Alex Chambers: Oh my god. Okay, so, it's like a tiny body.
Alex Chambers: It looked like a child lying on the ground, matted hair, blank eyes. Her head was turned around to the side, shirt up around her neck, her shoulder bare, no legs, lying there between two rotting beams. A child sized mannequin.
Alex Chambers: Signs of what hasn't been put to rest. In chapter two of The Third Time Rita Left, our four part saga about a missing cat. But first a conversation about comedy and psychology with comedian and psychologist EJ Masicampo and rebel girl poems by Rachel Ronquillo Gray, coming up on Inner States right after this.
Alex Chambers: It's Inner States. I'm Alex Chambers. So, I've done a number of stories on Inner States about marriage. There was the story about the couple who'd been married for 72 years and just had a really nice life together. There was also the story about the couple who also has been married for quite a while now, and decided when they had their wedding to get married using puppets. These are happy stories, but they're happy marriage stories and, you know, I think usually when we think of marriage stories, we think happy. Divorce stories on the other hand, we don't tend to think happy, and I've been wanting to get some good divorce stories on the show as well, but happy divorce stories are apparently a little harder to find. But I am determined. One of these days--
Avi Forrest: Alex. Alex. I've got your story, finally. I had to go all the way to Prague, but I have a story on divorce.
Alex Chambers: Oh my god, Avi. That's great.
Avi Forrest: Yeah. Yeah. I took WFIU's private jet.
Alex Chambers: Private jet. I didn't even know we had a private jet.
Avi Forrest: Yeah. You know Jim. He's our local pilot. Went out for drinks last week. Anyway, yeah. It was amazing.
Alex Chambers: Wait. So, you went to Prague? How was it?
Avi Forrest: Oh.
Avi Forrest: Oh, yeah. The lowest point in the city was 623 feet above sea level. Ooh. My favorite part was the metropolitan area, which was 192 square miles.
Alex Chambers: Wow. Sounds lovely.
Avi Forrest: Yeah, it was amazing. I know it was a massive expense, but really it was the only way I could properly do this story about divorce, and about E.J..
Alex Chambers: What did you like about E.J.?
Avi Forrest: Honestly, he's just a really cool dude. He's a research psychologist but also a comedian. He's divorced but he has kids, and he just has a lot of interesting reflections on comedy.
Alex Chambers: Cool. Let's get to it.
Avi Forrest: Awesome. Let's do it.
Avi Forrest: Hey there. Welcome to a small series called The Comedians, where we sit down with various funny people and talk about things from their perspective.
E.J. Masicampo: Whenever I wrote a joke, I've basically got a hypothesis which is that this is going to make people laugh. And if they don't, well, that was not a supported hypothesis.
Avi Forrest: This time with comedian E.J. Masicampo, who's a researcher, a dad, and just a really cool person.
E.J. Masicampo: I'm a psychology professor by day and I'm on a research sabbatical this semester, so I was in London visiting the University College, London. There's a group there that does research that's pretty close to mine, and on top of that I decided to do some traveling while I'm out here. Doing a bunch of shows all over Europe. Honestly, my research is all over the place, but my background is in social psychology, which, as I said, it's all about how we're influenced by others, how we relate to others, how we act in social situations. So, yeah, I've been, you know, doing psychology writing during the day and hanging out and doing comedy shows at night.
E.J. Masicampo: I feel like the divorce is one of the best things to ever happen to me.
E.J. Masicampo: And it was her idea. Like, I did not see it coming at all.
E.J. Masicampo: And I would never have left her, but I'm so grateful that she ended it.
E.J. Masicampo: I started comedy pretty late in life. I'd been a professor for, I don't know, close to ten years, and, you know, what it was was I was married, and she and I had two kids together. I was very enmeshed in, you know, family life, and she and I were, I didn't know at the time, we were going through the process of splitting up. So, we started spending a lot more time apart and, honestly, I was just needing a new hobby, because I suddenly found I had a lot more time on my hands.
E.J. Masicampo: I'm a real passive, I tend to put other people first.
E.J. Masicampo: So, I spent the whole 12 years of our relationship doing what she liked to do. We used to go hiking all the time, because she loved the outdoors.
E.J. Masicampo: Which, early on in the relationship, I told her I also loved the outdoors, but you know, I meant from a nice deck or, you know, looking at the outdoors from a cool brewery window or something.
