"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Killing Cats


I used to have rock fights when I was a kid. My father, a doctor, sewed up more cracked heads in the neighborhood than he ever did in his office. I don’t know whether he was more upset at the fact that I was cracking heads, that he had to sew them up for nothing, or that I was ruining his reputation. “I have a standing in this community”, he yelled after Mrs. Helander had pulled him out of a busy office to stitch up her son. “You can’t go around behaving like an animal”. I had no idea what he was talking about. I was only six, and rock fights were fun. I remember once I nailed Billy Henniger on the forehead. There was no blood, but a welt started to grow, and it looked like one of the Easter Eggs the nuns at the convalescent home used to make – lots of different colors, streaks of red and blue, and beneath them, a deep purple. There was no sewing that time, but Billy’s mother called my father anyway and insisted he spend the rest of the afternoon at her house in case Billy passed out.

There were other incidents that ate into my father’s office time. I hoed a cat once and was chasing it around the yard with Billy until one of the neighbors called my father. The cat was a bloody pulp by the time he got there, and he had to take it to the animal shelter where he had to face Stash Rozicki who had personally selected the cat for Mrs. Helander. We all used to go down to the animal shelter to play with the animals and to tease Stash. He was a dimwit who used to show us cats’ “thingies”. My father was too kind-hearted to simply chuck the cat into Hart’s Pond, so I knew that unfortunately he did the right thing.

One day I thought it would be fun to hook up a frog to my Lionel train transformer and see what happened. My father had explained to me once about how nerves work. “Tiny waves of electricity”, he had said, “that the brain sends out to make the legs move”. So, I hooked up a transformer wire to each of the frog’s back legs, and turned up the juice. My father was right. Each time I jacked up the current, the frog’s legs stiffened. Each time I turned it off, they relaxed. Maybe if we hooked Billy’s transformer and mine together, I thought, we could make a cat jump.

We again borrowed Mrs. Helander’s cat who had miraculously recovered from the hoeing, tied him down with rope, and hooked his legs up to the transformer wires. We were particularly excited because Billy had a really big transformer. His could move a miniature freight train up and down the yards of track he had in his basement, raise and lower crossing gates, and load and unload logs. Billy knew something about electricity and said that we had to shave the cat’s toes where we were going to attach the wires in order to get a good contact. I held the screeching cat while Billy clipped the cat’s toe hairs down to the skin and hooked up the wires.

“OK”, he said. “Now, when I count to three, let go of the cat.”

I let go, Billy jacked up the dial, and the cat’s fur all stood up on end, his legs jerked out like the frog’s had done, and he let out a shriek. Little wisps of smoke rose from his back toes. “We did it”, said Billy, “and I only put the transformers up half way. Let’s try it again full blast”.

While we were cheering, the crazed cat pulled loose from the transformer wires and ropes and started banging around the garage. He knocked the lid off the trash can, tipped over three planters of potting soil, and clawed the stuffing out of the seat of my sister’s old stroller before he jumped out the window. “Did you see that?”, said Billy.

“I wonder where he’s going?”, I said.

That afternoon Mrs. Helander called over to our house and asked my father if I knew where her cat was. I told him that Billy and I had been playing with him that morning, but we hadn’t seen him since. My father’s jaw tightened. He could feel that something was up with us and the cat. “If I have to come home again…..”

“Now, Harry”, intervened my mother. “They’re only eight and I’m sure they’ve learned their lesson. The cat will turn up soon”.

“Uh-oh”, I thought, but figured that if we could find the cat and throw it in Hart’s Pond like my father should have done, we wouldn’t get into trouble. After my father left for the office, Billy Henniger and I began to look for the cat. We rode our bikes all through the neighborhood with no luck. About noon time Billy said, “Why don’t we ask your mom to make us tuna fish sandwiches. Don’t finish yours and we’ll put it out as bait for the cat. I’ll get my dad’s fishing net, and when that dumb cat comes for the bait, I’ll whomp it down on top of him”.

We put the bait out on Mrs. Helander’s back porch, hid around the corner of the house, and hoped that the cat would come and Mrs. Helander wouldn’t wake up. She always slept until noon, and then scared us when she came out of the house to get the milk. Her hair was never combed. It shot out on all sides of her head and stood straight up on top. Her eyes were always red, and little flecks of dried spit stuck to the corners of her mouth. She wore an old, torn bathrobe that she never closed in front, and sometimes you could see inside her nightgown. She had this thing about sweeping the porch every morning, and we were convinced she was a witch; and there was nothing wrong with experimenting on her cat, or even hoeing it, because it must be evil too.

