This is NOT Another Dead Cat Story

by Jen Stiff

Orangie lounging in the sink

Baby Orangie lounging in the sink

When my mom was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer in 1997, my older brother Ryan brought home a cat for her. We were devastated, and desperate for a distraction from the daily routine of chemotherapy, doctor visits, and the heartache that comes from knowing you’re about to lose your favorite person in the whole world. We knew that bringing my mom flowers or her favorite burrito from El Pollo Loco just wasn’t going to cut it. We had to do something BIG, and in our young adult minds, a kitten was just the answer.

We knew that our mom loved nothing more than cute, cuddly, boy kitties (she thought girl cats were stuck up bitches). Though my dad detested cats, he let him stay. He would’ve done anything to bring even a sliver of joy into my mom’s life. Plus my brother and I promised to take care of the cat full time. To prove it, Ryan and I took our mom’s new kitten to the vet for shots. “What’s the cat’s name?” asked the receptionist. “Oh, we’re not naming him.” I said. “Well, your cat can’t just NOT have a name. Obviously I need to write something down in his chart.”

“Fine,” I said. “Since he’s orange, just write that.”

The truth is, we’d intentionally avoided naming the cat, because our family’s cats had a long history of disappearing after six months. We figured if we named him, we’d get attached, and we didn’t want to lose anything else we loved. Every time we lost a cat, our mom sat us down and lovingly reminded us that boy cats needed to sow their oats. “The cat just moved up the street to be special friends with the neighbor’s new girl cat. I’m sure he has a really great life there!” This explanation worked until we were in high school, when we finally took note of that vast canyon behind our house…the one filled with coyotes and mountain lions.

Nope. Not a mountain lion. . .just Orangie in a tree

Nope. Not a mountain lion. . .just Orangie in a tree

***************************************

I’ll never forget the first time Orangie died. And then came back to life. It all started my junior year in college, late one night when I was home visiting my family for the weekend. There I was, sitting on the living room couch with my roommate, Angela, trying to figure out how to score some wine coolers, when I glanced over at the footstool and noticed that Orangie was rolled over on his back with all four legs sticking straight up into the air, eyes rolled back in his head…stiff as a board. Angela, being a third year biology major, knew exactly what to do.  She calmly kneeled down beside Orangie and pretended to check his heartbeat and listen to his breathing, but we both knew she was full of it. No response. Me, being the communications major, had a better idea. “Oh fuck!” I said. “We should really call someone.”

Though we didn’t know how to conduct a thorough medical examination on a cat, we were sure Orangie was dead. I was also pretty sure this was somehow my fault, because when you’re 18 years old and your mother constantly reminds you that your brain hasn’t fully formed yet, you’re bound to make lots of mistakes…like forgetting to clean the litter box, feed the cat, and leave the toilet seat up so he could find water.

After wrapping Orangie in a fleece blanket (because I know enough about dead things to know they get cold) we frantically jumped into the car with our lifeless kitty and sped away to the local animal ER. All I could think was, “My mom is gonna be SO mad at me!!” This was the first cat we’d had who’d hump blankets on the area rug during family movie nights, who enjoyed floating in the pool on a boogie board, and who cuddled on purpose. My mom, being rather eccentric herself, adored Orangie for his quirks.

It was 1997, before normal people had cell phones, so I couldn’t even call my mom to ask her what to do. But I had left her a note on the kitchen counter, like any responsible daughter would do, and told her the cat had died and that we drove him to the vet to get a check-up.  As I screeched into the animal ER parking lot, I expected trained medical personnel to run outside, rip Orangie from my arms, and calmly tell me everything was going to be ok, because that’s what happened to dead humans on that show that was popular at the time. But instead, we ran inside to find a bored receptionist, glaring at us over her trashy magazine. Clearly we had interrupted something. “What’s your pet emergency?” she asked sarcastically, looking at the undead kitty in my arms. You see, the minute we walked through that door, Orangie rolled over in my arms, meowed nonchalantly, and started giving himself a facial with his little pink paw. What the fuck? Angela and I looked at each other, shocked. The irritated receptionist didn’t believe me when I told her Orangie was, in fact, dead, just moments ago, but she also didn’t hesitate to “…bring him back to check his vitals,” either. This was just the first of Orangie’s fake little feline death games.

****************************

The second time Orangie died happened when Ryan ran him over with his white Honda CRX. Ryan was returning home from community college one afternoon and failed to see Orangie sprawled out in the driveway, sunning himself, oblivious to the world. As Ryan drove his car up the driveway and into the garage, he heard an excruciating shriek and felt a thud under his tire. Ryan got out of the car, horrified, to find Orangie lying in the driveway, lifeless. “Mooooooom!!!” Ryan screamed like a little girl… “I just ran over Orangie!!” My mom and I ran outside, panic stricken, expecting to find a bloody mess of a cat. Instead we found an intact Orangie, slowly beginning to wag his tail and stretch his arms and legs out like he was just coming off of his afternoon nap. What the hell? We looked at each other in disbelief. Orangie stood up, looked at us condescendingly, and sauntered off into the backyard, not a care in the world.

