Spider was killed soon after we moved, as husband and wife, to a dreamy little place up on Fire Mountain in Oceanside.
From day one, as best as I remember it, I was led to believe I should despise cats. Both my father and grandfather had been bird hunters in Nebraska before emigrating to the coast, and like a lot of men, they shared the opinion that the only worthwhile pets were dogs because you could train them on the basis of their fundamental disposition to please, a virtue utterly lacking in the psychological makeup of cats. There was also a professed sentiment questioning the feline capacity to reason. Cats, don’t you know, were said to be stupid. It never got so bad that I entertained any notions of flushing cats down toilets, giving them a spin in the clothes dryer, or setting off firecrackers under their lean, furry hindquarters — rumors I had heard all my life, which certainly held their fascination for a normal, bloodthirsty child. Yet it seemed clear enough that cats were somehow inferior, and for a long while I participated in that prejudice, deriding cats throughout the better portion of my tender, misdirected youth.
Then somehow my mother persuaded the powers that be that she should have a cat. In many respects, I view this as a landmark in the family history, the very beginnings of my mother’s personal brand of female liberation that, to date, has yet to reveal its ultimate conclusion. The house became the domain of a long, sleek Siamese male named Tenzing after the intrepid Sherpa, who accompanied Edmund Hillary on mankind’s pioneer conquest of the summit of Mount Everest. He was a climber, noisy to a fault, mercilessly independent; the typical feline that does exactly as it pleases, perhaps more so due to the eccentricities inherent in the Siamese breed. Nevertheless, I noted reasons, even at that young age, to contest the pervading distaste for cats shared by the menfolk in my family. I began to think in terms of making a deal.
Allow me to jump ahead. I was living alone in La Jolla, ostensibly a student funding his UC education by means of a caretaker job for one of the last great estates along the county coast (although on closer inspection, I might well have been deemed a surf bum, professional freeloader, or frankly a pothead). Anyway, there was a cat there. I don’t recall being told its name, and I can’t say we ever shared even an iota of intimacy. He was a big, black tom, utterly unapproachable, and about all I ever did for him was set out an occasional bowl of dry food, which was usually consumed upon the nocturnal visitations of skunks, possums, coyotes or foxes. This was La Jolla as few of us can remember it. Yet I do recall how on certain mornings before going to check the surf, I would be fascinated by the clean, naked entrails of some rodent lying on the patio. And I remember, too, although my mind wasn’t always clear then, how I understood that this was a good pet, because it could survive where I had seen other neighborhood cats quickly disappear; because he didn’t need me any more than I needed him; and because, blitzed to the max or not, I had it to watch — albeit from afar — in the grey, dim light of a summer coastal eve, that spurious moment when solitude can seem as much a curse as a blessing.
The deal was almost complete. Five years later I was again living in La Jolla — in a tiny studio apartment built into the extremities of a backyard garage — for the express purpose of furthering my inane careers a surfer, fisherman, and writer. I met a gal, and we fell in love, and some months after she moved in with me, she brought home a little black-and-white stray, found in the eucalyptus grove alongside the parking lot of the industrial complex where she worked. I didn’t balk. He was a feisty fellow, full of spunk despite his undernourished state, and it wasn’t long before he was fleshed out and earning his keep, making a dent in the pervasive though rarely publicized La Jolla rat population.
We called him Spider. His was a difficult territory to stake out, replete with a number of long-established, well-fed neighborhood toms; our landlord’s blustery white lab named, appropriately, Czar; and the furious seaside traffic along La Jolla Shores Drive. And I can’t say Spider ever really carved out his own private niche in the world. More than once we had to carry him off to the vet to have him patched up after a long night of fighting, which apparently he had gotten by far the worst of. But by now I had come to see that the deal with cats implied an explicit trade-off — some things given for some things received. And though I never liked paying out, say, an entire day’s wages for a hell-bent cat’s deep wounds worth of sutures, I could always laugh when that same bandaged-up scrapper came out mornings swatting at my loved one’s feet, bared claws raking pale white flesh beneath her red nuptial bathrobe.
