I WAS GOING TO SKIP ANY MENTION of 9/11, not because it’s not on my mind, but it’s tricky: Today marks the 10th anniversary of one of the primary catalysts for my eventual exit from city living, for my withdrawal from the mainstream, and also the day that Jack the Demon Cat came to live with me.
SEPTEMBER 11, 2011–Ten years ago today, I raced out of Manhattan after watching through my office window as the second plane hit the Trade Center. “Thousands of people have just died,” I said to my colleague, seeing the impact and the immediate flames. I don’t know where that came from, but it was how it looked to me right then.
Let this excerpt from my recent book, “And I Shall Have Some Peace There,” tell the rest of the story of what happened next as I drove faster and faster north toward my weekend home, the place I now live fulltime, a story of finding some measure of peace and comfort even in unspeakably uncomfortable times:
FRANTIC AT THE BULLETINS and the chopper noise and all of it, I said good-bye [to the city] and hurried onward, farther north, as if there would be solace if I just kept running.
What there was instead was a large black cat, a cat I’d seen just once before but who was standing in the eerie, stunning sunlight of that day, who rolled delightedly in the warm driveway gravel of my weekend home and bared his belly as if we’d known each other for a lifetime, as if to say, Welcome home. Our one previous meeting had been three months earlier, when in the middle of a birthday party I’d given for myself, a party with a boisterous group of forty-ﬁve margarita-ﬁlled adults spilling out into the yard in all directions from the tiny house, he’d apparently just walked in and shown himself to a real cat person in the group, who (a bit tipsy herself) had carried him inside to me.
I was at the stove, the oven door ajar, serving up still-hot shortcake biscuits with strawberries and cream at that very moment, engineering an assembly line of homemade dessert for nearly four dozen. There had just been a small mishap with the handheld electric beater, sending foamy cream-colored splatters everywhere, but people were holding out plates to get them ﬁlled, as if they didn’t notice the spray of recently airborne cream on me, the wall, the appliances—or simply didn’t care. That was when I ﬁrst met the black cat, and promptly asked that Susan, the person presenting him to me in the midst of this drunken, whipped-cream chaos, please get him out of here. I am, you see, not a cat person.
I am a bird person, and cats are a leading enemy of songbirds. After collisions with window glass, which is the top killer of songbirds in residential environments, cats rate next on the lethal list, killing hundreds of millions of birds a year in the United States alone, says the Audubon Society. I have spent my adulthood reading about and watching birds as a passionate amateur hobby, if not an obsession, and making a garden speciﬁcally geared to welcoming them year-round. I know better than to want a cat here with me, unless it was a cat who wanted to live indoors, a truly domesticated cat, the couch-and-bed type. Did I mention how much I dislike pet hair on my ﬂoors and furniture and clothing?
This very large black and white male cat—a fur pattern for obvious reason referred to as tuxedo—being held out like a live offering in my direction from Susan’s arms was that tricky mix of wild and tame that I’d known in too many men already (always ones carefully chosen for their low body-hair count, I might add, so that at least that one thing about them would not rankle me, or cause me extra work). Get him out of here. Of course, he never did get out, but apparently kept an eye on me, gauging the right moment to make his next move toward his version of domestic bliss. He was christened Jack a few months hence, when he joined me for good the morning of September 11 and parked himself in a wooden box on the back porch, basking in the deceptive light and warmth of that darkest of mid-September days. “Jack in the Box,” said Susan’s longtime partner, Harry, after she’d told him of coming back a few days later to ﬁnd us—me, and this cat—still sitting out there with NPR playing on the boombox, trying to fathom the world’s new landscape. And so it was: Jack.
Be grateful to everyone.
At nearly sixteen pounds, the vet called Jack “big boned” when Susan took him in a week or two thereafter, and in fact he was not fat but wildly muscular, built like a miniature black panther and with all the moves, lowering himself to ground level and waiting, completely still, sometimes for half an hour until the very moment to positively race and then pounce upon his prey with shocking accuracy. Owing to his evolutionary ancestors, Jack sleeps most of the day and hunts at night. Fierce as he is, I should have named him Huey (for Newton) or Bobby (Seale), perhaps; he has certainly caused a revolution in my life. We also learned that he was about two years old, and had been neutered; probably, the vet said, a cat someone had not wanted anymore, a trade-in. Or maybe he had just grown sick of his old life and walked out one day.
