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.