For a few months Orangie didn’t die at all. We kept expecting something to happen to him, especially because he liked to tempt fate and stay outside all night cavorting with the creatures of the canyon. And sure enough, we were woken up one night by the screeching of a cat fight. My dad peered out of his bedroom window into the backyard and saw Orangie fighting with a “small mountain lion.” I still don’t know if I believe my dad’s description of the perpetrator, but Orangie definitely fought another creature, and it surely wasn’t another domestic shorthair. He was beat up and bloody, with tufts of fur missing from his little body. But he didn’t give a shit. He licked his wounds and walked it off.

*******************************
 Our amazing mom died in 1998. We all wished that she had 9 lives but she didn’t. She made us kids promise to look after Orangie for the rest of his life, which, she was sure, would be short. “Don’t worry, mom. We’ll take good care of Orangie. He’s going to live forever!” I reassured her. Orangie bounced around from apartment to apartment as we settled into our adult lives, until he finally moved to Seattle with my brother in 2007, where he fit right in with people who always kind of want to die.

My brother called me a couple of months ago to tell me a really funny story. My 5-year-old niece, Annabelle, had decided to play dress up with Orangie the night before. Annabelle, not being one to neglect accessories, gave Orangie a “beautiful necklace” to wear. When Annabelle ran up to my brother and tugged at his hand, saying in her sweet little Minnie Mouse voice, “Daddy, Orangie is sleeping funny…,” Ryan suspected shenanigans were underfoot. He found Orangie, lifeless, under Annabelle’s bed, with a very tight rubber band (I mean, beautiful necklace) wrapped around his neck. Ryan removed the rubber band, patted Orangie on the back, and wouldn’t you know it,  Orangie sauntered off into the living room, not a care in the world.

Orangie

Old man Orangie still not giving a shit

 About the author

Jen Stiff lives in San Diego with her mountain man of a husband and the world’s two most adorable creatures – pugs named Frankie & Beans. She just recently figured out she likes to write, even though she’s technically old enough to be a grandmother. She spends her free time writing for a local animal rescue, traveling, and beating everyone else at yoga.

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Blacky

by Holly Gross

The author's daughter, 9, paints the Blacky of her mother's memories.

The author’s daughter, 9, paints the Blacky of her mother’s memories.

I was in first grade the year we lost Blacky.

My sister Sherri and I were still in our room getting dressed when we heard Mom and Jerry arguing downstairs.  Jerry was Mom’s live-in boyfriend at the time.  It was only faint mumblings at first, but his voice soon took on a familiar boom.  Our eyes locked; both of us regretting our decision to get ready with such leisure that morning.

“We’re not spending money on a goddamned cat!” we heard him shout.

“I think he’s gotten into some kind of poison,” Mom said.  “We have to do something.  We can’t just leave him to suffer.  The girls—”

“Damnit, we are NOT spending money on a goddamned cat!  That’s it, end of story!”

“We have to do something,” Mom said sharply.  “He’s sick.  He’s been lying around here for days.”

“Put him in the garage!”

“In the garage, you want me to—”

Sherri plopped down on the bed tracing her finger along the quilted grooves of our Holly Hobby bedspread.

“I think something’s wrong with Blacky,” I said sitting down next to her.

Mom and Jerry continued arguing, punctuated with long intervals of silence. Sherri and I stayed where we were, waiting and listening for signs of a denouement.

Finally, it seemed, Mom had relented.

“Fine,” we heard her say sounding defeated.  “We’ll leave him. We’ll just leave him.”

When I returned home from school the next day, Mom was washing dishes at the kitchen sink.

“Where’s Blacky?” I asked, hoping she’d say that she’d taken him to the vet or that he was better, and already roving the neighborhood.

“Upstairs,” she said.

I started toward the stairs.

“Just a minute,” she said wiping her hands. “I need you to do something for me.”

“What?” I asked, suspicious of her tone. It was the tone Mom took when she had to tell me something that she knew I wouldn’t like. I hated that tone.

She paused and sighed.  “I need you to go upstairs and carry Blacky out to the garage for me.”

I knew then that Blacky would never make it to the vet. I stared down at the green and yellow linoleum floor and felt my tears rising up and retreating. Our garage was no place for a sick cat, especially not Blacky. He liked to be curled up in our bed. The thought of his exile turned my grief into anger.

Blacky as envisioned by the author's younger daughter, 7.

Blacky as envisioned by the author’s younger daughter, 7.

“I’m not taking Blacky to the garage!”

He’s going to have to stay out there until he gets better,” Mom said as she started back toward the sink.

“Wait, he’s going to get better?”  The faint possibility renewed my hopes.

“I don’t know,” Mom said turning back toward me.  “Just go on,” waving her hand in dismissal.  “Just do what I asked you to do.”

Upstairs in our room Blacky wasn’t curled up on our bed like I had expected. He was lying on our bedroom floor with a towel beneath him. I dropped to my knees in front of him.

He was a beautiful cat with long, fluffy black fur and piercing glow-in-the-dark eyes. He looked too regal to be a stray, but he had been loitering around Jerry’s ceramic shop for months, without a collar or tags when we found him.

“Can we have him?” we had chimed in unison.

