We were a house of many schedules. We passed in the kitchen, nodding, guessing from what others were eating which stage they were at in their day. Breakfast, lunch, dinner. Beginning, middle, end. We’d been friends once. Then we were roommates. Then we were people who pooled the rent, and that was the most you could say of us. We didn’t even meet to pool. We left our shares in an envelope on the counter, wrote what we’d left on a yellow legal pad, and one of us counted the total and paid. Some of us worked night shifts. Some of us worked days. One of us, many suspected, did not work at all, and she was the one who brought in the creature.
On a yellow lined page stuck to the fridge, she’d written an essay of explanation. But we saw the essay second. We saw the creature first.
“Why is this here?” said one of the people, who stood in the kitchen and pointed.
I’d just walked in on my way out the door. To grab some fruit leather and slip out the door.
“Maybe it’s lost?”
“It doesn’t look lost.”
The creature came over and butted my shins.
“It likes you,” said the person.
“Maybe it’s hungry?”
I opened the cupboard, now stacked with tins—tuna dinner, beef dinner, chicken and gravy dinner—in addition to all that had been there before: flour and sugar in unopened bags, uncooked rice, pasta in boxes. I took out a tin of chicken and gravy.
“How much do you feed them?”
“Whatever they’ll eat?”
The person saw the note on the fridge.
“It’s signed Pamela.”
“Which one of us is Pamela?”
“Pamela’s the one who doesn’t work.”
I opened the tin, a tab that you pull. Fft! An intake of air, like the tin had just risen from a long, salty dive. The satisfying cweeeeeaaak of the scored metal top. The creature butted my shins and purred.
“Aw, so cute.”
“What should we name it?”
“What does the note say?”
“That’s a cute name for a cat.”
The person read the note aloud as I spooned out as much as I thought a thing ate. I looked at its sides and envisioned a stomach. How big was a stomach? In relation to this? Or maybe did house-creatures have more than one? Like a cow?
“It’s from a no-kill shelter,” said the person. “You know what that means. Bottom of the barrel.”
“How do no-kills stay in business?”
The creature looked up with half-closed eyes and licked its furry chops.
We took turns petting it. I left for my day. That moment in the kitchen, the discovery of the creature, the feeding of the creature, the turns we took petting and holding the creature, was the most time I’d spent with a person in the house for I don’t know how long.
The next I saw of the creature, it was pooled on a person’s lap. This was in the living room, where no one ever lived.
“What are you doing?”
“I don’t know.”
The person stroked the creature. It purred.
“Can I join you?”
“So cute. Crinoline.”
“I know. So cute.”
The task of feeding went unassigned. It wasn’t like housework, no need for a fridge chart. We pretended not to know when it was already done. We did it behind one another’s backs. Soon we ran out of tins.
“Crinoline belongs to the house,” said a person. “We should all contribute to kitty litter and food.”
“Here’s ten bucks,” said another person.
“Here’s ten bucks,” I said. “Get chicken and gravy. It’s Crinoline’s favorite.”
I opened a cupboard for fruit leather. The cupboards were bare.
“Where’s my fruit leather?”
“Where’s my pasta?”
“Where’s my rice?”
“Where’s my flour and sugar?”
We all turned to Crinoline, who burped.
We bought more flour and rice and pasta. We bought tins and chow. We bought toy mice. We stood around the kitchen table, debating which flavor Crinoline preferred. I stuck to chicken and gravy. Others said tuna. One said beef. We put it to a test.
Someone said, “While we’re all standing around feeding the cat, maybe we should feed ourselves. I could make pasta.”
So they did, and we all sat together and ate at the kitchen table, which I don’t think we’d done before.
“Has anyone seen Pamela?”
“Not since Crinoline arrived.”
We played with our creature, we cuddled our creature, we fed it as much as it wanted to eat. We watched whatever the TV was showing and passed our creature between us.
“What would we do without Crinoline?”
“We should thank Pamela. Has anyone seen her?”
Then the thefts began. I raised the matter in the kitchen.
“Visa called. Someone rang up a huge bill at the pet store. I mean huge.”
“Are you accusing one of us?”
“Well,” I said, “it wasn’t me. And I’d left my purse on the counter. So. . . .”
Then later it happened again, but this time to another person.
“Someone made a gigantic donation to the no-kill shelter. I’d left my wallet in the laundry room. So. . . .”
Then it happened again.
“Someone bought a chicken farm and a gravy factory. I’d left my banking page open on my laptop. So. . . .”
We all turned to Crinoline, who winked.
“Did Crinoline just wink?”
“A coincidence, I’m sure.”
“Fur in the eye.”
“I think Crinoline winked.”
I checked my purse. There was fur on the inside. We waited nervously to find out what Crinoline would get into next.
“Someone’s been driving my car. There’s fur on the seat.”
“Someone’s been texting from my phone. But only meows.”
“Someone’s been eating my houseplants.”
The doorbell rang. It was a delivery from the plant store.
“One thousand spider plants,” said the man. “Sign here please.”
We sat at the table that night as Crinoline chewed on a honeysuckle stuffy.
“What should we do?” I said.
“I’d be angry, but Crinoline’s so cute.”
“I was angry, but who could stay angry at Crinoline?”
“When cats are bored they act out. You can’t blame the cat. Maybe we’re just too boring?”
“What should we do?”
“Put on a play?”
“Write some songs?”
“A laser show. With laser pointers. Crinoline would love that.”
So we sewed ourselves mouse suits, we practiced meowing. We called the paper bag company, ordered their biggest. We rolled catnip joints, which we smoked, just to see. Someone went down to the docks and paid a fisherman in cash. That evening we stood in the shadows as he opened up his trunk. The body was wrapped in a tarp.
“Four hundred pounder,” said the fisherman with a grin.
We carried the sturgeon into the house, dragged it to the living room, dropped it on a placemat of newspapers. We called in Crinoline and unwrapped the prize. Crinoline crouched, closed its eyes, and tucked in. We’d moved the sofas to clear a wide performing space. We’d arranged the spider plants in a lush backdrop. As Crinoline ate, tiny bite by tiny bite, we, the house, performed.
Come dawn, the sturgeon was stripped to the cartilage, and the house was ready to drop from exhaustion. But we all felt jolly, and Crinoline purred, and that’s when the doorbell rang.
We answered together, all pipe cleaner whiskers, all face paint and glitter, our tails of stuffed nylons a-wag in the air.
Disheveled, confused, she stood holding Crinoline, who looked annoyed.
We all turned to the creature in the living room, which assumed its true form.
“That’s right!” it cried. “The truth comes out! And I am a kitty impostor! Your housemate was held for all these days in a cage in the no-kill shelter. But my work here is done, my business provisioned, so she is now free. Good-bye!”
The creature clicked its heels and left. We guided Pamela inside, the true cat in her arms. We gave them each a bowl of milk.
Though we’d been robbed, we didn’t mind. The thefts had brought our home together. Though we’d been tricked, we felt the wiser. We knew now the business of the no-kill shelter. And though our Crinoline ate the plants, and savaged the sofas, and pooped in the corners, we all felt somehow fuller and better. All thanks to the creature from the no-kill shelter. Now you know about the cats from the no-kill shelter.