SLACKJAW by JIM KNIPFEL
April 15, 2007

That Makes Two of Us

 

Even though we’ve been living together for almost twenty years now, my cat never really had a set name. It was never much of an issue. No matter what name I use, she knows when I’m talking to her, and ignores me when she feels like ignoring me.

     She was about six weeks old when I picked her up at the Humane Society in North Philly back in October of 1987. The kitten I initially had my eye on had already been adopted, so the Humane Society lady took me around the corner to another set of cages. When I first saw the cat I ended up adopting, she was leaning against the back corner of the small wire cage, legs crossed, arms folded, cigarette dangling from her mouth. She was giving me a dirty look. So, of course, I knew immediately that she was the one. That attitude, I learned soon enough, was no pose. She’d been discovered in a junkyard, and held onto that crusty junkyard spirit. At the same time, though, she also had real class. She’s a classy dame.

     While she seemed to like me—albeit with obvious reservations—she pretty much hated everyone and everything else. She especially hated the second cat—Guy—who moved in a few months after she did. Problem was, Guy adored her (and all living things), so it made life in the apartment a little dicey much of the time. I liked to think of it as a battleground between good and evil.

     For the most part, she kept to herself and tended to her own business while he was alive. When Guy died a few years back, however, something happened to this little black and white creature. She blossomed. She not only made it perfectly clear that the apartment was now hers, and that it was simple generosity on her part that I was still allowed to live there—she also seemed to transmogrify into Lotte Lenya or Marlene Dietrich. It’s hard to explain, but before anyone knew what was happening, she was chain smoking and singing German torch songs. At least that’s what I think they were. She also became extremely chatty.

     Much to my relief, she accepted Morgan almost immediately, which was something that cat, ornery as she was, had never done before. Most visitors to the apartment (few as they are) are ignored, unless they're foolish enough to fuck with her in some way—trying to pet her, saying “hello,” looking in her general direction, what have you. She's damn near removed more than a few eyes.

     Yes, well, she’s kind of a crankpot.

     Anyway, she’s getting older now—she’d be about ninety-eight in human years, according to some charts. But her personality remains unshaken—and she still sings Kurt Weill songs at the drop of a hat, often at three in the morning.

     A few weeks ago, I noticed that she was starting to move a little more slowly than usual. Not in a sickly way—I’ve seen sickly cats. Just a little slower. Everything else about her was normal. She was eating, drinking, yelling at me, purring, using the litter box. She wasn’t losing weight, and in spite of her smoking, her lungs were just fine. She was perfectly healthy in every other way. Fact was, she’d never been sick a day in her life. She was one of the healthiest damn creatures I’ve ever known. Now she was just getting a little slower—which was something you’d expect, wouldn’t you, in a damned ninety-eight year old?

     Slower, and a little batty. Every time I touched her, she’d jump and scream at me. She seemed to get lost in the apartment. She yelled at inanimate objects. She took to announcing every move she was making with a variety of piercing shrieks. Different shrieks meant different things, and I came to learn them all.

     Morgan was over one recent Saturday and was paying close attention to the way the cat was moving. As she watched, the cat, moving slowly, bumped into a corner as she was heading for the kitchen. She was also hugging the walls, clearly using her whiskers for navigation.

     It became clear that my cat could no longer see. It seemed to have happened quite suddenly, but as I thought back on the previous months, the signs seemed to be there. It had been creeping in for awhile now.

     She had gained an early awareness that I had trouble seeing (accidentally boot a cat a bunch of times, and she’ll put two and two together), and so had taken to yelling whenever I was near, to let me know where she was. Now, it seems, she was yelling because she didn’t know where she was.

     So now there were two of us in the apartment. How’s that for a bad sitcom premise?

     Although I wouldn’t exactly call it “funny,” it is interesting to see her react in much the same way I do under certain circumstances. When she finds herself in an open, unfamiliar space without any landmarks within easy reach, she freezes. I do that. She jumps and yells whenever she’s touched unexpectedly while walking someplace, much like I flinch and yell when some do-gooder grabs my arm and tries to “help” me across a street. She makes wrong turns into tight spots, and coolly tries to back out of them as if she’d meant to make that turn. She knew enough, at least, to walk slowly in order to avoid injury, which is a hell of a lot more than I’ve learned yet.

     The saddest side effect of her blindness, from my perspective, anyway, is that she’s no longer as chatty as she used to be. She still yells at certain times, but we used to have long, rambling conversations. Thing is, I talk less in the dark, too. If she’s like me, part of it may be an effort to simply hear more of what’s going on around her, and part of it may be that loss of things to react to. Part of it, too, may be that she’s focused on where she is and where she’s going, and doesn’t need the distraction. Stupid thing is, I find myself giving her directions from across the room, even though I know they mean nothing to her. (“You wanna go to your left!—I said left!”)

     As Morgan pointed out, it could’ve been something much worse at her age. The first logical thought, of course, would be diabetes, but she has no other symptoms. My cat’s still healthy in every other way. Just blind, is all. And it is undeniably kind of interesting to watch her go through the same processes I did, and react the same as I do, albeit on an abbreviated scale.

     I realize that things get old and break down. Machines, people, animals. Parts get rusty. But she’s been with me half my life; she’s seen everything. And her eyes, now dim and strained and confused, used to be so sharp and so mean and so full of flame.

 

You can contact Jim Knipfel at this address:


With occasional exceptions Slackjaw generally appears weekly. For email notification of other Jim Knipfel publications (books, etc.) and events please join the Slackjaw email list here.