“You’ll have to think of a name,” Mom had said.

Sherri and I stood there for a moment looking at each other and our new ebony cat.  “Blacky,” I said finally.  “I think we should call him Blacky.”

On my knees in our bedroom I leaned forward, placing my forearm under his chest. I pulled him up into the folds of my arms, and felt the familiar rough-softness of his fur against my hands and arms.

Blacky was an independent cat, not accustomed to being carried, and I was not accustomed to carrying him. He was also a large cat. He let me carry him, but it wasn’t what either of us wanted. Blacky valued his freedom. I respected it.

Pressing him against my chest I lifted to a standing position. I carried him across the hallway, and down the first set of stairs, pausing at the landing to readjust my grip. I proceeded down the second, longer set of stairs with slow, concentrated movements.

Mom was still at the sink when we passed through. She didn’t turn to acknowledge us. I stared at her profile, willing her to turn our way, but she busied herself by scrubbing a plate.

Just off the kitchen and three more stairs was the backdoor. Just three more stairs, I reminded myself. Then Blacky and I would have a straight, even shot to the garage. I stepped down on the first step and felt a sharp jolt up my leg; the floor rising to meet my foot much quicker than I’d anticipated. I felt something else too—warm liquid on the inside of my arm. I stepped down on the second step, no longer focused on Blacky but the warmth against my flesh. I felt my heart lurch forward, pushing against the wall of my chest. My arms involuntarily jutted out in front of me, collapsing onto themselves as Blacky fell to the floor.

“Mom!” I yelled, my voice cracking from the tears gathering at the back of my throat.  “I dropped him!  I dropped him!”

Mom came to the top of the stairs. Blacky didn’t move.

“He’s bleeding!  He’s bleeding!” I said smudging my palm across my forearm, and raising it up for her to see.

“He’s bleeding,” I repeated, scooping him back up and into my arms.

Inside the garage a ray of light streamed through a small, dirty window, illuminating particles of swirling dust that all seemed to land on the blanket that had been placed on the floor for Blacky.

I hated the garage, and I was certain Mom did too. It remained almost empty except for a few yard tools, which were placed just inside the door so that they might be retrieved quickly. Within its walls it held a sense of morbidity and appeared to be in a perpetual state of dusk. Regardless of the time of day, the garage consistently refused to acknowledge the sun’s light.

Later that evening, I filled Blacky’s food and water dishes. He hadn’t moved since I brought him there hours earlier. Still, he appeared strong and beautiful, all stretched out, his head resting on his front legs. He raised his brow to meet my gaze, and his eyes glowed yellow and bright against the dark shadows of the garage  I felt a twinge deep within my chest and along my spine when I’d thought about the haste in which I had carried him there.

I spent the next several days diligently avoiding the garage, except to bring in food and water. When I did venture inside I avoided Blacky, stealing only quick glances as I filled his dishes and dashed out the door. I dreaded the weekends when I’d have no school, and no distractions.

Still when the following Saturday arrived I was feeling suddenly and unexplainably hopeful about Blacky’s condition. I ate breakfast and headed to the garage determined to give Blacky the care and attention I knew he deserved.

Although it has since been remodeled, the garage where Blacky died still stands.

Although it has since been remodeled, the garage still stands.

Inside the garage the suffocating aroma of cat spray hung heavy around my face and chest, making it difficult to breathe. Blacky was still there, lying on his blanket with his front paws outstretched in front of him. His head and neck were upright, and turned toward the door as though he’d been expecting me.

I walked toward him, noting a shadowy line that appeared to be moving across the floor. I crouched down to take a closer look and began to half-walk, half-crawl as I followed it. The line was made up of hundreds, perhaps thousands of tiny red ants; ants that were marching straight towards Blacky’s blanket, up onto his paws, his neck and his eyes.  Oh God—his eyes.

I pulled my hands to my mouth. Blacky’s eyes no longer shone bright against the darkened backdrop of the garage. They had been snuffed out—swarmed by hundreds of these tiny red ants. They were feasting on his eyes. Blacky was gone. He was dead—or being eaten alive. I wasn’t sure which.

I grabbed the sides of my head with both hands, covering my ears as I stood up and slowly backed away. I was going to scream, I could feel it rising and pushing up from the depths of my stomach. I turned with my head still in my hands, and ran from the garage. I stopped just outside the door and began circling the large oak tree that took up half of our backyard.

Mom came running out from inside of the house, stunned by the spectacle I was creating.

“What’s going on?” she asked shaking her hands out in front of her, then grabbing onto both sides of her hair.

“Are you hurt?” she asked, surveying the yard for clues. “My God,” she yelled, “What happened?”

I clenched my fists together against my outer thighs, and began circling the tree again. Mom tried talking me in, but I wasn’t budging. She stumbled after me trying at first to match my pace around the tree, finally grabbing onto one of my stiffened wrists. She put her arms around my shoulders and directed me toward the house.

Our neighbor emerged from her backdoor to see what was happening.  Mom raised her hand slightly, her palm facing upward and shrugged.

“We’re having some issues with the cat,” she offered.  “Holly’s pretty upset about it.” She tried to pull me in closer. I jerked away from her and resumed my dizzying pace around the tree, while the neighbor looked on in confusion.

