IT’S LIKE THIS, CAT
My father is always talking about how a dog can be very educational for a boy. This is one reason I got a cat.
My father talks a lot anyway. Maybe being a lawyer he gets in the habit. Also, he’s a small guy with very little gray curly hair, so maybe he thinks he’s got to roar a lot to make up for not being a big hairy tough guy. Mom is thin and quiet, and when anything upsets her, she gets asthma. In the apartment—we live right in the middle of New York City—we don’t have any heavy drapes or rugs, and Mom never fries any food because the doctors figure dust and smoke make her asthma worse. I don’t think it’s dust; I think it’s Pop’s roaring.
The big hassle that led to me getting Cat came when I earned some extra money baby-sitting for a little boy around the corner on Gramercy Park. I spent the money on a Belafonte record. This record has one piece about a father telling his son about the birds and the bees. I think it’s funny. Pop blows his stack.
“You’re not going to play that stuff in this house!” he roars. “Why aren’t you outdoors, anyway? Baby-sitting! Baby-talk records! When I was your age, I made money on a newspaper-delivery route, and my dog Jeff and I used to go ten miles chasing rabbits on a good Saturday.”
“Pop,” I say patiently, “there are no rabbits out on Third Avenue. Honest, there aren’t.”
“Don’t get fresh!” Pop jerks the plug out of the record player so hard the needle skips, which probably wrecks my record. So I get mad and start yelling too. Between rounds we both hear Mom in the kitchen starting to wheeze.
Pop hisses, “Now, see—you’ve gone and upset your mother!”
I slam the record player shut, grab a stick and ball, and run down the three flights of stairs to the street.
This isn’t the first time Pop and I have played this scene, and there gets to be a pattern: When I slam out of our house mad, I go along over to my Aunt Kate’s. She’s not really my aunt. The kids around here call her Crazy Kate the Cat Woman because she walks along the street in funny old clothes and sneakers talking to herself, and she sometimes has half a dozen or more stray cats living with her. I guess she does sound a little looney, but it’s just because she does things her own way, and she doesn’t give a hoot what people think. She’s sane, all right. In fact she makes a lot better sense than my pop.
It was three or four years ago, when I was a little kid, and I came tearing down our stairs crying mad after some fight with Pop, that I first met Kate. I plunged out of our door and into the street without looking. At the same moment I heard brakes scream and felt someone yank me back by the scruff of my neck. I got dropped in a heap on the sidewalk.
I looked up, and there was a shiny black car with M.D. plates and Kate waving her umbrella at the driver and shouting: “Listen, Dr. Big Shot, whose life are you saving? Can’t you even watch out for a sniveling little kid crossing the street?”
The doctor looked pretty sheepish, and so did I. A few people on the sidewalk stopped to watch and snicker at us. Our janitor Butch was there, shaking his finger at me. Kate nodded to him and told him she was taking me home to mop me up.
“Yas’m,” said Butch. He says “Yas’m” to all ladies.
Kate dragged me along by the hand to her apartment. She didn’t say anything when we got there, just dumped me in a chair with a couple of kittens. Then she got me a cup of tea and a bowl of cottage cheese.
That stopped me snuffling to ask, “What do I put the cottage cheese on?
Don’t put it on anything. Just eat it. Eat a bowl of it every day. Here, have an orange, too. But no cookies or candy, none of that sweet, starchy stuff. And no string beans. They’re not good for you.”
My eyes must have popped, but I guess I knew right that first day that you don’t argue with Kate. I ate the cottage cheese—it doesn’t really have any taste anyway—and I sure have always agreed with her about the string beans.
Off and on since then I’ve seen quite a lot of Kate. I’d pass her on the street, chirruping to some mangy old stray cat hiding under a car, and he’d always come out to be stroked. Sometimes there’d be a bunch of little kids dancing around jeering at her and calling her a witch. It made me feel real good and important to run them off.
Quite often I went with her to the A & P and helped her carry home the cat food and cottage cheese and fruit. She talks to herself all the time in the store, and if she thinks the peaches or melons don’t look good that day, she shouts clear across the store to the manager. He comes across and picks her out an extra good one, just to keep the peace.
I introduced Kate to Mom, and they got along real well. Kate’s leery of most people, afraid they’ll make fun of her, I guess; my mom’s not leery of people, but she’s shy, and what with asthma and worrying about keeping me and Pop calmed down, she doesn’t go out much or make dates with people. She and Kate would chat together in the stores or sitting on the stoop on a sunny day. Kate shook her head over Mom’s asthma and said she’d get over it if she ate cottage cheese every day. Mom ate it for a while, but she put mayonnaise on it, which Kate says is just like poison.
The day of the fight with Pop about the Belafonte record it’s cold and windy out and there are no kids in sight. I slam my ball back and forth against the wall where it says “No Ball Playing,” just to limber up and let off a little spite, and then I go over to see Kate.
