The Cat Who Thought He Was A Dog
By the time Virgil flew to Seattle in a fancy folding pet carrier (in a passenger seat, of course; no hold baggage for Mister Virgil) he’d had quite a life. Born somewhere in North Carolina, he had been “rescued” (though he probably considered it being captured) from the wild life of a free tomcat. His rescuers removed the sizable male package that made him almost bow-legged, but he never lost that cowboy swagger to his rear end. Sadly, somewhere in his early adventuring days he contracted the feline immune deficiency they call “cat AIDs,” so reproduction was not in the cards.
His first real home was with his red-headed green-eyed mistress, whose soft heart led her to foster sick and abused dogs and cats. He grew to maturity among dogs learning to trust again, and began to line up with them at chow time. It didn’t take very long to figure out that Mister Virgil thought he was a dog. No feline shrinks for Mister Virgil; his assumption of canine-hood was accepted without question.
Virgil became my buddy in the Great Northwest.
I never met another cat quite like Virgil. I never quite grasped the airline clout his mistress wielded to get him, together with his companion, a blind and cranky lady cat who had been old when he joined the menagerie, passenger seating. But after I lived with them for a while I couldn’t think of any other way they should have traveled. My first cat, the delicate calico my then-wife and I named Junkanoo for the Nassau Christmas festival, was lost for twenty-four hours by the baggage-smashers when we left the islands for the mainland. Our destination was Florida, but Junky ended up in New Jersey, for God’s sake. When she finally got home she wouldn’t come out from under the bed for another full day — and no damn wonder. Junky persuaded me that I was a cat person after all, to my surprise. Even my buddy Shirrel’s icily disdainful Siamese appeared to at least tolerate me. After the islands, there always seemed to be cats in my life. For a good long time it was Junky, who traveled all over the country with us — by highway — never again relegated to baggage.
But this is Virgil’s tale. If anything, he was even more well-traveled than Junky, though some of his trips were traumatic as her New Jersey episode. One came after he stayed home in North Carolina with adopted dogs he considered litter mates, in the care of his mistress’s “wife” (Quotations because North Carolina didn’t recognize same-sex marriage) while his mistress was in New England helping care for her mother through an illness.
Before he knew it, he was snatched off to the local pound. His canine litter mates — and his home — were gone. He evidently was viewed as collateral damage in an ugly long-distance breakup. His caregiver absconded so completely it took a private detective to find her. Not that it did any good. All his mistress’s possessions and dogs were gone; irretrievable.
But she found Virgil and engineered his second rescue before he could be put down. They escaped to a Boston apartment, where he settled in with a new “uncle” — his mistress’s brother — and “grandmother” — her mom. He watched TV and ate Cheetos with his human uncle, the orange evidence plain on his whiskers if he forgot to clean them before his mistress got home. She didn’t approve his fondness for “the orange food group” but what could you do? Guys and their television snacks!
Since he believed himself canine, he did not consider it beneath his dignity to take city strolls on a leash; in fact he rather enjoyed it by all accounts. His dignified comportment won him admirers. Onlookers were flummoxed to see him lie quietly and regally among city pigeons, with no evidence of feline blood lust. Well of course not; he was a dog. He might have pointed the birds if someone asked nicely, but the question never came up.
For all his gravitas, he loved working men. He gravitated to plumbers and others who did work around the place, seemed to admire the wearers of tool belts. He would slide up closely and observe, and his human roommates were convinced he thought he was assisting, like some furry apprentice. His last long voyage was to the Northwest, when his mistress decided to cast her lot with mine. A story with no happy ending, maybe for another day. I met them at the airport.
The blind lady cat never really took to me; she was a one-person creature. But Virgil found me acceptable, and we became buddies. He would park himself on the arm of my chair, back up against me, and watch TV until he fell asleep. A silent vibration, like a muffled diesel, ruffled his dense fur. He was always quiet. He used Jack Benny facial expressions to substitute for yowls of disapproval; he always got his point across.
Virgil was a great comfort to me. I suppose I was in mourning for all my vanished animal companions. When they die, they leave such a big hole in your heart. Harry the Labrador, whose addition to the family made Junkanoo quite grumpy. But one cold night I caught them curled together sharing body warmth when I snapped on the light. Watching them spring apart like compromised lovers made me laugh and laugh. Junkanoo left home one summer day and never returned — stolen or taken by Northwest coyotes. I never knew her fate. Harry died peacefully in his old age another summer — he would never have left me in the middle of a hunting season.
As for Virgil, he must have thought his mistress had led him finally to the Promised Land. When she took him for walks on leash around the apartment compound, there were miraculous things to smell and see. One day a lady was grilling salmon on her patio. Virgil edged closer — the lady evinced protective nervousness — but Virgil, prince of good manners (after all, he was a dog in his heart) — sat politely and waited for an invitation. He got one, too — and some salmon. What creature of sensibility would not think this was the Promised Land, where a simple walk outside led to fresh-grilled salmon?
