'Well ...' becomes world's scariest word


The whole thing started when our friends Jeff and Martha were going on vacation and I made the mistake of saying: "Anything we can do while you're away?"

Naturally, I didn't expect them to take me up on the offer.

When people ask if there's anything they can do while you're away, you're supposed to reply: "Thanks, but everything's pretty much taken care of."

That, of course, is the decent thing to say. No one minds offering to do things for people, as long as they don't actually have to follow through on it.

But this time when I said, "Is there anything we can do while you're away?" they both said: "Well . . ."

Instantly, I recognized that "Well . . ." as a bad sign.

But I was playing this Concerned Friend role to the hilt. So I plowed ahead like a man crashing through brambles and said: "Go ahead. Anything at all."

"This might be asking too much . . ." Jeff began.

"Nonsense," I said. "What are friends for?"

"OK," Martha said. "Could you watch our cat?"

Well. As the enormity of this sentence dawned on me, I felt a chill come over me and then a small pocket of pain begin to throb behind my right eye.

Here I was being asked to take care of the most irritating animal known to man, a pet (Hah! That's a good one!) that ignores you and glares at you and slashes drapes and stalks innocent schoolchildren.

But by now I was in so deep with Jeff and Martha that all I could say was: "Of course we'll watch your cat."

"He's a house cat," Jeff said.

"Really no trouble at all," Martha said.

"Hey, I love cats," I said, which was such a heinous lie that I thought: This is it, I'm going to drop dead right here.

So a few days later, on their way to the airport, Jeff and Martha dropped off the stupid cat.

They also brought along his litter box, food, vitamins, toys -- everything but six pieces of kitty Samsonite luggage.

"This is Buzzy," Jeff said.

"Say hello to the nice folks, Buzzy," Martha said.

Naturally, Buzzy's reaction was to yawn and glance around with complete disinterest at my wife and the kids and our dog.

Then he gave me a baleful look that said: "I can handle them. But you and me might have a problem, sport."

Finally he sauntered off to the family room as if thinking: "Let's see what kind of dump they're leaving me at this time."

"He's really very affectionate," Jeff said.

"Once he gets to know you," Martha said.

Over the next seven days, we were treated to the full range of Buzzy's personality, which ran from aloof and remote all the way to haughty and imperial.

Which reminded me of something I never understood about cat lovers.

When you point out that cats are unfriendly, detached animals who won't come when you call them and who would sever your finger as soon as look at you, cat lovers say: "Well, they're independent, all right."

To me, this is like saying of the boorish drunk who gropes women and throws up on your shoes at the office Christmas party: "Well, he's certainly got his own way of doing things."

Anyway, when he wasn't waiting for me to drop off to sleep so he could get a clear shot at my neck, Buzzy spent most of his time on the couch in the family room.

Naturally, he sat smack in the middle, so as to cause the greatest amount of inconvenience to anyone else who wanted to sit there.

Once, we were all sitting down to watch TV, so I picked up the cat and put him on the floor. He stood there staring at me for five minutes, and you could tell he was just seething.

Finally he walked away slowly, shooting a glance over his shoulder that said: "OK, pal. You win this time. But I'll be back. And you'll be sorry."

It got to the point where if you changed the channel while the stupid cat was on the couch, he'd glare as if to say: "Hey! I was watching that show . . ."

Anyhow, that was pretty much how it went for the better part of a week, the cat casting a pall over the entire household. Me, I was convinced I was a dead man after that incident where I moved him from his favorite spot, so I avoided the family room altogether.

Jeff and Martha returned on Sunday. It was all I could do not to break out the champagne and party hats as their car pulled up.

"How'd it go with Buzzy?" Jeff asked, and I said: "Oh, we hardly knew he was here."

I hid behind the drapes to watch their car back out of the driveway. The cat was perched on Martha's lap and seemed to be eyeing the 2-year-old in the next yard.

Buzzy didn't seem particularly happy to see Jeff and Martha.

Although for him, that seemed to be a fairly routine state of mind.

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