On Halloween, I sat on the bed listening to the radio program, "Q". The Indiana cadences of the guest, half twang, half drawl, filled the room as he spoke of his cat, an Internet sensation earnestly described by her human companion as the cutest cat on the entire planet. I ran a search and found the cat's website: LIL BUB, it read, and over a picture of this unusual being, inch-high letters announced the release of the cat's first book. I chortled with unabashed glee, wondering if I might be the last occupant of Earth to make this delightful creature's acquaintance. The interviewer expressed dismay at not being able to see LIL BUB in person -- so to speak -- being many miles to the north; but LIL BUB apparently had not even traveled as far as the Bloomington, Indiana radio station in which her story unfolded for those of us in radio land. I did not even try to suppress my smile.
The room fades; and I find myself in Jennings, called by another voice over another wire. "Can you come down and distract the cat?" I hold the phone's receiver to my ear and listen with some incredulity. My older brother speaks. He's gone to our sister's apartment to tend to her plants and her critter while she vacations in New Orleans. Now he beseeches me to drop my preoccupations and join him, insisting that he cannot leave the apartment. I hang up and call my mother into the room. "Adrienne's cat has Kevin cornered," I tell her. "He wants us to come rescue him." Neither of us find the situation amusing.
Adrienne calls the cat "Ebonique" but we prefer "Killer". Its normal noises evoke thoughts of dark alleys and moonless nights. With Killer in residence, Adrienne has no need of a burglar alarm or a bedside weapon; Killer would not hesitate to sink her teeth into a jugular vein or her claws down the length of an unsuspecting intruder's arm. She hates everyone but Adrienne and makes no pretense about her feelings.
We drive to South St. Louis and park on my sister's block. We trudge two flights upward, and stand outside the apartment door, hesitating, straining to hear Kevin's voice or the cat's hissing. My mother turns the knob; the door gives way; and as it swings open, I place my hand on my mother's shoulder, restraining her. An open door frightens me, though I cannot say why.
She shrugs me off. "It's a cat," she says, as though that proves something. "Why is the door open?" I ask. She shakes her head, a gesture that could mean anything from "my children have all gone nuts" to "I've got no time for this nonsense". She takes a step into the room and I follow, slightly sheepish, mostly frightened. We get only as far as the small foyer before we hear the low unrelenting growl of the angry creature.
She's tethered. My father had rigged a thin chain to a block of wood and the cat had been hooked to it. Still, she crouches low and her back is arched, and she's stretched her bonds far enough to block my brother's exit. He's cornered, all right; between the bookcase and the bathroom, looking disgruntled and crouched on the floor.
My mother has begun to shake. I cannot immediately tell if she's laughing or crying; but my brother's expression prompts me to nudge her. "Mom, come on, you're making things worse," I whisper, and move closer to the angry beast. Now she's seen me, and a shudder ripples through her taught muscles. She's torn between her cowering prey and my creeping form. She darts a glare towards me and swipes the air with her paw, but her attention has wavered and my brother makes a break for it, clearing the arc of her reach and falling through the doorway to the hall outside.
Mother has completely collapsed, clutching the sofa and surrendering to her mirth. "It's not funny," my brother snarls, but clearly, it is, and I join my mother. The cat could reach us from where she's chained, but our laughter confuses her. She huddles on the floor, emitting low, angry grunts and glaring at us through eyes pressed into tight thin slits. My brother leans against the door frame shaking his head. "It's really not funny," he tries again, and now Mother's giggles rise into a shrill, gleeful shriek. The door to the neighbor's apartment opens; a face looks out at us. The cat barks; my mother snorts; and the neighbor retreats into the safety of her own dwelling.
Ebonique moved to New Orleans with my sister. I visited them once. I ate beignets at the Cafe du Monde and read a tattered copy of a Gertrude Stein book that I found in a French Quarter bookstall. I slept on a pallet on the floor, and watched the odd occupants of Dauphine Street from a metal chair on my sister's balcony. In the evenings, her friends visited, and once, late at night, the cat jumped into my lap. "Take a picture," I whispered, to my sister. "Nobody will believe this." In the faded square of the Polaroid, I'm leaning back against the couch cushions, with folded arms and a slightly anxious expression. The cat crouches on all fours. You can't see her claws in my legs or hear the rumble of her voice. But she doesn't move, and the picture proves that once, long ago, I survived the attack of a Killer cat.