Cat Killing, fiction by James Alan Gill

Every time I tell this sto­ry, about me help­ing Char­lie McMas­ter kill a whole pas­sel of cats, peo­ple tend not to believe it.  Maybe it’s that they can’t imag­ine real peo­ple liv­ing this way, and for that I can’t blame them, because no per­son should have to live a life like Char­lie had to, but he did, and still does, and there’s no chang­ing that.

So when I fin­ish here in a bit, and you walk away say­ing I hope that ain’t true old man—thinking I’m sick in the head; think­ing about them poor lit­tle kit­ty cats—well then, the fault’s all mine in the telling.  Maybe that’s why I keep telling it, think­ing that if I can get the word­ing down just so, peo­ple will some­how under­stand.  The facts are all there.  So let me see if I can set them straight for you.

Now the cat prob­lem first start­ed with three—a bob­tail black-and-white and two calicos—but by the time Char­lie called on me, the feline head count had grown to thir­ty-sev­en not count­ing kit­tens, and a per­son couldn’t walk from the weedy dri­ve­way to the old house, a dis­tance of no more than twen­ty feet, with­out step­ping in rust col­ored cat­shit.            So when he came walk­ing down the hill late one Sat­ur­day morn­ing and asked for my help, I went right in and put on my cov­er­alls, because the thing about Char­lie McMas­ter is he’s the hard­est work­ing man I know, and he nev­er asks for help unless he tru­ly needs it.  His own fam­i­ly nev­er offered him as much.  Hell, I’ve known him to drop every­thing to dri­ve forty-five min­utes one way just to help his mama do things that are so sim­ple as to not need any help, and if they were com­pli­cat­ed, it could usu­al­ly wait till the week­end.  But still Char­lie comes run­ning.  That’s the kind of man he is.  And yet there’s some peo­ple around here that think he’s a trai­tor to his own for his mov­ing out of the coun­ty try­ing for some­thing a lit­tle bet­ter.  Of course, those peo­ple wouldn’t know shit for kiss-my-ass.

So while I was lac­ing up my boots, he start­ed telling me his plans on how to final­ly make the fam­i­ly farm pro­duc­tive, clean it up and find some­thing that would be low main­te­nance, maybe bring in a lit­tle mon­ey for his mama.  Men­tioned turn­ing it into a Christ­mas tree farm, or plant­i­ng it to hay, or just let­ting it all go back to trees, any of which would be bet­ter than its state for the past six­ty years.

_____

When Char­lie was lit­tle his grand­pa Homer raised pigs on the place, not by choice but because the hog lot and the live­stock came with the price of the house.  When the old man died, Char­lie took over the care of the pigs even though he was only eleven years old, and things ran smooth enough all things con­sid­ered, but then, when he was just start­ing high school, cholera broke out and every last one of those ani­mals had to be destroyed.  And if that weren’t bad enough, it spread to a neighbor’s farm, and they had to do the same with their pigs, and there’s been bad blood between them since.

Charlie’s uncles—Tuffy and Jess—had nev­er cared noth­ing for hog farm­ing, leav­ing the chores first to their dad­dy and then to their nephew, and so instead of try­ing to buy more stock or try rais­ing some­thing else or even to make amends with the neigh­bors, they just kept on with their so called sal­vage oper­a­tion and cov­ered the forty acres with junk, nev­er con­sid­er­ing who was going to clean it up.

You see, when the uncles both came home from the war, they nev­er said a word about what they’d done or seen: Jess hav­ing been cap­tured by the Nazis only to escape and run smack into the Ital­ians, spend­ing the last days of the war in a hos­pi­tal watch­ing out the win­dow as Mus­soli­ni was strung up by his ankles out­side; and Tuffy push­ing his way through con­stant fight­ing in France and Ger­many only to see even worse hor­rors when the con­cen­tra­tion camps were liberated—no, they nev­er said a thing, just arrived back home one day in 1946 as if they’d been in town for the week­end, and soon they start­ed fre­quent­ing auc­tions with their Army pay and their father’s same sense of a good deal, and they bought up any and every thing, includ­ing box­es of left­overs that no one else want­ed.

