(“Oatmeal” is one of the essays in the author’s debut work of fiction, Birds of a Feather: Short Stories & Miscellany, available in paperback and as an ebook on Amazon, Goodreads and Smashwords.)
“Then the Woman laughed and set the Cat
a bowl of the warm white milk and said,
‘O Cat, you are as clever as a man…’”
Rudyard Kipling, Just So Stories
“They arrive at the airport in no time.”
Richard Scarry, A Day at the Airport
In ancient Egypt, cats were deemed sacred animals, worthy of mummification. Before you take that to mean all of Pharaoh’s subjects worshiped cats, understand that anyone who has ever attempted to bathe a beloved housecat or even just trim its claws, at one time or another wanted to toss said animal’s internal organs into a canopic jar.
Cosmic Ma’at and all that jazz. Miaow.
I’m a cat lover. The desire to separate a feline from its entrails isn’t personal—just a balancing of the scales, and maybe a smidgen revenge for never being allowed to use the bathroom without the carpet outside the door being scratched to hell.
Forever and a day, writers have attempted to define the mysterious cabal between cats and human beings. Perhaps Kipling pegged it best in Just So Stories with the oft-repeated phrase, “I am the Cat who walks by himself.” Meanwhile, dogs the world over chew Florsheims and drool.
Fellow Nobel laureate Ernest Hemingway bowed to the whiskered descendants of Bastet and allowed his pride of polydactyl pusses to have the full run of his Key West and Cuban homes. It was worth it, of course, as Papa’s passages about his cats in his posthumous novel Islands in the Stream are among the most moving prose ever penned about people and felines—or as cats everywhere prefer to describe it, about felines.
Other notable efforts to paint cats with words include T.S. Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats—converted into a musical that even the Rum Tum Tummiest Tugger finds a tad gauche. Then there are the classic literary feline beamers: Carroll’s Cheshire and Seuss’ chat chapeaute. And let us not forget the sinister, Luciferian catetype, including Mikhail Bulgakov’s pistol-wielding Behemoth as well as C.S. Lewis’ plotting Ginger in the final Narnia installment.
Any storyteller worth his or her weight in Friskies has several amusing cat tales at the ready. When I was a young lad, my cat Obadiah daily delivered decapitated bat corpse trophies to our back doorstep. In my short story, “Wingman,” I recounted a kitten rescue based on a real-life midnight wandering of the labyrinthine passageways of Old City Jerusalem.
My current feline companion of 13 years, Thor, a hulking Norwegian forest cat, once leapt six feet in the air to snag a garter snake from a vine and bit it clean in half before landing. As a tyke, this same Thor scaled a 70-foot evergreen in my backyard and spent a full night mewling desperately in the treetops before finally testing gravity’s grace. Thor lived to tell the tale—as I am reminded by his midnight hairballs upon which I regularly step. (My poor, poor carpet.)
Before I forget, there is also the childhood memory of my hapless Siamese kitten, David, which one summer afternoon stumbled into my neighbor’s front yard and soon found his pipsqueak self squared off with my neighbor’s growling Schutzstaffel German shepherd. When my neighbor intervened to save my kitten, David acted with Darwinian wisdom and climbed my neighbor’s back and turned his balding pate into a pussy pincushion. (My poor, poor neighbor.)
None of these stories, however, can compare with the soap opera saga of Oatmeal. So go fill a canopic jar with popcorn, sit back and enjoy…
The life of Oatmeal the tabby begins in Lyle, Minnesota, a blip of a town well south of the Twin Cities on the Iowa border—a place where Field of Dreams cornfields meet the steel-toed boots of Paul Bunyan. No, that’s far too poetic—especially for a place that sits in the shadows of the local Hormel Spam plant. Also, truth be told, Lyle’s primary industry, other than canned pork shoulder, is the crocheting of doilies.
How this orange and white tuft of kitten came into the care of my first wife and me is a lost memory. My former father-in-law was the lone minister in town, which made my first wife’s family rectory a kind of sanctuary of Lutheran lost causes. Some townie probably took advantage of ELCA compassion and dropped a litter of hapless kittens at the doorstep—along with an obligatory covered dish. Next thing, my first wife and I were headed back to Minneapolis with a CorningWare dish filled with Hamburger Helper and a fur puff snug asleep in the glove compartment of our 1978 Chevy Nova.