It wasn’t often that I held the cards, but I deserved this moment of defiance.  I had earned it.

About the author

Holly Gross is an aspiring writer, and homemaker. She was a finalist in the 2011-2012 Loft Mentor Series. She was born and raised in Minneapolis, Minnesota where she now resides with her husband and two daughters. She is currently working on her Memoir, and enjoys further developing her craft through an array of classes and other writing opportunities offered by the Loft Literary Center.

85% Wolf

The author painted her Damien.

The author painted her Damien.

by Coral Staley

We hadn’t seen my father in 7 years when he showed up on our doorstep that hot summer day. All I felt was fear. I was the oldest, at 15. My sisters were 12 and 9. I told him he would have to return when my mother was home from work. I don’t think this went over well with my sisters, who were, without shame, excited to have their father back. And I admit, I wanted a father too. But not this one. I wanted a different father, a big strong man who would protect us from this one, the one I had no doubt would be beating on my mother again in no time. And maybe us too.

I knew for a short time there would be gifts and sweet talking, so I set upon my mission. I had wanted a dog for a long while, mainly for protection from him. I had a fantasy of a dog attacking my father, risking its own life to protect us. I expected my dad to object to my getting a dog for this reason, but he surprised me when, after showing him a picture of the Rottweiler puppy I wanted, he said he knew about a guy in the Ozarks who was selling wolf pups, and wouldn’t I rather have a wolf? Well, of course I would! The only problem was that I would have to sit in close proximity to my dad for over 8 hours, in the cab of his truck, the same damn green GMC I remembered him pushing my mother out of all those years ago without even slowing down.

This page from the author's diary includes a photo of Damien as a puppy.

This page from the author’s diary includes a photo of Damien as a puppy.

I don’t remember what took place during that long ride from Cape Girardeau to the Ozarks and back. I remember the man breeding the wolves was also breeding pythons — in his trailer, which he explained was the reason it was close to 85 degrees in there. He had a box with 4-week-old wolf pups he was bottle-feeding. They were dark brown, almost black, and already mewling little howls, which I found terribly cute. My pup, which was 10 weeks old, was the last one left of his litter and in a cage outside all by himself. He let us see all of his wolves, then the Malamutes, Huskies and German Shepherds he used for cross-breeding. He said in order for it to be legal to have a pet wolf, they couldn’t be more than 85% wolf. But he confided to us that mine was likely even more wolf than that. I didn’t know if this was true, or how someone could even verify this, but I wanted it to be true.

I had just finished reading The Omen. So naturally I named him Damien. It was one of those strong names, like Madonna, that stands by itself. He had lost that first dark coat and was light blonde. He had some of the wolf markings already; his tail had a prominent V of dark hair about three-quarters up, and a similar V up on his forehead. His ears were already standing up and filled with downy white hair, like he was ready for the Arctic.

The book that inspired the author.

The book that inspired the author.

We were in no condition to have a dog. For one, I knew nothing about obedience training a dog. And dog food was expensive. Our poor cat, Applejack, was forced to live on birds, rabbits and squirrels or else be served stale bread, cereal, or whatever we could come up with once the generic cat food ran out. Food stamps didn’t cover cat food. And we couldn’t afford getting her spayed, so we always had gooey-eyed kittens we were trying to figure out what to do with.

The landlord only said yes to the dog as long as the dog stayed outside. So he was kept on a chain in our backyard for the first couple years of his life. It wasn’t long before my mom and dad were fighting again, and eventually he moved to St. Louis, claiming he was getting his life in order and buying a house for us. Life pretty much resumed to normal. Mom got a new boyfriend.

Damien grew into a beautiful animal that stopped traffic when we went for walks, “Is that a wolf??” I often snuck Damien inside the house and let him sleep in my bed, and I taught him tricks, which back then I equated to obedience training. To teach him to sit, I pushed his butt down into the sitting position and said, “Sit.” After that, I said “Sit,” and he sat down. It was that easy to teach him things. I taught him to lie down, stay, roll over, speak and give kisses. I don’t think he ever went to the bathroom in the house. And really he was like a dog for the first few years. It wasn’t until around three or four years old that he “turned to breed.”

Damien, in the flesh.

Damien, in the flesh.

One day, Damien decided he wasn’t going to take orders from us anymore. And that was that. You could tell him to sit, but he’d just look at you, with those piercing wolf eyes. We moved into a house in what was considered the bad part of town, where white folks were the minority. And almost right away my sisters and I became targets for bullying, especially my youngest sister, who was routinely followed home from school by several kids. On one occasion, she was hit in the back of the head by a basketball. She thought if she brought Damien out on a leash that he would be intimidating enough that they would leave her alone. What she didn’t expect is that the minute he was let out, he went right for them, breaking free from his leash, and pinning the girl who had thrown the basketball at my sister up against a wall and biting her back. When my sister recounts the story to me, what amazes her most is that the bullying had taken place long before this point, but somehow he knew what had happened, who had done it, and what he needed to do. What’s also amazing is that he did not draw blood from this girl. The bite was simply a warning to leave my sister alone. Still, there were threats about putting him down and this or that, but ultimately, my sister wasn’t bullied anymore. And this is also when Damien became her dog.