Spider was killed soon after we moved, as husband and wife, to a dreamy little place up on Fire Mountain in Oceanside. By then we had a second cat, a grey-and-white female tabby named Phoebe, after the bird, that was everything Spider wasn’t. We also had a child coming, in itself enough to make any young couple gaze nervously into the future; the sudden loss of one of our growing brood made the prospect of parenthood all the more terrifying. I remember carrying Spider’s body home in a cardboard box, which a neighbor had placed him in after finding him dead on the street. And I remember thinking life isn’t going to get any easier, as I buried the remains out past the apricot tree at the far corner of the garden, shoveling dirt into the hole with abrupt, angry strokes.
Phoebe took it just as hard. For close to a year now she had been something of a little sister to Spider, always subserviently playful while at the same time manipulative as a tease — although I should add she did almost have her head torn off during our initial attempts to introduce her as a kitten to our beloved, fighting tom. Of course, they eventually sorted things out. Yet come the very day of Spider’s death, Phoebe almost seemed befallen by some tragic loss of faith, changing almost immediately from a cuddly kitten dependent on the warmth and guidance of the household to a cool, independent, and matronly cat, rejecting both attention and condolences for the sake of freedom to wander in the darkness of her lonely Fire Mountain nights.
Phoebe hunted that spring as if she were a one-cat army bent on purging the neighborhood of anything less than noble than dogs, humankind, or eagles. In the wake of Spider, the far corner of the garden became the final resting spot for everything from birds, squirrels, rabbits and voles to mice, gophers, rats, and lizards, all in various states of dismemberment, beheadings, and/or devourment. The lizards seemed particularly vulnerable. Though nobody’s notion of pristine nature, there are still parts of Oceanside crawling with native reptilian wildlife. Some days I would find a half dozen scaly tails scattered about the throw rug in the living room, often encountering Phoebe herself asleep in a patch of sunlight, one paw draped casually over the motionless, yet not quite deceased, body of a hapless, tailless bluebelly. One particular evening, after coming into the bedroom to change out of my gardening clothes, I pulled on a long sleeve flannel shirt that had been lying on the floor exactly where I tossed it the previous and similarly cool, grey, coastal springtime eve. My wife was stretched out reading on the bed in all her pregnant glory — and suddenly her eyes grew big and she let out a scream, gesturing frantically in the direction of my back. I danced a little jig, throwing hands and arms over my shoulders, shouting back at my wife to get off her tail and do something, anything. Finally, I yanked off the shirt; there clinging to it was a foot-long alligator lizard, thick as a garden hose, begging for blood with sharp, audible contractions of its jaws.
I carried the monster, at arm’s length, out to the garden, flinging it into the oleander hedge with disgust because of the embarrassing and unnecessary fright it had caused me. Back in the bedroom, I found Phoebe lying across the covers from my wife, now laughing at me the way wives will when their men prove it to be something less than stouthearted. I gave them both my best stink eye. Then I pulled on my sneakers, one after the other, only to meet the resistance of some strange, wiggly countenance. Again, it was a lizard, this one probably seeking refuge from Phoebe in that dark and certainly pungent hold. I drew it out of the shoe by its tail — and in an act I will never quite understand, I quickly kicked off the other shoe, expecting God-knows-what to be in there, my wife’s laughter continuing to punctuate my every manic move.
The thing about cats, when you begin to know them, is just how utterly unknowable they really are. Beyond the cryptic influences afforded by their daily comings and goings, you might as well be attempting to understand them by the power of seances around a Ouija board. Cats are essentially wild creatures, their deal with mankind as tenuous as a coyote’s dependency on avocado groves, tomato fields, or the proliferation of defenseless canine breeds in the suburbs of our Southland empire. Given a quarter acre of abandoned or neglected land, your domestic feline will have little trouble surviving, regardless of its ability to coax food or water out of its human neighbors. Believing that a cat is your own is no more than saying that, despite your good and humane intentions, you are making it easier for it to return to a particular place at periodic intervals of time due to your one-sided commitment to family, domesticity, and love.
Shortly before the arrival of the baby, I succumbed without argument to my wife’s wishes to search out a replacement for our irreplaceable Spider. Phoebe, it seemed, was just never going to be the same without a playmate, and both my wife and I shared a notion that there might be an added richness to the coming family life were there a kitten to grow up in the shadow of our imminent and hopefully bouncing infant.
