Some days I’d like to strangle Bill the Flying Cat.
Bill came to us in winter four years ago. He was a kitten who wound up on our porch when the temperature hovered around 3. His small stature and aloof personality attracted me. He had one eye that didn’t open as far as the other. He’d been in a few scraps.
I love the small things, the deformed and handicapped, the things and people who have a rough time in the world just from the circumstances of their birth. I thought at the time that Bill showed up that he’d had a tough time already or was cut out for one.
Bill first took up on the overstuffed chair on the porch. Years of use hollowed out the seat of the chair into a nest-like depression, where he could stay warm. When we came out on the porch, he didn’t jump away or start. He just propped his head up on the chair arm and looked at us. He didn’t need us, I think, as much as he wanted us. He chose us. And this is what I liked best about him.
It was January, the coldest month of a cold winter. It had been a rough time of year for us. My good friend and brother, Joachim, died that December. He had spent over a year battling back the brain cancer growing in his skull. He received the best care the German health care system had to offer. But it didn’t, in the end, do away with the cancer or save his life.
Two of our dogs also died that winter, with my wife Virginia’s favorite, Auto, dying the same day that Joachim did. We were all bereft, depressed, and finding it hard to live from day to day.
That January rode in like a chariot, killing the small things and freezing the bums under the bridge in its wake. The sun didn’t shine for the first three weeks of the month, and then when it did, it glinted off the snow like knives. The depressive and bipolar couldn’t stand up to a January like that. And, indeed, a wealthy loner in the neighborhood named Charles killed himself that month, leaving a house and yard full of cats.
We think Bill was the runt of a litter but we don’t really know. It makes a good story. I don’t know much about cats and even less about the suicidal neighbor. If he was one of the progeny of the loner’s felines, the cat soon to be named Bill navigated half the neighborhood, about a half mile, to the chair on our porch. He looked like most other cats in the neighborhood—bi-colored dark gray and white (a color patter I now know as “mask-and-mantle”)—except for his small size. He was still a kitten, but even I could tell he was small for his age.
At the time, I was fundamentally anti-cat. In the past, cats produced strong allergic reactions in me. Whenever I got around cats, I found it difficult to breathe. My lungs being filled with steel wool. My eyes watered and stung. My nose ran. A rash broke out wherever I brushed up against a cat.
But I felt for Bill. Small, out in the cold, finding comfort on our porch endeared him to me. I refused to have him in the house. As I would for other small things, I put out food. It occurred to my wife, Virginia, that Bill needed more in his nest. She and my daughter and son arranged blankets and towels in the chair so that Bill might have a deeper nest. Virginia put out those hand-warmers that you take from the plastic enclosure and shake to activate. After a week, she bought a bag of cat food, as well as some soft food in cans. Except for the cold, Bill had it made on that porch.
While Virginia, son Nick, and daughter Sydney took part of their day to hold and pet Bill, I remained distant. I didn’t want a cat in the house and thought that, while necessary in the short term, our care for him would make him dependent on us. We should take him and get him neutered or spayed but then he should be let out to fend for himself like those other neighborhood cats.
Soon, care for Bill turned into the kids sneaking Bill into the house for short periods of time. They tried to keep it secret but I could tell. My eyes erupted. My lungs burned. I itched all over. Goddammit, I said. The cat has to stay outside. Other people in the neighborhood took care of cats who lived outside all the time. We would do the same.
Over the next weeks, however, the kids brought Bill in more often. Soon, my eyes didn’t smart the same as before. It was easier to breathe. I didn’t itch as much. I could still feel when Bill had been in the house. But it wasn’t as terrible as in the first weeks of Bill’s time with us.
And don’t get me wrong. I liked Bill. I went outside like the others and pet him. I felt for him, being out in the bitter cold and dark January. After the first week, I even wanted Bill to stay with us, outside, of course, but stay with us all the same. I looked forward to feeding Bill every morning, and even to seeing him come around after he lived the private life that all cats lead.
It wasn’t long before the kids begged me to let Bill stay in the house full time. Seeing them and their excitement combined with the affection I’d gained for Bill urged me to let them have their wish. I didn’t even have time to commit before the kids believed the deal was sealed and they owned a cat. After a few days, my allergic reaction to Bill faded. I was still anti-Bill, but he made the other members of my family happy enough so I put my own selfishness aside and welcomed Bill into the house.
Bill got his name because, at first, we thought he was a girl. We—my wife, son, and daughter—all thought Bill was a girl. I suggested we name her Bill, since Bill fit a girl cat. It was a cool name, simple. A cat could learn that name easily. And people could have fun with it too. They could easily expand Bill into Wilhelmina, Wild Bill, or Billy. Or whatever.
A week or ten days after we let Bill in the house, Bill showed us he was a boy cat. He kept lifting his ass in the air when we pet him. Those little nads began to poke out. It was then we took him for shots and neutering. He spent a couple of days resentful about that but stuck around.
We tried, as good cat owners, to keep him in the house. An urban neighborhood poses a number of dangers for small animals. Big cats want to fight all the time, and Bill demonstrated he liked to fight. Either that or he had to establish himself among the other cats that hang around this end of the black. Then, cars race up our street to the corner. We live on a short little block that shoots off the main boulevard. People driving 35 or 40 miles per hour don’t slow down when they make the slight turn off the wider street. A fox lives in the back somewhere or patrols the alley regularly. Urban foxes are desperadoes with never enough to eat. A small cat like Bill would make a good meal for the fox.
Bill had already had a taste of the freedom of the outdoors, however, and we couldn’t keep him from whining, howling at the front door when he wanted out. He learned to use the doggie door we’d installed for the dogs now dead. By this time we adopted a stray wiener dog we named Molly Maguire. We couldn’t lock up the dog door or we would be taking Molly out for a pee or a howl at the cars rolling past every twenty minutes. The dog door remained open. Bill had free access to inside and out, which he retains to this day.
Who knows what Bill does when he’s outdoors. He lives a secret life away from us. He maintains his aloofness when he’s inside most of the time. When it pleases him, he shacks up in laps or along the back of the couch. He knows to bother us when we’re reading or when I’m trying to write. To get him to leave us alone, we pet him. That makes him think that pestering us is a good way to win affection.
And he flies. As I said, I don’t know much about cats, which means I don’t know how high they can jump. Since we have to keep his food on the kitchen counter and away from Molly (and now another once-stray we named Sadie) from eating it. Bill makes a vertical leap three five times his standing height to the counter. I’ve seen him jump from the porch to the grape trellis, and from the porch railing to the roof. It’s as if he has wings.
The thing that bugs me about Bill is that he possesses all the poise and peace of a Zen master. Nothing bugs him. He’s a runt and a tiny cat but doesn’t have little-man syndrome. He goes about his business not caring about what we think of him. He’s either established a territory that’s his own or he has ceased fighting. He no longer comes home with scratches on his face or flank. He acts as if no problem in the world exists indoors or out. He also knows when I’m down or anxious. In these times, he offers his back and neck to me, sometimes even demanding that I pay attention to him. At the same time, it matters little to him whether I tend to him or not.
Being emotionally unstable, I am often distraught or having some issue or worry. I want what Bill has. I desire his peace and serenity, even the life of a kept cat. I have yet to find it.
I want to strangle Bill for being so well adjusted, adult, and independent. Sometimes I get to the point where I believe I deserve those things. Bill reminds me how far I have to go. I want to kill him.
(This essay was first published 8/13/2015.)