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Why Set Your Novel in Indiana, then an Invitation to Exhume a Dead Cat

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Alex Chambers:  In chapter three of our missing cat saga, Kayte gets invited to do some digging.

Kayte Young:  I felt like we had to know if it was her or not. So, Carl and I decided we were going to go and we were going to dig up this dead cat's body and that we needed to take our son Cosmo with us.

Alex Chambers:  The Third Time Rita left chapter three, Missing Rita. Coming up on Inner States. But first, an Indiana author writes a novel set in Indiana and it wins a national book award. Violet Baron talks with Tess Gunty about why it was important to set her novel in her home state. Then, Austin Davis brings us some poems about people living without housing. That's all coming up on Inner States, right after this.

Alex Chambers:  Welcome to Inner States, I'm Alex Chambers, and, I'm going to turn it right over to Violet Baron who talked with Novelist, Tess Gunty about the mid-west, social class and women being protagonists of their own lives.

Violet Baron:  Tess Gunty's debut novel, the Rabbit Hutch, got significant critical acclaim when it came out last year and I get why. It creates a world where each character is thoughtful and weird and chooses eccentricity over likability. It takes place in one apartment building where they all live out parallel lives and that building is in the fictional Rust Belt town of Vacca Valley. Gunty modeled it, in part, on her own home town, South Bend. The book's protagonist, Blandine, is young, smart, beautiful and seemingly going nowhere. She exits her body on the very first page. We see her in her town through the eyes of both old timers and newcomers throughout the book, and those interwoven stories explore themes of home, belonging, class, feminism and the absurdities of life in our current moment. It also speaks honestly and devastatingly about what it's like to be a woman, or a girl just entering womanhood. In a world that seems to be taking as many steps backwards as forward. I spoke with Gunty via Zoom to hear some of her why's, and how's, behind the story.

Tess Gunty:  I've been writing for fun ever since I was really little. It was just something I enjoyed doing and, I continued doing it throughout high school and college. But, I had never read a book that was set in the Rust Belt and I think that when I was small, I internalized this narrative that the lives that happened there, the narratives that happened there are not worthy of external attention. And, I think it took me a very long time to understand the particular danger of that message. I think when you believe that the narratives around you, and within you, don't matter, you're divested of political will and creative will, but, around the time I was twenty, twenty one, I started to realize that the absence of this fiction was a very good reason to contribute some.

Violet Baron:  Yes, you bring up this political aspect to this right away. And, I'm curious if you see this book as part of that raft of stories we got in the last five plus years, Educated, Hillbilly Elegy, even The Glass Castle. These personal and family orientated stories about working class white communities that we don't hear about as much.

Tess Gunty:  I haven't read either of those books, but, I started writing this book the year I moved to Brooklyn and I think I needed about a year of distance from my home in order to start to see it more clearly. And, one thing that came to me during that time was a new sense of protectiveness and tenderness towards the place that I don't think I could feel free to experience until I was free of it. I did notice that there was a dismissal of this region that I think I felt when I lived there but I never saw it up close until I was out of it and I was in more elite communities in coastal cities. I think that it was partly the frustration of encountering that dismissal that motivated me to write. I had already been writing the book for a bit but I went to see a performance of Bolero, the New York Philharmonic, I sat next to this woman who was in furs and she looked like she'd never left Manhattan.

Tess Gunty:  When she asked where I was from, I said Indiana and she gasped and she said, "I didn't know anyone was from Indiana. Did you turn the lights out when you left?" And it was the most cartoonist version of an attitude that I think I encountered in much more subtle ways here and there. Not to say that I think this is the pinnacle of oppression, I just think it was interesting to me to encounter the dismissal.

Violet Baron:  That sense of place and how different people respond to it is so palpable in the story. I'm curious how play acts as a device, the character Moses comes to Vacca Valley and he's responding to the smallness of it and now, you've lived in these big places like New York and LA, my stories the opposite, I came from New York to Indiana. So, in your mind, how is the placeness of Vacca Valley operating in the story?

Tess Gunty:  One of the reasons I wanted to set it in a fictional city was that I think if I had set it in my real hometown or any other city in the Rust Belt, like Gary Indiana, Flint Michigan, Youngstown Ohio, all of which influenced Vacca Valley tremendously, I would feel immobilized by the task of doing it justice or creating an objectively true portrait of the place. I think precisely because there are so few narratives that are visible on a national scale about these places that I feel tremendous pressure to be perfectly accurate in every possible way and I knew that was impossible for me. Setting it in a fictional city, allowed me to treat place more as an atmospheric challenge rather than a transcription challenge. What I was trying to evoke most strongly, was this purgatorial atmosphere that I encountered in my city and in any other city that I visited that had a similar history.

