A Contest of Wills: Chapter 2

Bob Taylor was just finishing a cup of coffee when the call came on his radio. Bad accident on Route 723; a head on collision involving a car and a truck, and a tractor had also been involved. Some serious injuries and paramedics were on the way, but it would take at least 25 minutes to get the victims to the nearest hospital. Bob quickly threw his cup in the trash and raced out to his cruiser. Lights flashing and siren blaring, he tore out of the Gas Up and Go parking lot and called for back-up as he headed to the accident.

 

Her act of defiance forgotten, Tiffany was sitting in front of the television eating popcorn and watching an old movie. She loved these cheesy old films where life seemed so easy and troubles so trivial. Things always worked out and the worst thing a man ever did to a woman was fail to immediately admit his undying love. There had been a time when she really thought life would be like that, but she knew better now. But it didn’t stop her from being swept up in a romance played out on screen.

During a commercial she looked up at the clock and sighed. She knew she couldn’t stay cooped up in her parents’ house forever – in fact she didn’t want to – but she just didn’t feel like going anywhere. She hadn’t kept in touch with any of her friends in Chicago, and was embarrassed to call them now. It had been a year and half since she had talked to most of them. Her mother kept encouraging her to call, but she just couldn’t face it. When Colin had coolly invited her leave if she didn’t like his having a “friend” over, Byrd’s Mill had seemed like a sanctuary; now it was starting to feel like a prison. The town had remained untouched by time, and while many thought it was charming it drove her crazy. In her opinion everything here was too “small town” and she wanted the things she had gotten used to in the city. Shopping at major stores, getting her hair and nails done at well-known establishments, and getting regular spa treatments that most people here had never even heard of. The closest places that might have anything near what she was looking for were Charlottesville or Richmond, and they were both at least an hour away. She hated the thought of driving along a highway lined by nothing but trees, in the car alone. And she couldn’t imagine asking her mother to go with her.

She tossed a piece of popcorn in her mouth and mused on her life with Colin Dawson. Maybe it hadn’t been so bad. He had bought her nice clothes and beautiful jewelry. They went out to dinner to wonderful restaurants, and he had taught her a great deal about things like wine and art. She had felt grown up and sophisticated with him, and despite the fact that he had made her feel unloved and insecure, and had jealously kept her from having a relationship with anyone else, including her parents, she missed him. When she had once told that to her mother, Kate had asked what she missed about him. When Tiffany began talking about the trip to New York, and how Colin had promised to take her to Paris, her mother had remarked that it didn’t sound much like she missed Colin, but that she missed his money. Although it stung, Tiffany had to admit it was true to some degree. And it was at that point that Tiffany had a major epiphany. She needed her own money. She just hadn’t been sure how to get it. And then George Hartwell had come knocking.

George was a developer who had arrived in Virginia a few months earlier. He had stopped by the house once when both Bill and Kate were out. He had been funny and charming and, Tiffany had to admit, kind of cute. Although she knew her parents would have had a fit, she was bored and lonely so she invited him in. They talked about the places he had visited, but eventually he began asking her a lot of questions about her parent’s land. He asked about the acreage, how it had been used, zoning restrictions. He’d had a lot of questions she couldn’t answer, but when he told what he thought the land could be worth, she had been shocked. It was then that she realized the land might be her way to get her own money.

She knew that her father would be dead set against selling the land for development, but Tiffany didn’t see why he needed all 300+ acres of it. She thanked George for his time, and told him it would be better if she spoke with her parents first. He left his card with her, and when Bill and Kate returned Tiffany tried to broach the subject of selling the land.

Of course her father was dead set against selling. He had raged against the developers who had been putting up all kinds of town homes and strip malls in other areas of the state, and he was determined to keep Byrd’s Mill as rural as possible. He had reminded her that he had been going to all kinds of meetings with the County Developers, trying to convince them that it was to everyone’s benefit not to turn Byrd’s Mill into just another town full of chain restaurants and strip malls. Tiffany knew then that she had her work cut out for her. She wasn’t sure how she would do it, but she was going to have to find a way to sell some of this land.

Her thoughts were interrupted by the sound of the doorbell. Tiffany frowned and got up from the couch. She hoped it wasn’t George – she hadn’t showered yet today – but she had no idea who else would be coming to visit.

Tiffany wasn’t surprised to see Bob Taylor on the other side of the door. While she’d been growing up he’d often come by during hunting season when the “No Trespassing” signs her father posted were ignored. She was surprised to see the young woman with Bob. She wasn’t wearing a uniform, but had an official look about her. She opened the door wider to let them in.

“Hi Bob,” she said, and began to feel nervous. Bob wasn’t smiling and he looked serious. Bob looked at the woman with him, took off his hat and stepped into the door. Tiffany stepped back and both of her visitors came in.

They stood for an awkward moment in the hall until Tiffany said, “My dad’s not here right now Bob. Is everything o.k.?”

Bob looked again at his female companion who stepped forward and held out her hand with a warm smile. “Hi Tiffany, I’m Justine Hartwell.” Tiffany took the woman’s hand and shook it, looking at Bob in confusion.

Justine spoke, “Why don’t we all go sit down somewhere?”

