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My Cat's Casket
My cat Punky was a long-haired red tabby, adopted soon after my arrival in Dallas to take up my first full-time teaching job at the University of Texas in the 1980s. My interview for the job had included a meal in a restaurant that rotated 360 degrees. This exercise in excess mechanization provided a view of a completely homogenous landscape, flat to the horizon in all directions. During our meal we ground inevitably along the silent arc, our table tracking the circumference of the restaurant tower as the dining platform ticked past the windows each in turn. A useless display of luxury in a half-vacant land.
This was only one of the many curiosities of Dallas, whose airport, one of my interviewers asserted, was the same size as the island of Manhattan. This factoid seemed to demonstrate a fundamental principle of non-equivalence, though I did not have a theoretical framework in which to state that “same as” showed the irrelevance of Euclid for the measure of cultural geography. So many insights come after the experience that prompts them. Nothing in Dallas matched my prior frames of reference. Polished marble lobbies, white columns, fountains—Dallas was fully simulacral, as if fulfilling some fantasy of postmodern theory in real materials designed to look like imitations.
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My hosts for the interview dinner, the Dean and his cronies, fancied themselves men of exquisite taste and encouraged me to have anything at all from the elaborate menu. This was 1986, and the chefs who had arrived to cater to the newly wealthy in the boom years prior were longing for customers in the aftermath of a recent crash. The plushly carpeted room was nearly empty and the wine cellar languishing, in spite of my hosts’ earnest efforts. I took them at their word and ordered a lobster. What an intrepid little job candidate I was. When the magnificent crustacean arrived, perfectly steamed and removed in its entirety from its shell, it was the size and shape of a flayed kitten. In case your geography of Dallas is a little fuzzy, there is no way this critter was local. Its airfare had probably been higher than the balance of my then-pathetic bank account.
Whether it was my blasé ability to be flamboyantly extravagant on the school’s budget or some other aspect of my performance, I got the job. I packed my new used car and arrived in Texas and rented an apartment from a leasing agent whose southern accent melted my interior. I flirted with him on the dried lawn of the duplex as we agreed to terms while a bee got under my skirt and stung me multiple times in the course of the conversation. Sufficient warning. Nothing ensued. I determined to find feline companionship.
We had always had cats growing up, my mother’s familiars. My father had been told by his mother that he was allergic, a fabrication fed to almost all Jewish boys by their mothers whose real motive is that they think cats are dirty (not true) or subscribe to the ancient myth that they crawl into a crib and steal a baby’s breath away (no comment). Really they just don’t want to be bothered. My mother triumphed over these prohibitions and the long succession of Susie-Gwendolyn-Reginald-GooGoo-and-Cinderella reigns marked the epochs in our family history with the same distinction as that accorded Egyptian dynasties. My cat-less years were only after my mother died and before I moved to Texas, years in which cat-shares and street encounters had to suffice. Now, fully arrived at what looked like adulthood, I was ready.
On Labor Day weekend, a few weeks after my arrival and first paycheck (with which I graduated from sleeping on a heap of bedding to the luxury of a futon bed), I went in search of kittens. Few were to be had in that season, as they were a spring crop and by autumn the adoption options were much diminished. But the handful of red tabby fluff found hiding behind a dresser in a private house fulfilled all my fantasies and longings. I took him to my second floor duplex and named him Pushkin. He wanted nothing to do with such lofty identity and quickly took the familiar name Punky as he grew bold and playful, squabbling with the squirrels on the windowsills who were several times his size. He proved most useful as the hunter of the monsters politely referred to by Dallas natives as “water bugs”—but which all of us know are outsized cockroaches. His prowess in this realm was invaluable, and in the two years we lived in Texas he never wearied of the repulsive sport, leaving me dismantled carapaces strewn about with the cavalier abandon of a natural born killer. No chainsaws, however, and no automatic weapons made their appearance. Good cat. And whatever swagger he acquired had nothing to do with ten gallon hats or cowboy boots. He provided to be more tabby than Texan.
Dallas was challenging. I like to quip that it was the only place I ever lived that had neither nature nor culture. An unfair statement in some ways, but not entirely. Thunderstorms were magnificent, but the city had arisen without particular rationale or motivation with regard to the landscape or location. Punky didn’t care. He sat with his yellow eyes at half-mast, absorbing the rising heat of the mornings pressed against a screen in the bedroom window, a model of feline mindfulness. Or Texas indolence. Born enlightened, I suspect he had no need for developing a practice.
At the end of my Dallas time, we drove north and east, stopping at pet-friendly motels and with family members until we arrived in Somerville, Massachusetts, for a year. Punky acquired a Harvard sticker for his cat carrier and lost his drawl. After that, we moved to New York city so I could teach at Columbia. The only one-way auto rental I could get from Cambridge was a white Lincoln Town Car, fitted out with gold-finished accessories, faux-leather seats, and other features that made me feel I had borrowed the vehicle from one of my parents’ elderly friends. Boat-like, the car was too big for my body. I couldn’t reach the pedals and the door handle from the same position on the seat and the car was wide enough that I could easily have taken up residence with several roommates in its vast interior. The steering had a vague, cloud-like dreaminess that made it float rather than respond to instructions. Telepathy would have been more effective than the steering wheel. In this conveyance, Punky was chauffered in great style to the upper West Side fully prepped for a cosmopolitan lifestyle.
