Wednesday, July 05, 2006

 

The Cat

He was among them, sitting in a straight backed chair. They were all young and spread out about the room in small groups. In the corner of the room, a radio perched on a shelf, was playing soft music. Some of them were at card tables and occasionally they would shout at each other. The arguments were always frequent when they played cards and the noise often drowned out the music.

It was a hot night and he was sweating. They were all sweating. Outside, the mosquitoes were thick. The screen door was rusty in spots and he could see the bugs on the outside trying to get in, banging against the screen. The night was one of dreaminess and he felt its quietness.

They were members of the community club, of which the room was a small part. He didn't feel like playing pool or dancing, the heat was stifling.
Suddenly the music stopped and in an excited voice an announcer interrupted the music. They all stopped what they were doing and listened. The war was over. It was V-J day.

There was a moment of silence. He would be coming home, he said to himself, meaning his brother. And he would bring the Japanese sword home for him.

They all burst into shouts and cheers. Most everyone danced around, shouting and singing and cheering. He, however, continued sitting in the chair. Someone came over to him and shook his hand.

"My brother Joe is in the Navy, " he said.

"The war's over," the other boy said.

He got up and joined the rest of the crowd in dancing and cheering.

"We beat the yellow Japs," they all shouted. "We beat the slant eyes."

The building almost shook from the force of their dancing feet. They turned the radio louder.

"We beat the Japs, " he said, feeling part of the wining team for his brother was in the Navy.

"They eat dogs," someone said.

"They do?"

"Yes."

"And they beat women and children."

"Let's celebrate."

"What can we do to celebrate?"

"We're too young to buy beer."

"Let's smoke cigars. Everybody smokes cigars to celebrate."

"Yes, let's."

They all rushed to the small candy counter and demanded cigars. The old man who tended the counter smiled at them, tears in the corner of his eyes and sold them nickel cigars. Some bought one and others bought more, he just bought two. He lit one and put the other one away in his shirt pocket. They all puffed and the warm air became thick with smoke and the old man chased them outside.

They pushed through the door, shouting and singing. The night was dark and the one bare light bulb over the door was surround by bugs. They spread out along the side of the building and puffed the cigars, sending up a smoke screen that none of the bugs dared penetrate.

"My brother will be home soon," someone said.

"They'll all be home soon."

"Except the ones that were killed, like Tony Pastuck. "

"My brother is on a carrier. The biggest one we have," he said proudly.

"They eat dogs," the boy next to him said.

"No they don't."

"Hell they don't. I read about. They sure as hell eat dogs."

"My brother never told me. He writes me about everything," he said.

"Well, maybe he forgot. But they sure as shit do."

"They kill women and children," another said.

"And hooray, we won. We beat them, " they all shouted.

The cigar smoke thickened. They could hardly be seen, except as shapes in the thick smoke. He finished one cigar, his head was beginning to whirl. But he lit the other one and puffed. Some of the others had finished smoking. Some were staggering about, the effect of the nicotine having dulled their senses. It was hot and he moved about, but there were no breezes. He went back inside and leaned against the counter. The old man smiled at him.

"You're really celebrating, " the old man said. "You'll be sick."

"Isn't it good the war is over?"

"My son will soon be home. It is good the war is over. There will be no more senseless killings."

"Do they really eat dogs?" he asked.

"Who?" the old man wanted to know.

"The Japs."

"They sure as hell do eat dogs."

He went outside. The mosquitoes still thick around the light. Most of the others were leaving. The celebration was coming to and end. He had finished half of the second cigar, and was beginning to feel sick. Others were also sick and were going home. They had been celebrating for two hours, shouting and smoking under the mosquito harassed light. The old man was locking up. He lingered for a time with some of the late celebrators and when the old man turned off the light, he said goodnight and started walking home. The half finished cigar he threw away. His stomach felt strange and his head was spinning. He sat for a time and waited for the spinning in his head to slow down.

At home he sat on the porch steps in the warm night air and the cat moved against him, its swollen stomach brushing against his arm. He rubbed the cat's back and she licked his hand. He sat for a long time in the warm night.

The cat rubbed against his legs as he walked into the kitchen. The kitchen was dark, but he did not turn the light on.

He lay awake dreaming of distant seas. Dreaming of his brother who was celebrating in the dream and a huge Japanese sword.

He slept late. The stale taste of cigar smoke in his dry mouth and a slight headache.
His mother was at the kitchen table when he came down.

"Oh, I so happy. Now Joey come home," she said.

"Yes, " he said.

"They must be bad people. I wish always for the war to finish and Joey come home."

"Did anybody get the mail?" he asked.

"No. I no think so."

He wished there would be a package for him, or a letter. He always waited for the letters, they made him happy. He could see himself on the giant carrier, shooting the enemy planes, thick as mosquitoes, and he would down them all.

There was no package, but there was a letter. He read it on the way home, thrilling to the words written on the paper so thin he could see through. He completed the letter before he got home.

His mother was still at the kitchen table when he entered.

"What was in the mail?" she asked.

"A letter from Joey?"

"What does he say?"

"Nothing."

"Read me the letter."

He read the letter to her. She picked it up from the table.

She had tears in her eyes. " He be home soon."

There was nothing in the letter about the sword.

"I have a job for you today, " she said.

"What?"

"Drown the cats," she said.

"What cats?" he asked

"She have six kitties last night. Drown them all."

"Let them live," he said. "They don't hurt anything."

"No, I no want all them cats here. Drown them."

"Well, where are they?" he finally asked.

"In the cellar."

He continued sitting at the kitchen table thinking about the big guns of a carrier and the letter and the sword. Then he went to the cellar. The cat was, laying on its side, while the six kittens crawled over her.

He got an old potato bag from a corner and emptied it. He picked up the kittens, one by one and placed them in the bag. The old cat watched him. He slung the bag over his shoulders and climbed the stairs.

The cat followed him but he shut the door before she could get out.

It was warm outside. He adjusted the bag on his shoulders. The weight was small and he only needed one hand to hold it and the other he shoved into his pocket.

There was a certain dislike in having to drown the cats, but he tried not to think about it. He knew if he didn't do it, his mother would ask the neighbor to do it and he couldn't let that happen. He crossed the railroad tracks and headed for the old abandoned strip-mining holes that had filled with water. Yellow sulfurous water.

The old cat was on the porch when he got home. She looked at him and he turned his head. He did not touch her, but when he sat down the cat came to him and rubbed her back along his side. Then she sat down and began licking her swollen breasts. He got up and went into the kitchen. His mother had gone next door and the room was empty. He sat down behind the stove and put his head in his hands and watched a silken spider web on the corner of the leg of the stove. The picture of the cat licking its breasts and the small air bubbles that rose from where he had tossed the burlap bag filled with the kittens and the large stone came to him and he felt ill. He dreamed of his brother shooting a Jap who was eating the leg of a dog. Then his brother took the sword from the soldier and kept it. He awoke when his mother opened the screen door and came in.

She was still holding the letter and did not notice him at first.

"What's the matter?" she asked when she saw him.

"Nothing," he replied.

"I take the letter to Mrs. O'Brien to show her and for her to read again. Her son will come home, too."

"You sick?" she asked again when he did not say anything.

"No," he answered again.

"You drown the cats?"

"Yes."

"Mrs. O 'Brien say she would be like one. You drown them all?"

"Yes, all of them."

"I think we should have saved one. "

She picked up the letter and held it gently in her hands.

"Them Jap people must be bad people," she said softly. It sounded like a question.

And he would never answer that question.

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