Beck woke me. I nodded...yawned. “She’s orange and on the other side of the fence in the dealer’s parking lot”. Don’t remember if I even put shoes on, probably not, but I followed downstairs and, yes, she was orange, I was still yawning, I’m sure, and she was, indeed, on the other side of the fence. I hopped over, grabbed, handed orange back to Beck and hopped back. Nick named her ‘Mia’. We had, unknowingly, been adopted.
The three of us, my brother and sister and I (eventually four, courtesy of my sister’s impending babiness that we were unaware of at the time, Jake) moved in together in a small house at a time when all three of us needed such. The military two of them were back home and I was, well, I was there with them. I just needed.
The first place together turned into another, more permanent place that Beck bought. It bordered a car dealership in the backyard, strong neighbors and an orange cat. An orange cat that had me hop over a fence…a very smart orange cat.
Smart? She knew us already.
Benny was still an outside cat at the time, until an argument with a car was lost, and he was relegated to lord of the inside manor. But in his travels in his own small world of our neighbor’s lawns, flower patches and doorsteps he had surely caught the attention of a very pregnant orange cat who knew that someone would hop to save her. After all, I imagined she thought, they like our kind…this is a good place.
There was a cardboard box, comfy with warm towels and human hovering in a perfect spot between two rooms in the unfinished upstairs of a quaint, quiet (soon not so much) Cape Cod and a moment’s pause. There were five kittens…five squirmy, rolling, breathing tiny meow little beings in a comfy cardboard toweled world. Nick named one ‘Cal’, the one he would keep. I eventually named one ‘Shoes’ and mine. Kept friends.
I remember too much and too little of those early ‘Shoes’ days. A procession of kittens following the unwanted, adored attention of the old man, Benny, growling his affection for this trail of newborns on his tail, from one room to the next, wanting to learn all they could from the master. There was ‘Frenchy’, my nickname for his little undernose stripe that our next doors kept and named ‘Nutmeg’. There was ‘Burgess’ and ‘Pidge’ (Cal was all about Nick with the occasional wake up under the covers with me while biting my belly) and then there was ‘Shoes’. The name was a reference to nothing but became everything. He’s been my “Big Orange” ever since.
I got home late tonight, too late, as I thought about Shoes waiting for me at the usual time and being disappointed while I worked yet another cold ass Friday Night High School football game. He knows the time, always knows the time, always knew the time and the sound of whatever I drove no matter where our heads lay but he was still waiting, my good man Shoey Brown, with unbound devotion for his rub on the ear and a now late dinner with little Bella. My tear at his waiting was an almost, held back for now, as I saw him still waiting at the bottom of the stairs as always, his clock longer for the day but his ‘Steve’ come home was here again with the sound of my truck outside his tall window. Trying to fathom that waiting, that longing, hurts even more now.
Nick came home from work and told me of watching head bumps. Mia had a magnetic collar that would unlock the cat door in the basement at her ins. Shoes, had somehow gotten outside and had tried to follow his mom through that tiny door. He wasn’t wearing the “magic” collar. Head bumps.
Shoes’s favorite spot at the old stead was my computer chair, torn and frayed from Benny’s years of scratching, laying on the Steelers blanket that covered it and still does, old normals. His orange always seemed to blend comfortably with the black and gold to the point where I actually felt as if I had to ask permission to sit. He would agree only if he could then lay in front of my keyboard, my attention not allowed to waver to the screen of the PC. That chair sat in my new bedroom, ignored, for the longest time after I moved yet again, a new computer chair bought in its place. I thought about giving that old chair away or maybe tossing it but it didn’t seem right. It was Shoes’s favorite spot, after all, for a time. But he lays there again now, days waning, the rediscovered and familiar. Old nornals.
He brought me his bag of treats after discovering that he could open the cabinet above the sink in my little apartment that I moved into, with Benny as well, when I left the house to Beck and Nick, Nephew Jake and latest newcomer Nephew Matty. Specifically, Temptations, or ‘kitty crack’ as my sister and I have called them over the years. I didn’t allow him these for the longest time due to his history of diabetes but I do now damning that history. He brought it and dropped it at my feet in front of my then captain’s chair in that small third floor walkup in Fishkill, my first place on my own since Pittsburgh and living with Beck and Nick, as I watched whatever diverted on the tube. I had no idea how he came to be dropping this bag at my feet, heck, it was in a kitchen cabinet how could he?....Then I heard, watched, one night, under the dim of the TV’s grey blue shedding enough on my tiny kitchen to see him opening the ‘cookie jar’ cabinet above the sink. He got his treats. A very smart orange.
