Of Cats and Men: Stories [NOOK Book]

Overview

Haughty Bengals, faithful Maine coons, and feral strays: These are the haunting familiars that animate Nina De Gramont's critically acclaimed debut collection of short fiction. Prowling through every story, these enigmatic creatures expose the hidden fears and passions of the female heart, and illuminate the profound truths of men and love.

A young woman finds two dark ...
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Of Cats and Men: Stories

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Overview

Haughty Bengals, faithful Maine coons, and feral strays: These are the haunting familiars that animate Nina De Gramont's critically acclaimed debut collection of short fiction. Prowling through every story, these enigmatic creatures expose the hidden fears and passions of the female heart, and illuminate the profound truths of men and love.

A young woman finds two dark surprises in her home: a magpie dismembered by her mischievous cat, and an unsettling glimpse of her fiancé’s secret inclinations...

A pregnant housewife quietly suffers a visit from her troubled brother-in-law while her hidden anger comes to life in the suddenly hostile behavior of her docile house cat...

A frustrated newlywed clings to the last vestige of her well-appointed upbringing--a pampered Himalayan high point--until a rangy stray cat shows her the true meaning of marriage...

As clever, finessed, and keen as the feline disposition it celebrates, Of Cats and Men marks the arrival of an exciting new voice in fiction.


From the Trade Paperback edition.
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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
While cats make an appearance in each of the 10 stories in this accomplished debut collection, there's nothing kitschy or cute about de Gramont's feline tales. In each case, a cat subtly teaches the protagonist something essential about human relationships. The cats, which all manifest distinctive personalities, act according to their natures (ailurophiles will be delighted with acutely observed details), and their natural, instinctive behavior contrasts with that of the conflicted, variable human characters. In "The Wedding Bed," an act of charity toward a feral cat mends a rift in the marriage of a couple from different social classes. The WASP half of another socially mismatched couple in "The Politeness of Kings" is too paralyzed by good breeding to confess that a fat Bengal cat aggravates her asthma until she finds that the cat represents a freedom she craves. In one of the collection's standouts, "By His Wild Lone," an edgy former stray adopted and later abandoned by a wife and mother who leaves her family teaches the narrator some surprising truths about emotional independence. De Gramont bases her tales in Colorado and Cape Cod, evoking the atmosphere of each region with deft assurance. While several of the stories, notably "In His Shoes" and "The Closest Place," don't quite ring true, the remainder are beautifully and deftly crafted. In cleverly demonstrating how human beings reveal themselves in their relationships to animals, de Gramont has produced illuminating and moving narratives about fear and loss, connection and love. Agent, Peter Steinberg. (May 8) Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
As the title states, this collection of ten stories revolves around cats and men. Set all over the country, from Colorado to Cape Cod to California, the stories concern the variety of human relationships, deftly illustrating the challenges men and women face in all stages of life, whether they're setting up a home together, relocating for a spouse's career, dealing with a first pregnancy, or creating a relationship of trust. The cats Maine Coon, Siamese mix, Blue Himalayan High Point, strays, etc. figure prominently and are used to reveal and underline these tensions. The characters, including the cats, come alive in this well-written collection of slice-of-life tales. Recommended for general fiction collections; even readers who normally don't pick up a short story collection will enjoy this. Robin Nesbitt, Columbus Metropolitan Lib., OH Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Debut collection of linked stories focusing on an all-too-common contemporary type: a tense, persnickety woman on one side or another of 30, beset by vague feelings of disappointment and the dawning realization that she doesn't know it all and can't have everything. So what? Well, there's a gimmick: a cat in every tale somehow advances the plot, perhaps expressing emotions hitherto hidden or dragging secrets into the light (if a husband's girlie magazines still count as a big secret). A scrawny stray teaches a self-absorbed young wife raised in affluence to recognize the sacrifices her working-class husband makes for her. A mysterious cat triggers a psychotic rage in a stranger. Another cat unnerves a new mother who, overwhelmed with fatigue and postpartum depression, imagines it sucking the breath from her baby. A stray befriends a lonely girl piqued by the unsentimental attitude toward animals at her boyfriend's Colorado cattle ranch. Very much the kind of fiction that used to be featured in potluck-and-potholders women's magazines, especially since all's well that ends well (more or less) for these undifferentiated heroines. The premise is too slight, though, and the tone too tepid to sustain much interest.
From the Publisher
“These stories are superbly crafted, dark and funny, at times as enigmatic as the two beasts in the title. Of Cats and Men is a sensuous and wickedly honest book about women and men and the sly, aloof, casually beautiful animals who pad through their lives.”
—Brad Watson, author of Last Days of the Dog-Men

“The author weaves cats into each story so deftly that they function as both poetic figures and complex characters.”
Mademoiselle

“An utterly pleasurable discovery. . .the sort one enjoys in the fiction of Carol Shields, Pam Houston, Melissa Bank.”
The Washington Post Book World

“Acute perceptions and an intelligent voice are evident throughout De Gramont's collection. You need not be a cat-lover to appreciate it.”
Newsday

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780307488992
  • Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 12/18/2008
  • Sold by: Random House
  • Format: eBook
  • Pages: 256
  • File size: 2 MB

Meet the Author

Nina de Gramont teaches fiction at the Harvard Extension School. She lives on Cape Cod, with her husband, David Gessner.


