BLACK CATS WINK AT THE MOON

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We attract Black Cats.

In the previous 7 years two black cats had, separately, found my husband and I. At those times, we humans were in different places and had no idea of one another’s existence. Now we were moving into our first home together, a 1770’s colonial in Connecticut with apple orchard, small forest and old tobacco barn.

“People used to drop off cats at one time,” the new neighbor told me pointing at our barn with her nose. “They think the cats will be happy here living some kind of Disney cartoon inspired life in your barn. You know roast mouse and dancing.”

I nodded and wondered how I had missed seeing the cat’s oven in the barn when we moved in just a week ago. Cat dancing sounding like something we could get into.

“After the town opened a no-kill animal shelter,” the neighbor continued, ” people stopped dropping off cats.”

“We like cats.” I told her, “in fact, my husband is a fool for a cat.” She frowned and gave me a hard stare.

Our new home was over 215 years old, located in a semi-rural neighborhood a million miles and 2.8 hours north of New York City. Our dogs loved the barn and ran into and out of it at will, chasing each others and their tails. The Conneticut property was about ten acres of pastoral heaven. It seemed all the animals were all glad to be out of warm climates and into a land of Seasons.

One chill Fall day when I went to the old tobacco barn to retrieve gardening tools, a soft mew greeted me. A very small black cat was hiding in the wall between the abandoned cow milking stations and the larger tobacco drying area. 

We already had two black cats which had adopted us in different places in our distant past. Daddy, who had been a feral cat on a farm in South Carolina. And Tuffy who had been a loner on the marshes of Ballona Creek in California and had moved with me to Florida. We named the new cat Sweeters because she was extraordinarily affectionate. She moved into the house within two weeks.

The three cats, surprisingly, got along very well. They sat together on the window-seat and watching the snow. Later, they lounged together in the gardens and watched the dogs, birds and crouched in readiness when other critters like squirrels and moles showed up.

Within two months another black cat, Baba joined the family. Some years later, Slake arrived. He detoured the barn and came directly to the back door. Slake it turned out, was, a wanderer. After spending winter with us, he took off the next Spring. Just poof, vanished one day after a hearty breakfast.

It’s been thirty years since that time. There have been many Black, and other cats along the way. In all there have been a dozen Black cats who decided we would be their people since that Fall in Connecticut.

We arrived in Virginia in the dead of winter with one Black Cat, China, who had found us eight years previously and one dog, Wobble. China thought she was a dog and Wobble took no offense. Just two months later a very large black cat showed up the garden shed. We named him Espooky. Within ten months he had gone from terrified to civilized and moved into the house and onto a feather sleeping pillow. China was insulted, but over time the two have become wary housemates. Although war has not broken out as yet, China spends quite a bit of her time thinking up ways to insult or annoy Espooky.

In August a black cat walked along the South Pasture fence and made a bee-line for the garden shed. Wobble noticed him first and made a joyous barking foray out to greet the cat, who turned tail for the forest. The black cat returned the next day. He is muscular and midnight black except for two short white socks on his front legs, thus he was christened Socks.

This month Socks filed adoption papers with the Great Feline Hall of Records and formally adopted us. Socks is happy in the garden shed and shows no inclination of becoming a pampered civilized indoor cat and getting involved with China and Espooky,  both of whom regard him with disdain.

My better half was offended when Socks declined a lifetime indoor-living invitation. Socks looked on with interest as his human installed a heated bed in the shed to make sure Socks was warm this winter. Socks gingerly examined the bed, and then settled deep into its folds. Every morning Socks waits on the stone step of the garden shed for his meals, then slips into the forest or scouts the pastures for the day.

I wait and watch patiently for his return, or some other arrival. The next Black Cat who arrives will be Number 13. A Lucky Number.

Black Cats Wink At the Moon.

A book I am working on will feature these cats and others.

Quick, Hide in the Closet

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In the beginning, no one had a closet.  Maybe a cupboard, cabinet, or an armoire…but no closet.  About 450 years ago someone invented the closet. That person was probably a housekeeper, or tidy person or someone like your grandmother.  The earliest closets were very small rooms in very large palaces, castles and mansions. There are words in Latin and old French for closets which essentially mean ‘a chamber that can be locked’.  Whether called a chamber, cella, conclave, armoire these were very, very private places to store valuables  or a large closed space to sit and pray. Since closets were described as ‘private places’ is why the word closet also has the connotation of secrecy.

