I finished my taxes this week, after starting them in February. As soon as I discovered I owed – the fluctuating income of a freelance writer often brings tax time surprises – I set my taxes aside, opting to wait until April.
As I filed and paid that government reaper on Monday, I was reminded of another year I waited to pay. That one was a little more gratifying because of my cat Smudge.
A chill permeated the small bedroom that functioned as my office in our tiny rental house. The single heater that forced weak heat into the living room and kitchen just didn’t have the oomph to reach my feet, tucked under the desk where I did homework. So I wore a second pair of socks and picked up my cat for extra warmth.
It was tax time and Smudge caught my optimistic mood, his warm belly vibrating on my lap as I laid the last W-2 in a careful stack.
It was my second year of marriage and joint returns. Remembering the previous year, when the refund was large enough to fund a weekend away, I eagerly tackled the taxes, anxious to run the sums and send the forms while imagining all the ways we might spend another refund. We could replace our tattered couch, pay for the next terms’ books or go to the beach for a few days. I was confident we’d get another refund.
Between each painstaking calculation I stopped to run a hand over Smudge’s soft fur that showed up on my clothes no matter what color I wore. Black and white, like a tuxedo, he shed without discrimination, all over me. But that day I didn’t care. Dressed in jeans and a sweatshirt, I had no one to impress except my husband and this furry first child who kept me company when I was home alone.
Smudge had come with the house as a kitten, left behind when the previous renter was evicted. I loved him on sight and he rewarded my affection by purring with abandon and catching as many mice as he could leave by his food bowl, as if saving them for dessert. Aside from the mice, he was a model family member.
A great source of entertainment in our television-free home, when we weren’t studying, Smudge kept us amused with his antics. We watched him bat ping pong balls around the living room or chase strings across the floor.
But if I wanted to cuddle on the couch and study, he’d settle on my feet or chest and demonstrate his devotion by purring, starting soft then revving until his happy rumbles sounded like an unmuffled motor idling in the street.
The day I did our taxes Smudge snuggled on my lap, his eyes closed to slits until I slammed my hand on the desk.
“No. This can’t be right.” I held up the form, staring aghast at the final tally. We owed. Smudge jumped to the floor, looking at me with reproach.
“Sorry, Kitty,” I said. I pulled my calculator out and punched in numbers with growing frustration. It was clear I’d figured correctly. We wouldn’t get a refund. We had to pay. I wanted to cry. Instead, I gathered the taxes into a sloppy stack and dropped them on the office floor with a thud. Smudge jumped again.
Before he could dash off I picked him up under the belly and cuddled him against my chest like a baby, kissing him between his green eyes. “I didn’t mean to scare you, Smudge. Let’s forget about taxes until April.”
He melted into me, stretching his chin up so I would rub beneath it. I stroked him just the way he liked it, relaxing as I watched his eyes close and his mouth fall open. Another purr escaped and I put the taxes out of my mind.
It was a few days before I went back in the office. My nose twitched. I sniffed. We’d been in the house for six months and the room had always held an unpleasant odor, but this day an unmistakable pungency permeated the air.
“What did that cat do?” I muttered as I dropped to my hands and knees and felt the floor inch-by-inch, searching for the spot I’d need to clean.
The carpet was dry. I sniffed again and reached out tentative fingers. “I can’t believe it,” I said as I found the source of the smell. I sat back on my heels and shook my head. I couldn’t scold the cat when he’d echoed my emotions so effectively. He’d peed on the taxes.
That was before electronic filing. I laid the numerous forms out to dry, then put them in an envelope with a post-dated check. In mid-April I mailed them and almost felt sorry for the IRS employee who had to open the still-pungent package.
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