Heart trap was a nice way of saying it. Sure, there were no jagged teeth biting into spindly legs. Nor was there a spring loaded bar that snaps tiny necks like carrot sticks.
Those devices weren’t traps really but execution tools -like the roach motel, which conjure up images of Norman Bates and puns about checking in, but not checking out.
The heart trap brought more passive verbs to mind. Contain. Cage. Confine. Yet it could be cruel nevertheless. Because it’s what you did after you cage the animal that counts. And I had no idea what I’d do.
The trap was rectangular, like the wiry skeleton of a toolbox. When set, both ends were open wide enough for a breeze to blow through.
Use something fishy I was told so a phlegmy mess of sardines was perched on a pad in the center. According to theory, the tangy stink outweighs the mangy visitor’s fears about the uninviting metal wrapper around its meal. By merely brushing against the pad, the trap triggers. Then both ends of the open trap snap shut and the hungry rube loses its appetite. Suddenly, the prey is ‘pickle in the middle,’ kids’ game come to life. The quarry’s movement and options are diminished as it realizes it made a mistake chasing the easy bite. It’s like any decision that seems to open doors of opportunity only to slam them shut.
I shoved my arm up past the elbow into the trap to set the bait. There was an exposed feeling, like when you fish a fork out of the garbage disposal. Even if the on switch is twenty feet away you feel vulnerable, like your fingers will be minced to hamburger over some stupid silverware.
The pet store jockey, with his amiable air and wrinkled clothes, told me to be patient. It would probably take two, three days to nab anything. This lack of a quick fix brought back forlorn memories of butt blistering afternoons on Minnesota lakes. My limp fishing rod occasionally twitched. When there was a yank, I’d pulled up too fast and the fish would escape, taking the lure with it. Or I’d slowly wind up my lure to see the bait gone, nibbled into nothingness and the swinging hook just taunting me. I couldn’t catch a cold.
So my expectations were low as I looked back at the trap behind the rusty shed. I trudged back indoors to the kitchen, grabbed a towel and wrestled with a spotty drinking glass. Might as well do something while I waited.
The apartment, located in Boyle Heights, was a gnarly crash pad that served it purpose. It clearly was a step backwards from the airy condo I briefly shared with my girlfriend of six months. She met that half-year milestone with buyer’s remorse, the good times not pacing paltry paychecks and my growing lack of focus. My lack of practical skills didn’t help. The smallest room malfunctions went unfixed while the assembly-required Ikea furnishings might as well have been Rubik’s Cubes to me.
So now I was regrouping in a neighborhood the landlord claimed was turning around. Soon art students with grants, not gang bangers, would artistically enhance rather than deface walls and then sidewalks would be free of gum wrappers, beer bottles, and condoms. And then I’d get priced out and find somewhere cheaper and worse.
While I didn’t smoke, the apartment reminded me of an upturned ashtray-lots of dark stains and gray dust. This was what a legal proofreader’s wages wrought. The job entailed taking already confusing legalese gibberish and making it even more illegible by inflicting a series of curlicue editing marks upon it, a foreign language only explained through night classes.
It was one of those jobs you fall into when you’re trying to remain on the periphery of publishing. I’d fooled with novel writing at one point and still liked to play with words so I got my wish.
THAWK! That was a new sound, something you read but don’t hear -like a balloon caption in a comic book.
I obviously set the trap wrong and it closed by itself, like my frustrating car alarm that I long since disengaged, sick of the grating beep it belched out every time a car drove by too close.
I headed outside to try again but noticed a rustling within the trap. To my giddy surprise, an orange cat cowered inside, a goopy-eyed feline that eyed me worriedly. I decided it was a she without bothering to find out. Goopella I dubbed her.
She in turned pegged me as a cat lover and the poor bastard was right. I did love cats somewhat by default. They were the lazy man’s pet and required little care, which befit my carelessness.
