(Unedited version. Published in Cats & Kittens Magazine: Featured essay entitled “Fantom”. May 2001, Vol. 4. No. 2.)
I was bored the other day so I decided to take an old stray ally cat to the vet – and then wash him. I was not bored for long.
Fantom is his name, and ‘last of the real cats’ is his claim to fame. He’s an old ally cat that recently adopted me. Took three weeks to get him to lie on the couch with me. He’s not that smart. He tends to stare off into space like an old boxer at times, like he’s got something to do, but forgot what it was. He’s got a dirty butt, two chunks taken out of his left ear, chipped and dirt-infested very-long-sharp-never-trimmed claws, a snaggle tooth and bad breath. He refuses to sleep inside past 1am, especially if it’s raining. He’s black and white. Rain makes him howl and scratch at the door until you let him out. I figure he feels pent up in a storm and needs to be facing it on his own terms with freedom to move. Or maybe it’s because I insist that I’m the only animal that shits in my house, so I don’t have a litter box.
I had a day off and since one of my neighbors had a restraining order on Fantom to keep 10 feet away from her door lest some of his germs infect her terminally cute-friendly-clean-pure-bread-neurotic-declawed-never-been-outside “cat”, I figured I’d take him to the vet and get him shots.
I packed him in the only box I had, a Hewlett Packard 812c Deskjet reinforced printer box. I picked him up for the trip to the vet and he scratched me through the handholds. Dropping the box from the pain, I watched as he proceeded to start eating his way through the handholds like a crazed badger. I was clearly not prepared for this mission.
Bleeding from two knuckles, I grabbed my leather work gloves, blocked the holes with my protected hands, and ran him out to the truck. By the time I got to the vet 15 blocks away he could get out of the box on one side. But I stuffed that side against the door, and then got out and had to stuff his head back in the box when I opened the door. It was like trying to stuff the last of a down sleeping bag into its small bag. He was pissed.
I entered the vet holding my gloves over the holes with the box way out in front of me smiling and saying “I’m bleeding and I need a room.”
Once in the small vet room I pondered what to do. Should I even let him out? Would he tear up the place, me, the vet? Not wanting to keep my hands on the box, I decided to let the beast out. I figured he might freak out, but at least I could get out of the room to safety and leave a nice surprise for the vet.
I cut the tape on the printer box’s top and backed away. He looked around slowly. He looked again. He sniffed. He went back inside the box. He looked around again. Then he calmly left the box, shook off the cardboard pieces from his freak out, walked to the middle of the floor and languidly lay down as if he was on our patio. He cleaned a paw. A dog passed by the other side of the door and he halfheartedly hissed. He looked at me and closed his eyes. I wondered what he was thinking? Maybe “Thought I’d freak out didn’t you?”. Cats love to keep you guessing. Or maybe he was thinking, “No food, no gland stimulation, think I’ll take a nap.” Maybe that’s what cats are always thinking???
I sat in the room and waited. A sign on the wall said they could trim the front claws of cats so they wouldn’t ruin furniture, and that they’d still be able to climb trees with their back claws. I laughed out loud. These people had obviously never seen a cat climb a tree, and they’d certainly never climbed one themselves. Besides, I’ve had cats and never had them ruin furniture. The first time they do you just jump up, scream “No”, and gently send them skidding across the floor. Same with counters. Run up, scream “No!” and gently swipe them onto the floor. Cats do not keep grudges, although they will shit in your bed if you leave them for too long. Solution? Lock them outside when you leave! If you love something, set it free!!!
The nurse came in and we lay him on the stainless steal table. Nobody was injured. He seemed to find it all rather interesting, if a bit annoying, or maybe he’s like me and just hates florescent lights. She said he weighed 10 pounds which is pretty small, and needs every shot known to man. She called me “Dad”. I didn’t stop her, although it was insulting to both myself and Fantom. We are partners in life and like to think that we are both independent and able to take care of ourselves, thank you very much. She redeemed herself by taking me to put iodine in my knuckle cuts and commenting how dirty Fantom’s claws were.
“Yeah, and sharp!” I said, probably sounding like Calvin talking about Hobbs.
She said, “We can trim them, it’ll get all the dirt out.”
“Can you sharpen them when you’re done?”
“That’s wouldn’t be fair to him, he’s outside at night,” I said.
The Vet came in. He was nice, too nice. He had the doctor voice that kid doctors get. We both didn’t trust him. He poked, prodded, looked, listened. He said the little black things among the filth Fantom had deposited on the stainless steal thing were dead fleas and flea feces. He said Fantom had a dental disease and a bad tooth. But a strong heart and lungs and was basically healthy. I told him that he sprays flower pots for fun and everybody’s closet but mine if given the chance. The vet said he’s not fertile, so it’s just pee. He said that he doesn’t spray in my closet because he’s picked me as his friend. My neighbor’s still won’t be happy.
