With my birthday in late July, I am left with only one more year as a sexagenarian (look it up, it’s not what you think). One of the benefits of this, in addition to discounts at the movies, is that nostalgic moments creep in on little cat feet like the fog and transport me back to many happy moments spent with the pets that have come in and out of my life. In my last letter to you, I wrote about a cat we knew who visited us every day at our vacation house on the south shore of Long Island, a cat who did not stay for Christmas. What I did not tell you was that we also had a gray cat with a small white blaze on his chest that was a family pet. His name was Max and he traveled with us wherever we went along with the dog and the kids, the highchairs, the playpens, the summer clothes and whatever else we could jam into and on top of our little red car.
Max was a small, handsome cat that caught everyone’s attention because of his unique and beautiful appearance. He had green eyes and over-size rabbit-like hind legs, which was the Manx part of his heritage. Despite his soft, perfect purr, he was a talky cat when the Husky was not getting all the attention and that was his Siamese heritage. In our postage-stamp apartment in Greenwich Village, he was a quiet, inactive little person that constantly deferred to the dog and the children and just about everyone else. He would sit on the back part of the sofa most of the time with his legs tucked under him and simply watch our goings and comings. When the sun appeared in narrow slivers on the rear windows of the apartment Max would bask in them for as long as possible. We always left a small pot of wheat grass on the sill for him to nibble on when he took the sun. He asked for so little. In the city, he was as quiet as a, well, as a mouse.
But I will never forget his Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde transformation when he got out to the country. The first time we ever pulled up to the cottage and started emptying our little clown’s car Max got loose and seemed to grow taller, wider, springier, jumpier and much more dynamic. Within ten minutes, he reported to us with a wriggling little field mouse in his mouth. It took a lot to persuade him to let it go. This operation took place outside on the deck in the rear of the house, which is where we wanted the mouse to be. The minute he let go, he sensed we were about to scoop him up and put him inside. Like an imp, he hopped off the deck, looked around, and then ran up the tallest tree on the property. It was so tall that the branches did not even begin until they towered above the tallest part of our small house on what we called a rolling quarter acre.
Our mild-mannered Max had gone from timid to tiger in an instant and shot up the tall tree with all four legs moving at high speed. He finally stopped at 30 or 40 feet and carefully looked back at us on the ground. We were calling for him to come down but he froze. He never climbed up a tree before so he had no idea how to climb down. Down was not an option. My wife and I were utterly amazed until panic set in. The next thing I knew, I was hauling out the tall ladder from the crawl space of the house and trying to get the extension hooked to its tallest setting. Once I accomplished this, I slammed it against the tree only to find it wasn’t really high enough. I decided to climb up anyway hoping Max could be persuaded to jump into my arms. The only problem with that plan was I was terrified of the height and couldn’t bring myself to free even one hand from my white-knuckled grip on the rungs.
I tried speaking softly to the dear boy with low-throated pleas like, “”Mmmmmamax. Common boy. Here we go.”” I was not very convincing and Max did not even look at me. He kept staring at the sky; he was much closer to it than me. As I let one trembling, hand loose from the rung of the ladder I reached upward. Talk about your grasp being longer than your reach, my fingertips couldn’t even touch his little kinked tail. Suddenly he started downward, claws dug into the bark like a telephone lineman. He didn’t even turn around. Kinked tail first, he quickly moved down the damn tree with more speed than grace, all the while staring at the sky. I almost lost my balance as he past me by. It was scary going down the ladder and by the time I got on the grassy ground both he and my wife disappeared inside where the dear boy was being coddled and given all sorts of treats. I was stuck trying to restore the ladder to it smaller size and getting it back under the house.
So there we were in the country with a gray and white lion that just three hours earlier on MacDougal Street sat on the sofa afraid of his own shadow. You see, with cats you never know what’s going on. In the city Max rarely made it from the kitchen sink to his dish atop the fridge without frantically digging into the enameled door, sliding to the floor like a Sylvester The Cat cartoon. Occasionally, he sprung from the floor to the dining table, missed, clung by his claws and than fell back to the floor. He would then lick his coat as if to say, “”I meant to do that,”” and then go for a nap under the couch. He fell from grace at least twice a day. The kink in his little tail occasionally hooked onto lamp cords with the most disastrous effects. So how does this sleepy time puss become a roaring tiger in a short car ride? Don’t ask me. That’s a cat for you.
Once he started bringing us struggling mice and birds almost larger than himself clinched between his teeth we knew it was important to get him to the country vet and adjust his vaccinations. On the vet’s examining table, Max changed back to his city personality and became putty in the good doctor’s hands. With his inoculations suited to his environment I at least stopped worrying about his hunting habits. Still, the tiger within always seemed to come out as I was on the back deck turning the steaks on the barbeque. It did not thrill me to have to stop cooking and coax the struggling prey out of Max’s mouth.
I was a city boy all my life and preferred the city-side of my old friend. These are endearing memories of a cat named Max, and I do enjoy conjuring them up in my head once the sun sets over the yardarm and it’s time to pour something pleasant over ice. It is one of the more pleasant aspects of summertime musings. Cheers.
Mordecai Siegal’s next book will be, “”THE COMPLETE CAT BOOK. The Official Publication of the Cat Fanciers’ Association,”” to be published by HarperCollins. His most durable books are “”The Cornell Book of Cats (Villard),”” “”The Davis Book of Dogs (Harper Collins), “” Good Dog, Bad Dog (Henry Holt,)”” “”When Good Dogs Do Bad Things (Little, Brown)”” and the 10th Anniversary Revised Edition of “”I Just Got A Puppy. What Do I Do? (Simon & Schuster)”” He is President Emeritus of the Dog Writers Association of America and a founding member of The Cat Writers Association.