A Cat Tale
I never would have written the situation that I found myself in yesterday for one of my fictional characters. I would have thought the metaphor too heavy-handed, the supporting characters too stereotypical, and the outcome too sentimental. But that's how the situation played out and I'm still kind of shaken about what I witnessed.
I was on my way to a high school in Peoria to talk about poetry. I would tell the kids abpit a [poetry program that I respect a great deal. It's a mash-up of performance poetry and the old-fashioned spelling bee competitions. Students memorize poems written by canonical poets and by some of the best contemporary poets that are out there. They recite these poems in competitions at the school, state, and national levels. The winner of the national competition gets a $20,000 college scholarship. I like that there's a cash prize involved, but that's not what inspires me. What inspires me is how excited these kids get when they engage with language in a creative way. The teachers appreciate that their students are interpreting poems and talking about language in ways that aren't about testing or writing in structured forms for state tests. If you watch some of the past performances you'll see that the kids really step full-body into the poetry and breathe life into these poems for the audience. This is the kind of thing that can change a young person's relationship with literature.
So I was in my happy space as I prepared to go to Peoria. I was a little nervous because I wasn't exactly sure where I was going, I had directions via Mapquest. And I wanted to get there on time to set up my equipment so that I was ready to do the presentation when the kids arrived.
I walked out of the office where I work and headed over to the parking garage to get the state car. As I loaded the little Toyota with my computer, projector, purse, sweater, I could hear this noise in the background. Once I stopped slamming the doors I realized that I was hearing a cat. Strange, I thought. I got into the car and continued to hear the cat's cries. It sounded like the animal was in distress.
I got out of the car and looked around the garage. I don't care for parking garages, don't want to be in one for long periods of time. This garage was like most of them: dark, gloomy. It smelled of exhaust. I walked in front of the car and looked underneath it and saw nothing. "Kitty," I called trying to find the cat so that I could help it. The mewing sounded like a call for help. Each time I called the cat, it responded but I couldn't see it. I needed to get in the car and get to Peoria on time. Was the cat in the pipe that snaked up the wall next to the car? I couldn't figure it out.
I walked away from the car to see if I could find a garage attendant to help me look for the cat. My eyesight is not the best, and I kept imagining that the cat had to be beneath the car, that I just couldn't see it. I was afraid that I might run over the cat when I backed up. No one was in the booth. I was now some distance from the car and could still hear the mewing. I bent down to look underneath the car from several feet away. That's when I saw the orange tail curling out from the car's carriage. There was a cat stuck somewhere inside the car. It seemed like I'd heard of that before.
At that moment two gentlemen wearing dark blue coats and caps walked into the garage and went to a door that said "Storage". They had keys. These men worked for the garage.
I told them what the situation was. They were so gracious and I am thankful that they appeared. They were busy doing their job, but they stopped to help me out. "Pop open the hood," one of them told me. I did. Sure enough, an orange tabby was stuck in the car's engine and could not get out. It mewed like it was in pain.
I can't really describe the horror I felt when I looked at the tail curling out from beneath the car. It was like the machine had eaten the cat. It was horrifying to think what could have happened if I'd started the car. The cat was alive but we needed to get it out and I needed to get to Peoria on time. I felt torn between rescuing the animal and doing my job. I'd driven my own car to the office and I could have abandoned the kitty and jumped in my own car. I wish I could say that I valiantly chose to help the animal but the truth is I didn't know if my car would make it to Peoria and I had to deal with the cat because no one was in my office. Everyone was out in the field doing community work. I could not hand over this crisis.
We decided to get the tire jack and raise the car so that one of the men could go underneath and try to pull the cat out. While one of the men laid on his back beneath the car saying, "Here kitty, come on out, come on kitty," the other man poked the cat with the oil dipstick from the engine. The cat would not budge. It hissed.
And then the car began rolling. All of a sudden the Toyota was moving and the guy standing up was trying to stop it. Have you ever seen someone trying to keep a car from falling? I may have screamed, I don't remember. The car fell on top of the guy on the ground.
I felt ill. I was now responsible for human lives as well as the feline that was stuck in the engine. "Are you okay?" the gentleman standing said to his buddy on the ground. Both men were older than me, both were completely gray. The man on the ground did not move. His friend called to him again. "B___ are you okay?"
I remember the bend of B__'s legs as he laid beneath the car. I had been on my way to talk about poetry.
"I'm alright, why'd you let the car down? He was coming out," B___ finally said.
"Why are you just laying there if you're alright?" his friend asked.
Well, because he'd had the shit scared out of him. He'd come within inches of being crushed.
B__ slowly pushed his way from beneath the car. He said he was okay although he looked a little frightened. He moved stiffly. "Look," I said. "I'm not willing to risk our lives for this cat."
They assured me that they could do this. B___ kept saying that he almost had the cat out of the car. We just needed to put the emergency brake on when we jacked the car up a second time.
We, no they, eventually got the cat out of the car. I felt like I should have had money or a gift to give to them, but I didn't. I shook one guy's hand. B____ didn't want to shake my hand because his palms were black with dirt and oil. He didn't want to get my hand dirty. I wanted to hug B____ because I'm mushy like that, but I didn't know these men, so I touched B____'s shoulder and thanked him. Then I drove to Peoria to recite my own poetry and to excite a room of teenagers about poetry. I kept thinking, What if I hadn't heard about cats climbing into cars to stay warm? What if I'd started the car? What if B___ had been injured or killed?
I realize as I type that I've been on a thread about fiction vs. nonfiction for a little while. The name of this blog even suggests that I'm exploring how writing fits into real life. I'm figuring it out as I go. All I know is yesterday, I felt lucky for a real life happy ending.