by Gary Inbinder
When I play with my cat, who knows whether she is amusing herself with me, rather than I with her? — Michel de Montaigne
When my woman plays with me, who knows whether I am amusing myself with her, rather than she with me? — Kafka the Cat
I’m Kafka the Cat. This morning I crouch in a dry corner under the gas barbecue next to the plate glass door, my usual spot on Eustacia Rabinowicz’s patio. It’s chilly and dark; I reckon it’s about five-thirty. An awning shelters me from shiver-making drizzle. So I’m better off than One-Eyed Bandit, that poor tiger-striped schmuck yowling by the dumpster in the alley. He won’t come here. This is my territory, and I’ve got the battle scars to prove it. How do you think old Bandit got to be One-Eyed, eh?
My friends, when it comes to territoriality we cats are like humans. You wave flags; we shake our tails and piss. When things get rough hereabouts, Old Black Tom, Bootikins and Wowzer intervene. They’re our Security Council.
“Kafka got to the woman first,” they ruled. “He marked his territory according to Article One, Section Eight of the International Feline Charter and he fought the intruding aggressor Bandit fair and square. So Kafka is declared the official Rabinowicz cat, and that’s final. And if Bandit thinks otherwise he’ll answer to our coalition.” Case closed, just like your United Nations.
As for my woman, Ms. Rabinowicz, she must be rolling her rotund behind out of bed about now. Come on lady, your kitty’s little tummy is growling! Sorry for this digression, but at the moment I’m fixated on necessities: my daily saucer of milk and bowl of Tuna and Chicken Kitty Delight and Frisky Treats. I think I’ll pad over to the screen door, put up my paws and demand my rights, meowing pathetically. That’ll get her attention.
Yes, yes I see a glimmer of light in the hallway. The toilet flushes and there she is, a shadowy figure waddling out of the john in tatty negligee and flip-flops, off to the kitchen to get my breakfast. Bravo!
Wait a minute. What’s she up to? Oh no, she’s making coffee. “Meowrrr! Meowrr!” Holy Felix, woman, feed me! You’ve got time to stop for coffee at McDonald’s on your way to work.
All right, she’s looking this way. That last sorrowful meow must have done the trick. Her nebulous figure approaches. A latch clicks; the patio lights glow yellow; the screen and plate glass door slide on their runners, rumbling through the grooves.
Ms. Rabinowicz hunkers down and sets my breakfast on her warm, dry threshold. I lap milk and nibble kibble. Oh my friends, this is so tasty and satisfying!
“Poor little Kafka, you must be starving,” says she as she strokes my neck fur with her pudgy fingers.
No kidding, but I let her pet to her heart’s content, as long as she doesn’t interfere with my meal.
She pats my rump affectionately. “Oh Kafka,” she sighs, “if only my life were as simple as yours.”
Simple? She thinks a cat’s life is simple? The woman’s got another think coming. Our natural state is red in tooth and claw: cat eat cat, survival of the fittest. Only the privileged class, the house cats, escapes the back-alley jungle, paying dearly for the “privilege” often with their genitals (the means to our feline future) and worse yet with their claws, essential to our self-defense and self-sustenance, without which we are reduced to beggarly victimhood.
And what do you think happens to those now degraded, formerly privileged, cats when their humans cruelly abandon them? Desirable females might have a chance of survival if they immediately hook up with a truculent Tom. The rest are dead meat walking — or just plain dead meat.
The first day on their own they might become road kill or the victim of a belligerent Tom, fall prey to our numerous natural enemies, or worst of all, be snatched for medical experiments. And if you happen to be black, every Halloween is an ordeal, a festival of torment wherein our feline survival skills are taxed to their limits.
Some strays are picked up and taken to shelters, where the lucky ones are adopted. For the remainder, it’s often the poisonous needle or asphyxiation, and then the oven.
Speaking of cats in heat, I’ve lately noticed certain signs in Ms. Rabinowicz. She’s often weepy, and has taken to fondling me, holding me on her lap, petting and caressing me while telling me her troubles, most of which seem related to the male of her species. She once told me I was the only one who gave her “unconditional love.” In her dreams, I suppose. Let’s be frank. A cat’s love is conditioned on requisites like food, shelter, and respect for our cat nature. Unconditional love must be a human fantasy.
I don’t mind this interspecific affaire de cœur, up to a point; in fact I’ve become accustomed to her demonstrations of affection. I have also adjusted to her rather pleasing natural scent, like warm milk and sardines, an odor which, for some inexplicable (no doubt human) reason, she masks with frequent showers and perfume. But despite her tender attentions I insist on maintaining my independence. After all, I have a reputation in the feline world that exists beyond the scope of Ms. Rabinowicz’s limited experience.
