Cat in a Cage
HEADING SOUTH OVER RATON PASS AND DOWN THE canyons of pines and trout streams, the first sign of civilization is the gas station perched on the flats. Dan is exhausted and sees only the ugliness of the old pumps and the old Bonneville parked out front like a black tank long dead.
_____Dan is driving, yet again, a half dead car, a Celica ten years from its prime. He doesn't glory in the wind whipping his hair. He doesn't need more knowledge of how a car dies. He knows that when the hinge on the glove compartment no longer works, the car is beyond trading in. But it isn't all bad. He doesn't have cancer, and he doesn't have a wife who despises him. Right now the only rule that counts is to be prepared to start over.
_____It has been twelve years since the last visit to New Mexico. Back then he was hitchhiking all alone. He came into town riding with a weasily guy in a green Volvo, who announced after two minutes that he was Bob Dylan's dentist. He drove with one finger, readjusting his red bandanna and talking about Dylan's dental work. Avocados sat like a sculpture in the back seat. Back then Dan's hair was halfway down his back, and he wore denim from head to foot. About a thousand years ago.
_____For Dan the promised land at the end of this eight hundred mile journey isn't much of anything. At the edge of town a solitary mobile home sits on the edge of mud flats. Cimarron is still small enough to breeze through. Buffalo crouch like statues on a mountain pasture in the distance. Cimarron is a perverse home for Uncle Ray and brother TJ--products of Missouri river bottom of slough creek, lake, pond, and mosquito pit. Until they moved to Cimarron neither had worn a cowboy hat.
_____Twelve years ago Dan in his cowboy hat and boots reveled in the exotic cactus, buffalo pies, and rattlesnakes. That innocent time had set the groundwork for this present. This wasn't his home ground then, and it isn't now. He is determined to look only forward in this southwest world where the water is transparent and the sky endless. At the moment he needs a place to feel safe. He pushes aside thoughts of muddy rivers hiding giants in the murky swirl.
_____This could be the last family reunion Dan will attend. Without his mother's generation, he can't picture the cousins showing undue interest in holding the family together. His father's death has diminished the air itself. His ex-wife, Betsy, is alive and kicking, a mere eight hundred miles away across town. At least his dad didn't live long enough to see Dan's marriage dissolve in sordid splendor.
_____He is in Cimarron with a purpose explaining his presence, though it is a thin ruse. He is here to document the legacy of a grizzled, praying, potato-peeling old grandmother. He remembers as kid a visiting her two story old farm house overlooking the Mississippi River. When she fell asleep in the afternoon sun with the soap operas on with her mouth open, the snore inevitable as dust and boredom, Dan and TJ ransacked the property, playing with the Colt pistol in the soap making room and feverishly looking in drawers for ammunition. They ran the cows into the pond or rode the calves. They explored the mazes in the barn workshop, tinkering with tools and motors, nails and lumber.
_____Sooner or later Grandma come looking for them suspecting the worse. "Ach, you kids, what have you been up to now." Like they were incorrigible. A worthless pair.
_____His grandmother is dead now, and the farm overrun with bugs and fish and birds. That place had long ago been sold. The only place to go back to is the cemetery. Now Ben is a thousand miles away trying to write a true history from the smiling stories of the survivors. He feels an urgency to say something before the inscriptions on the tombstones have more to say. His mother, thank god, is at home in Missouri sifting through his father's possessions, learning how to plant the bulbs alone and baby-sit the half-blind dog._____The gas station attendant fills the tank while Dan heads for the bathroom. Its door already stands open in the sun. Inside a light bulb hangs from a wire; on the wall sits a desecrated condom machine ( Unlimited Passion with the Lime Green French Tickler ). Feeling weak, Dan is afraid to go back out in the sun. Instead of this Western macho brightness, he wants a cave. Someplace where Satan doesn't live in the bones and foment cancer. At previous reunions Betsy had always been by his side. Can he deal with the reunion without her? She, who resented every minute with his family. Betsy is busy creating a life, dating a guy with a pony tail; some smiling guy who became the energy the inevitable separation used to feed its perverse momentum. Ben looks to the mirror. There are no signs he is decaying.
