Friday, January 5, 2018

A Case Study of Post-Necrosis Development in the Domesticated Feline by Daniel Olivieri

Young Tara loves her smart cat Socks so much not even death can come between them; by Daniel Olivieri.

Professor Socks was a cat of few words. No words, actually. In addition to being mute, he was also illiterate. Illiteracy is rampant in the cat community. Despite this, Tara had decided that Professor Socks was one of the foremost intellectuals of his generation. Occasionally, she would treat her parents to a lecture on Professor Socks' achievements. They were numerous. He was tenured, to start with. Tara's parents shared a wry smirk when they heard that. Both of them were professors. Neither had tenure. Professor Socks, Tara would continue, had a litany of publications. He even had a teaching position at Tufts, Tara would add. Once, Tara's father asked, "What field does Professor Socks work in?" This question threw Tara. She was pretty sure that farmers worked in fields, not professors. She responded, "You know... all of them. Left field, infield, cornfields, wheatfields."

"Your father means," Tara's mom jumped in, "what does Professor Socks study?"

"Oh," Tara said. "Biology, mostly. He specializes in viruses."

Tara was learning Biology at the time. Tara was a one year-old in cat years and a nine year-old in human years. Most nights, Tara and Professor Socks would curl up in his office (which doubled as Tara's bed) to discuss endoplasmic reticulums, both rough and smooth. Some mornings, Professor Socks would leave presents on the living room carpet. The presents were invariably dead rodents. These, Tara decided, were graduate students who had plagiarized.

One Saturday, Tara woke up before her parents (Tara always woke up before her parents). On that particular Saturday, she discovered not a mouse lying splayed on the floor, but Professor Socks. Tara could tell there was something missing from her cat. His legs were stretched too far out, his eyes only half shut. So Tara went to give Professor Socks a belly scratch - Professor Socks was a connoisseur of belly scratches. Scratch nice and slow with your middle three fingers and you'd get purrs. Scratch too fast and you'd get ignored. Scratch too hard and you'd get scratched yourself.

Usually, Tara could get a purr out of Professor Socks, but this morning there was nothing. So Tara scratched harder. No response. And already Tara knew what was missing from Professor Socks: it was Professor Socks.

Tara's apocalypse started right there. She was stuck, not willing to stop scratching Professor Socks. If she stopped she would be admitting that there no longer was a Professor Socks to scratch. Just a body. A lifeless body that not even someone with Tara's imagination could pretend was teaching a graduate level course in applied Immunology.

The biggest misconception about the apocalypse is that it hasn't happened yet. The truth is that the apocalypse has already happened, is happening, and will likely continue to happen for quite some time. What disaster movies and religious texts depict are one-size-fits-all apocalypses. The real apocalypses of the world are made-to-order. Such apocalypses happen everywhere from the floor of a motel bathroom, to subway stations, to the kitchen of an Elvis-themed diner.

Tara had started scratching Professor Sock's belly at seven in the morning. At eight-thirty, Tara's mom came down to find her daughter still scratching the lifeless Professor Socks. It was only when her mom said, "Oh honey..." and put an arm on Tara that she stopped listening for a purr. In Tara's world, the asteroid had hit the earth, the aliens had landed, the zombies were up and roaming the streets.

Tara's house was still warm, her pantry still filled with food, Becky and Hayley still had a spot for her at the lunch table. There were still Math worksheets to be done and spelling tests to take. But to Tara all of this might as well have been burned away. What was the point of having a house if you didn't have Professor Socks to share it with? What was the point of having food if Professor Socks didn't rub his back against your shin as you ate it? What was the point of having friends if you didn't get to complain to them about how your cat keeps being snubbed by the Nobel Prize committee? To Tara, now that Professor Socks was gone, the destruction of the world wouldn't make much of a difference. A physical apocalypse would just be a formality.

And yes, all of this was over a cat. Most personal apocalypses are of a much bigger magnitude than a cat dying (cancer, divorces, graduate school), but give Tara a break. This was her first apocalypse. She hadn't had any practice yet.

