Dead Cats, Dear Cats
Dueber Avenue stretches from Navarre, Ohio to the center of downtown Canton. Our stretch of Dueber was on an incline, our house situated at the center of the hill. The hill plateaued half a mile south of our house, where semi-trucks would dump deliveries at the Marathon Petroleum factory. Traffic on Dueber was mostly semi-trucks chugging to the factory or pick-up trucks speeding back home from The Landmark, the local bar a few streets away. Dueber’s speed limit was 45 miles per hour, which semis never hit and which the pick-ups always went over.
Cassie, our family cat, died on Dueber, right outside my bedroom window. She was an indoor and an outdoor cat, mostly because my father didn’t ‘believe’ in keeping cats indoors. Something about restricting their true natures, about how we shouldn’t control them so much. Cassie was a calico, her markings patchy and perfect. Dad left for Nichol’s Bakery at odd times, especially when he was baking on the doughnut line. Cassie must have went outside with him when he left that morning before 4:30AM– good chance he was too hungover to see her dart between his feet in the dark.
My mother was alone when she discovered the cat’s fate. She was coming home after a particularly long midnights shift at the factory down the street and spotted Cassie’s flayed body on the side of the road, the whiteness of her tummy bright in the dawning light. Mom worked whatever shift my father wasn’t working. She stuck to midnights or afternoons so that they didn’t have to pay for childcare; my father tucked us in at night and my mother woke us up in the mornings. We were rarely left without one of my parents in childhood, even if one of them was so tired she couldn’t stand up without coffee, even if one of them was drunk or hungover but rarely sober. I remember my mother and father talking sometimes about schedules, about who, in the political world of the Bakery, had been awarded with the coveted day shift. Day shift, my parents would laugh, not for us.
Mom screamed when she tried moving Cassie’s body that morning. She didn’t want another car to hit Cassie, to turn this already tragic death into something gruesome. It was cruel enough that the cat we all loved so much was killed in her own front yard.
Rigor mortis had set in already. The stiffness shocked my mom. She was young and already so tired from work, her hands already sore from the arthritis that would plague her in the next decade of her life. She dropped the cat’s stiff body and I can imagine the thud, the echo of dead weight meeting pavement—that thud, I wish, was powerful enough to shake every drinker who was at The Landmark the night before awake and into grief, into regret. Skip the hangover. We’re so sorry for your loss, the drinkers say. It was probably Dick, or maybe Howie- those fuckers drive too fast. Little Cassie, they sing in my imagination, she didn’t deserve to die.
I don’t remember my mother telling us the news. But she did, alone, on the brown carpet of our living room. I remember noticing the lack of coffee smell when I woke and thinking it odd that the red Folgers bucket wasn’t out on the counter like it always was. I don’t remember her words; just that my mother, brother, and I cried then, a lot, and that I sensed something big in the crying. I saw something I couldn’t place in the size of my mother’s pupils. She had to not only tell us that our beloved cat died, but that things died. That everything died. Death wasn’t an accident. There were accidents, like that time I’d found a shattered robin’s egg on the cement beneath its nest, the teal blue still striking even under fluids I didn’t understand, but death was guaranteed. I imagine my mother must have felt frightened of all of the deaths she’d have to share with us in the future, the ways she’d have to deliver the news. Our future griefs that she couldn’t protect.
On my parents’ day off that week, we buried Cassie. My father placed her body, indiscernible within the layers of thick trash bags, delicately in his rickety wheelbarrow. He used that wheelbarrow to weed the garden, to collect his daily harvests of corn and tomatoes, cabbage and peppers. He placed me in it when we went to pick blackberries in the woods behind our house, the sensation of feeling like I’d fall out the front always steadied by my father’s laughter behind me.