E.J. Masicampo: I haven't gone camping or hiking once in the three years since we've divorced.
Avi Forrest: And you said you're glad she ended it?
E.J. Masicampo: Yeah. I mean, for one, I would never have started comedy if she didn't end it.
E.J. Masicampo: So, yeah. That was something that bothered me, was I had that same experience of getting a divorce and feeling like people felt sorry for me or looked down on me because I got divorced. Like I was lesser than for not being in my marriage anymore, having failed at something, so I'm very motivated to talk a lot about how much this is actually a success and how staying in a marriage, or just how marriage, in general, is not for everyone and is a bad idea in a lot of cases.
Avi Forrest: Do you still work with your wife, or your ex-wife?
E.J. Masicampo: Yes. She's also a psychology professor, and our offices are I want to say ten or 15 feet from each other. We work together. We're on committees together. We see each other all the time. I mean, we were really good friends before we split up, so we already shared a lot of common interests. I mean before we were even dating, we were good friends, too. Yeah, I've gotten to work happy hours, where it ended up just being me and her because no one else showed up. So, we're very much still in each other's lives. We get along great. She comes to my comedy shows and sees me, you know, talking about her and our split. So, I mean, she keeps coming to the show, so she must like it and find it entertaining. I mean, she'll give me notes afterward. She'll be like, just kind of jokingly telling me, "Well, you know, it was a little bit like this," or, "Don't worry. I won't tell people how you actually felt about that thing," whatever.
Avi Forrest: And you have kids together, right?
E.J. Masicampo: Yeah. We've got two kids. Six and nine.
Avi Forrest: What's it like just turning what we would perceive as negative things into comedy?
E.J. Masicampo: Honestly, I feel like that's the best part, is taking something that people see one way or people see as a negative and flipping it on its head and getting them to laugh about it, because that feels like agreement. Getting people to move a little bit.
E.J. Masicampo: Because that's what I like most in comedy, is when a comedian can get me to look at something differently or feel a different way about something in a way that is expanding my perspective more.
E.J. Masicampo: And if I can do that, that is at least one of the best parts of comedy to me, is to get people see things in a new light and to get that sort of agreement through laughter is great.
E.J. Masicampo: Yeah. When you're going against what people typically think, yeah, you've got to find the right angle, the right wording. So it's rarely easy, but yeah, when you nail it it's just a fun process and very rewarding when you figure it out.
Avi Forrest: What was your first time at an open mic, or even your first time just at a microphone doing comedy?
E.J. Masicampo: It's like being on a first date the first time you get in front of an audience. I see some young comics or some first timers, they go up and they just start with these really offensive things that other comics can get away with if, again, it's like a well-established person and we already trust them and know them. When people don't know you, they don't know where you're coming from, they don't know that you're a good person yet. It just is kind of alarming to hear these things. So, there's a lot of psychology in that. You know, laughter ultimately is a way of bonding with somebody. It's almost like a way of communicating, "I like you. I agree with what you're saying," and you need that liking and trust. So, I'd say it's like a first date. This is a metaphor a lot of people use because you have to ease into it. You wouldn't, right out of the gate on a first date, start talking about really intense things like sex or religion or politics.
You sort of introduce yourself, you get to know each other, and then you get more intimate and are able to take more risks once you've built up some trust. So, you know, simple things like that that I think I may be a little more aware of how to do that as a social psychologist.
Avi Forrest: What's the hardest negative thing you've turned into a joke?
E.J. Masicampo: There are a lot of things I am still in the middle of having not figured out. I talk about race a lot, and there, you know, I had to try a lot of different things to really get it right. I think there, a lot of that I haven't figured out yet. People don't realize it, but we're not really a community. The Asian community is so diverse. I think it's 49 different countries in Asia, and people expect us to be this community. We get along, but we're not a community. We're an alliance, honestly. We're together because we need each other. It's sort of a survival tactic. But I haven't found the right way to talk about that, because it feels bad to reject the rest of the Asian community and say we're natural enemies, but we are.
I mean, you know, our history is conflict, not, you know, having these potlucks on campus together that we're supposed to be having.
Avi Forrest: And that joke about hecklers and especially racists. About, like, "Go back to Beijing," and you said, "Thank you."