The neighbors showed their reverence for him by throwing a whole pig into his enclosure. Alive or dead, we don’t know. It was my sister who cleaned up the mess of intestines and guts strewn all over the yard. She remembers him playing with the four pig’s feet. He would throw them into the air, then, not knowing where they had landed in the deep snow, sniff them out and dig them back up.  Rosie says: Almost all the neighbors regularly threw treats and toys to Damien. (All but the home of the girl he attacked and her family anyway.) He had something about him that made people love him.  Even though he looked wolf and could be intimidating, something about him made the people of that neighborhood really love him.  You mentioned that he was revered by the neighbors but it doesn’t really convey completely the way they felt about him.  I also wonder if they felt like they had to take care of him because we couldn’t always.

When I was 18, I joined the Air Force, and like so many irresponsible teenagers do, I left Damien for my mother to figure out what to do with. It was also around this time that my mother was left a small inheritance from her aunt and put down a deposit on a house a couple miles away. The problem was, we had no idea that wolves mate for life, and unbeknownst to us, Damien had chosen his mate back in that other neighborhood: a dog across the alleyway that I’d hardly even noticed before, chained to a doghouse. Every opportunity he got, he was escaping from the new house and returning to her.

It’s almost a sweet story, except, he was very protective of this other dog. He wouldn’t even let her owners feed her, snarling and snapping and causing quite a stir. There were times that my mother was able to get him into the car herself. But other times Animal Control was called, and every time it got harder to catch him. He became even more possessive and vicious. They tranquilized him after the third time and told my mother if it happened again, the Conservation Department would be called, and he would be taken into their custody.

Eventually, on one of these treks back to our old house, he was hit by a car and came home with a pin in his leg. It was then that he became a house dog, and as my sister says, he slowed down. Another reason I believe that he became a house dog is that he simply stopped taking orders to go outside. He’d taken up growling, as if daring my mother or sisters to even try forcing him. Rosie says: I don’t think Patty was around.  She moved to California with Dad shortly after we moved to this house. I remember him always darting in the house but never being aggressive to stay in.  When he had the pin put in his leg they discovered that he had heartworms pretty bad. At that point in time they were just discovering how to treat them with strychnine. It was 50/50 if he would even survive. It was really expensive for Mom too.  Somehow Mom would always take care of the animals when it counted.  Once at home, the treatments gave him life-threatening diarrhea. He hid in the basement for the most part. The vet told my mother and sisters to try to get Pepto Bismol into him. It didn’t take long for Damien to only just see that pink bottle and become the scariest thing you’d ever seen, like having Cujo in your basement Rosie says: I remember he seemed a little crazy right after his treatment.  I wondered if he was having a bad trip like being on acid. While he was in the basement he was having an episode and scratched the door at the top of the stairs as he was desperately trying to come upstairs for whatever thing that spooked him.  The door looked torn up as if a bear had done it. It is still that way today. I came home for a visit and thought I’d just waltz on down there and he’d know who was boss. But Damien quickly let me know that our dynamic was no longer. He was now the alpha, and I better back off. I was worried about my family after that, and knew I’d blame myself if something happened. And I felt like it was just a matter of time.

My mother for whatever reason was sleeping on the couch (Rosie says: Mom slept on the couch because I was always getting into trouble and juvenile detention was calling her so much) and he’d even claimed her spot on the couch as his. And she submitted to this arrangement. Mom says: Actually we ended up sharing the couch. I wasn’t about to give up the couch. I liked the couch because it was close to the door and phone, but also because it was easiest on my back. It’s the little things that count sometimes.

The author's mom and Damien on the couch.

The author’s mom and Damien on the couch.

Always a spiritual person, my mother was heavy into astrology, and it was around this time that she developed a deep spiritual bond with Damien, a relationship I don’t think she ever had before or after with a pet. While stationed in England, I found a book called Women Who Run with the Wolves and sent it to her. It was about women learning to embrace their wild, instinctual selves. I connected my mother’s kinship to Damien as her way of embracing her own wildness, a wildness continually being stamped out–by men, by being a single mom to three unruly girls, and by the hard manual labor of working at a saw mill for twelve hours a day. I believe she saw Damien, 85% wolf or not, driven by instincts, refusing to be domesticated, and it fanned the embers of her own stubborn soul, and maybe even vindicated the path she had taken so far, raising us on her own, as hard as it was.

women who run

The author's mother gets a kiss from Damien.

The author’s mother gets a kiss from Damien

The day finally came that he somehow sneaked out the front door and ended up back at that house, which brought the Conservation Agency into things. Rosie says: Damien became so docile that we would trust him to be outside off a leash.  Mom left his gate open after doing some yard work or something and he wandered off.  That’s where her guilt stems from. The conservation authorities said the laws had changed. Damien would be released to my mother only if an enclosure was built that met the requirements for housing an exotic species. He would no longer be allowed on walks. While my mother set about having this enclosure built, he was kept at Animal Control in a small cell and not taken out for six weeks. My sister visited him on a regular basis, and one day she walked in and was simply told, “The animal went crazy and was euthanized.” What broke my heart was my mother, hearing her sob as she told me about the last visit to see him, when he jumped up whining, wagging his tail, expecting her to take him home as usual. Twenty years later, my mother still finds it too painful to even recall her memories of Damien.