Tess Gunty:  I would feel that sensation of the after life, a hinterland between realms that was so palpable in all of these places. Really, the effort was to evoke the emotional sensation and then of course, I pulled on things that were real, some of the things I made up but, that was the main relationship that I had with creating a place.

Violet Baron:  It's super interesting. The idea of the places as sort of purgatory or purgatorial moment maybe between what it was when the factories and the companies were strongly present and what it will be or, what new commerce might come. Did you feel that growing up in the state?

Tess Gunty:  Absolutely, I remember I didn't really learn much about the automobile company in South Bend's case, it was home to Studebaker Automobiles for about a hundred years, and then they abruptly closed in the nineteen sixties, that was about thirty years before I was born. My family wasn't from South Bend, they had moved there from elsewhere. In its hey day, Studebaker was the largest car manufacturing facility in America, but I didn't know that. What I did know was that I felt extremely haunted from childhood onward by something. I saw it everywhere, it wasn't just in my household, it was everywhere I looked. And, when I went to catholic school and when I was maybe eleven, this religion teacher introduced us to the idea of purgatory for the first time. She described it as a place of indefinite waiting, eternal longing and unquenchable thirst and, she said that you would never know how long you're going to stay there, and pretty much everyone went there, she said.

Tess Gunty:  So she made us memorize this prayer to liberate a thousand souls everyday from purgatory, she would keep a tally of all the souls that we had liberated, and so, the whole exercise was fairly absurd but it was also, when she was describing this after life, I thought I recognize this place and feel like we're already there. It gave a term to all of the longing, the waiting, this no mans land that I saw in this book, emotionally and geographically in terms of the landscape and architecture, but, in also people's expressions and postures.

Violet Baron:  That's very cool, I can tell you're a writer talking about that. That would definitely stick with me too. I'm curious if you know that that was a really deep description of place and how it factored into the story, but, do you see yourself, neighbors or friends growing up in some of these characters because they're so richly developed?

Tess Gunty:  I certainly see myself in all of these characters. I think even though none of them superficially resemble me, I feel very present in all of them, of course my emotionally data is what I'm drawing on to evoke theirs. I find it very difficult to write about people that I know. I think I can translate experiences from my own life, or from others, into fiction, but I feel like I'm violating someone if I transcribe their story into fiction, even with their permission it feels invasive. But I will say that I was good friends with some of my neighbors as a child, I grew up in a lower income neighborhood and, my family didn't have much income but I did have a lot of resources that the people around me didn't have and I was aware of that. I had two care givers that were present, I had access to education, my mother worked in schools so we got free tuition.

Tess Gunty:  A lot of my friends were dealing with things like domestic violence, substance abuse and, really extreme forms of inter generational poverty that I certainly noticed, and so the consequences of this structural neglect were very visible in my community. But also, I went to these catholic schools, they were more expensive, and so most of my peers there were from very different worlds. They were from the suburbs, gated communities, high income lives. And, it felt like we were experiencing two completely different places. And then also, I worked at a bakery when I was in high school and into college. We had a stand at the farmers market so I would go there three times a week and it was a really social environment, people would stop and talk and want to tell you about their lives and, especially the older people who visited. A lot of them felt lonely and left behind by others, and so they would sit and tell me their life stories and, all of those stories, none of them are replicated in the book, but, that was very much the emotional sound track that was present for me as I was writing.

Violet Baron:  I'm curious about gender and how gender factored into the story. You've some very strong female characters and also some very strange female characters and all of them are dealing with being a woman in various different ways. The main character, Blandine, is dealing with an abusive relationship that she was in when she was young and she's still very young. The mother character, Hope, is dealing with post partum anxiety in a very intense way and her husband is supportive but he doesn't know how to be fully supportive. The way we see perspective and agency in these characters does feel new to me, and I wonder if it feels new to you and why you chose to invoke womanhood in those ways in the story?

Tess Gunty:  This is one of those subjects that I can't not write about because it influences the way that I inhabit the world. I'm the only girl in my family, I have three older brothers. My dad is a sociologist who's interested in the socialization of masculinity, particularly violent masculinity. And so, I grew up thinking a lot more consciously about masculinity and my dad was always trying to rewire those socialization patterns in my own household, so he was always encouraging my brothers to express their emotions and cry and to be thoughtful of others. I don't think I really started to think about the socialization of femininity very consciously until I was in my twenties and maybe teens and starting to experience a lot of extreme forms of sexual aggression and gendered expectations, gendered management of power. And then as the Me Too movement exploded, that was around the time I was beginning this book.

