A Cat’s entitled to expect/These evidences of respect./And so in time you reach
your aim,/And finally call him by his name. ~ T. S. Eliot
The family file at the vet’s is a thick one. We have three felines these days; the health histories of five others, R.I.P., have been purged by now. Each of them was singular, beloved and expensive to keep. But in the latter regard, none more than Bruno, who is referred to as a “chronically ill” cat, which means among other things that he’s netted about $5,000 to date for the clinic. Everyone there is very nice to him.
“Bruno!” says the receptionist. “How you doing, buddy?”
“Bruno!” says the veterinary technician. “Good to see you!”
Someone always draws a smiley face on his discharge papers along with a Koan-like report about his citizenship: Bruno is consistently “The sweetest boy. So patient.” I haven’t looked but I’m sure there’s a confidential section of notes about me in that dossier. How come?: My cats are patient patients, but I can be a crank case.
The last time I took Bruno in for subcutaneous fluids—he’s elderly and recovering from pancreatitis—we got a new vet tech who isn’t motivated by loyal patronage and capital outlay, obviously. She scowled at me and took Bruno to the back without a word to him, without using that squeaky voice everyone else uses when they bend over his cat carrier to greet him. It was humiliating. I sat in the lobby in this new building the vet had specially designed and constructed, adding up how many of the appointments I’d funded. The gas fireplace insert, no doubt. Plus one or two of the designer chairs and the couch in the grieving room. Plus the chrome boat cleats mounted on the underside of the reception desk for mooring leashed dogs while owners pay their bills. Just once I want to see someone use a cleat, maybe acknowledge what it is, cleverly repurposed, and throw a good half-hitch around it.
I’m nice to the dog owners who come through the door, but I don’t respect them. I like dogs, but I don’t respect them either. There’s a long rectangular floor mat in front of the reception desk, a heavy-traffic industrial type with a rubber backing. I probably paid for that too. I can’t tell you how many dogs I’ve seen take a crap on that mat. The owners never notice; it’s either me or the receptionist—”Uh-oh!”—followed by The Biohazard Drill: scurry for a Ziploc, paper towels and some sanitizing spray. Then the dog gets a cookie and everyone looks pleased. Cats wouldn’t dream of taking a dump in public, and I’ve only felt comfortable about doing it myself in a dream once that cost me $125 to process, in private, with my therapist.
By middle age, I’ve discovered, our stockpile of those stories we hand out like party favors amongst friends and acquaintances runs low. The memoirs about our dysfunctional families have been written. Marriages are sound and loving or at least tolerable, or kaput, so the fun starts to go out of jokes at a spouse’s expense. The kids are raised, but maybe there are grandkids you tend occasionally who do or say funny, embarrassing things. Other than that, you start relying on pets or other people’s pets for new material. Especially childless people like me. Especially childless people like me who are introverts and need to get in and out of conversations quickly. I’d love to offer the story about the dogs crapping in the vet’s swanky lobby, except that so many party-goers own dogs.
And I can’t use the I-was-on-the-Donny-and-Marie-show story anymore—most everyone I know has heard it. Although that doesn’t stop my husband from introducing it. I think he thinks that my old well-rehearsed schadenfreude patter might put me, and everyone else, at ease. “Tell the one about being the fat Ice Angel with the Osmonds,” he says. And I do, but I feel punky about it because back then I genuinely pitied people like Tom Jones and Andy Griffith who were the only guest stars desperate enough for work that they’d fly out to Utah to be in skits with Donny and Marie. Leftover celebrities is how I thought of them, but when María del Rosario Pilar Martínez Molina Gutiérrez de los Perales Santa Ana Romanguera y de la Hinojosa Rasten, better known as Charo, needed alcohol and had no idea how to get it especially since her bosses for the week were Mormons, I turned myself inside out to help. Anyone would have done the same thing, probably. Charo was getting divorced from Xavier Cugat who was fifty years older than she was; maybe whatever cuchi cuchi had been there was gone. I wanted to ask, but didn’t. I had more tact when I was young.
After the bit on Charo, next thing I know I’m blabbing about how I weigh now what I weighed in 1977 when ABC fired me from my job at the end of the pinwheel hanging on to Donny every week—some kind of secret vote at the network, was all the choreographer told me. I was bulimic and binged every night after work—maybe to provide more ballast for Donny who couldn’t skate well—and experience has shown that’s a helluva bad punch line. There are almost as many eating-disordered guests at parties as dog owners—and there I stand holding a plate loaded with chicken wings, ranch dip and speared cheese squares, waiting for a laugh.
