What Needs To Be Done
By David Breeden
The roots of the grass popped as the newly-sharpened shovel blade cut through. Howton loved that sound, the sound of a well-kept tool doing its job. His hands slid along the wood-grain of the handle. Efficient. Real. All would be well, if no one looked over the privacy fence.
Howton Thompson didn't hate cats; he loved birds more. That's the way life is, Howton believed: Everything's good, but some things are better. So Howton caught the cats of the neighborhood in a box trap he had built himself, knocked them in the head with a ball peen hammer, and buried the bodies.
Howton did not hide his activities; he was not ashamed of them. But he didn't brag about them either. He merely went on his way, doing what had to be done. That's what good people do in life, after all: What needs to be done. Howton learned that from his daddy. It was good advice, advice that he would have passed on to his own kids, had he had any.
Killing cats was not easy for Howton; don't think it was. Howton knew from long experience, however, that life doesn't promise any rose gardens. Rose gardens have to be made. You work all your life, you get forced into early damn retirement. That ain't a rose garden. But there's plenty of fertilizer around to work with, if you've got the guts. If you’re willing to work. Killing the neighborhood cats in a neighborly way is not easy. Howton knew that better than anybody.
Cats can be wily creatures. That's why they had to be killed in the first place: They slunk around and killed the unsuspecting birds that Howton took great pains to entice into his yard—Painted Buntings, Evening Grosbeaks, Cardinals, Purple Finches, Pine Siskins, Blue Jays. He invited those beautiful, rare lotharios into the big pine tree in his back yard and bam! Those exquisite beauties got it in the throat. Now, what do you want in your yard? Beautiful, light creatures wrapped in multi-colored feathers, or killers in a sack of knotted fur? Wily bastards, those cats. (No. No. Not bastards, Howton reminded himself. They were out after a different program.) Howton slammed his boot down on the shovel, cutting a clean crescent of earth. Efficient.
A guy has to be wily right back with his trap. Howton had built a box, a fairly large box, out of pine, big enough to look inviting but not big enough for a cat to turn around in. The trigger was a dowel, one end with a nail to hold the bait-he used ham-and the other hooked to an arm that ran to the door. He nailed some old odds and ends of iron to the door, to make it heavier, so it fell fast. Slam.
Cats don't exactly want to be killed, even after they're trapped. They resist. So, even when you've got them in the trap, they still might get away. Or take a chunk out of a hand or arm. Howton had bought heavy leather gloves, with huge gauntlets, for the purpose. (He only used the left one, so his right could grip the ball-peen correctly.) He'd lift the door up just enough, reach deep toward the front, trapping off the back with his elbow, and make sure he got the cat by the throat, just behind the ears with his leather-gloved hand. Then he pulled the thing out, grasping its throat and holding its head still. It's an art, and Howton had perfected it in the 307 attempts he had made. Howton's shovel cut a tree root that was at least an inch around. Like butter. Now that's a good shovel. Howton smiled.
As he held a cat, he didn't feel any pleasure. No. Maybe cruel people do, but not Howton. He was only doing what had to be done. And he had to do it fast, without much thought. A cat when it is caught will growl first, then hiss and scream. He had to finish his job in the growl stage, so as not to irritate or upset the neighbors. Howton had to be efficient, and he'd learned his art: Reach, grasp, pull, whack. Hard. So it's all over quick, as painlessly as possible. Howton didn't even want to think about how it looked. He was not a cruel man. Howton had memorized the motions, could do them without thought, like digging. He did not think about it. He was not a cruel man. He was a man who looked at a situation, figured what had to be done, and did it. Only six times had he failed on the first whack.
Naturally, the deaths needed to count for something, so Howton carefully buried each body. He had started in the north corner and slowly worked south. Then north again. And so on. By now, he had reached about fifteen feet from the fence. He was making a rose garden. One bush over each cat. He planted the cats, their faces toward the east, thirty inches down. The rosebushes had to be planted 18 inches apart. He planned, eventually, to build a little stone path through the garden and to put up a little sign with its name: Cat Walk.
Did Howton feel guilty when the photocopied signs went up with the close-up photo, a face he almost invariably recognized, and the words, "Beloved Cat Missing. Will Pay Reward"? Sure. Of course. Naturally. Howton was not hard-hearted. He'd learned in the Army that hate is a terrible thing to feel for something you have to kill. Hate can get you in trouble. Howton did not feel hate. Or remorse. He felt efficient, like a well-maintained tool. The people who put up the signs did not understand the bigger picture, that's all.
What would happen when Howton's back yard got full? No. He wouldn't live that long. He had thirty feet to go. So, with an average of 3.8 cats per month, that could never happen. Howton's shovel cut into the gray clay. Five more inches. And no one was looking. Or even outside.
What would happen when he was no longer around to do what needed to be done? When the people with the photocopied signs took back the neighborhood? Not to worry. The roses would bloom. And someone, by another pine tree, would realize what must be done. Howton knew he could count on that, just as he could count on the neighbors never to come out. Some things you can count on. Howton pushed his shovel into the newly-heaped earth. He picked up number 307. A Purple Finch fluttered in the pine branches.
Dr. David Breeden has an MFA from the Iowa Writers Workshop and a Ph.D. from the Center for Writers at the University of Southern Mississippi, with additional study at Naropa Institute in Boulder, Colorado. He has published eight books of poetry and four novels. He published the first full-length translation of Beowulf on the internet. His short film House Whine was funded by the British Columbia Arts Council. His film Off the Wall won "Best of Fest" at the Great Lakes Film Festival. His newest book of poetry, Ice Cream and Suicide, recently appeared from UKA Press in the United Kingdom. His newest novel, A Poet's Guide to Divorce, recently appeared from Fine Tooth Press.
David's story Having A Look At Maggie also is available at VerbSap.
Photo "Cat" courtesy of Joăo Estęvăo A. de Freitas, Santa Cruz, Portugal.
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