Tess Gunty:  It was making me reassess a lot of experiences like so many women and people of all genders who are starting to reassess experiences they had had when they were younger. One thing that really frustrated me about growing up specifically within the catholic communities in the mid west, which were extremely patriarchal, obviously, was how limited I felt both the socialization of masculinity and socialization of femininity where it was we were just told we could only express a few qualities and we could only fulfill a few roles and, specifically, frustrating to me is a woman feeling like I was constantly reduced to my body and my appearance and male validation, rather than my mind, my interests, my other qualities.

Tess Gunty:  It was a wish fulfillment to write a young woman who was intent on defining herself through her curiosity, her intellect, her mind, her interests, her activism. It really actively refused these efforts that the men around her are making to pull her into their lives as a peripheral character, she's insisting on being the protagonist of her life and she's insisting on defining herself on terms she can control, terms that seem valuable to her.

Violet Baron:  It's funny because that's trending now as an idea, main character energy. I'm also curious about the multiple character structure of the book, it's interesting how you use this line of the apartment building as a device to meet all of these different people in different places in their lives. How did you come up with the idea for that and how do you think it operates in the book?

Tess Gunty:  It was a few things at once, first of all, I was living in an apartment building that the walls were very thin and I could hear all these lives playing out around me and, I was so intensely curious about what was going on. So, it was again, a form of wish fulfillment to actually examine each life within a building. But even as a child, that struck me very intently, living nine feet away from the house next to mine and I was friends with the girl who lived there, but, I was always struck by how you could live in such close proximity to people and not really know anything about their lives, people across the street. That was happening, but also, have you ever heard of Building Stories by Chris Ware? It's like a collection of comics, some of which don't have any words but you can read them, you can experience them in any order and it's about the residents of this apartment building.

Tess Gunty:  I found it so moving and it really activates your imagination in a thrilling way. That was really inspiring and I was drawn to polyphonic fiction at the time, I was reading a ton of contemporary polyphonic fiction and I loved the form because it felt so much like an eco system where you could get lost, you were trusting the reader to develop their own experience in this place. It was like, structured with a dream associative logic rather than a straightforward, beginning, middle, end momentum or a traditional plot structure. Those reasons combined, I think I was also trying to find a way to resist this pressure I felt through social media, through history, everything, to be very self forward, to be persona forward. There's so much auto fiction that I love but I didn't feel like that was a form that I felt at home in, as a writer, so, this was a way to reach towards a more collective narrative, rather than narratives that reinforce the kind of rugged individual or nuclear family American ideal.

Violet Baron:  The book has gotten a lot of buzz, it's really gotten a lot of critical acclaim and, people are excited about you as an author and I'm curious, given what you've said just at the very beginning of our conversation where that woman was saying, "Did you turn the lights off when you left Indiana?" How do you feel people are responding to the fact of the book as a story about the mid west and about these characters and these stories that we tend not to care about beyond the mid west as they turn their attention towards you, do you feel that, is it a dissonance or does it work?

Tess Gunty:  First of all, I am surprised, surprised is really an understatement, but, I have so many friends who are writers and I had extremely tempered expectations for what this was going to be like. It's nearly impossible to make a living as a literary fiction writer, it's very difficult to get published at all, so I thought just getting published was my goal. The attention was extremely unexpected. I will say that I was most concerned about the reactions from people in the mid west, I really wanted to make sure that I didn't violate. I guess you can't go about life as a writer worrying about violating anyone's narratives about their place, there will always be someone who can find something to pick a fight about in your work.

Violet Baron:  It makes sense to want something that feels true to a majority, especially as you're telling those stories.

Tess Gunty:  I did also want to resist any narratives that this was the definitive voice of anything of anywhere, of anyone. I didn't want to represent anyone but myself, this is one imagination that produced a narrative about a set of experiences that were really limited by my own life. I think, if anything, I hope that this encourages more fiction from places that are neglected and from people who are neglected and, I think in some ways, even though the mid west and specifically the Rust Belt is under represented in art, it's over represented in politics, it seems to be the place all these politicians put on their phoney accents to reach.

Violet Baron:  Iowa caucuses and stuff.

Tess Gunty:  Exactly. Yet, the person that they always seem to be addressing is a white working class man, and, I really want to insist that the mid west is home to so many different people, not just that man. In fact, it's more diverse than the US is on average, there are so many narratives that I could not tell as a white person that I hope people, politicians, artists, etc, start paying attention to.

Violet Baron:  A follow up to that, as you move about the world and your LA life, do you feel like you're still bringing all those narratives, that sense of place coming from the mid west with you, is it still present for you?

Tess Gunty:  Yes, I think you can never really escape your childhood. The most formative of experiences of your life and I find it very difficult, I found this to be true even before I started writing the Rabbit Hutch that I would write something that was ostensibly set in New York and then it would immediately get pulled back into the mid west and, the next thing I'm working on is divided into three novella's and the first one definitely takes place in a city like mine. But the next two won't and I think that will present a new challenge, but, even when I'm writing about another place, I'm certainly influenced by the concerns, the images, the psychological landscape that developed for me there.

