Play is relative: Cat baseball in Missouri and Rome in San Francisco
My cat is a ten in the feline world, the tip of his tiny nose his most distinctive dynamic. Pink on the left, but colored like his body on its right, his nose is as arresting a facial feature as Tom Cruise’s right front tooth being centered asymmetrically in his mouth, as engaging as Elvis Presley’s signature lip-curling pout.
Penciled gently between his rounded ears, my tom wears the classic “M” of all mackerel tabbies. He has dark and light bands of agouti fur that bracelet his tail and legs and run vertically down his soft parallel sides. Silken white cheeks, underside and paws make him look like he put on a hooded cloak before God spray painted on the final coat of white. His markings are similar to Australian animal trainer Robert Dollwet’s talented cat Didga (Did ja?) of Internet stardom in Twelve dogs and a cat dance on a beach. Rather than a breed of cat, the mackerel tabby is a pattern.
In the eight years I have known him, people have regularly commented about his good looks, but my cat is more than just a handsome face. He and I have been through hell and we have kept going.
We first knew each other from his association with the antiques shop I co-owned for a decade, first with four other teachers and then just one. Once, during those happy years, a fierce clowder of feral cats I thought I could tame coexisted underneath the sturdy oak floorboards of the 105 year-old structure along with dozens of gigantic raccoons and huge possums.
Feeding times, intended solely for the cats, often summoned all these wild denizens, hissing and growling edgily around the back porch as they spit savagely and squared off for good seats around the feasts I served up from big economy bags of cat chow. The ravenous and incongruous diners would strategically wait until I had set out the spread and softly closed the door, a sound announcing mealtime as clearly as if I had just rung a dinner bell.
The subsequent cafeteria scenes were frightful, presenting a most alarming tableau, to say the least. In fact, this dining was so scary to watch that at last I resolved to live trap all the animals except the cats for release into the woods. Even though I had no experience, I borrowed a cage from one of my students, laced its wire floor with cat kibble and set the spring-loaded door.
Sure enough, soon afterwards, one morning on my way to school when I stopped by to discharge breakfast and check the cage, I discovered the only creature ever trapped there, indignantly staring back at me. He would be the only frequent diner I could eventually pick up and pet.
Not long after that, he would be the only survivor of all the animals that lived at Chalkboard Antiques and Gifts when someone else, without my permission or knowledge, enacted a permanent solution to the near catastrophic animal chaos outside. On the afternoon of the slaughter, the mackerel tabby would be moved safely inside the shop with a roasting pan as an emergency litter box. He would be named Moses. Of course.
From his first overnighter, Moses loved the comfy wingback chairs and homey ambiance inside. An instant people pleaser, he soon had an enthusiastic fan club just like any other celebrity apprentice antiques shop cat who had found agreeable employment.
It would be my late son who would suggest we should capitalize on this particular cat occupation by producing a photographic state-by-state field guide to The Antiques Shop Cats of America, the idea to make shop cats all across the nation as famous as Socks, the political black and white tuxedo rescue who went to live at The White House with the Bill Clintons.
This was all before Moses’ retirement when he came home to permanently live with me, but the book proposal is a stellar idea, as good at least as Kramer’s infamous coffee table book and I offer it to anyone interested, since all crazy cat ladies can safely come out of the closet now that cat memes have become so ubiquitous.
Cat aficionados practically purr with contentment now that the kitties have become the number one undisputed Viral Overlords and Ladies of the Internet. It’s a cultural phenomenon explained best by pet journalist Steven Dale, who says the Net is to cat owners what the traditional dog park has always been to those strutting their mutts there.
Further proof of America’s feline fixation occurred when NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams recently shared the mesmerizing 56-second surveillance video posted to Facebook of Hero Cat Tara saving a four year-old from a dog attack in Bakersfield, California. Uploaded first to YouTube, the video of the fearless cat went viral with 4.5 million hits by the end of the first day. The former rescue even has her own Facebook page now with almost forty thousand likes!
Moses, my rescue, is a hero, too, the only other surviving member of the immediate Yount family after the public suicide baiting death of Dylan Yount on February 16, 2010, in Hallidie Plaza, San Francisco, witnessed by approximately 1,000 people and 24 San Francisco police officers you could hardly call people. Same for the city lawyers who refer to that modern-day rejuvenation of the bloodsport game similar to those played in the Roman Colosseum as “the incident.” Same for those city officials who physically “covered over” the place on the plaza sidewalk where Dylan bled to death with a ticket booth for the cable cars, like groundsmen spreading a fresh layer of sand over the blood-soaked ground of the gladiators in ancient Rome.
