When Alan was eight years old, he killed his cat and spent the rest of his life trying to figure out if it was an accident or not.
When Alan asked for a pet kitten, his parents, naturally, refused. “You’re too young,” they said. “You’d kill it.”
“No I won’t – I promise!”
“Promise has nothing to do with it. A cat’s a big responsibility.”
“But I only want a kitten…”
“Remember your chameleons? You promised to take care of them, too, and they wound up dead – all of them.”
“That’s different – I was a little kid then—“
“Alan, it was last summer – you’re still a little kid! The answer is no.”
But Alan did not give it a rest. In the end, after much arguing, complaining, and negotiating, the responsibilities were defined, the consequences delineated – and an agreement was struck.
His parents picked up the first kitten they saw at the rescue shelter. They were determined to invest as little as possible in a venture in which they had so little confidence.
The kitten was black and white and female, and Alan named it Natasha, after the lady on the Rocky and Bullwinkle show, because it was his favorite show and Natasha was the only lady-name he could think of from the show. Had he known Rocky was voiced by a woman – the same woman who voiced Natasha – he might have named the kitten June, or even Rocky, but I’m not sure it would have made a big difference.
For a few months, Alan took great care of Natasha. He kept her in food and water, cleaned the litter box more or less regularly with only moderate nagging from his mother, and played with her for hours every afternoon. Every week or two, if he had kept the cat in reasonable repair, his mother gave him a couple of dollars to take over to the pet shop on Cedar to buy a bag of food or litter. Sometimes he got one when he meant to get the other, and then there were words. His parents usually financed the duplicate purchase with an advance on his allowance, which then took a couple of weeks to catch up on.
In the fall though, when Little League took up more of his afternoons, and he found himself plagued by fractions, Natasha spent less time frolicking with Alan on the floor, and more time figure-eighting his ankles as he sat muttering at his desk.
“Alan, change your cat’s box, and you’re low on food. Here – run over to the shop. You going now?”
“No – practice. I’ll go later.”
“The shop will be closed by the time your game’s over – run over there now real quick.”
“Nah, I’ll go tomorrow. Bye.”
Tomorrow: “Honey, did you get the cat food? Look, this is the last of it, then you’re out.”
“Oh crap!” He ran over to the pet shop and discovered he did not have the money with him. So he went to the Ben Franklin, scrounged some change in the coin returns of the vending machines, and went in to Bischoff’s to spend it on a pistachio ice cream cone.
And tomorrow: “Alan, your cat! Feed it or it’ll die!” Alan ran upstairs to his room to get the money, but stopped to play with Natasha. They had fun, she seemed fine, unusually attentive to him in fact, and he fell asleep on the floor with the kitten curled up on his chest.
And tomorrow: “Alan! Your cat!”
“Geez! The cat food!” He ran upstairs for the money and to check on Natasha. He found her curled up under the bed. She was much too small. He didn’t want to touch her and it took him a long time to figure out how to get her out. Eventually he pulled a tee shirt from the hamper, placed it over the tiny carcass, and scooped it out as with a net. He studied it for a while, then dumped his old sneakers out of their shoe box. He wrapped the body in the shirt, placed the bundle in the box, and taped down the lid. He got a little garden trowel out of the garage and dug a hole between the roots of the big maple tree. He fashioned a cross out of two popsicle sticks and a rubber band, wrote “NATASHA, CAT” in pencil along the cross bar, and placed it at the head of the grave.
At Little League practice, he was thinking it over when his friend Paul came up. “Hey Allie, what’s up?”
“I killed my cat.”
“What? Gross! What’j you do that for?”
“Waddaya mean, you don’t know? What happened?”
“I didn’t feed it.”
“You starved your own cat? Jesus, Alan, what’s the matter with you?”
“No, no, I – I – I didn’t mean, I mean, I didn’t starve my cat, I just didn’t feed her! I – I – I never went to the store, I forgot, I didn’t – I – I just didn’t do it. And she died.”
“Oh… Oh. Uh huh, well that’s different.”
“It is? How?”
Paul frowned. “I dunno.”
2. The Zoo
When Alan was twelve, he started at Middle School, to which he walked about a half mile each morning. If Alan had lived two blocks further away from the school, he could have ridden the bus all the way there, but he didn’t, so he walked all the way there. Alan could never figure this out. It seemed to him that the kids who lived further away should get a bus ride to his house, and then they would all have to walk the same half mile.
