BASS 2018: Maria Anderson, “Cougar” from Iowa Review #46.3

Our trailer sat on cinder blocks in a half-acre lot a four-cigarette drive outside of town. There wasn’t much else around except Jenny’s trailer and forest that started at the end of the lot and went on for as far as you could see, dim and impenetrable. Dad kept pink healing quartz on the porch steps, rocks he’d found in the deepest parts of the forests, back when there was still old-growth forest to be logged. He was a sad, quiet guy. Never argued with me or knocked me around like dads of guys I used to know.

Poor Cal: his world is disappearing on him, little by little. His mom disappeared years ago when he was just a baby. Now his dad disappears. And Jenny, the only adult who cares about him, is riddled with cancer, getting thinner and thinner. The town itself barely exists. Pretty soon it’ll just be Cal, and the woods. And the cougar that’s been hanging around, occasionally killing things. Like maybe Cal’s dad, though he’ll never know for sure, since the body was never found. Cal hopes it was suicide: “It was easiest to think he’d made a choice and acted on it.“ Acting on things isn’t really Cal’s strength these days.

But back to that opening paragraph: I love that subtle “guys I used to know.” Since Cal got out of high school, he doesn’t know many guys any more. His friend Blake now works on an oil rig, and Cal was thinking about joining him. It’s the one spark of initiative he shows in the entire story: he saved up some money, even took the test required. But then the cougar got his dog – his dad’s dog, actually, though it’s Cal’s now – and he got fired from the Chinese restaurant, and that spark was extinguished.

The restaurant’s an interesting place: owned by Koreans who once tried to serve real food, but discovered people wanted what they were used to. “What I decide is, people want shit, you give them shit,” says the grandmother who owns the place.

The owners of the Chinese restaurant, who were actually Korean, kept a quiet shrine on the floor in the corner of the dining room. The shrine had a picture of a sad-looking man with a dented head, a bowl of bruised clementines, and a plastic cat that waved its paw at you. An up-and-down wave. Maybe that was how Korean people waved. The cat waved at you like it was waving away all the stuff you thought about. Like it was urging you not to think, not to worry about being able to buy food or pay rent or feel like you should try to make some friends or have sex again because that was what eighteen-year-olds did.

The cat statue, though a contemporary knicknack, evolved from an Edo-era Japanese talisman called maneki neko, invitation cat or beckoning cat. The paw-down motion mimics the Japanese gesture of beckoning. Over centuries a lot of variations have developed as it’s been adopted outside Japan; it’s common in Chinese restaurants in the hopes it will bring in customers and cash. But I find it fascinating that Cal sees it as waving away thoughts he doesn’t want to have, while it’s actually a come-here motion. And, remember, there’s that other cat maybe beckoning, maybe waving away, the cougar out in the woods. Jenny reminds him, it’s just hungry. “I’m not sure an animal deserves getting shot for being hungry.” Kill or be killed, eat or be eaten, just like Jack London said. Jenny tells him he’s been feeding the cougar, and asks him to continue to do so after he’s gone.

Jake Weber has some very detailed ideas about, among other things, the symbolism of the cougar and the cat, and the world views they represent, at his blog post. We honed in on a lot of the same elements, yet in a couple of cases ended up in slightly different places. I particularly like his take on Cal’s misinterpretation of the word “Seoul”.

It’s a story of the kind of depression isolation brings on, of the inertia that can keep us from pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps. We leave Cal admiring the cougar. It’s the only thing he has left. I wonder if he’ll feed it. Or if he’ll make a decision and act on it too, one of these days.

2 responses to “BASS 2018: Maria Anderson, “Cougar” from Iowa Review #46.3

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