CAT AND DOG
By Kirk Weixel
Back then the streetcars would come sparking and clacking around the corner down from the turnaround at California Avenue as they headed into town, and Tony Hunter would stretch out a garter snake or drop a penny on the track and wait to see the damage. After school, six or eight of us would meet on the cobblestones between the rows of houses and play football with a folded and tucked Post-Gazette, something so devoid of value that Tony wouldn’t want to steal it.
He was the kind of kid even a mother couldn’t love, and Mrs. Hunter regularly ordered him out of the house, especially if it was raining. That summer he turned fifteen—four years ahead of me—and skinny as he was he had me by several pounds and inches. I tried to avoid him, but he would appear out of nowhere when I was tossing a ball against the house or shooting hoops in the backyard.
He usually said nothing, just caught the baseball after a bounce or grabbed the basketball as it dropped through the net, and then he’d alternate with me. When mother called me for dinner or I went in to use the bathroom, Tony would finally speak:
“You go ahead. I’ll just keep playing till you come out.”
When I did come out, Tony would be gone, and so would my baseball or basketball, or glove, or bat. When my older brother came home from his classes at Pitt, I’d meet him at the door.
“What’d he take this time?” I’d tell him. “Okay, I’ll be back.”
Ralph’s conversations with Tony would go something like this:
“I didn’t take nothing.”
“Get it now, Tony.”
“You want me to come in and get it myself?”
Tony, knowing Ralph would do just that, would huff, disappear for a minute, and return with the stolen item. It was part of Tony’s routine. Mrs. Hunter, if she got involved at all, would look dejected and order Tony to get what he had taken. Mr. Hunter was never home for these moments. He spent his leisure time at a place called The New Era Club in Woods Run.
I was lucky to have Ralph, since my father worked six days a week downtown, came home at 5:30, ate, smoked a cigarette, and fell asleep in his chair until it was time for bed. He wasn’t an absent father, just a tired one. Mother never associated with the neighborhood women, but my friends liked her because they were always welcome, and in the evenings she’d tell stories on the porch. It was common on summer nights to have four or five kids gathered around her as she wove tales of animals that had usually been orphaned. She was particularly good at imitating animal sounds that spoke of loss or longing. Tony would sometimes stand by the hedge and listen. During the day, if I got into scrapes, she rarely intervened, preferring to busy herself with housework, ironing even our underwear.
When Ralph was home, I had a defender, but if he stayed in Oakland to study or got together with friends, Tony knew, and Tony, besides being a thief, was cruel.
A mouse got into our cellar in May when the temperature dropped suddenly, and mother was scrubbing a shirt cuff in the laundry tub when the mouse skittered over her foot. She made a phone call, and the next day we had a kitten with gray and white stripes and white paws that I called Boots. For two months he slept in a cardboard box behind the furnace and delighted us with his imitation of a lion on the prowl, leaping out from anywhere to grab an ankle or chase an imaginary enemy across the living room rug. As he grew, he’d sit with me on the sofa or curl up at night between my legs, and when we let him outside in July, Boots often followed me.
Usually I knew where he was, but I let my guard down the afternoon that Tony was burning trash in an old oil drum. I was drawn to the flames, I guess, out of simple curiosity, and we all know what curiosity does to cats.
I didn’t see Boots until Tony stared past me and said,
“Well, look what we have here. A kitty. I love roast kitty,” and before I could move to stop him, he scooped up my cat.
I knew I was on dangerous ground. If I lunged to get the cat, Tony could squeeze it or toss it into the barrel. When I hung back, he grabbed the scruff of its neck and dangled it high over the flames. I realize so many years later that even Tony wasn’t dumb enough to kill the cat openly, but I didn’t know it then and began to scream.
A window flew open next door. It was Mrs. Showalter, overweight and heavily rouged as always—what my mother called a broken-down chorus girl—wagging her finger.
“Tony Hunter, you put that cat down right now or I’ll stick you in that barrel.”
He mumbled something like “I was only joking, just having some fun,” but he set the cat down, and Boots raced home in seconds. When I told Mother what had happened, she patted the cat and said,
“What do you expect? He’s scum. Stay away from him.”
Most of the time I did, and kept Boots away as well, but the cat loved to explore, and if we left the door even slightly ajar, he’d ease his way through it and head for the bushes and flowers and trees. When he got hungry, he’d be back. Mother had a soft spot for Boots and would order an extra pound of ground chuck at Schlosser’s Market. What cat could pass up fresh ground chuck?
I was so convinced that Boots would always return that, on that last Thursday in July when he wasn’t in by dinner, I got worried and called for him. After I finished dessert and he still wasn’t back, I moved slowly down the street yelling his name. I was on the sidewalk in front of Hunters’ when I glimpsed Tony on the porch watching me.
“Sounds like you lost a cat. Maybe something bad happened to it. Streetcar or something.”
Then it hit me. If he came across the cat when no one else was around…I could barely
speak the words:
“If you hurt that cat…”
He got out of his chair slowly and leaned across the low brick wall of the porch:
“Yeah, what if I did? What are you going to do about it?”
As I think of that scene, I’m struck by the fact that neither of us swore, no hells or damns or worse. None of us did until we were older and needed extra ammunition. When we were younger, we said it all with intonation.
I waited for Boots into early morning, torturing myself with images of what Tony might have done or did do to my cat. And then, with the house asleep and the locusts starting their high-pitched wail, I remembered that I had one way to get back at the boy who had made my life so miserable: Tony Hunter had a dog.