Tiffany led them into the den and sat down on the couch. Bob picked up the remote and turned off the television. Justine sat on the edge of the coffee table and took one of Tiffany’s hands. Tiffany looked at Bob, and her eyes had grown wide with fear. “Bob,” she asked, and her voice trembled, “what’s going on?”

Bob looked at the floor for a minute, and then met her eyes. “Tiffany, it’s your folks. There’s been an accident.” Tiffany gasped and pulled her hand from Justine’s. She looked at the woman in front of her with accusation in her eyes. “What happened? Why are you here?”

Bob shuffled his feet, and Justine took her hand again. “Tiffany,” she said softly, drawing the younger woman’s attention to her, “there’s been an accident. I’m sorry honey, but your parents have been killed.”

Tiffany just stared at her, as if trying to make sense of the words. Justine moved from the coffee table to the couch, and put her arm around Tiffany. Tiffany looked at her as if she was still trying to solve a difficult puzzle. “What happened?” she asked. Justine looked over at Bob, who answered.

“We’re still not completely sure. It was a head-on collision out on route 723. It looks like your dad was trying to pass a tractor on a hill, and the oncoming truck was driving too fast.” Bob stopped for a moment, wondering how much he needed to tell her. “The driver of the truck was also killed, and the driver of the tractor is in critical condition. It will be awhile before we know everything.”

Justine spoke again, “Tiffany, I’m a grief counselor with the county, and I’m going to stay here with you until you can reach someone else. Do you have someone to call honey? A friend who can come over and stay with you?” On the way to the Szczepanski’s house, Bob had briefed Justine on the situation with Tiffany, and that she didn’t really have any friends in town.

Tiffany sat on the couch with a stranger’s arm around her, her thoughts drifting into her head slowly, like fallen leaves drifting downstream. Suddenly everything seemed to be going in slow motion, and she couldn’t make her mind form thoughts properly. Bob cleared his throat and she looked up at him, her expression confused.

“Is there anyone you can call?” he asked, repeating Justine’s question. “Justine can stay with you tonight, but is there anyone else you can talk to who can come and stay with you?”

She looked at him blankly for a moment and slowly shook her head. Then she stopped for a moment and said slowly, “Oh, wait. Well, yes, there is a call I guess I should make.” Justine and Bob exchanged a look as Tiffany got up from the couch and wandered out of the room. Justine nodded at Bob and followed.

Bob took a few steps away from her and spoke into his shoulder radio. He told his dispatcher that he was going to be another hour or so, and he wasn’t sure how long Justine would need to stay. When he finished, he could hear the murmur of Tiffany’s voice in the other room, and the sound of her weeping.

Justine returned a moment later, her arm still around Tiffany. The three of them sat on the couch, and Justine began to talk softly. Bob didn’t pay much attention to what she was saying, but was wondering who on earth Tiffany could have called, and who would be coming to stay with her. He’d always thought of her as spoiled and a little selfish, but right now he just felt a profound sense of sadness. He reached over and patted her knee, and felt ashamed that he was wondering how long he would have to stay. He really just wanted to go and be anywhere else right now. He heard Tiffany saying that someone would be there in a few hours, and saw Justine hand the young woman a glass of water and some kind of pill. Then she led her out of the den and told Bob he could go, that she would put Tiffany to bed and stay until whoever she called arrived. Bob tried not to look relieved and hoped he didn’t look like he was rushing out the door. But neither woman seemed to notice as he made his way out.

A Contest of Wills: Chapter 1

Kate Szczepanski was sitting at the desk in her den, signing the letter she had just finished writing. Hurriedly, she folded it and slipped it into an envelope. She heard the decisive footsteps of her husband down the hall, and the car keys jingling in his hand as he pulled open the front door. He called out to her.

“Kate, are you ready? We need to go!”

“Just a minute Bill, I’ll be right there!”

She heard the sigh from the front door and hurried to write the address on the envelope. She didn’t like to keep her husband waiting; although he was usually patient with her last minute scrambling he was in a hurry today, anxious to get to the county zoning meeting a little early to get a good seat.

Kate quickly sealed the envelope she had just addressed and winced as she felt a slight sting on her tongue. Darn it! She hated getting a paper cut on her tongue! She hated feeling rushed like this, and the letter was important so she needed to get it out today. But she also knew that Bill wasn’t going to be patient for much longer, and she didn’t want to have to ride to the meeting in stony silence. She quickly put a stamp on the letter and was standing up to go as her daughter Tiffany walked into the room.

Tiffany had recently moved back home from Chicago. She had gone there two years before to live with a man that Kate hadn’t ever liked or trusted. When Tiffany had come home one day to find another woman sitting at her kitchen table, wearing Tiffany’s bath robe and drinking coffee as if it were her kitchen, Tiffany packed her bag and called her mother from the airport, crying. Although Bill didn’t think having Tiffany come back home to live was the best idea – he had said something about making her responsible for the consequences of her decisions, and making her stand on her own two feet – as a mother Kate couldn’t stand to hear her daughter’s pain, and had immediately paid for a plane ticket to get her home. Not that Bill had really objected. They were both glad to have their daughter home, but Kate was starting to wonder if letting her come home without a discussion of her future plans had really been such a good idea.

“Mom, you better get going. I think dad is about to have an aneurism.”

Kate frowned slightly and walked toward the doorway where her daughter stood. “Tiffany, don’t say things like that, it isn’t funny. Here,” and she held the envelope out to her daughter, “I’d like this to go out today and I know we won’t have time to stop at the post office. Would you please go to the post office for me and make sure it goes out today?”

