Uncle Mo greeted me at the door with the papers, stapled at a diagonal on the top left-hand corner: Cecil’s Guidebook to the Perfect Day. “We want all his days to be perfect. We tried to think of everything you’d need to know, but you can always call or text us.”
Four months into unemployment, my spirits were low enough already. But as a beggar didn’t often choose with enthusiasm, I had to accept the pity job of cat-sitting for Cecil. He was twenty-one years old, half my age.
Cecil was the joy of Uncle Mo and Aunt Patty’s life. Before I even met my charge, I was overwhelmed with the photos, portraits, and resin and porcelain likenesses of Cecil that decorated the living room. On a bookshelf in the corner sat a framed photo of my uncle and aunt in their youth and another of my cousin in his high school graduation garb. All other decorations honored the cat.
“I know you’re disappointed you haven’t found a job yet, but we’re so glad you’re free right now.” Patty looked sincere saying this, but it was difficult not to blurt out the truth—my parents told her my predicament and they did this as an excuse to give me money. This was a job I should have done for free, especially in this situation. Uncle Mo’s closest friend had died. “I wish we didn’t have to leave right now.”
“Happy to help,” I said. “You don’t have to pay me.”
She shook her head. “Don’t be ridiculous. Your time is valuable.”
My aunt closed the door to the kitchen. “We don’t talk about his health when he can hear us.” Her voice lowered to a whisper. “The vet said he could die at any time, but she has said that for over a year. Everything is in the guide we wrote, just don’t talk about it when he’s in the room. But be sure you talk to him. He loves a good conversation. He’s an excellent listener.”
“Talk to him?”
“It sounds crazy. He thinks he’s human, so treat him like one.”
For what they were paying me, I could talk to a cat.
“Also, this is the first day this week that it hasn’t rained, so if he wants to go to the park, please take him. His harness is hanging by the door. If you show it to him, he’ll let you know if he wants to go. You know where the park is, right?”
“I passed it on the way here.”
“It’s not far, but if he stops and sits on the sidewalk, you’ll have to carry him. He gets tired lately.”
“It’s all in the book,” Mo interrupted. “We should go or we’ll miss our flight.”
“Cecil!” Patty called as she led me into the kitchen. Cecil rested loaf-style on the kitchen table, the morning sun warming him through the large picture window. His bright green eyes focused on Patty while she spoke. “This is your cousin Jenna. She’ll be taking care of you for a few days. We talked about this, remember.”
Cecil looked me over, unimpressed. Mo picked him up first, embracing him and whispering into his perked ear. Patty’s eyes moistened as she said goodbye to Cecil.
“Don’t think we’re crazy, Jenna. It’s so hard to leave this little man. He’s so special.” She regained control of her emotions and returned Cecil to the table. “But you’ll find out how special he is, and we should go.”
With Mo and Patty backing out of the driveway, I settled at the table next to Cecil and began to read the guidebook. Food was the first chapter, and behind me were stacks of tiny cans previously arranged for his intake over the next four days. I would also be alerted by Cecil if he required treats or a tablespoon of cottage cheese from the fridge. Occasionally, Cecil would glance my way with a closed-mouth trill.
A closer study of the book revealed that Cecil’s trill was a request for conversation.
“Sorry, Cecil, I should have read that part first. I’m new to cats. My family had a dog when I was very young. I don’t remember much about that either.”
Cecil trilled again.
“He was a beagle mix. We called him Snoopy. Not very original, right?”
Cecil seemed to agree. Another trill.
“Your name fits you. You look like a Cecil. Kind of an old-money aristocrat. But most cats look like that.”
He meowed agreement.
“See, even when I try not to think about money, it happens. I’m about six weeks away from losing my house. At this point, I’d take any job. But no job will take me. I didn’t see this coming. I thought I was better prepared.”
Cecil rolled onto his side, revealing tufts of gray, tan, and white fur on his thin belly. He seemed to want to be petted, but I had seen enough about cats online to know belly rubs weren’t advisable. I reached to pet his head. It was only then I noticed the difference in the gray around his eyes—the only place where his age showed.
