Black Cats

Apr 11, 2010

Mouse was out on the deck lighting Black Cats while I worked on the letter. He was making an unholy, random racket, but I let it go, mostly because I’d recently discovered stoicism, and piloting ahead through adversity felt grown-up.

Mouse was going through his Third Great Age of Destruction. Not bad for a twelve year old kid with a cancerous liver. I listened to the insistent staccato reports and heard him shuffling about on the cedar planks just outside the sliding door. It was cold as hell out there and it cracked me up thinking about him numbly fingering the matches and firecrackers.

Three more bangs and the door slid open.

“There was a shitload of duds in that batch. We should go back up to Michigan next spring and get our money back. And some M-80’s too.”

“Sure we should.” It was how I dealt with him; agree with everything, do nothing.

“How’s the letter coming? Can I read it?”

“I don’t know, can you?”

“Smart ass.” He flicked me on the back of the head, then bounded up the stairs. The sweet scent of gunpowder lingered after him, and I noticed dingy tracks of wet slush on the carpet.

“You tracked snow in, Mouse! Mom’s gonna’ kill you when she gets home!”

From upstairs I heard his bedroom door slam.

The thing was, that by the time our mother got home, the tracks would be dry - no smoking gun, no high-pitched accusations, no tongue lashings. It was like that a lot with Mouse. He could burn the damn house down, and somehow, when the reckoning came due, the flames would have died, the ashes would have reconstituted themselves into virgin pine and dryboard, and the last wisp of sour smoke would have vanished. Mouse had magic, to be sure, but lately it had fallen short in a few crucial areas.

I turned my attention back to the letter. It was slow going, and the Pink Pearl eraser at my elbow had made a hash of the paper. There had been many restarts, but each one had boxed itself in and painfully expired. Writing this thing had been hard enough, but now, with the dull sense of urgency blooming in my gut, it was starting to feel impossible.

I slid the tortured paper back into the manila envelope that had been its home for the past month. Then I gathered up the rest of my things and walked over to my pack which hung from a hook on the dining room wall. As I passed the sliding glass door, I noticed that it was snowing hard again. The huge flakes drifted downward in swooshes and arcs that paid little feasance to gravity, and Mouse’s tracks were already mostly covered. A few charred scraps of paper and a dozen blackened matches were all that remained of my brother’s explosive afternoon.

My friend Andy once said that each and every one of us is headed toward our own unique and personal train wreck. It’s a ride we take alone, he said, and with no way to steer, the only variable being the amount of track we cover. Mouse hadn’t seen much track, but he had sure as hell pushed the throttles all the way to the stops.

As I dropped my stuff into the pack, I remembered the time at the Grand Canyon when Mouse was something like five or six. Dad was still with us, and the vacation we were on would prove to be one of our last. We were belly up to the black pipe guardrail at one of the scenic overlooks, peering into the depths and trying to count the mules on the trail that corkscrewed down the cliffs thousands of feet below us. Mom, glancing left, right, then left again, noticed Mouse was missing. Concern burst into panic as an adrenaline-fired search of the overlook parking lot yielded no Mouse. Dad had run back to the car and ripped into the deep layers of sweatshirts, magazines and fast-food wrappers that made up the dank archeological record of our road trip. Again, no Mouse.

Other sightseers snapped to, and the search took on that special chaos that only a missing child can cause. A Park Service Jeep pulled into the lot, and two khaki-clad rangers jumped out. They tried to infuse some semblance of order into the situation, but my mother’s frenzied shrieking made it impossible.

It was me who found Mouse. He was across the road, down at the base of a hardened clay gully. At first I could only see the top of his head, which jerked comically about like some wild blonde mop in the desert sun. But after trotting to the gully’s edge, the scene came into full view and awful focus. Mouse appeared to be fencing. He was dancing awkwardly forward while leaning rakishly backward, as if he were leaving the option of a hasty retreat wide open. His arm was outstretched and in his clenched fist was a broken-off switch of sagebrush. I’d seen enough westerns to know that the matte-brown thing coiled and rattling on the ground before him was serious trouble. Mouse was doing his level best to prod the snake into striking, and he appeared to be making progress. The poor wretched animal had lifted its head and was mimicking my brother’s every move with manic parries and thrusts.

I shouted to Mouse, and when he looked up to the rim of the gully to where I stood, the snake struck. Amazingly, it missed. Its head shot harmlessly past my brother, missing his thigh by less than an inch. Mouse grinned as the rattler whipped through the brush and disappeared. Like I’ve already said, Mouse had magic.

“Dumb snake must be blind,” he said. “Is it time to go yet?”

