And what if we don’t look? — Erwin Schrödinger
Señor El Gato
It’s everywhere now: the lampposts, the telephone poles. In every corner lot, stapled to wooden slats. Everyone gave permission. We’ll keep our eyes peeled! Smiling, happy to help. Jolly suburban adventure.
Let them bring home the news, then. Make the report. You can keep looking. Stay out a little later. All night, if you have to. Thinking like a cat.
Making lefts, skipping blocks. Spiraling outward. The neighborhoods getting strange: lawns greener, houses bigger. Equivocal, anonymous. Lights coming on now, televisions. Curtains open onto empty rooms. Dioramas. Fairy castles.
A wrong turn into a cul-de-sac: three girls your daughter’s age, conspiring under a streetlamp. Halters and flip-flops, hands on cocked hips. Sodium bulb sputtering overhead. Staring as you pass. The lamppost between them bare. The frontier, now.
Where’s the name? You have to put on a name! As if anyone ever called it by its name. As if it would even matter.
As if the picture weren’t enough. The first shot with the new digital camera: rolling on its back beneath the green wire needles, swatting at dangling ornaments. Eyes dilated, savage, firefly-green. Foamy flocking adrift in the colored lights.
Trees. The neighbors’ chow treed it in the front yard once. Hateful dog. Blocking traffic, snapping at the kids. Long-dead now and good riddance.
The cat mewling, hidden in the toothy leaves. Night coming on. Neighbors in their lawns, on their porches, enjoying the show. The kids holding back tears. Hanging in the garage, the cobwebbed aluminum ladder.
The long grass moist, the earth compacted by your weight. Sliding against the smooth trunk. Gray bark crackling off in strips, dropping in your eyes. Can’t we just call the fire department? The cat hunched in the crook of the biggest limb, a Russian hat, a nest of something. At least put on some gloves. Jumping at you when you got close. Claws in your back, your legs. Your hand closing on a branch. Fat green caterpillar, poison spines. Screaming, slipping. The stitches, the cortisone, the cast.
Then, three months later, in a glob of furry vomit in the garage: two yellow moth wings, their powdery eyespots faded but intact. A restitution.
You stomp the brakepedal: a blue Corolla runs a stopsign, cuts you off. Through the windshield, last summer’s babysitter, laughing into her phone. Was it? You can’t be sure. Swallowed by the thick air, the dark.
You sit for a while, rubbing your eyes, trespassing. Windows down. Smells of chlorine and ozone and distant rain. Imagining, over the idling engine, the click of nails, the thump of padded feet.
A glass of wine on the sofa; the news drones on unheard. The car not back yet. Pulsing blue light: images stretched in the windows, in the wineglass. The kids fighting over the dishes in the next room. Hard to know what they’re thinking, what to think.
Last summer’s gerbil was no great trauma. The gnawing, the filth. The bloody thumb. All those frantic glassy-eyed hours on the treadmill. Everyone secretly relieved when it vanished. Unwelcome visitation.
But, oh, how they cried when the parakeet got out. Oh, the beautiful lies you told them then. Now, of course, everyone is older.
Three weeks. Signs posted for the last two. Slowly falling down, disappearing. A couple of false alarms. One old woman who’d seen no cat at all. Just wishing you luck! Lonely? Insane?
Maybe if you’d gotten it fixed. You always said. It would vanish for days, to who knows where. Thought you saw it once in the stadium parking lot: the opposite side of the creek, more than two miles away. Staring coolly from the hood of a strange car. But you could never be sure.
Just to know. To see it in the road. It was wearing a tag: if someone would just call, just call and say it. Who would? You wouldn’t, if it were you.
Headlights sweep the windows: the car coming back. But it isn’t the car, just someone lost, turning around in the driveway. You turn, blink. Later than you thought. How much longer?
The kids are gone; you didn’t hear them go. Upstairs, your daughter’s door cracked open. Blue nightgown in the wedge of light. Wound in her blanket. Wrestling snakes. Eyes rolling under veined lids. You flip the switch in the hallway.
