THE CAT WHO THOUGHT HE WAS SAINT NICK

We called him GM because generally his motor was running. He was a big cat, pun’kin and white (the image above isn’t him, but it’s not super far off), and an outdoor cat because my brother, his nominal master, didn’t clean the litter box as often as our mother’s nose preferred. She gave up asking, discarded the litter box, and decreed that the cat, now an adolescent kitten, be ousted at night and whenever the house was unattended.

Some cats wouldn’t have taken kindly to such treatment. GM thrived on it. Although he ultimately died young, he lived with flair and packed more adventure into a half dozen years than other cats manage in two decades. He became a hunter so self-sufficient that grocery-store cat food nearly followed the litter box into the trash. We kept a dish of dry food in the kitchen, but he seldom touched it.

Much to my relief, he showed little interest in killing birds. Nor was he much of a mouser, preferring bigger game. One morning when he was only six months old, he was waiting beside a partially-eaten squirrel, which he’d placed on the welcome mat beside the newspaper.

Whatever reward he was expecting, he didn’t get, and that was the last time he did that. But we could tell he’d had a successful evening if his belly was distended and he was unusually lazy in the morning.

His favorite prey seemed to be rabbits, which he ate in their entirety except for the big bones of the thigh and the fur-ball of the cottontail. My brother and I would tally the kills when we mowed the lawn: clunk from something hidden in the grass, an explosion of fur, and we’d chalk another up to GM. In the summer, he averaged about four a week.

My mother was delighted. The daughter of a farmer, she had no sympathy for rabbits. And in the years we had GM, she had the best gardens of her life. Long before, she’d given up hope that our dog, a 20-pound poodle named Suzy, would rid the garden of rabbits. Suzy was eager to make the attempt, but her methods, although spectacular, did more damage to the garden than to the rabbits.

When we brought him into our home as a six-week-old kitten, one of our first tasks was to introduce him to the dog.

Suzy was fascinated and approached slowly, nose outstretched, sniffing. GM caught her scent and froze. Then, calmly and deliberately, he turned to my brother, arched his back and hissed. Instinct had taught him what “dog” smelled like, but not what one looked like. My brother was mortified that for the next few days, whenever the dog was in the room, his lovable little kitten sprouted claws and spat—at him.

Soon, however, the dog and cat developed a boisterous but friendly relationship. Even though GM was an outdoor cat and Suzy an indoor dog, GM ruled the house while Suzy ruled the yard. When he was young, the cat was intrigued by her floppy poodle ears, and delighted in ambushes, hooking his claws in the long hair of her ears and allowing himself to be dragged across the floor as she rapidly backpedaled. Since GM seemed able to appear magically out of nowhere, we worried that Suzy might eventually need Valium. Then we noticed that she deliberately sought him out, repeatedly venturing into areas where the prospects for ambush were highest.

Outdoors, the tables were turned. Occasionally, GM ambushed Suzy by leaping out of the bushes, but more often, she caught him in the open.

Her approach was similar to her method for dealing with rabbits, and equally non-lethal. With no thought of stealth, she would put on a burst of speed that could cover the entire length of the yard in about three seconds. Unlike rabbits–which seem to be able to hear a dog’s thoughts—GM  rarely saw her coming. Like a fullback about to throw a running block, she would lower her shoulder and bowl him over without breaking stride. A football referee would have called it an illegal block in the back—she seldom caught him except from behind—but Suzy scored it as a clean hit. She also knew it was the last chance she’d get for at least a day; she seldom even attempted a second pass.

GM, meanwhile, would somersault spectacularly and land on his feet, back arched, ready for action. Then he’d realize what had hit him. His bristles would relax, and he’d appease his wounded dignity by pretending to ignore her, as though to say he’d know she’d been there all along and had just been going along with the game.

As Suzy slipped into middle age and GM matured, the games became less rambunctious and more cooperative. GM loved to steal balls from the Ping-pong table, batting them around the basement floor. But he was reluctant to chase them if they went too far. He’d just crouch and stare.

Dogs—even poodles—have no such reserve. Suzy was hypnotized by GM’s play, and if he stopped because the ball went out of range, she would retrieve it, bouncing it in front of him—a sure target for even the most jaded cat. It was a game that usually persisted until the ball went under the sofa.

* * *

As an outdoor cat, GM never objected to being let out at night. But he seldom wanted to be put out in the middle of the day, and he seemed to sense the prospect hours in advance. Often, just as we were on the verge of leaving, someone would say, “Where’s the cat?” and we’d realize no one had seen him for at least an hour.

Unlike a dog or a human, a cat who doesn’t want to be found is smart enough not to come when you call his name. The only way to catch him is to go looking.

We all knew his favorite hiding places, but there were a lot of them, and it could take a while to track him down. He particularly liked to burrow into the pile of dirty clothes below the laundry chute, snoozing out of sight below the surface.

