The Beast

by Marci Goodman

Muffin, the cat, was too fat for his own good.

Harriet, Muffin's owner, put him on the scale at the Active Woman Health Spa, holding him down gently, while her friend, Esther, moved the levers.

"Oh, my God," Esther exclaimed.

"What's your problem?" Harriet said.

"Muffin weighs thirty-two pounds." Esther stared at the cat. "He gained five since the last time we weighed him."

"That's about what I figured." Harriet prodded Muffin off the scale, pushing him into the children's play area.

Esther got a tape measure from Linda, the exercise instructor. "Let's take Muffin's measurements," she said to Harriet.

"I'm not sure I want to know."

Linda clapped her hands to get everyone's attention. "Group time, ladies." The women selected places on the floor; the younger ones rushed to the front, and the middle-aged ones dawdled in the back, chatting among themselves. Esther put down the tape measure, and joined Harriet in the back row.

Harriet sat at the kitchen table, talking with Esther on the telephone. Muffin sat on her lap. She fed him sliced turkey and half-listened to Esther's long, involved story about how she had given her husband, Bernie, the Heimlich Maneuver. Harriet concentrated on the faint stripes in Muffin's fur. She had never noticed them before.

"What are you doing?" Esther asked.

"Feeding the cat." Harriet gave Muffin a large piece of turkey. He purred and chewed simultaneously.

"That cat's going to die if you don't stop feeding him so much."

"That's not a very nice thing to say."

"I'm sorry. What are you feeding him?"

"Turkey," Harriet said. "It's lo-cal." She switched the phone to her other ear. "How's Bernie?" she said, changing the subject.

"He almost died I told you."

Harriet threw the package of turkey on the floor. Muffin jumped off her lap, diving, mouth first, into the food.

For her own peace of mind, Harriet called up Muffin's veterinarian. She told the receptionist that she had to ask the vet an urgent question.

"Your name?" the receptionist asked.

"A concerned pet owner."

The receptionist became nasty. "Do you have a name, ma'am? Are you registered with us?"

"Myra Jones," Harriet said. "May I please speak with Dr. Davis?"

"Just a moment," the receptionist snapped. "I'll see if he's in."

Harriet waited on hold, listening to the muzak version of "A Time For Us." Finally, the phone clicked and a man's voice said "Hello."

"Dr. Davis?" Harriet said.


"I have a hypothetical question." She paused.

"What is it?"

"If a pet, let's say a cat, is overweight, will he die at a younger age than usual?"

"Well, it depends on how overweight the cat is. But to answer your question, it's as unhealthy for animals to be overweight as it is for humans."

"What could happen?" Harriet felt her heart beating faster.

"Possibly a heart attack. It depends." The vet cleared his throat. "How much does your cat weigh?"

"Not too much," Harriet said, and hung up.

Harriet's son, Larry, sat at the dinner table, hunched over his plate. Larry lived in his own apartment, but he came over for dinner five nights a week. Weekends he either had a date or went to singles' dances.

"You know," Larry said to Harriet, "Dr. Jacobs told me that your doting on that damn cat so much is a sign of your own insecurity."

"So, are you making any progress with your own problems?" Harriet asked.

Larry ignored her. "Ever since Dad died you've been afraid to meet people, especially men. So you put all your time and energy into Muffin."

Harriet cut a chunk of steak from her plate and gave it to Muffin, who was waiting by her side.

Larry reached under the table and tried to grab the steak from Muffin. They had a short tug-of-war with the meat until Muffin bit Larry's hand. Larry tried to slap Muffin but missed.

"Don't touch him," Harriet screamed. "You have no right."

"You're crazy," Larry screamed back. "And your cat's a blimp. You could stand to lose a few yourself."

"Get out of here if you're going to talk like that." Harriet put her plate on the floor and let Muffin finish her meal.

Larry got up from the table. "You need help," he said.

Esther, Harriet, and Muffin were on their way to the health spa. Harriet didn't have a driver's license and felt lucky to have a friend like Esther to take her places. Esther was a terrible driver, though. She ran stop signs and red lights, drove up on curbs, and was one step away from having her license revoked. Harriet closed her eyes and held Muffin tight, waiting for the ride to end.

"So how's Muffin's diet going?" Esther said, speeding up so she could make it through a yellow light.

"Not so good," Harriet said. "To be honest, I just can't keep him on it. It breaks my heart to see him go hungry." She stroked Muffin's fur. He bit on her arm.

"Remember what I told you," Esther warned. "I don't want to have to say it again."

"If Muffin dies, it'll probably be in a car accident with you."

Esther pulled into the parking lot. Harriet hoisted Muffin into her arms and got out of the car.

"Heavy?" Esther asked as they entered the health spa.

Harriet deposited Muffin in the play area and joined Esther at the exercise bikes. Linda, the instructor, came over to chat.

"How's Muffin?" she asked Harriet. She bent to pull up her bagging tights.

Harriet pumped harder on the bike. "Fine," she panted.