I have learned, in other words, to keep most of my opinions to myself—yet I am beleaguered with requests for them. When I checked out at Petco the other day, the clerk handed me a separate sales slip with a note stapled to it. On the slip were instructions for a phone-in survey about the store; on the note was another set of instructions: “If you cannot respond ‘5’ to all of the questions asked in this survey, please call me at this number.” Then the direct line for the manager. Progress: everyone wants an A in America now.
For responding to the survey without calling the store manager, I’d get an incentive coupon, $2.00-off anything. For calling the store manager about the fact that most of her clerks are earnest and kind, but disabled or twenty-something with lots of body art or both, I’d get—what, exactly—besides more confirmation that I need to refill my Prozac prescription?
I buy two or three dozen individual cans of Fancy Feast and Pro-plan at a time. My cats insist on variety: mackerel, tuna, salmon, ocean whitefish (whatever that is), Cod, Sole and Shrimp Feast. I hate dead fish, any dead fish. If you are my friend and have invited me to dinner, please don’t put yourself out when the Coho are running in Alaska. But twice a day, for the cats’ sakes, I open these foul-smelling delicacies. The only terrestrial creatures they’ll eat are things that had wings, and only begrudgingly: turkey and giblets – and chicken, as long as the chicken is the Science Diet brand.
Call me crazy, but requiring that Petco check-out clerks scan each can individually is paving the road to institutionalization of both customer and employee. Yet that is the procedure. Some databank somewhere should be letting Purina know by now that cats do not want entrées with rice in them, period. I’ve taken to pressing my way toward the counter ahead of my turn so that I can begin stacking cans with the bar codes all nicely aligned just to speed things up—so the checker can mow down the UPCs on the labels of those thirty six cans with that laser gun like a real Jedi Knight. The customers in line behind me appreciate it, and so do the clerks, except for the one with Asperger’s who grunts and hums to himself through the entire transaction and only rarely makes eye contact. Well, maybe he appreciates the effort, too, I just can’t tell. That’s where I’m disabled.
So who loves surveys? Impersonal, anonymous, efficient—they’re the perfect tool for introverts with hostile thoughts in a world dominated by extroverts who show off in OpEd columns and on Twitter and Facebook and on 24/7 cable not-newsy programs, who blog ‘til the cats come home, exuberantly registering bilious opinions. I love tests and I should love surveys, but all they do is arouse the kind of self-loathing that would make me a perfect prospect for a religious order. Self-sacrifice and perfectionism, telling the truth and keeping score and maybe doing harm to those who differ—these are the very tendencies that a certain kind of god, and surveys, count on.
But well-designed surveys interject that possibility of grey area that sends my misery quotient off the charts and documents that I’m not worthy: On a scale of one to five, rate your experience of.
I recently spent thirty minutes on the phone with a telemarketer from Kraft answering questions about my cheese preferences. Who knew I had so many?: sizes, shapes, types, presentations. Regarding string cheese, do you prefer low fat or regular? Depends on whether I’m on the South Beach Diet that week or not? Sorry. On a scale of one to five, are you more inclined to purchase low fat or regular? I had to think, and hard, too hard it seemed to me, about whether I’d pay more to buy sharp cheddar cheese pre-shredded in a package, fine or medium shred. And how about ethnic pre-shredded choices?: How many times in the past year have you purchased Kraft Italian Style shredded cheese? Mexican Style shredded cheese? What they should have asked is how many times I considered buying pre-shredded cheese of any kind and then lost my nerve, at $13.28 per pound, picturing my mother who made it something of a virtue to wear her underwear into shreds before buying new ones. And wait: we weren’t poor. But the telemarketer didn’t care why I said “one,” or that my next call would be to my therapist for an appointment.
Another reason I’m stymied over the Petco survey is that I can’t be objective. I worked there once for an afternoon, undercover. The local charitable organization that provides dogs and cats to visit and comfort patients confined to hospitals and psych units asked me to volunteer. Specifically, they wanted me to dress up as the Sugar Plum Fairy—a role I invented so that I could accompany my husband at Christmastime when he gets gigs to play Santa Claus. Sugar, as I call her, wears all pink: a hot pink satin formal, a hot pink feather boa, pink glittery heart-shaped glasses like Lolita wore in that movie, and a pink marabou headdress. When I’m Sugar, I’m not an introvert. I am Divine.
The group was holding a fundraiser at Petco just before Valentine’s Day—a kissing contest. I didn’t bother asking about the rules; I just assumed there would be some PDA demonstration between pets and their owners and I’d declare winners—Most Enthusiastic, Most Coy, Best Tongue, something like that. Before the competition one of the store clerks let me into the manager’s office where I could change into Sugar. It was a drab little place. The desk chair wobbled; the file cabinets were dented. The only window was a one-way that permitted surveillance of the register tills. I felt really bad for the person who had to work in there.
