November 7, 2011
It’s May 14, the day after Friday the Thirteenth. Not that I am superstitious, but I’m wary of the woman walking toward me. I’m outside our house, a two-story 1913 bungalow in southeast Portland. Our house is weather-beaten, with metal siding and chipped paint on the porch. Our feeble gray cat, Percy, sits by the door waiting to go in. He likes to hide under the front steps or climb over the hood of our car, which is dotted with his paw prints. Even when he was our next-door neighbor’s cat, he sought refuge at our house. I never felt like a cat person, but we took him into our lives six months ago. I feared he would die of exposure. Now someone else in need is headed my way. I pause, trapped.
The woman looks out of place, pushing her walker. I don’t recognize her from the people who hang out in front of Fred Meyer’s, the supermarket five minutes away.
“I’m not going to hurt you,” she says. She is heavy in her loose clothes, with short hair and bangs. Her voice is agitated. I think of a woman named Petie, who once befriended Matt, my husband, leading him to a nearby park for hours with her alcoholic friends while she drank 40 ouncers and called him a “fucking officer and a gentleman.” While Petie peed through the slats in the bench, Matt almost missed a flight. I am not that kind of person. I don’t have patience for strangers in need. I didn’t even have patience for Percy, but we adopted him anyway. He had nowhere else to go.
“I’m looking for my old man,” the woman says. “I’ve been with him for twelve years.” She pushes toward me on her walker. The houses on our block are set close to the sidewalk. I don’t want to talk to her anymore, but my front steps and front porch seem blocked by a forcefield of middle-class politeness, chastising me for being cold. Wanting what? A clear path to a café for my ten-thousandth latte?
Our cat sits on the doormat. I can use him as an excuse. I can pick him up, but I don’t dare. If he is not in the mood, he can draw blood.
I look at the woman. “I’m sorry,” I say. “Do you want me to call social services?” I think of the women I used to see in the Lower Haight neighborhood of San Francisco, where the apartments were skintight to each other. The homeless women and girls were either poor and black, shaking from crack addiction, or runaways and white, scratching at their injection sites. This woman, however, does not seem like an addict, just insistent and pissed.
“Why don’t you call social services?” she asks. “Why wouldn’t you?”
I don’t have my cell phone. I don’t want to call for help. I just want my latte.
“I’m disabled,” she says. She tells me her old man has a beard and is living in someone’s basement around here.
“I have a bad back. I’ve been raped twice,” she says. I feel sick to my stomach, not knowing what to do.
“I’m sorry.” How many sorrys can I give her? She rolls on. I see my next-door neighbor, Marie, walking toward us. Maybe she will help her, I think.
Later that afternoon, I come home from a wake held across the street. I am embarrassed, since I don’t remember the neighbor’s name. I just know Laura, the daughter of the deceased, who has dyed-red hair and plays her Casio on the porch. Their house smells like their little terrier, Trigger. Laura tells me proudly that her mother, who’d died the prior year, had remodeled the inside, putting diagonal raw wood on the wall above the fireplace. Beside me on a rickety chair, a visiting aunt fills in a family tree, asking for death dates before the dirt has even settled in the cemetery. My six-year-old son, Eli, is with me. He has nowhere else to go. I let him drink a Sprite. To him, the funeral reception is a chance to break junk-food rules.
Eventually, I take him home, bribing him with TV, easing toward the end of another Saturday. I think of asking my next-door neighbor, if I see her, about the woman with the walker—what happened to her—and did she find her old man?
Percy is not by our front door. He is probably in the back, I think, in the remnants of a garden bed. I am not a good gardener. If the tomatoes and lettuce can’t tough it out against the slugs, that is their problem. My son, however, has faith in gardening. My husband and I adopted him from China when he was ten months old. For years I had my doubts I could be a good mother, though as an infant, Eli helped me realize his needs—loudly. I still have my doubts about whether or not I am a good pet owner, although Percy, in his cantankerous way, bullies and meows and purrs until I get it. Until I get him.
This day has already proved to me that I am not a good citizen. I cannot grieve for a man whose name I’d never learned, though I know his truck and the sound of his lawn mower. I also failed to provide basic help for a woman who couldn’t even walk unassisted.
This afternoon, however, I can do the minimal mom things: get Eli healthy food and feed the cat. I have to take care of them both. It’s the mother’s duty to look, to count the breaths at night, the variety of rhythms—to be soothed by the loud purring that rims the ceiling of my bedroom. Usually Percy wakes me before Eli calls from his room in the morning, but I sometimes interchange their names, as my mom did with her dog and her children.
