Cat on a Leash Review
by Thomas Moreau
“Silence about a thing just magnifies it.”
Tennessee Williams (Cat on a Hot Tin Roof)
Tennessee Williams (Cat on a Hot Tin Roof)
Trying to cool her head on a trying afternoon, Sister Tessa Robichaux of the Sacred Heart of Jesus traverses out to the seaport where she finds herself walking along the berths of the rusted harbor. For years, it has become her favorite place to get away, a place to be near the water. She sits on the edge of the dock, watching as the cargo ships move along the dark waves that extend towards the horizon. Clouds roll in the distance as the wind begins to rise with the seagulls.
She looks down at the water that’s too choppy to even see her reflection. Those waters. They are the waters of her childhood which stretch from the Gulf as far as the South China Sea. Waters containing a myriad of family vacations that she’s dipped her feet into at least once a year.
She recalls all:
Three girls and two adults, with their over-sized sunhats and fair, delicate faces smeared with UV ray warpaint. Flopping through the scorched sand, supplies in hand: a cooler of bologna sandwiches and knapsacks full of CD players, snorkels, and Nicholas Sparks novels.
Their voices resound the proverbial:
And the inevitable responsorial: “GIRLS, ENOUGH.”
Pitching their umbrellas along the shoreline, they bury their feet into the cool grit of the sand.
With a book clutched against her breast, a teenage Tessa sprawls across a beach blanket, while her mother, in a New Orleans Saints baseball cap and a one-piece, follows suit. Meanwhile, her father and sisters have already headed towards the ocean’s white foam with gusto.
“Tessa, baby,” her mother says. “I really think you’d enjoy gettin’ out there with the rest. The water doesn't bite, you know.”
Tessa rolls her eyes.
“I know that, Mom… It’s what’s in it that does.”
“Now don’t get smart, little lady.”
As time passes by, the wind begins to pick up – the kind of terrible wind that ruins family outings. But there is no ruination. No storm. Only a woman who appears to be in her early sixties puttering in their direction. With a folded chair tucked beneath her flabby armpits, she is a woman with liver-spotted arms, side-shield sunglasses, and a crimson-red beauty shop beehive nested on top of her head. The kind of hairdo that’s been sent one too many times to the dry cleaners.
“Afternoon,” she says, winded.
“Afternoon,” replies Tessa’s mother.
The woman takes a moment to catch her breath.
“Is that –,” she pants, “– is that the rest o’yon family out there?”
“Yes, ma’am, it is.”
“A lovely family,” she says, spreading out her words thick like a comb of honey.
“Where y’all comin’ from?”
“New Orleans,” Mama replies, not returning the question.
“Ah ha!” the old lady clucks. “La Nooo- velle Or-leee-ahhns. The Big Easy. The Crescent City. The –”
“Yes. That’s the one.”
“Well sir-eeeeeee. I’m from Burrrrminghaaam here. About two hours outside of Burminghaam, to be exact.” Like a proud hen, she tucks her double chin into her neck. “That’s where my kin come from… Oh my! Where are my manners? My name’s Eugenia. Eugenia Huxley.”
There’s a vulgar pause; and for a moment, Tessa wonders if her mother is going to return fixed pleasantries.
“I’m Meredith. This here’s Tessa, my daughter.”
“Well, as they say in N’awlins: Ahhhhn-shan-tay.”
Hearing this, Tessa looks up to shoot Eugenia the evil eye. The old bird is clearly not a solitary soul.
“Lord, this chair sho’ is heavy since my surgery,” Eugenia says, standing there in a laborious, pregnant pause.
The silence is deafening.
“Would you… like to have a seat?” Tessa’s mother mutters, a defeated smile on her face.
Eugenia’s thin lips curl upward, sadistic and Grinch-like.
“Well, I don’t know, honey. Are you sure it’s no imposition? You sure I’m not… interruptin’ anythang?”
But before she’s even finished her sentence, she has already plopped into her seat, munching on a family-sized bag of Bugles. Taking in a new breath, Tessa gets a whiff of the old bat and groans. She smells like a mixture of dried buttermilk and mackerel, masked over with a half bottle of eau de toilette. It’s horrid.
“Pssssst. Mommmmm.” Tessa leans over. “I’m gonna go swimming now.”
But to this, Mama’s eyes drill holes into Tessa’s face. The kind of glare that warns her daughter that she is dangerously close to committing mutiny.
She crosses her arms and looks out into the waters. They’re suddenly so much bluer… so much more welcoming than just five minutes before. She looks over at Eugenia, at her pink and flowy swimsuit.
“Just my dumb luck,” she grumbles. “Here I was afraid I might get stung in the water.”