Pet fish were no picnic. As a kid I managed to close a small school once, its student body floating upside down covered with blotches. I also decimated an ant farm through over watering, turning the white sand world around the industrious insects into a gray muddy slog, the extra precipitation bringing some gout-like insect plague that fell them.
But these were clumsy accidents. Even at my klutziness I couldn’t kill a cat and I wasn’t going to start now.
Most conscientious heart trap owners would take their captives to a kooky friend who can’t say no to a cuddly species or the vet. However, I didn’t have sixty bucks to fix the beastie and didn’t even entertain the notion. Instead, I’d shove my problem under the rug and relocate my prisoner elsewhere.
Goopella gave a pitiful mewing sound that was hard to handle. I knew it would stew in the cage all night but not starve. I’d move this critter in the morning, on the way to work. The cat would have a whole sunny day to acclimate itself to its new digs- far enough away to prevent it from coming back.
I headed back inside and heard a louder but more familiar whine. My cat Penny was curled on a rocking chair and demanding attention. She had gray fur, a white stomach and long whiskers. Yet her personality trumped her appearance. Prissy, flamboyant and more diva than feline, she required constant adoration. If l didn’t feed her quick enough, or if she wasn’t petted with adequate feeling, she made it known by fraying my already thread bare couch and desk chair.
Yet it didn’t hurt to have someone keeping me in line. Penny was cute and warm but mostly I loved her because she needed me.
For all my attentiveness though, I was a lousy parent. She had no collar because she scratched away at her only one until I quickly relented. She rejected can after can of wet food with the condescension of some entertainment industry prick demanding substitutions from a waiter.
Worse yet, I let her go outdoors, which other cat owners judged as harshly as leaving the cabinet unlocked during your teens’ slumber party.
Penny did okay outside though, never venturing far. We lived in several different apartments and she made due, turning the driveways or windowsills into her own spas.
Yet this place was different. It crawled with feral cats. They marked their territory through bodily signage — a shit signature, a piss password. I could smell the acrid urine stench on the hubcaps of my car and by the mailbox. There were insolent piles of crap they didn’t bury, leaving them lying on the patch of green that passed for a front yard. At night, the hissing fights caused a frightening ruckus. Worse were the strangled, moans of the females in heat moaning to get the itch in their hindquarter scratched.
These cats came in different sizes and temperaments and all relentlessly terrorized poor Penny. Some were large and aggressive and lunged at her confrontationally. Others were passive, infested skanks crawling with fleas. The bugs could move uptown ditching their matted rugs for Penny’s comparably sleek fur.
Some of these moth-eaten creatures were former house cats dumped into the wild to feed on garbage. They had a retarded, apologetic air about them and moved with uncertainty. Others were born in the wild, and were noticeably cracked and socially maladjusted.
Penny was no match for any of them of course, her perimeter ever shrinking. I would shoo them away or shoot them with a hose but they hardly left with any urgency. They were more like a momentarily dispersed gang waiting for the squadcar to turn the corner before re-grouping.
Something more decisive had to be done. So, after three weeks of procrastinating I rented the trap for five bucks a day and the forced relocation program began.
Rather than drop Goopela on some grimy street, I opted for what seemed an upgrade – the comparably sun drenched, grassy hills of Griffith Park. The next morning, with my mandatory necktie loose as a lobster bib, I huffed up a dirt path in the middle of the park. I gingerly held the trap so it wouldn’t make Goopella too nauseous. She gripped the cage like a queasy kid on a windswept Ferris wheel. With a jaywalker’s glance, I looked both ways and started opening the cage.
“What are you doing with that?” came a rhetorical question from behind me. I turned to find a jogger glaring at me. He had all the gear, the kneepads, the Lycra stretch pants cutting off his circulation, even the sunglasses with the strap around his skull.
Before I could humor him with a non-answer he stepped up his barrage. “It’s not right to let cats run wild here; you should take it to a shelter; show some responsibility.”
“It’s not mine,” I grunted as if l was taking someone else’s girlfriend to the abortion clinic.
