EDMONTON TO CALGARY: The Wrong Cat
The worst time for your pet to run away is when you are moving, and my family moved a lot. So every time my father was transferred, my parents boarded our cat at a kennel until we got to the new house. After the furniture was in place and we were all settled in, my mother would call the kennel and send for the cat. During that first move from Edmonton, the kennel staff must have mislabelled the cage because a week after my mother called, the delivery man showed up at our Calgary house with the wrong cat in the back of his truck.
By that time our missing cat was just one more thing to worry about. For the first few days, we lived in the new house as we would with a chilling stranger. A small room off the basement den was lit with cheap fluorescent lights that cast a sinister glow on the bright red, clammy concrete walls, just like the room in The Amityville Horror. A few weeks later we’d forgotten our old house as the new one grew familiar, but that awful, pointless room never stopped creeping us out. We never used it for anything the whole time we lived there.
The changeling in the delivery truck was also a chilling stranger. Our cat was a grey and black tabby, tolerant of every nasty thing three kids could put it through. My brother used it for pro-wrestling practice and my sister and I liked to dress it up in costumes. More than once I put my brother’s underpants on the cat backwards so its tail stuck out through the Y-front and it looked just like it was wearing a little custom diaper. I would cradle the poor thing in my arms and walk around introducing it to house guests as “my baby Joey.” That cat suffered, but it suffered quietly until I let it go and it could kick off the underpants and go find its food.
The cat in the moving van was a tabby, too, but the resemblance ended there. It was not tolerant—it was a big hostile mass of bushed fur, and it had one of those flat cat faces that looks pissed off all the time. I told the driver it wasn’t our cat and asked him if he had ours somewhere else. For an awkward moment or two he squirmed, rubbed his chin and tapped on the roof of the truck while the caged cat growled. Finally he answered no and asked me if I wanted to keep the new cat instead. I did not. I called out for my dad and he came over and said something to the driver, who took off with flat-face and left us to worry about our missing pet.
Two weeks later a different truck showed up, this time with our cat in the back. The cat was thin but healthy, considering, and it stayed with us through two more moves and grew old and sort of sticky and lumpy. My parents kept the cat and years later, when they lived in a townhouse, the cat got arthritis and my dad built a ramp so it could still climb to the top of their courtyard fence. Everyone liked that cat, especially the woman next door, who often lured it over to her yard with tuna and then reached over and pushed the ramp off the fence so that the cat had to stay on her side, which drove my mom nuts. That cat lived for twenty-one years and finally got killed by a dog that had escaped its leash. We never found out what happened to the other cat.
CALGARY TO TORONTO: The Dangling Mover
At first the Toronto house was spooky, too. It had an evil old boiler in the basement and a long, skinny yard behind the house that ended at the stone wall of the largest graveyard in the city. My dad made a big deal about the graveyard before we left Calgary, joking about how scary it would be. But after a while we grew to like living by the graveyard. It was sort of like living next to a historical site, or a big park.
I was in the backyard seeing if I could get over the stone wall when the moving van from Calgary showed up. My mom called me in and the two of us waited on the front steps while the movers got the rig ready to unload. Somewhere between Calgary and Toronto, other people’s stuff had been loaded in behind ours, so the movers had to get at ours through the smaller side doors. They hitched up a ramp and opened the doors, which broke up the word Careful in the slogan and revealed that the other people’s stuff had pressed ours forward so tightly that it was an ordeal to pry a box loose. The movers gathered on the sidewalk by the rig, debating methods of shifting the boxes enough to get a grip.
After some animated discussion, one mover went back to the rear doors, took out somebody else’s chair, brought it around to the side and set it on the ramp. He then got up on the chair, reached up and worked his fingers under the box at the top of the pile. He got a tentative grip and started wiggling the box back and forth, which caused the chair he stood on and the ramp beneath it to shake. When he had pulled the box out a few inches, the ramp fell, taking the chair with it—but not the mover, who hung from the box while his co-workers struggled to reattach the ramp. They couldn’t do it in time. The box was torn loose by the mover’s weight and he fell, too, along with most of the contents of the box, including a dozen yellow plastic Christmas tree balls, which went bouncing down our new street.
We had to buy new Christmas stuff, but the whole event gave us a laugh and broke some tension. After that my family warmed a little faster toward the house, the boiler, the graveyard, the neighbours and Toronto itself.
TORONTO TO VANCOUVER: The Lost Firebird
It was too far to drive, so for the last big move we shipped our car to Vancouver ahead of us by train. It was supposed to arrive at the new house about the same time we did, but it didn’t show up, so we had to call the rail company and report it missing. The car was a powder blue Firebird with a spoiler and an 8-track player, and we were much better off without it, mostly because we were a family of five and the Firebird had four bucket seats. The fifth spot was a narrow hump between the rear seats, and it was my fate as the youngest child to perch there during family drives. My brother and sister called the hump seat the launching pad because its occupant (me) would be the first to sail through the windshield in an accident. Worse, I was within arm’s reach of everyone in my family, which made me an easy target for punching and poking by my siblings and the only thing within striking distance of my dad, who fired off blind slaps from the driver’s seat when we got out of hand.
The car was lost for weeks and the shipping company had to give us a loaner—a new, dignified sedan, painted in earth tones and equipped with five seat belts. The shippers called occasionally with progress reports on the Firebird, giving us news of unverified sightings. “We think your car was taken off the train in Winnipeg,” they would say, or, “It was left behind in Ontario.” I mourned when the Firebird finally turned up. The company took the loaner away and I was once again forced to assume my place on the hump, which got even more uncomfortable as I grew into a lanky teen. Luckily, before the crowding became unbearable, my sister moved out and I inherited my own bucket seat by the window.
The Vancouver house wasn’t too scary. It was newly built and its only horror show was a design flaw that allowed water to pour through the light fixtures on all three floors whenever it rained. About a year after we moved in we found that someone had made scorch marks inside one of the attic cubbyholes and had then written wow in black smudgy letters across the cupboard wall. My parents always believed it was me or my brother smoking pot in the closet, but I can tell you it wasn’t.