I recall setting up house with one Peggy O’Dwyer, a freckled, blonde Irish woman, full of spunk, brass, and devilment. This was a rare woman, the one in a thousand who was road-buddy material.
I was cursorily shown about the small, two-bedroom house on move-in day, then brought into the living room and introduced to a wretched, black-and-gray, fat, ancient cat. At least a 16 pounder. Its unkempt fur complimented its partially amputated tail, which highlighted a revolting right ear, an ear ripped at a jagged 45 degree angle to Tubby’s perpetually runny black nose.
The beast looked up from a green overstuffed chair, the most comfortable chair in the living room, eyed me, smirked, passed the indisputable message, “I’ve seen ‘em come and I’ve seen ‘em go.”
Peggy informed me where the cat would eat. Where it would sleep. What chairs were at its disposal. When the cat would go outdoors. When it would be beckoned home.
At night, quickly, inevitably, it became my job to butler the cat in and out of the house. One particularly evil night — snow, sleet, a 30 mile-per-hour gale blowing outside our Anchorage house — Peggy hurried out from the kitchen and announced, as if discovering a hole in the roof, “We’re out of cat food.”
This was spoken in a manner that made it clear there exists only one person on this earth who had the skills, daring, and most especially the duty to grapple with this horrendous dilemma.
So, like a fool, like a man, I left warm, cozy home and traveled to ugly, antiseptic, goddamn grocery store, there to waddle up and down mental institution aisles, locate pet food, gather up many, many cans, haul them to the checker, wait in line like a welfare recipient until called upon to deal out real money, hard-earned money, for the purchase of commercially prepared cat food — all this while rodents ran free in the streets — then haul the goods home, into the house, stack neatly in the pantry.
While doing this I had a vision. I watched myself retrieve said items from pantry shelf at regular and timely intervals, intervals determined by Tubby, and then as the vision continued, I watched myself prepare and serve pricey feline grub to the aforementioned Tubby, repeating this ritual in every detail, every day, for years, for, in fact, the rest of that brute’s life.
I began to see Peggy through new eyes.
Peggy, along with many women, believed that medical insurance is handed out on the occasion of their cat’s birth. You may be working one of America’s new, exciting, competitive, third world jobs, making five or six bucks an hour. You may be enjoying low wages, no medical benefits, constantly under the gun of layoffs, wouldn’t dream of visiting a doctor yourself, and yet when the Tubster cracks a rib or disdains premium food for more than a day…
Complaints about the cat will cause, for a reason I have never understood, many women to believe that you no longer care. Hesitancy in sounding appropriate clucks over Snowball or Fluff or Tiger will make a woman question whether you love her, the human. One’s relationship with a woman’s cat is treated like a little test case, a little control group. “How he acts towards my cat will substantially determine how he will act towards me.” Notes are taken, columns are added up, judgment is rendered, appeals are pointless.
Peggy and I didn’t make it. I remember the moment I left, Peggy stayed in the bedroom as I angrily walked out, Kelty backup slung over right shoulder. At the sidewalk I stopped, turned back, hoping that things would change, aching to be called in, feeling as alone as a cold night’s wind. I didn’t fail to notice, behind the living room window, Peggy’s cat lazily gazing my way.
Time passes. Women and cats continue on. As for me, hell, I cherish cats. I love their smell; it brings a mountain campfire into my urban apartment. I love the way they walk, always in form, always under the protection of authentic grace. I love they way they nap; they remind me that my world is still safe and that life continues serenely, at least for some.
One of life’s pleasantries is to discover a heap of kittens in a corner, squirmy and warm like spring’s first Sunday morning. I’ll reach down, pick one up, walk over to the couch, sit and stroke, wait for that purr to kick in, then lean over, kiss a furry forehead, rub a ready cheek and ask, in a child’s small voice, “Kitty, I’ve got some tuna fish in the fridge, What do you think?”