Part I: Buster

Buster was a good boy, even if he did rip the flesh of my arm from my inner elbow to the cuticles of my thumb and forefinger.

It wasn’t his fault. He had never known love.

And, also, I took the mackerel away.

I began my departure with a rug, the one Ducky had given to me many summers ago when I was taking care of her in Cohasset; when I was a newlywed/a press secretary/her young granddaughter. No one liked the idea of her being in the big house alone — particularly because it was on the beach, it was isolated, and it was a firetrap. (She had suggested more than once that the best solution for the place was to offer it to the Cohasset Fire Department to burn down for practice in exchange for a tax break… This was one of her more creative suggestions.)

The carpet was a long hand-woven runner, faded and close to threadbare, but the colors, browns and reds, were still rich and textured.

 “It was once quite valuable,” she said when she gave it to me. “But not so much anymore, and anyway, if you want it you should take it now.”

 In case I die, she meant. So everyone knows I gave it to you and you don’t have to fight over it.

This threadbare rug nobody wants.

I forgot to take it. When she died years later, it ended up being auctioned off with a bunch of her other stuff, and I purchased it for a few hundred dollars and put it down in the hallway of the Tilty-Floored Farmhouse where it stayed for 12 years, until the day I decided I was leaving.

I was alone in the house, with a few precious hours until the children would return and need me. I should clean, I should earn money, I should rest. 

Walls grimy with fingerprints. Dirt piles in corners. The dishwasher that hadn’t worked for months. The three kids living in a 10 x 6-foot room with a slanted ceiling and a narrow closet carved out of one wall. 

Every piece of furniture we owned was stained and frayed.

Like me, I thought. I am stained and frayed.

I rolled up Ducky’s rug and took it to the cleaners. When they called that it was ready,  I took it over to U-Haul, rented a storage unit, and placed this single rug against the corrugated metal wall, still sealed in the bag.

I started working again, teaching, editing, anything I could get. It didn’t matter whether it was work I liked. I just needed cash.

The roof of the Tilty Floored Farmhouse was shredded. Pieces of it littered the yard. The drip began over the stairwell to the basement. Continued for weeks. And then months, and then years. 

The plaster gave out and crashed to the basement floor.

He did not want to sell the house.

I wanted to set it on fire. 

“You’re not allowed to get any bigger,” I used to tease our youngest, who was still in a toddler bed, nearing second grade. “I might have to get you a hammock.”

Her 12-year-old sister taped a tablecloth around her bed as an attempt at privacy. The fabric drooped in the center, gradually, minute-by-minute, day-by-day, until it fell entirely — or she ripped it off in a fit of tears. 

He would not sell that house.

I could not imagine who would buy it.

I filled the storage unit with whatever wasn’t moldy, or so stained and frayed I couldn’t stand it. Then I left, with no place to go. 

The children and I began a life of bouncing around off-season Airbnb rentals. Beach houses in winter, ski houses in spring. We learned things.

First, that if you are a single mother and you are a mid-term renter (more than a week, less than a year), you are not getting your deposit back. 

Second, ask about WiFi. Do not assume. 

Third, If you are a single mother and your landlord is male he will enter the premises at least once-a-month, even if he lives hours away, and he will expect you to respond immediately to texts and phone calls.

You absolutely can negotiate a lower rate in the off-season — but you’ll pay cash upfront.

Same with bringing a cat, and dog.

See lost deposit, above.

We occupied five properties in three years. We had exactly 45 boxes that we became expert at emptying, flatting, stacking, and resurrecting a few months later with tape. The shack at Cooper Street was close enough to the U-haul that I could run the empty boxes over there, but it took me about three hours and several trips. At Hamilton, I stacked them in the bike shed, covered with a tarp. At Tapper, they occupied a corner of the basement. 

At Windbrook Road, we learned to eat out of a mini-fridge and circa-1980s microwave. At Bolton, I mastered turning on all four burners at once so I could keep pots moving as the burners faded in and out like some sort of shitty burnt-out neon bar sign. I could not cook pasta in less than forty minutes.

At Cooper, I shared a bed with my teenager in the laundry room with no door. And I learned about gas heat. That was our highest heating bill and our very coldest house. 

At Hamilton, there were only three rooms, total. I managed to scare up an air mattress for the youngest so she could sleep in the living room, but of course, the damn thing deflated constantly and we spent many hours pumping it back up with a foot pump. It wasn’t until the very last night that I figured out the couch was a fold-out.