E.J. Masicampo: I've gotten everything, I feel like. Yeah, I've been told to go back to China, I've had people do the mocking sort of Chinese-sounding voice to me. Yeah. It's not happening every day, but every once in a while you get a crazy, out-of-nowhere racist comment like that. Usually when it happens, the first thing is just shock. It's so unexpected. You're not insulted. You're just confused. You have to walk away and be like, "Did that person actually say that thing?" And later realize yeah, they did. I feel like being insulted or angry is like the fourth or fifth emotion you feel, and then much, much later I feel like you can start to make jokes about it after you've felt okay about it.
People can tell when you don't yet feel okay about something. I've tried to tell divorce jokes the next day, and the jokes were fine but I think it was so raw, people just couldn't help but feel sorry for me. They're like, "Yeah, you're clearly in pain." So, yeah. It does take processing it and becoming okay with it, I think, before you can really make it funny.
Avi Forrest: How does your experience with psychology interact with all of this, if anything?
E.J. Masicampo: Yeah. In so many ways, I've already said that social psychologists just analyze everyday life, and a lot of observational comedy is that. But also, as a research psychologist, I'm just very used to experimentation. I have like a lab where we run experiments on people and we test hypotheses and we gather data, and then we revise our studies based on the incoming data. So, joke writing honestly feels a lot like that.
E.J. Masicampo: Whenever I wrote a joke, I've basically got a hypothesis which is that this is going to make people laugh, and then it's nice because I get my data right away. I get to tell the joke. I get to see people laugh, and if they don't, well, that was not a supported hypothesis. So, then I get to revise the joke and try again.
Avi Forrest: I'm just imagining you on a magazine cover, like in a lab coat, analyzing a rubber chicken or something. I like this idea that joke is hypothesis or something.
E.J. Masicampo: Being a teacher, too, effective teaching is a lot about knowing how to communicate these complex ideas in a way that people are going to understand.
E.J. Masicampo: For me, joke writing is a lot like that, too. It's like, you found something funny. If you think it's funny, you're never wrong. There is something funny there. You've just got to communicate what you're experiencing to the audience in a way that they can also see it. So, it's all about finding the right way to describe exactly what you're seeing as funny about this thing. So, I feel like teaching has helped me a lot with that, being able to communicate as a comic.
Avi Forrest: And honestly, I think that's hilarious. It's like a weird alternative universe Batman if his parents weren't murdered and he wasn't a superhero. He just did stand-up comedy and psychology. Do people ever found that out and just, I don't know, think that's hilarious?
E.J. Masicampo: It's an interesting convo, for sure. Yeah. They usually have questions. I don't know if they find it hilarious. That'd be nice if they did, but it's a pretty natural sort of transition, as I put my stand-up comic uniform on at night and go out into the darkness.
Avi Forrest: I did some research on your Google scholar. It is not boring. I am a massive research nerd. You have a link tree that says, "Not really funny Google Scholar."
E.J. Masicampo: Oh, right.
Avi Forrest: I don't know. I see studying behavior and cognitive thought process, but also secrecy, the burdens of secrecy, and also how thoughts relate to action.
E.J. Masicampo: I've published a lot on, like, self-control, like how we manage our behaviors and our temptations, which is a very social thing. I mean, most self-control comes down to taking all your animal impulses and forcing yourself to be this civilized person in society. That takes a lot of effort.
E.J. Masicampo: Did a lot of morality. Like, how do we decide whether someone or their behaviors are good or bad. Yeah, I've studied secrecy a lot. Just how secrets affect people. Just the felt burden of secrets. How it actually feels burdensome and it weighs us down in interesting ways.
E.J. Masicampo: I'm a social psychologist. Did you go to IU?
Avi Forrest: Oh, on the junior path, IU right now.
E.J. Masicampo: You're going there now? Have you ever taken psychology classes there? There's a great psych department.
Avi Forrest: Yeah. I took a psychology course 101 and I think I've had a couple of friends who are studying psychology.
E.J. Masicampo: Yeah. Alright. Yeah, there's a great social psych group there, and that's what I do. You know, it's just the psychology of everyday life and how people relate to other people, and comedy is a lot of that. Observational comedy is just, you know, looking at how we live, looking at relationships.
E.J. Masicampo: So, we're analyzing them and breaking them down. Yeah. I feel like I focus on a lot of the same things in the classroom when I'm teaching as I do on stage.
Avi Forrest: In all of this, you said that the marriage ended well, and from what I've heard, the relationship with your kids is going well. It feels weird for me to say because I'm basically still a stranger. For some reason, I know so many details about your life through your comedy, just listening to your stand-up.