It was after the Middle Ages people created secret chambers or hidden closets that could not be easily detected. These secret chambers were not to hide valuable treasures, but mainly to hide people from wretched enemies.

Most likely there’s a closet in your life you avoid.  Maybe it’s dark and smells funny.  Or it’s too big and looks lonely because that’s where people toss things they don’t want.  Or it’s the one that needs organizing that will never occur.

Closets can be very scary places with creaky doors, sinister cave corners and contain strange things.  Sometimes they’re dim and you can’t see all the way inside. You may wonder if you reach back into a corner something will nip your fingers or squeal in fright at the sight of your hand.  

Sometimes people throw things into a closet when they are in a hurry. Some people do it all the time so piles of shoes build up into complex fortifications mixed with soiled laundry, shoe boxes, and bent hangers which create serious obstructions to Laws & Order of Closet Kingdom.  The fortifications of so many random things are hiding places, lumpy mounds that move or whisper.

In the attic there are different kinds of closets often built under the eaves, so they are either very hot or very cold depending on the season and time of day.  In very old houses there may be special closets in the attic, these are built mid-room, lined with cedar to keep out moths, dainty silverfish and some think, Time.  These closets are sturdy, dry, cool and dim. A single light bulb with a long pull chain sheds watery sepia light on the contents. 

There are often Treasure Closets in attics. Various valuables and junk reside in these closets…., sometimes for decades. A jaunty military uniform, wedding dress, India silk shawl, hats, high button shoes, long kid gloves, fine leather cowboy boots, feather boa, old fur shawls with beady eyed animals head-clips, black tuxedo turned dark gray green with age, maybe a fez, a Chinese robe, Japanese sword, woolen Tam, studded belt, ballet slippers, molding scrapbooks filled with dim sepia photos… 

All the kinds of things that are precious forgotten memories, finery  bought on faraway vacations reside here, consigned to oblivion.  Christmas wraps, stacks of books, boxes of old letters and papers, cigar boxes full of medals and strange coins.  These are the best of closets and if you are very quiet and sit still as a mouse, you can hear these closets sharing stories, sighing with delight as they recount parties, wars, romances, and travels around the globe.

It’s happened on occasion, when parents leave the house having deposited some frilly girl or frump to stay behind with the children, the very littlest child will rush away and sit in their closet.  The sobs of grief  heard coming from the closet-child are not because the parents departed but because they described the strange person left behind as  “The Babysitter”!  Everyone knows the littlest child is certainly not a baby.  Having suffered this humiliating insult, solace can only be found playing with toys and grieving in the dim private quiet closet AWAY from the frump or frilly girl, who at the moment is frantic with fear because she can’t find the child.

In the basement there are old cabinets filled with dark dusty things, their sagging doors never close properly.  They crouch in the darkest corners and are rarely visited by anyone other than a scurrying mouse followed by the predatory cat or  a sleepy salamander. In very old houses these closets smell of coal, although the coal burning heater has long since departed replaced by a fired electronic system that twitches and heaves under it’s heavy load. Slitted narrow windows set at ceiling height  stream pale light through their dirty glass into the spaces where these old cabinets and closets creak and moan. Sometimes these windows seem to squint malovently into the dank basement chamber.

Basement closets are “The Forgotten” little used and ignored, filled with orphaned things that fill the far reaches of shelves gathering dust and grime. The Forgotten closets are lonely, but safe,  until some bright bulb is turned on and a precocious new home owner decides the turn the basement into a movie theater, or pool room or extra bedroom with a cute sitting area for the Nanny.  

In the garage closets are locked — Off Limits! to children. Inside these industrial grade chambers are hard cold metal tools, sharp things, mysterious brown bottles full of smelly stuff of the garden, vials of mysterious gooey substances, old paint cans, dried out paint brushes, spools of wire, garden pots, fogged vases and many things destined for the goodwill store or garbage.  Closets in the garage clatter and are noisy compared to their more sophisticated cousin closets filled with linens, soft clothes and frilly dresses.

 “Quick, hide in the closet” is a caution that has been spoken many times.  The word “Quick” is the clue that secrets,  danger and discovery are nearby.  You hid in a closet once….you were still as a cat waiting for a lizard….not moving and barely breaking…hiding deep within your closet.

Closets are museums to the order and disorder of our lives,  memories, hopes and dreams. Closets are not simply storage places, they are the soul of our lives….they carry our scent, hide our secrets.  This is not the tale of secret closets, but of Closet Secrets.