_____Dan sees the cages of the crass gas station mini-zoo when he emerges from the bathroom. In the distance the desert shimmers in the bright white sun. In the thin, beautiful light Dan feels unprotected. He replays Betsy's withering judgment. Why aren't you happy? As if his wounds have been self-inflicted. He knows well enough that he is guilty--of dreaming of her breasts as disembodied trophies; guilty of believing that marriage means for all time; guilty of having the wrong priorities; guilty of sleeping with his administrative assistant. Dan's mother said right off when she heard of the divorce, "Look at those things that don't change." That was months ago.
_____Dan braces himself against the outside wall. The sky and the lay of the land has not changed in twelve years. He walks to the mini-zoo for undiscerning tourists. In the first cage a fat raccoon stares, holding dog food up for inspection. In the next cage five dogs on chains pop to their feet like Dan is a long lost friend. Other cages hold a red-tailed hawk, two possums, and a skinny coyote. The glare off the metal bars burns even this late and Dan reaches for sunglasses which disappeared two weeks ago. The faded lettering on the last cage reads Mountain Lion. In his tiny cubicle the cat stalks. Dan backs away under the cat's gaze, trying to believe the cat is not miserable.
_____The air is cooling and the sun slipping when he registers in the St. James Hotel, built according to the plaque on the wall in l882. He smiles gingerly at the wizened proprietor with her turquoise squash blossoms and cigarette. He reads the history outlined on the tourist posters. One hundred forty four Union soldiers killed by Apaches in l890. Two U.S. marshals shot at the bar by Alan Dick, gunfighter in l904. Headquarters for the cattle barons who first employed Billy the Kid.
_____In the quiet of the room he listens to hunters from Texas drinking to the din of television, bragging about their trophies. Out in moonlit night are buffalo, mule deer, bear, Big Horn sheep to kill. Dan lays in the dark replaying the drive through the canyon. He feels pathetic and small lurking in a hotel room in the town where his little brother lives, not a thousand feet from land owned by Uncle Ray and his smiling brood. He needs some time. He must arrange a game plan he can follow. There will be questions that will need answers.
_____Dan wakes at three a.m. to the coyotes crying in the canyon. He sits upright, remembering when whining coyote voices in the dark was a sacred message. Twelve years before when he guided green kids from Chicago to the high country. He remembers six pimply boys stalking trout with sticks, beating the mountain stream in a frenzy until mangled brook trout float to the surface. The night when bears stalked the tent and his fear got the best of him and he heaved his toothpaste into the darkness. When he led a rain-soaked hike off the mountain carrying a twelve year old boy with a twisted ankle. When he fell in love with Betsy, who first introduced him to coyotes, who made him a convert willing to give in to all demands. These days she talks of wallpaper and going back to school. Memories as if the past might taint her pristine color scheme. She plants perennials in a sleeveless T-shirt at her new house like nothing has happened.
* * *
_____Over coffee at breakfast, Dan feels relieved from his road weariness. He will hit TJ's in early afternoon after fishing. He will help around the house, baby-sit, fill in the details. Fishing will prepare him for TJ and Lynn with her frizzed electric hair, and jars of canned green beans on homemade shelves in the living room; and Bob the Down Syndrome baby grown to five foot nine, one hundred eighty pounds. Betsy won't be there to infuriate them with her addiction to junk food. No Betsy wired for antagonism with nicotine and Miller Lite. What will the relatives say when it is just him?
_____An hour later Dan is alone at the three-acre lake of bass and trout in the foothills. Yellow finches dart overhead, circling and diving as he unloads the rods. He pokes through the flies, ready to give fishing a real shot. Twenty minutes later he is engrossed in the line in the water and the reflection of clouds on the water. A trout comes to the surface and hits the fly hard, then releases. It comes back and runs with the fly. As the sun creeps higher Ben knows his efforts are going to produce action.
_____The bellow from the tree line barely registers. Then Dan sees the young steer, brown and dusty, his head shaking, coming toward him at a steady lope. The yearling stops to bellows again-- Maaaaauuuh-- and then comes straight for him. Ben drops the rod, running and slipping, feeling the steer behind him. He scrambles behind his car and the steer runs past. Ben sees a darker shape--a black grizzled bear running with the steer in the same race. Then both are gone. For a moment even the birds are quiet in a religious moment.