I told the vet that when he’s pushed too far he beats up the other younger, bigger, stronger male cats by coming in fast and very low to the ground with ears back, screaming and with alternating claw swipes. The vet said that was because he’s been fighting all his life and is very good at it.
Fantom retreated to my lap several times, it was very cute, although we wouldn’t admit it. $150.00 later he had his shots, flea elixir from hell (one drop behind the neck = no fleas for 30 days in your apartment), and a stool sample forcibly removed. I got ripped off, but not as bad as Fantom. Leaving, I was not happy about the money and Fantom was just not happy. At least I didn’t do the $300.00 dental work. That I’ll save for a cheaper vet, or maybe use a Leatherman and some Codine laced tuna.
To get him home I had to buy a cat box, another $20.00. He was calm in it until I was walking across the street to my place and he saw his home turf. Seeing familiar ground, he rammed the steal door three times with the top of his his head hard enough to almost knock the cat box out of my hands. That had to hurt, but it explains his vacant looks.
Sitting at home it became strikingly obvious that since I’d spent this ridiculous amount of money on a stray cat, and I was having a cocktail party that night, the cat better damn well be clean.
Now, I knew that my neighbor Jae had tried to wash him last year and that she claimed she’d barely survived. She had insisted that he’d need to be heavily sedated and washed by a trained professional the next time. The vet had told me to tie him to a tree and hose him down to project me from bites, because if he bites I’d have to go to the ER due to his dirty mouth.
The tree/hose thing sounded a mite cruel, besides what about soap? I figured leather gloves, a willingness to get wet, and a tub full of soapy warm water would be enough. I filled a tub with warm water, Dawn soap (for the grease) and shampoo (for his coat). The suds were thick.
I picked him up quick and set him down in the water. Suddenly I was holding the Tazmanian Devil! Suds flew, water hit me in the face. A sharp pain shot though my forearm. I pulled back and Fantom followed the two claws of his that had punctured my arm. Not scratched mind you, but punctured, leaving two bleeding holes as if a vampire with bad aim had bitten me.
We sat in our corners and thought. I thought that this time I’d hold my forearms wide. He thought “I’ll kill him in his sleep,” or maybe “No food? No glad stimulation. I think I need a nap,”
I picked him up and pushed him back in. Chaos ensued. My forearms were safe however. I got two good coat washings in before a paw found my knee and easily sunk claws though my jeans. He launched himself out of the tub using my skin as a purchase and covered me with water on the way.
We sat on the floor in opposite corners again. We were both wet, pissed and slightly shell shocked by now. We plotted our next moves. Fantom’s plan was obviously to stay by the door, look pissed, and kill anything that touched him. Mine was to foil his escape plan of using my forearms and legs. If he could find skin, he could get out. But porcelain left him with no traction.
Readying a sponge I picked him up again, but this time I widened my arms and kept my knees down. Setting him in the water I blocked his escape by holding his chest. He fought, but only slipped. Grabbing the sponge I washed his stink butt. He freaked out, water and suds flew, but I kept him in and got in a few more coat washes before he found my right forearm, dug in, and flew out of the tub.
Back to our corners. He looked like a rat who was having a very bad day. I was bleeding from both forearms. Glancing at my knee I saw blood coming through my jeans. I felt great! It was so tactile, so un-computer. I drained the tub and filled it with clear warm water for a rinse cycle. Ha! I wasn’t going to stop now. Water flew, but I was getting good at avoiding his claws. He got one last deep scratch but he was rinsed goddamn it. I dried him off and opened the door.
He didn’t sprint for more caring owners as I figured. Instead he just walked into the living room and began to clean himself as if nothing happened. I cleaned my wounds and marveled how he wasn’t holding a grudge. I guess he figured I was bleeding enough to make it all water under the bridge, so to speak. We were even, time to move on to food, gland stimulation, and naps.
By the time cocktails were served and people were milling about, he was dry and only slightly annoyed at the whole thing. His white feet were actually white, and his coat was actually nice to touch. Of course he disappeared for most of the party, but at least I knew.
When Jae came up for cocktails, she asked about the Bandaids on my forearms.
“I washed Fantom” I said proudly.
“Really,” She said smiling, “look at this.”
And she peeled back the left cuff of her blouse and showed me a tiny pink 1/2 inch scar on her forearm.