I was once voted Least Likely to Ever Own a Cat. A farm kid who always owned dogs, and who–from the age of 4 onward– always had an old dog following me around Wisconsin woods and back roads, I never had much to do with cats; and in fact even got a few guilty chuckles from the book “Fifty uses for a Dead Cat.”
Well, but then there was Rocky and in short order Blackie. What happened was this: during a bike ride on a lonely 2 lane blacktop in east San Diego County, my wife Andrea and I heard mewing from the brush along the road and stopping found a little tiger striped kitten that had obviously been dumped off to fend for itself or die.
I pedaled home with one hand gripping the handlebar of my mountain bike while I held a skinny squirming kitten in the other. A bath with flea-soap in the sink, a trip to the vet for shots, and we had ourselves a cat. Our new addition liked to climb up on high shelves, either in the garage or bookshelves indoors and whenever one of us walked by would launch itself, feet outstretched like Superman, tail steering like a rudder and land neat as you please on a shoulder.
“Heck; she’s Rocky the Flying Squirrel,” Andrea declared, and the name stuck.
For at least a year we’d caught glimpses of a feral black cat living and scrounging on the hillside just east of our house. Wily and quick as light he could catch birds in a flash of teeth and claws. I once saw him catch a rat and then eat the whole thing–feet and head and tail and all. Gross. I knew I liked dogs better.
He was a handsome cat, if you like that sort of thing: mostly black but with white paws and a triangle of white down its chest as though he were James Bond in a tuxedo.
With the arrival of Rocky, the feral black cat seemed to take a sudden and intense interest in our house, sometimes even climbing our back fence to stare wistfully at our back door, at Rocky’s cat dish, and at Rocky herself.
He grew bolder.
Eventually he started coming close to Rocky while she was eating, and if she walked away from her dish without finishing all her food, he’d move in and help himself. Rocky didn’t seem to like him much, but on the other hand didn’t mind sharing her bowl, as long as he was polite enough to wait for her to finish. But he always disappeared back into the bushes of the hillside.
But late one night in the summer of 1999 when all was dark and quiet, something in his cat brain sparked a change. He walked up to our sliding glass door and meowed. Loud. An, “Okay, let me in the house already!” meow. And I let him in. We named him Blackie and welcomed him home.
He was still wild at heart, picking fights with every other cat, dog, car, salesman, and garbage collector who crossed his path. We took him to the vet and had him fixed. The vet guessed that our new black cat was about 3 years old and brimming with testosterone. “This should get his hormone levels down enough to civilize your boy,” the vet said, but it was only marginally true. He quieted down a good deal though and from then on only picked fights with other cats, not bulldogs or pick-up trucks.
My youngest son went away to college that fall and we down-sized–no use having a spare bedroom that might just entice him to move back in. We bought a much smaller house in the Mission Hills neighborhood of San Diego and Rocky and Blackie came along. We’d heard that cats don’t take well to moving and might even run away and try to find their way back to the old house unless locked up in the new place for a few days. The first day in the new house, we locked Rocky and Blackie in and went to work.
When I pulled the car into the driveway that night, I saw one of the front window screens hanging awry and Blackie sitting with the bearing of an arrogant politician on the front step, as if to say, I know where I live, Dude. No more of this locking me in stuff! He’d broken out of a window a burglar would have difficulty breaking in. Blackie wasn’t going to be chained.
Blackie quickly asserted himself as top-cat in the neighborhood, and cleaned out the riff-raff.
One neighbor, dubbed Crazy Clara by the couple next door, refused to weed, clean, paint, or do much of anything else with her house and yard. She was a one-woman-crusade to keep property values on our street from escalating too much. Her front yard was home to more gophers than the movie “Caddie Shack.”
Blackie took care of that. Her house may have still been a mess, but gophers didn’t live there anymore.
Other cats weren’t allowed on our street without a license or a hall pass.
One morning, Rocky was hit by a car while crossing the street in front of our house and was killed instantly. So, for awhile we had only Blackie.
But as happens much too often I suppose, when we stopped at the pet store to buy Blackie’s food, we just had to peek into the cages that held cats and kittens that were up for adoption. And so a friendly orange kitten we named Buddy, and a little tortoise-shell looking thing we called Missy, came home with us.
The two new arrivals settled in pretty much peacefully, though I think Blackie did lecture them once or twice about who was boss and where they were–and were not–allowed to sit or sleep.
The neighborhood children adored Buddy, so friendly that he seemed more like a dog than a cat. Kids who didn’t know Andrea or me did know Buddy. On Halloween, when spooks and goblins from blocks around came to our door, I greeted them with treats and Buddy checked out their costumes from between my feet. “Mom!” a small child would yell from our doorstep to his parents on the sidewalk. “Mom. This is Buddy!”
I had no idea who they were. But they knew our orange cat.
Blackie though had no use for kids or Halloween. He spent that night prowling the streets and hiding behind garbage cans and was never seen.
Blackie true to his genetics was a varmint killer. If we put down cat food at night, Buddy and Missy went for it eagerly, little heads in their bowls. But at least half the time, Blackie would give his bowl a quick look and sniff then turn away. Obviously not hungry if he snacked on the town wildlife that day.
At the yearly trip to the vet, Buddy and Missy always needed teeth cleaning, and over the years bad teeth resulted in multiple extractions. That was never the case for Blackie. Even though he got on in years, the vet always declared his teeth and gums pristine and perfect–something to be said for good raw crunchy food.
Not everybody liked Blackie. One anonymous neighbor on a street a couple of blocks away even hung up a wanted poster with his picture. “Cats should live inside!” was the headline in bold letters on top (It turns out that there is actually a political movement to force cats inside. You can donate to it if you like. I don’t.) Under the picture of Blackie, the text went on: “This cat especially. He’s a hazard to all birds and other living things.”
