Here is the first sentence of my autobiographical essay “Trying to Save Piggy Sneed,” which was originally published in the New York Times Book Review of August 22, 1982. I was forty. I wrote: “This is a memoir, but please understand that (to any writer with a good imagination) all memoirs are false.”
If I live much longer—I am seventy-three—every scrap of personal history I write will or should begin with the words, “If I remember correctly.” What I have for you now is a childhood memoir, which may be embellished by the passage of time and my fiction writer’s instinct to revise, improve, enhance. I don’t care what the real story is; what actually happened isn’t what interests me.
If I remember correctly: I once had a cat, though I’m a dog person. It was a black-and-white cat, and it slept on my bed. This was in academy housing at Faculty Circle, Exeter, New Hampshire, and our house was called—this is true—Sleeper House. There must have been a Mr. Sleeper, but I don’t know who he was—maybe an emeritus member of the faculty? True or not, it was my impression that most of the faculty houses at Phillips Exeter Academy—like the dormitories and classroom buildings—were named for long-dead dignitaries or heroes of the school.
I don’t remember if the twins were born; I think my sister Pam was still very small. There were half a dozen academy students living in the third-floor rooms of Sleeper House. My second-floor bedroom could be accessed through my family’s faculty apartment or via the outside entrance and the stairs to the boarding students’ rooms.
I may have been only ten, or as old as eleven or twelve, but I know I was not yet attending the academy. My best friends were two faculty brats like me—Skipper Bickel and Coburn Bennett. They lived in Hooper House and Porter House, respectively.
My cat’s name was Binker. Who named this cat Binker? I have no idea. Binker was missing. I think Binker was a male cat, and he’d been missing for a couple of weeks. Skipper and Coburn and I searched the neighbourhood streets because my dad had speculated that Binker might have been killed by a car. We found other dead animals by the roadsides—a few household pets were among the slain—but not Binker.
Skipper or Coburn said, “Maybe a hawk got him.” (Or a raccoon, I imagined; raccoons kill cats.)
One day, Skipper and Coburn and I ventured into our favourite woods—a scruffy area of second-growth forest behind the Faculty Circle academy housing. These so-called woods were sandwiched between an abandoned graveyard—a very old and long-untended cemetery—and the town gasworks. For reasons long forgotten, this wooded area was called “The Ditch.” Skipper and Coburn and I were always alone in The Ditch—well, that’s not quite true. We were usually alone; we went there to be alone. But there was a threat from the townie side of The Ditch. There were some tough kids in the row houses in the vicinity of the gasworks. These older boys threw rocks at us whenever they spotted us in “their” woods.
And here is another element to consider in the confined geography of our young lives: a hillside piece of land that was not part of Faculty Circle—nor was this property attached to the gasworks side of The Ditch. It was a house and backyard that bordered on The Ditch; it was academy housing, but it was not for faculty. A cook for the academy dining halls lived there. The cook had older children. The son was in the military, or maybe he just liked to wear fatigues and a camouflage ski hat. (In New Hampshire, the son might have been one of those bowhunters who dressed year-round for bowhunting.) The daughter was dangerously beautiful but unapproachable. I believe the daughter was a nurse, or in my preteen fantasies I’d imagined she was my nurse.
The cook had a boat. It was dry-docked and covered by a tarp all winter; that boat spent five months of the year on an elevated platform in the cook’s backyard. I thought the boat was an object of worship, but the cook had a more unlikely idol. In a big barrel, next to the cook’s outdoor barbecue pit, was an outboard engine. The barrel was filled with seawater and spilled gasoline. Whenever the cook was barbecuing—on weekends, for his friends and family, even in the winter—there was an all-male interest in the outboard engine. Men, drinking beer, stood around the barrel and watched the engine run and run. This was their entertainment; the outboard engine in the rusty barrel was the focus of their rapt attention. I thought that the idea of watching an outboard engine run in a barrel of seawater was the epitome of boredom.
The saltwater, polluted with gasoline, never froze—not so thoroughly that the outboard engine couldn’t churn it to slush. Granted, the academy cook must have been good at barbecuing. But beyond the barbecuing, the unstoppable outboard engine was the big draw for the cook’s family and friends.
This much is true: The Ditch; the neighbourhood bullies in the vicinity of the town gasworks; the men watching the unused boat’s motor in the backyard of the family with the dangerously beautiful (but rarely seen) daughter; my missing cat.
Of course, most memorable moments of discovery come with a history. Skipper and Coburn and I could never be in The Ditch without remembering what had happened to my older cousin Jack. At the time of Binker’s disappearance, Jack was already an academy student; venturing into The Ditch would have been beneath him—child’s play, something he no longer had time for. But when Jack had been our age—when he’d been a mere child—he had fallen out of a tree in The Ditch and broken his arm. Jack’s broken arm, and which tree he’d fallen out of, was part of the history Skipper and Coburn and I shared with The Ditch.
We were not looking for Binker in The Ditch. Why we looked up, at the upper branches of a particularly tall tree, is a matter of dispute. Skipper or Coburn once believed we were arguing about which tree Jack fell out of; it was so long ago, I don’t remember.
This particularly tall tree wasn’t Jack’s tree, and I say now that I looked up because I noticed the crows. The crows were circling the upper branches of the tree; the crows were cawing, making the kind of ruckus only crows can make. I looked up at the tree and saw Binker hanging from a V-shaped notch in the upper branches. Skipper swears he saw Binker first; Coburn claims there were no crows.
