I live with a roommate, her three kids, and their two dogs. One pooch is a shy husky and the other is a squirrely black pit bull mix. Both of them are sweethearts. The kids are in their teens. Two dudes, one chick. Total count: Five human beings and two dogs. It’s a full-house. I’ve never lived with this many people. I maxed out at four people back when I lived at home. Being an extremely private person this has taken some getting used to. Bodies thumping down the hallway. Voices laughing and arguing. Doors opening and shutting.

I hole myself up in my room, open up a book, and dive in between the pages. Or I’ll flick on the TV and watch A&E, the History Channel, ESPN. Tune in the Travel Channel for a sarcastic dose of Anthony Bourdain; the Biography Channel to look into the mad life of Ted Kaczynski. Or I’ll attempt to write something, push out a poem; take on a snappy bout with some flash fiction. Take out my guitar and see if she wants to play with me.

I was watching The Darjeeling Limited when my phone rang. It was Kim my roommate.

“Don’t be mad at me,” she said, in a gentle voice.

“What is it?”

“I’m bringing home two puppies. They’re cute, Reno. Are you mad?”

“Why would I be mad?” I said, my mind seeing cluttered images and calculating the math. Five human beings and four dogs. Nine beasts total. “Hey, no problem.”

And it wasn’t a problem. The puppies weren’t mine. They were gifts for the two oldest kids. The dogs were their responsibility. They were the ones who had to deal with the ups and downs of puppy rearing. All I knew is those little fuckers wouldn’t be pissing and shitting in my room. This I knew. Around ten minutes later Kim pulled up. I heard the puppies running around the house. Immediately after, I heard the typical demands that comes with bringing puppies into your life. Through the walls I found out their names.

“Hey! No! Stop that! Charlie!”

“Ziggy! No! Come lay down, baby! Ziggy!”

Damn, I thought. Here we go.

Then I heard shuffling and sniffing at my door. It was the husky and the pit bull. Chance and Tazz. They wanted nothing to do with the puppies and wanted in. I opened the door and they took their respective spots with agitated looks on their faces.

“What happened, fellas? Yeah, I know. This is how it works, brothers. Out with the old and in with the new. Hear me out now. I’m giving you pearls.”

Chance is as soft as they come. All he wants is pets, gourmet meals, and to sleep on the biggest fluffiest bed in the house. He’s a husky, but could give a damn about snow, the outdoors, Siberia. He has no interest in such things. He likes watching TV and staring at the refrigerator. Tazz, on the other hand, is nuts. I love his energy. He huffs and puffs, chases squirrels and lizards, makes wild sounds when he yawns and is always looking to mix it up. There’s a goat that lives behind us and Tazz is all up in its business. When I let him out he bolts to the fence and gawks at it, his amber eyes ablaze with animal desire.

“You wanna poke that goat, huh?” I asked him when we were alone. “I see that. Well, don’t worry, bro, I ain’t saying shit. Your secrets are safe with me.”

He looked at me with yes and thank you all over his mug.

After a week into the puppies keeping their owners up all night and dropping turds and leaving puddles of piss in their rooms the honeymoon was all but over. Reality set in.

“Charlie! No! You can’t have that! Charlie!

“Oh, no, Ziggy! I just took you outside! Really?”

I told Kim that we might have to call the Dog Whisperer. Give that oddball (I actually think he’s pretty cool) a ring and have him do his magic. I told Kim our conversation would go something like this:

“Hi, my name is Cesar…”

“Yeah, I know who you are. See those two babies, Millan? Good. Fix them. Their owners can’t handle them. They bark, sniff, fart, play grabass. You’ve heard this story before. OK, so I’m gonna go to the bar and get my drink on if you know what I mean. So do your thing. There’s wine and frozen taquitos in the fridge. Help yourself. You have my cell number. Call me when they’re cured.”

Kim was rolling.

“You crazy ass.”

My father always brought animals home. Be it a neurotic cat, a blind dog, or a chicken that had no visible legs. One day he brought a chicken home. He named her Henny. I called her Linda No Legs. He found her on the side of the road in the middle of the desert. She was just sitting in the sand and watching the traffic pass by. My father saw her, threw a U-turn, and brought her home.

Linda No Legs was injured and couldn’t stand, her legs tucked into her belly. He would pick her up and place her wherever he saw fit. Sometimes she’d be in the living room relaxing in a milk crate. Other times when he felt she could use some fresh air he’d put her in the backyard. She was like a duffel bag. Our two dogs were in utter confusion. They didn’t know what the fuck to think looking at a chicken sitting in front of a bowl of feed and a bowl of water. They were mystified.