From the Hardcover edition.
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Read an Excerpt

The Nature of the Beast

I found the magazines one weekend when Jack was winter camping. I'd been looking for the letter he'd just received from Stella, his ex-girlfriend, which we'd both agreed I shouldn't read. Prior to me, Stella had been the undisputed love of Jack's life, the topic of pages and pages of his most passionate prose. Though married now and living back east, Stella had no compunction about writing long and lovelorn letters to my fiancé. The fact that she'd been equally faithless when she was Jack's girlfriend did give me a little comfort. I soothed myself by recalling tales of her many blatant infidelities, and contrasting them to my own example of unwavering devotion. Still, I'd hoped that our engagement — several months old by now — might curb Stella's correspondence. I liked to think of myself as tolerant, confident, and progressive. Stella's boundary-crossing made me feel just the opposite: narrow-minded, jealous, and insecure.

A month earlier, Stella had called Jack in tears. His first collection of short stories had just hit the bookstores, and she was dismayed that her name did not appear in the acknowledgments. Sitting just a few feet away from Jack as he reasoned with Stella — within earshot of her inappropriately tearful voice — I decided to ignore the issue altogether. This was an important time in Jack's life: his first book, the beginning of his career after years of hard work. I did not want to dampen his happiness. And I could even, to some degree, understand how Stella felt — watching Jack achieve his goals long after her exit from his life. Jack's romantic dedication ("to Eve, my only Muse") clearly marked me as the winner. While she whined about the acknowledgments, I reminded myself that I, not Stella, sat beside Jack now — sharing his good fortune, his home, his two cats. His future.

Still. It was hard not to be curious. "Why bother?" Jack said, when I asked if I could read Stella's latest letter. "It doesn't mean anything to me, and it's just going to make you angry." I agreed, recognizing Jack's words as rational and mature. When his friend Tony arrived Friday morning to pick Jack up, I bid him good-bye with the purest intentions. I watched them drive away, then headed to work — Stella's letter the furthest thing from my mind.

That day turned out to be particularly grueling. At my desk in the district attorney's office, I spent the afternoon trying to convince a well-dressed, well-spoken woman, who asked to be called Mrs. Lloyd, not to return home with Mr. Lloyd — who'd just been released on bail after blackening both her eyes. If I had ever suspected that spousal abuse was limited to the lower income brackets, its victims uneducated, this job had taught me otherwise. Four years before I'd taken the position as a victim's advocate, considering it a possible segue to law school. At the time I hadn't imagined any crimes were actually committed in our picturesque university town. Every window in the Pearl DA's office framed a view of the Rocky Mountains, making the utilitarian building seem more like a resort hotel.

But while Pearl lacked its share of murders and back-alley stabbings, it had no dearth of domestic violence, and thanks to the college, there were plenty of acquaintance rapes. My job provided ample stimulation and frustration — as much if not more than a career in law, without the accompanying debt and pressure.

Now, in response to my gentle but persistent prodding, Mrs. Lloyd took the safe house address, her silk blouse rustling as she reached, but said no thank you to a ride. "My car's right outside," she explained, smiling through swollen lips. She promised to drive directly to the shelter. With Amy, the other victim's advocate, I watched through the window as Mrs. Lloyd met her husband in the parking lot. Standing against a backdrop of blue skies and mountains, the couple embraced. Then she handed him the keys to her BMW.

"Eve," Amy said. "I think we need a martini."

That night, when I crawled into bed, my brain slightly fuzzy with gin, I remembered Stella's letter. But the sheets smelled comfortingly of Jack: that good mix of sandalwood soap, cotton bond paper, and worn flannel. And finding me alone in bed, the cats had curled up companionably. More than a year after I'd moved in they had barely accepted me as their own, but were always very affectionate in Jack's absence. Beatrix slept politely at my feet, while the more brazen Pip took Jack's place, cuddled against my chest with his head on Jack's pillow. I smiled. Who cares about Stella, I thought. I fell asleep slowly, able to enjoy the vague loneliness, knowing that Jack would be home soon.

* * *

Saturday unfolded more gently. In the morning I met a friend at the autumn farmer's market and went for a long run by Pearl Creek in the afternoon. Weaving around the cheerful crowds on the bike path — college students, strollers, everyone looking healthy and happy — renewed my faith in the town's wholesomeness. At home, I refused to be upset by the message from Stella on our answering machine — her second call in just over a week.

At dinnertime I picked up videos and take-out Chinese, and never entertained a thought of disturbing Jack's study. I'd already erased Stella's message, deciding not to mention it. That, I thought, should be duplicity enough. I concentrated on remembering my place in Jack's heart, my permanence in his life. Long-gone Stella, I reminded myself, was not a threat.