You may not be aware of this fact, but the glove compartment of a 1978 Chevy Nova was not designed with napping newborn pets in mind. Inside, there is a small ventilation hole just big enough to tempt the expanding curiosity of freshly-weaned kittens. At one point, my first wife popped the hatch to check in on our little—
“Gone?!” I leaned across the bench seat and examined the empty compartment, “What do you mean gone?!”
“Disappeared! Poof!” my first wife cried.
I could lie and claim that I engaged in some placid, Sherlock Holmesean “when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable…” ratiocination, but in reality, I slammed the sedan to a halt on the I-35 shoulder and in a blue streak huff rushed to open the engine hood. There was kitty-kitty, perched on a metal strip mere inches from a most interesting discovery of the engine fan. Oatmeal spent the rest of the drive in my first wife’s lap, purringly oblivious that he was already, at his tender age, down one full life.
Not long thereafter, Oatmeal joined us on the move to the western suburbs of Chicago, where I began in earnest the study of archaeology and ancient languages at everybody’s favorite Evangelical institution of higher education, Wheaton College—not only alma mater to Billy Graham and Wes Craven, but also archival guardian of the wardrobe and personal library of one big cat creator extraordinaire, C.S. Lewis. My first wife landed a job at one of the many slickster ministries in the immediate area. As to Oatmeal, he took up the feline sport of toad-flipping—but that was only after we were dismissed from college married housing.
The college soon suspected that we were harboring a lease-violating cat. (Had Oatmeal been a black cat, administration might actually have considered burning my first wife alive.) We initially denied all accusations and suggested that “the miaowing sound” reported by our neighbors possibly was the sound of us engaged in ecstatic marital union. No one wanted to touch that claim with a ten-foot scratching post, but finally one of the maintenance men entered the premises in our absence and reported the presence of an orange and white tabby. The jig was up; we were given 24 hours to ditch the cat or vacate the premises.
A husband, wife and their pussy are not so easily parted. We were soon in West Chicago digs, and Oatmeal began his career as a toad-flipper. There is a species of toad indigenous to DuPage County that reaches the size of a Marie Callender pot pie. Every summer, when the adult toads emerged at day’s end to feast upon early evening bugs, Oatmeal entertained himself by flipping the large amphibians on their backs. With detached, psychopathic interest, he watched the toads struggle to right themselves, then casually extended a paw and turned them over again. Sometimes he would herd several toads into a corner and play them like a warty drum set.
Yet the Universe has a way of exacting revenge. One December eve, I was awakened from a nightmare of a blaring ambulance siren—only to realize that the siren was actually a wailing animal cry. My first wife and I raced into the living room and discovered Oatmeal upside-down at the top of the Christmas tree, his back legs tangled in the cords of the blinking lights. I will never forget the look on the face of that caterwauling yuletide martyr: Hey, man, you brought the damned tree into the house!
Oatmeal’s most peculiar feline idiosyncrasy was an absolute refusal to drink from a water dish. He insisted on drinking from the bathroom sink by letting water droplets fall upon his paw, then licking them. And, yes (mea culpa, Mother Earth!), this meant that we set the sink in a most environmentally-unfriendly manner to drip slowly. Also, on particularly hot days (we had no air conditioning at the time), Oatmeal took to lounging in his marble waterhole.
Although I had provided a life of near-Herodian pleasure for my feline, the days of his luxurious, suburban Windy City existence were numbered. My first wife and I came to a parting of marital ways. Though our divorce was amicable, difficult pet choices had to be made. We had two other adult cats, a pedigree Himalayan breeding couple nobly named Solomon and Anastasia, plus a litter of newborn Himmies. (Time is too short to recount fully the night that I babysat the litter and lost them somewhere between the beginning and middle of a bottle of Johnny Walker Red. Don’t worry; all five turned up eventually—or maybe there were six. No matter.)
My soon-to-be ex-wife felt little attachment to Oatmeal—which can probably be explained by the fact that the animal forced her to share a bathroom with her husband, while said beast had one all to himself. Unfortunately, my graduate school housing options left me in a pending non-pet residential situation. Thus, it was time to find a new home for Oatmeal.
A fellow student in my biblical studies graduate program took up the cause of my soon-to-be-homeless feline. She offered to take Oatmeal to Kansas when she flew home for Thanksgiving Break. Her family owned a farm, and she assured me that Oatmeal would live out his days in idyllic, wheat field, barnyard bliss with horses and goats and chickens and capybara. (They have capybara in Kansas, right?) Of course, it didn’t occur to me that literature clearly warns us that traveling and Kansas sometimes do not mix well.
