Cradling the Cat
In pictures, Marissa is a mass of black fur, no face. Only her eyes appear, big and yellow, though at night her pupils expand and her eyes resemble big black buttons. According to the paper that was taped to her cage, she’s a medium-haired domestic. I’m no expert, but I see her as long-haired, especially when she stands beside the short-haired tabby that lives here, my roommate’s cat, an attention-seeker. Marissa is shy, though not quiet. She squeaks and coos like a baby. She’s a year and a month old, a teenager in cat years.
True to teenage nature she finds ways to complicate her caretaker’s life. She sits on my books while I’m reading them, wakes me at odd hours, pawing and meowing, and decides my bed is best to explore while I’ll making it in the mornings. She climbs into crevices—to what end, I’m unsure—and onto bookshelves, knocking pens, paperclips, and other small items to the floor, frightening herself. Sudden sounds and movements send her dashing into the closet. She’s new to this house. I am, too. When my sudden illness—an atrophied cerebellum, ataxia—illuminated the difficulties I was having with my last housemate—nosiness, verbal abuse, an obnoxious dog—I left. Finally, after a decade of living in homes where I was unable to adopt a cat, an animal essential to my well-being, I’m allowed one.
When I was twelve or so, I bought a slingshot. A cheap, plastic thing. Ninety-nine cents in the toy aisle. Shooting stones in the front yard was satisfying until I learned to shoot them so far I couldn’t hear them land. I then turned my attention to visible objects. Houses. Cars. A nest of birds. I couldn’t see the birds, but I could hear them. A chorus of chirps in a nook between the awning and the roof, into which a grown bird faded, carrying brown strands between her beak. I once slung a stone into that cubby where the birds sang. A breeze cut the heat. I shot another. In that silence, the clouds parted. The sun scorched my neck.
Around that time, my grandfather’s dog gave birth to a litter of puppies. Most afternoons after school I went to his house to play with them. Palm-sized, blind. My mother, battered by our begging and pleading, let my brother and me take home two. We named them Rusty and Lulu. Rusty had a gray spot on his back, which I used as an excuse to name him after the husband of my fourth grade teacher. I was infatuated and too young to notice, during our cursive lessons, that her praise of her husband’s penmanship—gorgeous, the best handwriting she’d ever seen—meant she was in love with him.
Lulu—I don’t know where that name came from. A cartoon probably.
Lazy television addicts, my brother and I neglected to provide them adequate care. During commercial breaks, we watched from our bedroom window and from the sliding glass door as our puppies romped through knee-high weeds in our backyard, but it wasn’t until our neighbor’s terrier slipped through a crack in the fence, befriending Rusty and Lulu, that we went outside. Throwing bones and Frisbees. The terrier was an inside dog, but our neighbors released him to the backyard when they left the house.
A Chow lived on the other side. Her owner, an elderly woman, had an ongoing feud with my mother. Over what, I never knew. I recall that one night my mother spotted the neighbor’s adult son peeking into her bedroom window. When she confronted him about it, while he was digging a hole in the front yard, he raised the shovel. So it was no surprise when his mother accused our puppies of biting her dog.
Daytime energy frightens Marissa. If the door is open, she creeps toward it, peeks outside, and runs to the back of the house at the first sound: a passing car or skateboard, shouting children, a barking dog. She goes out at night though. Not long, an hour or so. She comes bounding up the walkway and into the house when I open the front door. While she’s out, if I’m not already reading, my mind often drifts to Mary Clearman Blew’s “Cat Killers,” a short story centered on two twenty-year-old camp counselors from different backgrounds. The narrator, Mike, is a white farm kid from Kansas. Tony is a black kid from the slums of Missouri.
Blew creates an Odd Couple scenario for the two young men. Mike doesn’t like Tony, and he’s sure Tony dislikes him. Tension arises when their boss, Mrs. Boswell, tasks them with killing a family of maggot-and-worm-infested tomcats that have been terrorizing the camp, stealing food from the kids, frightening them. Mike and Tony quickly kill the kittens, strangling them one by one. Tony vomits after the last kitten’s death. When Mike, standing with two dead kittens at his feet, laughs at him, Tony calls him a bastard. Mike continues to laugh, and then he tells the reader, “That was what amused me so, I guess, the idea of old gutter Tony losing his cool over what any farm kid had done at twelve years old.”
When he calls Tony sentimental, Tony again calls him a bastard and tells him to kill the adult cat, the tomcat, by himself. He watches Mike fight the tomcat, watches as he repeatedly kicks the cat until it goes “sailing up into free air.” Mike doesn’t know where the cat lands though he’ll catch glimpses of her all summer. At the story’s end, he reflects: “[Tony] had never had much to say to me before that. But from then on I knew what it was he didn’t say, and that made all the difference.”
What’s most intriguing about the story is the parallel Blew draws between Tony and the tomcat. By leaving the projects, by going to college, by making something of himself, Tony mirrors the tomcat who stalks the camp, stealing food, surviving, and has escaped Mike, the white man come to kill her. By fighting back, Tony and the tomcat have earned a chance at life.
When Marissa leaves the house, I don’t worry about cat killers. My anxieties about her outings are aimed at late-night drivers who’ll easily mistake a black cat for more asphalt. “Cat Killers” comes to mind as a comfort, a reminder that cats are survivors. That Marissa will return.
As a young black man who adores cats, I swelled with pride when I read this story, which, to me, relates the resiliency of cats to that of African Americans. I need this. As my cerebellum withers, as my legs weaken, my torso jerks, and sporadic aches simmer on the soles of my feet, creeping to my toes, shooting through my arms and fingers, I need “Cat Killers.”