Tiffany crossed her arms and looked down at the envelop in her mother’s hand. “What’s in it?”

“Nothing you need to worry about. Please just make sure it goes out.”

Tiffany sighed and shifted her weight so her hip was leaning against the doorjamb. She looked at her mother and said with a pout, “Mom I don’t want to go out, can’t you take it later? There’s an old movie on T.V. I really want to watch. You know how hard it’s been for me going out lately. I’m just not sure I’m up to it.”

Kate squared her shoulders and looked her daughter in the eye. “Tiffany,” she said firmly, “listen to me. I’m sorry that you had a bad experience in Chicago, and I’m sorry that your heart got broken. But you’re living her now, and….” Tiffany abruptly straightened up and grabbed the letter from her mother’s hand.

“Please, I don’t need a lecture. I’ll mail the stupid letter.” She looked down at the name and address on the envelope then up at her mother with undisguised amazement. “Why are you writing him?”

“KATE!”

Tiffany jumped slightly and Kate pushed past her daughter into the hallway. As she headed toward the front door Tiffany called after her, “I don’t know why you care about saving all this land. You don’t need it and you could get a ton of money for it if you just sold it to that developer.”

Tiffany heard her mother’s response coming down the hall. “There are more important things in life than money Tiffany. We know what we want to do with our land, and it isn’t selling it off so it can be turned into condos and strip malls. Please just make sure that letter gets to the post office. Today!” Tiffany heard the front door close and the key turn in the lock. A moment later she heard the roar of the car engine and the sound of popping gravel as the car headed down the driveway.

She ambled into the den and looked around. Although it was only September her mother had a fire going in the fireplace and the room was quite warm. Tiffany walked over to the Queen Anne desk and sat down. The desk was neat and clean; a new brand new laptop computer sat off to one side of the desk, the lid closed and the power off. Tiffany looked at the computer and snorted. Although her mother had been trying to use it, she always seemed to have some kind of problem, undecipherable error message or other failure.

She pushed back from the desk, stood up, and looked around the room. It was the same room, exactly as it had been throughout her entire childhood. Nothing ever changed here, and her parents seemed to think they could make time stand still. She looked down at the letter in her hand. After a moment’s hesitation, she grabbed the letter opener from her mother’s desk and slid it under the flap. Quickly, she sliced open the envelope, pulled out the letter and began to read. She couldn’t believe her eyes. She looked up and spoke into the empty room. “What on earth are they thinking? They can’t do this!” She stood thinking for a moment, then jammed the letter back into the envelope and walked over to the fireplace.

“This is one letter that will get lost in the mail,” she muttered. She hesitated for just a moment, and then tossed the letter onto the flames watching as the envelope and its contents curled up, turned black, and dropped into ash through the grate. She knew her mother would eventually realize the letter hadn’t reached its intended recipient, but Tiffany figured she had at least a month to come up with an idea that would reverse the action the letter would have put into motion.

“And a lot can happen in a week,” Tiffany declared to the empty room. She knew that from hard experience. Her entire life could change in the course of a week. And this time, she intended to make sure that the change was for the better.

Bill Szczepanski was in a hurry. He had wanted to get to the county planning meeting early so he could be sure to sit up front where he could look everyone in the eye. He didn’t trust all the committee members, and wanted to be sure he could see exactly what was going on. He loved his wife tremendously, but her habit of finding things to do as she was walking out the door was extremely irritating, especially on a day like today.

Kate knew from her husband’s silence that he was upset with her. He would often stay silent until he could trust himself not to snap at her or say something that would hurt her feelings. Early in their marriage she would press him to talk to her until he would blow up. Then she would cry and it would be a scene. Over the years, she had learned to leave him alone and let him sort through things. When he was ready he would talk to her. But this time was a bit different. She needed to talk to him about the letter that Tiffany was taking to the post office. She wanted to be sure they were both clear on the content so there were no misunderstandings. She also knew he was irritated she seemed unable to figure out how to use her new computer, and decided to begin by addressing that.

“Bill,” she said, turning to her husband, “I don’t want you to be upset, because I really do appreciate the computer you got me.” She waited, but her husband didn’t respond. After a brief moment, he nodded. Kate turned to face the road.

“I’ve been trying to use it, I really have. Maybe I’ll need to sign up for a class or something – it just seems like nothing ever works when I try to use it.” She glanced over. He still didn’t look at her, but she could see his expression had softened slightly. She turned forward and continued, “Anyway, there was a letter I needed to write and I had it all ready this morning. It was all typed up in the computer, but then I couldn’t get it to print. And,” here she glanced nervously over at him, “if I’m being honest there are some letters I’d rather write than type. I can’t help it – I think a hand-written letter is just so much more personal.” Bill gave a tired sigh, and then reached out his hand and rested it on his wife’s thigh. She looked over at him and he just shook his head and smiled.

“Well, I do. Particularly when it’s a special letter and you really want the person reading it to feel your sincerity. The way I look at it, anyone could type a letter and pretend it was from me. But it would be pretty hard to deny that I put a lot of thought and feeling into a hand-written letter. But that aside, the printer just wouldn’t work! It just wouldn’t print out that letter. I figured it would just be faster to hand-write it then spend time trying to figure out why it wouldn’t print.”

