by Tricia Sutton
Someone who must've experienced a similar cat developed the phrase, "Be careful what you wish for, you just might get it."
My cat-crusade began to wane. My last request resulted in a rabbit, and prior to that a pigeon. So I convinced my parents that life wasn't worth living without a squirrel. That was when I got the cat I'd been so brutally denied.
Since I was medicated anyway from my newly diagnosed orange blossom allergy, Mama couldn't use my cat allergy as an excuse.
My older sister Beth brought home a baby bobcat mix born in her friend's shed. The mother was a regular housecat who'd been lollygaggin' around with fierce mountain beasts. "He'll be wild," came the warning of Beth’s friend. I didn’t care because the brown and grey spotted kitten was too cute to be anything but sweet.
I named the tiny critter Smokey, and he was just a wee bit mean, nothing I couldn’t handle.
Mama couldn’t handle him.
She reminded me daily why she hated cats and how Smokey was a shining example of what creation fashioned "a new breed of devil." She clearly exaggerated his orneriness. “He's got hell in his eyes, that cat. Hell, I tell you!”
He hid behind furniture and around corners, waiting. When Mama walked by he pounced, squealed, then chased her on his hind legs with his front paws outstretched as if he were a monster—some say he was. She'd take off, and he'd overtake her every time, biting, and latching onto her ankle.
No matter how many times a day he attacked, it was always unexpected. Her scream would cause the birds of the world to fly, cattle to run.
“I hate that cat," she'd say repeatedly. "I hate it so bad.” He seemed to enjoy harassing her most (the neighbors being a close second). She provided him the explosive reaction he desired. When Mama was unavailable, he stalked any moving target: the neighbors, their pets, destroying property for fun. He popped out of the bushes, startling a neighbor to drop her armload of groceries. Later, she told my dad, "He's a heart attack waiting to happen."
One school night—when I should have been in bed—I was watching an episode of "Get Smart" when a chill coursed through me. I shuddered, left the TV set on and got up to walk off the bad feeling like walking off a bad dream. I crept out the front door into the blast of cold wind, which blew into the valley from the snow-capped mountains nearby. Into the unlit street with only the February full moon as my guide, I wandered toward a small, dark shape on the roadway ahead.
It was either a dead animal—common living near wilderness—or batches of wet pine needles that had blown into heavy piles. Upon closer inspection, I saw it was Smokey, lying in a little heap as listless as a dammed-up pine needle dome. My first thought: probably the car that hit him aimed for him.
My family and everyone else in scream distance gathered at the sound of my wails and discovered Smokey was still breathing. When my siren had silenced—along with the defeated groans of those who hoped for his death—Mama spoke first. "I'll get the shovel and finish him off."
"I got a gun," offered a neighbor.
"Shoot him," cheered another.
"Stay put; I got a shovel right here," said an out-of-breath neighbor, who'd gone home and fetched a shovel in a nanosecond.
A multi-tasker, Mama would use the shovel for both whacking and burying. When a bird had flown into our kitchen window, Miss Suffering Intolerant marched outside, located it, snapped its neck, then tossed it into the trash, all in the presence of our visiting and visually disturbed pastor and his family.
Daddy rescued Smokey from Mama and others in the mob, wrapping him up in a towel and taking him to the vet.
"It's a bobcat," the vet observed, scratching his temple, "with a tail."
I forgave him for his obvious statement; we had caught him at bedtime. I could see his pajama bottoms underneath his navy blue smock; his eyes looked tired, his hair in disarray.
The animal hospital smelled beyond my wildest fears bad; toxic toilet bad. My brother's feet bad. I held my nose and worried the cat would die by sheer will, by self-induced euthanasia. The vet spoke as if no odor existed. He advised he put Smokey down due to the severity of his head injuries and the expense it would be to risk the slim possibility of his surviving.
Mama's eyes watered, but not from grief. She cupped her hands over her mouth and nose and said, nasally, "This is too awful to bear."
The sleepy-eyed vet placed his hand empathetically on her shoulder. "We sure get attached to these little critters, don't we?"
I could tell she struggled to clear up the misunderstanding, to impart her hate for Smokey, to chronicle his misdeeds from day one, but to do so would cause her to release the breath she had been holding. When Daddy and the vet began their discussion on actually saving the cat, and how Daddy could barter his electrical experience to work off the bill, Mama shook her head violently in protest. She made gagging remarks that no one understood, and finally, in defeat, fled the building for fresh air.