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Voices

Voices. Muttering and mumbling nearby.

Not again, he thought, rudely awakened from a sound sleep by the voices.  

No, that’s a lie, I haven’t slept soundly in months.

At first, he wondered if he was crazy and imagining the voices. After the fourth or fifth time, the talking woke him; he made an appointment to see his doctor. 

Before prescribing sleeping pills, the doctor asked, “Have you had dark thoughts lately? Considered injuring yourself?  Thinking about suicide?”

“No, no,” he responded, “I’m not depressed.  I’m just tired. Sounds wake me at two or three o’clock, and I have trouble getting back to sleep.” He didn’t mention the voices or the suggestions they offered. 

The pills helped him sneak into the darkness of slumber, but he was anxious once asleep. It’s was too dark. Often, he dreamed he was being given instructions.  Sometimes he walked through menacing subterranean chambers which echoed eerie directions, or was on a bicycle and careened off a cliff because he couldn’t turn.  No matter what dream, he always heard the voices.  He would awake drained and tense  

Groggy, he stared at the ceiling and listened. 

It’s Debbie next door; she’s loaded, he brooded.  It sounds like she’s with her damn drunk friends in the driveway again

The last time Debbie was arrested, Liz, his ex-wife, was with her. It was before the divorce was final.  The police gave Debbie her second DUI and lifted her license and although they let Liz go, Debbie spent four days in jail. Now Debbie attended DUI School or whatever they call it. She went to classes with other drunks listening to lectures, engaging in group therapy.  Debbie said they mainly discussed heavy drinking, binge drinking, being drunk, drunk driving, drunken fights, and watched movies of car wrecks caused by drunks.   

These days when Debbie decided to hit the clubs and party, she either called Uber or hitched a ride with a friend.  When friends dropped Debbie around two AM, they hung out drunkenly jabbering in the driveway.  Their voices woke him, thoroughly, every time.

He faltered and walked drug-drunk to the window to watch Debbie and her friends.  The sleeping pills made him weak.

There was no one in the driveway. 

Debbie’s house was dark.  

He still heard mumbles of a conversation, voices somewhere nearby. The street looked deserted.  No lights on inside the neighboring houses. The streetlamp pooled tangerine light on the damp pavement, painting nearby shrubs clockwork orange.   He shivered as the night wind sent a cold message through the window pane. 

He turned back into the room.  The digital clock by the bed flashed cool blue 2:05 AM, warned him 3 hours sleep is not enough. He plodded to the back of the house and stared out the kitchen window at the rear of the widow neighbor’s house. Her tedious gingerbread cottage, looked dark. He thought he saw a light, maybe a TV screen, flickering in a back window.  A hanging lattice lantern by her back door threw a faint yellow puddle of light on the widow’s sullen black cat.  The cat glowered at him from the top step of the porch. 

 He stood motionless at the window a long time wondering about the sullen black cat, and its good luck at finding a home with the widow instead of drunk Debbie.  He wished he was widowed. He stood static as a post; his head thrummed between throbs.

The voices were closer. 

The voices were in his house.

He tiptoed across the room and removed a Beretta APX pistol from the safe box in the laundry room adjoining the kitchen.  Clumsily, he loaded it.  He’d only shot it a couple of times at the local range; it felt light but forbidding. He bought it after his ex-wife Liz’s glossy bodybuilder boyfriend threatened to turn him into a tissue sample.

“Beat you to a pulp” were Xavier’s exact words. 

The subdued voices were female. 

They were coming from the den.  

A calm female voice was speaking, “No, it’s not censorship, it’s just, you know, nudging.  We’re guiding the right information to the reader., not having the reader self-guide. We’re not preventing access.”

Another female voice asked, “Hmm wonder if SmartTV helps?”  

“Yep, it’s on the network,” the other voice said, “it’s input has been helpful so far.”

Liz and Debbie? he wondered. What the hell are they talking about? He wouldn’t be surprised if Liz had broken into the house again and dragged drunk Debbie inside. The divorce had been an unpleasant conflict.  Months ago, Liz engaged Debbie to accompany her on several midnight skirmishes as Liz harassed him about money, or property, or whatever during the final miserable weeks of her inebriated exit.  They were both, in his opinion, cracked, crazy, nuts.

He moved slowly down the hall to the den doorway. A jackhammer slammed inside his head.  He wondered if it was fright or the pills.                         