Violet Baron:  That was my next question. Your next project, is it also using these themes of the Rust Belt, and is it moving in new directions with that?

Tess Gunty:  It's in the early phases, but it is a departure for me. The first novella in it is about concerns that would be familiar to those who've read this book. But, I'm trying to write more about, I guess this project began for me when I was trying to think about this toxic white nostalgia that is fueling so many, [UNSURE OF WORD] politicians. And so, that's where it began but I think it's drifted toward quantum superposition and agriculture and, a woman who's stalked by someone who saw her in a performance, so I think everything will be wandering a bit from these concerns.

Alex Chambers:  Novelist Tess Gunty, in conversation with Violet Baron. Tess Gunty's novel, The Rabbit Hutch is set in Indiana, it won the 2022 national book award for fiction. Alright, it's time for a break. When we come back, poet and homeless outreach organizer, Austin Davis, reads from his new collection of poems. Stick around.

Alex Chambers:  Welcome back to Inner States. I'm Alex Chambers. Austin Davis is a poet and a homeless outreach organizer in Phoenix, Arizona.

Austin Davis:  My new book was just released from Outcast Press and it's called Compulsive Swim. And it is a poetry novella about the Fentanyl crisis, housing crisis and mental health crisis here in Arizona and all around the country. I have OCD and the book follows a character who is struggling with their obsessions and compulsions and trying to fight. Here in Arizona there is no immediate emergency shelter for families facing housing and security and every week I get at least three to five calls from families who are possibly facing homelessness mostly, you know, for the first time. This a poem that I wrote about a family that I care about very deeply and it's about this complicated issue.

Austin Davis:  Layla and her kids sleep on a bridge that frowns over the freeway. Wrapped in blankets on a yellow slab of foam, the baby is silent despite the sirens. Cars whiz by below us and I pass Layla a smoke. So many people are off to house parties and hook-ups, horror movies and football games her son Jayce says. He spits off the guardrail the city put around the bridge to stop people from jumping. It lands on a windshield and he laughs, and I laugh, and I smoke, and he doesn't. The car lessens to light and I pretend I don't hear Jayce when he asks if joy is a currency we should spend all at once since we're bound to be robbed of it one of these nights.

Austin Davis:  This next poem is the sixth poem from Act Three of Compulsive Swim.

Austin Davis:  I used to make fun of you for watching the weather channel before bed, but I know it helped you sleep to empathize. I mean, it was smart to be prepared. Two thousand miles away, Florida might have faced a tornado. Because of you I knew what days Chicago was unseasonably warm, and last June, during a flash flood in Dallas, a wave launched an ice cream truck into the food court of a shopping mall. To be honest, I never cared if it was cloudy outside our apartment or sunny at three am. I'd pour us a nightcap any time of day, if you pull the blinds shut and tell me how happy it makes you that it's swimming weather in Wisconsin.

Alex Chambers:  That was poet and homeless outreach organizer, Austin Davis, on WFIU's Poet's Weave. We're gonna take another break and then try to figure out what work is really for anyway, as we keep searching for a missing cat. Stay with us.

Alex Chambers:  Inner States: Alex Chambers. Up next, chapter three of The Third Time Rita Left. It involves a drainpipe, a pillowcase, and plenty of people leaving work to help find Rita. Let's go!

Kayte:  Come on, baby! Come on, baby! Rita! Here kitty! Come on kitty!

Alex Chambers:  After Kayte lost Rita, she walked and walked. Rita had run off into a wasteland, filled with scrubby trees, tall grasses, abandoned houses. There were a million places for her to hide. Kayte knew the odds that she would find her were slim, no matter how long she walked.

Kayte:  Come on, Rita! Rita! It's alright, honey! Come on, girl! Here kitty, kitty, kitty, kitty, kitty, kitty, kitty, kitty! Meow! Come on, kitty! Hey, girl!

Alex Chambers:  They seemed even slimmer to Carl, since he'd seen a coyote out in the field a week after the escape.

Carl:  When I saw that coyote I thought, "Oh, well, maybe she is dead." Of course, if she was caught by a coyote, she's not only dead but she's not going to be found, because she would have been eaten.

Alex Chambers:  He didn't tell Kayte. He just kept looking.

Alex Chambers:  Kayte and Carl spent a lot of time in those fields. How did they account for that time? They weren't working, they weren't sleeping or cooking or even really taking care of anyone. They weren't exactly enjoying themselves either. They were just wandering around calling for Rita. You can't really call that time productive. They're not making things. They're not taking care of things. It's extra. In a way, Kayte and Carl and all the people helping them were spending time outside reality. At least, outside economic reality, which is probably a good place to be! It was a place where searching for Rita was valuable, even if they would probably end up empty-handed.

