The first thing, the thing that I guess you could say started it all for The Cat, was the noodle woman. Our unit was set up on the top of this hill, way out in ghost country, and we’d been taking fire from the wire perimeter every day for a solid week. This was in Viet Nam. Ghost country was gook held territory, because at night you’d hear them out there, laying out the booby traps and hurrying along the paths, but you’d never see them.

Thing was, we were supposed to be airlifted out of the area ten days ago, but there was heavy shit all up and down the river, which the helicopters flew down low over to make it to our operating area, and so we were stranded, with nobody on the radio saying when we might get picked up. What we really cared about, though, was getting resupplied, because we were out of just about everything. At noon on the seventh day, our captain went down with a two man detail to the little village at the base of our hill and traded for some food. We gave them our malaria pills, because something like half the village was broken out with it, and they gave us bundles and bundles of noodles.

What happened was, at about ten thirty in the morning, this crazy woman jumped our wire with enough ordnance strapped to her chest to blow up half the province. Tugman, a slow eyed, soft-spoken big guy from Ohio who was on midday guard, didn’t shoot for three reasons: she was a woman, it was the middle of the day, and she was singing a Beatles medley. Christ knows how a woman stuck in a shitcan little village at the foot of some shitty little hill in the forests of Viet Nam had heard the Beatles, but we all heard her singing it, in her dumb gook way. When she was about thirty feet from our camp, the captain pulled out his sidearm slowly, thoughtfully, and shot her in the knee. He then calmly stepped over our sandbag wall and walked to her, standing over her and then looking back at us.

“Guess she was hoping we’d hit the shit,” he called.

The captain, who was a fair man, decided to take her back down to the village. None of us really knew what to do. The captain said he didn’t want a POW to look after, so we took her down to the village where she’d come from.

There was a clusterfuck in the little square when we carried her in. We set her down and those of us who had come with the captain, including Cat, stood around her while the crazy gooks sprung out with their crazy wailing sounds all around her. Later, we’d learn from this skinny kid we’d paid to go check the wire for booby traps that this woman had had a baby, and this baby had died from a fever, and she blamed us. Right then all we knew was that her people couldn’t figure out what to do. Apparently, half of them wanted to throw her in this low-slung bamboo hut thing, which I guess was a kind of jail. The other half wanted to take care of her, and they probably could’ve; we’d already dressed her wound and had left a little satchel of medical supplies with her on the ground. It went on like that for a while, the whole time Cat leaning against his rifle where he’d planted the stock in the ground. The eldest guy in the village and the captain were arguing. Some teenaged kid had helped the woman we shot to a sort of half-standing position. Finally Cat straightened up and, all in one smooth motion, took two strides towards the injured woman, unsheathed his combat knife and stuck it cleanly into the side of her throat. He’d turned and started back towards our post before any of us even moved. That was the first thing.

Let me tell you something about Cat Hoseman: he was my friend. I’d known him forever. We were both from Avalon, Kansas and on the same varsity baseball team, and though we got separated for basic, I pulled a favor with a clerk I knew and got assigned to his unit in the shit. In basic I heard they called him ‘the pussy’, on account of his first name, but by the time we met up again everyone called him The Cat, like they had in high school. They called him that in Avalon because he was so graceful, even just walking down the hall, and also because he listened to soul records he had Henry Taylor, who owned the record shop, order special. To watch him on the baseball diamond was a beautiful thing. He played shortstop and made a routine grounder look like the symphony of arms and legs and motion the gods must have had in mind with Adam. He was also a genuinely nice, shy kid with a soft voice. In the shit, when we’d be dug down for the night, sleeping, he’d sometimes hit one fist into the other palm like he was still at the Avalon Sports Complex, absentmindedly socking his mitt, waiting for the pitch. No lie: I saw him do this. That was The Cat. That was my friend.

The second thing that killed Cat Hoseman was Dayton Stacey the Third, from Oklahoma. He was our machine gunner, and he probably had no business being in the army. He was thick necked and heavy browed and so slow at things that the captain only ever gave him the same three tasks: dig out the gun pit, pass out the extra magazines when we had them, and fire when and only when the captain told him to. What I remember most about Dayton Stacey was the way he never moved his neck. It was like he couldn’t look to the side. When he turned to look at you, he moved his face and his shoulders in concert, so that his whole body was addressing you. He liked cars and Playboy and talked about these, alternately, all day. He also had somehow, just before we shipped out, wrangled a chubby, round faced girl into being his girlfriend. She wrote him all the time. After a while, she began to complain about his letters back, which were about what you’d expect from Dayton. So Cat decided, I think mostly out of boredom, to help the kid out and sort of write his letters to this girl for him. Now, Cat was no poet, but he was nice and honest and thoughtful, and he knew this girl, whoever she was, probably wouldn’t care so much about the explosions Dayton had been gushing to her about. I only ever caught one little bit of Cat’s letters to this girl, when I came up behind him returning from watch. He was writing something about the way the light looked in the morning there in Viet Nam, through the fog and the trees. Cat continued this for some time, signing the letters with Dayton’s name, and though the girl had to have figured it out, she was nice about it, writing back kind letters to Dayton and coyly asking him to pass along her thanks to his friends in the unit.

