SLACKJAW by JIM KNIPFEL
September 30, 2007

Only Cat I’ve Ever Known to Smoke With a Holder

 

Last June, I think it was, I wrote a column about how my cat, over a very short period of time, had suddenly adopted most of my physical ailments—blindness, high blood pressure, and seizures.

            After that, things grew ugly, and painful, and sad with the appearance of a squamous cell carcinoma (a fast growing tumor) on her jaw. One of Morgan’s cats had developed the same condition just a few months earlier, with results that were equally painful and sad. And on September 21, my little cat died. She was twenty years old.

            A lot of people don’t get it—why get so worked up about a damn pet? Big deal—just get a new one.

            The thing to keep in mind is that I had lived with this cat since she was six weeks old. I lived with her longer than I lived with my parents (or anyone else). She was with me before I even thought of writing. She saw everything and knew all my secrets. The most important thing, though, was that she had more personality than most people in this world. I liked her better than I do most people, too. She was, as my friend John put it, a rascal. And in her later years, she became a feline version of Marlene Dietrich—right down to the way she sat in chairs (upright, so as to show off her gams).

            She was my very first cat, whom I adopted from the Humane Society shortly after moving to Philly. She’d been a junkyard cat, I was told, and the first glance at her through the bars of her tiny cage revealed her JD spirit—she was a tiny tuxedo with wicked eyes, leaning in the corner, arms crossed, cigarette dangling from the corner of her mouth. Unlike every other homeless cat in that place, she showed no interest in me whatsoever. That pretty much made my decision clear.

            For a few weeks in my apartment, she was the queen, climbing bookcases, perching on my shoulder, sleeping in the bathroom sink. But then, well, the Big Guy showed up and for the next fifteen years, she was forced to live in his massive, loving, obsessive shadow.

            After Guy died, though, she slowly began to reassert her rule over the apartment. She began croaking out torch songs and making demands. We had long conversations in languages I didn’t understand. She started smoking again, but this time she only smoked Gitanes in a long black and gold holder (I have no idea where she picked that up). She insisted that I face her while I slept—often by planting her claws in my scalp and literally pulling my head around to face the right way. She also had the strange, almost mystical ability to put me to sleep by sitting on my left hand.

            And while she and I got along famously, she had no patience whatsoever for interlopers of any kind. Except for Morgan—she adored Morgan. Anybody else, though—ouch. More than a few visitors were hissed at or bitten when they dared try to pet her.

            When a well-known painter stopped by one evening to pick up some books, my cat perched on a shelf and glared at him while he perused the titles. Then she went straight for the eyes—snapping out a paw, claws extended. It could’ve meant the end of his career, but thankfully she only flicked out one of his contacts without scratching the eye itself. Guess she made her point.

            She saved up a special kind of enmity for my friend John. Whenever he passed her—and this could be during visits months or years apart—she would scream and lunge for him without provocation.

            “She really wanted to kill me,” John said. “I could see it in her eyes.”

            She did have nasty, contemptuous eyes. They were quite beautiful that way, and one of the reasons I loved her. Her eyes made it clear she had very little patience for crap. Or people.

            One humid afternoon back in 1996 while I was at work, my landlord let herself in the apartment with a maintenance man to fix something. About half an hour later, I got a panicked call at the office. The landlord was convinced she had inadvertently let my cat slip outside, and that she was now lost somewhere in the streets of Brooklyn.

            Well, then I panicked. Ran home, met the landlord outside the building, and for the next couple of hours the two of us wandered the neighborhood looking for an evil cat. I ended up chasing three other cats through some overgrown back yards, but never found her.

            Finally giving up, I walked back to my apartment heartbroken. I let myself in and sat down to take off my shoes. That’s when my cat, who’d been hiding in the closet this whole time, came traipsing out to say hello. I should’ve figured she was too smart to go outside.

            (The next time the maintenance man stopped by, my cat marched up to him and began screaming, while he yelled back, “You crazy cat! You crazy in the head!”)

            Everyone who met Guy even once wanted to bring him home with them. Nobody expressed any such feeling for her. Morgan and I knew better, though. I found her crankiness an inspiration, and also saw her kinder side creep out when she wasn’t paying attention. She’d stretch herself across Morgan and me while we watched movies, and sleep between us at night (though she was also known to stomp on my throat if she wanted a little attention). Every once in awhile, I’d get up in the morning to find her sitting up in one of the kitchen chairs, waiting for me. She’d stay there while I ate my breakfast, carrying on a conversation with me in her strange blend of German and Feline.

            Morgan and I were convinced this damned bitter little cat was going to outlive us both.

            She only began slowing down as she approached her twentieth birthday, when the physical problems began creeping in. She’d been healthy as a horse all her life, so I imagine getting sick and going blind must have been very disconcerting to her. Her travels became more limited, and she adopted a very strict schedule for when she ate, drank, sat in my lap, and used the litter box. Then, in the final few days, she rarely left my lap, and when she did she was clearly very disoriented. She was twenty, after all. But she kept eating and drinking, and willingly ate her blood pressure medicine out of my hand.

            At the end it simply became too much for both of us. She wasn’t her cranky old self anymore, and I think she was relieved to go.

            But—and again, this may sound odd to those people who don’t get it—I was proud to have known her, and I feel richer for having spent the last twenty years with her. Now, for the first time in two decades, there’s no little (or big) creature lurking around the apartment with me. No unexpected renditions of Kurt Weill songs in the middle of the night, no cat sitting in the chair next to me while I eat my breakfast, and it’s very strange and empty and sad.

 

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