Every year on Christmas Eve, after my extended family and I eat our dinner of seven fishes (which we have reimagined as one sort-of fish (shrimp) prepared seven different ways) and reenacts the nativity (during which my grandmother always warns me that if I laugh I will “get thrown out”), my father and my brother head to midnight Mass while my mother and I feign tiredness and go home to talk shit over a cup of tea. It’s a lovely tradition for all of us.
I usually have to sit at the kitchen table with my coat on for twenty minutes while we wait for my parents’ pitiful space heater to do its thing – something that my father would take issue with even being turned on because, according to him, the lights on their 11-foot Christmas tree should be able to heat the whole house. Even he knows that isn’t true because he often sits around the house in a knit stocking cap with a giant poof, his wool socks pulled over the cuffs of his sweatpants.
“You just have to bundle up,” he said to me the day before when I suggested they turn the heat on. “This isn’t New York.”
But luckily for me, as soft as the city may have made me, there was someone even softer in the house that we could all put down: my brother’s cat, Dr. Socks, who earlier in the day got outmaneuvered by a jingle bell and also choked on a piece of ham that I fed him while he was sitting in the manger. He isn’t a smart cat and we all know it. So I don’t know why my mother and I thought it would be a good idea to put an oversized gift bag on the floor for him to play with that night, but we did.
As with most games we tried to play with Dr. Socks, the bag required a great deal of instruction and the power of suggestion.
“YOU GO IN IT,” I said to him from the floor, where I was perched on all fours still wearing my down parka. “YOU CRAWL INTO THE BAG.”
I spent a few seconds trying to mimic crawling into the bag, then picked him up and shoved him inside. “THERE. ISN’T THAT FUN?”
The cat inched back out uncertainly, relieved to see the rest of the kitchen was just as he left it.
“That is the dumbest cat ever.” That’s the last thing I remember saying before the cyclone hit our house. Furniture knocked around, knick-knacks tumbling, a potted plant trampled.
It took me and my mother a few seconds to realize what had happened: on his way out, Dr. Socks had gotten a handle stuck around his neck and now believed was he being chased all over the house by a big, bad bag.
I’d like to say that we put a stop to this right away, but we didn’t. We couldn’t, really. We couldn’t catch him, for one thing. And we were laughing too hard, for another. There was a cat with a bag-cape running around, who could blame us? It wasn’t until he knocked the glass off a side table and skid into the oven that we realized this could be a real problem.
“The tree,” my mother said between gales of laughter. “We will be in so much trouble if he knocks over the tree.”
Luckily for us, on his next tear through the living room, the bag got caught between an easy chair and a pineapple plant and tore off. Dr. Socks, free of his assailant, ran upstairs to my brother’s room and hid under the bed, where he remained for the rest of the night.
“Let’s pretend this never happened,” my mother said.
“Yes, let’s,” I agreed. “Just act totally normal when Tom comes back.”
There was a small problem with this plan, that being acting normal has never been our strong suit.
“We haven’t seen Socks all night,” I announced as soon as he came home from Mass. “We have no idea where he is.”
“Everyone should go to bed now!” my mother added. “It’s late. So go to bed. Everyone go to bed.”
We were clear, I’ll give us that. Though not particularly discrete.
The next morning, when I went downstairs for breakfast, my mother pulled me into the kitchen and whispered, “We need to talk. About the B-A-G.”
Apparently, when she woke up that morning Dr. Socks made it as far as the kitchen door before cowering and running back up the steps.
“I tried to coax him in with his food dish, you know how he is when he’s going to be fed,” she said. “But he wouldn’t come.”
My solution was very simple. “Let Tom deal with it.”
And that seemed to work well enough – Tom came down the steps that morning, Dr. Socks in tow. And when he went into the kitchen, the cat sat in the doorway patiently waiting for him to come back out – mindful of the threat of bags, apparently, but comfortable enough to be out and about now that my brother was back home. For his part, Tom noticed nothing to be amiss (something that will surely come in handy in the future for my nephew-to-be).
An hour later, as we opened gifts in our living room with the cat under the table, my brother casually tossed a gift bag on the floor. Dr. Socks took off in a flash, up the steps and into a bedroom where my brother’s fiancé later found him hiding in the boxspring of their bed. Not under the bed like a normal cat, but in the actual boxspring. He had clawed his way in – an impressive feat for an otherwise dumb cat.
“Don’t tell your parents,” she said to me as she cut him loose with a pair of scissors and scooped him out.
I immediately told my parents – my mother at least. Because little did the fiancé know that we were the reason that cat was hiding in the first place. “We have a problem,” I told her in the laundry room. “He’s hiding in the boxspring. We have to tell Tom.”
“No! He’s going to kill us,” she said, clawing at my arm. But it was too late – I was already out in the living room explaining away.
When I was done, all my brother said was, “Why would you do that? You know he’s not that smart.”
And then we spent the rest of the day tiptoeing around the cat trying to avoid contact with anything that could outsmart him. All the boxes were put away, the toy that dispensed treats opened and spilled out, the food dish moved to another room. King Socks. If he had asked for the heat to be turned up, we probably would have done it.
It sort of makes me wish the cat could talk. But we all know he’s not smart enough for that. Instead, I plan to teach my nephew to make that ask of my father just as soon as he’s able.
And, don’t worry – l learned my lesson with improvised toys. I definitely won’t let the baby play with any bags… Or the cat, for that matter.
This is the year we start being careful. Next year, the heat.