Sunday, December 10, 2006

The Cat I Never Saw

The Cat I Never Saw
By James Robert Smith

I deliver mail.

When I first started I worked at a station that was in downtown Charlotte. A lot of the neighborhoods in which I worked were in very poor neighborhoods. Lots of run-down houses and clunkers parked in the streets. For whatever reason, there were always empty lots filled with junk and scrap wood and overgrown with weeds and sometimes the rusting hulks of abandoned vehicles. In the summertime the rollout garbage cans would be at the sidewalks where I walked and the stench of maggoty food rotting in the heat would be stupefying in its intensity.

Often, I would have to dodge nipping dogs, or wade through mewling kittens, or keep an eye out for trouble of various types. On three occasions I got caught in the crossfire of angry people shooting at one another with handguns. Sometimes the job was most definitely not much fun.

One day I was delivering mail in Wilmore. I’m not sure how the Wilmore Neighborhood got its name. But it was a lovely place, and you could see the old luster of respectability underneath the flaking paint and weedy yards; and through the screams and the odd gunshots, there was sometimes silence.

On a particularly hot and sticky day, I was hoofing it down what I knew was a very bad street in this very tough neighborhood. About one-fourth of the houses on the street were vacant. They’d been bought by speculators who knew the whole Wilmore area was going to be gentrified soon, and they were banking on making a killing once the white yuppies moved in to replace the poor black and Hispanic inhabitants. In fact, Wilmore was the last such neighborhood in the downtown area that had yet to be so gentrified. Houses that were once practically worthless were selling for high five figures, and sometimes six figures for the more well preserved estates.

I was nearing the end of the street, where it intersected with a major thoroughfare when a very old, very thin black woman came walking toward me from her driveway. It was a concrete driveway, probably poured sometime in the late-40s when the residents there had all been white folk. The drive was still concrete, but now it was cracked like glazed porcelain and broken by the roots of a dozen trees, both living and dead.

“Hey,” she said to me.

“Hello,” I replied.

“Would you like to see the biggest rat I’ve ever seen?”

Now, I had expected her to say something. I had expected her to ask me about the mail, or whether I had a package she’d been expecting, or if I’d take some greeting cards to the post office for her. Something like that. I have to say that to be asked if I’d like to see the biggest rat this very old woman had ever seen was not anywhere on any list of things that I would have suspected would be mentioned by her.

So I thought about it for a second or two. Long enough so that she maybe thought I was going to pass.

“You really should see this rat,” she told me. “It’s enormous.” Her diction was very good, and I suspect that she may have been either a teacher or a secretary in her youth.

“Sure,” I finally said. “I reckon I would like to see the biggest rat you’ve ever seen.”

“It’s over here,” she said. And I followed her up the slight incline of the drive to side of her modest brick house. She pointed.

And there it was. Ratzilla. It was, as she had advertised, the biggest goddamned rat I had ever seen. Thankfully quite stiff and dead, and the biggest she had ever seen, she had said. It was bigger than a large puppy. And, no, it was not a muskrat, which we do have in this area. And it was not nutria, which we do not have in this area. It was just a huge freaking black rat. It must have weighed more than two pounds, easily. It was bigger than my foot, not counting the ugly, gray, naked tail.

After being horribly aware of its enormous size, the next things that I noticed were the wounds on its neck. It had a couple of puncture wounds that appeared to have been formed by something the size of a sixteen-penny nail.

“What did that?” I asked her, pointing at the punctures on the neck.

“Oh. That. My cat did that.””Your cat? I’d have thought a big dog bit it.”

“No, that cat’s huge, too. Biggest cat I’ve ever seen. He doesn’t come inside. But he showed up here last year and I feed him.”

I looked away from the rat and scanned the empty lot next to her house, searching for a sign of a cat that had teeth big enough to make those kinds of wounds. My bare legs suddenly felt really vulnerable.

“Well, ma’am. I don’t know what you’re feeding that cat, but I’d keep it up if I were you.” Then I waved to her and wandered on down the street.

I never did see that cat.

No comments: