Chapter 1 Preview…
“Oh, Dr. McBride. Thank God! It’s Verna Gillis,” a breathless voice announced. “Sweet William’s doing the revelations!”
“Revelations?” What I knew about revelations was limited to an admittedly unread chapter in the Bible and a tipsy roommate’s confession that she’d slept with my boyfriend in vet school.
“It’s like that nursery rhyme. You know … ‘Round and round and round he goes’,” Verna chanted. “‘And where he stops, nobody knows!’ ”
If it had been anyone but Verna, I would have suspected alcohol was involved, but Verna was a devout member of The Celestial Church of Truth. Parishioners believed that Christ was an alien from a superior race who had crash-landed on this planet and tried to make the best of things. Their rules were few, but liquor was strictly forbidden.
A few months ago, a moth-eaten stray had begun hanging out around the dumpster behind the church. One night he simply followed Verna home. New to the demands of cat ownership, Verna had lots of questions. Since she didn’t remember most of the answers, she had to call Ocean View Cat Hospital regularly. Verna might be a few tomatoes short of a thick paste, but she had a big heart.
I looked at my watch and weighed my options. It was almost closing time. I could see Verna and Sweet William now, or possibly be on the receiving end of an emergency phone call at three o’clock in the morning. Who knew? … by then Sweet William might be spinning cartwheels and doing handstands while reciting poetry.
Verna didn’t own a car and normally walked or took a bus to save money. She wasn’t about to take any chances with her beloved Sweet William, however, and arrived at the hospital in a taxi. In spite of the cold, miserable night, the windows were rolled down part way. The taxi driver deposited his payload and sped off into the night.
“Oh!” Verna wailed as I opened the door for her. “Sweet William had to use the bathroom … Number Two,” she wrinkled her nose. “Is it still okay to bring him in?”
I assured Verna that if I refused to see any patients who relieved themselves under stress, the hospital’s appointment book would be only half full. In truth, I admired the dedication of cat lovers who made the trek to the vet’s in spite of the accusations, the caterwauling, the vomit, and, more often than not, the gooey mound of poop in the carrier.
Grabbing my arm, she looked up mournfully from underneath a hand-crocheted hat that looked like an inverted flower pot. Her lower lip trembled. Too large for the mouth to which it had been assigned, it hung loosely in front of a row of neglected teeth.
“It’s cancer, isn’t it?”
Sweet William blinked at me in wide-eyed concern.
“Well, let’s not jump to conclusions. Why don’t you relax in that chair,” I suggested, “and I’ll have a look at him.”
Verna nodded but remained standing.
Sweet William appeared perfectly normal. Although his heart was beating a little faster than usual, the rhythm was regular and strong. His lungs were clear. I did a few simple neurological tests, which he passed without any difficulty. Opening his mouth, I checked his gums and teeth then peered inside his ears with an otoscope.
“Mmm … ”
Verna clapped a hand over her mouth. “Cancer?”
“No, no. He just has a little inflammation in his right ear and there’s a waxy build-up. He might be a little disoriented and that’s why he’s doing … ”
“The revelations?” Verna interrupted.
She thought for a moment. “How do you know it’s not cancer?”
I resorted to a variation of one of my mother’s standbys when we were growing up. “Because I just do.”
The answer seemed to satisfy her.
“What about fleas?” Verna asked, switching gears. “I don’t want fleas in the house. Mother would roll over in her grave. That’d be funny,” she added with a grin.
“Well, he does have a few.”
Verna shuddered. “I want to get rid of them instamatically!”
I began to discuss flea control, but Verna had her own agenda.
“He likes catnip, Dr. McBride. Is that OK? I don’t want him addicted. My brother’s addicted.”
I hesitated. “To catnip?”
“No, gambling and … ” Verna lowered her voice, “and whores,” she whispered, shaking her head sadly. “I wish he’d come to church with me.”
“Well,” I quipped, “my grandmother always said the Lord helps those who help themselves.”
“That’s what I always say!” Verna clasped my hand as if we were soulmates, and gazed into my face. “What about his nails?”
“No, Sweet William’s.”
