The Gasoline Cat

Apu cuts off a chicken’s head. The chicken was my anya’s. Now I have no mother. Now it has no head, but its body doesn’t yet know this. The feet like tiny dinosaur claws don’t know this as they scratch at the ground. The body spurts blood as it sprays its headlessness onto the earth.

“Stop it, Apu,” I say, as the body pulses in the jerk of a heartbeat. My anya’s blood pooled in her head and she stopped. As sudden as a snap. I snap my fingers to count the time as the chicken body writhes. Amazing how long movement can last without a brain. As if we are all headless, just our bodies shaking and there’s nothing we can do to stop it.

“It’s dinner, Delilah,” Apu says and he is warm and kind like how Anya once surrounded me with comfort. Her arm, heavy and curved around my body. The weight of I love you all around me.

My sister, Lorrie, says chicken tastes like everything. The whole world existing in that pale flesh, this body as it still shakes in the dirt of our mangled chicken coop in the dusty lot outside our apartment building.

“I love you, Apu,” I say, and my father hugs me but his arms are stiff. It doesn’t hold the weight of I love you, but instead carries the heaviness of I’m trying. He brings the headless chicken to the fifth floor of our apartment where Lorrie and my older brother, Garret, wait. Their eyes are so hollow I tunnel into them and see their sadness, like gritty asphalt at night. I wander their empty streets, until I whip out of them, like a hand jerking from a hot burner. Our combined sadness is its own impulse. I’m jerking away before I quite know why.

Sadness makes people do strange things. Like the defeated way Apu looks at my sister and me, as we eat his chicken paprikash, a little watery, nothing like the rich dish my anya made. She would make it every fall. But it’s winter now. I guess Apu is trying to break from tradition.

“It’s good, Apu,” I say and his eyes find me. I lock into his dark pupils. Speaking was a mistake. He puts his head to his hands. A piece of meat falls from his mouth and he begins to cry.

“You look so much like her.” He weeps, his body slowly collapsing onto the plastic dinner table. Garret, Lorrie, and I tiptoe to our room. But even if we stampeded, I don’t think Apu would notice.

Garret slides his junky CD player from beneath his bed, and slips in Nirvana’s Nevermind. He’s always playing this, because it’s his only CD that plays smoothly, and also because he’s obsessed. I like the music, the sound that’s dark but enthusiastic.

“Do you know what ‘nirvana’ means?” Garret asks.

“No,” Lorrie and I say. Garret has always liked knowing things we don’t, but he’s always kind and shares the unknown.

“It’s Buddhist,” Garret says. “It’s a transcendent state where there’s no suffering.”

Apu’s wails filter through the thin walls of our room. Lorrie begins to cry.

“Never mind Apu,” Garret says. I wrap my arms around Lorrie and rock her.

That night, I find a mirror Apu must’ve broken. A small, square one that hung in the living room by our plastic table. Now it’s slivered across our threadbare carpet. It reflects shards of my face.

One week later, I walk down Whittier Boulevard from Soto Street Elementary. The tangle of freeways hums above me and I think how easily those metal car bodies could fall off the edge. My school sits in the knot of so many freeways. The 60, the 101, and the 5 meet in a triangle, the 10 to the heart of LA above us, the 710 to the east, the 405 to the west. So many numbers, and I know directions, how to get to one place and the next. Apu says I understand the ground beneath my feet. I know East LA better than he does.

My anya left us less than one month ago, and now my Apu is leaving too. He retreats to the corners of our apartment, and drowns in glass pálinka bottles that turn him mean. I fear him like my shadow that grows longer as the daylight leaves. I walk in circles, two steps forward, one step back. Anything to stop me from facing Apu and his sadness. And my own.

I walk alone. I’m in sixth grade, so I get out 40 minutes after Lorrie who’s in fourth. And Garret, in eighth grade at the middle school, stays even later. And he’s doing track now, so he runs after school.

I walk alone by Oddfellow cemetery past ghosts clawing from stone headstones. My anya clawing at the dirt from the grave. Hello Anya, I think. I cut south, and wish I could hear Anya’s response.

