Kathie Freeman

A single bulb dangled from the ceiling on frayed wires as Kitty made her way down the hallway, trying to read the faded numbers on the doors. Naturally 216A was at the far end. A hand-lettered sign on the door read LA LISSE CHATTE and below, in parentheses, (The Sleek Cat). She pushed open the door. A tiny brass bell above her head announced her arrival, but no one occupied the battered desk in the corner. In fact, there wasn't even a chair for anyone to sit in. The huge calico cat curled up on the blotter opened one eye, twitched its tail, and went back to sleep. Kitty pulled her sweater tightly around her ample frame.

"Hello," she quavered. "Is anybody here?" Her courage faltering, she turned and opened the door.

"May I assist you please, mademoiselle?" Kitty spun around, startled. A dark-eyed woman in her late forties smiled kindly.

"Uh, yeah, I guess so. This coupon says I get six free sessions, guaranteed to lose fifteen to thirty pounds in three weeks. What's the catch?"

"Catch? What means 'catch'?"

"The gimmick, the trick. You know, the fine print where it says I have to sign a two-year contract for a thousand bucks in order to get the freebie." The dark-eyed woman shook her head and smiled patiently.

"There is no 'catch' as you say. We have no need for contracts here. If you are not pleased with the results of your free visits, you will owe us nothing."

"And if I am 'pleased'?"

"Our terms are quite reasonable. But enough of that now. You may call me Leona. Your name is Katherine, yes?"

"Yes, but most people call me Kitty."

"But of course, and such a pretty Kitty, too."

"Yeah, right," Kitty snorted. "That's what everybody tells me. 'You have such a pretty face, if only you'd just lose a few pounds'."

"But that is why you are here, no? To lose the few pounds?" Kitty sighed.

"I suppose so."

"Then come, child, we shall begin at once." She guided her through the inner door into the strangest health spa Kitty had ever seen. A ragged green shag carpet covered most of the floor, and a half-dozen assorted cats lounged on mats and cushions scattered about the room. The walls were papered with pictures cut from magazines and scotch-taped to the peeling plaster. The equipment consisted of a stationary bike, a rowing machine, and a treadmill, all at least fifteen to twenty years old. Leona touched her shoulder.

"You have brought your gym clothes?"

"Well, no. I wasn't really expecting to start today."

"No matter. We have everything you need here. Come." She led Kitty to a small dressing room with a stack of clean towels and sweat suits. "You may dress here." Kitty found her size and changed quickly. Leona was waiting. "We will begin with the bicycle. Ride as slowly as you wish. Do not feel you must race with the time. Just enjoy."

Enjoy. Kitty scoffed to herself. She must be kidding. What was so enjoyable about working yourself into a sweat. She'd do it this one time, but that was it. Free or not, this so-called spa was pathetic. How could this woman even get a business license, let alone a health certificate? Oh, well, live and learn.

She straddled the bike and began pedaling, slowly at first, then a little faster. Over in the corner Leona was playing something on a battered old upright piano. Not the usual pop or jazz one usually associates with exercise classes, but something softer, more lyrical. It flowed across the room like a bubbling stream, leaving Kitty feeling relaxed, yet somehow energized. Almost before she knew it, it was time to move on to the rowing machine.

It was a odd feeling, exercising all by her self, but in another sense it was a relief not having to compete with all those young, slim, hard-bodied types who dominated the other classes she'd been to. They always made her feel inferior, almost sub-human. At the close of the session Leona approached her with a tall glass of thick greenish liquid.

"Drink this," she instructed.

"What is it?"

"It is a tonic. A most particular blend of very special herbs and essences from the Old Country. It will make you strong and fearless."

"Strong and fearless, huh? I'd like to see that." Kitty sipped the proffered potion. It was a trifle bitter, but she gulped it down and handed back the glass. "Is that it?"

"Yes, you may shower and go. You will come twice a week, on Tuesdays and Fridays at four-thirty."