A glow from your son’s room, and the clack of a keyboard. A game at first: I bet I can find it online! Newsgroups, listserves. Reward: missing cat. Nothing, and now no one mentions it.
Does he know something? Those friends of his. The one with the lazy eye, the one who broke the aquarium. Something weird about that kid. Sitting at the kitchen table when you come home from work. Milk and cookies. Poker-faced, silent, staring. What have they been doing?
A floorboard creaks underfoot. The typing stops.
Could it be the same one? Hard to say. The picture on the lamppost is warped and faded: the sun takes some colors faster than others.
How long has it been? The stoneware bowl in the cabinet below the sink, behind the roachspray, under a clump of plastic bags. The cylinder of kitty treats beside it. Black cartoon cat on the label: eye-rolling, ecstatic, fur in jagged points. Shadowpuppet. Paper dragon. The contents cemented, clastic. You whack it with the heel of your hand, and the dry tidbits rattle.
There’s a half-empty bag of dry food in the pantry. You wash the bowl, fill it, the stale smell of grease and meal and marrow finding your nose. Leave it on the porch with a little bowl of water, an empty margarine tub. Back inside, watching from the sofa. Sunset capped by a cloudbank. The light orange and sidelong, and no wind.
Not sure why you started feeding it. It must have belonged to somebody; you never found out who. You stopped putting the bowl out when it stopped coming around.
Imagine dialing the number. A phone ringing down the block. An anxious voice.
It used to visit when you worked in the garden. Watching you pull weeds, prune privets, divide monkeygrass. Flattening its ears, shoving its skull into your gloved palm. The mighty hunter. Mice and wrens on the doormat. Io moths. Gartersnakes. All the little chameleons missing their tails. Once, a gray bird with a black crown, limp on the linoleum, then suddenly alive again, bashing its hollow head on the windows, smacking into the ceiling fan. Shooing it out. Feathers everywhere. Years now since you’ve seen one like it. Not a cowbird. Not a starling.
Took care of your mole problem, that’s for sure. All those summers of twisted ankles, yellow patches. Monkeygrass uprooted along the sidewalk. Hair clippings, fumigation, harpoon traps you couldn’t quite stomach. Six moles in five weeks, brown velvet fur and starry pink noses, laid out on the porch like ambushed bandits. You haven’t seen a mole now in five years.
Firefly-green eyes in the blue dark; a flash of matted fur under the azaleas. You lay your book down, turn on the porchlight, fetch the kitty treats. The air outside is breath-warm and restless. Singing frogs.
You rattle the container. Nothing moves, nothing materializes. Then, finally, at the edge of the light, a waddling gray opossum, rattailed and snaggletoothed, making for the gap in the fence across the overgrown lawn.
Back on the couch, book in hand, the house seems emptier than before, strange. Colder. Christmas cards, old addresses. Your book goes unread.
The lost things will remain lost. The empty bowl is brought inside, and will not be put out again.
For two hours after school the house is yours: parents at work, sister at gymnastics. Sometimes with a friend, most often alone. Best alone. The computer, the VCR, the garage. Your father’s magazines. Your sister’s Barbies. Watching the bus stop through the dining room windows, naked, shielded by reflections. Your secret house.
You raise a foot coming through the door to block the cat’s exit. Then you remember. Check the newsgroups, the mailboxes: nothing, junk, porn. Clicking absently. Halfhearted detective fantasies. Cats leave few clues.
Better to be one, then. Master thief, costumed bandit. Rooftop seducer. Liquid over walls, through fences. Firefly-green eyes widening, skylit against the stadium. The moonless night like a room. Invisible kingdom. Never coming back.
You remember your mother in the backyard, shouting, waving a battered catnip mouse at the darkness. Otherworldly yowling from the neighbor’s yard. You, small beneath your blanket, thrilled and scared and not understanding. The cat not back until morning, sordid and shameless and transfigured, licking itself clean.
