Thursday, May 13, 2010

Sitting the Dean's Cat by Larry Lefkowitz

Sitting the Dean’s Cat
by Larry Lefkowitz

When the dean asked me to be his catsitter while he attended a week-long international conference on ‘Nabokov’s Roots’ at the University of Moscow (Russia, not Idaho), to say I was less than eager to carry out this demonstration of confidence in me is an understatement, but I reluctantly agreed because my future promotion in the literature department depended on keeping the dean, who was head of the department, on my side. Not to the point of becoming his cat’s stroker, it is hard for a dog petter to become a cat stroker -- I would endeavor to please the dean while keeping the cat at arm’s length, so to speak.

The dean had a nice pad: residence on the premises was required of the sitter so that the dean’s cat would have all the comforts of home which were hers by right. Putting her up in my place would be apparently too emotionally-wrenching for the creature. And maybe it would have been since I, like the good dean, was a bachelor (though not yet a ‘confirmed one’, a status the dean had achieved by dint of his many years as such) , and my pad reflected it. On the other hand, it might have nostalgically reminded the cat of the jungle from whence its kind once stemmed.

The dean checked out my pedigree, so to speak, before I could be given the responsibility for his "Molly" (the cat's name). It was a pre-condition that I meet his cat, to get her approval before getting the dean’s imprimatur. One look at the creature told me she had been spoiled rotten.

The dean loved cats. Ok, I loved a good cigar. Which object I had to give my word I would not smoke in the cat's presence. I once defended this practice to the dean by pointing out that Churchill smoked cigars. His dismissive reply: “Churchill wrote non-fiction.” Non-fiction constituted a sub-genre in his eyes.

I was up against a guy whose door-knocker took the form of a large bronze claw which he claimed was a replica of the claw of the Egyptian cat god Bast. If the dean’s cat was God, the dean was her high priest.

A dog would have been no problem. Dogs are loyal and affectionate, no matter what you do to them. Cats are independent and moody. A dog is unswervingly loyal because when dogs were wolves they had had a wolf leader and the domesticated dog, lacking such, adopted man as his leader. The cat had evolved with disdain for man.

My experience with cats was zilch. "Puss 'N Boots" was a story I disliked even as a child. My only close contact with cats was dissecting a dead cat in college anatomy class, its veins and arteries filled with blue and red latex. It goes without saying that I did not mention this "experience with cats" to the cat-loving dean.

My plan was to kick the cat out of the house the moment his master was on the plane. The cat could fend for itself, live off the land, hunt mice, go see a performance of ‘Cats’. Whatever. And then I would gather the cat and return her to the dean’s pad shortly before he returned. In the end, I rejected this plan for fear the condition of the cat's fur or some other negative aspect would surely give me away.

The dean had explained that sometimes the cat liked to sleep in his bed. I nodded, figuring that the first time she tried it I would give her the boot. Nor did I plan to give the cat a bath, knowing that cats clean themselves, and if not, the rain would.

The moment the dean “introduced” us, the cat and I took the measure of each other; from that first mutual glance each knew the turf of the other. She began by meowing at me long, showing me her milk white teeth, while she whipped her tail from side to side in annoyance; her dark eyes narrowed and her pupils seemed green stones. I stared into them with a Clyde Batey-like stare (he was the intrepid lion trainer of my admiring youth), keeping my back to the dean who was supervising our first meeting. The dean knew from nothing of the contest set to begin between us. I felt myself caught up in a cat-and-mouse game in which I was not the cat.

It was all part of the larger contest between me and the dean. I told myself that a guy who was an expert on Henry James – him -- stood no match with a guy – me – who was an expert on Saul Bellow. Imbued by hope and desperation since he had a paper he wanted to deliver at the conference on ‘Nabokovian Roots and the Russian Aristocracy’, aware that it wasn’t easy to find somebody willing to take on himself such a task, he was predisposed to find the best in me, notwithstanding that the cat had no illusions on this score. Incidentally, I wrote the lion’s share of the Nabokov paper at his ‘request’, which should have been sufficient quid pro quo for the dean to find another sitter for his cat. Maybe “your rival” (for promotion), as he referred to Strickland behind the latter’s back (I thought I once overheard the dean refer to me as “Bellow’s boy” at a faculty cocktail party -- attendance de regueur for my rank), but the dean considered Strickland “too taken with himself” to be entrusted with the soul of his “secret sharer,” read: his cat. He also hinted that I was “his man” for promotion; the fact that Strickland was a Henry James expert in his own right cannot be ruled out as constituting an eventual challenge to his perch and a bar to the former’s advancement. Bellow, “the Chicago Compere” constituted no challenge to the refined James. It could have been worse -- I might have been an expert on Philip Roth, “the scruffy urbanite.” There may be food for thought here for psycho-literaturologists since the dean hailed from Newark, as did Roth, though the former was given to claiming he was born in Boston. Canny me knew the truth, wormed out of him over white wine one evening; I wasn’t sure he remembered this divulgence, but if he did, my keeping silent might be another plus factor toward my promotion. Another might be the dean’s envy of Strickland’s having been born in London! Strickland’s “demerits” outweighed my being an advocate of the Leslie Fiedler approach to literary criticism to the detriment of the more august critics dear to the dean’s heart. All of this behind-the-scene intrigue worth chronicling by a modern Proust (which I do not consider myself, in any event not prior to receiving the coveted promotion).