Then a kid barfed on it. 

See lost deposit, above.

Just a few houses back from the beach, Bolton was the closest we had to a home because it had four actual bedrooms, which meant we each had our own for the first time, ever.  But they were still someone else’s rooms, and it was still someone else’s house, with someone else’s thrift shop beach furniture, and salmon-pink pile carpet with deep brown stains.

And, also, those burners.

I managed to wrangle two large shelving units out of storage and set them up in the Bolton kitchen, to hold the food and pantry goods that were ours. But not really.

I had often thought to myself, back as our life started to shred, and I was borrowing from my parents to fix the roof, how bad it was going to be if I ran out of money for food because I had raised my children to be food snobs.

And you know what? It was. It really, really was. 

We started to rely on the town food bank, a situation that managed to be inspiring and thoroughly dehumanizing all at once.

It’s all well and fine to feed your children fresh fruit three times a day, and all-natural peanut-butter, and scratch-made mac and cheese… until those kids are handed their first Skippy PB&J on Wonder Bread and that’s all you’ve got.

Prior to then, all their eggs had come from our chicken coop, for fuck’s sake.

A colony of feral cats wandered the beach lawn at Bolton. I was enchanted. There were splotchy ones and stripey ones, and from my bedroom window, I watched them chase and play and freak out other living things.

That Grand Man was extremely leery of my attachment to them.

“Oh, Dad, there’s this little one with tiny pink paws and I think she’s pregnant and I wonder what it would take to …”

 “Jesus, kid, just what you need.”

  “What, Dad?” I’d say. “I know I can’t do anything about it right now. I’m just saying they’re… cute. Helpless.”

There was a long pause in which we both heard him say “So are you,” without saying it before we quickly changed the subject.

It was in the pastel plaster-walled rooms at Bolton that we suffered with what would turn out to be some of the first cases of COVID in our region. In the darkness, with the moon reflecting on the ocean, chilled with virus and terror, I watched The Tiger King and focused on breathing.

Because I could not imagine what would happen if I got too sick to care for the kids.

And then the entire world was stuck at home with nothing to do, and it felt weirdly like everyone else had come down to our level.  

Our COVID infections passed, and so did winter, and we moved to an arts-and-crafts ski house next to a very smelly pizza restaurant, whose dumpster lived under my window. Our cat learned to kill rats that summer, and in a bizarre twist of competitiveness, our dog did, too. I used a set of kitchen tongs to fling the corpses back on the restaurant’s side of the fence. I wrote “Rat Flingers” on the tongs and hung them on a nail by the front door so no one got confused. 

That house had a pool table, and a kitchen sink so small I repeatedly had the absurd thought that it was too bad I didn’t have any babies because it would be perfect for bathing them.

We returned to Bolton in the fall.

As things turned out, I had picked a good time to start a business in online tutoring, and we started to have natural peanut butter in the house sometimes. Of course, now, I was the only one who liked that kind. I bet when my children are elderly they will be sentimental about Skippy and Wonder Bread.

While we were away, a row of condos had gone up near the shoreline. One of our new neighbors had a license plate that said “Cat Lady.” She asked me about the ferals. 

The next thing I knew it was 3 a.m. and I was out in my robe in the sea spray rain, staring in horror/delight/confusion at the large grey-striped tomcat sitting in a cage whose trip pad I had slathered with mackerel only a few hours before.

Displeased.

I named him Buster.

And I loved him.

I had prepared the downstairs bathroom as a cat holding area, because the kids didn’t use it much. It was off a creepy open bedroom sandwiched between the kitchen and laundry room. I had made the bedroom even creepier by using it for storage: our boxes were piled ceiling-high on the ancient daybed, with just enough room to walk between the kitchen and bathroom.  I had prepared the tub —  a gigantic aquamarine affair, with pink tile surround — with layers of towels, upon which I set Buster in his cage, before covering it with more towels and laundry to keep him warm and calm. 

I cooed at him. I reassured him. I told him he would be warm and loved here, in my domicile, such as it was. 

“Oh wait,” Cat-Lady Crystal texted. “The mackerel. He’s going to be fixed tomorrow. He can’t eat, you need to get the mackerel.”

You need to get the mackerel.

This phrase has since entered our family’s lexicon as code for: “Do the thing,” “Don’t forget that last bit;” “Try not to fuck everything up.

I lifted the wire door, maybe one millimeter of a millionth of a nanometer to sneak one little bit of fingernail in to remove the mackerel.

