Walter Mencken 7 p.m., Dec. 10
Tundra’s conduct regarding April and me, and people in general, remained about the same as it always had. If you ask me, although I am a cat enthusiast, I believe cats can take us or leave us. If they could live comfortably in large Mediterranean style homes where they could either relax on cool terra cotta tiles in the foyer or plush cushions warmed by the sun in the parlor and then have their food delivered to them via automation in favor of depending on us, they would. Cats endure us more than anything else.
As I said, Tundra’s disposition relating to us was about the same as it had always been, except now when he felt we had exhausted our demonstrative acts of fondness for him, he would sometimes resort to violence.
If the old Tundra was lying on the couch and we began to pat him, usually he would allow our handling of him until he had had enough, after which he would meow peevishly, as if to say, “All 'right,' already,” and then he’d get up and move to another piece of furniture or sometimes even to another room.
But now the "new" Tundra, if he believed we had exceeded our physical affection for him, in addition to moving from his spot on the couch, sometime he would hiss and strike us with one of his front paws. Sheathing or unsheathing his claws depended upon his mood.
Our friend Dana had developed a special relationship with Tundra. She just loved him, and she had unintentionally trained him to scratch her after three pats, no more, no less. Whenever Dana came to visit, she made a beeline right for Tundra. It was a game they shared, a game that Tundra reluctantly involved himself in. “Hi, you guys,” she’d say to April and me at the front door. After entering the living room, she’d immediately begin to scan the room, looking for Tundra. Tundra, usually on the couch, would turn his head away from Dana, pretending he hadn’t notice her arrival. Dana then sat down beside Tundra and spoke to him as if she were an overly enthusiastic mother talking to her newborn baby: “How’sh my wittle baby? How’sh my wittle Tundra? Has him been behaving himself? Has him, hmmm? Does my wittle baby want some loving? Of course him does. Of course wittle Tundra does.” Then, just for laughs, she’d begin to pat him over and over again in an exaggerated fashion.
When Dana first began this practice, she had applied, as far as Tundra was concerned, too much pressure on his body while fawning over him. The first four or five times this happened, Tundra was a good sport and allowed Dana to stroke his fur again and again as she spoke to him as though he were a baby. But after about the sixth time she did this, Tundra hissed and scratched Dana after she had given him a third firm pat.
“Tundra, you little bastard,” Dana spat, rubbing her scratched hand as Tundra marched off to another room; Tundra’s reaction, of course, didn’t impede Dana’s behavior toward him, it only encouraged it. Dana’s inadvertent conditioning of Tundra to, in his irritation, scratch her after three pats was something that she and I viewed as pure serendipity.
After that particular day Tundra would scratch Dana after, or usually "during" the third pat. Apparently, Tundra’s tolerance for good-natured abuse was three and that was all.
Once it had been established that Tundra would react this way, it became Dana’s customary greeting for Tundra, a custom that she and I found hilarious. She had also, for additional comedic effect, begun to announce each pat as she applied it. The following is a blow-by-blow account of Dana’s routine after sitting next to Tundra and his reaction to it: “How’sh my wittle Tundra?” she’d ask through puckered lips. “How’sh him doing? How’sh my wittle baby?”
Tundra lay there with his head up, staring straight ahead, not meeting Dana’s eyes, undoubtedly hoping that “this” time he could just relax in peace and that Dana’s habitual treatment of him would not end up where it was inevitably destined to.
“One,” Dana announced loudly as she applied the first forceful pat across Tundra’s head and neck and then along his shoulders, back, and flank. Every time Dana counted her pats, I always thought of that Tootsie Pop commercial with the owl wearing the mortarboard, “A one. A two-hoo. A three.”
Tundra maintained his deadpan expression as he stared into the kitchen but his ears twitched and his tail lashed ominously. I knew if Tundra were standing up, he would do that definitive cat move they perform when oblivious people and especially little kids pat them too hard, which, by the way, little kids never “don’t” do. He would inexplicably invert his spine like the letter U as his stomach grazed the ground but his shoulders and hips would somehow manage to remain mysteriously in the same position as he all but flattened his midsection against the floor like a bearskin rug. Cats always do this with nonchalance; they must think it looks completely natural and that we don’t notice their severe body contortions as they avoid our affection.
“Him’s such a handsome kitty,” Dana continued. She threw in some loud kissing noises just for good measure. “Two,” she proclaimed theatrically before beginning the second pat.
Tundra’s tail began to pick up speed as its tip snapped against the sofa cushions and his ears pressed themselves down on the back of his head menacingly.
Dana closed her eyes and shook her head rapidly back and forth as she made some more wet smacking sounds. “Three,” Dana declared as she began her last caress.
Tundra hissed and then with sudden fierceness turned to face the hand that stroked his back as if it were an entity that existed separately from Dana. Tundra was fast, and he struck out at the abusive hand. But Dana was accustomed to his reaction and she had anticipated his move and was able to snatch her hand away before he could sink his claws into her flesh.
This never got old for Dana and me. Never. It was “always” funny. April, however, had tired of it months earlier. After Tundra attacked Dana’s hand, leapt from the couch, and huffed off, April would force a strained courtesy laugh, “A-heh, heh,” or, more often than not, just roll her eyes and go to the kitchen to get a glass of ice tea while Dana and I laughed like children.
After our laughter ended, Dana always chided Tundra as he marched off. “Tundra, maybe you should take some anger management classes so you can learn to control your hostility. Jeez, what a hothead.”
Tundra never responded.