Sunday, August 21, 2011

From the Cutting-Room Floor: Tabby Hoffman, the Taxidermied Cat


Here's another section from my novel about the Iraq War which didn't survive the latest round of revisions.  I liked this scene from Fobbit primarily because a less-embellished version of it actually took place during my year in Baghdad.  Like Specialist Cinnamon Carnicle, one of my co-workers frequently received unusual care packages from her "parental units" and, yes, one of them included a taxidermied pet.  Most of the other details have been liberally pretzeled into the shape of fiction.

*     *     *     *

After the marketplace suicide bomber, but before the evening update to the commanding general, the usual tedium settled back over the cubicles in task force headquarters.  So that's why it was a relief to see Specialist Kotch arrive with that day's mail call.

Not much for me—a letter from my parents and this month’s issue of Poets & Writers—but there was large box for Carnicle.  The return address was from Seattle—her parents—so we knew it promised to be a good one.  It was bound mummy-style with so much tape you could hardly see the cardboard underneath.  One side of the box was crushed and someone, the mother or a sister perhaps, had taken a green marker and drawn what appeared to be a lawn running around four sides of the box.  There were trees, flowers and a sun, too (all in green marker).

Kotch plopped the box down on Carnicle’s desk, said “Toodle-loo” then left like he was Santa Claus in combat fatigues.

Carnicle didn’t come on shift for another two hours, so Major Filipovich and I sat around staring at the box with its lawn-scape and played guessing games about the contents.  This was not the first care package Carnicle’s parents had sent and Major F. and I were already starting to drool because what she called her “parental units” always packed the box with candy.

“I’m thinking Pop Rocks,” Major Filipovich said, wiping his sleeve across his mouth.

“More like Laffy Taffy,” I said.

“If so, it’s probably all melted to shit by now.”

“Yeah, you’re right.  Damn.”

We stared at the box.

“What else you think?” he said.

“Books, for sure.”

"Oh, for sure.”

By this point, Carnicle had herself a pretty decent highbrow library, courtesy of her parents, back at her hooch: Jack Kerouac, Upton Sinclair, The Autobiography of Malcolm X, a volume of essays by Carlyle, Locke and Ruskin, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.  You can see what kind of people had raised her.

“There’s gotta be something else in there, though,” Major F. said.  “It’s too big for just candy and books.”

“Remember the little humpy-dog?  Maybe it’s something like that.”

“Oh man, one can only wish.”

A month ago, Carnicle’s parents had sent her one of those mechanical toys you buy as gag gifts—a battery-operated Chihuahua that started barking and pumping its pelvis whenever you clipped it to someone’s leg.  We all had great fun with that until the day the Chief of Staff happened to be walking by the Public Affairs cubicle.  He didn’t share our sense of humor.

Major Filipovich gave the new care package one more jiggle, then stood to leave, saying he had a mission over at Corps PAO to “liase” with our Public Affairs counterparts from the Marines and Air Force—a trip outside the wire which sounded like total bullcrap to me.  “Liaison” was probably officer code for “drinking beers in the Green Zone.”

This left me alone with Carnicle’s box.  For another hour, I pondered and guessed and made bets with myself concerning the contents.  Like I said, after the marketplace massacre, it was a slow day.  I checked the SMOG computer every ten minutes, as per Standard Operating Procedure, but there was nothing to raise anyone’s pulse: a few weapons caches discovered, a stray sniper’s bullet which did nothing but ricochet and send a concrete chip pinging off some sergeant’s helmet, a ribbon-cutting at a sewage treatment plant built by American engineers (the ceremony went off “without hostile incident”).  All pretty ho-hum stuff.

So, when Carnicle finally came on shift, M-16 clattering off her hip and dust puffing from her boots, I practically pounced on her, that’s how anxious I was to get inside the box.

“Whoa, cool your jets, Sar’nt.  Let me at least get my battle rattle stowed.”  She grumbled, but I could see she was just as excited to see what the parental units had sent from Seattle.

She pulled out her Leatherman and sliced through the four pounds of tape which held the cardboard together.  She pried back the flaps, looked inside, gasped, then smiled.  “You.  Have.  Gotta be.  Shitting me.”

“What?  What is it?”