But by Sunday morning the temptation and opportunity became too much to bear. I knew Jack would keep the letter — he kept everything of an emotional nature, not necessarily out of sentimentality, but for possible use in his writing. I got out of bed, brushed my teeth, and still wearing pajamas, let myself into Jack's study.

The first thing I found, as I crawled under Jack's desk on my hands and knees, was an enormous dead magpie — its wings spread and its neck broken. The bird undoubtedly had been murdered by Pip. Jack's cats each had a hunting style as signature as a serial killer's. Fat, long-haired Beatrix was meticulous and persnickety. Spare, rangy Pip was savage and hedonistic. I could always tell when Beatrix had killed a cricket because its left leg would be missing, while Pip's crickets turned up half-eaten with their little heads crushed. Unlike Beatrix, who preyed almost exclusively on insects and small rodents, Pip's trophies ran the gamut, including other unfortunates as startlingly large as this magpie — ravens, pigeons, even an occasional rabbit. If Pip meant to make a gift for Jack, the animal would be left — pristine as a stuffed teddy bear — on the floor at the end of our bed. Usually he presented Jack with his larger kills, and we often awoke to corvid or rabbit corpses proudly laid at our feet. Beatrix, on the other hand, would provide for Jack by leaving mice on the back doorstep. If she wanted the animal for herself, she would either eat the entire body, down to its tail, or roll her victim on its back and eviscerate it. To our later horror, we'd stumble upon the gleaming mouse guts on our lawn or living room rug, the tiny torso gaping as if a miniature cardiologist had wandered off in the middle of open-heart surgery. Pip never left mice for Jack, but always treated himself by eating their heads and immediately vomiting — leaving a doubly revolting mess.

I crawled backward, away from the dead bird, without considering cleaning it up. Though I usually rejected gender roles, disposing of corpses struck me as a man's job. Besides: Jack's cat, Jack's study. Clearly, the onus of the dead bird belonged to him.

I stood up and slid back the closet door. Though Jack claimed to be hyper-organized, the haphazard placement of boxes, shoes, sporting equipment, and piles of manuscripts suggested otherwise. The first half-open cardboard box I peered into contained his tuxedo, dusty and ringed with tufts of cat fur — a favorite napping spot for Beatrix. Underneath it lay a more solid, heavier box which — below a few bank statements and university catalogues — contained a naked woman.

I sat back, vaguely surprised. At a glance, the woman in the photograph looked comical and unreal: gazing up at me with smug triumph, apparently disdainful of my baggy flannel sleepwear.

The letter from Stella still my foremost mission, I pushed the magazine aside. Beneath it lay another, and another, and another — an impressive and lovingly frayed collection. I couldn't help but smile, the way I might at stumbling across a little boy's stash of Snickers bars. Jack's penchant for pornography did not exactly come as a shock. One of the stories in his book, an anecdotal piece that had also appeared in Granta, hilariously detailed an attachment to commercial smut.

But while I knew he'd enjoyed this literature in the past, he'd led me to believe this indulgence was behind him. In fact, Jack often complimented me by claiming he hadn't "perused" a magazine in the two years we'd been together. What's more, Jack had promised that his collection had been tossed into the Dumpster just before I moved into this very house.

I sat back and let the cardboard flap drop shut, feeling suddenly dirty and ashamed of myself. Not only for breaking Jack's trust and rooting through his belongings, but for asking him to throw out the magazines in the first place. Who was I to police his primal inclinations? Couldn't a demand like the one I had made (subverting a relatively harmless fetish) be likened to a kind of psychic castration? Why be so controlling? So shrewish?

Poor Jack, I thought. I returned the bank statements and university catalogues to their pathetic attempt at camouflage, then carefully balanced the tuxedo box in its original position. The only magazine I'd seen — the one on top — had some vaguely exonerating data printed to the right of the sneering bimbo: February 1989. Obviously, the magazines in Jack's closet were long-ago favorites, no longer needed but still too precious to discard. What if I left him? What if I died? Surely, Jack was entitled to some sort of sexual security blanket.

I closed the door to his study tightly, resolved to develop a more generous heart, and a more open mind.

I've always hated to be alone on Sunday. The long, languid daylight, luxurious with company, felt stultifying without. To make matters worse, the rain clouds that had only gathered in early morning burst themselves before noon. It would be snowing in the mountains, and I surprised myself by feeling a vindictive jolt of pleasure at the thought of Jack and Tony making their slow and dangerous drive down icy, barely visible roads.

I got dressed, had coffee, and threw myself on the bed with a Sunday crossword. Pip picked his way carefully across the bedside table, as if he knew the Cape Cod lamp from Jack's mother — our only engagement present — was precious. He did not show the same consideration to me, but pounced on top of the weekly magazine, obscuring both clues and puzzle. His immediate purr, which usually delighted me, roused inexplicable rancor. Remembering the dead magpie in Jack's study, I rolled onto my back and pushed Pip off the bed. "Get away from me, you murderer," I said. Pip bristled, then jumped back on top of me — settling precisely on my chest, forcing me to hold the crossword above my head, making it almost impossible to put pressure on the pen and fill in the squares.

