Texas is hot at this time of year, and it's difficult to appreciate quite what that means until you've lived in it. As with anything, just visiting is something different. Back in England, I'd fallen into the habit of spending most of October dreading the approach of winter, followed by several months of freezing wet misery and darkness, and most of that time spent working outdoors in close proximity to the freezing wet misery and darkness. Do I really want to move to a country which won't oblige me to spend six months of each year thinking about topping myself whilst shivering and waiting for my socks to dry? was never a question I had to think about at any great length.
I moved, assuming that it would be the end of weather-induced melancholia for me; but instead the calendar simply swapped around, so now it's July and August which are the toughest months. The heat soars to such extremes that I'm obliged to get all outdoor activity done before midday - shopping, gardening, cycling or whatever - then take shelter inside with the AC turned up full in every room. It isn't quite a symmetrical inversion of how much I once dreaded winter, because it doesn't last so long and I'd rather be too hot than too cold, but it can still be an endurance test, a period of time during which you just have to keep on going until it's done and you can breath again; and it is unfortunately during such times that I tend to notice other reasons to be less than cheerful, and as the days get hotter and the soil turns to dust, it becomes more and more difficult to keep going forward.
I am not an inherently happy individual. I experience happiness but it isn't my natural state of being, because that which makes me happy is by definition fleeting and impermanent, and the world is full of depressing shit, and depressing shit tends to be eternal and enduring.
Rather than happiness, I aspire to contentment, which is simply purpose combined with the absence of depressing shit - either because I don't know about the depressing shit, or because I'm ignoring it for the sake of maintaining my sanity. This usually just means I'm ignoring facebook. Most of the time I maintain a general sense of contentment because on the whole I'm exceptionally lucky in terms of my lot; and certain things season my contentment with happiness: my wife and our home, decent food, the wilderness around San Antonio, books and music and cats...
I'm not even sure how many we have these days.
There are seven cats inside, and an indeterminate number of strays which I also feed in the mornings - five at present. They sit in the yard casting a meaningful gaze at the back door when I get up in the morning, each one waiting to be fed. A couple of them have become so tame that it's difficult to keep myself from thinking of them as our cats, as part of our extended family; although the rest are undeniably feral. They seem pleased to see me, but they keep their distance.
It is August. The heat is punishing, shifting up into three figures on some days. The creek has dried, no water anywhere, and facebook idiocy has left me wishing to sever almost all ties with the rest of the human race - which happens with some frequency - and on top of it all, Mr. Kirby has gone missing.
Mr. Kirby is one of the feral cats, almost family, but not quite.
We have a female cat called Kirby who went missing on the same day that Paul Ebbs - celebrated author of children's drama serials - cracked facebook jokes about teaching cats to swim by placing them in sacks with housebricks before throwing them into a body of water. It transpired that people liking all the stuff he doesn't like on social media - specifically people posting pictures of cats - was quite literally destroying his life, so you can see why he would be angry.
I defriended Paul Ebbs and went out to look for Kirby. She was missing for nearly three weeks, and each time my wife and I went looking we thought we'd found her, but it always turned out to be a male cat with similar markings, one of the local strays. We knew he was a male cat due to his massive furry bollocks, and so we provisionally named him Mr. Kirby for the sake of something to call him. The original Kirby eventually came back.
Mr. Kirby took to lounging around in our back yard, hoovering up the food that our own cats couldn't be bothered to finish. Eventually I started buying food for the outside cats too, because if we're to live in a neighbourhood full of strays, as we do, they may as well be well-fed, relatively healthy strays. Of course, as the sage Paul Ebbs has taught us, not everyone likes cats; but thankfully most of our neighbours do, and Stephen from across the road told me how the street used to have a real problem with rats and mice, which the presence of cats seems to have sorted out. Additionally, the local feline population appears to have stabilised, with all the females having been trapped, neutered, and released by city authorities.
I feel I've got to know Mr. Kirby reasonably well. He flinches a little whenever I stroke him, but he seems otherwise glad to see me. He's an odd-looking cat with a distinctive hooting meow, and sometimes I ask him whether he's a cat or a goose - because I talk to the cats, which is probably inevitable. He's long and skinny, grey with black stripes which turn to spots when he rolls over, suggesting that - like Kirby - he has some Bengal somewhere in his ancestry. He also has certain Siamese characteristics, the slim muscular build and that meow. He's built like a lollipop - a long, thin body with a massive head - and the slant of his eyes makes it seem as though he views us with suspicion or even disdain. Sometimes when I see Mr. Kirby, the words come to me: I don't want that boy in the house again, he looks like a sheep-killing dog, which is supposedly what some person's conservative father said of the youthful William S. Burroughs.
It's been three days since I've seen Mr. Kirby. Ordinarily he's outside the back door waiting to be fed with the rest of them every morning. Cats disappear from time to time, then show up again a week later because that's what cats do, and this is particularly true of strays. Well-meaning people take them in, or they get trapped in someone's garage, or maybe they just go wandering. Sometimes it'll be a road accident, but thankfully that doesn't seem to happen so often as you might expect. Even so, Mr. Kirby seems like an old cat, so I can't help but be concerned.