“Oh, right.” I was getting dizzy from all the conversational twists and turns. Digging through the drawer, I found a pair of nail trimmers. While Sweet William wiggled and squirmed his way through a manicure, Verna tossed questions into the air like confetti. I reached for a bottle of ear drops from the pharmacy shelf.
“This is Sweet William’s ear medication,” I told her. “It should get rid of the infection. Three drops twice daily for ten days.”
Verna nodded as she studied the bottle. The manufacturer’s warning, “Ear drops, veterinary use only” was splashed across the front along with my directions.
“Where do I put them?” she asked.
Many answers came to mind. I chose the one that would allow me to continue working at Ocean View Cat Hospital. I then showed Verna how to apply the drops and spent the next ten minutes typing detailed instructions beginning with “Hold the cat.” I had her read the instructions back to me, and reminded her that I would like to see Sweet William in ten days for a recheck.
“I’d like to check his stool for parasites as well,” I added. “Please bring a fresh fecal sample with you if you can.” If Sweet William’s past performance was any indicator of future performance, I doubted getting a fresh sample would be a problem.
“It’ll be my New Year’s Revolution!” Verna declared, although it was barely mid-October.
I called a taxi for Verna and waited with her in reception. I made several attempts at conversation but found it hard to follow Verna’s train of thought. After awhile, I just smiled and nodded politely, sighing in quiet relief when the taxi finally arrived.
Verna rose to her feet. “I’m coming, I’m coming,” she grumbled, as he tooted his horn impatiently. She put her hat on, tugging it fiercely down over her ears as if to keep the contents of her head secure. With my help, she fastened a handmade quilted cover over Sweet William’s carrier and hoisted it into the air.
“Thank you, Dr. McBride. Goodnight,” she called over her shoulder.
At the door, she paused. Silhouetted against the glare of the taxi’s harsh light, she was an oddly-shaped figure in a coat three sizes too large that she had probably purchased at a thrift shop. The peculiar little hat had a mind of its own and was rising like a loaf of bread up over her ears. Sweet William shifted in his carrier, causing Verna to list dangerously to the left.
“Dr. McBride?” she asked hesitantly. “Are you sure it’s not cancer?”
I squinted against the bright lights and nodded. “I’m sure.”
The taxi driver tooted again. Verna hesitated, then scurried out the door with Sweet William in tow.
By the time I got home, it was almost ten. After a tongue-lashing from three hungry cats, I changed into a comfortable pair of old-lady, flannel pyjamas, the kind you don’t wear in public unless you have a complete disregard for public opinion. Poking my head under the bed, I hauled out my favourite slippers, a pair of orange tabbies. Striped tails poked out of the heels and a softball-size head rested on each toe. They were my Christmas “Secret Santa” gift from Bernie, the hospital’s head receptionist.
Still wide awake after my evening with Verna, I made myself a cup of warm milk and curled up with the cats and a book. Somewhere between Chapter 2 and Chapter 3, I nodded off, only to be awakened by a bone-jarring thud followed by an eerie silence. The cats scattered for safety, leaving me to deal with the end of the world alone. I crept down the hallway armed only with my book, and peered through the peephole in the door.
Lying on the hall floor was my upstairs neighbour, Ed. Standing over him was an attractive brunette in a short skirt.
“Eddy … Eddy!” she hissed, shaking his shoulder. When he didn’t respond, she looked at him thoughtfully. “Are you dead?
There was a brief lull, during which time I thought that Eddy might have indeed bought the farm. I needn’t have worried. A former defensive tackle for the university football team, the man was built like a forklift. When I opened the door, he burped and smiled benignly at my feet. Two pairs of bulbous eyes stared back at him.
“Emily!” he gurgled happily in recognition.
“Did you break anything?” I asked. Eddy’s date cackled appreciatively at my wit.
“Nah!” Ed scoffed at the idea and rose unsteadily to his feet. The brunette, who was only slightly less drunk than he was, held him on one side, and I held the other. Somehow we managed to get him up the stairs and onto the sofa, where he began to snore. The woman stared at the prone man while I cleaned and bandaged his head wound.
“Should we undress him?” she asked after a moment.