Bill had to smile at his wife’s logic. So that’s why she’d been late. She was rewriting a letter she’d already composed on the computer. He had gotten her the computer late last year, thinking she could use it to create her annual Christmas letter. For weeks before Christmas every year she was glued to her desk in the den, handwriting letter after letter to their family and friends. He had hoped the computer would give her more time during the holidays. But she had been appalled at the idea. He had tried to point out that she could learn to put pictures and graphics in her letters, but she wasn’t interested. He couldn’t help but feel that all her issues, errors and problems with the computer were welcome reasons for her to keep hand writing her letters. Although, it sounded like she really had tried to use that morning. Even though she had still hand-written the final letter, drafting it on the computer was a start.

Kate’s voice broke into his thoughts. “And Bill, we really need to do something about Tiffany.” Despite her intention to talk about the content of the letter, she found herself more worried about their daughter.

Bill snorted. He knew what he thought they should do about Tiffany. He loved his daughter; she was still his little girl at heart, but he was disappointed with the choices she had made, and not altogether happy with the woman she had turned out to be.

“How about grounding her for the rest of the year?” he asked wryly.

Kate slapped his leg lightly. “Bill, I’m serious. This break-up was hard for her, and I’m glad her first thought was to come home. But now that she’s here she doesn’t seem to want to do anything with her life. She just hangs out around the house like a petulant teenager.”

“Kate, she’s an adult. We can’t control the choices she makes. All we can do is give her tough love and make her live through the consequences.”

Kate looked at her husband imploringly. “What do you want me to do? Kick her out? Where would she go? Bill, I know you don’t understand it, but I think Colin Dawson was abusive to her.” At the words, Bill’s head snapped around and he glared at his wife. Hurriedly, Kate continued. “Oh, I don’t mean he hit her, don’t worry.” Bill turned back to the road, but was still glowering. “I feel like he abused her emotionally. I’ve been reading about it on the Internet. Yes,” she said at his raised eyebrows, “I have actually been using the computer and I do know how to use the Internet. At any rate, these guys will get women into a relationship, then they slowly separate them from all of their friends and family. They pressure them to spend time with only them, and they start controlling every aspect of their lives. Then they treat them like trash. He probably thought Tiffany would just put up with another woman since he had managed to alienate her from everyone who cared about her.”

Bill cursed softly and Kate looked over, thinking he was upset about what she had just told him. But then she saw that there was a huge tractor ahead of them on the country road. Bill shifted impatiently in his seat, and Kate rubbed his thigh. “It’s o.k. honey,” she said, “we’ll get there in time.” Bill didn’t say anything. He followed the tractor for a few miles at a crawl. His patience ran out at the bottom of a rise, and he banged the steering wheel in frustration.

As if reading what was happening in the car behind him, the driver of the tractor stuck his arm out the window and began motioning that Bill should pass him. Although they were at the bottom of a rise, Bill accelerated the car and pulled into the left-hand lane.

Kate gasped and grabbed the bar above her window. “Bill!” she said, scared. “You’re passing on a hill!”

“It’s o.k.,” he reassured her, “he must be up high enough that he can see over the hill. He wouldn’t motion us to pass him if he couldn’t.” He was just coming even with the tractor getting ready to top the hill when the driver stuck his arm out the window again and began frantically waving for them to get back. In the confused moment it took Bill to understand the gesture, the truck suddenly crested the hill in front of him, going far too fast for the narrow country road.

Welcome to the Cat Side

Given that my reputation as a cat person, crazy cat lady, kitty mommis, etc. has been  firmly established, it was funny to look back at the below, which I wrote many years (and many cats) ago. Things certainly do change – and yes, you CAN overcome your allergies!

 

Have you ever noticed that people seem to classify themselves as “cat people” or “dog people?” I’ve always liked to think of myself as an animal lover in general, with a heart big enough to accommodate both. However, the recent (guilt-induced) acquisition of an over-the-hill calico has led to a shattering discovery. I am a die-hard dog person.

It’s not that I don’t like the cat, we just can’t seem to reach a common ground of understanding: I don’t know why she won’t try to make me happy, and she doesn’t know why I won’t try to make her happy. With every dog I’ve ever had, it only took a firm “NO” to get my point across. With the cat, the word NO seems to be a cue to raise her tail, point her derriere in my general direction, and walk off as slowly as possible while still maintaining movement.

Maybe it’s just a contest of wills. For instance, I’m determined she won’t scratch on the couch, and she’s determined she will. The really irritating part is that the minute I spot her doing it she looks over her shoulder, thinks “shit, the bitch is here,” and runs like mad. Leading me to believe she does know this behavior does not make me happy. I would think the resulting chase around the house followed by a quick swat (and I’m not saying who swats whom) confirms it. (Even as I write this she’s eyeing me, flexing her claws, and waiting for me to leave the house.)

If I could just understand why she purrs happily while I rub her tummy, then in a matter of seconds hisses, shreds my hand and disappears under the couch. Or feigns deafness when I want her to sit in my lap, only to jump on me the minute she sees my thigh muscles flex, indicating I’m about to get up. Or why she won’t eat unless the food is piled up just right in the middle of the dish. Most of all, I’m really baffled as to why, when I’m pointing at a piece of food on the carpet, her eyes are glued to my finger.