“It’s Tabby Hoffman.”  She reached inside and pulled out an orange-and-cream cat taxidermied into a nose-to-tail sleeping curl.  “This is awesome.”

“A cat?  That’s what your parents mailed you?”

“Not just any cat.  This is Tabby Hoffman, a loyal and devoted member of the Carnicle family for eight years.  Until she ran out into the street in front of a UPS truck.”

“So, that’s the real thing, not just a gag gift you buy down at the mall?”

“Here, see for yourself.”  She tossed the thing across the room to me like it was a Frisbee and I clapped it between my hands.  It was indeed an actual cat, stiffened into a strangely content-looking death pose—cat-napping for eternity.  I turned it around to look at the face tucked against the tail.  One eye was closed, one eye was open.  “Is this how your cat liked to sleep?”

“No, that was something my parents thought would quote lend spiritual significance to an otherwise ordinary tchotchke unquote.  They were, like, reading The I Ching at the time, I think, and it had something to do with the Inner Eye or some shit like that.”

“Wow, your parents are….”

“Odd?  Yeah, you can go ahead and say it, Sar’nt.  I mean, shit, they named me and my sisters after spices.  Why wouldn’t they freeze-dry our beloved Tabby Hoffman for all eternity?”

I carefully gave the family pet back to Carnicle.  “How long has it been dead?”

“Gee, I don’t know.  Ten years, maybe?  At first, they kept him in the freezer.  Couldn’t bring themselves to bury him—‘commit Tabby to the soil,’ they said.  I was only 10 or 11 at the time, but I can remember them taking the bag out of the freezer at parties and passing him around so people could pet him.  They always put him back before he defrosted.  Except for this one time when they got a little too toasted on martinis and when they woke up the next day, there he was, all limp and soggy.  That’s when they did the whole taxidermy thing.”  She kissed Tabby on the nose.  “And he’s been hanging around ever since.  Haven’t you?  Yes, you have, you sweet mangy old thing.”

I just stared at Carnicle, more amazed by her sudden baby voice than I was by the family pet her parents had sent across the ocean.  Carnicle saw me looking, straightened, and coughed roughly.  “So, uh, anyway, that’s Tabby Hoffman.”

“Anything else in the box?”

She pulled out the usual stuff—hand lotion, fruit jerky, candy bars, and, yes, a book (predictably, The I Ching—I guess it was now some sort of owner’s manual for the cat).  “You want a Snickers, Sar’nt?”

“Sure, thanks.”  I caught the candy bar, unwrapped it, and took a large bite.  It tasted like formaldehyde.  I made a face and spit the glob into the nearest garbage can.

“So, what do you think I should do with Tabby?” Carnicle said.

I hawked and spit into the can.  “Whatever you want, Carnicle.”

“You know what I think?  I think we should put him on Colonel Harkleroad’s chair and when he comes in to work tomorrow he will absolutely shit his drawers.”

“Oh, yeah, har-har.”

“No, really.  I think that’s what we should do.  It’ll be loads of fun to see the look on his face.”

“It’s your career, Carnicle.  Do what you want.”  Right then, I just wanted to leave so I could get over to the chow hall and get the taste of taxidermied cat out of my mouth.  Which I did after briefing Carnicle for shift-change.  When I left, she was petting the cat and smiling into its one-eye-open face.

The next day, Lieutenant Colonel Harkleroad did indeed shit a brick when he pulled out his desk chair and found a cat curled up like a puddle of melted orange ice cream.  He started to bluster and sputter, so I right away grabbed Tabby Hoffman and gave him back to Carnicle who’d been standing by in her battle rattle for half an hour, waiting for Lieutenant Colonel Harkleroad to show up for the morning shift.  “I don’t think he thought it was as funny as you did.”

“The Old Man has no sense of humor.”

I leaned in close.  “Don’t let anyone else know I told you this, but I heard there was a terrible accident years ago and he had to have his humor gland surgically removed.”

Carnicle laughed.  “Nice one, Sar’nt.”  She slung her M-16 over her shoulder, tucked the cat under her other arm, and headed out to get her allotted seven hours of daytime sleep.  Though it went contrary to everything I’d always imagined about Carnicle, I could picture her sleeping in her hooch with one hand resting on the family pet which watched over her with one eye, guarding against enemy mortars crashing through the roof.



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