In my last year of graduate school in the Creative Writing Program at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa, I was cursed by so much bad luck, that it was almost laughable. My thesis advisor, the writer, Allen Wier was hired away by the University of Tennessee; my charming apartment with hard wood floors and high ceilings, owned by the First Baptist Church, was going to be torn down to build a “Family Life Center;” I broke up with my Yemeni boyfriend, Mahfouz, whose name meant Lucky; I hit myself in the face with a car door and busted my lip; and I was even hounded by the social worker at the Student Counseling Center for a tennis game.
Chapman, a friend, who saw that I was flagging, decided I needed a cat. Although she had a handsome live-in boyfriend and two Siberian huskies, she assured me that a cat was preferable to a man. Frankly, I did not believe her, nor did I believe my luck was ever going to change.
I was adamant–no cat. But she invited me to her rented house, anyway. The cat–who had been rescued from underneath a ratty Chevy in the Winn Dixie parking lot–was now bunkered in an empty room. The tips of his ears were chewed up; his eyes were rheumy. Her two Siberian Huskies sniffed at the door.
Once he had sufficiently recovered from trauma, the cat, now named Al Franken, pounced on my face at five o’clock in the morning to remind me it was his breakfast time. When I didn’t respond, he bit my toe. After he had gorged himself on Gourmet Tuna or Anchovies Delight, he threw it up on the kitchen floor.
I wondered if Al really needed wet food; this was another place I could economize. (The week before, I had cut my Bama cable.) As it was, there was a nasty sheath of bills on my dining room table, I could not even begin to pay. I asked Dr. Cole, my vet about the expensive Mr. Whiskah canned cat food. “Naw,” he said. “He doesn’t need it. Too rich. The dry will do.”
The best bad-luck story that year, even better than hitting myself in the face with a car door, or being stalked by the social worker who was supposed to be counseling me for depression, was cat-sitting for Glenda, my boss at the “Success Center.”
The “Success Center,” a remedial Writing Center at Shelton Community College, housed in a defunct mall, was one of my many enviable part-time jobs as a graduate student. Truly, a more humane workplace than Dominoes Pizza, where I spent hours, trying to figure out how to fold boxes and studying maps of trailer parks. Glenda, who was not like the good witch in The Wizard of Oz, donned black, rarely smiled and hated everyone. Naturally, I had a soft spot for her. Since Glenda had two dogs and two cats, she could never go on vacation because she couldn’t afford to pay the kennel bills. A few of us at the Success Center banded together and agreed to cat and dog sit for her so she could go on vacation.
My turn on cat and dog duty came in the last three days of the ten-day vacation, when the troops were getting restive. Because I wanted my picture taken with Mother Teresa, I had also volunteered to feed and walk her dogs, a randy Lab named Rudolph and an old terrier named Marina, who dragged her rump along the ground.
Just as I had finished putting Rudolph’s leash on, I saw thirty-pound Lurch, the cat, nudge open the door and squeeze through. Was Glenda feeding him fried oysters?
“Hey!” I shouted, with Rudolph pulling me forward. Marina was choking. She could not inch forward much faster.
By the time I reached the stairs, Lurch had vanished. After I walked the dogs, I scoured the neighborhood. No sign of Lurch.
I drove home and called Denise, who was the Assistant Director of the “Success Center.”
“Lurch will probably turn up tomorrow. Don’t worry,” she said.
Given my luck, I was not so optimistic. I appeared the next morning at Glenda’s, ready for duty. A note had been pinned to Glenda’s mailbox. In lovely cursive: Dear Glenda, I am sorry to tell you this, but Lurch ran out into the street yesterday and was hit by a car. I know how much you loved him. I buried him near the fir tree in front of our building. Petra. Apartment #3.
“No!” I shouted. I ran down the steps into the front yard and stood in front of the tall, fir tree. Sure enough, there was a patch of fresh dirt in front of the tree. It looked suspiciously like a grave.
Because Glenda had few friends, I had also volunteered to pick her up from the airport in Birmingham, which was an hour away from Tuscaloosa.
When she got off the plane, she said, “How are my animals?”
“Fine,” I cheeped in a high falsetto, which sounded false. “How was your vacation?”
I would have to wait until we were closer to Tuscaloosa to break the news. Otherwise, it would be a very long hour.
As I drove by Kentucky Fried Chicken and McDonalds on McFarlin Boulevard, I knew that the moment I had been dreading, had come.
After I told her the story, she said, “I knew it. I knew it. Petra’s been waiting to get me back. She poisoned Lurch.”
“Come on. How could anyone be so mean?” I asked.
Glenda had quarreled with all of her neighbors.
“I’m really sorry,” I said, making myself promise never to cat sit for anyone again.
“I brought you an ashtray from Florida. But now, I think I’ll keep it,” Glenda said.
I did not smoke.
I parked the car and helped her take her luggage upstairs. “I’m sure it was an accident. Bad luck,” I said, trudging up the stairs. I felt defeated.
“I knew Petra would get me one day,” she said, pulling a shovel from out behind the door.
“What are you doing?”
“I’m going to dig up Lurch. Find out if Petra murdered him.”
“Take him to the vet on Monday.”
“You’re going to exhume the corpse?”
“I have to know how Lurch died,” Glenda said.
“I better be going,” I said, not wanting to stick around for Lurch’s exhumation. I already felt guilty enough.
The next week, I saw Glenda at the “Success Center.” A failed cat sitter, the silence was terrible. I wondered if she might fire me. Actually, even working at the Success Center was a losing proposition when Social Security and taxes were deducted from my pay. Ten hours of tutoring students on comma splices and subordinate clauses equaled about forty bucks.
“I’m sorry about Lurch.” How many more times could I apologize? Should I prostrate myself on the floor?
“That will teach me never to go on vacation again,” Glenda said.
I vowed never to help Glenda in any way again. She was a miserable person.
“The autopsy results came in on Lurch,” she said.
“Pelvic and vertebrae crushed on impact. As you said, hit by a car. No sign of poison,” she said. She seemed disappointed by the news.
Glenda had been hoping for a crusade against Petra; she relished crusades. She had declared war on Shelton State Community College. “They don’t pay us enough to read this garbage.” She had declared war on the adult students who attended. “They’re stupid.” She had declared war on her colleagues. “They’re lazy. No one works harder than me.” She had declared war on men. “They want brainless bimbos.”
Glenda declared war on her neighbor, Petra, anyway.
“Did I tell you? I sent a letter to the landlord about her. She had no right to bury my cat,” she said.
“What should she have done? Leave it on your doorstep? In the middle of the road?”
“That would have been better. Anyway, Lurch has now had another burial.”
I wanted to strangle Glenda. She was tender with animals, but didn’t mind smashing people. Like a rattlesnake, she was best left alone.
The next year, I quit working at the “Success Center.” I focused all my energy on a rambling novel, which I named The Cleopatra School about the adventures of a young woman from Texas in Cairo, very much like myself. The first chapter was published in The Texas Review–in retrospect, I was sweetly hopeful that Knopf would snap up the novel. Recently, I fished my darling Cleopatra out of the drawer. I am glad that Knopf, or no one else, fell in love with her. She looks a little fat: her legs are wobbly, her breasts sag and she has a distended tummy.
Shortly after I finished Cleopatra, the year that I celebrated my thirty-sixth birthday, I was awarded a Teaching Fulbright to Syria. I felt giddy, as if I had just won the tiebreaker in a grueling tennis match on a hot day in South Texas.
No doubt about it–my luck had changed.