Thursday, February 21, 2013

From the Empirical Archives: Charred Cat Ears by Melissa Darcey

Charred Cat Ears 
Melissa Darcey

ILLUSTRATION: Isaac David Smith

Originally Published in the August 2012 Issue of Empirical

Tucker Mulvanas was on the hunt for a new nickname.

His father told him he couldn’t give himself a nickname because that “wasn’t the point” of having one. “It has to be earned,” he’d say in a husky drawl, dragging out each syllable as if saying it slower made it sage advice. This time he had said it in the open garage while sweating profusely over a broken washing machine he was struggling to fix.

“But why?” Tucker moaned.

It was the answer he knew would come from his father’s mouth but when it actually came he felt powerless that a few words strung together shattered his need to find a loophole through the bizarre rule of nicknames. As he pondered this, his hands fidgeted in his pockets, toying with lint balls. They always seemed to be there, the lint balls, taking permanent residence in the deep crevices of his two-sizes-too-big Levi jeans’ pockets. The jeans were worn down and had been re-sewn a few times; there was an oblong hole (the edges singed away) that had only recently arrived at the baggy knee area of the pants. His mother had fortunately not noticed this yet.

These jeans had been his brother Joe’s jeans a few years ago. Tucker wore them now because Joe had left the house; that made Tucker the oldest kid of the house (after his sister Jodi) and in charge of the family cat, Mangy. Mangy was a white cat that followed Tucker around wherever he went, until recently. He had distinctly large ears and they contained the only color other than white on his entire body–a smoky-black the color of char. Neighborhood kids made fun of Mangy; everyone thought he was funny looking, the cat with charred ears. Only Tucker didn’t find him odd looking; he thought it gave him character.

“Charred cat ears,” his father would say with a wide grin, baring his yellowing teeth. “That’s what makes this cat special.”

Tucker typically would smile at such a comment unless it was a day like today. He felt pained hearing about Mangy and his correlation with Tucker’s recent nickname.

“What’s so wrong with the nickname you have anyway? Your friends give you one that you don’t like?”

“Yes!” Tucker spurted out, even though he hadn’t meant to. He meant to say ‘no’ to avoid what his father would, and did, ask in response.

“What name did they give you and what did you do to get it?” he chuckled, maybe imagining embarrassing nicknames Tucker could have been called. He had emphasized ‘what did you do’ in a playful manner; he knew Tucker’s propensity for getting into harmless trouble.

“Can’t . . . tell you!” Tucker had stumbled over the first word but finished the last two with a definitive punch. A tear seemed to arbitrarily form in his left eye, the gray one (his right eye had a tinge of brown to it a deformity that his mother told him made him special). He wiped it away with haste before his father could catch sight of it.

“Did something happen?”

He had noticed the tear.

“I’m a big kid now, Daddy, and I didn’t do anything! I can handle Mangy just fine!”

Why had he mentioned Mangy?

His father had noticed the peculiar mentioning of Mangy but wasn’t certain if he should tread on what seemed to be thin ice. Tucker made his decision for him, storming off out into the yard and out of his view. Tucker was frustrated; his face was flushed and he was muttering foul words under his breath, damning his friends to hell for the nickname they’d coined for him. As he walked, he kicked every rock that lay before him on his path through the dirt.

Sucker Tucker, Sucker Tucker.

He couldn’t get it out of his mind; he kept hearing it. It was easily the most horrible nickname one could acquire in the sixth grade. He could see the incident in his mind all over again. It replayed like an old sitcom or an embarrassing home video, reminding him of the birth of Sucker Tucker.

It had been a particularly sticky Sunday even though it had only been a week and a half ago. The air was still and barely a leaf stirred on the oversized oak trees. It was a generally-known fact that Trevor and Jonas, two seventh graders, hung out behind the old, vacant gas station on Carson St. on Sundays and anyone who was anyone hung out with them, having spitting contests and learning to smoke cigarettes. Tucker and his friends, Max and Jimmy, made regular appearances at the gas station along with many other neighborhood boys. Trevor and Jonas would start up arm wrestling contests, mini football games, and other testosterone-filled activities that caused either a boost in pride or a stab of humiliation. Oftentimes Mangy showed up, perhaps for his own dose of manhood. He would sit proudly next to Tucker like a dutiful servant, regardless of the jokes kids made about his charred-looking ears.