Punky took to New York city. He loved the view from our sixth-floor apartment. Though he was somewhat disappointed at the lack of vermin, I was not. This was the era of William Gibson’s popularity, and Punky took to jacking in to cyberspace, concealed in the back of a closet, deep into his virtual worlds and connections. He was lost for hours, and I was too, typing away on a keyboard that displayed amber letters on a dark screen. I struggled to understand the concept of the C drive and Punky zoned out in anticipation of the internet connections ahead. The graphical user interface was still in our future and the cat never grasped the justification for calling the plastic puck in my hand a “mouse”.
After a few years I was offered another job/promotion (exiled for heresy) at a certain school in New Haven. There I was informed by the Chair of my new department that vermin did not live in private houses in that town. Punky was justifiably disappointed, settling for the pleasures of a screened porch for the few months of tolerable weather in the year. He found the social climate more chilly than the physical, and frankly never took to the world of frat boys, CIA operatives, and secret societies. Though he was Texan born, his commitment to democratic socialism and radical values prevailed. He was a good cat, tolerant of our years in the Ivy League.
All would have been well, as well as it could be given the pressures on his scholarly endeavors and desire to return to public institutions, but his idyllic universe came crashing down when we acquired another kitten. ValuePak, a pretty patchy calico, was nothing but a wiggle when she came to live with us. Tail high, step light, attitude feisty and ready to engage, she figured we had all arrived the same day. Her world began with us on equal terms. She had no sense of prior territory or boundaries. Punky retreated in high dudgeon but with great dignity to a respectable distance. He had work to do. His meditations and contemplations had taken a philosophical turn. He was done with post-modernism and trendy criticism, formulating a full theory of Feline Aesthetics.
He had no use for the kitten. But he tolerated her annoyingly lively antics climbing curtains and chasing dust bunnies. ValuePack’s presence was bad enough, but at the end of our New Haven days, a feral cat, filthy and matted, ugly and misshapen, with stumpy legs, a sagging back, and scarred face, joined us as well after showing up sick on porch and being rescued. GreyGrey was humble, unassuming, completely without presumption, but utterly lacking in social graces or redeeming qualities. She took up space on the bed and attended to her bowl but made no concessions to human contact or exchange except to snarl in a feral manner. When we all moved to Virginia, in an act of mercy for all, she went to live on a farm in Albemarle County with two rural feline thugs, Murder and Mayhem.
Alone again, Value Pak and Punky were eventually joined, like Abraham and Sarah, by an unexpected gift, little Moppsy. As far as Punky and Pak were concerned, this was an utterly unnecessary addition to an already full household. No doubt their Biblical predecessors felt the same, but were not allowed to express displeasure at the gift from G-d. By this point in his advancing years, Punky wisely delegated many tasks to the females in the household. In spite of his early prowess as a roach hunter, he now simply watched, leaning on one arm, when small rodents raced through the house. “We have mice,” he would say, looking at me with his calm yellow eyes, untroubled by any disturbance to his own equilibrium. He knew it was beneath his dignity to pursue them. Nor did he bother with the offerings of half-carcasses and choice bits of remains left by the female hunters, preferring his processed wet food and crunchies to the raw fare. Civilization becomes us all; he was no savage creature. In any case he had shifted his attention to developing non-standard metadata schemes and mapping subjective temporalities. Totally understandable.
Aged eighteen, he moved into his seniority, and spent his days poised on a pillow, napping or wakeful, alert to every nuance of activity around him. He had a reflective and thoughtful demeanor, though he had given up his cybernautics along with other activities that seemed increasingly trivial by contrast to the profound business of just being. His appreciation of the days, of the value of inhabiting existence, was palpable as he bathed and ate, centered in and on immediacies. Dehydrated and failing, he refused injections of fluids, visibly annoyed by the discomfort. He remained dignified to the end, poised in gentle grace, receptive and responsive to conversation and touch.
After he collapsed in a fall the night before he died I held him through his final hours and in the morning took him to the vet to be released from his mortal plight. His body was light and delicate by that time, and the transition was peaceful, as gentle as his spirit had been.
Why keep the ashes of a cat? Nothing linked the beloved companion of nearly two decades with a baggie of grainy ashes. Even the little woven casket that should serve as a touchstone, daily reminder of his existence and absence, had no affective resonance. As it turns out, pets have their afterlife in another realm, in their persistent inscription in our passwords. Now the Punky passwords have almost passed out of my vocabulary and use, replaced by the references to other departed dear ones, but for years variations of his name were guardians to many realms and domains. The spirit of the beloved animal became a kind of multifarious genie, a shibboleth guarding entries and preventing identity theft, serving multiple purposes through all the mute but articulate service he performed. So they linger, wraithlike, insubstantial but not gone.
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