I had not lost my liberal resolve. I really did forgive Jack the magazines in his closet. Still. While I struggled with seven-letter words, voices from Jack's study called to me: like sirens from stormy seas.

Apparently, Playboy was too tame for Jack. His collection consisted almost exclusively of Penthouse. I leafed through several magazines, scanning captions: "Our 38-24-36-inch Pet admits that sex is her favorite pastime." And cartoons: "I'm really in for rape," a convict tells his cell mate. "The murder part was accidental." Digging down deeper, I found myself relieved to discover a swimsuit edition of Sports Illustrated.

This I could understand. The familiar faces of supermodels comforted me with their unreachable yet readable beauty. I was used to feeling inferior to these women, accustomed to aspiring hopelessly toward their voluptuous and lanky splendor. They might not be my friends, but I knew them. They had given me tips to enhance my own freckled prettiness. We had shared clothes, hairstyles, makeup. I could watch a man ogle any one of them and find myself in tune with his aesthetic. While these models might surpass my beauty in leaps and bounds, at least they hailed from the same home planet.

Shana, Eloise, Samantha, and Desiree were a different breed entirely, holding the lips of their vaginas open with vermilion fingernails. As I took in these photographs, I searched for their subjects' beauty and felt a rising panic at finding none. To me they looked beyond caricature, one step away from plastic blow-up dolls with gaping holes for mouths. They all seemed to share the same body: plasticine skin, pale trimmed pubic hair, and bulbous breasts pointing skyward, as if someone working a bicycle pump had stopped just short of explosion. Their hair spiraled out in uniform waves. Their lips curled and sneered, baring teeth and tongues. They seemed so devoid of humanity, I honestly couldn't imagine them experiencing sexual pleasure.

"Our surprisingly practical Pet is enrolled in secretarial school." Nicolette posed above this biographical snippet with her vulva gaping. "Takes shorthand at 80, types a wild 65, and her sultry phone manner leaves heavy breathers gasping for air."

When the subject of pornography and its appeal came up in conversation, as it sometimes did since the publication of his Granta piece, Jack liked to cite a study he'd read where chimpanzees had masturbated to Playboy. He always relayed this information with a gleeful air of finality, as if it proved the ultimate truth of Playmates' sexual allure.

"The most interesting thing about that study," I told Jack the last time he mentioned it, "is that you consider it such a triumph. Are primates your point of reference for sexual conduct? I wonder if David Berkowitz justifies himself with Jane Goodall's essays about psychopathic chimpanzees."

Now, surrounded by the objects of Jack's most private lust, I found myself incapable of pithy comebacks. In fact, I felt lost and lonesome, flooded by my own erotic idiocy. Jack knew my carnal nature in all its detail — which suddenly seemed tame and uninteresting. Worse, I understood — because I could find nothing in me that wanted to emulate any aspect of these women — that I knew nothing of his.

Beatrix appeared, curving her back against mine — not so much in greeting but to inform me that I blocked entry to the tuxedo box. I gathered up the magazines and stacked them in their original order. Standing to return them to their hiding place, I made my last discovery. At the bottom of the box lay a far less yellowed edition than these relics from Jack's past. Its cover promised a "Summer Spectacular of Peerless Beauties" and a "Parade of Chinese Dolls." The date hung over the satirically sultry, platinum cover girl. June, this past. The very month Jack had presented me with his grandmother's engagement ring.

"You're pathetic," Amy said, when I called her that afternoon. "They're just magazines. Welcome to the world. Men love those things."

"But he lied to me," I objected.

"And you rifled through his things the minute he left town," Amy said. "Nobody's perfect."

"Not the minute."

"Look," Amy said. "You should be glad. You got off easy. You could have found evidence of an actual other woman. You could have found skin magazines starring prepubescent boys. But all you found was a Penthouse or two. God. Think of the women who come into our office. The men they live with. You should be celebrating, if that's the worst thing Jack's got in his closet."

"But I just keep thinking ... if that's what he finds attractive, what does he see in me?"

"Do you think Jack would be seen in public with any of those women?" Amy asked. "Do you think he'd introduce them to his mother? Grow up, Eve. It's called fantasy."

"Hey, sweetie." Sunday evening Jack entered the house on the scent of campfire and freezing air. His cheek when he pressed it to mine felt flushed and icy. "I missed you," he said, crunching the bones of my back with his hug.

He hauled his gear though the door. Tony came in behind him, carrying Jack's tent, and I greeted him with insincere warmth. I knew that Tony's serene charm belied a treacherous nature: the kind of man who cheated on his wife without ever leaving a trace. Devoid of a telltale heart, he would continue guiltlessly after every liaison. Very much in contrast, I had always believed, to Jack — who had a candid heart, beating unapologetically on his sleeve.

"How was it?" I asked. I was determined to emulate Tony, thinking that she who snoops gets what she deserves. I did not plan to confront Jack with what I'd found — which would, after all, require my own confession.