We buried Cassie on the hill behind our house. Dueber was a violent hill, but the one behind our house, obnoxiously green and lush every summer, was gentle. When snow came the hill became paradise, perfectly wide enough and steep enough for sledding, the kind of hill that made your stomach lurch, just enough. It was cold but lovely in that snow, and we played and explored just so we could stay warm enough, to stay existing in the quiet serenity of snowfall. Cassie was buried to the left of where we’d disembark our sleds and begin the arduous run back up the hill. We didn’t mark her grave but there was a tiny bit of the black Hefty bag sticking up out of the recently turned earth, a detail no one but me noticed. Her body, wrapped in a garbage bag. I knew where Cassie was. Worse, I knew where she wasn’t.
We have free reign of the backyard because I, as the oldest, am ‘well-behaved,’ but really it’s because I’m scared of my father and I’m developing, already, the punishing and obsessive-leaning anxiety I will carry with me forever. Ethan keeps handing me his tractor toys and I’m annoyed at his neediness, at his desire to share. Mom and Dad are always looking at me with Ethan’s pout eyes and telling me to share and I don’t like the fact that somehow I’m the only one who doesn’t have these pout eyes. Ethan already looks more like our parents than I do. He somehow looks like both of them more than I look like either of them. But Ethan doesn’t know yet the limits of Dad’s patience; Ethan keeps crying or yelling or stomping his feet and I want to warn him of something, to tell him that I hear his almost-three-year-old rage but that it’s not safe to share it right now because Dad is drinking. You can tell by his smell– not the nice doughy smell he comes home smelling like but the other one, sweaty and sour. You can tell by his walk– his right leg starts to get a little less stable. Mostly, you can tell by the look on Mom’s face, like she can see a Jupiter-sized rock about to fall on all of us and she’s trying to shrink the rock, melt it into a pebble with her mind. When I see Mom’s face look like that, like we’re all going to explode under a giant rock, I know I have to stop crying. My feet have to stop stomping, and I really should avoid closing any door or cabinet because he always calls it a ‘slam,’ always uses the ‘slam’ as a hinge upon which he swings, suddenly becoming not my father but a drunk man, belligerent and mean. Ethan keeps it going and although I know that if I just played along, if I just accepted his stupid tractor toy this could all be over, Dad’s thermometer could have the chance to levitate back down to safe temperatures (Cool off, my mom always told him. Let’s let Dad cool off), I don’t want his tractor, and a part of me wants Ethan to see Dad the way I’ve seen him. I’m aware, though, that by refusing Ethan I’m also refusing Mom, who is looking at me with sadness. She knows I have the power to defuse this. I don’t know how much she’s forcing me to be the mediator and how much I’m wanting to be the mediator. Usually, it is easier not to hurt my mother so I take Ethan’s toys. I give him mine. I play along, and at the end of the day, on good days, I am thankful for the things my father tells me: You are doing so well on your bike, what’s your book of the day, do you want to play catch. Maybe Ethan doesn’t yet know that there are days that can be something other than good.
Mom steps in and plays with Ethan’s tractors. He stops crying and I hear Dad say something mean, something I don’t want to hear. Stop babying him, Jesus Christ. All those S sounds in Jesus Christ, I don’t like it. I slip away while my father paces and my mother breathes; I race down to Cassie’s grave, fall to the ground, and dig. Hands in dirt at the spot where the Hefty bag went, dirt under my nails. I dig because Cassie knew me in ways the rest of my family did not. I cried to her, and told her things I knew were bad of me to think: my mother should leave my father; I should dump all of Dad’s beer down the toilet, or throw them against trees until they explode. If she knows how much I want her to come back, I dug, and dug, how much I need her–
Get the hell away from there, my father yells. The trash bag is fully visible now. I see what may be the outline of a foot. But Dad grabs me and I can tell I’ve really messed up, that it’s not Ethan that did it but me, I ruined my own chances of a good day. Stupid girl who doesn’t yet know that loving something doesn’t mean you get to keep it forever.
My parents argued about getting another cat. My mother ultimately won the argument, and one day not long after we buried Cassie, I picked up a tiny calico kitten out of a box. Runt of the litter, the woman who was selling the cats said. I didn’t see that, though. I only saw the calico fur. I intended to name the kitten Cassie because I wanted to remember Cassie forever, and I wanted to believe that she could, in a way, come back to me. But my crush on Leonardo DiCaprio won out, and my obsession with The Titanic movie poster led me to naming the new kitten Rosie.
