Pick the ending you want.
What’s the most likely ending? What’s the worst-case scenario? What’s the best ending? There’s a billion potential endings. Pick one.
It became a running joke, Karl asking Terry, “Will you marry me?” They had known each other two weeks. They were in a Starbucks after watching Point Break and Karl looked at Terry and blurted: Will you marry me? Terry rolled her eyes, and she replied, “When the time is right.” Karl asked Terry to marry him at least once a day, every day, for more than a year.
Everybody said they made the perfect couple.
Karl was athletic and strong, broad-shouldered, with long, thick, naturally curly brown hair, and the smooth, natural, buttery tan of a man who spent lots of time outdoors running or climbing or swimming. Some people thought he was brusque, but inside he was really a softie, just not much of a people person.
Terry was smart and shrewd, but also friendly and down-to-earth. She was a hard-worker, just a shade taller than Karl, with honey-blonde hair and green eyes. She was Scandinavian and trim, though she’d darken up in the summer when they lounged in the sun. She was equally at home at a conference podium or in a concert mosh pit.
It was the early 90s, a serious time but optimistic. Sure, society had problems: pollution, overpopulation, disease, urban sprawl, the strain on the world’s resources, the widening gap between rich and poor. But Karl and Terry were going to make their mark. People would solve those problems. They were convinced of that. And they were going to be part of the solution. Terry majored in environmental science and Karl studied statistical analysis at the University of Washington.
Karl got up early every morning. He went to the gym and kept detailed records of his workouts: time, weight, reps, calories. Terry hiked the woods every chance she got collecting water samples and small dead animals.
On Sundays they lounged around the apartment in their house clothes, shorts and T-shirts in the summer, flannels and jeans and wool socks in the winter. They drank lots of coffee and wrote copious notes about the books they read or the experiments they performed. They made furious love just about any time the mood struck them.
And when they could afford it and didn’t have any major assignments bearing down on them they partied with their friends, mostly freewheeling graduate students with a few oddball intellectual-types thrown in for good measure. Harley and Haley were newly-appointed assistant professors of something-or-another. Barent had a degree in philosophy but worked as a barista at Espresso Roma, everybody’s favorite coffee bar. Elena used to be a graduate student but took a leave of absence to work as a stripper because she didn’t want the burden of student loans.
They drank bourbon coolers and smoked weed and snorted lines of coke and compared tattoos and tripped to the music of Edie Brickell and Pearl Jam and Patty Smith and REM and Timbuk 3 and Smashing Pumpkins and Green Day.
At one of these parties, in the spring of 1992, standing on the back balcony of a house out Lake City Way, Karl found himself smoking a joint with Elena.
Elena was an okay-looking girl but not one Karl would describe as attractive. She was curvy, but not big-breasted. If anything, she was on the thin side, short and dark-haired, with tattoos encircling her neck and wrists and climbing over her shoulders and down her thighs. She was not the kind of girl Karl would expect to make a living stripping. If she was trying to look sexy or tough, it didn’t work. She looked more fragile than strong, more vulnerable than aggressive. There was something almost sad about her. She had this faraway stare that might mean she was thinking deep thoughts but could also mean that she had snorted her limit and her brain had checked out.
Elena was staring out over the back yard into an ocean of black with the occasional buzz of an insect or flutter of a passing bat.
“What are you looking at?” Karl asked.
“There was a cat,” Elena said.
Karl studied what he could see of the yard and the black abyss beyond. He couldn’t see a cat, but there probably had been one. He was a statistician. There were always cats. What was the probability of seeing one? One hundred per cent if you stood there long enough.
“Probably mousing,” he said. “This time of night.”
“I had this creative writing professor,” Elena said, “who had four rules. He said not to write a story where you wake up and it was just a dream. He said it had been done once and we needn’t do it again. That was one.”
Karl rolled a joint and lit it and offered Elena a toke. She took a big hit and held the smoke, letting it trickle out of her mouth while simultaneously inhaling it through her nose. It was a pretty trick. When she had finished, she said (her voice husky from the dope), “He also said not to write a story where your main character dies. That’s sappy. And he said not to write story about him. He said that had been done once, too, and once was enough.”
She handed the joint back to Karl. Elena had inhaled a third of it in a single pull, no small feat considering how good the dope was and how thin she was.
He took a toke and passed it back to her. When he could talk again, he asked, “And what was the fourth thing?”
Elena was staring into space again. “What thing?”
“The thing the professor said.” And when Elena didn’t respond he added, “You said he made four rules. No dream endings. No dead main characters. And not to write about him. What was the fourth thing?”
“Oh,” she said.
She took another long toke and handed what was left of the joint back to Karl. When she exhaled, she said, “He said not to write stories about dead cats.”
“What’s wrong with cats?” Karl asked.
“Nothing, I guess,” Elena said. “So long as they’re alive.”
Karl thought back to his undergrad lit class and tried to remember if he had ever read a story about a cat. He couldn’t remember one. But it sounded like the stupid, banal, kind of thing some silly Victorian writer would do. Jane Austen or Virginia Woolf. Somebody. An overly-dramatic and utterly-predictable romance saga from the point-of-view of a proper British cat.
He said, “I can’t remember any stories about cats. The Cat in the Hat. Does that count?”
“There are lots of stories about cats,” Elena said.
“Oh, some Japanese guy wrote a story a few years back. Before the war. It was pretty good. What I remember of it. I forget the name, though.”
“What is it, some kind of nine-lives thing?”
Elena shrugged. “Who knows?”
Karl said, “So the professor’s full of shit. What else is new?”
He took another toke. It really was good dope. They called it KGB. Killer Green Bud. Hydroponics. The wave of the future. Pretty soon the world wouldn’t need farms. They’d grow everything in test tubes. Or something like that.
Berent grew it in the basement of a house in Edmunds. Karl wasn’t supposed to tell anybody about that. But that was how Berent made his living. His real living. “What else am I gonna do with a degree in philosophy?” he’d said. Then he gave Karl a big bag of dope as a present for the party. At 200 bucks an ounce, it was a pretty nice present. It was Berent’s way of keeping himself invited to cool parties.
Elena said, “Yeah, he was full of himself. But it bugged me. Tell me not to do something and I’ll obsess over doing it.”
“So did you write a story about cats?”
“I tried. But I didn’t know how to end it.”
“So how hard can it be to end a story about cats?”
“That’s the problem,” Elena said. “He said there’s no way to end the story.”