I had received detailed, even loving, instructions on the cat's every need (these were many and diverse) which I had to "commit to writing" and whose food specifications alone put mine in the shade. Without thinking twice, I compromised on these: when I opened a can of tuna, we shared it. The cat seemed quite satisfied with this arrangement. I refrained from killing two birds with one stone by throwing her the goldfish, which I also had to feed. I supplemented this high protein diet with warm bubbly milk in a saucer which I placed on the floor. She lapped it up (literally and figuratively), her bristles twitching like small wires as she licked hesitantly at first, then, hitting her stride, lapping with gusto, less and less stopping to look at me lest I steal her milk for an eggnog. I had stocked in sufficient six packs of beer to see me throughout the ordeal. These I was careful to get rid of prior to the dean’s return because they might evidence neglect of his cat; moreover, the dean considered himself a wine ”cognoscente” (more than once when he boasted of this I thought of Poe’s ‘Cask of Amontillado’, though, alas, our university lacked the requisite subterranean vaults.)

Rumor has it that the dean kept a not-so-secret cache of cannabis hidden behind his bookshelves. (Behind the book ‘The Secret Garden,’ if I knew my dean.) Maybe this explains why the dean’s cat could be seen sniffing about in just that area. I was tempted to help her find the stashed stuff, and maybe even join her in ‘enjoying the grass,’ but feared the dean’s keen eye might discover the ‘borrowing.’

The cat was called "Molly" – in honor of Molly Bloom from ‘Ulysses’ -- the dean’s field being English Literature. I didn't like the name, maybe because a quondam girlfriend was so called or else because "Molly" reminded me of "mollycoddling" which I wasn't going to engage in with the cat. I toyed with a couple of alternative names for the cat, including "Catnip" and "Cat Ballou" (the latter in honor of Jane Fonda who played her in the movie) before settling on "Cat." At first, she disdained the name, but gradually warmed up to it.

Our situation brought home to me the salience of something the dean had said to me, whose full significance I had failed to grasp at the time, perhaps because he had chuckled as he said it, “I hope you are not allergic to cat hairs.” “Not that I know of,” I had replied – and how could I know of it since I kept my distance from cats, including their hairs. The dean’s apartment had begun to fill up with cat hairs. In my customary response to problems, I ignored it at first. But when the cat hairs appeared on the bed-sheets, I realized that my strategy of keeping Molly off the bed had not worked. Somehow she had managed to ensconce herself there – when I slept (leaving before I woke) or during the day when I was deep inside Roth’s latest incisive look at 20th century American history. To make a hirsute story short, I gathered cat hairs from wherever they abounded, with the help of tweezers (the dean was obsessive on the subject of cleanliness), spurred on by a number of hair-inspired sayings applied to my situation: the dean had me by the short hairs, my career hung by a hair, and so forth, brilliances which I could I could hardly heap upon the dean despite his penchant for metaphor.

Being holed up with a cat for a week turns you philosophical about the breed. One example: The cat had the moves of a small lion or tiger (to whom the cat is related) and if it were bigger could make trouble for me, and only the fact that I was bigger than it gave me supposed power over it. So that I behaved with more decency to it than it would have to me. But then I'm not the kind of a guy to hold grudges.

Henry James said, “Cats and monkeys – monkeys and cats – all human life is there.” It could have been worse. The dean might have had a pet monkey.

With the passage of time (slow), I got used to the cat, and even started to enjoy her presence. She, too, seemed to warm to me, her tail held vertically in the air, a benign sign that all’s well in her world. Maybe because she left me alone when I was down in the dumps, and I left her alone when she wanted to be. I was still a dog man. I would always be a dog man. But the cat was no longer anathema. And when the dean returned, cooing, “I can see that Molly likes you”, and promising that he would use only me as his catsitter in the future, I smiled a Cheshire-cat smile, fearing anything I said would sound false. Molly, too, seemed to nod her head at the prospect, but maybe I only imagined this.


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