by Larkin Vonalt
I am not a cat person. I like cats, but I have never longed to have one. When I was in the first grade, a classmate offered me a “calico kitten” and I asked my mother if we might be able to have a kitten. When we went to pick her up she turned out to be a plain brown mackerel tabby, who I named (with a singular lack of imagination) Whiskers.
Although there were plenty of “family” cats in the intervening years, it was nearly two decades before I chose another cat for myself. I lived in a decrepit old house in Dorchester, as close to a ghetto as Boston had. The apartment had mice, and traps were too ghastly to contemplate and poison a non-starter. So, off I went with the twenty dollars birthday money that my great-aunt had sent me, to adopt a cat from the MSPCA. (Oh, for the days when you could adopt a cat for twenty bucks!)
Cats and dogs were not separated there, and I chose the unflappable orange tabby with the extra toes. The incessant barking didn’t phase him a bit– when I held my palm flat against the front of his crate, he rubbed his face against it. This was Kaspar Mauser (named with a nod to Werner Herzog’s film about the mysterious German boy: Kaspar Hauser: Every Man for Himself and God Against All.) He would be with me for thirteen years, and for a short period of time, he was my only pet– and he was a very, very nice cat. (And an excellent mouser.)
In 1991, I drove from my parents’ house in Florida to my new life in Montana. I had decided to take the blue highways, steering well clear of interstates. It was uncomfortable to drive my little diesel Volkswagen Rabbit amidst cars and trucks traveling much faster than we could manage, and anyway, I thought I’d see more of the country that way.
My mother came along for the ride, and the very first day out, in Apalachicola, Florida, we found an emaciated foxhound. Sitting in the Gibson Inn that night, I realized that no one would know if we rescued the dog and carried her off with us. Now, you have to understand that inside this un-air-conditioned Volkswagen Rabbit (“Thumper,” named for its grey color and its ongoing thumpthumpthumpthump sound characteristic to diesel engines) were all the things I thought I’d need to start my new life: a few bits of crockery, an omelet pan, a saucepan, a few good knives, a box of my favorite books, sheets, quilts, clothes, three pairs of Doc Martins, my typewriter, and hanging off the back, my mountain bike. In addition, there was my little black dog of uncertain origin, Elinor Jane Pinkerton Schwartz, and in a large carrier, sitting on a blue ice pack wrapped in a towel, Kasper Mauser. It was tidy, but there was not much extra space.
In the morning, while settling the bill, I asked about the miniature dog house sitting on the counter.
“Oh, we’re raising money to build an animal shelter here, we don’t have one,” the clerk said, handing me ten dollars change. I put the ten dollars in the little doghouse and made up my mind. It took about three minutes driving around “downtown” Apalachicola (population 2000) to locate the dog, curled up asleep on a sidewalk. I pulled over, bundled her onto my mother’s lap and sped away. When we brought her to a veterinarian in Panama City, sixty miles up the road, we found that she weighed 35 pounds.
I confessed our dognapping to the vet. (After all, who would want to take credit for a dog in such condition.) He looked at me rather sternly and said, “My best friend is the vet in Apalachicola, and when I tell him what you’ve done . . . he is going to be just thrilled.” He grinned, we grinned, and they gave her a bath, sent us off with a new collar and leash, stuff for her ear mites and fleas and many blessings. Now the car was even more crowded.
At this point, you’re saying “I thought this piece was going to be about a cat.” Well, it is. We just have to get there.
I’d mapped the route to Montana poring over AAA guidebooks and old atlases. We enjoyed Wintzell’s Oyster House in Mobile, and William Faulkner’s home in Oxford, Mississippi. We only drove past Graceland, but we spent hours on Beale Street. We looked for Ernest Hemingway in Piggott, Arkansas and quoted Hamlet in Ellsinore, Missouri. The starving dog was putting on weight, but when passersby looked askance at us, we were quick to volunteer that she had been recently rescued.
There was so much to see and do in Kansas City we decided to stay at the Best Western there for a couple of days. The motel had an interior corridor to the rooms, so I was very surprised the first evening there to hear something mewing on the other side of the door. I opened the door and there stood a grey cat.
“Hi Kitty, what are you doing here?”
“Meow,” she replied, looking me straight in the eye.
“Maybe she got locked in the motel by mistake,” my mother suggested. As I was going out to get ice anyway, I walked her to the exit and opened the door for her and out she went.
In the morning when we went out to the car, the cat hurried over to us from underneath a nearby tree. It was then that I noticed that she had caught one leg through her flea collar and was wearing it bandolier style. I bent down and undid the collar and re-fastened it around her neck. The hair under her elbow and around her midsection had been rubbed down to the skin. “There you go, that should be better,” I told her.
We got in the car, and went off to visit the home and studio of Thomas Hart Benton. When we came back to the motel, after a great dinner at Stroud’s, the little grey cat was nowhere to be seen. We were quite relieved. We’d been in the room about half an hour when I heard it again.
“Meow.” There she was, back at the door. I let her in this time, and walked down to the desk to see if they knew anything about the cat. Maybe she’d been separated from a previous guest, who, one might hope, was feverishly searching for her.
“Oh, is that your cat?” the desk clerk asked. “She’s scooted inside several times today and always goes right to the door of your room. We thought maybe she’d gotten away from you this morning.”
The cat slept on the end of the bed that night, and in the morning I called several animal shelters. They all wanted to know if I was in Kansas City, Kansas or Kansas City, Missouri. It was Kansas, as it turns out, but at the time I thought Missouri. I got directions to the shelter and drove the little grey cat there. When the animal control officer saw the bald spot on (from the flea collar) she said “Oh, she’ll probably be euthanized because of that.”
“What? That’s just some missing hair. It will grow back.”
I can’t tell you how many times I wish I’d just turned around and gone back to the car with the cat. But I didn’t. I did the sensible thing and I have yet to get over it. That cat had a message for me, and I failed to understand. I failed her. I failed miserably.
We went on to Montana. The little grey cat was in all likelihood dead before the day ended. We’d have done better to leave her on the streets of Kansas City. We were naive then. We believed “animal shelter” meant that they would take care of the dogs and cats, provide whatever reasonable care they might need and find them a loving home. We might as well have believed in unicorns. What difference did it make where we found her, Kansas City, Kansas or Kansas City, Missouri when they were just going to kill her?
In Montana, there were more cats; a trio of kittens I gave my husband for his 50th birthday, a pair of blue-eyed, cream-colored cats to deal with the newspaper office mice, along with assorted barn cats, and stray cats that people dumped off to fend for themselves in the country. We found Kaspar dead on a hay bale one morning, as if he’d been leaping and died mid-flight.
In 2007, we moved to Ohio. One autumn day I went to a tag sale at my son’s school. The school had once been a convent, and it is set on the top of a hill in a wooded, park-like setting. There were many great things at this sale, and it was rather lightly attended. My arms were full when I stepped out the door heading for my car.
I knew that voice. Setting the box down, I looked at the cat before me. She was a half-grown kitten, a brown mackerel tabby with an orange spot on her forehead. Did you think she’d be grey? I did. She continued to look right at me. “Meow,” she repeated.
“Well, just a minute, let me put this in the car.” She followed me. I picked her up and set her in the car and drove her home. I wasn’t about to make the same mistake twice.
I think I get the message now. We don’t take cats to shelters, so few make it out alive. The regret I feel for the little grey cat lives on long past whatever natural life she might have hoped to enjoy. The brown mackerel tabby from the school lives with us, of course, along with the two cream-colored office cats, and is sleeping on top of the piano as I write. She is a kind of restitution for the little grey cat, the most I can hope for.