Cats and Kittens
Ever since I was a little boy I have loved cats and revered kittens. After years of stoicism, I finally adopted one in 1978 when I was 32. He was a little rust-colored kitten from my friend Paul's back yard, so naturally I called him Rusty. After many happy years, Rusty's life came to an end in 1991. It turned out that he had a bad heart and was lucky to have lived the thirteen years he was given.
I was broken up far more than I had expected to be. For two weeks I read cat poetry and cried. I never knew that so many poems had been written about cats, or that you could go to a bookstore and expect to find entire volumes of cat poems. I made a selection of these poems, printed them out on pastel-colored paper, and sent them around to those of my friends who had known Rusty. The last piece was my own tribute to my little friend, written in the form of diary entries describing all the fun times we had enjoyed.
Thank you, Rachel Bartlett, for the beautiful collages you have contributed to this page.
The Milk Jug, by Oliver Herford
The Milk Jug
The Gentle Milk Jug blue and white
All day she sits upon the shelf,
And when the Jug is empty quite,
A Letter From Mark Twain
Dear Mrs. Patterson,
Man with Kittens
He is tired of legal questions,
Paul is watching over a new litter in his back yard. He's named the orange kitten Rusty. When I picked Rusty up, instead of struggling he rolled on his back and got me to rub his tummy! I have to have him.
It means I can't walk home from work anymore. Rusty may need me! And no more lost weekends in out-of-print bookstores.
Rusty tried to climb up my naked leg. "Ow!" I said. He beamed with delight at this unexpected triumph.
Rusty jumps on my back and we go on safari throughout the entire apartment. He sniffs each of the planters hanging from the ceiling. He also needs to be picked up and put on my desk so he can kill all my plastic dinosaurs.
I tried a new cat food and he barked at it! I had to run to three stores before I found his old brand.
Rusty tries to mimic me. I sat in front of a bookcase and pulled a book off the bottom shelf. He pulled a book out, too, only it just lay there and he felt stupid. For awhile I only did things he could copy.
I wanted Rusty to kill a giant cockroach, but he only petted it gently. I had set a bad example.
Rusty is six months old so I took him to Paul's to visit his sister, Snowflakes. All he did is beat her up. Paul finally picked her up and put her in his lap. On the way back the rain weakened Rusty's cardboard carrier and he fell out and ran away under the cars. I went into a vestibule and felt sad. Suddenly he ran up to me and said, "Take me with you." Alright, Rusty, but don't complain later!
Rusty is getting pretty wild (he isn't fixed yet) so I bought him a stuffed alligator. He killed it and ran around the room with his head high and his prize in his teeth until I agreed to take his picture.
I left Rusty with Paul during the move to my new apartment. "It was amazing," Paul said. "He sat by the door for twelve hours waiting for you to come back. He didn't close his eyes once and he didn't eat anything." This evening he didn't explore his new home. He just kept me in sight until he couldn't keep his eyes open anymore.
Rusty has me trained to give him treats on command, but he lets me think it's a trick I taught him.
Last week I brought Rusty a black kitten with white feet. On day two, he adopted Sneakers and washed her from head to toe. On day three, she adopted him and licked a square inch of fur near his shoulder blade all afternoon. He loved it!
Paul visited with two live lobsters from the fish store. The cats took turns chewing on their wiggling antennas. "They're eating 'em ALIVE!" Paul gasped in mock horror, but the lobsters refused to be alarmed.
Rusty sings when I play the violin! He follows every note and, when I pause, lets rip a continuous meow that lasts a full three seconds to get me started again. When I'm tired of practicing I let him chew the tip of the bow and kick the rosin out of the horsehair.
Paul died yesterday. Rusty and Sneakers and Muffin stood guard over me all night, little sphinxes hissing away the evil spirits.
* * * * *
Rusty and Sneakers are still in love. He wraps his arms around her and says, "Look what I caught!" I don't mind if he thinks that, she seems to say.
Rusty loves to hide in cardboard boxes, even if he has to curl up like a corkscrew to get in. Then I pretend I can't see him.
When I come home he darts out the door, finds nothing, and dashes back to safety while I stomp my feet.
I bought a radio-controlled tank to terrorize the babies, but every time I attack Rusty with the motorized claw arm he just thinks I'm scratching his back.
Rusty sleeps on my pillow, wrapped around my head; when he doesn't I can't sleep. He likes to interrupt my reading to ask for treats; if he forgets I can't concentrate. He touches my computer keyboard just to show off; it always seems to improve whatever I'm working on.
Jennifer said, "Is he allowed to do that?" I said, "Whatever Rusty does is WONDERFUL." And no matter what he does you have to say, "Thank you, Rusty."
Rusty likes to drink from the water glass on my night table. Usually he just stares at me until I hold it under his nose. Thank you, Rusty.
I've hit Rusty three times in thirteen years. He must have bit and scratched me thirteen times in the first three months. I'm sorry, Rusty.
Rusty respects my books, but sharpens his claws on my suit when I'm not looking. "Is that the kind of suit you wear to a job interview?" they say. "Yes," I answer. "It's the best kind."
Rusty's too lazy to jump onto my desk, so he taps my leg until I hoist him up. From that vantage point he can supervise my work more efficiently. When he's being especially brilliant he'll rummage around in my papers just to bug me, or make me stop everything and brush him. I know the brushing is over when he starts biting fur clumps out of the bristles and spitting them out all over me.
Rusty's just a feeble old pussycat now, but he still loves his ice water. At first lick his paw jumps up in shock. Then he settles down and laps it up. I buy Big Macs once a week so he can get his French fries. And I seem to be ordering Chinese food more often, even though he gets all the shrimp and I only get the sweet and sour.
Oh, and he also likes New England clam chowder. Especially puréed in the blender I bought him. Especially after being chilled overnight. Especially one tablespoon at a time.
* * * * *
I couldn't stop crying when Rusty died. It's true, he never liked being cradled in my arms. He wouldn't watch television with me. If he didn't like what I was offering he just turned his back. But Rusty gave me everything he could possibly find in himself to give. Who will teach me humility now?