony. The Dior twirled like a Frisbee before it tumbled toward the street below. Unnerved, the billionairess slipped behind her dark glasses and broke into tears. Her sobs roused the nearest cats from their naps. One by one, they crept up and brushed against her toothpick legs. “I can’t help it,” she said, stroking them in return. “I hate being invisible.” She lifted the dark glasses and dabbed her eyes with a handkerchief. A rotund orange tabby jumped on her lap and rubbed its nose against her boney chin. “Oh Charlus,” she cooed, hugging him. “You’re such a scamp.”
The billionairess had named most of her cats after the characters of Marcel Proust. A literary snob, she believed that the only writers worth reading were French and dead. Unlike the dilettantes who raced through Radcliffe on their way to the altar, the future Mrs. Capstone had graduated Summa Cum Laude, with a M.A. in French literature. She wasn’t surprised when the young tycoon had slipped a ring on her finger. How many brides can read Flaubert in the original French?
Charlus jumped down and an even plumper female took his place. Her urgent vibrations were twice as loud. “My dear Françoise,” Mrs. Capstone said. “Are you going to slaughter me a chicken? No? Oh I see. You want me to feed you the chicken.”
Feeling hungry herself, the old woman went into the kitchen to see what Agnes the cook had left in the fridge. Except for the cats, she was alone this Mother’s Day. She had given her servants time off until Wednesday so that they could visit their children in Belize. She wasn’t worried about being alone. If she needed anything, she could always ring the doorman downstairs. The felines weren’t a problem either. Their litter boxes were self-cleaning and they drank from the terrace fountain. When it was time for them to eat, she only had to open six cans.
Mrs. Capstone helped herself to fruit salad and a croissant with blackberry jam. She slurped ice cold orange juice while all six cats circled her chair, bumping and pushing like herded cattle. Odette and Vinteuil leaped into the recessed window to watch the birds above Central Park. They growled instinctively as the unreachable prey swooped into the center of their crosshairs.
The cordless phone rang and Mrs. Capstone’s chest shuddered like a punching bag. She snatched the receiver, hoping it was the hello she was waiting for. “Lilly darling,” she said, disappointed, “how nice to hear from you.” She glanced at the lazy beast named after her oldest living friend. The sleek Russian Blue was lying on her back, legs akimbo.
The human Lilly was currently on her sixth honeymoon, somewhere in Capri. When Mrs. Capstone confessed that she was spending the holiday alone, a venomous hiss scorched the long distance line. “That son of a bitch,” Lilly said. “Is he still punishing you?”
“He’s suing,” Mrs. Capstone said. “Moi, the bitch, raised his inheritance to a hundred million but it’s not enough. My children are like interstellar black holes, Lilly. I gave them everything they could possible want, yet they keep on sucking.”
“I didn’t mean you’re a bitch, love. But Edward is a bastard for treating you like this. They both are. I bet Jane’s still smoking crack in Maui. Why don’t you cut her off?”
Now Adolphe jumped into the lap of his mistress and settled in. The old woman rubbed his jowls and said, “What good would that do? She takes after her lush of a father.”
No excuses,” Lilly snapped. “Cut them both off if they won’t be decent. They could at least call you on Mother’s Day.”
“Not while we’re in litigation. Their lawyers are worried they’ll incriminate themselves.”
“Rubbish!” Lilly said. “Stop being a martyr and rewrite the trust. Leave each of them a penny and the rest to your pets.”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” Mrs. Capstone said. “I’m leaving the cats to you. The public library gets the bulk of my estate.” She opened a hardbound book on the table and twirled the pages. A voracious reader since childhood, she had spent entire days in her father’s oak paneled library, curled up like a kitten in his leather chair.
Lilly groaned, “But the public library’s so medieval! Why not bankroll a charity for strays? God knows I married a few.” When Mrs. Capstone demurred, she said, “Now don’t be pathetic, love. I’m sending the plane to JFK and I want you here pronto. And don’t worry about your heart. Not only is my steward divine, he’s also a registered nurse.”
“Are you out of your mind? You’re on your honeymoon.”
“Ugh!” Lilly said. “We’re already completely bored with each other. Fredrick’s climbing the walls.”
Mrs. Capstone summoned the dregs of her graciousness, and politely declined. After exchanging air kisses, she hung up and finished her orange juice. It was now lukewarm and left a chalky taste in her mouth. She was glad she had avoided Lilly’s latest pretender, Fredrick Von Hindenburg VI. Like most bookworms, she preferred fiction on the printed page. As Adolphe’s black slivers gazed up at her, she announced, “It’s brush time, my dears. Then it’s back to the terrace to read.” She caressed her book with tenderness. “Marcel, you little scamp. What would I do without you?”
Later, after all her felines were groomed to the nines, Mrs. Capstone settled into her chaise lounge. Snaillike, she reverently turned each page until the sun began to set and the air grew chill. By this time the felines had crowded around her haggard body, searching for warmth. Charlus was perched atop the back cushion so that half his girth weighed on her head. His spirited purring ticked her scalp.
The billionairess grinned like a Cheshire cat and reread the line, “Let us be grateful to the people who make us happy; they are the charming gardeners who make our souls blossom.” Then she put the book down and massaged Françoise’s haunches. She could hear the phone ringing inside.
On Wednesday morning when Agnes showed up for work, all six cats were meowing in the kitchen, begging for food. Their urgent pleas seemed unusually shrill. Perplexed, the cook went looking for their mistress. “Hello?” she called out sheepishly. “Mrs. Capstone, you there?” She found her lying face down on the terrace. A book had been left open on the chaise lounge nearby. The pages turned in the breeze, as if propelled by an unseen hand.
Poor Agnes was hysterical when she phoned the doorman. “God help us!” she screeched. “They ate her legs! They ate her arms!”