White cat, in the middle of the road (and William Carlos Williams)

Isn’t it funny, the things that haunt us?

Last weekend I covered a summer festival in my newspaper beat town and as I drove to the store afterwards, I noticed something white in the middle of the road. At first I thought it was a plastic trash bag but then realized, with a sick feeling in my stomach, that it was a cat, a white cat tucked up next to the yellow line.

“I should stop,” I thought. But I was in a hurry and besides, it wasn’t really my problem, so I drove around and kept going.

It nagged me, though. I thought of that poor dead cat stuck in the middle of the road, hit over again and again, and it didn’t seem right. I turned around, parked at the side of the road and walked out toward the cat.

I realized even before I even crouched down that it was still alive. It was a large, completely white cat, blood smeared over its head, its tongue hanging out, eyes glazed over, its breath coming hard and fast. I half carried, half dragged it to the side of the road and then stood there, blood over my hands. I had no idea what to do next. Pick up a rock and put it out of its misery? Stay there beside it until it died?

I placed my hand on its back and kept it there, and soon my breathing increased, as if in sympathy, and we were both breathing hard and fast, though I was very much alive and the cat was very much dying.

Finally two young women stopped and stayed with me, and the cat, and as we discussed what to do, a police car pulled up.

“Shoot it, please,” I cried to the officer. “Can you please shoot it?”

He called a local vet clinic, arranged for me to take it there. The women and I wrapped that poor cat in towels and placed it on my dog hair-covered backseat, and I headed to the vet’s office.

But this is the odd part, the part that haunts me. During that short drive, which was less than ten minutes, it felt companionable in the car, the way it always does when you’re traveling with a pet or friend or family. I didn’t know the cat, had no idea if it was a stray or family pet, yet I felt an odd connection and found myself talking to it, too, in that quiet voice we use when someone we know is sick.

I carried the cat into the vet clinic, petted it for a last time and watched as they carried it away. Later they told me that it had been too far gone, that after they called the animal control department and obtained permission, they put it to sleep.

On the drive home I wondered if I had done the right thing. Is it better to die a slower death at the side of the road, in the grass, a breeze on your face and the mountains in the background? Or to die more quickly in an anonymous office wrapped in unfamiliar-smelling towels at the hands of people you don’t know?

For some reason, I thought of that William Carlos Williams poem, the one about the red wheelbarrow, and all the way home, the sun high above the mountains, everything so green and lush and full, I recited that poem over and over, almost as if a prayer.

Since then, I keep imagining that I see that cat. I’ll notice a streak white flit past when I’m out in the yard or walking through the house at night and always, always I recite that poem again.

The Red Wheelbarrow
By William Carlos Williams

so much depends
upon

a red wheel
barrow

glazed with rain
water

beside the white
chickens.

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10 thoughts on “White cat, in the middle of the road (and William Carlos Williams)

  1. So moving. I almost feel like I’m there with you…

    This tale reminds me of a time when I was a dumb teenager, and I saw a cat sitting on the side of a busy road. I thought I should do something — shoo it into a side street, put it in my car, anything — but I was late and I didn’t stop. When I returned in a couple of hours, it had been hit and was lying there dead.

    These things do stay with us.

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    1. Hi, Kev! I love your “dumb teenager” story of the cat on the side of the road. I think we all have those instances when we didn’t do something and later regretted–why do those stay with us more deeply than the times when we do stop and help? It must be human nature, or writer’s nature. Your book is next on my list. Cannot wait to read. Cheers and happy weekend,

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    1. Thanks, Aditi! Hope the weather isn’t too hot. I think you said it’s monsoon season? It was in the 70s today, a heat wave for up here in Alaska. Cheers, take care and happy reading. P.S. I’m reading “Prize Winning Pacific Stories” by Kiana Davenport, and the stories are so, so good it’s almost scary.

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  2. I’ve encountered nearly dead animals on runs too and have always been unsure what to do. I’ve also stopped to pull dead cats and dogs to the side of the road to keep them from being repeatedly run over. Each instance remains a vivid memory. All I can think of is the owner’s horror upon discovering their beloved animal’s carcass after 100 cars passed over it.

    I have a story like Kevin’s too, except the animal I saw was a turtle. For days after that initial sighting, I got to drive by the flat turtle on the way to work. I deeply regretted not stopping to move it out of the road. Since then, I’ve been peed on by just about every turtle I helped cross the road. I guess that’s a thank you?

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    1. Another nice story, thanks so much, Karen. I wonder if we all have animal stories that point to regrets (maybe my next book, lol). I remember being peed on by turtles when I was growing up on the farm out in Penna. Maybe the turtles are blessing you, you know, for saving their lives. I know that that sounds corny. Probably they are just scared. I think that toads used to pee on us when we picked them up, too. (I don’t think there are turtles up here in Alaska and come to think of it, I haven’t seen any toads, either.) Hugs to you and Matt.

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