From Telling Stories, page 405
“I am now a very old man and this is something that happened to me when I was very young – only nine years old.”
And though I say it happened “to” me, there is still some part of me that knows I was not completely innocent in it all. Not a bystander – I did my part.
It was a Thursday afternoon in the fall, I think September, and I was walking home from school. Back in those days we were allowed to do that, because it was the seventies, and people trusted one another more. Often, but not always, I walked with two others on my block who went to the same elementary. They had gone on ahead that day, for I stayed behind to chat with the janitor. I liked the way his closet of supplies smelled, so I would sometimes chat him up.
They went ahead, so I walked alone. As I was alone on the sidewalk, I saw, when I was about halfway home, a strange cat on the other side of the street. I stopped. I stared at the cat. The cat stared at me. I watched it, expecting it to run away, or maybe fearing it would attack me, but neither happened. It remained crouched on its hind legs, about fifteen feet away on the other sidewalk.
I reached into my bag. I pulled out the remainder of my lunch – a tuna fish sandwich. Now whether that is fate or luck, I have not yet decided, even though it has been fifty years or more since that day. But, I had tuna fish, and the cat, scrawny, dirty, scabs across one ear and it looked like a few whiskers had been pulled out, his orange-and-white fur looking more like rust-and-brown river water, waited. He stared at me as I approached starting across the street. By the time I was halfway I could see the fear had crept into his eyes, and he turned slightly to run.
So I stopped. I stopped in the middle of the street and I backed up two steps. The cat relaxed just slightly, and I knew it wouldn’t run away then. I crouched down, and then gently placed the tuna fish sandwich, open-faced, on the blacktop, still warm from the sun’s rays, and backed away.
It took him a minute to sniff the air. He slowly, and with great, and reasonable, caution, stepped into the street. Two paces, then four, his feet padded silently. I knew he’d been just barely getting by, and he and I could tell this would be a feast. Maybe more than he’d had in a week. His nose twitched, whiskers flicking the air. His tail lowered, as if he were going to pounce.
He stalked that sandwich, then, for at least five minutes. He took his time, eyes back and forth from it to me to scanning his surroundings. Finally, though, he reached close enough for a taste.
His tongue flicked out, once, twice, three times. I knew he could taste the flesh, and the mayonaise, that my mother used. Even the added salt and perhaps he would skip the little celery bits. I don’t know, but after a couple of tastes he dove in. His eyes closed and he started gulping down huge mouthfuls of fish, satisfying, or at least staving off, a hunger that must have been gnawing at him for days, a week.
His eyes closed, then, and my concentration fully devoted to him, meant that neither of us saw it until it was too late. The Studebaker appeared almost out of nowhere, a silent beast looming immediately over our silent conclave. It struck him just as he noticed it, for his head started to rise up and turn out of the way. I, too shocked to do anything, stood, mouth wide open, as I saw the cat’s orange-and-white body spin off into the ditch, tumbling down and rolling to a stop at the bottom.
The car did not, however, stop. It rolled along as if nothing happened. And I, I strode over to where the cat lay, dazed, stunned, broken and now bleeding again from new wounds and old ones reopened. The grass began to color with his red blood leaking out. He made no noise; he opened no eyes. Were it not for the incomprehensible twist of his back, he might have appeared to be sleeping.
His rib cage, thin, angular, rose a few times, in a slowing rhythm. His back legs twitched once, then again, and then stopped. I stood, silent vigil, and watched as this creature, this being I had never known until ten minutes before, breathed its last. I looked back out to he road and saw the sandwich still sitting there, warming in the residue of the sun’s radiant heat from the road surface. I saw, far off in the distance, the town center and other cars going about their own business. I looked at my hands, hands which had only just now been the cause of another’s death, and I did not cry.
I’ve often wondered why I did not cry. Was it because I did not know what happened? Or because I did not care? Maybe shock? Or just generally too young to realize how permanent death is, even to a creature such as a stray cat? I do not know. Maybe I never will. But I have told this story to a dozen different therapists, ministers, friends, and lovers over the years, asking that question – why not? – and none has ever been able to give me a satisfactory answer. Perhaps none ever will. Until one does, the, I will keep asking, keep seeking. I can do no other.