Kitty-man was the terror of the neighborhood. Every local dog within miles feared him and would never come within a claws distance if they could help it. He taught a generation of wayward canines to respect the power of his sharp claws, and when we first moved into the neighborhood there was many a scratched nose and mangled ear on the neighbor's dogs. I often saw him stalking around our large back yard while a pack of local hounds trailed him -- but always at a respectful distance. Most of the area dogs challenged him at one time or another, and they all learned the same painful lesson: don't get within striking distance. Ever.
He was jet black with a large white spot on his chest, and he was fat: this guy was the original chow-hound, and he would eat as much as we would lay out for him, as often as we'd lay it out. He was so large he grunted like a sumo wrestler every time he heaved himself off the floor to go outside, which, being a cat, he did 8 or 9 times a day.
He didn't look at the world: he glared out at it, daring it to intrude on him. Kitty-man often lay with his paws outstretched and he would work them, first one paw, then another, unsheathing his claws, hooking them into the carpet, and all the time his menacing green eyes would be lazily half-shut as if his mind was a thousand miles away.
Our neighbors picked up a scrawny hound puppy from somewhere, and the very first day in the neighborhood, it decided to have fun with Kitty-man. It would dart up within 6 or 7 feet, yap frenetically and dart away. It did this over and over and I watched from our kitchen window, grinning at what I could see coming. The puppy kept it up, yapping and darting away, while Kitty-man stood and watched--unmoving, never taking his eyes off the puppy. I finally tired of watching -- heck, I knew the outcome of this anyway, so I went into the living room to watch TV. I could hear the dog the whole time. Yap yap yap. I watched 10 minutes of a Braves game, and still there was yap yap yap. Suddenly I heard a terrified yelp followed by a dogs cry receding in the distance. Kitty-man had struck again.
Life was good for Kitty-man--he had it all. A human family that treated him with the princely respect and awe that he deserved. All the food he could eat. The fear and respect of every dog and cat in the neighborhood. Yep, life was mostly cat-food and long naps, but he did have the occasional problem.
When my daughter Mary was born, she loved playing with her stuffed Barney pet. She loved Barbie and a stuffed Scooby Doo, but she adored one live plaything in particular: Mary loved Kitty-man with all her tiny heart.
Often, as Mary played in the middle of the living room floor, toys and stuffed animals scattered around her, she'd spot Kitty-man strolling in his regal fashion through the room. With a girly squeal, she'd crawl over and grab his tail and yank him to her. Mary would yank on his ears, pull his tail and grab the fur on his back in both tiny fists. He never scratched, yowled, or even tried to get away. Occasionally if Mary was too rough, he'd pat her with a paw, his claws sheathed, as if to say "Ok, take it easy there, chum." You'd think he would hide when he spotted her, but he never did, and never went out of his way to avoid her. I'd often find him beside her, his paws tucked into his chest, a purr rumbling contentedly in his throat as he watched her sleep.
There was only one nemesis Kitty-man had that he was unable to deal with: a local family of mockingbirds. Now this was somewhat odd, considering that Kitty-man was a predator of the first magnitude. He hunted birds, squirrels, mice and moles relentlessly. I often awakened in the morning and stepped on my back porch with a cup of steaming coffee in one hand to be greeted by the sight of Kitty-man sitting there with two or three mice laid carefully at the doorstep for my inspection. He always sat proudly, his purr rumbling, while I loved on him and bragged on what a good kitty he was. Yep, he was a real hunting machine, yet these mockingbirds terrorized him daily.
I first saw this one morning as I was sitting in a lawn chair in the front yard. I was leaned back sipping blissfully on my first cup of coffee when Kitty-man ambled across the yard, presumably coming over to allow me to stroke him.
"Kitty-kitty. Here kitty-kitty," I called to him. He stopped, glared at me as if to say "Keep your pants on, chum. I'll get there in my own sweet time," then slowly proceeded toward me. I'd been listening to the birds call to each other in that sleepy early-morning way they have, when I saw a mockingbird that was perched on a powerline swoop down, peck ferociously on Kitty-man's back and swoop away. Kitty-man crouched and looked wildly around. His green eyes were wide and blazing as he sought out his attacker. Another mockingbird sailed down out of the trees, struck hard and swooped away. Kitty-man's back twitched and convulsed like a horse's will when it's been bitten by a horsefly, and he slunk across the yard, his big belly dragging the ground. The mockingbirds tag-teamed him, first one then the other until he was under the porch. After that, it wasn't unusual to see these two mockingbirds dive-bombing him like little gray fighter planes while he tried to hurry across the yard. He obviously hated them but couldn't seem to figure out how to handle them.
Eventually we sold our house and moved out of the country and into the city. By this time Kitty-man was about 12 years old and was showing signs of age. His princely walk had become a stiff-legged hobble, and he spent a lot of time sleeping in the sun. We no longer found bird feathers or mouse heads scattered around the yard. Kitty-man had become an old warrior, battle-scarred and tired.
One morning as I was headed out the door for work I saw Kitty-man sitting on the hood of my Jeep relaxing in the early morning sun. I started to shoo him off when I suddenly thought that this was the first time I'd seen him in several days. I looked around to make sure no one was watching, then carefully picked him up and stroked him, something I rarely ever did. I stood there for about ten minutes, rubbing him and talking to him in a low voice, and all the while his purr rumbled in his chest. I gave him a final hug, carefully deposited him on the ground and drove off. That's the last time anyone ever saw Kitty-man.
A couple of days later we noticed a definite smell around the back yard, as if something had crawled under the house and died. We looked around and never found anything, but our worse fears were realized when we noticed that Kitty-man hadn't been around for some time. Like animals seem to do so often, he'd gone off to die alone.
Eventually we did get another cat -- two of them, in fact. They're both black with white spots, a mother kitty and her son. They're affectionate and loving and worthless, like most cats, but they don't have the dangerous charisma of old Kitty-man. They don't hunt, and they run from every dog they see -- something that would have been anathema to Kitty-man. Some weekends when I look around my back yard at the cornucopia of barking dogs, hissing cats and screaming grand-children, I think how he would have sent them all running for their lives if they'd dared to do this while he was around.
If there is a heaven for good kitties, I'm sure he's there, prowling around putting offending dogs to flight and relentlessly patrolling his own little heavenly territory. No doubt he's being waited on hand and foot by a herd of servile humans who pile on the Tender Vittles and canned fish, all the while stroking him and whispering lovingly in his ear. After all, you can't expect mere death to change someone like him.