The three of us agree that I was the one who climbed the tree to bring Binker’s body down. About what happened after that, we aren’t often in agreement. Binker had been dead a while—he was badly decomposed. Some of his fur was gone. I suspect the crows had pecked out his eyes. Skipper and I at least agree that Binker’s eyes were gone. Coburn has always said the cat’s eyes were open and staring, but Coburn never believed in the crows in the first place.
No one knows how Binker got his head stuck in the V-shaped notch. Had he slipped on a branch and snapped his neck in that notch? Was he a suicidal cat, and had he always intended to hang himself? Had a stranger killed my cat and then hung him high in that tree?
Some years after the Binker discovery—when Skipper and Coburn and I were students at Phillips Exeter Academy—another faculty brat was caught killing cats. This boy used perfect hangman’s nooses; he strung up cats all over the academy campus. (If I remember correctly, he was a bird lover.) But this is not that story. What caused Binker to end up hanging in the tall tree in The Ditch remains a mystery. It had the look of an improbable accident; it had the disquieting appearance of foul play, but we’ll never know.
What I say is that those townies, those gasworks boys, spotted me because I was high up in the tall tree; those older kids started throwing rocks at me. Skipper and Coburn say this didn’t happen—not when I was up in the tree to retrieve Binker’s body. Skipper and Coburn admit those boys threw rocks at us, but not that time. I say they did it then too. I think they threw rocks at my cat and killed him with a lucky throw; then one of them stuck Binker’s head in a V-shaped notch in the tall tree.
I say that, from the tree, I could see the men drinking beer around the barrel of seawater and hear the cook’s outboard engine running, and that I got a glimpse of the dangerously beautiful daughter; she was getting either in or out of a car. But Skipper and Coburn say I couldn’t have seen the cook’s backyard from the tree where Binker was hanging by his neck, and that it wasn’t a weekend when we found Binker—hence the outboard engine wouldn’t have been running, and there would have been no men standing around the barrel drinking beer.
I say that, in a proper story, they should be there—they are all implicated in my cat’s death. My cousin Jack should be there too—he should have fallen from that same tree while the two of us were trying to wrest Binker’s rotting, eyeless head from the notch in those upper branches. Jack should have fallen and broken his fucking arm then! And one of the boys throwing rocks at me should have called out. He should have shouted a homophobic slur, I think. Let’s imagine he yelled, “Go home, you little faggot!”
Maybe the beer-drinking men at the barrel of seawater could have heard this over the sound of the outboard engine; one of them might have shut off the engine to be certain he’d heard this homophobic slur correctly. Keep in mind: this was the 1950s. Surely the men around the barrel would have taken up the cry. “Go home, you little faggot!”
You see? The story can always be better, or worse; that’s what fiction can do. When you’re my age, your memory is almost worthless, but you can still imagine—you can still make up things. I can always make up a better story than the facts.
What kind of name is Binker—even for a cat? In a proper story, the cat should have a better name—a name that foreshadows a murder or at least suggests a fatal attraction to heights. And shouldn’t one of us—probably Skipper or Coburn—turn out to be gay? Maybe I’m the one who turns out to be gay; maybe it should be the first time we three actually hear the faggot word. That’s another reason why my cousin Jack should be there. Jack was older. He would have known what a faggot was; Jack could have explained the homophobic slur to us.
Yet what would Jack say about the crows overhead, or not—about Binker with no eyes? Or were Binker’s eyes wide open and unseeing? Being older, wouldn’t Jack take over the story? Perhaps that’s an argument for keeping him and his broken arm in the past. Perhaps it’s a better story if Skipper and Coburn and I don’t know what the faggot word means, or if there’s some dispute among us regarding what a faggot is. However, if I’m the one who turns out to be gay, and I want that homophobic slur to really resonate in the story, maybe I should already know what the faggot word means.
This could also be the moment when Skipper and Coburn know that I’m going to turn out to be gay; they might even know this about me before I know it. Or maybe all three of us know what the faggot word means; naturally, we wouldn’t let on to one another that we know the meaning. (Skipper and Coburn are trying to protect me from finding out that they know I’m gay; I’m trying to keep my two best friends from finding out what I’m only beginning to suspect about myself.) You see how complicated finding my missing cat could be?
It’s a delicate moment in the midst of mayhem. I’m struggling to free my dead cat from the V-shaped notch in that tall tree. Binker’s head is stuck. As I tug at his stiff body, his fur comes off in clumps. I’m trying not to look at his scrunched-up, eyeless face. Despite what Skipper and Coburn claim to remember, I’m being pelted with rocks, and I’m enduring a chorus of beer-drinking men, who have joined my rock-throwing assailants in calling me a faggot. And don’t forget the cook’s dangerously beautiful daughter; I should (somehow) manage to take a long, lingering look at her. Alas, that’s when I realize I’m not in the least attracted to her—she does nothing for me. Uh-oh.
“Go home, you little faggot!” the homophobes keep calling. Binker has a terrible smell.
Okay, this story needs more work—I know. But what’s true about it is not what matters. What I can make of this story is all that counts. Autobiography isn’t important in fiction; imagination is what matters. And my time, as a writer, is better spent imagining what characters and stories might best accompany this cat without eyes.
John Irving competed as a wrestler for twenty years. His novels include The World According to Garp, The Cider House Rules, A Prayer for Owen Meany, and In One Person. His fourteenth novel, Avenue of Mysteries, will be published in fall 2015. He lives in Toronto.