Rosie lived for eighteen years. She was small her entire life, never weighing more than seven pounds. Her calico pattern was more symmetrical than Cassie’s was; Cassie’s back was mostly white with two messy splotches of brown near her tail. Rosie, in contrast, had patches of color almost evenly distributed, almost like a giraffe’s pattern. Her face reminded me of a butterfly, her nose being the bug part of the butterfly and the coloring on her cheeks being the wings. I loved how she could appear so different looking in her reflection, a special kind of mask I envied.
I envied Rosie in other ways, as well. She was a territorial cat, fearless, and a ruthless hunter. She wanted to please my father mostly, sometimes me. She didn’t care for my brother until late in her life and she only tolerated my mother. Rosie was outspoken about what she wanted– her way or the highway, dad used to explain to my friends or Ethan’s when she hissed at them. Rosie and my father had a special relationship, mostly because they seemed to share the same opinions on cat freedom: the door should always be open to go in or out of, it’s the cat’s responsibility to be safe, not to cross the driveway to the street or go too far in the woods to become something’s prey. Rosie established how to let us know when she wanted to go outside or come inside: she’d jump onto the screen door and hang there from her claws, her arms shaking until we opened the door. She seemed to negotiate the rules of the house with my father, and came to compromise on some things: no claws on the couch but the potato bin would be hers to decimate with her claws forever; no bringing birds to the doorstep because it upsets the others but bring the mice, the moles, show them how good it is for you to be in the wild.
She lived for so long that when I recall Cassie I have to flex my brain to recall her face. My parents didn’t talk to me much about my attempt to dig Cassie up. I don’t remember a single conversation about it; I only remember my father rubbing my hands with his exfoliating orange-scented mechanic’s soap and saying something like don’t do that again. Rosie filled Cassie’s absence, her frame becoming the one I sunk my tears into after I inevitably disappointed my father, after he began to inevitably disappoint me. Rosie loved sleeping in my closet, one of the darkest spots of the house. When my parents fought and when my father was drunk that’s where I’d sit, rubbing Rosie’s small body and reading a Sharon Creech book via flashlight.
We have free reign as teens because I’m ‘well-behaved,’ evidenced by my involvement in student government and my 4.0, but this involvement, this good behavior, it’s all just because I’m still afraid of my father, and my anxiety is getting worse. I’m afraid of his disappointment even though by now I also resent it. He tells me, when he’s drunk, that I should stop wasting his money on volleyball if I’m not going to work to be the best, that I should work harder and learn real-life skills. He doesn’t tell my brother this; instead, Ethan is encouraged to be a star athlete, a three-sporter, never having an off season. Dad screams so loud in the bleachers of my brother’s games that he often gets kicked out. He’s not allowed at the high school baseball field because one of the mothers told the head coach my dad made her ‘uncomfortable’ with his drinking. Dad sits across the street in his own lawn chair, and from where I sit in the bleachers with my friends I can see him reaching into his cooler for another Busch.
Ethan smokes weed and drinks beer and I do not do either. Our father’s drinking has not made him terrified of alcohol the way it has me and for this I resent my brother. I resent his freedom and the effortless way he lives, his three-point shot, his bunts on the baseball field, his humor. The way he can drift through the hallways with confidence, how unafraid he is of a B or even a C.
After a baseball game against Westbranch High School, Ethan goes to smoke weed with some guys on the team and I get a ride home with my father. His beat-up red F150 is rusting; it’s become something I feel embarrassed to be seen in. It still smells like the bakery inside. When I ride in Dad’s truck I remember the child me who rode in this spot when the truck’s paint was fresher, when the smell wasn’t a reminder of days gone but of days here, infinite days to come. I am not relaxed when I ride in my father’s truck. I’ve stopped telling him not to open a beer while driving and on this particular ride he opens one as soon as he can, once we hit 53rd street and are away from the high school. I sit in the truck staring out the window, thinking of my brother. I surprise myself by wondering if I hate him.
