Magicats ii, p.3




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  Your high school is crawling with cats. Cool cats, punk cats, stray cats, dead cats. Some are human, some aren’t.

  You dissect a cat in biology lab. On a plaster-of-Paris base, guyed upright by wires, stands the bleached skeleton of a quadruped that Mr. Osteen—he’s also the track and girls’ softball coach—swears was a member of Felis catus, the common house cat.

  With its underlying gauntness exposed and its skull gleaming brittle and grotesque, this skeleton resembles that of something prehistoric. Pamela van Rhyn and two or three other girls want to know where the cats in the lab came from.

  “A scientific supply house,” Coach Osteen says. “Same place we get our bullfrogs, our microscope slides, the insects in that there display case.” He nods at it.

  “Where does the supply house get them?” Pamela says.

  “I don’t know, Pammie. Maybe they raise ’em. Maybe they round up strays. You missing a kitty?”

  In fact, rumor holds that Mr. Osteen found the living source of his skeleton behind the track field’s south bleachers, chloroformed it, carried it home, and boiled the fur off it in a pot on an old stove in his basement. Because of the smell, his wife spent a week in Augusta with her mother. Rumor holds that cat lovers hereabouts would be wise to keep their pets indoors.

  Slicing into the chest cavity of the specimen provided by the supply house, you find yourself losing it. You are the only boy in Coach Osteen’s lab to contract nausea and an overwhelming uprush of self-disgust; the only boy, clammy-palmed and light-headed, to have to leave the room. The ostensible shame of your departure is lost on Pamela, who agrees, in Nurse Mayhew’s office, to rendezvous with you later that afternoon at the Huddle House.

  “This is the heart,” you can still hear Osteen saying. “Looks like a wet rubber strawberry, don’t it?”


  As a seven-year-old, you wander into the grain crib of the barn on the Powell farm. A one-eyed mongrel queen named Sky has dropped a litter on the deer hides, today stiff and rat-eaten, that Gramby Powell stowed there twenty or more years ago. Sky one-eyes you with real suspicion, all set to bolt or hiss, as you lean over a rail to study the blind quintet of her kittening.

  They’re not much, mere lumps. “Turds with fur,” Gramby called them last night, to Meemaw Anita’s scandalized dismay and the keen amusement of your daddy. They hardly move.

  One kitten gleams white on the stiff hide, in the nervous curl of Sky’s furry belly. You spit at Sky, as another cat would spit, but louder—ssssphh! ssssphh!—so that eventually, intimidated, she gets up, kittens falling from her like bombs from the open bay of a B-52, and slinks to the far wall of the crib.

  You climb over the rail and pick up the white kitten, the Maybe Albino as Meemaw Anita dubbed it. “Won’t know for sure,” she said, “till its eyes’re open.”

  You turn the kitten in your hands. Which end is which? It’s sort of hard to say. Okay, here’s the starchy white potato print of its smashed-in pug of a face: eyes shut, ears a pair of napkin folds, mouth a miniature crimson gap.

  You rub the helpless critter on your cheek. Cat smells. Hay smells. Hide smells. It’s hard not to sneeze.

  It occurs to you that you could throw this Maybe Albino like a baseball. You could wind up like Denny McLain and fling it at the far wall of the grain crib. If you aim just right, you may be able to hit the wall so that the kitten rebounds and lands on Sky. You could sing a funny song, “Sky’s being fallen on, / Oh, Sky’s being fallen on, / Whatcha think ’bout that?” And nobody’ll ever know if poor little Maybe Albino has pink eyes or not . . .

  This sudden impulse horrifies you, even as a kid, especially as a kid. You can see the white kitten dead. Trembling, you set the kitten back down on the cardboardy deer hide, climb back over the crib rail, and stand away from the naked litter while Sky tries to decide what to do next.

  Unmanfully, you start to cry. “S-s-orry, k-kitty. S-s-sorry, Sk-sky. I’m r-r-really s-sorry.” You almost want Gramby or Meemaw Anita to stumble in on you, in the churchly gloom and itch of their grain crib, to see you doing this heartfelt penance for a foul deed imagined but never carried out. It’s okay to cry a bit in front of your mama’s folks.


  I’m touched, Penfield says. But speak up. Stop mumbling.


