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«The Cat Who Ate Danish Modern», Lilian Braun

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1

Jim Qwilleran prepared his bachelor breakfast with a look of boredom and distaste, accentuated by the down-curve of his bushy moustache. Using hot water from the tap, he made a cup of instant coffee with brown lumps floating on the surface. He dredged a doughnut from a crumb-filled canister that was beginning to smell musty. Then he spread a paper napkin on a table in a side window where the urban sun, filtered through smog, emphasized the bleakness of the furnished apartment.

Here Qwilleran ate his breakfast without tasting it, and considered his four problems: At the moment he was womanless. He had received an eviction notice, and in three weeks he would be homeless. At the rate the moths were feeding on his neckwear, he would soon be tieless. And if he said the wrong thing to the managing editor today, he might very well be jobless. Over forty-five and jobless. It was not a cheerful prospect.

Fortunately, he was not friendless. On his breakfast table — along with a large unabridged dictionary, a stack of paperback books, a pipe rack with a single pipe, and a can of tobacco — there was a Siamese cat.

Qwilleran scratched his friend behind the ears, and said, "I'll bet you weren't allowed to sit on the breakfast table when you lived upstairs." The cat, whose name was Koko, gave a satisfied wiggle, tilted his whiskers upward, and said, "YOW!" He had lived with the newsman for six months, following the unfortunate demise of the man on the second floor.

Qwilleran fed him well, conversed sensibly, and invented games to play — unusual pastimes that appealed to the cat's extraordinary intelligence.

Every morning Koko occupied one small corner of the breakfast table, arranging himself in a compact bundle, brown feet and tail tucked fastidiously under his white-breasted fawn body. In the mild sunshine Koko's slanted eyes were a brilliant blue, and his silky fur, like the newly spun spider web that spanned the window, glistened with a rainbow of iridescence.

"You make this apartment look like a dump," Qwilleran told him.

Koko squeezed his eyes and breathed faster. With each breath his nose changed from black velvet to black satin, then back to velvet.

Qwilleran lapsed again into deep thought, absently running a spoon handle through his moustache. This was the day he had promised himself to confront the managing editor and request a change of assignment. It was a risky move. The Daily Fluxion was known as a tight ship. Percy preached teamwork, team spirit, team discipline. Shoulder to shoulder, play the game, one for all. Ours not to question why. A long pull, a strong pull, a pull all together. We happy few!

"It's like this," Qwilleran told the cat. "If I walk into Percy's office and flatly request a change of assignment, I'm apt to land out in the street. That's the way he operates. And I can't afford to be unemployed — not right now — not till I build up a cash reserve." Koko was listening to every word.

"If the worst came to the worst, I suppose I could get a job at the Morning Rampage, but I'd hate to work for that stuffy sheet." Koko's eyes were large and full of understanding. "Yow," he said softly.

"I wish I could have a heart-to-heart talk with Percy, but it's impossible to get through to him. He programmed, like a computer. His smile — very sincere. His handshake — very strong. His compliments — very gratifying. Then the next time you meet him on the elevator, he doesn't know you. You're not on his schedule for the day." Koko shifted his position uneasily.

"He doesn't even look like a managing editor. He dresses like an advertising man. Makes me feel like a slob." Qwilleran passed a hand over the back of his neck. "Guess I should get a haircut." Koko gurgled something in his throat, and Qwilleran recognized the cue. "Okay, we'll play the game. But only a few innings this morning. I've got to go to work." He opened the big dictionary, which was remarkable for its tattered condition, and he and Koko played their word game. The way it worked, the cat dug his claws into the pages, and Qwilleran opened the books where he indicated, reading aloud the catchwords — the two boldface entries at the top of the columns. He read the right-hand page if Koko used his right paw, but usually it was the left-hand page. Koko was inclined to be a southpaw.

"Design and desk," Qwilleran read. "Those are easy. Score two points for me…. Go ahead, try again." Koko cocked his brown ears forward and dug in with his claws.

"Dictyogenous and Dieguenos. You sneaky rascal! You've stumped me!" Qwilleran had to look up both definitions, and that counted two points for the cat.

The final score was 7 to 5 in Qwilleran's favor. Then he proceeded to shower and dress, after preparing Koko's breakfast — fresh beef, diced and heated with a little canned mushroom gravy. The cat showed no interest in food, however. He followed the man around, yowling for attention in his clarion Siamese voice, tugging at the bath towel, leaping into dresser drawers as they were opened.


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