I walk past a carnecería with chichirones and slabs of fatty pork in the window. Two blocks from home, I hear boys. Mean laughter, shoes kicking asphalt. Garret and his friends sound like this sometimes. They kick beaten skateboards down our potholed street.

Four boys are playing on the street. They circle around what looks like nothing. Empty street. They hold matches in their dirty hands. It smells like the ocean, except darker. Like something toxic in the water.

One boy holds a plastic jug. He pours liquid onto the nothing they circle around. This is strange behavior, even for boys. I walk closer and there’s something in that center. Something small and shivering.

A yellow cat. They’ve doused it in gasoline.

“What,” I yell, not even a question, just the first word that comes. Not quite a question, more of a noise than anything. I’m thinking of my anya and how she always loved animals. A young, gray bird fell from a tree by our house once and she rescued it. Anya and Apu swaddled it in a cloth and bound its hurt wing. I remember the two of them huddled over it, whispering, asking it not to die. But the bird died anyway.

All four boys turn. They have matches in their dirty hands. I run. Like Garret, I’m a good runner. I’m running to the small gasoline-covered cat before I’ve even decided to save it. It’s breathing all funny and looking at me with wide, glossy eyes. I can’t leave this poor drenched creature. I pick him up,

“Puta”. The boys rush at me. The gasoline smell fills me and I’m coughing. They look like they could kill me. But I have to save this cat. I run, and my body aches, but I outrun those boys though their large shoes pound behind me. I feel someone grab at my arm, but I’m too fast. Imagine what a fire they would have made. All that gasoline and the cat and the dirty matches. How quickly the cat would burn. I’m woozy and that flame bursts heavily inside me. I run faster.

I pound in our building code and race up the stairs, with the gasoline cat pressed to my chest. Breathe, I think and the shivering cat keeps at it as I pull the spare key from my shoe and wedge open our apartment door. There is no Apu, no Lorrie, only the cat and me as I race to the bathroom. Where is Lorrie? The gasoline smell has already burned smell from my nose. Nothing but the false ocean, the poison and burn.

The mirror in our bathroom is broken. It must be Apu again. Shards decorate the sink and floor. I leap to the shower, turn on the water. I stand with the cat in my arms, the water carrying the gasoline down the drain. “Please live,” I say, because this cat is not dead yet, is not a ghost like my anya was when Apu and Lorrie and I walked into the apartment to find her on the ground. A brain aneurysm, nothing we could do, the doctors said.

I turn on the bathroom fan and I shiver in the cool water as its clean emptiness replaces the sinister smell of gasoline. I foam some clear soap through the water, to rinse the cat of it completely.

“I love you,” I say to the cat and in my mind to my anya. The cat shivers against my chest, but he’s breathing. The gasoline smell is gone now. I wrap the cat in a towel, dry the little guy off. I step across the bathroom, shards of mirror puzzled across the floor. I cut my foot on a sliver as I carry the cat to my room.

I track blood on our thin carpet.

Garret returns before Apu and Lorrie.

“Delilah? Lorrie?” he screams. His feet slam and he’s at my door.

“Oh,” he says. “There’s blood. You’re okay.”

“The bathroom mirror is broken,” I say. I say nothing about Apu. How he’s taking his fist to mirrors to watch them shatter. His knuckles are always bleeding. His is not normal grief, but strange and raw. Garret has scared eyes. It’s the same wide-eyed look the cat had as the boys circled. I’m scared too. I make a mental list of all the things that scare me. Blood, the dark beneath my bed, the sadness so heavy inside me. The cat meows.

“Look, we have a new friend,” I tell Garret. I show him the cat, still damp, his sandy fur hanging in long, straight pieces over his face. He’s a strange looking cat and this strangeness makes me love him more.

Garret reaches out to touch him, and then pulls his hand back. “We can’t have a cat.”

“I rescued him,” I say and the tears form because I’m fiercely in love with this cat. “Please can we keep him?”

“You know, with his fur pulled like that, he looks like Kurt Cobain.” He laughs.

And so we dub the cat Kurt Cobain.

I like the way saving him feels, like a warm hug. I couldn’t save Anya, but I can save him.

