Body Building Through Amazing Grace

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The first time it happened, I knew it would be a recurring theme throughout my life and resigned myself to trudge on. It happened on a Saturday in the 1950s at the New Mission Theater in San Francisco between a double feature — after watching “The Blob,” and before a screening of “Man of the West,” staring 56-year-old Gary Cooper.

The house lights came up and they brought a small hand-cranked drum onstage. They tumbled the contraption, the movie-house manager reached in and pulled out ticket stubs, announced winning numbers. Delighted children ran to the front to pick up their prizes. I studied my losing ticket, prayed a little, knowing enough at nine to rely on Amazing Grace and not too expect much.

My brother Richard won a red and yellow dump truck, huge and gaudy, the back end filled with candy. He put it on his lap, shared Milk Duds with me when the lights went down. I settled into the realization that good luck is hard to come by and prepared to be a perpetual loser, an understudy for the role of enthuser — the one who congratulates others for the good things that befall them and doesn’t betray their own disappointment.

Later iIMG_4498n life I discovered a four-leaf clover pressed in our family Bible, in the Book of Esther: Cha. 2, v. 15, and knew my Great Aunt Eva had found this Irish good-luck charm, that all benefits accrue to the finder, not to afterthoughts like me. They say the odds of finding a four-leaf clover yourself are like 10,000 to 1. I’d already given up playing long shots and closed the book.

When the phone rang yesterday, the woman called me Katherine, my given name, but a name mostly used by telemarketers, dentists and my mother, who died nearly 30 years ago. I braced for the sales pitch, was still clinched when she said, in a flowery voice, “Congratulations!” Faster than a squirrel after a nut, Yeah Right! ran through my head.

It was sitting on the tip of my tongue when she told me I’d been selected in a lottery at the sports club where I practice yoga to participate in weight lifting classes–for free. While not a toy dump truck filled with candy or a four-leaf clover, I’m delighted nonetheless with my unexpected winnings. Except I’m not sure actually what this stroke of luck means.

I’ve always sneaked past the weight room at the fitness club, hustling to get my favorite spot on the floor in the yoga studio. Stud muffins performing feats has never been a particular interest—six packs, eight packs, buns and guns—who gives a rip? Right?

But, truth is, some of my body things have gotten a bit mushy. OK, a lot mushy, like instant oatmeal with tiny apple bits, disgustingly gelatinous in hot water and inedible, if not for the sugar and cinnamon.

You’re not destined to grow softer and weaker just because you’re getting older, experts say in that “Now, Honey” voice. Most muscle loss comes from not using muscles enough as we age, they say, rather than aging itself. Using muscles regularly helps them stay strong and firm, regardless of age, adding it’s important for older adults to strength train. I’m sure there’s truth in this, but wish it didn’t sound so much like a laundry soap commercial.

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An article on the AARP website says studies show men in their 60s and 70s who strength train regularly have muscles that look and perform as well as “inactive men in their 20s and 30s.” An image of beer guzzling, pizza scarfing video game players comes to mind.

The article is supposed to be about the benefits of weight training for “Boomers,” which I thought was a unisex thing. Instead, it focuses on benefits for men.

Turning back to the Internet for further enlightenment, I find a lot of old-lady weight training photos showing white-haired women sitting in chairs at rest homes waving hand weights or worse, grannies with cigarettes dangling from their mouths hoisting a weight in one hand, throwing a middle finger in the other, with a caption something like: “You want a piece of this?”

There are also photos of contemporary young women pumping iron that feature booming bosoms and bulging buttocks and women practicing Olympic-style clean and jerks. More than a few shots feature ladies working out in high heels with adoring men spotting them. Even movie stars have tried their hands at dead weight.

I’m beginning to wonder if I had a winning lottery ticket to a geek show, but I’m not going to act like a dumbbell. No Sir. For the foreseeable future, you’ll find me in the weight room on Thursday evenings with the other winning women. We’ll work up a sweat and count our lucky charms. After all, wise men throughout the ages have noted women hold up half the world. I just want to continue carrying my share of the load with a little bit of grace.