When dogs approach my mother, she battles two fears: they’ll hurt her or she’ll hurt them. The first fear makes sense. The worry that a strange dog will jump her, bite her, tear off skin isn’t uncommon. Her second fear, however, baffles me. Daunted by their bellies, soft beneath their fur, she’s afraid to touch dogs. She’s afraid she’ll squeeze too hard, injuring them. What an odd fear for a woman who raised twins with little help, who approached every baby she saw, oblivious (or indifferent) to their parents’ disinterest. What a struggle it must have been to step into the backyard to fill Rusty and Lulu’s empty bowls while their owners lay on their bellies before the television, and to defend the puppies when the old lady neighbor accused them of assaulting her Chow, arguing until the neighbor threatened to sue.
For the past month, despite her allergy, my mother has been keeping my brother’s cat while he drifts from house to house, in residential limbo. She’s offered to keep Marissa when I fly out of state to write on a farm for a week. I wonder about this, this sleepy-eyed willingness to pop Benadryl and sniffle all day while a cat wanders her house. How much of this has to do with my health? Maybe none of it. Maybe she’s lonely. She’s never admitted to feeling lonely, but she lives alone, rarely leaves her home, and, aside from my brother and me, she knows no one in Washington, not even her neighbors.
Sometimes I suspect she’s trying to make up for something—for any of the parenting mistakes she occasionally laments, including succumbing to the fear of our neighbor’s lawsuit. She stood in the front yard with my brother and me, who sobbed while animal services picked up Rusty and Lulu. Our terrier neighbors gave us twenty dollars apiece to buy ice cream and see a movie, and though I was still pained for many days after a van took them away, I nursed a quiet relief: I no longer had to feel guilty about not feeding puppies.
We’re not so dissimilar, cats and me. I, too, am cautious in new places, I’m often startled by sudden sounds and movements, and as a teenager I made my mother’s life quite difficult: coming home late or not at all, fighting with my brother, getting expelled from school. Claws always out.
A neighbor, a brain-injured man who worked in fast food, gave us a bag of frozen French fries. Either we poured too much oil or the stove was too hot—flames erupted from the pan, licking the cupboards, until we whipped out the fire extinguisher and doused the stove. My mother didn’t believe that a smoky house and charred kitchen cupboards had been an accident—a year before, my brother and I had been expelled from school for setting fires in the bathroom trashcans.
She’d sent us out of her house plenty of times. Each time we wandered the neighborhood shopping center waiting for a friend to pick us up and take us to their house. There we’d stay, gladly, for a day or two, before returing home to a hot meal on the stove and a silent mother. This time we didn’t return to her house. We went to live with a friend and his animal-friendly family for a few months before we signed the lease on our own apartment.
In increments, our friend took us to our mother’s to pick up clothes and other belongings. His mother, who’d once taken in one of his friends for a few months, welcomed us into her home. She cooked for us, bought us toiletries, and invited us to family moments around the TV. Though there were six of us—my friend, his older brother, his mother, his stepfather, my brother, and me—house pets outnumbered humans. Dogs, birds, cat, ferrets. And there was a creepy snake who had the household on edge when it deserted its tank in search of sustenance. My friend’s mother, who feared snakes, found and fed it, and warned her son that if he didn’t care for his pet, she would give it away. Most of the animals were too energetic. Or creepy. They didn’t purr and snuggle, calming me. But the cats did.
A month ago, a week or two before I found Marissa, I went to Animal Services to adopt a rescue. There were five cats, each in their own windowed cage built into the wall. I noted a polydactyl, a cat born with more than the usual number of toes on its paw. There were also an orange tabby and two black cats. All of them posed near the glass, mewing as I passed. Most fascinating was the cat at the very end. Longhaired. Black and gray.
“How old is she?” I asked the volunteer.
She opened the cage, checked the cat’s teeth. “I’d say she’s about a year old, but let me check with the experts.”
In the volunteer’s absence, I stood amongst the other visitors: two women, each on opposite sides of middle age, and two young girls, a teenager and a preteen. All of them pulled cats from their cages and held them, cuddling and talking sweet.
The volunteer returned, cradling the cat, and congratulated herself. She’d been right. The cat was about a year and a half. She put the cat back in her cage and the younger middle-aged woman pointed to the note on the window—No Dogs—and said she’d take the cat in a heartbeat—Such a sweetheart!—if she’d gotten along with dogs. I hobbled to the front desk, cane clicking linoleum, to inquire about adoption procedures. A woman looked up from her computer and asked me if I’d interacted with the cat—did I pick it up and play with it? I hadn’t. I’d only petted her. But I said I had.
“Okay,” she said. “Bring the paper on her cage.”
I returned to the cage, opened the door, leaned my cane against the wall beside me, and picked up the cat. Her long coat, soft in my hands, obscured my fingers as she whimpered and pawed at my chest. I cradled her and considered the responsibilities of cat adoption, a long-term commitment as a caregiver. It occurred to me that one day, possibly soon, I might need a caregiver, and that this cat would likely outlive me. I put her back into her cage and drove home.
Two weeks later, on my way home from a neurologist appointment—the lab didn’t have my test results after all; I wouldn’t know what’s wrong with my body, what disease was shrinking my brain, necessitating a cane, and causing constant pain, for two more months—I returned to Animal Services. The black and gray cat was gone. In her place was another longhaired, all-black with yellow eyes and a timid crouch. Marissa.
BERNARD GRANT lives in Washington state, where he is an MFA candidate at Pacific Lutheran University. His stories and essays have appeared or are forthcoming in Chicago Tribune’s Printers Row, Crab Orchard Review, Stirring, Sequestrum, and Fiction Southeast, among others. His nonfiction chapbook Puzzle Pieces is forthcoming from Paper Nautilus Press. He was awarded a 2015 Jack Straw Fellowship and serves as Associate Essays Editor for The Nervous Breakdown.