Funny how a black cat could be considered a diabolic form. As an incubus, that feline monster was believed to perch on its victim’s chest and suck the breath away. For me, a black cat was more angelic. If I saved his life, Carlton may have saved mine. At least his presence got me over some rough spots. So companionable, though he might have looked like a black panther, he acted more like a black Labrador. And when he perched on my chest, I certainly never felt depleted. No matter where I’d be during the day, he knew he could always find his buddy at shower time for the evening ritual (knowing the love for rituals) which was for me to lie down so he could mount my chest and get rubbed under his chin. It never felt like my soul was being depleted. On the contrary, it gave me a little boost, or at least forced me to relax.
The bond with critters cuts across a lot of lines. Imagine the hunter lamenting a favorite hound, his blues for ol’ Blue. Imagine the prospector’s blues for his mule. Shorty Harris, who dug up the Bullfrog Mine, memorialized life with a lone burro when he wrote his epitaph: “Here lies a single blanket jackass prospector.” Writers too are renowned for feline friends. Hemingway’s cats have even inherited his Cuban estate and are now protected as park animals. Ray Bradbury’s Ditsie is a female version of the little short-haired guy who hung out beside my desk, Carlton Lord Spoilworthy.
When he turned sick, threatened by renal failure, we began to value him more each day. That was easy since he was such a good little guy. No, he wasn’t perfect. He had his moments, such as some unauthorized pissing. But that was only protest for attention. How can you condemn that? And after a while he learned that just looking as if he might do it was enough. He really didn’t want to piss on my slippers, but how else can the master get the acolyte’s attention.
Now when I realize that it’s safe to put books on the lowest shelf without fear of a urine attack, the advantage doesn’t seem worth it. I’ve even removed the plastic panel from the bottom shelf which shielded the big books, but that’s no big deal since Lord Spoilworthy isn’t around.
At a pet hospital in Sherman Oaks where Jane and I even tried an acupuncturist (that’s right, a feline acupuncturist) I check out the folks porting their ailing pets into the facility and consider the care and loot (30 billion bucks this year) spent in that regard. Seems as though folks outside of western culture have difficulty understanding why. Maybe the understanding they lack, besides an inability to sympathize with other people or animals not from their tribe, is the thing Americans really maintain in keeping pets. Loyalty. It seems pet owners pay a lot for loyalty. Perhaps it’s something lacking inside, and so it’s subordinated to the creatures who are most sure of delivering that same commodity—loyalty.
I would add a special kind of wisdom.
It was surely a momentary freak-out for Dak, a Tech Assistant at Veterinary Specialty Group in San Diego, when we brought Carlton in for an endoscopy. Dak was praising Carlton’s laid back demeanor, and I had him sputtering for a response when I confessed (tongue visibly inserted in cheek) that I believed Carlton to be an incarnation of the Buddha. Considering the odd raft of weird believers in Lululand, what did Dak know? I could have been part of a cult of cat worshipers from Malibu. Yet Dak smiled. Didn’t he— as well as most personnel who handled Carlton— didn’t they believe that he was the mellowest cat they’d met? And Carlton did indeed show a Buddha-like acceptance to all the scraping and probing those doctors performed on him.
At a cancer clinic in Culver City one young woman who worked there brought in a colleague to show her how Carlton was lounging on the scale where she’d left him after weighing. It was clear they hadn’t seen much of that. More likely they were used to dealing with fractious (their preferred word) screaming felines that required peeling off the walls. I couldn’t make out what they were saying while they giggled and whispered, but I knew it to be some form of admiration. That’s where the title of Lord Spoilworthy stuck. And there he was, Carlton Lord Spoilworthy lounging regally on the curved bed of the scale and looking like an Egyptian pharaoh sailing on his barque down the Nile.
Dr. Iburg, his regular vet, was surprised at one visit when Carlton gave out a little cry. It was so unlike him to complain at all. We were all puzzled until it turned out that she was unwittingly pressing his tail which hung over the edge of the table, and we all chuckled. Here we thought he was acting like a cat, but in actuality he had something to complain about. And even then, it was a soft complaint.
And then the time when he put his paw on the assistant’s arm— “little bubbala,” she called him as she cradled him on the exam table at the West LA Vet Clinic... It was a last ditch effort to determine what was wrong. (A test for a rare disease, which of course was to no avail.) As she was cradling and petting little bubbala lying serenely on the exam table, he looked up at her and put his paw softly on the arm stroking him. It visibly took her breath away.
At the first indication of weakened kidneys, his lordship’s diet had to be altered, and he hated such bland plebeian fare. Couldn’t understand why we were cutting him off from his favorite protein-rich food and treats. So he began to prowl the perimeter of the house, scanning all possible exits. He knew he couldn’t trust anybody, not even the food folks who used to give him anything he wanted. But soon his transcendent acceptance kicked in and he made the most of it.
A good example was his acceptance of a formerly hated guest. At best, he ruled that guests are only mildly tolerable. Sometimes it’s acceptable to allow one to touch you, being somewhat partial to strokes. But when the guests leave, there is such a racing through rooms, bounding up stairs, toys dragged out, the only conclusion to this swelter of activity is that of ecstatic relief. Sadly, that’s why the outside world, except for a few care givers, never got to see his charm.