But then there are the moments she comes up to me, purrs, and rubs her little face against mine. Amid the wheezing, hacking allergy attack that follows, I think she might be worth the trouble. But I’m not romanticizing this relationship. I know that if the house ever burns down, she won’t meow to wake me, or drag me from the burning building.

She’ll watch me fry, lift her tail, then stroll off oh-so-slowly to live with the neighbors. Their cat gets to sleep on the bed.

The Cat’s Meow

I’m not sure why I’m on the boat.

It seemed like a good idea at the time – the seas were relatively calm and the wind seemed favorable. I came aboard to swab the decks and I worked hard; I finally made my way up to deck hand. Of course there were times we all thought the captain was a little off-balance, but the ship was still afloat so no one said too much.   It was a bit strange to be on a steamship in the age of technology, but you don’t fix what’s not broken, and after all we were chugging along and keeping up. We often saw wreckage from the high tech-ships that weren’t as sea-worthy as everyone thought. It wasn’t pretty. Occasionally we could pick up a stray crew member here or there, but let’s face it, you can only carry so many people on board.

The real danger was running out of steam. Or, more precisely, coal. In case that ever happened someone had to know how to sail. We had a plan – you know, like a backup plan – to ensure that if we ever ran out of coal, we’d still be able to navigate and move in the water by using the sails we had stored below decks. At least until we got more coal. There was a team of people assigned to the care and maintenance of the sails, to make sure they were always in top working order. It didn’t matter that we’d never actually tested the sails – we were confident they’d work, and the fact we had a backup plan was really the point anyway.

So it seemed like a good thing when I was able to move into a position on the wind team. We would learn about the elements, check what was going on around us, and make sure that plans were in place in case we ever needed to unfurl our sails. It was theoretical work for the most part, but that’s always been a plus for me. I mean how can your theory ever be wrong if you never have to put it to the test? You can be completely unskilled and have no idea what you’re talking about, but still be considered a genius. I just had to pray that we’d never run out of coal.

I was feeling pretty good about my new job when I was invited to a meeting. The Captain’s Third-in-Command, right-hand-man’s best girl Barb wanted to meet with me one-on-one. This was a big deal, and I needed to be on my game. In the meeting invite I was informed that it had been decided I was the perfect person to implement our new Cat’s Meow Strategy for wind detection.

My guess was this new strategy had to do with the fact that we had no vet on board and the two cats we brought with us to control mice turned out to be a male and a female. It’s really hard to tell with a cat until one of them is pregnant. So we now had a lot of cats and I figured someone was trying to keep it from looking like an accident. Which is easy if you just make it a strategy. I mean, what else can you do? You can’t start heaving cats overboard willy-nilly. You just look like a bad guy and the press has a field day. We had to find a purpose for the cats.

Although I was still fairly new to the concepts of wind direction, I felt confident  we would fare just fine if we ran out of coal. If nothing else I could just put my finger in my mouth, hold it up, and figure out which side got cold first. That would be the wind direction. That and a basic compass were all I needed. And if the sails failed to perform that really wasn’t my problem. All the same, I was feeling just a little anxious when I got to the meeting room. Barb came in and started talking before she sat down.

“I’m glad you were able to meet today. This project is of the utmost importance and we have a very short time frame to get it done. In fact, this has to be up and running within a week.”

“Really?” I ask, “Why? At the last check we had plenty of coal, so there’s no reason to think that we’ll be needing to use our sails anytime soon.”

She smiles, and I know I’ve asked something so elementary she’s wondering how I ever achieved my current position.

“Because there’s a deadline,” she says, quietly, patiently, kindly.

“Oh,” I’m feeling a little dense, but want to make sure I understand, “why is there a deadline for next week when we know we won’t run out of coal next week?”

She looks pleased. I assume it’s because I’ve shown an ability for following a line of reasoning. “Great question. There’s a deadline for next week because that’s when I said we could get this done.”

“O.k.” I’m pretty sure she can see my confusion, but her smile is designed to give me confidence, let me know my incompetence is not a problem, and that she’s is in charge and will lead us where we need to go.

“Well, let’s just get started and I’m sure this will make more sense once we get into it.” She settles into the chair across from me, folds her hands, places her arms on the table and leans forward. Her eyes are serious.

“You know about the cats.” It’s not really a question, more of a statement, but she is obviously waiting for a response. I want to make up for my earlier failings, so I’m eager to show off what I do know.

“Yes, I know that we’ve really got more cats than we need. Of course there really isn’t an offboarding strategy this far out to sea, so if we want to maximize cost effectiveness we need to ensure we’re leveraging all of our resources in the most appropriate manner possible.” I am rewarded with a beaming smile.

“Exactly. And that’s just what this project will do. I have every confidence you’ll be able to have this up and running by the deadline.” I don’t share her confidence, but I’m not bringing up the arbitrary deadline again. I just nod so she can continue.

“We’ve decided that the best way to utilize the cats is to have them help predict future wind direction. Using the cats, you’ll check the wind direction each day at 2-hour intervals, and then record the results. You’ll need to graph the wind direction and be able to make predictions based on statistical data. You’ll want to determine if the height of the water has any impact, and you’ll need to ensure that the sails are in operable condition.”