Their old man made them keep things in order while he was alive—no junk lying about the yard or fields—and Mrs. Thomp­son kept that house slick as a but­ton, but in a few years, old Homer died, and in a few more so did his wife, and then the cholera killed all the pigs, and the junk kept col­lect­ing in the barn and along the dri­ve and over into the emp­ty hog lots, a wealth mea­sured in things but not in val­ue: old wood­en-han­dled tools, school desks, fifty two rust­ing car bod­ies, a leaky boat, a dragline with a blown engine bought from a bank­rupt con­struc­tion com­pa­ny, crates of license plates, shelves of play­er piano rolls, scratched records and lat­er eight track tapes, a ten by ten pal­let of books no one would ever read again, and that ain’t even half of it.

I don’t know.  Maybe at one time it all could have been worth some­thing.  But now it was noth­ing but a blight.

_____

With all this laid out in front of him, Char­lie was excit­ed about the prospect of final­ly mak­ing things right.  We walked down to the farm to look things over, Char­lie still full of pos­si­bil­i­ties, then went in to Mrs. McMaster’s kitchen table for a cup of cof­fee, and in pass­ing con­ver­sa­tion, Charlie’s mama told him she’d count­ed over thir­ty cats gath­ered when she took food out that morn­ing.  Now a farm always has cats on it, and I don’t think Char­lie would have mind­ed a few, but when she told him she’s spend­ing near a hun­dred dol­lars or more a month on cat food, olé Char­lie near­ly lost it.

He told her, stop feed­ing them.  Said, if you keep feed­ing them, they’ll keep com­ing back.

Well, she said, Leila won’t let me.

Leila was her youngest sis­ter who still lived with her, same as she always had her whole life, though now she had Old­timers dis­ease and was crazy as a shit­house rat.

His mama said, I’m afraid that if she woke up one morn­ing and the cats was gone, she’d get real upset.  You talk­ing about tear­ing down the house is hard enough.

Char­lie snick­ered, said, in a few weeks she won’t even remem­ber there was any house.  Or any cats for that mat­ter.

Well his mama near­ly come out her chair.  Said, Charles Woodrow McMas­ter, I can’t believe you just said that.

But Char­lie had grown imper­vi­ous to his mother’s guilt over the years, and said, I can’t believe you’re feed­ing three dozen cats.

Now this makes Char­lie sound like a hard sono­fabitch to be talk­ing to his mama and his bat­shit old aunt like that, but if a per­son knew how he’d come up, they might think dif­fer­ent.

_____

Char­lie spent his first sev­en­teen years in that house, liv­ing with his grand­par­ents, his moth­er, her two broth­ers, and Leila, because his father had been killed by boot­leg­gers when he was eleven months old.  And they’d lived as poor as peo­ple can live.  No run­ning water.  Char­lie nev­er had a bed till he was mar­ried.  Always slept on the floor between his two uncles’ beds in their room.  When he was a kid, he nev­er got meat at the table—uncles would eat it all up and tell him he could chew the gris­tle if he want­ed a taste.  But it was no secret about how stingy Charlie’s uncles were.

Hell, even as a grown man, the few times Char­lie would ask his uncles for some­thing he needed—a car part or a tool, which they usu­al­ly had lying around one of the out­build­ings or just sit­ting in the lot tak­ing on weeds—he always paid them for it, because them old boys had nev­er give any­one any­thing their whole lives.  Still, no one under­stood their self­ish greed com­plete­ly till they final­ly died fif­teen months apart, same as they’d been born, and Char­lie and his moth­er were giv­en con­trol over the broth­ers’ bank accounts.  You can’t imag­ine their shock when the bal­ance came in at just over a hun­dred thou­sand dol­lars.  Sounds like a lot, but all it shows is that they saved two thou­sand a year and nev­er spent a dime on any­thing but the junk they hoard­ed.  Charlie’s mama bought all the food and Leila paid the util­i­ties.  Think­ing about it makes me want to spit fire.

