Lilian Jackson Braun - The Cat Who Played Post Office
A CAUCASIAN MALE - fiftyish, six-feet-two, weight two-thirty, graying hair, bushy moustache - opened his eyes and found himself in a strange bed in a strange room. He lay still, in a state of peculiar lassitude, and allowed his eyes to rove about the room with mild curiosity. Eyes that might be described as mournful surveyed the steel footboard of the bed, the bare window, the hideous color of the walls, the television on a high shelf. Beyond the window a tree was waving its branches wildly.
He could almost hear his mother's musical voice saying, "The tree is waving to you, Jamesy. Wave your hand like a polite little boy." Jamesy? Is that my name? It doesn't sound - exactly - right.... Where am I? What is my name?
The questions drifted across his consciousness without arousing anxiety - only a vague perplexity.
He had a mental picture of an old man with a Santa Claus beard standing at his bedside and saying, "You haft scarlet fever, Jamesy. Ve take you to the hospital and make you veil." Hospital? Is this a hospital? Do I have scarlet fever?
Although undisturbed by his predicament, he was beginning to have an uncomfortable feeling that he had neglected something of vital importance; he had failed someone close to him. His mother, perhaps? He frowned, and the wrinkling of his brow produced a slight hurt. He raised his left hand and found a bandage on his forehead. Quickly he checked other parts of his anatomy. Nothing was missing and nothing seemed to be broken, but the movement of his right knee and right elbow was restricted by more bandages. There was also something unusual about his left hand. He counted four fingers and a thumb, and yet something was wrong. It was baffling. He sighed deeply and wondered what it could possibly be that he had neglected to do.
A strange woman - plump, white haired, smiling - bustled into the room with noiseless steps. "Oh, you're awake!
You had a good night's sleep. It's a beautiful day, but windy. How do you feel, Mr. Cue?" Cue? Jamesy Cue? Is that my name?
It sounded unlikely, if not absurd. He passed his hand over his face experimentally, feeling a familiar moustache and a jaw he had shaved ten thousand times. As a voice test he said aloud to himself, "I remember the face but not the name." "My name? Toodle," the woman said pleasantly. "Mrs. Toodle. Is there anything I can do for you, Mr. Cue? Dr.
Goodwinter will be here in a few minutes. I'll take your jug and bring you some fresh water. Are you ready for brekky?" As she left the room with the jug in hand, she called over her shoulder, "You have bathroom privileges." Bathroom privileges. Brekky. Toodle.
They were foreign words that made no sense. The old man with a beard had told him he had scarlet fever. Now this woman was telling him he had bathroom privileges. It sounded like some kind of embarrassing disease. He heaved another sigh and closed his eyes to wait for the old man with a Santa Claus beard. When he opened them again, a young woman in a white coat was standing at his bedside, holding his wrist.
"Good morning, lover," she said. "How do you feel?" The voice had a familiar ring, and he remembered her green eyes and long eyelashes. Around her neck hung a tubular thing, the name of which escaped him. Hesitantly he asked, "Are you my doctor?" "Yes, and more - much more," she said with a wink.
He began to feel familiar sensations. Is she my wife? Am I a married man? Am I neglecting my family? Again he felt a twinge of guilt about the responsibility he was shirking, whatever it might be. "Are you - are you my wife?" he asked in a faltering voice.
"Not yet, but I'm working on it." She kissed an unbandaged spot on his forehead. "You still feel groggy, don't you?
But you'll be A-OK soon." He looked at his left hand. "Something's missing here." "Your watch and ring are in the hospital safe until you're ready to go home," she explained gently.
"Oh, I see.... Why am I here?" he asked fearfully, worrying about the indelicate nature of his disease.
"You fell off your bicycle on Ittibittiwassee Road. Do you remember?" Ittibittiwassee. Bathroom privileges. Brekky. Groggy.
What language, he wondered, were these people speaking? He ventured to ask, "Do I have a bicycle?" "You did have a bike, lover, but it's totaled. You'll have to buy a ten-speed now." Totaled. Ten-speed. Toodle, He shook his head in dismay. Clearing his throat, he said, "That woman who came in here said I have bathroom privileges. What is that? Is it - is it some kind of - " "It means you can get out of bed and walk to the bathroom," said the doctor with a smile twitching her lips. "I'll be back when I've finished my rounds." She kissed him again." Arch Riker is coming to see you. He's flying up from Down Below." Then she walked from the room with a long leggy stride and a chummy wave of the hand.
Arch Riker. Down Below. What was she talking about? And who was she? To ask her name would have been embarrassing under the circumstances. He shrugged in defeat, hoisted himself out of bed, and hobbled to the bathroom.
There in the mirror were sad eyes, graying temples and an oversized pepper-and-salt moustache that he recognized. Still, the name eluded him.
When the woman who called herself Toodle brought a tray of what she called brekky, he ate the blob of something soft and yellow, the two brown patties that were salty and chewy, the triangular slabs of something thin and crisp, which he smeared with something red and sweet. But he was glad to lie down again and close his eyes and stop trying to think.
He opened them suddenly. A man was standing at his bedside - a paunchy man with thinning hair and a ruddy face that he had seen many times before.
