An Ocelot named Derringer

by cheri block

My hair stylist Lucy entertained me last week with a tall tale of custodial torment. In between precise snips with her scissors, she lamented her offer to take care of her cousin’s  small dog for 10 days.

What were you thinking when you agreed to such a commitment? I asked.

I wanted to do a good turn, she answered, feathering my bangs.

That’s all fine and dandy, I observed, but did you think about your charge?

How bad could a Yorkie-Poodle mix be? She tugged down the sides of my hair to equal the length. I never considered the downside of dog sitting for God’s sake.

A York-a-Poo? Hell, a small and stubborn, spiteful terrier whose only weapons are to yap when confined and poop when unnerved?  Did those peccadilloes cross your mind?  I continued with the interrogation.

What’s a peccadillo? she asked as her index finder pushed down on a purple aerosol can of hair spray, sure to lacquer my bangs into obedience.

A small fault, I said, such as not rinsing off a knife with peanut butter on it.

Don’t tell me you’ve never offered to watch someone else’s pet and regretted it, she bristled, like those on the brush stroking my hair.

Only once did that happen, I admitted. But never again.

*   *     *     *     *

I was the boss of the neighborhood kids, despite my age and diminutive size. They followed me wherever I went, like ducklings, even to the dog run when my mother ordered me to pick up the poop. The adults liked me too, because I socialized easily with them. After dinner on hot evenings when the neighbors came out on the lawn, they heaped praise to my dentist father about my lovely smile, accentuated by my straight white teeth. When standing by dad out on the sidewalk, my head as high as his belt, I basked in this adulation, so richly undeserved.

That smile, at times, may have belied my true feelings. What I felt as the oldest child of four, was like a caged animal in the room I shared with Stevie, my younger brother. As is customary with confined animals, I often snarled at him when I didn’t like the way he walked.

One day, Allen Vierra, who lived across the street, whistled at me to come over. He had something to ask me.

Allen was a teenager who owned a gun and rode a motorcycle. I suppose deep inside my soul, I envied his carefree and exciting lifestyle, so unlike mine. Every Friday and Saturday night, he and his girlfriend DeeDee  would sit in his Corvair Monza, making out in a writhing twist. There I sat, on my bed, peeking through the blinds, watching the car windows steam up. Although I was only eleven years old, what they were doing in the car interested me.

Hey Cheri, our family is going up to Shasta to houseboat for a week. I need someone to watch and feed Derringer. I’ll pay you 75 cents a day, Allen said.

Derringer was Allen’s ocelot.

I have to ask my parents, but I’m sure they’ll say yes, so I’ll be right back, and with those words, jetted across the street, already spending my $5.25 paycheck.

The first words out of my father’s mouth were, Do you have any idea what watching an ocelot might be like? Hell, an ocelot is a wild animal.

Cheri should do just fine then, Hugh, my mother added. They’ll have a lot in common. Besides, it’s summer and a little job will teach her responsibility.

My father interrupted, If we say yes, I want to make clear that this is your commitment. No matter how much that garage stinks, no matter what racket that cat makes, and no matter how much raw and bloody meat you have to throw in the cage—we don’t want to hear ONE complaint. Have we made ourselves clear?

The job began on a Friday night after the Vierras  drove off in their station wagon.

I left my bedroom and told Stevie that I was a wild animal trainer, off to feed my lions and tigers. Around my neck, a lanyard hung with Vierra’s house key. Out in the neighborhood, a small crowd of my followers had gathered for the feeding—Big Steve, Jimmy Burnsides, Petie Gullick, Sissy Hill and the Rasmussen girls, Cori and Jan, not to mention the cool older boys Jack and Chris, hoping I’d invite them into the garage to witness the Wild Kingdom.

Confined no more and free to be the Circus Master, I waved them off and turned the key, cracking an imaginary whip.

Once in the Vierra’s home, my bravado faded a bit, as I headed to the garage and my charge. Allen and I had practiced feeding the cat several times. It was a cinch to do!  Open the garage refrigerator, take out a packet of raw sirloin and cut it into bite-size pieces. (Be careful with the knife) Open the cage door, set the bowl of meat down quickly and while the cat is eating, change his water. Don’t pet him while he is chewing and do not worry if he growls. Funny, while Allen was there during our practice sessions, Derringer never said a so much as a meow.

I flicked on the light and said, Hi Derringer.

Derringer flexed his mouth, revealing bright white teeth, but no sound came out. His incisors were pointy; his whiskers, sharp. He kept opening and closing his mouth in a sibilant rhythm. I felt a little nervous, as you do when walking to the edge of the high dive at a local swimming pool.

I cut the meat into rich chunks, noticing the blood ooze. Maybe the meat is soggy or something, I thought. I used the paring knife to move it off the cutting board, guiding the mound of meat as it fell into a metal bowl with a thunk.

