At first I'd wanted a dog but decided that a cat would be better because a cat would require less maintenance. And I had never owned a cat before. I don't count Moon, a kitten who was lobbed out of a passing convertible at my feet one night as my date and I were leaving the Full Moon Saloon. We adopted him, but I eventually lost him in a custody fight.
Then I decided that two cats would be better than one. Janet Juice (as I called the proprietor of the juice bar) said her daughter Jenny's friend Laura knew of a 6-week-old litter of barn kittens. I ordered two with character and spirit, and Laura outdid herself.
They came in a shallow cardboard box with sawdust in it; for the time being, I named them Calico and Red. The female, Calico, had a black mink coat, frantically curious olive eyes and a stripe down her nose. She was very quiet, her voice a soft squeak, as if she had laryngitis. The male had an orange coat and one clouded eyeball, ate like a bear and would soon acquire the agreeable disposition of a mellow dog. The vet prescribed some drops and said clouded eyeballs don't bode well for a cat's future.
For two or three days they became Explorer and Eater. But as they rolled off the tongue, the names didn't work. The image of my standing at the door and calling "Explorer! Eater!" seemed absurd.
May 19, 1985
It sounds slightly callous now, but it was in the spirit of brotherhood that I renamed Eater Blind Brother when the cloud over his eye thickened. It seemed that his sister's wide eyes might have to lead them both. But when I observed him chasing and catching a moth, I upgraded him to Half-Blind. Explorer became Calico again, the word sounding appropriately feminine and spirited, and for one unforgettable summer the three of us lived in the sunny cedar house in woodsy Cooper Hollow.
Despite a passion for tortilla chips, Calico became elegantly lean, so slinky her sides rippled. She was easily freaked out, and when she was mad her ears swept back, pantherlike. Half-Blind was fatter, furrier and something of a slob. His nose often carried dirt from some hole he had dug, and his tongue seemed to have a weak return spring. He liked to sleep sprawled on his back, flaunting his furry white belly, snoring. Calico did his grooming for him.
On sunny afternoons they lounged on the deck in the shade of a table made from a cable reel. I leaned a plank against the edge of the tabletop, a ramp to make it easy for Half-Blind to join Calico up there. He would sit on the table and stare at the sun. An antibiotic ointment didn't retard the haze over his eye, which sometimes swelled and resembled a big emerald. The vet said he might have some systemic disease and might deteriorate into idiocy, but I didn't believe him.
The cats spent a lot of time on a chair next to my desk, a big mahogany rolltop at which I was camped for a few months. I put a draftsman's lamp next to the chair to warm their spot. Half-Blind's coat shone like gold against the chair's rust velveteen cushion, while Calico's tiny fine hairs floated toward the hot bulb when I petted her. To cross from the chair to the desk, Calico tripped lightly over my shoulder while Half-Blind groped his way across my lap or stumbled over the word-processor keys. Often he would stop to gently feel my face.
They napped on the desk under the lamp, their forelegs wrapped around each other tenderly. After an all-nighter their bodies would be spattered with burned-out gnats. But sometimes the lamp's beam became the spotlight over the ring at a Thrilla in Manila. The desk blotter was the canvas, and I was a giant with a ringside seat, able to hear the soft whumps of their blows as they sparred inches from my eyes. They were Ali and Frazier: Slinky Calico floated and stung, while sturdy Half-Blind just kept comin' at her though he didn't have a prayer against her looping hooks—he couldn't even see her telegraphed haymaker coming—so she landed five blows to every one of his. Once I caught Half-Blind shadowboxing on the floor, sitting up and jabbing thickly at the air, apparently practicing.
Boxing on the desk often evolved into wrestling on the floor, with an oval rug as the ring. Calico circled, struck and ran; Half-Blind worked into clinches when he could. He would stand and wait for her to strike. She was as quick as a cobra: Her teeth were on his neck and he was on his back. He had her where he wanted her now. Stoically he took her bite, while his sturdy legs pounded into her belly until she squealed uncle.
Sometimes they charged each other from across the room, like jousting knights. But just before they collided, they would spring into the air and make scary faces at each other.
Half-Blind chased Calico around the house a lot, and if he got lucky, he could drop her with a flying tackle. But Calico had a razzle-dazzle defensive move. In the middle of a breakaway sprint, she would execute a half flip with a half twist, landing on her back facing her clumsy pursuer, claws first.
Half-Blind may have been a bully, but he was a gentle one. He never extended his claws. Calico seldom returned the courtesy. But she didn't exploit his handicap as she could have, and she was highly protective of him.