I used a sharpie to scribble a note: “He’s rid the street of gophers and maybe you’ve noticed you don’t see rats running along the telephone wires anymore. We should charge you a tax and a user fee.”
The poster came down a couple of days later.
One incident became near legend. Andrea and I were out for a walk to a nearby park, when there arose such screeching and yowling as would rarely be heard anywhere. Our first thought was, Oh, where’s Blackie? A fight like this one means Blackie’s in it.
Soon we saw a blur of grey fur bolt for a fence and claw and scramble its way over it. We recognized the cat as one that lived a few blocks away and hadn’t ventured onto our street since the arrival of Blackie. He had a good sized chunk of fur and maybe some flesh missing from his backside as well.
But we didn’t see Blackie. We went home.
About 15 minutes later Blackie appeared. He came swaggering and strutting his way up our street and onto our driveway with a good quarter pound of grey cat hanging from his jaws like a prize, a trophy. As many as a dozen neighbors saw him. “Now, that’s one tough cat,” somebody muttered.
Blackie was nobody’s lap cat, but one weekend there was a sudden change. Four years ago in October, Andrea drove to Los Angeles to visit her dad and I stayed home with the cats. On Saturday I sat in my favorite chair watching USC football on TV and Blackie jumped into my lap. While he might once have tolerated 2 or 3 minutes of petting, that day he sat curled and purring on my legs for 2 hours or more. That weekend marked the new beginning. If I was in that chair, Blackie was in my lap. I found that I enjoyed the soft velvet of his fur and found some comfort in the rumble of his purr.
Buddy and Missy grew old. Missy developed a tumor on her back that the vet said was inoperable. She died in the spring when she was 17 years old. Buddy , once the sweetheart of the neighborhood and friend to all, became reclusive and saw no one. He died within weeks of Missy.
Blackie, though, carried on as the neighborhood top-cat. But that slowly wound down too. In the winter of 2016, though now over 20 years old, he could still use his strong back legs to jump from the floor to my lap for an afternoon of football or an evening of Big Bang Theory. I noticed though that my favorite chair had become his and he didn’t require my lap to spend some hours there.
Andrea and I went out of town for Christmas. Our best cat-sitter, Lisette, stayed at the house. She emailed that Blackie wasn’t eating well, but seemed okay, still going outside and visiting neighbors. On the day we headed home, she wrote that he didn’t eat any breakfast that day.
We came home to a scrawny old cat, his once velvety fur coat now matted and rough. Not only could he not jump from floor to lap, he seemed hardly able to stand. In only a couple of weeks he had faded badly. We put him in a cardboard cat carrier and drove to the vet.
The front office staff greeted us, asked how they could help, and with tears streaming down her cheeks Andrea said, “I think it’s time for Blackie to say goodbye.”
One of the young ladies took Blackie. “Let’s see what the doctor says. I’ll take you to a room where you can wait.”
We both knew what the verdict would be, so when the vet came in with Blackie wrapped in a soft cotton blanket and placed him on my lap, we weren’t surprised when she said, “It’s time. I think the kindest thing would be to put him down. Do you want to be with him?”
Andrea told us No and said she’d wait in the car. I held Blackie, soft blanket and all, while the vet administered a dose of sodium pentothal. She held a stethoscope to Blackie’s chest. “He’s gone.” It had taken only 10 seconds.
It was the end of an era certainly. Are my thoughts existential or ecclesiastical or both? Blackie’s long, at least for a cat, life was simply a normal life cycle. Biological life forms are born, thrive, grow old and perish, as if carrying an expiration date like a carton of milk. I too will stop eating one day, my hair–assuming I still have some–will be course and matted. Is it the death of an old cat that brings with it sadness, or the grim reminder of my own finite time?
And is there kitty heaven? We tell young children that: KItty’s in a better place now. Kitty heaven. Well, theologians aren’t making any claims for animals having souls at all. But, be that as it may, nowhere at all is certainly an improvement over Blackie’s last hours. Better no place at all, if he can’t be watching TV on my lap and terrorizing the other cats in the ‘hood.
As for the rest of us, well like Robert Frost’s Swinger of Birches, whether heaven awaits or not, we’ll just have to see.
I also ponder the bond that I formed with that old cat. He never wagged his tail like a dog, and wasn’t as sweet natured as our orange cat, Buddy. I wonder if it was exactly because Blackie lived in a way I’d never be that he was my favorite. Bold, taking our block by storm, always ready and even eager for a fight, he exuded the kind of wild claim on his place in the world that I had to grudgingly admire.
I was once asked, who is the one person now living that you would most like to meet and chat with, perhaps even interview? Without hesitation I answered, “Mick Jagger.” While I think the man is a musical and lyrical genius, I can’t say I admire him exactly; after all, who can survive taking that many drugs, and live with that much lust for so many years and still be alive to talk about it? But it’s exactly because he, like Blackie the cat, is also a way I could never be that I find so fascinating. Perhaps he’s secretly my alter ego. Don’t tell anyone. Good-bye Ruby Tuesday… Catch your dreams before they slip away.
Something oddly ironic happened the day after the death of Blackie: one rat and two mice showed up in our house and got into a bag of flour in the kitchen pantry. For nearly twenty years we’ve live here with never a trace of rodent and within 24 hours of our cat’s departure, we’re freakin’ invaded, as if some mouse telegraph sent out the news. The very presence of Blackie acted as supreme deterrent. Every creature hereabouts knew he was street fighting man. Requiescat in pace.