It was from all this that Char­lie real­ized his only chance was to work.  And work he did—as a hand all year round for a farmer a few miles south of here; had a hay crew in the sum­mer; and still he slopped hogs and kept up with his school work.  But the one thing that stood out was that Char­lie had a way with ani­mals, and in his first year of high school, he got a job clean­ing cages, help­ing out at the vet­eri­nar­i­an in town.  And the doc there encour­aged him and taught him the work, and so Char­lie thought that’s what he’d try to do.  He even applied to a school for it, and would have been a damn good one, if he’d had the chance.

But the chance nev­er came.  So he kept work­ing.  Got on at the pow­er plant over the riv­er inIn­di­ana, mar­ried a girl from there, and believed he’d nev­er both­er with the farm again.  But before long he was com­ing back reg­u­lar to help his mama around the house, because his uncles nev­er did a thing except what they want­ed any­way.  Seems no mat­ter how you try, you can nev­er real­ly get away from this place.

Shit, I know that all too well.  Dur­ing the war I left to work in the Lock­heed plant inBur­bankCal­i­for­nia, stayed on there for almost ten years, but when our son was born in 1951, just a year before Char­lie came into the world, and our old­est daugh­ter was get­ting ready to start school, my wife and I fig­ured we ought to be back clos­er to home.  So we packed up and moved into this place and that’s where we’ve stayed.  Maybe it was the right thing to do.  Maybe it didn’t make a dif­fer­ence one way or the oth­er.  But even now, I can’t help but think about being able to draw that Lock­heed pen­sion or how much the house inTolucaLakewe’d bought for eleven thou­sand dol­lars would sell at today.  But the past is past.  And besides, I chose to leave and I chose to come back, and that’s worth a whole hell of a lot.  Char­lie sure as shit nev­er had that plea­sure.

_____

Now a per­son might won­der at how peo­ple find them­selves in such a life as Charlie’s, for sure­ly things hadn’t always been this way, and they’d be right, as his peo­ple hadn’t been junk traders or hog farm­ers on this hill for all that long.  No, Charlie’s mama and aunt and uncles had been born riv­er peo­ple over on Skil­let Fork, and his grand­dad, Homer Thomp­son, made his liv­ing run­ning trot­lines for buf­fa­lo carp and cat­fish which he could trade for sug­ar, flour, corn­meal, and cof­fee at the mar­ket in town.  Out­side that, they lived from their gar­den and what­ev­er game they could kill in the woods and of course what­ev­er Homer brought in from the riv­er.

Once old Homer told me about the time he came upon a blue heron caught in one of his lines, prob­a­bly drawn to the thrash­ing of the live bluegill he’d put on as bait hop­ing to draw in a big flat­head.  But it didn’t mat­ter to that man what crea­ture was on the hooks, and he took that skin­ny stork home to his wife, had her cook it up, and God help you if you com­plained about that tough stringy mess he tried to pass off as meat.  He nev­er gave any thought about anoth­er way of liv­ing.  Things were the way they were, and that whole fam­i­ly would prob­a­bly still be on that riv­er now if Homer hadn’t stum­bled onto what he con­sid­ered the deal of the cen­tu­ry.

The farm is set on a lit­tle rise called Pig Ridge about six miles south of Matin, named for the fact that the place had been the site of a hog lot since the late eigh­teen hun­dreds, and so it was in 1939, on one of his trips into town, that Homer found the place up for sale at a bar­gain price.

The new house was all but com­plet­ed, with one room left unfin­ished because the man who’d start­ed build­ing it the year before end­ed up hang­ing him­self from the rafters after he sent for his wife and three kids at her mother’s house up north.  Some say that she refused to come down here and live on a pig farm, and oth­ers say she was had anoth­er man, which very well could have been true as she remar­ried to a banker with­in the same month of her husband’s death, but what­ev­er the truth is, it’s known that she didn’t come to Matin Coun­ty for the funer­al, and she must not have need­ed the mon­ey because she put the farm up for sale where it stayed nigh on a year because no one would buy know­ing a man had been dri­ven to sui­cide whilst build­ing it.

But Homer Thomp­son didn’t care about dead men, only good deals, so when the new­ly wed­ded wid­ow grew tired of wait­ing and low­ered her price to ten dol­lars an acre, Homer jumped on it and bought the house and forty acres, includ­ing the hogs that were already liv­ing on the farm, for 400 dol­lars even, mon­ey he drew from a tobac­co tin stuffed beneath the floor­boards of the cab­in.  His fam­i­ly nev­er ques­tioned him on where the mon­ey had come from, and they didn’t real­ly care because just the thought of leav­ing life on the riv­er was bet­ter than any earth­ly rich­es.

