The Strangest Thing

cheetah  I don’t write a lot of fiction. 

However, once a month, my writers group gives a special assignment to break up the routine of our regular works in progress. For August, we were to write something, in any style, about the prompt, “A baby cheetah knocks on your door and asks for a sandwich.”

Here is mine — a short story about friendly revenge.

NOTE: It shouldn’t need to be said, but in this day and age, everything needs to be said: no animals, cheetah or otherwise, were hurt in the writing of this story!

THE STRANGEST THING 

I slurped another gurgle of beer and tipped the frosted mug toward my friend, Chuck, perched on the next stool.

“Yea, so the strangest thing happened to me the other day.”

“Do tell.”

“I was watching the Sox game – they were losing again, what a shitty season they’re having this year!”

“Ok, nothing too strange about that.”

“Hold on, I’m not finished. I was watching the game when I heard someone knocking on the door.”

I raised the glass to my lips once again. It was a hot day. I was parched and couldn’t get the cold, amber relief to the back of my throat fast enough.

“Anyway Mr. Impatient, I got up and answered the door, and what do you think I saw there?”

“Jeezus, man, I don’t know! Please just tell me. I have to get home some time tonight or my wife is going to kick my ass. I’ve been out every night this week.” Chuck sipped his Crown Royal neat, his drink of choice ever since we met in college thirty years ago. He tossed a handful of corn nuts into his mouth just as I started to answer. Bad timing on my part.

“It was a baby cheetah – Hey! Don’t choke!” I firmly smacked Chuck on the back to help him find his breath.

“What the hell? Did you say a baby cheetah?”

“Yep.”

“A baby cheetah? As in, a jungle cat?”

“Technically they live more on the plains of Africa, but yes.”

“Ah, yes…I should have known that factoid,” he said, a little too dry and snarky for my taste. Still, he is my best friend, so I let it go. He took another drink to try to wash down the rogue corn nut remnants. “Ok wise guy, what gives? And get to getting to the point already…”

“So, like I said…”

“Hold on one doggone minute!” Chuck pushed his left palm nearly into my face. “Just stop right there. Is this another one of your stupid long-winded jokes?”

“Sir, I do not know to what jokes you refer.” I elevated my nose slightly, feigning indignation at his disdain and doubt-ridden suggestion.

“You know what the hell I mean. I mean like the one about a moth flying into a podiatrist’s office that goes on and on and on forever before you finally get to the stupid punchline and laugh yourself silly.”

“Tsk-tsk…” I clicked my tongue loudly and rolled my eyes. “Don’t take it out on me just because you have no taste or sense of humor.”

“I have no sense of humor? Mr. Kettle, may I introduce you to Mr. Pot?”

“Whatever. You mock, but I swear, this is absolutely true. So, there I was, staring down at a baby cheetah. And guess what happened next?”

“Here we go again…” Chuck turned away and grabbed another handful of nuts.

“The cheetah asked for a sandwich.”

A storm of half-chewed, spit-cemented nuts spewed from Chuck’s mouth. I kind of felt bad for the guy. He is my best friend, after all. Well, maybe not all that bad, but a little sympathetic, at least.

“Hardy-har-har,” Chuck said, slamming into each syllable. “He talked? A baby cheetah talked to you? He used actual words?”

“Naturally. How else do you think he asked for a sandwich? Sign language?”

“Fine, Mr. Smarty Pants. I’ll bite. So what kind of a sandwich did he request? Antelope? Gazelle? Hippo?”

“Of course not! That’s just stupid. First, why would I have any of that? And second, it’s a baby cheetah. Haven’t you heard a word I’ve said? It wanted peanut butter and jelly, like all kids.”

“Ok, if you say so.”

“I know so.”

“Fine. So, when this cheetah…”

“Baby cheetah.”

“Right. Baby cheetah. When this baby cheetah magically shows up on your porch…”

“Uh-huh.”

“…and speaks to you…”

“Now you’ve got it.”

“In English, no less…”

“Why wouldn’t it speak English? This is America, after all.”

“…and asks you for a peanut butter and jelly sandwich…”

“Uh-huh.”

“…what did you do?”

“What anyone would do. I went back in the house and made a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.”

“And you served it to him – I’m sorry, I’m assuming it was a male?”

“Good question. Truthfully, it was hard to tell. I was so amazed that words were coming from his mouth that I didn’t really look at its hind quarters, if you know what I mean. Plus, you know, at that age, the male voice sounds just like a girl’s so I can’t say for sure.”

“Ah, of course,” Chuck said, letting this tidbit of clean, clear, pure logic roll over his brain. “Silly me! What am I thinking? So, you served the sandwich to it?”

“Certainly! Why wouldn’t I? Poor, little thing looked hungry, and it’d come all that way from…wherever it came from. But first I invited it in. I didn’t want to be rude.”

“Heaven forbid! So, what did you do then?”

“What any reasonable person would do. I offered him a side to go with his sandwich.”

“Let me guess – Cheetos?”

