He was big, orange and had lived on the street for a long time, a survivor. A tomcat’s life is short and brutal you see, and you won’t live long by being friendly with strangers. You would see him ankling down the middle of our street any day, rolling like a drunken sailor on shore leave. I’d find him sleeping on our old Adirondack chair’s cushion in the early mornings. Some days he would still be wet from the morning dew which sparkled on his fur like tiny chips of amber.
He was wary. I’d take my coffee out in the morning and stand by him and talk of the days plan, ask him questions while he just watched me. I never knew if he understood a word I said but gradually the morning ritual took some of the edge off and once in a while he would let me touch him as long as I didn’t move too fast. He had fur like the bristles of a hairbrush, slightly stiff and of different lengths as if he’d been shaven by a drunken barber and the hair had never grown back quite the way it was supposed to. He carried the scars of every battle he had ever been in, his ears as tattered as any Civil War battle flag.
Slowly we developed a tolerance for one another. He would greet me with a low meow that came rumbling up from his chest like a rattling, rusty chain. It was the kind of voice that was worth a fortune in Hollywood. It was Long John Silver’s voice, raw, dreaded and with a subdued power that frightened other cats. My dog Lucy gave him plenty of space too. She knew an emperor when she saw one.
Over time he became a staple on Poole Street. He went to different homes at times, accepting, as was his due, food, if it was offered. He didn’t beg. You could give him a little something and he might eat it, or not, as the mood struck him. Somehow he acquired a name, Cheeto’s, I suppose for the color of his fur. But, you understand, it wasn’t his real name, his cat name. Nobody knew that, though I imagined it to be Vercingetorix, destroyer of rats or Grimalkin, the great stainer of carpets, or some such noble nom de guerre. Surely a sobriquet of distinction. He was a true thing.
In the year I knew him, he never came in our house. He would be on his chair or in the garage waiting patiently for me to serve him. He never, ever used the cat door. It would require him to show some deference to those that lived here and that would never do. He would park himself in the middle of the street on cold winter days because the pavement was warmed by the sun and he thought it was the best place to be. He barely acknowledged cars, they must go around, and they did. Monarchial, he was too. Not the foppish, beribboned Louis Bourbon with his oiled ringlets and silk stockings but hard and resolute like Henry V and his band of brothers or the warrior king, Brian Boru of Ireland the founder of the O’Brian Dynasty. No other Tom came into his little fiefdom of Poplar, Sage and Cedar streets.
Birds were beneath him, he let them be. Mice were for lesser cats. All dogs kept their distance, even my son’s friend Joey, and his gigantic Blue Great Dane. None of the neighborhood dogs ever made a move. Not Marley, Bobby, Gibson, or Bella. They stayed within the dog world and pretended they just didn’t see him. The fish in our pond were safe. No raccoons were allowed. Opossums too kept their distance. Occasionally, in the early morning I would find one pretending to be dead in our back yard. Such was his power.
Niccolo Machiavelli wrote that there is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead. You are the first in line for trouble.
We are in a terrible drought here in California. You may be surprised by the things drought brings. There is little feed for the wild things that live in our hills after nearly a decade of no rain. The springs and seasonal creeks have long been dry which forces animals to come down to feed and drink in the suburbs and town. There are small critters and even deer foraging in back yards and the high school ball fields. Following the deer and rabbit are the cougars. Seldom seen but nevertheless stalking through the late night seeking the unwary. Most opportune is the coyote. Bigger than the red fox and smaller than the grey wolf, this wild dog was known to the Nahuatl people as “Coyotl.” The name was first transcribed to english in 1824 as “Cayjotte” and standardized by 1880 as Coyote. Famed by native cultures as The Trickster and featured in many creation myths, coyotes are social and usually hunt together. It’s not particularly unusual to see them on city sidewalks in broad daylight and even in the state parks along Pismo Beach.
Crossing our street at dusk, going from our yard towards the Russian brides house, the old man ran into a pair of them. They stalked him, moving, as they do in a head and tail down posture, mincing almost sideway with both the head and tail facing the intended. It might seem to the victim as if they are being friendly, showing subjugation, much as a dog does when approaching a more dominant animal. Its a trick. Cheeto’s was in very big trouble, caught in the open by predators who intended to make a meal.
He broke for the Volvo parked on the street, hoping to escape underneath it but one of the coyotes cut him off. He backed himself against a front tire and shrunk down to make himself a smaller, more difficult target. He could not run. With his back to the tire he prepared to sell his life dearly. Like Roland at Roncevaux, he declined to scream as it would be an act of cowardice. The coyotes lunged.
I found him in the morning, his back broken; eaten. I gathered the scattered fur, and all that was left of him. His massive paws, soaked in blood, said he didn’t go down without a fight. His clenched jaws held bits of Coyote fur. He didn’t make it easy.
I buried him in a wooden box in the back yard, under the Angels Trumpet where he can smell the beautiful yellow flowers, especially in the springtime when they are strong; where he used to lay in the adirondack chair, content.
A pearl among cats. He was a bravo.