He Wanted Out
The jagged streets of NO are slathered in the run-over bodies of kittens. So concerned animal lovers trap feral neighborhood cats. These lonely old women then bring the cats into the hospital, which fixes them free-of-charge before releasing them back into their colonies.
After answering a No Experience Necessary ad I was handed a net, a hypodermic needle and a bottle of Ketamine tranquilizer, and pushed into a closet-sized room full of hissing, pissing cat carriers. 20 times a day I one-at-a-time open each carrier door, so that a cat human hands have never touched can fly out in a desperate panic, springing to the ceiling screaming at me and releasing a slick of urine as I chase its blur up walls and between glass jars full of stethoscopes and fecal lubes, the net smacking loudly against every surface until I finally net the fuck, sit on its back, and shoot it with an ass full of Ketamine.
Jen only glancingly showed me the techniques for proper capture and how to anesthetize a cat for surgery. During that anomalous demonstration, Jen was dramatically serious, as always. She's younger than me but as hard as I won't be for another five years or two heartbreaks. Her personality befits her body the thinness of her eyeglass frames, and her eternally pursed lips pierced by a silver ball --- the same metal as the kennels. Only once was she going to kneel before me with a freedom-possessed cat trapped between her knees, pointing out, "This nerve right here that looks like a vein, if you stick that nerve you will paralyze the animal."
Though nodding, I was distracted down her hospital scrubs, reading black tattoos drawn from above her small, braless breasts to her holocaust ribs. I'd have paid better attention had I known there'd be no repeat.
Jen doesn't want to teach me because she doesn't want me to learn. Like many people, Jen loves animals because they give her control in a world where we have none. For her, animals are here to lord over, to quarantine or set free, to let live or put-out-of-misery. I am an intrusion upon her duties, her higher calling. Despite Jen's three-year seniority and extra $1.50-an-hour, the doctor tells us we are equals, but... I serve only to set her free from sanitation duties. I exist for her only long enough to mop piss or blood.
But left alone overnight the animals generate too much piss and blood for one person. So Jen concedes to clean the dog runs in the mornings, "Because I'm a dog person," she says, when really it's because she can stand up and hose dog poop from 10 feet away, while the cat cages are cleaned on hands-and-knees. I don't complain though; I am a cat person. Soft cats aren't bad in the morning. The last thing I want at 7:30 a.m. is the insane screaming of caged dogs like a distorted PA System hooked up to a microphone that's leaning against a sheet of metal being hammered. But today Jen still hadn't arrived by the time I'd finished the cats, so I decided to clean her dog runs too, relishing the chance to later smirk, 'I went ahead and did your work too.'
I chewed paper towels and crammed the wet wads into my ears, preparing for the screaming sheet metal, but outside, the runs were swallowed in the striking silence of a hanging question. Each dog sat still in each cage, face on paws, barely looking up at me as I walked along the chain fences searching for the source of their silence. I found it in the last run; two red-wet, wilted German Shepards --- a big baby and her mangy, skeletal mother --- wept up at me from a bloody mass of blankets. I cried out less because of the blood than for fear of what I'd do about it without Jen's instruction. That's how they get you...
I assumed the dogs spent the night ripping each other apart, and that the others were worn-out from cheering them on. But before I could panic I noticed, mingled in the blankets of blood, a fist-sized, black blob. The blob's mew echoed off the orange tile. A baby! None of us had known the mother was pregnant. I scanned the cage and spotted two more black lumps. Mama Shepard's tired eyes followed me as I opened the gate, stepped into the red puddles and gathered the three crying babies in my arms. The puppies looked undercooked with their eyes swollen shut and their mouths screaming toothless. Placenta ran onto my pale green hospital scrubs (which I always think make me look important to the other people on the bus) the same as that gumbo I'd spilled. I was redeemed.
Unless older dogs bear small litters, I knew there had to be more babies. I stained my shoe nudging through the blankets. There was nothing until I leaned over the drainage gutters where poop is hosed; four more black blobs lay inert in four inches of water. I ran the living inside.
Jen was nowhere. I ran the babies into surgery, set two of them on the spay table then ran the third to a heating pad in the cat room. There was meowing from every angle, thin arms and paws reached out to me from between bars.
