Every now and then, I think about the cat house. It stands in my memory, not as a highlight or a lowlight, but as grim placeholder to be taken down on occasion and re-examined; a reminder and a warning.
The facts are these: In the spring of 2011, I was sent off into the woods between Lisbon and Bowdoin to report on what proved to be a slowly unfolding nightmare populated almost exclusively by cats. There, in a fair-sized house that looked nearly normal from the outside, I found an animal control officer trying to manage an unmanageable situation.
The interior of the house was a horror. Floors scratched to shreds, animal waste in knee-high mounds, the reek of urine and sickness, intense and toxic.
The house was a crawling nightmare of filth from which the human spirit wanted to flee, yet in spite of the grime and blood and waste, at least half of the horror was psychological: Only a day or two earlier, a man had lived within those diseased walls, sharing his space with the stench and with the dozens of flea-addled cats he cared for.
The mind wanted to revolt. There was just no way any human being could survive under those conditions, yet the signs of that life were everywhere. A half-eaten plate of Spaghetti-Os, starting to green with mold. A half-empty 12-pack of beer in a corner, a dirty pair of socks next to the grimy bed.
Every news reporter I know has one or two stories he likes to share more than all others. He snatches them out of memory whenever the opportunity arises, recalling every detail as a way of explaining the bleak and unpredictable nature of news. He relishes in the retelling of these tales and the more gasps he can educe from his audience, the better.
I have a few of those stories. The cat house is not among them. I rarely talk about that experience at all because to do so, I have to send my imagination off on the unhappy chore of deducing what led that man to live under such unlivable circumstances. Who wants to ponder the idea that this could happen to anyone, given the right mental maladies and a few turns of misfortune?
But mostly, it’s the crayon-drawn picture on the living room wall.
In the original news story, it’s described this way: “Few personal items were found amid the trash and waste. However, hanging alone on one wall was what appeared to be a child’s drawing on construction paper. It depicted nine people drawn in crayon. One of them, in the middle, was labeled ‘Daddy.'”
That child’s drawing mesmerized me at the time, to the point where, for a few seconds, I no longer noticed the rot and ruin around me. To me, that picture was a portal, a glimpse into an alternative reality. And a sad reality it was.
The man who had lived in that house wasn’t some cosmic recluse who had fallen out of the sky. He was somebody’s father, somebody’s brother, somebody’s son. Somewhere out in the cleaner world was a young boy or girl who still thought of this man as something special, in spite of the stink of his house and the eccentricities of his life. Someone cared enough to scribble him a picture and he, in turn, cared enough to hang it on his wall.
The imagination — a cannibal, when you get right down to it — just won’t leave it be.
They carted the man away when the conditions of his house were reported to the right authority. He protested some — what about the cats? Someone has to care for the cats! — but ultimately, he had no say. He was shipped off, cleaned up, given a bed in a bright room that was altogether unfamiliar. No cats. No crayon drawing on a wall. And there he died, in a place that no doubt smelled fresh and clean but which was not his home.
Every time I think about the cat house, I think about that picture and wonder what became of it. Was it torn off the wall, balled up and tossed into the fire that eventually took down the house? Or was it carefully peeled free and taken away, perhaps by the child who had drawn it?
Perhaps somewhere out there is a social worker, a nurse or an orderly who talks about the Cat Man of Bowdoin to titillate his drinking buddies when conversation lags. Maybe he tells it with relish, describing the horrors of that house like a man telling ghost stories around a campfire.
Or maybe that social worker, nurse or orderly is like me and chooses to put it out of mind as much as humanly possible. This one is more sad than salacious. It leaves too many questions and, when you get right down to it, do we really want to hear the answers?
Mark LaFlamme is a Sun Journal staff writer who knows a cat house from a cathouse. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.