“I guess I’m exaggerating a little. It’s probably two months or three until I lose my house. I don’t know why this is so difficult. I go to interviews, but I can feel the rejection coming in the first few minutes.”
No rejection from Cecil though. He pushed his head against my hand, as if to say he would hire me if he were an employer.
According to the schedule, Cecil would soon move to the living room for a morning nap. If he stretched on the bookshelf with the stereo, I was supposed to put his favorite CD in and play it at level five. Sure enough, he was there after a slow meander down the hallway that featured his annual professional photograph gallery. More than annually, since there were several from his first year to capture his kittenhood.
“Bob Marley’s greatest hits?”
Cecil leaped onto the arm of the recliner and waited for the music.
I was smiling from the cuteness of Cecil’s favorite music and the adorableness of my aunt and uncle still using a CD player. With one hand stroking Cecil’s purring body and one clutching the list of Cecil’s favorite things, we relaxed to reggae. I smiled at Cecil’s favorite things, realizing we had a lot in common, although I had forgotten that I loved them too. Butterflies, boxes, birds, squirrels, dogs, sunshine, co-napping, massages, talking, chicken, cottage cheese, good music, studying water features. I was imagining us at the park when I was awakened by a loud meow.
I hadn’t slept so well in months. Cecil’s schedule was working on me. Next on his schedule was a snack. According to the guide, if he led me to the fridge and stretched to the meat drawer, he wanted chicken. If he remained seating by the door, it was cottage cheese.
Chicken it was. Measurements were available in the guide. No medications to add until his last meal of the day.
“Where have you been all my life, Cecil?”
He lifted his head from his plate of shredded chicken long enough to meet my eyes.
I returned to my salad. “Should we go to the park next?”
He raised his head again, ears perked.
* * *
The park was to Cecil what nightclubs were to me in my twenties. Although I had to carry him the second block, he strutted through the gates, taking in the green of spring and the admiration of the natural world.
“Cecil, my man!” a jogger greeted in passing.
Cecil stopped to be petted by a group of children who knew him. It seemed everyone recognized him, almost everyone smiling at him or bending to pat his head. Dogs ran to sniff him and be sniffed. His fans had been told about me too.
“You’re Jenna, right?” I was asked by several, usually followed by sentiment about Cecil and his popularity in the park. The guide allowed me to release his leash once we reached his favorite hill, which Cecil led me to after he was adored to his satisfaction. Being seen with Cecil was boosting what remained of my self-esteem.
“I need you with me on interviews,” I told him as I unclipped the leash from the harness. He began sniffing the leaves and exploring his favorite spot. He pranced like a kitten when he spotted two monarch butterflies in their drunken flights. His bright eyes followed squirrels as if he were transfixed in a movie theater. One by one, I watched Cecil’s favorite things parade in front of him as if they were summoned.
A robin conversed with him from the birdbath as Cecil studied the prism of sunlight in the trickling fountain. He was unbothered by children that interrupted his concentration, taking time for each gentle change. Not so long ago, I had been capable of his level of relaxation and nonchalant acceptance. I had been unable to recapture it since my series of employment rejections that were convincing me of my uselessness.
“In my next life, I want to be a cat.” It was a woman’s voice. She stood next to me, watching Cecil and holding a large tote bag containing bulky items. “You must be Jenna. First time meeting Cecil?”
“Yes, I was always working before. Ordinarily, I only saw my aunt and uncle at Christmas.”
“Cecil is the king of the park. Everyone loves him. Your aunt spoke very highly of you too.”
We both watched the cat for a quiet moment as he rolled onto his back, his eyes squinting in the sun.
“I’m Sydney and I have to sit down,” she said, then placed a hand on her pregnant belly. “Want to join me?”
I agreed, although I had been enjoying the solitude. Since losing my job, I had become addicted to external silence and my free-flowing thoughts. Yet, I followed her to the nearest bench, where I could still see Cecil sunbathing while the occasional human or animal stopped to greet him.
“He’s having the best day.” I realized I said it with a hint of surprise and perhaps envy.
“I love that about animals. They do what they want as often as they can.” She sighed and opened her bag, removing two large boxes. “I tried to do that and it got out of hand.”
“Too much of a good thing?”