"Cold," Jack said. "Very cold. I could use a bath." Baths were one of Jack's concessions to his feminine side. He spent hours soaking in hot water. Most men were difficult to buy gifts for, but not Jack: give him a jar of Epsom salts and he'd be in heaven.

Tony said his good-byes and left. Jack went into the bathroom and turned on the faucet, then came into the living room while the tub filled. As he sat down on the couch, Beatrix hurried to him on mincing steps and leapt into his lap, abandoning me as usual upon Jack's return. Jack let loose a string of endearments with the baby talk he only used with Beatrix, and on rare occasions me.

"Why are you sitting all the way over there?" he asked, as I lowered myself into the armchair. Beatrix looked like the epitome of female satisfaction: her eyes closed, her back arched, her throat pulsing with loud purrs. I remembered the first time I saw Jack hold Beatrix. He'd struck me as rugged and Hemingwayesque, until he started cooing to that fat, fluffy cat. How could I not have fallen in love with him?

"Come sit with me," Jack said now. "I missed you."

"Liar." I kept my tone flat, as if not joking.

Jack pushed Beatrix aside and held out his arms. I cuddled up obediently, pressing my face into his neck. Filled as I was with the aching and humiliated love of the cuckold, the strength of his embrace almost made me cry. I felt stripped of desirability, relegated to the unglamorous role of everyday partner. Half against my will, I let out a shuddering sigh.

"Hey," Jack said. "What's wrong?"

"Do you think I'm pretty?" I asked him.

"I think you're beautiful," he said. "You know that."

It was no use. Jack had lied about the magazines in his closet. Now anything he ever said would be suspect.

On Monday morning Jack woke up early and went into his study. "God damn it," he yelled. Still in bed, I froze — sure he'd detected my espionage. "Fucking Pip," he said, and I remembered the dead magpie.

"You could have cleaned this up, you know," Jack called. Pip was stretched out on his back just above my pillow — companionship left over from the weekend. With his paws in the air, he pressed against my head, purring ecstatically.

"I didn't see it," I called back. Then added, "Cleaned up what?"

Jack laughed. He appeared in the doorway, dangling the magpie sideways. Stretched out to its full, impressive wingspan, the bird nearly reached the ground. A trail of blue and black feathers fanned out behind Jack.

"Look at you," Jack said. "You're cozied up with a vile assassin."

"I know," I said. I pulled Pip, pliable as a rag doll, over my head, bending him into a rock-a-bye curl. His purr rose to crescendo. When I squeezed him too tightly he let out a squeak and then went back to purring, eyes closed above an inarguable smile.

"I can't help it," I told Jack. "I love him."

Pip stretched in sensuous agreement, pressing one paw against my cheek — gentle as an infant.

Before lunch on Monday, I met with a sorority girl named Missy — one of several who'd been victims in a series of Rohypnol rapes. Because all the girls had experienced memory loss, the police were slow to arrest the two predatory male students. I'd last met with Missy more than six months earlier, just after the assault. She'd been devastated, looking childlike and stricken in a hooded sweatshirt, her hair skinned back into a ponytail, her face scrubbed.

Now Missy seemed to have recovered with the alacrity of youth. I barely recognized her. She wore her long hair in a flood of overtended curls. Her breasts strained impressively against a tight pink sweater. Her face — which I remembered as sweet and snub-nosed — wore an armorlike layer of makeup, applied thickly and expertly. A few days before, my attitude toward her would have been purely solicitous. I certainly would have no reason to consider Missy (a rape victim, I reminded myself) in conjunction with Jack. Now, my voice a study in compassion and experience, I coached Missy on her testimony. But I couldn't help thinking: this is just the kind of girl Jack likes.

Usually when I dressed for work, I concentrated on respectability over attractiveness. Today I wore a loose, boxy jacket and had my hair rolled into a bun. Sitting beside this poised and luscious victim, I felt like a sexless lump. A girl next door, minus the allure.

I had always been the kind of woman men dated. The kind of woman men fell in love with, and brought home to their mothers, and now wanted to marry. But I had never, I suddenly realized, been the kind of woman men wanted to fuck. At least not at first glance. I had barely bothered to cultivate sexuality into my appearance. I had hardly noticed women who did.

Poor Jack, I thought. No wonder he had to resort to magazines.

"How's she doing?" Amy asked, as Missy left the office.

"A lot better," I said. Inwardly I chastised myself again.

"Did you tell her she can't dress like that for court?"

"I forgot," I said. "I'll call her at home."

I picked up the phone and dialed Jack. "Hey," I said when he picked up. "What's wrong? You sound kind of breathless."

"I had to run to get the phone," Jack said. "I was writing."

"Oh. Sorry about that."

"It's okay." Pause. "Did you want something, sweetie?"

"No. Just to say hi."

"Hi," Jack said. I tried to concentrate on the sound of his voice, which was gentle and generous. But I could only think of a parade of pink sweaters, and pages and pages of glossy photographs.

