Sunday, November 21, 2010

Idea Garage Sale: November Story

I used to get a certain mood in November in West Texas. For those of you who have never lived there - i.e. most people in the world - West Texas is what is known as a "semi-arid" landscape. This means that it's not the Mojave, Sahara, or Saudi Peninsula, we have vegetation year-round most places, and that our droughts are about 7 years long. San Angelo, where I lived from the time I was ten till I left for college, bills itself as "the wool capitol of the world," but if anybody of my generation recognizes the name, it will be from receiving Laugh-In's Fickle Finger of Fate Award when its reservoir caught fire.

If rain falls, it will probably be in May or October, causing floods. But all the same, most of the Novembers I spent there were misty, humidity hovering in the chilly air that came down from the Arctic (there being nothing between San Angelo and the North Pole but a bobwire fence, and I hear that fence is down) without ever precipitating. The hard, bright sun of summer hides behind solid cloud banks that never, ever rain. The leaves are off the scrubby trees, except for the dull green cedar and live oak. Looking out from - well, from anywhere - you can see the curvature of the earth, dun grass fading into blue-gray sky spattered with restless flocks of black birds, grackles mostly. The perpetual West Texas wind doesn't fail, but when its not dragging clouds of dust down from the Panhandle and Oklahoma, it creeps along at a melancholy pace, and it smells wrong. Hunting season starts, and you're likely to encounter a quiescent lump of deer on your way to the icehouse for a candy bar. (Also, I get really awful sinus problems, so I'm drugged to the gills to begin with.)

I made endless attempts during my eight-year tenure there to write something that would convey the emotional state of November to somebody else. But I haven't much use for mood writing, and emotional states are awkward to plot. Here's one I started writing and couldn't finish, though I knew exactly how it should read.

Marion Jabot lives in what my Mom called a "crackerbox" house next door to the local cat lady's bungalow. She was an unspecified school age, probably junior high or high school (I think I tried to write this when I was twelve), she has an Airedale named Bobo, and she hates cats. She teaches Bobo to chase them, because she thinks they're sly and evil and up to something. Even after the cat lady (Annie Wise; I don't know why these names stay with me so well) dies and the cats are all hauled away, the bungalow standing empty, she sees cats gathering there in huge numbers, night after night. Bobo sees them, too. Bobo is afraid of them. But no one else notices anything unusual.

I no longer remember - perhaps this is a plot point I never solved - how she and Bobo were to get trapped, alone, overnight in the bungalow. It would be a November night, and the cats would corner her, led by a huge tortoiseshell with glowing eyes, who she identifies with Annie Wise; perhaps as her reincarnation, perhaps as her witch's familiar, for Annie Wise is patently a witch figure. They would be everywhere, all glowing eyes and silent movement and savage claws and teeth. She and Bobo would try to attack, but they melt away in one part only to surround them more closely in another, until they give up and huddle together in a circle of cats, all night. The tortoiseshell would walk all over them, make eye contact. And when the sun rose, they would all go away, leaving Marian and her dog exhausted, bewildered, and unharmed; beyond the knowledge that the cats she hated, who certainly could have killed her if they'd cared to, didn't care to and weren't malevolent at all. Her idea of cats had nothing to do with the reality of cats, and everything to do with who she was, herself.

And that would be what November feels like in West Texas.

Naw, I didn't think you'd get it. Maybe you could if Ray Bradbury wrote it, or August Derleth, on a good day, like when he wrote "The Lonesome Place." But it was way more than I could do when I was twelve, and I've gone in entirely different directions since then.

And November in San Antonio doesn't feel that way at all.


  1. To me, it sounds like the flipside of Lovecraft's "The Cats of Ulthar" (Ulthar being that famous town where the law forbids anyone from harming a cat)[ ], complete with the little house that is surrounded by an eerily organized gathering of cats, trapping a pair inside.

    With a more pleasant outcome for the cat-haters, though....

  2. Y'know, I have no idea whether my reading of the Ballantine Adult Fantasy Series compilation "The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath and Other Stories," my first exposure to Lovecraft, preceded my conception of this story, or not. I know which way the smart money would bet, though.

    After reading that book I decided I hated Lovecraft's writing. More mature taste and experience gives me an appreciation for it, however. He's either the worst great writer or the greatest bad writer of the 20th century - your call - but the way he stays with an audience and the gonzo combination of obvious horror and subtle humor put him in the "major" category however you cut it.