March 27, 2016: “Waltzing the Cat” by Pam Houston

Happy Easter to all of you out there, especially to those of you who commemorate Easter. Easter, to Catholics (as well as most Christians, I’m guessing), it the most sacred day of the year, the most holiest holiday, even bigger than Christmas. Why? What I’ve been told is this: Everybody is born, but only Jesus rose from the dead. Therefore, the resurrection day is bigger than the birth day. That makes sense, I guess. Still, I feel like most of the world doesn’t see it that way. I escorted my family to their Unity church today—yep, I’m one of those twice-a-year people—and afterward, we decided to head out for some lunch, as the elaborate Easter meal we have planned is going to take a while, so we moved that to tonight. We wondered, though, if anything would be open. As we drove toward home down Glenstone Avenue—a massive byway of banks, strip malls, gas stations, and restaurants—we noticed that just about everything was open. In fact, it was hard to find a business that was closed that wouldn’t be closed on Sunday, anyway. Radio Shack was open; I didn’t know we had a Radio Shack, or that Radio Shack still existed. The workout center was open—Karen quipped, “Everyone’s working off those ears.” She’s funny, that Karen. The CVS was open, as was every gas station, and  to our good fortune, every restaurant. We went to Village Inn, had a nice meal, and now here I am, blogging in the middle of the day—Story366 is open on Easter, too, folks. Come on in.

Today I’m writing about Pam Houston’s book Waltzing the Cat, the title story, “Waltzing the Cat,” in particular. Title stories are my thing, but of the two stories I’ve read from the book, this one stands out. I also read and enjoyed “Three Lessons in Amazonian Biology,” about a woman who is screwed over by a guy, surrounding a trip to South America. That story seems a lot like the soured relationship stories in Cowboys Are My Weakness, Houston’s first collection, which made her pretty famous when it came out in the early nineties and remains her best-known work. “Waltzing the Cat” features a different kind of relationship, and its protagonist, Lucille (who might actually be the Lucy of “Three Lessons …”—I’m not sure), has a different kind of relationship problem, one a little less explored in fiction than those involving wretched, philandering men.

In “Waltizing the Cat,” Lucille is jealous of Suzette, her family’s aging cat. Lucille’s parents feed Suzette rich, unhealthy food like ice cream, cheese spread, and whipped cream, all of the fancy variety, the kind of foods you get in the specialty aisle at specialty grocery stores. Suzette gobbles it up, ballooning to nearly forty pounds, its little head, tail, and legs like accessories to the core of a Thanksgiving Day parade float. At one point, Suzette just lies on the kitchen table with her chin on Lucille’s father’s plate, waiting for him to push food toward her mouth so she can lick it up. For some part of me, Suzette is my hero. Good work, if you can get it.

What bugs Lucille is her parents were obsessively skinny people their whole lives, so terrified of being fat, they never ate real meals (unless company came over, occasions which they faked it). Lucille’s mom existed on lettuce and carrots with a squeeze of lemon, while her somewhat more healthy father ate a lunch at work and then really didn’t eat at home. This same lack of a diet was thrust upon Lucille, who grew up in constant supervision and scrutiny of her mother, who for some reason just wanted herself and her family to be bone skinny. Beyond eating habits, Lucille’s mom always bought smaller clothes than anyone could fit into without forcing themselves, that constant reminder that if they just ate less, maybe their buttons wouldn’t feel like bursting every time they moved. Years later, when Lucille was an adult and home for an overnight visit, her mother snuck into her room while she slept, stole her jeans, and took them in two inches. So while Suzette gets to eat fatty delicacies, Lucille is mentally tortured by her mother. My own mom asks me about going to church (not sure if today’s Unity service will count in her mind), but that’s just her being stubbornly Catholic and a mom. Lucille’s mother practically heaps anorexia on her daughter (though neither it nor bulimia are every mentioned in the story). I guess my mom’s not so bad, trying to save my soul like she does.

Despite Lucille’s jealousy, she tries her best to be an adult, to have a relationship in her life. She’s moved to the west coast while her parents remain east. She has a relationship with a man and lives with him, though she knows it’s nothing more than convenience than love and always will be. Is this lack of commitment, her distancing herself, a result of her childhood? It’s a short story, so it’s implied that we’re supposed to.

Lucille seems to be making more progress with her parents, as they reach a point where they stop treating her like a daughter and more like a female adult they happen to know and are friendly with. In the end, Lucille’s parents are just cold, emotionless people, people who had a daughter with more normal appetites for affection (and food). Houston expresses this well, too. The first page and a half of the story is the description of Suzette’s spoiling, four solid paragraphs of how the cat’s happiness means more to them than hers every did. The first sentence of the next paragraph (after a section break) claims, “I don’t have any true memories of my parents touching each other.” A story that seemed to be about cat envy is suddenly about so much more. Lucille is a marvelous creation, Pam Houston piling explanation upon implication as to why Lucille has grown up to be the person she is. The ending—which I won’t give away, is perfect and wonderful and psychotically fun—will only add to that psychology, send her down more distant paths. What a great story.

I wish I had scoured my books to find an Easter story, or at least one about rabbits or eggs or hiding things or resurrection or ham. Something holiday-themed. Instead, you’ll have to settle for the photo below for your fix.

Pam Houston