Homer moved in with his wife and four kids, and with­in a few years his sons went to the army and fought in Europe and came home again, and then in a few more years, Charlie’s mama met Wibb McMas­ter and they ran off and got mar­ried.

But on the day Char­lie came into the world, Wibb was spend­ing time in jail await­ing tri­al for steal­ing cars.  Charlie’s mama stood by him even though she’d been dis­owned by her fam­i­ly and couldn’t go any­where in town with­out hear­ing the unqui­et whis­pers of peo­ple as she passed.  Wibb was final­ly acquit­ted when the man whose car had been stolen sud­den­ly remem­bered that he’d agreed to loan him the car.  The pros­e­cu­tor fig­ured the man had been threat­ened or that he was in on an insur­ance scam but couldn’t come up with the evi­dence, and Wibb was a free man.

Still, he nev­er spent much time at home, would take off for two or three days at a time, then come home to his teenaged wife, and she’d cook big meals and fuss over him and they’d have a hon­ey­moon of sorts, and then a week lat­er Wibb would be off again.  It was one of these excur­sions that final­ly did him in, and instead of Charlie’s way­ward dad­dy return­ing home, the coun­ty sher­iff came call­ing with the news that he’d been killed when a car ran off the road and up into the yard where he sat drink­ing home­made whiskey—a yard belong­ing to Black­ie Har­ris, who in lat­er years would become the old­est man to make the FBI’s most want­ed list for killing his girl­friend and the man she was with and burn­ing the house down around them to cov­er it up.  The string of crimes and killings that filled the years before that had some­how slipped through the cracks, much like Wibb’s tri­al when Char­lie was a baby.

There was a court tri­al over Wibb’s death, but in the end it was called an acci­dent, even though the dri­ver had to dri­ve three hun­dred yards off the road between a row of sil­ver poplars lin­ing the dri­ve­way to hit him.  Eight days after the tri­al end­ed, Homer Thomp­son came to the rent­ed room where his daugh­ter and grand­son were stay­ing, and he packed up all their things with­out a word and brought them back to Pig Ridge as if noth­ing had changed, and that’s how Char­lie came to live there.

He didn’t ask for none of it.  I guess none of us ask for the lives we’re born into, and none of us are born into per­fect lives—we all just make the best of it, some bet­ter than others—but it’s amaz­ing to me that a man such as Char­lie McMas­ter could come out of a bull­shit sit­u­a­tion such as that.  I can’t right­ly say that I’d have been able to do it.  I guess it all boils down to what­ev­er a per­son uses to for­get the lot they’ve drawn: booze or women or mean­ness or hoard­ing things away.  Char­lie chose hard work and kind­ness and self­less­ness, and it was all of his own doing because there wasn’t any god­damn role mod­els around for him to learn it from.

_____

So now Char­lie was the only man left in the fam­i­ly and saw it as his chance to make a reck­on­ing with this place.  No uncles or way­ward fathers to stand in his way.  First thing he did was took his uncles’ mon­ey and bought a brand new dou­ble-wide trail­er for his mama and Leila and set it fifty feet behind the old house where they’d lived for the last six­ty years.  Then he bought a used back­hoe and start­ed to plan on how to clean up that mess of a farm, which was his only lega­cy.  And that’s when he came down to see me.

On the morn­ing of the cat killing, I kept watch from the front win­dow of my house.  Char­lie had worked it out with his mama that when she took his aunt Leila into town on Sat­ur­day for gro­cery shop­ping, he’d kill as many cats as he could while they were gone, and they’d both act like noth­ing hap­pened.

Around eight in the morn­ing, Mrs. McMas­ter left for town with Leila in tow, and when the car had gone below the hill out of sight, I picked up my guns and walked down the road where Char­lie stood in the dri­ve­way.  He was smil­ing, like he usu­al­ly was, plas­tic mug of cof­fee in his hand, cig­a­rette in his mouth.

You ready to kill some cats, he said.