He has always known his ‘spot’. All I’ve had to do over the years is to say “C’mon Shoey, let’s grab your spot” and he knows its lap time or bedtime if I tell him it’s time to “hit the rack”. Little Bella isn’t much for laps, maybe in deference to Shoes, I don’t know, nor is she much for kisses on the head as he is, (though she is getting accustomed with my insistence) but she has known a good ‘spot’ herself. Sometimes on an old pair of torn flannel boxers layed, just right, next to me but mostly anything that’s in proximity, as long as she’s close, she just has to be close. It’s almost a daily game now to catch Bella with a head kiss. But with Shoes? Close could never be close enough. He welcomed the kiss head bumps, forehead to forehead welcome homes from my day, or burying his head in my belly when he would jump on the counter on these same welcomes, plus nose scratches on the brim of my ballcap…left and right. Always have to have both of course, left then right. Even now he seems disappointed when I’m not wearing one.
You know, I walked to the kitchen the other night, pausing a movie as I so love to do (a habit understandably annoying to anyone that has had the (dis)pleasure of living with me) to think on it and wash a dish or two or organize something that didn’t need such or even take in the night through a window in the tiny corner of this apartment that constitutes a dining room including gazing neighbor’s windows across the way wondering of their pauses, and I thought of Shoes. His favorite box sits on the kitchen table still where he would often lay, another reason’s proof of my singlehood. He’s been on my mind more recently, a month and half removed from his passed day. I put a favorite framed picture of him above my studio board at work, one I recently pulled from the dreaded cardboard box of my former office at the old job. I thought it would be a comfort but it just hit me that it wasn’t. I tried not to cry. He so loved our little ‘best of little new places’ with little Bella. It was ours. Though it is not quite the ‘best of little new places’, like that first apartment with Danielle and I was so many years ago, or the house with Maria and JG and all the fur, it is still the same in spirit as that first one, one he didn’t know, but I did and remember well. This now was our spot. Amazing what the littleness of 4 letters can mean huh? Spot. Especially if it’s yours and theirs with you. Your small spot in a large world.
Beck searched all around our immediate area of Beacon, NY for a house to buy, even further actually. She had made the decision to buy something with Nick and I in tow to help her with the payments, our rent, and after the longest of searches, forever it seemed, she found just the right place, amazingly only block from the place the three of us were in. We slowly moved in and when I say slowly, I mean slowly. The house was vacant, we had almost a month on the current lease left and with having to do it around a very small one and a half year old Jacob it was perfect (Beck popped Jake out after about a month or so of us living together with me and Nick becoming immediate bachelor dad/uncles). Benny of course already knew the neighborhood so he had no problem keeping up and throw in the fact that we had time to actually just fill up the backseat of our cars or even occasionally walk some of our things down the street and it was the easiest move ever.
“You ready for our walk?” as I would lay my bag at the bottom of the steps, grabbing my keys and heading out with Shoey for our daily/nightly. I worried about little Bella though, and leaving her behind, when I came home those last two months, I didn’t want her to feel left out. She would occasionally venture onto the little porch outside the front door with Shoes and I as he sniffed around the same shit he sniffed at every day in front of our second floor neighbors like it was brand new, but then she would scamper back in after a sniff or two. Maybe, though, there was an understanding on her part that Shoes was ill and that this was just part of what we did, for him, at what I didn’t want to think about being the end. Bella knew. “You ready for our walk?” and Shoes was there. I’ll never know how badly he was feeling, and it had to be awful, especially for how quickly the monster inside him grew and how, even more quickly his lungs just drowned on his last day, but he was there. “Yeh Steve, let’s go explore, I know the way” And explore we did. God, it was nice.
When the first big rains came at Beck’s new house with me and Nick and little Jacob we weren’t prepared at all. We had no idea the basement would flood. But it did. It wasn’t too long after Mia had had her brood of Cal, Shoes and the rest of the orange tiny ones. Now, I had already saved Cal once after coming downstairs from waking after my overnight shift and demanded silence. Beck and nephew Jake were my demand. “shusshhh” I whispered. How they didn’t hear what I did, upstairs, astounded me “I mean it, shusshhh”. I walked into the kitchen while both of them spoke questions aloud “Just Shush!” I said one more time. Then I opened the refrigerator door. “Hello Cal”. No idea how she snuck in there. Probably nephew Jake who had already mastered the human curious need to constantly open the refrigerator door and peer inside every time you were near it like, magically, something new would have appeared since the last time you looked, say, 5 minutes ago. Cats were the same with the magic fridge. But then it was the first flooding of the basement. I came downstairs wondering of Shoes after the night’s downpoar. He wasn’t with me. Beck hadn’t seen him, Jake hadn’t either but I heard a sound. This sound, though, was entirely different from Cal’s almost silent cries of distress in the fridge, this was the sound of…curious cat talk. Then I noticed the door to the newly flooded basement was open. Closed was the norm, always. After a few steps down and a peer through the stairs below I found that curious ‘cat talk’. Shoes walking chest high in the water, sniffing around, gleefully cat talking away in a flooded basement. So much for cats hating water. So much more for why I loved this guy.