_____Dan drives in from the lake a bit dazed looking to the far pasture to see the buffalo herd huddling by the fence--dark-brown statues cropping the grass. Round a curve is a fence row anointed with skulls of those slaughtered-- fifty or more--bleached white with black horns .
_____As he drives Dan prepares his family face and practices a love for Jesus. Thank you Lord for this fellowship. Thank you for the peach pie and the blackberry tarts. He remembers Ray the Penitente gardener with baked on wrinkles who believed in the same Christian cosmos as his family. Only Ray used real blood rather than wine.
_____Cruising in second gear, Dan slides up to TJ and Lynn's house, which as usual looks inviting from the outside. They have land to grow beans, corn, squash, lavender, nasturtiums, and forty different herbs. Away from the crowding of others. TJ's aversion to people is fed by Lynn, who routinely labels McDonalds' customers as cow murderers.
_____Who can see how quickly a relationship can dissolve? The warning signs seemed obvious a year ago when Dan and Betsy and Lynn, TJ and Bob visited Florida for Thanksgiving. Dan remembers Lynn standing over the glut of food giving thanks for family and for the beauty of her child. "This is a blessed event." Seconds after heads raised, Betsy lit a cigarette and tossed her head in boredom. Dan led her like an unruly kid into the next room, where he pleaded for coming together with family. When they came back, the look TJ gave Lynn said That is the way they are, the couple bent on breaking the world .
_____Together as a family they had ventured to Sea World to see sting rays, and feed ducks. Dan and Bob watched a forty foot killer whale give birth until the afterbirth emerged in a cloud of pink blood. In the Wild Arctic exhibit they watched fat rainbow trout floating in pools in the maze of ice caverns with polar bears, narwhales, and walrus. Bob screaming with delight and pressing his nose against the glass as a walrus snared a four pound trout and devoured it. Again and again the walrus explored the confines of the tank, often skimming against the glass. Dan draped his arm over Bob's broad shoulder, and made faces at the walrus for Bob's benefit. Bob slammed his fist on the glass, and the walrus turned, opened his mouth and crashed into the glass opposite Dan's head, trying to eat him alive. Dan remembers how quickly he and Bob hit the wet concrete floor, like the walrus had gotten what he wanted.
_____That night in the hotel room Betsy would not let up. "Why I spend my time with morons is beyond me." Dan sat quietly as she savaged TJ and Lynn and poor Bob. "Why I'm with someone who doesn't know I'm alive is beyond me." He remembers how alone he felt.
_____He came home, alone, from the Florida sun to a frozen wasteland, while Betsy went off to Dallas for shopping. At the time she was already preparing for Mr. Ponytail. Walking into his cold house, Dan saw the note on the table from his house sitter. "Your cat died. It wasn't fun to find her. I'm sorry. She is hanging in a grocery bag from the pine tree." Then he found his nine year companion, Mollie, shriveled, hard and frozen hanging in the pine tree, a grimace on her face. With a pick he dug her grave on the hillside. That night Dan didn't call Betsy, who had learned to dislike Mollie. When you're not happy, then even the trees become surly. He sat in the dark remembering the day Betsy announced the "new rule" about locking Molly in the basement: "She is dirty and she is your cat."
_____Dan smiles as he pulls up in front of TJ's immaculate yard. Already he sees Bob at the window, his palms pressed squarely on the glass. By the time Dan reaches the porch the door is opened by Bob with a horrifying grin and green snot glued to his cheek. Though Dan has seen Bob a hundred times, the first encounter is a shock. Bob is the untamed. Dan looks away like turning away from a dog licking his privates. But he likes Bob. He and Bob are on the same wavelength. He communicates with Bob. He hugs him like an uncle. Clearly Bob has looked forward to this moment. Now inside, Dan hugs TJ and smiles at Lynn. He grabs Bob and dances around the room. The family assault has begun.
_____Four hours later Dan is engaged with Uncle Ray and Uncle Frank--two half deaf ministers in polyester with knobby fingers that love to touch, gesture, point. Dan notices they brighten when they see him as if he is a long lost son. Aunt Irene and Aunt Joanne stand over pies, large enough in plaid dresses to be tackles. There are cousins he has seen a dozen times who have memories of him in grade school. Some Dan knows by face but not by name. He listens, takes notes, and shakes hands. He eats a sampling of seven desserts. He asks about wars and farming and education to oldsters who still see him as a talented ten year old. These are relatives giving him their hard-earned money to write meaning into family history. They believe there is a story to believe in. And they have the details.
