The True Story of a Fake Cat
We sat across from one another at the breakfast table, my wife and I, our coffee mugs resting on our worn made-in-Philippines rectangular piece of pressed wood with the thinnest of veneers finished with a modernish style with lines that look nice when clean but otherwise fill with salt and pepper and toast crumbs, making little food trenches. Not quite World Market quality, you know. Definitely a Wal-Mart find.
I had my hands cupped around my green mug (inscribed with daddy) like they do in the movies when something series is to be discussed. I never actually hold my coffee like that, and lifting a mug to my face with two hands strikes me as awkward and dangerous, even a bit anachronistic given the invention of the mug handle like the daddy mug has. But this was a serious moment requiring the gravity of cupped hands.
“We can’t keep doing this,” I said to my wife while looking into my mug.
“No, we can’t,” she said with a sigh.
Another sleepless night from Nicky. He cries out in the middle of every night, around 2am, then instigates fights with his adopted sister, Bella. He’s been doing this for weeks.
“We have to give him up,” she said.
I sipped my coffee and looked out the window on our deck where the pollen had thickened to the point of giving us a new lacquer on the wood. Past the dust stage, well beyond that first week when you think “oh, my allergies.” We were in pollenpocalypse. But at least it was cool outside.
I cracked the window.
“But the p…” my wife started to say.
“Just for now,” I said, casting her a glance that told her to leave it alone, it was a small thing that would not really matter.
We had been short with each other since Nicky came back. Losing sleep will do that to you.
She sighed. I followed suite. Hank, our dog who looks every bit his name with his farm-dog build and dopey face, sighed as well. It was walk-o’clock and I was late.
“How will we tell the kids?” I said.
Now Olivia cupped her hands in the serious manner I had as she gazed into her mug, perhaps finding some prophecy in the black liquid swirling therein. She spoke in a whisper:
“They don’t even know he’s not the real Nicky.”
Nicholas Marsh started life in our house three years ago as Mr. Freeze, a rescue from the Wake County Animal Shelter. He was a skinny full-black American short hair weighing in at all of three pounds when they found him with his head stuck through a Bojangles cup lid. Someone had tortured this poor kitten but cramming his head through the lid and leaving it on. It too a month for that hair to come back in.
We adopted him, wheezy and weak as he was, because he was a chirper who loved to rub his head on my face and sleep in the crook of my arm at night. He was a replacement for Angel, who was the best cat in the history of cats. Angel would sleep on my face, chest, lap, head, really wherever, and he was an unstoppable force in the yard. The kids loved him and even my wife, who was just OK with cats, had grown fond. Then I went to Indonesia on a missions trip and he was hit by a car in the middle of the day while I was struggling to sleep in the middle of the night across the world as the Muezzin called out from not one but four minarets outside my window, each call to prayer louder than the others as it was the beginning of Ramadan and he Imams were trying to out-do one another with their singing. I got a text that said “call me” from my wife, so I did, and then cried in the shower for an hour for my poor boy. He had been the perfect cat.
Angel and then Nicky only came about because the one constant during both their reigns — Bella — was a female cat who hated my guts, wanted nothing to do with me, and had a habit of peeing everywhere for no reason whatsoever. Cat urine became the predominate smell in our house shortly after moving to Winston-Salem, so panicked was she by the change. After hours of carpet shampooing and deep-enzyme sprays and vacuuming and who knows what else, my office (all carpet) still bears the faint ammoniac scent which is deepening with the humidity of summer.
Bella is spiteful and useless. She is fat, catches nothing, and I pretty well hate her. But she sits in my wife’s lap all day when the weather is cold (out of selfish desire for warmth, not anything life affection) and that is enough for my wife to tell me that I have to leave her alone. So I leave her alone, but still I longed for a proper cat after Angel died, and thus Nicky.
His first few weeks in our house back in Cary revealed a sickly cat who developed a constant wheeze from feline immunodeficiency virus that he had picked up somewhere in the shelter or on the streets or got from his mother before she abandoned him. We had to feed him lysine which seemed to do the trick, but still at night he would flop around our bed sneezing and wheezing in a cute kitten way that made us fall in love.
He grew long and large and took up hunting, spending his days outside under cars and in hedges. He was nowhere near the hunter that Angel had been — the wild boy had brought in live snakes to the house and more than a dozen mice in his two years on earth — but he loved the outdoors and would cry if we didn’t open the cat flap in the mornings. He got along fine with my boy Hank. While Bella would swat Hank’s snoot and growl when he came near, Nicky just accepted the constant sniffing my dog uses for greeting.
