James Grant (fiction)

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Cats, Cowbells, Cannibals

“Just like an American?” Corgan replies. “Whaddayou mean just like an American, kid? Sam, did I ever tell you about the time I had to kill a momma cat and her six kittens with my own hands?”
“Unh – uh.”

“Well, down at the kennels, ‘bout a couple years ago, there was this momma cat. We had ta keep her outside with tha wild cats – see we had ta keep all tha wild cats outside away from the general population ‘cos we didn’t want no big hearted mommas and their little kids comin’ in thinking they could love the wild out of ‘em and getting all shredded up – ‘cos she wouldn’ letcha touch ‘er er pick ‘er up er nothin’. She wasn’ really mean, like want’n ta claw yer face off if you’d reach in ta feed ‘er like all the goddamned other wild cats, though, just didn’ wanna be touched.

“Well, this one particular Saturday I was workin’ – this was about a day or so after she’d been there – I notice she don’t wanna let her kittens nurse on her and I think ‘now that just ain’t like a momma cat not to let any of her kittens nurse on ‘er.”

Miles away, cells within a ravaged tomato leaf are losing their sustenance.

“Mmm-hmm,” Sam mumbles. “Shore ain’t.”

“So, then I start thinkin’ about how she just kinda sits there in her cage unless you try to touch her and somethin’ just don’t add up.

“Anyway, I think to maself ‘those little kittens gotta eat,’ so I reach in with my cat-gloves and pick up one of the little kittens and kinda nudge the momma cat over a little bit so’s I can put that little baby on her tit and that’s when I notice her ass.”

“Her ass?”

“That’s right. I turn ‘er over just a little bit and there’s this giant, gapin’ hole in ‘er ass. I mean giant, Sam.

“Now, I had seen some messed up lookin’ stuff down there at the kennels, but never anything like that momma cat’s asshole. I look close – and my face is just twistin’, Sam – and I see that she’s got maggots crawlin’ around there inside of her and some of her intestines are just wantin’ ta kinda fall outta that hole a little bit.

“’Damn,’ I think ta maself, and I go in so’s I can call Lydia, the manager, ya know.

“See, the only thing we can do for this cat, really, is put it out of its misery – none of us were doctors and the county wouldn’ pay for a wild cat ta go to tha vet – and the only one who could give it tha shot was Lydia.”

“What about ol’ Marcy?”

“Well, Marcy was outta town that weekend or somethin’, hell, I don’t know. All’s I know is that I knew that the only person I could call that day about it was Lydia.

“So I call Lydia and tell her what’s goin’ on with this cat and she says to me ‘well, that cat’s just gonna have ta wait ‘til Monday. This is my day off and I ain’t comin’ in for some sick, wild momma cat. Now, don’t call me back unless the buildin’s burnin’ down, ya hear?’

“Well, I hang up the phone and I go back outside and I look at this momma cat sittin’ there in her cage and she looks up at me and I don’t know, Sam, somethin’ just happens. I look there inta her eyes and down there at her little kittens that she caint do nothin’ for and back ta where her ass is and I just feel it. That cat told me somethin’, Sam. Somewhere between my heart and hers she reached out and she told me somethin’.

“Now, I hadn’ never, not for a long time after I figured out how things worked down there at the Animal Control, cared about a cat out there. It was a losin’ battle, I figured, and there just wasn’t no sense in letting myself get all bent-up outta shape about every single cat that come through – hell, I’d a shot myself a long time ago if I had. But there was just somethin’ that wasn’t right about just lettin’ this momma cat sit there in that cage all weekend sufferin’ just because Lydia Fincher didn’t wanna get off her lazy ass and come down there and stick a needle in it real fast. She didn’t even live but ten minutes away.

“So I’m thinkin’ about Lydia and I’m thinkin’ about this cat and I’m thinkin’ about her little kits and I know what I gotta do.

Miles away, the dead, decayed matter of a half-eaten tomato leaf has begun to give in to gravity. It has become a part of the infinite brotherhood.