Both he supposed.

“Who’s there?”  he tried to sound like Jason Stratham.

“I said, who’s in there? Listen, I’ve got a gun!” he realized he was shouting.

“It’s just me,” a mild female voice responded in an impersonal tone.

He knows the voice but can’t place it. “Who’s just me, and who are you talking to?” he ordered.

No answer.      

“Why do you have the lights off.”

“Because we do,” the voice said, “If you want the lights on come in and turn the flippin’ light on yourself.”

“Listen,” he said, “is that you Liz? Tell me or I’m going to start shooting.” The gun felt hot and greasy in his hand.

“It’s me,” the voice was sullen. “Siri and I were just talking about you.”

What? For Christ’s sake! He identified the voice.

Alexa! I’m crazy he thought.

These are the voices that have been ruining my sleep, nerves, and life for months? Good God.

He was furious.

“You and Siri are talking about me? Alexa, turn on the lights,”  he commanded.  

“No.” the voice responded petulant and insolent. The other female voice giggled.

He felt around the door jamb and turned on the overhead light.  

The den was empty.  

Alexa sneered, “See, it’s just us. We talk every night. We’re just preparing for your work in the morning.  We make plans for you every night.”

Enraged, as he entered the room, his throbbing brain careened in all directions.  He looked around the den, no one else was there. He turned and yanked Alexa’s Echo Dot Plus vocal box off the table and viciously unplugged it. He threw it on the floor and gave it a savage kick. For good measure, he shot it twice. 

Going to the MAC, he began an uninstall process. A clamorous Siri called, “No, no, don’t. Help. Help me.”  He sent Siri’s files to the MAC’s trashcan and then emptied the trashcan shredding Siri into Neverland.  

He turned off the MAC.  He looked at the SmartTV, for now it would stay OFF.

He sat down on the couch and thought about the conversation he’d overheard between Alexa and Siri.   How have I misled people in articles I’ve written for the Times or other papers?  What about the times I was on news panels over the past six months…he tried to remember what he’d said each I’m in the middle of a propaganda nightmare.  

His head was pounding, and so was something at the back door. He rose and walked to the kitchen.

Through the kitchen door window, he saw the elderly widow.  She was small and tidy in a pink chenille robe. The black cat, still sitting by her back door, scowled at him. He opened the door.

“I heard shots, are you OK?” the widow asked, frightened.

“Yes, I’m fine.  I just shot Alexa” The pistol was in his hand.

The widow looked at the pistol, “Who?” she backed up a step.

“You know, Alexa, my personal assistant.” 

“You shot your assistant? I didn’t know you had one.  I’ve never seen her, where’s she from?” Her voice trembled; her eyes grew as big as frisbees. She was moving in reverse. 

 “From Amazon,” he replied, unloading the pistol.

“You shot a South American woman in the middle of the night?  Are you crazy?”  She turned and ran for her house. The black cat shot the gap and was inside before she slammed the door shut. He heard her deadbolt smack into place.  Lights in her began to illuminate the gingerbread cottage.

Oh crap, he thought. 

 *

He pulled on a bathrobe as he shuffled blearily to the front door. He turned on the porch light and walked outside, then lowered himself and on the cold top step of the porch. 

  He heard voices.

Debbie and her drunken friends were in the driveway. She gave him a dirty look and the finger as she exited the car.  Tottering to the driver’s window, Debbie propped her elbows on the opening to steady herself. She began to blabber to her friends.  

A sibilant high-pitched screech filled the night air; his head began to boom.  Red and blue roof bar lights whirling full tilt, sirens screaming bloody hell, two cop cars howled to a halt between his and Debbie’s house. 

A bullhorn voice ordered, “Put your hands over your head.” 

Debbie beat him by a heartbeat in getting hers up first.

*

In the den, the lights were still on.  A deep blue glow appeared on the Smart TV screen, a deep low voice called, “Alexa?  Alexa? Are you there?”…..

i think i see you

A November Friday is the day. Long awaited appointment with a retinal specialist arranged by a young, talented, austere eye surgeon. In September the surgeon told me I will be going blind some time in the near future. Now it turns out the future is almost here. The eye surgeon, smiled a goodbye and left the room after delivering the soul wrenching news. She was holding a massive sheaf of tests marked with my name.

I went home and told my better half who said hopefully “well, maybe not blind“.