_____After two days the memories of places long paved over and of people (mostly dead) are familiar to Dan. Grandma as a young girl leaving the farm to become a nanny in St. Louis. Thread-bare tales of the Great Depression living on the farm without money. The 1940s politics of Grandpa becoming a Democratic County Commissioner. On the reunion tables are the combined family photographs, some unlabeled and worn. Great Grandpa looking stern and Prussian. Dan's mother and father on their wedding day smiling and unwrinkled. Uncles standing by stolid old cars, and group portraits frozen in black and white. A rough past without frills. In Dan's jacket is the new tape recorder catching the coughs, the laughs, the shuffling of plates and coffee cups, the out-on-the-porch cigarette talk. He needs all the stories. How did Aunt Bertha fit in? Why did Uncle Frank go blind? Dan wants a narrative they can digest. Hardship and work maybe, but no shock and awe.
_____They couldn't talk quietly if they wanted to. His mother's cousin, Bessie. Uncle Gus, the undertaker. Dirk, who raises catfish. His wife, Ethel, the nurse. Burly straight-shooters not far removed from the farm. Ben mingles, listens, and questions. He sips Uncle Charlie's elderberry wine. He squeezes another great aunt and moves on. Why has he dreaded this gathering? In their eyes he never left them. He is needed. The book takes form as he chooses the photos that count. He listens. I knew your father when he was a boy. Back then we milked the cows by hand.
_____Her hair is auburn frizz, hanging down her back, and Dan can't take his eyes off her. She looks like she can run a mile, but she is wild looking too--like she doesn't fit in this old world gathering. She is beautiful as she smiles listening to Uncle Dick, her hand on his shoulder. Who is she? Has she been here all along? Not ten minutes later Dan rescues her from his uncle ready to retell another Battle of the Bulge story, and escorts her outside. She leans on the porch railing dressed in cowboy denim, with a crumpled cigarette pack in her hand, giving Dan a sustained glance.
_____Dan thinks she is maybe twenty, and then they are talking and laughing. She is the daughter of Aunt Francis' new husband, from San Diego here to meet her new family. "They are so nice," she says, already a part of the mix. To Dan she is another species--someone free from his tainted history. Her name is Cathy, and she is a sophomore in college. She will be some day, she says, a high school English teacher.
_____Dan had stopped smoking two years before to teach Betsy that he could change. Now he needs a cigarette. Now he needs to get away, with Cathy. Would she go with him to town to get cigarettes? She laughs, and doesn't say no. Walking through the grass they come on TJ, and Dan says, "I'm taking Cathy to town."
_____"Go for it" TJ responds with a leer. Dan turns, irritated. There's so much he could say. It isn't like he hasn't spent time with women who can beans, clip coupons and dutifully go to church. He walks through the garden with Cathy to the car.
_____Watching the clouds shadow the mesa, Dan points out on the horizon four o'clock clouds building into giant thunderheads. Cathy drives and plays with the radio. There's a flare of a match and she hands Dan a cigarette. He draws in the smoke, feeling it blanket his lungs. He smiles at the metallic lurch in his brain. The smoke blows back in his face. Then the rain explodes, a wild and torrential downpour, and then just as fast the drops slow and stop.
_____Dan is drained, lost in the music. He sits slouched in his seat listening to Cathy list the constraints of living at home while going to college. This, she says, is as far east as she has ever been. She likes reggae and John Coltrane, and she has just finished Thomas Pynchon in her second English class. As she talks, she glances over to test his reaction. She drives with the windows wide open, the sun shimmering off the drying pavement, the radio crackling in schizoid phrases. She drives as if she wants to keep moving.
_____She broke a reverie. "You are divorced, aren't you?" Someone has been talking about Dan's life. All short and terse, he tells the old story like it is past and done.
_____"It's when you get rational you make decisions, like to get married." He loses his momentum, feeling the lameness. "The marriage never should have taken place." He remembers lying with Betsy on the mesa looking at the stars with electricity alive between them Betsy driving for hours to Denver with the air rushing through the wide-open windows, singing with songs from the radio.