About the author

Coral Staley has an MFA in Creative Nonfiction but is too busy with her two boys to give writing much thought these days. She does, however, find time to paint and considers it another form of creative nonfiction.

Reading

by Mark Stricker

This is a story about Pittsburgh.

And reading. 

And writing.

And erasure.

I was supposed to create a “portrait of myself as a reader.”

As with any portrait, its likeness only made me more aware of the limits of representation.

The past self seen in the photo, or the essay, or even the mirror (given the lag of light-speed), lies there like a sloughed-off skin, and is merely a record of where we have been, the distance we have traveled, willingly or not.

To speak of the past in the present tense is the freedom of the living.


I am standing on the sidewalk waiting for the 54C.

I am reading an essay:

Shafts of sunlight, backyards, lakes, the black helix of a phone-cord, a solid wooden desk, the wooly muzzle of a collie.

The bus doors engulf me; I sit, turn the page.

I get off at 19th street and walk ten blocks home.

The husband and the dog and the woman are reunited in the bathroom where she has been crying, and where she has said to herself in the mirror, “It’s a good thing none of this has happened”… the sentence breaks off mid-thought.

Someone has ripped out the final page.

Holy shit.

I sit motionless in the rocking chair.

I rub Christopher’s whiskery face and he slides his wet gray gums against my knuckle.

He purrs.

Christopher

Christopher


It is Wednesday.

The fluorescent lights hum above my head.

Emily has loaned me her book.

Instead of waiting, I stand in the hallway and read it immediately.

I am disappointed by the closure.


We read and we are read.

Allyson unzips the black leather case.

Inside: a small machine, needles.

She pricks her fingertip and a red dot of blood appears from beneath the surface.

The blood goes onto a strip of plastic.

The plastic goes into the machine.

The machine reads the blood.

If the number is too high or too low, she must revise the story her blood tells.


Allyson moves away.

I am alone.

Reading is painful.

Writing is worse.

She once wrote:

Whatever we do with all our keys,
blank spaces,
awful tricks of the heart,
whatever becomes of them,
we swear them our ghosts.


The walls in the Hall of Botany are the color of the sound of water.

In one corner, a diorama: the edge of a house juts into a brick patio.

Rosemary, shallots, lemon basil, rose germanium, and tarragon line the windowsill.

When you stand looking at the herb garden, the Destroying Angel lurks behind you:

Death is certain if you eat this, the most deadly of our poisonous fungi, which causes ninety percent of all mushroom poison deaths.

What is this desire to put the beautiful and the dangerous behind glass?

As if to name possesses.

The Destroying Angel

The Destroying Angel


I am netted from a tumultuous sea of dream.

I get out of bed.

I do the morning things one does alone in a big house.

I put on my coat, step off the front stoop.

Overnight an ice storm turned everything into glass.

Surfaces whistle light.

I stand perfectly still, but slide slowly, slowly, down the sidewalk to the intersection.

Later I write:

The streets are slick with an ambiguous precipitation I am hesitant to name.
All I can do is describe this place, peopling it with abstractions
fashioning fabulous escapes clacking hopes together like dumb rocks
as if to speak slackens constrictions. I call it sleet, this sluice of ice,
and proceed down the slippery slope working a subtle magic
berserk for an afternoon or more of comfort because the job
my brain makes my skin do is boring. All this talk of fine lines,
separations, fractions, broken not like a dish dropped
or a stopped clock, but a clock between seconds.  I want to show you
borders as one shared edge, the map of the body broken into
what cannot be held forever: breath and blood,
the flooded landscape smooth, unbroken.

93 S. 9th St. Pittsburgh, PA

93 S. 9th St. Pittsburgh, PA


Think about a song you carry with you: the one you return to in times of sorrow or joy.

Hum its refrain and feel its vibrations in your throat.

You will never be able to communicate, to anyone, exactly how that feels.


Jo Ann sits in the front and faces our class.

She answers our questions.

I cannot think of anything to ask her.

She talks about knowing when a piece of writing is working:

When something isn’t right, it’s like those spaces on the car radio dial when you can hear two stations bleeding together.

When something is right, it is the clear voice of a single channel.


She writes:

The collie wakes me up about three times a night, summoning me from a great distance as I row my boat through a dim, complicated dream.

She writes:

There are squirrels living in the spare bedroom upstairs….  The collie fell down the basement stairs…. Chris Goertz is sitting near the door and takes the first bullet in the back of the head.

The crisis is inevitable.

And so is the rest of life.

Remember.

Jo Ann has to remember; she has no choice.

Remember.

The reader will remember, too.

You have no choice.

The collie does not die in the essay, but her death is inevitable.

Jo Ann prepares us for this.

Yet, we are unprepared.

Like the story broken before its conclusion.

Like the mind racing across the white spaces between words.

Like the blinking of our eyes, darkness accumulating unnoticed.