Another store clerk, one of the twenty-somethings who had a pierced nostril, had set up a registration table in the aisle near the cat food. Excellent foresight, I thought, since all the contestants were dogs as it happened and wouldn’t be distracted by the inventory. (I notice these things: I used to run events like this for the local McDonald’s restaurant I worked for after Donny and Marie fired me.) Again, though, I hardly need mention that a cat would no sooner participate in a spectacle like this one than declaw him- or herself.
So the stage was set, and that’s when I found out that the contestants would be kissing me. And here is another place I’m disabled: I can’t say no. Well, how could I? The folks from the charitable organization were looking on, beaming actually, and six or eight people lined up with their cute kids and mutts with a phalanx of well-wishers, digital cameras and cell phones at the ready.And most of the dogs were purse-sized and all dressed up themselves for Valentine’s: pink rhinestone-studded neck gaiters and red sequined sweaters and preemie hair ribbons and headbands—looking nervous but game.
My husband has said he’d never let me get a little dog even if I wanted one, and I have César Milan, that charismatic canine guru on the dog whisperer show, to thank for it. Because of the way I treat my cats I’m apparently at risk for “small-dog syndrome,” which is when owners (usually female) infantilize their pets and project baby fever on to them. There are entire websites devoted to this, and a “3-5 minute survey” you can take to assess yourself. In general, the dogs of people with the disorder turn into miniature terrors, jumping all over strangers, spinning in circles, chewing through wardrobes and charging pit bulls. Cats are immune, impervious to the neuroses of their human caretakers, which is why I’m allowed to have them to infantilize and baby.
So maybe I was not the best judge on this account also: I have pre-small-dog syndrome. The first-runner up, the lab, licked my cheek chastely, but the Pekinese with the runny eyes and bad breath, nested in his mother’s arms wearing silver wings just like Cupid, let loose a barrage of smackeroos—on my neck, on my eardrums, directly on the lips—anybody would have given him the blue ribbon if only to make the make-out session stop.
Dog owners can be such sore losers. The woman with the toy poodle who won zippo, looked me up and down after it was over and said in Brooklynese, “What are you?” I smiled as best I could what with the dried dog saliva shellacking my face, but my first instinct was to poke her eye out with my sparkly magic wand and spit, Someone who has better things to do in a day than paint her dog’s toenails fuschia and go to Petco. Fortunately, Sugar is above such pettiness—unlike the real me. But the message was clear: This woman was the kind of individual the clerks at Petco had to deal with all the time and for minimum wage. I went back to the manager’s office and got in my street clothes, leaving behind a lot of glitter and a few dyed turkey feathers.
Our newest cat, Pekoe, was at first glimpse a pair of fleeing hind legs. That was in February, a year ago. I saw him from time to time, left offerings to coax him near. Tried not to get involved—ridiculous. Me, not involved? He kept his distance and so did I—a sure sign of seduction in progress. In May, my husband and I departed for a two-week vacation in Italy to celebrate our twentieth anniversary. The pet sitter, Jennifer, like a sister to me—a goddess-like presence for anything feline with a wicked sense of humor about anything human—reported only one Pekoe sighting while we were gone—but that news upon our return was a called bluff. I was worried about him. I missed him.
And so I phoned the pet psychic everyone had been telling me about.
Julie Morgan looks like the aunt you wished all your life you’d had: everything about her is soft, welcoming, but firm, like a good mattress.
One step over the threshold and she said, “I thought you only had two cats.”
“Right. Just the two, Chauncey and his brother Bruno.”
“There are four cats here,” Julie said. “A…one of them is very playful. Black and white. The other…,” she shrugged and walked over to the super-sized, carpeted cat castle where Bruno was sleeping in the sun. “His stomach hurts,” Julie said. “He’s quite chatty…. He likes playing with the other cat. The blue.” Julie looked at me, worried. “The blue cat? Do you have a Russian blue?”
(Okay, everyone. Listen up. I had a Russian blue once upon a time. My first cat, Cendré, French for ash-colored. He had died in this house of cardiac arrest twenty-five years before this interview, and I had neither spoken of him to recent acquaintances or in any other way disclosed his history—to anyone but my husband whom I hadn’t told about the appointment scheduled with the psychic.)
“Oh, geez,” I said. The other cat, the black and white, Tache, French for freckle, had also died here, peacefully, under my vet’s needle during an emergency house call. Where was she? It was an effort not to reach down and pat the air.