“I own that health food store on the corner.” She pointed behind us. “It’s a labor of love, but it has exploded since COVID, and I am struggling to keep up. Not complaining, exactly.” She chuckled. “Well, maybe I am. I didn’t foresee being overwhelmed like this.” She began sorting through the mess of papers in one box while she placed the other one on the ground in front of us.
“Want some help?”
“I don’t know if anyone can help. This is my system of organization and obviously, I don’t have one.”
“That’s the kind of thing I did in my last job. Are you hiring?”
“Are you serious? You could get me organized?”
She smiled. “Just come by when Mo and Patty return. Maybe we can work something out.” She began sorting again, then stopped to smile at me. “You probably think I’m crazy, but every time I’ve hired someone, it has been a disaster. But I have a good feeling about you. For one, you’ve been trusted with Cecil.”
Cecil wasn’t in his sunny spot. In my cautious excitement of perhaps having employment before losing my house, I had lost track of him.
“Look at him,” she said with a giggle. Cecil had crawled under our bench and was stepping with great deliberation into the empty box at our feet. As he settled in, he filled it to the corners. His face was pleased and satisfied, and again, he squinted into the sunlight. “He doesn’t even act sick.”
It was easy to forget that he wasn’t well. His guidebook had explained the medications available and how they only gave him two nowadays because the others were zapping him of his enjoyment of life. The book said the intention was to give him comfort and ease in his remaining days, however long that would be. Seeing him now in a perfectly sized box, with the sun on his fur and surrounded by butterflies, squirrels, and other beings who loved him, he seemed he would live forever.
Hope, which I believed to be permanently dormant in my brain, arose from my inner depths as I joined Cecil in showing my face to the sun.
“Can you pop by Tuesday after lunch with a résumé?”
“I’ll be there.”
* * *
I was crying when I returned home with Cecil in my arms. “Thank you, Cecil, for networking a job for me. I was so close to giving up.”
Cecil seemed to understand. His high level of comprehension intrigued me. Was I influenced by the guidebook? Or was this cat special? Perhaps all animals were special, and I never noticed.
I referred to the guidebook again once we were inside. I was to encourage Cecil to drink some water and give him two tablespoons of his kidney-friendly cat food, although he could refuse it and choose a window to nap in. I felt victorious when he chose to eat first.
“Cecil, you are living the life,” I told him. “You’ve done almost all your favorite things today.”
Cecil’s eyes agreed with my statement. He swaggered into the living room and stopped in front of the television screen.
“Do you want to watch something?”
I checked the guidebook for entertainment. Cecil liked television with action, preferably outdoors, but nothing animated. He was also annoyed by applause and laughter. I had no preference, and as Cecil watched a program about intelligent gorillas, I dreamed of working in a health food store, becoming friends with Sydney, and becoming healthy by association. I called my parents with the news, then my brother and my best friend. I scrolled health food websites while Cecil dozed. Life was suddenly very good, all due to this furry old man on the arm of my recliner.
* * *
“The only thing you haven’t asked for is cottage cheese.” What if Cecil knew the secret of a happy life—finding favorite things and revisiting them whenever the desire arose? All I knew was that I had been carefree for hours. I couldn’t remember the last time I had enjoyed doing nothing but scrolling my phone and dreaming of a better future.
With both of our dinners gone and the kitchen cleaned, I lifted Cecil and walked with him through the house, looking at each of his framed photos. Wearing a sombrero. In the classic one-leg-salute grooming pose. Toothy grin. With kids in the park. Being hugged by my aunt. Kissed by my uncle. Asleep in the sink. Cecil seemed to tell me about each photo as we admired it. If I hadn’t had to crush a pill and mix it into his turkey and giblet dinner, I would have forgotten he was twenty-one and sick.
Two hours later, Cecil completed his list of favorites, standing at the refrigerator and meowing for cottage cheese. It was as if he had a copy of the list himself.
I wanted to tell Patty and Mo about our successful day, but they had most likely just arrived at their hotel and would be tired from travel. Morning would be better. I placed Cecil’s basket on my bed as the guidebook suggested if I wanted him to stay with me.