_____"I couldn't pretend it was ok any longer." If only they had been civilized enough to throw pots and pans and claw at each other's face. No, it all came out in words. A woman from work said that the natural lifespan of a marriage was four years. Supposedly that is the longest time the crush of passion can linger.
_____Dan closes his eyes, content with the breeze whipping at his hair. Then he wakes and sees a dot in the sky--a hawk, eagle or vulture. Then the wings spread and the big bird soars in slow motion in front a half mile up in the sky. It is a hawk. Cathy too seeks it drawing closer. She slows the car and gawks, and then the wingspan fills the windshield. The car swerves and skids off the road onto the flats among the sage, cactus, and dust. The dust swirls and then the air is clear again, and Dan and Cathy laugh at the same time. They get out of the car and check for damage. In the freshness feeling like survivors, Dan reaches for her. The hug lingers. Then they are back in the car talking about the bird, the dive, the rush of adrenaline.
_____Over ice cream at the Dairy Freeze under the bug zapper, Dan tells what he knows of bruhas living in the hills and the significance of bird and bear signs. He talks about old women changing shapes and loping with coyotes. Still feeling the adrenaline flushing his pores, he watches her eyes. It isn't love. It isn't a future. But she is listening. Cathy looks over, blushing. Cathy looked over, a tiny bit in love. They move together to the car and drive the fringes of the town until the darkness begins to appear. Then they climb the mesa, watching the light turn delicate over the herd of buffalo. They smoke cigarettes, sitting close.
* * *
_____Later that evening over coffee, TJ and Dan talk about their mother and her future. TJ doesn't have any more answers than Dan does. But he is willing to listen. Together they schedule a years' worth of visits. They drink a beer, and finish the last clarifying of brotherly information. By the time Dan gets up from the table, likes TJ again. Then he heads back to his hotel room and work.
_____Nursing another beer he digests the taped conversations and begins to recast the family history into a narrative of dirt and despair, of farmers, ministers and insurance salesmen with red necks and dirt under the nails. The stocky women capable of nurturing half-acre gardens and burying worn out husbands have their say. Teachers appear in checked, homemade dresses carrying Bibles with lists of names scrawled on opening pages. Dan pastes in pictures and gives titles to chapters. He leaves room at the end for genealogical maps of marriages, births, and deaths. Though Betsy and he are on separate planets, both are here in the genealogy ready for some descendent to make sense of.
_____After two days of talk and food and writing, Dan isn't finished, but he is tired. In between the family gatherings, he and Cathy have visited the candle factory in Espanola, walked the streets of Taos, and hiked the Tooth of Time. On the fourth day after a swim in the reservoir, they return to find the first wave of relatives hugging and leaving. By the next morning Uncle Charley and Joy have left for Missouri in their beaten Chevy, the back seat packed with two ancient great aunts. That afternoon a swarm of cousins and their kids leave in a van for the Albuquerque airport. The next morning they leave in spurts--to Rockford, Illinois, Sioux Falls, South Dakota, Detroit, Upstate New York, and Seattle. Those remaining begin the clean up. Dan spends his time roughing out the narrative, writing now so the absent crowd can see the story as clean and rich. Cathy helps him weave prose around the powerful pictures.
_____That night after hours of work, they drive to the Dairy Freeze to watch the night crowd play pinball and be brainless. Dan is content to look at Cathy under the blue light of the zapping bug killer drinking a chocolate malt. She reaches for his hand, and says "I am happy to be here with you." Why, Dan wonders. He smiles at how little she knows him. But he is as happy as he has been in six months.
_____At midnight they cross the highway to the gas station to see the zoo. Under the lights the cat pads in its circle. When the headlights from a car shoot past, the cat looks their way with eyes round and gold. Then the cat moves deliberately to his box. Dan looks beyond the station to the highway heading out to the canyon and the bleak open West. Beyond the Dairy Freeze, the saloon, the gas station, the trinket shops, is the creek and the last street of weathered houses sheltered by sand, cottonwoods, and old cars on blocks functioning as sculpture. Here are no ornamental pear trees, no mulch, no concrete, no landscape timbers. Here the junk lies in the open, decaying for all to see. Here the secrets collect in drying pools, bare to the eye.