I don’t know how long the picking up and laying down of Linda No legs lasted, but one day we looked out in the backyard and there she was strolling around pecking at the dirt and stretching out her wings. We couldn’t believe what we were seeing. It was a miracle! The dogs were in a complete state of shock. Not only was Linda No Legs walking, but her newfound mobility cranked up her confidence and she immediately took charge of the backyard. It was hers and she let it be known. She scratched the ground with gumption, walked in and out of the dogs’ house, jumped on top of it, flexed her wings, sprinted across the yard like Carl Lewis, and corralled the dogs to the corner of the yard. It was crazy.

“Jesus,” I told my mom. “I’ve seen it all now.”

My father also brought home a blind poodle which cottoned to my mom, relieving him of the responsibilities of dealing with a dog with a major handicap.

He did pawn off two animals on me because over time he found them to be his nemeses. One was a chihuahua named Buster. I called him Boohea. He was a good-looking dog with a barrel chest and big brown eyes. But Boohea had a problem: he was a sex addict and was always sucking himself off or fucking our labrador. He’d blow himself into a frenzy and his crayon would scream out of his body throbbing under the hot desert sun. It was foul. It disgusted the whole household. And when he wasn’t in the mood to give himself a hummer he’d nip at Jet’s hind legs until he would lay down. Boohea would then mount one of his hind legs and do his thing. This also disgusted the whole household. No matter how many times we yelled and pleaded with Boohea to stop sucking his dick or to quit banging Jet he wouldn’t.

He needed therapy.

He was sick.

And he was mine.

This went on for years.

Then there was a neurotic cat named Maxine. I called her Muga. Or Muga the Sooka. My father brought Muga home for my sister who was a little girl at the time. He got her from his sister who was a crazy pill-popping, beer drinking bitch that had three equally jacked up kids. They all lived under the same roof. Muga was screwed from day one. Anybody or anything living in the droopy frazzled shadow of my aunt was doomed to a life of substance abuse, paranoia, and full-blown depression. I can’t say Muga swallowed benzos or reds or licked booze on the quiet, but she had a thing for rubber dishwashing gloves. After the first taste she was hooked and was always pawing at the cupboards for another fix.

“Why does she eat my gloves?” my mom inquired, examining some gloves that had the fingers ripped off of them.

“She was born into a dysfunctional home, mom, and there’s not a damn thing we can do,” I said reflectively. “We just have to ride it out.”

But Muga soon became my cat when she started shitting in the living room. She was particularly fond of dropping a deuce behind my father’s beloved La-Z-Boy chair. I don’t know what got into her. We always kept her crapper clean. We never neglected her. She all of a sudden went through these spurts when laying down a few dumps around the house was the thing to do. It was like a hobby of sorts. At the time my father was working graveyard and I’d hear him get up (he always woke up pissed off), thud around the house sniffing deeply, trying to locate Muga’s latest steamer. He always announced his discoveries and ended his rants by calling out my name so I could get Muga before he ended her life right then and there.

“Shit! Son of a bitch! Fuckin’, Muga! Shitass cat! Reno! Reno! Come and get your damn cat before I kill her!”

She, too, needed therapy.

She, too, was sick.

And like Boohea she was also mine.

This also went on for years.

I hope that neither Charlie nor Ziggy have a thing for their own peckers or rubber dishwashing gloves. Or acquire any hang-up for that matter. I wish for them to grow up as normal as possible. There’s a touch of craziness rattling through this house and I hope they look beyond this and move into the future with ease. I also hope that none of them gets a wild hair up their ass and think they can nip at Tazz and mount one of his legs. He already told me that he won’t play that shit.

Threat Levels

By Ted McCagg

The Feed

“No, Delilah … you don’t gangbang,” I said softly, almost absentmindedly, as I stroked the animal’s soft furry head and underbelly. Curled in my arms, Delilah was purring blissfully — and I was even feeling rather relaxed myself.

“What did you just say?” my mother, who was sitting across the table from me smoking an after-dinner cigarette, said suddenly, an odd look on her face.

