A grin and a purr

The purring swirls across the room, almost louder than the violin. Oreo, the half-tailed black-and-white cat, curls inside the violin case. His paws briefly knead the green velvet lining, then cover his eyes. His grin is enormous. Joy radiates through layers and shades of supposed sleep.

Or is his apparent joy merely mirror to my own? Oreo is a litmus cat.

Cousin Henry is back. After months, Haydn sonatas permeate every nook of the warming house.

Cousin Henry has been wandering. Perhaps the whole globe. Perhaps the wilds of his own book-in-progress with which he has locked himself up, only a few miles across town. The jungles of another's life are dense and even dangerous to penetrate. I have felt baffled, hurt, to be abandoned at perimeter, and without a map.

No matter now. Cousin Henry is back, at least for a while. His absence has been necessary. To him.

During his absence, my own microglobe was of course well and even overpopulated. Nature abhors a vacuum. And as an eighty-five-year-old Russian lady - who at age twenty-five commanded a Cossack regiment across the Russian steppes, at fifty got her doctorate at the Sorbonne, and at seventy took up painting ikons - told me: ''I paint alone all day, but every evening friends come for supper. People are my books.''

In Cousin Henry's absence, I read few books but leafed volumes of people. Also I learned some new skills. D. taught me wild Irish songs, and how to shoot arrows. L. taught me to use an electric sander and to fiberglass the old boat, though he tricked me into cleaning my basement first. G. helped me to translate several difficult authors. S. improved my tennis, to the point where I beat him. B. lectured to me on opera, and escorted me black-tie to seven. X., Y., and Z. . . .

How punctilious all of them are, well-organized, immaculate, elegant, always good-natured. Thrifty, they worry about The Economy, but themselves are never jobless or broke. Properly cultural they are, too: they read excellent books, hang fashionable paintings, and turn up classical music.

Yet while they proclaim the artistic/creative bit ''fascinating,'' I realize that in fact they're uneasy at having a live working artist around. Like acquiring a new Afghan puppy in the house just when the Queen is expected for tea and one can never be sure when he will rush in happily yapping and jump onto the royal lap with his muddy paws. (In fact, I do know when to wear my white gloves, and I believe they are still at the bottom of my trunk in the attic.)

D. notes that I sing off key, and can't hit a target. B. faults me for falling asleep in the third act. G. complains of my unconcern for foreign grammars. In self-defense S. has begun slicing his shots in tennis and I can't get the ball. L. turns out to have been in the Navy, which is perhaps why he is forever suggesting I tidy my desk/study/car; how much energy he expends to reform me! And X., Y. and Z. - all women - would prefer I be fatter or thinner, richer or poorer, brighter or dumber, and couldn't I cook more conventional meals? And why do I need a cat? They all remark how hard I am on the brakes. (So does Cousin Henry.)

In sum, they are all good and competent men and women who work hard to make me likewise, and of course I am grateful.

Cousin Henry can be surly, especially under stress, which is often. His shoes are worn down, and he prefers to wear one shirt one week. He is seldom on time, but scolds me if I am not. He spins me reams of cousinly criticism, but bristles if I offer him good advice. Driving a nail can send him into a rage of frustration at his own clumsiness. And while his opinions are well established and seemingly immovable, he is otherwise unpredictable.

But he admits when he is wrong, or might be. And while he is arguing that my sink is too full for him to fix his cabbage salad, he scours the blackened pots himself. He complains when my floor crunches underfoot, but picks up the broom. He won't balance his checkbook (nor do I), yet he analyzes the financial flows and woes of the world, and advises me on mine. Often broke, he is always generous. He insists he is working too hard and late to go anywhere or see anyone, but stops in to visit Great Aunt Emma, and will suddenly surface to squire me from party to play. He always beats me at tennis, but is genuinely proud the rare times I win. He eats what I cook and reads what I write. He can be terribly difficult - or exuberant, tender, brilliant, and withal, never a bore.

And so today he bursts in, late, shirt frayed and grayed and half-buttonless, his violin in need of new strings, full of old notions and brand-new ideas. We jog before sunrise, type our stories till dark, fight deadlines and inertia with only ephemeral brilliance, drive in circles to locate a missing violin shop, tend fragile fathers, dispute salad dressings, flail at the bald tennis balls, dive into the sea, read both books and friends, and discuss all night how to put in order the world.

He will be gone tomorrow. The past is haphazard, the future duck soup. But today, Cousin Henry is here. Irrefutable, immutable, not to be tamed. Irreplaceable.

I can't change his faults. But at least for a while he puts up with mine.

Oreo stretches, sharpens his claws assiduously on the brocaded chair, keeps grinning. No one can reform him, either.

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