Garret knows where Apu’s secret stash of money is and he leaves with some of it to Walmart to buy Kurt Cobain some food and a litter box. We think this way, Apu can’t say no. The money will already be spent.

I listen to Garret’s Nevermind. Kurt Cobain still shivers, but he curls beside me in bed and purrs to Smells Like Teen Spirit. I think how this feels like relief. How nirvana means a relief from suffering. Maybe saving those I love is the way to end suffering. And maybe, my new kitty, Kurt Cobain, will help me find nirvana.

Or maybe not. The front door opens and it’s Apu. Lorrie is crying. And I almost don’t want to go out there. I want to lock the door to our room, lock Lorrie out, and curl up in a heap right here. But, no. I leave Kurt Cobain. Lorrie has her back turned, but Apu sees me.

“Your foot,” he says. I’ve bandaged it, clumsily, with some old sheet. But still, I see the worry inside him.

“You broke the mirror,” I say.

“I’m sorry,” he says.

“I bought you new clothes,” he says. “You and Lorrie.” He puts down two bulging bags of clothes. His hands shake. He pours himself a glass of pálinka. Downs it swiftly.

“Thank you,” I say.

I want to get Apu from Lorrie, to know why she’s crying. “Why don’t you rest Apu?”

He leaves the two plastic bags of clothes on the floor and closes the door to his room.

“Apu just started yelling,” Lorrie says through tears. “He says our clothes, the ones Anya bought us, are no good anymore. He bought us new ones from the boys’ section.”

The bag is full of loose t-shirts and long cargo shorts.

“Maybe Apu will forget,” I say. But maybe Lorrie and I will have to change. Maybe it’ll be fun, like playing dress-up when we were little, and we both can become someone else. A male. Someone like Kurt Cobain.

“I have a surprise that will cheer you up,” I say and I show her the cat.

Lorrie screams a lot when Apu makes her wear boys clothes. I just nod, and slip the baggy shirt over my body. Lorrie sneaks one of her old shirts to school, so she can change there, but I don’t even bother. Apu didn’t care about Kurt Cobain. I’m not sure he even heard me when I told him.

Garret helps Lorrie hide some of her favorite shirts in his closet, where Apu won’t look. At night Lorrie and I curl in our bed with Kurt between us. At night we tell Kurt secrets. At night it’s impossible to escape the missing hole in front of us. I still see Anya when I close my eyes. It’s as if she’s a shadow, a patch of space with no light. Every night she would say, “fight the bed bugs, you’re stronger than their bite” as she tucked me in to sleep.

At night, Apu usually calms. He’s drunk-weary enough that he collapses on our patched couch with the TV on. Bodiless voices float through the walls of my room. Never in English, not even Hungarian, but Spanish. And I sneak to the living room and into the kitchen. When I poke my head over the counter, I watch the Spanish telenovelas with Apu and he doesn’t even know. I like watching him like that, still and silent, captured by the characters’ large lives.

Half our TV stations are in Spanish, and though neither Apu nor I speak a word, we begin to learn. Te amo. I love you. Lo siento. I’m sorry. I hear these two phrases more than anything.

When I walk past Anya’s body in the cemetery, I whisper, Te amo to her. When I cradle Kurt Cobain in my arms, I say, Te amo. When Apu is quiet like this, in front of the TV at night, I whisper, Te amo. When he breaks the last mirror, the one in Lorrie’s and my room, and I hate him, I think, Lo siento. When Lorrie cries because she hates her new clothes I think, Lo siento. I say, Te amo.

When Apu yells, and begins ripping photographs of Anya, I think, I’m sorry that I love you.

The first photo he rips was from their wedding. I watch him from my slightly cracked door. He, cradles the photo at first, holds it as if it were thin glass. Then sadness floods his body and he slams the photo to his chest and wails. He stumbles from his room to the hallway. A picture of our family from two Christmases ago hangs on the gray wall. And he stares at it, the wedding photo still to his chest. He’s stumbling and crying, and then that raw, wild, sadness fills his arm and he swings back. Brings his fist right through the hallway wall. His knuckles bleed.

