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Here, Kitty; Raising Toast; Birthday Girl

Here, Kitty

I open the door to take out the garbage at about six o'clock, and he steps in on the mat. We don't have a mat, and "he" is a "she," we will later think. Jill also later recalled, "I heard you say, 'Hello, there.'"

The cat, small and slight and black, walks in on little silent statements, looks around as if ordained. Just like a little Mimi, the talky black-brown Burmese Jill had when I met her. She had Mimi and Monroe, a charismatic New England tuxedo with six toes.

The boys erupt and try to hug her. Alex keeps trying to touch her tail. We've told them both about animals and especially cats, and in fact we were planning to get a cat after at least one more member of our household was toilet-trained.

"It's a Christmas story!" Jill declares, adding, "It's not a Hanukah story because she's stayed for more than eight days." We think it's a she. Jill claims she's checked, but she once made that mistake with Mimi, too.

Jill got Monroe and Mimi, two old friends now long gone, before I met her. She got Monroe from a friend who didn't want him anymore and Mimi when he wandered onto her porch over and over. "I thought he was a female," Jill has recalled. "He was so little and nice."

We have no idea who owns her; her coat is clean, she looks well-fed, and about the time Alex has a grip on her tail it's apparent she's been around kids. Jill raps on a few doors. Turns out our neighbor Jim found her in the fenced-off garden on the side of our building. Snow was expected that night. Jim and his wife are allergic, however, plus they own a pit-bull, which would be, as my dog-owning friend Jon once pointed out, like asking a person to live with a Tyrannosaurus Rex.

"She's probably hungry," I say. "What are we going to feed her in?"

Jill points up. In the top of the cupboard I see the old black and white dishes. The three bowls sit in a stack I haven't really seen since that night in the depths of 1998, when Mimi sat on the red stuffed chair in our Queens living room, waiting for his final shot from the vet. Mimi had a tumor. Monroe had died a few months before of kidney failure. Alex was deep in the NICU. It was a bad year, though we still have the red chair and I don't think about it much anymore.

"Oh yeah," I said. "Wow."

Once we saw a guy in a supermarket pet-food aisle helping his wife pick out cat food. "Nah nah," the guy said once, "she don't like that one!" To be on the safe side, and because we have nothing else, we feed her tuna. The cheap Chicken of the Sea. "I'll be damned if I'm going to give this cat a $3 can of Italian tuna," Jill declares. My mother used to say things like that about my brother's cat, too, trying to convince herself that she was winning the battles.

We bum litter, a box, and dry food from a neighbor. Jill checks her belly for fleas. "I think she's pregnant, and that she's been abandoned." That night, and every night since, she sleeps with us. Later Jill buys her Tender Vittles, which she scarfed on her first full day with us.

Alex grabs her tail until we tell him to stop, then holds out his hand and lets her rub her chin against his hand. He keeps dumping her bowl of dry food into our sink, and in response I teach him to feed her. Ned also feeds her, and chases her around barking orders. "Eat your tuna!" he says. "Where you goin'!" "Kitty stay!" "Eat, eat, eat!" Most of the time she ignores him, so he's learning something about cats. He wants to be the one who feeds her; I taught him to mash up the wet food with one of our good forks. Later on he plays with her cat toys, and I pick up a cat dancer. When Ned holds this toy, the "Ned Dancer," the cat keeps chasing him.

Ned rolls a ball over to her and she taps it. She sits spellbound by the dishwasher. I say, "You're a coiled-spring, aren't you, cat?" A steady look up, emerald disks of silent presence and demand, like the cartoon captioned, "Cat wants people food." I give her the skin off roast salmon. Before long I'm confusing her with the boys, calling her "AlexNedCat" when I can't keep everybody straight, asking her to name the color of a ball, and thinking how now we have to start looking for yet another pre-school.

We name her "Toast," after a dog in the movie Funny Bones. Jill she likes. "Kitty," said Jill the other day while grabbing her keys to head to work, "I don't know how to break this to you, but I can't stay home all day and hold you." She purrs like a lawnmower in Jill's arms. If she is a she.

Jill's face crinkles in comic-book distress. "What if she has babies?!"