Of my previous animal companions where my mourning was tinged with remorse, there were three that Virgil helped me come to terms with when things were rough. I would swear he could read those moods. He would arise from wherever he snoozed and come join me, saying nothing. Just being there for me. I say again, Virgil was my buddy. He accepted my faults without judgment. Two of the three died prematurely. The third was more complicated.
After my marriage collapsed, the house was sold. I went to live in a one-bedroom apartment. My estranged wife said her friend with a farm and two Labradors would take McGee, my last Lab. I agreed, rationalizing that he would be happier on a farm with playmates. The redhead with Virgil was fully prepared to welcome McGee. But I thought I had provided for him. My remorse came when my daughter told me that my then ex-wife did not place him at the farm. In a final betrayal, she gave him to a brutal asshole that lived with one of her sisters and beat McGee. My daughter was all up for a rescue foray; you know if McGee can see you or hear your whistle he will come away, she said. But I knew my ex-sister in law would call the cops on me for trespass and dog-napping. A local financial big-shot, the local cops would take her side against an out-of-work interloper. I would be arrested or worse, since I feared my own temper. So I chickened out. Slice it any way you will, I let McGee down and consigned him to a living hell.
But Virgil never judged. He was just there, solid and reassuring. Though he was ill with that dread disease, he didn’t show it. At times he acted just like an alley cat — his last hurrah, for instance. His mistress left the door ajar, he scented freedom, and was gone like a ghost in the night. She was horrified. So was I. He only thought he was a big bad dog; there were coyotes in those urban woods, and some of the apartment dwellers ran to attack dogs with spiked collars.
We went into the night to look for him, and separated. I yearned for Harry’s presence and infallible nose, but I was alone. And who knew what trouble my rambunctious buddy might get into? I consciously stilled my fears and reminded myself that I am a hunter. A hunter channels his energies to read the quarry, where it will go, what it will do. I had to trust my hunter’s instincts. I moved slowly, watching the night.
Something told me to turn uphill, which seemed counter intuitive: Virgil’s only view from the apartment was downhill. But I followed my instinct and climbed. I reached the upper parking lot. No Virgil. But something led me toward the street and the heavily wooded gorge beyond. If he got into that I’d never find him. I stilled that negative thought, listened with my whole being and kept moving slowly, out onto the sidewalk. Downhill from me, a patch of the complex’s ornamental shrubbery had an extra bulge, as if untrimmed; not very likely. The bulge very slowly shrank — as if to vanish into cover.
“Virgil,” I said sharply. “You wait right there.”
He stopped trying to hide at the sound of my voice. The hill was so steep I had to hold back against gravity. I was afraid to bend downhill for fear of toppling on top of him, so I stepped past and turned. And there was that big familiar round head, looking up at me. It occurred to me I had never picked him up. He was too dignified and aloof for such shenanigans. I wondered if I would pay the price in tattered forearms. But no; he came quietly, a substantial fuzzy lump against my chest, that big head up under my chin. There was no coiled tension in that big feline body, nor the dramatic limpness of feline non-violent protest. He rode as relaxed as if we did this every day, no big deal.
His mistress saw me come down the hill. The look that bloomed on her face when she saw Virgil in my arms was priceless: worry and tension wiped away by sheer joy. Later, she would remonstrate with the escapee; not now. She inspected him carefully for damage. There was none. He bore this stoically. She could read more into his mood than I could. “He was ready to come home,” she said. “He’s glad you found him.” She thought he might have lost his way. Whatever the case, my buddy was home and safe. But it was his last hurrah.
Far too soon he began to limp. He didn’t feel right. A trip to the vet brought no relief; the vet said the feline immune deficiency was progressing with little hope for remission. It was time to begin the painful process of saying goodbye to Mister Virgil. Virgil’s mistress agreed it was time to ignore old rules observed because of his ailment. She fried bacon for Virgil, something he always loved but had been denied. He relished every bite. I bought him his favorite brand of ice cream. We sat with him in the marina where salmon came up a creek to spawn. The salt air — and the ice cream — seemed to cheer him. When there was nothing left to do but ease his passing, we were with him when the vet inserted the merciful needle and that big old head sunk down in his final sleep.
I drove her with Virgil’s ashes to the salmon creek, and waited above while she went down to the shore and communed alone with his spirit before she released his earthly remains to the water. She wanted Mister Virgil to be where he could watch the salmon and their cycle of life and death. The ashes spread and floated. I would like to think a chum salmon swam right through them.
Virgil had highly approved of this last place on earth his mistress brought him, a veritable Garden of Eden. Green everywhere. A heavily-treed creek out back where he could watch birds. Neighbors who obligingly grilled fresh salmon for him. It had been a good if checkered life, and a good death. He was my buddy, Mister Virgil. I miss him to this day.