In 1975, fifteen-hundred dollars was a lot of money to owe a vet. Even our wealthy neighbors admitted it was too much to spend on a wild-breed lawsuit. So Smokey earned a new name: “The fifteen-hundred-dollar cat.” We called him the bionic cat: genetically engineered to destroy the world.
The vet did a remarkable job restoring Smokey to his old bobcat-self—or something close to his original shape, anyway. The vet phoned us in distress a week later claiming Smokey was ready to go home. When we arrived, the vet kept at a safe distance while we loaded the stiff cat—complete with a full-body cast and unrestrained teeth and claws—into our laundry basket. He then waited until we were in the car before he gave us his afterthought prognosis: "He’ll have permanent brain damage." Then he waved good-bye with his bandage dotted arms, darted back into his clinic and turned the "closed" sign.
Mama’s eyebrow rose straight up to her hairline, and she shot me a glare. “I knew we should've let him die.”
On his next day off, Daddy went straight to work to pay the bill. The thought of him working in that smell, for a cat he couldn't pet without hand protection, gave me a whole new perspective on unconditional love. His love of his family and animals knew no boundaries.
After many follow up visits to the vet, who now donned gloves normally reserved for large birds of prey, Smokey was down to wearing leg braces but otherwise seemed fine. Mama said, "He's not fine; he's meaner than before."
I didn’t notice.
As Smokey adjusted to his leg braces, he became quite the noise maker: clink, clank, clink, clank. His metal apparatus's noise was a constant, like a broken window shutter in a storm: clink, clank. Plus, he adopted a new growl, a roar louder than any everyday bobcat. So thunderous and ferocious, this growl, that most visitors didn’t believe it emitted from him.
Throughout the rest of winter and spring, Smokey grew bigger, healthier, and more deranged each day. But Mama found his hunting skills to be beneficial in eliminating the gophers that had overtaken the garden. Daddy trapped and freed them in the hills. Mama just wanted them dead; thus, Smokey became useful.
Smokey brought us a dead animal offering daily (even Mrs. Smargassi's yappy Chihuahua, which I promptly buried behind the shed before there were any witnesses).
Bored with small prey, he started encroaching on other folks’ property for larger breeds. Our dogs were of no interest to him anymore—Rosie could've easily killed him and probably wanted to, and his interest in Dorky diminished about the same time he chased him into a fatal heart attack.
Smokey's rap sheet included trespassing, property defacement, stalking, harassment, and even murder. It also meant we became unpopular with the neighbors.
All calls to police dispatch were published in the Ojai Valley News' police blotter. The media called the house wanting to know the name of the legendary famed feline, but Mama only said his name was "The fifteen-hundred-dollar-cat," which was what they printed.
Underneath the first police blotter headline, CLOCK TOWER CHIMES THREE TIMES AT TWO O’CLOCK, was this heading:
FIFTEEN-HUNDRED DOLLAR CAT TERRORIZES NEIGHBORHOOD
The case of three drubbed Dobermans and one very bad cat. Savagely attacked, the watchdogs at the Morgan Manor needed medical attention as The Fifteen-Hundred Dollar Cat paced around the cornered dogs. Owner, Don Morgan, finally had to spray said feline with the water hose before the beast retreated. Dogs are recovering.
The next time it read:
FIFTEEN HUNDRED DOLLAR CAT STRIKES AGAIN
This time leaving the head of a decapitated duck on the doorstep of Ms. Wilson. Ms. Wilson called to report that said cat has prevented her from leaving the premises. "He won’t leave and won't let me leave either, even after I banged pans together, threw apples at him, and played Jim Nabors' "Love Me With All Your Heart" really loud on my record player. He growls like a junkyard dog. I feel like a hostage in my own house, and that beast has hell in his eyes.” (Where have I heard that before?) The Austens, owners of troublesome wild-beast, claim brain damage caused his peculiar behavior, and they are taking steps to prevent future police attention.
A town hall assembly ensued; a committee developed, and a new cat-abatement law turned up on the next council meeting agenda. If the bill passed, vicious cat owners could be fined community service for destruction of property. It was voted down, laughed probably right off the ballot by those lucky enough to live outside Smokey's territory.
Tricia Sutton is a novelist and short story writer. Her stories and articles can be found in The Rambler, Simple Joy, and forthcoming in The Shine Journal. The Bionic Cat is an excerpt from her unfinished novel titled Hiding in the Spotlight, about a hearing impaired girl's struggle with an amazingly embarrassing family, and a slew animals with equally disturbing qualities. She claims the story is mostly trueish. She lives with her husband, two daughters, and four cats in Fresno, CA. She welcomes visitors to her publications blog.