E.J. Masicampo: I've definitely had friends or acquaintances or co-workers or whatever, learn about me by coming to an open mic or a show where I'm talking to a bunch of strangers and they are, as a friend, learning things about me that I'd never shared with them before.
Avi Forrest: What's the deepest thing you've shared on stage?
E.J. Masicampo: I've gotten pretty vulnerable about my divorce. My divorce has been great. That's what a lot of my comedy is about. I'm very pro-divorce. I think just because, yeah, that's not something I've often talked even to my family about that has felt like one of the more vulnerable topics.
Avi Forrest: So, which ends up being harder, being a psychology professor or being a stand-up comedian?
E.J. Masicampo: Oh. I mean, they're both hard. Another thing that's similar about both of them is there's so much rejection in both, because as a scientist it's rough publishing. I don't know if you've heard the phrase "publish or perish", but you know, to be a good scientist you're supposed to be running these innovative studies and writing these papers that you then publish in these journals, and have to go through this peer review process where usually what happens is they send your paper to these other scientists and they just completely destroy and tear apart your work. Their job is to say everything that's wrong about it, and I just got one of these the other day. It's just 12 pages of single space, just line after line, "And here's what's wrong with this study, and here's why your ideas are bad and here--" And it's so painful, and it's similar in comedy. Before any joke really gets to the place where you're seeing it in a special or on late night, it's just crashing and burning.
People aren't insulting you to your face, but they're just giving you these blank stares and just not laughing at all at these jokes that you thought were so funny, and that is equally painful.
E.J. Masicampo: Comedy's nice because the feedback's immediate, and in psychology you'll work for years on a project and then have it be torn apart, you know, to shreds.
Avi Forrest: I want to ask some closing questions that are a little more open-ended, and just a more in general. What's something people don't see when you're performing?
E.J. Masicampo: Mm-hmm. Oh. There's the long history of the joke, before I got there. All the times it failed and all the times you tweaked it.
E.J. Masicampo: And then every comic when they're performing, too, they're in their heads adjusting all the time. That's another fun thing about comedy, is you're constantly adjusting your set. If you're doing it well, you're adjusting based on what's happening in the room, based on what's getting a laugh, how people are reacting. You might notice certain things aren't working so well, so you might, in your head, start dropping these jokes that you're planning on doing later, or deciding to do new ones that you think will work well based on how people are reacting.
E.J. Masicampo: Yeah. And then, you know, just paying attention to what's happening in the room, responding to it, and preparing to respond to it later. There is a lot of that happening.
E.J. Masicampo: Yeah. It's a crazy mix of being prepared with jokes that you've written and know verbatim, and then being able to change those on the fly based on what's happening in your set.
Avi Forrest: Thank you so much for talking with me.
E.J. Masicampo: Thanks for talking to me. This was a lot of fun.
Alex Chambers: That was E.J. Masicampo talking with producer Avi Forrest. It's time for a break. When we come back, we'll take a poetic interlude with Rachel Ronquillo Gray, before we return to the story of the missing cat. Stay with us.
Alex Chambers: Welcome back to Inner States. I'm Alex Chambers. It's time for some Rebel Girl poems. Rachel Ronquillo Gray is a native Nevadan, who currently lives here in Bloomington where she writes and cooks with her daughter strapped to her chest.
Rachel Ronquillo Gray: Girl Has Teenage Rebellion. Our violets are too good to wilt. We will play willow sonatas, fill our hollow places with glittery feathers, stuff our knee-high socks full of coal. We learn that August sunflowers don't break themselves, instead they bow their weighty heads, they watch their shadows move. We look in mirrors every morning and get lost. Our night fresh hair like strange petals, we lean toward a winter sun, a girlish outcrop of asters.
