What Might Have Been

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Of all the words of mice and men,
the saddest are, “It might have been.”
Kurt Vonnegut ~ Cat’s Cradle

The mouse scurried across the kitchen floor and Jay’d had enough. He threw his coffee mug at it. The only result was one less mug and another mouse running rampant in his house.

“God dammit!” Jay howled when he got up to go for the broom. He hadn’t yet decided whether it was to sweep up shards of ceramic or to swat the rodent. In his rush, he placed his bare foot on a piece of the cup bearing the toothy face of his old cat, Teddy. From time to time, Teddy would stab a claw or fang in Jay’s feet. The feeling now was much the same, including Jay’s anger at stampeding mice. Teddy was a conscientious objector in the war of feline versus rodent.

But Teddy was gone. Two weeks before, Jay had let the old cuss out the back door one night and he never came back. A pack of coyotes from the hills behind his yard or some other predator must’ve made a stop for some tabby-to-go, Jay figured.

“Leave it to you become the prey instead of the hunter,” Jay said when he found the bloody shadow left of Teddy in the dirt by his mom’s last hydrangea next morning. He always tried to sound so tough, so alpha male, even while talking to himself, but Jay cried for a couple of hours that morning. He didn’t leave his place to go look for Teddy because he wasn’t sure he could take finding him. He called in sick and retired to his bed, as mice as bold as they were silent raced through the house.

“Didn’t want to find you one way or another, you lazy old cat,” he said to the picture of Teddy decalled his coffee mug the next night. It was the only photo Jay had of Teddy. Jay’s mother took the picture and had the mug made for Jay as a birthday present just before her heart attack. She left her home to Jay and, by extension, Teddy. And Jay left her room just as it was the afternoon she died. It wasn’t difficult. He just closed the door and barely ever looked inside.

Now his Mom was gone, Teddy was gone, and the nexus of both of them in his life, that mug, lay scattered on the kitchen floor. An ear lay in front of the sink, Teddy’s calico butt and stub of tail by the fridge. Just for a moment, Jay’s regret surged a bit, realizing he was responsible for Teddy’s tail-ectomy, having closed it in that very refrigerator’s door one night after a date with Cassie. He’d heard a short yowl but thought he’d once again stepped on one of Teddy’s five orange toes on a forepaw. The next morning, Jay’s Mom about fainted when she found four inches of tri-colored Teddy lying in the lower door tray next to her half-and-half.

So now the only pieces of that mug carrying a decent portion of their portrait was one with Jay’s forced smile and suspicious expression giving a new figuratively missing piece of Teddy the side-eye. The piece with Teddy’s face had elicited Jay’s “God dammit” when it became stuck in the sole of Jay’s bare right foot.

Jay hobbled over to the corner where he kept his broom, grabbed it and swept what pieces of Teddy he could see into a pile near the trash can. That was the one from behind which he saw the instigating mouse make a sprint for the space beneath the stove.

“I really gotta clean this place up,” Jay said to Teddy’s blood-stained face he held in his hand. He washed the blood off Teddy and off his own foot, bandaged his cut, but leaned that last piece of his family against the dusty vase of straw flowers on the kitchen table.

“What do you think, Ted? Should I get a new cat or just put a bunch of traps around the place?” Jay said to the pixellated picture of his late companion. The cheap decal Mom had paid twelve dollars for had begun to crackle soon after his birthday and Jay’s smashing of the mug just about finished the job of giving Teddy’s portrait the appearance of a calico crocodilian.

“I mean, just like with Ma, no one’s ever gonna replace you. I’ll put a few traps out tonight and see if we can’t smash us a mouse or two. What do ya say?”

The next morning, Jay found a fat mouse beneath a flipped over trap. It was the one he’d placed against the wall next to the trash can. Jay had slept fitfully and thought he’d heard some commotion around 4:00 AM, but didn’t want to move. He figured nature, a dab of peanut butter and that length of squared and coiled steel would take their course.

Jay snagged the trap with the hook of an unwound wire shirt hanger he’d mostly straightened and kept in the closet just for such occasions. He picked up the deceased, the trap still attached to its broken neck, it’s stiffened tail and legs sticking out like some cartoon creature smashed by an ACME sledge-hammer, and headed with it toward the back door. It wasn’t that he was fearful or squeamish, Jay always convinced himself. He just didn’t want to catch any fleas, hantavirus, tularemia or hemorrhagic fever with renal syndrome. The fact that the latter had never been seen in the United States was beside the point to Jay, who was certain the borders were sieves for all kind of vermin. He’d heard that on his Mom’s kitchen radio, another of her possessions he chose not to disturb.

