by Dante Staciokas
It’s been said that there are only two sorts of people in this world; you are either a dog person or a cat person. People who don’t happen to like either, well - they can’t honestly be counted as being real people.
Earnest Hemmingway was a cat person, a true kitty connoisseur. Now and then he traveled to Africa where he would occasionally hunt down big ones, and then have their heads stuffed and mounted on the walls of his writing studio in Key West. He was also known to have raised some rare domesticated cats whose six-toed descendants can still be found residing on the grounds around his celebrated island home. I imagine they spend their semi-tropical lives loafing about the property, leaving strange looking, six-toed paw prints on the hoods of the tourist’s parked cars.
My wife, Stephanie, and I once lived next door to woman who was even crazier about cats than Papa Hemmingway ever was. This lady loved them all; big cats, little kitties, stray cats and feral cats - felines of every size and color. At one point there were seventeen of them roaming in and around her property. It seemed like every time I came home after a few weeks on the road there was a new kitty in town. All the kids in the neighborhood called her the, ‘Cat Woman”. I swear this is true . . . her name was Catherine. So, naturally, everyone called her “Cat” for short.
I hadn’t known very many cat people before I met Catherine, but it’s fair to say that she was preoccupied with them. Though I come from a long line of dog lovers, I didn’t mind really. It certainly made wondering what to get her for Christmas or birthdays a very simple undertaking.
That first Christmas my wife and I - in a lame attempt, I suppose, to impress upon her that we weren’t cheapskates - got her a rather pricey cat statue. It was almost three feet tall and closely resembled the sort of regal looking animals like you might see in a National Geographic pictorial of an Egyptian tomb; a little creepy looking if you ask me, but Catherine absolutely adored it. She loved it so much that the thing eventually ended up standing guard at the foot of her bed. Her husband, Charlie, was not as fond of it as she was, but knew better than to balk. A couple of years later while sitting by his swimming pool, he happened to mention it to me over a few drinks. He said he kept bumping into the damn thing in the dark. I didn’t quite know what to say so I just laughed. Sorry Charlie… it was only a gift.
The next Christmas Steph and I got Catherine a couple of really tacky, kitty-pillows along with one of those kitschy cat clocks with the weird eyes and a tail that swung back and forth, and a feline calendar, just to remind her in case she ever forgot - that in her world, every day was a cat day.
By the time Christmas number three rolled around, Stephanie and I felt like we wanted get her a something a little different. Of course, the gift would still need to remain germane to Catherine’s love of cats. It would have felt rather odd to have gotten her a music CD or a kitchen appliance, but the problem was she already owned nearly every type of kitty cat kit-and-caboodle on the planet. We scoured the stores for something different. In the end, we settled on a cat book. Not just any cat book, mind you, but one insightfully entitled, “101 Uses for Dead Cats”. I knew she didn’t have a copy of that.
My wife’s initial reaction when I picked it up off the bookrack was, “Oh Dante, I don’t know . . ." My first thought was, it was the most hilarious book I’d ever seen. It was a tongue and cheek paperback cartoon book featuring the kind of offbeat humor the clever Gary Larson cartoons used to embody.
For example, on one of the pages was a cute caricature of a couple of unfortunate kitties in a severe state of rigor mortis, ingeniously salvaged as a pair of brand new furry bedroom slippers. Another cartoon showed a row of deceased felines with curled tails believably reincarnated as a coat rack, and so on. There were 99 other great variations on the theme. It was never my intention to be cruel minded. I just thought it was a funny and brilliant gift.
Understanding that Catherine might be a little sensitive to the nature of the humor upon presenting her the book, I attempted to qualify my intentions by saying, “Don’t worry Catherine. Cats have 9 lives anyway.”
It didn’t work.
What I hadn’t realized, and what my wife neglected to tell me then was, that while I was away, one of Catherine’s cats had died. It wasn’t very long after that when I got the sense that our relationship as neighbors began to take on the aroma of a soiled litter box.
The one thing our relationship with Catherine taught me about cat lovers was that there are not enough adjectives in existence to describe them. Obsessed, infatuated, besotted, crazed, smitten, fixated, preoccupied or possessed; the list goes on.
This might sound gratuitous coming from a dog person, but I once had a pet cat. His name was, Miami. I named him Miami by virtue of the fact that that’s where we first met. He was as white as a snowball and blessed with a decent temperament. I got him from a truck driver who obviously loved cats as much as Catherine did. The story was that six weeks earlier while parked at a truck stop, his female cat had given birth to 6 kittens. Despite the fact that I had always been a die-hard doggie person, I think I took the animal partly because I was lonely and needed a traveling companion, and partly out of sympathy for the other driver. Cat lover or not, I envisioned the constant meowing of six new-born kitties in the confines of his cab was driving him over the edge.
Unlike most cats I have known, Miami turned out to be a really good natured feline. Obviously, he did all the typical stuff that cats do: climbing curtains, reupholstering the seats with his claws, and so on; the kinds of behavior that dog people find particularly annoying, but he eventually grew on me. My two boys loved him. There was a moment when I thought my wife was going to shoot me on the day I brought him back home, but Miami eventually won her over, too. The really hard part came in wondering if our family dog, Dillon, an American Staffordshire terrier - a breed not exactly known to be cat friendly – would be as welcoming as the rest of us. So, we were very careful with the way in which we introduced Miami to him. Thankfully, Dillon loved him, too.
It went without saying that the ‘Cat Woman’ loved him as well. Catherine loved him so much that I was actually uneasy about the prospect that she, perhaps under the guise of some obscure little-known cat-lover law that only cat people are privy to, might very well try and take default ownership of Miami.
To his credit, even with the 17 kitties living next door, Miami stayed loyal to our family. Maybe it’s because he acted more like a dog than a cat. Dillon and he became best buddies. Miami wouldn’t play fetch the stick, but he definitely knew his name. Unlike most cats who usually stare at their owners like they’re stupid, my cat would come when called. How many cats do you know that will actually extend you a paw when asked? Miami would.
His most outstanding character trait, and one that forever endeared him to me, was like most dogs, he would let me know when he needed to go outside to take care of his business. That’s right. Miami didn’t need a litter box. When it was time for Dillon to go out, Miami would go, too. Now, that’s one cool cat.
Sadly, one day while waiting for a load at a truck stop in New Jersey, I let him out to take care of business and he never came back. It was winter time and I felt guilty for letting him out in such cold weather. I roamed the rows of trucks for hours calling for him. Thinking back, it must have looked strange to see a grown man dashing across a snow covered parking lot yelling, “Miami,” over and over.
I wondered if someone had stolen him. He had a collar with a tag, so I hoped that somebody might call home and say they had found him. Being a tom-cat, it wouldn’t have surprised me if he dumped me for a kitty of the female persuasion.
But, Miami was smart. Maybe he hitched a ride back to Florida or maybe he found a new owner who had a nicer Peterbilt truck than me. Perhaps he managed to endear himself to someone like Catherine and they ended up taking him home. It could be he just got tired of the road. I’ll never know, but I do think about him from time to time. I like to think that with at least eight more lives to go, that somehow, Miami will be O.K.
© Dante Staciokas