This is the 26th (and last) round of The Alphabet Challenge mentioned in THIS<<link post. As a refresher, the Broxson twins, Gary and Perry, and I wrote one story for each letter of the alphabet, this being the last, or “Z” story.
Readers have two weeks from the date of publication to vote for their favorite story in the current round. Points will be assigned to each writer based on the total votes received.
The story with the most votes gets three points. Second place gets two points, third place gets one point. In the case of a tie, the points for the tied rankings are added and then split equally among the writers who tied. At the end of this round, we tally up and crown the winner with the most points.
The writing challenge has no restrictions and the stories span a wide gamut of genres. The majority of the stories fall in the PG-rating range with a few perhaps pushing into the soft R-rating. Some readers might find a few of the stories disturbing because of the topics, language, and/or plot points, and if so, stop reading and move on.
Long or short, each story will appear on its own post and the trio will be followed by a fourth post where readers can vote.
Here we go. Presented anonymously, the third of three stories with titles beginning with the letter “Z” as submitted by its author.
The Zen of Whiskers
Copyright 2020 — Gary Broxson
(4,230 words – approx. reading time: about 16 minutes based on 265 WPM)
But the cat came back the very next day,
The cat came back, we thought he was a goner,
The cat came back, he just wouldn’t stay away.
The light turned yellow. Ten years ago, maybe even five, I would have put the pedal to the metal and raced the red. At 57, I have nothing else to prove. The bills are paid, I’m not trying to get laid, and I am no longer afraid. So I geared down my Audi Quattro and came to a smooth stop at the Frederica and Sea Island intersection.
As I scanned the radio waves for something that was not Taylor Swift, a shadow crept in the corner of my eye. It moved again and attracted my full attention. There she was, a black cat, stepping into the crosswalk, seemingly unfazed by the other cars circulating the intersection. She was regal, an ebony queen. Like me, she was in no hurry. Her inky black fur rippled as she placed one paw directly in front of the other. I thought to myself; she looks like one of those supermodels, her visage unreadable, her lithe body speaking volumes as she made her way down the, what did they call it, a catwalk.
I let my mind idle in rhythm with the purr of the Audi’s V-8 turbo. Bad luck. Dormant synapses sparked, and old superstitions about black cats crossing paths, ill omens, and bad luck flashed in my mind. I thought for a quick second to beep my horn and perhaps shoo away the witch-kitty, then chuckled to myself. Really? It’s strange how deeply those old wives’ tales have woven themselves into the fabric of our enlightened reality.
I relaxed and remained content to watch the majestic feline stroll past my chrome grill, temporarily dipping out of sight. I sat up straight in my leather seat just high enough to see the twitching tip of her tail curved into a question mark as she emerged on the driver’s side of my car. But now, the cat stared directly into my eyes. She ceased her progress and sat back on her hindquarters—staring. She lifted and licked a paw reminding me of a woman casually brushing her hair. Her golden-green eyes contrasted brightly against her pitch-black fur. Vertical pupils dilated and contracted under the shadows of skittering clouds and alternating sunshine.
Whiskers, I said aloud. The cat stopped preening for a moment and then continued as a balloon filled with memories burst inside my mind. I was eight-years-old again, sitting Indian style, surrounded by a menagerie of cats. Tabbies, calicoes, Siamese, bobtails (whether by provenance or happenstance), and strays of all colors and sizes groomed themselves, frolicked, or slept in furry coils. None paid mind to the small boy sitting silently in the middle of the cat room at Pea Ridge Humane Society.
I suppose my parents were sick and tired of me constantly bringing home scrap cats that I would capture in the neighbor’s barn using a crab net. I would snare an elusive kitty, carry home my cat catch-of-the-day, name it, hold it, pet it, feed it, until it stopped fighting and biting and started purring. After a few band-aids for me and a belly full of warm milk and cold bologna bits for them, the kittens would be returned to a life of rat catching and flea scratching, knowing at least one day of love.
“You are going to select a pet in a civilized manner,” my mother informed me. “Cats at the shelter are neutered and spayed and have all their shots. They are adoption ready.” She went on and on about the responsibilities involved with pet ownership, and I remember nodding north and south until my teeth clicked.