Now my head is reeling. Although my finger and a compass seem unbelievably unsophisticated, I know they’ll work. I’m not bringing it up. Instead I try to think this through, integrate the knowledge I have of the other working areas. All I can manage is, “But, I don’t work with the sails. The people who work with the sails are all in an upper echelon of the ship’s hierarchy. They only talk to me when they’re demonstrating that we don’t really have a hierarchy.”

She frowns and I realize I shouldn’t have said that to her. Now she’ll probably wonder who I’m talking to and what they’re saying. Fortunately she doesn’t go after that tangent – probably one of the reasons she’s in her current position. She simply says, “Well, you’ll need to tell them what information they need to provide you. You need to measure sail readiness and include that in your graph.”

I’m starting to feel like I’m not a problem solver. “O.k., I guess I’m just a little confused as to how I’m going to do that. The sails are kept below in a restricted area I don’t have access to, and anyway the sail readiness team runs regular testing to ensure the sails are wind worthy. Can’t I just use the work they’ve done?”

She is starting to look a little strained. I know she’s way ahead of me here and I’m just not keeping up. I’m really trying, but I’m just not seeing the value add.

“Don’t worry about access to the sails. I’ve got a meeting scheduled with the sail master and I’m just going to tell him he’s giving you access. Just trust me on this and don’t worry about that part.” I nod, thinking it’s not going to be that simple, and still not understanding why I can’t just use their data, but I’m going with it and assuming it will all start to make sense. Eventually. And hopefully before the deadline.

“So once you have the readiness data you can herd the cats and start the meow analysis.”

“I’ll call it the ‘Meowalysis,’” I smile. She looks at me with a frown and says, “The what?”

“Nothing,” I say and remind myself to stop talking and keep nodding. She pauses a beat and then continues.

“So once you’ve herded the cats it’s a simple matter of gathering the data. I would recommend you start individually. Take a cat to the bow and wait for it to meow. Then capture the meow data on the matrix. Make sure you get a good sample, and then analyze the meow data with the other data, and prepare your findings for the meeting. I’ll need to see your first draft with enough time to make changes before I present. Is two days from now fair?”

“O.k.,” I’m not feeling confident at all. But I’m going to make this work. It doesn’t matter what they ask, I’m going to make this work. She nods, once, briskly.

“So, I’m sorry,” I say, wondering if I’m sorry for my obtuseness, my presence on the ship, or just my life choices in general, “but can you help me understand the big picture on this strategy?”

“The cat will meow and then you’ll record what direction the wind is blowing. Eventually we’ll be able to predict wind direction by the cat’s meow.” This is said perfectly reasonably, perfectly calmly. It simply makes no sense to me whatsoever and there’s no way I’m going to be able to do this. I need to signal my understanding while clarifying what I’m supposed to do with another question.

“Got it, but I’m not sure how I’m going to determine the direction the wind will blow by the cat meowing. I mean, it might meow when there’s no wind at all.”

She nods. She looks very serious and thoughtful. This is, of course, a good point. Let’s face it, there’s no one on the face of the planet that has any idea what’s going on here.

“I’ve anticipated you would need help with that, so I’ve prepared some tools to help you.” She hands me a page of handwritten notes and hand drawn pictures of kitty faces with various un-catlike expressions. “This document can used as a guide to the meaning of meowing. Of course, each cat will have its own individual vocalizations, so the guide is really a framework – a starting point if you will – for you to develop your own meowing meaning chart. You’ll also need to ensure you track any new cats that provide input, or cats that for whatever reason,” and here her voice fades a little, “are no longer providing data.”

I run my hands through my hair. I know I’m starting to come apart a little, but this is getting crazy. “But, I don’t think cats can predict which way the wind will blow.” There. That’s a better argument. Now I’m thinking this through and focusing on the result we’re trying to achieve.

“Well, we’ve noticed that the cats don’t like getting their fur ruffled up the wrong way. You’ve seen that, right?” This is said in a ‘you’re part of the team’ tone of voice. Now she’s feeling sorry for me. This doesn’t bode well. I just nod.

“So since they don’t like it, they’ll meow in displeasure and turn to face the wind, thus providing us with information on the direction the wind is blowing.”

“Well, yeah, at that moment. It doesn’t necessarily tell us anything about future direction.”

She sighs. “That is why you have to analyze the meow.” The depth of my stupidity is now starting to annoy her. I just give up. I’ll figure out a way to herd the damn cats – if one or two escape no one will know unless I say something, and why would I do that? I’ll take them on the deck, wait till they meow, and somehow put together a matrix with all the data. Maybe if I use a lot of charts, graphs and illustrations it won’t matter if the data makes any sense.

“Great!” I take the guide and give her what I hope is a confident and winning smile. “I’ll have the draft ready for your review in two days.”

She smiles and rises. “Perfect! Just let me know if you have any questions in the meantime. Now I’ve got to go meet with Johnson. Those damn goats we brought on board aren’t milk goats after all, so we’ve got to figure out what to do with them. He’s got some kind of strategy he thinks will help. He’s calling it the Great Goat Rodeo. Sounds like it’s going to be an all-hands-on-deck event.”

I just nod. A goat rodeo. Should be fun.

 

 

 

The Gallery

Image courtesy of Dan Handler.