What happened was, Dayton stepped on a booby trap. It was one of the kinds that rose into the air before exploding. We were spaced out on the trail, so nobody else was hurt, but it blew Dayton into pieces, leaving his torso the only thing even kind of intact. As we were examining the area for other traps and the captain was radioing for a cas-vac, this skinny kid from Detroit named Trevor Holmes called to us from beside a thick tree he was pointing to.

 “Hey,” he said. “They bundled it with like, forks and shit.”

Sometimes the gooks wrapped bits and pieces of metal to the mines, so that when they went off, they’d do more damage.

“The fuck did they get silverware from?” he said.

I walked up next to Cat, who was standing over Dayton’s torso, looking down at it. Cat leaned down a little and poked something glinting from the middle of the mess that looked to have been a lower intestine. The glint fell away from the body. It was a tine. It was four o’clock on a sunny afternoon. That was the second thing.

Let me tell you something else: all Cat Hoseman really wanted in life was a blowjob, though it took a lot to get him to admit it. He’d never had one before. He was too nice to ask any of the girls in Avalon who did that sort of thing, and he just wasn’t the kind of guy who went with the rest of us into the back rooms of the gook bars we tore up when we got a little R and R. Besides, as I got him to tell me the only time he let me get him very drunk, he was kind of hoping that he could wait until he was married and get his wife to do it, so he wouldn’t feel so bad about it. He’d return the favor of course, though he’d never done that either. Even drunk, he said this kind of shamefully. I was pretty sure the girl he’d gone steady with for a while in high school had let him go all the way, but the way Cat talked about it, you could tell he thought there was some mysterious, unknown feeling awaiting him in the blowjob, like there was something he could find there. All my poor friend wanted was, once in his life, preferably with a nice, plain girl who loved him, to be fellated. And it was this that was the third thing that
killed him.

It happened on County Road 1800, in Cat Hoseman’s old baby blue Chevrolet pickup truck, three months to the day that our military flight landed and we stepped alive onto US soil. When we got back, everyone from Avalon who had been in the war did a lot to avoid each other. To be honest, I never really wanted to see Cat Hoseman again. It’s hard to say how it was. Maybe Cat spent this time taking long drives to nowhere out in the fields, the shimmering wheat and already high corn making him feel lost and maybe he liked that. Maybe not. What I do know is that on June 12th of that year Cat Hoseman went to the Eagle Bar and Grill on pitcher night and met Lorraine Thomason, a tall, pretty girl with high, proud cheekbones who we’d gone to high school with, and just when dusk was beginning to stir with darkness, he drove away from there with her in the passenger seat. Cat had tuned in the radio and so they heard the DJ interrupt the music with the weather bulletin, the tornado alert, the instructions to take immediate cover. The skies had been strange all day. By this time they were way outside the city, headed nowhere in particular, and so the only thing they could do was speed to the lone overpass near them, where a postal route crosses over above the highway. There were no other cars. They parked on the road, under the overpasses’ cover.

They were drinking wheat beer and Lorraine had been drunk for a long time. The music came back on and Lorraine swung her leg over and straddled Cat, dancing on him and giggling. They kissed for a while as the wind outside picked up and the sky went from golden to a greenish color. Then, as the last light began to go, Lorraine slid down until she was kneeling beside him on the cab’s floor, and undid Cat’s belt buckle. When he came, Cat gave out a strange, high-pitched sound that Lorraine said was like a baby bull’s lowing. This was the third thing. Three days later my friend Cat Hoseman shot himself in the temple in the very same pickup, parked out on an access road in a field of corn.

Lorraine told all of this to her next boyfriend, an asshole named Dave Gutsbill, who repeated it to everyone in town. He said the way she’d said it made it sound like she’d seen a ghost. It was only a month or so later that I moved away, and started again in the city.

I saw Lorraine Thomason years and years later, on a stormy night in a grocery in Kansas City. I was turning out of an aisle and she had her back to me. She was stretching up on her tiptoes to grab a ripe piece of fruit from the display. It seemed so sad to see her there, alive, so strange that she had survived Cat Hoseman to become this older, real person. And I almost went to her. I almost greeted her and made polite small talk. I almost followed her from the grocery and, over coffee, gently asked about my friend Cat, about what had really happened that night, besides the blowjob and the sound Cat made. I almost asked her what his face looked like as she straightened up, as he slowly realized that he was in a crappy old car parked outside of a tiny old town in the middle of Kansas, USA, with years and years of peace ahead of him, and that what he had just felt had been nothing more than the small sensation of Lorraine Thomason’s generous lips moving over his penis. I wanted to ask her what it was like to try to speak into that silence. I wanted her to lean forward, her hands cupped around the warmth of her coffee, and say, “So what really happened with Cat anyway? What was it that did it?”

But I didn’t. I turned and left before she could see me, passing through the automatic doors and going out into the keening wind and the fierce and wild dark.

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© 2009

The Third Thing That Killed Cat Hoseman

Arna Hemenway