He was fastidious with his constant licking and preening. His fur was always perfect, so much so that I never had to brush him. I have never seen a cleaner cat.
Most endearing to my family was the way he clawed up soft fuzzy blankets for an hour or so before settling in. He would stretch his paws and forearms as he squinted and kneaded, like he had to get the blanket juuuuuust right before he could settle in. Relaxing to behold, the nightly kneading was a fan favorite.
In other words, Nicky was a good cat. Not a great cat, but a good cat. The kids liked him. I loved him. He was a keeper.
Then one day he walked out the back door of our new home in Winston-Salem and never came back.
We moved in July as I took a pastorate on the South side of town, across from the Family Video. We lived over on the Southwest side near the schools (everything is about the schools) in a neighborhood which backed up to a creek. Seems like everything backs up to a creek in Winston-Salem. Between us and the creek is a fallow farm replete with an old horse-wash, open trash pit, and silty runoff from surrounding neighborhoods. I take Hank back there to stretch his legs and chase deer.
Nicky had been in the house two weeks and was a living terror. Every night he cried out at 2am asking to be let loose. We took to locking him in the basement. I grew tired of his whining all the time about going outside.
“He’s not ready,” my wife had said.
One morning, overwhelmed by the boxes and the new job and the lack of sleep and just moving and life and who knows what all, I opened the back door and watched as the black cat meowed his way across the yard and disappeared. We never even got to say goodbye.
We cried. The kids cried. Our girls had loved him enough to miss him, not being old enough to discern whether or not he was truly a great cat but old enough to sense yet another loss after moving, added to the pile of lost friends, a lost school, a lost beloved neighborhood, and the lost rooms they had loved and decorated. Nicky became the channel to process our grief. We mourned him, but what we were really mourning was the move.
Through tear-stained cheeks we posted searches online, asking people to find yet another lost black cat which in Winston-Salem is like asking someone to find a lost cigarette butt. Cats just seem to go here, and then be found, and wander, and never be rooted. We live in a vagabond alley here in Winston-Salem, with cats just showing up at the animal shelter by the boxful, I was told by a shelter worker.
We tried the shelter. I would go in and see a dozen cats I swore were him. One looked just like him. Mannerisms, look, everything. But he was a she, and Nicky was not savvy enough to pull of that kind of trick.
After three months, I gave up. I stopped looking, stopped going by the shelter, stopped hoping.
My wife found him on Nextdoor, the great American sub-HOA app for whining about bad drivers and bad lawns.
“It’s him,” I seconded as I saw his pictures. He was at a home just up the creek from ours, about two miles away. The internet told me cats could roam that far, that it was common, that I should not be surprised. It was not in our neighborhood but close enough that I could have seen him sauntering beside the creek, hunting critters to stay fed, sheltering during the hurricane and storms, perhaps saved from the owl out back of our house by his black fur and deft agility.
She took the cat box and a blanket he used to sleep on. He meowed his old song all the way home with her then meowed in the house. He had lost a lot of weight and a couple of teeth, but he sounded the same and reminded me immediately of that little wheezy kitty who would curl up in my arm. I set a blanket down beside my head and pet him to sleep. But first he had to knead! We knew it was him as he stretched out his paws and started softening the blanket. When he awoke in the middle of the night, I pet him some more until he settled. He ate and slowly moved from the bed to the floor. Still, he sang his old song, but now it was comforting.
Most comforting was the dog’s approval. The dog nudged Nicky with his big nose and inhaled deeply. We took it as a sign when neither dog nor cat reacted to the sniff, as if the dog was saying “yeah, this is him. This is normal.”
Doubt crept in around the time ads for Pet Sematary popped up online.
“Was he chipped,” the vet tech said with her eyes peering at me over the top line of her glasses.
“Yeah,” I said.
“Well this cat doesn’t have a chip…”
“Maybe it fell out.”
“They don’t…” she started, but then thought better, perhaps seeing my shining eyes full of hope.
My prodigal had returned, and I wasn’t hearing anything else.
Bella tried to tell us. She growled at him much more than any other cat. Returned Nicky chased her like never before. We heard actual cat fights and had to train the dog to break them up. The fights moved to the evening and then overnight. He would prowl, she would growl, the dog would jump up and do his bit, then things would settle for an hour or so before starting again.
And his teeth. How does a cat break a tooth and have it enamel over so well in just a short period of time?
And his weight. It never came back.
