I’m an avid supporter of writing that is honest. If you have something to say, don’t hold back. Shelly Wotowiec portrays this trait in her literature. I have been enjoying her short stories for the better part of a year and I am always impressed by the raw emotions that are included in her words. The following story is no exception.
“Now I want you to take good care of ol’ Todd while I’m gone. I sure am gonna miss the little chap.” Rich was exceptionally handsome tonight, I thought, and was surprised when Myra simply shook her head, smiling, silently agreeing to take care of his cat without a tear being shed. “It’s a shame they won’t let me take him with me.” He continued.
“Good thing, too,” Macy broke in, “They’d probably kidnap him and eat him over there.”
“Or skin him—I heard they wear cats as scarves, like we wear minks.” Myra added.
“Yeah right, I’d never let those Towels get a hold of him. And even if they did, he’d be able to fend for himself.” Todd concluded, ending the ridiculous speculations.
“You don’t want me to take care of your cat, that’s for sure.” Harriet broke in unexpectedly, as she truly rarely ever spoke. Awkwardly sitting in her chair with her hair disheveled and four coffee stains on her white blouse, she looked directly at Rich, expecting I-don’t-know-what from him.
“Well, Harriet,” Rich began, smoothly, “if I didn’t have my Myra here, I might very well ask you to take care of Todd for me.”
“No, you misunderstand me. You wouldn’t want me to take care of Todd. I’m no good at taking care of cats.” She pushed her hair behind her ears.
Harriet had a cat back in college. She also had a bit of a drug problem, or so she called it. That was around the time when she rescued Ginger, a cat she scooped out of a dumpster on Euclid. Her heart was in the right place, I was sure, but her head was in the drugs. She said her mom was crazy so her and Ginger moved in with a college buddy. Of course, as her luck would have it, the college buddy was big on the things Harriet was trying to get away from. So she spent the next year inside and outside her own head, or skin, while Ginger snoozed on the couch and perched on the window sills. I had a difficult time imagining silent Harriet anywhere but in her living room back home with a book in her lap or headphones on her ears.
The next day Rich was shipped off. He waved to us all from the bus window as we blew kisses and mouthed farewells and best wishes. As I was about to head back toward my car, Harriet asked me if I’d like to grab a bite to eat. I reluctantly obliged, afraid of this new unfamiliar Harriet.
At the small diner she ordered a coke and pancakes. I ordered egg beaters and coffee. Her hair was thick and greaser, but her face was pretty—sincere, even.
“I didn’t really kill my cat.” Harriet said without the slightest segue way.
“I don’t really know anything about that Harriet, but you don’t have to explain anything to me.” I dissected my egg beaters with my fork, searching for any site of bacon grease traces which might ruin my breakfast.
“You know, I had a rough time growing up. I’m sure you heard all about my dad and the shit he was into.” She thanked the server as she was handed a refill of her coke.
I had heard about her dad, sure. The entire town had.
“And the when my mom lost herself in the liquor and medication, I had to get out. I shouldn’t have taken that cat with me, but I couldn’t leave her behind.” She sipped her coke and unfolded her napkin to place on her lap. “I couldn’t leave her behind, you know?”
Sure, I knew. No being, child or cat, deserves to be left with a father like that or a mother like hers, but I didn’t need to hear about it.
“It’s sad Rich actually went through with it.” I changed the subject.
Rich wrote all of us letters. Love letters to Myra, big-brother letters full of wisdom to our Harriet, descriptive and upbeat letters full of hope and homesickness to his mother.
His first letter to me:
I’ve arrived safe and sound. It’s different here, as expected. I mean I’m not some idiot who thought the Middle East was like Ohio, but I didn’t expect it to be like this, you know? I expected camels and bearded men with turbans speaking broken English. But it is so much more than that. So much more. Maybe I’ll be able to articulate it with more care next time.
I had the strangest dream last night, which I’m not sure I should tell you about or if you would even want to hear. I know how you are about all this stuff, but I think I’ll tell you anyway. After all, I am worlds away.
I dreamt I was in your back yard, peeking through your bedroom window. We were kids again. You were standing in front of the window in nothing but your underwear, smiling at me. Just as I was about to make my way in, I felt something crawling on my tongue. I opened my mouth and a beetle fell through my teeth. One of those June beetles from back home, remember? And then one crawled out of my nose. You continued smiling though as I stood outside the window vomiting beetles. Next thing I knew, I heard laughter from behind me. I turned around and saw it was Harriet, only it wasn’t our Harriet. She looked like a wraith and had my Todd wrapped around her neck. She laughed and laughed and as she came closer, I realized she was chewing on Todd’s foot.
Crazy, huh? Maybe you can tell me what my subconscious is trying to tell me.
I’ll write again soon. Tell everyone I said hi and I am thinking of them.
Love you still,
I responded promptly, short and sweet:
Dreams are dreams. But do stop dreaming of me in my underwear. Harriet may be a cat killer, apparently, but she isn’t a cat eater. Hope all is well.
Two weeks went by before I received my second letter:
I’ll be honest with you, and only you—at first, I wasn’t so sure I made the right decision with all of this. I was so homesick and alienated here in this alternate universe. But it’s growing on me—there is something to say for this place that you don’t see over in the States. There are things that should be done and will be done, and I’m privileged to be a part of it all.
I know you and your anti-war brain you carry behind your eyes, but believe me when I say this is about more than war. It’s about helping these people and showing them a better way to live. They can’t be blamed for their actions or religion when they have never been shown anything to the contrary.
Still missing you,
I wrote him back, rather haphazardly:
I’m surprised at how quickly you’ve bought into the gimmick, but I know you were reaching for you reigns before you even boarded the bus.
Things are all right here. Life’s gone on as usual since your departure.