Now in the kitchen, I pick up Percy’s food bowl, smelling under the normal smells to see if our house smells like cat as the house across the street smells like dog. The kitchen window faces the outdoors. The roses have started blooming, tempting me to step outside and pick some. I think Percy must be hungry. He eats only wet food now, which I must avoid breathing in unless I want to gag. But I buy him gourmet meat.
I never thought a cat could love me. But Percy needed us because Marie and her husband next door made him an outdoor cat about a year prior. Their son had asthma and was allergic to cats. They could not bear more trips to the hospital emergency room. Percy was not a good adoption candidate, so they felt they had no other choice. They felt if they took him to a shelter, he would die there. He was at least fifteen, the son of a feral cat, and extremely skinny.
The summer he started living outdoors was rough on him. Cats were stealing his food. His owners were in Europe for three weeks, and the teenage neighbor girl did not dispose of the opened tins on the porch. Neither did Matt, who took over for the girl midway through the trip. One day I took over for Matt. The bits of meat left in the cans were infested with maggots. Gagging, I emptied the plastic bin that held the tins and hosed it off, yelling at Eli to stay out of the stream of wriggling water flowing down the driveway. Percy deserved better. Our neighbors were relieved. They cared for their cat, too. With the provision that they would pay for vet bills, we adopted him.
We discovered that Percy had a chronic thyroid condition, but was otherwise healthy. He would live with us, no longer scratching at the neighbors’ door. He escaped into our warmth for the rainy season. He needed medicine twice a day, but was docile about it. His fur grew lustrous and he gained weight. To my surprise, he wanted to be near me, since I worked at home. He followed me up and down the stairs, sleeping most of the day. Then the spring came.
On May 14, after the neighbor’s wake, I look outside our kitchen window to the backyard. I see a large white dog and a gray lump in the grass—it looks like it could be a toy of Eli’s, but he does not leave stuffed animals outside. I recognize the husky. He belongs to a guy I’ll call Randy, who lives four houses down. His house has no address on the front.
Randy is a woodworker in his thirties with heavily tattooed arms. His huskies pull him on his skateboard down the middle of our street. He is watched from porches like ours, porches with moms or dads hemmed in by obligations, with children yelling their frustrations and throwing toys. He is seen by grandparents, en route to or from pruned, denatured parks. He rolls past the effects of competitive weeding. He never waves. He is skinny and friendly, neither hostile nor overly welcoming. Perhaps he is someone who pursues sensual pleasures: long motorcycle rides with his tattooed wife.
Suddenly I hate Randy. I hate his dogs. I yell for Matt to come up from the basement and yell at Eli to stay inside. Of course, Eli’s at my side at an instant. I open the sliding door and run outside, shutting Eli behind glass. I run to the gray lump. It is still, as still as any eviscerated squirrel being picked at by a crow. This is no longer our cat, yet his posture is so familiar. His front paws are curled upward, as if to defend himself, or as he used to rest by my office door. But his neck is twisted back. I don’t look at his eyes. I don’t check for a pulse. I don’t even touch his fur. Instinctively, I want revenge.
The grass is bright in our back yard. The husky’s fur is white. I don’t see blood on his teeth. I follow the dog to the front yard and watch him head toward his home, four doors down. I call Marie on my cell phone. She owned Percy for so many years. We had known him only for seven years, since we’d moved to Portland from San Francisco. She is stunned on the phone, in the middle of a store, and starts crying. I am hysterical. I am thrust into rage, overcome with adrenaline. My husband stays in the house with Eli, so he won’t see Percy’s corpse up close.
Percy had been lured by the warmth in our backyard. We wanted to protect him. That’s why we brought him into our house. But we couldn’t tell him good-bye. We didn’t see much of him the day he died, and now he lies in the green grass, his back leg bloodied, his paws curled up, his fur damp.
Later, Matt tells me he’d wanted to kick the dog. Punch him. I’d seen men kick dogs before, men like our former landlord in San Francisco. Matt would never do that. Marie and her family come home and I quickly drink a beer with them, while we cry on the porch. The people from the wake are still exiting the home across the street.
Marie’s home is like a second home to our son, and he is probably shocked to see us overcome with emotion. He’s usually the one crying. His friend, the boy with asthma, plays Darth Vader’s theme on the piano in honor of Percy.