Kate has a permanent cat named Susan and however many kittens Susan happens to have just had. It varies. Usually there are a few other temporary stray kittens in the apartment, but I never saw any father cat there before. Today Susan and her kittens are under the stove, and Susan keeps hissing at a big tiger-striped tomcat crouching under the sofa. He turns his head away from her and looks like he never intended to get mixed up with family life. For a stray cat he’s sleek and healthy-looking. Every time he moves a whisker, Susan hisses again, warningly. She believes in no visiting rights for fathers.
Kate pours me some tea and asks what’s doing.
“My pop is full of hot air, as usual,” I say.
“Takes one to know one,” Kate says, catching me off base. I change the subject.
“How come the kittens’ pop is around the house? I never saw a full-grown tom here before.”
“He saw me buying some cans of cat food, so he followed me home. Susan isn’t admitting she ever knew him or ever wants to. I’ll give him another feed and send him on his way, I guess. He’s a handsome young fellow.” Kate strokes him between the ears, and he rotates his head. Susan hisses.
He starts to pull back farther under the sofa. Without stopping to think myself, or giving him time to, I pick him up. Susan arches up and spits. I can feel the muscles in his body tense up as he gets ready to spring out of my lap. Then he changes his mind and decides to take advantage of the lap. He narrows his eyes and gives Susan a bored look and turns his head to take me in. After he’s sized me up, he pretends he only turned around to lick his back.
“Cat,” I say to him, “how about coming home with me?”
“Hah!” Kate laughs. “Your pop will throw him out faster than you can say ‘good old Jeff.’
“Yeah-h?” I say it slowly and do some thinking. Taking Cat home had been just a passing thought, but right now I decide I’ll really go to the mat with Pop about this. He can have his memories of good old Jeff and rabbit hunts, but I’m going to have me a tiger.
Aunt Kate gives me a can of cat food and a box of litter, so Cat can stay in my room, because I remember Mom probably gets asthma from animals, too. Cat and I go home.
Pop does a lot of shouting and sputtering when we get home, but I just put Cat down in my room, and I try not to argue with him, so I won’t lose my temper. I promise I’ll keep him in my room and sweep up the cat hairs so Mom won’t have to.
As a final blast Pop says, “I suppose you’ll get your exercise mouse hunting now. What are you going to name the noble animal?”
“Look, Pop,” I explain, “I know he’s a cat, he knows he’s a cat, and his name is Cat. And even if you call him Honorable John Fitzgerald Kennedy, he won’t come when you call, and he won’t lick your hand, see?”
“He’d better not! And it’s not my hand that’s going to get licked around here in a minute,” Pop snaps.
“All right, all right.”
Actually, my pop sometimes jaws so long it’d be a relief if he did haul off and hit me, but he never does.
We call it a draw for that day, and I have Cat.
Cat makes himself at home in my room pretty easily. Mostly he likes to be up on top of something, so I put an old sweater on the bureau beside my bed, and he sleeps up there. When he wants me to wake up in the morning, he jumps and lands in the middle of my stomach. Believe me, cats don’t always land lightly—only when they want to. Anything a cat does, he does only when he wants to. I like that.
When I’m combing my hair in the morning, sometimes he sits up there and looks down his nose at my reflection in the mirror. He appears to be taking inventory: “Hmm, buckteeth; sandy hair, smooth in front, cowlick in back; brown eyes, can’t see in the dark worth a nickel; hickeys on the chin. Too bad.”
I look back at him in the mirror and say, “O.K., black face, yellow eyes, and one white whisker. Where’d you get that one white whisker?”
He catches sight of himself in the mirror, and his tail twitches momentarily. He seems to know it’s not really another cat, but his claws come out and he taps the mirror softly, just to make sure.
When I’m lying on the bed reading, sometimes he will curl up between my knees and the book. But after a few days I can see he’s getting more and more restless. It gets so I can’t listen to a record, for the noise of him scratching on the rug. I can’t let him loose in the apartment, at least until we make sure Mom doesn’t get asthma, so I figure I better reintroduce him to the great outdoors in the city. One nice Sunday morning in April we go down and sit on the stoop.
Cat sits down, very tall and neat and pear-shaped, and closes his eyes about halfway. He glances at the street like it isn’t good enough for him. After a while, condescending, he eases down the steps and lies on a sunny, dusty spot in the middle of the sidewalk. People walking have to step around him, and he squints at them.
Then he gets up, quick, looks over his shoulder at nothing, and shoots down the stairs to the cellar. I take a look to see where he’s going, and he is pacing slowly toward the backyard, head down, a tiger on the prowl. I figure I’ll sit in the sun and finish my science-fiction magazine before I go after him.
When I do, he’s not in sight, and the janitor tells me he jumped up on the wall and probably down into one of the other yards. I look around a while and call, but he’s not in sight, and I go up to lunch. Along toward evening Cat scratches at the door and comes in, as if he’d done it all his life.
This gets to be a routine. Sometimes he doesn’t even come home at night, and he’s sitting on the doormat when I get the milk in the morning, looking offended.
“Is it my fault you stayed out all night?” I ask him.