Sunday, March 18, 2012
A sample chapter of Joanne Rocklin’s THE FIVE LIVES OF OUR CAT ZOOK
THE IMPORTANT STUFF
Our cat’s named Zucchini, and we call him Zook, but that’s not the most important thing about him. And neither is the INCREDIBLE fact that he’s got seven toes on each front foot and six on each one in the back, for a total of twenty-six. (Most cats have five and four, for a total of eighteen.) His eyes are blue, like old faded jeans, and his coat is dark brown. But when he’s lying on a sidewalk scratching his back, you can see some white markings shaped like the state of California on his belly. And some black tufts in the spot where Oakland is, which is where we live. One corner of one ear is clipped off. He’s got shaky teeth, black gums, and breath that smells like the restroom in the Chevron station—a smell we love, because it’s Zook’s.
If you run your palm along his right side, you can feel something like a little pebble stuck under his skin. It’s not a pebble. It’s a pellet from a BB gun. And that’s not the most important thing about him, either. In fact, I try not to think about that so much.
Two and a half years ago, my brother, Fred, and I found Zook in the alley that connects the back of our apartment building with the back of O’Leary’s Pizzeria. We go to O’Leary’s a lot because of their famous fried zucchini. (Fried is the only kind of vegetable Freddy will eat.)
It was a warm, sunny Saturday, just like this one. Mom was in the stuffy basement laundry room, and Fred and I were sitting out in the alley eating lunch from O’Leary’s. We had folding chairs out there, and back then the big blue pots were filled with lavender and red geraniums. You could smell the eucalyptus tree and lavender over the traffic smells. Birds were chirping, which I suppose they’re always doing, but this was the kind of day when nice things like that got your attention.
Then something else got our attention.
That’s another thing about Zook: He’s got the greatest pair of cat lungs ever. There he was, stretched out in the warm dirt of one of those geranium pots, howling away as if he and the birds in the alley were singers in a band. Nowadays, Zook is famous in the neighborhood for his singing, but at the time we’d never heard anything like him before. And then he let Freddy and me pet him, rubbing his head against our legs. Probably hadn’t been stroked in a long, long time. I noticed he was wearing a collar with a silver rectangle dangling from it. INCREDIBLY, in the middle of that rectangle was a little sparkly diamond! We lured that starving cat into the building with some fried zucchini. (Get it? Zucchini . . . Zook.) Mom said we could keep him, so we cleaned him up, bought him some cat food, and brought him upstairs to live with us. Dad said our family could always use a diamond, or the gobs of cash you could get for it.
That diamond isn’t even the most important thing about him. Anyway, we found out it was fake. But we’d already started to love Zook by the time we absolutely found out for sure. Actually, I began to love him the second I met him.
The most important thing about Zook right now is that he’s sick, and Fred and I are waiting around on the steps of the Good Samaritan Veterinary Clinic, where Zook’s getting help. The clinic has big windows in the front, and Freddy keeps jumping up to look in.
“There he is! I see him!” Fred shouts.
I push myself up from the stone stairs. I feel like a tired old lady, even though I’m only ten.
“Where?” I say. I don’t see Zook anywhere.
It’s Saturday, so the office is busy. A woman is answering the phone at the front desk, a man is bending over a filing cabinet, people and their pets are sitting around on couches, and a man with a stethoscope in his shirt pocket is scratching a slobbery golden retriever’s ear while talking to its owner.
“There!” Fred says, and I realize he isn’t talking about Zook. Fred’s pointing to the stethoscope guy. “That’s Zook’s vet!”
“Oh, yeah,” I say. It was kind of a blur when my mom and Fred and me rushed Zook in that morning, but that’s the guy.
Fred is looking at him like he’s God or something. Just like a five-year-old, to think like that. Of course, it is sort of godlike to cure a living, breathing being. Then a really SCARY question pops into my head. Even though Zook’s vet is probably a good person who loves animals with all his heart, does that also mean he’s good at his job? I mean really, really good?
We go inside and stand near the vet’s elbow. He’s explaining to the slobbery golden’s owner that the dog’s medicine has to be given three times a day for the first three days, then two times a day for the next three days, then once a day until all the pills are used up.
“I’m sorry. Can you repeat that one more time?” says the golden’s owner, a man who looks just as smart as you or me, except for the fact that his sweater is on inside out.
The vet takes a breath, holds up the little bottle of pills, and explains again, in a fake-patient voice, about the three times a day for the first three days, etc., etc. Fake-patient voices are always easy to spot because of the slowed-down syllables.
“Hope I remember all that,” says the dog’s owner.
