Wednesday, November 21, 2007

The Thanksgiving Cat

The feline in my brother's arms was small--probably only weeks past the point where she would still be considered "a kitten"--with shiny black fur flecked with beige and gold (what some people call "a tortie") and large yellow-green (green-yellow?) eyes that were, at this particular moment, darting in all directions, trying to soak up unfamiliar surroundings without panic and/or fear being absorbed as well.

He'd found her in Mom's backyard, running for her little life from very loud, very animated, very pissed-off squirrels. (Think that's funny? Consider: When you've seen or heard a squirrel perched on a fence or a telephone pole yelling its fuzzy head off, did you run up to it and offer a hug? No, you more than likely steered clear of the little rodent until it calmed down a bit. Now imagine that the angry/upset squirrel is actually charging you. You'd probably back away from it, at least. Now imagine that you're roughly the same size as the charging, pissed-off squirrel. Not so funny now, is it?)

Once he's rescued her from the fury of the nut gatherers, my brother carried her inside, where her reaction to the presence of Mom's cats was almost as extreme as her reaction to the squirrels had been--it appeared that she hated other cats, or at least hated seeing so many other cats in one place at one time. So he brought her upstairs to his apartment (which had been mine for about a decade before I moved into the original La Casa del Terror) and kept her there. He also gave her a name: Peanut. (Because she was attacked by squirrels. Get it?) Now, he was showing her to me--with a purpose in mind.

It had been over a year since I'd had Lottie put to sleep. In that time, Ms. Christopher and I had more or less adjusted to harsh reality: her sister was gone, and we were on our own. I knew, though, even as we were becoming accustomed to being alone with each other, that I wanted to add another cat at some point, if only to have company for Christopher on those days when I got stuck at work until whenever. And my brother wasn't enthused about the prospect of Mom bringing in another stray, no matter how pretty that stray might be.

So, for all intents and purposes, I was conducting an interview with this cat.

My brother explained her idiosyncrasies to me--not only her apparent aversion to other cats (a possible complicating factor for bringing her into a home with a kitty already in it), but her hatred of toes (she attacked them constantly, whether they were covered or not, which may have lead to her being thrown out by Mom's next-door neighbors for being "too mean") and her love of chasing pieces of paper (crumple up a receipt from Walgreens, toss it across the room and watch her bat it around for hours, sometimes even bringing it back for a game of "fetch"), though she also enjoyed catnip-filled mice, little puffy balls and shoestrings as much as the next feline.

After he'd told me everything he felt he needed to, he handed the little calico to me and I lifted her to my shoulder, where she propped her tiny black paws, her claws digging through the fabric of my shirt and into my skin ever so slightly--not for defensive purposes, though she probably was at least a little scared to be held in the arms of a stranger, but to keep from falling, though I had no intention of dropping her. I stroked her smooth, soft fur and scratched her chin. She began purring hard enough to rattle my fillings out.

I wanted to take her home right then and there--if this had indeed been an interview, she'd have been hired on the spot.

Of course, it wasn't that simple; nothing ever is. She needed to be spayed, and Mom volunteered to pay for this (a point which I didn't argue). Mom also had her front claws removed--I'm not the biggest fan of declawing (Ms. Christopher still has all of hers), but given her toe-attacking tendencies and love of "sharpening" against the furniture, it's just as well that Mom went there.

The cat would need at least a couple of weeks (maybe more) to properly recuperate from the operations in the relative privacy and comfort of my brother's apartment, then I could take her home--most likely on Thanksgiving Day, when I would have the whole four-day weekend to watch how she interacted with Christopher and to keep her from wrecking the joint.

I wound up picking her up the day after Thanksgiving, though I did make a point to spend time with her the night before. I brought the large orange crate that we used for toting cats in (with a clean blue towel tucked into it for comfort), and my brother brought the little calico down. Once again, her eyes were wide and darting, but this time when I took her she was not purring, but shaking--panic and fear had set in and taken a firm hold.

As I put the kitty in the crate, Mom came out. "Bye, Peanut," she said, obviously sad and seemingly fighting back tears, "Sorry you can't stay." Maybe Mom had set her heart on keeping the cat, or thought I would back out of the deal for whatever reason. She didn't try to talk me out of it, though, as I walked out the door, headed for the nearest major street and flagged a cab.

Once in the cab, I did my best to keep her calm, reaching through the holes in the crate to stroke her forehead or rub her chin. For the most part, that worked--she only cried out a few times on the long ride home, and each time I was able to quiet her down again. I also started calling her by her new name: Olivia.

