P.J. Balluck



"Sam, I don’t get it," says Rosemary, who has driven up to Missoula from Salt Lake City—who drives practically everywhere. "You love that cat. Why try to shirk it? Why would you want Lucky—who’s never flown before—to fly to California and acclimate himself without you?"

Samuel and Joan are having their Thanksgiving houseful.

"Don’t be a pitbull," Samuel says.

Samuel and Joan have used up all their sabbaticals, leaves-of-absence, and visiting professorships for the time being and are trying to get used to the reality of the fact that Samuel’s tenured post is at U. C. Berkeley, and Joan’s is here at Missoula. After this academic year, during which he is obliged to be in Berkeley to make up for last year’s leave in Missoula, Samuel plans to go on partial retirement and, for about the next six years, he and Joan will spend four months in Berkeley and eight in Missoula. On this plan, Joan will soon be in California for her first Bay Area Spring semester—they’ll be together again before Christmas.

But, when Joan does arrive for Spring next month, she’ll be flying into San Francisco from a conference in Vermont, not straight into Oakland from Missoula, and Samuel, who will depart Missoula once again at week’s end is, on his own, expected to escort and introduce their cat, Lucky, to his new, second, home in Berkeley. They won’t leave him somewhere else for four months, and they won’t give him up.

For the sake of convenience, because of the houseful and visiting dogs, Lucky is currently in the midst of his preparatory, transitional, pre-move interlude at the vet’s until departure.

Samuel has asked Jennifer, their visiting Berkeley housemate, if she will, instead of him, fly Lucky home with her on Saturday. Jennifer says she’s not flying directly into Oakland but first into LAX, to meet friends for a No Doubt concert in Anaheim—and that, by the time she gets home the next night, Samuel will be flying into Oakland himself.

He doesn’t hide his frustration.

"So, Lucky’s already met Jenn?" Rosemary asks.

"No," Samuel, and Joan, and Jennifer say.

"You love that cat," Rosemary says. "You fucking credit Lucky in your author’s blurb."

"Remember The Daughter," Joan says.

"Just say ‘freakin’,’" says Michelle, Samuel’s fourteen-year-old, who has flown in from Seattle, where she lives with her mother.

"Well, I do," says Samuel. "I do love Lucky. And it’s called a bio," he tells Rosemary.

"So, what’s your freakin’ problem?" Rosemary asks.

"Yeah, Sam," says Joan, "tell her what your freakin’ problem is."

"You tell her," Samuel says.

Joan says, "I’d like to hear you answer Rose, because so far your words on the subject don’t make any sense to me."

"You understand my words," Samuel says.

"They aren’t saying anything," Joan says.

"I dunno," says Samuel. "Carrying a kitty through the airport, on a plane . . ."

"What do you mean?" Rosemary says. "You get to take him in the same cabin with you, like carry-on?"

"More than one airport," Samuel says. "More than one plane."

"They let you do that?" Rosemary says. "As in stashed under the seat in front of you?"

"It’s inhumane to dope the kitty and ship him like cargo," Joan says.

"Yeah, I know," says Samuel. "It’d traumatize him."

"It’s just cruel," Joan says.

Rosemary asks, "So, what’s your problem?"

"You know," Samuel says, "he’ll meow the whole time. It’ll be like one of those annoying people with a screaming kid, you know, and the whole thing’ll just make me look . . . "

"Like what?" Joan asks.

"What?" Rosemary asks.

Michelle says, "Just spit it out, Dad."

Jennifer says, "Look like a wuss."

"Yeah . . . Kind of . . . effeminate," Samuel admits. "What? What’s so funny?"

"Why do you care how you look?" Joan asks. "And to who?"

"To whom," Samuel says.

Rosemary says, "I’ve noticed, Sammy, the only pair of shoes you packed for this trip are purple."

"And, purple shoes are effeminate?"

"Is carrying a kitty?" Joan asks Samuel.

Rosemary asks, "Is this because your brother was gay?"

"Don’t go Freudian on me," Samuel says.

Joan asks, "How’s that Freudian?"

Jennifer suggests, "Just put a sign on the cage reading, ‘Daughter’s Cat,’ and all the women will fall in love with you and all the men will resent you because you’re so freakin’ manly carrying a kitty through the airport doesn’t even faze you."

"That would be lying," says Samuel.

"Dad," Michelle says, "you’re such a freakin’ wuss."

"Why’m I the only man in this house?" Samuel says.


After Thursday’s dinner, it comes up again, when there are plenty of men in the house—though some are curled up with post-turkey TV and Rosemary’s contribution (homemade Jewish-Mormom-Irish crème) in the den, and others are hanging out around the kitchen, where dishes are still being dirtied and washed.