And his fur. No more hours-long licking sessions. This Nicky’s hair was a bit wild, a bit longer, and certainly never kempt in the same way it used to be.
“It must be his time in the wild,” I would say to my wife.
She would merely hmm like Marge Simpson and change the topic.
The nights grew longer over winter and the fighting worsened.
And the noises weren’t the same. This cat chirped. Old Nicky only kind of sang and meowed and such. Never a chirp. What cat chirps? And we don’t even know what the chirp means, because he always has food and he can go outside now with a cat flap. He doesn’t want to be picked up. He will chirp and I’ll look at him and he’ll look back like “what?” and I’m all “what” and we have an impasse, he and I, as he just chirps away.
The cold set in, even with a week solid of snow, and he never ate more, never. Gained. weight.
He won’t let me hold him. Nicky always let me pick him up and stroke that perfectly maintained fur. This Nicky won’t let me pick him up and when I do corral him and set him in my lap, he fights like I’m Pepe Le Pew, straining with all his might, claws extended, anything to escape me.
His singing took on a more mournful tone. His tendency was to curl up with my wife, which had never been the case, and so anger Bella with his prowling that she disappeared from our bed entirely, which had also never been the case. He was a holy terror to her, constantly antagonizing. All night long we heart the shouts of battle and the huffing of a dog who just wanted to sleep, thank you very much, but was always ready to do his duty for the family.
Finally, after a late night, I admitted it to my wife:
“This is not Nicky.”
“It just isn’t.”
She sighed and sat on the bed beside him. He was curled in his cute little fuzzy ball. The old Nicky — the real Nicky — would sleep with his body stretched out. And he would purr long and deep as I pet him, his purrs strong enough that I could feel them in my chest when he laid next to me. This Nicky had not purred like that, not even when he was stretched out with his clawing, his little paws softening up the fuzzy blanket to prepare for sleep.
“This is Snicky,” I said.
“Like Sneaky Pete,” she said, “he’s sneaky Nicky.”
“The kids,” I said.
She just sighed again.
“We can’t tell them…”
A few months passed with Snicky. I resigned myself to having two cats who hate me and started spending more time with the dog. We started putting Snicky down in the basement at night, but then he combatted his nightly imprisonment with two different approaches, each taken at random:
1. If my wife is in bed before 9, say reading or watching a show on her phone, he begins his attempt to stay in her good graces by curling up next to her legs. He is awfully cute, this little thing, and knows how to use his frazzled cuteness for her affections. She pets him and then the guilt sets in that she has to take him to the basement for when she sets him on that cold floor, his howls are the songs of mourning such as would shame even seasoned moirologists.
2. If we are up watching a movie or reading elsewhere, he hides. Usually he can be found in her office upstairs, but if he hears her coming, he runs. It becomes a chase of echolocation, as he hides and chirps and sings.
Both tactics work from time to time, so there are nights when we sleep until 2am or so. I sleep like the dead, so my wife rises in the night to find his scrawny tail and toss him in the basement. I wake up as I did when we had newborns and as, “how was the night?” When I see her eyes like slits and a frown on her face, I know.
After a few nights in a row this spring, after a long season of hoping this would have changed, we had the talk with the mugs at our breakfast table. We agreed that we had to do something, but we were not sure what. The move was gone, and now the romance and pathos of losing and finding our beloved cat had worn. We had to live, had to have normalcy, had to be here in Winston-Salem and do our thing without worrying about this stupid cat.
“I’ll put him the basement tonight,” she said, “but we have to give him away or something.”
But no one wants a black cat, we knew, and the shelters were already full, so he was going to die. And we could not let him die. We just did not have that in us.
Evening came. He tried the cute thing, lying beside her, but she wasn’t having it, tired as she was. Off to solitary he went, his mournful song carrying him away.
We slept well, the conversation in the back of our minds, the knowledge of some future change comforting us, even if we did not know the answer.
I woke after my wife, as I usually do, only to find her standing at the doorway of our bedroom, arms akimbo, a smiling squint on her face.
“That darn cat…” she said.
“HE CAUGHT A MOUSE!” she almost hollered.
My eyes rolled so hard that my eye stems hurt.
We both knew the implication. The blasted, hateful, unwelcome, unchanging, unavoidable, awful implication. He had done what good cats do; what worthy cats do. What Bella had never done. What real Nicky had not really even done. But there in the basement he did it. That little Snicky cornered a mouse. And we knew. We knew. It was finished. Conversation ended. He won.
And from the hallway, the chirp of self-satisfaction.