Rachel Ronquillo Gray: Good Girl Gone Rogue. If it is wrong to love a boy whose only home is a motorcycle and the open road, then I'm not right and don't want to be. I wear the white dresses anyway, I sing in a soprano anyway. Everything I say is a question. I'm so tired of being good. His mother warns me he will leave like his father left her, and still I hike up my dress and climb onto the back of his bike. I know the leather jacket he gives me was for another girl, I wear it as if he bought it for me, breathing big to fill the other girl-shaped hole. Sleeves too long. It keeps me warm against the ocean breeze. I walk beside him at night wearing this jacket and holding a white daisy. It's the one thing I know he picked for me. Everyone tells me he won't last. Would it be so bad if he didn't? And in the end it was just me? Would it be so bad to spread myself all over the place, let my dresses rip and fly, leave them tangled in the weeds? Would it be so bad to love the wind and its wispy fingers in my unbound hair and its grit on my skin? A heavy thing that sings between my legs and in my palms, my heart, my everywhere else? Would it be so bad to trust my body to keep me alive? To lean into wicked curves and switch backs? To crave a silence filled with birds, highways, me?
Rachel Ronquillo Gray: Girl as Full Moon. I want to kill off my desires or they will haunt me. A horizon of yellow moons sagging with want. And I want so much, brooding tide, cave echo, dirt scarlet road, open mouth kiss, hand fisted in tangles. Sometimes a moon is just a moon, an eclipse is just an eclipse, not light reversed. Sometimes light doesn't reveal anything but blinds us. South of my mouth some say I am like the moon, full of light and meaning and life that I never wanted. Sometimes a womb is just a womb. Why can't I be just a girl? Mostly blood and salt, obsidian and air. Isn't that life anyway?
Rachel Ronquillo Gray: Girl As America the Beautiful. I expect the horizon to rise sometime before twilight. A cowboy mountain, mouthfuls of silence, gravel in his beard. It's iron flat from here, even the sky won't pleat. I am lying between a corn field and a hard place. I write patience across all my pages, a landscape of shimmery hills there for all travelers to see. My black clump eyelashes flicker. Stomach of dark soil. Lungs of sunset frost. I fill with rows of highway side crops. Stalks spear above my dirt face and crumbling thorns. To say here, these things grow in me. Scattered sky lost crows. A patriotic song swelters. Heavy hands finger pistoled and wait for lustful bees. Spread me thick across a dizzy corn field, harvest me, feed me gold and oatish to livestock, patient and hungry. I am heartland, a starving sky, all violet majesty.
Alex Chambers: Rachel Ronquillo Gray from WFIU's Poet's Weave. Let's take another break and then see if we can find a cat.
Alex Chambers: Inner States. Alex Chambers. Okay, it's time for Chapter Two of the third time Rita left, our four part saga about a missing cat. This one is called, Finding Rita, but don't get your hopes up. As we start this episode, Rita is still missing. I dunno how that cat... and there's another one. What? Oh, wait, I just have to turn off the sound effects library. Just gimme a sec.
Alex Chambers: Okay, here we go. When we left Kate, she'd been trying to let people know about her missing cat. She emailed a poster to the copy shop and asked them to make a stack of copies, in color.
Kate: You know, I just felt like the colors were really important to identifying her because Rita is a really beautiful, kind of muted calico cat.
Alex Chambers: Apparently everyone loves a calico. I'm a little embarrassed to admit, I didn't know for sure what a calico was. You probably know but, just in case, a calico cat is a domestic cat of any breed with a tricolor coat. I looked up pictures, and it's true, a cat with black and white and orange, it's impressive. But Kate was still worried. She put posters all over the neighborhood. She also posted on the local Lost Pets Facebook group. She got a lot more responses than she expected, people posting and reposting, sounding really concerned. She was surprised by the level of response but, she developed a theory.
Kate: This sounds bad but, I think it's because of how beautiful our cat is, which I found a little disturbing because it shouldn't matter how beautiful she is, the fact is, we want our cat back.
Alex Chambers: Was it because Rita was beautiful that Mr. Copy gave Kate free posters, not that first day but, over the next weeks and months? Was it because she was beautiful that people responded so passionately to the Facebook post and talked to their neighbors and called Kate, and went out searching for Rita themselves? And if so, if Rita was so strikingly beautiful that strangers all over the city were looking for her, how was it that years earlier when Kate decided to adopt the full grown, one year old Rita, she didn't realize Rita had lived with her before.
Alex Chambers: Rita was only two weeks old when they met her the first time. Kate and Carl had signed up to foster kittens, with their young son, Cosmo. They ended up with baby Rita, her Mom and her four siblings.
Kate: And Rita was the runt; she was really tiny and she had to fight her way to nurse. We were always trying to help her make sure she got milk and everything. I think she was Cosmo's favorite. She was the only calico, there was a black and white one which is Pingu and then a gray one, an orange one and a black one.