It was 1994. I was 14 years old and I had recently discovered hip-hop; rap; well, gangsta rap really. Snoop Doggy Dog and Dr. Dre, Notorious B.I.G., the Wu-Tang Clan — their lyrics floated through my head constantly, a strange but beautiful and fascinating tapestry of violence, bravado and poetry. At that moment, I had been reciting Coolio’s “Fantastic Voyage” to myself:

Niggas are the same from Watts to Brooklyn /

I try to keep my faith in my people /

But sometimes my people be acting like they evil /

And you don’t understand about runnin’ with a gang /

Cuz you don’t gangbang …

Staring down at Delilah, her tiny gray head, her squinting, innocent eyes, the calm rumble of her contentment, I reflected on the powerful truth of these words: No, Delilah did not understand about running with gangs — she did not gangbang.

“Oh, I was just joking around with myself I guess,” I said to my mother, who had crushed her cigarette in the ashtray and was staring at me: “I was imagining Delilah in a rap song … I just said that she doesn’t gangbang.”

“Robert, don’t use that word,” my mother said quietly, seriously. She looked uncomfortable, and that was making me uncomfortable. I could probably count on one hand the number of times my mother had told me not to do something.

“Well, I don’t see what the big deal is,” I said quickly, wanting to laugh it off.

“It’s a very derogatory word … very disrespectful to women.”

“What? No — it’s got nothing to do with women,” I said. Clearly my mother was confused about something. Of course, she couldn’t really be expected to understand — what could a 46-year-old white woman possibly know about gangbangers? I had tried to play her parts of Enter the 36 Chambers and some other favorites, but they were beyond her comprehension. I, on the other hand, knew all about gangbangers, original gangstas, studio gangstas, real muthaphuckkin’ G’s — just about any type of G you could imagine, really. I decided to illuminate her:

“Mom — gangbanging means, like, you know, being a gang member. The black guys in the gangs in Los Angeles and whatever — and some rappers, the real ones — they’re gangbangers.”

My mother just shook her head at me.

“Well, what do you think it means?” I said, suddenly feeling defensive.

There was a long, awkward pause. My mother lit another cigarette.

“A gang bang,” she said tentatively, “is when many men have sex with one woman at the same time. It’s very degrading. You shouldn’t even joke about it.”

I suddenly had that same terrible feeling I’d had, years before, when after being tormented on the playground for my ignorance, I’d asked my mother what “horny” meant. Oh dear God. We never spoke about sex, and for it to come up now, in this bizarre context — it was almost more than I could bear. (Delilah, perhaps sensing the horrible tension hanging over the table, hopped down from my lap and dashed out of the room.) My mind was racing — what was my mother talking about? I’d never heard of this before. Why would a bunch of men even want to have sex with the same woman at the same time? Had I been misunderstanding all these rap lyrics all this time? I considered myself a student of rap slang, and it seemed impossible that I could have gotten it so wrong.

“No … I mean, come on … I don’t think that’s what it means. That’s not what they’re talking about. But, well … okay, I won’t say it again. Sorry. That’s really not what I meant.” I rose from the table as quickly as possible and dashed upstairs to my room.

Fourteen years later, Delilah, who was maybe a year old at the time, is still having kittens like clockwork. She’s so fertile that my friends often joke about it: “Man, she’s having more kittens? She’s such a ho! She must’ve had kittens by every cat in the neighborhood.” I always smile and laugh — and, inwardly, cringe. Perhaps the sweet, slinky, and always mysterious Delilah does, in fact, gangbang.

As soon as we entered the aquarium, I heard a familiar yet unidentified sound. As we got closer, the little hairs on my forearms stood on end. I could see what it was before we crossed the threshold. An indoor waterfall. That’s really cool. It was aesthetically pleasing. Many people find the sound of water soothing.

So why was I beginning to quiver? Why was I sweating? Why did I feel compelled to run?

In order to keep my toddler from falling headlong into the exhibit, I approached the waterfall. For some reason, I looked up. The nanosecond I spied the juxtaposition of the waterfall and the timber ceiling, my knees buckled a little and the room began to spin.

I felt certain that I’d vomit if I did not get out of that room and away from the sound. I corralled the kiddo and, in a fake sing-song voice, calmly encouraged her into the next room. But the sound was reverberating in there, too. And the next one. Finally, I spotted the river otter exhibit ahead and bribed her along with the promise of furry cuteness.

It worked, but I couldn’t stop shaking. I tried to breathe. I took an overly generous dose of a homeopathic remedy I carry in my bag for the babe. I knew I was having a PTSD moment and I knew exactly why: Hurricane freakin’ Katrina.

I was supposed to be done with this. Katrina was four and half years ago. I was cured of my helicopter and breaking glass-related PTSD symptoms years ago by cranial sacral therapy. Fuck.

