Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Documenting my mental decline

There was something about the day -- the weather, the way the sun hit -- that set my mind spinning off to another place. Leaning up against my garden shed last week, I found myself thinking about early October in Minnesota. I remembered sitting in my truck at the U of M campus. I remembered the breeze moving along the Mississippi River valley and pushing newly planted trees in the parking lot.

Now, several years later and thousands of miles away, I felt the weather-beaten rough of the shed against my back and picked apart my orange. Above my head I heard a scratching noise. A small orange and black cat had crawled onto the shed's roof.


It was one of the pair of cats that used to hang out down the road. In the spring, they would escort me and Lisa when we walked up to the petrol station or bus stop. When I came back from the United States I noticed that a particularly chavvy family had moved out and that the cats were no longer ensuring safe passage through Radyr Way. I assumed the cats had belonged to the family and had been bundled up and taken elsewhere.

But here was one of them, looking skinny and timid.

"What? You want some of my orange? I doubt it. Here: there's a piece of orange. Want it?"

The cat sniffed at the slice of fruit in my hand and backed away slightly.

"Yeah, see? I thought so. But an orange is what I'm having, dude. If you don't want that, you're just S.O.L."
"Yeah, well. Don't know what to tell ya."

The cat moved to the other side of the shed, balanced on the fence and dropped down to the ground. It did that cat thing of somehow walking directly at me in an indirect way.

"An orange, dude. That's what I've got. Take it or leave it."

The cat stood close to my leg, then pressed against it. He made a few passes, circling my legs and pressing up against them. Looking down, I could see the thinness of his stomach and haunches.

"Oh, I see. You're trying to play at my emotions. Piss off. That won't work."
"Look, I don't have anything a cat would want, OK?"
"No, really. I don't. Surely you have a better sense of smell than me -- can you not tell that the people down the road are having a barbecue? I can. I can smell sausages. Go ask them for some food."

The cat continued to press against my leg. Something about how thin it was, how small it was, made me hurt inside. It mixed with the sadness of lost golden autumn days and pushed at my ribs.

"I really don't, though. I haven't gone shopping this week. I can't even think of what you would want. I don't even have milk and I'm pretty the whole cats-love-milk thing is more a cliché than reality."
"Yeah, yeah. I'm thinking. Hold on."

I thought back to my birthday, when my parents had sent a strange hamper of gifts. It was more the sort of thing you would send to an old lady than a man in his 30s. What had amused me most, however, was the canned ham. I couldn't imagine who would want to eat that: even the picture on the tin made it look awful. I had eventually decided to use it as an ironic bookend.

"OK, I think I've got something."

I now walked into the house and grabbed the tin of ham, brought it outside and knelt down as I opened the tin. It had a 1950s-style key that slots into a strip of metal which then peels away. I had only ever seen that sort of thing in cartoons and struggled to get it to open properly. The cat moved in close and pawed at my arm.

"Yeah, I know. Calm down."
"Do you have opposable thumbs? No. This shit isn't going to open itself, so I'm all you've got. I'm working on it.

I managed to open a section of the tin, then pried it the rest of the way open. The ham plopped out onto the pavement like a slimy, rejected alien baby. The cat looked at it.

"What? What do you want? It's a fucking ham. Don't be picky with me, man. My dad probably paid good money for that."

The cat looked at the ham again. He turned his head, sniffed at it, pawed at it.

"Oh, right. It's probably a bit big for you. OK, I'll go get a fork and knife and cut it into smaller chunks. Stay there."

I came back out with knife and fork, knelt down again and started pulling it into smaller, manageable pieces. The cat took immediate interest, gulping down the meat as I continued to cut more chunks. I cut up about half of the ham and then tossed the rest into a shrub, figuring a fox or raven would be able to take care of it later. Then I stood up and watched the cat eat. I stood motionless and quiet. He was making what I can only describe as happy sounds -- meowing and purring between gobbled pieces.

"Yeah. OK. Well, no one likes to be watched while they eat, do they? I'm going to leave you be."

I walked back into the house and leaned against the kitchen counter, arms folded. I looked out through the window and watched the cat eat. And inside of myself I felt a sort of thing that I can't really describe: a kind of simple but immense joy that I can't quite remember ever feeling before. It was silly. I had managed to feed a stray cat, but his happiness in that act welled up in my chest. The simplicity of it, his gratitude, that sunny September day. I felt my face go hot and found myself crying.

"Ah, hell. What is wrong with me? And next weekend I'll be watching 'Strictly Come Dancing.' I need help."


Wierdo said...

Well written, but I worry for you. You don't seem to realise that cats are evil. Strictly on the other hand is all good, enjoy!

Professor Batty said...

When you meet St. Peter, you'll have that going for you.

Anonymous said...

The cat represents your unrequited longing for your own cat.

Pearl said...

"What had amused me most, however, was the canned ham. I couldn't imagine who would want to eat that: even the picture on the tin made it look awful. I had eventually decided to use it as an ironic bookend."

I found myself smiling broadly at that.

As for what is wrong? You feel the pull of October in Minnesota, maybe at the U of M campus? Hmm.


Huw said...

This is how Having A Cat begins. 1996 I first fed a stray cat in the garden. He has neither left nor died yet.