A Panther in Every Pantry, a Lion in Every Living Room (2016)
All I wanted was some cereal, but when I opened the door to the pantry I found the panther. It stretched out on a shelf as though that was always the panther-space in the pantry, just the place where the panther goes. We had a large house. Three floors plus a small room off the garage I never counted because it was full of our collection of barely-used exercise equipment. An open floor plan. There were plenty of other places that made so much more sense for the panther to be.
I stared at the panther and it stared back. Nature programs and Park Rangers have taught me running from an animal only encourages it to chase you. Show no fear, that’s how the survivors survive.
“Stella,” I called out, trying to both whisper and have my voice carry at the same time. She was reading the paper in the other room, far enough away she’d probably make it out of the house alive. “There’s a panther in the pantry.”
“I know, dear. They installed it yesterday while you were at work.”
Her complete calm stunned me. I remembered suddenly last night we’d had Chinese delivered. Cooking was a job I left to Stella, and there were countless doors in the kitchen and the house as a whole that I’d never opened.
“It’s been here all night?” I asked, wondering how I could tell if the panther was hungry.
“They told me not to worry about it. It cleans and feeds itself.”
The panther licked its paws. The big cat’s big claws extended and raked across its big tongue like knives on a whetstone.
“But there is a panther in the pantry, Stella.”
“If you move slowly, it won’t hardly take any notice of you.” There was a loud crinkle as she turned a page. We’d splurged for the Sunday paper recently since it made us feel like our parents, well-off and leisurely. “And, John, the installers told me that the panthers usually never eat people, and especially usually never not their owners.”
“Installers? Why do we have a panther, anyway?”
There was a pause before she answered, and I filled into it all my assumptions about her reaction. Her own disbelief that I didn’t remember ordering a panther. Her confusion, having assumed that I knew what was going on. Her lack of understanding at how I couldn’t or wouldn’t understand the usefulness of a pantry panther.
And in that pause, also, was the panther itself. It reached its neck forward to sniff at the door, each sniff pulling its upper lips away from its teeth. The air stank of its breath, sodden and earthy like a hothouse where the flowers are as thick as fog. Its eyes were green marbles. As a child, I would’ve killed for marbles that color.
“You elected him,” she said, as though that explained everything. “We both voted for him.”
Though she said “both,” it was clear from her tone that the voting and everything resulting from it was entirely my responsibility. The election was months ago, and I had no clue why she was bringing it up. Power had swayed and fallen in the Capital and that was that, no need to think about politics for years and years.
“He made some promises, didn’t he?” I asked. The panther weaved its head from left to right as if in answer.
“They all do,” Stella said, her tone withering before she continued in tones of approval. “And unlike most, he followed through.”
“What did he promise?”
“A big cat for every man, woman, and child.”
Vague memories of politicians speaking on stages surrounded by animals in cages, and an article about the fund set up for the political interns with missing limbs and mauled faces.
“Why did he promise that, exactly?”
“Well, if you don’t know I certainly can’t explain it to you.” She crumpled the paper up in annoyance, sounding like a cat scratching in its litter box. “You should be thankful, that’s all. The Jeffersons across the street don’t even have their cat yet. Maisy has their house cat stationed in the window, with a scarf around its neck, pretending it’s a baby lion, the poor dear.”
The panther dropped down from its perch and padded towards me. I shut the pantry door quickly and quietly, then walked straight through the house to the front door. I would get breakfast somewhere else, the panther be damned, and think about what to do with the damn cat after I was fed. Stella was smoking in the living room.
“You shouldn’t smoke inside,” I told her, unable to help myself.
She puffed and puffed so the smoke covered her face like a veil.
“You should be thankful,” she said.
Through the coffee shop windows I could see them pacing around, the big cats the president had promised. They had no leashes, no name tags. They appeared to be owned by no one.
At the drive through, I asked the barista, “Who owns the cats?”
“No one,” she said with a smile. “They’re a public utility.”
As she handed me coffee and a bagel, there was a faint scream from inside the shop.
“Was that a scream?” I asked, nonchalant.
Her smile faded into a forced grin. There were cars behind me, but I wouldn’t look away. I wanted an answer. A five-dollar tip was obvious in my hand. The barista took a booklet from the counter, glanced at the index, then riffled through the pages until she found the one she wanted. The strong scent of coffee was tainted with something metallic that, in other instances and other places, like a hospital emergency room, I would call blood. The front of the book read The Care and Use of Your Big Cat: Problem Solver’s Guide.
“That wasn’t a scream,” she said, sounding exactly like a bad actor reading from a terrible script. “That was the sound the cat makes when it’s working correctly. There is no need to call the authorities. Clean up messes as normal.”
She smiles again, thrilled to be successfully done with this exchange. “Have a good rest of your day.”
There was another scream. She flinched, but her smile didn’t waver.
On the road, I saw no cats. But the people out walking acted like they were being paced by giant carnivorous animals, as though they could feel stiff whiskers brushing against the backs of their necks. None of the people were walking dogs. The very atmosphere was thick with cat, a skittishness to the air, a skittishness with claws. Outside of the office, a cluster of ambulances blocked the entrance to the parking garage. Leopards lazed in their open interiors. I called in sick from the car.