I've never been around new kittens, but after 1998 I'd welcome a chaos that revolves around new life. I understand that new kittens are kind of worms for a couple of weeks, mewing and eating and sleeping a lot. But of course, Jill is batting .000 on determining the sex of wayward black cats. She's also not doing well picking food for our little and nice guest. Toast (the name may not stick) soon shuns Tender Vittles, and at bedtime she starts chasing cough drops all over the floors of our apartment.

Emerald disks, silent presence. "You know," Jill said to me this morning, "she's not quite as nice as she was a few days ago, either." Jill starts insisting we mash her food with plastic forks.

I don't know if someone's going to come for this cat. I'll keep my eye out for flyers, and I don't look forward to that possible moment when Ned watches her being carried out our door by strangers. For now she's here. There's dry food under our sink ("...she don't like that..."), and litter in our broom closet. Her box is in our bathroom. For the moment, another member of our household is toilet-trained. (January 2004)

Raising Toast

It's almost two months now since Toast strolled through our front door one frigid holiday evening. We're teaching the boys to feed her. "Toast!" says Ned. "Eat your dinner!"

We named Toast after the dog in the movie Funny Bones. She is black and delicate, although getting rounder in the middle. She is Jill's second black cat. First was Mimi, a delightful and deeply missed boy. "I don't see Mimi when I look at her," Jill says. "At first I thought I would, but I don't."

She (Toast) eats peas and spaghetti, and claws into plastic bags of barley in the pantry. When you come out of the bathroom, she's always waiting by the door; she likes to watch the water twirl down the bowl, from which she then drinks. The other night she hopped into a bath with the boys, then leaped back out and stalked away, shaking her hind legs as if it had all been someone else's fault.

"She's kind of nutty," says Jill, who might be liking having another (nutty) woman around. "That damned cat was just on the table eating Ned's porridge. Eagerly licking it up, too. I mean there was a little butter in it, but it wasn't swirling in butter or cream. What kind of cat eats oatmeal?"

She (Toast) also squirms under the pantry, maybe to get away from Ned. Ned's too rough with her for me; he's either a boisterous 3-year-old or a psychotic, not that there's much difference. He holds her up by the front shoulders. He squeezes her until she meows. We've explained over and over and over that this is wrong, to which he hangs his head. We give Toast a treat after these episodes - though we're careful not to let Ned do it so he doesn't get the idea that he can make it up to her that easily. I've shown him how to cradle his arm underneath her hind legs and rest her front paws on his shoulder, though he's not big enough to do this yet. I was heartened when I showed him how to use the cat dancer toy, and Toast chased him around the house.

"The other day, Ned made me wave it for him to chase," Jill adds. Ned also crawls around on all fours and meows. Which is scary. Toast saw him doing this the other day, and swatted him.

One of her favorite toys is a ball of tinfoil, which rolls and ricochets better than a wad of paper. She also seems to love skidding into doors, bookcases, boxes, and other surfaces that seem to attract an out-of-control year-old cat. At bedtime (ours), she tracks me with her eyes, makes sudden soft noises, and bolts down the hall, then on top of our bed, then under the bed in a black slither.

"I see her out of the corner of my eye and I think I've seen a mouse," says Jill.

We're teaching her (Toast) to fetch cough drops. I toss one clattering down the hall of our bedroom. She bolts. Then a second later she's back, her pale green searchlights boring into me. "Did you bring it back?" Bore go the searchlights. Flick goes the head. "Did you bring it back? I can't throw it again unless you bring it back." Flick goes the head. Throw another! she silently demands.

Any mouse around here would swiftly feel the vibration of her teeth, just like my toes do through the comforter at bedtime. Her claws are lightning. She's a killer. "Kill-ah!' giggles Ned. Which is scary.

Wherever Toast came from, she's used to being around kids. She likes to sleep in the boys' room, especially with Alex, who used to tug her tail once in a while, but who now just pets her nicely and sometimes meows in her face. In play, she likes to crouch by my side of the bed, for instance, and pounce at my wiggling fingers. My fingers she swats at with full force. When Ned wiggled his fingers, however, she looked at me, looked at Ned, then swatted gently, with no claws.