He opened the back door and was about to toss the dead mouse in his large outdoor trash container, the one he padlocked to keep bears away, even though no bear had been seen thereabouts in fifteen years, when he heard it. And then almost stepped on it.

It was a high-pitched meowrr, meowrr. In the dim dawn light—- Jay couldn’t sleep any more anyway—-he saw the little ball of grey fur with black spots and stripes.

“Holy shit,” Jay said, dropping the hanger, trap and mouse next to the trash can. “Where the hell did you come from, little guy?”

Jay scanned the yard as the sunlight ran over the horizon and through the trees to his back door like a wind from the east. He kneeled down and placed his hand on the kitten just as it opened it’s black rimmed grey-green eyes and bit down on his finger, giving it a healthy suck. He flipped the little one over and saw that its umbilicus was healed and dry and found no other physical issues with it except it was minus its mother.

“Well, little one, if ever a prayer was answered, not sure if it’s yours or mine, this is it,” Jay said. He scooped up the kitten, which let go with even louder meeowrrrrs and hisses, scratching Jay’s hands with its needle-sharp claws, and carried it into his house. While he secured the kitten carefully but firmly in his armpit, he fished about in the cupboard and found a dish which he filled with milk and set both kitten and dish on the floor next to his chair.

The kitten began to lick at the milk but wandered away from it in a few minutes to curl itself around Jay’s stocking feet. If Jay moved his foot, the kitten would move along with it, always staying close, as if feeding off his body heat.

Jay was uncertain what to do. He knew the kitten needed to eat, but didn’t seem interested in the milk. He remembered he still had some cans of Teddy’s cat food left on the shelf, so he walked over to the cupboard, pulled down a Fancy Feast and opened it, all the time trying not to trip on his new house guest and shushing its incessant meeowrrrr.

To Jay’s surprise, the kitten dug right in to the cat food.

“You must be a little older than I thought, weaned at least” Jay said. “Well, how’d you like a nice warm home here with me? I’ve got a nice bed for you and food and toys and a clean cat box…. Cat box! Oh, man, I gotta go through all that again?”

Then the kitten wrapped itself around Jay once more, closed its eyes and fell asleep. To Jay, this cemented the deal. In about ten minutes, Jay also fell asleep. When he woke up, around 2:00 PM, the kitten still lay at his feet, but was whining quite loudly.

“You still hungry or are you hungry again?” Jay asked the kitten. He ladled out another blob of cat food and the kitten tore into that with more ferocity than even before.

This intimate domestic situation went on for two days. Jay was pleased that his new kitten’s gentle nature, but not how it demanded all his waking time. It wouldn’t leave his side and would whine and practically growl every second he left it alone.

“Jesus, can’t a guy even take a piss around here without you tagging along?” Jay said. Then the kitten would cuddle up to him again and all would be forgiven.

But Jay knew he had to go to work. He decided to close the kitten in the mudroom by his back door with all the food and water it would need for eight hours. He peeled the kitten off his leg, gave a gentle toss onto Teddy’s old bed and said, “You be a good boy, uh, uh Mickey,” and quickly closed the door.

When Jay got home, he found the mud room tossed like a thief had broken in searching for valuables. But he also found pieces of a couple of mice and blood smears here and there, as well as on little Mickey’s mouth fur.

“Damn, bud, let’s not go freaking native my first day back to work. Teddy would sleep all eight hours except to have a little lunch, a drink and hit the cat box. Then he’d do it all over again when I got home. That was his life, except when I’d let him out in the yard for a stroll,” Jay said in a half-stern tone that turned to pure love when Mickey cuddled up close again.

It went like this for the next week, except on Friday Mickey, who seemed to have grown fifty percent bigger on cat food and mud room mice, had somehow forced open the door to the kitchen. When Jay arrived home and saw the open door, he ran inside to find the kitchen in shambles, but with more signs of mice having met their maker.

“Well, at least you’re earning your keep, Mick,” he said. But once again, Jay could barely leave the kitten’s sight without it whining or, something new, throwing a tantrum like a two-year-old child. Except Mickey’s tantrums were those of a two-year-old with a pre-teen’s strength and teeth and fangs sharp enough to slice through leather.

The following Tuesday, that’s just what happened. Jay came home to find the living room scattered with debris and his father’s old leather easy chair butchered and eviscerated, right down to the mouse blood on its old white stuffing that lay strewn from its wounds to the kitchen door.

