That day her kindness stemmed, perhaps, from the fact that the cat had just died. She didn't like the cat. It had always been her rule that we would have no pets in the house but, when the cat approached us as a kitten, mewling and lost, she relented on this rule and eventually he took up residence in our home. When he grew up we had him neutered and declawed to save the furniture. This proved fatal a year or two later when he took to running out the back door whenever it was opened. A time or two he was gone overnight, but usually he came back after a bit of calling and coaxing with food. But, finally, he stayed gone. After two days of calling into the dusky backyard every evening, shaking a bag of cat treats with tears forming in my eyes, my father took me into the thin woods that surrounded our home and we found the cat. He was torn up, dead for at least a day. I don't know if it was a dog or another, bigger cat but, being declawed the poor thing was at an obvious disadvantage. I cried then and my dad had to carry me and the dead cat back to the backyard. He found a shoebox full of old screws and drillbits in his workshed and dumped them out. While he prepared the coffin I sobbed feebly over the cat lying on the gravel by his lawnmower. I wanted to pet him but, the thought was revolting at the same time. Then, I thought, I would take the pink flea collar from around his neck to remember him by. I began to fiddle with the clasp when my dad came out and grabbed my seven year old hand.
"There's blood on that, leave it alone."
I looked around to the underbelly of the animal and saw that brown, caked blood had dried onto the collar, matting it into the fur of his throat. I swallowed and sobbed quietly. My dad buried the shoebox in the corner of our backyard in front of the chainlink fencepost.
The next day I went grocery shopping with my mother and I was noticeably glum. I had, I recall, the previous night commented that my mother didn't even like the cat when she tried to comfort me. I knew she didn't feel as bad as I did that the animal was dead, so I at least wanted her to feel bad about something. It seemed to have worked because, as we turned into the cereal aisle she said, "Grab whatever you want for breakfast."
This may or may not be surprising but, if you have a practical, frugal mother like I do you may understand. Cereal was a staple morning meal in our house and it was only bought in the cheap, offbrand bags that reminded me of dogfood bags. Very rarely would she purchase a box of anything better than unsweetened cornflakes and never had I seen her buy anything namebrand. I know now that the stuff in the bags is the same, more or less but, when you're a kid you taste the difference. I had whined for this and that while grocery shopping: a brand of cookies a friend had at a birthday party or a new brand of candy. My pleading was always shot down. Cereal on the other hand was something I never quarreled about anymore. When I was five or six, much to my shame, I had pitched the kind of fit that you often hear in department stores and think "If that was my kid..." My reasoning was that I wanted a super sugary cereal with some cartoon character on it that promised a prize in the box. This was in the early 90s before physical toys were phased out because of choking concerns. I was spanked accordingly when we returned home and later my mother explained that it wasn't smart to buy food for a silly prize or a clever mascot. I agreed with the life lesson but, deep down, I resented that other kids I knew got what I considered simple things like that and I didn't.
But, standing there in the aisle the day after the cat died, I was almost taken aback by her request. I looked at the bags of cereal for a moment and then thought "She did say WHATEVER I want." So, hesitantly, I edged over to the boxes and, after much nervous fiddling of my small hands, I selected a brightly colored box that promised a prize and brought it slowly over to the cart. I placed it in carefully while my mother was inspecting her grocery list. She gazed up at the box, pursed her lips, but, to my astonishment, said nothing and kept moving down the aisle.
On the car ride home I began to dig through the bags in the back seat next to me until I found the box, eager to open it and claim my prize. My mother swatted at me from the driver seat.
"You can get whatever is in there when you eat breakfast."
I began to protest but, decided to quit while I was ahead. I would just have to play the waiting game.
The next day was Saturday and I woke up early, like you do when you're a kid and sleep isn't something you have to actually fight for. My parents slept in. I had the house to myself for a few hours, so I turned on the living room television, kept the volume low, and found a cartoon to watch. While the TV murmured I went to the kitchen and plucked the cereal box from a shelf. After some quiet negotiating with the cabinets and the refrigerator I was filling my bowl with dyed, sugar coated corn byproducts and drowning them with milk. I shoved a spoon triumphantly in and, before adjourning, I reached my hand into the cereal box and felt around. Nothing was immediately evident and I shook the box a bit to shift the cereal around. After maneuvering most of my short arm into the box and dredging the sugary crumbs at the bottom I felt the sharp plastic corner of a cellophane package. I grasped it and reeled it up from the deep. The package was opaque white and I remember studying it to find out what it was but all I could see was a string of printed, off-center numbers. I shrugged and carefully put the kitchen back together before taking my breakfast and my prize back to the living room.
I placed my cereal bowl on the coffee table, sloshing a bit of milk down the side. I shrugged. I would have time to clean that up. The business at hand was more important. I jumped back onto the couch and tore greedily at the cellophane package. It had no premade cut to tear open and I fought with it for a moment as oil from the cereal made it slippery. Finally, I got a corner off and let the object inside spill into my free hand.
At first I was upset, thinking I had received a toy intended for a girl. It was pink and looked, at first contextual glance, to be a toy watch. But, as I looked closer I saw there was no face, no plastic jewels to indicate some sort of princess customary, nothing printed on the band. Then I saw the brown crust, like rusted metal on one side. It rested in my hand a moment longer as realization set in. Then, reflexively, I dropped the thing onto the carpet and yelped. I sat still for a minute or two, watching my parent's bedroom door, waiting for the knob to turn and one of them to come investigate my yell. Finally, when I was sure I still heard the faint sound of their snoring, I relaxed and looked back down at the thing on the carpet. It lay there, partially under the coffee table, in the morning light that drifted through the window behind the couch. It was the collar and it was very real. I looked at my hands and saw that the one that had held it had a few flecks of dried blood on the palm. I was nauseous for a moment but, when it passed I got up and went to the kitchen. I turned on a stream of water and scrubbed my hands with dish soap until it was pink. Thinking about it now I don't know why I wasn't more alarmed than I was. In retrospect the situation makes me a bit shaky, makes my heart race. As a child I think I was more overcome with some sense that I was going to be in trouble somehow. As though somehow it was my fault that that thing was there because I had chosen the cereal in my childish greed for a cheap toy.
I took a bundle of paper towels from above the sink and crept back into the living room. I studied the collar for a moment longer and then used the bunched up towels to pick it up. The feeling of it through the paper made my skin crawl. I hurried back to the kitchen and threw the wad into the big garbage can we kept there. I thought for a moment longer, then retrieved my soggy, uneaten cereal and poured the whole bowl on top of the garbage. I piled another wad of towels into the garbage can to hide the cereal and washed my bowl carefully.
I never mentioned this to my parents. A few days later I finally had the heart to go to the backyard and check the grave my father had covered. It was sound, the ground having settled after a light rain. I put it out of my mind. What else could I do?
For a long time after that I requested toast for breakfast.