Cats (6)

I read during breaks when the rest of the restaurant eats a pre-shift meal. Novels and books of history occupy hours on the train, but I devote twenty minutes during dinner to essays and poetry at which I’ve nibbled for months. I read Sylvia Plath in the dimly viscid light of the downstairs jazz club while sound engineers set up microphones and music stands, like derricks on a backlit hardwood prairie (go figure, I harvested “derricks” from a Plath poem – “viscid” from Joyce). On Monday I read “Resolve.” Plath waits for the milk van to deliver fresh, full bottles and watches the garden, a cat, hedges, empty bottles on her window sill, and her neighbor’s rose bush:

“the cat unsheathes its claws / the world turns”

Some people don’t like cats, but the“dog-person-cat-person” dichotomy is puzzling. I don’t understand disdain for dogs. Some have a near-phobia; at its root, a bite or vicious encounter in their childhood. I get that. A childhood with a jackass neighbor who forged a monster, starved on a chain in the backyard, can be traumatic. Otherwise it seems like people find them charming but would rather not schedule around picking up poop from the sidewalk. (I’m the latter, though I did have a couple jackass neighbors who forged monsters, starved on chains in their backyards.) But a pudgy Beagle or panting Retriever: what’s not to like? Dogs are wonderful. With all that said, if this six-part (and counting) series “on cats” weren’t a giveaway: I am a cat person. But I don’t fault anyone for disliking the striped and speckled tyrants.

Dogs are unswerving and warm, loyal by nature until kindness is driven from them. Cats are coolly insouciant, haughty and indifferent even to those they like. Their affection is limited and temper comically volatile. Cat people love cats, not in spite, but because of their tendency to stare one in the eye as they stick littery paws in a glass of water or knock a book from the kitchen table. No matter my amusement, I can’t fault someone for finding such a little rapscallion completely insufferable. So maybe it should be “cat person” and “not cat person.” But opinion of cats doesn’t turn on the temper, necessarily. It’s about the claws.

Angry dogs are more dangerous than cats, but they have to commit. A nip from a frightened dog hurts, but the real damage comes from their larger size and stronger jaws, when they chase and leap or bite and hold on. Cats aren’t so capable of violence, but their casual aggression is more immediate. It’s in the claws. Little hooks, sharpened incessantly on cardboard and upholstery, come out fast and latch true. They draw blood and puff around the edges, sting for an hour. Rub a belly one time too many, sit on a tail by accident, intrude on a bout of nerves and energy, and they strike like fuzzy lightning. Without claws, the fickle temperament would be endearing. With them, it’s a constant danger.

“the cat unsheathes its claws”

Understanding claws takes work, many a bloodied arm or ripped t-shirt sleeve, but they’re more than daggers waiting to be drawn. In years of entertaining the family oddballs and crossing to the wrong side of their tempers, I’ve gotten accustomed to the way they work. It’s not all rage. A cat’s id, in physical form, is a set of ten curved boning knives that come out at a moment’s notice. Like the tail, claws seem a subconscious or instinctive structure.

Taylor and I still have a plush pig pillow that we got in college. It’s Ellory’s now. It has soft pink fur and a head with ears and snout. In searching for its exact shade, I learned that there are many different pinks and that one of them “piggy pink.” It’s lighter now with gray spots, faded patches, fur worn to the strained fabric underneath, but I’ll use “piggy pink” nonetheless if only because I like the name. Ellory’s pig is piggy pink in the plump, fuzzy middle that my mother restuffed for us once already. Darker feet – carnation, maybe – mark the corners of the stuffed rectangle and hold strips of velcro. It folds in the middle and the velcro pins the legs together, transforming the pillow into an upright stuffed animal.

When we brought Ellory home she hid under our bed. When she emerged, she first explored the stuffed things, soft and filled with clouds of batting. She inspected the pillows, laundry bag, and mattress but stopped when she found the stuffed pig at the foot of the bed. After sniffing it and determining it safe, she perched on its back and dug her claws into the fabric, pulling as though she wanted to rip out the insides. So far as I know, every cat does this. My mom calls it “kneading.” Dad was a bread baker – mostly classic loaves with slits in the top but also biscuits, muffins, “coffee-can bread,” braids and twists, pizza crust, and focaccia. Cats flexing little muscles against teddy bears or cushions, the focus with which they pushed and pulled the stuffing with their claws, reminded Mom of the way Dad worked dough methodically with his bare, floured hands.

The kneading is a sort of tic. When Ellory is annoyed, she goes to the pig and kneads it incessantly, sometimes for ten minutes without stopping. She exorcises nervous energy and then curls up in a ball and sleeps. She retreats to her pillow when she’s angry that her cries for extra dry food fall on deaf ears; when she’s been twitching and running about, after I pick her up and squeeze the jitters out; when we interrupt her sound sleep by standing up or closing a door too loudly. The claws are an expression of anxiety (as are most things we confuse for anger).

A cat owner becomes like a beekeeper: thousands of stings diminish, each, the potency of the one to follow. Once the initial shock of the claws wears off – after I’ve been struck enough times – their nuance becomes more clear. Ellory sits on my stomach while I read. I scratch her ears and the claws dig into my shirt, syncopated against the rise and fall of her breathing. Contentment? I stop scratching her ears and one paw goes up, claws out. It doesn’t slash at my hand but rests on it, claws pricking. Dissatisfaction? I rub her belly and she grabs my wrist with both paws. Affection?

The range of expression emanating from a set of claws can be remarkable. But maybe more remarkable is the range of expression that sets us on edge, that pricks the skin, that we confuse for a furball on a rampage, for feline impunity.

“the cat unsheathes its claws / the world turns”

CatsPeter Amoset cetera