But Tara wasn't finished yet. At just nine years old, Tara wasn't entirely convinced by this whole "death" thing. Could death really take your cat away forever? It seemed a little over the top, if you asked her. She had imagined her cat into a professorship, surely it wouldn't be too much more difficult to imagine it back to life. And so Tara imagined. When she went to sleep, she talked to an imaginary Professor Socks. When she ate cereal, she imagined Professor Socks rubbing his back against her leg. She even imagined Professor Socks sitting in her lap during the unit test on organelles. That was a clear advantage that this Professor Socks had over the original: the school had no ban on bringing in imaginary animals.

This imagining continued for about a week with mixed results. Sometimes she'd lose track of where she'd imagined Professor Socks. Sometimes her parents would catch her talking to the air and look worried. Sometimes it would just feel too sad to imagine Professor Socks while knowing that the physical one wasn't going to return.

But then one morning, in the sliver of time after Tara had woken up but before her alarm blared, something happened. She could feel Professor Socks nuzzled up against her chest. She could feel his fur, and the body heat underneath the fur, and the heartbeat underneath the body heat. This wasn't imagining, this was real. Tara opened her eyes to see Professor Socks there, but there was no Professor Socks to see. Just her ladybug themed blanket. Even so, she could still feel Professor Socks right there.

Tara went to school with a renewed vigor that day. What's more, she went to school with an invisible companion. He curled up in her lap during Math class and sat purring on her desk during Spanish.

And that night, Tara and Professor Socks once again shared one of their discourses on biology. Except this time, for the first time in their history together, Professor Socks spoke too. He unveiled his opinions on the extreme utility of binary fission, ruminated on whether viruses can be considered alive, and made a joke about the taxonomy of fungi. Tara was in disbelief.

She was even more in disbelief when she woke up the next day to find Professor Socks still there, purring.

This continued for the rest of the week, and then for three years after that. Every day, Tara and Professor Socks would wake up together, go about the day together, and share some conjecture on Biology or Chemistry before going to sleep.

Understandably, Tara's parents found this quite disconcerting. Sure, maybe a nine year-old could have an imaginary friend, but a twelve year-old? Wasn't that a little too childish? And the nighttime Biology discussions Tara was having. They were disconcerting, albeit, surprisingly well informed. I mean, where the hell does a thirteen year-old learn terms like osteoblastic and ectothermic? It was unsettling. More unsettling was that dead mice were still appearing on their carpet.

And so Tara's parents sat her down in the dining room and had a talk. They wanted her to say goodbye to Professor Socks. It wasn't healthy to hold on to a dead cat for this long. Tara's response was, "He and I will have to talk this over. I'll get back to you tomorrow morning."

And so that night Tara and Professor Socks had a discussion. Did her parents think that Professor Socks was just a childhood delusion? Tara still wasn't clear on that. But what Tara was clear on, delusion or not, was that Professor Socks needed to get on with his career. His sabbatical from Tufts had gone on long enough. It was time to get back to work.

And so the next morning, Tara told her parents that Professor Socks had packed up and returned to Tufts. They were glad to hear this, but a little wary. They'd hoped that Tara would give some indication that she knew that Professor Socks wasn't real. They couldn't let their daughter grow up believing that they lived in a world where ghost-cats existed and could hold professorships at top-tier institutions. But that's exactly what Tara believed and nothing her parents could say would dissuade her from that.

A few months later, the Journal of Cell Biology (put out by the Rockefeller University press) published a study titled, "The Effect of Denatured Proteins on the Smooth Endoplasmic Reticulum." Its author was one C.L. Socks, of Tufts University.

7 comments:

  1. Quite a feat of the imagination, not to mention a tickle of the funny bone! A nice, light story that obliquely expresses so much about childhood sophistication and adult banality. Many thanks,
    Ceinwen

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    1. Thank you so much for reading my story! My day is better because of you.

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  2. Excellent in both style and content

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  3. I love it. I love the subtle humor--a tenured cat and deeply intellectual scientific discussions between them. I wouldn't want to be one of Professor Socks' grad students, btw, after I decided to "borrow" information from elsewhere and make it look like my own. Good character arc for Tara, too, while she still remains unshakeable in her beliefs!

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  4. A good and imaginative story. I like that at the end ghost Socks turned out to apparently be real. Very nice.

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  5. My favourite line: "The real apocalypses of the world are made-to-order." So perceptive....

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