The Alley Cat Song
When I was eleven, it seemed that most of the girls I knew liked to dress up in black leotards and prance around like cats. They especially loved to do this to “The Alley Cat Song,” a popular tune at the time. My sister was one of these girls. She was fond of drawing whiskers on her chubby cheeks with our mother’s lipstick and meowing and then purring and then hissing and clambering around our living room rug on all fours while I was trying to watch TV. I found this behavior intolerable.
For our elementary school’s talent show that year, my sister and two of her friends decided that they would wear black leotards and, as if at a birthday party, mince around to “The Alley Cat Song.” Really. That was the full extent of their “act.”
I told my father that he had to stop this travesty.
“We have to support your sister,” he said. “She’s creative.”
“There’s nothing creative about acting like a cat,” I said.
“Someday you’ll want her support.”
“Someday I’ll be dead too.”
The girls practiced in our rec room, downstairs. Their music, blaring from our stereo console, drove me to distraction. Even with my headphones on, I imagined I could hear that insipid tune and, worse, I could too easily picture the girls tip-toeing their cat dance. This was well before the Andrew Lloyd Weber blockbuster, by the way.
The remarkable thing was that ours was a catless household. We owned a mentally deficient Collie that sometimes stared into space and drooled as if dreaming of a bowl of super kibble. I was delighted to learn that Fred did not like my sister’s cat act. When he saw the girls rehearsing their routine, he barked and barked until they put him outside. I made sure to let him in a few minutes later, only to release him once again into the rec room, until my sister shouted, “Dad!”
My father, pulled from CPA work in his study, would storm down to reprimand me: “Could you cool it? For just a minute?”
“Dad, this is torture.”
“She’s doing something, you understand?
I’d shrug. “No, I don’t understand.”
“Like you have a better idea?” he’d say.
“Yeah,” I’d say. “Can you get me another sister?”
“I’m talking about the talent show,” he said. “Why aren’t you entering?”
“Because I have no talent,” I said. “Is that what you’re getting at?”
“Are you jealous?”
I laughed. Fred barked as if to echo me, his tail wagging.
I said: “Other than the predictable ill-feelings generated by sibling rivalry, I harbor no jealousy of my sister’s so-called creative impulses.”
“You’re such a smart aleck,” my father said with dismay, though, too, I perceived a trace of admiration in his tone.
I said: “If I were going to do something in front of so many people, I’d make sure it was unique and distinguished and so worthy of strangers’ attention that my performance would be considered nothing short of amazing.”
My father shook his head sadly. “If that’s your attitude, I’m afraid you’ll never amount to much.”
This time his tone, so earnest and disappointed, silenced me.
I warned all of my friends away from the talent show. Nonetheless, everyone was there, including me. When my sister’s performance was over, the audience gave her reasonably polite applause. Afterward, still wearing her black leotard, her cheeks painted with whiskers, she was breathlessly excited, jumping in place, eyes wide, grinning. She kept asking, “Was I okay? Was I?” There was in her entreaties something disingenuous but also desperate, which vaguely irritated me.
My parents were so polite, so careful and loving in their praise, I could hardly hide my disdain. I admit that I was jealous. My sister’s performance had been the epitome of mediocrity–in the realm of art, all but worthless–and yet it had been good enough to celebrate, good enough to give her confidence to perform again at the next talent show, and then the next. How many years did that stupid song reverberate in my ears? And how could I have guessed that, due to her persistence and blind ambition, my know-nothing sister would become a well-regarded actress, successful enough to make a living far better than mine and that I, after many years of disappointments, would find myself in a mind-numbing job–installing ceiling lights in office buildings–and living in a cheap apartment with a noisy, one-eyed alley cat I’d rescued one night when I just couldn’t stand my own company anymore.
© Ron Tanner
Ron Tanner is the author of five books and dozens of short stories, articles, and essays. Cited as “notable” in both Best American Short Stories and Best American Essays, his work has won numerous awards. His most recent book is “Far West,” his second story collection, which won the 2020 Elixir Press Book Award (published in 2022). Currently, he directs the Writer’s Retreat at Good Contrivance Farm, an educational non-profit.