This is a Dead Cat Story

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The author and Roogie, in former times.

The author and Roogie, in former times.

I was raised by cat-hating folk. We had goldfish, parakeets, guinea pigs, rabbits, hamsters, dogs, and the turtle I accidentally boiled to death when I made the water too hot for his evening bath. I even remember an exhilarating few days spent caring for a nest of hungry baby birds. I fed them water with an eyedropper. My mother tolerated this activity, in spite of its futility. When we woke up one morning to find all the little birds dead, their mouths frozen in gaping, pink “feed me!” shapes, no one was surprised. I mention this only to illustrate that my family was not anti-pet, just anti-cat.

When I went to the houses of my cat-owning friends, I viewed their pets with both suspicion and curiosity. My friends assured me that their cats were “friendly” and “loving” but I had yet to see any concrete evidence of this. Compared to my dog, a good-natured mutt who welcomed tight hugs and mandatory tea party participation with the same wagging tail and eager eyes, cats were ice queens. I remember them as blurs of fur, racing under beds and couches at the first approach of little girl feet.

I remained staunchly anti-cat until my early twenties, when I moved to Pittsburgh to attend graduate school. There I befriended a woman who was an avid collector of exotic pets: a gecko, a water dragon, a giant German Shepherd (which is different from a non-giant German Shepherd), two cats, a flying squirrel (who tragically drowned in a toilet), a variety of hamsters and rats, and a skunk that was known to walk about the neighborhood in small straw hats and gingham dresses.

Coral with Fonzie at Ohio Skunkfest

Coral with Fonzie at Ohio Skunkfest

When Coral spent a few weeks in California one summer, I was tasked with caring for one of her cats, a large black and white male named Roogie. In spite of being raised by a bunch of cat-haters, I found the experience rewarding. Roogie was friendly and warm. He solicited my affection and never hid under my bed. I surprised myself by feeling a little sad, even reluctant, to return him at the end of Coral’s trip.

A photo I took of Roogie when he came to visit with me for 2 weeks in the summer of 2000.

A photo I took of Roogie when he came to visit with me for 2 weeks in the summer of 2000.

Therefore, several years later, when Coral’s wild kingdom was at capacity, she began urging me to adopt Roogie. I refused, reminding her, “I’m not a cat person!” Then one evening, during a particularly heated game of Trivial Pursuit, Coral wagered the cat. I don’t remember what I wagered but it was clear to me that whether I won or lost that game, the result would be the same: I was going home with a cat tucked under my arm. And so I did.

Coral first acquired Roogie in 2000 while volunteering at the West Penn Wildlife Rehabilitation Shelter. For a brief period of time, while the Animal Rescue League was renovating its facility, they sent several cats and dogs, including the star of this story, Roogie, to the wildlife shelter. Whenever Coral walked past Roogie’s cage he would reach out a paw and try to touch her. When Coral inquired about him, a shelter employee told her that he had been saved from euthanization once before and that he was scheduled to die soon if someone didn’t adopt him. She convinced Coral to take Roogie home (ironic, given that Coral chose to work at the wildlife shelter precisely so she wouldn’t be tempted to adopt any of the animals).

When adopting an adult pet, its previous life is a series of gaps and mysteries that will never be solved. All Coral knew about Roogie was that he was relatively young, he had been declawed by someone (his first owners?) and his back legs looked like they had been broken and then healed at odd angles. In this way, his body told us the story of his former life, one filled with violence and abandonment.

***

Upon arriving at my home, Roogie demanded the outdoors. Remembering Coral’s advice — that he was a cat of the streets — I let him out. He promptly disappeared for two days. After that harrowing experience I put Roogie on cat house arrest. When people entered or exited our home they had to step around a mewing lump that was using all of his strength to propel his wiry body through that open door. Our house had become the set of The Great Escape and we were the Hannes Messemer to his Steve McQueen. After 6 months of this, we agreed the situation was untenable. The cat must go free.

We soon fell into a comfortable routine. He meowed at the door, we let him out. A few hours later I would call his name into the night air and he’d return. Just like a dog! Roogie was so domesticated that he would accompany us when we took our dog for a walk. Passersby would stop and marvel at the black and white cat who walked alongside his canine companion. We could not take pride in these cat tricks, of course, because we had taught him nothing. In fact, to call Roogie our “pet cat” would be to misrepresent our relationship. We preferred to think of him as a roommate who happened to enjoy long belly rubs.

One day I saw Roogie in the backyard, batting around a toy. I didn’t know that he even liked to play with toys, so I went outside to investigate. The toy turned out to be a mouse’s head, still bloody along its ragged edges. Another day my husband watched as Roogie leapt into the air and snatched a bird, mid-flight, in his jaws. In these moments it seemed we were getting a glimpse into the life he led before arriving at the animal shelter. What else had he killed? And where were the bodies? This made me only a little afraid of him.