 

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Running the River: Art & Literature in the Delta

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This photo from 1900 shows European-Americans boarding rowboats on the banks of the San Joaquin River in California. Using archives records like maps and photographs, scientists are trying to revive the delta. Photo courtesy Bank of Stockton

Given its isolation from major Northern California urban centers, the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta has resisted development and remains suspended in time, but not for much longer. It’s a place of wonder—1.1 million square-miles of rivers, creeks, marshes, sloughs, levees, 500,000 acres of farmland, and it is the font of about 7.5 million acre-feet of water that’s distributed to cities and farms throughout California—it’s a playground for recreation, an agricultural hub and there are those who say, without blushing, it’s a paradise fraught with political maneuvering and environmental threats.

Few will say, however, that the largest river delta on the Pacific Ocean side of the Americas is a hotbed of literature and art. But those working to protect and restore the delta say that is wrong. Various groups, including writers, poets, artists, academics and community advocates are busy collecting the cultural artifacts that help mark the delta as a unique place in the world, one with a rich and diverse creative history.

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Because I’m currently working on a novel set in the delta, I attended a discussion this week sponsored by the grassroots organization Restore the Delta about the past, present, and future of Delta Literature. Although literary luminaries from Jack London to Joan Didion have written about life in the delta, and their stories speak to significant topics in American history, scholars say the full range of narratives about this vital region awaits systematic collection, presentation and interpretation. There’s a lot of work to do.

During his overview of Delta Literature, Robert Benedetti, University of the Pacific professor emeritus of political science, commented that the “subtle beauty of the delta and a quiet appreciation by poets is needed,” if the delta’s rich cultural history and natural resources are to be saved from further neglect and degradation.

He also pointed to research into the literature of the delta by Gregg Camfield, professor of literature at the University of California, Merced. Canfield noted in his research that narratives shape human action and “we try to make sense of the past by telling its story; in the process, we shape our present and our future.” His survey of delta literature is online at: http://delta.blogs.ca.gov/files/2016/10/Full_Paper_Camfield.pdf

Paula Sheil, founder and executive director of Tuleburg Press & THE WRITE PLACE in Stockton, as well as a poet and accomplished sailor, read “Out the Gate,” her poem captures the delta breeze blowing gently past farms and levees, picking up speed and spilling out to the bay, meeting the gush of ocean “like big dreams in a torrent.” She refers to the delta as the “anti-San Francisco,” suggesting the delta is the flip side of hip, slick and cool, a counter weight or cultural anchor to the excesses of its famous neighbor.

The Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta is a land of stunning open spaces fed by five major rivers. A maze of creeks and sloughs spreading finger-like through some of California’s most important habitat, especially for Chinook salmon and Greater Sandhill Cranes. It’s a bird watcher’s feast for the eyes and a fisherman’s delight. It’s also home to immigrants and dreamers who prefer the delta’s cloistered backwaters to brash and garish city life.

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Photo Courtesy: Friends of the River

In reality, Sheil said, “It’s the people who make the delta.” Adding that she tells her students that through the delta they’re connected to world, meaning by following the waterway to the ocean they have access to every distant land. But, she said, “Stockton youth don’t have access to the water. Some children who live in Stockton have never seen the delta.”

The City of Stockton is located on the San Joaquin River on the eastern edge of the delta, but freeways, development, train tracks, barriers of all types prevent exploration. “We live on the San Joaquin River and there isn’t even a place to put a kayak in the water.” Sheil said.

Tama Brisbane, Stockton poet laureate and executive director of Stockton’s “With Our Words,” a national movement to combat illiteracy, isolation, alienation, and silence by bringing new voices from the margins to the core of society through literary and performing arts. She noted that young Stockton poets who’ve traveled to poetry and performance art festivals around the country often have trouble explaining where they come from, have a gap in their understanding of place, of the delta that makes the territory from which they come unique.

“Stockton is a city that doesn’t own itself,” Brisbane said. “Stockton needs to hustle to get its identity back.”

Stories matter. They make us who we are. Camfield said in his survey of delta literature that “human beings selectively interpret their lives by way of narrative arcs, by how these narratives shape human action. We try to make sense of the past by telling its story; in the process, we shape our present and our future.”

With a delta novel in progress, the discussion about the literary past and future of the region was creatively stimulating and encouraging. But, a newcomer to Stockton, I also saw how quickly the city is transforming, wiping out the connection to the past.