Yet, he could temper his principles too. He tolerated a person whom previously he’d most distrusted. Despite the anti-guest feeling, he learned to accept Robert Green-Price— but it took two visits. On the first, when Carlton was new in the house, and more defensive, he hissed and pissed at Robert. On the second visit, he bypassed his own amigo to jump up on Robert’s lap. Granted, Green-Price was sitting on my chair where Carlton was used to receiving his strokes. But nevertheless, though a former arch-enemy, Lord Spoilworthy was quite content to sit there for the longest time, much to Sir Robert’s surprise, if not consternation.
That acceptance really showed up in technicolor when Christy once started coming to the house. Christy was the hydration lady, who three times a week administered fluid under the skin (subcutaneous injections for renal disease). The first few times, Carlton would make a half-hearted run for it the minute she entered, often diving under the bed. After a few visits, Christy arrived in the afternoon for the usual. She just stepped inside. She had a story to tell. She always had a story to tell. Listening, I looked past her into the living room and noticed that Carlton was hopping up on his rocking chair where the fluid was to be administered. He sat there, watching, waiting to get it over.
Games became a way of life, as with most cats. Our games were certainly of his devising: Whirly Cat, which evolved into Rolly Cat, then to Trolly Cat. No person short of a circus trainer can get a cat to act out a game— if he doesn’t think of it. In fact, that was a general Carlton rule: “If I didn’t think of it, I don’t do it.” If it hasn’t already been drawn, a good cartoon could be made of a cat singing “My Way.”
Whirly Cat started before we invited him into the house. In Whirly Cat he would rush up to me in the driveway and flop on his back so that I could rub his belly and whirl him around. That bit evolved into Rolly Cat, which was to roll him from side to side as he pretended to bite my hand. In the bedroom Rolly Cat morphed into Trolly cat, which utilized his bird toy strung on the end of a stick like a fishing pole; I would troll with the bird over the side of the bed until he suddenly leaped out from underneath like a catfish going for bait.
Pretty standard cat stuff, yes, but there were others.
Carlton was the cat’s meow, and he exercised a chorus of voices when he used that versatile meow. Part Siamese, his vocal range went from a soft sound, almost a lip smack, up to a banshee wail. Yet, though he could sound that multitude of voices— a regular carillon when he got going— Carlton rarely used them. Outside, when I first knew him, he only greeted with the faintest mew. I first noted his mime ability when I’d heard what sounded like a baby crying. I’d actually heard it a few times before, wondering who were the parents to leave a baby squall like that, until I witnessed the actual source: Carlton standing off a feline interloper.
That’s the banshee wail he turned on me when we first brought him into the house. And he would do it, standing at the patio door, only when Jane was gone. He knew I was the softie. So he gave it to me full bore. Though I never gave in and let him out, it was a gut-wrenching aria. Downright operatic, a cat flexing his vocal cords for a desired result.
While involved in some of those games I’d be reminded of Pascal who confessed that sometimes when he was playing with his cat he wasn’t sure the cat wasn’t playing with him. Carlton’s Clawing-The-Chair game was a good one for playing with my head.
Carlton had been de-clawed by his former owner next door, and then let out at night. We took him in because his face had been ripped open and then he had been locked out of the house to keep him from bleeding on the carpet. It’s a wonder the coyote, or whatever it was that tore up Carlton’s face, didn’t finish him. And the reason he had his front claws chopped was because he allegedly ripped up their furniture. So the game Carlton invented in our house was pretending to claw a fabric chair in the living room, a little psychodrama wherein he goes through the motions. It even sounded like he was clawing the chair, paws grating against the material, a sound like ripping. (It sounded so realistic when I first heard it I did a double-take.) He clawed the chair with out-stretched paws while holding his most defiant expression. Then all of a sudden he would get the guilty look of a bad kitty and break out running. Everyone knows a bad kitty must be chased.
Mistreated? What can a philosopher do but make a game of it?
Everyone’s pet is exceptional, yeah. Maybe Carlton was no different from others, but when he showed signs of understanding verbal remarks, I had to pay attention. Name recognition, of course. But besides recognizing his own name, there were certain other words. When we first brought him in, tacit agreements had to be made to keep the little guy happy. One was that apertures in the house would always be available so that he could sniff the great outdoors.
So the words “door” and “window” were muy importante. But what about “other door?”
I happened to change my mind one day just as I was opening the balcony door for him in the guest bedroom. Carlton was at the door, waiting, ready to put his head to the screen door. Then I decided to open instead the door in the master bedroom since I’d be there soon. I remarked aloud, (talking to myself, really) “No, let’s go to the other door,” as I re-closed the one being opened.
Carlton immediately turned and headed for the landing. Unconsciously, I followed. It wasn’t till I followed him through the hall, across the master bedroom, and then to the balcony door. Just beginning to open it, I looked down and realized he had come to the “other door” without any other cue but those two words. So if he understood other door, what else did he understand?
Just another instance of what made it special, living and communicating across those mysterious lines with such a good and soulful bro, a little thirteen-pounder who could fill a house.