“Meowrrr!” A lightning flash and a blast of thunder startle me. Wriggling away from Ms. Rabinowicz, I scamper under the gas barbecue where I tremble and meow pitifully. Rain splatters the awning; water cascades down, swirling and pooling over the exposed flagstones.
“Poor kitty,” she sighs. “Come on, you may stay in the house where it’s nice, warm and dry.” She holds out her hands invitingly.
I gaze at her with my most appealing wide-eyed stare. This is a moment of decision, my friends. Is she offering me the life of a house cat, with all that implies? Or is it just a temporary accommodation? Another thunder-clap strong enough to rattle the plate-glass door cuts short my deliberation. I dash over the threshold and huddle beneath the coffee table next to her living room couch.
She smiles and reminds me of the house rules. “Now Kafka, I have to get ready for work. I’ll put your bowls in the kitchen with plenty of food and water. And you know where your litter box is.”
Let me explain. She’s allowed me in for brief visits in the evening, after she comes home from work. And I’ve been welcome to roam the house on the weekends, too. At all times, I’ve behaved well and have been scrupulous when it comes to cleanliness. Based upon my past behavior, she is now extending my privileges, allowing me the run of the house until she returns. Such trust! Overwhelmed with gratitude, I meow my thanks.
I’ve already described the downside of being a house cat; I intend to guard my honorable reputation, not to mention my testicles and claws. On the other paw, I’m quite content to be warm, dry and well fed while a storm rages outside. So I’m going to take the good things as they come, and not worry about any possible bad consequences until they manifest themselves.
Content for the time being, I remain under the coffee table until I see her now fully dressed figure walking through the hallway to the front hall closet. She puts on her raincoat and grabs an umbrella. I saunter to her, lift my tail, close my eyes and rub my muzzle against her legs.
She reaches down and scratches behind my ear; I purr my appreciation.
“Now be a good boy while mommy’s at work.”
I gaze up at her quizzically. Great Felix, woman, will you make up your mind? Am I your substitute lover or your surrogate child?
Apparently unconcerned about the ambiguity of our relationship, she exits, raises her umbrella and braves the torrent. The door shuts, the locks click. Alone at last, I patrol my domain.
* * *
Yawwwwn! Pardon me, my friends. I dozed off. Now it’s time for a stretch, followed by a nice tongue bath. Then, sharpen the claws. The couch seems ideal for that purpose.
But as I rest my forepaws on a plump, cut velvet cushion, a vision hovers before me. It’s Ms. Rabinowicz standing at the door this morning. She looks down at me with a sparkle in her dark brown eyes, blood-red lips smiling suggestively. “Now be a good boy while mommy’s at work.” That kindly admonition carried an implied threat of punishment. Yes, I remember that distinctly. But I’m not her boy — good, bad, or indifferent. I’m Kafka the Cat.
I’ve always sharpened my claws outside, and I suppose that’s one of the reasons she’s trusted me in the house. But to be a good feline one must remain true to one’s cat nature. And it is characteristic of my family to be mousers; the best among us have the distinction of being very good mousers indeed. All good mousers have sharp claws; Kafka the Cat is a good mouser; Therefore, Kafka the Cat has sharp claws. My dear old mom, Great Felix bless her, taught me that syllogism, and she also taught me to hone my natural weapons to razor-like keenness.
Ms. Rabinowicz’s couch, which as I recall she had inherited from her grandmother and which she’s had reupholstered at considerable expense, has just the right texture for claw-sharpening. It’s a dilemma, for sure. But I’ll resist temptation — for the time being, at any rate.
The storm’s still raging. Raindrops pummel the roof; gazing out through the plate glass door I see a veritable waterfall cascading from the gutters. It’s still quite dark, but that’s nothing to me; my superior feline eyesight penetrates the murkiest gloom.
Yawwwnn! Excuse me, my friends. I guess I’ll reconnoiter the kitchen and make sure it’s free from pests. The woman will thank me for my vigilance, I’m sure. Perhaps she’ll show her gratitude with an extra helping of treats for dinner. Ah, I can hardly wait!
I turn the corner round the living room bar and — what’s that? A scampering along the kitchen skirting board, a faint squeaking — by Felix, it’s a mouse! I’m off like a shot, into the kitchen, skittering over slick tile. There it is. You’re dead meat, mouse! Whoops, not that way, sucker. Cut him off, cut him off. Now you’re cornered!
Shaking with fear, it cowers in a dusty space between the fridge and a row of cabinets. There’s no exit, you nasty vermin. Beady little eyes gaze with horror into my shining emerald orbs of doom.
