Saturday, December 29, 2012

Anniversary Cat

When discussing marriage, nearly as important as the question of children is the question of pets. Suppose one of you is a "cat person" and the other a "dog person"—worse yet, suppose one of you is an animal lover and the other can't stand the thought of having any sort of creature in the house. Fortunately, Loretta and I were in complete agreement on the subject. Dogs and cats had been an important part of both our lives. We both knew we wanted at least one pet. The only question was, would it be a cat or a dog?

Both of us work, and we both like to travel. Most cats have no problem with being left alone for hours or even a day or two. But dogs, the moment you are out of their sight, become convinced that they will never, ever see you again. At least, this was how it seemed with Christie, the Scottish terrier we pet sat shortly after we were married. She was sweet-tempered, intelligent, and seemingly well behaved. However, one evening while we were out, she apparently became filled with angst at the idea that we would never return—or possibly she just became bored. At any rate, she completely destroyed her dog bed and, when she was finished with that, proceeded to tear up the kitchen linoleum.

We decided to get a cat.

He was our "anniversary cat"—about a year old when he came into our lives, about a year after we were married.  He'd been rescued from beneath a porch in Buffalo, where some cruel children had driven him into hiding by pelting him with rocks. We were afraid the experience might have toughened him or made him mean, but at our first meeting we found him to be perfectly docile, if somewhat reserved. He was a beautiful cat, with golden eyes and thick, white fur, just like "the neighbor's polar cat" in Dylan Thomas's A Child's Christmas in Wales or Cleveland Amory's Cat Who Came for Christmas. I suggested a literary name: "Mycroft," the brother of Sherlock Holmes. It seemed well-suited to such a dignified and regal animal.

Here's a picture of him a day or two after we brought him home to our Niagara Falls apartment:

As you can see, once he made himself at home he was anything but dignified and regal. He turned out to be quite sociable and—though not particularly affectionate himself—happy to sit on anyone's lap and accept affection from them. At times he could be mischievous. At times, as we discovered years later when we acquired a second cat, he could be downright ornery. And so the dignified and regal "Mycroft" became just plain "Mike" (or, occasionally, "The Little Bastard").

I shut him out of our bedroom his first night with us—or tried to. He scratched at the door until I was forced to let him in. He jumped up on the bed, went to Loretta to have his head rubbed (he loved having his head rubbed), then quietly settled down at our feet. From then on, this was his nightly routine.

Life on the mean streets of Buffalo had made him an excellent hunter, as we discovered when we moved into our first house. He quickly dispatched the few mice inside the house then moved on to the garage, where he caught them as quickly as they came in under the door. Usually he would leave the bodies—not a mark on them—neatly lined up in front of the kitchen door for us to find (or, if we weren't careful, step on). Once, however, he came in from a garage expedition with a small tail hanging from the corner of his mouth.

"MIKE!" I screamed. He dashed past me and dropped the mouse in the living room, where it quickly disappeared behind a bookshelf. He wanted to go back to the garage to find another one, but I grabbed him and thrust him behind the bookshelf, insisting that he take care of this one first. He soon emerged, the mouse's tail once more dangling from his mouth. He trotted into the kitchen and again deposited his little playmate on the floor. By now, the mouse was furious. It stood on its hind legs and waved its front paws in the air, as if challenging Mike to fisticuffs. I put a bucket over it, slid a piece of cardboard underneath, carried it out the front door, and dumped it in the yard.

Mike was six years old when we moved to California, and still a formidable hunter. Unfortunately, the mice were few and far between. He only encountered one, shortly after we moved into our townhouse, and it escaped. However, he soon found other small game in our tiny, walled-in garden. He preferred hummingbirds. He probably thought they were flying mice—they were roughly the same size. He also occasionally caught a lizard. Once, he came into the house proudly carrying something in his mouth—an alive something—just as he had carried the mouse in years before. This time, instead of a tail, a tiny webbed foot protruded from his mouth.

"WHAT the HELL is THAT?" I yelled. I gingerly pried it from his mouth—a small, pale-green tree frog. It immediately sprang out of my hand, hit the wall with a splat, and stuck there like a frog-shaped wad of snot. I quickly peeled it off the wall and threw it outside. I assume it escaped, because Mike never caught it—or any other frog—again.

Most of the time, we were able to rescue his prey or scare it away before he caught it. The one or two times I was unable to prevent him from killing a hummingbird, I was furious with him. He, of course, could not understand why. "I'm a cat," he seemed to say. "What do you expect?"

When we moved into our current house with its huge (by California standards) back yard, Mike was in heaven. By that time, he was fifteen and beginning to show his age. The day we moved in, he took off after a small flock of birds under the citrus trees. He didn't catch any of them; in fact, he never caught anything again. But he still enjoyed watching—and stalking—the wildlife in our yard. At his age, we didn't need to worry about him getting over the fence; we installed a cat door so that he could come and go as he pleased. I believe those were the happiest days of his life. It's the way I like to remember him—the fierce jungle cat slinking through the undergrowth, stalking its prey.

I often think of him this time of year. It was just after the holidays eight years ago that we took him to the veterinarian for the very last time. Later, we bought a small memorial stone for the garden. On it, there was only room for his name and lifespan, plus one or two additional words. After much deliberation, we settled on "Lovable Bastard."

It seemed appropriate.

Lovable Bastard

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