Rusty the Cat: A Love Story

Rusty the Cat: A Love Story September 11, 2012

I think I first realized I’d lost my heart to Rusty when I saw him lay down the law with a pomeranian. He was sprawling on his side on a bench by the mailboxes, scooping up his own creamsicle-colored fur by the tongueful. He took no apparent heed of the dog, which was trotting toward us, its pert muzzle hoisted like a regimental ensign. I’d seen the dog around, had tried to befriend it, and knew it for an explosive brat. Already it was bayonetting Rusty (through the back) with its eyes.

Finally, Rusty spotted the dog. I could tell he caught the hostile vibe. But he didn’t bolt, didn’t arch his back or hiss. Instead, a little lazily, he righted himself into the attitude heraldry experts call couchant — on his belly but alert, his head raised — and thew out a look of the purest disdain. As I try to do the moment justice, I feel guilty for not being able to play the theme song from The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. The dog’s eyes widened. Straining at its lead, it passed with gaze averted.

I can’t remember whether I said, “Rusty, you’re a chip off the old block,” or “Rusty, you’re just like your old man,” but it was something about that stupid. I don’t throw menacing looks at haughty, overgroomed strangers. (Okay, I do, but the strangers are women at Scottsdale Fashion Square Mall. If they weren’t so haughty, they’d know the looks weren’t supposed to be menacing.) I’m not Rusty’s father, even in an adoptive sense. In fact, Rusty’s name isn’t really “Rusty,” except to me. But Rusty generally allows me to live out this fantasy, where pet ownership and parenthood become conflated. He’s an easygoing cat, and besides, I feed him.

Rusty and I met because I am cheap. When I’m at home, I run the air conditioner as seldom as possible. During Phoenix summers, this requires throwing windows and doors wide open. One morning, as I was working on the desktop I’ve got set up on the kitchen island, I felt something brush against my leg. It was a white-and-orange tabby with a build that, in a human, would be called lanky. Its coat was rumpled, but its eyes — the color of a dollar bill’s borders — were searching mine with a calm insistence.

It did not look feral; rather, it looked greedy and unprincipled. “Shoo,” I said. “Go away, damn trustafarian cat.” It rolled over onto its back, and, in a sort of floor barre, wrapped its hind paws around my leg. Deciding that nudging it away with my foot would be a little too much like kicking it, I reached down to pry it off. As my fingers sank into the fur covering its belly, I realized the cat wasn’t lanky but emaciated. I could almost have spanned its trunk with my thumb and forefinger. The thing might have been newly liberated from Cathausen.

It was the holocaust comparison that opened my heart, or at any rate, my refrigerator. I peeled two slices of First Street turkey from the cellophane packet and tossed them on the floor. “There,” I said. “You can’t say I never gave you anything.” Then I returned to work. An hour or so later, I looked up to find the cat gone and tiny parentheses of turkey breast littering the floor where it had been standing. Whatever troubles it had seen, the cat was still finicky enough to reject crusts, even turkey crusts.

I should explain that I have never been a cat person. Cats, for me, have always symbolized family dysfunction. When I was very young, my parents had a cat named Maude. After they divorced and sold their house, Maude disappeared. Neither parent could find any room in her life for her, which at the time also struck me as the basis of the joint-custody arrangement to which I was subject. My grandparents kept a Siamese named Sam, a brute as old in cat years as they were in human years, who once slashed open my cheek. My dad’s fifth wife had a silent, skulking ink spot named Morgan. I won’t say it was her spirit familiar, but I’ve always had my suspicions.

I call myself a dog person, but with the uneasy awareness that the title requires an asterisk. I do love dogs — I appreciate their good nature and play favorites among the various breeds. I bond easily with them, and can even, to a point, discipline them. But I’ve never gone the full Marley by actually adopting one. Though I’d rank my relationship with my best friend’s basset hound among the most edifying and fulfilling of my life, it is the relationship of an uncle to his niece, or of a godparent to a godchild. As far back as I can remember, I’ve tended to vanish into the cyclones of my own thoughts. At this point in my life, I’m happy that way. Assuming primary responsibility for a puddle-making shoe-chewer would spell misery for one or both of us.

So when the cat crept back in a few days later, I felt, once again, like my good nature was being imposed upon. But I could not help admiring its silent grace. Almost immediately after I moved into this apartment, the cable that runs from my wall jack to my modem somehow got tangled around the base of my Ikea swivel chair. Freeing the two without damaging either would take a team of engineers. As a result, the cable is drawn taut about three inches above the floor, like a Vietcong tripwire. Daintily raising each paw in turn, the cat negotiated the obstacle without incident, a feat I have seen humans fail at and would never entrust to a dog.

“All right, then,” I told it. “Let skill and enterprise be rewarded.” I tossed it two more slices of turkey. The cat prodded the slabs with his paw, then sniffed them, then licked them. Finally, with what seemed to be a sigh, he began, silently, to eat.

Its reluctance pricked my pride. There’s something trashy about serving guests from the bottom of the barrel. I remembered hearing how Star Jones and her husband feasted on lobster at their wedding while guests made do with chicken. “Fine,” I said. “You come back another day, and I’ll feed you tuna — Wal-Mart brand, not Chicken of the Sea, but still.”

The cat did come back, and I did feed it tuna. It came back the next day, and I fed it again. The rasping of the cans against the imitation hardwood floor became white noise, a brainstorming aid like a CD of flowing water or whale calls. The cat began overstaying his mealtime, rubbing up against my leg and offering his belly to my fingers. We taught each other a kind of patty-cake, in which I’d tickle it and it would push my hands away gently. One day after our petting session, it disappeared. I assumed it had wandered back out the front door, but two hours later it slunk back in from the bedroom. Apparently, it had given itself the grand tour.