That Sunday was supposed to be the day Tucker got his boost in pride. On that day, Trevor and Jonas were accompanied by a small supply of cigars, something Tucker had only heard about. He’d seen cigarettes, yes, even held one of his father’s before, but never had he seen such a terrifyingly masculine object.

“They’re imported from Cuba. That’s in the deep Amazon of South America,” Jonas explained, his impressive statement flowing as smoothly as the cloud of smoke from his exhales. No one knew how he had laid his hands on such a precious entity, but no one asked. The vivid imagination of a young boy was much more satisfying. Tucker stood there in awe. A few times Trevor and Jonas would cough uncontrollably, their faces writhing as if they’d just eaten a lemon. Eventually they’d regain control over their lungs and normalcy resumed.

“Anyone man enough to give it a try?” Trevor asked in a dry, frail voice–he’d just had one of his coughing fits and seemed to be without any saliva.

No one knows what exactly happened in the next moment but Tucker suddenly found himself reaching his hand out for a cigar, Mangy by his side for support. He couldn’t have pulled back his hand even if he wanted to; he was mesmerized. He didn’t regain consciousness of his actions until he looked down and saw a cigar in hand.

“You better do something with it,” a kid said, breaking the silence.

A few moments passed but Tucker didn’t move.

“Look kid, you gotta smoke it or pass it back or something. Ash is building up on the end and you’re gonna waste the cigar,” Jonas explained.

Tucker finally lifted the cigar–he hadn’t even blinked yet–and softly pressed it to his lips.

“You gotta open your mouth to smoke it,” Trevor coldly ushered.

Tucker’s lips parted and the cigar slid in. He didn’t know exactly what to do but he couldn’t ask in front of everyone. Mangy looked up at him mercifully; he was the only one who understood Tucker’s painful position between boy and man and Tucker loved him for this.

Tucker finally inhaled and the smoke tickled, and then viciously burned, his throat. He began choking fiercely.

“Watch out! Don’t fling that! There’s too much ash at the butt!” Jonas loudly warned.

But the warning came too late. Hot ash flew from the butt of the cigar; as if it were in slow motion, Tucker saw the unfortunate path it was taking. The victim was Mangy. The ash fell like scattered pellets, hitting both of Mangy’s charred-colored ears. The cat screamed in pain as the kids, and especially Tucker, heard the ash singe the ears.

The outcome was horrific. Mangy’s ears had visibly singed off edges and a large part of both ears were severely charred. The cat jumped and ran faster than ever in a direction opposite from home.

Everyone was silent; it wasn’t broken until someone yelled out, “Ha! Ol’ Charred Cat Ears actually has charred ears now!” To Tucker’s horror, the other kids began laughing, chanting, “Run away you charred-eared cat!”

Tucker couldn’t hold back his emotions. An army of tears broke through the gates he had been trying to keep closed. He began crying and then he began bawling. He was so devastated about Mangy that he hadn’t even noticed a stray piece of ash had landed on the knee of his Levi’s. When he noticed it had burned a hole through the jeans he cried harder, knowing the ash had done worse to Mangy.

Tucker’s crying caused the kids to draw their attention away from Charred Cat Ears and onto Tucker. “What a baby! It’s just a stupid ol’ cat! Why don’t you just go run home to your mommy and suck your thumb!”

And then it happened. Tucker heard Max’s voice, but instead of words of rescue, it was the big moment of horror:

“It’s Sucker Tucker!”

The nickname caught on instantaneously. Sucker Tucker, Sucker Tucker.

Sucker Tucker was in the same boat as Charred Cat Ears and he followed suit by sprinting home as fast as he could. When he got home Mangy was nowhere to be found and Tucker was sure he’d never be back. He was Charred Cat Ears now and for such a cruelty, Tucker was losing his self as well to a name as punishment. Sucker Tucker felt the weight of doomed nicknames on his shoulders and slumped onto his bed as he imagined Charred Cat Ears still running, probably to the next town in desperation of escaping his fated and all-too literal name.

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