No cats were harmed during the events related in the following story, or during the telling of it here. As a general rule, my buddy Bill Bissell and I are quite fond of cats.
December: bitter cold, two in the morning. Stuck in the suburbs with nothing to do on a Friday night, we cruised the loop around our town a half-dozen times. We passed the strip with the bright street lights and neon gas stations that shone like alien saucers in the night; the Taco Bell where that greasy night manager slipped cigarettes to the teenage girls who hung out in the parking lot; the Dunkin Donuts where the policemen chewed Boston Crèmes and flirted with the Mexican women working the night shift. Lap after monotonous lap, there it was again: that dead cat lying in the middle of the road. Each time around, Biss and I stared slack-jawed until it disappeared from the rearview.
Tonight was not the first time we had seen it; this rug of fur had been lying there in various poses of rigor mortis for at least two weeks. We were bored. We were sick of dead cats cluttering up the byways of our town. We were tired of waiting for whoever’s job it was to pry animals off the road to come by and get this one. So we took matters into our own hands. We are not to be blamed for cruelty to animals. The cat was, in fact, already dead.
And we won’t apologize for making our own entertainment. In those days it was necessary. We had no mall. No organization, league, or mission designed to keep us off the streets. There was an underage dance club called Peppers, but Biss had been told not to return after getting busted for puffing cigarettes behind the dumpster out back. There was a water tower, too, but we were scared to scale it with spray paint cans in our hands—and we’d have had no love to publicly profess once we climbed up there anyway. Fun was scarce. It was the eighties, so we had to make-do with an arcade, a skating rink, and a golf course on which we could not afford to play—though in the subversive way of teenagers, we had applauded our friend Matt for sexing up a girl on the fourteenth fairway.
We had one movie theatre rerunning the same three movies for weeks. To while away the time we circled the theatre parking lot, fogging the atmosphere with the exhaust from my rumbling Camaro, waving at the same girls waiting in the same line to see the same movie they’d seen last weekend when we’d made the same circuit around the lot. If we could pony together the gas money, we’d ride out to a reservoir called Dog River, where we’d dip Skoal until our heads started swimming and break bottles against the rocks until they glittered in the moonlight like tiny fallen stars. We’d fill up the backseat with those girls and bring them with us, all jingly bangles and lip gloss and Bubble-Yum breath, if they were tired of the same movies.
It really is a testament to the inertia of our town that somebody didn’t do something about that cat sooner. After all, cars had been swerving around the thing for two weeks now, giving it a wide berth, because who wants rotted cat carcass embedded in the grooves of your tires? Not to mention the hair, which by this time had endured enough rainfall and frigid temperatures to cure to the approximate texture of a decade-old welcome mat. But, of course, some people don’t keep a close enough eye on the lookout for carrion. They’re on it before they know it. Already this one had been run over repeatedly and knocked from shoulder to shoulder across two lanes of traffic too many times to count.
Though the government section of our local phone book did not contain a number for Deceased Kitty Scooper-Upper, we were pretty sure somebody was not fulfilling the requirements of their job description. In the best interest of our fellow citizens, then, Biss and I set out to amend the problem, free of charge. We were proud to do our part. We did not expect to be thanked.
We pulled over to the shoulder of the road and got out. Desiring to avoid direct contact with the cat—we were bored, okay, but sanitary—I popped my Camaro’s trunk and rummaged through its contents in search of the perfect instrument. A tire iron would have worked splendidly, but alas I was unequipped for changing a flat or, apparently, disposing of roadkill. My algebra book would not be more helpful here than in class; neither would a basketball. We briefly considered the potential of an aluminum baseball bat, but we couldn’t decide which end might work best, the barrel or the handle, so we commenced scouring the backseat.
The cat was flatter than a frying pan, and in a sense had become part of the road itself—so our method of disposal would require an archeological tool. Lacking a shovel or perhaps a spatula, we settled for what we had on hand in the backseat: a cane. It sat in the floorboard, nestled against a matching top hat. Together they comprised a formal ensemble. The top hat possessed no practical advantages, but Biss plopped it atop his head anyway, because it always pays to look dapper when you are scraping dead cats off cold asphalt at two o’clock in the morning.
The curious reader no doubt will wonder why a suburban high school boy would tote around a top hat and cane in the backseat of his car. Was he getting a head start on accumulating prom attire? Was he auditioning to play the role of Abe Lincoln in an upcoming dramatic production? Actually, the hat and cane had been languishing in my backseat since the beginning of the school year.