“I go back in tha buildin’ there and I walk back to tha O.R. and I get one of our buckets. I carry that bucket on outside, far to tha back, and I go and turn on the waterhose and fill it up – well, not all the way, but mostly. Then I go back in again and get my ol’ dogpole – you know, the long poles they use with the loop a rope on the end ta catch wild dogs and not get bit – and I go on over to that momma cat’s cage with it.

“Well, I open up tha cage and I stick my pole in there and it don’t take me but a second ta get it ‘round that momma cat’s neck. I pull the little rope on the top a the pole ta tighten it down and I try ta pull her outta there real easy, but she feels me pullin’ on ‘er and just starts jumpin’ aroun’ all crazy in tha cage, knockin’ over her litter box and the water in there and everything. Well, I gotta snatch her out, now, ‘cos I don’t want her accidentally clawin’ one of her little kits and I slam the door shut.

“Once I get ‘er out, she kinda locks ‘erself down a little bit and stops actin’ so jumpy.

“I start to slide ‘er down to that bucket a water as gentle as I can. I don’t wanna hurt ‘er, ya know? But she don’t wanna walk, so I gotta kinda lift the pole for a second and pull and set ‘er down, lift, pull and set, lift, pull and set all tha way down to tha water bucket.

“Finally, I get there with ‘er and she just kinda looks up at me. Now, I don’t know if I was just imaginin’ it or what, Sam, but somethin’ about that cat told me that she knew exactly what I was about ta do. I don’t know if she was lookin’ at me with relief or with some kinda fear that made her go real quiet er what, but I’m still ta this day hopin’ that it was relief.

“Well, I lift ‘er up and I put ‘er down in that water, still holdin’ ‘er down with my pole, and she starts kickin’ an’ pullin’ and I gotta use my whole body on that pole just ta keep ‘er from jumpin’ outta there ‘til finally she just stops. Boop. Just like that. Just quits. And that’s it.

“I pull ‘er outta there and I lay ‘er out on tha landfill truck so the sun can dry ‘er off before I have ta bag ‘er and put er in the freezer.”

“Damn, Joe.”

“Aww, that ain’t it, Sam.

“See, there’s still them kittens ta deal with. They didn’ have a momma ta feed ‘em anymore and there wasn’ any other momma cats around the kennels that day and I knew they wouldn’ last too long before they starved ta death. Now, I don’t know about you, Sam, but one a tha last ways I’d ever wanna go is starvin’ ta death.

“So I go on back over to tha cage and I pull out one a tha little kittens and I figure I can just snap its neck real quick and be done with it. But somethin’s funny about a little kitten’s neck. I don’t know if its ‘cos the bones are still real soft when they’re that little er what, but when I twisted that little kit’s head, it just kinda moved its way on back around like nothin’ happened. I tried three times ta do it, Sam, and every time tha same thing happened.

“Only thing I could do, then, was ta take them on over to tha bucket, too, and drown ‘em just like I had ta do their ol’ momma. I didn’ wanna hurt ‘em, ya know, just wanted ta keep ‘em from havin’ ta suffer. An’, way I figgered it, sittin’ there twistin’ their necks roun’ an’ roun’ an hopin that one twist might eventually do the trick wasn’ gonna do nothin’ but hurt ‘em.

“Course, I didn’ have ta use tha pole on them. They wasn’ strong or nothin’, so I could just hold ‘em under for a minute with ma hand ‘til I figured it was long enough and just put ‘em up on top a their momma.

“One of ‘em, though, just didn’ wanna give it up. I had ta drown that little cat five different times, Sam, before it finally went.

“Then, ya know, I had ta write ‘died in cage’ on tha little card we kept on ‘em just ta keep everything right with tha state. I don’t think they would a taken too kindly ta ‘had to drown’ on there.”

Sam stands silently staring at his customer for a moment.

“It’s $4.50 for the sevin dust, Joe.”

“So don’t talk ta me about what an American is just like, kid. Hell, I know about America. American means doin’ whatchoo gotta do however ya gotta do it – if ya know that it’s right. Hell, I don’t know, but ya’d think that’d go on past bein’ American ta just plain bein’ human.