I wrote this story shortly after college. The idea came to me, out of nowhere, fully formed one day while I was work. I have no idea what was up with that, but I sure wish it would happen again some day. Apparently, my muse actually is a magpie. Or maybe a cow pie. Perhaps that’s where all the shitty ideas come from….

The Gallery

“Why don’t you like my cat?”

“It has nothing to do with not liking your cat.”

“Is it any cat? Do you not like cats?”

“I like cats, cats are fine.”

“Yet you reject my cat.”

“Your cat is always sticking its ass in my face.”

“That’s not just my cat. All cats will stick their ass in your face. It’s instinct.”

“Well, then, let’s just say I don’t like cats.”

“I thought that was the problem.”

 

We are looking at the painting. It is a large white canvas, devoid of paint. “That’s not a painting.” He looks at me with certainty. “It has no paint on it, so how can it be a painting?” “Perhaps it’s simply classified as art.” “Art perhaps, but it’s not a painting.” “Does it matter what it’s called?” We look at each other. We look at the canvas. He looks at me. “Yes, it matters. They want to call it a painting, and it’s not a painting.” “Well, what do you want to call it then?” He considers. “I don’t know, maybe it’s best to just call it a painting.”

 

“Now you’re annoyed, I can tell.”

“I’m not annoyed, it’s just that I don’t dislike animals.”

“But you just admitted to not liking cats.”

“It’s not cats, it’s their behavior. I can dislike part of their behavior without disliking cats in general. Or maybe just not like one particular cat.”

“I didn’t think you liked my cat.”

 

The artist is standing next to us. He has listened to our conversation and is angry. “No, it’s not a painting. I’m the artist, I should know what it is.” “It is a painting.” “But you just said it wasn’t a painting.” “I changed my mind, now that I look at more closely I can see that it definitely is a painting.” “No, no, you were right, look at it, it has no paint on it, it’s not a painting.” “If you have to interpret your painting for the audience, it’s not a very good work of art, is it?” The artist walks away. He is very angry.

 

“Why are you trying to make me admit that I don’t like your cat?”

“I think it would be healthier for you to see that you don’t like the cat and admit to it, rather than try to pretend something that’s isn’t true. You may end up sublimating your dislike of my cat into something else.”

“Would it make you feel better if I said I didn’t like your cat?”

“Well, if it would make you feel better, I think it should be said.”

 

The artist is coming back with a group of people. They look hostile. They are carrying books of poetry by Gertrude Stein. They are coming our way and I want to leave. “Let’s just go, it’s not worth arguing about.” “It’s not an argument, it’s artistic debate. Everyone has a right to express an opinion, although the more I look at it, it really doesn’t seem to be a painting does it? What do you think?” Even when I close my eyes, I can see them coming.

 

“She likes you. She never purrs unless she like you.”

“Cats always like you when you’re allergic to them. She sheds a great deal, doesn’t she?”

“It’s in the nature of a cat to shed. It’s hot outside.”

“Don’t you brush her?”

“Sometimes, but she doesn’t always like it.”

“Can I put her down now?”

 

They are all angry. They are shouting at each other. “How can it be a painting if it has no paint?” “You idiot, do you think the only element of a painting is paint? What about the creative process?” “So then if this is a painting, anyone who states they are an artist is an artist.” “No, art takes creativity.” “So then, it’s not a painting, but it is art.” “Then we’re all artists.” “No, but we could all be painters.” I am still considering the blank canvas.

 

“Would you mind keeping her off my lap?”

“But I thought you liked cats.”

“I do, but only when I want to like them.”

“She doesn’t want to get off your lap. Don’t push her, she might scratch you.”

“But I don’t want her on my lap. Couldn’t you get a dog?”

“No, I’m a cat person. Maybe if I offer her some food she’ll get off your lap.”

 

“Look, if he just painted it white, then it would still be white, it would have paint on it, and it would be a painting.” “But it wouldn’t be a work of art.” “But he would be an artist.” “I like it.” They all look at me. I take money out of my purse. I give it to the artist and take down the canvas. I wonder if it will look better in the living room or over the bed.

 

“Why should you have to offer her anything? She should simply get off my lap because she is an animal and I want her to.”

“But she does have a will.”

“And I have an allergy.”

“Isn’t an allergy also a function of will?”

“She really is purring. Does it really mean she likes me?”

“I think you’ve held her long enough.”

“No, it’s o.k., she’s happy on my lap.”

“Give me back my cat please.”

 

The painting is hanging over the bed. I want to enjoy it alone. In silence. I wonder what they are arguing about, now that I have the painting. I lie down on the bed. The room feels much more peaceful than I remember it feeling when I left. I think, it was a lot of money, but you really can’t pay enough for peace of mind. I fall asleep.

 

“Look, she’s my cat and I want her back now.”

“But she’s happy on my lap. Don’t pull her, she might scratch.”

“I’ll get some food, to entice her off your lap.”

“But I thought you were concerned with her will.”

“If she wants the food I offer to her, then it’s her will that she get off your lap.”

“I would think you would be concerned with the happiness of your cat.”

 

I am awakened by the artist and the group of people carrying books of poetry by Gertrude Stein. They seem happy to see the painting. “You see, I told you she would put it in the bedroom.” “But it would be better in the living room.” “A work of art is a personal experience.” “But it’s the responsibility of the owner of a work of art to share that art.” “What if the artist never shares it?” “Well, that’s different.” I try to go back to sleep.