"Tuesdays and Fridays. Right." Kitty changed and made her way back down to the street, wondering how she could ever have thought such a deal could be legitimate. Nothing is for nothing, right? The setting sun seemed brighter than usual,and she felt warm and tingly all over. Must be those "special herbs and essences", Kitty decided. She probably put some pot in it or something.

Kitty slept soundly that night, and awoke the next morning rested and full of energy. She had no intention of returning to La Lisse Chatte, and yet Tuesday afternoon found her once again treading apprehensively down the dimly lit hallway. She passed through the outer office with its resident recumbent cat, and entered the exercise room. Leona was waiting.

"Ah, my pretty Kitty has returned," she smiled.

"Yeah, I'm back. I don't know why, but I'm back."

"Why is not important. What is important is that you are here." Kitty glanced about the deserted room.

"You're not exactly overrun with customers, are you?"

"I have no need for hordes of faceless bodies. Only those whom I have chosen come here."

"So why me?" Leona smiled indulgently.

"Because you are so beautiful, my pretty one. Besides,you are my first blue-eyed blonde."

"Yeah, right. Whatever you say." Kitty changed and went through the monotonous routine, accompanied all the while by Leona's piano playing. As before, the session ended with a glass of tonic. She glanced at her watch. Almost five-thirty. She was supposed to meet Michelle for dinner at six. "I'll shower when I get home." She bounded down the two flights of stairs, surprised at her own energy. She swung through the outer door and crashed headlong into a tall black girl about her own age. "Sorry. I guess I better watch where I'm going."

"That's okay, no damage here." The amber eyes smiled at her. "You just come from the gym?"

"Yeah. How'd you know that?" The young woman wrinkled her nose.

"Well, you are a bit, shall we say, disheveled?" Kitty laughed.

"You're right. Say, there's a coincidence for you." She pointed to the name printed on the girl's scarf. "My name's Kitty, too."

"Mine's not, not really. Leona gave me this. My given name's Catherine, but I go by Kate. Say, listen, I'm late for my session. Maybe we'll run into each other again sometime." She grinned mischievously.

"Sure," Kitty laughed and hurried down River Street. It was ten past six when she got to the Palomar. Michelle was waiting at their usual booth.

"I was getting worried. It's not like you to be late."

"Sorry. My gym session ran overtime." Kitty slid in beside her friend. "Have you ordered yet?"

"Just coffee. I didn't know you were going to a gym." Kitty picked up the menu.

"I just started last week. I know it sounds silly, but I feel better already."

Are you ladies ready to order?" The waitress stood by, pad in hand.

"I'll have the stuffed chicken breast, green salad, and cottage fries. How about you, Kitty?"

"I'd like the seafood platter, please, salad, baked potato with sour cream, no chives, and a large milk."

"Thank you. I'll get you some more coffee, miss."

"Thanks." Michelle was staring incredulously at her friend. "What's with the seafood platter all of a sudden? You've always been a strict vegetarian. And milk? Come on!"

"I don't know." Kitty shrugged. "I just suddenly got this wild craving for fish. Now watch, I'll probably hate it, and you'll end up taking it home in a doggy bag."

"We'll, don't be surprised if you find out you love it. I've always said you veggies miss out on all the good stuff. Now what's this about you going to a gym?"

"Well, it's kind of crazy, really. I got this coupon in the mail last week, six free sessions, no strings attached, guaranteed to lose fifteen to thirty pounds in three weeks."

"That's bull. Nobody can guarantee that kind of result, not legitimately."

"That's what I figured, too. In fact, I almost didn't go, but then I decided, what the hell, as long as it's free, what have I got to lose? Anyway, when I get there, it's this really pitiful place, one instructor, practically no equipment, nor students either, for that matter. I've been there twice now, and I've only seen one other girl. She was coming in as I was leaving this afternoon." Michelle laughed.

"I wonder why she didn't have you come in together." Kitty shrugged.

"Conflicting schedules, I guess. Anyway, I get forty-five minutes twice a week, and I set my own pace, no hassles, no pressure. I don't know that I'd want to PAY to go there, but I've already lost three pounds, I have tons more energy, and I'm sleeping better than I have in years."

