Monday, June 02, 2014


There are leaves now and dandelions bloom in fringes along all the roadways in town.  The major bulbs have bloomed and withered.  The prairie breathes -- it’s not quite wind, just an inhalation and then an exhalation, enough to make the leaves become rustling tongues.  The sky turns purple and rumbles, spatters rain, then clears.  On three-day weekends the town is silent.  It’s always quiet, but Memorial Day is only the radio murmuring by my elbow, streaming up from Bozeman where people are young and noisy.  Dawn begins at 4AM.  It will soon be calendrical Midsummer, though the weather is barely spring.

This time of year this ramshackle house is a joy.  The front door stands open so I can watch the slim little birds rummage in the cottonwood branches.  Summer snow from the tree drifts past, sometimes catching on the screen for a few minutes.  Since I wrestled all the file cabinets out to the garage, I’m supposed to be sorting the files, so I take a pile of them on my lap while I sit in my reading chair, but soon I’m not sorting -- I’m reading.  And then remembering.  Sometimes without joy and comfort.  Sometimes laughing.  My old report cards.  Fourth grade was the pits until Mr. Garnet realized I was nearsighted and I got glasses.  
Hartford,  Connecticut

I found the notes from my Hartford internship (1980-81) that were about counseling, which the denomination paid for to resolve my problems with “authorities.”  (The minister was having a crisis of his own, which I didn’t know when I signed up.  They did but didn’t tell me.)  But then I googled those counselors from decades ago and was taken aback.  Tom Otte was one of the leaders of the group of ministers or aspiring ministers that was most helpful to me.  I couldn’t find his co-leader, Betty Allison, online.   The counseling service that employed her no longer exists. 

But Tom, a sweet-natured, easy-going man with a wife named Wilma, came to a tragic end.  Some time in the Nineties, he came out as a gay man in the midst of Presbyterian controversy.  He said “coming out” was a sacrament.  He has children and grandchildren.  Wilma died of cancer in 1997 and he stayed with her to the end.  In 2013 Tom was found naked, stabbed to death and mutilated in his condo.  Felix Pagan Jr., a 27-year-old felon whom police described as a friend and client of Otte's, was charged with one count of murder after confessing to the crime.  Pagan had a violent history but Otte was trying to help.  Maybe more than that.

700 people attended the funeral and the praise for Tom was warm and plentiful, as he had gently accompanied many people into dark places.  He was a graduate of Princeton Theological Seminary and had been a military chaplain.  Clearly, being an admired -- even well-loved -- person will not protect a person from tragedy.  He was 58.  His sibs and children participated in the traditional service.  It will take a while to assimilate this.  I’ll put it with other incidents like the Jonestown tragedy and the St. Helens volcano explosion, both of which happened during my seminary years.

Most windows are at least a little bit open now -- one screen bent as though someone were trying to pry it.  These are flimsy aluminum frames with fabric screening.  Since Squibbie likes to sleep next to this computer window and knead her claws on the screen, she may be the bender.  This time of year, she’s a night-walker, monitoring the yard from the various windows with places for a cat to sleep in front of them.  There are tomcats about.  Now that Corky has stabilized the floor some, it doesn’t squeak.  It’s harder to hear the Squib patrolling the rooms, listening for some sign that I’m awake -- moving my feet, turning over.  She used to meow a lot, but now the most she says in the night is a kind of tactful clearing her throat.  I get up and we have a little snack -- check the moon.

The geraniums are outside now, which displaced the feral cats from the old porch slab where there used to be a door.  I planted petunias in the big pots -- purple, ruffled purple and white, and dead black!   The feral cats have gone much more spooky.  I think the neighbors have been coming in my yard to try to catch them.  They wait until I’m gone and then try to change things to suit themselves, like chain-sawing the cottonwood.  If I had the money, I would fence the yard.

The worst news of the week -- maybe the month -- is that my dentist has quit.  His practice is part of a composite umbrella organization that forced him to remove all his trophy heads from his office.  Since originally he located in Cut Bank to hunt big game, there is no reason for him to stay.  The other doctors are mostly women who claim that taxidermy creeps people out.  I don’t think they are Montana people.  I’ve been a patient in this practice since 1961 and so was Bob Scriver, himself a taxidermist.  In hunting season the GF Tribune prints photos and triumphant stories about kids getting their first deer, first elk; then the editorial pages print letters from people horrified that ANY animal ANY where should EVER die!!  It’s another of those unaccountable splits in our society, both sides totally polarized and unwilling to negotiate.  But I liked this dentist and I resent getting caught in the crossfire.  

I was calling the littlest tiny feral kitten the “Sprat,” but then I looked up the word and now I can’t use it anymore.  I’ll call her “Popcorn” since she hops around like that.  Nothing holds still.  Everything changes, sometimes for the worst.  Of the first set of kittens who came with their mother a year ago, two turned out to be female and by now old enough to give birth.  The mother also produced another set of kittens.  They used the little den I made for them to over-winter in an old dog house, some old sleeping bags, and my reading lap robe from seminary.  I thought they would tame down.  But they didn’t.  Having them in my yard makes me vulnerable to a harsh fine from the town.

I could think of no other alternative than drowning the babies as soon as they were produced.  I can’t catch the adults or the remaining kitten, not even in the live trap I bought for that purpose.  They’re too wary -- as the neighbors no doubt discovered.  Now they’re warier.  I consulted a veterinarian, who was also stumped.  At animal control we dosed kibble with ketamine and collected the snoozing animals, but ketamine is now a street drug -- can’t be acquired.  Same with chloroform and ether.  The problem is not ended when the cats are caught.  My neighbor claims he knows a friendly rancher who will put the cats in his barn, but I suspect that the Good Samaritan will just dump the cats in the country.  The veterinarian charges $100 to euthanize a cat.  He notes one can’t shoot cats in the city.  Right.  Unless the sheriff will do it.  There is an election coming up -- not likely any sheriff in his right mind is going to risk being seen shooting kittens.  There are people in this town who poison cats.  I suspect the same people who hate chickens.  Then there are the ones who love all birds and want all cats confined to houses. 

Drowning tiny kittens in warm water hours after they were born was not fun.  I held them  in my hands to imitate a womb.  I wept, though I tried to tell myself they had only been breathing a little while.  People say blithely “time to get those cats spayed.”  An answer for everything.  You have to catch them.  One friend said she was traumatized for life by witnessing a man chopping the heads off kittens, a bloody thrashing business though the kittens probably died more mercifully.  He did not get the heads mounted as trophies.


northern nick said...

This is a fine piece of writing. You bring us in, move us through, leaving us better than when we entered.

Mary Strachan Scriver said...

The Southern Baptist minister next door tells me that he "enjoyed" my grieving comments on tragic and undeserved death. The children of his congregation prowl derelict buildings during church time and brought back feral kittens. He instructed them to return them to where they found them because "the people of Valier will feed them." Feeding on pain and fantasy is a specialty of some ministers.

Prairie Mary