Alex Chambers:  Anyway, all of this is to say Kayte wasn't the only one who left work to help find Rita.

Carl:  I was at work and I got a frantic telephone call from Kayte. She said that she had taken the cats to the vet and that Rita had escaped in the parking lot and that Rita had disappeared into the underbrush behind the strip mall.

Carl:  I rode my bike to work at that time, and I worked on the far other side of town, so I recall telling my boss about the situation and her saying, "Oh, well, you had better go." She understood the gravity of the situation. She is a pet owner, dog owner, and I think pet owners have a shared world view, I suppose.

Amanda Nickey:  I love animals more than most people, meaning I love animals more than I love people, generally, and especially cats. [LAUGHS] I really love cats.

Alex Chambers:  As the effects of the calamity spiraled out, more and more people got caught up in it. Amanda Nickey was Kayte's boss at the time.

Amanda Nickey:  And so I went immediately.

Alex Chambers:  Amanda was the director of a local non-profit. When I interviewed her she still worked there, although she's since left. On the surface, the non-profit's main service was providing food to people who were hungry. But there was a secret mission as well, because Amanda understood that if you really wanted to end hunger you needed to end economic injustice.

Alex Chambers:  Equally important for you to understand now, though, is that, last time I looked at the staff pictures, every staff member was photographed with their pet. I think that says something.

Alex Chambers:  Anyway, that day in the fall of 2016, they had gotten a group text at the office.

Amanda Nickey:  But maybe it was a telephone call. I don't remember. But it was an urgent, "Can someone please help me?"

Alex Chambers:  So Amanda went.

Amanda Nickey:  Right then.

Alex Chambers:  And, if you've listened to chapter one, you know what happened next. They searched and searched and didn't find her.

Alex Chambers:  But I want to get back to the fact that Amanda left work. She had an organization to run.

Alex Chambers:  Were you leaving work regularly?

Amanda Nickey:  Yes. Yes. [LAUGHS] I think that, you know, I'm the boss, I can do what I want, but there's also this idea of this was something important going on in Kayte's life. She was my employee, but she's also my friend, and something that guides us in our organization is understanding our humanity and being real people and humans and allowing that to happen and be in the space where we work. Everyone has had their missing cat, or equivalent, in their lives and that's allowed to be real and take up space here, so, hell yes, we were leaving work to go look for the cat. [LAUGHS] Yes. It was very important work.

Alex Chambers:  As important as feeding people? I don't know, maybe, if it means being able to go back day after day to a job that puts you face to face with how our society allows so many of its people to go hungry.

Amanda Nickey:  Even in normal times we do hard work that's difficult to sit with. We don't get paid a lot of money and there's not a lot of fancy perks, unless you like radishes or whatever, I don't know, which I do.

Alex Chambers:  It has to be about more than radishes in the end, right? Even if that radish is the first crunchy vegetable you can pull from your garden in the Spring? A fresh radish can be a thing of beauty, but so can knowing that people have your back.

Amanda Nickey:  In the way that we cultivate community outwardly, we do that internally as an organization too. And so that means feeling safe and supported enough to say, "I can't make pies today for this workshop, I have to go find my cat," and knowing that that's okay. I don't know. [LAUGHS] What is work, really? [LAUGHS]

Alex Chambers:  Amanda's skeptical about work culture, but she really believes in taking care of people. Maybe that's what real work is, which is why she ran this organization and why she wanted to change how we talk about hunger, and why, at the same time, she was ready to pick up and head out when Kayte got a telephone call. Someone had seen Rita.

Kayte:  I felt pretty certain that they had actually seen her, because they had seen the picture of her, they said they were very certain that it was her.

Alex Chambers:  She made more fliers.

Kayte:  And handed them out to pretty much every single household in the Peppergrass development. [LAUGHS] We put them on every door. It's this small community made up of these really quaint duplexes.

Alex Chambers:  So, Kayte heads over to Peppergrass. The neighborhood is laid out in loops and at the center of the biggest loop there's a green space that slopes down behind the houses. There are pine trees, then drainpipes, and gravel and weeds at the bottom. That's where Kayte went. That's where Kayte hoped to find Rita, like she'd hoped at 5 am at Kroger, like she'd hoped at the abandoned houses where Rita first disappeared, because--

Kayte:  She was scared and she was on her own and she needed to be brought home.

Alex Chambers:  She got to Peppergrass as fast as she could.

Kayte:  I had cat food. I had a pillowcase with me, thinking if I do catch her I'm going to put her in this pillowcase. So, I start walking, looking for her and I see her off in the distance!

Alex Chambers:  It's actually her?

Kayte:  It's actually her.