Alex Chambers: But they were fostering so they knew their relationship was going to be short-lived.
Kate: When it was time to let them go, to send them back to the shelter, it was hard to let go of her, we really liked her but, we had not decided that we were ready to have cats, we had only decided that we were ready to foster. So we were just trying to be good foster parents and let go of the cats.
Alex Chambers: So they took them all back to the shelter. But, the thing is, kittens have this short window for getting really comfortable with their surroundings. When Rita and Pingu went back to the shelter, they'd been with Kate's family for weeks, very significant weeks. If ever they were to come back to Kate's house, it would probably feel more like home than any other. Rita would probably already want to come home and if, years later, Rita ran away in an unfamiliar parking lot, she would miss her home, wouldn't she? Wouldn't she know where she belonged?
Kate: She belonged with us, she belonged at home, she was scared and she was on her own and she needed to be brought home.
Alex Chambers: This is a pod-cast. A pod-cast with big questions. And when you're making a pod-cast and you have questions, there's really only one thing to do, you call an expert.
Mikel Delgado: I'm Mikel Delgardo.
Alex Chambers: When we spoke a few years ago, Mikel was a Postdoctoral Researcher at the School of Veterinarian Medicine at UC Davis.
Mikel Delgado: I'm also a Cat Behavior Consultant and I've been working professionally with cats for almost 20 years.
Alex Chambers: I called Mikel because I wanted to confirm what Rita thought about Kate. I figured as a cat scientist, she'd be able to tell me what was going on in Rita's head.
Mikel Delgado: For us, it's really hard to step out of our own heads and into the perceptual world of other animals so, it's a bit of a stretch for us, I think, to try to understand how animals think.
Alex Chambers: Okay, so the cat's mind is a black box. Turns out we can't just open it up to find out what's going on in there. Is your cat dreaming about you or is she dreaming about food? Are you alive to your cat? When your cat looks at you, what does she think about? The answer will remain forever ambiguous.
Mikel Delgado: But it probably is a combination of smells and sounds and appearances that help them form these identifications of who's safe, who's not, who do I love. We really just don't know. We know they have a short-term memory but it's pretty short. When you get them to do cognitive memory tasks, the memory decays pretty quickly. But they do form really strong bonds with their home territory and people but, we also know that they're very adaptable. I don't want to suggest that cats who have an experience with one person early in life can never adapt to another person. A lot of cats end up in animal shelters, go to another family and end up very happy, they bond very strongly with those new people. So it's really hard to say whether or not Rita remembered Kate when she came back or if she was just open to a new experience at that point because she was socialized well when she was young.
Alex Chambers: I was hoping for more of an answer than that. But okay, cats are adaptable. Rita, the kitten, may not have bonded with Kate but she was socialized well, that's good to know.
Alex Chambers: And when it was time, Kate and Carl took the cats back to the shelter. That was the first time Rita left. But the two girls weren't up to weight yet so they came back home and stayed with Kate's family for another week or so. Then they went back to the shelter again. That was the second time. It seemed like that was it for Rita and Kate. And then--
Kate: A year later, a friend of mine was moving and needed to get rid of a couple of cats and she sent an email out to people she knew and had a picture of them. I was like, "Oh, those two cats are adorable, oo, and they're both female and maybe we are ready for cats." They were a year old and we were like, "Let's get these cats." I brought it up to Carl and he was like, "It sounds like you've already decided", and so we just went and got them and brought them home. Their names were Pinga and Pingu but, a couple of days into having them, one night I was staying up late, everybody else was in bed, and I was just looking at Pingu and noticed that she had this weird sort of arrow marking on her nose and I was like, "Gosh, I know that." And I thought, wait, is that the cat we used to have, that kitten... Pingu?! And then it all clicked, the age was right, these were our cats but, I needed to prove it. I used to keep a blog and I looked up my blog, and I had all these pictures of the kittens, and it was undeniably Rita and Pingu, they had just changed one of the cats names. But we gave her back her original name.
Alex Chambers: Rita was back and it looked like they were a family for good this time, until that visit to the vet's office when the carrier broke and Rita hightailed it around the subway and Kate felt like she'd failed the loved one who'd been put our care. We can't protect our loved ones forever. Our children will suffer, our pets will die but, we can be more or less present, hold the carrier more or less tightly. And if it falls apart in our hands anyway, the way our country might in spite of the polling, in spite of the cruel joke the other candidate makes of himself and the world, then we have to do something about it. So Kate puts posters up, posts on social media, she runs an ad in the newspaper too. One night, she gets a text: "I saw your Cat. I'm over at the Kroger, on this side of the parking lot and I've put out cat food cans."
