So I don't receive much mail from fans -- or foes -- but a good 75 percent of it, recently, is along the lines of, "I BOUGHT YOUR BOOK, TO TRAVEL HOPELESSLY, AND WHAT HAPPENED TO THE CAT?" or "Was that really the ending of the book, or was some part missing? The last line just has you taking a cat home!"
So yeah, the book ends rather suddenly -- but it seemed like the correct place to stop, since that was the beginning of a second part of my life -- living full-time in Russia for nine years -- between 2000 and 2009.
Somehow the cat seemed like the beginning of it all.
The next book, VODKABERG, will be about all of that; some of it will be stories I posted on the old website, but probably half of it will be new material.
So without further ado, here is a story I wrote in 2005 about THE CAT.
I've known some pretty disturbed and difficult Russian girls over the last few years here in Russia.
And then there's my cat.
I found my cat the second day I arrived here in Vodkaberg. It was the second week in September and it was cold and raining. I was walking through an area of old wooden gingerbread houses not far from my apartment. They were cute as hell, though crumbling and lacking conveniences -- there were public pumps around for the ones that didn't have running water.
A tiny kitten, no more than a month or so old, ran out from beneath the crooked wooden gate of one house.
It didn't look like your average mangy street cat -- it had tiger stripes and long hair that suggested good breeding. Although its hysteria certainly did not. It screamed and peeped and cried as I picked it up and scratched it behind the ears.
I put it down, but it kept running pitifully after me.
I decided to take it to the market and buy it some fish. There was a small market -- not really a market, actually, just a bunch of old women with metal teeth selling vegetables and fish off of tables, protected from the light rain by yellow plastic tarps -- at the end of the street.
As we got there, it became frightened by the traffic noises and ran off.
The next day I was walking in much the same area -- and saw it again, crouched under a step. It was raining harder that day, and it was crying pitifully.
I scooped it up. "Come on, shithead, let's go home."
I think that was a gesture to karma, as much as anything. I'd been recently rescued, literally at the 25th hour, from a crappy job in a crappy city, where I'd been all but broke, by my current employers in Vodkaberg. I was feeling very emotional.
I considered what to name it. I wasn't sure whether it was a boy or a girl -- I'm not the kind of guy that likes to go around looking at cats' genitals -- but was informed by a friend that it was a girl.
It was the most emotional and frightened little cat I'd ever seen, and we'd owned plenty when I'd been a kid. Probably more than twenty.
Most of them had died in a series of accidents of ever-increasing horror, ranging from getting ground up in the car engine to being savaged by my brother's retarded dog, to strange feline diseases to being trapped in the tumble dryer during a spin cycle. (To my mother's credit, she had the tact to conceal that last accident from us until fairly recently, saying the cat had been run over by a car.)
After awhile, we'd stopped naming them, not wanting, perhaps, to get too attached; we simply referred to them as "the black cat" or "the brown and grey cat" or just, if there only happened to be one, "cat."
But I thought my current cat deserved a name. I thought about naming it after an old girlfriend who whined adorably all the time, but somehow it didn't stick -- then I thought about naming it after this hyperactive Thai kid I'd taught in Phuket, who had, as his parents said, "trouble controlling his emotions." That didn't stick either.
Finally I named it "Doofus."
The first trial was the worms.
Most of my guests commented that Doofus' belly was huge (for such a small animal) -- it looked like she'd swallowed a baseball.
I, typically, ignored the problem until one evening Doofus was lying on my chest while I watched TV, and I couldn't help but notice when a shiny white worm oozed out her asshole.
Naturally I got her to the veterinarian as quickly as I could. Speaking no Russian, this required the assistance of the landlady's daughter, who was then pursuing me, despite the fact I was 31 to her barely 18.
Doofus was treated with some kind of medicine that I had to grind up and put in her food -- I don't know what it was exactly, but the poor little animal was knocked into a stupor by this. It rarely moved, only perhaps to seek me out and sit on top of me motionless. I can remember walking around a park on a bright October Russian morning, Doofus perched peacefully on my palm, peering around with a dazed, smacked-out interest.
Eventually she recovered from this, and to say the least, her energy levels improved dramatically.
She was a constant nuisance. She slept on top of me, then cried when I rolled over in the night and knocked her off. She climbed up my back while I was cooking dinner and sat on my shoulder. She perched on the edge of the bathtub while I was showering. To effect a better view, she even clawed holes in the old plastic shower curtain. Sometimes she would get her head caught in there.