My right forepaw probes the narrow space with claws extended. The quivering wretch backs away, squeaks and relieves itself on the floor. This isn’t the cartoons, chump. No-one’s rooting for the undermouse. Ha! Gotcha! Now it’s playtime.
I omit details of the next few minutes in deference to the squeamish. Suffice it to say that my cat nature compelled me to engage in healthy, recreational activity prior to dispatching my prey. Now having received the coup de grâce, the mangled, blood-dribbling rodent hangs limp in my claws.
Time has flown. The front lock clicks; Ms. Rabinowicz is home. Oh how pleased she’ll be, for I have been the very best of “boys” — or cats. Her furniture remains unscratched, there’s nary a hairball, drop of cat pee or the tiniest plop of poop outside my litter box. Not an article in the house broken or upset, and a pest exterminated for good measure.
I hear her light-treading high heels as she approaches. She flicks on the light. “There you are, Kafka, I—” Her eyes widen, a hand covers her mouth. “Oh — my — God!”
I grip the flayed carcass with my teeth, saunter over and drop the prize at her feet. I gaze up with sparkling eyes and meow: “Look mommy, or lover, or whatever interspecific fantasy relationship you prefer, see the nice present your Kafka has brought you?”
To my chagrin, she shakes her head with her palm still covering her mouth. Then, she drops her hand and commands: “Take it away, now!” She points toward the front door.
Bewildered by her response, I pick up my prey and, tail lowered, pad forlornly to the threshold.
She opens the door. Oh no, it’s bone-chilling cold and the rain is coming down in buckets. Surely, she won’t chuck me out? I glance back at her imploringly, mouse in mouth.
“Out, bad kitty,” she growls and spanks me to emphasize her meaning.
I scamper into the sodden shrubbery that lines the front walkway. She slams the door shut; the lock clicks with the gloomy finality of a dungeon bolt.
Oh, my friends, it’s a cat’s life for sure. But at least I’m better off than this mouse. Speaking of the rodent, I’ll dump him here and move on. I’m not the least bit hungry. Thank Felix I had two good meals today, courtesy of the apparently fickle Ms. R. But I wonder if she’ll feed me tomorrow? With the prospect of a lost source of sustenance looming on the horizon, I slink through the soggy bushes. Seeking shelter, I run into Old Black Tom huddling under a dripping shrub.
“Greetings, young Kafka,” he meows.
“Good evening, sir,” I reply dejectedly.
“What’s this? The irrepressibly cheerful Kafka gone glum, all of a sudden? I’ll bet you’ve had trouble with your woman, eh?”
The wise old cat seems to have read my mind. “Sir, I’ll admit I’m perplexed. Everything appeared to be going perfectly. Ms. Rabinowicz invited me into her house. She trusted me while she went to work. As far as I can tell, my behavior was exemplary. I even killed a mouse and presented it to her when she returned, just as though she were my own, dear mother. But she rejected my offering and threw me out into the storm. What in the name of Felix did I do wrong?”
Old Black Tom pondered for a moment, and then sighed (or meowed, if you please). “You did nothing wrong, Kafka. We are what Felix made us, after all. ‘Feline is feline, and human is human’ said the poet. Their ways are strange, young Kafka, and strangest of all are the ways of the female of the species. They are the most likely to care for us, when we meet their expectations that is. But if we fall short, well that’s another matter.
“Nevertheless, I advise you to return tomorrow morning to your spot on Ms. Rabinowicz’s patio. I expect whatever fault she found will be forgiven and you’ll get your breakfast as usual. Just be contrite and appealing; don’t try to understand her.” Having dispensed his sage advice, Old Black Tom slouched away toward the dumpster.
* * *
A dry, mild sunrise: here am I the day after the storm, lapping milk and nibbling my favorite cat food on Ms. Rabinowicz’s patio. All seems forgiven as the wise old Tom predicted, but I am not her house cat, and never will be, and to my way of thinking that’s for the best.
We remain true to our nature, for then as surely as Tom chases Jerry, we cannot be false to any cat. Now that I’ve eaten my fill, I think I’ll prowl a bit. I feel up for some yowling-good alley-humping with my pretty Miss Kitty. And woe betides the Tom who gets in my way. Then I’ll be off to the apartment complex on the hill to visit my writer friend, Mr. Nemo. He’s always good for a stimulating conversation accompanied by a saucer of cream and a few treats.
Nemo seems obsessed with felines, and he’s always seeking new material for his never-ending “Cat Tales.” If I were human, I might worry about the psychological implications of such an obsession. At any rate, I’ll recount my experience (with some judicious embellishment) of the past twenty-four hours, a fair exchange for his comradeship and generosity. As for who’s playing with whom, I’ll leave that question for you to decide.
Copyright © 2012 by Gary Inbinder