“You’re on your own!” I shook my head and headed back downstairs in the hopes of getting a few more hours of sleep. I saw nothing of Ed or his girlfriend all day Sunday. In fact, there were no reported sightings of Ed all week long, although Mr. Chang, the property owner, confirmed that he had paid his November rent.
“Ha! Dr. Emily … you have thing for Mr. Ed?” He wiggled his eyebrows up and down.
“No! God, no!” I assured the skeptical Mr. Chang. Besides, wasn’t Mr. Ed some sort of talking horse on a TV show from the sixties?
“Ha! He smooth operator,” Mr. Chang commented. “Many beautiful women friends. Not for you, Dr. Emily. Ta-ta.”
I stared at Mr. Chang’s retreating back, wondering if he was merely concerned for my welfare or if he felt I didn’t meet Ed’s standards. I was still wondering when Verna showed up for her appointment a few days later.
“Here’s your fetus sample, Dr. McBride!” she declared, shaking a yogurt container.
Cautiously, I lifted the lid and peered inside at a well-formed, foul-smelling fecal sample in its prime.
“That looks good,” I said, snapping the lid shut.
Verna glowed with pride.
Microscopic examination revealed it was free of parasites. I passed on the good news to Verna, expecting she would be pleased. Instead, she threw her hands into the air. “Well, then, how come he still has the revelations?” she demanded.
I looked at Verna. “Are you getting the medication in okay?”
“Uh-huh.” Verna bobbed her head up and down as she looked around the room in wide-eyed innocence.
“Oh, it’s so hard!” she wailed, collapsing under my stern voice. “He hates me.”
I assured her that even I had trouble sometimes putting in ear drops, but that it was very, very important. Verna nodded solemnly. I showed her how to wrap Sweet William in a towel so he couldn’t struggle. Then, holding him against my chest with one arm as he sat on the examining table, I applied the drops to his right ear.
“Remember to massage his ear afterwards so the medication goes in deep enough,” I explained. Like most cats, Sweet William loved this part of the procedure and leaned his head into the massage.
“Now you try,” I smiled.
Sweet William did not recognize Verna as an authority figure. It took her quite a while to get the hang of things and to convince Sweet William she wasn’t trying to murder him. Ten minutes and half a bottle of ear drops later we emerged from the exam room, exhausted but victorious.
Verna plopped into a chair and fanned herself with her hat. “I’m just going to sit for a minute till I recover from that orgy.” Al Whitehead, who was waiting with his cat Al Fresco, looked up with sudden interest.
Over the next ten days, I kept in daily touch with Verna so I was reasonably sure she was getting the medication in Sweet William’s ears. She had increased her odds with a few flakes of tuna before, during, and after each treatment. According to Verna, Sweet William had never been happier.
His recheck was scheduled just a few days before Hallowe’en. Inside Ocean View’s reception room, Verna gazed in delight at the black and orange streamers draped from each corner and meeting in an extravagant bow at the chandelier. Wisps of cotton batting had been stretched into filmy cobwebs on the retail shelves. Thanks to our receptionist’s carving skills, a buck-toothed pumpkin surrounded by Hallowe’en cards flickered cheerfully on the reception counter.
“Oh, this is fun!” Verna clapped her hands together as she caught sight of a witch stocking the shelves and a pirate grooming a sedated cat.
“And what are you, Dr. McBride?” she asked.
“A veterinarian,” I grinned.
“Ohhh.” Verna knitted her brows together in a puzzled frown. Then, switching gears, she thrust an envelope into my hand. “Open it.”
The envelope had been hermetically sealed with half a roll of Scotch tape. Impatient with my bumbling efforts to find a crack in the envelope’s armour, Verna blurted out the contents with unrestrained joy. “Sweet William got you a card for Hallowe’en! It’s real funny! There’s a cat wearing white undershorts with red hearts on them. It says, ‘My heart pants for you.’ Get it?”
Giggling, Verna held a hand up to her mouth. The fact that it was a Valentine’s Day card was lost on her. “I bet my card’s the funniest of all them cards,” Verna declared proudly as she studied the display of cards on our coffee table. And, in truth, it was.
I thanked Sweet William personally for his taste in cards and ushered the pair into the exam room to have a look at the cat’s ear. There was a small amount of waxy brown discharge and his eardrum, instead of being smooth and uniformly opalescent, was a heterogeneous off-white.