In the living room, the stringed instruments, rhythm sticks, and maracas have been laid aside, and the women are doing a survey: "Would you," Rosemary asks Hans—asks Eric—asks Clint, "have a problem carrying your cat through the airport, accompanying your cat on a flight?"

"‘Carry’?" Eric asks.

"In a carrier," Joan says. She opens the door to the covered deck, blasting the room for a time with frigid air, to retrieve their dark gray, soft-sided, mesh-windowed cat carrier. Joan displays how inconspicuous it looks suspended under her arm from a shoulder strap.

"It’s not a ‘cage,’" Jennifer tells Samuel.

"I’d do it for a woman," Hans says.

"Does it have to be a cat?" Clint asks.

Theresa volunteers to demonstrate that she can fit her Sheltie dog inside the carrier. She steps about the living room with Sparkle suspended. The eyes of Sparkle flash with firelight behind black-mesh windows.

"It looks like an overnight bag," Rosemary says.

Samuel says, "Yeah, but there will be all that meowing!"

Eric says, "I don’t see what’s-the-problem, man."

"It will look effeminate," Samuel says.

"Dude," Eric says. "It’s a cat."


Lucky has been an indoor/outdoor mountain kitty since they brought him home from a blanket-lined crate at the farmer’s market one Saturday a few years ago. They at first called him Kitty by default, until he seemed to get into so many scrapes they found themselves saying, "You’re lucky to be alive" every time they saw him, which shortened to, "You’re lucky," and finally just to, "Lucky." He still has all his limbs, extremities, and all of his tail, but his ears are like fringe, and hidden beneath the plushness of his fur is a riddle of bald spots—scars—like he’s withstood buckshot, or teeth, claws, antlers, or talons.

Inside the Missoula airport, Joan holds Lucky outside of his case, and he purrs, puts his chin up for her nails. He’s been brushed and pampered every day at the vet’s. He hasn’t eaten in at least twenty-four hours pre-flight.

They wouldn’t let Samuel even give him catnip for this trip.

For the first time, Lucky is required to carry identification. At PETsMART yesterday, Joan and Michelle, knowing full well how Samuel was feeling—"Which is not making sense!" Joan had said—picked out Lucky’s first collar, metal-free, with a black-and-white-checkered plastic bowtie to match his tuxedo coloring. And, at the other end of the store, when the man behind the counter asked Samuel what to write with a Sharpie on Lucky’s temporary, metal-free name tag, Samuel said, "Dinner."

Samuel has screwed up the cat check-in.

Joan sits on a bench to the side of the ticket counters, holding Lucky on her lap—"DINNER," big as black-ink-on-white, suspended from his collar.

Samuel has checked his and Lucky’s bags in but has returned without Lucky’s papers.

"Did you tell them you have a kitty?" Joan asks.

"It’s on the ticket," Samuel says. "And don’t tell me I’m being ‘resistant.’"

"Honey, you have to tell them you have a kitty."

"I’m not in ‘denial,’" Samuel insists.

"You have to own your kitty, dear."

When Samuel returns the next time, with everything in order, he acts about half undone. "If I can’t give Lucky his catnip, and I can’t smoke Lucky’s catnip, can I at least get a drink?"


Samuel is on his second vodka rocks. "I know, I know—I’m belligerent at best without a few belts in me. That’s why, my love, I’m not going to go through security until you’re gone. Not until Joan has exited the building."

Joan puts Lucky back inside the carrier, zips him in. They can still hear his purrs.

Samuel and Joan are sharing the same bench at their regular booth in the lounge section of the Missoula airport restaurant. They have spent a lot of time waiting for each other here, and seeing each other off. Yesterday, they were here at this table before they put Jennifer on a plane to her No Doubt concert, and this morning they sat here before putting Michelle on her flight to Seattle. Now, here they are again, looking through their window at the little jets taxiing in and out. Stairs are wheeled up to, and away from, them, not jetways.

Samuel will fly into Oakland via Salt Lake. It used to be nice when Rosemary could meet them there for a drink or a meal. But since September last year, every single one of the Salt Lake airport bars and restaurants are on the ticketed-passengers-only side of security. And it’s no longer worth leaving the airport during longer layovers and driving into town for a meal like they used to, because when they get back, there’s just security to go through all over again, and even if there’s time, who wants to bother?

At the Missoula airport they are lucky. Samuel and Joan have always had this table. They have never had to take another. Samuel calls this table cosmically reserved.

"This Bloody Mary’s really hitting me," Joan says. "Maybe I need to sit here a while before I drive home."