I’ve always considered that moment to be the kickoff of Mouse’s First Great Age of Destruction. Back home, after the vacation, when we were bracing for the start of the school year and our parents had comfortably settled back into their well-worn habit of going at one another’s throats, Mouse embarked on an ambitious campaign of pushing virtually everything in his world to the absolute brink. He did crazy things. I watched him scoot one of our mother’s prized hand-painted vases to the edge of the dining-room table, then nudge it a micron at a time until it tipped, fell, and shattered on the floor. I saw him crawl out of his bedroom window onto the ice-glazed roof and and clamber up to the peak, which he straddled, singing, thirty-five feet above the frozen ground. Looking back, I wonder if he knew then that somewhere deep inside, the destructive code of cancer was beginning to patiently write itself into a starring role.

I’d made dinner again that night and Mom was lecturing me about salt. It was high blood pressure that killed Grandpa, she said, and I wasn’t helping things any with this meatloaf. Across the table Mouse was dinking about with his food and humming.

“Joseph, how was school today?”

No answer. Mouse was clearly unplugged - a common state for him these days.

“Mouse! Mom asked how school was. Tell her how school was.”

Mouse stopped his humming, clinked his fork against the plate drummer-fashion, and said, “Same as always, Mom: okay. I went to the nurse’s during Civics, but I felt better after I laid down awhile, so it was okay.”

Mom’s eyes were small and hard. “What about your pills? Did she give you one of your pills?”

“No. She’s out again.”

“She’s supposed to tell me when that happens.”

“She said she tries to call, but you’re always busy and don’t answer messages.”

“Drink your milk.”

This was our life. Our mother had become something of a a hand-painted vase herself, like the one Mouse had broken so many years ago. I for one wasn’t quite sure where her edge was, but I could see the trajectory, alright. She was on track. Since our father had left, money had been an enormous problem. Mom had a small real estate business upon which everything around and on this table depended. It was something she’d never really wanted to do; selling dumpy homes in the valley, working weekends, eating cold meatloaf. And, truth be told, it was something she was really quite bad at. It had all been sketchy enough, but when they’d diagnosed Mouse the year before, things accelerated, and now the margin for error was paper-thin.

Mouse helped me with the dishes after dinner. In the living room Mom was on the phone, arguing with another broker. Something about a cross-listed property. She was fighting like a lioness, which I suppose is not a bad metaphor. To the victor went the spoils, and the spoils in this case, if Mom held her own, would go to St. Jude’s Hospital or the Tri-City Pharmacy or Hebson, Charles, Meredith, and Associates. Please take a number and wait for a kill.

“Mom sounds pissed.”

“Yeah, she has to. It’s the only way she gets what’s coming to her. You missed that junk on the plate. You have to wash it again.”

“It looks fine. Why can’t she just get a regular job, like Cameron’s mom?”

“I dunno, why can’t you play basketball like Cameron’s brother?”

“What the fuck does basketball have to do with anything?”

“Watch your tongue, Mouse! What I’m saying is, people have to do what they’re best at.”

“You think Mom’s good at that?” He jerked a soapy thumb toward the living room.

“Shut up and get that plate clean.”

I’m not sure if I remember our father now or if it’s just a flattened, half-toned image of him that I see when I close my eyes and trawl deep. I’m only seventeen. You’d think I could recall things from five years ago pretty well. But, in fact, it’s fluky as hell. I remember, for instance, when they built the Twin Rivers Mall. I can still see the piles of black dirt and the mustard-colored construction equipment etching the fields down the street and the Hispanic crews paving over the meadow where we used to catch frogs. I remember with utmost clarity the day the Redskins won the Superbowl. But I can’t for some reason see my father’s face. After the divorce Mom mounted a very thorough jihad, and every last molecule of the man was purged from the house. No pictures, no mementos, not even the pencilled marks on the door jams which had chronicled our juvenile growth spurts (yes, Mom had erased even those).

The divorce had been a tough business for all of us. At twelve, I had no clue about what really went on under the hood of my parents’ marriage. I only knew what I heard, and what I heard was the white noise of disintegration. It was the endlessly alarming and unvarying landscape upon which Mouse and I huddled like frightened rabbits. The hostility between our parents was so palpable and constant it made the floors creak. And there was crying, lots of it. That’s what I knew.

But under the hood? Search me.

Sometimes you don’t recognize the grand finale of a fireworks show until it’s over. Wreaths of blinding light, a chorus of thunder, and then calm. Is there more? Was that just the teaser? Finally the people around you stand and start gathering their things for the long dark walk back to the car. Okay, so it’s true. It’s over. That’s how it ended for Mom and Dad. One day the arguing simply stopped. The next day Dad walked quietly down the sidewalk and around the corner and that was that. One tweed suitcase, one denim backpack, no goodbye.

