Midway through the journey of my life, I found myself within a dark wood, where the straight path had been lost. So I got a cat.
Abbie I met at the Sacramento SPCA. I’d never had a cat, but after my girlfriend left I went to the pound. I needed something more elemental, I told myself. In school, I’d often wished I could go back a grade and try again instead of just pretending I’d learned it all.
I saw this cat in the cage, beautiful pearl gray, with golden, hate-filled eyes. She was huddled in a corner, a vicious, hissing, spitting thing, like a soul frying in hell. “I’ll take that one,” I said.
I’d never heard of a fighting cat, but that’s what the keeper told me. A professional, so to speak: trained to be tossed into rings to fight cats, dogs, raccoons. Its front feet had been declawed, apparently to make the fights last longer. Hopefully her owner too had been declawed and tossed in the slammer. “Well she’s yours if you want her. But just fair warning that she’s a vicious little thing. Two other people brought her back. She will absolutely not be touched, so if you want a cat to crouch in the corner and hiss at you, that’s your cat. Sometimes people think if they show enough affection, tada! But frankly, the only human she trusts is the guy who made her like that.”
“No, I understand.” I guess I did understood her eyes, the huddle, the rage. As a kid it’s what I felt when my dad came into the room, and I could trust the swat of his belt. But I thought, well, love can do wonders. Which had never quite worked for me in other relationships, but…
“But she’s something else, so if you bring her back she’s going to be put down.”
For three months I couldn’t touch the cat. Those hind feet still had claws. Every time I’d go to work she’d try to slip out the door. Then I’d come home, crack open the door, we’d lock eyes, then she’d wad back into her corner. It wasn’t what I needed at that point in history. There were times I felt, okay, she can have the apartment, I’ll sleep in the car. But I kept thinking be patient. We shall overcome.
I called her Abbie. Miss Abbie had been my kindergarten teacher, this little round lady, the first truly kind human being I’d ever known. I thought maybe there’s magic in a name. I gave her sardines, tried to make her understand I wasn’t like those other guys, that despite my abusive childhood and suicidal tendencies, I had a beautiful heart. She was unresponsive to beautiful hearts.
Abbie didn’t help my sex life. There was some conversational value to start with, how I found her and what a sweet generous soul I was for saving her from death, but that wore thin. I acquired another girlfriend, Beth, and lost her fast. “I mean, Michael, one wonders, why would you have a cat that you can’t even pet? What is that about? Frankly, I have had it with co-dependent relationships, okay?”
One night I was having weird dreams. I woke up, moonlight from the street, and Abbie was crouched on the night stand, staring at me with those deep, deep yellow eyes. When do I rip out his throat? I thought, go ahead, stare at me, I hurt too, you little bitch. She padded off to the closet. It scared the hell out of me.
My friends gave me advice. Jasper was the worst: “Michael, buddy, that cat— This is our political disagreement, microcosm, macrocosm, okay? This is the War on Terror, buddy. Feed those ragheads sardines and make’em love you? No! The one thing they understand is a fist. America has got to go over there, say, ‘We are the boss of the world, guys, get used to it!’ Crack down and she’ll be eating out of your hand. Just bitch-slap that cat!”
My mom, we’d gotten closer in recent years after Dad died off: “You still have that cat? I think you’d be happier with a dog. You’re always telling me how stand-offish that cat is, that isn’t natural, there’s something wrong with that cat—”
“Yeh, I know—”
“Well, I’m not telling you what to do, this is just your old mom talking, but you really used to like dogs, remember Lady Bug, you really loved Lady Bug. You ought to get a dog…”
Twice I decided to take her back to the pound. Once, for the purpose, I even rented a carrier. But then I would start imagining she was me. I’d start hearing, “Little bastard, stop crying, smack him!” And for me, commitment was commitment, even in relationships where this feeling was not mutually shared. You don’t take your girlfriend back to the girlfriend shelter and say, “I can’t deal with her. Gas her.”
Then one day Abbie got out. My place got burgled, and Abbie got out the door. I came home from work, she’d been hit by a car, she was lying on the porch. Her back paws dangled over the step, her back was a bloody mess, she was breathing hard. I touched her. She let me touch her.
I ran, got a cardboard box, and scooped her into it. Took her to the vet, who said, “You’ve got a pretty mangled cat. I can try to fix her, but it’s gonna cost a lot of money and she probably won’t live.” I told him to go ahead, please try.
Because… What I had seen was the line of blood up from the street. She’d been hit in the street, crawled up over the curb, across the yard, the flower bed, gravel, then up two steps to the porch. Thirty feet. She’d crawled thirty feet, back to the guy she hated. Where she knew there was help.
Shortly after the accident, my friend Jasper called, left a message: “Michael, my man, wonder if you’d like to go to Fugazi tonight, Tin Hat Trio is playing, so give me a call. Bee-beep.”
I called him back, got his voice mail: “Jasper, hi. I’d love to, but Abbie got hit by a car and she’s pretty bad. I’m just gonna have to be with her, so I’ll be talking to you.”
