S2E09 Quarantine

Joe reads a new bit of fiction: a story about quarantine and a cat that doesn’t have anywhere better to go.


Stephen always hated cats. Always. This hatred had even ended relationships—women who were wonderful in all ways except their loyalties and adoration of cats. Cats. Vile creatures that resent and sulk and destroy. The fat ones that lounge, entitled. The thin ones that shred, mischievous. All of them, unaffectionate and arbitrary, as fickle and arrogant as middle school girls.

Cats were even topics of therapy. Stephen’s counselor theorized about the why of it all: childhood trauma. That maybe Stephen was scarred—literally and psychically—from the family cat. How, as a five-year-old, Stephen tried to pet it, but Misty scratched across his face. The scratch got infected. Or how the next cat, Shadow, left a teeth-wounded mouse on his bedroom floor, bleeding from the eyes and squealing and the boy Stephen, in terror, was too paralyzed to step over it or to scream for his parents. And the mouse, in its agony and erratic death-breathing, moved toward him. Or how, when he was eight, a friend from school, who lived on a farm, took a sack and filled it with unwanted kittens, and tied the mouth of the sack with a shoelace and threw the sack in the river. How Stephen stood by as this happened. And maybe, the therapist said, that if Stephen acknowledged the value of cats he would have to acknowledge his complicity in their execution. The therapist suggested that Stephen wasn’t mad at cats. He was mad at himself.

Whatever the reason, Stephen considered cats lecherous and parasitic, cruel and savage. He wanted no part of them and could feign no tolerance. He loathed the creatures. He would sooner say, “nice cancer” than “nice cat.”

He liked dogs. But his apartment did not permit dogs. Cats, yes. But not dogs.

Stephen had been alone in his apartment for eight weeks, now. Most days without any interaction except email or following links real-world friends posted in the virtual world.

The grocery store trip became the highlight of his life—the going out into the world, leaving shelter, as permitted by state law, only for emergencies, essential work, and groceries. He—at least his work—was not essential.

His family worried about him, alone. Friends called him. Even an old girlfriend, more lonely than he was, perhaps. The spark was long over on that one.

Stephen was tired of faces on screens. At first, it was good: re-connecting, talking to people he intended to visit. But, a month in, it felt as hollow as reruns of baseball games.

Into this, of course, a cat enters. A non-descript cat—a gray tabby, no collar. Scrawny. White toes and a white chest. Young—maybe two years old—and quiet. It sits outside on Stephen’s deck. Stephen does not know why. Stephen shoos it away, stepping toward it and saying, “Shoo.” It leaves.

The next day, it’s there again. Quiet, sitting on Stephen’s deck, looking into the sliding glass door. Stephen fills a glass, opens the door, and tosses water. Cats hate water, he knows.

The third day, Stephen throws his work shoes.

The fourth, he tosses couch pillows.

The fifth, he finds a hose.

And each day, the cat walks away and then returns in the morning. No sound. Just a tabby on the patio staring into the apartment. Even after Stephen closes the curtain, as he turns off the lights so he can’t be seen.

The sixth day is Stephen’s store day. The cat is there when he leaves and when he comes home. Stephen asks a clerk if they have anything to keep cats away. The clerk says, “A dog?”

Day seven, Stephen jumps toward the cat, making sure to land flat-footed in his sneakers to create the biggest clap. “Git.” The cat walks off.

On day eight, Stephen ignores it. But at night, he pulls the curtain, and the cat is there.

The morning of the ninth day, he calls his therapist.

“Maybe,” Dr. Williams says, “it’s a gift. Maybe this is a chance for healing.”

“But you think it’s real?” says Stephen. “It’s not a hallucination.”

“I guess it could be. Hadn’t thought of that.”

On the tenth day, Stephen kicks it.

On day eleven, he whips a leather belt on the ground. Loud, percussive slaps.

On the twelfth day, Stephen calls the city. The secretary answers and says Animal Control is understaffed. Emergencies only. The secretary tells Stephen, “You might as well feed it.”

That day, Stephen understands that only one action remains. He will catch the cat. He will get rid of it once and for all. Out in the country. And that will be the end of it. He doesn’t need to kill it, but he’s willing. If he has to.