In downtown Stockton old buildings with ornate architectural details are rotting, while next door new structures of steel and glass are under construction. Preserving what’s beautiful and meaningful from the past, while nurturing a proud new generation, is a task delta artists, poets and writers are embracing. It’s an exciting time in the delta and I look forward to contributing to the effort with a few good words of my own.

About these photos – Before the panel discussion, I had time to wander in downtown Stockton for a few photo grabs. I’m planning some mosaic projects and was delighted to stumble on some interesting examples in the lobby of Stockton’s old Elk’s Lodge on Sutter Street.

Pioneer Days in Sacramento

When Great Uncle George died, my Great Aunt Eva, a ponderous woman with a sweet, cinnamon roll personality, took the loss like a flying trapeze artist working without a catcher. The thud of her heart hitting the ground could be heard all the way from the ranch in Montana to my grandmother’s house in San Francisco. Something  would have to be done, my grandmother said, explaining that her oldest sister – 25 years older – could not stay on the ranch alone, a three day ride to town. Aunt Eva had no surviving children.

Of course this story is more complicated than the death of an in-law and his bereaved widow needing care. But, in short, Aunt Eva’s household was packed and shipped to a wheat and pear ranch the family arranged for her to buy near Clearlake in California. The ranch adjoined the one owned by her sister Emma and her husband, Art.

Then a wildfire swept across Eva’s new ranch. We lived there at the time, in the 1950s, while my father was serving in the U.S. Air Force in Korea. With no men to fight the fire, my mother saved the house, but everything else was lost—barns, sheds, fences, water system, some orchards. We survived the fire, my brother Richard and me, by climbing into the cement water cistern with Aunt Eva. Through a crack in the lid, we watched my mother, later joined by local ranchers, beat back the fire advancing through the grasses toward the house with wet pear-packing gunny sacks.

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Me and my beloved Great Aunt Eva on the ranch near Clearlake CA.

Aunt Eva sold what was left of the Clearlake Ranch and moved into my grandmother’s house in Noe Valley, every last steamer trunk and hat box went into the back bedroom where she lived as an invalid until she died in the 1960s. Eventually Aunt Eva’s things were handed down to me. She was accomplished at needlecraft, making lace, embroidery and astonishingly beautiful quilts. When Great Uncle George died there were many completed quilt tops awaiting backing.  The quilts were never finished.

I tell you this as a way to say goodbye, my friends, at least for a month or so. You see, I inherited those quilt tops and have been storing them under my bed for more than 40 dusty years. Yesterday my son helped me move the quilt boxes to my garage, where we will be sleeping tonight and for many nights to come.

Years, I’ve been packing and counting the years, across decades and millennia. I have lived in my Sacramento house 17 years. Finally, I have the time and money to tear it apart and paint the whole house – entrance to exit – and get new flooring. Every single thing must be out by the end of today. Yes, I have considered dynamite and matches.

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Packing, packing, still more to pack today.

Clearing out means those dusty quilt tops, broken lamps and bed frames, underwear drawers, my adult children’s kindergarten art and the curated collection of their baby teeth, the dusty blue hat with the big bow in the back – price tag still attached (what was I thinking?) – the lapel pin that missed being stowed in my jewelry box, Aunt Eva’s pear coring tool, the suet grinder and food mill for putting up applesauce in the summer kitchen, the photo slides and obsolete diskettes, flimsy particle board book cases, boxes of tear sheets from my days as a journalist, a half-full bottle of blackstrap molasses, stacks of business cards that stretch back to the beginning of my 40-year professional career, the ashes of my former husband, who died seven years ago, his remains still awaiting dignified disposition. The unexpectedly, this ————

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Found this photo of me at a costume fitting  in 1970 for my chorus role in Santa Rosa Community Theater’s revival of the musical “Little Mary Sunshine.” I was surprised to find this reminder of the long-forgotten, playful girl I once was.

Trappist monk and poet Thomas Merton said “as we grow in wisdom, we realize that everything belongs and everything can be received. We see that life and death are not opposites . . .  We don’t have to deny, dismiss, defy, or ignore reality anymore.” At the bottom of all reality is deep goodness, Merton said, calling it the “hidden wholeness.”