Middle School sucked, because it does, but the walk wasn’t really so bad because by going just a little out of his way, he could go right past the City Zoo. It was a terrific zoo, and Alan liked to pass through on his way home from school whenever he could. Sometimes he would enter at the south end near the petting farm, meander the whole length of the zoo, and emerge at the north end, near the Arctic Birds exhibit that had been closed for as long as he could remember. Other days, he just cut across the park and entered at the main gates, right at the sea lion pool. Beyond the sea lions, though, was his favorite thing, and that was the Big Cats house.
Alan knew all of the Big Cat placards by heart. His favorite animal was the Snow Leopard, though he could not have told you why, not when there was also a black panther and a lynx and a Siberian tiger and a whole pride of African lions. None of the cats were black and white, and none of them reminded him of Natasha.
On fine days, Alan would hang out along the railing around the Outdoor Habitats. Whenever he heard littler kids asking stupid questions like “Why isn’t he moving?” and “Is he gonna eat me?”, Alan would interject superciliously, reciting lines he had read on the exhibit displays. One day, as Alan lectured on a leopard’s range and diet, he was equally unaware that his audience was shying away from him, and that the Big Cat zookeeper-lady was standing right behind him, smiling.
“That’s reasonably accurate,” she said. “I see you here a lot. You like cats?”
“Uh… I guess so, sure.”
“Do you suppose our leopards stalk their prey?”
Alan hadn’t thought of it, but looking around at the habitat, it seemed unlikely. Upon reflection, he had never noticed a gazelle carcass amongst the rocks and grasses.
“Uh… I dunno. I guess not.”
“What do you suppose they do?”
“Uh… do you chain the animals in place for them?”
She laughed easily, with her whole face and about half her body. “Come with me, I’ll show you.”
Alan was introduced to the secrets of zoological husbandry that day, and consequently lost a considerable portion of his remaining innocence.
3. Zoo Lady
Alan soon learned Zoo Lady’s work schedule, and the cat’s feeding schedules, and carefully arranged his homework and ball games around his afternoons at the zoo. Zoo Lady said there were certain regulations that prevented Alan from handling some of the ingredients, and from getting too close to the animals, but she included Alan where ever she was able. She found Alan to be attentive, curious and careful. Alan had never had a grown-up friend before, and rather liked it. He felt important.
Unfortunately, when you’re a middle-schooler, and self-esteem is in short supply, a sense of importance leads directly to a sense of self-importance. Alan let it be known at school that he was now a zoologist, that he had been selected through a competitive application process, that Zoo Lady trusted him so completely that sometimes he fed the Siberian tiger himself, giving her whole bloody livers with his bare hands. His fence-side lectures, which he imagined to be entertaining and factual, were, rather, enervating and fatuous.
Once, Alan stood before the lion pride, his back against the rail, gesticulating grandly as he rhapsodized on territorialism. The big male paced along the trench directly behind him, following Alan’s hands with his eyes. Suddenly the lion bellowed forth a roar that shook the earth. Birds fled, people screamed, elephants shrieked, bears cowered, and Alan leapt half out of his pants. Alan reddened, recomposed himself, and said, as casually as he could, “Yeah, me and Adelor, we have an understanding.” The few remaining families shook their heads and moved on. Alan went looking for Zoo Lady.
Another day, Alan was so bold as to hop up on the top rail of the outer fence in front of the mountain lion habitat and walked it like a balance beam.
“Get off of there, kid! You stupid or something?” a father yelled.
“Hey, I own this place!” Alan retorted.
“You certainly do not!” Zoo Lady strode up to Alan and snapped her fingers at him. “Down. Now.”
“Yes ma’am!” Alan replied, none too respectfully.
“Alan, follow me.”
Some kids taunted, “Ooooh, you’re in tru-bull!” Alan glanced over his shoulder and sneered, as he jauntily followed Zoo Lady through the Authorized Personnel door.
“Alan, what’s got into you? You know how wrong and dangerous that was. Have you learned nothing from me?”
He rolled his eyes, looked away and opened his mouth to say something snarky, but to his surprise he heard his voice say, “I’m sorry..” and to his horror, he felt his eyes grow hot.
“I’ve trusted you with quite a lot of responsibility here, Alan, in a way we usually don’t with kids your age. My boss thinks it’s a bad idea that I let you in here at all. Please don’t let me down.”
Alan glanced at the floor and muttered, “I won’t.” She held him in a brief hug and said softly “I know you won’t.” Alan could not understand the tightness in his chest or the painful lump in his throat. Without a word he turned and went home.
