Jethro tried to die without saying goodbye, which was just like him. For a cat the size of a dwarfish prehistoric mastodon, he always did his best not to be a bother. He'd lumber around sweetly in our teeny house that was hardly big enough to hold him, and if you happened to brush against him his fur would absorb your leg warmly before he'd amble out of your way. I never once heard that cat complain, or even meow. He was just as quiet as he was cuddly, and I hugged him like a life preserver every night.
Our miniscule house was a big change from my old loft, where there was plenty of room on the concrete floor for Jethro to create the golden cat-hair tumbleweeds that would roll off his soft back. But Jethro was not an indoor cat, even if the indoors was bigger than most backyards. So that was a comfort, when I bought the tiny house with the big backyard that reminded me of the double-wide trailers my Dad used to sell -- or he tried to sell, I should say.
Because if my Dad were as good at selling trailers as he was at talking about selling trailers with his buddies at the bar, we might never have had Missy, the closest thing I'd ever had to my own pet cat as a kid. My Dad found the calico howling weakly behind the dumpster one night after the bar closed. Missy spawned a half-dozen kittens about five days later, and a month or two after that my mother took off work to bring them to my first-grade class in a cardboard box for show-and-tell. "They're ready for adoption," she chirped. That's how I learned the definition of "adoption," which directly translated into the ripping of six little furry hearts from my six-year-old chest.
My mother took to clandestine pet-placement meetings outside my presence to avoid my antics, the most successful of which had been to throw myself on the hood of the adoptive parents' car as it backed out of our driveway. (Those people actually gave the kitten back.) I howled every time I came home to discover a kitten disappeared. I wailed and begged her to tell me where they'd gone so I could get them back. My mother simply lit her seventh Salem menthol since she'd come home that night, turned on the television and tried to ignore me. I could see her cigarette shake, though, as she brought it to her lips.
When Jethro disappeared for the second time, I canvassed the neighborhood again. This time, though, there were no jovial reports of Jethro sightings, just expressions of concern, as they hadn't seen him, either. So as I left there I already had my cell phone in my hand, dialing, because there was only one explanation for this, I thought.
"Where the hell is my cat?" I hollered into Lary's voice mail. Lary was always claiming Jethro was meant to be with him but through some kink in the cosmos, I got this magical cat instead. The last time Jethro disappeared, I naturally accused Lary of stealing him. But this time, ha! Isn't it just like the demented mind of Lary, I fumed, to take Jethro after I just got Jethro back after falsely accusing Lary of taking Jethro. That bastard!
But Lary did not have my cat. He really did not. Finally it sank in, but still every time Lary called to inquire about Jethro, I'd answer the phone with, "Where's my cat?" As time went by, though, and Jethro remained missing, the exclamation was less an acid accusation than it was a pathetic howling of the sort you might hear coming from a sick creature hoping to be saved from behind a dumpster.
Because sometimes the howling reaches out and twangs the heart chord of the most unexpected people passing by. That's what Missy's did to my Dad, and that's what mine did to Lary. After hearing my wretched noise, Lary launched a determined search, and found Jethro down the street in a vacant lot under a bush, barely breathing. Lary gathered the lovely thing gently, and this time when he called me and I asked, "Where's my cat?" Lary answered sadly, "I have Jethro right here."
Looking back, I wish Jethro had it in him to howl like I do, because if only he did maybe I could have heard him and found him in time. But he didn't cry for help, he just quietly went away and tried to die without being a bother. When Lary sorrowfully gathered Jethro up and brought him back to me, the most I could hope for was a goodbye before Jethro's sweet heart stopped beating. Lord Jesus God, I keep thinking, why couldn't he have howled? I would have heard him, wouldn't I have? I would have gathered his dear, soft heaviness and never let him go. I would have clung to him like a life preserver. Now, sometimes late at night when I'm in bed, I think I did hear a cat howling. I wake up and I think, "Did I hear Jethro howling?" Was it him? But then I realize it wasn't Jethro at all. It was just me again.
Hollis Gillespie is author of two acclaimed memoirs, Bleachy-Haired Honky Bitch: Tales from a Bad Neighborhood and Confessions of a Recovering Slut and Other Love Stories. To register for her writing workshops, The Shocking Real-Life Writing Seminar, visit www.hollisgillespie.com.