By Terry Barr
Penny, our neighbor’s cat, always looked both ways when she crossed a street. I know because once, when these neighbors — the Shaws — went on a camping vacation, they asked me to feed Penny for them. I was surely no older than five at this time but old enough to be trusted with my first off-site chore.
For the first couple of days, I walked down to the next block, found Penny curled up on the porch, and served Penny her tin of food, which she accepted with all due grace. The third day, however, I got involved with my baseball cards and didn’t head down to the Shaws until late afternoon, not believing it really mattered to anyone what time Penny ate. When I opened my front door, though, I found that it truly did matter to someone. To Penny, who was sitting right on our porch waiting for me. We strolled down the sidewalk together, and when we got to the corner, I watched as Penny first looked up the street and then down. And when she stepped off the curb, so did I. Such a wise cat.
I hoped that she would rub off on my cat Tom, but her discretion didn’t interest him. Maybe that was because as an adult male living in those days before TV game show hosts admonished us daily to control our pet population, Tom interested himself mainly in Penny’s body. We never knew for certain that he was the father of the multiple litters she produced, or, for that matter, whether he was also the father to his own grandchildren. For the kittens kept coming, and at any one time, the Shaws had twenty or twenty-five cats roaming their grounds. Parenting issues aside, Tom seemed happy and content, and at least half the time came running from under shrubs or from the neighbor’s backyard when I yelled, “Here kitty, kitty, kitty.”
As he got older, he liked sleeping on the heated pipes of our basement, so most often all I had to do to find him was open the basement door. He’d casually slink from the upper pipe right into my arms. My father referred to Tom as a “mangy, burpy thing,” but once I caught Dad stroking Tom’s head right down to the shoulders in that way I knew my cat liked.
Like his two predecessors, Happy and Happy II, two all-white cats who disappeared in succession before I turned three — and I don’t know who named these two Happy, though it could have been me — Tom finally vanished one day, the victim of a fight over the children, I suppose. Or maybe it was his refusal to take Penny’s safety tip that ultimately did him in. One of the good things about pets is that they often go off to die, and by the time you’ve noticed them missing, someone just tells you that they’ve “run away” or perhaps found a better home. Maybe ten miles from our house on lonely Oxmoor road there was an antique shop called Happy’s. That’s where I thought my first two cats had found a place of their own. As for Tom, he went just like he came: out of, and to, nowhere.
Actually, I do know where he came from. I was outside one late summer day, and a young cat walked right up to me and sat down beside me on the grass. He meowed, loudly and distinctly, and before either of us knew it, I was begging my mother to let me keep him.
“I guess so,” she said, “but we’ll have to ask your Daddy first.” But by the time Dad came home, Tom had already devoured two bowls of milk, set right on top of our kitchen washing machine for him, and had secured his name. At first, I wanted to name him “Sammy,” after an old cat of my mother’s, but he just looked like a Tom. Black, gray, and white: a typical tomcat. So when Dad arrived that night and looked right at Tom, asking “And who are you,” I had a good feeling. Though Tom would always be that mangy burpy thing to Dad, the two maintained a healthy and respectful space within our house.
The day after Tom arrived, Penny’s owners, Steve and Carla, walked by our house with another friend, Janet Hall, who lived on the next street up from us.
“Hey, look at my new cat,” I yelled to them. They walked up our sidewalk to admire Tom, but as Janet got closer, she said, “That’s my cat!”
Before I could panic, she added with a resigned wave, “Oh never mind. You can keep him.”
I didn’t know then that people gave away their pets, that love could be transferred that easily. Years later my wife and I would give away a cat I found one day when I was looking to buy a car from a private owner. The Honda Accord had no rearview mirror, and after I test drove it and declined, the lady who was selling the car said, “Well, maybe you’d like the cat instead.”
A solid gray, “Russian Blue” cat whom I eventually named Annabelle, she developed a bad habit of spraying our furniture. So a few years later when one of my daughter’s friends kept telling us how much she loved Annabelle, we decided to give the Russian Blue away.
I still dream about her, too, as I do all my other long-gone cats. In these dreams Annabelle’s in the basement somewhere with Hugo, Angela and Alice, staying warm and ready to come to me if only I’d call. My therapist says that since in these dreams the cats are always there and OK and come when I call, it proves how much I loved and cared for them: how much they’re always with me.
I haven’t told him about giving Annabelle away, so I think I still have some work to do.