I drifted easily to sleep for the first time in months, with faint music from the kitchen radio and Cecil in the basket by my head. When I awoke at midnight from a strange dream and unaware of my surroundings, I noticed Cecil had left my bed.
Turning on lights as I searched, I toured the house, quietly calling for Cecil. The guidebook said he usually responded to his name. I might have missed him altogether if I hadn’t spied his tail sticking out from under the sofa. I didn’t want to pull him by his tail, so I pushed the sofa toward the window.
Cecil lay panting, eyes at half-mast.
I had hoped I wouldn’t need the emergency numbers or the baby-blue pet carrier by the back door.
* * *
Cecil’s veterinarian, a young woman who looked surprisingly professional for someone who jumped from bed to drive to the clinic at midnight, greeted us with a comforting smile.
“I had a feeling,” she said as she took Cecil in his carrier to the back.
I dreaded making the call. Patty answered and she already knew. As I was announcing my location, she was waking my uncle. I put her on the speaker when the vet reappeared.
“Cecil had a stroke. There’s nothing more I can do for him. He’s on oxygen, but he is dying. He will die soon.”
My aunt and uncle spoke almost in unison. “Don’t let him suffer.”
The doctor left the room again.
“Jenna, will you stay with him? Pet him as he’s dying? I know the vet will be there, but it will help us to know that you stayed.”
“Of course.” Then they were gone to grieve at their hotel, leaving me in the examination room. What were the chances after so many months of expecting him to die that he would die today? I replayed our activities—I had done everything I was asked to do. Cecil had a fantastic day, or so it seemed. I pictured my aunt and uncle so far away, unable to be here for this moment they had dreaded for so long.
The doctor returned with Cecil panting in her arms. “When they told me they were going away, I had a feeling Cecil would decide to die. He’s a smart kitty. This way he won’t have to see the pain he’s leaving behind.”
“That’s a complicated thought process for a cat.”
“Don’t underestimate them. Pets know a lot more than we think they do. And they get just as attached.” She prepared the first injection as she spoke. “People will do the same thing. They’ll wait until the minute everyone has left the room. It’s as if in those last minutes, the people we love can be a distraction from the task at hand.”
The thought seemed morbid, but she was half-smiling as she said it.
“I’m not saying Cecil doesn’t love you, but he doesn’t know you. He chose you for this moment. He knew you could handle it.”
Watching his tiny body begin to relax, I wasn’t sure I could handle it. I reached my hand out to pet him, as my aunt had requested. The doctor was solemn as she injected the final needle. With a stethoscope pressed to his unmoving gray fur, she looked up at me and nodded. “He’s gone.”
I had no words. I stood petting Cecil’s body as the doctor jotted notes on her clipboard.
“Your aunt had already arranged for this, so there’s nothing more for you to do. We’ll contact her when his ashes and memorial are ready. I’m so sorry for your loss, but you did the right thing. And remember, he had a beautiful life.”
Later, in the house that seemed fuller of Cecil than ever, I reviewed his beautiful life in the photos and likenesses. It seemed ridiculous that I could miss someone I had only known for one day. Only sixteen hours ago, I had been tense, anxious, hopeless, and unemployed. All of that was gone.
Once more, I picked up the guidebook and remembered Uncle Mo’s words: We want all his days to be perfect. With Cecil’s book as a guide and the bittersweet memories of my day with Cecil, I opened Patty’s laptop and typed the first words of my perfect day.
Kimberly Moore is a writer and former educator. Her short works are published in Typehouse Literary Magazine, MacroMicroCosm, Fleas on the Dog, Sequoia Speaks, Underland Arcana, and 34 Orchard, and several other literary journals. She lives in a haunted house where she indulges the whims of cats and dreams of being on the Great British Baking Show. For a full list of publications and awards, visit kimberlymooreblog.com.
WHY WE CHOSE TO PUBLISH “Cecil’s Guidebook to the Perfect Day”:
We receive a number of good pet and animal stories, but as with all of the pieces we publish, we look for those that bring us something different and special. And Kimberly Moore’s superb piece does that. Our furry friends are often more intelligent than we give them credit for, as her character Jenna learns. It’s a sad, yet uplifting, story that captured our hearts and attention.