I wrote once of a “best of first little places”. That was the first apartment that Danielle and I shared on Potomac Ave in Dormont after our wonderful, sweaty wedding day in the middle of a stifling Pittsburgh August in a beautiful hall on the South Side with no AC. The whole family was there, a band named the ‘Rat Bastards’ accidentally showed up from Chicago, after meeting Johnny Webb amidst his bagpipe warmup in the parking lot, to eventually take great pictures while drinking free beer, my dad was in his glory, my mother smiled her immense warmth. And, yes, Johnny Webb played the bagpipes. If you knew anything of this family this was the expected. If you were baptized, christened, married, dead, Johnny Webb played the bagpipes. Then Danielle cried later during my entering on the wedding night. Different story entirely but this was my first clue of the future that was closer than I knew. It took me quite a while to see the rest. But, for then at least, that was the first of ‘best of first little places” and it also included something equally as important as my new wife…a first Christmas present to Danielle and, more importantly, to myself courtesy of the East Liberty Animal Shelter. I walked in the door a little while after calling and inquiring about kittens. They said there were some to be had. Not so when I arrived, they were gone between call and arrival. Instead there were only a couple of slightly older kits still left. One was a little black ball sleeping in an empty water bowl near the front. I said “yes”. The other chose me when I went to the back and a room full of cages of all dogs and one cat. I was his chance to escape the barking din and he made it known to me. I went back up front and said ‘yes’. Benny the little black water bowl ball and Merlin the very vocal escapee. To me the “best of first little places” would now be compete, whole. I had cats.
It’s hard to be fragile while trying your damndest to be strong. Now this isn’t a ‘put my head on your shoulders’ moment but is instead an observation on part of the nature of being human. Needing to show strength in the face of profound sadness and loss especially when that sadness and loss actually has a face, one that’s looking directly at you. A Fathers maybe, a Mothers, sibling, wife or husband, friend or neighbor or, in this immediate case, a true, devoted companion. Though Shoes wasn’t human I never viewed him as anything less. All of the fur that I’ve had the pleasure and good fortune to call family, friend, were just that, family and good friend. I’ve always treated them as I would any other human that was part of my life. I just recognized in them their differing ‘humaness’ is all and with Shoes, he was more. The difficulty in being fragile while trying my damndest to be strong? I didn’t want Shoes to see my sadness because he would have known. Oh, he would have known (though I knew he surely did). But I needed to try and help him to move to his forward stop on his own without that burden, to move to this forward stop with me doing all in my power to make it as easy as I could for him to get there while still enjoying his final moving with me at his side. To remind him of us and the grand living we did together. It was a revelation, really, and then one of my greatest heartbreaks.
The trains pass, past the overgrown couch
unawares maybe not
through my tiny comfy disturbing
not even a dining room chair
A neighbor’s dinner unawares throws tasted
stereo scents I don’t know from every corner of this tiny boring
that way but wishing I had a fork and an invite
The trains rumble and clack, rumble in order, order, rumble, clack, clack back such to wake
There’s rhythm, melody, music in trains
and scents in the linger of a stranger’s daily
below my feet waking, cooking, fighting, living
while trains pass in tune carry scented music
sleeping cats and their soon breakfast
There were nicknames, always nicknames. Merlin was ‘Magic’ and not just bellying his name but from his crystal blue eye stare at me human, red tipped ears and his extra cat thumb toe that allowed him to pick up, as with a hand, crimpled balls of paper I would throw and even open the occasional cabinet. Benny was ‘Benny Brown’ for Charlie, aka “You’re a good man Benny Brown” but also from the way his black fur tinted after days spent cat lounging in the Florida sun he so loved. My little Bella is just that, ‘little Bella’ and her non-meow little squeeks. Shana was ‘Shana Girl’ in all her snorty glory napping on my chest on an any Sunday and Shoes? There’s been a few. Though there was ‘The Big Orange’ and the Benny similar ‘Shoey Brown’ there was also my favorite of all the nicknames ‘Stamps Bagman’ (he would occasionally get ‘Lumpy’ as well but that was one I’ve used with all at one time or another). ‘Stamps Bagman’ though was a favorite and was coined by Maria in our first apartment together. A nice three bedroom place on the first floor in a complex of apartment buildings in New Windsor, Knox Village. It came from two entirely different sources. One was for the plastic shopping bags that he had an affinity for trying to eat. It was important to be ever vigilant on not leaving any unattended or he would eat a small portion and then, eventually, puke it back up. No learning curve was involved with Shoes and the bags. It was every time. Two was for, like any cat, loving a good spot in a window to assess the world and its’ squirrels, humans, birds and sun. Shoes though, in his assessing, would always manage to leave a small ‘stamp’, a small butt stamp of proof on whatever window sill of choice he was enjoying, marking his time spent. Thus ‘Stamps Bagman’ came to be, replete with the persona of a good time 40’s gangster sidekick cartoon character and the appropriate New York or Chicago mobster accent provided by Maria, myself or even Jagger. “Yo, Stamps! Mugsy’s got a job for ya!” He was Stamps, the Bagman. Koo Koo Sha Shoes.