Although I’ve long claimed to be mostly a dog person, I’ve always been able to call cats—even the skittish ones you meet at random on an evening walk. My college girlfriend was later to insist that I was a closet cat person. “Cats know,” she said, “even if you don’t. That’s why they come.”

However it worked, I quickly learned a sure-fire way to catch GM, but it made me feel so guilty that I used it as sparingly as possible.

The trick was to speak his language. “Come here, GM,” wouldn’t do it, and the classic, “Prrrrr, kitty, kitty. Prrrrr, kitty, kitty,” would only work if he was merely waiting for an invitation.

GM’s language consisted of two words: “Mrrmph” and “urrk.” “Mrrmph” could be either a statement or a question. It was a statement in the morning, when he was first let inside. Accompanied by leg rubbing and a purr, it required no reply but if you repeated his greeting, the leg rubbing and purr would intensify. As best I could figure it, “Mrrmph” meant, “I love you,” or “You’re the most wonderful thing in the world (at the moment).”

“Mrrmph?” phrased as a question was my invention, but he clearly understood it and could never resist. If I wandered through the basement, saying, “Mrrmph? Mrrmph?” his head would pop out of the dirty laundry, and he’d respond with his other word.

“Urrk? Urrk?”

It never failed.

That was why I felt so guilty. I was catching him because he felt obliged to respond when I told him I loved him. It didn’t seem fair.

* * *

He was never one of those revolving-door cats whose demands to be inside one moment and out the next are automatically granted. GM, the macho hunter, was expected to make up his mind and stick to his choices. So there were times when he found himself outside, wanting to come in but not allowed to because we knew that ten minutes later he’d be wanting back out.

It must have been at a time like this that he discovered the chimney.

My brother was first aware that something was amiss when he heard the cat meowing, but couldn’t find him. He wandered around the house, discovering that the noise was loudest in the basement. “I think he’s in one of the walls!” he exclaimed, and he and my mother searched the basement, thumping walls and wondering how he might have found an entry.

Then, GM meowed just as my brother passed the fireplace. My brother opened the damper, reached inside, and extracted one very dirty but grateful cat.

Two weeks later, when I came home from college for Christmas break, the story was still the talk of the house, and we speculated on whether GM would have been able to climb back up the chimney if no one had been there to rescue him. We didn’t know, but we figured that having spent half an hour at the bottom of the chimney, he’d learned his lesson.

We were wrong.

The next afternoon, I was in the basement. A true child of the Sixties, I’d taken up Transcendental Meditation and was in the process of meditating when there came a metallic clank from the chimney. I opened one eye in time to see a once-white paw reaching into the fireplace. Then he lost his grip on the damper, the paw disappeared, and there was another clank. Now that he knew the way in, he wasn’t about to call for assistance.

A moment later, the paw appeared again, waving in the air above the fireplace. There was another clank, but he was still persisting when I walked to the fireplace, opened the damper, and let him in, catching him before he could track soot onto the carpet.

“Mrrmph,” he said.

“Urk!” I replied, though not as an endearment. He wanted to cuddle, and his efforts to do so had already spread soot halfway to my elbows. “Urk,” I said again as I scurried for the nearest door, holding him at arms’ length.

His third experience with the chimney was the last. It was only a day or two later, and I was again meditating when there came another clank from the chimney. This time, GM had it figured out, and a moment later he was in the fireplace, sooty but pleased with himself.

The next day, my father put chicken wire over the top of the chimney, and GM’s days as a chimney sweep came to an end.

* * *

Chimney or not, he remained fascinated with the roof, and it was that fascination which probably brought about his ultimate demise.

The house was a split-level, perched on a rural hillside. There were trees nearby, but GM’s route to the roof was by leaping from the railing of a balcony on the two-story side. To the amazement of the entire family, his route back down was the reverse, calmly jumping from the roof to a four-inch handrail twelve feet above a concrete terrace. It was a graceful maneuver, after which he would sit on the railing and preen before dropping to the floor to finish his descent with a leap to the woodpile.

Through all his exploits, GM had never suffered a scratch. So, when we found him at the back door one day with injuries that included a broken pelvis, it came as a double shock. Like the neighborhood cats, who’d never challenged his dominance, we’d assumed that GM was not only invincible, but immortal.

We never knew for certain what happened. He may have been hit by a car and crawled home, that side of the house was a long way from the nearest road. More likely, he leaped for the railing one too many times–and missed.

It’s always sad to lose a special pet, but the losses that come suddenly aren’t necessarily the most painful. Whether it came by leaping from the roof or stalking a rabbit across a road, GM died as he lived–running, hunting, jumping, tormenting the dog. He remains the only cat I’ve ever known who attempted to impersonate Santa Claus.

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