You do not remember lowering the cat into the washing machine as your friend slammed down the lid. You do not remember pouring half a bottle of your father’s beer into its stoneware bowl, pressing its squirming head into it when it would not drink. You do not think of diapering it in your sister’s underwear, laughing as it squirmed them off.
You do not remember lying on the living room floor, the cat asleep on your bare stomach. Stroking its fur and speaking to it. Calling it by girls’ names, although it was not a girl.
The cat is still here.
Yellow foam still leaks through the slashes in the furniture. Dander dusts the lampshade, billows from the carpet. Ammonia lingers in the guest bedroom, in the corner behind the rolltop desk. Brown hair darkens the filter behind the air-return grille. There’s a worn spot in the upstairs hallway where it used to scratch its back. The house remembers.
The house knows about the loose screen in the upstairs bedroom. It knows about the nest of ants in the cracked cinder block below the leaky faucet.
It knows about the gap in the sheetrock, inside the cabinet in the upstairs bathroom. The pile of desiccated scat next to the water heater. Nearby, under a blanket of pink fiberglass, the clean white bones of last summer’s gerbil.
The house will keep its secrets.
Two firefly-green eyes in the darkness, and a wet thump: you’re awake now, your foot on the brakepedal. Red branches wave in the rearview mirror. What? Not a dog. A cat? A raccoon. A rabbit. Surely a rabbit.
A cat, then. Just standing in the road, the middle of the road. Now thrashing on the graveled asphalt shoulder, a maelstrom of teeth and claws. Rabid, probably. Feral.
But it’s not moving, not much. The ribs sag and bulge spasmodically. A vet? At this time of night? The owner? Strange voices on the phone, heavy with sleep.
A bright aluminum tag is tangled in the matted fur, holding the creature’s secret name. Look. You are responsible. You are involved.
It’s not moving, not at all. It’s a pelt, a nothing. A bag of bloody bones. You lift your foot: the mirrors go black, the red branches vanish.
At home, the driveway, the coiled garden hose. Warm at first with the heat of the day, then colder. A tuft of brown fur plucked from the black rubber strip, rinsed from your fingers. You didn’t hit anything. You don’t stop.
Tucked in, fighting sleep, you keep your checklist of noises: television off in the living room, creak of the stairs, click of the hallway lightswitch. The sink, the toilet, the sink. The clatter of the keyboard finally stopping. The creeping hands of your orange Sebastian clock. Another hour, just to be sure.
Keep your eyes open. Don’t dream: think. The night is trying to find you, pressing in, looking for openings. The cat somewhere at the heart of it. The darkness full of echoes. Wearing the cat’s face.
You were six years old when the parakeet escaped. A window opened while your mother was cleaning the cage: crossdraft, front door sucked inward. Gone. The perch still swaying.
They told you it would survive, would prosper. They hinted at a secret network of lost pets—alligators, mynabirds, chinchillas—living free in a lair somewhere. The sewers, maybe. Just out of sight.
You chose to believe it. Your pet bird, flying to the aid of other creatures gone astray. Brightly-clad superhero. Scarlet pimpernel. Not doomed. Not a morsel for hawks. Not a hapless castaway, washed up in a clown suit on hostile shores.
For a time these fantasies were key to your understanding of things. You don’t believe them anymore, of course. But they’re still there, just below the surface, and you wake up inside them sometimes. An ancient city, ruined and built over.
The sheets roll back, the screen pops quietly. The shingles are dew-damp beneath your careful feet. You knot your blue nightgown around your hips, climb the gabled dormer in the shadow of the brick chimney, and inch slowly up to the ridge.
A warm breeze pours over the roof. Below, the sycamore shivers in the glow from the stadium. Your hair sticks to your lips and tongue. You catch your balance, rise to your feet. Lift up your arms. Reaching out to the unspecifiable world.
Illustration by Marc Ngui