I ran into a downstairs neighbor the other day at the grocery store, Matt, a young guy who shares his apartment with his brother and their small dog. He had met Shoes a number of times in Shoes’s usual sniffing of that same (only a cat knows) around the front of his place or the other neighbors at the next door. It was at the time of Shoes and I’s daily walks and Shoes was in the cone. Matt had never had the pleasure of meeting Shoes coneless or with both ears complete, as they were originally made. I wish he could have. But he still gave him a gingerly pet or two and called him by name before Shoes and I would embark on our adventures of the world that we knew. A boy and his cat in a cone plastic hat. At the store Matt told me that he had added a kitten to the human and fur in the world he knew. He said he had named the newbie ‘Zippers’ and that Shoes and his name was the inspiration. There ya go Shoey, ya Big Orange lump, living on for a while past your forward stop. I smiled, welling up later.
On a Saturday afternoon I saw Brenda downstairs as I made my way around our building to my truck for a quick errands run. She choked up a bit when she told me of Shoes sitting in her lap earlier the night before and her realizing what a special orange he really was. Brenda was Brenda of Bren and Bob, my downstairs neighbors, good people who remind you that there are actually some of those. I became friends with them after a challenging day in my car. A day where the challenge came up short, in the back end of an SUV. It wasn’t much of an accident really but was enough for my 13 year old car to be considered ‘in the wind’ and I ended up in something a bit larger. My Durango, ‘Grey’. What? I name stuff. I then started to park at the back of my building instead of the front, mostly because of the difficulties parking seemed to present for some of my neighbors. It was far less complicated down there and only required a few steps to get back around front to my place. That’s when I got to know Brenda and Bob, and their beyond lovable furball ‘Sandy’ who loves me back in turn when I see her, occasional bounces of joy sniff kisses included . That getting to know turned into a friendship and Brenda helping me out with feeding my two on nights where I was late to my regular get home. It was on this Saturday, after one of my Friday night football gigs that she told me of sitting with Shoes. The stopping in to just feed them when needed had turned into Brenda coming up during the day to just give Shoes some company and to wonder if little Bella actually existed. Bella hides. Shoes sat in Brenda’s lap on my couch on this night and she cried at the wonder of it. She has remarked on this often, how knowing me and then Shoes showed her the connection that can be made and was with me and my big orange ambassador of catdom.
Brenda was the one I asked to join me when I had an idea to take Shoes to the small fenced in dog area at the complex here on a pretty Sunday afternoon. I got him in his carrier and drove down. Knowing time was now suddenly limited, that it had a clock, I wanted him to finally get a chance to walk in the grass, to bask in the sun he so worshipped in his tall windows over the years. To actually get to taste what he had only dreamed of. Our after work daily’s came from this. I miss them dearly.
Little Bella squeaks at me now from behind my chair at the computer. She has taken to the old Benny habit of scratching it to shreds even though there are many other cat scratch options available. No, she scratches then squeaks in her little Bella way (not once a meow in 4 years). Like Shoes’s daily walks she squeaks now for my attention to come away from my mundane human and play. This is her daily. Play time. The rings from the tops of Gatorade bottles, acorns, some crimpled paper balls and her spinny ball scratch toy. She doesn’t need much else. Yeh, this is her daily. It’s play time.
Shoes hugged me. It was on arriving at Middlehope Veterinary Hospital after leaving him there for the day again while I went to work. I lost count on the number of times I had to take him in during those last few months, dropping him off on my way to work and picking him up on my way home. I’m sure though, he knew the count. Too damn many. Though he enjoyed all the attention from a staff that adored him on these days, his cage right in the middle of all the action in the back of office, he was tired now. Tired of the hurt, tired of not being home in his spot, tired of the not understanding of just what was happening to him or why. And this day he was a bit cranky too, I was told. I didn’t know it then but this was the last time he would be there before I would walk out one more time alone but in this moment, when he saw me, the cranky he had been that day slipped away and he stood up on the exam table and grabbed me like he would never let go, both front legs/paws wrapped around my chest, head buried and I know, if a cat could cry, he would have, just like me.