I said, I’m ready to help you out.

We laid our guns in the bed of his truck.  He had a sin­gle shot twelve gauge he’d found in his uncles’ bed­room, and I pulled out the Bel­gian Brown­ing that I’d always used bird hunt­ing along with a small twen­ty-two bolt action with a scope.

I said to Char­lie, what’s your plan?

Well, he said, I fig­ured we’d set out some milk, get them all togeth­er, then start shoot­ing.

And that’s what we did.  He went into the trail­er and brought out a gal­lon of milk and three plas­tic bowls, old but­ter con­tain­ers his mama’d washed, and set them on the bare dirt between the old house and the dou­blewide.  Then we stood back under the porch and wait­ed.

Soon the cats start­ed to crawl out from every­where.  They were fer­al and vicious.  The younger cats ran to the milk, but the old­er cats, led by the bob­tail, stood back, lurk­ing out of sight.  We just sat wait­ing, and after a while, they moved in slow­ly, like they were stalk­ing some­thing.  As they neared one of the bowls, the oth­er cats skit­tered away, all but one, and now the two cal­i­coes flanked in from each side and that olé bob­tail came up the mid­dle.  It’s ter­ri­fy­ing real­ly, to watch domes­ti­cat­ed ani­mals that are usu­al­ly curled up in someone’s lap latch onto another’s neck with teeth and claws till it hob­bles off trail­ing blood.

Before long, each bowl of milk was sur­round­ed by cats, and Char­lie and I walked slow­ly from under the porch of the old house and each of us raised a shot­gun to our cheeks and stood for a minute.  It was odd, almost cer­e­mo­ni­al, like a fir­ing squad, and I was wait­ing for Char­lie to start count­ing or say fire, some kind of sig­nal to begin, when he pulled the trig­ger on his twelve and my ears went deaf with the ring­ing.  Two cats lay twitch­ing by the milk.  Anoth­er dart­ed away to the right, and with­out a thought, I put the bead on him and let fly.  The cat flipped ass over tea-ket­tle and land­ed in a heap.

Two shots and there wasn’t a cat to be seen.  I walked over to Charlie’s truck, laid down my shot­gun, and picked up the twen­ty-two.  Char­lie broke down his gun and slid the emp­ty shell from the cham­ber.

He said, I saw anoth­er one go around the house.  See if I can’t flush him out.

I slid up onto the tail­gate of the truck and said, I’ll be here.

He made a wide cir­cle around the back, and I watched the oppo­site side, like you’d do rab­bit hunt­ing, expect­ing to see the ani­mal edg­ing along fifty yards ahead of the dog.  But cats ain’t rab­bits.

I turned to look at a large pile of scrap met­al along the edge of the dri­ve­way, scan­ning for any of the cats that might’ve holed up in there, when Charlie’s gun boomed, echo­ing off the tin-sided barn, and I turned to see a cloud of white fur drift­ing across the lot like a giant dan­de­lion had been blown off its stem.

I called out, I think you got him.

Char­lie appeared hold­ing the car­cass by the hind legs.  The cat’s head was turned inside out, noth­ing but blood and meat and teeth.  He threw it down amongst the oth­er dead still lying by the milk bowls and said, you know, I nev­er killed any­thing that I hadn’t intend­ed on eat­ing.

The skin round his eyes was lined, like he car­ried the weight of death itself.

Well, I said, smil­ing at him, you can eat them if you want.

Then behind him I caught a flash of move­ment and saw a tab­by cat slide behind an old storm win­dow leaned against a rust­ed trail­er frame.  I raised the rifle, and the cat poked his head out just a bit, care­ful and wait­ing, and when the crosshairs fell on the cat’s neck just behind its jaw, I squeezed the trig­ger, and it dropped in its tracks.

Was it that bob­tail? Char­lie said, hope­ful.

No, I said, just a tab­by.

He spit into the mud and said, I hate that god­damn bob­tail.  Took up res­i­dence under the trail­er right after we put it in and tore the insu­la­tion off the pipes and they froze.  And you know who had to dri­ve over here and thaw them out when it was sev­en­teen fuck­ing below zero.

