remembering my man jack
SOME MEN I have lived with would tell you I am inflexible, and fussy—that hair in the shower, for instance, or any noise or disruptions to the sanctity of sleep are just two of the legion of things I am impatient with. Jack the Demon Cat would have told another story of me, about a person who resisted but then surrendered, who got past the hair and the all-night prowling, at least this once. The other day, I lost my Jack, the one who finally got through to me. A remembrance of my longtime friend.
First this, for the record, because for all living souls it’s the deepest heart’s desire: He never suffered. Jack’s end was quick, and dignified. He had what my own doctor tells me is called a compressed morbidity—a blessedly brief time from “something’s wrong” to “it’s over,” short-cutting around prolonged illness, or debilitation. He was Jack every day of his life, which spanned about 15 years.
He was my 9/11 cat, the stray who came in from the cold that morning (or at least from the woods). There he was when I, frantic and afraid, pulled into the driveway. I had fled Manhattan after seeing planes fly into the World Trade Center from my office window, seeking refuge upstate at my then-weekend home.
He was my Welcome Wagon that morning, and soon he was also my first real pet of my own. But I was an accidental pet owner, because he adopted me. He’d lived rough for months before he identified that I would be his newest prey, after he’d knocked off many of the local weasels and flying squirrels (including those once attached to the tails above) and eluded other al fresco bunkmates from bear to coyote, bobcat to Eastern timber rattler. But I’ve told you that story before, a story that ends with the phrase, “before winter wrapped itself around us that year, my days with Jack began.”
Today, in this early raggedy rawness, my thoughts don’t want to form into some polished essay. All there is so far: fragments—the odd bits that I can remember of the time when winter wrapped itself around us again, and my days with Jack wound down.
GENETICS ASIDE, he was more canine than feline: in size (no cat carrier could accommodate my Jack), and in demeanor (if someone dared pull in the driveway, he’d jump up and growl, and head straight for the window or door).
He spoke his own language, sometimes not only with relentless mouthiness (for he was a talker), but with his distinctive pink feet that smelled of popcorn—or with the retractable claws they disguised.
“It’s time to get up” is carved into the doorframe leading to upstairs, a record of any day that I was tardy coming down. In payment for my sin of sloth, a small pile of wood shavings would await me beneath the bottom step. Some cowboys notch their guns, or belts; Jack kept his records in the moldings.
“Let me in” after an outdoor jaunt was more of a squealing, squeegee sound, at least at first. Paws moist from morning dew madly pumped on the window glass, my giant cat splayed across the big panes like Spiderman. If I was out of earshot, an indignant Jack turned up the volume, shifting his point of contact to the window’s frame and ripping deepening, long grooves into it, as if for punctuation.
To Jack, I spoke another language, one that closely resembles the vocabulary my sister and I shared when we were small. I hadn’t heard the dialect since (unless I was at my sister’s, and she was talking to her dog), or at least not until my Jack arrived.
He was also catalyst for spontaneous lyrics, set mostly to Broadway musical tunes or those of hymns or carols. He tolerated my singing, as long as there was kibble.
Now I am quiet, but in my head I hear our conversations and the score of our relationship still.
LIKE EACH OF US, Jack had his routines, his rituals: a morning drink, before dawn, from the frogpond, or best of all, if rain had fallen overnight, from an ample depression in one particular paving stone not far from the kitchen door. Delicious.
Checking all the rodent runways came next most days. And then a lot of naps.
At the start he was rough, not easy to be around, with those claws, downstream from those massive, muscular shoulders. After much blood loss, I proposed the first of many negotiations that defined our years together. The initial bargain we made:
To get a bowl of kibble, I required the semi-wildman to let me brush him. Before long, when he was hungry, he’d go stand at the bowl and scream, but wait to be brushed before taking a bite. Hilarious: my own Pavlov’s cat.
Food was always front-of-mind with Jack, who didn’t really need the kibble, anyhow, and could cook, or at least prepare sashimi, quite expertly for himself. Though easy pickings, considering their abundance in the garden, neither frogs nor birds were on his diet. I took this to be another of our mutual concessions, the way I’d agreed to live with the visual chaos of towels on the furniture, and man the DustBuster.
We were of a mind on what made an appropriate target of extermination, both obsessive about mice and voles. We always showed each other our trophies (though I did not afterward devour mine, but tossed them in the open field uphill, a treat for some raptor or fox, perhaps).
He was a stoner, and knew how to grow catnip. (By sitting on it like a mother hen, of course—how else?)
He was a man of many names—most known only to the two of us. I think for now it will stay that way. Some things are private.
FRESH SNOW has fallen overnight three times since Jack departed, and on each such morning after, there were the tracks of a domestic feline here–distinct from the resident possum’s, the squirrels’, the birds’, and the occasional rabbit’s.
The tracks indicate that someone is drinking at the frogpond’s edge, and using the stone wall of the patio as a blind for mousing, just as my guy did. I don’t know if the cat stopped by to wish its own farewell to Jack–a former hunting buddy, maybe?–or is forming a plan, perhaps, to say hello someday to me.