Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Hayley Morgenstern's Cat

So about me...

I'm a writer. And that's really what this is all about, is all this writing I keep compulsively doing. It's such a pesky habit. I keep meaning to find a way to get paid for it. But in the meantime, I've whiled away the majority of the Bush presidency working on my first novel.

Now, a lot can happen to a project after you've been at it for as long as I have. For instance, you might completely change your mind about setting part 1 in 1992 and move it to 1993 instead, causing massive tidal shifts in the plot and all the action. You might decide that one of the main characters has a steady boyfriend that you completely forgot to mention. You might have a notebook computer (or two, or three even) crash on you, causing you hair-pulling agony, along with the loss of a few months' work each time.

You could lose heart along the way. You could regain heart along the way. You could lose heart again, regain it again, spend three years working in a restaurant in central New Jersey, lose heart, quit that job, regain heart, lose heart once more, go broke, and finally force yourself to regain heart with a frantic proclamation that you'll finish the book before you turn 31, which you won't quite manage to do. (But at least you won't lose heart again.)

I'm speaking purely hypothetically, of course.

Anyway, one of the sad byproducts of so much work is that sometimes, a really great story snippet ends up being tossed into a file folder somewhere on your computer because there just isn't room for it within the framework of the story. That's what this post is about.

What you're about to read is a background piece I wrote about one of the characters in the book - a curly-haired girl from Connecticut named Hayley Morgenstern. Hayley grew up with three older brothers that took no end of delight in making Hayley's childhood as miserable as possible. Eventually, like all little sisters, Hayley learned how to turn the tables on them. But not yet.

This story takes place the day that a young Hayley, all of eight years old, got a cat.

When Hayley Morgenstern was eight-and-a-half years old, she felt she had accumulated enough wisdom and experience to manage the responsibility of a pet. So with all the earnestness that an eight-and-a-half-year-old can muster, she set about brokering a deal with her parents to allow her to get a cat. The terms of the deal were that if they let her get a cat, she would feed it, take care of it, and clean its litter, and it would never be a bother to them in any way. About the only concession she asked for was naming rights to the cat. She had tentatively settled on two: Phoebe, if the cat was a girl, and if it was a boy, Glen.

Parents are notoriously susceptible to the charms of their children in moments of greatest cuteness, a fact of which the young Hayley was well aware. She made sure to make her eyes as big as possible, to pull in the corners of her mouth so she looked serious (but in an adorable way), and to keep her hands folded neatly and sincerely on the kitchen table in front of her. She even had the good sense to brush her outrageously curly hair and to wear her most decent pair of corduroy overalls, all in the interest of putting her best foot forward.

It worked like a charm.

Sadly, however, the naming of the cat did not go quite as smoothly for young Hayley. The cat turned out to be a boy, but because Hayley had three older brothers (and more to the point, because her brothers were jerks), the cat's full name ended up being Glen The Cat.

It was a Tuesday in the early summer, just after the end of Hayley's tenure in the second grade when the Morgensterns brought Glen The Cat home from the Ledyard Animal Shelter. Hayley's mother was quick to remind her daughter of the terms of their agreement, and Hayley was equally quick to remind her mother about the naming clause in her contract. The naming of Glen was a rare moment of glory for her. It lasted almost a full five minutes before her brothers changed, or rather, extended the cat's name to its present state.

"What's his name?" said Randy. Randy was the oldest, but only the second biggest jerk among the Morgenstern boys.

"Glen," Hayley said. "I got to name him."

"You named him Glen The Cat?" asked Howie, who held the distinction of being the biggest among the jerks. Howie was the second oldest.

"No, just Glen," Hayley insisted.

"Aw, Glen The Cat is kinda cute," Randy said.

"Yeah," said Hayley, "he's really cute." He was too. He was a pretty black and brown cat with white paws and big, green, luminous eyes.

"No," said Randy, "I meant the name 'Glen The Cat' is kinda cute. Glen The Cat is ugly. Look at his paws. They don't match the rest of him."

