my familiar

turning on the camera woke him up from nappingDuring the days, this beastie is my attendant spirit in animal form. In this picture to the right, he’s offended, per usual. I don’t mean to offend him, but it’s so easy. He’s a prickly little man.

One day, eleven years ago, I took a long lunch with some coworker gals, one of whom needed to run to Wal-Mart. It was June in Georgia, a brutally muggy and sunny day. Outside the left entrance were a few children with a box of kittens—squealing, meowling kittens as skinny and dirty as the children giving them away. There was a Cool Whip bowl with filthy water inside the box. Any other day I might have passed them by, but not that day. If you’d been there, you would have seen the caption to the scene: Daddy says we kin drown the others in the crick what’s left over. I told them to save me one of the gray males, and inside Wal-Mart I picked up a bag of Kitten Chow. When I claimed the kitten, the oldest child picked him up by his rear leg to hand him to me.

The little bit of fur cried and scratched the whole ride home. I marveled at his feet, so huge for his palm-sized body, and his voice, an awful blend of Crypt Keeper and Linda Richman, which he’s never outgrown. 

I tried to name this cat for a long time. My other two cats’ names came to me like lightning, but this loud, oppy* kitten with its funny walk and skittish manner refused to be named. For weeks, he went from Guinness to Spike to Tiger to Smoke to Nermal. Nothing suited, and in conversation I called him the baby cat, waiting for the right name to come. Instead, he learned that his name was the baby. And so that is who he is now, the baby, no capital letters, with the definite inclusion of the definite article. Yes, it makes me sound strange when I pick him up from the vet and, without thinking, tell the technician “I’m here to pick up the baby.” But he has no other name. And he is very, very precisely the baby. 

I know. It’s awful. I’m sorry. He did deserve better. My cantankerous vet in Athens took her glasses off and wiped them when she saw him. “It’s a silver tabby!” (Not a purebred by any stretch, but still.) “That’s a three-hundred-dollar cat!” (Um, no.) And every subsequent visit she raised his value another hundred dollars, and kept his file under one of his old names. 

Although he grew bigger than either of my other two cats, he stayed rangy and lean, and his face looked babyish for years. One of the others, a squat, muscular tuxedo cat, pummeled him relentlessly, and the baby learned submission. It was easy for him, because I think the people who’d put him in that box on that hot day hadn’t been very nice to him. He never liked being picked up or held too closely, and the slightest movement will startle him out of a cozy, spoony snuggle. (“Scaredy” might have been a good name for him.) The tux handled my cross-continent moves with sleek grace, his face in the breeze of the car air conditioner, and the silver longhair slept the rides away patiently, but the baby hid in the back and yowled through more US states than a lot of human Americans have ever visited. And when we finally got to this house, he lived on top of the kitchen cabinets for the first day or two until he realized he was home for good, and then he came down to find new favorite spots and to critique patches of sun with all the discrimination of The Phantom Diner.

With the other two cats gone by now, he’s the alpha of the house. His face doesn’t look babyish anymore; his new vet calls him a Senior Cat (a very important title, just as important as alpha) and his lanky body has filled out. And he’s grown up, too, and his name suits him even less. He now climbs up on laps when they’re available, he head-butts any hand (occupied or unoccupied) for petting, and he prowls the downstairs like a sentinel, keeping a weather eye for the enemy: chipmunks and squirrels that come too close to the house. His odd voice still rings out when he wakes himself up from a dream, though, and then he’ll come to find one of us to tell us all about it, at length, with many meows. I’m pretty sure he’s suggesting story ideas, but I’m not smart enough to learn his language.

* I realized that probably no one else uses the word “oppy” so I went to check (nsfw) Urban Dictionary, and it’s there. The bigger surprise is that my high school is mentioned there in definition 2. Jeepers, we’re famous for Joe Montana and… oppy. Sigh.