It was supposed to be a pleasant summertime Saturday in a time when the Viverette family consisted of just me, my wife, and our two young sons. We decided to take an all-day trip by car into upstate New York for no other reason than to get out of the city for some decent family time on the road. My wife tended to the boys’ needs—bathing, clothing, and “Use the bathroom now so we don’t have to use any of those filthy roadside toilets on the way up!”—while I readied drinks and sandwiches for the trip. I was filled with “it’s time to be a good daddy” enthusiasm and walked to the rear of our driveway where the family car, a burgundy Oldsmobile Delta ’88, was parked.
Before I continue, let me state that our driveway is a pretty standard for the part of the city in which I reside in that it’s fairly long, but unforgivably narrow due to the nearness of the house of my immediate neighbor. Moving a car in or out of this kind of narrow passageway requires a driver to abandon all thoughts of rotating the steering wheel nominally in any direction and just concentrating on keeping the car in a straight line for most of the driveway’s length. So close are the houses that a car parked between them will not have enough room for its doors to be opened. Therefore, it’s just plain, common sense to park your vehicle in the very front of the driveway where there is more open space, or to drive arrow-straight into the wider rear area at the great risk of driving into your house or that of your neighbor.
I, the conscientious daddy, decided to check the car’s engine to the best of my ability. My family wasn’t going to be stuck on the road during a hot summer’s day, not if I could help it! I revved the engine for about 15 minutes, just enough for the vehicle to warm and noisily frighten away a number of feral cats that were lingering under it for shade. I ignored the scampering fuzzballs as they ran behind nearby bushes and went through the vehicle checklist: Motor oil—added, transmission fluid—check, brake fluid—check, coolant—added, wiper fluid—check, air filter—check, hoses—check. All systems were “go” for the family outing!
As I closed the hood I spotted my neighbor, Mr. Hardiwell, sweeping the sidewalk and street directly before his house. Mr. Hardiwell was a tall, overweight, dark complexioned, middle-aged black man with deep-set eyes and fat cheeks that would’ve done Dizzy Gillespie proud. I knew that Mr. Hardiwell was a veterinarian who hailed from somewhere deep in the south, and he spoke with a slowness of speech that surpassed that of the classic southern drawl. He…spoke…so…gosh…darned…slow-ly and in a pitch that was uncharacteristic for such a large man. His voice was extremely nasal, almost squeaky, and I envisioned Shaquille O’Neal saddled with the high-pitched annoyance that was “Steve Urkel’s” voice every time he spoke.
As I waved a “hello”—one he returned with a hearty wave—my wife emerged from the house with our sons, both of whom were positively beaming and chattering on about the impending trip, and she quickly had them buckled into the car’s rear seat.
And that’s when it happened.
With windows closed, A/C blasting on full, and the radio tuned to the Isley Brothers’ Shout, I gave a hearty, “Pipe down in the rear so I can concentrate!” and began to back the Olds out of the driveway. As I reversed the car, I kept my eyes focused on the driveway, on the nearness of the houses, on keeping the car properly aligned, and only when I had reached the open front of the drive did something catch the corner of my eye. I happened to glance back towards the rear area, and there in front of the garage, in the area where the car was parked, was a small, black-and-white kitten twisting on the ground from side to side.
I eased on the brakes even as something within me clicked into a kind of automatic analysis mode. This strange, unbidden inner mechanism mentally backtracked the tire positions from where the car was parked to its current position, and that’s when I started to feel sick. I found myself plotting and re-plotting the short distance again and again, getting sicker and sicker each time I did as the same answer kept roaring back: the left front tire had rolled right over the spot where the kitten was twisting about.
Sickened, my mind quickly searched for another explanation. “Is that cat just playing in the sun?” I whispered in desperation to my wife. She had been flipping through a spiral-bound road map, and when she looked to me I silently gestured towards the garage area. What she saw caused her mouth to form a silent “O.”
It was a few seconds before she could talk. “It-it-it’s playing, isn’t it?” she asked, while shaking her head “no.” She knew the answer even as she asked the question.
“What’s going on?” the boys chimed in unison.
“NOTHING!” I blurted out as I frantically motioned for my wife to distract them.
She hurriedly unbuckled herself and turned around to face the boys. “Hey, guys,” she said as she grabbed the road map, “here’s the map of where we’re going.” She held the multicolored map such that the boys had to look slightly down to see it, and with them fully occupied I tore my eyes from the gory spectacle of the dying cat and finished easing the Olds out of the driveway.