I waved my index finger at Chuck in agreement. “Aha! You would think so, right? But no, he said he doesn’t like the orange dust rubbing off onto his fur. So, I gave him goldfish crackers to go along with the sandwich…”

“Goldfish crackers?”

“Again, kids love the goldfish. Don’t you know anything about anything? Plus, you know, a cheetah? Cat? Fish?”

“Ah! Of course! Shame on me for not connecting such obvious dots and appreciating your magnificent thoughtfulness. Then what?”

“I gave him a glass of milk.”

“I get it now – cats like milk,” Chuck said, triumphantly.

I looked at Chuck like he had two heads on his shoulders. “How the hell should I know what cats like? You know perfectly well that I have two dogs and a parakeet. I am allergic to cats. How long have you known me? And you call yourself my best friend?” I rose from the barstool as if to leave.

Chuck grabbed my shoulder and shoved me back onto the stool. “Sit back down you idiot, and finish telling your incredible story.”

I smiled, happy with my small victory. I didn’t win many such battles with Chuck. Taller, more attractive, quick witted, a naturally gifted musician, he’d also always been wiser and cleverer than me. I love him like a brother – maybe even more than my own brothers, truth be told – but I admit, envy sometimes rears its ugly green head when it comes to my best buddy. So, every win, no matter how miniscule, was to be celebrated.

“Well, Ok. That is, only if you really want to hear it.”

“Yes. Pretty please, Freddie. Please honor me with the rest of your story,” Chuck said, stretching and dragging each word for melodramatic emphasis.

“Ok, so, where was I?”

“You’d given the mysterious talking baby cheetah a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and goldfish crackers because that’s what children like, and a glass of milk because…You didn’t say why you gave it a glass of milk.”

“Because milk goes perfectly with peanut butter, of course!”

“Of course. Why didn’t I think of that? So, then what did you do?”

“Well, we talked for a while.”

“About?”

“You know, the usual. The weather, politics, sports. He’s a big football fan. Likes the Bears, but his favorite teams are the Detroit Lions and the Carolina Panthers.”

“Go figure!” Heavy laughter finally rolled through the new smile on Chuck’s face. “So, then what?”

“Then I politely excused myself, went back to the kitchen and out to the garage.”

“Why did you go to the garage, pray tell?”

“Because I keep my guns in a locked cabinet in the garage, so our kids can’t get at them.”

“Wha…?” I had Chuck right where I wanted him, stuck in a briar patch of befuddlement.

“I took my revolver from the cabinet, marched back into the house and shot the cheetah right where he sat – oops, sorry, I mean, it.”

Chuck’s eyelids and mouth rattled open like broken window shades. “What the hell? You shot and killed a talking baby cheetah that had come to your door and asked for a sandwich? Are you insane? Why would you do such a thing?”

“Well, think about it. I mean, it was still a cheetah, right? A wild animal? We don’t allow wild animals in the suburbs. He could have grown up to kill us all. Or at least eat our pets!” Every muscle in my cheeks, forehead, eyebrows and chin strained under the immense pressure to hold back a guffaw. God, I was enjoying this.

His face now an ice sculpture of confusion, he slowly shook his head. “But…wha…that doesn’t make any…I mean…How…” Words spluttered through his lips like water through a clogged faucet.

Straight-faced, I continued. “Don’t worry about it! Everything is fine! I cleaned the fur real nice. No blood stains at all. Then I skinned it and cooked the meat. You ever had baby cheetah?”

No reply.

“Tastes just like ham. A little less salty, but good.”

Still no response. I could barely contain my glee. I prepared my final salvo. Took a deep breath. Then fired.

“Speaking of ham, did I ever tell you about the time I went to see Bob Franco, who lives on a farm?”

Finally, Chuck looked at me through eyes still glazed with the image of me eating a talking baby cheetah. “What? Who? Bob? The guy we knew from our freshman math class in college?”

“Yep. The very same. He’s a farmer now, and when I pulled up to his house, I noticed this three-legged pig kind of hip-hopping around the side yard. So, I asked Bob, ‘Hey, why does that pig have only three legs’?”

Chuck stared at me for about 15 seconds. I tell you, if his eyes could have shot lasers, I’d have been a pile of ash. Finally, he spun off the bar stool, grabbing a handful of corn nuts and whipping them at my head. He stampeded toward the bar’s front door, nearly toppling a waitress carrying a tray of drinks.

“Chuck! Wait!” I gasped through pounding waves of laughter.

Skating across the floor in five long steps without so much as a “good bye,” he slammed the door just as the words escaped my lips. He didn’t hear them, but I didn’t care. I had finally gotten his goat – or, cheetah, as it were.

I held my sides to keep from keeling over with laughter and yelled into the beer-battered barroom air.

“Chuck! Come back! Don’t you want to know why this pig has only three legs, Chuck? It’s the strangest thing!”

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Daize and the 2 a.m. Stroll

Daize

I share this as pet penance.

My wife, Kellie and I are the proud parents of two dogs – Ozzie, a 13-year-old male Shi Tzu, and Daize (pronounced Daisy), a 7-year-old Shi Tzu-Terrier mix.