We wait­ed a while, and Char­lie lit a cig­a­rette and thanked me again for being such a patient neigh­bor, said that most peo­ple would’ve called the coun­ty or the EPA and forced a cleanup regard­less of cost.  To be hon­est, it’d nev­er crossed my mind to do that.  I could see the state of things when I moved in up the road.  I guess if I didn’t like it, I could’ve found anoth­er house.  Maybe like Charlie’s grand­dad, I was will­ing to put up with a few things in return for a good deal.

After half an hour, we still hadn’t seen anoth­er cat.  I went and picked up the dead and car­ried them into the field.  I fig­ured we’d just take them out away from the house and leave them to the coy­otes and buz­zards, but Char­lie start­ed up the back­hoe and went to dig­ging.  Now a lot of peo­ple who know Char­lie would of laughed at this, fig­ured it was part of his crazy nature: a mix between a child­ish fas­ci­na­tion for heavy equip­ment and a ten­den­cy toward overkill.  But that wasn’t it.  At least I don’t believe it was, because I saw the same thing a week lat­er when he tore the old house down.

_____

Char­lie had planned to spend every Sat­ur­day for the next year clean­ing up the farm.  At the time I didn’t see any rea­son for him to be in such a hur­ry, but it’s clear to me now that as long as that old house stood and that farm lay cov­ered in junk, the mem­o­ry of his old life stood with it, and I guess he thought that when it was gone, he’d be shut of the past as well.

That next Sat­ur­day, I wait­ed for his mama to leave with Leila same as before, then walked down where Char­lie was chomp­ing at the bit.  We start­ed going around to each win­dow on the old place, remov­ing all the glass, which I guess was a ges­ture of safe­ty and sen­si­tiv­i­ty to the fact that Char­lie was get­ting ready to destroy the only house the liv­ing mem­bers of his fam­i­ly had ever known.  After he dou­blechecked that the gas and elec­tric­i­ty were turned off, we went inside one final time.

Six rooms: the kitchen with its big porce­lain sink, the main room with the gas heat­ing stove, the three small bed­rooms built on, the bath­room which had been added in the mid-eight­ies when Charlie’s uncles final­ly gave into the idea of spend­ing the mon­ey to bring in run­ning water.  In the room that had been his mama’s, there was a giant hole in the plas­ter, stuffed with an old quilt to keep out the draft.  This is where she’d slept only a few months before.

He’d want­ed to tear the house down with every­thing still in it, but Mrs. McMas­ter had refused, told him to wait till she had a chance to go through things, so Char­lie drove over each evening to see the progress she’d made.  Knew if he didn’t, she’d drag it out till eter­ni­ty.

On one of those nights, in the biggest bed­room, the one where he’d slept as a child on a floor pal­let between his two uncles in their tall iron framed beds, she showed him a trunk he’d nev­er seen open which con­tained his father’s belong­ings; she had idol­ized the man for near to fifty years, hop­ing that if she could some­how rewrite the his­to­ry of her life, the shame and guilt of her fam­i­ly and her church and her­self would some­how be erased.  But the truth of it was there all the same.

Char­lie told me on that day he was glad that his dad­dy had been killed.  Glad he’d not known him.  Said he could make up his own idea of what a father should be and live that with his own kids.  I told him that was a right smart way to think, because I’d known his father before I head­ed out west, had run across him in the tav­ern or the pool hall, and while I didn’t think bad of him, for God knows I ain’t nev­er been no saint, I know he’d have nev­er been there for Char­lie.  So I told him the best thing I could with­out lying straight through my teeth.  I said, your dad was a prince of a man when he wasn’t drink­ing.  And I left it at that.

But no mat­ter how much Char­lie had tried to for­get what his father had been, his mama had kept a shrine to this man inside a wood­en trunk, and now Char­lie had to face the phys­i­cal reminders of the dead man that was his father, instead of the one he’d made up in his head.  Inside the trunk was a pair of wool dress pants, a watch, Wibb McMaster’s birth cer­tifi­cate, and a half pack of Camel cig­a­rettes that’d been in his shirt pock­et the day he’d been killed.

I asked him what his mama had done with the stuff.

He said, she took it all in the trail­er, and I haven’t seen it since.