It wasn't that I had anything against the name Peanut...okay, I had plenty against it. I thought it was a stupid name, and I've always liked the name Olivia; if I'd ever had a daughter, that would have been her name. Instead, it went to a small, thin and, at this particular moment, frightened little cat.

I hauled her up the three flights of stairs to La Casa del Terror, set the crate down on the kitchen floor and popped the door open. Olivia slowly came out, low to the linoleum floor, carefully inspecting her new surroundings with what appeared to be interest rather than dread.

Then Olivia came face to face with Ms. Christopher, who had come out from her resting place in the living room to see what was going on in the kitchen--and found a trespasser on her turf. It was not, as you'd imagine, love at first sight. There was a great deal of hissing from both cats, and Olivia retreated to the safety of the crate, where she settled on the blue towel and did not move again until Christopher left the room.

The same scenario played itself out from time to time over the next few days: Cats meet; cats hiss (sometimes even exchanging blows); cats separate. Lather, rinse, repeat. You might expect that Christopher, being more than twice the size of Olivia and still having front claws, would win the majority of these bouts. And you would be wrong--Olivia, being younger, faster and more aggressive, soundly thumped the older, more passive fluffball each and every time, then retreated to her crate in the kitchen until I finally closed the door and put it away.

Some of Olivia's personal quirks faded with time. Her obsession with attacking feet went away, although there were mornings when she would reach under the bathroom door like some '50s sci-fi monster to try and take a toe or two. She still doesn't get along with Ms. Christopher, though--they rarely are found in the same room and only sit on the same piece of furniture if they've called a truce because I'm sick or sad. Even then, they don't sit together; they'll bookend me on the couch or sit at opposite ends of the bed. When feeding time comes, though, they each attend their own bowl and don't even notice the other's existence.

Olivia is no longer a small, scared kitten, though. She's filled out a bit--not fat necessarily, but not skinny anymore, either--and walks around La Casa del Terror like she owns the joint. At the Halloween Movie Bash, she's the cat who comes out and works the room, rubbing up against the legs of guests and perching on the arms or back of the couch while Ms. Christopher hides under the couch until she gets hungry or needs to use the litter pan.

Olivia likes to cry loudly for my attention, whether it's first thing in the morning when it's time for me to get up and put a tin of Friskies down, or in the evening when I get home and she gets vocal before I even put my key in the front door. When friends drop me off after an evening out, they can usually hear her calling me from the living room window.

She's also become quite the cuddle kitty, often curling up next to me while I watch TV in the evening--much to Christopher's chagrin. The old fuzzball still gets attention all her own, though; since Olivia isn't really a lap cat, Christopher can claim that territory, even if she's still a good deal more than a lapful. Christopher would get that attention anyway. She's 14, and even though her appetite is hearty and she gets around just fine, jumping on and off my tall bed with relative ease, I know that she'll be joining Lottie at the Rainbow Bridge sooner rather than later, so I pet her and hold her close whenever I get a chance--much to Olivia's chagrin.

The younger cat gets more than her share of attention, though, and rarely has reason to complain (though she often does so anyway). Whenever I crumble up a piece of paper or cellophane wrapping, her eyes widen--with eager anticipation, rather than fear or panic--and when I toss the paper down the hall, ricocheting it off the walls, Olivia races after it, muscles flexing, coat shining, clawless front paws batting the freshly minted plaything back and forth until either she loses it under some piece of furniture that she can't reach under or, more likely, she pins it down, picks it up in her mouth and trots back to me with her prize, smiling with pride all the way.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Three Short Poems

These days, poetry comes out of me in bursts--I can go months without writing a line, then churn out three complete poems in a week, which is what happened with the following. The first, written on a Sunday morning, describes a particularly unhygenic practice that I wouldn't recommend to anyone. The second, written the same day, was inspired after an October afternoon some 20 degrees above normal. (Don't worry--there's no such thing as global warming. Nope.) The third was inspired by one of my MySpace friends, who sent out a bulletin entitled "I'm Bored." To entertain her, I wrote the following in about an hour. She said that no one had ever written a poem for her before; I was honored to be the first. they are. Enjoy.

Some nights I
crawl off to
bed without
brushing my
teeth or
tongue because
some mornings I
like the taste
of decay in
my mouth when
day breaks and
stays broken.

