Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Talking Japanese With Cats

woodblock print, 1934 | Toraji Ishikawa

Plastic grocery bags, coupons offering two-for-one, old shoes dumped in the alley behind the house, broke-down stoves with oven doors hanging loose like panting dogs. All free stuff. Well, the stove was free, but hefting it onto the rotting back porch of the apartment my sister Ronnie was renting at the time, the one with the Murphy bed that wouldn't stay politely closeted, cost me a bottle of pain reliever due to back issues.

She’d decided to snag the stove after studying its abandoned hulk out her kitchen window, which charmingly looks out on garbage bins and incorrigible weeds, for a week and chatting with a guy she'd been eyeing at the coffee shop. He suggested by way of flirting (her words) that it might be fixable, offered to take a look, which involved three hours of hair styling and make up for Ronnie before he showed up in basketball shorts and a crummy "Huskers" T-shirt.

I was there when he arrived for moral support or to call 911 in case the guy went rogue, but I spent most of his quick visit staring at his poorly fitting false teeth. My sister's about as hot as crust on an oven rack so I went along with it in hopes something yeasty would arise with Mr. Fix-it, and truthfully, he had a full head of lustrous, better than George Clooney, salt and pepper hair.  

But me—I'm not too enthusiastic about junk. I figure, if it’s free, there’s a reason. My sister looks at life as one grand dumpster dive and can’t help herself, which is how I got Tiger, my orange and white cat, and she got three dates with a University of Nebraska college football fan.

The “garden” apartment where I was living at the time didn't permit animals and Ronnie called after work to let me know she was stopping by the "studio," as she called my cozy three-room apartment in an upscale complex. I've never been a cat lover, don’t enjoy the hair on the furniture and resent their insolent lounging about.

“Why the heck did you bring the thing here? I can’t keep him.” I huffed and opened the box. The thing jumped out and ran under the couch.

“See?" She looked at me like I'm both blind and dumb. "He likes it here already. Made himself right at home.”

I felt impatient, tired after a long day. This was not my sister's first free fiasco. We've been dysfunctional co-dependents since before it was cool. I've been through the foisting of second-hand desires before and I was sure he had mange. It would only be a matter of time until its fur was gone and his teeth fell out. I’m allergic to flea bites, for god’s sake.

“Where’d you get the damn thing?” I got down on my knees, rear in the air, peering under the couch, expecting claws and teeth, some kind of Wild Kingdom reenactment.

“You've got lint on your butt, she said to my backside. “He was free and you know how much I love free.”

“That’s not what I asked.” I stood up stiff, tottered.

“His name is really Tora. Means Tiger in Japanese.”

“Japanese? What? He escaped from a trade delegation?”

“No. I was having lunch with friends. Ardith was paying. You know how much  . . .

“I know you love free!” I stepped mincingly around the box, glared, kicked at it.

“That’s not what I was going to say.” She sounded hurt and made pouty lips. “I was going to say I love inari and this place downtown has the best, plus shrimp tempura, teriyaki chicken, steamed broccoli, white rice. Great lunch in a bento box. You ever have a bento lunch?”

“Give me a break. Are you telling me that what’s under my couch is an escaped entrée?”

“It’s not like that. Listen. My friend Ardith goes to pay and I’m getting ready to go out to my car. I found a place to park almost in front of the restaurant and there was still time left on the meter. My lucky day! Free. But, .. . ." She paused for effect, fluttered her false lashes. "I could see through the restaurant window the meter had expired and I didn’t want to get a ticket. That’s when I saw the sign ‘free cat’ with a cute picture. So, I asked the woman really fast about the cat and got Ardith to go out and put a quarter in the meter.

“You got your friend to buy you lunch . . . and pay for parking?”

“Not just lunch. There's enough left over for dinner. I got two meals out of it, actually,. They put the leftovers in take-out containers. Do you want some? Free dinner.”

“Veronica," I said, trying to be reasonable. "Why would anyone give away a perfectly good cat? What’s wrong with him? I mean besides the fact he's under my couch.”

“The woman at the cash register didn’t speak much English. The owner’s mother, I think. She was really old and wore those white socks with the toe split.” She glances down at her wedgie sandles and wiggles her toes to show off her purple polish and tiny daisy decals. “We used hand gestures. She said they already have a cat. But this one, Tora, means tiger in Japanese.

“You told me that,” I’m stood, hands on hips, looking with one eye at the gap under my couch and thought about the day that will live in infamy.

“He fights,” my sister said, all bright and cheerful like the cat also cames with a free samurai sword. “They tried for two years to get him to like their other cat, but the vet bills got to be too much. Since Tiger was the newest one, and they liked the older one better, they decided to get rid of him.”

“And you think I need a vicious tom cat?”

“It’s not like that. He just doesn’t like other cats in his territory, that’s all. You don’t have a cat so he won’t have anyone to fight with. Besides, you’re lonely. You need a pet. I worry about you. I really do. Bye the way, do you have an extra roll of toilet paper? I don’t get paid until next week and it would get me through.”

I stomped into the bathroom and fished out a fresh roll from under the sink, twirled it on my index finger before tossing it to her.

“What about my furniture? Does he shred things, too, I mean just to stay in shape for wrestling season?”

“Stop! The woman didn’t say anything about that. She said he’s a good cat. It’s just that he likes to fight. That’s all I know. I’m sure he’ll be fine. But, I gotta go. He was free and I just couldn’t pass it up.”

We’ve been together now, Tiger and me, for more than ten years. He has gotten a lot fatter and refuses to use a cat box. I bought a little house, which Ronnie calls the “asylum.” But, Tiger knows my ways and waits on the front walk for me every evening and greets me when I come home from work. OK, the truth is he meows until I top off his kibble bowl and set down fresh water and then ignores me.

Ronnie and I don’t talk about his assaults on other cats in the neighborhood or the birds he kills and leaves in front of the patio door, or the time he scratched the mailman. The Postal Service sent a note about mauling, but I didn't respond. He sleeps on my bed and purrs beside me when we go to sleep. I've gotten a bigger bed, but don't invite overnight guests, or encourage visits by people with small children.

Ronnie is pleased with our relationship, takes full responsibility for what she calls my “bliss.” I remind her he’s just a cat when she comes over to borrow things, which is to say often, and she never fails to mention he is . . . well, quite a bargain.

Hiroshige Woodblock Print,