“Do you realize the song bird population worldwide is getting decimated because of people like you? Cats should be neutered and not abandoned as wild,” he sniffed.
“My cat IS fixed,” I mumbled. He didn’t get that in my universe I was only responsible for one cat not the whole animal kingdom.
Finally the jogger left, no doubt looking for some non-existent park ranger as I quickly opened the trap door and shook the cage. Poor Goopella slowly crawled out. Instead of reveling in freedom, she sat in the dirt like a puddle evaporating into itself. There’s a whole green world of garbage cans and paths around her and she appeared all misty about my yard.
Well, she’ll adapt I rationalized climbing into my car for my drive downtown to work.
When I got home that night, I stroked Penny’s belly and listened to her purr. For once I felt like I was taking care of business.
But maybe the first cat was retarded, half stupid. It couldn’t be so easy. There were other cats out there that seemed more formidable. One in particular came to mind –black fur, green eyes and muscles that undulated while it stalked. More panther than house cat, it wouldn’t go down easy.
Yet, the next morning, there it was–an entree gobbled up by the hungry trap. It reminded me of the black pantheresque title character from the ’40s horror classic “The Cat People,” so I dubbed it Val, after the film’s producer. Again, I gauged its gender by its personality not its privates.
While Goopela’s pacing caused the wire cage to tingle, now the trap was thrashing as Val threw himself against the collapsed metal walls. He was ornery not spooked. If Val figured I was going to toss him off a bridge, he was ready to cuss me all the way down. I held the trap at arm’s length as I opened the trunk, as Val bit and scratched at the cage. Even from within the dark car trunk his fitful roars were still audible.
Yet, a funny thing happened when I placed the trap on a grassy area in Griffith Park again.
Val became still, weighing his options. The sunlit park beat the bowels of the car trunk and he understood that. I slowly opened one side of the trap, scared that he’d take a gnash out of my hand. Val saw way beyond me. He suddenly bound out of the cage and up a path like a projectile. Val never looked back and I climbed into my front seat sure I’d taken him to a more fertile haven than Boyle Heights.
As the week went on, two other cats were released, both less memorable and somewhere between the continuums of the feckless Goopella and ferocious Val.
Yet, the fifth, final cat made a lasting impression. This insolent, brownish punk sported a rancid ear, half chewed off, that was lousy with mites. He was neither confrontational nor frightened but sullen and even sarcastic. When chased away, he’d slink back moments later.
I dubbed this mangy creature Typhoid Harry after a gym teacher who humiliated me in front of a class of 14 year olds because I couldn’t climb a rope.
One day, when I lazily left the back door open I heard a terrible yelp and a terrified Penny ran inside.
I shooed Harry away. Several days later, Penny was cowering under a chair afraid to move and I soon learned why. A puss-filled sack formed under her chin where Typhoid Harry had put a vampiric chomp into her neck.
It was a grueling, costly trip to the vet who had to lance the injury and dress the wound. There were speckles of blood on Penny’s white chest and she didn’t make eye contact with me for days.
Thinking back on the previous cats, I was respectful in the way a hunter admires his prey. But Typhoid Harry I detested. He was going to pay.
Three full days, the trap was wide open like a mawing robin, waiting, waiting.
Finally on a Friday morning, Harry was stalking back and forth like the others waiting his trip to greener pastures. He was another squeaky wheel, a plaintiff in a nuisance lawsuit banking on his quick pay off, thinking I’d rather settle than go the distance. But not this time.
I had another idea. I went to work and let Harry stew all day in the sun in the cage.
When I got home it was still light out but I dawdled in the apartment, waiting for dusk. This was entirely and sadistically intentional.
In the past, I’d gingerly placed the heart trap in the trunk. With Harry, I brusquely shoved the cage atop a spare tire and slammed the trunk shut.
Squeezing the steering wheel, I drove much higher into Griffith Park, halfway to the Observatory. There was a cool mist rolling down from the hills and twinge of dew on the grass.
There, I released Harry, giving the cage a kick until he staggered out.