So, I’m shutting down, going dark for more than a month  – no electronic chit chat, no messaging, no phone, no Internet, no TV, no connection to the outside world. I will be sleeping with the past in a garage colder than a Montana winter and hoping to find a hidden wholeness, a spiritual reintegration, in the hot mess I’ve made out of my garage.

Back inside the house, there will be renovation going on: new paint, flooring, tile, appliances, light fixtures, window coverings, fences. A total upgrade to usher in a new life, a new creativity, a fresh approach to honoring the past and who I am becoming. This work isn’t easy. It’s physically and emotionally taxing. I’m not sure who I’ll be when I reach the other side. I hope you’ll be there waiting for me.

All Hallows Eve

I tell you this because it happened

beyond the nether regions

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where you shouldn’t go

where speaking isn’t needed

shrugs and nods suffice

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and steely truth unhinges night

with dollar bills folded moist against the skin

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and clangs and clinking ice can pass

 for conversation

as she spreads her legs to shimmy

a final peep into the darkest folds of life

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Into the caverns of delight

where slumber whispers undisturbed

while demons howl in fright.

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She finds the passage

headed down the tunnel built for flight

running sweating from her concrete tomb

blood pouring from her beaten womb

her hallowed soot goes cold.

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Her spirit dances now in swirling ash.

Her eternal agony untold

but I see those moments in a flash

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When sun shines on the saints of old

and embraces her with sacred light

her horror bathed away.

She arises now.

Takes her place with all the saints

on this One November Day.

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Kate Campbell Images: Graffiti/Signage in alleys around and under Pike Place Public Market, Seattle WA. Shot while researching the novel Adrift in the Sound.

Grace and the People of Walmart

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He wiggles his fingers through the sole of his work shoes and suggests I take him to Walmart. He wants to buy a new pair before he busses the dinner shift at a neighborhood restaurant. Parenting adults is a tricky dance, I always check myself—am I helping or enabling.

I try to remember my dead husband, how he’d say with assurance that poet Kahlil Gibran said parents are the bow, children are the living arrows they send forth, and wonder why this twentysomething kid can’t go buy shoes without my help, why he can’t be a straight arrow.

He knows time is short before his shift starts, that Walmart is a quick drive away, but I’m on to his ploy. I tell him it’s busy on Saturday. I relent, stiffen myself for the people of Walmart, undoubtedly in full bloom on a holiday weekend.

I mentally prepare to run the gauntlet of morbidly obese shoppers blocking aisles with their carts, the disabled banking around corners in motorized chairs while holding Chihuahuas, teens mooning over engagement rings in the center aisle, transvestites with runs in their too-short pantyhose, middle-aged couples buying patio supplies and sex lubricant, children swaying an already broken birthday piñata. I park, my son struts ahead.

This time I don’t care about whether he’s embarrassed to be seen with me. I pick up the pace, find him in the work shoe section, way in the back. He can’t find safe-tred black shoes in his size. I reach up on tippy-toes, hand him down a pair. He tries them on.

I hold myself back from checking the toe room like when he was a child. They’ll do. We go to the check-out line snaking into ladies intimates. A woman with a mounded cart of merchandise signals us to go ahead, says, “If that’s all you’ve got.” My son, ever impish, looks over his shoulder says, “Come on, kids!” They laugh. I’m not amused.

While waiting, he strikes up a conversation with the woman in line ahead of him. He tells her he’s buying work shoes. She tells him her son works at Hot Wings in Chico, that he’s a student there. My son tells her it’s a great school, like he actually knows this.

He explains he’s just a busser, that he’s saving for a car. After the clerk rings up her order, she moves to the carousel of full plastic bags at the end of the counter, begins loading. My son asks the clerk how much for the shoes.

“They’re paid for,” nods toward the woman loading her cart to leave. She scurries away before he can say anything more than “thanks.” He helps me to the front doors because my eyes are blurry, tells me under his breath, “I think I need to go to church.”

I tell him: “You’re already there.”

Changing the Subject: It’s Art and It’s Arduous

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Reading an advance copy of Changing the Subject: Art and Attention in the Internet Age, by essayist and literary critic Sven Birkerts, who directs the Bennington Writing Seminars and edits the literary journal AGNI. The book from Graywolf is due for release Oct. 6.