"Not on the job, I hope."

"Very funny."

"No, seriously, I'm happy for you. Results are what counts, so go to it, girl."

"Thanks. Oh, I almost forgot. That other girl I bumped into this afternoon? Well, she's got the strangest eyes I've ever seen in my entire life."

"Strange, how?"

"They look like cat's eyes."

"Cat's eyes?"

"You know, with slitted pupils instead of round ones."

"Come on. It was probably just an optical illusion."

"No, really. I saw them plain as day. Slitted pupils."

"Well, it's probably just some kind of odd birth defect, like six fingers or something like that."

"I suppose so, but it sure was weird."

"Ladies, your dinners." The waitress set the loaded plates on the table.

"Well, here goes." Kitty stabbed a scallop with her fork and popped it into her mouth. "Um, this is delicious!"

"Told you. Next thing you know, you'll be eating hamburgers and fried chicken just like the rest of us mortals."

The week passed quickly and Kitty arrived early for her third session.

"I'll be out in one moment, my pet," Leona called from the dressing room. A large black cat sauntered over and rubbed against Kitty's legs. She reached down and petted it.

"I don't remember seeing you here before." Leona emerged smiling with a gaily wrapped package in her hand.

"A present for you, my pretty, but you must not open it now. When you get home, then you may unwrap it."

"Thanks. You know, I think this program is doing me a lot of good. I've lost almost five pounds, and I have so much more energy now." Leona smiled knowingly.

"So it is for all my little pets. Another week of my care and you will not recognize yourself."

After her workout, Kitty hurried downstairs to the sidewalk, hoping to chat for a few minutes with her new acquaintance, but half an hour passed with no sign of her, so she gave up and went on home. Back in her own apartment she eagerly opened Leona's gift. It was a large box of catnip tea and a scarf identical to the one the black girl had worn.

"I should have known," she laughed to herself. "She probably buys them by the dozen." She draped the scarf around her neck and opened the package of tea. She sniffed it eagerly. Might as well have some now.

The weekend passed quickly, but Monday and Tuesday seemed to take forever. Her job had become unbearably boring, and she caught herself falling asleep at the keyboard several times. Tuesday she left early and hurried to the gym. Leona was nowhere in sight. Only the cats dozed on their respective pillows and mats. Kitty strolled around the room, scrutinizing the pictures that papered the shabby walls. Cats, birds, fish, and horses. No dogs, though. A snapshot in the center of the long wall caught her eye andshe stepped over for a closer look. A pretty, dark-haired girl about nineteen with her arms around a horse's neck, grinning as if she'd just won the Kentucky Derby.

"Her name also was Catherine." Leona's voice jarred her back to reality. "I'm sorry. I did not mean to startle you."

"She's very pretty."

"She was my beautiful little pet, but now she is no more. She was, how do you say, run over by a car."

"I'm sorry," was all Kitty could think of to say.

"Yes, it is very sad. Now I have only my little ones here." She gestured toward the sleeping felines. "It is for them now that I live." She gathered herself and turned back to her young client. "Come, child. Let us begin."

* * * * *

Kitty winced as she emerged into the bright afternoon sunlight. The street noises seemed suddenly very loud and irritating, and she couldn't wait to get inside where it was quiet and peaceful. But there were noises there, too, the hum of the refrigerator, the ticking of the clock. Even the fluorescent light made a low buzzing sound. Kitty turned it off. She didn't need it, anyway. All she wanted to do now was eat and sleep.

It was still dark when she awoke. She looked at the clock. Three-thirty a.m. The alarm wouldn't go off for another two hours. No point in staying in bed, though, if she couldn't sleep. Might as well shower and get dressed. Some how the shower didn't seem as refreshing and invigorating as it usually did. In fact, it was vaguely annoying. What she needed was some breakfast. She poured herself a large bowl of cereal. A few drops of the milk spilled on her wrist, and she licked them off.