“But if those little sapsuckers keep on eatin’ away at my little bit a’ plants, then everything dries up, kid. This is about the big picture, get it? An’ tell ol’ Lydia that Joe Corgan sends a very sappy heyalo when ya’ get back over there.

“That was a love story, by tha way, Sam. Tell that one ta Bonnie next time ya wanna get ‘er buttered up.”

Sam and Joe share a quick chuckle as Joe passes his cash across the counter. Joe’s eyes flash a smile that opens and closes as quick as a midsummer shutter. Blue shifts to silver shifts to grey relaxes to blue.

“See ya later, Joe,” Sam grunts, depositing the crumpled bills and two dirty coins, each calling upon over three decades to its credit, into his cash register.

Joseph Corgan gently flexes his right deltoid and triceps, rotating the ball of his right shoulder joint clockwise within its socket, sending the elbow of the same arm backward and ever-so-slightly flexes his upper forearm muscle, allowing the elbow joint to float backward and raising the hand to the point exactly halfway between his navel and his bloodmuscle. A reiki expert would label Joseph’s color at this particular moment a perfect yellow-green, as the solar chakra lends its light to send the energy along the path toward the green of the heart. Another flex of the deltoid sends the elbow and fully-flexed hand forward, simultaneously straightening and extending the entirety of the arm toward the small brown paper bag, around which each of his fully-in-tact five right fingers clutches, eaglelike, and pulls back toward Joseph’s center through the contractions of his tricep and lower forearm and the relaxation of all ball-and-socket joints heretofore involved. His left hand lifts to support the bag from beneath.

Joseph makes his way toward the doubledoors leading with his left foot, a misstep which leaves him feeling offbalance until he does a doublestep at the edge of the undervacuumed black rug with its emblem of a large, fullwhite 8-point buckhead. The image is in reverse as Joseph approaches it from its topside, although it was given no attention when he pushed through the doors and pressed forward toward aisle three, insects, squirrels, and valves. His right hand grasps the vertical handle of the rightside door while the left hand keeps hold of the almost-too-small paperbag maintaining within its fibers a bulging plastic bag filled with sevindust, a white crystalline carbamate that acts as a poison to insects and insectoids, but, in doses which would parallel the human intake of such organisms, behaves as any neutral alloy ought to act, which is without any concern for its direct or indirect effects upon the sires or progeny of any species whatsoever. On the cover of the doublecoated sevindust bag, in an outlined oval right in its verycenter, is a black-over-yellow-spotted green caterpillar with black face and legs, chewing on a toogreen leaf of corn, veined in a paleyellow.

The stamped steel bell tied to the door with khaki bailing twine which would have once alerted farm hands that Old Bessy or Berta was under attack now rings to alert Sam Watson and the decades of dust that have accumulated in the air of his store that Joseph’s business is officially concluded. The cowbell is no less an adornment now than it was forty years earlier when it was tied around Josephine, one of Sam’s father’s cows. Healthy cattle have no natural predators in Georgia, as there has been no mentionable wolf population for who-knows-how-long and Georgia coyotes will rarely attack an animal larger than itself unless it knows the animal is wounded and that it is in no danger itself; bobcats are no different. Irvine Lanzel Watson, Sam’s father, just liked the klumplump of the bells as his cattle meandered about the field, making their respective ways from the pond to the galvanized bale feeder to the pond to the sweetgrass to the pond, and thought the cowbell a fine custom to uphold. When Josephine, the last of Irvine’s cattle died, Sam could not bring himself to bury the bell with her, as was his father’s tradition (his tradition for those whom he had taken it into his heart to name, anyway. “Can’t eat ‘em all, son. Some of ‘em’s like family, and we ain’t no damned cannibals”). Although Sam would grunt that he just didn’t know what else to do with the damned thing and that the shop needed some kind of a bell so he figured what the hell, why let a good piece of metal go to waste, Sam could not help but whisper his father’s name, if only in his mind, every time someone came in or out of his door.

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by James Grant

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