December 10, 2023 | Rome, Italy

5. Memories of Truancy: Tom Sawyer

By |2023-02-15T19:31:26+01:00February 15th, 2023|Boyhood Empire|
A page from Tom Sawyer's cat mischief...

o ahead. Blame it on Tom Sawyer. Why not? It couldn’t have possibly been my fault. I was, after all, only following in a young man’s mischievous footsteps.

I read little as a boy. This may have been because my father read a lot, his bookshelves tall with corridor-length veins of hardbound books: red, yellows, and blues against the beige walls in a way that got on my mother’s aesthetic nerves.

He’d leave newspapers out with articles circled, demanding my attention. I would, of course, ignore them. Why please a parent who seeks to be pleased? An only child is the master of his own miniature destinies.

So I buried myself in war comic books, with one exception: an illustrated version of Mark Twain’s “Tom,” a far more consumable read than Huck Finn, at least to a mind as yet unschooled in metaphor.

And what did Tom teach me? That he played tricks at will and once spooned pain killer to a cat, which then levitated and flew out the window—if, of course, you believed Twain’s magic carpet prose.

I did.

At this point I considered myself a true man of action, not to mention a capricious but compassionate soul.

This led me to do what I did best: scheme. I pulled together one or two of my father’s powdery sleeping pills, opened the red caplets—in secret, in the corner of the basement— and made a kind of pasty matter that smelled foul, but no fouler than my cats’ tuna meals.

Want to guess where the paste was headed, and where in fact it went?

Was I responsible? No. I was merely following Tom’s instructions.

My two cats were presented with my spiked tuna—but in fact, only Mono, the male ate it; Monina, the lady, was immediately suspicious and walked away, balking at the food and staring at me as if she knew Tom’s trick by heart. But she could do little to sway her avid husband, who chewed it all up and added milk and water. His wife shrugged and walked away.

This left me with time to observe how Mono would react, and at first, he made Twain and Sawyer seem entirely made up. Nothing happened.

He went into the yard in search of birds, a customary habit, and when a robin appeared on a lower branch Mono immediately began his usual rush.

On this fateful day, his rush consisted of a dash that saw him run into the tree trunk, bounce back dazed, and next try again like a mad bull. The second time he made it up a few feet only to lose all gravity and peel away, suspended in the air, landing on the grass as the laughing bird left.

I was in stitches. Mono was not. Wobbly, he began walking around in circles, finally trying to make it up the back door steps but keeling over.

I gave him my Tom laugh, picked him up, and carried him back to his cat crib. Mono protested not at all, drunk as drunk could be.

At this point I considered myself a true man of action, and a reader, not to mention a capricious but compassionate soul, since I hadn’t let Mono into harm’s way. I hadn’t waited for him to find a window, or, worse still, a passing car.

I decided the pleasure of my condition, childhood, was all about tricks and their success. And I’d always get away with them, since cats didn’t snitch. This capacity for pranks I saw as endless: a source of cleverness only an only child could pull off without a tattle-tale brother or sister.

Mono seems to be ill, said my mother, and I smiled and snickered.

I went back to my comic books in which the Americans always won and the Nazis (I spelled them “notsies”) were forever shamed. I went back to Tom and giggled at my fiction-copying prowess.

Only alone at night did it dawn on me that life might contain an additional ingredient: namely, consequences.

This lasted for half a day, until I went to feed my cats their evening meal. Both saw me, froze, and hissed in unison. I came closer with the tantalizing food, but they only hissed more loudly. Even when the food was scooped gently into their bowls, they would not come near me.

I was stunned. I first invited them kindly, then plaintively, and finally tried to approach them and lift them. They ran.

I tried again twenty minutes later and failed again. They would have nothing to do with me.

Only in my small bed alone at night did it dawn on me that life might contain an additional ingredient, one that transcended mischief and amusement and stuck around for a long time: namely, consequences.

I’d transplanted fiction to fact for a laugh, and as a result was left with two cat friends who’d never trust me again.

I hadn’t eaten their tuna but I did eat crow, and when after a week, the bridge had still not been mended, I cried.

Then and only then, after a few minutes, did Mono take a few deliberate steps toward me, brushing my side. I knew it was still too early to pet him. That would have to wait. But we’d made a start. Amends had begun.

Over time I’d make many such amends, to people I thought I might have wronged. As for my father’s little red sleeping pills: after his death I became addicted to them, once nearly driving a car off the road.

Life is all about lessons. Life is also about realizing that learning some of the most important ones can come too late.

About the Author:

Christopher P. Winner is a veteran American journalist and essayist who was born in Paris in 1953 and has lived in Europe for more than 30 years.