We were seniors, and a time-honored tradition in our town was to bestow top hats and canes onto all members of the rising group. The message? We were classy. We were leaders in the school and in the larger community. We studied hard, respected our elders, and maintained good posture. And whoever started this annual tradition would be pleased to know that Biss and I now were doing our part to beautify our town. The hats had always been a nuisance, awkward and ill-fitting, the snugness leaving faint red burns on our foreheads; and we had previously used the canes only to duel one another in the Kroger parking lot or swing them at mailboxes. But now we were endeavoring to use them for a purpose commensurate with their noble intention. We were performing our civic duty.
Normally it would have been dangerous to remove roadkill from such a heavily-traveled thoroughfare. Perhaps this explains why the cat had lay unfetched for so long. But fortunately, in the burbs, the wee hours of the morning provide a break in the traffic, especially when the temperature lingers somewhere below the freezing point. Because our project was a private enterprise not officially sanctioned by the authorities of our town, we were careful to keep our eyes peeled for a cop car rolling down the straightaway toward us.
Once our chore was underway, it did not take long to complete. Biss went first. He approached the cat skeptically. Keeping a safe distance, creeping up on it, he poked it with the cane. I feel obligated to report that we were a little afraid of the cat, but when prodded, it did not stir. We had expected odor to be an obstacle, but by this stage of decay all stench was a thing of the past. We debated whether spearing it would be the best tactic. Finally Biss slid the cane under a portion of the cat that, if questioned, we would be hard-pressed to identify. We were pretty sure that it was the anterior parcel. But we would not bet money on it. You would think that certain characteristics—the ears, say, or the feet—would be easily distinguishable. But the degree of decomposition was such that we congratulated ourselves for simply recognizing that this lump of fur was, in fact, feline.
Biss was able to get the cat airborne, and to our everlasting surprise it remained in one piece. It was balancing precariously on the tip of his cane when he decided that this should be a duo project. I joined him.
Readers who have never hefted a dead cat with a cane will be surprised to learn of its bulk, relative to expectations. A dead cat is heavy. Its sheer weight is one thing, but balancing it while maintaining the distribution of that weight is quite another. Anyway, what I’m trying to say: Less committed individuals would have found other means of serving the public good.
Nevertheless, it’s much easier for one individual to wield a cane with a dead cat teetering on the end of it. Working in tandem, four hands on the cane, we dropped the cat several times as we maneuvered ourselves under it. But we both recognized the fundamental communal nature of this event. This had to be a mutual experience. One cannot take credit for the civic acts of others. Biss’s social consciousness was not automatically going to transfer to me. So together we gripped the cane, hoisted the cat off the pavement, and with one mighty heave, we flung that cat into the tall grass skirting the roadside.
Biss and I high-fived. We pumped fists into the air. We danced in the middle of the road like the heroes we were.
Which is not to say we were content to revel in a job well done, just yet. We were, after all, teenagers. The next thirty minutes consisted of two boys taking turns performing various tricks with a dead cat. Biss tried to hold it suspended in the air directly above his head—until it slipped off the cane and landed with a dull thud on his shoulder. At one point, I remember, I even balanced the cat on the cane, tossed it into the air, and attempted to bat it into someone’s yard. I was unsuccessful—only a foul tip, as it were—but perhaps it was that failed attempt and our howling laughter that accounted for why that neighbor’s porch light flickered on.
Dear reader: we panicked. Scampering to my car, we left the cat to its own devices. It was now out of the roadway at least. We had done our duty.
We looped the town a couple more times that night, but somehow everything else seemed anticlimactic. It was now past three o’clock. I drove Biss home. We were exhausted but still stoked with adrenaline. Sitting in my Camaro, we told ourselves the story, celebrated our starring roles. We were two boys stranded in the suburbs of Atlanta, Gee-Ay, but tonight epic heroism romped through our veins. We were deserving of a king’s feast, something grander than the half-empty bag of stale Doritos and the flat NuGrape rolling around in the floorboard, but we made do with what we had on hand. We felt a little sad that the cat was now off the road, and that tomorrow night our suckhole town would have another chance to swallow us.
It was a night for photos, but we were twenty years ahead of camera phones, when even the most trivial moments could be captured on film—to serve as reminders years hence of a time when a dead cat was just a dead cat, because you believed you were never going to die.
But in my mind’s eye there’s still a snapshot. A single distilled image of that night. It’s of Biss, straddling the center-line of that roadway—the same yellow streak that in a few short months will lead us out of this town and into the wider world. He’s wearing a grin of pride, looking like he’s really done something. The cat dangles from his cane. He lifts it toward the sky until it fuses with the streetlights overhead.
He doesn’t have occasion to wear a top hat, this high school boy bored out of his mind on a Friday night, but nevertheless there it is, perched atop his head like a crown. He’s the king of the world, this kid. He sure looks classy.
Return to Volume 5.2
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