It’s not exactly that I feel guilty about taking someone else’s cat or giving mine away. But I do wonder about the moments of these decisions, how we make them, and how we react to and live with what comes and goes from our sight, in our limited sphere of protection.
How we react to what is lost and what is found.
Not too long after I took Janet Hall’s cat, she lost something even more dear: her father. I knew her father. He was my first dentist. I don’t remember him well, whether he was fat or thin, tall or short, black-haired or gray. I think he was nice, even gentle for a dentist. The one thing, however, that I do remember all these decades later, is that it was Dr. Frank Hall who introduced me to the scent of death.
How I could have had so many cavities in my baby teeth though I brushed them every night — swallowing the salivated paste instead of spitting — I’ll never know. How many times I visited Dr. Hall and smelled that odor of drilled enamel and bone, I can’t recall either. It might have been only twice, but once would have been sufficient to know forever that smell, your own body burned. Still, it must have been twice at least because I remember knowing enough to hold my breath that second filling. Or maybe I’m just confusing this with my next dentist, because even with a new dentist, they kept finding cavities.
I think Dr. Hall was the first person I ever knew to die, and he died so suddenly and soon in my life that I hardly knew he’d lived.
We learned of his death through the Shaw children. Breathlessly, one summer afternoon they entered our house, Steve and Carla.
“Dr. Hall had a heart attack and died,” they yelled as one. And before any of us, but especially my mother, could ask a question or react in any way, they continued: “Janet was at our house. They called our mother, and Janet heard. Then when her mother came to get her, we tried to keep Janet from running out to tell her. But that’s what she did. ‘Mama! Daddy’s had a heart attack. He’s dead!’
“And then she got in the car and they drove off. We could hear Mrs. Hall screaming and crying!!!”
I had been outside before Steve and Carla arrived, and I saw the Halls’ beige Cadillac careen around the corner of Eighteenth Street, heading up the hill toward their house. I don’t know anymore whether I actually heard the screaming and crying or whether Steve and Carla’s description simply entered me, became my memory. I know Mrs. Hall’s voice, though, everyone who knew her did. She had one of those voices that I can only describe as sounding like she had a frog in her throat, only without the hoarseness. If she was on the other end of the telephone and you were in the most remote part of the house while your mother was speaking to her, you could hear every word she uttered as plainly as if she were a staff sergeant giving you your orders for the day. Her car, as it rounded the corner, would have been a half-block from me. And whether or not I truly heard her crying voice then, I definitely still hear it now.
Though it registered with me that Dr. Hall had died, that I had lost my dentist, as a boy of five or six I couldn’t go too deeply into what else this meant: what it meant for Mrs. Hall or her five children. I couldn’t think of what it would be like to have your daddy die suddenly, to never see him again. So I don’t know what our neighborhood did afterward. Surely someone went to the Halls’ house. Surely someone took the smaller children — Janet, Julie, and John, the baby — and cared for them while Mrs. Hall attended to her husband’s arrangements. Surely Mrs. Shaw, Mrs. Terry across the street, and my mother lent aid and comfort wherever they could. Of course there was a funeral a few days later and of course a community mourned its treasured son, another soul dead and gone to heaven.
Over the subsequent years, the Hall family survived and went on with life as competently and successfully as any other family in our midst did. Just this past year in fact, Mrs. Hall died. She was eighty-nine. Her children, all grown and married decades ago, survive her. I hear that they’re doing well, that Janet even reads my stories via Facebook, which makes me happy.
Is it strange or funny that no one ever says, “You’ll always remember your first dentist?” I wish that when I think of Dr. Hall, I wouldn’t always smell death, but that’s the way of memory, of life.
The other thing I remember about the day Dr. Hall died, though, is that after Steve and Carla Shaw left, I sat in the front yard for a while by myself. At some point, Tom the cat joined me, sitting right beside me in that way cats have of being always present, of being always in the moment of their being. I petted Tom’s head and shoulders, felt the two ridges of his shoulder blades, and then hugged him to me. He’d be mine for another few years. Like I said, I don’t know the circumstances of his leaving. Of his passing. But I do know that though he’s been gone for fifty years now, I’ve never stopped remembering the day he found me waiting for him. Just him.
Nor will I ever forget the girl who gave him to me, though of course I’ll never understand why she let him go, or how, in the only girlhood she ever knew, she adjusted to his loss.
Terry Barr is an essayist and teaches creative nonfiction at Presbyterian College. He lives in Greenville, South Carolina, with his family. His essay collection, “Don’t Date Baptists: and Other Warnings From My Alabama Mother,” is available on Amazon.