It bears repeating that Roogie was declawed because, in addition to decapitating mice and plucking birds out of the sky, he was able to take on the neighborhood strays and remain, miraculously, scratch free. He was clearly Top Cat. The others — some strays, some “indoor-outdoor” like Roogie — would congregate around our front stoop, looking up expectantly each time we left the house. I imagined them talking amongst themselves: “Is it him? Quick boys, look alive!”

Roogie’s best friend was a ratty looking stray we named Riff Raff, after the Heathcliff cartoon. Riff Raff was always hanging around our stoop and yard, like the kid whose parents don’t want him around and so he always ends up at your house, playing with your kid, eating your food. We never let Riff Raff into the house.

Riff Raff is the baller in the blue scarf. Image courtesy of tvtropes.com

Riff Raff is the baller in the blue scarf.
Image courtesy of tvtropes.com

One evening, while we were watching TV, we heard angry cat noises emanating from the road in front of our house. When I stepped outside I saw two cats perched on their hind legs, swatting at each other with their front claws. It was a catfight. But what surprised me about this scene is that Roogie was lying on his stoop, paws crossed, observing it all with amused detachment. Riff Raff was there too, but hiding in the shadows.

“My God,” my boyfriend exclaimed, “they’re fighting for him!”

“What?”

“They’re trying to impress him.”

See what I mean? Top. Cat.

***

One frigid March evening, I stood at my door calling for Roogie to come inside. But Roogie didn’t come. He didn’t show up the next morning either. I had to catch a flight to New York City that day so I asked a friend in the neighborhood to come to the house and call for him now and then. I was sure he’d come back at some point during my three-day absence — it was a Pittsburgh winter and he would surely freeze to death without any shelter.

But when I returned home from my trip, Roogie had still not turned up. I called my boyfriend, who was out of town at the time, and he was characteristically blunt: “Might as well face it — he’s dead.” I knew it too. But I decided to take one last walk around my neighborhood anyway, just in case I was missing something. I brought my dog along, imagining our combined scents as a cartoon-like cloud snaking its way through the back alleys of my neighborhood towards Roogie’s hidey hole until, at last locating him, it would slowly guide him back to us. This did not happen.

Defeated, I headed home. But before going inside I looked across the street and noticed Riff Raff sitting on the front porch steps of neighbors I did not know. He was looking at me. “Have you seen Roogie?”I asked. Sure, it’s crazy to ask a cat where another cat is but know what’s crazier? I got an answer. “Meow!” was the response, not from Riff Raff, but from concrete steps on which I was standing. “Roogie?” I asked, tentatively. “Meow! Meow! Meow!”

That meow began to move from the steps to the side of the house. I followed, screaming like a crazy cat lady (because what was I at that point if not a crazy cat lady?), until I found myself standing in front of a basement door. The door was locked but also very warped, allowing a one-inch crack between it and the wall. Suddenly, a sooty white paw shot through the crack, reaching out for my hand. I felt like I had inadvertently stumbled into the grisly climax of a slasher film, only with cats.

Long story short — the neighbors had been doing construction on their basement and Roogie must have slipped inside while the doors were open. They completed the job, locked everything up, and hadn’t been down there again in days. Imagine their surprise then when a hysterical, puffy-faced young woman showed up on their porch, accusing them of locking her cat in their basement.

My friend, Griffin, posted this photo to my FB page after I published this story. Seems like it belongs in the story too, then.

My friend, Griffin, posted this photo to my FB page after I published this story. Seems like it belongs in the story too, then.

***

A few years later my husband and I moved to North Carolina with our one year old daughter. We had only been living in our new city for five days when my husband shook me awake at 2 am. “Roogie’s dead” he informed me. Just like that.

It seemed anticlimactic that Roogie survived abandonment by his first family, territorial disputes with a Giant German Shepherd, a winter abduction, and God only knows what else on the streets of Pittsburgh, only to die in Greenville, this shitty little Southern town. He was hit by a car and died instantly. When I held him on the back porch, breathing in the humid July air, his body was still warm. I was sure this inexplicable death was a harbinger of doom, like when the walls in a haunted house start bleeding and a disembodied voice tells those meddling kids to “GET! OUT!” I thought his death meant something. But of course it didn’t. Cats die all the time.

***

Like I said before, I was raised by cat-hating folk. But they made an exception for Roogie. They marveled at the way he solicited their affection by pressing the weight of his silky head against the palms of their hands. “Look at that — he’s just like a dog!” they’d exclaim. And when he’d do anything remotely catlike they were even more impressed, simply because they’d never spent any time with cats before:

“Look at that! He hopped up on the counter! How’d he do that?”

“He’s a cat,” I’d explain.

Roogie has been gone for six years yet my mom still mourns his untimely end. Her lamentations are usually provoked by the presence of our other cat, who she refers to, derisively, as “That Cat”. When That Cat enters the room, demanding our affections with far less finesse than his dead brother did, she wrinkles her nose. “Roogie’s the only cat I ever loved,” she says, as she picks him up and strokes his head, “and you’re no Roogie.” As she tells him this That Cat just buries his head deeper into the crook of her arm. He doesn’t know that she hates cats.

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1 Comment

  1. Pingback: Survival (Part 2) | Tell Us a Story

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