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Fellow Cat-Lovers: Tell Me, Have You Seen Him?

March 31, 1994|JIM WASHBURN | Jim Washburn is a free-lance writer who contributes regularly to The Times Orange County Edition. T. Jefferson Parker's column resumes in this spot next week. and

My girlfriend and I were camping in a tent in my back yard recently. This had nothing to do with the earthquake. Rather, I'm just too cheap and lazy to take her to a real campground.

The experience isn't much different from real camping, and it's always better, neighbor relations-wise, to wake up in the back yard instead of on the front lawn. What at-home camping misses, though, is the element of surprise: There's no wondering if a bear or raccoon will show up; no trying to dissolve your Swiss Miss with a finger because you forgot a spoon; no Bob Dole-shaped insects. It's a little tame.

Thank God for cats. Around 3 a.m. my girlfriend and I were awakened by the distinctive sound of a small animal using his head as a battering ram, trying to get into the tent.

It was Smokehouse. It was always Smokehouse--the all-gray master of all he surveyed--doing whatever brilliant thing came into his head. You have to wonder just what resembling a thought process went on in that furry mind: "Now I'll meow from midnight until I'm let in so I can stand on Jim's stomach for a minute as he tries to sleep; now I'll knock things over until he lets me out. "

Now he's missing, and I sure miss him.

On March 15 he took off over the back fence, back hairs bristling and making that otherworldly yowling cats use to presage a fight. Both pre- and post-neutering, he's always been a scrapper. He'd add new territories; we'd add up vet bills. A true predator, in his prime we had to put a bell around his neck to warn birds, and he'd still litter the yard with feathers.

OK, you might be thinking, "picks fights; eats birds: not management material." It doesn't make him sound especially lovable, but he was--and I hope still is somewhere. Many cats aren't particularly demonstrative. I always wonder about those stories of animals trekking across the nation to be reunited with their humans, because ours could scarcely be bothered moving 14 inches to say hi. It was an understated affection.

A decade ago he was a young stray hanging out at a Stater Bros. parking lot. He jumped into my next door neighbor's car, hitched a ride home, got out, walked straight in our front door, and he'd been there ever since.

I'm not overly mystical-minded, but there are moments when you can feel a shift, a cold instant when you know things will be different from then on. My roommate and I each felt that way as Smokehouse went over the fence, though he had done the same countless times before. Now he's gone, leaving only fleas and memories.

We've scoured the neighborhood. My roommate has put up posters and knocked on doors for blocks, meeting neighbors we'd never bothered to introduce ourselves to in 15 years. We've peered through fences, under bushes, checked the animal shelters repeatedly. I rushed down to the O.C. Humane Society upon word they'd received a gray cat over a mile from my house and so wanted it to be Smokehouse that I believed it was, briefly, though only one hell of a fight could have lightened him five pounds and changed the contours of his head.

A couple of nights later I thought I heard a cat fight in the distance. I ran to the next block and couldn't hear anything but a noisy St. Pat's party. A reveler on the lawn (Hey! Get a tent!) said he'd seen a gray cat down the block just 15 minutes earlier, which kept me out looking for another hour. Other neighbors reported spotting it too, and I started to suspect that our cat was just messing with our minds. It turns out instead that there is a new gray cat on the block.

Every time I see a shadow or crumpled sweat shirt on the dark floor, I briefly see him. How the hell do people have children and bear to ever let them out of their sight? This isn't my blood; I haven't experienced the labor and birth. It's a cat , with a brain smaller than those little cans of gourmet food he insisted on, and I'm going nuts wondering about him.

At least when humans check out, it generally isn't over a fence, howling.

You can't even grieve properly when you don't know what's happened. Is he still off somewhere, waging the cat version of the Hundred Years' War? Did a younger, more spry cat do him in? Did he get wedged in a woodpile, wounded and is now slowly expiring? Did humans get him? Tires? Is he in someone's trash can ? As nice as it's been finally meeting some neighbors, you wonder about some, "Is he secretly a cat-kicker ?"

Maybe Smokehouse is on a spirit quest. Maybe he wants to spend his golden days sniffing out a new territory. Perhaps he just found a home with a more liberal chicken-serving hand.

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