Monday, August 2, 2010

Remembrance of Stinks Past

I was vacuuming today, which was long overdue, as was brushing cat fur off the furniture. It was interesting; I discovered that we have a paisley sofa and some colorful Persian rugs under all the fur.

While I was cleaning, a strong smell wafted in with the breeze. It was strangely familiar and awful. Then I realized: skunk. Up close. When you smell skunk at close range, it's very different from the usual whiffs you get. It smells like a petroleum-based chemical and it's hard to imagine a cute little animal producing it.

I know this because, during my junior year of high school, our demonic tiger cat, Kelly, tried to catch a skunk.

Smelling skunk today was a Proustian madeleine; I was overcome with memories of that insane creature, the first cat my parents allowed me to have at home, when I was 9. Until then, my grandmother kept a series of alley cats for me, and I spent as much time as possible at her house.

Kelly was neutered but he attacked cats, dogs, neighbors, and us. He didn't like the fact that we would lie across "his" sofa late at night, so he'd sneak up and suddenly attack my sister or me, with fangs, claws, and all of his strength, as we were mindlessly relaxing, zoned out with Alfred Hitchcock, The Night Gallery, or Burns and Allen. Eventually we became paranoid. We learned to peer surreptitiously over the edge of the couch from time to time, just in case a pair of glowing eyes and flattened ears were preparing to strike. If he was there, and annoyed, we'd quietly reach for a sofa cushion and bean him with it. It was purely self-defense. And it didn't always work. We were covered with scars in those days.

Kelly liked to climb trees and wait for people to walk underneath so he could drop on them and scare them half to death. He once chased my aunt from our kitchen to her car, which was fine with me and my dad — she was allowed to smoke in our house, being my mom's only sister. My dad and I hated cigarette smoke and it seems Kelly did, too. But Kelly liked cigarettes themselves; he used to find my brother's packs of Marlboros, fish one out, and eat the tobacco.

He also loved chocolate milk. My mother made me a thermos of it every day for my school lunch. She used Bosco syrup, which was wonderful stuff. On weekends and in summer, she still had to make a small bowl of it for Kelly first thing in the morning, or he'd bite her.

No wonder I love cats! Kelly was SO interesting to have around. He fought all the time, and came home bloody and purring with pride. I learned how to clean wounds, treat abcesses and give preventive antibiotics because our vet was tired of dealing with him. Kelly brought us dead birds, baby rabbits, and locusts all the time. Disposal was usually my job; I used a large shovel for transport. Despite his temper, Kelly let me dress him up in doll hats and those plastic fake noses with eyeglasses attached. He sometimes wore a lot of necklaces, with blue Yardley mascara on his whiskers, or bunny ears tied under his chin. He got wheeled around in baby carriages at high speed. And he tolerated it all for long stretches of time — as long as you didn't laugh at him. If you giggled, consider yourself dead.

When he tangled with the skunk, it was a school night. he came inside reeking horribly and looking even more disturbed than usual. My mother was in bed, and my dad was in the basement, watching TV. To keep Kelly out of his basement (he liked to pee in the drain), my dad had attached one of his homemade electronic gizmos to the door. It was designed to give Kelly a mild shock to keep him away, and us, too. I can still feel the shock of it on my bare leg. But Kelly often decided that hanging out with my dad in the basement was well worth a little electrocution; eventually my dad disconnected it.

Anyway, on the night in question, my parents abandoned me. The smell filled the house, but it was so strong, it took us a while to figure it out. Then: "He's your cat!" they said. My mother went back to bed and closed her door. It was around 11, so my dad left early for the night shift at the steel company. And I was stuck alone, with a vicious beast covered in skunk juice. It was so strong it was hard to breathe normally.

I think I peaked intellectually and creatively in high school; at any rate, I knew a lot about cats and I knew what to do. The antidote is tomato juice, but we didn't have any, so I opened a can of Campbell's tomato soup. I smeared it all over Kelly, noting that he was so miserable that he didn't put up a fight. I found a large fitted sheet, plopped him in the middle, and wrapped him up into a bundle. I put the bundle in the bathtub and turned on the shower. I rubbed him through the protective layers of the sheet, and slowly the soup and the stench rinsed off. When I heard him gurgle, I turned off the water, unwrapped him from the sheet, and toweled him off.

For several months afterward, there was one stinky spot on his head that I'd missed, a little souvenir. But the soup really worked, so keep this handy tip in mind.

I still can't believe my parents left me to take care of this all by myself. Can you imagine parents doing that now? These days, parents would probably call in a disaster clean-up company and send their kids to a nice hotel until the house smelled okay.

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