I made duly diligent pre-flight arrangements for Oatmeal’s journey from O’Hare to Kansas City International Airport. I paid a sizable airline fee for a pet transport crate to be placed at the flight gate in advance—Oatmeal was officially scheduled to commute under my friend’s passenger seat. And our veterinarian agreed to prepare a sedative cocktail to lessen any travel anxiety Oatmeal might suffer.
Soon, the Wednesday morning before Thanksgiving was upon us. I planned to meet my friend at the United gate 30 minutes before her flight boarded. I gave Oatmeal one final StarKist Tuna treat, then took him to the vet for his drugs. The vet insisted that even though he weighed nearly 20 pounds, he was filled with enough sedative to fell a rhino.
The vet tilted his head to the side, “Give him 15 minutes and he’ll be out.”
During the drive to O’Hare, it seemed instead that there was a rhino suffering from Ebola in the back of my car. We used a sizable plastic dog crate to transport our animals; it took up one full side of the backseat. Traffic on I-294 is usually bad enough the day before Thanksgiving, but it is made especially difficult by a bouncing animal crate from which emerges toxic smells and eructating sounds—including that deep-throated glick-glock when a gagging feline is about to upchuck a half-pound of Charlie chunk white albacore.
I arrived at the O’Hare parking terminal and realized I was behind schedule to get to the gate. I opened the back door and stared at the crate—oozing matter dripped from nearly every aperture. I ran around to the trunk and grabbed some winter scarves and wiped the crate as best I could; however, this merely seemed to smear the sodden matter. Time was of the essence. I grabbed the crate handle, held it out from me as far as I could, and made speedily for the airport. Oatmeal loudly crapped himself again.
On the Sky’s the Limit moving walkway, famous for its ceiling display of cycling rainbow neon lights, the Universe showed her true hand for that morning. The crate handle snapped clean off, and the crate crashed to the ground. I was now forced to carry the crate by grabbing hold of the sticky, discharge-covered bottom. To the delightful background music of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, Oatmeal barfed some more.
A recorded voice droned: “The moving walkway is now ending; please look down.”
“Thank you, I’d rather not.”
Almost lost to memory are the pre-9/11 days when airport security was sometimes so lax that a heavyset African-American woman could sit behind an X-ray station and mindlessly exchange views about primetime TV soap operas with other airport colleagues and pay little to no heed to the hundreds of citizens seeking concourse entrance. I tried to get the official’s attention, but it was clear no one interrupted a Dr. Quinn Medicine Woman recap. Thankfully, I had called the airport previously to verify that an animal could pass through the scanner without harm; I placed the crate on the conveyer.
The woman pushed a button and Oatmeal advanced through the scanner. She caught a scent and waved her hand, “Oh my! What’s that smell?”
She looked at her monitor and screamed, “Oh Lord! A skeleton! Alive! You put something alive in the X-ray! And damn if it don’t reek to hell! Barbara, come look, it’s an animal! What is that, a giant rabbit?!”
“It’s a cat, dammit!” I panicked, no longer sure it was safe for Oatmeal to be pummeled with ionizing radiation. “Just get him through! He’s clearly not a bomb, now is he?!”
I gulped. That one monosyllable that will absolutely, positively bring all the hustle and bustle of a major airport to a complete and grinding stop.
“Oh God.” I groveled, “Please ignore that. It’s just a cat. My cat. He’s an orange and white tabby, and his name is Oatmeal. And he’s about to hop a plane to Kansas to live out the rest of his days peacefully on a farm with geese and cows and scarecrows. I’m getting divorced, you see, so I can’t keep him anymore. And he’s been barfing and crapping all the way here from the vet. And then the crate broke—” I produced the broken handle from my jacket pocket.
In an act of bureaucratic mercy, the official pushed a button to send Oatmeal through and plugged her nose with her other hand, “Ain’t no pilot going to let that thing on a plane, honey!”
I bowed. “Oh thank you, thank you. No, I know, there’s a carrier waiting for me at the gate.”
Only, there was no carrier waiting for me at the gate.
The counter attendant at the gate was a thin, middle-aged woman with an upturned wisp of bangs. She wafted the air in front of her nose, “I’m sorry, sir, but the onboard animal carriers are always kept at the ticket counters.”