* * *

Tuesday afternoon I surprised Jack by coming home for lunch. I rapped loudly on his study door. "Jack? What are you doing in there?"

He opened the door fully clothed, no disarray.

"Writing," he said. "What do you think?"

Over the next week, every time he left the house, I broke into his study to check the order of the magazines. Every time I saw Nicolette — on top of the pile where she belonged — I'd sit back with a sigh of relief.

In bed with Jack that weekend, I wriggled half-naked into one corner. While my bra rode up above my breasts, I spread my legs diagonally. I threw my head back, sneered, and fingered my clitoris.

"What are you doing?" Jack asked.

"Nothing," I said. My legs shut quickly, my head snapped up. "I thought this was what you liked."

"Why would you think that?"

"No reason."

"Come here," Jack said. He pulled me back to him and recommenced normal lovemaking. I responded with guilty and desperate enthusiasm.

"Hey," Jack said. "Wait." He kissed my cheek, then pulled a pillow from the disrupted stack and placed it carefully under my head. The gesture was so tender — so thoughtful and typical of Jack — I burst into tears.

"Jesus," Jack said. He rolled back, stroking the hair from my forehead. "What's wrong, Eve?"

"Nothing," I said. "Nothing's wrong. Sometimes I just feel like everything is a lie. Like a person grows up with all these expectations about life, and love, only to have them smashed into tiny little pieces."

"Is this about something at work?" Jack said. When I didn't respond, he continued stroking my head without further questions. If he suspected the real catalyst for my outburst, he didn't breathe a word. I sniffled into his chest.

"This is weltschmerz," I told him, "not PMS."

"Maybe you should think about law school again," Jack said.

"Why?" I said, my voice suddenly sharp. "Don't you think what I do is important?"

"Of course I do," Jack said. He kissed me. "Don't worry," he said. "Don't worry about anything."

"I'll try," I promised, settling down, and vowing to erase the magazines from my mind. "I'll try."

The following Tuesday Jack phoned the DA's office at three-fifteen. I was in a foul mood. I'd forgotten to call Missy about her wardrobe. That morning in trial, the girl's moving, intelligent, and practiced testimony had been completely undermined by her short skirt and scarlet lipstick.

"Eve," Jack said. "Guess what?" I reminded myself that Missy's improper attire was not Jack's fault but my own. I knew from the time — just after mail delivery — that Jack was about to relay a piece of writing news. I braced myself to respond with pride and excitement.

"I got a story in Playboy," Jack said. "Three thousand bucks."

"Great." I stamped my stapler on a pile of papers, accidentally including an index finger. "Shit," I said.

"What's wrong?"

"Nothing. I stapled myself." I put the finger in my mouth and sucked a few drops of tinny blood.

"Ouch," Jack said sympathetically. "But hey. Isn't that great news?"

Life made it hard to abandon unhealthy fixations. I wanted to congratulate Jack. I wanted to be happy for him. But at that precise moment, I couldn't quite muster it.

"That's pretty good news," I said. "If you like Playboy."

"Forget Playboy," he said. "Three thousand bucks. And it's prestigious. Isaac Bashevis Singer has had work in Playboy. John Updike."

"No offense," I said. "I'm sure it's very literary. It's just a little tame for me."

"What are you talking about?"

"You know. It's kind of mainstream. It doesn't give me that extra, illicit jolt. It's not so exciting as getting a story published in, let's say, for instance, Penthouse."

Silence on the other end.

"Don't you agree?" I asked.

"I'm hanging up now," Jack said. "But thanks for your support."

"Don't mention it," I said, then frowned at the sudden dial tone — probably the closest to hanging up on someone that Jack had ever come.

Amy, passing by my desk, must have noticed my expression. "Don't worry," she soothed. "We've got five more victims testifying. We'll get those boys locked up."

I nodded, profoundly guilty. I decided to pick up groceries and champagne on the way home, to make amends and celebrate Jack's victory properly.

"Jack!" I called his name for no logical reason — his car wasn't in the driveway, so I knew he wouldn't answer. I put down my bags and threw the shrimp into the refrigerator — out of Pip's reach. I wondered where he could be: it wasn't like him to go out and not leave a note.

"Jack?" I poked my head into his study. Not finding him, I started to leave — very innocently. But I couldn't help noticing, out of the corner of my eye. His closet door was open just a tad wider than Beatrix would need.

Sure enough: Shana had made her way to the top of the pile.

So, I thought. That's what Jack's in the mood for this week. Tall, blond Shana, whose firefighter boyfriend was thrilled to see the apple of his eye in Penthouse — though he did worry some other man might try to "put out her fire."

I heard a crash from the bedroom and jumped. I tossed Shana back into her box, pulled the closet door shut, and hurried into the hall.

Beatrix had destroyed the Cape Cod lamp from Jack's mother. It lay shattered on the bedroom floor. Making its half-blind way around the blue and white shards was a terrified mole. The cat pounced in graceful recapture, picking the rodent up in her mouth and squeezing it to momentary lifelessness. Then she dropped it to the ground. Frustrated by its stillness, Beatrix poked it with retracted claws. When it came to, she sat back — allowing its fleet-footed retreat under the bed. "Beatrix," I said sharply. The cat turned and stared, her eyes dopey as if stirred from a trance. Then, with murderous expertise, she recommenced her stalking.