I’ve had twenty years in this industry, and consider myself something of a professional at describing things. But still, this story is tricky to relay.

Because I don’t really remember much.

One moment, I was cooing at Buster. 

The next moment he was flying. 

It wasn’t like he hopped, or pounced, or even sprang. Flew. Past my horror-wide face, over my shoulder, like some sort of 27-pound dove. Buster glided out of the bathroom, past the boxes, and to the top of my pantry shelf, coming to rest somewhere between the Skippy and the canned beans.

The rain was spatting against the windows in this kitchen with the plaid linoleum and the bar-sign burners, several hours before dawn, and a large, wild tomcat was glaring down at me from the only piece of furniture I owned. Blood was dripping from my arm, which Buster must have used as a runway.

I broke.

I laughed so hard I was gasping.

And I wept.

Dad would have been the only person in the world as simultaneously entertained and exasperated by me as I was. But some months ago, he had died alone on an emergency room gurney, before I knew I’d never hear his exasperated amusement ever again.

I have never been more lonely or bereft, or unsure of my place in the world than I was in that moment.

In the morning, Buster was still holding steady to his spot on the top shelf. Crystal and I conferred and agreed that we were not going to be able to take him to his neutering appointment. He wasn’t going to fall for the trap again, and there was nothing for it but to lock him in the kitchen, open the back door, and wait for him to leave.

Crystal moved the Cat Cam from its spot on the porch and trained it on my open back door.

I went upstairs and waited, and about 20 minutes later, Crystal texted that Buster had made his escape.

I felt bad. Every spring there was a crop of pregnant cats, and every spring most of them were lost to flooding or coyotes or cold. Buster’s release without being neutered meant I was responsible for more kittens coming into this world.

And I wasn’t even getting to keep one.

Over the next weeks Crystal and I kept at it, maintaining the food and water stations on the porch, tracking all our visitors, and even trapping a few and getting them to their appointments. (I did not open the traps. That was no longer my job.)

I shuttled trapped cats from the porch to the aquamarine tub, where they sat, hissing and screeching and freaking out the children until they could be taken for their spay/ neuter appointments.

I couldn’t blame the kids for being freaked out. The boxes were plenty creepy without the added sound effects from the bathroom. But complaints about them by the children nearly enraged me for absolutely no reason, except maybe that there wasn’t much I could do about them and I hated it too and I didn’t like being reminded that it sucked.

“But, no, really,” the youngest said one night. “Really. There’s something in there.”

Dutifully, and without a hint of rage, I grabbed the flashlight and performed the ritual of peeking around in the piles of boxes, saying loudly: “Nope, nothing there.”

Oh.

“Ohhhh, you know, I checked the video?” Crystal said. “And it wasn’t Buster leaving your kitchen that day.”

“Are you saying… I have had two feral cats living in my house, and the one that was not Buster left?”

“No! No, don’t worry!” Crystal said. “I’m like, 90 percent sure that the cat that left had only just come in. I’m pretty sure you’re fine.”

“Fine? Crystal, I have had a feral tomcat living in my house for the last ten days.”

“Kinda weird that you didn’t notice, huh?”

Now that I knew he was here, I slid food and water in to him and shined a light in his face occasionally to tell him everything was going to be fine

That night, Crystal set up the Cat Cam in front of the boxes. Early the next morning, she sent me this:

 “I love him so much,” I told Crystal the next day, as she arrived at the house with the town dog catcher in tow.

“He’s all yours if you want him,” she said, pulling on forearm-length triple-layer canvas-and-leather gloves. It took her and the dog catcher 30 minutes to wrestle my little turtle dove back into the cage.

Off he went to the vet. He came home a few hours later, quiet and sad.

I sat with him in the aqua-and-pink bathroom. 

“I am sorry you are in a cage,” I said. “And I’m sorry that you’re sore… well… you know where you’re sore.”

He blinked and sighed. I leaned over, so close I could hear him breathe, and he seemed so gentle and still. I wished myself to send love into his belly like an umbilical cord, that my gentleness and humor and affection would calm his heart.

Around 2 a.m., he’d consumed some food and water and was looking pretty alert. 

A gorgeous, clear, crystalline night with the moon silvering the water. As I lugged the cage out to the porch, the wind raised his fur, and he lifted his nose to it.

I set him down, aimed the door into the wild night, lifted the gate, and off he flew. 

And I missed him so much.

Next … Part II Sugarplum

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