Some time passes, and to everyone’s surprise, the loquacious Ms. Huxley doesn’t seem to have much to say. Even her unflattering, cat-lady aroma seems to have diminished, some. They sit together, watching the tides and clouds. The seagulls. The surrounding vacationers. Tessa looks over at the strange woman with hair that’s reaching for the heavens.
“Where the heck’s her family, anyways?” she wonders. “Other than ‘two hours outside of Burrrrminghaaam, that is.”
She returns to her book.
“Watcha reading, child?”
Tessa looks up again and sees that the old woman is looking at her. Gingerly, she holds up the cover:
“It’s called, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.”
The old woman cranes her neck, frowns.
“They Lord, Tennessee Williams?”
“Lord, what kind of a beach read is that?”
“What’s wrong, hon? Cat got yer’ tongue?”
“You probably know the movie,” Tessa murmurs, at last. “It’s… old.”
“Tessa!” says her mother.
Appearing to have bypassed the insult entirely, Eugenia tucks her chin in revival-tent fashion.
“Of course, I know it. Hmph! Any movie odious enough to cast a woman like Elizabeth Taylor won’t waste a moment of my precious time. Repugnant.”
Tessa’s mother laughs, albeit uncomfortably.
“Oh, our Tessa,” she says. “She’ll read and watch just about anything you put in front of her. You’re an insatiable reader and movie buff, aren’t you, sweetheart?”
But before Tessa can say more, Eugenia lets out a blood-curdling gasp.
Tessa scans her environment. All heads have now turned in the direction of Eugenia’s laser-pointed eyes.
True, for Tessa, the scene is a little peculiar to her teenage eyes, but nothing to work herself into a tizzy about. She is from New Orleans, after all.
Two strapping young men are promenading along the shoreline. Hand in hand, the taller one looks down at his companion, pecks him on the cheek. Two men. Touching, smiling, laughing. Gazing at one another like they’re husband and wife. Tessa wants to laugh at the old woman’s disproportionate response, but doesn’t. The old lady must not get out much.
Bellicose, Eugenia turns to Tessa’s mother. Her face is now lobster-red, and it’s not from her sunburn.
“I thought this was a family beach. Outrage!”
Tessa watches in bewilderment as Eugenia jumps to her feet, tossing out any hint of her aforementioned surgical pains.
“You –you – faggots!” she screams. “Get away from our children, you.. you.. no-neck monsters!”
The star-crossed lovers turn around, painfully confused, their countenance immediately fallen.
The shorter partner frowns, “Hey now, we’re not –”
“Sodomites!” She howls, sharper than a fire truck siren, drawing attention to herself from all around. “Don’t you say one word to me you perverts. You are God’s mistake!”
Tessa opens her mouth in shock. She turns to her mother, but Mama’s face remains inscrutable, tightlipped. She waits for her response, an intervention – something, anything. This isn’t funny anymore. It’s wrong. People can’t just speak to other people, hurt other people like this… can they?
Her mother looks away.
Tessa watches, her stomach churned into stone, as the taller young man shakes his head, drawing himself tighter into the arms of his companion. Neither speak a word as they make their way along the shoreline.
“That’s right, homos. Go on, get! We’re a family beach hea’.”
They march away in silence until all that’s left of them is their sinking silhouettes and a trail of footprints.
Tessa looks over at her mother, whose nose is now hiding behind her Parade Magazine. Eugenia smiles, a look of triumphant satisfaction on her face as she retakes her seat.
Operation: PROTECT THE CHILDREN is a success.
Sister Tessa exhales as she watches the washing of the tide. The waves at the rusted dock have begun to still, slowly unveiling its unseen rubbish and inky muck. She thumbs her rosary beads, gazing down into the frothy waters below.
Illusions were built on those kind of waters… the kind of waters that are clean, but only when in motion. Mendacity, as Cat on a Hot Tin Roof’s Big Daddy, called it. For Tessa, Eugenia was the storm that stilled that storm, unmasking a side of her mother that she realized would never protect her if a side of her own self were ever made known.
“I could jump,” she thinks, her feet moving as if shuffling hot coals. “Sure to God I could.”
But instead, she looks away, choosing to efface the onslaught of thoughts that always lead to the other thoughts. Those thoughts, bad thoughts. Thoughts of her past, threads of her fabric. Thoughts that inevitably lead to feelings of dread and longings for self-extinction. To jump or to jump, the choice is with her wherever she goes. And so, choosing the more lady-like and self-lobotomizing of the two, she takes in a deep breath, straightens her collar, and looks down at her watch.
“Well, I’ll be dogged,” she says as she reaches down to tighten her shoelaces. “Time for Mass.”
Thomas Moreau is a social worker who lives in the hills of Western North Carolina. Interested in issues facing both the American and Global South, he has been published in Mobius: The Journal of Social Change, has a forthcoming publication in Deep South Magazine, and is in the process of completing his first novel. Follow him on Twitter!