We were rat poor. Meaning we could no longer afford trash pickup. The awning of our patio had fallen. The garbage grew. The rats came. Two bloated, scurrying, toothy pirates clicking their nails across our pavement and keeping me from my own back yard.
When my stepfather John died, it derailed my mother. It broke her heart, her mind, peeled her tenuous grasp away from the workings of everyday life. It was not her fault. He died suddenly, the day before my 10th birthday, from a heart attack. When he had the heart attack, he was driving a semi and travelling across an overpass on I-74 near Danville, Illinois. The rig went over the side.
By late spring of 1979, the rats came, our lights were shut off and I had outgrown all my clothes. I knew I would be headed to my grandparents in summer, but for now my world was dark and cold and small. I took cold showers by candlelight and ignored homework and the world outside. My grandparents sent me $20 every week in the mail. I would walk down to Lawson’s and buy bread and hot dogs and cheese food slices and always one Whatchamacallit chocolate bar. I hid the money in a small red box in my sock drawer. I hid myself from the world. I hid in the back row of 5th grade because I was failing. I hid in my room because the neighborhood thought I was a bad kid. Being a bad, poor, stupid, fat kid made me quiet and lonely.
At night, I would sit on my dresser and dangle my feet out of the second story window. I would name all the constellations I could see. I thought Orion was the best name for a man ever. And Orion had two dogs. I wanted to grow up and marry Orion and play with the big and little dog and live among the stars.
I looked down one night and noticed that one of the rats was lying half eaten on the patio. I didn’t see the other one anywhere. Something larger than the rats had done them in. There was no time to imagine monsters for me now. I usually wallowed in the escape of a good horror movie or novel, but life had gotten too close, too real. I needed to make it until summer. I grabbed my flashlight and climbed out of the window, hanging a bit until I could drop onto the tall grass.
The moon was bright enough for me to see a path to the side door of the garage. No one ever went in there. My mom parked her old brown Duster in the driveway. The woman had driven a Cobra and a Mercedes and a Cadillac at one point – always parking in the garage. But they were all gone now. Now she bolstered herself for the nightly dash from the beater car to the front door cursing rats.
The garage had its own life, a slow breath of dust, secrets and remnants of a creative life. It housed random bits and parts of craft projects so long gone that even the concept was a jumbled haze. Old acrylic paints, damp particle board, warped paneling, dried up markers. It has a dresser full of old books from a neighborhood garage sale – back when the neighborhood somewhat made an effort to include us. I had looked through them once, but it was mostly old romance novels and books filled with cleaning hints. One was a fake book that opened to show two plastic figures in various sex positions. It was poorly made trash. At the time, I felt like I was too.
Suddenly, I heard a soft rumble growing louder. A grey calico tomcat slid himself around the corner of a cardboard box and tilted his head at me, eyes half closed. His name was Cougar. I just knew it. I knew it like I knew he would be my friend. I sat on the floor and he leapt down and settled into my lap. He was bigger than any cat I had ever seen. He had vanquished the rats and made my backyard safe. He was my hero.
He rolled on his side and put a paw up on my face. The tears came like a waterfall. I had a friend who required nothing of me. I stroked his face and scratched the top of his head. I was afraid I would make him angry or skittish by crying. I had heard that cats hate to be wet.
But he stayed and napped a bit, his rumbling purr blocking out silence and fear. It was nearly 2 a.m. when he slinked away from me and outside to prowl the night.
I stayed home from school the next day. I hid in my room until the house was quiet. I grabbed five dollars from the red box and cut across the fields to Lawson’s, staying out of sight of the school. I hated that place. I was going to fail 5th grade and I didn’t care. Today it was more important to feed my new friend.
I bought 3 packets of wet cat food, treats and a small wire brush. I couldn’t afford the little mouse, but I could probably make him one.
The trip from Lawson’s to the garage was blissful. I kept thinking of songs I could sing to him. “What’s New, Pussycat” by Tom Jones was on the top of the list. Also I could read aloud to him. I still had some poetry books that my grandparents gave me. Cougar may be a rat-killer, but I was sure that cats appreciated the finer things.
As soon as I got to the garage, he found me. He rubbed against my leg. “Hi human girl, you are my human girl.” He claimed me. I suspected he knew about the food so I fed him right away. I opened the tin and sat back inside a large cardboard box watching him devour Tender Vittles. His gratitude rumbled loudly and I noticed he was chewing mainly on one side of his face. The other side looked normal, but didn’t operate very well. He’d survived a scuffle or two.
When he was done, he made a relaxed jog to where I was sitting and began to clean himself. I took the brush out of the bag and held it in the air next to him. He began stroking one side against it, then the other. Eventually, Cougar let me brush him and his grey fur began to look pewter, then silver. He was such a big, beautiful boy!
He claimed me as his family at a point in my life when no one else would.