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brewing coffee for a firehouse
november 1, 2005
The authors who have most influenced me are Vladimir Nabokov, William S. Burroughs, Alain Robbe-Grillet, Donald Barthelme, Philip K. Dick.
My five fathers.
What I have before me, to the left of my keyboard, is William S. Burrough's The Cat Inside.
First published in 1986, the edition I own is the hardcover put forth by Viking Penguin in 1992, 6 inches by 8 inches, the size of a year-old kitten.
The black and white back cover shows Burroughs sitting on a log, foliage crowding his spine, him wearing loose pants, a long-sleeve shirt rolled up past the elbows, glasses, round hat. The tilt of his head, his calm, suggests not the King of Junkie Cool, but an old man who knows he's old, accepts that, and is just pleased to be sitting where he is. If we're lucky, we end our lives as someone ordinary. In front of his shoes, on the leafy lawn, is a black cat on its haunches, back to Burroughs (aren't their backs so often to us?). The caption reads, "William Burroughs and Fletch, Lawrence, Kansas, 1988.
(Photographs are fascinating. We pose for hundreds of them in our lifetime, some of us thousands, one way to record the fact we were here, once. Look at a photograph of a couple, and you immediately understand the dynamics of that relationship, joyful or bitter, even though the couple themselves may not see it, or not see it until ten years later, champagne glasses thrown into a fireplace, or against the nearest wall.)
Here's a passage from the book: "For those of you who've not lived in the country (I mean real farm country, not the Hamptons), a word about barn cats. Most farms have barn cats to keep the mice and rats down. These cats are minimally fed on skimmed milk and table scraps. Otherwise they don't hunt. Of course it often happens that a barn cat becomes a house cat. And that is what every barn cat, every street cat wants. I find this desperate attempt to win a human protector deeply moving."
Which brings me to Sweet Pea.
Sweet Pea is one of five kittens born to Lady, a cat we took in a couple of years ago when our neighbor found her, was ready to take her to the pound, but called us up, knowing we loved cats, to see if we might want to help her, and his conscience.
Lady turned out to be a Trojan horse, hiding five kittens in her belly.
Sweet Pea we also call Plump Pea, because she's gotten somewhat chubby from eating so much; and Crazy Pea, because she interferes with my writing.
Number One, she hides my pens.
Early on I noticed, going upstairs to my study to write, that whatever pen I put down on my desk at the end of a session, disappeared. I had to keep buying new pens. This went on for months. I kept thinking, I should bring my pen downstairs with me after I finish each night. But characters and dialogue in my head, I'd always forget, and sure enough, when I'd climb back upstairs the next day, fingers of my right hand twitching, full of new words, the pen I had been using would be gone.
I kind of figured it was Sweet Pea taking the pens, because she was the only one who hung around upstairs (a personality is so obvious soon after birth. While the other four kittens would rough and tumble, Sweet Pea always stayed off to one side, the Cat Who Sits Alone).
One day, cleaning my study, I mean a really thorough cleaning, where I pulled a thousand books off their shelves, smacking them left, right with a duster, standing on the seat of a chair, reaching up, wiping the wide blades of the ceiling fan, all that root beer colored dirt on the puckered pockets of the white paper towel, I lifted the hand-carved red Oriental carpet in one corner of my study, and Lo!, there were dozens of pens underneath. She must have hopped up on my desk each time I went downstairs, grabbed the latest pen in her fangs, like balancing a log, jumped down onto the white carpet, carried the pen to an edge of the Oriental carpet, somehow shoved it underneath.
I was amazed. I called Mary over. It's incredible how many individual pens I recognized, even though they were generic, including a store-bought forty-nine cent throw-away pen with big blue ink clots in a unique pattern along its clear plastic cylinder.
Sweet Pea pretended not to notice I had discovered her cache, rolling around on her fat back, pretty green eyes looking at me.
So I found a book-sized green plastic bin in the garage, wiped off the gray cobwebs, and now store all my pens there. I keep the bin on a shelf it has so far proved impossible for Sweet Pea to get at. Problem solved.
Number two, she shreds my manuscripts.