Kurt Cobain hides on the corner of my bed. I hide too. Lorrie and Kurt and I burrow under the comforter, but as we hear the chink of the pálinka bottle, we find no comfort there.

Later, when my stomach growls, and Lorrie says she’s hungry, I tiptoe from my room. I’m sure the telenovela Apu’s watching will cover my noises. I pretend I’m a ghost, silent and invisible, just drifting. Like Anya. Apu turns his head, as if he too can hear my thoughts about her.

“You look so much like her,” he says. Even in my boy-baggy clothes, I am Anya’s ghost to him. Both Lorrie and I are.

“I can’t,” Apu says. His hands shake and he rises.

“You can’t look like her.” He’s raged around the apartment, hands flinging kitchen drawers open and he has scissors, flecks of rust edged on their blades.

“Apu!” I say. I’ve been trying to convince myself that the old Apu was still buried in him.

“Sit.” He throws a chair in the middle of the floor.

“No,” I say.

His hands squeeze my shoulders and slam me into the chair. Already tenderness of bruises forms where he grabbed me. Lorrie and Garret come into the hallway.

“Help me.” But Garret doesn’t move.

“Apu?” Lorrie says.

“You’re next,” he says.

He picks up the scissors and runs the blade through my hair and snips. My hair is long, down most of my back, just like Anya’s. She’d braid Lorrie’s and my hair in the morning while Apu cooked breakfast: eggs, cheese, and paprika. We’d always eat breakfast together as a family.

Apu cuts close to the nape of my neck. Garret looks away and stalks to his room. I thought he was on our side. My hair falls like split snakes, the head parted from the tail. The blade of the scissors is menacing against my scalp. I think of the chicken with its lost head. Apu’s hands shake from the pálinka.

I’m left with only an inch or two of hair. Less even than the real Kurt Cobain. I could’ve dealt with hair that length. There are no mirrors left for me to check my reflection. It’s better that way. As Apu makes the final cut he says, “I can’t.”

I know what he means. I can’t either.

As a boy, I feel powerless. It’s spring and the flowers peel their petals open to the sun. At school, in my too large boy clothes, with my cropped hair, I don’t look at myself in the mirror in the bathroom. Because there’s something about mirrors. I understand why Apu shattered them. How they reflect back like an accusing eye.

Four days after my haircut, Garret knocks on the door and opens it. It’s the first time I’ve seen him since he left Lorrie and me to Apu.

“Why didn’t you help?” I ask.

“He found Lorrie’s hidden clothes in my dresser. He’s angry enough. What was I supposed to do?”

“Anything,” I say and slam the door.

As Lorrie cries in our bed, I make a list of options. Just in case Apu runs out of photographs to shred. I have Anya’s nose. Lorrie has her dainty little ears. Garret is all father. Kurt settles in my lap as I write my list. Except it’s not really a list, because there’s only one thing on it: Contact family in Budapest. We have no real family in LA, but Anya’s brother lives in Hungary. He might be able to help. Or at least he could talk to Apu. This is practical. And I am hard and metallic, like a mirror. Anya’s death shattered me so that a piece of me is with her in the grave. Apu has taken other pieces. But when there are no pieces left to take, that’s what scares me.

When Apu leaves for his job as a janitor, I skip school. I rummage through Apu’s room, delve deep into drawers and storage boxes. I find a coin purse filled with change. I find Anya’s old address book, and there’s her brother’s number. I take the address book and coin purse. I take a picture of Anya just after she immigrated to America. It’s my favorite. Black and white, her hair gathered into a long ponytail. She looks weightless. Apu is working his way through all her photographs, just like the mirrors. He’s slowly destroying every piece of her. He’s working through Anya’s chickens too. Anya would only kill the old ones for meat. We’d collect eggs every morning. The eggs were warm in my palm as Anya and I collected them. She’d laugh as she gathered them in her loose flowing skirt.

Apu cuts the chickens’ heads off and laughs.

I also take our English to Hungarian dictionary. I know only a little Hungarian. Anya was insistent, she wanted us to grow up hearing English, she wanted us to be fluent.