************
I rode out Hurricane Katrina in a turn-of-the-20th-century warehouse near downtown New Orleans with my then fiancé, my mother, my fiancé’s friend, two dogs, and four cats. It wasn’t just a random warehouse mind you. It had been renovated into an arts center in the 1980’s, and my fiancé worked there.

Since we were in an interior gallery space with no windows, the majority of my memories of the storm itself are aural rather than visual. That is except the waterfall, which is traumatically both.

I can’t say how long Katrina raged. It felt like days, weeks, months, but was likely only a few hours. During the full fury of the storm, the wind made a crazy whooping noise. It would start slow and relatively quiet. It sounded circular. The level and speed of the sound would eventually reach a crescendo that felt completely intolerable and then there would be a loud crash of windows shattering followed by a moment of eerie silence. Then it would start again, low and slow on its way to crazy loud and the inevitable crash.

At one point I realized that my joints ached from my clenching in panic. I harkened back to a friend’s story of her highly successful natural childbirth experience, where she relaxed more and more in direct opposition to the intensity of the pain.

I tried it, and it worked. I was impressed with my new-found ability to remain clam and self-soothe.

At one point, something above us exploded. I mean really exploded. The huge, century-old brick building shook as if made of paper. I wondered if anyone knew the identities of everyone sheltered in the building. They knew about my fiancé (he worked there), and they knew I was with him, but what about my mother? Would they have to identify her body through comparing her DNA to mine? What about my fiancé’s friend? The dogs and cats, would they be buried properly or scraped into a dumpster?

My relaxation techniques were much less effective after that.

Toward the end of the storm, we heard the craziest sound ever, like rushing water. We gingerly made our way to the door of the gallery where we sheltered and peeked out of our second floor perch into the four-floor foyer of the building and saw… a four-story indoor waterfall. It was one of the most extraordinary things I’d ever seen.

We wouldn’t find out until later that the water had come from the sprinkler system reservoir that was located on the roof, which had exploded during the storm, most likely from pressure or wind. But without this knowledge, we were pretty dumbfounded. It was so much damn water.

I have to admit, I didn’t think about the danger of the situation or the potential damage to the artwork. Instead, all I could think about was the shattered windows and water, water everywhere. They would never get this cleaned up and repaired in ten weeks.

Why was ten weeks so important, you ask? Well, we were supposed to get married in the exact spot where the thousands of gallons of water were landing and pooling.

Was this a bad omen? Why, yes. Yes, it was.

A couple of weeks later, while exiled in North Carolina, I would walk away from this relationship and into a future I could never have imagined.

************
Four and a half years later, I was in an aquarium on the North Carolina coast with my two-year-old daughter, and yet I wasn’t there. I was back in that warehouse with the four-story waterfall. The space-time continuum was disrupted.

Not for long, of course. The river otters calmed me. Plus, the mommy role trumps PTSD. I was back to doling out her snack, wiping her nose, and discussing fish poop in no time.

But the experience left me wondering, how many other ticking time bombs are out there? Will I one day freak out while sitting my rocking chair at the old-age home because I hear or see something that reminds me of Katrina? I guess I won’t know unless it happens. Until then I’ll just make snacks, wipe noses, and talk about poop. After all, how often do you encounter an indoor waterfall?

Some might find it difficult to love a person who intentionally pees on your stuff.  Perfectly understandable.  And when that person is a cat, well, the answer seems clear.  Get a new cat.  But then she looks at you with those big eyes and curls up in your lap, purrs in your ear, and greets you at the door like a dog.  Unfair, really.  There is no defense for that.  So you think well, they all die sometime.  I’ll just wait it out.  My cat died yesterday.

3 Mattresses
1 Couch
6 Couch Cushions
2 Stuffed Chairs
2 Tables
1 Piano
Countless pieces of clothing
Unfathomable loads of laundry
My mother’s hand
Several boyfriends

These are the costs Freyja racked up over the course of her lifetime.  I leave out, of course, the expected cost of food, litter and veterinary care.  Those I signed up for in the first place.  My father asked me repeatedly over the last fifteen years why I hadn’t given her away to one of her several, if unlikely, fans.  My answer was always the same.

“She’s my responsibility.  I love her.  Well, most of the time anyway.  Would you give me away if I peed on the bed?”

I think he wanted to say yes.