“Mickey! Look what the hell you’ve done to my place. Man, you better come correct or it’s off to the shelter for you,” he said. Mickey curled around Jay’s shins, purred his peculiar purr and licked each of the four toes on both his front paws.

At the end of his third week with Jay, Mickey had grown even more. He put away twice as much food as lazy old Teddy ever could, as well as eradicating every mouse that dared show its pointy snout even a half-inch into daylight. And Mickey dug his claws through a section of Mom’s bedroom wall to excise a nest there and all its inhabitants.

“You’re a beautiful beast and probably the greatest mouser ever, Mick,” Jay said one night, “But Dude, I’ve gotta find some way to dial you back or I’m gonna have to let you go.” Mickey gave a growling sort of meeeowrrr and wrapped his great front paw around Jay’s ankle, essentially pinning him to his chair. There would be no letting go from Mickey’s end of their relationship.

This was Mickey’s latest maturing behavior, his establishing ownership of his domain. Jay thought about it one night as Mickey slept against his back, just like his ex, Cassie, did before she ended what had been an eleven-year relationship that began when they were ten and her family moved next door.

“Jay, I think we’d better move on with our lives,” Cassie said three months before Teddy disappeared. “I’ve always loved you, but I can’t see much of a future for us until you see someone about…things. I mean look at this place.” Cassie pointed to the piles of pizza boxes, empty bottles, newspapers, mouse droppings and the detritus of a man who’d given up on “things.”

“Maybe when you can open that door again,” Cassie pointed to Jay’s Mom’s bedroom, “then you can call me and we can be Cassie and Jay again…but not until and then we’ll see how things go.”

And Jay just nodded and didn’t even look as she walked through the mud room and out his back door.

Now, since Mickey had come into his life, Jay had rectified some of those “things.” He’d begun taking better care of the house, keeping everything picked up and clean lest Mickey go on one of his terror raids. There were no more mice. There was no more mess. Jay looked up from Mickey at the open door down the hall.

“You were the one opened Mom’s door, you big lug. Crap, you opened more than that. But that made me fix things up. Maybe I ought to give Cassie a call,” Jay said to lightly snoring Mickey. “Maybe she’d come back to me if she knew I had the most majestic cat, the greatest mouser in the world, and the house was a rodent-free bastion of our inter-species primacy, Mick. Because, Dude, as much as we have our own special thing going here, there’s a hole in my life bigger than the one you dug into the basement.”

So Jay called Cassie, feeling her out and casually dropping, “I’ve got a great cat to succeed old Teddy around here, ya know. Great mouser, the best. Helped me clean up a lot of things. I think you’d love to meet Mickey, Cassie. How’d you like to stop by and see how we’ve straightened up the place?”

That last part was a still a bit of a white lie. While most of the house was neat, Mickey had by that time torn up the sofa, Mom’s mattress, a wall in the bathroom and half of Jay’s shoes. But Jay figured he could throw a little camouflage here and there, just to get Cassie back to see how the place cleaned up.

“Well…. Maybe I can stop by on my way home from work,” Cassie said “I would like to see how you’re doing, Jay, and this cat sounds like a miracle worker. And I want to believe in miracles.”

It was around 5:30 that Thursday that Cassie parked her Hyundai in Jay’s driveway, noticed that the old hydrangea had actually bloomed this year and how quiet it all seemed around Jay’s place. Not even birds sang in the old maple Jay would climb out on to sneak a peek, and eventually sneak himself, into her bedroom window next door.

Cassie rang the back door bell, since that was how she always came over, and could hear Jay padding his way out from the living room through the kitchen. He opened the door and invited her in with an awkward hug.

“Maybe just for a sec,” Cassie said. “I thought it would be nice to say hi and see this new cat you were…”

From the living room came a crash. Cassie could hear the scratch of claws on linoleum and the growling morrowrrrr. The kitchen door sounded like someone threw a sack of topsoil against it. Then it burst open.

Cassie stood transfixed as twenty-plus pounds of spotted fury looked around the open door. In one twelve-foot leap, Mickey reached them, beat a paw against Jay’s leg and chomped down on Cassie’s shin. The inharmonious sound of the trio meeting in one spot: soprano shriek, baritone ‘No!” and a guttural exhalation served as puncturing punctuation to the hoped for reunion.

The back door flung open by Cassie’s backward fall, Mickey twisted his head, released his jaws from her leg with a sickening slash and bolted over top of her, across the yard and in one more athletic leap, over the fence and into the woods.