Within days, my wife brought home a scruffy little grey female, procured for next to nothing from the feed store where we normally purchased supplies for our small flock of chickens. I wasn’t overly impressed. The kitten seemed unduly fearful; upon approach, scurrying the length of the house and burying itself in the carpet in a corner of the master closet. Nor was Phoebe immediately infatuated. It is one thing to be a young female kitten coming into the domain of a tough little tom; quite another to be a full-fledged huntress with some tiny ball of fur squealing around corners where disemboweled kills have lain. Then my wife had Riley. He was a pale, blue-eyed, full-bodied redhead, with fiery temperament to match. It wasn’t long before Phoebe chose to take up sides with the kitten, as if in self-defense against this screeching, two-legged bundle of love who was our son.
We named the new kitten Dainty Bess; after a rose I planned to plant at the start of a brick path I was laying alongside a new bed of ferns. She took to Riley, as I suppose most any kitten would, as though he were a member of her own feline family. More than once we had to pull Dainty Bess out of Riley’s crib, where she threatened to suffocate him in her liking for the warmth and cuddly atmosphere of his blankets and newborn dreams. It wasn’t long before she was allowing Riley’s attempts to pick her up, the sort of infant manhandling generally associated with stuffed animals, beach balls, or anything less mobile than a piano.
It got so Riley would eventually approach Dainty Bess with the half-hearted disdain of a logger coming upon a big pine. Sometimes he would walk right up to her, and as she rolled over on her back, paws outstretched for play, he would meet her invitations with a swift, reckless kick to the ribs. She took it all in stride. Dainty Bess seemed possessed by some inordinate fear of rejection, and any attention at all, even a sharp lick to the chops, was at least better than the prospect of her elder Phoebe’s lust for solitary mayhem performed on the local wildlife populace.
Then one day Dainty Bess failed to return home after dark. We had gotten used to such behavior by Phoebe, nocturnal hunter that she was, but we could hardly imagine Riley’s compliant friend traipsing off alone in the Fire Mountain night. We immediately began to fear the worst. Both my wife and I suffered a long, restless sleep, images of Spider’s distorted body haunting our midnight dreams.
The following afternoon, when I returned home after work, I found Dainty Bess lying asleep under a rose bush by the back porch. She seemed fine. Riley and his nanny were playing out on the lawn, and I called them over so that the three of us might welcome Dainty Bess home with open arms. She got to her feet, looking up at us with wild, dilated eyes — and in a sight more gruesome than death, we watched Dainty Bess climb the porch stairs, cross Riley’s room, and hop onto the rocking chair, dragging behind her a hind leg that looked horribly like a dirty, distended sock filled with a handful of lead buckshot.
Riley began screaming. His nanny, a young woman and middle daughter of a family of 11 kids, picked Riley up and carried him back outside, comforting him with that special talent for which we had hired her. Me, I was somewhat beside myself, afraid to inspect any more closely the damage to Dainty Bess, fearing what I might find. I hurried into the living room and phoned my wife at work. Then I went outside and took Riley into my arms, trying to distract him from his sudden toddler’s desire to go inside and see the “ouwee” on Dainty Bess’s leg.
With his nanny gone home, Riley and I played outside in the garden, digging weeds and whatnot while I waited for my wife so that the three of us could take Dainty Bess to the vet. I suppose looking back at it now, this might have been an opportunity to take matters into my own hands — play God, if you will. Dainty Bess was obviously suffering, teetering between life and death. Had I carried her out to that far corner of the garden and performed a swift decapitation with the spade, neither Riley nor my wife would have been the wiser.
It never crossed my mind. One’s deal with cats, as with most pets, is not much different from the blind commitment parents naturally make towards their own children. It really is a matter of life and death. The vet took one look at Dainty Bess’s injury, a compound fracture with two inches of naked bone exposed, and he advised immediate X-rays to determine whether or not she had suffered further internal damage, the sort that would make pointless all concerns for her leg. The X-rays proved negative. The leg was a mess, that is true; but the bottom line was whether or not we wanted to invest in Dainty Bess’s future as a cat with a mended leg, or, more probably, a cat with just three legs and a short, disjointed stump.