“Mmm … ”
“What?” asked Verna, instantly alert.
“Have you been massaging his ear after you apply the drops?” I asked.
Verna nodded vigorously.
“Well, I think he may have a polyp in his ear as well as an infection.”
“Cancer?” Verna gasped.
“No, not cancer,” I hastened to assure her. “It’s probably a benign growth. They usually start in the Eustachian tube. That’s the tube between the ear and the throat,” I added, when Verna’s forehead wrinkled in confusion. “Instead of growing down into the throat, it may have grown into the ear.”
“More eardrops?” Verna sagged visibly in her chair.
“No, let’s just leave it for a week or two and see how things go. If it gets worse, I may want to get a sample of the discharge from his ear.” I hesitated. Sweet William’s list of health concerns was growing like Jack’s beanstalk, and no doubt Verna’s savings account was shrinking proportionally.
“Have you noticed that Sweet William is losing fur on his face and ears?” I asked carefully. “His skin in those areas is a little blotchy too.”
Verna opened her mouth to speak.
“It’s not cancer,” I added quickly. “I think he may have an allergy.”
“An allergy? Like hay fever? Blessed Virgin!” Verna crossed herself.
“Will he need drops?”
I explained that fur loss in these areas was typical of an allergy to the food, usually to a protein in the meat. All we had to do was switch his diet to a hypoallergenic formula and see if he improved.
“Oh no, Dr. McBride,” Verna frowned, shaking her head, “he won’t like that. He’s very fussy. VERY FUSSY!” she added for emphasis, folding her arms across her chest.
I glanced at Sweet William as he sat Buddha-like on my examining table. Rolls of fat cascaded over his feet. Fussy was not a word I would have chosen to describe him. Forging ahead, I explained the importance of sticking with the special food for at least six weeks. “No treats, no table scraps, no cream – nothing extra. And I want to see him back in a couple of weeks. Sooner if his ear gets worse.”
Verna grabbed onto her head with both hands, eyes wide. “My poor brain, Dr. McBride! It’s swollen! It can only hold so much, you know.”
I promised Verna I would write everything down for her. The staff knew by now to book me extra time whenever Verna and Sweet William came to town so I didn’t fall behind with my other appointments.
When I pulled into the driveway that night, exhausted after another long day, I spied Ed at the mailbox. “Hey, Ed! How are you?”
“Eddy!” I shouted again when he didn’t respond. “Are you deaf?”
“Oh. Emily. Hi,” he replied, turning around as I came up the steps.
“I didn’t hear you. Ear infection,” he grimaced. “I’ve had it pretty much since, well, you know. That night.”
As he stood still under the bright porch light, I noticed the rash on his face and neck and took a few steps back. Ed was a decent-looking guy but the red skin and scaly patches were disturbing.
“Oh, yeah,” he added. “I’ve got some kind of rash too. That just started. The doc doesn’t think that it’s contagious, though.”
I murmured something sympathetic and decided to check my mail later. It struck me as an odd coincidence that both Sweet William and Ed exhibited remarkably similar symptoms, and I was the common denominator. I dismissed the thought as the overactive imagination of a veterinarian who had done one too many fecals.
But, over the next few months, Ed and Sweet William battled their remarkably similar ailments. Verna grew more stressed with each new bottle she took home. Ed cancelled a trip to Cuba. The doctor was worried that his ear didn’t seem to be responding to treatment, and the rash had spread. The brunette had found herself a new boyfriend with smooth skin and an impressive net worth.
When there was no improvement in Sweet William’s ear, Verna finally consented to an ear flush under anesthetic. I was able to examine his mouth and nasal cavity more closely and take X-rays of his skull. There appeared to be a small hole in his eardrum. I swabbed the debris in his ear canal but when we examined the slides under the microscope, we found nothing unusual. As luck would have it, the samples we sent to the lab for analysis and culture were lost en route so I had no way of knowing what antibiotic might be the most effective.
“His skin is improving, though,” I told Verna with a bright smile.
Poor Verna. It was just one thing after another. To help with her ongoing medical expenses, I offered her a payment plan, which she promptly refused.
