We are walking, Betty and I, past the small house on the small hill, the one with the retaining wall that was messily put together. It isn’t crumbling, though it seems to be, the way the once oozing cement between the blocks is dry now. On top of the retaining wall are two grand statues of lions. Sitting between the lions is a cat, black with some white, and I think I know her. I wonder what she is doing here, between the lions, a few feet from the front door of the darkened house, where a bright orange piece of paper has been posted. Then I realize I don’t know her. She’s fatter and much too young.
We look at the cat for a long time because that is what we like to do together, look at other animals. Betty is the first to turn away, being the peaceful, non confrontational dog that she is.
We walk some more, down to the creek. We see another dog, whose owners will not allow it a social moment with Betty. In the wake of their passing, I catch the smell of my grandpa’s dog. He was a shepherd who lived outside and roamed the fields, rolled in the dirt, swam in the Mississippi. Until the end of summer, his winter fur was still turning over, falling out in hot clumps. From that tangle of fur, my grandpa would pull ticks. If they were fat enough, he’d crush them. If they weren’t, he’d drop them into a can with an inch of black oil at the bottom, where he dropped the potato bugs.
It’s twilight now. Rabbits are playing invisible. Flowers push their last flash of color before night. We pass another cat who has the face of an ape but we don’t stop to look. I am ready to be home, to review the promises I made to the day, to keep the ones I still can.
Harry, after the first snow had melted and dried, and the sun was spring-like above you, your back end swayed and your legs gave out on you again. You didn’t even try to get up. Instead, you flopped your long, silky body onto the ground and rolled. You nosed the still awakened grass, snuffed the tingling air, paying homage to our glorious world.You were happy.
But now, less than two weeks later, your happy, dog life has gotten sad. We have to let you go, in a day, a few days.
I remember that you loved to chase those really little dogs when you got the chance. You jumped for tennis balls. You welcomed cats. I remember how you’d push your cold, wet nose against mine. You did that with all of us, even the babies when they were babies, breathing our breath, confirming our lives.
I remember, too, that you left deep gouges in the front door with your long black claws.I remember how you chewed the blinds, ate the butter, tore apart loaves of bread.That was when you were left alone. You didn’t want to be left behind.You didn’t want to be forgotten. And isn’t that what we all want?
Harry, you won’t be forgotten. Even now, while you sleep on the bed behind me, while I am remembering you, my world is a little shinier, a little gentler, and so very sweet.
Tom-cat died this morning, hit by a car. Yeah, I’m used to death, I could say, and wear it like a badge of honor. But that’s not it. You don’t get used to it. It’s like winter. You turn up the heat. You turn on more lights. You don’t even try to break up the frozen ground. Spring will come when she’s ready. But what the heck am I supposed to do with myself now?
I dropped the boys off at school and wondered if I should’ve kept them home because that way there wouldn’t be the chance they’d come up against any hard people. And I kept hearing Dylan sing He ain’t dead. He’s just asleep. I drove home too fast and the car was really heavy.
Our Tom-cat died exactly the same way as our Mannie-cat died. In front of the same house. And I think about the woman three doors down who hated Mannie-cat and once came to the door throwing a curse at us in a shaky voice. Is her hatred responsible for this misfortune? Does the world work that way? If it helps, if it will make this never happen again, I forgive her. And if it is my fault for letting our cats roam, then I forgive myself. Because it isn’t about their lives anymore. It’s about ours.
There is a cat on me. Her name is Ella. I did not name her because she is not my cat. She is the neighbor’s cat and she comes here for vacation. She is always on vacation.
Ella wears a name tag. It is pink and it reads, “Please don’t feed me! Special diet.” From what I’ve seen, her special diet includes squirrels, sparrows, and mole rats.
My back yard sanctuary is her coliseum.
I love your happiness and your soft ears,
your three-legged hop in winter, in summer, your four-legged dash.
I love when and how you bark, so professional.
When I find you standing on the dining room table
like a mountain goat,
chewing zippers on coats, teeth to teeth,
I love that too.
You are not concerned about anything,
I will not be concerned about anything.