It’s offers an erudite meander around the social and cultural implications of the digital age. In the collection’s opening essay, “On or About,” Birkerts suggests that, in a world with too much information and suspect filters, we should safeguard our inner selves from the onslaught by turning from the “full embrace of our networks and reconnect to the one-on-one circuitry of art.” He says, “Art serves the soul not least by demanding and creating attention.”

While the essay winds over some well-worn trails of the obvious or subjective, the essay contained a kernel of insight that’s helpful to me as a novelist. I’ve written one book. It took me four or five years to finish it and self-publish. There are many reasons I chose to focus my creative attention on this one, long narrative project, but, as is probably the case with many writers who finish a first novel, I wanted to prove to myself that I could write a sustained piece of prose, wanted to experience the process and decide if there was any hope I could master the form. I needed to assess if ultimately I could create art in that medium and then continue to produce long-form fiction. My self-answer remains equivocal.

Relating a moment of epiphany, Birkerts put his finger on one of my deepest fears — “Works of art are feats of concentration.” And then a moment later he added the thought, “Imagination is the instrument of concentration.” My fear is about how deeply I have to imagine to concentrate a long story, how disorienting it is to go in and out of the fictive dream to function in daily life. My second novel has been stalled at the half-way point for several years, can’t get it to go, have lost the spark and can’t release into the level of concentration needed to reach completion. On some level, I fear the blurring of my inside/outside life. As a beginning novelist, I’m afraid of  “going down in the diving bell,” as teacher/writer Alan Heathcock, author of the story collection Volt, also from Graywolf, recently described in an online post about the act of immersing fully into his writing.

I recognized my fear of going deep in Birkert’s insightful comment, understand the implications for reader engagement, and that helps me understand this block. I know from reading novelist John Steinbeck’s A Life in Letters that after the fevered writing of Grapes of Wrath, he was sick in bed for weeks and in a letter to his editor Pascal Covici, said “I think I worked myself past the danger point on that book.”

I’m not pretending my freshman efforts equal the concentration of literary masters. But, I do know what it feels like to be fully immersed in the process of creation, to follow the imagination into disturbing places and attempt to capture and shape the experience. For me, there’s this illustration: a difficult, disturbing piece of writing from my novel Adrift in the Sound:

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An after-work crowd, mostly men in dark work clothes, stuffed the Twisted Owl, where a haze of blue smoke hovered above the bar. Lizette looked for Fisher, scanning faces in the bar mirror, hoping she’d find him sitting in tonight with the house band.

She took her time pushing to the bar, consciously breathing through her mouth, guarding her nose against the smell of sweat and wet wool. She knew the longer it took to get a pitcher of beer and find a place to squeeze in, the longer she’d be warm. She wanted to stake out a spot to hear the band, maybe talk to Fisher about the Dogs, get his advice on how to get back into the house, brushing a memory wisp of Rocket aside like a tendril.

She bought a pitcher, the barkeep tossing her a “what’s up” nod, and pulled out of the body press. She staked out a table, setting two glasses next to the pitcher as bait. It wasn’t long before a barrel-chested young guy sat down, probably a dock worker on his way home. Marvin Gaye blasted “Let’s Get It On” from the juke box, but loud laughter and pool clatter made it hard to hear him. She poured a glass of beer, handed it to him as he lounged in the spindly wooden chair. She tried to follow what he was saying, smile at the right times, but felt out of sync.

She undid a button on her flannel shirt and bent over to dig in her bag, knowing the man’s gaze would follow down her chest. She sat up, leaned back, grinned. He touched her thigh, signed her to dance. He clutched her to him, smelling of axel grease and BO. She gagged and warbled softly against his shoulder, feeling his hands slipping below her waistband. She moved in closer, wrapping her thin frame onto his body. She started sweating from the contact, feeling sure she’d have a warm place to sleep tonight. Peeking over his shoulder, she saw a man watching them. It took a second but she placed him. The counter clerk at the Pequod who shooed her for panhandling. He caught her eye and smiled, pushed toward her in the crowd.