I’m trying to keep this from veering off into the all-too predictable screed in which I shoot arrows at my vanished father. It would be a very short story. He was here, he’s gone, and thanks for bothering to read along. But his son/my brother has two, maybe three months left, then another trapdoor snaps open and my mother and I again get stuck with the shadows. I’m sensing a pattern.

Let’s talk about Mouse. In school he does well enough. His grades aren’t so hot, but then why would that matter? I think everyone knows by now about the cancer, and, even though he’s ever the tough little bastard, they treat him like a holy child. This has virtually no effect on him. On the days he feels well enough - which have, naturally, become singular - he comes home sweaty and scuffed. The gravel in his sneakers tells us he’s been deep into the school playground and he can still rip a decent hole in his jeans. But most days he simply hangs on and the progression of the disease is as unwavering as the deepening winter.

After we put the dishes away Mouse tells me he needs help with his math. Mom is still on the phone, and the sound of frayed resignation in her voice tells me she’s lost another one. I’m half sorry for the lioness on the other end; Mom apparently has a fairly extensive laundry list of injustices and injuries to work through before letting go of the kill.

In Mouse’s room we sit side-by-side at his battered oak desk. I spend a lot of time here. It’s usually math that gives him fits. I show him how to work through one of the problems, and sit back while he scratches away with a blunt pencil. His walls are adorned with posters, mostly of Redskin’s players and heavy metal bands. Model cars are parked along his window sill and a dusty stunt kite hangs from the ceiling like a great, colorful bat. Other than the pyramid of empty brown medicine bottles he’s building in the corner, it’s a typical twelve-year-old’s bedroom.

“So ‘B’ equals three hundred and seventy-seven?”

I look at his calculations and see that he’s right. “Yeah, but it’s three hundred seventy-seven. When you say ‘and seventy-seven’ that’s bad English.”

“But it’s still the same answer, right? I got it right, right?”

“Yeah, you got it right, but I don’t want you to talk like a retard.” As soon as I say this, I feel awful.

Mouse is un-phased. “Three hundred seventy-seven. Good. Now can you help me with the next one? I’m not sure what they mean by median.

I swivel his math book toward me to read through the question. I’ve nearly figured what they’re after when Mouse digs his fingernails into my forearm.


“Dammit Mouse, your hurting me. What.”

“When are you going to send that letter?”

“Soon, okay? Maybe tomorrow. But not if you cut my damn arm off. Now cut it out.”

We work through three more problems, then call it good. I remind Mouse that tonight he’s supposed to double the dose of his new prescription before he goes to bed.

Downstairs Mom is reading over a contract (God knows why). I kiss the top of her head, grab my pack and go downstairs to my bedroom. I’ve got reading to do for History, but that damn letter is calling me. I take it from the envelope, toss it on my desk, and mentally roll up my sleeves. This is it. Tonight I finish the damn thing and in the morning it’s in the mail. Tonight, for sure, in ink.

And then my head falls to the desk and I sob silently until blessed sleeps puts out the lights.

Months later I’m thinking about fireworks again. In the paper I read that they’re thinking of changing the laws up in Michigan and that all the good stuff - the Black Cats, the Cherry bombs, the M80’s, and the Silver Salutes - will be illegal. Illegal. I’m realizing now that that’s a problem I don’t expect to have.

I’m sitting in a leatherette chair in a ten by twelve room. Directly in front of me is a reproduction of a Dutch painting. I see peasants, windmills, a beach in the distance. Because there’s nothing else to do, I’m imagining the horizon in the painting smeared with apocalyptic displays of fireworks. Ka-boom… Ka-boom… Ka…



“Your brother is awake now. You can go in.”

I wake Mom and we follow the nurse into the little intensive care cubicle where Mouse has set up shop.

My brother’s skin is the color of wheat and his arms have grown so thin I have to avert my eyes.

He gives me a lopsided grin. “Hey, Dumbass. Hey, Mom.”

“Watch your mouth, Mouse. Don’t make me and Mom rough you up. Right, Mom?”

Mom smiles, sniffs, whispers something, and draws back into herself.

“So Barry,” Mouse says, “Did the ‘Skins beat the snot out of New England again?”

“Not the snot, exactly, but they beat ‘em pretty good. I forget the score.”

“Doesn’t matter. I guess.”

“No, not really,” I say. I look at his fingers, small and white as pipestems.

“Hey Barry?”


“Can you figure out why Dad never came? You would’ve thought he would after you sent the letter.”

The letter I never sent. The letter that tied me up in knots, to the father I abandoned. That letter.

“No,” I say, “I can’t figure it out.”

“Doesn’t matter. I guess.”

Yes it does, my little Mouse. Oh God, yes it does.