One day when we were collecting eggs from the chicken coop, she said, “It’s important that you have no accent. You’re going to be happy and rich one day.” She smelled like fresh bread.

I walk to the pay phone on the corner of our street in front of the liquor store. I pull coins from the purse, plunge one in after another. I dial +36 for Hungary and ring Ernö’s number.

“Szia,” I say and Ernö says an accented, “Hello.” We speak half English and Hungarian with long pauses. We flip through our dictionaries. I ask him to talk to Apu and he agrees.

“Köszönöm,” I say Thank you. All those “o”s feeling long and awkward in my mouth. Ooo, like a ghost’s moan.

It’s the end of summer now. I throw open our windows, try to tempt the smoggy air inside. Apu doesn’t get worse, though he doesn’t get better. My hair grows to my shoulders. Lorrie and I rock Kurt Cobain hair. Garret is mostly gone. He says he has a girlfriend, says he can’t stand being home. He doesn’t understand that Lorrie and I need him here to protect us. I feel heavy without Anya. Her loss feels even more solid to me, now that I’ve lost Apu and Garret too.

I stay in my room with Kurt Cobain. He licks his lips after he eats, cocks his head at me, and the tenderness of these small moments carry me through each day. The one-year anniversary of Anya’s death approaches. Apu cuts Lorrie’s and my hair a little shorter. A little less Cobain, a little more Rod Stewart. Apu drinks more.

Exactly one year after Anya dies, Apu becomes meaner. That night his feet shake the apartment. He rips a photo to shreds, then another. He leaves their pieces scattered on our carpet, where mirror once lay shattered, where I once cut my foot and tracked blood. It takes him a week, but he gets through all the photos except the one I have. The first photo taken after Anya came to the U.S.

“Where is it?” Apu screams.

I push my body into the living room corner, cross my arms across my chest. Stay away, I think. Cobain patters into the living room, those wide eyes locking with mine.

“What Apu?”

“You stole it.”

Stay away, I think again. He can’t have the photo and he won’t find it. I’ve buried it beneath a floorboard by my bed. Garret recommended the hiding spot. I’ve stacked library books on top of it.

“What, Apu?” I say.

Garret walks through the door just as Apu leans back to hit me. The sound of his belt makes a low groaning snap, Anya’s ghost’s moan. I cover my face with my arms. I count those snaps. One, two. Still Garret does nothing. Three, four.

Cobain yowls.

After. Garret knocks on my door, walks in before I answer.

“Are you okay?” he asks.

“You told him I had the photo?” Garret and Lorrie were the only ones who knew.

“He’s struggling, Delilah. You’ve got to let him grieve.”

And maybe Garret is scared too. Maybe he can’t fight back. Or maybe Anya’s death turned him mean too.

“Stay away,” I say.

I can’t find anymore of Apu’s money so I can’t call Ernö. I write him a letter instead. At the post office, I ask a lady for the stamps. The letter just says, Can we come to Budapest? Please?

Budapest: Anya’s land, our haven and refuge. In dreams, my feet walk its streets and I breathe its safety. “Budapest,” I say to myself sometimes, hoping just its name becomes a spell to protect me.

Ernö writes, I am a poor man. But I will save what I can for you. I’ll need time, but I’ll bring you all to Budapest.

Even then I know Garret won’t come. That I can’t tell him, or he’d stop me.

Two tickets only, I write. Thank you. I will pay you back when I can.

It’s winter now, but Los Angeles still burns with summer heat. I sing Nervermind with Kurt Cobain. He likes the music of his namesake, he fluffs his sandy tail and lifts his little paws. All I do is wait. For Ernö to save enough money, for the night to pass so I can flee to my new middle school, though that hardly feels safe too. I have no friends.

“Where is it?” Apu still asks for the photo sometimes. He snaps his belt, and I keep waiting for him to begin with fists. But Apu walks that edge. For now there are lines he won’t cross. Although that might change at any moment. I’m covered in bruises.

“I want you to learn to behave. To respect your elders,” he tells Lorrie and me sometimes. Snap.