After that, it claimed the run of the place. It would wander in for its rations, linger for playtime, then disappear through the bedroom door. After an hour, I’d look in to find it stretched out on the futon, or on a pile of papers I’d left on the floor. If it was sleeping, it was a light sleeper; as soon as it sensed my presence, it would crack one eye and look at me blearily before shifting positions and closing its eye again. On one especially humid day, I flipped on the swamp cooler for its comfort. When the ancient gears belched into action, the cat looked up sharply and swiveled its head to face the noise. After a few moments, its investigation apparently complete, it lowered its head. It hadn’t moved a muscle below its neck.

I had the sense of being chosen. I began to make inquiries among my cat person friends. One told me that my frequent guest was almost certainly male. “Ninety percent of all orange cats are boys,” she said. “Garfield was true to life in that respect.” Others offered a prospectus of stray-rescue success stories. In what sounded like the feline equivalent of a movie star’s dscovery while dancing at a gentlemen’s club, one skittish stray began begging food from a Scottsdale family. Her distress so touched the mother that the woman coaxed her inside by degrees and made her a member of the household. Grown fat and silky, the cat now spends most of her days sleeping on sheets from Bed, Bath and Beyond.

Of all my friends who advocate for felis silvestris catus, one of the most ardent happens to be a native of Montreal. A red-headed outfielder named Rusty Staub played for the Expos back in the 1970s. Staub endeared himself to the locals, who nicknamed him “Le Grand Orange.” The man and the cat shared a hair color, so they might as well share a name, I thought. Besides, Staub ended his career with the New York Mets, and I was coming to hope that Rusty the cat would decide to serve out his career with me.

But Rusty preferred to remain a free agent, or so it seemed. He never spent more than a couple hours in my apartment. Once I looked outside and saw him drinking from a puddle. Frantic to spare him feline malaria, or whatever cats catch from brackish water, I filled a bowl from the kitchen tap and presented it to him with great ceremony. He gave it the same dull stare he’d given the meatballs I’d once offered him. Figuring he might be guarding his dignity, I left the bowl on the sidewalk. When I returned, 45 minutes later, it was still full.

By then, I had long since run out of tuna fish and had taken to buying real cat food — Friskies, turkey cheese dinner in gravy. (It cost $0.50 more per can than Wal-Mart tuna, and I didn’t mind telling Rusty so.) One morning, he sauntered in before I’d had a chance to re-stock. “Wait here just a minute, Rusty,” I said, barely able to clamp off the words “Daddy’s going to get din-dins,” and locked him in the apartment while I walked to the nearest Circle K. After the seven minute, forty-five-second return trip, I saw Rusty standing on tiptoe on my windowsill, looking as terrified as any defendant in a bulletproof cage. The moment I opened the door, he bolted out. Din-dins brought him back, but barely.

“Guard your heart,” a Facebook friend advised me. “He may have another family somewhere.” When I first read this, I imagined Rusty’s wife and kids, all scrawnier versions of himself, staring glassy-eyed from some shanty like figures in a Walker Evans photograph and wondering why Pa managed to come home every night with turkey and cheese on his breath. I was ready to grab Rusty by the scruff of his neck and give him a good shake for being so irresponsible when I realized she had meant a human family. He had no collar, and seemed to do all his own grooming, so that didn’t seem likely. Even so, I began wondering where my heart might find a Kevlar vest.

One Saturday morning, I was strolling by the tennis courts when I saw my neighbor, Sandra, pinned against the fence by Brutus, her pit-sharpei mix. Once I had loved Brutus, and gained entry into the small circle of humans who could pry a ball out of his mouth. That felt like a lifetime ago, before I’d learned to be mesmerized by the sight of Rusty cleaning himself, hind leg tucked, sadhu-like, behind his head. Trotting to Sandra’s rescue, I soon found myself doing my best Chubby Checker to keep Brutus’ boulder of a head out of my crotch.

“I think I may be converting to cats,” I told Sandra. “I’m thinking of adopting a stray.”

When I described Rusty, she laughed. “That cat? Really? Everyone feeds him. He’s the whore of the complex.” I demanded names. She said that Rusty was sort of a rotating project. First one old lady fed him tuna. When she moved away, a young couple left him pizza and wings. “He never goes hungry, but he never gets fat,” Sandra said to me, and then, to Brutus, who had clamped his jaws around her shoe, “Better cut that out, or I’ll have your nuts cut off, buddy.”

I felt myself cooling off. When Rusty came the next day, I played hard to get, refusing to feed him until he’d turned round my leg like a stripper round a pole and started mewling. I looked for evidence of treachery and found it. That evening, I saw him lying on the bench by the mailboxes — our bench, I thought — allowing himself to be stroked by some student in hipster glasses. The next morning when I stepped outside to test the weather, I looked up toward my neighbor’s balcony. There he was, lying at my neighbor’s feet, looking as languid and content as he ever had at mine.

I gave Rusty a hard stare. When his eyes found mine, they widened a little. “Oh…hi,” I could practically hear him saying. “This is awkward, isn’t it?” But then he sprang up and dashed down the stairs, pausing a step above me as if to ask, “We’re still cool, right?”

I meditated on his swishing tail. My apartment complex charges a $200 annual pet deposit. If Rusty and I were to go exclusive, I’d have to pay that, plus vet fees, as well as shelling out for beds and chew toys and a collar. Given my slender income, my own hand-to-mouth lifestyle, that would hurt. A veterinary emergency could prove ruinous. I am a freelance writer; Rusty is a freelance cat. I was the part-time son of a part-time father; Rusty and I give each other two hours a day, neither crimping the other’s style. That may not sound like much, but for me, it’s been a lot, and it may turn out to be just enough.

“Yeah, we’re cool,” I told him, and opened the door.

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