Kayte:  I start calling her, "Rita! Rita, it's me, it's me! Come here, Rita! Come on, Rita! Hi kitty, kitty, kitty! Rita! Rita, it's me, it's me! Come here, Rita! Come on, Rita! Hi kitty, kitty, kitty! Rita! Rita, it's me, it's me!

Kayte:  And so she sees me, and she starts meowing.

Rita:  Meow!

Kayte:  Ah, come on, come on!

Rita:  Meow!

Kayte:  And she doesn't run, she's just meowing, and so I approach slowly and I'm still talking to her and singing and I'm crying a little bit.

Kayte:  I have this thing where I can't really roll my Rs, it's just this thing I've never been able to do, and so I always try to practice rolling my Rs with her name, and I thought she might recognize that.

Kayte:  Rita! Rita, it's me! Rita!

Kayte:  I walked up to her and she did not run from me. I mean, she looked hesitant, but she must have recognized me because she didn't run.

Kayte:  Then, I just reached down and grabbed her and I held her by the scruff of her neck, like you do with cats to kind of help control them.

Kayte:  Then I was like, 'Okay, I need to get her into this pillowcase,' and all these thoughts are racing through my head.

Kayte:  Oh my God, I can't believe it's her. I can't believe I her. This is incredible.

Kayte:  So, I'm trying to push her into this pillowcase, while still sort of holding onto her.

Kayte:  She's a pretty big cat and she's pretty strong and she was fighting like crazy, and she somehow busted out of my grip ... and ran.

Alex Chambers:  In to the drainpipe.

Alex Chambers:  Kayte tells the story as if she was alone at that moment, but Amanda remembers being there. As much as she cared about helping her friend, she was also drawn in by the quest.

Amanda Nickey:  I like a problem, I like an expedition So it was like, I don't know, it felt like we're going to go find the ring or whatever. It felt like exciting!

Alex Chambers:  Carl remembers being there too, because he had to talk to his boss again.

Kayte:  I said, "I don't know, it sounds like Kayte has seen the cat, so Ive gotta go," and she said, "Yep, you gotta go!"

Alex Chambers:  Memory is tricky. When you've heard a story told over and over, it's easy to start imagining you were there. But, also, when you go through something intense, you might not remember all the details clearly. Were Amanda and Carl there when Rita was in Kayte's arms, and then, a moment later, gone again? We'll leave that particular black box unopened. But they both remember what went through their heads.

Carl:  Why didn't Kayte hold on tighter, [LAUGHS] you know? Why didn't you dig your claws into the scruff of her neck and get her under your shirt, whatever, you know?

Alex Chambers:  Were you mad?

Carl:  Yes, a little, or disappointed maybe is better. I tend not to feel anger toward people I'm close to, but I was definitely second-guessing what she failed to accomplish. Yes, I was definitely sad that it wasn't over at that point.

Amanda Nickey:  Kayte is so thoughtful and confident, but in that moment she was like, "I was stupid, I shouldn't have done that. " And it was really hard to see her be so hard on herself, when this is a cat who did not want to come home yet, she was not done. [LAUGHS] She was having fun and had more stuff to do.

Alex Chambers:  As she made clear when, a few minutes later, she dashed out from the drainpipe, leaped over the food they had put out for her, didn't even pause to sniff it, and ran off between two houses into another part of the neighborhood. She was gone, again. If you're keeping track, you're right, that was the fourth time Rita left. Amanda left, too. She did have an organization to run. Kayte and Carl stayed in the neighborhood for a while longer, but there was no more sign.

Alex Chambers:  That sighting, though, was a major change in the search. Now they knew for sure that Rita was alive and, for the moment, surviving. They didn't have to wonder anymore if she had died and their search was futile, because, for those first couple of months, that was the hardest part. Carl said if they'd known Rita had been killed by a car in front of their house they could have mourned the loss, been sad in the way that you're sad when you lose a pet, and then moved on. But with Rita missing, there was no closure.

Alex Chambers:  Before that first sighting, and there would be more, it really felt like Schrödinger's cat: that thought experiment where a cat is put into a black box. If a monitor detects a certain radio active decay, a flask of poison is released and it kills the cat, until the box is opened you can't know what state the cat is in. For the observer, the cat is simultaneously dead and alive.

Carl:  It's precisely that epistemic state. [LAUGHS] There's no way to know and so there was no point in mourning, because I was hopeful that she was still alive. And there's no sense in giving up, because I thought she was still alive. But there was also a sort of futility to it and that was an emotional drag for sure.

Alex Chambers:  That is probably the best explanation as to why Kayte and Carl found themselves digging up a dead cat that they were already pretty sure was not Rita.

Alex Chambers:  Here's what happened. Kayte and Carl had been putting up posters, listing Rita on social media, and because of all at posting and listing someone reached out. They had found a dead cat that matched Rita's description and they'd buried her in their backyard.

