When Sam was still living in Tucson and I was able to spend about two weeks out of every month down there, Sam had decided he wanted a dog. But he couldn’t have a dog where he lived so he opted for a cat. “I want a big-ass orange cat.”
He had a penchant for “old man names” when it came time to naming anything…a Mac, an iPod, an iPhone, anything…so he had started to come up with a list of names for what he’d name the cat even before we had made a single plan to go to the “no kill” cat shelter in Tucson.
I was reluctant to do any of this, especially because his tenure in the USAF was so tentative; I just didn’t think it was the right time to consider getting a pet. But there was no dissuading him.
Anyhow, I don’t remember any of the “old man names” on that list of pet names, but I’m sure that they’d subsequently made their way onto MacBook Pros, etcs. Henry and Ralph and Edgar and the like.
We arrived at the cat shelter, a sprawling ranch house that’d been added onto—badly—several times, but Tucson weather being what it was, you could get away with such stuff. To a person, it was run by morbidly obese white women. Sam had whispered a comment about bull dykes being around all that pussy. I smacked him, but hid my own smile.
“All that pussy” was 435 cats to be exact: they kept a white board near the front door to show you an up to date tally of their “current residents”.
We walked through several rooms—a shotgun-shack-style construction: no hallways anywhere, just room connected to room connected to room—each of which had a dozen or more cats in various states of leisure and play like living knick-knacks and we were two suburban low-rent homos out flea-marketing on a weekend.
In the fourth or fifth such room, there was a Himalayan cat whose head had been shaved, a long old scar running from the top of her head, between her eyes and down the side of her neck. Her nose was very red, her eyes a mystical green. You couldn’t stop looking, but not because of her disfigurement. She actually appeared to rise above it. It was a weird cat-dignity thing.
Sam wanted to move on, though, and at first I couldn’t figure out why. Though she looked like a strung-out, morning-after drag queen, I thought the Himalayan’s comportment more than made up for whatever had been done to her by ugly, inhuman scum (the need for the surgery, not the scar from it).
Then I saw what he saw and what made him need to leave the room: there was another cat over on the floor, mostly white, whose spots were actually striped regions. A beautiful cat, intact in appearance but not in function: he was paralyzed in his rear quarters. His tail lay off to the side unnaturally and his legs were flat on the ground behind him. He was walking across the floor slowly but with cat-confidence, pulling himself along quite capably. It was too much for Sam and I wasn’t moving fast enough so he grabbed me by the hand and INSISTED.
I tried to tell him that the cat was doing just fine and that he was managing perfectly well. He’d adjusted, he’d learned to—
But I got that look from Sam that said not so much “shut the fuck up” as “I’ve unplugged your mic”. I can smile now, but I knew when When was WHEN, if you know what I mean.
We finally got to a large screened-in outdoor space with at least a hundred cats.
The biggest commotion in the room was a noisy toy that had a floppy thing with lots of rubbery tendrils at the end of a foot-long arm. At the other end of the arm was a motor in a case. The encased motor was the pivot point and as it rotated the shaft of the arm, the floppy thing, well, flopped about and circumscribed a clear area on the cement floor around which about thirty cats of all stripes (and spots and Siameses) were waiting their turn for the floppy thing to come ‘round again so they could have their swats at it.
I walked away from Sam over towards them and looked on for a bit.
Sam’s eyes were always the first thing you noticed about Sam. Brown eyes that were dark and shiny—sometimes. Or mellow and warm—sometimes. I think he was able to command them to be either. He never told.
They were almond shaped, exotic, like so many things about Sam’s personality, intelligence and creativity. Exotic. He never believed me, I don’t think, when I told him how wonderful that was; he seemed to just want to be like everyone else. From the little I’ve gotten to see of how he was with Greg, however, their togetherness alchemized his world into something that let Sam celebrate everything that was special about himself.
And how fucking great is that?
But I was talking of hundreds of cats and a milestone day. I found a cat. He was silver with a dark grey undercoat. Small, with green-yellow almond-shaped eyes. I called Sam over, who was doing nothing but trying to avoid the cats who were living with maladies or disfigurements, so he came right over. I pointed out the cat that I thought he might like, joking (though not really joking) that this cat “looks a lot like you!”
He glared at me. Lesser men would have withered and blown away. Not me though (he says, puffing out his chest).
Sam crouched down nonetheless, to get a better look. He wasn’t down for more than a few seconds when he felt two paws on his thigh. He lifted up his left arm and there he was: an orange and white cat, separate from all the other cats, standing up on his hind legs.
Looking up at Sam and making no noise at all. He even reached up with a paw and put it on Sam’s hand.
I gasped: a big-ass, if undernourished, orange cat had found his way to Sam!
Sam picked him up and held him on his back, face up, like an infant and one of the women there gasped as well. Apparently she’d never seen this particular cat permit such a thing.
Sam said to the woman, “could you tell me please about this cat?” His voice was small and quiet and measured. I’m sure if asked he would have said he didn’t want to disturb the cat, but I could hear tentativeness and fear there. Fear of breaking the spell. Fear of finding out something that would prevent him from fulfilling the wishes this cat had already Wished.
The woman replied, “Let me get Walter’s paperwork.”
Sam’s head turned and snapped to look at me. His eyes went wide and he mouthed the name “Walter!”
Walter! Old man name! Big-ass Orange Cat!
I smiled and actually teared up: I believed in things like this because I’d already been living in San Francisco for a decade. When things are right, the Universe invites you to screw up the courage and take action to make them real. Simple as that.
Walter was “about a year-and-a-half to two-years old” and “was social, except with other cats”. Fine so far, since Sam and Regina (his roommate at the time) didn’t have any other cats.
“I would like to take Walter home with me.”
It was so strange that he sounded so much like the little boy when he was saying such a mature and responsible thing. A clear, direct statement of protection, commitment and honest love.
The shelter insisted on a home visit before permitting the adoptions, to make sure it was a safe environment for the cat. Oh, Sam was all bluster for a week about “how dare they judge a Kennedy!” and such, but he did everything he possibly could at the apartment to make sure it was cat-safe (to this day I have no idea what that entailed) so that Walter, having wished for Sam, could have his wish fulfilled.
Beautiful story, right?
But the most beautiful part of it is something I have yet to recount, because it didn’t happen in Tucson. It didn’t happen on the move from Tucson to San Francisco. It didn’t even happen while Sam and I were still together and both living together with Walter.
It happened when things were perhaps nearly the worst they ever were between Sam and me, after things were over. He was moved out and we were barely speaking. He wasn’t doing well no matter how you cared to measure wellness.
But he contacted me when there was no other reason to other than to say what he’d needed to say after he’d come to a decision:
“I want you to have Walter,” he said, speaking very carefully, deliberately. “I know I owe you a lot, but he’s the only thing I have to give you.”
It was so strange that he sounded so much like the little boy when he was saying such a mature and responsible thing. A clear, direct statement of selflessness and honest lovely giving.
Walter is laying right here next to me, like he always does. He’s never been completely just mine.
And you know what? Even now, he’s still a little bit Sam’s. Always will be.