“The Last Story I Cared About”

My first story, I was six, was about my cat, the cat I had until it contracted feline leukemia. Its breath at the end smelled of rancid fish, which made me wonder: could the cat smell, and if so, how confusing must that be (the wet cat food having its own rancid-fish smell)—and if not, how tragic. It’s like never again savoring the scent of a woman’s hair.

The cat in the six-year-old-me’s story doesn’t get sick. She has a best friend: a gray mouse with pink eyes and half a tail. They work together to defeat a tyrannical German shepherd, the official dog of Nazism.

Flash forward thirty years. My last story, written six months ago, was about two adulterous anthropology professors. It was sad and bleak and culminated in the woman discovering her eight-year-old son, who asked to play a game on her phone, watching a video she and the affair-ee had made.

My agent said the story was good but it lacked thrill: make the boy fourteen and when she finds him, his pants are around his ankles.

The revised story won an award. My agent said it could lead to a book. So I’ll write a book about it: what happens after. It will be about taboos and lives falling apart. There will probably be a suicide attempt. I’m thinking of making the lover Pakistani, introducing a cultural/racial/religious subtext.

I haven’t written anything since. I did, however, find buttercups at the base of a hill along a riverside road. It was spring, and there was grass and these little yellow waxy flowers. I don’t know what made me pull over, but I did. I felt guilty the moment the stem snapped and the buttercup started dying.

Maybe that’s what the story needs, if it becomes a novel: a buttercup. Somewhere in the story, after the suicide attempt, this buttercup, a sign of innocence and simple beauty.

My agent said that buttercups are poisonous: they give horses bloody diarrhea and blisters in the mouth. I asked how he knew that. These are just things an agent knows, he said.

In the cat story, the German shepherd traps the cat and the mouse. So the Nazi dog has to decide which one to attack because it can’t get both. It lunges toward the mouse, who is closer (or perhaps appeared more Semitic), but the cat jumps in the way so the mouse can escape. The dog is so confused by the sacrifice that it doesn’t attack the cat. The mouse, cat, and dog become friends.

In my original ending to the affair story, the mother explains away the video to her eight-year-old. Says it’s a horror movie of some sort. She wanted to be an actor: And don’t tell dad about it because you know how he feels about acting and horror movies. She takes her phone into the bathroom and texts her lover to end the affair. Then she masturbates to the video before trashing it and shutting down the email account. She believes her son won’t understand what he saw. She believes she can be happy with her husband.

My cat, the one with leukemia, had an abscess on the side of her mouth and another on her neck. She couldn’t lift her head. She looked drunk, on the verge of passing out. That’s when my parents had her put down. They said she was buried in the garden, beneath the kitchen bay window. Sometimes I drive past the old house and pull over. I debate trespassing with a shovel, digging up Pepper, and bringing her bones home with me. But I’m starting to wonder if my parents even brought her body back, much less buried her. Adults make up stories about things like that.

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About Joseph Johnson

Joseph JP Johnson teaches literature and composition at Central Washington University. He is currently an MFA student in the Rainier Writing Workshop at Pacific Lutheran University. He has won the Editor’s Choice Award for Carve Magazine and published poetry and stories in Flash, The Fictioneer, Rust+Moth, Aethlon, and The Penwood Review, among others.