We all have bad days, and Dr. Guy Carpenter awoke to rain drumming on gray windows, with a qualm in his gut about what this drab day might bring. Late at night an e-mail had come in, summoning him to an urgent morning meeting at the Jet Propulsion Lab with no reason given, an ill omen indeed to a survivor of the abort on the Texas plain. He was in pajamas at the desk in his den, gnawing at a slice of Swiss cheese on sourdough bread as he marked up a gloomy cost estimate of new space telescopes, when his wife burst in, her long black hair hanging in wet tangled ringlets, her soaked nightgown clinging transparently to her slim body. "Sweeney got out," she barked.
"No! How, this time?"
"I took out the trash, that's how. They collect it Wednesday at seven, or have you forgotten? It's raining buckets, I hurried, I left the screen door unlatched, and the bastard slipped out. I tried to catch him and got drenched."
"I'll find him."
"Don't you have that meeting at seven-thirty? I'm wet through and stark naked, as you see, or I'd look for him."
"No problem. Sorry about the trash."
Dr. Carpenter threw on a raincoat and plodded out barefoot on slippery grass. The downpour was helpful. Sweeney hated the wet, so he would be holed up in some dry spot of the backyard instead of hightailing it over the fence for a major chase, and if that failed, a general neighborhood alarm. Penny's obsession for keeping her cat indoors was a given of their marriage. Wonderful wife, Penny, with a human weakness or two such as a slight streak of jealousy and an unarguable dogma that outside cats were short-lived. Sweeney, a resourceful Siamese, ignored her for a doting fool, he knew he would never die, and he lay in wait for any chance to get out.
Poking here and there, Carpenter spied the bedraggled creature under a padded lounge chair. Okay, Sweeney! He crouched to grab the beast. Sweeney inched rearward just beyond his grasp, blinking at him. Standard cat maneuver, but this was no time for such foolery, so Carpenter kicked the chair aside and pounced on the cat. With an electric stab of pain, his back went out. Three weeks of slow healing, shot in an instant! He had pulled a muscle playing tennis, with an overhand smash at set point plunk into the net; and now this, no tennis for at least another three weeks. Standard Carpenter performance, he thought, clutching at his throbbing back. Guy's colleagues regarded him as a top man in high-energy physics, his wife Penny adored him when he remembered to take out the trash, but he had a downbeat opinion of Dr. Guy Carpenter, due to a perfectionist bent always nagging at his self-esteem.
"Bad cat," Penny said as he brought Sweeney in, meowing in outrage. Muffled in a bathrobe, she was drying her hair. "Good Lord, you're drowned. I hope you didn't catch your death. The Project Scientist phoned in a huge tizzy "
"Call her back, say I'm on my way."
Wincing at each move, he dressed, limped out to the garage, and eased himself into his car. When he pressed the garage-door opener, nothing happened. What now? Low battery? He lurched to Penny's car and tried her remote. It did not work, either. The wall button goosed the door to rattle upward a foot, then it halted. He had never before tried using the manual lift. How did it work, exactly? He grasped the thick rough cord in both hands and with excruciating pain hauled the screeching door halfway up, where it stuck. His lower back aflame, pulsating, he called the Project Scientist on his cell phone to beg off from the meeting.
She was unsympathetic. "Guy, take a couple of Aleves. Peter's on his way. Why don't I alert him to pick you up? You've got to be here."
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