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Western Pennsylvania Mensa presents.... Catcall

By Carole Mclntyre

"Cochrane's prop list clearly specifies a white cat! See? Acts I and III, a 'white cat!' Even you ought to be able to see that!"

Phillip Andrews, the director, and his wife, the properties mistress, were at it again, and the cast stood, embarrassed, looking away, waiting for them to get back to the play.

"I can't help what the list says, there isn't a white cat in this town that I can get for this production. It'll have to be gray." Cassandra Andrews had a name that usually got slurred into C'sandrews. She was slowly gathering up the props to put on Catcall, but in Tadd's Ford, the cats were likely to be pretty randomly colored.

"White will show up better in the black light when it plays its own ghost, in the third act. Can't you see that? It has to be white!"

"I'll keep looking." It was the tired reply of someone who hated to fight, particularly in public. C'sandrews always looked dowdy, with her out-of-fashion long hair and indifferent style of dress. Phillip was something of a dandy, but his wife had to be careful to attract no male attention.

# # #

"Her name is 'Angel.'" C'sandrews' arms were full of white cat, who looked around with mild interest at the backstage, the props table, cast, and director.

"Fine. Angel?" the director called, but the cat took no notice.

"She can't hear."

"Can't hear? How will we get her to work onstage? What have you done this time?"

"We tap the floor with this. It's really better than if she could hear: she can't be distracted by the audience. Her people call her with this mallet, and feed her. They say it works every time. We need some cans of catfood, and the mallet. She'll go from one side of the stage to the other, and that's all the part needs." Startling blue eyes stared at the director. Everything else about the cat was white fur with pink trim. Angel looked like a stuffed toy, and was nearly as still.

Angel was as good as advertised. She was even something of a scene-stealer. Curled up on the crimson wingback, with her hanging tail swinging like a pendulum, she observed the play. At her cue, when the floor was tapped with the mallet, she hopped off the chair and took her snowy self with her question-mark tail into the wings, stage right.

In the black light, she was a convincing spectral lavender for the third act, attacking the male lead.

# # #

Catcall was cranking toward dress rehearsal. Since the props mistress had the stage dressed, and everything accumulated for the play, the director decided that she ought to understudy the female lead, just in case. He would understudy the male lead. They had pretty much adopted Angel for the duration, because it was easier than running her back and forth to her owners' home. The white cat settled into her new surroundings as imperturbably as she accepted everything else.

There were certain advantages to stage makeup, C'sandrews considered. It covered really well. With any kind of luck, the bruise on her cheekbone, acquired when dinner had been late Sunday, wouldn't be noticed at work or the ongoing rehearsals. At least, her eye hadn't swollen shut: that was harder to cover. Long sleeves took care of the marks on her arms, and between her long red hair and the turtleneck, nothing showed on her neck, either.

By the time of the technical rehearsal, C'sandrews thought that Angel was a much better companion than Phillip, even if she did shed. Philip was inclined to be bossy at the best of times, and when there was a play in production, he became a genuine autocrat at the theater, and much worse than usual at home. As the dates for the play drew near, she knew, she would have ever more use for the pancake that covered a multitude of sins. Phillip's nerves would result in his delicate digestion becoming even more temperamental, and she would be the lightning rod for everything. C'sandrews was amazed that he showed no adverse reaction to the cat, given his lengthy list of food allergies. They seldom ate out because of them, and his complete unwillingness to admit them to anyone else. She knew, and he hated it that she knew.

Strawberries, shellfish, peanuts, wheat flour, whole milk - - when he was at his snarling worst, she considered serving him clam chowder, a peanut butter sandwich, and shortcake for dessert.

That would be a little too obvious, wouldn't it? she muttered to Angel, who purred on her lap. Funny, she never meowed, never made any sound other than the vibration in her throat. But she certainly did purr, although not for Phillip, who didn't want to trade affection with the cat, anyhow. He complained about the white hairs decorating his dark suits. He had taken to pushing her away roughly, earning a soundless but heartfelt hiss which he ignored.

Phillip chose not to acknowledge a lot of things, including C'sandrews pleas that he not sneak up on her. Once he knew that bothered her, he occasionally entered the house silently, drifted through the rooms like smoke until he ascertained her presence, slid up behind her to nuzzle her neck with apparent affection, or tickle her, enjoying her startled gasp.

This time, she was in the bathroom, looking at the paper strip which had once again failed to turn pink. He caught her in a sigh of relief, his fingers digging into her ribs, enjoying that jolt of reflex, the sharply indrawn breath.

"Still not pregnant? Maybe you ought to change doctors. Any mongrel bitch can manage to have pups. Surely you could at least do that!"

"Doctor Jackson is the best in town," she responded. Neither Phillip nor Dr. Jackson knew about the pills, also pink, which were hidden in the back of her desk drawer at work, or the tiny lumps in her purse that covered the weekends. She had been fending off a hormone assay for some months: she knew what it would tell the doctor. She also knew that if Philip treated her as he did, a child would be even more vulnerable, and give him one more hold on her. He had never actually said that he'd kill her if she tried to leave, but the knowledge lay between them, unspoken, fully known.

