Ways to Skin a Cat – by Kat Coffee

I know what you’re thinking.  You’re wondering why anyone should bother to skin a cat at all – troubling to select a method from the rumored myriad at our disposal – when there are so many dogs in the world that need killing and so precious little time?

Scandalized?  Spare me.  Monday morning, the day my “crime” began, I was struggling to tune out a shrill staccato yip, and an ensuing plea of a yelp, then a deep tormented ruff, seven days and four uncracked study-aid tomes before the bar exam.

First, let’s be clear: I HAVE A DOG. You could even call me a dog lover. I was one of those little girls who hoped to become a veterinarian … just before surrendering that ambition for paleontology, that unanimous career plan of American second-graders.  If it hadn’t been for distractions like the stegosaurus, a flirtation with pastry chefery, and a fleeting fascination with the First Amendment, I may have become a vet. In which case I wouldn’t have googled “chocolate” and “dogs” to find out how much it would take.

Because I would already know.

Turns out, chocolate’s not the most efficient m.o. Antifreeze works well, and anyway, I couldn’t surrender my chocolate, as my reward was one piece per five pages learned.

I went three hours Monday afternoon without a bite, owing to the symphony outside, an opus erupting to cues of passing cars, joggers, birds, squirrels, and particularly feisty air currents.

So I found myself wandering from the table, littered with chocolate, caffeine and case law, and toward the garage via the kitchen. I went to grab that ground beef I meant to patty and grill last week, thinking it should make a tempting snack with some antifreeze gravy. But then I heard Dave pulling into the garage, home from study group. He stumbled in clutching the books that completed the set on the table.

Dave: What are you up to?
Me: Nuthin.
Dave: What is it? Couldn’t concentrate again?
Me: Don’t wanna talk about it. (Snuffle)
Dave: What could be so bad? Were you looking at Article 9 again? Do you wanna go over priorities some more?
Me: (Indistinct noise)
Dave: Just remember what I said this morning and you’ll be fine, when you’ve got a mortgage versus a purchase money security interest …
Me: (Noises slightly more distinct, in fact resembling string of expletives)
Dave: Or not.

He backed toward the bedroom door, lest I kick him when he uttered this next:
Dave: Babe I hate to ask this, but are you done with the UCC book? The guys and I are tackling Article 2 tomorrow.

Like my professor said, when comparing bar exam study methods, there’s more than one way to … yes, she said it, the bromidious old bat. My way was to stay home and plow through alone, while Dave learned by committee of four guys who divided the material and instructed one another. It proved a mistake, opting to share a set of books, which saved five hundred bucks but may have contributed to the demise of our relationship.

Me:    (Distinct expletives, this time. Punctuation of one shoe, half a box of stale fries, and a ketchupy plastic knife, flung at Dave)
Dave:    That was a first, Laurel. Goodnight, Laurel.
Me:    Go on. I’ll sleep on the (distinct expletive) couch.
Dave:    (Indistinct utterance resembling “petulant bitch”) (Slammed door)

I passed a few minutes with a Law and Order rerun, and decided I was calm enough to read a few more pages. I was naïve. For outside, the orchestra was waxing, waxing, waxing to fortissimo.

The rat-like Yip was the bellwether. Yip to the pedestrian, yip to the car, yip to be yipping he paced the lawn, wearing a bare line at the safety zone six inches shy of his invisible fence. Yelp joined Yip four measures in, and issued two half-note requests, roughly translated as “if you won’t play with me, at least tell me what the fuss is about.” She got no cogent reply, just another two measures of allegro yips. Yelp tried again with a howl, holding her note until Ruff was roused, and interrupted. Yelp caught her breath but started again. It was a classic opera. The Cad sings to revel in the sound of his own voice, while the Ingenue sends him peals of begging that fall on deaf ears, and the Hero issues his vain plea to the Ingenue.

I sat at the window, watching the dogs, now illuminated by street lamps, motion detectors, and other popular purveyors of suburban light pollution. Our house is unfortunately situated, on a very small block with only four lots, so that each of us is on a corner, and three have dogs in their backyards. Only our sweet dog, Pawl, a quiet and elderly cocker spaniel, stays indoors.

