Of Cats and Freaks


Essay by
Kenneth Spell


April 2011


It is never a good idea to be regarded as Gods. Once the Egyptians hand out a promotion like that, it is bound to go to your head. Dogs had some divinities in those days, too, but Bast got a bigger salary.

A cat gave me my nickname and future computer alias. It was only fair. We have inflicted all sorts of humiliating and absurd names onto cats. They should have their turn with humans.

I was leaving my freak friends Bobbye and Don back in my wild and hairy college days. In simple politeness I looked at Huckleberry, the big orange tomcat beside them on the couch, raised a hand and said goodbye.

He glanced up to acknowledge my existence, said "Rwwwrbzzrr", or "Rowrbasil", as nearly as I can translate cat. He may have had an accent. It did not sound like an insult.

After all, Huckleberry and I were on reasonably good terms. I filled his bowl often enough and held the screen door for him when he felt the urge to go out on some mischief, opened it again when he would stagger back in, hungry or scratched up after some point of misunderstanding feline etiquette.

Like Huck Finn, the cat was fond of lighting out for the Territory when we tried to keep him civilized. He got around. Every kitten born within seven blocks seemed to have his markings.

After that evening in the fall of 1970, Rowrbazzle became one of my other names. I signed letters to friends under that name, was mentioned in the college paper using that alias. When I got into life online decades later, I adapted it for my AOL name and e-mail address.

Huckleberry was the first of many cats I knew. He did not mind humans, either in the sense of objecting to us or giving us any authority over him. He certainly had more patience with people than I did, except of course for the time he tried to eat the Avon Lady.

It was not self-defence. It was a point of cat honor, and they have more dueling scars from those than any German college student ever wore with pride.

Bobbye and Don let an Avon lady into the living room, fixed her hot tea and listened politely to her sales pitch. But at some point crossing the room, the woman stepped on Huck's tail. "Nemo Impune Me Lacciset" is the national motto of Scotland, and of all self-respecting cats. No Human Strikes Me With Impunity. While the lady described her merchandise and how to order it, Huck lay on the hardwood floor, patiently waiting.

Bobbye looked over a brochure or two, turned down the offer. The young lady got up from the couch, crossed the living room. Just as she was reaching for the door, Huck shot across the room in an orange streak, claws out. Before anyone could jump up to catch him and pull him away, he had shredded her stockings.

The humans in the room were angry, embarrassed and apologetic. Huck walked away, content that payback had been delivered.

As C. S. Lewis once observed, dogs look at you with sad eyes, sure that they are all miserable sinners. But cats? They are Pharisees. When a cat prays, it immediately declares how thankful it is not to have been born a Dog. When it comes to philosophers, cats are disciples of Nietzsche, or maybe Ayn Rand. Humility is not one of their virtues, nor forgiveness. A dog will forgive an unjust owner; Cat never forgives or forgets.

They are still tigers in their own eyes. I once watched our grey-striped Murray in the front yard, crawling low in the grass as a sparrow flew about overhead. It circled and dived down, buzzed the lawn before pulling up. As it made its patrol above Murray, he hunched down, shoulder muscles tensed.

Another dive, about three feet above the blades of grass. Murray drew back on his hind legs, leaped, did a half-turn in the air like an NBA player making a jump shot, his right paw out and armed for business. And missed the sparrow by a fraction of an inch.

He came smacking down on the grass in utter frustration. I distinctly heard a "Damn!" or the cat equivalent of "Curse you, Red Baron!"

They are not entirely predictable. They will do nothing but snooze or rest underneath a chair for hours. Then they will charge out as if they had an appointment and the alarm clock failed to buzz, go interrogate some stuffed toy mouse like a furry Jack Bauer or make a surprise inspection of their bowl in the kitchen. No irate pimp suspecting his employees of holding out on him can match a self-absorbed little beast demanding you get that can opener started and lay out the Tuna mix and give me my dinner this very instant. If they could slap your face, they would. Where my Friskies at, Bitch!

Okay, they're spoiled. They are vain, selfish, temperamental, promiscuous as rock stars and as violent as bikers. They are about as socially useless as Paris Hilton, but at least they don't tape a sex video. (If they did, the thing would run 5 seconds and be a blur.)

And there was a reason Bobbye and Don had those sticks on incense in their house. Not to cover traces of something illegal, but to camouflage the inevitable scents that accompany cat, from sprayed territorial markers to the litter box eternally in need of changing. An artist I once knew kept a water pistol on her hip like a marshal in Dodge City, would draw and fire on her tom before he started spraying. "Go ahead. Make my day, Fluffy."

Even the Dean of American Science Fiction could not control them entirely. Robert A. Heinlein once told us at a Continental Breakfast during a science fiction Con in Phoenix,

I don't put cats in my stories. The cat gets into the story and I can't get him out.

But I can recall more than a few times at my friend's house when a kitten would take a nap on my chest as I slept on the couch, or the stray we kept in my friend David's dorm room. He named it Thunderpussy (a name often unprintable), and it answered only to profanity. We had to give it away, so we slipped it into the hall of the nearest women's dorm. As soon as we heard "Kitty!!" we knew it had a better home, with better language and a less obscene name. "Goldenrod" was a distinct improvement as names went. It took up a career as mascot and furry ornament to the local Sorority. Certainly a more respectable line of work than David took up. He became a lawyer.


© 2011 Kenneth Spell

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