Derringer lived in a large cage, about ten feet long and six feet high with several fake branches and shredded blankets and mutilated cat toys inside. Maybe it was the smell of the raw meat at feeding time, but he seemed agitated, pacing around the perimeter of his bedroom like a confined animal, angry and vengeful. I thought to myself, Hell, he is a confined animal. Just saying the word Hell, as I’d heard my dad say it a million times, settled my soul there in what now might be called the bowels of the Vierra home.

OK, Derringer boy, here is your food. Are you hungry, boy? Your buddy Cheri is here to feed you. Yeah. I’m here Derringer boy with some yummy raw meat.

This little homily must have insulted Derringer, I determined several hours after my humiliation.

I carried the food to the cage, but before I could open the door, a sound came out of Derringer’s mouth that was so primal, so wild, so loud, so mean, so bloodthirsty, that I dropped the bowl and ran out of the house, through the waiting crowd and into my own cage where safety and Stevie were.

My father followed me and opened the door.

What the hell’s the problem, Cheri? Those words, like the cracking of a tiger trainer’s whip, snapped me to attention.

I’m afraid of Derringer, I conceded in a moment of weakness.

Stevie seemed to enjoy this surrender, no matter how momentary it was.

I’ll help you, Dad, he offered.

They left together. I licked my wounds, looked into our mirror, and wondered what was for dinner.

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About Cheri

Writer, artist, cable television host, grandmother to four!
This entry was posted in My childhood and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

32 Responses to An Ocelot named Derringer

  1. So Footstool became your assistant trainer and whipcracker. Your Dad melted down…as we dads usually do with our poor (helpless????) daughters.

  2. jenny says:

    Lions and tigers and ocelots, OH MY!

    I am right there with Stevie, again. We middle children can’t help it. It’s just kinda nice when firstborn gets her comeuppance.

    Your problem was that (as lion tamer) you needed a chair, not a footstool…

  3. Cheri says:

    Yes, and Footstool has never let me forget several episodes. You middle children need to establish yourselves in some way: aggressive, passive, or passive-aggressive…

    Ding Dong the Witch is Dead!

  4. “Oh fooey”? Seems I’ve hit a sensitive chord here. By the way I am a first born and had to bear the little ones’ claims to equality of privileges even though I had to wait till such and such an age to be granted them; they got the same permissions as I as soon as I got them. Most irritating.

    • Cheri says:

      Well, Paul, I just knew that your kindness, your confidence, your humor and insight—all of those cherished qualities we seek in friends, might have been because you are one of us, those responsible, unassuming, humble first-born children.

      Stevie occasionally reads my blog, so I need to be careful…

  5. To be sure WE contributed a lot to our parents’ education thus making them better parents for our younger siblings.

  6. Laura Sabraw says:

    Who owns an ocelet?! crazy! When I was a kid, a friend’s father owned a mountain lion for awhile … until authorities found out!

    But it sure makes a great story, Cheri. It’s been too long since I’ve looked at this site of yours. I enjoy your writing. I’m sure that I will now spend hours reading the last couple years of entries.

    When do you come out with a book? Or have you already and I don’t realize it? (I can only take so much reading on the computer.)

    BTW, we miss you and Ron. It has been too long since we’ve been in touch with you. I do think about you often and wonder how you are. Craig told me that Ben got married. Congratulations!

  7. Richard says:

    I tuned in this morning and was calmed.

    • Cheri says:

      A lovely scene, don’t you think? Why, I imagine it could be in England with that quaint little house. The roof of the house has a grassy and tufted shingle.

      Smell that California air? Big Sur up the road?

      The aloe in the foreground? Soon to be nibbled by deer.

  8. Richard says:

    Yes, a lovely scene, but more California than England.

  9. jenny says:

    Hey, Cheri! I saw your comment on the H.B. today about our hopeless quest for more blog traffic in the absence of violence or provocative solutions to violence.

    Then, by happy coincidence, Jane Austen’s Fight Club landed in my lap today, and I laughed, and thought of all of the ways we might ratchet things up:

  10. Cheri says:

    Oh, this is what I needed today…I not only laughed my _ _ _ off (thought I’d start using profanity to get the balls (I mean ball) rolling…

    You know, I wrote one of my papers for graduate school last spring on Sense and Sensibility. If only I’d seen this clip, before inking my final words.

    What video shall we make?
    Let’s see.
    I’ll be Marianne…I am a big romantic…

    Heather (on my blog), Heather will be Emma…she shall speak for herself…

    Richard?
    Phil?
    Peter?
    Paul?
    Andreas?
    dafna?

    and you?

    Oh, this is such fun. One problem. They may not watch or read this because the topic is so silly…

  11. jenny says:

    Cheri, don’t forget Paul.

    I would tell him myself, but, y’know, the first rule of fight club…

    Glad I made you laugh!