Then a tall, bearded man cut in, easing the chubby guy out. He squeezed her roughly to him, making it hard for her to breathe. Pressed against his chest, she couldn’t read his face, but didn’t like the feel of him, rough and hard edged. She was suffocating, his big hand on her ass, ramming her pelvis against his groin. She could feel the lump of his cock and tried to pull away, but he held her around the waist and jammed her head harder against his shoulder, almost lifting her from the floor. Lizette struggled, but the man had her arms pinned in a wrestler’s hug. She started screaming and a big commotion broke out by the tavern’s front door. Her voice got mixed into the anxious sounds and drowned out by the jukebox.

She heard snatches of angry yelling, Shot! Fucker’s are shot! The crowd rushed the door. The man turned her loose and moved with the crowd. She slipped to the side wall and threaded her way to the window, angling a spot that looked onto the street. A man was lying on the ground, his legs twisted, blood from his gut running thin across the rain wet sidewalk. Another man staggered to the window, leaning against the glass where she stood and laid his hand on the pane, blood leaking through his fingers, smearing the window. Lizette turned and pushed back to her table, got her bag and headed for the rear door, pausing for an instant to catch her breath. The knob turned. The door swung out. She looked over her shoulder and up and down the alley to make sure it was clear. She stepped outside, deciding on the long way to the next street to avoid the crowd on the corner. She heard sirens in the distance. The buildings felt close and slimy, boarded up windows and doors looking blindly into the darkness. She moved toward the streetlight at the end, rain sprinkling in the glow.

He shoved her into a doorway from behind, black overcoat, humped like a whale, breathing the smell of hot fish guts onto the back of her neck. He ripped her loose jeans down. She screamed Help! He pulled her sideways and hit her open-handed, full force on the side of her face. Stunned, she shook it off and put her arms up. A bone crack, then a jab to her side took her breath away. Flattened against a metal door, hips pulled out, an unholy fire exploded inside her. Sirens coming closer. Then cold and greasy moss on the pavement against her cheek. She puked scrambled eggs and hash browns. Before she blacked out, she saw a dog lapping vomit and then felt it licking her bare thighs, its tongue warm and comforting.

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Talking Japanese With Cats

black cat copyPlastic grocery bags, coupons offering two-for-one, old shoes dumped in the alley behind the house, broke-down stoves with oven doors hanging loose like panting dogs. All free stuff. Well, the stove was free, but hefting it onto the rotting back porch of the apartment my sister Ronnie was renting at the time, the one with the Murphy bed that wouldn’t stay politely closeted, cost me a bottle of pain reliever due to back issues.

She’d decided to snag the stove after studying its abandoned hulk out her kitchen window, which charmingly looks out on garbage bins and incorrigible weeds, for a week and chatting with a guy she’d been eyeing at the coffee shop. He suggested by way of flirting (her words) that it might be fixable, offered to take a look, which involved three hours of hair styling and make up for Ronnie before he showed up in basketball shorts and a crummy “Huskers” T-shirt.

I was there when he arrived for moral support or to call 911 in case the guy went rogue, but I spent most of his quick visit staring at his poorly fitting false teeth. My sister’s about as hot as crust on an oven rack so I went along with it in hopes something yeasty would arise with Mr. Fix-it, and truthfully, he had a full head of lustrous, better than George Clooney, salt and pepper hair.

But me—I’m not too enthusiastic about junk. I figure, if it’s free, there’s a reason. My sister looks at life as one grand dumpster dive and can’t help herself, which is how I got Tiger, my orange and white cat, and she got three dates with a University of Nebraska college football fan.

The “garden” apartment where I was living at the time didn’t permit animals and Ronnie called after work to let me know she was stopping by the “studio,” as she called my cozy three-room apartment in an upscale complex. I’ve never been a cat lover, don’t enjoy the hair on the furniture and resent their insolent lounging about.

“Why the heck did you bring the thing here? I can’t keep him.” I huffed and opened the box. The thing jumped out and ran under the couch.

“See?” She looked at me like I’m both blind and dumb. “He likes it here already. Made himself right at home.”

I felt impatient, tired after a long day. This was not my sister’s first free fiasco. We’ve been dysfunctional co-dependents since before it was cool. I’ve been through the foisting of second-hand desires before and I was sure he had mange. It would only be a matter of time until its fur was gone and his teeth fell out. I’m allergic to flea bites, for god’s sake.