Until all at once:

About the author

Mark Stricker is a writer & publisher who lives in Hamden, CT.

This is a Dead Cat Story

A photo I took of Roogie when he came to visit with me for 2 weeks in the summer of 2000.

Editor’s note: Did you miss our first welcome post? Click here to find out what all this nonsense is about.

This summer, we’re yours for the reading! Click here for submission details.

The author and Roogie, in former times.

The author and Roogie, in former times.

I was raised by cat-hating folk. We had goldfish, parakeets, guinea pigs, rabbits, hamsters, dogs, and the turtle I accidentally boiled to death when I made the water too hot for his evening bath. I even remember an exhilarating few days spent caring for a nest of hungry baby birds. I fed them water with an eyedropper. My mother tolerated this activity, in spite of its futility. When we woke up one morning to find all the little birds dead, their mouths frozen in gaping, pink “feed me!” shapes, no one was surprised. I mention this only to illustrate that my family was not anti-pet, just anti-cat.

When I went to the houses of my cat-owning friends, I viewed their pets with both suspicion and curiosity. My friends assured me that their cats were “friendly” and “loving” but I had yet to see any concrete evidence of this. Compared to my dog, a good-natured mutt who welcomed tight hugs and mandatory tea party participation with the same wagging tail and eager eyes, cats were ice queens. I remember them as blurs of fur, racing under beds and couches at the first approach of little girl feet.

I remained staunchly anti-cat until my early twenties, when I moved to Pittsburgh to attend graduate school. There I befriended a woman who was an avid collector of exotic pets: a gecko, a water dragon, a giant German Shepherd (which is different from a non-giant German Shepherd), two cats, a flying squirrel (who tragically drowned in a toilet), a variety of hamsters and rats, and a skunk that was known to walk about the neighborhood in small straw hats and gingham dresses (sadly no photos were taken of Fonzie in a dress but I assure you this is true).

When Coral spent a few weeks in California one summer, I was tasked with caring for one of her cats, a large black and white male named Roogie. In spite of being raised by a bunch of cat-haters, I found the experience rewarding. Roogie was friendly and warm. He solicited my affection and never hid under my bed. I surprised myself by feeling a little sad, even reluctant, to return him at the end of Coral’s trip.

A photo I took of Roogie when he came to visit with me for 2 weeks in the summer of 2000.

A photo I took of Roogie when he came to visit with me for 2 weeks in the summer of 2000.

Therefore, several years later, when Coral’s wild kingdom was at capacity, she began urging me to adopt Roogie. I refused, reminding her, “I’m not a cat person!” Then one evening, during a particularly heated game of Trivial Pursuit, Coral wagered the cat. I don’t remember what I wagered but it was clear to me that whether I won or lost that game, the result would be the same: I was going home with a cat tucked under my arm. And so I did.

Coral first acquired Roogie in 2000 while volunteering at the West Penn Wildlife Rehabilitation Shelter. For a brief period of time, while the Animal Rescue League was renovating its facility, they sent several cats and dogs, including the star of this story, Roogie, to the wildlife shelter. Whenever Coral walked past Roogie’s cage he would reach out a paw and try to touch her. When Coral inquired about him, a shelter employee told her that he had been saved from euthanization once before and that he was scheduled to die soon if someone didn’t adopt him. She convinced Coral to take Roogie home (ironic, given that Coral chose to work at the wildlife shelter precisely so she wouldn’t be tempted to adopt any of the animals).

When adopting an adult pet, its previous life is a series of gaps and mysteries that will never be solved. All Coral knew about Roogie was that he was relatively young, he had been declawed by someone (his first owners?) and his back legs looked like they had been broken and then healed at odd angles. In this way, his body told us the story of his former life, one filled with violence and abandonment.

***

Upon arriving at my home, Roogie demanded the outdoors. Remembering Coral’s advice — that he was a cat of the streets — I let him out. He promptly disappeared for two days. After that harrowing experience I put Roogie on cat house arrest. When people entered or exited our home they had to step around a mewing lump that was using all of his strength to propel his wiry body through that open door. Our house had become the set of The Great Escape and we were the Hannes Messemer to his Steve McQueen. After 6 months of this, we agreed the situation was untenable. The cat must go free.

We soon fell into a comfortable routine. He meowed at the door, we let him out. A few hours later I would call his name into the night air and he’d return. Just like a dog! Roogie was so domesticated that he would accompany us when we took our dog for a walk. Passersby would stop and marvel at the black and white cat who walked alongside his canine companion. We could not take pride in these cat tricks, of course, because we had taught him nothing. In fact, to call Roogie our “pet cat” would be to misrepresent our relationship. We preferred to think of him as a roommate who happened to enjoy long belly rubs.

One day I saw Roogie in the backyard, batting around a toy. I didn’t know that he even liked to play with toys, so I went outside to investigate. The toy turned out to be a mouse’s head, still bloody along its ragged edges. Another day my husband watched as Roogie leapt into the air and snatched a bird, mid-flight, in his jaws. In these moments it seemed we were getting a glimpse into the life he led before arriving at the animal shelter. What else had he killed? And where were the bodies? This made me only a little afraid of him.