Kayte:  They said that we could dig it up if we wanted to check.

Alex Chambers:  It was in a part of town it was hard to imagine Rita getting to. It was the opposite direction of where she'd run, and she would have had to cross a busy street and go through a bunch of neighborhoods to get there.

Kayte:  But I felt like we had to know if it was her or not. And so Carl and I decided we were going to go, we were going to dig up this dead cat's body, and that we needed to take our son Cosmo with us, because if she had died we thought it would be good for him to actually see the body so that he could have closure or something. [LAUGHS]

Alex Chambers:  So they head down there. It was on That Road. You know the one. It's the one called That Road.

Kayte:  So, we went to the corner of Rogers and That Road. It was a younger woman and she answered the door and she was like, "Yes, just right over there," and she kind of pointed to where she had buried the cat.

Kayte:  So we dug it up!

Alex Chambers:  It wasn't Rita.

Kayte:  Yes, it was really recognizable. You could tell by the fur that it was not our cat.

Alex Chambers:  So, they put it back in the ground.

Kayte:  We were relieved, but also kind of horrified that we had just exhumed this cat grave. [LAUGHS]

Alex Chambers:  The relief and horror were mixed with another emotion, too. Whatever it was, it was the opposite of closure. But they'd seen her at the drainpipes. They knew that for, at least, a couple of months she'd been out there on her own making it on the streets of suburban Bloomington. How was she doing it?

Dr. Mikel Delgado:  If she didn't have a lot of experience hunting she may have had some challenges getting enough food. Perhaps she was either finding strangers to help take care of her or sometimes cats who are lost or abandoned find a feral colony where someone is providing food and so they kind of just hitch along for that ride and hope that they can get some scraps. She could have turned to hunting. She may have had enough skills to get enough to get by.

Alex Chambers:  This is Dr. Mikel Delgado. She's a cat behavior consultant and author and researcher. She's the one who, in our last chapter, dashed my hopes that Rita remembered Kayte from back when Rita was a kitten. But I pushed through my disappointment to find out how cats learn to survive in the suburban wild.

Alex Chambers:  So, hunting is a learned skill?

Dr. Mikel Delgado:  Yes. So, kittens do get exposure to hunting from their mother. She will bring them prey that is kind of wounded, less potent, I guess, and then allows the kittens to practice killing. So it is something that they have to practice. They don't necessarily need mom to learn how to hunt if they can practice, so it's not like if mom's not around they're just out of luck. This is an innate behavior that they need to do to survive, so there's probably multiple ways for them to achieve that goal of learning to be a competent hunter. One of them is that mom helps you along. But the other is just that you're naturally attracted to small objects that move and you have all these skills that you apply to them, like biting and pouncing and batting and kicking. But they do need to practice and they need to learn about other movements of their prey and how to sneak up on them best and what kind of bites are going to be most efficient at killing.Exposure to prey and practice hunting is really what makes you a good hunter.

Alex Chambers:  Rita had been an indoor/outdoor cat the whole time she lived with Kayte. Kayte said before she ran off she'd brought plenty of prey into the house for Kayte to witness. After the encounter at Peppergrass, it seemed clear she had figured that one out.

Dr. Mikel Delgado:  Obviously, it can't be too hard for them to become good at it, because otherwise the species would die out, and cats are very successful, so we know that they're good hunters. Perhaps too good, if you ask some ecologists. [LAUGHS] So, yes, I mean it is really what they evolved to do! That is like their one job is to kill small birds and rodents. They're good at it.

Alex Chambers:  Odds are it's because cats are good at it that Kayte was able to meet up with Rita at Peppergrass. That should have been the end of the story. But it wasn't and it's not the end of ours either. There's one more piece in this chapter. Remember, Rita went missing in early fall 2016. She was still missing in November and a lot has happened since then, so let's remember what things were like back in those pre-pandemic days.

Alex Chambers:  We were in the midst of a presidential election, whose outcome seemed forgone to many people. As I've said in earlier chapters, to many people it seemed like the United States was about to elect its first female president. For the folks who were excited about that there was some nail-biting, but there was mostly a whole lot of confidence. We might even call it hubris now, in hindsight.

Alex Chambers:  Over at work, Amanda was making plans.

Amanda Nickey:  What we had decided was that the day after the election we would have, and again because I think we were all like, "This is going to be a celebration, it's going to be amazing, it's going to be so exciting," and so we were going to have a waffle bar type thing, [LAUGHS] like, "We're going to make waffles and we're going to have all these fancy toppings for waffles." Instead, Trump won and we all came in and we made waffles and wept all morning!

Amanda Nickey:  Shortly after, there was an SNL skit with I think her name is Kate McKinnon, and she sang, as Hillary, Hallelujah. It was really stabbing funny, but also deeply mournful, and I've been thinking about that a lot, because we had no idea that this would be how we all collectively felt for years afterward.