I leave and walk down the sidewalk. I hold Eli’s hand, headed four houses down to Randy’s gray house. I shuffle Eli from one death event to another. I want to testify. No one opens a door to stare; no one comes out to sympathize the loss of a cat who’d haunted the sidewalks for years. There will be no public shunning, no public remorse, although the block is full of cats who could’ve been the victim, like Follow Cat, The Ambassador, Cow Cat, Watermelon Cat—all named by Matt and Eli on their walks. All claimed by them as the neighborhood’s tentative link to the wild and untamed.
I entered Randy’s house only once. I took Eli with me, and Randy showed us a photo his mother-in-law had made—a Photoshopped collage with her daughter, Randy, and the son they hoped to adopt from Vietnam. Randy told me that each month he received reports of how malnourished the boy was. The boy never arrived, and I never asked what happened.
Eli wants to stay with his friend, the one with asthma. “Why, Mom? Why do I have to go?”
“Because I said so.”
But Randy needs to know what he did to our family through his carelessness. He pulls up beside us on the wrong side of the street. He is in his truck. He says he fell asleep on the couch with his dog, and when he woke up, the dog was gone. He’d escaped through an open gate.
I say, sobbing, “Your dog killed our cat.”
“I’m sorry. Is there anything I can do?” His voice is soft. He opens the truck door. He yells at his dog, Seven, and puts him inside the house.
We walk together back to our back yard.
“It’s not your fault. It’s OK,” I say. I am still crying and still clenching Eli’s hand.
“It’s not OK,” he says.
I take Eli inside. Randy watches while Matt and Marie’s husband dig a hole and place the gray corpse into the earth.
Later, I take Eli to the back yard. I show him the blood spotting the tips of the grass. I find Percy’s worn collar far from where the corpse was and put it on our mantel. Dogs attack on instinct. Percy’s death is nothing to that dog, not even a meal. How can I hate a dog?
I see the loose dirt where Percy is buried, by a rhododendron with tight blooms. I want to dig up the hole with my hands to confirm he is dead and get grit beneath my fingernails. I didn’t wrap him in a sheet to offer him dignity once the maggots, ants, and worms find him. It is too late. I breathe so deeply that my jaws feel like they will crack.
That night in our living room, Matt leans against the couch, his face distorted and red. He does not want me to see his tears. I say to Matt, “You wouldn’t wish that kind of trauma on an animal you’d brought into your life.”
Percy just wanted a normal day. Eat in the morning. Be let in. Not sure. Go in. Go out. Hide under our bed. He sat so particularly, like a gray Egyptian statue. Squawking at us like an old man in a nursing home. He used to fight off the cats from our back porch, even when he didn’t officially live here. He liked to drape himself over our couch arm and listen to me play Debussy. All these little details that wouldn’t interest anyone but that formed our routine, our family.
He slept over the blankets in the wedge of my legs at night, much as Eli used to when he was a toddler. Eli used to call it his nest.
A few days after Percy’s death, I finally wake up without that sickening feeling. I pour out his half-empty bowl of water. I put his food and litter away.
Matt doesn’t want me to call animal control. He feels that it’s like calling in a robbery after the fact. It won’t bring back our cat. I tell him I want to, just as I’d called animal control in San Francisco when our landlord abused his dog that lived in our concrete back yard. The night Percy was killed, we stood on the sidewalk and drank more beer. Another neighbor joined us from farther down the block. I didn’t know him, but he and Randy were friends. He told us we should feel sorry for Randy. His wife had left him. Their adoption from Vietnam had fallen through. I had a spouse. I had a son we’d adopted from China. Who was I to punish Randy with a fine? “If you call animal control, you’ll ruin the camaraderie on the block,” a neighbor said.
When the animal control officer calls back for a report, he tells me Randy’s dog once killed another cat a few years prior. That was probably why Randy was immediately out in his truck, looking for the dog. In my mind, I call him the asshole, especially when I see him skateboard down the street with his dogs.
Several weeks after Percy’s death, Eli has a lemonade stand with some neighbor boys. I lead him across the street to buy supplies, refusing to walk past Randy’s house. I am just as bad as our landlords in San Francisco, letting bitterness harden inside me. Eli has no such bitterness. He says he doesn’t miss Percy. He is ready for new pets. “We’ll get two kittens,” he says. “Percy and Pepper. If one dies, we’ll still have the other.”
Alex Behr is a writer and musician in Portland, Oregon. Her writing has appeared in Utne Reader, Tin House, The Rumpus, Lumina, and Propeller Quarterly.