I said half jok­ing, she ought to smoke one of them old cig­a­rettes.

And he said yeah, fire it up and say, my life was shit and here’s to it.

We sat for a sec­ond, then I said, I won­der what a fifty-year-old cig­a­rette would taste like.

You know, Char­lie said, his face as seri­ous as a heart attack, that gets me to think­ing.

After work­ing all morn­ing try­ing to bring down the house, with chains run from the back­hoe and hooked through the load bear­ing walls, we only suc­ceed­ed in pulling off the front porch, which was a bit of a dis­ap­point­ment, since it looked like it would’ve fall­en over on its own come a slight breeze.  After that, Char­lie got fed up and extend­ed the hoe full length, start­ed swing­ing it like a giant club into the main chim­ney till it crashed through the roof.  Over and over he swung that arm, hydraulics hiss­ing, the slap of iron against wood and mason­ry, till the house lay in ruins.

I don’t know.  Maybe I’m wrong.  But while he was doing this, I want to believe every stroke of that machine, every fall­en brick and cracked rafter, drained away some of his life’s bit­ter­ness.

But now, as I think on it, I don’t remem­ber hope on his face.  Only dis­gust.  Guess it was then he knew that every plan he’d ever make was futile.  That’s what he told me lat­er.  Said, how am I ever gonna change this farm when I can’t even make a dent in the cat pop­u­la­tion.  Can’t even get rid of a trunk full of moth­e­at­en mem­o­ries.

It’s when he real­ized this place would nev­er be any­thing more than what it was.  A pig farm turned junk­yard.  His boy­hood home.

_____

Char­lie kept his word and worked on the farm all the rest of that year: had an auc­tion, which bare­ly made enough to cov­er expens­es; burned the old wood­en barn at the back of the lot with all its con­tents still inside, hop­ing it’d save time, only to end up with a giant pile of cin­der blacked wood on top of melt­ed plas­tic and rust­ed met­al; hired his son-in-law to help him, only to see him near­ly killed when the trac­tor he was using to pull stumps turned over on him.  One calami­ty after anoth­er.

The final wound salt­ing came when he found a musty account ledger tucked away on a shelf in the machine shed.  His uncles had used it to keep a run­ning inven­to­ry of all the things they bought and sold.  It began May 5th 1947, and the last date they’d entered was July 19th 1979.  After that, they sold so lit­tle com­pared to what they bought, they just kept a tal­ly in their heads.

But it wasn’t the account itself that final­ly caused Char­lie to give up on the farm.  In fact for a while, he got a kick out of read­ing the entries writ­ten in their fad­ed old-man scrawl: bought 18 hydraulic jacks some work; bought 3 box­es 8 Track tapes dis­co hits vol­ume 4; sold four win­dow crank han­dles 1963 Ram­bler, $4.  No, it was when he found a yel­lowed let­ter, still in its enve­lope, slid between the pages.

His full name was typed on the front and the return was from the vet­eri­nary school he’d applied to his last year in high school.  After he didn’t hear any­thing from them by the time he’d grad­u­at­ed, he took the job over at the pow­er plant and decid­ed that decent pay and a way off Pig Ridge was all that mat­tered.  But as he slid the let­ter out, it was all he could do to keep his lunch down for fear of what he’d find.  And much the same as he imag­ined him­self doing as a young man, he prayed before unfold­ing that page, only instead of a peti­tion for accep­tance, I imag­ine it was more like, please tell me I nev­er had a chance.  But there it was, like a punch in the gut.  Con­grat­u­la­tions, Mr. McMas­ter.

_____

As the months passed, you could see he was mak­ing a dif­fer­ence on the farm, as long as you didn’t look at the whole.  Piles of junk hauled off.  Trash burned.  There were even less cats around.  I start­ed notic­ing that from the day of the cat killing.  I’d walk down the road to help Char­lie with some­thing or to check on his mama, and maybe they were still there, but at least the bas­tards stayed out of sight.  Peo­ple say that ani­mals can’t learn and don’t know fear, but I think the ones who sur­vived that day nev­er for­got it.  And I’d still see that olé bob­tail now and again, off in the dis­tance, slink­ing through those brown fields look­ing for mice.