And then a month later he’ll say, “Ernö called again today.” He flicks the television on and Spanish fills the room. Pero, te amo, some female says. “He says you’re scared of me Delilah. Don’t you know I love you?”

Lo siento, says a male voice. The male and female on TV part ways. Apu hugs me. Even in his tender moments, he’s too heavy for me.

The next day, I get a letter from Ernö. It took him a year, but he saved the money. Lorrie and I will leave in a month.

We leave when Garret is at school and Apu is at work.

We don’t bring much. Two small suitcases. Anya’s photograph. My to do lists for our trip. I have our passports. I forge a note from Apu saying it is okay for us to travel alone. I bring Anya’s death certificate, which will be her permission for us to travel. I found a big cotton purse in the dumpster that will make a good carrier for Kurt. I’m sneaking him on the plane with me. I discovered if I give Kurt just a little pálinka he falls asleep.

Just yesterday they found Kurt Cobain’s body. In his Lake Washington house, found three days after he was already dead. Found with a suicide note, or maybe not a suicide note. Maybe he realized there was no place that was free from suffering.

I can’t help but think Kurt Cobain’s death is an unlucky sign. But I can’t think like that. We can’t stay here. I feed the cat a little pálinka.

A cab waits for us and we drive to that tangle of freeways and settle on the 105 to LAX. Lorrie and I hold sweaty hands. I bite the inside of my cheek and taste blood. If I focus on the pain I can’t focus on the sadness of leaving. Kurt is sleeping. He can’t be discovered or they won’t let me take him. I think only of this. It’s good to be focused.

The police report said Kurt Cobain died from contact perforating shotgun wound to the head.

I wrote Garret and Apu goodbye notes.

Apu’s was simple. It said Goodbye. We aren’t coming back. Maybe this is what you want. To lose every piece of Anya.

Garret’s was harder. I decided all I could really say was I love you. I’m sorry.

The cab speeds us to the 105’s end. We take the last off-ramp and slow when we reach a tunnel.

In the last line of Cobain’s suicide note, written on the back of an IHOP placemat, he said, It’s better to burn out than to fade away. I don’t want to believe this.

LAX welcomes us with white columns glowing with changing lights: blue, green, pink. And I think this is a way to find a new light. Budapest, our refuge, our new beginning.

“We’ll be okay,” I tell Lorrie as we get out of the cab. We check in. We reach security and Kurt Cobain is beginning to stir. All that noise must be scary. I try to squeeze him a little to quiet him, but he lets out a yowl.

A security guard comes toward me. He’s big and burly with light brown skin the same color as Apu’s.

“What’s in the bag miss?”

Kurt Cobain is trying to claw out of the bag and I’m struggling to keep him in.

“No,” I say, mostly to myself. Why did I think this would be easy? I hold him to my chest. He’s mine. I saved him.

“You can't have a cat,” the guard says. He has kind eyes and his skin is like Apu’s. I hug him, Cobain sandwiched and snarling between us, and I pretend the guard is Apu. When I was younger and scared of the dark I’d wake in the night screaming and Apu would rush in and hug me, hold me so tightly.

The guard tenses in surprise but he lets me hold on as I feel for the first time the weight of this running. I pretend the guard is Apu and Garret and Anya.

“Please,” I say. “We’re moving. He has nowhere else to go.” Here it is, my edge. My body crumples and I slide down the guard’s body to floor. Cobain settles and purrs in my lap. I feel his vibrations, but I can’t hear him, because I can’t seem to get enough air inside me.

Everyone is watching. Lorrie rushes to my side and the guard leans over me.

“I’ll take him. I’ll find him a nice home,” he says. “I promise.”

“No,” I say, because I can’t leave Kurt Cobain and I don’t know if I can trust this man. How can I trust anyone? The guard picks Kurt Cobain up.

“I love you,” I say to Cobain as the guard carries him away and these are words also for everyone I love who I’ve left. Anya, and Garret, and yes, even Apu. Te amo.

“I’m sorry,” Lorrie says. “But he’ll be safe and we’ll be safe in Budapest.”

I can’t stop crying. I know I’ll get up and get on the plane and leave Kurt Cobain and all this behind. But now, silence. Now, here I am.  

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