Alan behaved himself pretty well for a few weeks. At first, Zoo Lady pulled back a few of the privileges and responsibilities she had entrusted to him, but after a few days of humble penitence, all privilege was restored. He tried something new at the zoo: keeping his mouth shut. He found he got along better with everyone, but he also felt sort of glum.
On a brisk, breezy afternoon in early November, Alan was out cleaning the sticky fingerprints from the placard in front of the snow leopard habitat. (“The snow leopard is largely solitary, coming together only to breed.”) Above him swayed a towering locust tree, which showered him with its tiny leaves. He brushed the leaves from the display photo and glanced up to the languid original dozing in a sunny patch before him. He sighed.
“Hey Allie! Allie Cat!” It was Paul, along with some of their classmates. In September, Alan and Paul had quarreled over a girl whom neither of them had actually spoken to. They hadn’t spoken to each other since.
“Heard you’re real cozy with the kitties here. This your favorite pussy cat?”
“Or is it Zoo Lady? Is she your favorite kitty-cat?”
“Or what? You gonna feed me to the lions?”
“Hey Alan!” one of the other boys interjected. “You feed these things, dontcha? Show me. Feed the cat.”
“It’s not feeding time.”
“Come on, show us, feed the cat something.” He stuck his arm into a nearby trash can. “Maybe I can find something, some pizza crusts or something.”
“They don’t eat grains.”
“Then show us,” the kid said. “Feed it something. Feed it leaves.”
“Leopards don’t eat leaves, you dufus! They eat other animals!”
Paul sneered. “You would know all about feeding kittens, wouldn’t you, Allie Cat?”
Their eyes met and they glared for a long, tense moment. The other boys wondered if they were about to be treated to a spectacular fight.
Alan sprang up and grabbed a limb from the locust tree. The brittle wood snapped and, hefting it like a javelin, he hurled the limb at the sleeping leopard.
Zoo Lady was running. He had never known her to run before, and now he was running, past the zoo store, the African mammals, the shuttered Arctic Birds house and out the north exit. He ran, his jaw tight, his eyes hot but dry.
“I just got a call from the zoo lady,” his mother announced as he entered through the kitchen. “She says you did something completely inappropriate at the zoo today, and maybe you better stay away for a while—“
“That is so unfair!” Alan shouted, as he snatched a pile of mail off the kitchen counter and flung it hard against the cabinet opposite.
“Alan Percy, don’t you dare shout and throw—“
“Go to hell! To hell with you all! I don’t give a damn anymore! I just wanted to help and I screwed it all up, I tried to fix it and made it worse, I can’t do anything right—“
“Don’t you dare swear at me, young man! Your father—“
“To hell with him, too! I don’t care! You killed my cat!”
“Alan, I’m warning – what? I what? You killed your own stupid cat, like we said you would, how do you think—“
Alan was screaming now, shrieking, his face screwed up and distorted like an infant’s. He snatched up something else from the counter, a tall wooden pepper mill.
“You knew! You knew all along I couldn’t do it, that I’d – I – you could have gone, you had the money, you knew the food was gone, you could have saved her, you could have protected her –“ He gasped and coughed.
“What the hell, Alan! It was your cat! Don’t you dare pin that on me! How dare you! Protect her from what, exactly?”
“From – from me!” He raised his hands helplessly, sobbing to choke. His face went red as the pepper shaker slipped from his hand and he collapsed into his mother’s arms.
He wept with sobs that came out as little shrieks. He clung to her more tightly than ever before in his life. As he calmed, he became aware of the warmth of her soft bosom against his face, the smell and scratch of her sweater upon his cheek, the beating of her heart.
He was still panting and trembling when she said softly, “Alan, some day you’re gonna have to forgive yourself, you know.”
“Forgive – myself… I don’t – get that.”
She considered, then explained. “When something bad happens to you, and you know who’s responsible, you wanna blame them, right? Say ‘it’s all your fault’, right?”
“Something bad happened to Natasha, and you blame yourself. It was all your fault, right?” She held him tighter.
Alan whimpered and nodded.
“The one who blames you is you. The one who has to find the room in his heart to forgive you is you.”
Alan looked at his mother. He was almost taller than her now.
“You understand? Think you can forgive yourself?”
“I’m still not sure I get it… but I’ll try…”
“That’s a good start. And tomorrow afternoon we’ll go over to the zoo and—“
“No! I’m never going back there! I’m useless—“
“Hardly. You have to patch it up with the zoo lady –“
“Her name is Nancy.”
“You have to stay friends with Nancy, it’s important. I’ll go with you. Now help me clean this place up. If we hurry, before your father gets home we can run over to Bischoff’s and pick up some ice cream to have with dinner.”