“They like staying around sometimes,” Julie said. “Oh, and Bruno likes, um, this is going to sound weird….”
Weird? Honestly, once you’ve worked the same stage set as an over-the-hill Tom Jones who’s singing “She’s a Lady,” while you’re wearing a purple unitard and ice skates and waving a giant puce feather fan like some Ziegfeld Girl throwback, nothing much fazes you.
“He likes this big black spider thing with the wiggly legs?” Julie said.
(Okay, everyone. When our house was under attack in 2009 from a flicker who burrowed holes in the stucco during mating season, my husband, as a kind of prankish defensive tactic, purchased The Attack Spider on-line. It’s the size of a tarantula. Sound-activated, two double A batteries, it drops on a cord, legs writhing, to scare away pesky birds. After Bruno had a play date with it, we’d stored the thing in a box in the basement for Halloween, seeing as the flicker was more amused than annoyed by its deployment, then had moved to another side of the house and resumed drilling. Ditto, above—nobody else but my husband knew about this either.)
Julie had my attention.
“I need to ask about this stray who’s been coming around,” I said.
“The tan and black cat. He makes Chauncey feel braver. But he has a home… he’s imprisoned. Feels imprisoned. His parents are frustrated by him. Because he wants to roam. And they…want a housecat. He’ll end up with you.”
I have over time developed a remarkably successful triage protocol for strange cats who turn up on my porch wanting to be fed: Number One: I feed them. Number Two: If the cat is wearing a collar, I assume it has a home. Number Three: If the cat persists in stopping by for regular meals and is wearing a collar with a tag, I try to develop trust. That way I can get a look at the tag. Number Four: If the prefix of the phone number on the tag is out of our area, I call the owner. I have reunited two stray cats with owners in this manner. Both times, the cats had somehow hitchhiked out of their neighborhoods and been given up for dead. Number Four A: If the prefix of the phone number is in our area, I still call the owner when the cat seems confused and desperately hungry. I have reunited one cat with its owners under this circumstance. A couple of strikingly handsome gay guys who live a couple of streets down the hill from us went on vacation. The parents of one volunteered to housesit, bringing an obnoxious terrier named Skip along, whom this cat detested. She was a runaway clearly, but not a teen. In fact she was fifteen, 105 in people-years, and so was more like Grizabella in Cats—except screw the memory of her days in the sun. She couldn’t see that well anymore and just wanted to hide in the closet. Number Four B: Sometimes I even call the owner if the cat is local, not confused and desperately hungry, but seems to want to come in and live with us. Syd was one of those. He had become resentful when the new baby was born and decided to decamp. I can’t do anything with cross-species sibling rivalries.
Pekoe’s case was unprecedented: He appeared, sans collar or tag, devoured four cans of whatever Fancy Feast flavor I offered and left. Sometimes he left for weeks. Then he was back, looking quite fit. Slowly we became friends.
Last fall, I purchased the first of several collars and tags for Pekoe. I have discovered that people who let their cats roam at will and mooch off of neighbors get very agitated when a third party lays claim to their felines and call to say so. My sister suggested the name Pekoe—he’s Siamese, a seal point, and the association with the Orient and tea, of course, leaped into her mind with such forcefulness it seemed ordained. Pekoe returned twice with the collar and tag missing, meaning Five A: I was dealing with a pissed-off owner who was protesting via vandalism, or Five B: I was meeting a stray whose survival in an area prone to predation by raccoons, coyotes and even a mountain lion from time to time, involved frequent guerilla-tactic maneuvers and agility. The break-away collars had simply broken away.
Winter set in hard this year; I put up a little pup tent on the porch for Pekoe—which he began using with the kind of gratitude, but dignity, that a war-weary veteran might exhibit. And he continued eating four, then five, cans a day as the weather worsened. (Five C: Pekoe might merely be a stray from a chapter of Overeaters Anonymous.)
One particularly bitter evening, Pekoe left his tent and strolled through the front door, having decided to spend the night. The other two males—Bruno is the alpha and Chauncey, the beta—objected, of course, but he’s half their age and twice as athletic, and has wiles they never dreamed of possessing. He ate his fill and tucked himself in under our bed. The next morning I seized the opportunity to put Pekoe in a carrier and dash to the neighborhood vet to see whether he was microchipped.
Indeed he was; but the person to whom he was registered no longer lived at the phone number I called. An irritated young woman (I suspected to be the girlfriend who replaced Pekoe’s former owner) conferred with some young man in the background (both of them were clearly grumpy from joblessness or from working graveyard—it was ten a.m.) who informed us both that Melissa (hissed through the earpiece) couldn’t afford to keep Pekoe and had surrendered him back to the shelter where she’d adopted him. No, they didn’t know where Melissssssssa was anymore.
