“Alaina, do you like cats?” I feel like someone asks me this every week, and the only reason she’s pretending to give a crap about whether or not I like cats is because she has a vague notion of my affinity for animals, and she’s hoping this means that my apartment is the place she can unload her problem cat.
There’s always a perfectly good reason. My new roommate is allergic. My old cat doesn’t like my new cat. My kid is moving back home but I don’t want his cat. And for all the people who are trying to foist their cat on others, there are just as many putting up posters with grainy photos of missing cats. To the former: Why would I take your cat when I could open a can of tuna in any alley in Philadelphia and take my pick of feline ragamuffins? To the latter: Try to get over it. Your cat is probably much happier hunting rats and slinking through the night than it was yowling at robins through your windows and grinding its Meow Mix on your kitchen floor. Besides, I know at least three people this week alone who have a question to ask you.
“Do you like cats?”
This is a picture of me leaving the room.
Of course there is a history here. It began on a family outing to a local farm when I was about seven years old. We spotted a litter of barn kitties Free to Good Homes, and even Dad agreed that the little calico one was cute. We stopped at the pet store on the way home for bowls and cat food and a litter box. Once home, there was some debate over the name. Mom suggested “Marilyn” because the kitten had a perfect beauty spot on her muzzle. But “Pumpkin” won out. This was shortly before Halloween, and this exciting fact combined with the kitten’s gingery orange patches must have driven everything else out of mine and my brother’s minds. We were a family devoted to dogs, and I was awed to suddenly be in possession of a cat.
A young cat in the house was fun. We chased each other under the furniture, Pumpkin’s back arching like an inchworm in hyper-drive. She joined our matronly chocolate lab in an almost supernatural sensitivity to the can opener. She enlivened sleepy midnight trips to the bathroom with the glint of her spooky green eyes. At Christmastime, we filled her stocking along with the dogs’. And one time, she climbed gingerly into my lap and fell asleep.
But as time went on, a palpable coolness grew between me and Pumpkin. Exactly what the family had gotten itself into became painfully clear several years after Pumpkin’s arrival, when we attended an intimate birthday party thrown by close friends for a cat, who at 21 was older than many of his well-wishers.
Though it now seemed likely that her own tenure would continue for another decade at least, our own Pumpkin was responsible for a series of household deaths (not limited to tasty plants). She knocked the lid off of my betta fish’s tank and scooped him up like an oyster. My mother found the fins and broke the news to me after school. In the dead of night, Pumpkin pushed our pet tarantula’s terrarium off the top of the refrigerator, where it was placed precisely to foil her molestations. The hairy little body was curled among the wreckage – tarantulas can’t abide the force of impact. Of course, not all her killings were mourned – she was an accomplished mouser (and voler and moler). We proudly videotaped the first mouse she ever caught, Dad confiscating the body and dangling it by the tail in front of the lens. But Pumpkin’s work was not done – the mouse climbed up its own tail, paw over paw, to bite my father’s thumb. “NYAH-AAA-AHH!” he bellowed, and Pumpkin caught the mouse as if it were an MVP’s grand slam.
I suppose, to be fair, she did bring her share of life before she was spayed. Following her discovery in flagrante delicto with a scruffy stranger outside the tractor shed, she brought forth five kittens.
The distance between Pumpkin and I grew as I got a golden retriever puppy at age nine, and it made sense that my brother, who had always enjoyed more of her favors, began to insist uncontested to all concerned that the cat was his. His bed was the one she chose to nap on, and her affection was worth bragging about, since she was terrified of anyone outside of the immediate family. In fact, the arrival of a new puppy a few years later marked the first of two times Pumpkin got lost. She was known to flee at times like this. But this time a day passed, and then another, and there was no sign of her. It is perhaps not to our credit that on the very day she disappeared, my parents had thought to hide a hole in the wall by sliding a bureau in front of it. I think it was Dad who first heard the faint meowing, not from beyond the grave, but from beyond the drywall.
It is, again, perhaps not to our credit that Pumpkin’s second disappearance coincided with the installation of a Jacuzzi bathtub which required a temporary opening in the bathroom wall. A few days after the workman sealed up the finished job, it was Dad who heard the muffled thumping behind the tub. Pumpkin was back from the dead again – whiskers full of plaster – as soon as the plumber could re-open the maintenance hatch.
Dad, whose keen perception had rescued Pumpie twice over, was perhaps the member of the family who (due to the same acute senses which had saved her) profited least from Pumpkin’s resurrections.
There was the scraping, for one. Pumpkin had a high-quality enclosed litter box, and as she got older, she developed an obsession with the movement of litter. Ten-minute bouts of scraping after each session in the box evolved into a rhythmic, purposeful, claws-bared treatment – not only of the litter and the plastic walls, but also, inexplicably, the ceiling of the cat box – which could be heard in every room of the house.
Just as she puzzled us with her toilet habits, Pumpkin’s nocturnal comings and goings were as inscrutable as they were insistent. I never knew what she wanted when she scratched on my door in the middle of the night, but as soon as I let her in to get some peace, she scratched to get out. I began leaving my door cracked overnight to thwart her disturbances, but then she sidled silently in, jumped up on the bed, and woke me up by biting my nose.
In her later years, she became subject to bouts of vomiting which flummoxed the vet. Her appetite and quality of life seemed undiminished, but ours certainly was compromised. Among her favorite gambits was finding the boundary between tile and carpet, and then throwing up on the carpet by a mere two or three inches. She also had a penchant for depositing her wares directly in the path of my father’s first barefoot foray downstairs in the morning.
When my brother got his first apartment, my parents offered him an amount of money that they are not comfortable disclosing on the internet to make Pumpiekins his first roommate. By this point, Pumpkin had ceased to be a fixture in my life many years since – I left home at a young age and she was the one I missed the least.
But shortly before her well-funded departure with the one who had always loved her best, her last gesture to me would occur on a night when Mom confessed to have accidently shut Pumpkin into my old room overnight. Despite multiple rounds with the Shop-Vac, disinfectant, Lysol fragrance and the application of a heavy throw-rug to the bomb site, the lingering odor drove me from the room when I returned for a visit. And so it was that several months later, when I spent the night before my wedding in my childhood bedroom, Pumpkin’s faint ghost still nipped at my nose. I’m still convinced that it wasn’t my marriage which cut my ties to my old room. It was that cat in her final act of defecatory defiance.
The last time I ever saw Pumpkin, she was almost old enough to buy cigarettes. We met politely in my brother’s apartment, like former roommates who had discarded each others’ numbers as soon as the lease was up.
Could things have been different for me if it hadn’t been Pumpkin whom Mom brought out of the barn? People who won’t accept that I don’t care for cats say that I haven’t had the right one. Sometimes I wonder if they’re right. But I never wonder enough to consider taking your extra cat.