A NOVEL IDEA by Kristin McCloy

If anybody asks, as everybody does, I am a writer. I’ve dabbled with plays, poetry, published a couple of stories, written some reviews, edited other people’s work, and taught; but mostly, I’m a novelist, and very lucky that when my first one was finished I was in the right place at the right time (young/NYC/late ‘80s, with a runaway manuscript that had five sex scenes, not a single one gratuitous).

Velocity made me a ridiculous amount of money while my second novel had already been bought as an idea. Because of this, I fell, and for too long remained under the illusion that writing would always sustain me.

HA!

My third novel, Hollywood Savage, published by an imprint of Simon & Schuster called Atria Books was given zero publicity. They rushed it out without even the author photo I had provided, or any blurbs from other authors. Perhaps they decided I would make a better tax deduction, but it was very hard to watch something I’d spent several years on come and go without a trace.

I am now working on my fourth novel, advance-free and editor-less.

All of the above is the preamble to the how and why I became an animal caretaker.

Primarily, it is something I do to generate some cash flow, if not much, but it is all cash, and boy does it flow. In and right back out again — as it should! That’s why it’s called currency.

I’ve been stupid rich, and I’ve been astonishingly poor, and I’ve discovered that I’m not materialistic, and I don’t need more money than it takes for me to live on – which I’ve learned to do with not much, unless you don’t count on tremendous generosity from your friends — and I do. Oh boy, do I!

In fact, part of that help began when a woman I met at my first reading for LitQuake, and who became the most constant member of my fiction workshop, asked if I would consider staying in their back storage unit/living studio to take care of their menagerie (one dog and three cats, plus the house and garden), so that she and her husband could take a three-month fellowship he’d landed in Marseilles, France.

The storage unit is filled mostly with books, has a wonderfully high bed, high ceilings, great insulation and a skylight, while the garden is lush and wild, with plum and apple and peach trees, along with a lot of fennel which attracts Monarch and Swallowtail butterflies. I couldn’t say yes fast enough, especially when I saw that my own kitty, Zelly, a serious hunter could leap out the window and into the mysterious natural world whenever she wanted, and then back in again – I felt like I’d won the lottery.

After they returned and graciously allowed me to stay on, I looked for more animal caretaking jobs and slowly began acquiring clients, two of whom book me at the beginning of every year, and who’ve kept me afloat when other jobs occasionally dried up.

While the work is not exactly high-pay, I love it – not least because it comes so easily to me, as I’ve loved animals with a freakish intensity ever since I was a little girl, as I think most children do (just look at picture books!) Innocence has such a soft spot for other innocence, and children are particularly vulnerable, as are nearly all the animals in our world.

I’m good at what I do because I have never not fallen in love with other people’s animals. It’s fun getting to know each little sentient being for its own distinct personality, with as many quirks and differing habits as any person I know. The exception is that, given enough time and attention, all of these little guys will start to shower me with affection in their own way – whether it’s wanting to be in (literal) touch at all times, or deciding they need to sleep on my chest at 3:00 A.M. Some of them follow me from room to room, others are more, Can you open the effing door already?

Like Jules Pfeiffer’s cartoon women, I dance to the ever-present grace in every single cat, their ability to drape themselves anywhere (and then sleep!) to twist themselves while free-falling in space so as to land on their flexible feet, then simply walk away unscathed (and, more importantly to them, I believe, unembarrassed!)

I dance to the way they pretend you don’t matter, but manage to keep you in their sight-lines at all times, regardless of how well they hide themselves (it’s called ‘cat space’ and if that cat does not want to be found, well then: good luck!)

When I’m writing I often ask my small charges to help me channel the genie, and so often they will curl up around me (on the arm of a couch, on the floor at my feet, nearby on a windowsill) and fall into the trance-like sleep I so envy, creating an atmosphere of deep serenity into which my mind can drop.

The only thing I dislike about animal care is that I have to leave Zelly at home by herself, where she basically just waits for me. She’s an Abyssinian, a breed known for their wild beauty as well as their unusual loyalty. They bond with a single being and you, lucky lucky you, become their world.

I got Zelly after the cat I had adopted from a neighbor who was never home — a regal creature I named Napoleon — was hit by some asshole driving very fast down a single-block street. Napoleon tried to come home and made it only halfway across the street. I bent over him and howled. The grief was so intense I knew the only thing that would help would be adopting another cat, because believe me, there is no shortage of beings who need out of a cage and into your heart.

Zelly was curious, insanely playful, and if you threw something for her, she would snatch it out of thin air and bring it back. Not like a dog, panting and leaving it at your feet, but much more casually, jumping on the bed and carelessly dropping it near your hand. Her cool was stunning, and very funny. But when she needed affection, she let me know. She would get up on my chest and knead me, then curl up next to me and sling one paw over my collarbone. I often fell asleep holding that paw.

Somewhere along the line, I had the realization that my cat was essentially living for me. Attending to her own cat business (oh where to take those seventeen naps?), but also waiting for me to come home, wanting attention, wanting to play, and later, if I’m very lucky, jumping in bed when I wake up panicked by everything at 5:00 A.M. to meow in my face then curl up in the space between arm and heart to purr us both back to sleep.

Understanding that this breathing, living, loving, very chatty being was and is singularly devoted to me struck me with a sudden force. The extent of that devotion left me breathless, and from then on I knew: she wasn’t my cat, I was her girl.

I think most people take their animals’ utter devotion for granted, and I want to shake them and ask, Don’t you understand what an honor that is?

So here’s the thing: while I identify myself as a writer, a label that goes a lot deeper than words (no pun etc.), who’s to say what’s the more important work? Writing books that one hopes will outlast one’s own lifetime, and might perhaps achieve what Jean Cocteau always claimed was the main reason for writing – to ‘utterly overwhelm a single soul’? Or is it the care and love that flows between myself and the animals I’ve been entrusted with, including my own?

I met a dog named Dirk when I was an undergraduate at Duke. Dirk was easily the smartest animal I’ve ever met (she should have been, considering how many classes she attended with me alone!) She was one of my roommates during her owner’s last semester at the university, and when I asked for custody, her human sneered and said, You don’t even know where you’re going to live next year!

Well, that was true. But apparently, Dirk did. Because one day, when I wasn’t even home, my sister, with whom I shared an off-campus house along with a litany of others, heard a wild scratching on the screen door, opened it, and in out of the rain came Dirk. She jumped on the couch, stretched out, and fell asleep. She remembered my promise, and she obviously had my number. For the rest of the time I was there, Dirk lived with me.

When, we had to part, I entrusted her with my soul. She was the fiercest guard I could think of, and when I die, I pray she will be the first creature I see. And when I look around, I hope that I see every other animal I ever loved, freed, helped, took care of, or mourned for – including every animal sacrifice, any animal hurt, wounded, or poached – every animal in the whole wide world.

Because that is my idea of Heaven.

This essay is a shout out to the gorgeous variety of creatures who have their own deep intelligence, and everything to teach us about being at ease in your own skin, trusting your instincts, and loving without limit.

Kristin McCloy is a thrice-published author (Velocity, Some Girls, and Hollywood Savage), working on her fourth, and living in Oakland with the cat who owns her, Zelly, and the family who took them in. 

 

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