It was Susan, who helps me in the garden and who in my city years was also the de facto caretaker here, whom Jack regarded as his owner, I think, at least at ﬁrst, and to this day only Susan has ever done the vet appointments, tossing him into the pickup (no pet carrier or cage will ever know this cat) in the same madcap way she pulls him around on her tarp through the garden, a pile of trimmings or weeds and a heap of doglike Jack. She calls him Pum-kin, no “p” discernible in the middle. I call him something else: I call him Potentate.
In our years together this animal, himself an offering I’d at ﬁrst refused ( do not look a gift cat in the mouth? ) and then inadvertently adopted, has brought me many offerings. There have been mouse ass-ends, tail attached; mouse ass-ends, tail missing; mouse tails, no ass attached; moles and chipmunks, limp but outwardly undamaged (not good eating, apparently); young rabbits and possums, their spines slack, with portions of their fuselage missing; the distinctive furry tails of countless weasels (an animal I wish he didn’t have such a taste for, as important as they are in keeping order in the native food chain); and so many parts whose origin was unknown—gizzardlike hard bits, occasional smears of whole intestines, and mostly just not-yet-quite-dried pools of red blood on my green back-porch ﬂoor. Merry Christmas? Did I fail to mention that I have been a vegetarian for more than thirty years?
And yes, of course, the marauding carnivore that is Jack had even delivered the occasional bird, and once or twice in the ﬁrst years together, one of my beloved frogs. We have not always done so well, wild man Jack and I, Jack the Demon Cat; there have been dark days between us, days when we did not speak. I was, after all, the Accidental Pet Owner, and (remember) not a cat person.
And he had been living in the woods before we dubbed him Jack. Alone in the woods [like I am now].
“I heard that black cat who’s been hanging around the woods is with you now,” Deb, one half of the cat-loving couple who live a steep and rugged mile’s distance up the adjacent road, said later that fall. News of my liaison, my broken resolve to live forever petless, had spread. People here have multiple serious pets with a purpose—barn cats, or mousers; dogs that hunt or retrieve fowl—and also farm animals. I had none, and was happy that way. “He was up here for a while,” she said, “but then he disappeared, and we saw him darting in and out of the woods down by you all these last months. We wondered where he’d gone to lately.”
When we pieced it together, it seems that apparently Jack-to-be had been fending for himself for probably half a year or longer, with three or more of those months spent watching me: the house with no animals, the place where he could maybe make a go of it. He had lived in a wild tangle of second-growth forest and adjacent ﬁeld that is also the domain of bears and coyotes, bobcats and mountain lions—and to a lesser issue if you are a cat the size of Jack, of deer, gray and red foxes, possums and raccoons, porcupines and skunks, weasels and woodchucks, and every manner of smaller vertebrate and many species of snakes. He had lived on whatever moved and wasn’t bigger or rougher or faster than he was.
And so from the glimpse on my birthday in June to the 9/11 morning in the driveway and into the wooden box out back, and then, before long, into a whole cottage of his own (a heated shed behind my house that became Jack’s, cat door and all), before winter wrapped itself around us that year, my days with Jack began.
Reprinted from “And I Shall Have Some Peace There,” copyright 2011 by Margaret Roach.
BLOODLETTING HAS ALWAYS BEEN n one of Jack’s trademarks. It was many years, at least the first seven or eight together, before he stopped attacking me and drawing blood, seemingly for no reason other than to show who was boss.
Then, after a middle-of-the-night injury one year ago this month inflicted by some prey he thought he’d subdued but hadn’t quite—the first nick of his long, violent hunting career—Jack had to stay inside for a month while a shredded paw healed after surgery. It was the first time he’d ever spent more than a few hours in the house, a bit uncomfortable for both of us.
Then he caught on: on-demand meal service, lots of upholstered furniture to plunder and add to his territory, not one but five pod-shaped cat beds beyond that (me=sucker), central heating. Why leave? He didn’t, except to use the rest room (and no, litter boxes are not for this cat—he will let you know, like a dog, when it’s time. You had better stay alert.)
These days, it is Margaret who spends time in Jack’s shed—which is now my office.
All my household furniture is covered in sheets and towels—my only shred of self-defense against the new tenant.
And most of all:
I am a cat person, or at least a Jack person, and immensely grateful to this once-wild beast for the comfort and distraction he has provided me every day of the last tumultuous decade.