“Jay. Why…?” Cassie cried as she clutched her bleeding leg.

Jay stood stunned looking down on the girl he loved and then out the door as Mickey’s short black-tipped tail melted into the woodland shadows as if he’d dived into a pool without a ripple.

Once the various emergency services vehicles — fire trucks, ambulance, animal control, state wildlife department truck raced to his front door and then left one by one, Jay sat in the old easy chair which he’d covered with a sheet, explaining to police about the kitten he found near the trash bin in his backyard and how it was the greatest mouser he’d ever seen.

“Honest, officer, Mickey was a one-cat extermination service. And affectionate? Why, he’d never hurt a fly. I mean maybe he was feral once, an orphan who didn’t know any better, but he slept by me every night for a month,” Jay said.

“Look, buddy, that wasn’t a feral cat, wasn’t some stray that wandered into your yard. The wildlife guy said it was almost certainly a bobcat kit that’d lost its mama, maybe to some motor vehicle or illness. I mean poor Cassie is gonna have to go through rabies treatment in addition to sewing her up and relieving some of the horror she experienced today.”

“I’m sorry, I didn’t know. Sure, he was a little aggressive, but we don’t know he went through to get to my back door. And now he’s gone, just like Teddy. Just like Mom. Just like…Cassie.”

“C’mon with us, man,” the cop said. “We’ll let the brass decide what all to charge you with. Possession of a dangerous animal without a permit. Assault with a deadly weapon. Stupidity.”

“It wasn’t supposed to be this way. You don’t understand. Mickey was… I was… The mice… It was all just…what might have been.”

As the cop took Jay by the arm and led him into the waiting cruiser, a field mouse, curious and entranced by the flashing lights poked his head out of the hole beneath the ash tree behind Cassie’s old house.

He never knew what hit him.

Written in response to the prompt quote at the top of the story for my friend Annie’s Writing Outside The Lines. And yeah, it’s long.  But it’s only Draft 1.2.

A Star Is Born

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The sun has ascended to
the height of this ironically
apropos Sunday, pouring down
not its graces, but relentless
white beams of heat and staggers
upon we roadside travelers.
Beside me, the cloud-free storm
sifts through the trees in their
summer costumes. The slightest breeze
cues the branches to shimmy,
transforming the blinding spotlight
into kaleidoscopic drops that dance
with the wind on this stage.
From the wings, a fawn wanders
downstage in a costume of
variegated daytime, turning
from understudy to headliner,
now outlined in sparkling grand jeté
upon the green marquee at
the corner of my eye.

Kinda saw this scene while driving this afternoon. However, didn’t hear the new star give her name so it could’ve been Esther Blodgett, Vicki Lester or Mrs. Norman Maine.  Don’t mind my cinematic rambling. The sun and heat have gotten to me.

Rum Punch…Extra Ice

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It was a short, wicked blow
that put him down.
What started at the shoulder,
connected where the jaw
affixes to the skull.
T’was a thing of geometric,
kinesthetic and pathological
beauty, bisecting the great arc
of it’s target’s roundhouse paw,
stopping his forward motion
with it’s direct line of force
to its target of bone,
tendon and nerve endings —
the temporomandibular joint —
the victor knew would drop this bum
like a sack of haggis composed of
offal, Bud Ice, testosterone and hubris.
While the crowd’s hooting
dwindled, she shook her hand
and ordered a rum punch…
extra ice.

Ever a champion of women’s rights to beat the boys at their own games (I coached girls’ basketball for 30 years), this piece flashed out at me from that very first line. I followed it, building upon that short right hand to a summer quaff for its knockout ending, which might please only me. 

Of Pretty Words and Words for Pretty

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You can’t wait for inspiration.
You have to go after it with a club
~ Jack London

The fan rattles away, blowing ripples
into my shirt and goosebumps
on my arms. My hands float poised above
the keyboard awaiting the control tower
to get its head out of the ass
of my head to impart instructions
(I can’t hope for inspiration)
for a landing I can walk away from.
In the monitor’s glass, I see
an expression of flight, but not
a flight of whimsy or artistry,
rather of runaway fear and survival.

But I can’t leave the room, I mustn’t
leave this chair, until words, perhaps
even pretty ones, fall from my heart
to the virtual page. And so I type —
fetching, lovely, cute, captivating
heartfelt all. Now I await another
flight — of fancy or fear it matters not—
while the fan flips the silver on my head
as it oscillates like my creative self,
by and by and by in the lonely monotony of
the writer who’s forgotten how to write.

Where I reside in the literal, literary and physical senses these days.