We have owned two other Shi Tzus (our preferred breed because I am allergic to pet hair and dander, and they don’t shed) – Duncan, who passed after two wonderful years before we had our human babies; and Otto, who filled the first 14 years of our human parenthood with joy.

We got Daize one year ago, on August 13, 2017. A year later, we love her as much as any of our other dogs.

But, to be clear, I did not want her.

To explain: about 18 months ago, we noticed that Ozzie was bumping into things, not responding to our voices, and basically sleeping all day. In other words, he was going blind and deaf and getting old, as dogs (and their middle-age parents) will do.

Kellie — whose heart on its smallest, Grinchiest days is three sizes bigger than mine will ever be — suggested possibly getting another dog soon, maybe as a transition dog or a friend for Ozzie since we wouldn’t likely have him much longer –a year, maybe two.

I briefly thought about it, but, I told my wife, her argument made no sense.

First, Ozzie didn’t need or seem to want a companion. He sleeps twenty-two hours a day. Plus, he’s blind and deaf, so odds are he wouldn’t even know another dog was in the room unless he accidentally bumped into it searching for his water.

But more to the point, my (former) Catholic guilt wouldn’t let me even consider taking even one minute of attention from Ozzie, knowing his days are numbered. Every time I thought about it, I felt like a nun had caught me peaking at another kid’s math test.

So, for one of the exceptionally rare times in our 33 years together, I said “no.” I meant it and was prepared to stick to my guns.

Then Kellie got a strange phone call.

A man who had been a resident at the assisted living home where she works, was returning to Illinois in extreme poor health after a year living in Georgia. Alas, his days, too, were numbered. He needed someone to take his dog, Daize.

His family couldn’t help, but he knew Kellie had loved Daize when they lived here. (True – Kellie is a magnificent mother/grandmother/caretaker to just about everyone and everything she meets. She’d even brought Daize to our house once or twice when the man needed help.) If Kellie could not take Daize, he’d have to put the dog into a shelter.

Naturally, my wife came to me. This couldn’t be coincidence, she was sure. She made her case as powerfully and passionately and logically as any lawyer.

I said no.

She tried several more times.

Still, no.

Then she did the worst, most diabolical, most twisted thing possible: she secretly conspired with our girls.

Out of nowhere my girls started carpet bombing me for several days with pleas for mercy and kindness. Our youngest even sang that god-awful Sarah McLachlan song from the ASPCA commercial.

Now, that’s dirty pool in my book!

Finally, I relented. What else could I do? I was trapped. But that didn’t mean I had to like it. And I didn’t. Not one bit.

So, on a hot August Sunday afternoon, my guilt riding shotgun and sniping in my ear the whole way, we picked up Daize from her former owner and “adopted” her.

Significantly overweight, with a smile defined by a hilariously-pronounced underbite, heavily matted and unkempt fur, a bit confused in her new surroundings, looking kind of sad but otherwise OK, we brought her into our home.

She slowly filled one of the vacant spots in our newly-empty nest. And for no reason that I can discern or fathom even a year later, she attached herself to me.

Oh, she loves Kellie – who wouldn’t?

Yet Daize has become, absolutely, unquestionably, unequivocally, undisputedly, indubitably, my dog.

She will not leave my side. Even now as I write this, she lays two feet behind me on the rug in my office. She follows me everywhere like a 34-pound, four-pawed shadow. If I get up to do anything, she will follow. It’s exhausting just watching her!

When I get anywhere near her, she immediately rolls over for me to rub her fat, pink belly. And if I dare stop before she is contented, she bats at my hands until I resume.

Worst of all, it seems she is a night owl. (Perhaps she was a college kid in another life…)

Last winter, she started getting up and demanding to go outside at least once, often twice and occasionally three times a night. Usually around 2 a.m. she would bark from the bottom of the stairs until I get up.

At first, she would stroll around the yard, hunting for critters or frogs under the plants and decorative grasses.

“Hurry it up! Get in here!” I would yell at the top of my whispering voice from the kitchen in my pajamas, trying not wake every neighbor around.

She’d stare at me, dribble a token pee-pee, then saunter back, taking her sweet time. And then we’d enjoy a late-night snack together to celebrate her being a good girl.

Finally, in early spring, I got wise and put her on a leash so she couldn’t wander as far into the night shade. Now, she still gets me up several times a night, but at least it’s for a shorter period. That’s why I am the human! Superior brain power!

Remember, I didn’t want a dog at that time. Not this dog, not any dog.

Yet, there I am standing on the patio in my night duds, laughing at her shenanigans, joy filling my heart as sure as air fills my lungs.

What’s more – surprise! — she filled a void in my spirit and proved to be the “transition dog” that Kellie wanted. Not for Ozzie, who still ignores Daize as much as he can. But rather for me, bridging the gap between our daughters moving out, and our granddaughter’s birth.

All of which proves several points that have shaped my life:

  • wives hold all real power and wisdom;
  • human kids are excellent/evil conspirators;
  • pets of all kinds are members of the family as deserving of our love as any creature, human or otherwise;

And (as if the platypus weren’t proof enough) that God has a wicked sense of humor.