Ancillary the Cat

My brother had a cat. Like any All-American boy of the early 1970s, he thought he should name his cat something special – something unique. There were enough pets named “Mean Joe Greene” and “Roberto” roaming the streets of Pittsburgh in 1974. He didn’t want something mundaneâÂ?¦

Our mother was fond of saying that a pet was an additional mouth to feed. No matter how much we pled with her that we weren’t going to be eating tuna fish, day-spoiled milk, or Tender Vittles; she insisted we just didn’t have the money to spend on a cat – or – god forbid, on the healthy appetite of a dog. She said, “Your father doesn’t work his fingers to the bone at the mill to pay for an extra, fuzzy child!”

Nevertheless, that all changed one steamy, sulfuric July day in 1974. We had just finished listening to the Pirates drub the visiting Astros 11-3. Larry Demery pitched nearly eight innings of efficient ball and Richie Zisk went 3-for-4 with 4 ribbies. The game was really out of hand by the end of the third, so we decided to walk down to the A&P for a couple root beers. The walk was pleasant enough – even though my brother was convinced the heat was going to turn to rain and he didn’t want to get caught in it. Before we got there, however, our attention was diverted by a muffled sound coming from an alley about a block south of the A&P.

It sounded a little like a cross between a yowl and a squeal – and neither one of us particularly found it nerving. Still, we seemingly couldn’t be dissuaded from approaching it – like we were one of Demery’s fastballs destined to meet catcher’s glove – we had no choice but to approach the chirr with gingered apprehension. The sound was coming from, ironically, an A&P produce box sitting just behind a large, green dumpster.

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“What do you think it is, Billy?” my brother asked. “How the hell should I know,” I replied. I’m pretty sure that was the first time I swore in front of my brother – and it certainly wouldn’t be the last – but ‘hell’ was a recent addition to my nearly adolescent lexicon. I’m fairly certain I repeated it a dozen or more times the following Thursday when the Expos broke the Pirates 8-game win-streak. But I digress; the aforementioned box itself sat slightly askew, its top crammed against the dumpster: creating a wedge that made the box less of a box and more of a trapezoid.

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I didn’t want to be the one to peer over the slightly raised edge of the Hunt Brother’s Onion container – but I didn’t want to be seen by my little brother as scared, either. “What are ya – fraidy cat?” he called from over my shoulder just as I peered into the dark void. In retrospect, I’m pretty shocked that the caterwaul we heard coming from that stinky alleyway inspired any sense of anxiety at all. I don’t know; somehow it did. I laughed when I saw what was in that box.

“YeahâÂ?¦Yeah, I guess I am just a scaredy cat, Tommy!” I said – as I pulled a light brown tabby kitten from the greasy, smelly Onion carton. We played around with the cat for a few minutes before the reality of the situation seemed to hit us both at the same time. “You think mom will let us keep it?” we asked in near perfect unison.

I carried the kitten delicately, even though it was already agreed it was going to be Tommy’s cat – if mom let him keep it, that is. And that was going to be a big “if.” “Your father doesn’t work his fingers to the bone at the mill to pay for an extra, fuzzy child,” remember. I seem to recall the little thing fell asleep right there under my arm, even though it must have shook all the way from Third Street back to our house.

When we got home, mom was on the porch: it was almost as if she knew something was afoot on this sultry summer afternoon and was determined to greet it at the door. “William Michael what is that underneath your shirt sleeve? It looks fuzzy and I think it has a mouth.” I held the kitten up like the priest presenting communion to the altar; I figured we could use all the help we could get at this point! Turns out it didn’t matter – her eyes answered before she even could. “Alright,” she said with a soft admittance of defeat. “But it’s still just supplementary mouth to feed!”

We had to consult the dictionary to find out what ‘supplementary’ meant (we were sure it was going to be some sort of horrible feline disease that would end up killing all three of us) – and ended up with a rather distinctive name for the cat. “Supplementary: An adjective meaning completing or enhancing something. Synonyms: Additional, Accompanying, ComplementaryâÂ?¦Ancillary. That’s it,” Tommy shrieked, that last one’s perfect. And it stuck.

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