Fiction: ‘Ugly to Start With’

 A Story by John Michael Cummings

We called her Skinny Minnie because she was terribly skinny when we first found her hung up in the chicken-wire fence across the street. At first, even Dad was nice to her, letting her stay inside, near the wood stove. Everybody wanted her on their bed, too, because her coat was soft and clean. She had obviously been an indoor cat, Mom said, wondering where she came from. Her small neck had no collar, but we checked at the houses on our street anyway. Nobody missed her.
When warm weather came that year, Skinny Minnie wanted to go outside. She sneaked out and stayed out for hours, sometimes overnight, and all the next day, too. I started finding her in the backyard, curled up in a sunny spot in the bamboo, sleeping. Soon she came and went as she pleased, and we learned not to expect her. Apparently, she had been an indoor/outdoor cat, as Mom called her.

One time, when Mom and I went for a walk down to the train station to see the river, we saw a silver tabby slinking around the old spur.
“Is that Skinny Minnie?” Mom asked. “Here, kitty-kitty.”
It was Skinny Minnie all right, but she darted off. It amazed Mom that she had wandered so far from the house, and then didn’t recognize any of us—ran from us like strangers.
When I got sick with shingles and was home in bed for a month, Skinny Minnie came to my bedroom window every afternoon. Somehow she was able to leap from the weedy lot next door to the sill of my stained-glass window, where she stood on the narrow ledge and meowed until I let her in. It was lonely in the afternoons, being sick and lying in bed for hours, my brothers in school, the sounds of the town far below, my mother far below, too, on the first floor, two flights down, where she couldn’t always hear me when I cried out. Skinny Minnie was a welcome companion. She kneaded my stomach, but was too light to hurt the shingles on my side. I petted her until I fell asleep.

When I began to feel better, Mom brought me sketch paper and pencils. I sat up and started sketching. Every afternoon, Skinny Minnie lay like a donut on my bed, breathing in and out softly. She was still staying out all night and came in during the day just to sleep on my bed. When she did, I drew her as she slept. Every now and then, I reached over and petted her and admired how her coat felt. I looked at the silver stripes and blotches and tried to show them on paper by using the side of my pencil. I found that I could, without much trouble. Mom put one of the drawings in a frame.
With late spring came high weeds in the lot next door. Then the big bully cats arrived. You could see them swaggering through the new nettles, looking for trouble. My brother threw broken-up bricks at them every summer, but they came back every spring. They came from the Groves’ house down near the church. Mrs. Grove had hair as red and frizzy as copper wire. She had no kids, and her cats and dogs were always dirty and on the loose. Her nephew Dink wandered through our backyard once and spit peanut butter on our swing set. My family might have been lowly West Virginians in the eyes of out-of-staters, but the Groves were really low-class. In the winter, when there were no weeds in the lot, you could see across into their back yard. There was a big pile of coal near their back porch, which was black from the coal being tracked in and out of the house.
Soon Skinny Minnie was getting into fights in the weedy lot. We could hear wild cat screams at night, and when she showed up at the door in the morning, her coat was dug open in places, and bloody sores glistened.
“Oh, poor thing,” Mom said, stooping down to touch her.
She was in too much pain to be picked up and was in no mood to be touched, either. Mom tried to keep her on the back porch, in a box, until she healed, but she didn’t take to it. Instead, she meowed at the door, wanting in. Dad said no, not until she healed.

Even after she healed, no one wanted her on their bed anymore and wouldn’t let her sit on their lap, either, because of her scabs. I shoved her off mine because she was gross. We all did. Then, when she came in one day with more fresh wounds, Dad started chasing her out of the house for good.

“Get out,” he said whenever he saw her, and she shot out through a crack in the door.
Night after night, I heard her crying. A long, painful cry that wouldn’t stop. I covered my ears with pillows, but still I could hear it. The Groves’ fat cats were picking on her. I opened my window and shot my BB gun into the dark, trying to hit her or whatever was scaring her, to make the whole thing go away. But she kept crying, sometimes screaming out the most awful scream. I lay there praying she would die and go away and I would never remember her.

Sometimes whole days passed, and she didn’t show up, and I forgot about her for a while. Then she came back, looking worse than ever. Her soft, perfect coat was matted with sticks and dried blood. She had a limp, too, and half an ear was missing. I couldn’t bear to touch her, couldn’t stand having her near me, either. All she did was sit there and moan, her wounds oozing. I pushed her away. She was gross. At night, she tried to get in through the stained-glass window, but I wouldn’t open it. I could hear her faint meows. They seemed to go on for hours.

When summer came and I was home, I started shooting at Skinny Minnie with my BB gun whenever I saw her trying to come near the house. I could see the small, gold BB hit the side of her body. She jumped as if she had stepped on electricity and ran back into the overgrown lot. My body shuddered. If only she would die, then I wouldn’t feel the embarrassment anymore. That’s how my family was. Whatever it was, if it was ugly to start with, or turned ugly, we were ashamed of it and wanted it to go away.

Still, Skinny Minnie kept coming back, though more and more cautiously each time. A couple of times she looked up at me in the window from the edge of the weeds, as if asking why.

“Oh, poor thing, just look at her,” Mom said whenever she found her at the door and Skinny Minnie held still for her. There were more raw sores everywhere. “Oh dear—Bill, what’d we do?”
Dad said nothing could be done.

I could feel my mother crying on the inside. She hated the way my father ran the house. Skinny Minnie was something else my father did wrong.
One day I realized that Skinny Minnie had not come back in a long time. I asked Mom where she went.
“Oh, I think the poor thing went away to die.”
I just stared at her.
“They do that when they’re sick,” she said.

I did not wonder so much about death as where the place to die was. I checked the spot in the bamboo. I could still see the little impression her body left. I looked out my window into the weedy lot and called out. I went down to the train station and looked around the old spur.

It was just as well. I didn’t want her around, unless her fur was perfect.

*John Michael Cummings is a short story writer and novelist from Harpers Ferry, West Virginia. He is the award-winning author of The Night I Freed John Brown.

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