  For several months after your senior year, you reside in the Adolescent Wing of the Quiet Harbor Psychiatric Center in a suburb of Atlanta. You’re there to neutralize the disorienting stimuli—flak, you call it—burning out your emotional wiring, flying at you from everywhere. You’re there to relearn how to live with no despairing recourse to disguises, sex, drugs.

  Bad drugs, the doctors mean.

  At QHPC, they give you good drugs. This is actually the case, not sarcastic bullshit. Kim Yaughan, one of the psychotherapists in the so-called Wild Child Wing, assures you that this is so; that antipsychotics aren’t addictive. You get twenty milligrams a day of haloperidol. You take it in liquid form in paper cups shaped like doll-house-sized coffee filters.

  “You’re not an addict,” Kim says. (Everyone at QHPC calls her Kim.) “Think of yourself as a diabetic, of Haldol as insulin. You don’t hold a diabetic off insulin, that’d be criminal.”

  Not only do you get Haldol, you get talk therapy, recreational therapy, family therapy, crafts therapy. Some of the residents of the Wild Child Wing are druggies and sexual-abuse victims as young as twelve. They get these same therapies, along with pet therapy. The pets brought in on Wednesdays often include cats.


  At last, Penfield tells an associate. That last jolt wasn’t a mis-hit, after all.


  The idea is that hostile, fearful, or withdrawn kids who don’t interact well with other people will do better with animals. Usually, they do. Kittens under a year, tumbling with one another, batting at yarn balls, exploring the pet room with their tails up like the radio antennas on cars, seem to be effective four-legged therapists.

  One teenage girl, a manic-depressive who calls herself Eagle Rose, goes ga-ga over them. “Oh,” she says, holding up a squirmy smoke-colored male and nodding at two kittens wrestling in an empty carton of Extra Large Tide, “they’re so soft, so neat, so . . . so highly lustrous.”

  Despite Kim Yaughan’s many attempts to involve you, you stand aloof from everyone. It’s Eagle Rose who focuses your attention, not the kittens, and E.R.’s an untouchable. Every patient here is an untouchable, that way. It would be a terrible betrayal to think anything else. So, mostly, you don’t.


  The year before you marry, Marti is renting a house on North Highland Avenue. A whole house. It’s not a big house, but she has plenty of room. She uses one bedroom as a studio. In this room, on the floor, lies a large canvas on which she has been painting, exclusively in shades of blue, the magnified heart of a magnolia. She calls the painting—too explicitly, you think—Magnolia Heart in Blue. She’s worked on it all quarter, often appraising it from a stepladder to determine how best to continue.

  Every weekend, you sleep with Marti in the bedroom next to the studio. Her mattress rests on the floor, without box springs or bedstead. You sometimes feel that you’re lying in the middle of a painting in progress, a strange but gratifying sensation that you may or may not carry into your next week of classes at GSU.

  One balmy Sunday, you awake to find Marti’s body stenciled with primitive blue flowers, a blossom on her neck, more on her breasts, an indigo bouquet on the milky plane of her abdomen. You gaze at her in groggy wonderment. The woman you plan to marry has become, overnight, an arabesque of disturbing floral bruises.

  Then you see the cat, Romeo, a neighbor’s gray Persian, propped in the corner, belly exposed, so much like a hairy little man in a recliner that you laugh. Marti stirs. Romeo preens. Clearly, he entered through a studio window, walked all over Magnolia Heart in Blue, then came in here and violated Marti.

  My wife-to-be as a strip of fin de si
cle wallpaper, you muse, kissing her chastely on one of the paw-print flowers.


  You sleep on the streets. You wear the same stinking clothes for days on end. You haven’t been on haloperidol for months. The city could be Lima, or Istanbul, or Bombay, as easily as Atlanta. Hell, it could be a boulder-littered crater on the moon. You drag from one place to another like a zombie, and the people you hit up for hamburgers, change, MARTA tokens, old newspapers, have no more substance to you than you do to them, they could all be holograms or ghosts. They could be androids programmed to keep you dirty and hungry by dictating your behavior with remote-control devices that look like wristwatches and key rings.

  Cats mean more to you than people do. (The people may not be people.) Cats are fellow survivors, able to sniff out nitrogenous substances from blocks away. Food.

