As I was lying in bed the other morning, curled on my side and slowly waking, my cat Finnegan jumped up onto my hip, and walked in circles until he found the ideal contour to cozy up to. Somehow his landing triggered the upsurge of a memory long dormant in my subconscious. The soft kitty wrapping around my legs acted as the final puzzle piece to unlock and fully pluck a scene out from the caves of the long forgotten.
The scene was from health class my freshman year of high school. We had a substitute teacher one day, whom we’ll call Mr. Pinker; his name has been altered to protect his identity. Because we lived in a relatively small town, one of my classmates knew him, and asked, “what’re you doing here? Aren’t you a cop now? You undercover?”
Mr. Pinker, a man in his early twenties, with a shaved head to hide an already receding hairline, couldn’t hide the redness that flagged embarrassment on his face. He leaned against the table that spanned the front of the classroom, a vein bulged along his muscular arm, as he exhaled. Breath puffed against his sunburnt lower lip.
“I was. Not anymore.”
“You get fired already?” My classmate wanted to be the ball buster.
“I decided to leave the force. It was pretty nasty.”
He leaned farther down into the table as he told his story. Not quite ready to look into our eyes as he relayed his professional disappointment, but the tiled floor was enough of a neutral audience.
“There was this stray cat that was left at animal control, which is housed in the back of the station, and no one had claimed it for several days, so the chief wanted us to get rid of it. Being the rookie, the low man on the totem pole, the senior officers all looked to me, overjoyed with an idea for my official hazing. This was like two weeks into the job. I was to take this cat down to the Androscoggin river and drown it and I couldn’t return until it was done. I could only try to shirk this responsibility with the mildest of protests but the accusations of being a chicken, a pansy, a pussy, a little girl, reached such a pitch that I decided I had to buck up, take care of the task assigned, because this job was important to me. I wanted to be accepted and regarded by my fellow officers. And I had to remember that being a cop is a tough job, sometimes involves facing difficult things that had to get done. So I played my best tough guy, said to give me the cage, I’ll get it done, no problem. I drove a little away from downtown and parked behind a furniture store. I sat in the car for several minutes but realized that I couldn’t put this off forever. The replay in my head of my manhood, and my ability to be an effective cop, being called into question, was deafening, and I had to atleast get out of the car and get some fresh air. I picked up the small cat carrier, with the small gray feline inside, it wasn’t much bigger than a kitten, which I had set in the back of the patrol car like it was some cornered criminal. I began walking down a narrow trail in a little patch of forest until I met the riverbank. And what made that walk really terrible was that the cat didn’t meow, didn’t cry out in fear, and as heartbreaking as that would be it might have been a good distraction from my conscience beating away at the inner layer of my skull. In fact a soft meow might have been the trigger I needed to do what’s right and let the cat free in the woods. Which I thought about. But I also thought about being good at my job, and when they asked me if I did it, upon my return, I wanted to be confident in my affirmation that I indeed complied with the directive I was given. I also didn’t want to be called out later if the freed cat was later rounded up and recognized at animal control again. The only way out of this was to do something that made my heart droop down to meet my guts as they somersaulted. The cat remained quiet, I could only hear the soft padding of its feet as it paced as much as it could in the confines of the cage. I pictured the innocence behind its eyes and shut mine for a moment. I didn’t want to take the cat out of its cage as I drowned it. I didn’t want to feel the softness of its fur as it began to take on the weight of water. I didn’t want to feel its struggle up against my own fingertips. So I waded in almost waist deep, just before the lapping river could touch the gun in my holster, and I pushed the cage beneath the surface, as the river rushed in to fill it and help sink it. I could feel some bumps against the top of it as the panicked cat fought for air. When it was done I wondered if I should open up the cage door and let the limp body float away or if I was supposed to take the kitty corpse back as proof. It took a lot of muscle power to pull the cage back up from the water, it was like pulling a wet suction from a window. I let the river water flow out and down. I didn’t want to see the lifeless body, I didn’t wanted to see if it looked like a soaked rag. I’d let my superiors see those consequences. I went back to my car, put the cage in the back seat again like it still had to be driven to its sentencing. I sat in the front seat and cried my eyes out for two hours. And that was when I decided being a cop wasn’t so important to me anymore. There was no possibility of ever looking at myself as a good cop after that. I had already done the opposite of protect and serve. I returned to the station, set the cage on my chief’s desk. He looked at me like ‘who do you think I am, go take out your own trash’ and I told him I was resigning effective immediately. On the way out the other cops didn’t give me shit about ‘pussing out’ but I could tell they thought they knew this would happen, that I didn’t have the cop chops. But I didn’t care anymore whether they respected me because I lost all respect for myself. So why bother entering further into a career of yearning for the unattainable? If I had a remote control for life, I’d rewind it, and instead of taking that cat down to the river, I would have taken that cat home and I would have loved it. I would have given it shelter and friendship. I would have gone back to the station and given my report that I found a better solution. And I would have resolved to balance out the police force with every ounce of goodness in me that I had the balls uphold. Protect and serve. I did it wrong and there are no do-overs.”
His story wasn’t easy to digest. My ball buster classmate didn’t have any wisecrack to follow up with, his lips and eyes must have been weighed down by the palpable fact that Mr. Pinker would probably never forgive himself for acting on the wrong side of a dilemma. He had a silent, rapt classroom, and when he finished telling us why he was no longer a cop and why we might see him subbing our classes from time to time, he transitioned right into the lesson plan that was left for him: The health consequences of smoking. Seeing a picture of a blackened lung in the overhead projector made me think less about damaged lungs from cigarettes as I did about lungs under the assault of a sudden dunking. The bellows of a small, unwanted animal, snuffed. The bell rang and I didn’t see Mr. Pinker much after that. It was rumored that he moved a few towns over and painted houses. It was evident in his spontaneous testimony that one day that he had experienced such a sharp stimulation of his moral backbone, even though it came after his slip into disgrace, it was clear it was activated and wasn’t going to fizzle out anytime soon. For that I would have felt better if he had remained in uniform and was answering calls of distress. Maybe save a kitten in a tree, motivated by a deep commitment to right that wrong.
I turned over this memory as the morning light warmed Finnegan’s fur. I petted his fuzzy arm as it reached up and rested across my belly and I wondered if this was a real memory that was stirred, or if it was a nightmare of a worst case scenario, of what could’ve happened to my little friend if he was never invited home. My little friend – who stands on his hind legs and reaches up for a hug every day when I come home, who I dote on like he’s my son and any future children I have will find it difficult to compete with him to curry favor – I am relieved to know, was never the obliterated target of a callous rite of passage.