"You dirty bird!" the visitor said genially. "You gave us a scare! What were you trying to do? Kill yourself? How do you feel, Qwill?" "Is that my name? I can't remember." The man gulped twice and turned pale. "All your friends call you Qwill. Short for Qwilleran. Jim Qwilleran, spelled with a Q-w." The patient studied the information and nodded slowly. "Don't you remember me, Qwill? I'm Arch Riker, your old sidekick." Qwilleran stared at him. Sidekick. Another baffling word. "We grew up together in Chicago, Qwill. For the last few years I've been your editor at the Daily Fluxion. We've had a million lunches at the Press Club." The light began to penetrate Qwilleran's foggy mind. "Wait a minute. I want to sit up." Riker pressed a button that raised the head of the bed and pulled up a straight chair for himself. "Melinda called me and said you fell off your bike. I came right away." "Melinda?" "Melinda Goodwinter. Your latest girl, Qwill, Also your doctor, you lucky dog." "What is this place?" Qwilleran asked, "I don't know where I am." "This is the Pickax Hospital. They brought you here after your accident." "Pickax? What kind of a hospital is that?" "Pickax City - four hundred miles north of everywhere. You've been living here for the last couple of months." "Oh, , , , Is that when I left Chicago?" "Qwill, you haven't lived in Chicago for twenty years," Riker said quietly. "You've lived in New York, Washington - all around the country since then." "Wait a minute. I want to sit in that big chair." Riker picked up a red plaid bathrobe with ragged edges, "Here, get into this. It looks like yours. It's the Mackintosh tartan. Does that ring a bell? Your mother was a Mackintosh." Qwilleran's face brightened, "That's right! Where is she? Is she all right?" Riker drew a deep breath. "She died when you were in college, Qwill." He paused to formulate a plan, "Look here.
let's go back to the beginning. I've known you ever since kindergarten. Your mother called you Jamesy. We called you Snoopy. Do you remember why?" Qwilleran shook his head.
"You were always snooping into other kids' lunch boxes," He searched Qwilleran's face for a glimmer of recollection.
"Do you remember our first-grade teacher? She was thin at the top and fat at the bottom. You said, 'Old Miss Blair looks like a pear,' Remember that?" There was a slight nod and half smile in response.
"You were always good with words, You were playing with words when the rest of us were playing with water pistols." With patience Riker went on with the nostalgic recital, hitting the highlights of his friend's life. "You were spelling champ for three years.... In junior high school you discovered girls.... In high school you played baseball-outfield, good slugger.
And you edited the school paper." "The North Wind," Qwilleran murmured. "That's it! That's the name!... After graduation you went into the service and came out with a trick knee, so that was the end of baseball. In college you sang in the glee club and got interested in acting." The years rolled by in a matter of minutes. "We both went into journalism, but you got the glamour assignments.
You were tops as a crime reporter, and whenever there was any trouble overseas, they sent you to cover the hot spots." With each revelation Qwilleran' s mind became sharper, and he responded with more awareness.
"You won journalism prizes and wrote a book on urban crime. It actually got on the best-seller list." "For about ten minutes." Relief showed in Riker's face. His friend was beginning to sound normal. "You were my best man when I married Rosie." "It rained all day. I remember the wet confetti." "You were in Scotland when you married Miriam." Again Qwilleran felt the vague uneasiness. "Where is she? Why isn't she here?" "You were divorced about ten years ago. She's somewhere in Connecticut." The mournful eyes gazed into space. "And after that everything fell apart." "Okay, let's face it, Qwill. You developed a drinking problem and couldn't hold a job, but you snapped out of it and came to work for the Daily Fluxion, writing features. You turned out some good stuff. You could write about art, antiques, interior design - anything." "Even if I didn't know anything about it," Qwilleran put in.
"When you started writing restaurant reviews, you could make food sound as interesting as crime." "Wait a minute, Arch! How long have I been away from my desk? I've got to get back to work!" "Hey, man, you quit several weeks ago!" "What! Why did I quit? I need the job!" "Not anymore, my friend. You inherited money - a bundle of it - the Klingenschoen fortune." "I don't believe it! What am I doing? Where do I live?" "Here in Pickax City. Those were the terms of the will. You have to live in Moose County for five years. You inherited a big house in Pickax with a four-car garage and a limousine and - " Qwilleran grabbed the arms of his chair. "The cats! Where are the cats? I haven't fed the cats!" That was the thing that had been troubling the edges of his mind. "I've got to get out of here!" "Don't get excited. You'll split your stitches. The brats are okay. Your housekeeper is feeding them, and she's making up a room for me so I can stay overnight." "Housekeeper?" "Mrs. Cobb. I wouldn't mind going there right now for a little shut-eye. I've been up since four o'clock this morning." "I'll go with you. Where are my clothes?" "Sit down, sit down, Qwill. Melinda wants to run a few tests. I'll check back with you later." "Arch, no one but you could have dredged up all that ancient history." Riker grabbed his friend's hand. "Are you feeling like yourself now?" "I think so. Don't worry." "See you later, Qwill. God! I'm glad to see you functioning again. You gave me a bad scare." After Riker had left, Qwilleran tested himself. Sidekick, shut-eye, brekky. Now he knew the meaning of all the words.
He could remember his own telephone number. He could spell onomatopoeia. He knew the names of his cats: Koko and Yum Yum, a pair of beautiful but tyrannical Siamese.
Yet, there was a period of a few hours that remained a blank. No matter how intensely he concentrated, he could not recall anything immediately before or immediately after the accident. Why did he falloff his bike? Did he hit a pothole or some loose gravel? Or did he pass out while pedaling? Perhaps that was Melinda's reason for wanting to run tests.
He was too tired to concentrate further. Recollecting his entire past had been an exhausting chore. In a single morning he had relived more than forty years. He needed a nap. He needed some shut-eye. Smiling to himself because he now knew all the words, he fell asleep.
Qwilleran slept soundly, and he had a vivid dream. He was having lunch in a sunny room, all yellow and green. The housekeeper was serving macaroni-and-cheese flecked with green pepper and red pimiento. He could picture everything distinctly: the brown casserole, the housekeeper's bright pink sweater. In the dream the colors were so vibrant they were disturbing.
Qwilleran was telling Mrs. Cobb that he might take a bike ride on Ittibittiwassee Road.