By: Roger A Wilbanks
"Dammit!" he shouted as he threw the mangled remains of the shovel across the yard. The dog yelped and hid under the deck, fearful that his master's anger was directed at him. He went to the garage and got another shovel, one with a little better handle. The rocks and roots in the soil had gotten the better of that last one.
When he returned, he carried the bundle with him. Nestled within the folds of cloth lie the remains of 'Sluggo', the neighborhood cat. A stray dog had gotten a hold of him in the night. He heard the fight. It was epic. He'd assumed it was just a catfight till he walked outside this morning to get the paper and saw Sluggo lying on his porch. The cat had crawled with the last ounce of energy it possessed onto that safe haven from which he had spent countless hours being pet, fed and played with. He liked that cat.
For some reason Sluggo, a name he himself had given the beast, had adopted his porch as his base of operations. He would lie in the sun there and shelter himself from the rain there. He wasn't a pretty cat, like the one you see in the cat food commercials. He was ugly. there weren't enough adjectives in the English language to properly describe him, but he kept himself clean and had a pleasant disposition. "More than I could say about the majority of the people I know," he thought. He remembered one afternoon in particular, when a spring rain sent deluges down the street where Sluggo hopped up in his lap as if it were perfectly acceptable behavior and immediately began to purr. No contact was necessary for this activity. Just the fact that the cat felt completely safe and comfortable and felt like showing it.
The tangle of roots beneath the soil was proving too tough to manage with just the shovel, but he was running out of options here. He had already buried over a dozen family pets in this area of the yard through the course of his residence. King occupied the place of honor in the center. He even had a tombstone made of granite. He loved that dog and never once shied away from the price tag that accompanied that chunk of rock when old age took him away. Dingus was in the corner. That cat was never right in the head. He walked around his entire life with the look that the lights were on but nobody was home in his eyes. He remembered laughing about that all the time with his wife, his boys and his neighbors. It was a constant source of amusement to see him play with absolutely nothing and feel like this was perfectly normal behavior.
Countless other animals lie in this makeshift pet cemetery he had constructed. Angel the poodle. Cary Grant the dachshund. There were two parrots named George and Gracie that he planted beneath their birdcage. He got those birds when he was still in college. Birds live long lives, and those two saw a lot of life being bounced around in the cage that was their tombstone.
As he leaned against his shovel for a moment to catch his breath, he wiped the sweat that was pouring down his face and neck away with hands turned red with the growth of future blisters. He stopped digging and collected his thoughts about Sluggo's death. For some reason the image in his mind from this morning wouldn't go away. He saw Sluggo on the porch. He saw the trail of blood the cat left as he clawed his way to the safety he thought was there. All those hours spent watching cop shows on television set his inner criminologist working to piece together the crime scene. The fight started in the yard. Sluggo was probably keeping watch of his adopted turf when the dog arrived.
He remembered the sounds that flew from his yard that night. He assumed it was another cat. Sluggo was constantly fighting the neighborhood cats and his looks reflected that. He was missing chunks where there should be chunks. Sluggo tangled in the yard, and the dog left for some reason. There was a silence after that initial scrape. He took that to mean Sluggo had sent another alley cat packing. He had no way of knowing that purring machine that sat in his lap days before was crawling to his porch broken and bleeding. Sluggo must have made it up to the spot where his chair was and sat there, slowly dying. But that dog wasn't finished with him. As Sluggo the cat felt the last of his life ebb away, that dog returned and finished the job. That act was silent, but messy. He never heard a sound, just saw the effects. One of his limbs was torn free of his body.
He felt something else on his face mixed in with the pouring sweat. It was a tear. He was actually crying now. Something about that cat thinking he was safe in his chair made him feel like he had let Sluggo down somehow. He felt like this was his fault somehow. He had let Sluggo in the house sometimes when the weather was bad. Why couldn't he have done it that time? He felt tears and sweat mixing freely on his face now. He looked at his cemetery and a sudden wave of loss washed over him as the pain from every death of a loved friend pricked him from all sides. He dropped down to his knees, shovel still in hand, blisters now bleeding from his tightening grip.
As sobs bubbled out of him from this unexpected wave of emotion, he felt a pressure against his side. His dog Prince (There would never be another King) was shoving his nose into his master's side. When he saw that he had his master's attention he lie there at his feet and put his head on his master's foot as if to tell him, "Hey man. I liked that cat too, but I would have done the same thing to him. It's my nature."
"God never gives you more to take than you can bear."
This pearl of wisdom from his time in Sunday School as a child suddenly and loudly popped into his mind. He had surely born quite a bit these last few years, he thought. Two layoffs, the mortgage issue, sick kids, two pets dying and two fresh graves to dig had all taken their toll. He looked down at his dog and thought for a second about the utter futility of life. How can there be a purpose to this? What is the point of a game where you never win? You only die at the end?
He looked at his bleeding hand and saw the scar. When he was a kid, he fell from a second story roof. He grabbed a hold of a piece of metal and hung on for dear life. The metal dug deep into his flesh but he refused to let go and hung on till the grownups arrived. He remembered something about that that he seemed to have forgotten over the years. The entire time he hung from that drain, there was a dog barking like mad below him. At the time the thought that shrouded his mind was what that dog would do to him if he let go. But he got it now. The dog was trying to get someone's attention. The dog was trying to save him. He stopped crying as the idea that that animal he didn't know was trying to save him somehow. He didn't even remember the dog's name.
The bundle looked cheap. He went into his house and returned with one of his wife's fine purple towels. She would complain, but he would just buy her another one. He took the matted rags he'd wrapped the dead cat in and threw them aside. He carefully wrapped the cat in the folds of the soft purple towel. "Sluggo, you look respectable now." He added, "For once." This made him laugh.
It started as a chuckle, small and sporadic. It grew. Soon he was laughing as if he just discovered humor. He still felt the pain of letting Sluggo die alone. He felt the loss of the animal that purred for no reason. He felt guilt for not saving this miserable animal's life, but none of that mattered. Now he felt a wave of calm wash over him as the understanding that 'this too, shall pass' sunk in. He placed the dead cat in the hole he dug and returned the earth atop him. When he was done, he stood in silence over the fresh grave and said goodbye one final time to the cat in the purple burial shroud.
Purple was the color of royalty. Sluggo may have died a vagrant, but in this cemetery, the Gravedigger buried them all like Kings.
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