Last among the jerks was Ricky, the youngest of the three brothers. Ricky's role in this kind of hijinks was usually restricted to background laughter, but it was still enough to qualify him for jerk status. Ricky was cracking up on the living room floor behind them.

"He is not ugly, Randy, you’re ugly!"

"Not as ugly as Glen The Cat," said Howie.

“Leave the cat alone!” Hayley yelled.

"You mean leave Glen The Cat alone," said Randy.

Ricky kept on cracking up on the living room floor. It was vintage Ricky. He cracked up so often he ended up with asthma. That was why Howie and Randy loved having Ricky as an audience. Hayley thought he deserved it.

"Mom!" Hayley yelled. "Howie and Randy keep calling the cat 'Glen The Cat'."

Hayley's mom's voice cut into the argument all the way from the kitchen. "Howie and Randy, stop bothering your sister," said Hayley's mom. Already, this pet thing was turning into a bad bargain for her. It was evident in her tone.

"We’re not bothering her, Mom," Howie yelled, "we’re just trying to figure out why she named Glen The Cat 'Glen The Cat.' I mean, it's obvious he's a cat. It's not like anyone's calling him 'Glen The Dog'."

Ricky's wheezing laughter in the background wasn’t doing a whole lot to buy Howie any parental sympathy.

"Yeah," said Randy, "but what if we got a dog, and I wanted to name him Glen?"

"No!" Hayley yelled. "You can’t do that, Randy! I already named the cat Glen!"

"...The Cat," added Randy, that jerk.

"Actually, 'Glen The Dog' is a much better name," said Howie. "Maybe we should call Glen The Cat 'Glen The Dog' instead."

Hayley's eyes started to well up at the same moment her mom emerged into the living room from the kitchen, peeling rubber gloves off of her hands. There must have been a causal relationship between the daughter's agony and the mother's arrival (and possibly, although doubtfully, the glove peeling too), but it was entirely unclear in what direction that causality went.

"Howie, Randy, please, for Pete's sake," said Hayley's mom.

"No, come on, Mom, this isn’t fair," said Howie, who loved to overplay his hand. "I didn’t even want a cat. I wanted a dog, and I was gonna name him Glen."

"You were not!" Hayley said. Her quivering lower lip joined her watering eyes in the early stages of what could only turn into crying. Parents are also susceptible to their children crying, especially when their children are as adorable as Hayley was.

"This sucks, Mom," said Randy. "Me and Howie were gonna get a dog and name it Glen and now Hayley's trying to steal the name."

Howie sighed in mock disappointment. "I guess we could name the dog 'Glen The Cat' just so we can tell him apart from Glen The Dog here.”

"He's Glen The Cat!" bellowed Hayley. Ricky practically choked in the background.

"See, there you go," said Howie.

"I hate you!" Hayley shouted.

Ricky's laughter was turning into an asthma attack. At the same time, Hayley's quivering lower lip and watering eyes were giving way to full-fledged, four-alarm crying. Glen The Cat, for his part, seemed nonplussed by all of it. He sniffed at the living room furniture, his tail low.

"That's it!" yelled Hayley's mom. "All three of you go to your rooms right now before I wash your mouths out with soap!" (She was never terribly creative with punishment. "And I don’t want to hear another word about Glen The Dog or Glen The Cat or whatever his name is!"

Hayley's brothers laughed all the way up the stairs and into their rooms. Ricky had to race to the inhaler on his dresser so he could breathe again. And despite Hayley's tearful protests, and despite the contract she had so carefully and diligently negotiated, Glen The Cat's name stuck.

Incidentally, you may notice that my avatar has a picture of me with a cat. Rest assured, the cat in the picture in no way inspired the character of Glen The Cat. When I wrote about Glen The Cat, I was in the midst of cultivating a deep and lifelong disdain for all things feline, which I have since gotten over. Whether felines get over their deep disdain for me, however, is another matter entirely.

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