# # #

Dress rehearsal drew the reviewer from the Tadd's Ford Advocate, who brought a photographer to help with the spread. Angel in her wingback rated a pic, and the two leads managed a very dramatic moment for the camera. Phillip got notice as director, of course, and C'sandrews her usual line in the program.

The darkened stage was no particular problem for the cat, although the humans stumbled around backstage if they weren't within reach of the tiny penlights with blue gels the prompters used to read their scripts. The props girl in the left wing would urge her out onto the stage, the black light picked her out, and she sauntered across to the wingback, almost glowing as her ghostly self, having cashed in one of her nine lives in the first act. The male lead tapped the floor to summon Angel across the dim stage to the chair where he slouched with a bottle of expensive cognac.

She'd been "killed" offstage in the first act by the male lead, who then killed his "wife," the female lead, in the second act. He was betrayed by the cat and his own guilty conscience in the last act, as the ghost cat screamed and appeared to bite his hand, hanging over the arm of her favored wingback, strategically located over a can of catfood. Since Angel was speechless, a tape recording of the screaming cat was cued as she approached the chair.

Of course, since the cat wasn't "real" at this point, there was no actual bite, and the marks existed only in the mind of the killer, who drunkenly confessed to his crime. The cast members agreed that Angel's deafness was a definite plus, because she made no response to the taped cat scream, and the wiggling fingers of the actor could generally induce her to pounce at his hand.

# # #

Phillip caught her in the kitchen, this time, washing down a pill with a glass of cold milk. He'd been running an errand, she'd thought, and when his cheek touched her hair, she'd choked, coughed, and dropped the glass, which shattered on the sink and spread milk across the tile floor.

"Awww," Phillip purred, "Well, there's no use crying over spilt milk, is there?" He grabbed a handful of her hair, forced her to the floor, and began to mop up the milk with her hair, being careful to contact the milk as little as possible, himself.

He stood astride her, washing his hands in the sink. "You really should be more careful. Well, ta-ta! I'm off? and he ostentatiously left, again.

C'sandrews lay staring at the ceiling, silent tears running down the sides of her face to puddle in her ears, and Angel licked her chin, nuzzling her neck. The cat's cold little nose was oddly comforting in its honest seeking. Phillip would be relaxed and amiable after this, the play would go well tonight. That was good.

# # #

The first two performances had gone off very well, the cast considered, and they might have to put Angel in for an Equity card. She was being utterly professional, they agreed, although there had been a moment in the third act of the second night when she'd sat down and begun to wash up, right in the middle of the stage, before leisurely ambling over to "bite" the male lead. Waiting for her, he'd drunk so much tea from the cognac bottle, he said, it was surprising he made it to the end of the act.

With two shows under their belts and the cast party beckoning after curtain, everyone gulped hard when the bubble burst: the male lead had been in an accident on the way to the theater. Philip took a quick last read through the first act, everyone wished him a broken leg, and the show went on. There were a few glitches, but all the cast members knew the script so well by this time that everyone covered ably.

Surely, Angel in her silent world couldn't possibly know that her onstage baths caused bated breath in the wingback chair and consternation backstage. Perversely, Angel sat down again to carefully wash her paws and face. Giggles from the audience drifted over the lowered footlights. Phillip rapped on the floor, under cover of darkness. She began to wash her tail. Phillip rapped harder, and gulped tea from the prop bottle. Directing a play was one thing, but onstage, he could feel his blood pressure rising by the second as that cat dallied. He was caught like a fly in amber until she came over to fake the bite.

Finally, when he was deciding if he could make the audience think that wringing the cat's neck was part of the play, she came over. Herself perfectly silent as the recorded cat screamed, she wrapped her paws around his wrist and bit his hand, her canine teeth driving in to overlap in the web between his thumb and forefinger.

Phillip leaped to his feet, screaming, just as the script required, the stage lights came up, and Angel trotted into the wings for her next can of shrimp-and-salmon cat food. Phillip made it all the way through curtain calls, but his throat was closing off fast and he was an unhealthy brickish shade under the stage make-up.

Staggering into the wings, he collapsed, taking the props table with him. There was a doctor in the house, but he had no epinephrine with him. Before the ambulance came, anaphylactic shock had killed Phillip Andrews.

# # #

"What a good kitty!" Cassie murmured into the fur of the purring cat at the delayed cast party. She would try to talk Angel's previous owners into letting her keep the white cat. Perhaps they'd settle for a nice Siamese. It would have the same blue eyes, after atl, and she'd make sure that it had good hearing. She and Angel got on so well, why, the cat's understanding was just phenomenal. Maybe, being deaf, she had developed other senses, as people who lacked hearing or sight were said to do. The leftover refreshments after the funeral had been contributed to the party. Cassie and Angel had accepted condolences prettily, as they nibbled on smoked oysters.

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