Buster was a chocolate Lab and one of the friendliest dogs I have ever met. Because Tony owned him, Buster ambled freely around the neighborhood, wagging at everyone and waiting to be petted. We all obliged. If Boots was with me when Buster approached, my cat would arch its back and assume a fighting pose, but Buster never noticed, tongue out, tail swinging. I guess he figured that if Boots was with me, he must be okay.
My cat got a mixed reception in the neighborhood, cats always do, but everyone adored Buster, even his owner. I wonder if Tony ever attached himself so openly to anything else? When he brought the dog home from the pound, Tony introduced him to all of the neighbors. I recall two things from that day: I liked Buster because he was another animal whose name began with the letter B, and he was so instantly affectionate. He was also, for the only time in his life, on a leash. Within a week, Tony had lost his enthusiasm for exercising Buster. The dog was healthy and full grown; he could do his own walking. And he did, often traveling blocks away and across traffic. Buster led a charmed life, or so it seemed.
My plan was simple: wait until Buster had wandered well away from his master and then look for an opportunity to do to Buster what Tony had done to Boots.
I spent many a summer afternoon in pickup games at Marmaduke Field with friends who, like me, had skipped Little League. We had gone to tryouts, and when it was clear that the coach, Mr. Henley, was civic minded but clueless about baseball, we dropped off the team. If we weren’t swimming at the local pool, we’d meet at the field to hit fly balls or play catch, and if enough of us showed up, we’d choose sides and get an actual game going. Standard equipment when we left our houses included a mitt hooked over a bat. Bats make excellent weapons.
In late afternoon, tired and dusty, we’d head home for dinner. Along my route were red or yellow brick houses whose backyards faced a gulley and a small patch of woods. When I was old enough to roam from my house, I sometimes tossed a peanut butter sandwich and a canteen into a backpack and, down in those woods, considered myself on a great adventure looking for frogs and squirrels and chipmunks. Buster loved those woods.
On the day that I was sure Boots was missing, I hung back after the game and walked on alone. When I reached the foot bridge that spanned the gulley, I went to the middle of it and called for Buster.
“Here, boy. Bus-ter. Come on, boy.”
Soon I heard a rustling in the brush below me, and out came Buster, tail wagging.
“Come here, boy. I’ve got something for you.”
I led him further into the woods, well enough away from the houses that no one gazing out a back window could see either of us. When I reached a level stretch, I slipped my glove off the bat, a thirty-two ounce Louisville Slugger, light enough to swing easily. I dug into my pocket and brought out a handful of dog treats. One of our neighbors, Mr. Antonelli, had told me about feeding his dying Great Dane a cheeseburger, the dog’s favorite, right before the vet gave the lethal injection.
“Buster,” I said, “Enjoy your last meal.”
I wrapped my fist around the bottom of the bat just as Buster raised his head, waiting for another treat.
Now this next part is hard to explain, but I’ll try. For lord-only-knows what reason, as I fed Buster I heard my mother’s voice as it sounded when she was telling stories. One that she traditionally told was Bambi, and another involved a fish named Guppy, who jumped so high out of the stream that he landed in a nearby creek and couldn’t get back to his family. As I looked down at Buster, though, I remembered a story called Little Hoot, about a baby owl whose mother flies off one night and never returns. Little Hoot waits in his nest, crying,
By the end of the story, he chokes out,
Mother always hammed it up, but, as a small child, I wept every time she told it.
Those are the words that, in all their exaggerated, sentimental glory, I heard as Buster waited for his next Milk-Bone. Laughing, I looped the strap of my glove over my bat and slapped the side of my leg.
“Come on, boy. Let’s go home.”
The next morning, when I came down for breakfast, there was Boots on the front porch perched on the windowsill. He had a gash under his chin and some missing fur, but he ate at least a quarter pound of ground chuck. And he survived his cuts and bruises and many more as the years went on. He died of old age, or would have if the vet hadn’t shortened his life by a few days or weeks. As the doctor filled the syringe, I got out a bowl and a large helping of Andy Schlosser’s finest ground round.
Buster didn’t fare as well. I lived between two major roads, and a common sound in our neighborhood was the screech of brakes. Mr. McDougall, who lived near California Avenue, heard it that afternoon and discovered Buster when he investigated. He couldn’t lift the dog on his own and phoned the Hunters with the news. I was out in the street that October tossing a football, my first real one, in the air when I watched the car coming. As I stepped aside to let it pass, Mr. Hunter was driving, stone-faced as ever. Tony was riding shotgun, crying. When they pulled into the driveway, I walked toward them, not wanting to miss whatever it was that caused Tony to weep.
Nearing the car, I could see them lifting something large out of the back seat.
Wrapped in an old blanket was Buster.
After dinner, I returned to the Hunters, entering their basement for one of the rare times, to help get shovels and string. We dug an enormous hole—Buster was a Lab after all— grabbed each end of the blanket, lowered him in, filled the hole, and tied two sticks together for a cross.
“Thanks,” Tony said.
Two weeks later, Ralph retrieved the football that Tony had stolen earlier that day.
About the Author
Kirk Weixel is professor emeritus in English at Saint Francis University, Loretto, Pennsylvania, where he continues to teach literature and creative writing. He has previously served as regional correspondent for the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts, fiction editor for The Loyalhanna Review, and program director for the Ligonier Valley Writers Conference. He has three children and lives in Loretto with his wife, Mary Jeanne.