Beep. Voice mail. Jasper: “Michael, my God, is there anything I can do? Jeez, I’m sorry for asking, but Abbie, is that your cousin I met at Thanksgiving? I’m really really sorry, buddy, but just, you know, I’m sorry, man, but just hang in there, okay? Bye.”
Beep. “Jasper, Michael. No, look, to put things in perspective, Abbie is my cat, you know the one I got at the pound? Where we differed on the politics? So no, she’s not my cousin, although she’s… Talk to you later. Thanks.”
For two months, twenty-four/seven, my life was Abbie. I was very lonely at the time. I made up a box, and we spent almost every minute together. When I went to the store, Abbie’s box went along. I’d been laid off and was working for a small business out of a private home, so her box was by my chair. I used to play Pink Floyd while I sat at the computer, one hand dangling into the box to scratch her ears. She loved Pink Floyd. “Okay, here, want some water? No, the beer’s for me, the water’s for you.” I fed her with a bottle and wiped her butt with baby wipes.
And I talked to her, told her my life history, my modest aspirations, my problematic relationships—the first time in my life that I was totally honest with another living creature. Sometimes I could hear her in my head. Of course I never told anyone. They’d think, “Hm, he hears his cat.”
One day she started to purr. When she was able to come out of the box, with this really weird limp, she never hurt me again. And I never, ever felt alone.
New job, and I moved from Sacramento up to Portland. I met Samantha, and we’ve been together now for a while. Abbie did come to tolerate Samantha, despite the issue of who slept in the bed. Sometimes I actually asked myself who did I love more, Abbie or Samantha? But I thought, what does that mean, to love more? Love, there’s enough to go around. The more you have, the more you have. And I would never have believed that, ever, before.
But cats don’t live forever.
Five years. Natural causes. Abbie got weak, got worse, died. And of course to the rest of the world it was just a cat. Checkout line, the clerk says, “How you doin’ today?” “My cat died.” “Oh that’s a shame. I had a parakeet, parakeets are nice. Got out of his cage and I got three cats, so he didn’t last long. Try a parakeet. Have a nice day.”
I thought what if I said my wife had just died of breast cancer. “Oh, too bad, try a parakeet.”
At least Samantha knew better. She just hugged me. But that was Easter week, and she had a ticket back to Omaha to visit her parents, so of course she had to go. I said, “Hey, it’s Easter, maybe Abbie will rise from the dead.” I thought that was kinda funny, in fact, but neither of us laughed.
So I was in Portland, feeling pretty messed up. The Oregon clouds rolled in. I looked in the mirror and saw those old familiar hangdog eyes staring back at me and winking bye-bye. But I survived that very long night. Next morning I called in sick, then bought a plane ticket, a very expensive same-day ticket, and flew down to Sacramento.
I called Jasper, knowing he’d probably say something stupid, but that’s what our friendship was all about, so—
“Yeh, I’m in town. Abbie died. My cat. Don’t laugh.”
“Who’s laughing? I’m sorry, man. Hey, my brother died once. I mean, once is enough.” Jasper’s politics were only skin-deep. They didn’t curdle his heart.
“Can you give me a lift? I gotta do something.”
He picked me up at the airport and drove me out to the street where I’d lived. Where Abbie was hit. He stopped, I got out of the car. It was a quiet street, resurfaced now, but over across from the fireplug I imagined the line of blood.
The Via Dolorosa. I don’t think Abbie was remotely Christian, nor was I, but that’s what came to mind from some lost Sunday School moment when they talked about “Suffer the little children…” and I thought they meant me. That was my journey now.
Walk that route. Thirty feet, with your rear end smashed. And at some point it dawned on that little cat brain, I trust him.
I went to the edge of the curb where she’d been hit. Then slowly I walked that thirty feet with my colossal legs and my mangled spine. Crost the white dividing line. Over the curb. Patch of grass. Gravel. Flower bed. Up two steps, up, up to the edge of the porch. Inch by inch. Crawling home.
Then I thought what if the door opens and some guy says, “What’s going on?” So I went back to the car, thanked Jasper, and we went out for a beer.
Right now, I’m sitting by a stream that runs along the edge of our yard. I sit here a lot. The water flows through rocks, eddies, then flows on. Salmon swim here, upstream to their spawning grounds. Then you see them desiccate—bloated bodies bumping the rock, and the stink of death on the breeze. And the water flows. A few minutes ago, so weird, I took a pinch of Abbie’s ashes, mixed it with chamomile tea, and drank it. Do this in remembrance of me. Jasper would say I’m totally nuts, but that’s no news.
Samantha’s living here now, so it’s easier. But I’ve had a period of unemployment, and I get into a mood. I see my eyes in the mirror. Then I think come on, dummy, come on. Up over the curb, patch of grass, gravel, flower bed, up two steps to the porch, up, up. Where there’s trust. Where it’s home.
(Published in The Cobalt Review)