"That's good," Linda said, studying herself in the mirror. "We have two new members," she said. "Today's their first day, you know, so I want to introduce them to everybody." She motioned for two women, one with frosted hair and the other wearing a leotard that had a lightning bolt sewn across the front, to come over. Linda made the introductions, then left the four women together.

Joyce had the frosted hair, Barbara the lightning bolt. They were both slightly younger than Harriet and Esther. Their children were still in college. Harriet thought the women seemed nice enough, though they were loud and giggly. Harriet wasn't anti-social, but she refused to waste her time on superficial people. Esther was the only tolerable woman Harriet knew.

The four women stood by the exercise bikes, waiting for the aerobics class to start.

"Whose cat is that?" Barbara said. "What a fatso." She squinted in Muffin's direction and let out a whoop. "I didn't know they let pets in here."

"He's mine," Harriet said curtly.

"He's a cutie," Barbara said. "How did he get so fat, though? A thyroid problem?"

"Food," Esther said. "Harriet feeds him all the time. He eats better than a king."

"Look at the spread on him," Joyce said. "If I didn't know he was a cat, I'd think he was a hassock."

Harriet didn't join the other women in their laughter. She blushed, on the verge of tears. She felt that Esther had betrayed her by making fun of Muffin in front of strangers.

Harriet escaped into the dressing room. There was a lump in her throat, and she knew that if she tried to talk to anyone, she would cry. She wanted to wait until the lump went away before she returned to Esther. But Esther found her first.

"Are you mad at me?" Esther touched Harriet's shoulder.

Harriet couldn't answer. She started to cry. She felt embarrassed to be crying in such a public place. Women were going in and out of the dressing room. They were probably gossiping about her right now. Or teasing her cat.

"I didn't mean to say those stupid things. What a mouth on me." Esther got some toilet paper from a stall and wiped Harriet's eyes. "Let's get out of here. We'll go out to lunch."

Harriet nodded. "Good idea," she said, sniffling. "I hate this place."

Harriet picked up Muffin and left the health spa, looking straight ahead. She would never go back there. Those women were vicious backstabbers. They weren't her friends. She could just as easily do her exercises at home. Maybe she would indulge and let herself get fat. Why not? After all, she had no one to please.

She waited for Esther outside the car. Esther was saying good-bye to some friends. Harriet put Muffin on the hood of the car. She got a Mars bar out of her purse and split it with Muffin, breaking Muffin's half into smaller pieces. She patted Muffin on the head and bit into her chocolate. Muffin gulped down his share, without bothering to chew.

Esther jogged across the parking lot. When she reached her car, she was out of breath. She leaned against the car and lit a cigarette.

"You're bad," she said to Harriet. "Couldn't you wait until lunch?" She pointed her cigarette at Harriet's candy bar.

"Who do I have to impress?" Harriet said, finishing the last bite.

After Harriet quit the health spa, she and Muffin stayed home most of the time. She also had a falling-out with Esther-over Muffin, of course. Esther kept insisting that Harriet was wrong to let her life revolve around Muffin and that she would be in trouble when Muffin died. Why did Esther keep talking about Muffin's death, Harriet wondered. She probably wanted it to happen. If her friends and family couldn't accept her the way she was, Harriet didn't want any part of them.

It was early afternoon. Days of Our Lives was due to start any minute. Harriet planned to watch it in the nude. She got a half-empty bag of M&Ms from the kitchen and turned on the TV. She took off her mumu, tossed it on the armchair, and stretched out on the couch.

Harriet mimicked the television. "Like sands through the hourglass, so are the days of our lives." She laughed at herself, pinching her flabby stomach. Muffin stared at her. She stared back, widening her eyes. "This is MacDonald Carey," she said. "And these are the Days of our Lives." Muffin meowed, looking strangely at Harriet. "You think I'm crazy, Muffin?" Harriet asked. "Or do you want a few M&Ms?" Muffin jumped on Harriet's stomach, and she groaned from the impact. He nudged the bag of M&Ms and meowed.

Harriet emptied the M&Ms onto the floor. She closed her eyes and listened to Muffin crunching. She ran her hands over her naked body, lingering at her hips and thighs. She wanted to cry but wouldn't let herself.

Harriet slept through Days of our Lives and most of Another World. She woke up feeling restless and decided to clean the house. She had let things go for too long, and besides, there were pieces of M&Ms, mostly yellow ones, all over the carpet. Muffin had never liked the yellows.

Harriet vacuumed the carpet and dusted the living room. She hummed while she cleaned. Muffin clawed at the refrigerator and meowed.

"In a few minutes, Muffin."

Muffin waddled into the living room. He let out a long meow.

"I know, honey. I know."

Harriet lifted Abe's bowling trophies, one by one, from the mantel. There were seven trophies, and she dusted each of them. She was startled by the telephone. She hadn't heard it ring in a long time. She dropped the trophy she was holding on Muffin's head. His eyes flickered and then closed.

"Oh, God," Harriet said. "Please help me."

The telephone continued to ring. Harriet got down on her knees and listened for Muffin's heartbeat. He was alive. She decided to answer the phone. Esther would take her and Muffin to the vet if she asked.

