When I arrived at Sue’s house out in the country there was no one there. Sue’s old salt-rusted Toyota was in the driveway along with a camo-painted Jeep. I headed into the woods.
After a five minute walk I found Sue and a short, young, muscular man dressed in camouflaged army fatigues standing under the tall pine tree. Sue had been crying. Her face was red and streaked with tears. She introduced me to Ralph. He worked out at the army base where Sue was an officer’s executive assistant. He looked tough all right. He assured us that he had climbed ropes far higher than that. Easily. I had my doubts. The branch had to be at least forty feet above the ground – maybe fifty. Where could you even find a fifty foot rope to climb? But Ralph was strong; there was no doubt about that.
He clapped his rough hands together and eyed the thick wild grape vines that reached into the dizzying tree tops. In the ground, the vines were stout and thick, covered with course bark. But they clearly got thinner the higher they stretched.
“Alls I need ma’am,” Ralph drawled, “is a backpack so’s I can stuff her in. Then I’ll just climb back down.”
“I don’t know, Ralph, do you think the vine is strong enough to support your weight?” Sue looked at me like I was a traitor to the cause.
“Shore, man. These things are really strong. I used to climb them all the time when I was a kid. It’d be strong enough to hold the both of us. You wanna come too?” He haw hawed.
“Sue, why don’t you go get the backpack. We’ll stay here and keep an eye on Star.” She headed back to her house with her head down, her shoulders slumped, a look of profound sadness clung to her like a blanket.
“Look, Ralph,” I said when Sue was out of earshot. “That’s a cat, a cat stuck in a tree, a cat stupid enough to climb up so high that it’s afraid to come down. If you risk your life and climb up there, and somehow manage to grab it, and, if you are lucky enough that it allowed you to stuff it into a backpack and climb all the way down without the vine breaking or you slipping and falling – IF you are lucky enough to survive and Star made it all the way to the ground… Do you know where Star will be next week or the week after? She’ll be right back in a tree, so high up that she can’t get down.” I took a breath. “She does it all the time. Maybe next time it’ll be so far into the forest that no one will hear her. My point is… She’s going to die in a tree. It’s her destiny. Do you think it’s worth risking your life climbing up these flimsy vines just to prolong her life? Star is a cat, man. A cat.”
I was a little breathless, because in a way I felt like I was working to save this man’s life. His reply was blunt. He wasn’t even listening to me. “I’m strong enough.”
“Hey, Ralph. I’m sure you are. But what if the vines aren’t?”
“I’m strong enough.”
“Ralph, it’s a cat. Do you want to risk your life for a cat?” He was gazing up at Star stuck on that limb. She was meowing. Only it sounded like moaning. It was eerie. It seemed to me that Star was as good as dead. I just didn’t want to see Ralph dead too.
I don’t claim to be prescient. I know I can’t see into the future. But as I watched Ralph watch that dying cat, I had a hunch, a vision, I could see in my mind’s eye him getting almost to the top, almost to the cat, reaching out and then the thin vines unraveling from the tree top. I could see the bright look of fright in his eyes. I could see him tumbling backwards, arms flailing in a futile effort to grab a hold of the falling vines. I could see him crashing onto the forest floor and then lying there completely still.
“Ralph, don’t do it man. I am begging you. That cat just isn’t worth it. Even if there’s just a tiny chance of you getting hurt, that cat just… isn’t… worth it. I love Sue. I do. I don’t want to see her sad. But you have a mom and dad, right?” He looked at me blankly. “How are they gonna feel if their beautiful son Ralph gave his life for someone’s pet?”
I could hear the crunch of leaves as Sue came toward us. I knew there wasn’t much time and I couldn’t think of anything else to say. As Sue approached holding an old rucksack, I pleaded with him with my eyes. He had to have seen my desperation. He reached out and squeezed my shoulder and looked me in the eye. “I’ll be all right,” only it sounded like all rot because of his soft southern Indiana accent.
“I hope so,” I murmured as Sue came up.
END OF PART TWO