Straight Down Union Avenue

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They speed up I-87 before dawn, hot hopes and cool beverages in the back of their SUVs, just to get a shady spot at 7:00 AM. Some transport a designer-dudded entourage on a G600 into Albany International from Dubai, or maybe just ol’ Ma, Pa and their millions wing their Citation from the Hamptons into the little strip outside town this morning. But they always come, August after August, and I’ve never understood why.

I am the anomaly, the local who’s never been to the Saratoga Racecourse to see the thoroughbreds run. Back when I worked in The Spa, I drove past the revered track a hundred times, watched the steeds clip-clop across posh, tree-lined, manure-strewn Union Avenue from training on the Oklahoma Track, then kept on driving.

Do I eschew the milling thousands because I hate crowds? Do I stay home in air-conditioning because the sun and heat make me sick? Or am I just too cheap? Not too cheap to bet on the horses, but to lose on them. I don’t know nor care.

I imagine I might — barely — endure the hustle and hassle if someone drove me to the track, feted me with food and drink, then awarded me for my trouble with a little more. Funny thing, though. That itinerary might make me another of you track-goers, but it just as easily could make me another horse. And to both I still say…neigh.

Isn’t It Pretty to Think So?

EH 4449P Ernest Hemingway reading books with his dog Negrita at Finca Vigia in Cuba. Please credit "Ernest Hemingway Collection/John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston"

Ernest Hemingway reading books with his dog Negrita at Finca Vigia in Cuba. Photo courtesy of “Ernest Hemingway Collection/John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston”

We have only one thing in common really, Papa and I. We both cut our teeth in the word stringing game as young newspaper reporters. I think by that definition,this is where our similarities end. I didn’t go to war,suffer grievous injuries, move to Paris and hobnob with the literati of a Lost Generation, write a seminal novel of the Twentieth Century or live like this is the only day I’m going to get, then make sure it is.

Minor maladies helped me avoid my war, I only suffered a broken heart (chronically), I moved to that other cosmopolitan city starting with P: Plattsburgh, NY, and my ink-stained, scribbly hobnobbing was with characters called Bags, Botsy, and Burly. My brushes with death were a whitecap-skipping airplane flight armed with a camera and an apple farmer threatening me armed with a gun. Oh, and a heart grown too hard that inevitably turned me perhaps too soft.

But Papa’s words in my throat, my heart and a location south of there made me a writing man as much as a man who writes.On this, his birthday, I recognize I’ve never hunted lion in Kenya, never pulled four spouses and God knows how much tail, never drank enough to make a belligerent difference, never forget I’ve outlived him and know I’ll never pen last words of any piece I’ll ever write that are so incongruously sad as, “Isn’t it pretty to think so?”

I just completed my semi-annual reading of the novel that has informed my life as a writer probably more than any other, “The Sun Also Rises.” And today is the author’s 117th birthday. So I share with you a piece of my relationship, personal and professional, with Ernest Hemingway. If he ever read this clap-trap, I’m sure he’d cut 50% of the words and punch me 100% in the jaw.

I Dream of Riding the Treetops from Cahohatatea to Skahnéhtati on Butterfly Wings

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They say, before the White Man came to this place, a squirrel could travel tree-to-tree from the western bank of my great North River the Mohawk called Cahohatatea to the Father of Waters, the Ojibwa’s Misi-ziibi, and never once touch the ground.

The premise that some ambitious arboreal rodent might make that half-continent jaunt upon the green leafy or needled tops of what was not yet considered American timber is hard for me to envision. And that saddens me.

Some fine artist should recognize in poetic imagery that’s how it was, instead of Mountains, Prairies and Oceans that roll upon America’s margins like the heads of nicely poured beers. No purple mountains, and no fruited plains, a lesser writer’s reach for something that bounced on the right beat and rhymed with “grain.”

Yep, someone should address that pre-Columbian Interstate 10 at altitude because we’ll not experience anything like it again. Though how many really care about that lush here-to-there anymore? Our wild trees now exist within dotted-line walls on maps, like deciduous Black Rhinos or coniferous Karner Blue butterflies.

The latter are dainty flappers who once shared my home territory with wild everything elses from the shore of the erstwhile Cahohatatea all the way to the Mohawk’s Skahnéhtati, their “place beyond the pines.” I’ll bet those pines were as thick as God’s hairbrush, though are surely as sparse now as the once-black hair on the back of my head. From where I look, neither will I ever see again. And I dream of experiencing them both a least once more.

As I said, sad.