"Don’t even bother with your sit-a-spell shtik," Samuel says. "I’m not going through security until you’re gone. I can’t bear the sight of the tears streaming down your face as I walk away."

"What’re you going to do?" Joan asks.

"¡Nada! Can’t I just do this without being judged? I see your back and your lovely bum walking out the door, and away we go . . . "

Joan says, "He hasn’t meowed once, have you noticed?"

A completely new waitress arrives with their check. She peers into the carrier, showing them her Wonderbra cleavage. "Is that a kitty?"

"No," Samuel says, "it’s a hidden camera."

The waitress stands straight. Joan is sliding out, leaving Lucky on the bench next to Samuel, who’s rattling the ice in his glass.

"Once more?" the waitress asks.

"No," Joan says.

The waitress takes the remnants of Joan’s Bloody Mary and leaves with a: "Safe flight."

Samuel lays money down on top of the check and drains the rest of his melted ice and vodka before anchoring the payment with his glass. Joan is out the lounge door already, approaching the line for security. For the first time, Samuel has possession of the carrier.


"I’m turning my cell off now," he tells Joan after they do their final farewell smooching. "I’ll call you after I’m on the other side of security."

"We," Joan says.

"We’ll call you," Samuel says. The carrier is suspended under his arm.

"You’re all Lucky has," Joan says. "Kitty is depending on you."

One last embrace, one last kiss until Christmas break.

Samuel and Lucky watch Joan’s beautiful bum disappear through the airport’s front doors.

Security at Missoula is rigorous as compared to before, but the line never seems unreasonably long, as long as everyone just flows on through, which, eventually, Samuel does. After the metal-detecting gate, he puts the change and keys and wallet and cell phone back into his pockets, puts his watch back on, his belt, he tightens the laces of his purple hightop Chuck Taylor All Stars, straps on his laptop, and asks the security woman for Lucky.

"Your cat, sir?" she says. "You have a cat with you? Where?"

"I gave you my cat when I gave you my laptop."

"I didn’t receive any cat, sir."

"Just one cat!"

"Contained, sir?"

"Why are you wording everything," Samuel says, "as if to imply you didn’t even know I have a cat? I handed you the bag and said, ‘Here’s my cat.’"

"Not to me, sir."

"The carrier! It’s charcoal gray with black windows."

The security woman saunters over to the carry-ons piling up at the end of the x-ray tunnel that Samuel first saw her at the beginning of. "This bag?" she says.

"You x-rayed my cat?"

"Sir, your cat is in here?"

"You people have got to pay more attention! Lucky! "

Lucky gives Samuel the same kind of matter-of-fact, proprietary greeting he gives Samuel at home.

Samuel takes Lucky out of the bag. "Lucky!" Lucky clings to Samuel, not nervously—reassuringly.

"Sir, you need to personally walk your cat through, without the carrier."

"You x-rayed my cat!"

A tall security man butts in. "Sir, please. You’ll have to go back through the gate with the cat out of the bag, and the carrier goes through x-ray alone."

"It’s been x-rayed!" Samuel says. "So has my cat!"

"Sir," the security man says.

Samuel says, "Are you freakin’ joking?"

"Leave your computer with me," the security man says.

"Oh," Samuel says, "you remember my computer’s okay."

He stomps off, goes back around and cuts in line. He is aware now of the muttered and cooing attention Lucky in his bowtie attracts and holds the cat out before him like Lucky’s a baby with a leaky diaper. Samuel watches security woman feed the carrier back into the x-ray tunnel’s mouth, and he steps forward through the gate, Lucky first.

The alarm goes off, and Samuel clutches Lucky to his chest.

Samuel says to the security man, "You know it’s because I put my stuff back in my pockets."

"Sir," the security man says, "please hold . . . Dinner out before me."

"What are you going to do?"

"I’m going to have to wand the cat, sir."

But the wand detects nothing.

The security man tells Samuel, "Please place the cat in the bag, sir. You’ll have to go back through."

Samuel zips Lucky back inside. "I passed through already without setting the alarm off, and then I put my stuff back in my pockets!"

"Sir, please remove any metal objects, empty your pockets, and walk back through the gate."

Samuel takes off his watch and his belt, empties his pockets again, and again cuts in line. He sails through—sans alarm. "See? What a colossal waste of time! And, now you’re going to wand me?"


"Are you people even trained for this?"

"Sir, please—"

"Are you even licensed to shoot that thing?"

"Sir, please! Take off your shoes, turn around, step on the footprints, and face your kitty!"


Copyright © 2003 P.J. Balluck.  All Rights Reserved.

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