Nugget T(he) Cat, our beloved friend and porch dweller of nearly five months, died early this afternoon in South Austin. The proximate cause was euthanasia, although the precipitating event was likely an unfortunate encounter with an automobile.
Nugget (a name she would acquire later) appeared around Halloween last year, yowling and preening like David Lee Roth on a rock wall at the back of our property. On the eve of the third consecutive such performance, it became clear: hers was not an entreaty so much as a demand for me to reach across species boundaries and Do The Right Thing. “I know you have a rat problem you’re ashamed to talk about (true). I also know there’s tuna in that pantry,” she harangued across the driveway with the self-assuredness of Stephen Douglas, “and that you don’t even like tuna. Give it up.” And holy cow, the volume! Hang Nugget’s voice-to-weight ratio on the German Shepherd down the street, and reports of a stray velociraptor would flood 911.
Give it up I did, despite my wife Julie’s puzzled expression which reflected her familiarity with my checkered history of feline relations. I am first of all horribly allergic to cat dander, as I demonstrated most luridly in a near-death experience on the couch of a business school friend about whom I had been thinking impure thoughts for some time. Just as I thought I might get my wish, I instead became The Elephant Man inside about four minutes, and the swish of a gray (Siamese?) tail was my last visual before my eyes swelled completely shut. Although there were countless instances over the years when I didn’t get the girl, this was the only time I can remember that I had a solid medical excuse.
Cats also figured in the two long-term relationships that preceded my meeting Julie. The fact that I can’t remember either feline’s name is revealing testament to the prickliness of our relationships. Cat A, who lived with the parents of my high school and college girlfriend, despised me with an unfettered sort of glee. Even though the guy for whom Girlfriend A dumped me after six years was better looking, richer, and nicer, to this day I can still see Cat A’s evil paw in the breakup. Cat B was more passive aggressive in her disdain for me, and it was Girlfriend B’s academic overachievement rather than a hunky new beau that took her elsewhere. But still, when Cat B was carried off by a coyote from the small horse farm Girlfriend B had always wanted, I couldn’t help but think the cat and the coyote deserved each other.
Blessedly, my wife was and is a dog person. Our first big commitment to one another (well, other than moving in together after three months of dating) was to procure our blessed Labrador Hattie from a breeder who met us in the parking lot of the Dairy Queen in Buffalo, Texas. Hattie will be 13 in May, which tops Julie’s and my married life by 22 months. During those 22 months we replaced and fully rehabbed both of Ms. Labrador’s hips (we will meet our next breeder on his own turf or at least not under a DQ sign), and took turns carrying her downstairs to perform her bodily functions. I gradually took on more of that duty as our “puppy” approached her full weight of 75 pounds. Hattie nears her big day in May with another hip surgery, innumerable gastric episodes (“you see the large rock on the upper left of the stomach x-ray”), at least a couple of strokes, a few benign tumors, and all manners of arthritis in her ever thickening veterinary file.
Which brings us back to Nugget T. After a week or so it struck me that although she couldn’t still be hungry, she was still howling as if walking across hot coals. Perhaps she was a feline Tony Robbins, but probably not–there was no camera crew on the west wall. “Of course,” I thought. “The damn cat is in heat.” All we needed was a baket full of kittens to raise hives on my forearms if they even lookded at me. So, our intrepid assistant Nanette found a volunteer from the local Humane Society who, over a three-night stretch, enticed Nugget into a cage and transported her on a family planning errand.
Apparently, the cage goes into a sort of gas chamber, wherein the cat is rendered unconscious and the routine surgery can be performed. Except that once Nugget was anesthetized, the officiating doctor sagaciously noted that she was already spayed. Not one to waste good gas, the Doc placed a microchip in Nugget’s ear identifying her as ours. So in two weeks’ time, we had begun harboring someone else’s cat; we then kidnapped, gassed, and electronically branded her. Were Austin the Old West and Nugget a horse, WANTED posters with our pictures would have appeared in every saloon on 6th Street.
With Nugget now back on the porch (if moving both more gingerly and skeptically), Hattie regarded the buildup of cat paraphanalia with disdain but no malevolence. The appearance of the various cat-themed dishes and toys, the heated kitty pad, and finally the custom-built condo pissed Hattie off less than it seemed to give her something new to live for, in a “hey you kid, get off my lawn!” sort of way.
Nugget, for her part, accorded exactly no deference to the dog 10x her size. And Hattie’s difficulty in seeing and hearing the cat contributed less to Nugget’s insouciance than to my growing sense of Labrador Mortality Dread. It wasn’t that Hattie wouldn’t occasionally bark (“f-ing cat!!” was all I could imagine she said, again and again). It was that the light had to be just right, and the cat perfectly still. Preferably, sleeping.
But the real story was how my heart–hard-boiled by feline treacheries long past–seemed completely defenseless in the face of Nugget’s late evening flirts and pre-dawn recitations of her breakfast demands. It was especially in the morning when I realized there was something vicarious in my regard for her. Would she be somnolent and lazy, or all fizzed up when I went downstairs? What story was she telling about last night’s activities (the two times I was rewarded with a fractional rodent carcass cleared up any such mystery for the moment). Would Commander–the orange and white tom twice her size–be bedded down in the potted lugustrum, waiting to share breakfast but quite clear on who ruled this particular roost?
Having judged whether this was a leisurely meal for two or a no-nonsense start to the day of a single girl in the city, I would scoop up the cat chow and signal the beginning of Porch Cat Kabuki. She would strut away when I opened the door, then circle back ever-so-disinterestedly. I would sit on the step; she would arch her back and–eventually–rub her forehead on my shins and forearms, purring like the trolling motor on the aft end of a one-man fishing dinghy. Having discharged the scoop, I would then scrub a couple layers of skin each from my shins and forearms. I only had to fail at this task once–but it was clear that the fault was mine.
Then last week, we had a big, glitzy party at the house for a local non-profit. Lots of our friends were there, along with some pretty people we didn’t know, and even a few fading and B-list movie types staging stoned, stealthy raids on the garage to eat handfuls of meatballs with the caterers. We had a big noisy time, judged successful by the overflow of the recycling bins. And it didn’t surprise us that our porch princess took her leave. If I’d never heard of Brendan Fraser, I’m sure Nugget hadn’t either.
But she didn’t come back for four nights, and when she did it was clear that something was terribly wrong. I tried to rationalize her condition away, but when I woke up on Sunday, Julie had already vanished to the 24/7 vet with the patient. My wonderful and red-eyed wife came back, my new friend didn’t, and that was that.
Except of course it wasn’t. I couldn’t help thinking that somehow it was all my fault. I was the one with the allergy. I was the one who wanted to have the party. I like parties. But I couldn’t get over feeling that I had traded a night of glitz for the seven pounds of fur and sinew which had moved me and lifted my spirits in a way I obviously can’t describe.
Maybe it was her vulnerability that drew me to her. It was profoundly gratifying to see her every morning, to know that she still needed us, or at least pretended to, and that her silly condo was keeping the rain off the brindle coat that got shinier as she got fatter. Maybe it was my pride in finding another gear, near slavish service to an animal I wouldn’t have been capable of loving 15 years ago. And, make no mistake: this was love.
“Maybe,” I said to Julie from out of my funk, “we should go to the shelter and get another cat.” But she’s right. We don’t want another cat–didn’t want this one. But sometimes it’s not really our choice. And sometimes, occasionally if we’re really lucky–we can get out of our own way long enough to figure that out.