So there I was, in a smelly room stocked with discarded cats trying to decide which one to make my lifelong companion. They all seemed indifferent to my presence, and I felt like an intruder, strangely unworthy. Was I to simply pluck a cat or kitten off the shelf like a can of peas? Even at eight years old, I felt that this union should be somehow mutual. So instinctively, I sat. I closed my eyes and I waited, listening to the subtle sounds of nature’s most stealthy creatures.
I felt her breath near my ear then the tickle of her whiskers on my cheek. I peeked through slitted lids, and there were those golden-green eyes that even now stared at me from the busy intersection. Then her powerful engine cranked up; she began to purr in a hypnotic hum that could soothe a summer squall.
My mother walked into the cat room; she would later tell my father how she had witnessed her son sitting on the floor bent slightly forward, touching foreheads with a purring black cat. “Looks like she chose you,” my mother said on our drive back home. “What are you going to name her?”
“Whiskers,” I said, without thinking. “She tickled me with her whiskers when we met,” I explained.
Growing up in the South, we just didn’t keep pets in the house. Whiskers slept mostly in the open carport and was free to indulge her nocturnal nature. Occasionally, however, I would sneak her inside when my parents had gone to bed. More than once, my mother awakened me for school and found Whiskers curled up on my pillow, her golden-green eyes flashing in the glow of my firefly night light.
By the age of ten, I received my first BB gun. After school, Whiskers and I would spend hours prowling the surrounding woods near our home. Flocks of birds and scurries of squirrels fell to my keen marksmanship. Wounded woodland critters were quickly and savagely dispatched by claw and fang. Whiskers dined well in those years and became the black jaguar queen of our backyard jungle.
I remember thinking that fall how fat she was getting. I picked her up, noting the extra heft, and then felt something strange. I held her close and ran into the house. My mother, seeing my distress, stopped me and asked what was wrong. Nearly in tears, I rambled something about Whiskers being full of birds and squirrels, and now they were trying to get out, and it was my fault for shooting them and that Jesus knows every time a sparrow falls.
My mother took Whiskers from my arms and smoothed the shiny black fur over her pink belly. She felt movement and smiled. How could she be pleased? I pictured bird beaks and squirrel teeth pecking and gnawing their way out of their feline host. Perhaps the movie Alien was still too fresh in my impressionable mind. “She’s pregnant,” my mom said. “We are going to have kittens.”
“I thought they spayed cats at that shelter,” my dad noted that evening over mullet and grits.
“Must have been an immaculate conception,” Mom replied. Then they both looked at each other over a platter of fried fish and said something with their eyes that had them both near tears with laughter and Dad barely suppressing a spray of cheese grits.
My older brother Dave told me later that our uncle had had a vasectomy and his wife later got pregnant. A one in a million chance, according to the doctors, or an immaculate conception, as Dad had diagnosed. It was noted, however, by the gossip girls in the Lady’s Auxiliary that she had spent many hours volunteering at the local church, helping the new pastor with a position in the missionary ministry. It took me years to understand the implications and the inference.
I learned the basics of the birds and bees that year and was disgusted by the whole thing. Kittens, six of them, slipped from my panting cat as she lay on the welcome mat. She licked them one by one until the slick sheathe was gone, and only wet, blind kittens remained. They fumbled and groped until they found a teat, then fed till they fell asleep. Apparently, the kitty-daddy was a striped Tom because their offspring sported a dark gray and black tiger-esque pattern but maintained their mother’s golden-green eyes. Before the night was over, I had named each newborn.
Not known for my creativity in naming cats—just ask Whiskers—I tagged the kittens with Disney dwarf names: Sleepy, Happy, Grumpy, Sneezy, Bashful, and Doc. I left out Dopey because I felt it was too demeaning and might lead to latent emotional distress.
The dwarves thrived, and Whiskers seemed proud to be a single parent of six. Soon they were able to follow her outside the relative safety of the carport. They would tumble and roll about one another as Whiskers lay basking in the fresh Florida sunshine, twitching her tail and cleaning her fur.
It was only a quarter-mile up our rock road to the school bus stop. I remember getting off the bus late that afternoon with a strange feeling in my gut. Maybe it was the Little Debbie snack cake I had traded with Warren Gillman for my ham and cheese sandwich in the cafeteria.
