My aunt kept a cage in her room when the calico one panted. I knelt on the carpet before the cage’s door. Incense burned. TV flickered, babble muted. In those years her southern man played bridge, crossed his legs at the knee, wore a maroon velvet bathroom. At work, he held the keys to the nurses’ cart. Together, they bred cats, showed cats, named them by Scotland’s map—Lockerbie, Kyle, Moffat, Angus—sold them to people who craved round faces. In those years, if she wasn’t happy, she was at least well. She shopped at big boxes for boxes of pop tarts and flats of flavored mineral water in cans. She collected ceramic cows for the kitchen, knickknack wooden houses to arrange above the cupboard doors. She put on pleather dress flats and shin-length dresses, backing her turquoise Toyota Paseo into traffic to zip downtown for work. I didn’t know how to be an adult. I didn’t know how to love a man, even if he was a gay one. I knew how to love cats and lose cats, how to ride the bus and keep my head down, my mouth shut, my body still. The less I was, the more I could be left alone. I watched each kitten appear, some in their sacks the calico licked and ate away, some wet and mewling. I thought, Wow. Cool. I counted each one, adding to the house total—thirteen, seventeen, twenty. There were too many people in my school, too many cats needing love, too many hours spent learning bridge. I read the book, went with my uncle to play bridge with gray hairs in a room with folding tables, a popcorn machine, and fountain pop. I didn’t know I’d never play bridge after they split. I didn’t know I’d grow up to hoard cats. I never thought don’t do it. I thought I’d really love to eat a brown sugar cinnamon pop tart for lunch and, then, another one for dinner.
At the Cathouse
My aunt let me hold a slumber party of girls. We ordered pizza, drank cola, told ghost stories, lit candles, played Ouija. We pretended to drink my aunt’s wine. We crawled into the breeding cages in the laundry room, latched doors and took pictures, pretending we were horny cats. Throw a boot, I said. You’re in heat, my best friend said, Act it. We wanted to stay up all night talking, playing swisher with the cats, watching cable TV. By midnight, only my best friend and I remained awake, plotting our collaborative novel, planning how to do better than our moms, bubbling over crushes we ogled who never ogled back. There were brave cats in our hand purring, cautious cats on the room’s edge, curious cats playing with our offerings—hair ties, pencil, controller. We thought this is the beginning. There are boys in our life and soon high school. There was the summer before us and the pool at our friend’s where we could lay out, put heart stickers on our upper thighs to prove our tans. There were books and cats, hours of city walks, stopping at QT for pop. There were kittens on the way and kittens to be started. I didn’t sleep. I thought, after this, I can go anywhere and wherever I go, there will be cats.
Where are the birds—the crows, red-tailed hawks, blackbirds, swallows? Where’s the flash of wings of a downy woodpecker, the patch of flicker, the sharp V of a sea-less gull? The white-tailed deer—the stags, does, speckled colts? The skunk’s scent, that white line? In our side mirrors we reflect the white sign of corporate farms, GMOs, pesticides, herbicides. With gears turning, we suspect everyone of poisoning. Maybe, we think, as we approach with our load, all of us bare it and they self-preserve and hide.
Laura Madeline Wiseman is the author of twenty books and chapbooks and the editor of Women Write Resistance: Poets Resist Gender Violence (Hyacinth Girl Press). Her recent books are Drink (BlazeVOX Books), Wake (Aldrich Press), Some Fatal Effects of Curiosity and Disobedience (Lavender Ink), The Bottle Opener (Red Dashboard), and the collaborative book The Hunger of the Cheeky Sisters (Les Femmes Folles) with artist Lauren Rinaldi. Her work has appeared in Prairie Schooner, Margie, Mid-American Review, Ploughshares, and Calyx.