BLACK CATS WINK AT THE MOON

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Sailors on whaling and merchant sailing ships regarded the arrival of a black cat on board as a symbol of good fortune. The wives of sailors often kept a black cat as a talisman to assure the safe return of their husbands. We also regard ourselves lucky when a black cat finds us and that happens very often.

In a separate time two black cats had, independently, found my husband and myself. When the cats found each of us, we had not yet found one another. Daddy was the largest, he had been a feral feline that my husband tamed on a farm in South Carolina. Tuffy was a loner on the marshes of Ballona Creek in California. He was singing as he wandered up the bricked alley stomped up my stairway. I was enchanted. He and I moved to Florida some time later.

Five years after those cats found us, my husband and I found each other. The same year we were all moving into our first home together as a two cat, two dog, two adult family. Our new home was a 1770’s colonial in Connecticut with an apple orchard, small forest and old tobacco barn.

The sprawling old house was located in a 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 other and their tails. The Connecticut property was ten acres of pastoral heaven. It seemed all the animals were glad to be out of sub-tropical southern climates and into a land of seasons.

“People used to drop cats off here all the 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 life in your barn. You know roast mouse and dancing.”

I nodded and wondered how I had missed seeing the oven in the barn when we moved in just a week ago. Cat dancing sounded 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 dark look.

Our two black cats rounded the corner of the garage, gave the neighbor the once over and headed for the barn.

On a chill Fall day, weeks later, I walked into 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. 

I wondered how the tiny new cat would be greeted by our crew of two, and the gaggle of dogs, who now numbered three.

We named the black barn cat Sweeter because she was extraordinarily affectionate. She moved into the house within two weeks.

The three cats, surprisingly, got along very well. The new cat was instructed to ignore the smelly, nosy dogs. They cats sat together on the window-seat watching the snow. Later, in the Spring they lounged together in the gardens, ignoring the fake charges of the stupid dogs. They watched birds, just out of their reach. They would crouch, in readiness to pounce, when squirrels and moles showed up. Their big-time hunting aspirations usually came to nothing. Summer nights they sat on the hill looking down at the lake. Under the full moon they gleamed like black diamonds.

Baba, a black cat who resembled a ballet dancer, joined the family, just as Tuffy left for Cat Heaven. And then, Slake a muscular charcoal black cat 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. Poof, vanished one day after a hearty breakfast.

It’s been many years since that time. There have been many cats along the way. In all there have been a eight black cats wh found us, in addition to Tuffy and Daddy.

Some time ago we arrived in Virginia in the dead of winter with one fat black cat, China, who found us at a gas station in Utah, but that’s another story. We were down to one Cardigan Corgi, Wobble. China had been raised by other dogs before Wobble arrived. She took to him when he was a little puppy, before the other dogs passed on. Now, China and Wobble sleep together, she cleans his very large ears and larger paws. He nuzzles her neck.

Two months after we moved into the Virginia farmhouse a thin black cat sat in the doorway of the garden shed. Espooky was wary and as fast as lightning. We left dry food for him in the shed and soon he was not so wary.

Within months he went 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 cautious housemates. Although war hasn’t broken out, China spends 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 new cat, who turned tail for the forest. The black cat returned the next day. He was sturdy but thin, midnight black except for two short white markings on his front legs, thus christened Socks.

Socks filed adoption papers with the Great Feline Hall of Records and formally adopted us. He is happy in the garden shed and shows no inclination of becoming a pampered civilized indoor cat. China and Espooky regard Socks with disdain and occasionally cold fear.

My better half was offended when Socks declined the lifetime indoor-living invitation. Worried about the coming winter, my spouse began to make plans to care for Socks, who looked on with interest as his human installed a heated bed in the shed. 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 during the day.

I wait patiently for a new 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.

The Closet Secrets

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(This is a book for a child/young person, will be published with illustrations)

Closets can be very scary places with creaky doors,

sinister cave corners and

strange things.  Sometimes they’re dim and you can’t see all the way inside. These are the Barricade Closets and are a dire threat to the Laws & Order of Closet Kingdom.

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.  

There is a closet in your life you avoid, everyone has one. 

Maybe it’s dark and smells funny. 

Maybe 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.

People throw things into a closet when they are in a hurry.

Some people toss things in all the time so

piles of shoes,

soiled laundry,

shoe boxes, and bent hangers build up into complex fortifications. The construction of so many random things are lumpy mounds…. hiding places that move or whisper.

Ignored Closets are hard to find. In very old houses there may be an ignored closet in the attic. These are built mid-room, lined with cedar to keep out moths, dainty silverfish and some think, to keep out Time.

Some ignored closets are sturdy, dry, cool and dim, they are lit by a single light bulb with a long pull chain which may shed watery sepia light on their contents, TREASURE.  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 with pearl buttons, fine leather cowboy boots,

feather boa, an old fur shawl with beady eyed animals head-clips,

black tuxedo turned dark gray green with age, a red Turkish fez,

a Chinese robe, Japanese sword, woolen Tam, studded belt, ballet slippers, molding scrapbooks filled with dim sepia photos, postcards… 

These are the very best of closets.

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.

Safe Closets are everywhere. 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, this is My Safe 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.

The Dark Closets are filled with dark dusty things, their sagging doors never close properly.  They are usually found in basements where they crouch in the darkest corners and are rarely visited by anyone other than a scurrying mouse followed by a predatory cat or 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. Slatted 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 malevolently into the dank basement chamber.

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.  

The Locked Closets are in the Garage — 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 breathing…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. 

Is there a Secret Closet in your house?

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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