I walked fast, then faster, until I found myself running full speed toward my house at the dead-end of the road. The crayon green St Augustine grass was blighted with dark patches. Dad, the ever-attentive groundskeeper, would never have allowed such a shoddy lawn. Closer now, my mind wouldn’t allow me to accept what I was seeing, but my eyes were already filling with tears. The lawn was fine. My cats were not. Lifeless lumps of wet fur were littered about the front yard. One, two, three… six; all of them dead. Dog slobber matted the dark fur of each mangled kitten.
“Bogart!” I shouted, running into the house directly to my father’s gun cabinet. I wept as I fumbled with the locked case. My mother, hearing my despair, came out of her sewing room.
“Son, what are you doing? You know your father’s guns are off-limits.”
“Bogart.” I cried again. “He killed my kittens, all of them.”
“Oh, dear,” my mother consoled. “That dog has been nothing but trouble since the Cowan’s got him. But, honey, you can’t go out shooting the neighbor’s dog. I’m so sorry. What you need to do is find Whiskers and make sure she’s alright.”
“This is your fault!” I screamed at my mother.
“Honey, I was sewing…I-I didn’t hear…” she tried to explain.
“You just want to look good for that new choir director!” Somehow I knew this accusation would hurt her, true or not; it would hurt bad, just like the searing pain between my eyes that now clouded my judgment. She slapped me hard. We both stood there, staring at each other. My parents were never ones to spare the rod, but striking a child out of anger was pure Old Testament.
“I hate you!” I finally said as I broke the maternal bond and bolted out the door.
I expected my dad to call me in for a well-deserved whipping that evening after work, but it never happened. I guess Mom never told him about our fight. While awaiting the punishment that never came, I searched for Whiskers. Rage leaked out of my eyes in hot streaks, but it cooled just enough to allow that singular thought to enter…Make sure Whiskers is alright. I searched for hours; the woods, the barn, the backyard—gone.
While burying the dwarves, I let my mind recreate the epic battle at the dead-end of Peaden Road. I saw the brute, the black Labrador named Bogart, pouncing and chomping the kittens, flinging them high into the air like Hacky Sack bags. Whiskers would have been hissing and growling, powerless, attempting to divert the mad dog’s attention from her helpless, hapless brood. How she must have fought tooth and nail for her babies. All the while, my mom, oblivious to the front yard slaughter, her Singer sewing machine following a cutout dress pattern, thinking how it would look in the choir next Sunday.
I couldn’t protect her. That’s why she ran off. I failed to protect her and her kittens. I don’t blame her for running away, for finding a new home. This is how a second-grader deals with guilt, perhaps the most caustic of all emotions. I swallowed it like bad medicine and carried on with life.
Karma can also be spelled Car-ma. Two months after the cat massacre, I waited at the bus stop where Mrs. Grimsley would whoosh open the door to bus # 8 and transport us to Pace Elementary School. Mike Williams, my neighbor, and friend, shouted, “Hey, isn’t that Bogart following us?”
Indeed it was. Indeed it was. The ever-happy Lab had chewed through the leash imposed by his masters following a long adult conversation with my father. The dog danced and played with the trailing rope secured to his collar. He barked at it, then saw us and came to play. Bogart dodged back in forth, running past us, stopping, then prancing about with his tongue flapping in and out like a pink party favor. Mike grabbed for the rope and missed as the nimble Lab sprang away. He thought this was a game, that we were playing with him, the murderer of my kittens and the cause of Whiskers’ departure.
Mike reached again, and this time Bogart sprinted across Highway 90, a four-lane road connecting Milton to Pensacola and beyond. Something over there captured that dog’s attention. Perhaps a burger wrapper or some dried-up roadkill had him snuffling in the grass at the edge of the asphalt, oblivious to the fast morning traffic.
I looked at my friend Mike Williams and he looked back at me. He slowly turned his head left then right, his mouth just beginning to form the word ‘no’. Finger in my mouth, I whistled louder than his admonition, louder than the traffic, louder than Gabriel’s trumpet. Though poorly trained, Bogart knew the sound of Dog Chow. He bolted back across the highway toward the shrill siren song.
Bogart was fast and would have made it safely across if not for that flagging hangman’s noose. The Pinto full of teens on their way to Pace High roared past, its muffler long ago rusted away. The front tire flipped up the dragging leash and wrapped it around the car’s axle. Just four feet from our bus stop, Bogart was yanked back onto the highway. His eyes bulged out like a cartoon character, and he bit off half his tongue. The axle reeled then ground the Labrador under the speeding car.
