December 16: “The Cat People” by Jeff Fearnside

Happy Friday, Story366! Today, several students are across campus at graduation, wearing maroon gowns and mortarboard caps, the rest of their lives ahead of them as they ponder how they’ll sit still for a couple of hours, in a folding chair, their elbows rubbing with the graduating strangers to their rights and lefts. On my street, just one off of campus, families are parking and walking to the auditorium for their son’s/daughter’s/loved one’s ceremony, glancing at the parking restriction signs, wondering if the city would really ticket a car, two hours before the restrictions end, on graduation day (they would and have). Some grad is opening a hard, flat, rectangular package from a friend or relative to find that Dr. Seuss book, Oh, the Places You’ll Gogiven to them as a gift, knowing that they will never read it. Someone else is receiving the keys to a new car. Someone else forgot about graduation and is just remembering, feeling panic, the wide-awake star of a dream they’ll have the rest of their lives. Someone else is sweating that final they took yesterday morning, wondering what they’ll tell everyone if they have to come back and retake that supposedly easy gen ed that they put off for seven semesters and didn’t go to often enough. Several somebodies are already lit and only getting litter.

I’m sitting in my office now, where I’ve been most of the day, watching graduation-types walk by and I’ve suddenly realized that this is a lot like the start of White Noise. I’m sure my day will diverge from that book from here on out. At least I hope so. I don’t know much about Hitler, but I did watch a YouTube video on Ilse Koch earlier this morning, for whatever reason. Hmm.

Anyway, as I’d like to get home and get started on my month-long break from teaching, let’s get to today’s entry. Continuing on with my third and final Bowling Green Alum Week this year, I present to you Jeff Fearnside and his new collection Making Love While Levitating Three Feet in the Air, from Stephen F. Austin State University Press. Jeff was an undergrad at BG when I was in grad school and we became friends pretty quickly. He and I played basketball, exchanged work, hung out at bars, and for a good semester’s stretch, got into lifting weights at the campus rec center. This was the only time in my life where I actually stuck to a weights program for more than a week or two, and by the end of the semester, I have to say, I actually got kind of jacked. I was still the chubby kind of buff, but still, I had definition to my chest and arms, actually felt strong. That period, I can say without hesitation, was when I was in the best shape of my life. Then, near the end of that semester, a funny thing happened: Jeff met a woman. One day, we’re pumping iron, getting redonkulously huge. The next, while spotting me, Jeff starts talking about meeting someone, about liking her, about maybe wanting to ask her out. The next, he cancels our weights meet-up to have coffee with said girl. Literally, I never lifted weights again. My buffosity redistributed itself into softer regions and my dreams of kicking sand on skinny dudes’ faces at the beach were squashed forever. Thanks, Jeff.

In any case, I’d read a bunch of stories from Making Love While Levitating Three Feet in the Air—most of them, in fact—as I actually provided a blurb for this book like over a year ago, a blurb that’s snuggled warmly in the front material with its other happy blurb friends. I was able to finish off Jeff’s collection today, coming across a story that’s really different from anything else in the book, anything else that I’ve ever read by Jeff: “The Cat People.” So, without any further embarrassing anecdotes, “The Cat People.”

“The Cat People” is told from a distant third person, chronicling what said Cat People are and what they do. The Cat People are not cats nor people, Fearnside’s narrator makes clear, but aliens that happen to be a combination of the two. The lower body is all human, the upper body more cat-like. The combination isn’t just physical, though, as there’s some cat in every Cat Person, including a propensity for napping alongside a love of cleanliness, combined with human traits such as a knack for both science and vengeance.

That covers the “are” part for what Cat People “are and do,” so there’s also the “do.” Most of the story relays this as well in the form of long paragraphs, utilizing beautifully long sentences, describing individual cases. One woman, a peaceful cat lover from Oregon, is named Minister of Finance by the Cat People overlords, rewarding her for treating her pets with dignity and love. A couple who spoil their cat with expensive food and other perks are rewarded—or rather, their cat is—with a huge estate, filled with open windows and plenty of birds and rodents to chase and dismember.

Conversely, if people who are good to cats get rewarded, those who are mean to their felines are punished just as badly. One guy who asphyxiated a litter of kittens instead of taking them to the local shelter faces a torture worse than anything I want to describe here. Other, lesser offenders are killed outright. The moral of the story is, if you’re good to your cat, the Cat People won’t have a problem with you, might even make it worth your while. If you’re a bastard, then, well, you’re fucked.

So, what’s the point of a story like “The Cat People,” then, as there’s no real protagonists, no narrative arc, and not a conflict upon which a hat can be hung? To me, it’s the type of piece that every collection needs, the type of story one might call a “fiction” instead of a story, for one, a selection that bucks convention and just exploits a good idea and some good writing (Fearnside gets super-creative with both the rewards and punishments). It’s also the type of piece that intentionally throws the balance off a thematically linked, neat collection, one that allows the author to flex his muscles a bit (like Jeff I used to do, that one semester …), allows him to break rank, smudge the corner of the cake because nothing’s perfect, anyway, right? Most of all, it’s rollicking fun, writing for writing’s sake. Why not, right?

The stories in Making Love While Levitating Three Feet in the Air are not, for the most part, about cat-people aliens who come and play God on earth—what a book that would be, eh? Instead, as noted in that blurb, it’s about semi-normal people making really extraordinary decisions, decisions that make for intriguing, unpredictable, and well wrought fiction. You should get Jeff Fearnside’s book and enjoy it for those stories first and foremost. At this point, though, post-blurb, why not draw attention to that red-headed stepchild, the rebel, the iconoclast, the black sheep? Okay, maybe “The Cat People” isn’t all of those things, but it’s a lot of fun, and hey, it’s Friday, a week before Christmas, and I’m on break. We could all use some Cat People on a day like today, right?

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