Running back into surgery for the rest, I noticed the bloody footprints I was tracking everywhere, hundreds, like an Army of the Undead had marched through. And it hit me that it would be me mopping it all up later, bathing the bloody, smelly Shepards, washing the red blankets while Jen assisted in surgery...
When all three babies were safe on the heating pad, I followed my blood-documented path back out to the dead in the gutters. But placing them in a white, plastic garbage bag, I heard a muffled mew from the last apple-sized body; it was still wrapped in a pink membrane that had kept the water out of its lungs! My heart screamed and I ran with the fetal dog cupped in my hands back into the hospital, where I smashed into Jen, the puppy almost squashed between us.
My happy hand grabbed her shoulder and, over-excited I yipped my first out-loud words of the day: "That old German Shepard with no hair on her tail just had babies!"
"Don't touch me," Jen said.
I let go and ran. Jen chased me demanding, "Give it to me!" and "Where are the others?!"
I didn't think to answer. In the cat room I stared in wonder at the tiny creature struggling in my hands, a beautiful monster screaming beneath its bubble-gum membrane. I opened the kennel and lay it on its back with its siblings.
Jen followed me in, commanding, "Tell me where they are!"
Staring at the encased pup I asked Jen over my shoulder, "If I break this membrane will there be like...an air pressure change that crushes its lungs?"
"Yes, it needs to be cut," she scowled. "Get out of the way! Let me do it!"
When she stepped toward me I snatched the pup up and blocked her with my shoulder. Our cheeks touched. "Give it to me!" she roared, trying, her entire face clenching into a hard straight line, her skeleton trembling against my elbow.
I barked back, "I know you know this job better than I do! But in NO other way are you superior to me!" I heard myself laugh like a professional wrestler, then, "I am EASILY as smart as you will EVER be! I've written books, Jen! So you know what, the way you refer to the surgeon as Dr So-n-so; I want you to refer to me as Author Michaels. And don't ever, EVER talk down to me again!" At that my shaking fingernails pinched the membrane. I turned to drill a smile into Jen. She was muzzled.
"I am not an idiot!" I shouted, ripping the membrane from mouth to feet like unzipping a sleeping bag. Its mews sharpened, escaping into the air. I closed the cage on the four squirming babies then leaned my back against the kennel bars, calming. Jen was gone. Cats reached out to pat my shoulders and the back of my head.
I arrived home from the last hour-and-a-half bus ride I will hopefully ever take to find Brad under our giant gazebo, which always makes me think of slavery. He sat at the iron patio table, whittling yet another walking staff. Slivers of wood fell from him like dead leaves.
Standing behind him, I lamented to his white ponytail, "I'm an idiot."
As much of a "student of the soul" as Brad purports to be, he didn't empathize. His sage advice, without looking up from his whittling:
"Fuck that job." Then a big pause with nothing in it but the sound of his pocketknife biting off leaves of wood, and the skid of chair feet on cement as I sat down too. Brad's own knotty staff leaned against the gazebo's guardrail. He was carving this new one for a client whose just-read tuh-ROH cards were still splayed out across the table. Brad had made $50 from the reading, plus tip. He'll receive another $100 for the staff. He makes a good living, and he will never be fired.
The gazebo's shade was worthless; we were both sweating, Brad from telling the future and me from walking seven blocks home from the bus stop, feeling idiotic. Before I could tell him why I'd been fired, he let the half-carved staff fall into his crotch, and raised his arms above head-level, one palm up as if catching rain and the other still holding the knife. "You live in a god damned mansion, man," he reminded me. "Act like it! You're worth more than $7.00-an-hour to ride the fucking bus an-hour-and-a-half outside of N'Orlins at 6 a.m. to clean up cat shit!"
He laughed his deep laugh, which sounds sometimes nurturing and wise, and other times too nurturing and wise to be taken seriously. Either way, I trust him. He continued his Twain-ism, "Shit man, I had better paying jobs back in the 1700's. Cars weren't even invented yet and I still had a easier time gettin to and from work than you did on that bus."
We laughed together until Brad shook his head and scolded, "You should be disappointed in yourself for taking that job in the first place."
