Smokey
Eighteen Lives
by Leah Mueller

The lives of cats are long
but in the grand scheme
brutishly short. Our gray tabby
Smokey was always ill,

yowling constantly as his stomach
thrust against itself, convulsing
while he tried to digest his food.

Hard pellets were too difficult:
they ground against his intestines
like dusty glass.

Four months into our relationship,
a new boyfriend paid my vet bill,
saving Smokey from death,
spent hundreds of dollars
so my children wouldn’t lose their pet.
I married him.

Emergency trips to the vet
became a regular occurrence,
so we fed Smokey
special canned food, lovingly spooned
into a ceramic dish
my son had made in third grade,
embossed with the image
of a grinning feline head,
and the name “Smokey”
in upraised letters.

One day, Smokey went outside
and disappeared, which
wasn’t unlike him:
he always returned eventually.
My husband opened the door
and called into the street,
posted flyers everywhere,
yet Smokey stayed away.

I was in Morocco
alone, savoring the dregs
of my midlife crisis. I tried
not to imagine the image
of Smokey’s body, abandoned
beside a trash can, or underneath
the el tracks, while people
rushed past him frantically
on their way to and from
anonymous office jobs.

I felt sure he went somewhere
to die, and didn’t want
to disturb our busy schedules.

When I returned, another gray tabby
waited in the apartment: my husband
and daughter, wild with grief,
had hoped it was Smokey.
This new cat drooled

everywhere, on the floor and couch,
leaving fetid, yellow pools.
He had an enormous misshapen
head, a wedge-shaped jaw
and eyes that stared at nothing.
It was too late for us to save him.

We took the cat to the pound.
My daughter cried,
but I was stoic.
I’m sure he was euthanized
a few days later, but
I never called to check.

Now I had two dead cats,

and a marriage on life support.
I needed to be more careful.

Seven years later:
this is the first time I have cried
for Smokey, and the other cat,
and all the dead cats
whose stiff bodies litter the city streets.

I hope
your new lives will be happier
than the old ones.

AUTHOR’S PHOTO CAPTION: Smokey trying to eat a flip-flop (Evanston, Illinois, 2008).

NOTE FROM THE AUTHOR: I wrote this poem about a cat named Smokey, who was part of our family for a dozen years. He had many lives, beginning with a 15-minute-long tumble he took inside a dryer shortly before he came to live with us. Smokey was a Scorpio, and his life was difficult. We nurtured him as best we could, but eventually he ran out of lives.

Leah Mueller

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Leah Mueller is an independent writer from Tacoma, Washington. She is the author of one chapbook, Queen of Dorksville  and two full-length books, Allergic to Everything and The Underside of the Snake. Her work has been published or is forthcoming in Blunderbuss, Memoryhouse, Outlook Springs, Atticus Review, Thank You For Swallowing, Sadie Girl Press, Origins Journal, Silver Birch Press, Cultured Vultures, Quail Bell, and many others. She was a featured poet at the 2015 New York Poetry Festival, and a runner-up in the 2012 Wergle Flomp Humor Poetry contest.