  12. jenny says:

    I ordinarily perceive of Thomas Stasyk as Chekovian, but I believe he will be flexible.

    And MR. CROTCHETY! That name has all of the romance of Mr. Darcy, no?

  13. Cheri says:

    Oh yes. Mr. C. I forgot him. How could I do that?

    He’s been my crotchety friend for almost three years, now. I guess.

    Mr. Knightley…

  14. Heather says:

    Emma — yes! I cannot deny my innate need to control situations and boss everyone around whether or not I have a complete understanding of a situation. But of course Emma and I are both so charming, who can fault us? (That was a rhetorical question…)

    • Cheri says:

      Oh Heather, I am soooooooooooo pleased that you will be Emma.

      How shall I ever recompense you for your willingness to dominate?

      Remember, I am Marianne…prone to emotional swings, horseback rides, and remorseful sobbing.

  15. Cheri says:

    Let’s see who else weighs in here.

    We can have a cotillion!

    Will you sign my black book to dance?

  16. Cheri says:

    Is your charge for dancing or acting?

  17. Richard says:

    Anything, if the price is right, even replying to a different thread.

  18. jenny says:

    Oh! Gramercies!

    I laughed out loud twice at work today: once as I visualized the cotillion and, then, once more, Richard, at your good natured accommodation of our whimsy!

    May I add that if the men must have more violence, we could allow a duel. No duels in Austen, I don’t think (Cheri, correct me if I am wrong), but we don’t have to be slaves to convention.

  19. Cheri says:

    Well, Jenny. Touche’

    Work…today my 17 year-old employee Emily ( I’m calling her Emma in honor of our whimsy) and I discussed silly little things, like tea parties and embroidery, lattes and student government. We are getting positively nothing accomplished and loving it… Thank God the owner isn’t here.

    No duels in Austen. (Richard, correct me if I am wrong.)

  20. Richard says:

    [Richard sits on one side of an antique fireplace, upright in the most uncomfortable chair available, looking over his partially lowered newspaper. A perpetual fire flickers in the grate. Cheri sits with studied deportment on the other side, sewing two handkerchiefs together with some difficulty]

    Richard [Superciliously, eyebrows half raised, but little moved]: This is is just about the silliest thing I have ever heard of. A duel between two young ladies? You, my dear will look more like a chicken scratching around in a farmyard after its daily ration of oats and Jenny, I am utterly convinced, will have had far too many vodkas and ice for comfort. [Smirks without ceasing to speak]. But [Sighs ] what is there to lose? Very well. Try this pair of jeans.Half-smiles (paternalistically, in triumph) and resumes reading his newspaper

    Cheri [Brow deeply furrowed in agonising doubt, after a reflective pause, eyeing the jeans] : You are right, of course, father, as always. We shall only muddy ourselves and how shall we learn to use a pistol or a sword? I shall arrange with Jenny for her to join us for tea and cakes next Thursday instead. [Resumes her sewing.]

  21. Cheri says:

    Cheri [upon further consideration, after trying on the skinny jeans and finding they were too tight and confining]: Oh father, you will pardon my turn about in direction, one that I pray will not upset your tender balance and propriety, but the very thought of Jenny’s sipping tea from mother’s china creates in me such aversion, that I fear I will upchuck. [stands up, readies herself to run, unabashedly, to her room only to find she has sewn the handkerchief pair to her robe, so bursts into tears and falls on the floor in an inconsolable heap.

    Richard [Caught without words but finds them just in time] My dear, my dear! I had no idea you had such attachment to the porcelain and such aversion to Jenny. A duel it must be! My money, for what it’s worth, is on you, you feisty little thing [but not little enough to squeeze into those jeans, he lamented with his usual sensibility.]

  22. jenny says:

    Down a village road, at the parsonage, Jenny occupied her usual spot at the window, wrapt in gloomy silence, contemplating the neighboring estate. The calico in the poor basket lay unattended. The harp had gone untouched since that last infelicitous evening when Cheri came to visit.

    “This duel, my dear little cousin, is most ill-conceived,” said Paul, interrupting her reverie.

    Jenny responded only with a sigh.

    “I must tell you that it would be injudicious, and more than injudicious, to attempt anything of the kind. Sir Richard commands the respect of all polite society, not just Around the Block, but as far west as Hannibal Park. His beloved Cheri is the most accomplished young lady to don a pair of skinny jeans north of London. All sympathies will be them. ”

    “I dare say you are right, cousin,” whispered Jenny, wiping away a bitter tear; but, then, with icy defiance, and in that steely voice fortified by vodka: “I shall ask Mr. Crotchety to serve as my second!”

  23. Cheri says:

    “Oh, this is so titillating,” exclaimed a voyeur watching through the window.

  24. Pingback: Steven Slater and I Skip Out on the Whole Darn Thing « sweat and sprezzatura

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