Because of his poor depth perception, Half-Blind had to claw up to roosts that Calico easily bounced onto, and he pawed for the bottom before he jumped off anything. But he could stay with bugs on the floor—it helped if they buzzed—and he was a crackerjack snake hunter, a skill he flaunted one memorable day to the horror of Calico. Although she wasn't into snakes, she did like the occasional bug or spider. He also was the first to hear deer in the woods at night. His ears would perk up, and he would trot to the screen and perch like a squirrel, staring into the dark, breathing heavily.
Half-Blind got a fever and slept for three days, and Calico moped and hovered. Then Half-Blind's good eye clouded over. The vet said the fever had blown it out like a light bulb getting too much juice. Half-Blind started stuffing his face inside the desk lamp to gaze at the bulb. "You can't imagine the incredible rainbows and kaleidoscopes he can see," said the vet. Soon Half-Blind had two hazy green globes for eyes, yet his mobility seemed scarcely affected, and his spirit was unbroken.
We took walks into the woods behind the house, along an old stone dry wall, built during the Depression, according to a neighbor who had farmed the land by ox 70 years ago. Half-Blind stayed in my path—I was his seeing-eye dog—propelling himself through the tall grass in soft porpoiselike leaps, a style he had developed to clear unseen roots. Calico weaved at a discreet distance behind us, like some dark-suited Secret Service agent.
I knew when I got the cats that they would have to go after Thanksgiving, when I was to move south, back into town. My mother had said she would take "the" cat. I surprised her with the news that she would be getting two (I knew how easy she is about such things), and when Orphan made three, she was still cool about it.
Orphan was a shadow wandering out of the woods at daybreak, the day after Labor Day. I watched as he reeled himself in, a few feet at a time, drawn by Calico and Half-Blind on the deck. He had probably been abandoned by people returning to the city; every year on the day after Labor Day, the town is besieged by stray cats.
He was about the same age as Half-Blind and Calico but less secure. When you petted him, he tried to get out from under the untrusted hand by collapsing into a gray puddle. There was a streak of desperation in his getaway leaps, but he was graceful, nonetheless, like a swimmer making racing starts. He bleated when he was hungry and ate as desperately as he leaped. He kept his distance, looked inscrutable, smelled funky, didn't like to go outside and didn't purr.
Orphan had a quick, staccato jab, which he liked to fire when backed into a corner under the steps or in the woodpile. When he thought he had an opportunity, he lunged like Floyd Patterson. At first I would worry that he would murder Half-Blind, but it never happened. They were buddies from the start, and a good match. Orphan was someone Half-Blind could sink his teeth into.
There was never an out-and-out catfight between Calico and Orphan, but on the night Calico established her dominance, it was close. After a wrestling match had grown heated, they backed off and hissed and glared at each other. Calico ran up three stairs, turned, glared some more, then leaped like a stunt man on Orphan and nipped him with her teeth. He sank submissively, emitting a low, deep owwrrl. After that, Calico began picking on him.
At least Orphan dominated dinnertime. Half-Blind had mastered stealing the bowl, sliding it toward himself and guarding the bucket like Moses Malone, sometimes by standing in it. But he was merely hungry; Orphan was desperate and always got the most. He shoved between Half-Blind and Calico, such a tight fit that he had to crimp his ears. Once, I fed them bits of chicken out of my hand. After that, Half-Blind would sit up and beg for food. Calico would softly cry for it and Orphan would open his mouth and wail.
The woods had turned red and gold, and Indian summer kept the sky blue and the days warm. A couple of nights were almost balmy, and I slept with the windows open and listened to the katydids' last lovely chatterings. Then one morning the wind swept in. You can hear it coming in Cooper Hollow, which is deep and sheltered; first there's the whoosh, then you see the treetops sway, then you feel it. The temperature dropped about 30° in the two hours after daybreak, and chilly gusts blew the leaves thickly off the trees, creating a yellow blur against the window. Calico ran for cover under the deck, Orphan ran helter-skelter chasing the leaves and Half-Blind climbed to the table on the deck and bathed his face in the wind.
There was a full moon on the night of the first frost; clouds floated eerily past it. The next morning there was one silver spider's strand dangling from the cathedral ceiling, twisting and glistening in the warm air currents. The cats went crazy that day, running around on the deck and leaping like frogs, attacking whomever they landed on. I wondered if their odd behavior had anything to do with the static electricity brought by the cold weather.
At Thanksgiving I put them in my pickup truck and drove them to my parents' place. Now they have the run of an 81-year-old house—three floors, 14 rooms, basement—and there's new terrain outside called anthills. They come and go through a missing pane in the coal-cellar window and they love the snow. Grandma Moses reports that Half-Blind gallops around like the baby goats she once saw in the Pittsburgh Zoo. Calico wakes her up by walking on her face every morning. Orphan has grown big and bad.
Sometimes the whole troop takes walks together: Mom, Dad, the cats and Winnie. The cats know the route and lead the way. Winnie is the dog I unloaded on Mom 10 years ago, another time I moved.