Mike turned his head away and completed the only word he could manage—”Noooo!” I watched as Car-ma ground up that stupid dog and spit him out, leaving a 100-yard smear of rusty blood, bones, and furs.
Years passed, and old wounds faded. Bogart’s horrific demise had reasserted my faith in cosmic justice, but it had cost me a friend. Although Mike Williams never said anything to anybody about my untimely whistle, he was a dog lover, and he never completely forgave me. We would drift apart after high school, only recently reconnecting on social media. But we’ve never spoken of that day.
My story, however, was still unraveling. Three years after the incident, my world had opened up to fishing, comic books, and Little League Baseball. I had scant time for pets and less time for crazy cats. My 5th-grade friends talked tough about clipping clothespins to cats’ tails, throwing them in swimming pools, fireworks, and worse. It seems kids and cats go together like kegs and college.
In the spring of ’75, I had a pretty good side-arm curveball. My older brother Dave promised to play catch with me that day after school. Straight from the bus stop, I gathered my glove and an old scuffed baseball. I tossed the ball onto the roof of the house and caught it several times while waiting for Dave to get home. The ball must have hit a limb fallen onto the roof, deflecting its projected course to my glove. It fell ten feet to my right, and I had to chase it to the edge of our woods.
Beside the errant baseball stood a black, motionless cat. The golden-green eyes told me right away that Whiskers had returned. Then I noticed the collar. Nothing fancy really, just a Hartz flea collar, creamy white against her black fur. I reached for her, and she stepped back. Those eyes told me she wasn’t entirely sure this homecoming was such a great idea. Her step was more of a stumble; somehow, her left forepaw had become caught under her new collar. The paw was wedged tightly against her cheek as if she had been trying to slip the damn thing over her head.
Carefully I scooped up my old friend and gently dislodged her paw. I then unbuckled the flea collar that had cut deeply into her fur and removed it from her neck. I sat there with Whiskers for 20 minutes until Dave drove home and broke the spell. While he hunted for his old first baseman mitt, I ran into the house for a bowl of milk. When I returned with her favorite meal, Whiskers was gone, and only the curled flea collar remained. I left the bowl where we had sat and started a game of catch with Dave.
Middle school seniors. That’s how we 8th graders thought of ourselves. Armpit hair and pimples separated us from the lower classmen and prepared us for the hormonal world of high school. My buddies were starting to notice girls, but I was still more interested in baseball than boobs in 1978. That was the year she came home again.
Near the edge of our woods, Dad had dug a fire pit. Every evening I would take the garbage out and dump it in the hole where I would burn it down to ashes. While attending this fire, poking it with a long stick, I would do some of my more profound thinking, searching for answers within the flame just as man has done throughout the ages. Just how is algebra going to help me later in life? Why does Melody Burnham bat her eyelashes at me and giggle every time I look at her?
Golden-green eyes flashed from the wood line. She approached me slowly but deliberately as if it hadn’t been more than two years since the flea collar freeing. I felt a warm ripple as Whiskers began to purr. In the twilight, she weaved between my feet, her tail high and twitching. I bent down, and she climbed into my arms. I rose and cradled her in the hollow of my shoulder. I naturally rubbed my cheek against her fur as she tickled my cheek with her whiskers. A sharp edge scraped my face.
Whiskers meowed near my ear, but there was a strange lisp in her mewl. I held her away from my body like a soiled baby and walked quickly to the carport where the light was better. A rusted fish hook pierced Whisker’s lip. Its shaft was nearly an inch long, ending in a tiny knot of nylon string clumped around the eye. The curved barb protruded from her mouth like an angry fang. Red, swollen skin pulsed around the wound where sleek fur should have grown. Her face was void of emotion, but her eyes darted wildly, then locked on mine, projecting her pain.
“Baby cat, I guess your fine flea-collar family abandoned you.” This was the first time I had outwardly expressed sarcasm and jealousy to a cat. I guess my own buried pain was rising out of its crypt like a B-movie vampire. As I dug around in Dad’s toolbox, I couldn’t help but think that she had chosen someone, maybe even no one, over life with me. But now she was back, perhaps from eating fish bait out of a dumpster, back to the one human she trusted.