So he has his plan. He’ll wait until dark. He doesn’t want any neighbors seeing. Too many cat-lovers in the complex. They would think him—not the lurking animal—the villain.

He will catch it in the dark, drive it in the dark, abandon it in the dark. Ten miles away, no less.

At nine, Stephen pulls the curtains back. The cat is on the patio. Stephen opens the hall closet and takes out a pillow case. He unfolds it, waves it so it billows and opens. He turns off his patio light, slides open the door, and walks to the cat. The cat does not move. It only watches him.

Even as Stephen wraps the pillowcase around it, the cat neither squirms nor squeals.

To be safe, Stephen ties off the case with his belt and sets the bundle in his car trunk. He gets in the front seat. Looks around the complex. Seeing no one, he starts the car and pulls out. He puts on music. Something loud, first. But then something soft. Switching. No song forming the right soundtrack. Then, after five minutes, no music at all. Only the engine.

The streets are bare. Stephen drives a half mile before coming across another car. The headlights are harsh, a cool but abrasive blue-white beam. He doesn’t remember car headlights being this harsh. Perhaps he’s been locked inside too long. When this is over—when he is free to get out—he will go to the eye doctor. He’s getting older. He’ll be thirty-two in October. Maybe he’s aging. Maybe it is all happening, and what has he done with his life anyway?

He still follows traffic laws. He comes to full stops. He looks before entering an intersection. Then, at one light, a police car waits in the opposing lane. Just Stephen and a police car. No other traffic. Nothing to distract the officer. Stephen worries about how the bored cop, needing something to do, might check him, check the car. How he will explain the cat. He can’t. Or maybe he can. The police will understand. It’s a stray. The city isn’t taking care of strays. He isn’t hurting it. He’s just taking it to the woods to set it free. Besides, there is that article about the virus and how cats can carry it. Maybe this cat is contagious. Stephen is not wearing his mask. He’s not wearing gloves.

The light turns. Stephen pauses one second before releasing the brake. The police car is already halfway through the intersection. The officer is a black woman. Stephen notices this then feels guilty for noticing. She continues. Even as Stephen drives straight, watching in his rearview mirror, the cop continues on. Steady red lights. No break lights. No in-street U-turn. Maybe if it was a black male cop, he thinks. Then, again, shame. He is not a racist. These are not the kind of thoughts he should have. And should he talk to his therapist about this?

Stephen reaches the edge of town, past the suburbs, and the speed limit increases to 50. Whenever he stops, he listens for the cat. It’s quiet. Or maybe the car is too loud. Or maybe there is, in the trunk, an exhaust leak. Maybe the fumes have gotten to it. He hadn’t meant to kill it, but, really, wouldn’t that be a merciful way to go. Not drowning. Nothing as cruel as drowning. Just a quiet sleepiness. Like all other sleepiness. Only this one doesn’t stop.

Stephen turns right, onto a streetlight-less road off the main highway, and, after a mile, looks for a place to pull over. There are trees here. Tall trees. It’s dark, except for his headlights. And the houses are far apart. Maybe one of these houses will want a cat. Maybe this cat will wander to those houses and find a home. Some old woman who needs companionship. Someone who has no one else.

He pulls onto a wide shoulder, onto gravel. He turns off the headlights. Turns off the engine. This looks suspicious, he knows. If anyone drives by, they won’t understand. He can explain, but still, it doesn’t look great. But this is the right thing to do. This is better than the cat—any cat he’s known—deserves.

He opens the door, which squeaks. He hadn’t noticed a squeak before. When the quarantine is over, he will get grease and fix the door. Until then, it’s just a squeak. He pats his front pockets, nervous that he will somehow lock himself out. The key is in his hand. The gravel marks each step like movie gravel—a blend of crunch and the whisking of a broom. The woods themselves are quiet. Almost peaceful. But, also, too dark to be comfortable. A little unnerving in their darkness and their quiet. What of the birds? There are no birds. And no sound from the highway.

Stephen thinks of horror stories. In a horror movie, the cat will find its way back to him, torment him. But those are just stories. Cats, abandoned ten miles in the country, don’t come back to houses that were never their homes. They find new homes. Or coyotes find them.