I briefly paused the car just outside of our driveway for a few seconds and stared through the windshield at the kitten as its pained thrashing quickly ceased. Mr. Hardiwell drew close and motioned for me to roll down my window, which I did along with turning off the radio, and in his high-pitched southern drawl he said, “That thing sure let out a holler when yuh hit it!” I frantically motioned for him to keep it down, as my two young sons were still unaware of the incident.
My younger son caught that and said, “Did you hit something, daddy?”
Snapping his head up from the map, my older son began looking around. “Hey,” he said in a rising, curious voice, “what’s that on the ground by the garage?”
“A rag,” my wife said in her best keep-it-nonchalant voice. “Here, look at this on the map.”
Neither of us wanted our sons to see the mashed kitten. My wife merely wanted to protect our young, innocent sons, as did I, and the sense of guilt that suddenly washed over me provided an additional motive for shielding them. Simply put, I did not want my sons to think that their father was cruel to animals, and I desperately did not want to fail in their eyes and in such seemingly horrific fashion. I parked the car well away from our home and increased the volume on the radio before slowly returning to the rear of the driveway. Thanks to the music and my wife’s distractions, my sons would never know what happened.
As I neared the spot where the kitten rested, I kept my eyes from its body. It was not until I was just a few feet away from it that I finally succeeded in looking down to see up-close exactly what happened. I was immediately sorry that I did. The kitten’s head, front legs, and torso were intact, but contorted. Its rear, however, looked as though lumpy tomato paste was poured over matted fur. And in that pulped mass of blood, bone, and guts was the clear impression of a tire tread. Proof positive, as if I needed it, that the car had literally crushed the life out of the poor thing.
“Yuh goin’ to just stand there?” Startled, I jerked around to see Mr. Hardiwell speaking to me from behind the screen door to this house. “You’re from up here so you prob’ly never had to deal with a dead critter. Let me tell you how we do it back home: you just go back there, scoop it up, and throw it in the garbage. Scoop it up and dump it out, that’s how you handle stuff like this.”
The guilt I felt swelled into a tidal wave. “I can’t just toss it away like…like trash!”.
“It’s just a miserable cat!” he barked in reply.
I turned my back to him to retrieve a shovel from the garage. But oh, no, he just had to continue on by saying, “Yuh know, you’re making me wonder…”
“Wonder about what?”
“Well,” and he paused a while for effect before continuing, “what kind of black man gets all worked up over a dead cat?”
I cleared my throat. “And what do you mean by saying that sh… that stuff?” I shot back, almost forgetting myself.
“A real black man would just throw it away and forget about it.”
“But you’re a vet!” I shouted back. “How can you say that when you care for animals yourself?”
“That’s money,” he said, emerging fully from behind his screen door, “and that’s all it is.”
The fires of anger quickly swept over me and I became lost in a red haze. I tore myself away from the kitten, dropped the shovel with a loud CLANG! and walked purposefully toward the front of my driveway to confront him. I stood before my front gate, and though separated by the minimal width of the side-street on which we lived, I could see nothing but raw, naked disgust in his face.
“So it’s all about the money to you, is that it? ” I bellowed at him. ” The pets mean nothing to you, is that it?”
“What it is,” he said with mocking deliberation, “is that if you’re a real black man, you’ll pick that thing up and throw it in the garbage.”
I summoned my most sarcastic tone: “I guess I’m not a man then, ’cause I’m burying the cat.”
“Oh, yeah? Waste ‘a time if you ask me.”
“Your…” and I dug hard for both a word and my composure, “opinion…is duly noted, Mr. Hardiwell, but if you’ll excuse me, this black man has a cat to bury.”
With an audible “Humph!” of dissatisfaction, he turned around sharply and stormed back into his house.
That would be the last time I would ever talk to Mr. Hardiwell, and to this day I say, “good riddance.” With his unwelcome distractions removed, I buried the cat in my backyard and hosed its blood from the driveway.
Years have passed since the incident, and I have since forgiven myself for what was clearly an accident. What nags me still, however, is the reaction from Mr. Hardiwell. To me, his view of black manhood was something left over from the Stone Age, something the entire world would later see when quarterback Michael Vick was caught treating live dogs as fighting stock and dead ones as fuel for fire. Personally, I believe that the measure of a man or the measure of a person in general is not heartlessness, but how one balances strength, intelligence, and yes, the power of the human heart. There were other personal moments of social revelation both before and after my run-in with Mr. Hardiwell, of course, but my confrontation with him remains an aberrant, yet defining moment of my life within the black community.
All the best,