Downstairs the street was quiet, nearly deserted. Kitty wandered aimlessly about the neighborhood, sniffing flowers, peering through fences, and chasing happily after scraps of paper that blew past on the wind. Dawn found her ten blocks from home, sitting on the front steps of a two-story brownstone. She blinked lazily at the rising sun. Almost morning. What day was it, anyway? Tuesday? No, Wednesday. A work day. Better get home and change. The streets and sidewalks were filling with people as Kitty made her way back to her apartment. She laid out her work clothes and sat on the bed to pull off her shoes. What a nuisance this whole thing was! Why did people have to go to work, anyway? Why couldn't they just eat and play and sleep? She curled up on the cozy comforter and a moment later she was fast asleep.

At nine o'clock the phone rang. She stirred and stretched. It rang again. She reached over and lifted the receiver.

"Hello?" It was her boss. Why was she still home? Didn't she know what time it was? "I'm sorry, Mr. Wolfe. I've been feeling a little under the weather lately. I think maybe I should take a few days off." Her boss was sympathetic but suggested next time she might at least call in so they could assign someone else to her station. "Yes, Mr. Wolfe.

I'll do that." She hung up the phone and went back to sleep.

Friday was her fifth session. She breezed through the workout and gulped down the herbal cocktail.

"You know, this stuff isn't half bad, once you get used to it."

"It is exactly what you need, my pet." Leona took the empty glass. "You have but one visit remaining. In a few more days, your transformation will be complete."

"Well, I don't know if I'd call it a transformation." Kitty smiled. "I haven't lost as much weight as I'd hoped, but I do feel a lot more relaxed, so I guess that's something."

"I will see you again on Tuesday, then."

Friday night was usually party night for Kitty's crowd, but lately she hadn't felt much like mingling. Crowds of people made her nervous now. Tonight again she stayed home, sleeping quietly until the early morning hours when the bars and clubs had closed down, and the noisy revelers had gone. The streets were dark and quiet, but the moon was full, and the stars were out in force. Kitty slipped silently through the streets and alleyways, her watchful eyes penetrating the shadows, her ears attuned to the slightest sound.

Something rustled behind the stack of papers piled in the alley to her left. She crept forward and crouched, waiting. A small grey pointed nose poked out from behind the pile. Kitty trembled with suppressed excitement. The mouse stood upright for a moment, then scampered to a nearby trash can. Kitty started forward, but slipped on a wet newspaper and fell prostrate. The garbage can crashed down the alley, scattering its contents as it went. A window opened above her and a man's head poked out.

"What's going on down there?" he hollered. Kitty cowered against the wall, scarcely daring to breathe. A woman's sleepy voice called faintly.

"What is it, dear?"

"Just some stupid stray cat. Go back to sleep." The window slammed shut. Kitty crept back down the alley and high-tailed it for home.

* * * * *

"Welcome, my pretty one." Leona took Kitty's hand and guided her to a large blue plush-covered mat. "And how are you feeling today?"

"Great. Never better. I've been thinking about signing up for an extended course. How much do you charge a month?"

"Please. We must not discuss business now. Later there will be plenty of time. Today there is no work to do. Today you will only have massage. But first you must have your tonic." Obediently Kitty emptied the glass, undressed and lay down on the mat. Leona's hands were strong and skillful as she went about her work, beginning at the neck, then the shoulders and arms. Kitty sighed contentedly.

"Feels good. I could go for one of these every day."

"And you shall have it, my pet. Now, do not speak. Only relax and enjoy." She worked her way gradually down her back, all the way to her feet, but before she even reached the waist, Kitty was fast asleep.

It was almost six o'clock when a tall young man entered the gym. Leona was sitting on a cushion, a large white cat draped across her lap.

"Mother, please!" he chided her. "What have I told you about picking up stray cats?"

"My dear son, I did not, as you say, 'pick her up'. She came to me of her own free will. She needs me, don't you, my pretty Kitty? Besides, she's my first blue-eyed blonde."

THE END
copyright 1996 by Kathleen Mc Pugh all rights reserved

Kathie Freeman is the author of "Catwalk, A Feline Odyssey", the engaging tale of a vagabond tabby cat, and "The Retro", the story of an unholy alliance of science and government.

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