After fifteen minutes with no action, Melody Banger’s boxer trotted past us and aimed for the tuna sandwich, drooling dog slobber on us as he went by. “No, no Rex”, yelled Billy. “Don’t eat it”; but before we could even think of chasing the dog away from the sandwich, he had eaten it, pissed on Mrs. Helander’s honeysuckle, and gone out the back gate. “Now what?”, I said.

“Ask your mom to make you another sandwich. Tell her you’re still hungry. My mom is always trying to get me to eat stuff. This time, we’re going to tie string around the sandwich so if anything except that stupid cat tries to eat it, we’ll just yank it away”.

I got the sandwich, we rigged it, and again took our places around the side of the house. Dog after dog came into the back yard. “I thought only cats liked fish”, Billy said. After fifteen minutes and many yanks of the sandwich out of the jaws of everything from Melody Banger’s dog who came back for seconds to Bobby Pisciotta’s pug, nothing much remained but a few scraps of smeared bread. “This is not going to work”, I said. “Maybe the dumb cat won’t come back. Mrs. Helander can’t blame us for that”.

The cat did come back, however, still crazed and licking its hind paws. Mrs. Helander came to our house that night during dinner and pounded on the door. My father, with his napkin still tucked under this chin, raised his hand to try to stop the barrage he knew was coming. “Your son did this”, she said, holding the cat up by his hind legs like a plucked chicken. “Look!”. She pointed to the bald spots and singed fur on the cat’s toes. “They tried to electrocute poor Heinrich”; and then, shoving the cat into my face, said: “Don’t think I don’t know what you and Billy are doing in the garage.” By now Mrs. Helander was spluttering and wild. “Unspeakable things………Unspeakable things”.

She turned to my father and threw the cat at him. It dug its claws into the dinner napkin through to my father’s chest. He yelled and swatted at the cat which pulled loose, jumped through the door and raced into our house. My mother screamed, and I heard glasses breaking in the kitchen. I ran inside and saw the cat run across the counters, jump into the spaghetti on the table, and then climb up the living room curtains, leaving a trail of tomato sauce all the way to the curtain rod where he perched. His fur was as stiff and on end as it was when we juiced him with the transformers.

“Get this cat out of my house”, my mother screamed.

“Take my cat to the vet”, yelled Mrs. Helander.

“Catch the goddam cat”, my father yelled at me.

“No, no”, shouted Mrs. Helander. “He’ll kill Heinrich. You get him”.

I ran over to Billy’s house and grabbed his father’s fishing net from the front lawn where he had left it and gave it to my father. He took a big swing at the cat like he was chopping wood, but the cat had plenty of time to see the net coming and jumped off the curtain rod onto the highboy where my mother had arrayed her knick-knacks. Porcelain shepherds, glass birds, and fluted glasses went flying as the cat fought for traction. Finally, with one great swipe of the net, my father caught Heinrich. He held the flailing cat out as far away from himself as he could, and shouted at Mrs. Helander. “Get this fucking cat out of here”.

My father never swore, but it was good that he said what he did because it stopped all the yelling and running around. My mother stared at him. Mrs. Helander just looked at him and then at Heinrich who was still thrashing around in the net. She grabbed the handle and held it out full length like a fishing rod. Heinrich’s flailing made it buck like a tuna. Mrs. Helander pushed the netted cat into the screen door to open it, Heinrich grabbed the screen with his claws and started up towards the ceiling. Mrs. Helander lost hold of the handle and it went banging against the kitchen cabinets.

I knew my mother hated cats and would definitely have drowned this one if she had been the one elected to take it to the animal shelter. While my father and I were watching Mrs. Helander struggle to grab the net handle and Heinrich, my mother had filled a pot with water and now hurled it at the cat. For a few seconds Heinrich stopped screeching and thrashing, lost his grip on the screen, and dropped to the kitchen floor. He looked all scrawny and spikey. Mrs. Helander dropped a big bath towel on top of him, picked him up, and walked out the door.

The house was a wreck. The cat had knocked over half the glasses on the kitchen counters, ripped and stained the parlor curtains, torn the upholstery on the sofa, and smashed my mother’s favorite figurines.

Both my parents went for me at the same instant. They chased me around the room just like my father had chased the dumb cat. I ran outside, climbed the tree behind our house, and stayed there until it got dark. I could hear my mother and father arguing about me. My mother was taking my side, and just as I was starting to get the gist of what my father was threatening, his voice became muffled. I am sure Mrs. Bliska could hear him, however, because from my

perch in the oak tree I could see her crack open her bedroom window, kneel down in front of it and press her ear to the screen.

It took two hours for the fighting and yelling to stop and to have my mother coax me out of the tree. As punishment I got no playing with Billy Henniger for a month, which was OK, because I was always getting into trouble with him; but the worst thing was that I also got no Lone Ranger.

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