For reasons he does not fully fathom, Stephen is pleased, opening the trunk, that the cat is still moving. He doesn’t actually wish it dead by his hand. He just hates it. Nothing personal. A natural hatred, like a mongoose’s hatred for cobras. It’s a feeling he has toward all cats. For someone else, this might be the world’s greatest cat. But the world’s greatest cat is no less a menace than the world’s greatest hornet or world’s greatest mosquito. Nothing personal.

The cat makes no sound, even as Stephen lifts the pillowcase from the trunk. It does not resist or scratch. Instead, it allows itself into the temporary cradle Stephen forms, resting fully in the man’s arms. Unanxious. No defense. Stephen feels the weight and the warmth. He feels the pillow case’s insides nestle into his chest. All the pillows this case has ever covered have not done this. They are inert. They are room temperature. They are utterly indifferent.

Stephen lowers the case to the ground. He is gentle. He loosens the belt.

The cat, cautious at first, pushes out of the pillowcase. It walks four steps and then settles, as it had for nearly two weeks, on its haunches—its front arms straight—sitting up, staring at Stephen, eye to eye.

“Nothing personal,” says Stephen. “I told you to get.”

Stephen walks around the car and says, behind him, but not looking back, “You’ll be fine.”

He gets in. Turns the key. Turns on the lights. He pulls out slowly. Doesn’t even spin out on the gravel. He makes a wide U-turn, and the cat watches him. It doesn’t budge. Stephen rolls down his window. “You git, now,” he says.

The cat does not “git.” It stays. It watches Stephen.

Stephen can make it out in his mirror. Just sitting there. Watching. Glowing red for a moment. And then it is too dark. The cat is part of the shadows now. It’s free among the woods. And all this is finally over now. Stephen can go home now. In peace. He can finally be all alone.


S2E05 Frost

Joe is done with Lent and the Plague. Instead, he wants to talk Passover and Robert Frost.


I had drafted a long essay on a strange dream I had about cats lurking in the bottom of a pond, like the ancient floating knights in Tolkien’s Dead Marshes. These cats, beneath leaves and in jade green water, waited for unsuspecting ducks to land. The essay was not nearly so interesting as the dream. It was another ponderous entry in my ramblings about the church and Lent and the Plague. I am bored with the Plague now, just as I am bored with Lent. Also, I don’t know that the world needs any more writing about these things. There is, already gestating, countless books, memoirs, poems, and PhD dissertations waiting to be birthed in the decade to come, assuming we don’t all die. And I feel for the science fiction writers: the Plague has made reality more fantastic than Dune or I Am Legend. Just like the last presidential election made political satire nearly impossible—reality eclipsed fiction in its scope, absurdity, and destruction of norms.

The truth is that none of this feels normal. And I’m not resigned to this being normal any more than I think the current world of politics is normal. Instead, I’m more convinced that it’s all unsustainable. It’s the anomaly, not the new norm. We can live this way for a while, but, at some point, we will want adults running countries again, just as we will want—need—live sports, concerts, and high school graduations. At some point, doctors will be bored again, teachers will count the days until summer. Churches will stop trying to convince me that online communion is communion—or that a Facebook livestream is worship.

This fracturing—the way the illusion of control isn’t convincing—makes me think of Robert Frost’s poem, “The Mending Wall.” That poem, like so many Frost poems, is easy to misunderstand or to remember sentimentally: good fences make good neighbors. But the line that calls to me is the first one: “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.” It’s a subversive little idea: that the things we build are somehow undone by the ground we build them on. In the poem’s case, the wall is undermined by the ground beneath it freezing and swelling with the natural cycle of seasons—the very foundation rejecting the artifice built upon it. I wonder if there is, in me, something like this: “Something there is that doesn’t love a webcam.”

Perhaps it is the nature of being a Gen X-er, that generation with one foot in the analog, one in the digital. Computers and devices were easy to adapt, but my fingers still trust books—the textures, the weight, the way I remember where an idea is located on the page even if I can’t quite recall the idea.