“I pay all my bills,” she declared. “And I sell my hats at the flea market.” When I dutifully admired Verna’s hat, she pulled several variations on the flowerpot theme out of her bag.
“I sell them for $15 each. It only takes me an hour to make one while I watch them game shows. So it’s good profit,” Verna added proudly.
I bought a purple one.
Verna surfaced a few weeks later with a bag full of hats and Sweet William. She sat in the chair, nibbling her fingernails and casting furtive glances my way as I examined Sweet William’s ear.
“Verna!” I exclaimed, clicking off the otoscope.
“What!” Startled, she bolted upright.
“Sweet William’s ear is the best I’ve ever seen it!”
“Praise Jesus!” Verna looked up at the ceiling, then back down at me. “How is his crustacean tube?”
I assured Verna his Eustachian tube was fine. We chatted for a few moments longer. Sweet William looked good and smelled good and offered no resistance to my examination; I had become part of his normal routine. I had just plucked him off the table for a cuddle before returning him to his carrier when I noticed a small, ulcerated lump high inside his right foreleg.
Verna sat very still, her hands clasped in her lap. She fixed her sad- beagle eyes on me. “Cancer. I knew it.”
“We don’t know that, Verna,” I replied. Despite my assurances to the contrary over the last few months, it was certainly possible that this lump was cancerous. It was just as possible that it wasn’t. I explained that the only way to know for sure was to remove the whole thing and send it off to the pathologist for analysis.
Verna was silent.
“Everybody I know dies from cancer,” she said at last. “Why, Dr. McBride? Why? And now my cat. ” She started to cry.
Verna loved Sweet William and she had continued to trust my judgment when others would have given up and gone elsewhere. I reached over and hugged her like I held my nephew when the older boys wouldn’t let him play road hockey. Sometimes words alone are cold comfort when what we really need is to feel that we are not alone. I imagined that Verna felt very much alone sometimes, a child trapped inside an adult’s body.
Wiping away her tears, she scheduled Sweet William’s lump removal for the following Tuesday when she would be back on day shifts. “Can we fix him then?”
“You mean his castration?” I asked.
“I think it would be best to wait until we get the results from the pathologist,” I answered. “I don’t want to stress him too much right now.”
Verna turned to Bernie at the reception counter. “He has The Cancer,” Verna explained, lowering her voice so Sweet William wouldn’t hear.
While Bernie murmured sympathetically, I hastened to remind Verna that we didn’t know that for sure. “Cancer’s only one possibility among many.”
Verna looked at me and managed a feeble smile but her eyes glistened with barely restrained tears. I bought two more hats and Bernie picked out a lime green one for herself. Hughie found a pink one in the pile that his great-aunt Louise simply had to have.
On Friday night, I ran into Ed at the checkout counter of the liquor store. He was barely visible behind a tower of beer.
“Party tonight, Eddy?” I asked with a grin. His skin looked much better.
“Yup. Could be my last one,” he confided. “Doc found a lump under my armpit.”
“Oh, Eddy!” I gasped. “I’m sorry. It’s probably nothing, you know,” I added hastily. “I get them all the time from shaving. Sometimes a lymph node gets a little infected.”
Eddy looked at me oddly. “Em, I don’t shave my armpits. In fact, most guys don’t. You need to get out more,” he chuckled.
I laughed along with Eddy as I studied the pattern on the tile floor. The truth was I wished I did get out more.
He slapped me on the back. “I’m just teasin’ ya, Em. I’m not worried. I feel great!” He smiled encouragingly at a giggling cluster of coeds around a wine display.
I assured Ed that everything would be fine, then avoided him for the next several weeks. It was the stuff out of a Stephen King novel. For every symptom in every location that Sweet William exhibited, Eddy had one to match. Maybe somehow I had cursed the two of them. I popped a get-well card in his mail box and hoped for the best.
When I look back now, I can see I needn’t have worried. Ed’s lump was nothing more than a fatty cyst and Sweet William had a benign mast cell tumour with complete excision. He went home the day after his surgery.
Verna was ecstatic. “When can I schedule his catastrophe?”
Mercifully, Ed was on a cruise ship in the Caribbean when I castrated Sweet William.