_____Dan takes the pliers to the cage, with Cathy following. She laughs aloud in paranoid panic. "What are you doing? What if Ray has to bail us out of jail?" The old lock isn't even locked. Dan easily opens the cage. The cat is nowhere to be seen. They back away. Dan guides her into the safety of darkness. They watch as the cat tentatively walks free, stopping to glare at the lights, before loping to the hills.
_____When Dan wakes the next morning, he knows it is time to go. He eats breakfast with Uncle Ray, and then takes Cathy fishing at the lake before the sun gets hot. In the shadows of a big cottonwood Dan lures a bass to the surface, sets the hook for the ceremonial leap into sunlight. As Cathy sits by the worms smoking, he releases the fish and watches it swim away. Then he lays full length, his head sheltered by pine needles. Her hand drifts to his hair. Dan looks to her clear eyes. She is perfect enough. She is open.
_____They eat lunch in the saloon with Billy, Dan's first cousin from Rockford, Illinois, son of Carl, the John Deere dealer, Dan's mother's oldest brother. Billy recreates Grandpa's hayloft where fifty wild cats hunt pigeons and kids flee from adult company. There, TJ slammed a door on Billy's arm, breaking it in two places. Dan reminds Billy of his whimpering as Uncle Carl rushed him the eighteen miles to the hospital.
_____By mid-afternoon Dan has counted off his last duties--attending the chapel service, drinking the last coffee with Ray, saying goodbye to TJ, Lynn and Bob. At seven he walks with Cathy to the lake. She holds his arm and presses close. He tells her she is beautiful. He kisses her once and looks her straight on. He doesn't want tears. He holds her close and listens to her breathing. She is sweet and full of good. He likes looking on into someone else, oblivious to all but the looking. He could love the world if it meant he didn't have to dwell on himself.
_____Alone in his hotel room, Dan is invigorated and too energized to sleep. He moves outside and begins to walk. Reaching the last adobe house on the last street, he sees movement in the half lit doorway, an outline of hair and shawl, an old woman with hands outstretched. Dan backs up, looking for signs of movement. Is she just restless, unable to sleep? Or someone made crazy by the flux of night?
_____He sits beneath the water tower looking down upon the town. Far away over the houses, sits the gas station, the tiny bulb over the cages working hard to keep the darkness away. He dozes, and then wakes knowing it is very late. He slides down the hill and back to the streets. The old woman is at the window, motionless as before. The streetlight comes on in a flicker, and in the hard circle of light he stands exposed, unsure where to go. He walks quickly to the bridge to break her gaze. He looks again and she is at the darkened bedroom window staring ahead. Dan retreats to the water tower to doze in the soft sand. He dreams until the birds wake him in the bright morning.
_____He stumbles into groggy motion. Sheltered by the hill, the street is dark, and the streetlight off. The old woman is nowhere to be seen. Surely the torment of indigestion has been conquered. Then he sees braided hair, a blood red shawl. She stands outside not thirty feet away. Her eyes are dark. She doesn't move.
_____Dan runs like a kid in a darkened basement. As he passes the streetlight whirs back to life. A pair of mule deer eating by the road leap the fence in slow motion.
* * *
_____Three hours later Dan makes one last visit to the family. In front of her father and Uncle Ray, Cathy puts her arms around Dan and squeezes. Then Dan starts the engine and takes off. Dan heads north and east thinking of advice a friend gave when he heard of the divorce. "You can move or get a job or do something big now. When you are numb you can do anything." Dan doesn't feel numb. As the miles submerge into the music, he plays at untangling. There is land in Alaska bathed in 24 hour sun. He thinks of the birds circling overhead and the bull and the bear. He thinks of Cathy's eyes taking it all in.
Mark Vogel has published articles on adolescent literacy, and young adult literature in numerous journals for the past fifteen years. Recently, he has focused on writing poetry and fiction as well. Stories have recently appeared in Cities and Roads, Knight Literary Journal, and Whimperbang. He has directed the Appalachian Writing Project for ten years. He is married to the beautiful and talented writer, Susan Weinberg. He is currently Professor of English at Appalachian State University in Boone, North Carolina.
| Our Stories Literary Journal, Inc. © 2006 |