 

“Look, just as I’m enjoying your cat, you want to take her back.”

“Please give me my cat.”

“But I’m trying to show you that I like your cat.”

“Please give me my cat.”

“I really believe your behavior to be irrational.”

“Please give me my cat.”

“But I like your cat and want to hold her.”

 

I hear a loud voice. “But we never decided if it was a painting or not.” Voices are raised. I consider the artist. I consider the painting. I consider the people with books of poetry by Gertrude Stein. I take a knife, rip the canvas from the frame, and stomp on it. The group is silent. Their eyes are hostile. “She destroyed a work of art.” “She destroyed a painting.” They look at me. “Do you realize a great work of art is an individual effort?” “That was a once in a lifetime piece.” “That can never be recreated.” “It was a blank canvas.” “It was a work of art.” “So a canvas can be replaced, but the work of art can’t?” I leave the room.

 

“Please give me my cat.”

“Are you jealous that the cat likes me?”

“GIVE ME THE DAMN CAT.”

“I never have liked your cat.”

The Copeland Cats

At one point my love of cats – and my very patient husband’s love of me – turned me into what some might call a crazy cat lady. (Although I honestly don’t think ten cats is that many, especially when most of them are outdoors.)

After spending years trying to write something “serious,” I decided to go back to what comes naturally, and wrote the very sing-songy poem below about the heyday of the “Copeland Cat” era. The photo above shows the nine outdoor cats having breakfast on the porch. Although most of the cats are gone now, I have fond memories of the sight of “all the cattails wavin’.”

 

THE COPELAND CATS

In the country, in Virginia, in a little place called Rockville,

Is a farm that gives a second chance to cats that got a raw deal.

Here the catnip grows in long straight rows; the farm’s called Copeland’s Haven.

Come and take a closer look – there’s something quite amazin’!

 

There are kitties at the Copeland’s over-running all the acres,

With their whisker-lickin’ groomin’ and their loud meowy-makers.

First is Idaho, then Leroy, next are Zed, Moe, Boo and Tina,

Then there’s Chingo, Honey, Rikki, and there’s also Grace and Xena.

 

All the kitties love the Copelands, in particular the Missus,

‘Cause she’s the Kitty Momma granting all their kitty wishes.

And although she is a human she’s an expert at the art

Of understanding feline feelings and respecting feline hearts.

 

So come and meet the Copeland cats, their antics are amusing,

(Just know that some may run away, while others may be snoozing).

But even so, come say hello – give in to cat seduction,

We’ll get you started on your way with this brief introduction.

 

Idaho’s an indoor cat; he’s pampered, sleek and happy,

He loves to eat his chicken bits and nap in Momma’s lappy.

On winter nights he stays inside and curls up by the fire,

In spring the open windows let him hear the birdie’s choir.

 

Leroy is the leader of the cats that live outside,

He’s a black tuxedo rascal with a lion’s royal pride.

He will be the first you’ll see, the one to give a greeting,

And Leroy is the first to give another cat a beating.

 

Zed is quite a scrapper with his dapper, long black coat,

He’s got a ton of cattitude and not much else of note.

He loves to run and climb the trees; he loves his kitty kibbles,

And when you’re busy petting him, he loves to give love nibbles.

 

Moe rhymes with “NO” – it’s apropos – the naughty little booger!

He’s also loving, cute and smart, and can be sweet as sugar.

He loves to chew on cardboard, eat the bills and tear up tissues,

Apparently this little guy is full of pulp-based issues.

 

With Boo it’s true you don’t see much, he tries not to be seen.

A solid black, big ‘fraidy cat, his birthday’s Halloween.

He slinks along behind the trees; he likes things nice and quiet.

And Boo’s the first to rush away should things become a riot.

 

Tina is the biggest cat and stately as a queen.

A calico with manners, she is never cross or mean.

She is fond of Chingo, and she finds his love inspiring,

Although his constant presence can occasionally be tiring.

 

Chingo is a tabby cat that sports a fat white tummy,

From thinking that most everything is absolutely yummy.

He’s in love with Tina, so much so it makes him loopy,

And when she is ignoring him, his tail gets sad and droopy.

 

Honey is the newest cat; he comes from who knows where,

He needs to learn to bathe and groom his honey colored hair.

He wants so badly to be loved, but runs away from petting,

You’ll always find the clumps of fur he leaves behind from shedding.

 

Rikki is a little man; he’s white with tabby patches,

He’s always mending from a scrape or one of many scratches.

Although he’s shy he’s quite a guy, he’s full of kitty charm;

The Momma’s constant worry is he’ll come to kitty harm.

 

Poor Grace is just a mental case and needs to get a clue.

She’s purring while you’re petting her, then bites before you’re through.

She has a way, like Puss in Boots, to look sad and appealing,

She could be sad, she could be mad – who knows what she is feeling!

 

Xena is a princess and our mighty warrior kitty.

She’s a pastel tortoiseshell, and just so itty-bitty.

She hunts for prey both night and day; you often see her stalking,

And when you hear her tiny voice, its daintiness is shocking.

 

That’s all the cats there are for now; the future is unwritten,

For if the Momma sees in need a kitten, she is smitten.

Come back to see the Copeland cats, they’re here at Copeland’s Haven,

You’ll recognize it by the sight of all the cat tails wavin’.