Ruff, one of those jowly behemoths, belongs to a homely middle-aged man I once caught watching me sunbathe. Yelp, a withered yellow lab, is the love child of a stoner couple who may or may not feed her. Yip is one of those toy things you put in a purse. He belongs to an equally high-strung classmate of ours, Mandy, who dotes on him when she’s not at school hyperventilating in her carrel. Yip’s person was at the top of our class, even ahead of Dave, and was approaching the bar exam like she does everything else: an opportunity for heated rivalry. She knows I study at home. I think she fed Yip caffeine to trip me up.

What’s that you say, Yip? Yo quiero antifreeze? Antifreeze con carne? Si, muy bueno, senor. After three refrains, I surrendered. I checked that Dave was zonked out, and commenced molding three large meatballs.
•••

Tuesday, Dave learned when a seller can cure after delivering a non-conforming good. I learned that antifreeze must have ethylene glycol in it or it will not kill a dog.  Oops.

I hit the books again that morning. Not so much the torts outline, but the how-to manuals we got upon adopting Pawl. I did TRY to read torts. And I had pretty much memorized the elements of Negligent Infliction of Emotional Distress when Yip trilled an opening note.

•••

I think I should tell you what was going on in my head at this point, since so far this sounds sort of incriminating. So here’s my attempt to explain my mens rea:

Monday, I realized I was down to a week to relearn three years of material, having squandered the summer with some pretty virtuoso procrastination, including long daily workouts, perfection of my Snood game, full make-up applications just in case I needed to leave the house, and constant redesigns of my dream engagement ring which I’d leave lying around and which Dave never seemed to see.

I started feeling like someone had injected a chemical in me, that leeched into every cell in my body. I figure it was adrenaline. I couldn’t get a deep breath, my hands shook, my heart raced. Dave promised it was just nerves and not fatal, and said now I know how Mandy feels every day of her life. And then he left me to meet his group.

At first whatever my glands were secreting helped. I got very focused, so much so that when I booted up, I completely ignored Snood and went straight for my notes. But then the barking intruded. Attention shifted. I couldn’t get it back. And the fight-or-flight sensation came back and this time worse. I was sweaty and my stomach was vibrating and then I ran to the sink, and there went my breakfast of coffee and Ritalin.

Seeing vomit reminded me of the warning a bar review instructor gave us: that once the exam has begun, at least one person is certain to vomit and/or faint. The proctors are trained to deal with this routine event. We are to ignore the commotion and continue writing.

I threw up again.

As I cleaned myself up, I revisited a theory I’ve developed over the years: as a species, our nerves have no sense of proportion. People who must can face the truly awful and make it through, but a minor event sets off a three-alarm reaction. Why? Is it because while modern life fails to provide the equivalent of happening upon a mountain lion while foraging, those early humans whose adrenal glands pumped the right combination of fuel to get the hell out fast got back to camp to reproduce, and those who stopped to gauge the precise gravity of the situation before choosing a course of action reached their conclusion too late?

Thing is, over the last week I didn’t get the chance to return to camp, have a bite and think. Finally comprehending the quantity of time separating me from the bar exam was like seeing the mountain lion and being dragged toward it, unable to alter my trajectory and with hormones firing steadily each time I heard a woof, as every time I focused on the sound I knew that was one fewer byte of information I’d have in my arsenal to battle the beast.

Ever-mounting terror.

•••

Ok back to Tuesday morning, I was at the books and Yip started going. My glands were dumping chemicals into the rivers of my circulatory system so fast my mouth was dry even before Yelp joined in. My eyes actually crossed I was so mad, and before that moment was over I’d thrown my mug at them. The mug did not reach even halfway across my yard though because the closed window slowed it down some.

Then, I found that book on what to do and what not to do with your puppy and looked for what not to do to do it. It said mistletoe is poisonous and so are poinsettias, so a quick Internet search and some extra shipping charges, and Wednesday would be Christmas in July!