This renewed the passions that first compelled me to ride the bus so far outside of NO, to fill out that application. First I gave Brad the pessimist's defense: "Since the war started I just haven't wanted to be in the service of humans, all those jobs are just useless formality...shallow."
"The entire time I worked at the hospital," I continued, "the only contact I had with the war was accidentally reading a headline on some clawed, urine-soaked newspaper. And that vacation from humanity alone compensated a couple invisible dollars."
Still nothing from him but a dull smile as he wittled. So I gave the economic defense: "And at least it was a solid gig. Wars don't stop people from caring for their sick animals."
"Only Mardi Gras does," Brad chuckled, referencing a story I'd told him one night under the gazebo while drinking wine with the citronella candle burning: that day I'd been shaving a kitten for surgery when the doctor explained to me, "More pets die during Carnival than any other time of the year, because emergency cases can't get through traffic, and some people'd rather just let their pets suffer and die rather than miss the parades." I was so interested in the doctor's Mardi Gras stats that I blindly shaved off one of the sleeping cat's nipples. A "nipple-ectomy" the doctor called it, laughing, confiding as the cat bled, "Everyone does that once or twice."
In my two months there, Brad would cry with laughter at these stories. That's one reason I liked the job, and why I'm sorry I lost it.
I attempted the middle-class defense: "Also, I learned a lot there. Working in that operating room was the most I've learned since college. It was like grad school. I learned so much about biology, medicine, whatever...I could now write a book on the art of surgical sterilization; how to use an auto-clave, all the particular tools that human hands aren't allowed to touch, and when, and why. Did I tell you about how I had to wipe the bottoms of my shoes with rubbing alcohol when I'd travel in and out of certain rooms? All these tedious little rituals..."
"Sterilization is like a superstition," Brad nodded.
I don't know where he formed that brilliant analogy. He claims to have worked every job there is, which at first I thought was another of his storytelling devices, but after this, my 12th firing, I'm thinking I may get my own chance to work everywhere in the 32 years it'll take me to reach Brad's age.
"It's all well-and-good to learn things you'll never use," Brad said finally. "But you barely helped in surgery, you told me you spent most of your time cleaning up cat shit."
I looked up to the gurgling, humping noises of the pigeons that live in the frilly trim of the dirty mansion next door to our clean one. In NO people eat pigeons; it's called Squab. Next door, the squabs' gray-pink fluffy breasts rested in their own whitewash like it was a picnic blanket beneath them. True, I won't miss the shit.
From the birth onward, not the biggest puddle of blood or urine could bring Jen to speak to me. I couldn't enjoy our calm equality though, knowing that rather than conceding to silence, Jen merely lay wait in it.
She lay wait until this morning, when passing the door of surgery I caught her ending a conversation with the doctor, "You can add that to the list!" And somehow I knew The List was her tally of my fireable offenses.
I envisioned The List:
1. The nipple-ectomy
2. The time he mis-sexed that male cat, causing the doctor to cut open its belly in search of a uterus.
3. The time he used the same mop water for the quarantine room as he did for the rest of the hospital, spreading ringworm to the other animals.
"But those are understandable mistakes," Brad chuckled, laying aside his whittling to collect his scattered tarot cards from the table. He shuffled them like a blackjack dealer and continued, "They had to expect that kind of thing, hiring someone with no experience." He looked up at me through his gray eyebrows, "I'm a psychic," he laughed, "Don't bullshit me. What really broke the camel's back?"
4. Yesterday, when he let that red-haired cat go.
Jen found the red-haired cat a few days ago in the employee parking lot behind the hospital. He was amazingly sweet and we all wanted to own him but he was fat and smelled of cigarettes so we knew he belonged to someone in the neighborhood. Despite, Jen brought him inside to remove his reproductive organs. It irked me, the satisfaction she got from playing the role of Mother Nature in Surgical Emasculation. And how would his real owners feel when he came home nutless? But outside-cats with intact equipment reproduce like guppies, and 99% of them end up dead, so the voice of dissent died on its way up my throat. Until yesterday morning...
I showed up to clean the cat room and found the red-haired cat still in its kennel, crying its eunuch head off. So I walked out to where Jen was hosing the dog runs and asked, "Why is he still here?"