The back door slammed. "Jack," I screamed. "Jack, come quick. Beatrix is killing a mole."

Valiantly, Jack attempted an impossible rescue — the mole of course regarding him as another predator. With a broom, he tried to guide it into a paper bag. Beatrix stormed around the bedroom, scandalized by this dilettante's interference.

"It's no use," Jack finally said. "We should just let Beatrix finish the job."

We closed the door, limiting the slaughter to that one room, and went together into the kitchen.

Jack had done the same thing as me: on the kitchen table sat his bag of groceries and another bottle of champagne. But Jack hadn't had time for my caution, and Pip perched on the table, methodically removing sirloin tips from their wrapper with curved Pooh-bear paws.

"Goddamn cats," Jack said, pushing Pip off the table.

"Don't worry," I said. "I bought shrimp."

Jack lit a fire, I lit candles. We ate shrimp and drank champagne, not saying a word about that morning's altercation.

Jack, after all, was the best man I knew. He stood miles above his friends, miles above the male attorneys at my office, and thousands of miles above the parade of subhumans they prosecuted. A pile of dirty magazines, I decided, was the absolute most minor of offenses. I loved Jack. Jack loved me. What else mattered? Not even the occasional rumble from our bedroom — the tussle of Beatrix and her sadistic undertaking — could interfere with our reconciliation.

Until the phone rang.

"Stella," Jack said, glancing at me ruefully. "What's up?"

Jack stood, pacing, with the cordless receiver to his ear. I waited, listening to his "uh-huhs" and "yeahs." Finally he paced himself into his study and out of listening range.

I sat by the fire, sipping champagne, my right foot beating out an increasingly angry rhythm — measuring the length of Jack's absence.

"Sorry about that," Jack said, when he came back too many minutes later.

"No problem," I said, still tapping my foot and not looking at Jack as he sat down beside me. "How's Stella?"

"Fine," he said. "Crazy, as usual."

"Really?" I said. "How so?"

"Oh, you know. Just the same old stuff. You don't want to hear it."

"Really?" I said again. "Well, Jack, maybe I do. Maybe I do want to hear it."

"I'll tell you another time," Jack said. "You don't seem very receptive at the moment."

"Don't I?"

Jack kissed my cheek. "Come on, Eve," he said. "Don't let her ruin this evening. Let's talk about something else."

"Fine," I said. "Would you like to discuss your great literary triumph? Your new brotherhood with Isaac Singer, John Updike, and Kilgore Trout? You know. All the great icons of wide-open-beaver lit?"

"Why don't you just come out with it," Jack said. "You've been like Raskolnikov for two weeks. You're so obviously wallowing in guilt and fury."

"Why don't you come out with it," I said, "if your conscience is so clear."

Jack tossed the rest of his champagne on the fire. "This is bullshit," he said. "I don't have to take this." He stalked out, and in a minute I heard the sound of running bathwater. I downed the rest of my champagne and poured another. Then I stomped to the bedroom for refuge — where I was greeted by the freshly killed mole. The animals left by Pip and Beatrix never looked peaceful in their deaths, but pained and tortured, eyes closed tightly in a clear line of misery. It always seemed their little souls hovered just above, crying outrage at premature demise. I fled to the bathroom, where Jack reclined in the tub.

"Jack," I said. "You didn't get the mole. It's dead in the bedroom."

"I'm taking a bath," he said, his voice still measured and angry.

"Look," I said. "It's not my fault Stella called in the middle of our celebration."

"It's not my fault either," Jack said.

"You could have called her back."

"Like you wouldn't have gotten pissed when I did."

"You could just do what you normally do, and call her the second I leave the house."

"Listen to you. You're so full of venom."

"Listen to you," I countered. "You're so self-righteous and smug."

"At least I'm not a prude."

"Who? Me? You're calling me a prude?"

Jack leaned back in the hot water, closing his eyes. "Leave me alone," he said. "Let me bathe in peace."

"No," I said.


From the Hardcover edition.
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Table of Contents

The Nature of the Beast 1
The Closest Place 23
Scuffling 39
The Wedding Bed 54
Human Contact 76
In His Shoes 97
The Politeness of Kings 117
By His Wild Lone 143
Stealing Baby's Breath 174
Lieutenant Island 201
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Introduction

The questions, discussion topics, and author biography that follow are intended to enhance your group’s reading of Nina de Gramont’s highly praised short fiction collec-tion, Of Cats and Men. We hope they will enrich your understanding of the work.

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Foreword

1. In the story “By His Wild Lone,” Mia says, “How much of a pet can a cat really be? Remember how the cat walks? ‘Through the Wet Wild Woods, waving his wild tale, and walking by his wild lone.’ That’s the thing. Cats will accept what comfort they can get, but when it comes down to it, they’ll always take care of themselves.” On the whole, does this statement apply to the cats in the stories? What about the men and women?