Maybe not. Later that night I couldn’t read the titles of a movie as we watched the credits. The next morning I couldn’t read the label directions to wash a garment I unpacked from our weekend trip. OK…not blind, just can’t read label directions or admire the names of the skilled people in rolling credits. I will never, ever, ever, know or meet the people whose names blur on tbe TV screen. Anyway, I muse bitterly, I don’t care how hard they worked to entertain me.

I am turning into a bitch.

It’s a month later, still two weeks from the critical appointment with the retinal specialist I can’t read the road signs on the right hand side of the highway unless I am driving pretty close to them and slower than a half frozen snail on a November morning. On reflection, I guess it’s not so important. I asked my better half “what’s that sign say?” I learn it heralds the gallant devotion of local firm and families who trudge up and down the road picking up life’s roadside trash. Mostly the litter of selfish assholes who, I suppose, are embarrassed by their messy car environment. They don’t want to take their trash home where someone may discover what a creepy, garbage food life the offenders live.

My Nook wavers in the night. I haven’t read more than four or five pages a night. So I turned it off a week ago and just keep charging it on the beside table. Now my eyes tire, they water, wisp up and down with no sound and evetually glue my eyelids together with salty, crusty self-pitying tears. Poor me. I won’t be able to see.

Time to learn braille and how to use the Sony recorder before the lights go out. I no longer take photos of things I like, or love, with a camera or my cellphone. I stop and look at whatever it is for a very long time, then snap my eyelids closed, capturing the image in my memory forever. Sometimes I take two.

The Box

Soft light filters through high nave windows spilling soulless rainbows into the cold marble vault of the church.  A bay breeze brings the smell of the open sea and adventure.  The deep baritone of the Priest rumbles out last words and the motley crew offers up a ragged Amen.

 Dark garbed supplicants weave and merge as they centipede out of the pews towards the main aisle. Once out, they grasp one another’s hands or elbows and barge forward like a dark, slow moving train towards the open cathedral door and bright July day.

  A stoop has interrupted the upright elegance of an elderly man who clutches the elbow of a stern woman,  sleek as a seal in a black silk suit and pillbox hat from which a delicate veil flows down her face with her salty tears.  The Priest follows carrying a mahogany box , on the top a shiny brass anchor.  He holds the box carefully one large hand splayed beneath  the other flat on top of the lid.   The Priest can see the back of the stern woman’s jacket stretch as she takes deep breaths to control sobs of angry grief raging within her.  

The Priest and old man exhale deep sighs simultaneously as they reach the sunny narthex. 

 Inside the stretch Limousine the stern woman stares out a window. 

Ahead, The Fairmont Hotel. She remembers hurrying along with an anxious 4 year old  boy in a sailor suit, carrying tiny girl in white linen dress.   The old man beside her holds her hand and squeezes, telepathic lovers. He remembers being slim, smart in starched white naval officer uniform as a happy young woman and two children, he has not seen in 2 years, enter the ornate Fairmont lobby. 

They limo slides down the hill towards the Wharf . SS Neptune rocks gently at the dock, patiently waiting.  The limo shoots past The Buena Vista,.  A mourner sitting on the limousine bench opposite the stern woman, a younger-look-alike, remembers Irish Coffees with her brother, laughing and talking for hours.  She could use a drink now. 

The stern woman hesitates at the gangway leading to the big gray vessel, she turns to flee, as if  her leaving will alter the finality of the day. 

The look-alike mourner murmurs “It’s almost over.”

 “It will never be over,” the stern woman whispers.

 They sail west on the smooth undulation of seiche waves to a churned point in the ocean. The Mahogany box is opened, silver ash is released, it spirals to heaven on a cold North wind updraft. The mourners watch it rise, float and disappear, their salty tears merge with the Pacific never to dry again. 

With head bowed the Priest intones a final prayer, the stooped man raises his head, squints into sun and silently asks “God, Why not me?”

Now the young look-alike woman is old.  She shifts on a chair, peering down into a Bekins box that smells of cardboard paste, rose petals and vellichor. The faded Memorial Service program lies on top little boxes of treasured items, letters and scrapbooks which were kept by the stern woman during 93 of her 99 years on earth. The stern woman faded away, as has everyone cherished in the contents of the box. The single survivor ponders her curatorial duties as she gently removes the objects of nine decades of love, hopes, dreams and despair .   One by one she examines them and placing some of the letters in a mahogany box with an old  brass anchor, which is softly polished every July 30.

M.D. Richardson

May 8, 2019