Friday, January 7, 2011

Pappy's Tom Cat Tuna Banquet, Or, The Tiger's Funeral

A Son of Obituary Tale
by The Legendary Jim Parks

Pappy lived all alone in a nice brick house in a little river valley town in Texas where the loudest thing going are wailing trains screaming and honking like maddened banshees, trailing out to the Rockies and down to the salt grass coast on the shiny steel rails of the road.

His main companions were tom cats whose ancestors wandered in from the deserts of Africa thousands upon thousands of years in the past, creatures with no home who holed up, killing and eating rats and mice for a living and begged for their meals by making loud meows at the back doors where ladies kept house for their families.

There, the tom cats visited their girlfriends, kitties who lived with their baby kittens and the ladies.

Pappy had no obligation to feed them. They never came inside his house. They all slept in the sunny afternoon breezes or in the boarded-up house down the street, under the tool shed in the vacant lot, or in the seat of a rusty old pickup parked beside it.

There was no need for them to live indoors because they knew and did their jobs so well. They hunted down all the rats and mice and ate them before they could get inside.

His house was actually a hunting lodge for tom cats who had made the grade and survived to tell the tale when they screamed their names in cat language late in the deep nights at their lovers.

He was delighted in keeping a close watch on their ways from his chair on the front porch and his desk by the back windows.

Pappy knew when the weather turned cold, they would be hiding, waiting for the field mice to come looking for cracks and crevices to creep through into the warmth of the houses in the town.

When the grass and grain grew tall and the sudden storm winds shattered and scattered the seeds to rest in the roots of the grass where birds pecked and bobbed for them, they would come creeping, flattened out low to the ground and stalking with baby steps.

Then they waited for their chance to make a flying leap with claws flashing to catch a warbler or a lark.

They left feathers and bones scattered across the yard and carried their prey in their jaws to secret hiding places where they devoured them, then drank their fill of water and wandered away to sleep for many hours following the feast for which they had fought so hard.

Of course, Pappy being himself and the tom cats even more themselves than Pappy could ever be, they all chose to ignore one another with all the style and feline grace that comes naturally to creatures of their type.

They were lordly lounging and lazy, licking their chops and whiskers and treating their many wounds with the tips of their little pink tongues while they napped and watched from their perches on the window sills and their hiding places under the bushes.

Each cat in the tribe had his own name, though only Pap knew them, and he named them only after a lot of thought and careful watching.

There was the orange and brown-striped tabby, Tiger, the only one who came to Pappy and rubbed against his ankles for scratching behind his ears and stroking his furry hunched back.

There was a reason for that. It was because his mother gave birth to him at that same address several years in the past.

The rest of them were all wild, but each had his name.

Ringo was all black except for a white ring around the tip of his tail and a little white patch over one side of his mouth. He was very big and very bold and very old. He had reached the age of the greatest dignity a cat can have, strolling about as the master of all the cat world he could see at any one time.

His favorite sleeping place was on top of the air conditioner or on the sill of the bathroom window, basking in the sunshine.

Gato was gray and black-striped with bright green eyes and coal black paws, a Mexican cat whose every move shouted in very quiet and polite Spanish, Gato!

That means cat, and Pappy could not argue with his style, so he chose to call him by his true name in the language he had chosen for himself. Pappy soon learned that Gato visited at the back doors of the ladies who speak to their children in Spanish.

Gato told him so, and at the same time, he politely insisted that Pappy learn proper Spanish grammar.

If Pappy could not do so, they could not speak freely with each other. Besides, he reminded Pappy, hunting mice and rats requires very little talk.

Of course, he told Pappy all this in a very quiet purr with faint meows while he circled around the porch and sat on his haunches, staring at the little old man through those bright green eyes.

Pappy said, “Oh, I see,” and “Is that right?” He also said, “Well whadda ya' know,” and “How you like that, huh?”

After that, they rarely spoke, but gave one another small signs of recognition through yawns and snorts, head shakes and smiles in little old man language and cat lingo.

Calico, however, was a cat of many colors – black, white, brown and tan – who meowed at everyone as often as possible. He talked about whatever crossed his mind and cared not who agreed or disagreed.

Calico was an orator who sometimes sang out cat blues and cat jazz for no other reason but that he had a voice. He trotted with a hippity hop, holding his tail high in the air, stopping to wail and meow at the sky, then moving on as fast as a jaguar, or as slow as a little old man, the abscesses in his haunches swollen and infected from bites he got in fights with his fellow tom cats.