It bears repeating that Roogie was declawed because, in addition to decapitating mice and plucking birds out of the sky, he was able to take on the neighborhood strays and remain, miraculously, scratch free. He was clearly Top Cat. The others — some strays, some “indoor-outdoor” like Roogie — would congregate around our front stoop, looking up expectantly each time we left the house. I imagined them talking amongst themselves: “Is it him? Quick boys, look alive!”

Roogie’s best friend was a ratty looking stray we named Riff Raff, after the Heathcliff cartoon. Riff Raff was always hanging around our stoop and yard, like the kid whose parents don’t want him around and so he always ends up at your house, playing with your kid, eating your food. We never let Riff Raff into the house.

Riff Raff is the baller in the blue scarf. Image courtesy of tvtropes.com

Riff Raff is the baller in the blue scarf.
Image courtesy of tvtropes.com

One evening, while we were watching TV, we heard angry cat noises emanating from the road in front of our house. When I stepped outside I saw two cats perched on their hind legs, swatting at each other with their front claws. It was a catfight. But what surprised me about this scene is that Roogie was lying on his stoop, paws crossed, observing it all with amused detachment. Riff Raff was there too, but hiding in the shadows.

“My God,” my boyfriend exclaimed, “they’re fighting for him!”

“What?”

“They’re trying to impress him.”

See what I mean? Top. Cat.

***

One frigid March evening, I stood at my door calling for Roogie to come inside. But Roogie didn’t come. He didn’t show up the next morning either. I had to catch a flight to New York City that day so I asked a friend in the neighborhood to come to the house and call for him now and then. I was sure he’d come back at some point during my three-day absence — it was a Pittsburgh winter and he would surely freeze to death without any shelter.

But when I returned home from my trip, Roogie had still not turned up. I called my boyfriend, who was out of town at the time, and he was characteristically blunt: “Might as well face it — he’s dead.” I knew it too. But I decided to take one last walk around my neighborhood anyway, just in case I was missing something. I brought my dog along, imagining our combined scents as a cartoon-like cloud snaking its way through the back alleys of my neighborhood towards Roogie’s hidey hole until, at last locating him, it would slowly guide him back to us. This did not happen.

Defeated, I headed home. But before going inside I looked across the street and noticed Riff Raff sitting on the front porch steps of neighbors I did not know. He was looking at me. “Have you seen Roogie?”I asked. Sure, it’s crazy to ask a cat where another cat is but know what’s crazier? I got an answer. “Meow!” was the response, not from Riff Raff, but from concrete steps on which I was standing. “Roogie?” I asked, tentatively. “Meow! Meow! Meow!”

That meow began to move from the steps to the side of the house. I followed, screaming like a crazy cat lady (because what was I at that point if not a crazy cat lady?), until I found myself standing in front of a basement door. The door was locked but also very warped, allowing a one-inch crack between it and the wall. Suddenly, a sooty white paw shot through the crack, reaching out for my hand. I felt like I had inadvertently stumbled into the grisly climax of a slasher film, only with cats.

Long story short — the neighbors had been doing construction on their basement and Roogie must have slipped inside while the doors were open. They completed the job, locked everything up, and hadn’t been down there again in days. Imagine their surprise then when a hysterical, puffy-faced young woman showed up on their porch, accusing them of locking her cat in their basement.

My friend, Griffin, posted this photo to my FB page after I published this story. Seems like it belongs in the story too, then.

My friend, Griffin, posted this photo to my FB page after I published this story. Seems like it belongs in the story too, then.

***

A few years later my husband and I moved to North Carolina with our one year old daughter. We had only been living in our new city for five days when my husband shook me awake at 2 am. “Roogie’s dead” he informed me. Just like that.

It seemed anticlimactic that Roogie survived abandonment by his first family, territorial disputes with a Giant German Shepherd, a winter abduction, and God only knows what else on the streets of Pittsburgh, only to die in Greenville, this shitty little Southern town. He was hit by a car and died instantly. When I held him on the back porch, breathing in the humid July air, his body was still warm. I was sure this inexplicable death was a harbinger of doom, like when the walls in a haunted house start bleeding and a disembodied voice tells those meddling kids to “GET! OUT!” I thought his death meant something. But of course it didn’t. Cats die all the time.

***

Like I said before, I was raised by cat-hating folk. But they made an exception for Roogie. They marveled at the way he solicited their affection by pressing the weight of his silky head against the palms of their hands. “Look at that — he’s just like a dog!” they’d exclaim. And when he’d do anything remotely catlike they were even more impressed, simply because they’d never spent any time with cats before:

“Look at that! He hopped up on the counter! How’d he do that?”

“He’s a cat,” I’d explain.

Roogie has been gone for six years yet my mom still mourns his untimely end. Her lamentations are usually provoked by the presence of our other cat, who she refers to, derisively, as “That Cat”. When That Cat enters the room, demanding our affections with far less finesse than his dead brother did, she wrinkles her nose. “Roogie’s the only cat I ever loved,” she says, as she picks him up and strokes his head, “and you’re no Roogie.” As she tells him this That Cat just buries his head deeper into the crook of her arm. He doesn’t know that she hates cats.