The walls of my civility began to bend. My voice tonally ascended with each word, “No, you see, I called the airline in advance. And. I. Was. Specifically. Told. To. Get. The. Carrier. AT THE GATE.”
The attendant held her ground. “I’m sorry, sir. The flight’s already boarded. Looks like Kitty gets to stay in Chicago.”
I reached into the writer’s quiver for creative manipulation of reality. I lied. “No, you’re the one who’s going to be sorry. I happen to be a well-known book reviewer for the Chicago Tribune. And I promise you—” I read her nametag “Meghan, is it?—that as soon as I get home, I am going to write the most scathing, bomb-astic article about the customer service me and my poor, helpless, cancer-riddled kitty-cat received today and how he suffered needlessly and missed his critical United Airlines Flight 6125 from ORD to MCI because of you. With any luck, the story will get picked up nationally, and I’ll become the animal interest story king of 1996—and soon I’ll be on Letterman mocking pictures of you and your lover in flagrante taken by the National Enquirer. Now kindly arrange for someone to get the cat carrier for which I paid $140 and that a customer service representative at your airline promised me would be at this gate.”
“Right away, sir.”
Within 15 minutes, a carrier was presented to me by an airline employee—only, it seemed barely large enough to hold a Chihuahua, let alone a flatulent adult orange and white tabby.
“What is this?” I asked.
Meghan the gate attendant smiled. “It would appear to be your carrier, sir.”
“But I told the airline that my cat weighs nearly 20 pounds.”
“Hmm, I see your dilemma, sir. But we can’t really hold up this flight any longer for an animal. I’m sure you understand.”
I was nearly at the point of tears, “Fine. Can the crate go in cargo?”
The attendant beheld the broken, soiled container and seemed to regain some humanity, “Oh, absolutely. Your animal will be perfectly safe.” She picked up her desk phone and called for a baggage handler to come and take the pet crate to the plane.
From the gate window, I watched the pet crate slowly crawl up the baggage conveyor belt to the airplane luggage hold. Something must have scared the bajeezus out of my beloved, drugged cat. I watched in horror as the crate wobbled violently, then tumbled off the belt. It crashed to the ground; the grate busted open. And Oatmeal, now free from his containment, shot out from the crate and sprinted down the O’Hare tarmac. I pounded the window:
“OATMEAL!! OATMEAL!! OATMEAL!!”
To this day, I imagine that several dozen human beings must tell the tale of a large white man pounding the window in an O’Hare terminal and screaming inexplicably about breakfast.
Several airline workers chased after my cat in Keystone Cops fashion and finally trapped him with a human circle about 100 yards from the airplane. The gate attendant Meghan joined me at the window. A jumbo jet taxied across a runway in the background and took flight.
Meghan handed me the tiny carrier, “I think you’re going to need this now.”
On the tarmac, one of the airline workers grabbed Oatmeal by the scruff of his neck and carried him back to the parked plane. Someone slid open a luggage container door, and the worker tossed Oatmeal inside. I was finally led down to the surface; the container door was opened just wide enough for me to slide in. I entered, armed only with the tiny animal carrier. The door was closed behind me.
Before me in the absolute darkness, two glimmering red eyes shined. Oatmeal farted.
That afternoon, my graduate program friend called from Kansas and left a message on my answering machine. Doubtless I was still in an airport bar at the time.
She had been forced to board the plane before I arrived. Once aboard, the passengers waited for more than an hour without notification about the delay—then a flight attendant told her that “the animal” had been placed in cargo and would be at the baggage claim upon arrival in Kansas City.
“I’ve never seen anything like it,” she explained. “How on earth did you get him in that tiny box? I mean, he came out practically the shape of a cube. And holy cow did he reek! What did you feed him before you left?”
Sometimes I like to imagine that Oatmeal still chases mice upon the grain fields of Kansas. That he snoozes in the hay alongside resting calves and that he dreams of halcyon bygone days, of glove compartments and toad-flipping and blinking Christmas trees and lounging in marble sinks, and of all my pets and care over the years. And that he wakes, stretches his front paws, arches his rump and twists his tail just so with pleasurable laze, and dozes off again.
I am the Cat who walks by himself, he dreams. Though on occasion I can be found scampering down airport runways.
(“Oatmeal” is one of the essays in the author’s debut work of fiction, Birds of a Feather: Short Stories & Miscellany, available in paperback and as an ebook on Amazon, Goodreads and Smashwords.)