Kate McKinnon as Hillary Clinton:  [SINGING]

I heard there was a secret chord

That David played and it pleased the Lord

But you don't really care for music, do you?


Well it goes like this

The fourth, the fifth,

The minor fall and the major lift

The baffled king composing Hallelujah

Kate McKinnon as Hillary Clinton:  [SINGING]

Hallelujah, hallelujah

Hallelujah, hallelujah

Kayte:  I don't know. When I think about it, it's like I love waffles, but they're hard to eat [LAUGHS] now. And I love waffles. [LAUGHS] But it's hard. If I make waffles at home, the smell of the waffle maker, it's like crying in everyone's arms the day after the election in 2016.

Kate McKinnon as Hillary Clinton:  Baby, I've been here before

I've seen this room and I've walked this floor

I used to live alone before I knew you


I've seen your flag on the marble arch

And love is not a victory march

It's a cold and it's a broken Hallelujah



Kayte:  Rita was lost in September, and in November there was the election and Trump was elected. It was a shock, it was something that I couldn't understand how it had happened, and I was just filled with so much despair. And I think that the despair around the loss of my cat was really connected.

Alex Chambers:  Do you feel like your feelings about her missing got stronger after that?

Kayte:  Yes. Yes, it was like a deep sadness. It wasn't like what I would call clinical depression or anything, like I was doing my life. But underneath it was just this deep sense of despair, and it was connected to the election and I just felt like if only I could find my cat something would be good, you know? [LAUGHS]

Alex Chambers:  Things go wrong in life. You finally get your missing cat into your arms, you're ready to take her home, and she leaps into a drainpipe.

Alex Chambers:  I think the past few years have reminded us that stories of progress don't always turn out so well. Deadly diseases still circulate. There are heat domes in the south, wild fires in the north. That fall, Kayte and Carl and Amanda had gotten their hopes up, and then the story went off in another direction. That's how Amanda Nickey felt, at least, after Rita jumped out of Kayte's arms.

Amanda Nickey:  That's not how that's supposed to end. [LAUGHS] It just felt like, "Here's the happy ending," and then it didn't happen.

Alex Chambers:  We've made it to the end of the chapter, but I want to remind you all hope is not yet lost. At last sighting, Rita was still alive. Maybe not thriving, but alive. There would be more elections. Anyway, as a lot of people realized, trying to transform your society through the White House maybe wasn't the best plan in the first place.

Alex Chambers:  At this point in our story there's more work to do. Whether you're in the office or out wandering through the fields, calling for someone who may not even be out there. Still, you keep going and you keep putting word out about what you're looking for. Eventually, you hear back.

Kayte:  We got a call from a guy who said he thought he had seen her in his horse barn, behind his house, and it wasn't in Peppergrass. But it was not far from there. I could picture her traveling that distance.

Alex Chambers:  What happened at the horse barn? That's coming up in the final chapter of The Third Time Rita Left next week here on Inner States.

Alex Chambers:  Inner States comes to you from the studios of WFIU in Bloomington, Indiana.

Alex Chambers:  If you have a story for us or you've got some sound we should hear, let us know at

Alex Chambers:  We've got your quick moment of slow radio coming up, but first the credits.

Alex Chambers:  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 in the reader's story is by Ramón Monrás-Sender. We have additional music from the artists at Universal Production Music.

Alex Chambers:  Special thanks this week to Tess Gunty, Austin Davis and LuAnn Johnson and Romayne Rubinas Dorsey of WFIU's Poets Weave.

Alex Chambers:  Alright, time for some found sound.

Alex Chambers:  That was Parking Garage with Trombone, recorded by Kayte Young.

Alex Chambers:  Until next week, I'm Alex Chambers. Thanks, as always, for listening.

Author Tess Gunty

Tess Gunty's debut novel, The Rabbit Hutch, won the 2022 National Book Award for fiction (Courtesy of Knopf)

An Indiana author writes a novel set in Indiana, and it wins a National Book Award. WFIU’s Violet Baron talks with Tess Gunty about why it was important to set her novel in her home state. Then, Austin Davis brings us poems about people living without housing, from WFIU’s Poets Weave. And in Chapter 3 of The Third Time Rita Left, Kayte and Carl get invited to exhume a dead cat, and in the midst of everyone leaving work to look for Rita, we ask what work is really for, anyway.


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. Special thanks to LuAnn Johnson and Romayne Rubinas Dorsey, of WFIU's Poets Weave.

Our theme song is by Amy Oelsner and Justin Vollmar. Most of the music in the Rita story is by Ramón Monrás-Sender. We have additional music from the artists at Universal Production Music and Backward Collective.

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