  You follow a trio of scrawny felines down Ponce de Leon to the rear door of a catfish restaurant where the dumpster overflows with greasy paper and other high refuse. The cats strut around on the mounded topography of this debris while you balance on an upturned trash barrel, mindlessly picking and choosing.


  Seven rooms away from Coach Osteen’s lab, Mr. Petty is teaching advanced junior English. Poetry. He stalks around the room like an actor doing Hamlet, even when the poem’s something dumb by Ogden Nash, or something beat and surface-sacrilegious by Ferlinghetti, or something short and puzzling by Carlos Williams.

  The Williams piece is about a cat that climbs over a cabinet—a “jamcloset”—and steps into a flowerpot. Actually, Mr. Petty says, it’s about the image created by Williams’s purposely simple diction. Everyone argues that it isn’t a poem at all. It’s even less a poem, lacking metaphors, than that Carl Sandberg thing about the fog coming on little, for Christ’s sake, cat’s feet.

  You like it, though. You can see the cat stepping cautiously into the flowerpot. The next time you’re in Coach Osteen’s class, trying to redeem yourself at the dissection table, you recite the poem for Pamela van Rhyn, Jessie Faye Culver, Kathy Margenau, and Cynthia Spivy.

  Coach Osteen, shaking his head, makes you repeat the lines so that he can say them, too. Amazing.

  “Cats are digitigrade critters,” he tells the lab. “That means they walk on their toes. Digitigrade.”

  Cynthia Spivy catches your eye. Well, I’ll be a pussy willow, she silently mouths. Who’d’ve thunk it?

  “Unlike the dog or the horse,” Coach Osteen goes on, “the cat walks by moving the front and back legs on one side of its body and then the front and back legs on the other. The only other animals to move that way are the camel and the giraffe.”

  And naked crazy folks rutting on all fours, you think, studying Cynthia’s lips and wondering if there was ever a feral child raised by snow leopards or jaguars . . .


  Thai Thai develops a urinary tract infection. Whenever he has to pee, he looks for Mama pulling weeds or hanging out clothes in the backyard, and squats to show her that he’s not getting the job done. It takes Mama two or three days to realize what’s going on. Then you and she carry Thai to the vet.

  Mama waits tables at a Denny’s near the expressway. She hasn’t really got the money for the operation that Thai needs to clear up the blockage, a common problem in male Siamese. She tells you that you can either forfeit movie money for the next few months or help her pay to make Thai well. You hug Mama, wordlessly agreeing that the only thing to do is to help your cat. The operation goes okay, but the vet telephones a day later to report that Thai took a bad turn overnight and died near morning.

  Thai’s chocolate and silver body has a bandage cinched around his middle, like a wraparound saddle.

  You’re the one who buries Thai because Mama can’t bring herself to. You put him in a Siamese-sized cardboard box, dig a hole under the holly in the backyard, and lay him to rest with a spank of the shovel blade and a prayer consisting of grief-stricken repetitions of the word please.

  Two or three months later, you come home from school to find a pack of dogs in the backyard. They’ve dug Thai Thai up. You chase the dogs away, screeching from an irate crouch. Thai’s corpse is nothing but matted fur and protruding bones. Its most conspicuous feature is the bandage holding the maggoty skeleton together at its cinched-in waist.

  This isn’t Thai, you tell yourself. I buried Thai a long, long time ago, and this isn’t him.

  You carry the remains, jacketed in the editorial section of the Atlanta Constitution, to a trash can and dump them with an abrupt, indifferent thunk. Pick-up is tomorrow.


  One Sunday afternoon in March, you’re standing with two hundred other homeless people at the entrance to Trinity United Methodist’s soup kitchen, near the state capitol. It’s drizzling. A thin but gritty-looking young woman in jeans and sweatshirt, her hair lying in dark strands against her forehead, is passing out hand-numbered tickets to every person who wants to get into the basement. At the head of the outside basement steps is a man in pleated slacks and a plaid shirt. He won’t let anyone down the steps until they have a number in the group of ten currently being admitted. He has to get an okay from the soup-kitchen staff downstairs before he’ll allow a new group of ten to pass.