Her ten-foot spray of water rolled a turd into the gutter. Over the screaming metal dogs I barely heard her grudgingly reply, "I took him back to the parking lot and set him down, but he didn't want to leave." But I did hear spider-cracks in her icy voice; she'd grown attached, didn't want to let him go, even if it meant his living in a cage forever.
I walked back into the cat kennels where he cried at me the entire hour-and-a-half it took me to finish cleaning, until finally I had to witness for myself his denial of freedom. I carried my red-haired brethren in my arms, out into the misty morning parking lot. The orange leather pads of his feet didn't even touch the blacktop before he was but blur disappearing under the fence.
His absence went unnoticed all day, until 6 p.m. as Jen and I replicated the morning routine in preparation for closing. In the sink I was scrubbing the day's bloody surgery tools when she rushed in. I shut the water faucet off to hear her ask and accuse, "Where'd my cat go?"
My face flushed. I shrugged, turned the faucet on, continued scrubbing.
She reached over, turned it off. "Where is he?"
"I - don't - know," I over-annunciated.
I looked down at my hands in the sinkful of shark-attack-red water and sharp tools. When I looked back up she'd disappeared. I continued scrubbing, promising myself, First thing in the morning I'll admit it to the doctor, but I don't need to tell Jen. Jen's not my boss...
Over my whistling (I - can't - find - my - way - around) and the sound of running water I could still hear Jen stomping frantically from room-to-sterilized-room, asking everyone, "Have you guys seen my cat? What happened to my cat?" Until finally I panicked and broke down. As she passed the door of surgery I shouted, "Hey, Jen, come in here."
I turned off the faucet and admitted myself. She didn't even ask me why I did it. She just pursed her lips so hard it looked like it hurt.
But then suddenly, she released. Relaxed. Smiled. There was less tension than I'd ever read in her; she'd lost her cat, but she'd won. -4-
When the doctor sternly asked why I'd let the cat go my inner voice eloquently defended, Well, Jen said that when she'd tried to get him to leave, he wouldn't leave. So, I thought I'd try again. The way she'd made it sound, I thought she'd be happy that I got the cat to do what she had tried, and failed...
But my mouth said only, "He wanted out."
Brad laughed until he began coughing so hard a card fell out of the tarot deck in his hand. For a second I wondered if the card was jumping out at me, trying to tell me something. But Brad picked it up and replaced it in the deck before I had a chance to see. Not that I would've know what it what it meant.
Brad then brushed the woodchips from his shirt, said goodbye, and dragged his staffs off through the grass, past the fountain. But as I pondered alternate job solutions, my eyes fell upon his tarot cards on the table.
Before he could disappear around the huge white corner, he turned back. I pointed at the deck and he came back over. I should have picked it up and walked it over to him, but I didn't feel right touching his cards.
"Shit! Thanks," he said, back under the gazebo's worthless shade.
As he collected them I suggested, "You should read my hand now."
"What?" he asked, stepping back into the sun; despite his sharpness of mind and tongue, his eyes and ears are beginning to tune out the world, which I wouldn't think would be all bad.
"Read my hand," I repeated.
"Your hands? What about your hands?" he laughed, walking away, shouting at me over his shoulder, "I'll bet they smell like cat piss."
I sniffed them. He was right. Mystical.
I admired him as he disappeared. And when I finally stood and reached into my pocket for my keys, I felt the little bottle of Ketamine. I'd forgotten to put it back in the medicine cabinet when the doctor asked me to leave.
If times get too rough, at least I have that.
About the author:
From 1997 to 2000, musician/painter Michael Patrick Welch was a Staff Writer for The St. Petersburg Times in his home state of FLA. After a year-and-a-half of interviewing hip-hop celebrities he naively pursued his first EVER creative writings in the form of the exhaustive and self-destructively honest on-line journal, COMMONPLACE (http://www.screwmusicforever.com/commonplace/). After the journal won an award from Tampa's alternative weekly paper, and several entries were published at Paul Tough's Open Letters and McSweeneys.net (to name a couple) he turned into a result-oriented weasel like most other writers, though he didn't move to New York. This piece is an excerpt from the author's upcoming novel, further sections of which might appear on Pindeldyboz in the weeks to come.