At the end of fall, Char­lie told me he was going to have one last go at the cats, but with­out guns.  He set the milk out same as before, but this time the milk was cut with antifreeze.  He did this every­day for a week.  There’s no way of know­ing if it worked or not.  Hell, I don’t think either of us would’ve been sur­prised if the cats mul­ti­plied drink­ing that brew.  Like some plague only Moses could get rid of.

After that, Charlie’s work on the farm grew less and less.  Every now and again, he’d show up, spend half the day get­ting the back­hoe run­ning, load a truck full of scrap and take it to the sal­vage yard, maybe make enough to pay for the diesel and a pack of smokes.

Then on into the win­ter, his mom’s pipes froze again.  He gave me a call, and we crawled under the dou­blewide to fix the insu­la­tion and get the water flow­ing once more.  I stood at the crawl­space entrance, wait­ing to hand through the portable heater, when he stuck his head out with a wide smile on his face.  Said, I found that bob­tail.

I took a step toward the back door and said, where’s your gun.

But he said, don’t need it.

I crawled in behind Char­lie with the heater and set it up to thaw the pipes, and then we inched on our bel­lies to the far side of the trail­er.  Beams of sun­light shined through the foun­da­tion vents, reflect­ing off the snow that’d fall­en the night before.  I kept look­ing for a hint of move­ment or the flash of glassy yel­low eyes, but there was noth­ing.  Final­ly, Char­lie stopped, and I moved up beside him.  The smile was still on his face, and he point­ed with his gloved index fin­ger to the bones of a cat, laid out per­fect­ly in the frozen mud, the tail bare­ly an inch long.

Least I final­ly got that son of a bitch, Char­lie said.  I was begin­ning to think I couldn’t do any­thing for this farm.

And I told him right there that most peo­ple would’ve giv­en up long before.  That at the first sign of trou­ble, they’d look for the eas­i­est way out.  They’d pre­tend the things they’d done nev­er real­ly hap­pened or they’d try to fill up the dark hole in their chest with things shut in an old trunk or with build­ings filled with worth­less mess or with mon­ey that would nev­er be used.  They’d hang them­selves from the rafters of a house unfin­ished.

I told him that and said, you’ve done more with the shit hand you’ve been dealt than any­one else could’ve.  And I told him that bob­tail nev­er stood a chance.

And so now I’ve told you, and you can think I’m full of nine kinds of bull­shit and for­get every word I said, but I promised him I’d help him make this right, which has noth­ing to do with the farm, because even if he did get it cleaned up and work­ing again, it wouldn’t mat­ter.  No, it seems the only thing that does mat­ter is mak­ing sure peo­ple know there’s a man like Char­lie McMas­ter in this world, and as long as I have breath, that’s what I’ll do.  Because he deserves to have his life mean some­thing.  He deserves at least that much.

 

James Alan Gill was born and raised in South­ern Illi­nois in a fam­i­ly of coal min­ers. He holds an MFA in fic­tion from South­ern Illi­nois Uni­ver­si­ty at Car­bon­dale, and his sto­ries have appeared in sev­er­al jour­nals and mag­a­zines, most recent­ly in Col­orado Review and Grain Mag­a­zine, and will be forth­com­ing in Crab Orchard Review's spe­cial issue Writ­ing From and About Illi­nois. He cur­rent­ly lives in Ore­gon with his wife and two sons, and spends as much time pos­si­ble sleep­ing in a tent and hik­ing trails far from roads, build­ings, and groups of peo­ple larg­er than ten.

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2 Responses to Cat Killing, fiction by James Alan Gill

  1. Brandi says:

    Pow­er­ful. I stum­bled across this page acci­den­tal­ly through a search engine and couldn't take my eyes away…

    My favorite line is, "They’d hang them­selves from the rafters of a house unfin­ished."

  2. That was one of the more pow­er­ful sto­ries I've read. I real­ly dug it, and love your voice. LOVE your voice. My favorite line (oth­er than the last para­graph and the entire tale) is: "There was a court tri­al over Wibb’s death, but in the end it was called an acci­dent, even though the dri­ver had to dri­ve three hun­dred yards off the road between a row of sil­ver poplars lin­ing the dri­ve­way to hit him."

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