I can’t say I was in favor of either option. Then again, I wasn’t about to cast a thumbs-down judgment on Dainty Bess’s life. My wife and I hammered out a decision, she taking the obvious, humanitarian track; me playing the devil’s advocate for such financial concerns as our need for a remodeled bathroom, new brakes on our VW van, and the monthly installment in Riley’s college account. It really wasn’t an argument at all. We told the vet to do what he could, and then we went home and waited, praying for Dainty Bess’s leg, or at the very least, her life.
When I picked up Dainty Bess from the vet a couple of days later, I was, quite frankly, appalled — and not only because of the frightening dent that her surgery made in the family finances. The leg was gone, utterly so, its place taken by nothing but a long, sutured incision, stretching diagonally from tail to belly across an ugly expanse of naked, hairless flesh. It was enough to turn one’s stomach — not to mention bring into question the heartlessness involved in subjecting a cat to such a ghastly, traumatic fate. Riley, too, seemed thoroughly undone. That evening, and for many days to come, he refused to go alone into any room that Dainty Bess was in, sometimes breaking into tears while standing in a doorway, begging me or his mother to come rescue him.
None of this, of course, meant anything at all to Dainty Bess. She was alive. And the very first night home, she was already getting around, able even to hop up on the sofa, our bed, or her favored rocking chair. It wasn’t long, in fact, before we were all quite amused by her, calling her names like Tripod, Footstool, or Arithmetic (“She puts down three and carries the one”), or even going so far as to spook her into sprinting across the living room, where she would invariably perform a sort of Jerry Lewis pratfall on the hardwood floor. Eventually, with the stitches removed and her hair grown back, Dainty Bess seemed just like another cat, no more screwy than the rest, despite an unsightly habit of sitting down on her haunches, leaning her head towards her missing leg, and attempting to scratch herself with rapid, visible oscillations of her bony, hidden stump.
In time with cats you begin to wonder — perhaps more so than with other pets — whether or not your deal with them is really worth all the trouble, the pressures of modern-day life what they are. Cats kill birds, which Lord knows we’ve never enough of. They defecate in the garden. They mutilate furniture. And as far as your rodent problem goes, you could just as well go out and purchase traps or a box of poison, hire a professional to do the job, or visit City Hall and demand a final solution.
Everybody agrees that there are already far too many cats. The unspayed feline female is, in fact, now considered a moral offense, a potential blight closely akin to the unwashed car, the front lawn left to turn brown in the heat of summer, or laundry hung out on a clothesline to dry. The times predicate that those of us in suburbia — which is practically every last one of us beyond Eskimos and illegal aliens — do our all to make life more palatable for the whole. In many respects, we might as well be living in a religious commune. Yet to anyone who might be interested in discovering the glories of procreation, the feline species can offer and immediate, trouble-free example, the current distaste for which seems inspired by nothing more than queasiness, fascism, or our apparent inability to find pets a good home.
Which is not to say I feel cats should be allowed to breed like lemmings. And up until quite recently, I would never have argued in favor of letting your domestic feline female run around with her tail in the air. Cats really can be a pain in the ass, but there are a lot of other things in the world that bother me too. When a cat you know becomes pregnant, you might just as well look upon it as a godsend; an opportunity to gaze more deeply into the miracle of birth, the beauty of motherhood, and your responsibility towards all creatures great and small.
It was our next-door neighbor’s cat that got me going on these apocryphal notions of sex, maternity, and kittens. We had been away on fall vacation and upon our return discovered that Penelope, as we came to call her, had forsaken her household for the warmth and general graciousness of our own. (It should also be understood that we always leave our dining room window open, beneath which sit the bowls of cat food.) She was a big, round, young bobtail Siamese, of questionable breeding lines to be sure, and try as we might, we couldn’t shoo her away, much to the dismay of both Phoebe and Dainty Bess. Nor were the neighbors much help. Their yard was patrolled by a mean old feral tom that the husband had brought home from a construction site. And though the wife spoke to us about eventually wanting to breed Penelope, whom she called Smoky, neither of them seemed much concerned that their cat was now spending all of its time with us.
