Sometimes, when I have writer's block, I do strange things. Strictly speaking, I don't have writer's block, but merely insufficient time to write. This story-- a novella, perhaps-- comes along swimmingly when I get the opportunity, and I almost have a complete draft, about forty typed, single-spaced pages in length. Never mind. I felt like doing something strange, and now a cat has died, blood splattered on the curb of main street. I suppose I'm only a witness, and not even that, having arrived a moment too late to report on the actual event.
My protagonist finds himself in an unfamiliar small town on a critical night of his life, and (entirely out of character) he's about to take a potentially dangerous combination of drugs. All of this makes perfect sense, in context. Trust me. Now, I could easily invent a small town and a restaurant. Lord knows, I conjured the protagonist's small town largely from my own imaginings. But spring has arrived and I am dealing with the usual wanderlust coupling with the lack of funds that would permit me to wander very far. And so I decided on a reasonable distance between where my protagonist's home town would be and where he has to arrive, and found myself in a town about an hour's drive away.
I ate brunch there this morning. On my way out of the car, I noticed a black cat, wandering down the sidewalk of main street. She proved a friendly animal, and let me pet her. She resembled a cat my eldest sister once owned, and I'm struck again by the statistically unlikely number of women in my life who have owned black cats. As I walked to a likely restaurant, one that struck me might have been in business in 1997 (for this part of the story takes place in that long-ago era), she jumped onto a window ledge and made contact with a curious cat on the other side of the glass, a tiny tabby. Then she curled into a roadside planter and went to sleep. She was still there when I left the restaurant.
Despite the details I typed into my cell over brunch, I felt uncertain about the Old Country Restaurant. I paid the bill and strolled around the corner to the library, where I practically tripped over the local history section: small town libraries love local history, and most of it has never found its way online. And so I learned of the town's early history (irrelevant to my writing, but interesting), and of the local monster that haunted the place in the summer of 1953 (likely a hoax, most concluded, but it made good press), and of the inn/pub/restaurant which remained active in the early 2000s, on a site that had served these purposes, primarily, since 1866. Except, of course, that I noticed no such place during my stroll.
I walked through the park, and emerged near my car, passing along the way the black cat and her tabby friend, now out on the street. I found my way to the address. Clearly once a hotel, it now houses a few shops, with apartments above. But the change happened so recently-- "about seven years ago," says the proprietor of the shop behind what were once the pub's doors-- that photos and even a couple restaurant reviews may be found online.
Perfect. A real restaurant which doesn't exist anymore, and the feel and details of a distinctive town. And no, I don't know why I do this, when other times I'm just as happy to appropriate places around the corner and places in my head. But then I wouldn't know this monster story1, nor about a nearby local historic attraction, nor that a local singer my wife likes will be performing at the obligatory small town festival.
Then there's the cat.
Because, when I return to my car, the women from ye quaint shoppe were out on the street. One scooped up and affectionately hugged the black cat. The other joined the distraught women who parked in front of me. They'd put a jacket down over the cat, who apparently ran out under their wheel. Blood spattered curb and street. The tabby was a stray they'd recently adopted. They tried not to let her out because she was young and seemed unaware of the mean streets.
I was happy to see my cat, also once a stray, alive and healthy when I returned home, moments ago. I have mixed feelings about the fact that I've found the image I need to foreshadow the story's climax.
1. Even in the age of Google, one has to dig to find references to the small-town legend, which left a slimy trail of prints and got picked up nationwide back in '53. Three, total. One of them is a recent columnist for a nearby town who is baffled by tourists who've heard of such a creature, because she hasn't. I may check the local archives (in yet another town, by appointment) this summer and write something up.