To my surprise, I’ve found, lately, that my best writing flows when I apply pen to paper. Most of these essays I’m reading originate on screens. Writing with a computer and keyboard is efficient and practical. It allows me to log things, make quick corrections, and keep consistent. I can build a structure quickly and then prune and finesse it. But in a closet in the next room, I have a stack of notebooks. And each morning, I let my pen move across them and I discover things—the slowness and tactileness and unpredictability of the process—that, in using the keyboard, I do not find. Perhaps it is efficiency: that the better I get at typing, the less I hear or the less I’m surprised. I just move forward. I follow the first idea that comes to me. It forms the structure. I add or subtract ornamentation. When I handwrite, sometimes there’s room for a second or third option because it takes me longer to finish the current thought. Or maybe it’s that my right hand, when given full control, is a better and more imaginative storyteller than my two hands, delegating alternating digits, attempting to coordinate in some finger-to-finger popcorn dance.

Yesterday, after a morning of despair and turmoil, I found a glimmer of peace. Perhaps it was simply the result of a nice nap. But somehow I understood that the world would either end or it wouldn’t. And there wasn’t much to be done about it. The quarantines and distancing and economic engineering would, at some point crack. I understood, at some level, that this was either one in a long string of apocalypses or it was the final apocalypse. I am not romanticizing destruction or loss. Instead, I’m aware and awed and terrified by its scale. It awakens something primitive in me. Like in those summers on the campus of Pacific Lutheran University when the sky was free of every particle and Mount Rainier stood monstrous and omnipotent, and I hid behind trees and in buildings to avoid its view. It could have killed me on a whim. I knew it. I felt it. And anytime that I think that this current Plague can take everyone and everything from me, I tremble.

At the same time, perhaps I am a Romantic—it’s all about the sublimity and scale. I am, at some level, excited to be part of a human story, one that connects me to old stories—like the ones that become epic movies. Like the book of Revelation or the story of Passover.

Speaking of Passover, my wife is, in the enviable flexibility of the word, Jewish. We will keep Passover this year, our second together. Last year, was my first non-Christian Passover, by which I mean that I had participated in Passovers, hosted by Christians, pointing to Jesus in them. Christians do to Passover what we do to everything else—look for the secret message and, like me typing rather than handwriting, move so efficiently that we miss what is begging to be discovered.

That first Passover, Hope and I were invited to a family gathering in North Portland. Everyone, except me and Hope, knew one another. The hosts’ parents flew in from Pittsburg to lead the Seder. The food was entirely vegan. It was everything I hoped Portland would be when I got here: perfectly strange and inviting and vulnerable. I drank homebrew kombucha rather than wine. And they invited me, an omnivore Christian, to read along in a story I thought I already knew, but had never quite heard.

This year, Hope and I will take part in Passover through a remote meeting. My boys are here, three Christians among the four of us. Despite that, and the virtual nature, we are going decidedly traditional foodwise: matzah, wine, a lamb shank scheduled for delivery. And I’ve been listening to rabbis lately, talking about apocalypses. How they come and go. How the plagues in Moses’s Egypt are coinciding, in 2020, with the Torah readings—the locusts in Africa, the hiding as if the day had become black as night.

In some strange way, I’m over my disappointment that Easter won’t happen and am embracing Passover. Not that I am rejecting Christianity or Christianizing Judaism. Only, I am accepting that the world ends, which is not exactly the message of Easter, nor is it the tone of Lent. The world ends. Some people know and remember that better than others. It is, of course, good and wise to act in a way that stops the world’s end—or that minimizes the severity and violence of its ending. But when the world wants to end, it ends. If it wants us to stop polluting it, it knows how to shut down our factories and to make oil a burden. It would, of course, be wiser for us to moderate our production, moderate our lives, moderate our ambitions before we have to be reminded that we are not larger than the world, that we are not immune to apocalypses. But, in the end, the world is bigger than us. Just like it is in Frost’s poem, in Creation’s quiet but insistent dismantling of our structures.

Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,

That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it,

And spills the upper boulders in the sun;

And makes gaps even two can pass abreast.

The world ends. Then we work to build a new world. Over and over. We build our wall, the ground dismantles it, then we build again. Each time, perhaps we learn to become better builders. Or maybe we find a way to allow the ground to swell and breathe without it needing to topple us. Maybe the world we build, this time, when the ending ends, will be a little better than the one we are being told to leave behind.

Theme music is “Holiday Gift” by Kai Engel, via Creative Commons. For artist information, see http://www.kai-engel.com