When my father and I get home my parents begin to fight. The fighting has picked up since my father’s early retirement, something my mother desperately begged him not to do– our kids are going to go to college, we need to support them. Dad had promised her he’d get a part time job, something to help bring in money for the first-generation kids he was raising. Instead, he drank and golfed with buddies from the bakery, often meeting them when their shifts ended at the bar. Meanwhile, my mother worked twelve-hour days and picked up shifts, came home to my father snoring at all hours.
Mom throws her hands in the air and says, looking straight into my father’s eyes, you’re pathetic. She goes upstairs and I hear the kitchen sink, the dishes being washed. My father throws his cooler of empty beer cans against the basement wall and it echoes. I notice beer dripping slowly onto the carpet and wonder if later my father will blame one of us for the stain. He takes the stairs three at a time and he does something I’ve never witnessed him do before: he slams the door shut and tells me not to come upstairs. Don’t you dare open this fucking door, he yells at me. Erika do not open this fucking door, do you hear me? DO YOU?. There is no lock on the door, only his words. I stand at the foot of the stairs. I hear dishes shattering. My mother yells the word No once, twice. I don’t go up the stairs. I yell for my mother, I say are you okay and she tells me to leave, she tells me it’s fine. I’ve never seen my father hit my mother but there’s an urgency to the situation I have never felt before and I am scared. I realize that although I’ve never seen him hit her, I don’t have confidence he never has. Do not touch her, I yell through the door. Something claps, something bangs. It’s fine, my mom says, and my father yells. Get the fuck out of here.
I run to the backyard and there is Rosie, lying peacefully in the grass. I pick her up and she lets me. Together we sit at the bottom of the hill, near where Cassie was buried, and we wait for whatever comes next.
Rosie died the year I entered college. I was home on Winter break, daily watching her body deflate into bones. She could no longer jump onto my bed or my father’s, so she’d learned to settle for Ethan’s mattress on the floor. She died one night while I was asleep.
Ethan found her. He came home from a party, drunk and high. He woke me up by banging into my room, touching my shoulders, telling me there was something he had to tell me. I knew by the way he touched me that something was wrong, but his smile was the same as my father’s when he drank, a kind of joviality I resented. Ethan showed me into his room where Rosie’s body was suspended, her back legs on the ground her front legs hooked into Ethan’s Ohio State comforter. Her claws were still extended. Her head lulled to the right. I watched her patched fur bristle when a fan turned the air toward her.
We woke up my father from the couch and the three of us sat on the floor, shaking our heads. Ethan kept laughing every few minutes and Dad kept calling him stupid. I cried and then sobbed. It didn’t feel good to experience this loss in front of my drunk brother, in front of my indefinitely half-drunk father. Mom was at work and I missed her, her ability to hold space for my grief, my tears. Eventually, Dad told us to go to sleep. He brought two trash bags into the room and I didn’t stay to watch. We’ll bury her in the morning, my Dad said.
Don’t dig this one up this time, Ethan leered, poking me in my side.
After Rosie, Dad didn’t want another house cat. There were always feral cats that ended up in our backyard. In childhood, a tortoiseshell Mama Cat regularly had kittens, and as I aged a new Mama Cat came around, this one white with gray splotches on her neck. The summer after Rosie died, three gray tabby kittens were born, ones we named Tobias, Robert, and Blaize. Blaize died early, Tobias ran away, but Robert stayed. Dad chose Robert’s name on account of his lack of tail. He’s part Bobcat, he would say. Robert the Bobcat.
I moved back into my dorm for my second year of college and my brother left for his first year. My parents slept in different rooms and avoided one another. Dad drank coffee and water in the mornings until he opened his first Busch around noon. He was passed out on the couch, drunk, by six. He told my mom he’d work in six months, and then when those six months passed he told her he wasn’t ready, that he’d worked so hard for so long that he needed a break. He drank and scouted groundhogs in his garden, poised with a shotgun on top of the hill.