My son’s death was as unexpected to me as to your encountering the shocking paragraph above in an essay about cats. Indeed, the seminal event of my life is so horrifying, it will never be “written” into any ordinary living. A mother fundamentally changes once she reads her son has been a human piñata.
So, like Hero Cat Tara, I, too, have a Facebook page. Suicide Baiting Prevention is dedicated to raising awareness and lobbying for better police training in their interactions with the suicidal, yet despite all my efforts, SBP has less than two thousand likes.
Even so, all support is a comfort, and I have had a lot from Moses who really rescued me. Empathy is his greatest characteristic. To those who doubt an empathetic cat, I would not wish what happened to him and me on anyone else to disprove how wrong you are. During that first year when pain became my pulse, Moses hardly left my side. Though much of what happened then remains a blur, it must have been terrifying for him to have been startled violently awake in the dead of night when I would wake us with my screams. Moses is loyal, probably to a fault.
He has a great memory, too, and I can prove it. Whether Dylan taught Moses how to play Cat Baseball or vice-versa, I never knew and can no longer ask, but it was Dylan who first pointed out Moses’ round ears and short tail as characteristics of the Manx cat, which breeders describe as the “dog among cats.”
Indeed, third baseman Moses plays Cat Baseball like a dog. Dylan and the cat he called “Brother” first took up their adaptation of the national pastime in summer, 2008. They played their final inning together in July, 2009, sometime before Dylan left on the six-month European travel odyssey with his girlfriend.
Often on the many nights during that summer month when it would finally become too dark for human eyes, we could still barely see Moses from our backyard patio chairs, his little ears just visibly sticking up from his favorite position near the bottom of the hill. Reluctant to leave his base, he was always hopeful for just a few more innings of play before bedtime.
I loved watching Cat Baseball that summer, but I cringe recalling the idle conversation. SHE: (jokingly laughing) “Look at what I am going to have to put up with for the next six months!” HE: (mockingly replying) “Next six months? What about for the rest of our lives?” HIM TO ME: (insistently reassuring) “We’re going to go and have fun and then get really serious about life when we get back.”
When they got back in January, 2010, for our late Christmas, Dylan played with Moses off season, indoors, before returning to San Francisco. He gave no indication that he would die savagely just 19 days later, experiencing a psychological emergency. He would never know that Moses almost died during that time, too.
After Dylan’s death, I did not have the heart to play with Moses. No one who visited had much heart to play with him, either. In fact, no one remembers playing many games with Moses at all, much less his favorite, Cat Baseball, until summer, 2012.
The game was spontaneous. It occurred one languid summer evening when family was visiting, including my great niece and nephew who had been too young to have seen Moses play. The game was triggered by a bowl of red table grapes I brought out to the patio.
When Moses saw them, he practically vibrated, gloriously transported into “the zone,” straightway remembering the soft cherry tomatoes and grapes he and Dylan had used to play Cat Baseball! We watched in disbelief as he hightailed it like a blue streak around all the backyard bases in the waning light before settling himself at third base, waiting expectantly.
His pregame warmup had always been striking and we watched in fascination as he kneaded the ground, “making biscuits” rapidly with his little white-gloved paws. It was like watching him repeatedly punch a much-loved, well-worn ball glove, an action announcing his intention to play as clearly as if a celestial umpire had just yelled, “Play Ball!”
He hunkered down into his athletic stance, whipping his tail crazily back and forth like a classic California Kit-Cat clock, its metronome gone mad. Bug-eyed, he lowered his athletic little body down to hug the ground in pounce mode. His muscles rippled in every limb, all the way down to the wriggling of his butt and the rapid swishing of his accelerated tail. With extraordinary intensity he focused on the incoming soft grape grounders, sliders and sinkers we took turns pitching to him and we laughed outright as we watched him hustle to catch, pumme, and shred those grapes into pulpy smithereens.
That night, Moses was the feline combined version of third baseman George Brett and superstitious Wade Boggs, known famously for snagging exactly 150 practice grounders before each game. Not only did Moses remember how to play his favorite game after his forced suspension, my athletic little genius excelled!
He has taught me more than I have ever taught him. Love is what keeps us going out into the fields of play. It is the only chance we have to defeat our deepest human sorrows, our only protection from human pain, and so I make a regular effort now to play ball with “Brother.”
I often remember Dylan playing with Moses. One time when he was petting him, he told me Moses had the shortest tail of any cat he had ever known. I feel that same shortness now when I pet my cherished cat. His tail is missing a longer “part,” which is silly because it never existed. I feel the same wistful yearning Moses always has for one more summer game in the fields of play and I weep, longing for what should have been.