I spent the rest of the day on the bathroom floor in earplugs, fan and shower running for white noise, face down in a torts primer.

•••

Wednesday Dave relearned the factors courts consider for child custody, alimony, and child support, writing “best interest of the child” twenty times so as not to forget to include the #1 consideration in family law.

I learned that when you borrow your boyfriend’s credit card his parents gave him for emergencies, and don’t specify that the billing and delivery addresses are not one, the woman you hoped would be your mother-in-law calls and thanks you for the holiday plants you sent in a puzzled tone, then asks several non-sequiturial questions meant to assess your mental health.

So like an amnesiac who cannot learn from experience I plopped down with a cup of coffee and the torts book damp from Tuesday’s drool. Then, the inevitable. I feel actual pain with every bark. Hammering. Hammering!!!

They ignored the outside world that morning, running back and forth along invisible lines where invisible fences meet since chain-link is forbidden in our burb, sharp turns at the corners, a marching band with wretchedly maintained instruments, sharp turns but never intersecting … that’s actually a little … sad? Yip, yip yelp ruff ruff yelp yip yip … the Ode to Joy? Despite a pang I flipped open the puppy book, and found a “don’t” that’s so easy I should have tried it first.

That day, I now know, Mandy skinned the cat at her own kitchen table, getting up every half-hour for a stretch break and to gaze at Yip’s shenanigans. I guess Mandy was stretching as I read that grapes and their shriveled bodies raisins were dangerous snacks, for just one bunch of grapes can induce a toxic reaction. I had both. Which to use? There’s the pleasure of pelting the dogs, one by one grape … the raisins wouldn’t be quite as much fun to pelt, but they’d certainly take up less volume, allowing a greater concentration of toxin into the stomach.

So Mandy wanted to know what I gave Yip to make him so sick. And this is where I screwed up.

Mandy: I hate to bother you guys, I know you’re like me, study study 24/7! It’s just … I saw you give Mr. Sprinkles a little treat – looked like you were tossing some to all the pups. I’m sure you meant no harm, I just need to know what to tell the vet, ‘cuz he’s just puking his little heart out. (Nervous laugh) (Nervous hair-wind-around-finger)
Me: Just a little hamburger.
Mandy: Really? (Confused face-scrunch) I thought it was some kind of cookie. It looks like raisins, in his doo.
Me: That must have been someone else. (I’m stuck because admitting to two “treats” in three days would be suspicious, as the only notice I’ve given him before was in the form of noise ordinance complaints).
Dave: You didn’t give him that old stuff we had in the fridge? (He’s damp from the shower and his arrival in boxers does nothing for Miss Priss’s attitude).
Me: It wasn’t too old for a dog. I figured it was better to throw the stuff in the yard for them, than to throw it away.
Mandy: You mean you didn’t COOK IT first? (Hair is dropped and forgotten)
Me: No Mandy, I didn’t grill for your dog. I didn’t marinate it either.
Mandy: He is throwing up Laurel! You might have killed him!

Mandy, hearing herself I guess, backs up a step and resumes the hair-twisting. I suddenly realize she’s wearing full makeup, the first time I’ve seen her in anything but a ponytail and a determined grimace. Finally Dave, in that tone he gets when he’s lost patience but decides humoring me is quicker, steps in.

Dave: Tell you what Mandy, I’ll come out there and see if there’s any left in the yard. You can bag it up and take it to the vet’s, he can see if there’s bacteria that’s making Mr. Sprinkles sick.

•••

So you know what they found. Raisins and antifreeze-soaked ground beef in the neutral zone between the invisible fences, where none of the dogs could quite reach. You’d think I’d hide evidence better after all those Law and Orders.

So that’s it, my whole confession, written and signed in exactly the way I hope my clients won’t. I tried to punch it up a bit, with a cute title and moving dialogue. I have tried to retrace my steps like it was happening again, though the first time around no court psychiatrist gave me a bucket of pills so it all seems different in retrospect. With that in mind, I will note like they do in the movies that (since my mission was a failure) no dogs were (permanently) harmed in the making of this debacle.

Kat Coffee

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