  Your number, on a green slip of paper already drizzle-dampened, is 126. The last group down held numbers 96 to 105. You think. Hard to tell with all the shoving, cursing, and bantering on the line. One angry black man up front doesn’t belong there. He waves his ticket every time a new group of ten is called, hoping, even though his number is 182, to squeeze past the man set there to keep order.

  “How many carahs yo ring?” he asks. “I sick. Mon n lemme eah fo I fall ouw. Damn disere rain.”

  When the dude holding number 109 doesn’t show, the stair guard lets number 182 pass, a good-riddance sort of charity.

  You shuffle up with the next two groups. How many of these people are robots, human machines drawn to the soup kitchen, as you may have been, on invisible tractor beams? The stair guard isn’t wearing a watch or shaking a key ring. It’s probably his wedding band that’s the remote-control device . . .

  “My God,” he cries when he sees you. “Is that really you? It is, isn’t it?”

  The stair guy’s name is Dirk Healy. He says he went to school with you in Hapeville. Remember Pamela van Rhyn? Remember Cynthia What’s-her-name? When you go down into the basement, and get your two white-bread sandwiches and a Styrofoam cup of vegetable soup, Dirk convinces another volunteer to take over his job and sits down next to you at one of the rickety folding tables where your fellow street folk are single-mindedly eating. Dirk—who, as far as you’re concerned, could be the Man in the Moon—doesn’t ask you how you got in this fix, doesn’t accuse, doesn’t exhort.

  “You’re off your medication, aren’t you?” Your hackles lift.

  “Hey,” he soothes, “I visited you at Quiet Harbor. The thing to do is, to get you back on it.”

  You eat, taking violent snatches of the sandwiches, quick sips of the soup. You one-eye Dirk over the steam the way that, years ago, Sky one-eyed you from her grain-crib nest.

  “I may have a job for you,” Dirk says confidentially. “Ever hear of Rockdale Biological?”


  One summer, for reasons you don’t understand, Mama sends you to visit your father and his ex-hairdresser floozie—whose name is Carol Grace—in the Florida town where they live off the proceeds of her mail-order business and sometimes bet the dogs at the local greyhound track.

  Carol Grace may bet the greyhounds at the track, but, at home, she’s a cat person. She owns seven: a marmalade-colored tom, a piebald tom, three tricolor females, an orange Angora of ambiguous gender, and a Manx mix with a tail four or five inches long, as if someone shortened it with a cleaver.

  “If Stub was pure Manx,” Carol Grace says, “he wouldn’t have no tail. Musta been an alley torn in his mama’s Kitty Litter.”

  Stroking Stub, she chortles happily. She and your m
other look a little alike. They have a similar feistiness, too, although it seems coarser in Carol Grace, whom your balding father—she calls him Webby, for Pete’s sake—unabashedly dotes on.

  A few days into your visit, Carol Grace and you find one of her females, Hedy Lamarr, lying crumpled under a pecan tree shading the two-story house’s south side. The cat is dead. You kneel to touch her. Carol Grace kneels beside you.

  “Musta fell,” she says. “Lotsa people think cats are too jack-be-nimble to fall, but they can slip up, too. Guess my Hedy didn’t remember that, pretty thing. Now look.”

  You are grateful that, today, Carol Grace does the burying and the prayer-saying. Her prayer includes the melancholy observation that anyone can fall. Anyone.


  Enough of this crap, Penfield says. Tell me what you did, and for whom, and why, at Rockdale Biological.

  Givin' whah I can, you mumble, working to turn your head into the uncompromising rigidity of the clamps. Adolf, Penfield says, what you’re giving me is cat juggling.


  Alone in the crafts room with Kim Yaughan while the other kids in Blue Group (QHPC’s Wild Child Wing has two sections, Blue and Gold) go on a field trip, you daub acrylics at a crude portrayal of a cat walking upside down on a ceiling. Under the cat, a woman and a teenage boy point and make hateful faces.

  “Are they angry at the cat or at each other?” Kim asks.

  You give her a look: What a stupid question.

  Kim comes over, stands at your shoulder. If she were honest, she’d tell you that you’re no artist at all. The painting may be psychologically revealing, but it refutes the notion that you have any talent as a draftsman or a colorist.

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