“Where’d you get the damn thing?” I got down on my knees, rear in the air, peering under the couch, expecting claws and teeth, some kind of Wild Kingdom reenactment.

“You’ve got lint on your butt, she said to my backside. “He was free and you know how much I love free.”

“That’s not what I asked.” I stood up stiff, tottered.

“His name is really Tora. Means Tiger in Japanese.”

“Japanese? What? He escaped from a trade delegation?”

“No. I was having lunch with friends. Ardith was paying. You know how much  . . .

“I know you love free!” I stepped mincingly around the box, glared, kicked at it.

“That’s not what I was going to say.” She sounded hurt and made pouty lips. “I was going to say I love inari and this place downtown has the best, plus shrimp tempura, teriyaki chicken, steamed broccoli, white rice. Great lunch in a bento box. You ever have a bento lunch?”

“Give me a break. Are you telling me that what’s under my couch is an escaped entrée?”

“It’s not like that. Listen. My friend Ardith goes to pay and I’m getting ready to go out to my car. I found a place to park almost in front of the restaurant and there was still time left on the meter. My lucky day! Free. But, .. . .” She paused for effect, fluttered her false lashes. “I could see through the restaurant window the meter had expired and I didn’t want to get a ticket. That’s when I saw the sign ‘free cat’ with a cute picture. So, I asked the woman really fast about the cat and got Ardith to go out and put a quarter in the meter.

“You got your friend to buy you lunch . . . and pay for parking?”

“Not just lunch. There’s enough left over for dinner. I got two meals out of it, actually,. They put the leftovers in take-out containers. Do you want some? Free dinner.”

“Veronica,” I said, trying to be reasonable. “Why would anyone give away a perfectly good cat? What’s wrong with him? I mean besides the fact he’s under my couch.”

“The woman at the cash register didn’t speak much English. The owner’s mother, I think. She was really old and wore those white socks with the toe split.” She glances down at her wedgie sandles and wiggles her toes to show off her purple polish and tiny daisy decals. “We used hand gestures. She said they already have a cat. But this one, Tora, means tiger in Japanese.

“You told me that,” I’m stood, hands on hips, looking with one eye at the gap under my couch and thought about the day that will live in infamy.

“He fights,” my sister said, all bright and cheerful like the cat also cames with a free samurai sword. “They tried for two years to get him to like their other cat, but the vet bills got to be too much. Since Tiger was the newest one, and they liked the older one better, they decided to get rid of him.”

“And you think I need a vicious tom cat?”

“It’s not like that. He just doesn’t like other cats in his territory, that’s all. You don’t have a cat so he won’t have anyone to fight with. Besides, you’re lonely. You need a pet. I worry about you. I really do. Bye the way, do you have an extra roll of toilet paper? I don’t get paid until next week and it would get me through.”

I stomped into the bathroom and fished out a fresh roll from under the sink, twirled it on my index finger before tossing it to her.

“What about my furniture? Does he shred things, too, I mean just to stay in shape for wrestling season?”

“Stop! The woman didn’t say anything about that. She said he’s a good cat. It’s just that he likes to fight. That’s all I know. I’m sure he’ll be fine. But, I gotta go. He was free and I just couldn’t pass it up.”

We’ve been together now, Tiger and me, for more than ten years. He has gotten a lot fatter and refuses to use a cat box. I bought a little house, which Ronnie calls the “asylum.” But, Tiger knows my ways and waits on the front walk for me every evening and greets me when I come home from work. OK, the truth is he meows until I top off his kibble bowl and set down fresh water and then ignores me.

Ronnie and I don’t talk about his assaults on other cats in the neighborhood or the birds he kills and leaves in front of the patio door, or the time he scratched the mailman. The Postal Service sent a note about mauling, but I didn’t respond. He sleeps on my bed and purrs beside me when we go to sleep. I’ve gotten a bigger bed, but don’t invite overnight guests, or encourage visits by people with small children.

Ronnie is pleased with our relationship, takes full responsibility for what she calls my “bliss.” I remind her he’s just a cat when she comes over to borrow things, which is to say often, and she never fails to mention he is . . . well, quite a bargain.

Cat SF Asian Art Collection