“Oh, but you should come in anyway,” Joe said. He was my immediate manager. Every year for Christmas he gave out gifts he’d received the previous year, the torn wrapping taped up, the name on the gift tag crossed out, a new name written underneath. “The productivity we’ve got going here in amazing! You wouldn’t believe how hard people are working. They don’t want to leave.”
“But the cats—”
Joe laughed. It sounded forced and mechanical, like the wheezing of a broken accordion.
“God, yes, they’re amazing! You should come see them.” He paused. “Do cats like you?”
“Sure, I guess.”
“Do they lick you? Bite you? Seem like they want to eat you?”
“Good, good. But should you come by the stairs or the elevator? The lynxes have free range of the stairs, but we might have a chance to run past as you walk up, but if a tiger gets you in an elevator that’s pretty much it, but maybe we could use the elevator while its eating…”
“Stairs, yeah,” he said, clearly still talking to himself. Then his voice cleared up, he raised his voice and spoke more confidently, just the way he talked to someone he was about to fire. I’d seen it plenty of times because Joe loved to fire people in public. “So, yeah, come up the stairs.”
“Sure, Joe,” I said.
High up the building on the tenth floor, a line of people pressed up against the floor-to-ceiling windows, fish in an aquarium.
“But what if I don’t want the panther?”
The man from the United States Big Cat Agency went silent with one of those big, shocked silences you can hear from blocks away, that you can hear for days.
“Why wouldn’t you want the panther? It’s free, sir. No charge at all, and no responsibility. We take care of maintenance. Maybe you didn’t know that?” He paused. “Is it not functioning properly?”
“No, it’s working fine, I think.” I’d opened the pantry door, and I was as far away as I could get from the pantry while still having a clear look inside. The panther paced back and forth in the small space. “What’s it supposed to do, exactly?”
“You’re having me on, sir.”
“No, no, not at all.”
“It’s a utility, sir. You can’t refuse a government-mandated utility.”
“But what is it’s use? Shouldn’t a utility be utile?”
“Maybe it’s to catch mice,” he said as if it were a joke. “But, in answer to your questions, sir, if you don’t want the panther—though I don’t know why you wouldn’t—you could bring it back to us in exchange for another big cat.”
The panther hooked a giant bag of beans from a shelf and dragged it to the floor, casually ripping it open with its teeth. It licked up some of the beans, then spat them out. The cat looked up at me, licked its lips. There was nothing remotely meat-like in the pantry, not even cans of tuna. We survived off of pastas, grains, and fresh fruits and vegetables. The panther narrowed its eyes to slits as though measuring from a distance which parts of me would most easily fit in its mouth.
“But I don’t want a big cat. I don’t want this panther, I don’t want a lion, I don’t want a bobcat. I don’t even want a catfish.”
“Very funny, sir.” He coughed a laugh. “But if you bring back your panther, you will have to take another cat in trade.”
“But, for God’s sake, why?”
Stella shushed me from the other room. The panther laid its head down on crossed paws, still inside the pantry, but just barely.
“We all have to have a big cat, sir. We voted for this. It’s what we all wanted.”
I wanted to argue with him, but I’d voted for this, apparently.
“Well, I’m returning it.”
“Exchanging,” he corrected right before I hung up.
If I dropped the cat off outside the local USBCA office, just pushed the panther out of the car, and drove off, what could they do? I didn’t ask for this, even if I voted for it.
There was no collar, and no leash, but the panther came when I clucked my tongue. Well trained, I guessed, or perhaps just hungry, which I decided not to think about.
“Is the panther not working correctly?” Stella asked, but I ignored her. She poked her head around the living room doorway, her mouth a small, beautiful frown. The frown of a small, disappointed mammal. “Make sure to be back before dark. Otherwise you might lose it outside, and Lord knows we don’t want our panther misplaced. No one wants a misplaced panther.”
The panther bumped its head against my leg, knocking me back a few steps. It lolled a tongue as big as my hand. There was no losing the utility unless it wanted to be lost.
The panther stretched across the backseat of the hybrid SUV in regal repose. The drive would only take ten minutes at most, and the entire experience wouldn’t be much longer. Drive up, push the panther out of the car, drive off. But the cat’s quiet was disturbing. What if it didn’t want to go? What if it decided it wanted to eat me while I was driving? There was no help for me out here.
I couldn’t keep my eyes from the big cat in my rear-view mirror, alert to the smallest movements. There were only a few cars on the road and no one on the sidewalks. Emergency vehicles darted by on either side, lights and sirens blazing. Abandoned vehicles salted the edge of every street.
But then the bridge over Memorial clotted with traffic. As other cars settled behind me, sealing me in completely like a corpse in its coffin, I thought about the panther. It wasn’t what I wanted. I never asked for it. But if everyone was going to have a big cat, then why not us? What made Stella and I any different? Maybe it was what I’d always wanted, after all, and I just didn’t know it. And the country as a whole, all of us, we were so much smarter than we were individually. We knew what we wanted. We knew what we needed. And who was I to questions such common-sense wisdom of the people?
Hot breath blew against my bare neck. Whiskers pricked my skin. There was a low growl, but I decided it was a purr. A purr. Definitely a purr.
It was what I wanted, after all.