I hope to see you again soon, the Rich I knew here on familiar soil.
Best of luck,
P.S. Maybe you’re being ethnocentric.
P.S.S. Come home soon.
Rich wrote me one last time not too long ago:
Ate cat today, thought you’d appreciate that. Don’t worry, it wasn’t my Todd.
See ya around,
About three months after Rich had left I ran into Myra at the supermarket. She looked beautiful, as always, but older. Rich and her were high school sweethearts. Her eyes no longer betrayed her, but now pathetically showed the world she was the girl left behind for a foreign war.
“How’ve you been?” She asked me after unsuccessfully sneaking up on me in the produce aisle.
“Good, real good. Semester is almost over. I have to write a twenty page paper on some water mother African Deity, so I’m sure you won’t be surprised when I say I’m looking forward to spending break at my Aunt’s in California—” Suddenly aware I was giving more information than she was anticipating, I cut myself off short.
“Well that’s great to hear. California would be nice.” She responded giving birth to an awkward silence impregnated the space between us.
“How have you been?” I finally asked, knowing very well that I was getting myself into a sad sob story. We’d grown apart over the years, for obvious reasons. I’d have never guessed, as a child, that I would feel this elephant as an adult with Myra in the supermarket aisle.
“Oh… you know.” She put her hair behind her ear, her eyes suddenly moistening before she turned her face and pretended to look at the cremini mushrooms. “It’s been kinda hard since Rich left.”
The elephant roared.
“You know, I knew it was going to be hard. But this is just—it’s just—it’s so…” Her voice broke, leaving me standing awkwardly. “I’m just wondering what I was thinking.”
Realizing I did not have anything to say in response, she began to pull herself together: “Never mind all of that, though, it was really good to see you.” She reached in for an awkward embrace, leaving me no time to choose whether or not to return the embrace, and was off to the frozen food aisle.
“How’s Todd?” I yelled down the aisle as she walked away.
I didn’t see Harriet for seven months after breakfast that morning. I heard she went back to finish her degree in Maine. Her father recently took ill, again, and she was rumored to be coming home soon to see him off. Serving tables at the restaurant one afternoon, Macy came in with a mouth full of gossip. Being paid by her generosity, I had no choice but to listen to what she had to say. Three points of interest came out of that mouth of hers worth recalling, in no specific order:
1. Rich had stopped sending letters weeks ago, everyone was very concerned.
2. Myra had been spotted with a blonde man in the back of George’s Pub last Saturday looking cozier than anyone under God’s eyes felt she had the right to, even her own sister.
3. Harriet had gone back to her old quiet self once again. She had not gone to Maine, but to Cleveland to finish her degree. Her father was sick, but he was down south and as she was no longer speaking, yet again, no one was sure if Harriet planned on going to see him.
As for Rich’s letters, I wasn’t too worried. If he had been killed over there I’d have heard about it by now. As for Myra, I knew she wouldn’t be able to hold out. We’re young and she was way too pretty. It’s a lot to ask of a young girl (especially a pretty one), and Rich should have known that before he up and decided to fight for a country that had no idea what it was fighting for. He chose the war and Myra knew it. As for Harriet, I was relieved she’d crept back into her shell. She was one of those women who had things to say that the rest of us didn’t want to hear. It was easier on everyone when she kept to herself.
I brought Macy her medium-rare burger and coke, played very interested while she spilled other people’s secrets from behind her teeth, and was awarded with a twenty-five percent tip.
At home that night I saw I had a new message on the machine. I was unable to decipher the voice through its hysteria:
Call me, I need you to call me. I need your help. Myra… Myra made me take that cat. I told them, I told all of you, that I shouldn’t have a cat. I can’t do it, and now the cat, he’s… he’s sick. Real sick—
I awoke the next morning to a knock at my door.
It was Harriet, as one would expect, but she had Todd wrapped in a damp towel lying on the front seat of her car.
Hysterical, maybe a continuation of last night if not a recalling of the feeling, she cried to me with snot running over her lips, “I don’t need this. I don’t need any of this, please—please take Todd off my hands.” From the door I saw Todd wrapped in the towel.
“Why is he wrapped in a towel, Harriet?”
Harriet hadn’t killed Ginger. Not intentionally. She was a clean freak; the doctor said it was a side effect of the drug addiction she had acquired through her college buddy. To humor her, the doctor even diagnosed her with some sort of phobia—the phobia of messes and clutter. It was to assist in her recovery, he said, so he was willing to go out on a limb with his diagnosis. Harriet had left a bucket filled with water and Pine Sol on her kitchen counter for sixteen days, having been called out to the hospital in Pittsburgh where her mother was sent. When Harriet returned home, she found Ginger lying on the floor, limp and wet. With great details I didn’t care to hear, she described Ginger’s body like a cylinder of wet clay that cried like a bruised child. Ginger was dead by the time she reached the veterinarian’s office.
“I’m not fit to be a mother—not even to a cat” spilled through her lips as she placed Todd in my arms.
Rich never wrote any more letters. Not to any of us, anyway. He wasn’t due to come home for another year at that point, and we eventually grew tired of writing him until even the one way communication became exhausted and expired. Myra moved on. I don’t know if it was she or Rich who ended it, but she found a new outlet for happiness, as we all expected, and married some hotshot from the city. I still think she was too young to marry, but many others disagree. We only live once, after all.
Todd was sick. Very sick, the vet was never able to tell us exactly what it could have been. But he got better after a short period of time. Harriet cried when she picked him up from the vet, explaining she had not asked to get drug into all of this, but somehow knew from the beginning she would be.
As for myself, back here near the dumpsters of Euclid, I continue to dream about dead cats and old flames eating their insides.
Shelly Wotowiec | Age 24 | Cleveland, Ohio
Started a writing group in which every member went on to become published novelists.