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Monday, April 4, 2005
By Paul Ford
A pleasant fellow expires.
My mother came to New York City for a visit and I introduced her to my orange cat. I rename him every month. In February I named him Abraham Lincoln, and in March he was Pierre Trudeau. I had yet to pick an April name, so I called him by his default, TK. We rolled him over to look at his white stomach and scratched his belly, saying hello. He put up with it for a moment, a little nervous, then suddenly made a long keening noise. He purred violently for two seconds, his entire body shaking, and then he died.
I didn't understand that this had happened. “He's never made that noise before,” I said. “He's getting nervous. Let me take him back to the other room.” There, I dispatched him to the floor. He did not land on his feet; he hit the boards with a thud, splayed out. Shocked, I picked him up and put him on the bed, saying his name over and over. “Hey baby,” I said, “hey! Hey!” But he didn't respond; he was limp, lost, and gone.
I called my girlfriend. “I killed the cat,” I said. She said she'd come right over. My mother helped me put a gray blanket underneath him. I put his tongue back in his mouth and pinched his eyes shut, seeing then that his pink paws were turning white.
My girlfriend arrived and my mother stepped out for a few moments. “Can I tell you what happened?” I said to my girlfriend, and she said yes. I went over every detail of the last half hour. She listened with her hand over mine. “You did not kill the cat,” she said. Then she made some calls. Late on Saturday night in New York, a city where very few people have backyards, there aren't many options for a dignified funeral. The closest all-night pet crematorium was on 63rd St. in Manhattan, which meant an hour on the train. We considered burying him at a construction site, breaking in and digging in the earth with a little shovel, but the image of bulldozers cutting his small body in half was too sad to bear. He leaked urine onto the blanket.
“Sometimes cats up and die,” said my girlfriend, who has had many cats.
“He is dead, right?” I said. “There's no chance he's inside there suffering or paralyzed or something?” I pulled back his lips to look at his gums; they were gray.
“No,” said my girlfriend, “his tongue is black. That cat is dead.”
“Jesus,” I said. What the hell? Last night he had come into the bathroom to accompany me while I showered, putting his paws on the rim of the tub and looking up in an expression of baffled wonder. I'd reached out of the shower to scratch his ears. Now he was prone on my bed, a bag of rags and bones.
“I guess I'd better say goodbye,” I said, exhaling. I put my hand on his soft white stomach and delivered this eulogy: “You were a great friend to me and I loved you a lot. We had a fine time together. I'm really going to miss you. I can't believe you died.”
We wrapped him in the blanket and put both cat and blanket into a pillowcase. Into the pillowcase with him I placed his favorite toy—a piece of string tied to a cylinder of stiff twine—and a half-finished bag of his food. My mother held open a garbage bag, and I slid everything into that and carried him downstairs, cradling the bundle in my arms. I couldn't tie the bag shut. Somehow that would have made him into trash, and also, if some miracle occurred, and he sprang back to life, I wanted him to have a chance to escape.
In front of my building on 9th St., in the rain, I rested him inside one of the metal trash cans. “Good luck,” I said. I gently pushed the lid back onto the trash can.
I put my mother to bed. My girlfriend and I walked over to her place, a few blocks away. We drank a few beers. It was only nine but I wanted to go to sleep; my girlfriend asked me to stay up so that I wouldn't wake up at three AM, tossing in bed. We watched television. The pope had just died, and the networks were showing archival footage of massive Catholic rallies and of the Popemobile driving through the streets of cities, the pope in white robes, small and stooped, waving from behind bulletproof glass. In the 1980s, the television told us, the pope watched a singing man with no arms play guitar with his feet, and when the man was finished playing his song the pope embraced him. As luck would have it, that armless man was live in the studio and wanted to talk about that very special day.
We went to bed and talked about how much fun the cat had been. We agreed that he was a sick cat, with FIV, and maybe he was older than we knew. “He's rubbing the pope's ankles right now in heaven,” said my girlfriend, even though we both know that animals can't go to Catholic heaven, and that there is no heaven in the first place. We laughed about his Brooklyn funeral. The garbage trucks come on Tuesday. A little later I shook my head and said, “I keep thinking that you and I will have a baby and it will die.” It turned out she was thinking the same thing. We talked about that, and agreed that the death of the cat did not mean our potential future baby would die as well. The bleakness of that night would not permeate our lives, even if it felt like it would right then. I knew I would be crestfallen when I went back home and he did not trot up and mewl. He was a gentle, affectionate little fellow and his thumb-sized heart was always beating when I walked in the door.