Our first major foray into cat-ownership, not counting Tidy Cat Crystals and the scooping thereof, has been claw-trimming. "Oh, she's going to nice about it," says Jill, who has Toast in her arms. I'm behind them, and I see her (Jill's) grip suddenly tighten and her shoulders hunch. "Oh no, she's not going to be nice about this."

When she walked through the door, nobody said anything about "nice." Still, with each day and each pea, it's getting harder to remember that time before she walked through the door. (March 2004)

Birthday Girl

Toast walked through out door almost a year ago, and I still don't understand her. Not that owners are supposed to "understand" their cats so much as "feed" them, but even by Feline Local 102 standards, Toast is a little off.

"I like her, but I don't love her," Jill said one night about 10 months ago, a ambiguity of affection since erased by countless cuddles and a couple of three-digit vet bills that were ignited by her chewing the suede tail off a toy mouse. Toast is one of our family now, making steadier eye contact than any cat I've known, even if she does try to set some record for most minutes spent scratching at a cat box.

Still...

Toast and water. All water. We got the initial hint of this when she'd been with us maybe a month and leaped into the tub right after the boys' bath, when there was still an inch or so of water in the bottom. She bolted back out, shook her paws, and stared back at us as if her getting wet was somebody else's fault.

Now, however, flush the toilet and open the bathroom door and even before your fly is all the way back up a black blur has zipped past your ankles. She bounds to the toilet seat (like most women, she prefers I leave it down after use) and cocks her head, watching the water and I guess whatever else swirl down. Lately she's been sticking her head deeper and deeper into the bowl, like a thrill-addicted skydiver who waits longer and longer to pull the cord on successive jumps. Last night her nose almost got wet. Between flushes she waits, the tip of tail touching the water. She will stop chasing a fresh catnip mouse to do this.

I used to get the blur when I went in for a shower, too, but now I pull the curtain back and almost step barefoot onto a sleek black head and two lustrous green eyes waiting wide and ready for the taps to open. "Toast, you are not going to want to be in here in a minute."

She loves water, we told our house-sitting friend when we got back from a week in Cape Cod.

"Yes!" he exclaimed. "Yes."

Toast and kids. Toast loves kids. More than I do, most times. She took right to the give-and-take of life with Alex and Ned (see "Claws"), and she follows Ned's playdates closely around the apartment with wide and unblinking green eyes. When Ned has a pound-the-floor tantrum, Toast walks up and licks his hair.

Which is odd, considering how often Ned carts her around in a bear hug, her hind legs dropping and a resigned look on her face, how often he runs his hand with too much force down the length of her body, how often he claims Toast claws him for no reason. "Yadda yadda yadda," Ned seems to be claiming, "and I'm minding my own business and she flew right across the room and attacked me!" A few moments later and she's sitting beside him, eyes drooping, both of them silently watching "Clifford."

Alex too has felt the paw. We're teaching him to stroke her firmly and with love, nape of the neck to the base of her tail, helping him place her full dinner dish in front of her on the kitchen tiles. Yet the other night, with that suddenness common to clashes between beings who don't really speak, Toast ignited into a slash and guttural hiss in Alex's direction. He giggled madly even as the red drops began to form, but that's a story for another time. I think he pulled her ear. Two hours later, she was sleeping beside him, but that might have had a lot to do with Alex's thick comforter. And she never fails to make story time.

Toast and food and barfing. If she doesn't like her dinner, we find out within a half-hour. I think she regards this behavior as non-negotiable.

Toast and the cat box. "Not yet!" I usually find myself saying each night about 6, as I finish ripping that days Sports or World Finance sections into long strips. Toast will have entered her bare box before I've taken a Pulitzer-winning 1,500 words, about how our next Olympic star witnessed inner-city tragedy by age 5, and turned those words into a cushion for her fuzzy butt when she relieves herself (as a journalist, I wonder every night around 6:15 how much of my work has wound up in a similar spot). We've been using the 50-cents-a-day Times rather than $10-a-bag litter ever since the vet recommended no litter for a week after one of those three-digit bills. I figure Toast, by just doing what we all do best and scratching for about a half-hour afterward, has saved us about $200 in litter costs so far.

Owners of multiple cats warn, however, that newspapers can't replace litter for more than one cat, even if all cats in question are obsessed with flushing toilets. (November 2004)

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