It got so my wife finally began feeding Penelope, if for no other reason than the poor thing had been jetting into the house every time the front or back door was opened, then gobbling food until she was picked up, time and time again, and carried outside. I knew what was coming next. My wife and I argued over who was going to have to deal with and pay for the inevitable visits to the vet. By spring I was certain the situation was entirely out of hand, our corner lot becoming a veritable hotbed of howling, sex-crazed cats.
Things didn’t happen quite as quickly as one might expect. The rapid increase in Penelope’s already ample girth had nothing to do with pregnancy, but probably her dire need to feed recklessly every chance she got, the uncertainty of her place in this world being what it was.
Then the signs became blatant. Penelope’s belly began to distend and hang as though it were a gunny sack around the neck of a peasant harvesting potatoes. And her two rows of teats seemed to grow heavier day by day, as if in conjunction with the cloud-shrouded, waxing May moon.
With the new June moon, I went south on a fishing trip. The very day I returned home, Penelope began having her babies on a corner of the futon in Riley’s room. The first was born soon after sunset, just as Riley was bedding down. When my wife announced the arrival of the second kitten, I headed off for some much-needed sleep, assuming all was well.
In the morning, my wife said that the second kitten was gone. She thought Penelope had eaten it. I went into Riley’s room and found a cold, lifeless fetus dangling from Penelope’s insides. My wife phoned the vet and tried to explain the situation. In the meantime I withdrew the dead body, carried it out to the garden, and buried it.
Then in rapid succession Penelope gave birth to three more kittens of varying solid hues related to their mother’s subtle coloring. I had to help with two of them, not a completely foreign task as I had been sitting there, point blank, upon the arrival of my own, difficult-to-deliver son. But as I drew out the second kitten, awaiting its initial gasping squeak while Riley, now awake, peered spellbound over my shoulder, I couldn’t help feeling that there was something deeply, fundamentally wrong.
Weren’t cats supposed to be able to do this on their own? I realized, eventually, that the trouble was the kittens kept coming out breech, and it was as if in that position they were getting hung up by their head, ears and chin. Through the course of the morning, and well into the afternoon, Penelope’s contractions continued. And by the time the seventh and final kitten was born, some 18 hours after the arrival of the first, both mama and I were beat, though I continued to suspect we were still not out of the woods.
Twenty-four hours later, we had yet to see a sign of Penelope’s placenta, and two more kittens had died. At the vet, Penelope was injected with a muscle contractant, which was supposed to aid in the expulsion of her placenta and which, another day later, proved to be of no use at all. X-rays were taken. The pictures showed nothing conclusive, except that Penelope’s uterus seemed distended, as if swollen by infection. We allowed her to go under the knife. We suffered in the meantime, the loss of yet another two kittens, bringing the total dead to five out of the original seven. As I continued to search the garden for appropriate grave sites, I began to feel like a medieval monk, burying bodies in the throes of some frightful, devastating plague.
Penelope, at least, survived. She would never, of course be a mother again, as she probably never should have in the first place. Yet who of us is ever given to foreseeing any of nature’s eventual and irrefutable signs? There were still the two kittens left, each without apparent recognition of sibling loss, and as the days passed and they settled into regular feedings at their mother’s sutured breast, the point of this all seemed in no way diminished by our recent encounter with death, sadness, desperation, and fear.
After all is said and done, cats are survivors. I envision them the millennial cockroaches of the mammalian world. In a relatively short while, I suspect, man will press the limits of his godly stay on earth, his existence threatened by the very weight of his propensity towards progress, self-glorification, and greed. Cats, on the other hand, seem perfectly content to live out their fabled nine lives, immune to the poignant tendencies of the times.
Soon after their arrival into this fateful world, Penelope’s kittens began to reveal minds of their own. They pissed on our bed. They shit in the closet. They tore up underwear in the nightstand dresser. And they antagonized Riley to no end, despite his efforts to coerce them into submission by force of the swift, pendular swing of his sneakers.
You either love them or you don’t. And when it gets right down to it, your deal with them is really nothing more or less than your commitment to your own existence. If man survives, cats will survive. They even may should we not.