Kate: So I head over there and it was getting kind of late, actually it was getting dark, this was in the Fall so it got dark early but, I went out there. I was texting with this person and at some point I realized, how do I know who this person is and could this be a trap of some sort? If so, I am falling right into it because I'm going out into more and more isolated spaces based on what this person is texting me, who I've never met and have no way of knowing who they are or what they know.
Alex Chambers: It makes sense that Kate was nervous as she followed a person's invitation out behind a grocery store in the dark.
Kate: But mostly I dismissed that and just really wanted to follow any leads that might mean finding my cat.
Alex Chambers: So she went out but there was no one there.
Kate: It turned out to be nothing.
Alex Chambers: There was a picnic table and--
Kate: Cat food cans that were completely open around there. I would sometimes see empty cat food cans so there were definitely feral cats who were eating the cat food.
Alex Chambers: And there were plenty of places for feral cats to live.
Kate: And I should say, next to the Kroger, there's a big field and then also behind the Kroger, next to where those abandoned houses are, there's another big field so there's lots of big open space and shrubs and brush and trees, there's a wild zone back there that we just walked through all hours of the day and night. I mostly thought that the mornings and the evenings were the best time to look for her and so, I would get up early and go. I just thought that I was most likely to see her out before sunrise and right around sunset because I thought that during the day she would be hiding.
Alex Chambers: And even without seeing Rita, she was finding other things.
Kate: There was something really nice and beautiful, at times, being out in these semi-wild, suburban spaces at dawn or pre-dawn, seeing fog across the field lifting or seeing frost on the grasses. I didn't usually spend that much time outside and it was a lot of time by myself wandering, thinking about my cat.
Alex Chambers: One night, it must have been late October by now, dusk was falling early, she decided to checkout the stand of scrubby trees back behind a sprawling farmhouse. A walkway of cracked asphalt lead to it. She saw a shape loom up next to her, an old tractor, overtaken by weeds. She headed into the scrub. It was all edge zone and she felt a little edgy. Phone light on, she found a broken down garage, barn, hard to tell. She took me there in the safety of a Saturday afternoon a month or so ago, four years since she'd last been there.
Kate: Lots of honeysuckle.
Alex Chambers: She'd been looking for Rita but she found something else. We doubted it would still be there. The place was more decrepit than last time; caved in roof, piles of plate glass, rusty bedsprings, a Black men's ice skate, a crushed leather boot (probably for the same pair of feet), a pair of child's jelly shoes.
Kate: That brings up a whole other question.
Alex Chambers: How long had they been there on the ground, 20 years? What happened to the child who had worn those shoes? Why had this place, a place that had been full of life, plans to go skating, why had it been abandoned. There was something unfinished here, maybe something still living. And then--
Kate: I sort of imagine this as being-- oh my God, there it is, there's an arm!
Alex Chambers: Kate found what we'd come to see.
Alex Chambers: Oh my God. Okay, so it's like--
Alex Chambers: It looked like a child lying on the ground...
Alex Chambers: It's like a...
Alex Chambers: ... matted hair.
Alex Chambers: ... tiny body.
Alex Chambers: ... blank eyes. Her head was turned to the side, shirt up around her neck, her shoulder bare, no legs, lying there between two rotting beams, a child sized mannequin. A couple feet away, a Ragged Andy stared, perpetually surprised up to the sky, both slowly succumbing to dead leaves and ivy.
Kate: I feel comforted to know that someone didn't--
Alex Chambers: When she came across this scene four years ago, Kate snapped a photo with her flashlight, spotlighting the uncanny face. Back then it was upright, its hand tilted out at its side in a gesture of innocence, head and eyes downcast. I have to say it-- she looks really sad in the photo and vulnerable, her bare belly crossed over, protected by a fallen board. The one leg you can see is still intact. Seeing her in person, it was as if we'd found the child who'd worn those shoes, and everything had been abandoned, like those burned out houses up the hill, and everything was haunted. There's something to a haunting, I learned this from the great writer and sociologist, Avery Gordon, being haunted means something hasn't been laid to rest. Haunting is that moment when things are not in their assigned places, when disturbed feelings cannot be put away, when something else seems like it must done. I think this mannequin, forgotten for decades in a broken down garage was a sign that something hadn't been put to rest. Kate was being haunted. Someone was lost, someone she loved and until she found closure she would have to keep going.