After I finish an evening's worth of writing, on average one thousand words, in case you're curious, I save the file, print a copy. After the copy is finished printing, I lift the machine-warm sheets from the printer (sheets warm as a woman's hip), bounce their bottoms off my desk to align them, bite a staple into the top left corner, write across the white top the date, number of words.
Usually tired by then, ready to go downstairs and eat, descending to the wonderfully fresh smell of a salad being made, plump glossy sea scallops noisily simmering in hot butter and garlic, I leave the stapled stack on my desktop to be eventually filed away.
But I soon discovered that while I was downstairs, sleeping, dreaming of jumping out of a helicopter, landing on a narrow ledge alongside a mammoth, thundering waterfall deep within an anonymous jungle, then jumping off that ledge, arms out, falling forty feet down the mountain's green side to land on the next ledge, and so forth, while a rifle tilted out the helicopter's opened side door made tiny "Bang" sounds, Sweet Pea, up in my shadowed study, would, for whatever demented reason, gnaw like a beaver through my print-out, so that when I went up the next morning, holding a black coffee cup, there'd be all these white shreds across the carpet, a hundred jagged jigsaw pieces. Once or twice, when I was particularly productive, it looked like it had snowed indoors (actually a rather pretty effect).
So I bought several oak in-trays, tall sides, got in the habit of putting all loose papers in the trays at the end of the day, placing in each, atop the papers, a heavy, out-of-date edition of the Writer's Digest Guide to Fiction Markets (which I no longer buy. The Internet has far more information). Sweet Pea can't lift the heavy tomes out to get to the yummy paper beneath. I've seen her try. It's like watching someone standing by himself within the conversational noise of an apartment party, trying to crack a brazil nut with his thumbs. Problem solved.
The third way in which Sweet Pea interferes with my writing is that she loves to bite my legs.
Mary and I spend most days indoors. At first, we'd dress up each morning in street clothes as if we were going out, but since there aren't any streets inside our home, we soon realized how silly that was. So we wear pajamas, just like Hugh Hefner. We each have more pairs of pajamas, now, than we have shirts or slacks. It makes sense. If you're going to be inside all day, why wear a belt?
(Likewise, I never wear a wristwatch, which always felt, to me, too much like a handcuff.)
The pajamas I normally wear, except on formal pajama occasions, are summer pajamas. Short-sleeved tops, short-legged pants.
So I'm sitting at my desk, working out a complex sentence in my mind, fingertips waiting patiently on the keyboard, and feel Sweet Pea's furry rub against my calf. That's the fin in the water. Absorbed in what I'm creating, I tend to notice the warm rub distractedly. Ten seconds later, three typed words later, pin-sharp fangs nip my bare calf.
Believe me, that sudden bite will make you sit up and forget all about subordinate clauses.
In order to continue thinking, in order to continue writing, I have to, at that point, monitor where Sweet Pea's head is, and the only way to do that is to lower my left hand under my desk, continuously rubbing the top of her head while I go on typing (not easy to do, for physical reasons, because it's like that kid's game where you try to rub the palm of your left hand over your stomach in a circular motion while you simultaneously pat yourself on top of your head with your right hand; nor for practical reasons, because each time I want to capitalize a letter, for example at the start of a new sentence, having only one hand, I have to hold down the Shift key with my pinky, then stretch my thumb all the way across the keyboard to depress the correct letter key).
(After I wrote the above paragraph, I thought, is the rubbing your stomach while patting your head still a problem for me? I stopped typing, tried, and was able to do it quite successfully. So it must have something to do with kids not being fully coordinated, because I remember how difficult it was for me and my friends when we were eight. We'd giggle at our ineptness. As a consolation, wanting there to still be some things left in this world where I feel really stupid, I still can't say "toy boat" ten times fast.)
I feel guilty petting Sweet Pea in this way while I write, because although I love her, I'm really petting her in large part, in these situations, not entirely out of affection, but to avoid having her crunch her fangs down on me. So sometimes I stop writing all together, bending sideways, her warm little paws up on the outside of my thigh, scratch her behind both ears, her eyes squeezing shut, purr loudening until it sounds like she's brewing coffee for a firehouse.