It's odd to
walk out into
autumn air
seasoned with
heat, the scents
of drying grass
and cracked
asphalt spark
together with
the tapping of
maple and sumac
leaves wheeling
north to the hum
of air conditioners
for a cocktail
great to swirl
in your glass
but best left

Some may well
prefer the surprise
of sunrise, with its

shades and hues
and promises whispered
close and moist to

reddened ears
in the blush of
fresh daylight,

but I'd gladly
pass on such
common delights

for the uncommon
warmth of one of
Nikki's smiles or

her sly eyebrows
arching mischief
only at me.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Do You Hear What I Hear?

When it comes to holidays, I am, in many ways, a traditionalist. I love celebrating Halloween and Christmas, but only in their actual seasons. It disturbs me to see skulls and Jack O'Lanterns in stores on Labor Day; it disturbs me even more to see clerks at Walgreens yanking down the witches and skeletons in favor of elves and reindeer before Halloween has even had a chance to pass.

Yes. I know. I've bitched about this before. And it gets worse every years, to be sure. But now, we have a more recent--and even more disturbing--manifestation of the holiday-ahead-of-its-time: The radio stations that switch to an all-Christmas music format before the trick-or-treat candies have been fully consumed and even most sensible people have not yet bought their Thanksgiving turkeys.

Richard Roeper--whom many people have said I resemble (no, really) and whom more than a few friends have suggested isn't as good a writer as I am (even though he gets the bigs bucks and has millions of readers while I have, like, five)Ñrecently wrote a column on this very subject, openly wondering who the hell listens to Christmas music on the radio in the first week of November. Somebody must be, since the ratings for the stations involved invariably go up after the switch and come down again after they resume "regular" programming.

He has a point. I don't know anyone, sane or otherwise, who listens to Christmas music on the radio this early, yet you can hear the accursed stations playing in stores and cafes all over the city and probably all over the country, assuming there are similarly addled program directors in other major cities as well.

Yet I must confess--and I take no pride in the confession--that I've already started to listen to my holiday CDs at home.

It wasn't a conscious decision. I didn't wake up on the first day of November, run my fingers through my shaggy hair and say to my reflection, "You know, I really can't wait until December for my seasonal depression to kick in, so let's start spinning those Christmas tunes now!" Nor was it any one thing that brought this on so early. Maybe it was, instead, a collection of small things.

Maybe it was because I sometimes buy Christmas-related items throughout the course of any given year, whether it's an ornament that catches my eye in July or a special present for a special friend purchased in October. Or maybe because, back in August, I ran into a coworker at Northalsted Market Days who happens to be a member of the Windy City Gay Chorus and who happened to be selling Christmas CDs from the booth he was manning. Or maybe because I saw CDs while shopping at Target and a couple just happened to fly into my basket like ninja throwing stars.

Or maybe I just bloody well felt like it.

Whatever the reason (or accumulation of reasons), empty CD cases now litter my desk while KT Tunstall does the Pretenders' "2,000 Miles" proud--though she blasphemously fumbles a cover of Darlene Love's "Merry Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)"--and Clarise, the little doe from Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer croons "There's Always Tomorrow," a song that never fails to make me cry, no matter what time of year I hear it.

So what does this mean, listening to the sounds of the holiday season well before the first proper snow has fallen, before the pumpkin lights and faux spider webs have been pulled down, before any of the Salvation Army Santas have taken up their stations on street corners and in front of drug stores? I have no idea. I don't think it means that I'm going to do this every year. I think it's an abberation--some need in me to have the Christmas spirit wafting through the air weeks before it naturally should.

Whatever the case, I'm not going to question it this year. Next year? Maybe. The year after? Definitely.

But right now? Right now, you'll have to excuse me. I have more than a few seasonal decorations and movies to dig out and get ready--but nothing goes up until the day after Thanksgiving. I haven't completely lost my mind.

Not yet, anyway. Give me a few minutes.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007


The following poem isn't really about the month of its title, though that's when the dream (or, more accurately, nightmare) it's based on took place. It's one of those poems that's never quite "finished"--it's been rewritten numerous times over the years, including (looks at wristwatch) about five minutes ago. This wasn't the first time I'd dreamed about the walking dead; it wasn't the last. This wasn't the first time I'd died in my dreams, either; it wasn't the last. (I've read that the capacity to die in one's dreams is a sign of genius. If that's the case, I'd much rather be a moron, thanks.) Enjoy.

Long to be a
manchild with a
head on his

shoulders, with a
serious mind for
serious things

deepened to frenzy
by nights ridden
along creeping

stream water and
gnarled boughs
backlit by

briefly. The air
is frequent

and moved. Leaves
hooved into the
moist without

noting the scent
of gore in the
mud, of dead

fingers dancing,
holding near on
such formal flesh.