I can hear unhappy yipping coming from behind the big closed doors past the front desk, and you can’t miss Zook’s famous yowling over it all: “EE-OW! EE-OWEY!” Yes, there’s lots of stuff for the vet to do back there, like take care of Zook, for instance! And when we brought Zook into the Good Samaritan Veterinary Clinic, he didn’t look one-seventeenth as frisky and healthy as that slobbery golden, who is now happily licking Freddy’s shoe.
That’s when, all of a sudden, I notice two things. Two important things that make me open my mouth. My big mouth, as some people (OK, my mother) would say.
Gramma Dee says I have chutzpah, which is a Yiddish word for “nerve,” but I only have it when the situation is serious. Which this is.
The first important thing: The instructions are right there on the pill bottle. IN CAPS.
I think it’s important to notice how words are written. Italics tell you to emphasize the words, or that the words are new or unusual, or that someone is thinking or writing or singing the words. Quotation marks tell you when someone is talking, or that the speaker is wriggling her fingers as she says a word in order to make that word “special.”
It’s as if the words have feelings. They come alive!
CAPS are like neon signs, or shouts, and they’re even more important than italics. You’re REALLY supposed to pay attention to them.
“The instructions are right there on the pill bottle,” I say.
The man and Zook’s vet both turn to look at me. Then the dog owner looks down at the caps on the pill bottle. The vet taps his index finger on the bottle—or, more specifically, THE VERY LONG FINGERNAIL ON THE INDEX FINGER OF HIS RIGHT HAND.
You may have guessed that the second important detail I’m noticing is the very long fingernail. Actually, all five of the very long fingernails on his right hand, which could only mean that:
1. Zook’s vet is a serious guitar player. And I know exactly what that means, because my friend Riya’s uncle is one.
2. Zook’s vet wishes he were home, practicing his guitar or playing with his band. Zook’s vet and his band want to leave Oakland and go to L.A. to get famous. (That’s what Riya’s uncle wants to do with his band.)
3. Zook’s vet is also thinking about the chords to a new song about his love. Many guitarists—Riya’s uncle, for example—sing songs about their loves, haven’t you noticed? Zook’s vet is thinking about all the words that rhyme with “pretty,” like “city” and “witty” and lots of others. He’s
thinking that nothing rhymes with “beautiful,” and it’s driving him crazy. Also, should the song be sad and slow, or happy and dancey?
In other words, he’s worrying and thinking about all those things. And he’s NOT worrying and thinking about ZOOK!
“Excuse me, young lady,” says the vet in his fake-patient voice. “Take a seat and I’ll be with you as soon as I can.”
Freddy and I don’t take a seat. I draw myself up tall. I try to put on a serious face, like my mother does when she’s putting unkind people in their place. I say what she would say in this situation.
“I beg your pardon,” I say, even though I’m not really begging his pardon, and tears are showing up in my eyes, which wouldn’t happen to my mother.
Freddy says, “We want to know about Zook, please!”
Fred is still looking all googly-eyed at the vet, like he’s God. Fred actually looks at a lot of adults like that, especially father-figure types. But God would remember who Zook is. I can tell by the way the vet pauses and studies the ceiling, like something important is going on up there, that the vet doesn’t have a CLUE. Of course, the vet’s memory is poor today, after a late night out playing a gig with his band, showing off for his love with fancy guitar strumming.
Then I give the vet a clue. Lots of them.
“I’m Oona Armstrong, and this is my brother, Fred,” I say. “Don’t you remember us? We just brought in our cat this morning! Zook’s the big old brown cat, with faded blue eyes, with a clipped ear, and the state of California on his belly. He has bad teeth and gums, but that’s not the problem. He has a BB-gun pellet on his right flank, but that’s not the problem, either. We brought him in this morning because the problem is—the problems ARE—he’s stopped eating and he keeps staring into space, and when he isn’t staring into space, he’s hiding in dark places, or staring into his water bowl, too tired to drink.”
The golden retriever’s owner gives a kind of salute to Zook’s vet and leaves. And now Zook’s vet really looks at us. I can tell he remembers our cat because of all the clues I gave him. I guess he feels sorry for us, too, because he takes us down a hall to a door with a window. We’re both allowed a quick peek, and there’s Zook, a sad brown blob in a cage, a tube hooked up to his paw, and a blue bandage keeping it in place.
“Zook’s kidneys are failing, and he’s very dehydrated,” the vet says. “We’re giving him fluids intravenously so he’ll feel better. We’ll call you when we’re done with the treatment. There’s nothing you can do now except go home.”
I don’t like being told there’s nothing I can do. I don’t like feeling that way, either.
The vet hands me his card, and his name is Howard Fiske, DVM. And there’s that long fingernail again! I’m scared for Zook’s failing kidneys, so the tears roll out of my eyes, and then a whole lot of really loud caps roll out of my mouth. “WELL, YOU GOTTA MAKE SURE THOSE KIDNEYS PASS, PLEASE!” I say. Loudly.