Wednesday, April 16, 2008

"My So-Called Cat"

I’ve never felt comfortable around cats. Cats are members of the “cat” family. You know what that means. It means, at least to me, that if you mistreat a cat in any way – or if the cat just feels mistreated – it can go to the phone and call lions.

I’ve never had much success with pets. As a kid, we had a budgie named Jimmy. Somebody left the cage door open, and we found Jimmy behind the radiator, warm, but stiff as a board. My goldfish would be floating on their backs just days after I bought them. Once a turtle died on me on the way home from the pet store. Turtles. Don’t they live, like, two hundred years?

With that track record, I tend to view pets as bookmarks for death.

When she was young, my daughter wanted a cat, but we couldn’t have one, because of my wife’s allergies. For me, it was the perfect solution. No cat, somebody else’s fault.

Then, one night, as we’re eating dinner, a cat appears outside our kitchen door. Gray and black, sleekly trim, with a raccoon-looking question mark of a tail. The cat stands there, staring at us through the screen door, watching us eat. I have one thought, which I make clear to the family:

“Don’t feed the cat.”

My wife immediately gets up, fills a saucer with water, and takes it outside. Bringing it water is not technically “feeding” it, so I only feel partially overruled.

The cat sniffs at the water. And then, it’s gone.

The next night, it’s back. Staring.

“Don’t feed the cat, and it won’t come back.”

My wife fills a small dish with leftovers, and takes it outside.

“We’d only throw it out anyway,” she explains. The logic here is that food you are going to throw out is not really food anymore, so, once again, technically, people are still listening to me.

The cat blows off the leftovers, offended by the concept of second-hand food. It’s tricky to impute emotions to a cat, since there’s a good chance cats don’t have emotions. I imagine cat lovers will disagree with that, but they probably don’t care for me already for saying, “Don’t feel the cat.” On the other hand, I have to admit, when rejecting the leftovers, the cat had a noticeably snooty look on its face.

Okay, so he turned down the water, and he turned down the leftovers. Phew. We dodged a bullet. It’s over. That’s what I thought, until, next day, I discovered cat food in the grocery bag. Three tins of Captain’s Choice. It tickles me to imagine someone who names cat food for a living. Had they dreamed of becoming something else and wound up naming cat food, or could cat food naming have always been their goal?

“My mother tells the story of how, I was four years old, and I blurted out, Fisherman’s Feast! I was destined for this job!”

Sorry for the meandering. Back to the story.

My wife spooned some pinkish glop into a cereal bowl I had once eating Rice Krispies out of, and the cat, who had once again returned, dug right in.

We were henceforth in the cat feeding business, first, once a day, then, twice. We had no idea where this cat came from. But now he was ours. My daughter named him Franky. (We were later informed Franky was a girl.)

My wife was away working during cat feeding mealtimes, and my daughter claimed she had homework. Feeding Franky, naturally, fell to me. The guy who wasn’t crazy about cats.

We developed a relationship. Franky would appear, I’d prepare the food, and if it wasn’t out there fast enough, Franky would climb on our screen door, shredding the screen to pieces. Not all relationships are equal.

My experience taught me things I had never known before. For example, not all cat food tins are the same. Some, you pull on the tab and the lid comes flying off so fast, that if you’re not nimble, you can incur serious “cat tin” paper cuts. I’m not nimble. I did a considerable amount of bleeding.

I learned that Friskies turns out to have lids that peel off more slowly. Another job, I wondered about: People who design cat tins. I wondered if the person who designed the lid that peeled off slowly received any kind of award.

The “Tinny.”

They deserve it.

Sorry, again.

Our care of a stray cat soon went beyond feeding. The cat needed a flea collar, the cat needed its shots, the cat needed a little, red pup tent to shield it from the elements. It also turned out, the cat needed protecting.

Word travels fast when you’re feeding a cat. Other cats hear about it, and they want in on the action. Suddenly, our back yard is filling up. They’re taking numbers. But they quickly learn. I feed one cat, and that’s it. The rest, I discourage in ways that are effective but safe. I throw oranges at them. And I miss.

The cat infestation problem is solved. With one exception. A looming presence appears, hovering on the periphery. If no one’s around, The Thing bounds onto the porch and devours Franky’s dinner. What’s Franky doing while this is happening? Deferring.

“Eat up. It’s fine.”

I notice Franky’s getting thinner. I soon discover why. The Thing is eating all of Franky’s meals, and Franky, in full Ghandi mode, is not fighting back. I notice a flicker of embarrassment on Franky’s face – Franky seeing me seeing him wimping out.

So now what? Now I’m outside every mealtime, standing guard while Franky eats. We’ve come a long way from “Don’t feed the cat.”

Once in a while, I’m repaid for my kindness. Franky appears with a dead bird in his mouth, and drops it at my feet.

“Thank you.”

That’s Franky talking, not me.

I handle this horribly. Before I can stop it, my face goes, “Yuck!” I feel terrible about that. It’s like your First Grader shows you a clay sculpture they made in school, and before your paternal social skills kick in, you blurt, “What the hell is that!”

Over the years, my reaction to Franky’s “generosities” improved, moving from disgust to a hastily pasted on smile, though I’m not certain Franky was convinced.

My special memory was, when I worked late on TV shows, I’d return home past midnight, and Franky was always at the garage door, waiting for me. As I dragged myself up the back stairs, Franky would tag along, cutting directly in front of me, and making me stumble. It was a little ritual we had.

Then, one day, Franky got sick. The Vet called it FIP, a death sentence for outdoor cats. The family assembled, and each of us, in our own way, said goodbye. My farewell appreciation:

“Thanks for the birds.”

The Vet had told us to take our time. We had said our farewells, but it seemed none of us could walk away. That’s when Franky helped us out. He got up, and turned his back on us, as if to say,

“It’s okay. You can go.”

We did. And then, Franky did.

I thought I’d write about her.


Willy B. Good said...

Me and my dog Monty really dug Franky's story Earl, cheers.

Anonymous said...

I suspect you may have a tiny little bit of cat person in you after all, Earl.

Richard Cooper said...

The best cat people are always just the best people.

Good for you.

BTW, that's exactly how I got my first cat: "Don't feed it." But someone did. And we had the shredded screen doors, too.

And one time I saw the biggest cat in the world stealing the food--it turned around and I could see it was wearing a bandit's mask. What a relief, it was only Freddie, the friendly neighborhood raccoon.

Anonymous said...

Reminds me of my dog.

Anonymous said...

Damn you, Earl.

You made me cry.

Anonymous said...

I found you blog by accident... (looking to find a way to feed my own 'so-called cat' while on vacation and not have the 'thing' cat come steal it!)and I now have tears in my eyes. Mainly from laughing so hard. I am a cat person (I have 3 cat tattoos!) and thought your blog was GREAT!