Of course, a young growing kitten loves to claw things. Most of my furniture has proven fairly indestructible, but the wallpaper didn't share those properties. It was extremely old and falling off the walls in places anyway -- the cat made quick work of ripping whole sections off.
I tried to punish her in different ways. Following the advice of my students, I tried squirting her with a water gun when she misbehaved. The only thing she seemed to learn from this, however, was that if I stood up quickly, she had to run away.
She had a thing for books, too. She managed to rip up most of the books or paper that I left unattended -- she even managed to claw my visa to pieces. I was impressed with the ingenuity it showed in getting it out of the drawer -- like a FBI profiler trying to outwit a clever psychopath, I couldn't help but respect my foe.
In September of 2001, I went to St. Petersberg for a few days. When I left Vodkaberg here, the hot water had not been working, around the whole neighborhood -- as often happens in Russia.
Regrettably, when I left the house, I left the hot water tap open.
Sometime in the next few days, the hot water came back on. And began filling the bathtub.
And stupidly, I'd left the plug in the tub, and put some water in it, so the cat would have a lot of water to drink while I was gone.
The bathtub didn't flood the house, thanks to the overflow valve, but it filled up with steaming hot water. After a day or two of this, fortunately, the neighbors called the landlady to tell her about the rushing water noises, and she came to find poor little Doofus laying quietly near death in the sauna-like conditions of the flat, large sections of wallpaper steamed off, and then clawed apart by the poor hysterical little cat.
I had to pay about $175 for new wallpaper and paint, in the end. I had a lot of conflict with the school about that -- the wallpaper was at least twenty years old, according to the redecorator, and I didn't think I should pay for a complete redecoration -- but in the end I paid it. They refused to actually put the wallpaper up until the cat was gone.
There were more stresses, after that -- she had a fondness for getting up at 3:00am and running wildly in circles around the flat. I usually locked her in the kitchen when she did this.
One time I heard her moaning even more hysterically than usual, and went to check on her -- one of the gas jets on the stove was still slightly on.
Little did the cat know, when she'd started bothering me, that the gas chamber was an option.
Then in 2003, she got a fungus. This required numerous trips to the vet for more shots. Not having a carrier basket, I just stuck her in my backpack. This generally ended up with me getting scratched a lot, and ending up with a lot of hair all over me and in my backpack.
So finally, last summer, 2004, they agreed to put up the new wallpaper I'd paid for, without me having to pay for the cost. While they did so, I had to live at the flat of one of my colleagues while she was in England.
The flat was on the first floor -- and this was the dead of summer, August. It was scorching hot. Keeping the windows closed was impossible. My colleague had no fan or air conditioning, of course. This is Russia. I tried to keep the lower windows closed, so the cat couldn't get out, but it didn't work. My cat isn't emotionally stable, but it's clever. Diabolically so.
It got out. There were enough other cats wandering around outside there that the end result was a foregone conclusion. I walked outside one day to see, in the bushes, a big Siamese carefully trying to mount my little Doofus, both of them making those strange cat sex noises.
I decided that the time might be right for Doofus and I to part ways. She could live comfortably enough in the bushes outside, and under the building, with the other cats. The old women in the building fed the cats, throwing them scrap meat and such.
Doofus would be happier here. Friends of similar interests, maybe even true love. Although I wasn't sure the big Siamese was her type.
I went to a nightclub one night, and came back at five a.m. There were two 18-year-old drunk girls with me. We went into the kitchen and sat down to drink beer, as is customary. I was waiting for African Student S to arrive, thinking that I might be able to get both of the girls into bed if he didn't arrive soon.
Then I heard the familiar crying, a plaintive peeping. Doofus was sitting on the outside windowsill, looking through the bars at us.
I went and let her in.
"What a cute kitty!" said the girls.
"Yeah," I said.
We moved back home together.
She gave birth to three babies two month later -- actually four, but one died -- and I managed to find homes for all of them after a couple of months.
So now, it's just me and the cat again. What does the future hold? Obviously our relationship is doomed. It's doubtful that I'd be able to take her back to America, for example. But that's the future. Now is now.
Until then, we just have to make do with each other.
* * *
(As to the current whereabouts of the cat -- when I left Russia, I gave it to a colleague who is probably a much better master than I ever was.)