"Hello," she shouted into the phone. She breathed deeply.

"What are you yelling about?" Larry asked.

Harriet looked over at Muffin. He was still unconscious. "Larry, please come over here and take me to the veterinarian. Muffin's unconscious."

"So he finally ate himself into oblivion," Larry said, laughing. "Only kidding," he added.

"I think he's really dying. Please come over."

"Ma, I can't leave work. Why don't you get Esther to take you?"

"Please, Larry." Harriet was sobbing.

"I'm sorry, Ma, but I can't I'll call you later, okay?"

Harriet hung up and called a taxi, then called the vet to say she was coming. She sat on the stoop, holding Muffin on her lap and waiting for the taxi.

Muffin woke up in the taxi. He sighed and stretched out, closing his eyes again.

"Thank you, God, " Harriet whispered.

Although Muffin was fine, the vet wanted to keep him overnight for observation. He led Harriet to his office.

"Mrs. Zelnick," he began. "I'm sure you know that your cat is grossly overweight."

Harriet looked at the veterinarian. He frowned at her. His face was young and hostile.

"Cats have quick reflexes, you know. And if Muffin wasn't so fat he could have gotten out of the way in time. Don't you see, a forty-pound cat isn't a cat anymore, it's a beast."

"I know it's my fault," Harriet said, looking down at the floor. "I feel bad enough without you lecturing me."

The vet's expression softened a bit. "Well, it's not too late to do something about it," he said. "I can keep him here for a while and put him on a diet."

"I don't know," Harriet said. "Do you have to keep him in a cage?"

The vet opened the door for Harriet. "At least think about it," he said.

"Okay," she said. "I'll let you know tomorrow." She left the vet's office, her arms dangling limply at her sides. She had grown so used to carrying Muffin around that she felt as if the vet had amputated a limb.

When Harriet got home, it was evening. The house was dark. She threw down her purse and stumbled to the phone. She dialed Esther's number.

"Esther, I need you," Harriet cried into the phone.

"I'll be right over, honey," Esther said. "Don't move."

Harriet sat in the dark, waiting for Esther. Within minutes, Esther pounded on the front door. Harriet jumped up and turned on some lights.

Esther was wearing a powder-blue jogging suit and her bedroom slippers. "What's wrong?" she asked. "Were you sitting here in the dark?"

Harriet nodded. She took Esther's arm and led her to the kitchen. "I have to talk to you," she said, her voice cracking.

"Pack a bag," Esther said when Harriet finished the story. "You're too depressed to stay alone."

"I'll be okay." Harriet saw Muffin's empty dish out of the corner of her eye. She started to cry again.

"You're coming home with me. And first thing tomorrow morning you're going to call the vet and tell him to put Muffin on that diet." Esther lit the wrong end of her cigarette. "Damn it," she said, reaching into her pocket for another one.

Harriet covered her face with her hands. Her shoulders were shaking.

"It's for his own good," Esther said. She put her cigarette in the ashtray and tried to pry Harriet's hands off her face. "Look at me," she said.

Right then Harriet heard something scratching at the front door. She lifted her head. There was a rhythm to it-scratch, scratch, scratch. Pause. Scratch, scratch, scratch. She wondered if she was going crazy or if what she was thinking was really possible. She stood up quickly, knocking over the ashtray, and ran to the door.

"Where are you going?" Esther demanded. She was on her hands and knees, picking up cigarette butts.

Harriet opened the front door, and a gust of warm wind blew into her face, but Muffin wasn't out there.

"What are you looking for?" Esther called from the kitchen. She sounded annoyed.

Harriet looked out at the front lawn, at the shrubs, and into the picture window of the house across the street. She watched Adele Cooper bend over and kiss her husband and wondered why they didn't draw their curtains.

If Muffin were home right now she would cook him his favorite meal-sweet and sour meatballs over rice, chocolate pudding for dessert-a sort of Last Supper, because tomorrow she was going to call the vet and tell him to go ahead with the diet. She closed the door and returned to the kitchen, knowing what she had to do.

Harriet glanced quickly at Esther, who was smoking another cigarette, crossing and uncrossing her legs. Harriet bent to pick up Muffin's food bowl up from the floor, bringing it to the sink. She scrubbed the bowl with an S.O.S. pad and rinsed it thoroughly.

"I think I know what you're doing," Esther said. "I'm proud of you."

"I'm not sure I know what I'm doing," Harriet responded as she dried the bowl. "But I think it's the right thing to do." She put the bowl as far back in the cupboard as she could reach, behind the corn niblets. Muffin hated corn niblets; they were yellow.

"You know," Esther said, blowing smoke at the ceiling, "There's a new health spa opening up down by Tanorama. I've been meaning to tell you about it. They have machines that do all the exercising for you. All you have to do is strap yourself on."

"Sounds expensive," Harriet said. "I have to think about Muffin's vet bills."

"You have to think about yourself, too." Esther stamped out her cigarette. "What about your own health?"

"I can't make any plans right now." But Harriet was already planning on visiting Muffin every day, if the vet would let her. Every day-until he was slim and she could be sure that his life had been saved.

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