He comes back on the Monday, but something is wrong with him. He's noticably thin - suggesting the aforementioned garage scenario - and he's hungry, but he isn't eating. He puts his face into the bowl of food but that's all, then moves on to the next bowl of food as I dish it up as though this helping of the exact same thing will be more to his liking. He's not eating, he's not drinking, and his muzzle and front paws are all messed up. I can't tell if it's dried blood or just dirt, like he's had to tunnel his way out from somewhere; and he coughs as though trying to sick something up, and his tongue sticks out even with his mouth closed.
Truthfully, Mr. Kirby seems prone to such injuries. Every few months he'll show up with a crippling limp looking as though he's been in a fight, but he always recovers. He's like the cat equivalent of a retired superhero, old and a bit fucked but he could still kick your ass.
This, on the other hand, is something different. He isn't drinking. He isn't cleaning himself. He sits out in the porch as the August heat climbs and climbs. I wonder if he was hit by a car and broke his jaw, or whether he has some sort of bronchial infection, or - as my wife suggests - a cold. She has known cats to catch their equivalent of a cold and to not eat or drink for days as a result. It could be that he was stung in the mouth, given that we have some genuinely terrifying wasps in Texas. My fear is that he's having problems with his teeth, and something has gone bad and has become infected.
It could be any of these or none of them, and each diagnosis seems to bring some other symptom to disprove it. For a couple of days he doesn't eat or drink so far as we can tell, although clearly he wants to, and so my wife makes plans to get him to the vet. It's not an easy choice because the vet is always expensive, and we can't save every single stray in the neighbourhood, and more than anything we're afraid that the vet will take one look at Mr. Kirby and decide that there isn't much point to keeping this sheep-killing dog of a stray cat alive.
My wife has the cat box, so I find Mr. Kirby and pick him up. I'm not convinced he's had food or water for three days, and his face seems to be swelling up on one side, yet somehow he's still stronger than most humans. I've never picked him up before, so I never realised that he was solid muscle. He doesn't want to go in the cat box, and I can't hold him. It's like I'm in a fight with some bloke in a pub car park. He runs, out the porch door and to the fence. We go after him, but he's through into Frasier's garden leaving me just one last reproachful backwards glance.
Why you do this?
The next day is so hot that water catches fire as it comes from the hose. The air is still and it burns my skin and I feel terrible. Mr. Kirby didn't show when I fed the other cats at the usual time, so it's probably the last we've seen of him. Whatever was wrong didn't seem like something which is just going to right itself, so he's probably crawled off to find somewhere to die. I look around but I can't find him, and I can't see him from over the fence. I don't bother going out today because it's far too hot. At one point I lay on the bed and experience a vision, one of those quirks of memory or thought or something where an image flashes momentarily into the mind's eye, clear as day for a fraction of a second.
I see the front room at the basement flat in Lordship Lane, the place I lived for a decade up until about 2007. It's the front room as I knew it in the early afternoon following a customarily exhausting morning at work. I'm be prone on the sofa, aching and barely able to move with the gas fire on, but the room is still so cold that I can see my breath. The winter sun is blinding through the net curtains, although it has barely risen above the roofs of the houses across the street. My entire existence is saturated with the knowledge that life is exhausting, and that I'm barely getting by, and it will only become more exhausting and more difficult as I go on. This is a horrible thing to remember right now.
In the evening I knock on Frasier's door but there's no answer, so I let myself into his back garden on humanitarian grounds. I have the cat box but I'm expecting I'll probably just find a corpse. Frasier's garden is huge, wild, and strewn with junk, and my search comes with its own soundtrack of pitbulls snarling away in the next yard along. I don't find what I'm looking for. I suppose that's a good thing in so much as that we don't know he's dead for sure.
The next day, Mr. Kirby is back.
He still looks a bit fucked, but he's alive and meowing, even though the meow is more of a croak. I dish out the food but it's business as usual. He sniffs but doesn't eat, but we're just glad he's alive, and tonight we'll get him to the vet if it kills us. Then a few minutes later my wife calls me back to the porch to tell me that he's cleaning himself. I move a provisional bowl of food under his nose and slowly he begins to eat. It isn't much, but it's something. He spends the afternoon lounging in the hot sun, and we decide to postpone the visit to the vet, weighing how difficult he is to catch against the possibility that he definitely seems a little better.
The next day, he looks clean, he's hooting away, and he eats three bowls of food seemingly without pausing for breath. I return to my original theory of Mr. Kirby being more or less indestructible. Whatever was wrong with him - bad as it was - he got over it, just like William S. Burroughs - all those years as a heroin addict and the fucker still lives into his eighties. It occurs to me that maybe Mr. Kirby is William S. Burroughs reincarnated as a cat, which would also explain the look he sometimes gives us. I don't believe in reincarnation, but I expect William S. Burroughs did, which may be the deciding factor.
A couple of days later a storm system over Louisiana sends rain our way, and it pours for days. The creeks fill and the temperature falls to a more manageable level.
Life goes on.
The moment has passed.