I climbed in my car and drove up the path leaving him behind. I hadn’t driven even twenty yards before the image I imagined materialized as hoped — two coyotes, one small and scrawny, the other the size of a small wolf quietly sauntered down the path. They sniffed the air — just getting going for their shift.
I knew right then that Harry was headed back into the food chain. He wouldn’t last the night.
Harry might not have been the first of the captured cats to meet a foul end. I sometimes saw dead cats squashed on the roadway near my block. But if the other critters had expired due to fate, Harry had been hand delivered to his likely demise. And that intent took his passing from third degree all the way to first. I pulled into the driveway without bothering to avoid a familiar pot hole. The weary shock absorbers took a hit but I savored the jolt. Fuck with my cat and you get fucked oh feral ones.
When I was playing with Penny that night she grinned and cackled like some feline Lady Macbeth. She knew that I knew she knew what had happened. Daddy had been doing his business and making the yard safe.
And the remaining ferals knew it too. Somehow they could sense that if they came in the yard they might regret it. They even ran away when I walked to the mailbox. No more waving and flailing at them. Sure they still pissed on and near it but at least they did me the honor of fleeing.
Penny was now getting her courage back and would venture quietly into the yard, which seemed quieter. While she wouldn’t lie down in the sunbathing stance she’d enjoyed before, she’d still toss her head and poke her nose about the grass.
Seeing Penny lounging in the yard gave me a weird sensation of pride. I was the pussy predator. I for once was not to be trifled with. The cats were gone. And they wouldn’t be missed.
Killing a cat had other fringe benefits. It put some swagger into my step. I turned up at work a little later and didn’t bother explaining or saying hi to every nudnik frying under the fluorescent lights. The necktie came off and soon after the dry-cleaned, buttoned shirt was replaced by a sweater. Again, no one mentioned the dress code violation at least to me.
The only down side was my cubicle. The walls seemed a little smaller each day. Yet, claustrophobia aside, all was well for a while.
Then Penny started acting weird. She was literally scatting. Crapping in different comers of the house to try and talk to me. The landlord would get riled and I knew I sure wouldn’t be moving soon. The pet deposit on the carpet would be two week’s salary.
Something was up but I didn’t know what. And then I did.
One morning, I was grabbing for my breakfast. My ceramic bowl on the counter always resembled a still life of bodega bananas, gamy looking apples and freeway oranges, two bucks for a bag with thick, bitter rinds and seemingly wrung dry of even a droplet of juice.
One morning I reached for a new green apple and flinched. There was a big hole in the side. No, it wasn’t ripe skin imploding on itself. It was clearly a bite mark. I tossed it but the mystery wasn’t solved the next night when a banana had unpeeled itself and the end squashed.
Then I saw the dark bits of burned rice at the bottom of the fruit bowl. They were uniform in size and hook shaped. Curiosity turned to disgust as I wiped out the bowl. Droppings were the term used in polite company but I was alone and spooked so they were tiny turds to me. One of these black hooks was big enough to hang my car keys on.
The smells were even worse, as I couldn’t boil a bag of dinner without a tasty reminder that my oven was a charred urinal. The thin gutter between the dryer and the kitchen wall, an alley no self respecting broom ever swept, was even worse.
Sure I no longer heard the wailing ferals at night. Instead, the noise was closer to home (and in my home). Penny was helpless, merely running around in circles. My eyes were baggy as each tonight bled into tomorrow morning.
The wailing ferals used to whine me to a rancorous sleep. But at least sleep came. Now, as I cowered under my blankets, the noise was closer to home – and IN my home. Scurrying sounds in the ceiling went from pitter patter to down pour.
It would only be a matter of time before I’d see that rubbery, wormy tail too long for a mouse to be attached.
The cats were gone all right.
And now the rats were here.
Eric Lindbom is a diehard horror movie fan (who especially adores the classic Universal and Hammer cycles) and a former freelance music and movie reviewer turned publicist.
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