Alex Chambers: And then, one night--
Kate: And I think this was pretty early on. I was getting up at 4:30 in the morning and getting dressed and heading out there and looking for her behind Kroger and in those fields and stuff. So, I would usually park somewhere in the Kroger parking lot and get out and start walking around and calling her and rattling her food thing. So, I was walking around up near where those abandoned houses were and I hear this person's voice and they're calling, "Rita. Rita. Rita", and I'm like ,wait a minute, what is happening? And I look down and I see this car and it's kind of idling and driving a little ways and stopping and idling, and this person is calling out...
Unknown Person: Rita!
Kate: ... my cat's name.
Unknown Person: Rita!
Kate: And it's a woman's voice. And then before I could even get down there they drove off and left.
Alex Chambers: She never found out who it was. She figured it was her friend, Tasey. She asked her and she said no, she had been out looking for her but not that night. Whoever it was had driven off but that wasn't the only reason Kate didn't talk to her, she was also a little scared.
Kate: It was almost eerie.
Alex Chambers: Who would do that, wee hours of the morning, go out calling for someone else's cat behind a strip mall? I've mentioned that Kate wondered if Rita was special, like if all those free color posters, all the texts and Facebook likes and the person calling out in the middle of the night, were because of Rita's good looks? But, I don't know, maybe Rita wasn't special, maybe all the lost pets get that much attention.
Alex Chambers: Listening to Kate tell the story, I started thinking that maybe that voice in the pre-dawn parking lot was part of the usually invisible substrate of human interaction. Hearing that voice, Kate was listening to someone watch over here and Rita. I don't know, maybe it sounds like I'm talking about the Holy Spirit or something back there by the Kroger dumpsters. But it wasn't God, it was some person out there, caring about Kate's troubles, without even knowing her. For all its eerie-ness...
Kate: It was also beautiful and touching that someone would be out there pre-dawn, searing for my cat behind a strip mall.
Alex Chambers: With all those people out helping, it seemed inevitable Rita would be found.
Kate: I just felt like I knew she was out there.
Alex Chambers: Kate was stubborn about that. There was something idealistic about her persistence, it kind of went a little beyond the constraints of reality, especially since Carl had seen something in the field by the Kroger, within a week of Rita's disappearance.
Carl: I don't know, it's probably that first week that I was out there, early in the morning, walking through that field to the south of the strip mall, up toward those farmhouses, when I saw a coyote. And at that point I thought, oh well, if there's coyotes around then she could well have been eaten. I certainly didn't tell Kate at the time that I saw the coyote, I'm not sure I ever told her at all, because I wanted her to still remain hopeful.
Alex Chambers: Like I said, we've got to take care of each other.
Alex Chambers: That's it for Chapter Two. Chapter Three has a discussion with Kate's boss about work/life boundaries, more sightings, and the family getting offered the opportunity to exhume a dead cat.
Alex Chambers: That's coming next week here on Inner States.
Alex Chambers: You've been listening to Inner States from WFIU in Bloomington, Indiana. If you have a story for us or you've got some sound we should hear, let us know at WFIU.org/InnerStates. We've got you a quick moment of slow radio coming up but first, the credits. Inner States is produced and edited by me, Alex Chambers with support from Violet Baron, Eoban Binder, Mark Chilla, Avi Forrest, LuAnn Johnson, Sam Schemenauer, Payton Whaley, and Kayte Young. Our Executive Producer is Eric Bolstridge. Our theme song is by Amy Oelsner and Justin Vollmar. Most of the music and the reader's story is by Ramón Monrás-Sende. We have additional music from the artists at Universal Production Music and Backward Collective. Special thanks this week to E. J. Masicampo, Rachel Ronquillo Gray and LuAnn Johnson and Romayne Rubinas Dorsey of WFIU's Poets Weave.
Alex Chambers: Alright, time for some Found Sound. This one's a bit of a story in sound. It's about climate change, or at least severe storms. I'll explain later outside.
Alex Chambers: That was a crew clearing a tree that had fallen across my street, after a storm knocked it down a few weeks ago. That's it for the show, until next week. I'm Alex Chambers. Thanks for listening.