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That Cat

I believe that cat came into our family sometime
after my dad died and I had left home
after my mom started smoking again
and the grand old cat Simba died
and the brief fall months of the South disappeared into a kind of extended summer

A big-paw brawler and a stray
I was gone in those years
On an aimless journey towards oblivion
seeking approval in the world

My mom and brother kept on keeping on
with the routine
getting my brother out of bed at 7 every morning
putting him to bed at 11 every night
After a glass of wine
and as they still do
the TV shows they watched in separate rooms

They stayed in this spirit-haunted house
Living their lives
Like clockwork enough to make you cry
Living with that thing I was running away from

When I came home here and there
For the holidays or to watch my brother
That cat hissed at me when I walked by
Like I was the interloper and the outsider
Like he was protecting them from 
this stranger in his home
 drinking a six-pack late at night and watching old movies

When the cat attacked my shoes when I walked by
And my brother shouted, “you live differently than us, you stay up too late!”
I didn’t know that cat and he didn’t know me
It went on like that for ten years
It hurt me and made me sad
And made me feel more foreign and estranged than I already felt

And all the new young people pouring into my hometown
Moved from whatever hellholes they came from
In search of good weather and “quality of life”
Acting like they had discovered BBQ and Cheerwine
Sauntering around like they owned the place
Like they had discovered some diamond in the rough

That stupid animal showed me I didn’t belong
And would never belong
That I had shirked my family and obligations
To hang out in strange cities in towns across the country with a ragtag collection of freaks, fanatics and losers

My family pretended this wasn’t true
To be polite
But the cat knew the truth
he just hissed and glared
And bit and scratched at my arm
Like he was my dead father reprimanding me
For running

But I kept showing up
Year after year
Trying to show I was responsible
And could be there

One night after the season closer of my brothers Miracle League baseball game
After dunking his coach and eating some Chick-fil-A at picnic tables
the parents of special needs kids
Their hopeful tired weathered faces

We drove home and watched A Streetcar Named Desire
By that scab Elia Kazan
I didn’t pay much attention
The scary thunderstorm rolled in
That cat started following me around
As I went to get another beer from the fridge
Seeking my approval and affection

“You’ve passed his test,”
My brother said, with a grin 
As I changed him and tucked him into bed
“Goodnight, I love you”
Lo and behold
That little brat
with his big stupid cat head
Was in bed waiting for me

I’m staying up late
Drinking a few more warm Bud Lights
Editing a friend's article
Finally feeling at home in the thumpy-walled haunted house
Because that thing is up waiting for me in bed