Cats (5)

I’ve never had an indoor cat before. We always had cats when I was growing up, but ours always roamed about the yard, swiping at birds and basking in the sunlight. I think my first was Blue. I don’t remember much, only that he was the meanest cat my parents ever had the displeasure of trying to pet. They tell stories about carrying us up the stairs because Blue was perched on the flight, as likely to dig his claws into our little legs as he was to yawn.

After that came Trombone and Zack. Trombone was my Becca’s calico, named because she asked what “that instrument” was at a town parade and Mom had answered “a trombone.” Becca just liked the word. That’s as good a reason as any. Zack was Kate’s stripey orange tom cat. They (the cats, but I guess the sisters as well) spent as much time outside as they did in. Trombone was mild-mannered but Zack brought snakes to the back door on Mom’s birthday. He was hit by a car in front of the house my parents live in now, shortly after we moved into it over twenty years ago.

After Zack died, Kate got Wilma and I got to pick out Bob – who was a girl. My mom’s friend found a litter of kittens and the night before we visited I divulged that I was going to name my cat Bob. I was in bed and Mom was leaning into my room through the half open door, about to turn out the light.

“What if you pick out a girl cat?”

“I won’t.”

I did, and I named her Bob anyway. When Trombone died, Becca got Raleigh. For most of my childhood, that was the trio: Bob, Wilma, and Raleigh.

They were all outdoor cats to varying degrees. Wilma only went outside, the viscid line of her belly swaying as she lumbered over the threshold, to lay in empty bird baths or eat grass (which she promptly threw up). Bob would lie languorously under bushes or in the shade of the back porch for hours, waddling to the door when mom opened it with a can of wet food. Raleigh was a true outdoor cat; lithe and rakish, an epic adventurer. Neighbors who lived a mile or two away would tell Mom at the grocery store that they’d seen that cat of hers snooping around their backyards. He would disappear for more than twenty-four hours and trot up to the back porch as if nothing had happened, covered up to his haunches in thick red mud. Half-eaten rabbits and moles – eyes closed, mouths gaping in frozen terror – turned up in the forsythia and ivy by the back storm drain. Every few days an electric howling and piercingly violent racket signaled an altercation with a neighborhood stray.

Maybe Bob and Wilma just weren’t “indoor cats.” Raleigh was a true “outdoor cat.” Either way, Ellory is the first indoor cat I’ve ever had. She lives with us in our thousand-square-foot apartment overlooking Queens Boulevard. Cats live long lives, so she’ll likely have other homes as we relocate, move up, downsize, whatever. But she’s lived here for about 80% of her life, thus far. Taylor and I leave to go out to dinner, get drinks at a bar down the way, go to work, or walk to the grocery store but Ellory doesn’t. This box in Forest Hills contains her entire world.

She periodically explores the closets, climbing into every new bin or freshly packed shelf. She marvels over the clutter under my desk and the books on the bottom shelves as they change in increments. Every day or two she tears through the house climbing the walls and scratching at the paint, pawing at the windows and looking, ears flat against her head, eyes wide and drawn, up the seam in the wall toward the ceiling. When I sit at my desk, she feels the need to climb it and rub her face on the computer screen. As I write this, Ellory has her head inside the lampshade by my notebooks, gnawing on the rim and sniffing the bulb.

It’s an odd thing, keeping an animal inside. I sort of feel bad for dogs when I see them in New York City. My sister and her husband keep their cylindrical little princess, Ellie, in an apartment on the Upper West Side but it’s wedged between two gorgeous parks and Ellie has the run on the neighborhood. A work friend used to bring her boston terrier mutt, Kaju, to work to run around on the huge, spacious workshop floor. Other dogs aren’t so lucky. If my math is right, then Ellory’s space is proportionally the same size as Kaju’s workshop. But Kaju goes for walks and knows the thrill of an interesting piece of trash or scrap of shiny metal on the ground. She stiffens her spine and points her nose in the direction of squirrels when they get close.

Ellory’s ears shot up on the other end of the couch this past Monday and her head spiked to attention. She got up and tore across the apartment to the bedroom – I followed her. A bird had landed on the end of our window A/C unit and was chirping loudly. She prowled around the window inquisitively but couldn’t find a vantage from which the bird was visible. I don’t often think about having an indoor cat, but it’s a strange limitation. There’s no guilt involved here – she’s not caged. It’s just unusual to think about the breadth of small experience and the way a tiny mind works.

A few weeks ago, construction began on a building right outside our window. The building is supposed to be much taller than ours. We’re not looking forward to its completion – people staring into our huge bright windows when previously nothing entered but streams of sunlight, the midday shade of a concrete eclipse. But in the meantime, the construction itself is enough to hate. During business hours the clanging is constant, the assumption being that most people are out of the surrounding apartments during those hours. They’re likely right, but I’m in the apartment for most of them.

Two huge pile-drivers attached to enormous cranes slam the ground at intervals frequent enough to be infuriating, but irregular enough to elude the accommodation of mind to pattern. Trucks beep incessantly, reversing and unloading their wares with rippling metallic clanks. Men yell across the site and the grumble of machinery is omnipresent. It’s infuriating, but eventually I leave. I go for a run or walk to the store or leave for work or put headphones in. Ellory does none of those things. For the last several weeks, her universe has been engulfed for eight hours a day in a deafening mechanized cacophony. There’s a metaphor in there – her miniature experience drowned in inescapable racket – but I’ll leave that be. I’m more interested in the practical questions as she darts about the apartment climbing the walls or picking at the spines of our books on their shelves.

Is she more like a goldfish, evincing fascination with every corner of her tiny fishbowl as though seeing it for the first time because that’s exactly what’s happening? Or is hers a small but ferocious intellect looking each day in ever greater detail because that’s the only way to live in a world with rigid limits? I think it’s something closer to the latter. She hates to be held, but calms considerably when I bring her close to a wall or shelf. The squirming and scratching stop and her ears perk forward as she calmly inspects a new wall from an incomprehensible height, the foreign squiggles and textures of a book from a new angle, with wide green eyes. She rests her paw on a new crack or disruption in the paint, casts her round gaze over the ceiling in an unfamiliar wash of light. Perspective grips her attention, but for it to be novel it would have to be old from her usual vantage.

I suppose I should be jealous. I have the whole world, but she has a domain – small, but boundaries only have the restrictive power she allows them. In most cases, that’s not much.


CatsPeter Amoset cetera