After that I couldn’t stay mad at the person who’d abandoned Pekoe, whom I now imagined bereft and in reduced circumstances, working on the west side at the same French fry station where I’d stood after my career in variety-show entertainment was over, but before I’d revived it by becoming Sugar the Purse Dog Paramour.
The representative at the no-kill shelter that had implanted the microchip rooted about in the cyber-records for a day and concluded that Pekoe had fallen off their radar, but that he had been taken in as a kitten, was almost six years old and had once been named Hayden. She wondered whether I was planning to re-adopt Hayden and if so, would require that I sign a contract with stipulations concerning his care. First, he must remain an inside cat for the rest of his days because, didn’t I know, that indoor cats live forty percent longer lives than outdoor cats. Not this cat, I thought. He’ll commit suicide if he never gets another taste of a raw, warm finch breast. What did she think he’d been doing for months on his own? As far as I could tell, based on his substantial heft, agility and ingenuity, becoming a feline version of a Spartan.
I hung up the phone.
“Hayden, eh?” I said to Pekoe.
I thought I saw a shudder.
This past December my husband helped me design some large posters to laminate and position in the area: FOUND. Pekoe’s photograph, our contact info. In our zip code telephone poles are a rarity. I’d never noticed this before, how the relative affluence of a neighborhood can be gauged by such prosaic means. I felt oddly ashamed about my obliviousness, driving around with my posters and my staple gun. Within hours I had a call from a friendly voice a block away whose Siamese, one of a pair of brothers, had disappeared some time ago. Pekoe, though, as we quickly concluded, could not be his and his fianceé’s since theirs hadn’t been chipped. Even so, his girl was grieving greatly and he wished to give Pekoe a try, as long as Pekoe could adapt to living indoors.
I didn’t hear from Mark and Crystal for a week. I was hopeful—and a little too eager, as it turned out, to add Pekoe to my closed-case files.
The house was under renovation. Pekoe had lived for the first two days in the furnace ductwork—until Mark cut him out. Then he’d snaked his way up the fireplace flue and stayed there for a few hours. Finally he’d vaulted seven feet up a wall and disappeared into a hole in the sheet rock, where he’d stayed for the balance of his tenancy. When Mark returned Pekoe, he smelled of soot and looked exceedingly relieved to be home again.
Maybe Julie is clairvoyant. I should let her know.
“Cats choose who they want to live with,” says the perky vet tech who wants to know all about Pekoe as she charts his particulars. “Ohhhh, you’re Bruno’s mom, too!” Kim flips through his section of the file. Ultrasound images of the grossly large benign tumor (removed). Dental x-rays (he’s lost all his teeth now). Lab panels and more ultrasounds of his guts from the last bout with the pancreatitis.
I like Kim. I’d rate her a high ‘5’ for sure if and when my vet runs another one of her phone-in surveys. It’s been a few weeks since Pekoe was returned to us, and he has kept returning to us, spending more time in than out, getting the lay of the house. Still, there are more unknowns than knowns.
“What does he eat?”
“Everything, but he’s been homeless a long time and he has worms.” I’ve brought a couple of the egg sacs I pulled off his butt and put in a vial.
“Ohhhh, passengers!” Kim says, brightening. “How much does he drink?”
“Not much,” I say. (Me, a couple of glasses of wine often, sometimes more when I’m celebrating or really stressed out.) “Is that a problem?” (Only according to that one Puritanical survey on the Internet.)
“Oh, no,” Kim says. “Cats in the wild get most of their moisture from their prey. Do you have kitty fountains? Felines are really drawn to the sound of running water. Means it’s not stagnant—contaminated. Amazon dot com has fountains on sale right now!”
I add another $35 to the open tab: three collars with personalized tags, $45; deluxe pup tent, $90; plush cat bed, $18; another scratching post and platform (we have those two already Pekoe’s brothers claim), $75; re-register his microchip to our contact info, $20; four single-serve cans of pet food daily, $25 week. This vet bill for vaccinations, de-worming and miscellaneous baseline tests: $180.
Yup. It’s adoption day, all right.
According to T. S. Eliot, I’ll be coming up with a second, unique name for Pekoe soon. And, of course, there’s that third name “that you never will guess;/ The name that no human research can discover—/But THE CAT HIMSELF KNOWS, and will never confess.”
I don’t think cats choose who they want to live with; I think cats know who they are and then choose to live with people who agree.
And no survey will be necessary to prove that. Ever.