“Hold still, Whiskers.” Dad’s di-cutters bit through the crusted fish hook with a finite snap. Whiskers stiffened but did not struggle or unsheathe her claws. She made an eerie sound as I retracted the hook through the rictus of her lip. I put Whiskers down and went inside for a bowl of milk. This time she was waiting for my return. After lapping at the warm milk, Whiskers curled up on the welcome mat and went to sleep. In the morning, the milk was gone, and so was my feline friend. I didn’t waste much time wondering what alternative life she had returned to. There was algebra to decipher and girls to contemplate.
The decade we now fondly recall as the 80s, with its hair bands, Pac-Man, and Miracle on Ice, actually got off to a really rocky start. Mount Saint Helens went nuclear, Iran tenaciously and irrationally clung to American hostages, and the promise of a Beatles reunion tour was shot down.
“Good riddance,” my father, a Vietnam vet and known hippy-hater, had said at the breakfast table. “That’s one less long-hair stirring up trouble. Imagine that!”
My mother did not outwardly agree but probably believed John Lennon had been visited by his own brand of karma on that New York City street, no doubt due to his outrageously sacrilegious statement that the Beatles were bigger than Jesus. In her book, it was Jesus 1, John 0.
In 1981, I had moved on to geometry and calculus but was even more confounded by girls. Melody Burnham had asked me to the prom. After much prompting from my mother, I had agreed but stipulated that this dude doesn’t dance.
I was about to graduate and didn’t have a grand plan. Mom started leaving college brochures lying conspicuously around the house, and Dad had begun retelling old Navy war stories with a newfound fervor, now slightly altering the ending to make each tale sound like a Disney trip.
Sometime between Who shot JR? and Mr. Gorbachev, tear down that wall, Whiskers returned. It didn’t take high school algebra to do the math about her age. I was 8 when she chose me at the shelter; now, I was six months shy of 18. Add on a couple of years for good measure, and Whiskers was approximately 12 years old. Now 12 is not actually old for a cat; some live into their 20s. But I could see that Whiskers had used up at least 8 of her proverbial lives.
Driving home from school in my dad’s 1972 Datsun pickup, handed down to my brother Dave, then to me, I slammed on the brakes, hard. There at the end of Peaden Road, just before it turned into a dirt basketball court, was Whiskers. She was a mere shadow of the cat that had chosen me so long ago.
Whiskers’ fur had lost its luster, and no longer hung right. Her black coat draped loosely over brittle sticks. The light in her golden-green eyes had dimmed to gray embers. She tried to stand and stumbled back to a sitting position. Like all cats, she retained her dignity by pretending the move was intentional. She let out a raspy meow, however, as I spilled my books quickly climbing out of the truck’s cab.
So light, too light, I thought, as I carried Whiskers to the welcome mat under the carport. I laid her down gently, then ransacked the fridge for her favorites—milk and bologna. We spent that evening together, our last. I don’t recall much about that night. Just that I held her, stroked her, and wondered what she was thinking as she completed the lifelong process of dying. I cupped her small face and brought my forehead to hers as we had done so long ago. We both closed our eyes until Whiskers stopped purring.
Beep, beeeep! A Nissan truck, a titanic descendant of my dad’s old Datsun, signaled his impatience at the intersection. I time-leapt back to 2021, idling my red sports car at a green light with a stack of agitated traffic behind me.
There would be no memorials or gravestones for Whiskers. But I remember the spot. It is just beyond the filled-in fire pit, at the edge of Dad’s discarded stack of firewood, next to the dwarves. Time has moved on. Dad is gone; Mom sold the home place; I joined the Army and saw the world through the sights of an M16. But now I see more. I see my past, present, and future at the intersection of Frederica and Sea Island Drive. The black cat gave me one last glance with her all-knowing, golden-green eyes, and then she sashayed across the road toward a small duck pond.
“Mom, how are you? Are you up for a visit from your favorite son?” She laughed, then coughed on the other end of my cell phone, sitting in the dayroom at Victorian Manor assisted living facility.
“I’m always ready to see you, son, but that’s such a long trip for you, over six hours. You know I worry.”
The throaty purr of my Audi became a roar as I launched the car toward I-10 West.
“I’ll be there in five.”
Curiosity killed the cat,
Satisfaction brought him back
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