I came home most weekends during my second year of college, and the only times I talked to my father were about Robert. Sleepy Butt Bobby, I’d sing at Robert. Dad would laugh. Bobcat ears, my Dad would say before pinching Robert’s ears. I spent those weekends at home that year under my bedsheets. I read my assignments for school and then slept, sighing every time one of my parents opened my door. Dad would barge into my room, sometimes with nothing to say and I’d sigh until he left. He’d call me a bitch and the weekend would be ruined, and I swore to myself I wouldn’t come home again.
The noise that came from Robert was something between a chirp and a scream. Robert screamed and writhed on the hardwood floor of my bedroom. Dad wasn’t home. I stared in shock at Robert, my hair greasy and on top of my head. I screamed for my mom. Mom… Mom!!!!!! COME HERE. I think… Robert’s dying?!
My mom rushed in and together we sat on the floor and looked from one another to Robert. We shook our heads, tried reaching out to the cat, tried holding him. Us on the floor, a mirror to Cassie’s death all those years ago. Robert was so persistent, standing up only to fall back down, his legs no longer under his neurological control. It broke my heart to see him so resistant to what was happening. It felt violent, a violence Robert didn’t deserve. What the fuck do we do, I’d snap every few minutes. I don’t know Erika, my mom said. What can we do? I fumed. I reminded her of my father’s failure to have ever taken Robert to the vet, asked her why she hadn’t stepped in to do so. But you don’t make him deliver on any of his promises, I snarled. I didn’t care that she’d born witness to one of our beloved cats violent end before. Mom remained quiet and the shame of hearing myself berate my mother propelled me onward. He’s going to die, I told her, and it’s Dad’s fault. You can tell him I said that.
Robert did die that night. He most likely died from feline leukemia, a common kitten killer. He was alive for less than a year.
I wasn’t home the night he died. After I yelled at my mother I needed out of the house. Robert had begun to stink, as if he was rotting from the inside. He looked so young and afraid, not like Rosie who sank relatively comfortably into her death. I stayed at a friend’s house and when I got home in the morning my mother was at work and my father’s truck wasn’t in the driveway. On the kitchen table there was a note in my father’s cursive: Robert died last night.
I imagine my father lying on the kitchen floor with Robert, the two of their faces close enough to touch. I imagine my father cries, that he reaches out to the cat, that he sings to it. I know he’s drunk and I imagine it’s the drunkest he’s been in a while, which is saying something because every day seems to be a new record of drunkenness. I imagine my father stayed lying on the kitchen floor until he heard Robert’s last breath. And now I imagine this grief joining a chorus of my father’s other griefs, a chorus so loud and insistent that beer won’t do to quiet it. Only whiskey can silence these sounds of grief.
I should be driving back to Ashland, back to my dorm room where I can prepare for my Tuesday morning Shakespeare seminar. Robert died the Sunday of my university’s Fall Break, so I’m home on a Monday, something that used to be common but is now so rare. I’m packing my Vera Bradley duffel bag with my freshly dried laundry. It’s close to 2PM and it’s just my father and me in the house. He’d been sleeping most of the time since the night Robert died, awake only to watch the Western channel and to get yet another thirty pack. I hadn’t anticipated saying goodbye to him before I left.
But then I hear his body fall from the couch. I hear him groan. Dad, I say.
I keep forgetting he’s dead, he tells me, words sloppy and slurred. And then I have to remember all over again. I nod my head. I’m in a squat-like position as if I’m in yoga class but I’m afraid to move. I don’t want to spook my dad. Dad sits himself back atop the sofa and I sit down next to him. I tell myself to stay just one more minute, tell myself I can deal with the smell of his sweat and his drunk. I can compartmentalize my rage, my desire to ask my father why. I tell myself that for now I can attribute the smell to my father’s pain rather than mine. I am scared to, but I put my arms around my father. I hug him.
Erika Gallion is a Los Angeles based writer originally from Canton, Ohio. She writes both CNF and fiction. Her previously published work can be found in Entropy, Angel City Review, The Racket, HerStry, and elsewhere. She has a forthcoming publication from NiftyLit.