2. After discovering that her brother-in-law has let her cat run away in “The Closest Place,” Tessa says to her husband, Ben, “If we were a pride of lions or a pack of wolves, we’d devour him. We’d fall on him and destroy him. Tear him from limb to limb for the good of the pack. The protection of the family.” Are there other stories in Of Cats and Men in which a character expresses similarly intense feelings of family loyalty and protectiveness?

3. In both “Scuffling” and “The Closest Place,” something happens to a feline character that mirrors what a human character desires. What are these incidents and what do they indicate about the characters’ ability to control the behavior of cats versus people?

4. In “The Wedding Bed,” Camille, a graduate student from a wealthy, sophisticated, upper middle class family, describes her Persian cat Penny as a “luxury,” and says of her husband, who works as a roofer, “Joe could live anywhere. He would be just as happy inside the van, with the yellow cat.” Yet, Camille sets out to “court” the stray. Is Camille’s attempt to befriend theyellow cat an effort to compensate for feelings toward Joe? Is Camille aware of the similarity between her father’s disparaging remarks about her husband and the alley cat? Do you think these attitudes influence her feelings and behavior?

5. Several of the stories revolve around an outsider (human or feline) who significantly alters the dynamic between a couple. In which stories does this happen? In each of these stories, is there an existing flaw in the relationship that is magnified or is it a case of a new element being introduced?

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Reading Group Guide

1. In the story “By His Wild Lone, ” Mia says, “How much of a pet can a cat really be? Remember how the cat walks? ‘Through the Wet Wild Woods, waving his wild tale, and walking by his wild lone.’ That’s the thing. Cats will accept what comfort they can get, but when it comes down to it, they’ll always take care of themselves.” On the whole, does this statement apply to the cats in the stories? What about the men and women?

2. After discovering that her brother-in-law has let her cat run away in “The Closest Place, ” Tessa says to her husband, Ben, “If we were a pride of lions or a pack of wolves, we’d devour him. We’d fall on him and destroy him. Tear him from limb to limb for the good of the pack. The protection of the family.” Are there other stories in Of Cats and Men in which a character expresses similarly intense feelings of family loyalty and protectiveness?

3. In both “Scuffling” and “The Closest Place, ” something happens to a feline character that mirrors what a human character desires. What are these incidents and what do they indicate about the characters’ ability to control the behavior of cats versus people?

4. In “The Wedding Bed, ” Camille, a graduate student from a wealthy, sophisticated, upper middle class family, describes her Persian cat Penny as a “luxury, ” and says of her husband, who works as a roofer, “Joe could live anywhere. He would be just as happy inside the van, with the yellow cat.” Yet, Camille sets out to “court” the stray. Is Camille’s attempt to befriendthe yellow cat an effort to compensate for feelings toward Joe? Is Camille aware of the similarity between her father’s disparaging remarks about her husband and the alley cat? Do you think these attitudes influence her feelings and behavior?

5. Several of the stories revolve around an outsider (human or feline) who significantly alters the dynamic between a couple. In which stories does this happen? In each of these stories, is there an existing flaw in the relationship that is magnified or is it a case of a new element being introduced?

Read More Show Less

Customer Reviews

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Sort by: Showing all of 3 Customer Reviews
  • Posted February 24, 2013

    Interesting stories. The first few stories are good but the last

    Interesting stories. The first few stories are good but the last few stories were drawn out; slightly depressing. The women lack direction & purpose in life. The cats lurk in the shadows in the stories. Where's the cat? Where's waldo? It's fun getting to know the cats.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 12, 2003

    Cats are the Coal Mine Canaries of Relationships

    I noted famed librarian Nancy Perle recommended this book for cat lovers in her 'Book Lust' topical reading list. While 'Of Cats and Men' entertains the reader it reveals to us that cats do know and judge us more accurately than we do in these perfectly crafted stories. Two major themes cleverly weave the cats and couples together like strands of DNA. One is the relationship of men and women, the other is the personality of cats connected to the couples and way each party responds to the other. Watch the man who loves, disdains or is oblivious to the cat, and you get a pretty good idea of how he will nurture the relationship with the women. Listen to the thoughts of the woman and how she learns (or fails to observe) from the cat what is the worth of her mate or potential lover. Nina de Gramont evokes Guy de Maupassant or O Henry in a very modern milieu of coupling and language. Occasional four-letter words lend an authenticity to these cat-tails. I found the story collection to be like an exquisite series of miniature paintings, full of interesting details that only a skilled observer could detect and only a superb writer could put into words.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 19, 2001

    Lessons of the Heart

    In each of these cleverly crafted tales, lies a lesson of compassion and of compromise. Through feline companionship and through the characters own revelations these stories conclude to an emotional evolution. Deeply touching and at times very humorous, Nina de Gramont has written a beautiful collection of short stories that run deeper than an entire novel. If you desire a book to tug on every human emotion and stories that you never want to come to an end, then this is the book for you. Bravo Nina.

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