I adopted Freyja when she was a spitting, yelling, grabbing, tiny ball of sparse hair which all stood up on end.  I could see her pink skin through it, wrinkly and soft.  My boyfriend at the time had said he’d wanted a cat.  A beautiful, sleek, cat esthetically pleasing to the eye is what he said.  He was an artist so this mattered to him.  There were other kittens there that were far more attractive but, as they cowered in the corners she reached through the bars of her cage and tapped me on the head.  She grabbed at my fingers and yelled at me quite insistently and this way she made the cut. I was convinced then, as now, that personality matters more than looks.  In the end he loved us both despite our looks, although not enough to keep us and when we eventually split up she landed in my lap rather than his.

It was all the same to me.  In her younger years she was a wonderful companion to my older, very mellow cat, Arthur.  Arthur loved her company.  He used to hang his tail down over a chair and flick it back and forth for her to chase.  He groomed her and taught her how to walk across the back of the couch, nibble off the end of my morning bagel and the first two years of her time with us were virtually problem free.  Then we moved.

Because I didn’t have a place of my own yet, my parents gracefully took my cats while I located an apartment in Boston. Arthur did well but Freyja hid and not under furniture or anyplace you might actually be able to touch her; she hid in the rafters on the ceiling.  It took me a while to get settled but she remained on high making actual human contact difficult.  When I finally did find a place my parents thoughtfully offered to meet me half way to deliver the cats.  We agreed on a date and just as I was preparing to go meet them I received this phone call.

“We’re having trouble catching Freyja.  We might not…wait; wait, here comes your mother.  She’s BLEEDING!  Today isn’t going to happen, we’re going to the hospital!”

From the background I heard, “I’ve got her, Tom!  Screw the hospital, drive, drive, drive!”

It seems like maybe we’d overstayed our welcome.

In Boston she became a different animal.  She continued hiding, became fearful of other people, stopped enjoying Arthur’s company and she started peeing on things.  This made me very popular with my new roommate but at the time I didn’t care so much.  The girl was Single White Female crazy so if Freyja wanted to pee on her dirty laundry, I was all for it.  Go ahead, Mama!  I had her vetted anyway to be sure there wasn’t a medical problem there.  But even after being treated for a UTI, she continued the behavior.  It seemed like she’d found a way to be heard in a way her constant yelling wasn’t producing.

Behaviorists will tell you the “inappropriate urination” comes from anxiety.  I get it.  Sometimes I get a full bladder right before I on stage, so sure, I buy that.  Explain then why it so often happened after an anxiety-causing event.  Example: Upon return from a time a way, perhaps a gig, we would rejoice in our reuniting with much talking, rubbing and lap sitting.  All would appear to be well and maybe the day after, as I retired for the night, I would smell something rotten in the state of my bed.  She hadn’t done it the entire time I was gone so how was I to interpret this now that I’d returned, supposedly having taken away the stressor?

A. I am the stressor, not my absence. Or…
B. She was exacting revenge for having been left.

Knowing my cat as I did, it seemed clear that B. was the correct and final answer.

In her old age and moderate blindness, she mellowed.  Maybe the world became less scary when seen through a milky, cataract haze.  She spent her final months happier than she had ever been.  Preparing to leave for Germany, I was in a quandary about what to do for her.  Do I leave her in my New York apartment and look for a sub leaser who might love and care for her or ask her to adjust once more to a new life, not to mention survive the transatlantic flight?  But luck smiled on us both in the form of a friend who was able to see her negatives for positives and offered to take her until I made it back stateside or the inevitable happened.

“She is not an easy animal, you know.”

“Who likes easy animals?”

“Doesn’t like other cats or dogs, most people.”

“I don’t like most people either.  She’ll fit in just fine.”

“She pees on things when she’s mad.”

“Wish I could.”

She adjusted to her new home and second mom perfectly.  A cat who had spent the last several years in the closet, literally, not figuratively to my knowledge, she was an equal opportunity hater, suddenly was sleeping out in the open on the couch mere feet from the other cat.  She seemed actually to enjoy his company!  She loved my friend to distraction and vice versa.  Freyja passed in the way most of us hope our pets will, asleep in her sunny spot on the window ledge.  She didn’t feel a thing and, I hope, she was dreaming about her favorite things as she went, love, sun, food, and peeing on the bed.

R.I.P Freyja
1994-2009

Where we last left off in Part II of our series

My girlfriend and I had just brought home our new cat

We had named her Asha (Sanskrit, meaning Hope)

Like I said in Part I of this post…

 

Pretty much all my life
I’ve been a Dog Person

Not a Cat Person

Pretty much all my life I’ve been a dog person

Growing up
There’s always been one breed or another
In my house