Pappy learned that Calico was a big show off, an entertainer.

Pappy decided to listen carefully when Calico was in a mood to shout at him from across the street or around the corner of the house, wailing in cat language about events of the day such as who won the rat killing contest at the boarded-up house, or where someone left a mess of catfish carcasses freshly caught on a trot line, cleaned and left on the river bank beside the bridge for any hungry cat to have a feast.

And so, this arrangement lasted for years and years until the day when Tiger came crawling back to the house on his belly, his mouth open and his eyes all funny and cloudy.

Pappy could see he was sick because he lay on his side and choked and made funny noises for awhile before he crawled back to the same place under the bushes where he used to hide and come rushing out to play at an attack on the small boy who once brought Pappy a shiny silver plastic toy pistol and requested that he shoot Tiger because he was a danger to man and beast alike.

“He's a man eater,” he told Pappy in solemn tones. “It's for our own protection.”

Where did he learn about that?

“On television,” he told Pap in the same solemn tones.

But that was long in the past, and this was different. This was no mock battle between boy and cat, no play clawing and biting or quick darting attack. This was real.

Tiger was dying.

Pappy brought a little rug and a towel and made a place for Tiger to lay in the shade under the bushes while he thought about it.

But there was nothing to do. It couldn't be helped. Tiger died later that day after he suffered for many hours.

Pappy dug a hole under the bushes and gave him a decent burial wrapped in the little rug and the towel. Then he found a big rock and put it on top of Tiger's grave.

Pappy sat in his chair and fell asleep. He dreamed that Tiger came and jumped up in his lap and meowed at him and rubbed his head on his belly and shook his ears against his hand while he petted his head.

Pappy could see through Tiger's eyes and he marveled at his vision and the way everything was sharper and more in focus than his own eyes as he trotted along up to the back porch of a house and saw the feast waiting for him there.

It was a can of tuna sitting in a bowl and he could see how Tiger munched on the fancy human food until he had eaten it all.

Then Pappy knew what had happened because Tiger showed him how the cats who lived in that house were watching from inside the windows while he ate.

He started feeling sick right away, and then he became very thirsty, so he drank some of the green stuff in the water bowl. It tasted very sweet, but it made him feel terrible.

When he got too weak to walk, he crawled until he was back at Pappy's house, and he stopped under the bushes where he used to play when he was a kitten clawing at a ball of yarn or pawing at one of the boy's little plastic toys.

Pappy woke up all of a sudden. His mouth was dry and he was very sad.

He had seen what happened. The man in that house put rat poison in the tuna. It made Tiger very thirsty.

The man poured antifreeze in the bowl, which was poisonous, but sweet tasting.

He poisoned Tiger because he had been fighting with the cats who lived in that house.

He and Tiger learned that at the same time. After they saw that together, Tiger gave him a final meow and trotted away into the mist that suddenly surrounded the chair.

After he sat and thought for awhile, he sang a song of blues for Tiger. He sang a song about how he wanted to hurry, hurry sundown and see what tomorrow brings, and all about how when the sun went down, you know, tomorrow brought a train.

Then he went to the store and bought two cans of the fanciest tuna and put them in a soup bowl on the back porch.

The rest of the cats ate their fish while Pappy watched from inside the big windows, smiling.

When they were finished with their banquet, they licked their chops and whiskers and cleaned their paws with their tongues and trotted away in separate directions with their tails held high in the air.

Pappy said, “That's all right, Tiger. You came by it honest. So mote it be.”

Then he broke a little branch off a pine tree and buried it on top of Tiger and replaced the rock on his grave.

Pappy sat in his chair and dreamed about catching tuna on feather jigs on trolling lines, pulling them in with his hands wrapped in rubber gloves made out of motorcycle inner tubes.

He dreamed about the tuna all slick and wet, light gray on top and their bellies white white, their tails banging loudly against the deck while they tried to swim in the air after he pulled them into the boat and the birds circling and screaming at the little fish boiling up out of the water, chased from below by the tuna and dolphins jumping into the air on a current of warm water.

In his dream, he was a young man and he sang to a little bird about how to shoo shoo, Sabado y Domingo, and danced all over the deck of the boat while someone played the drums and a flute and he laughed and laughed at the sun.

He was happy.


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