Wednesday, July 27, 2011

How Not To Get a Cat by Toni Dwiggins

How Not To Get a Cat
by Toni Dwiggins


I got into this cat thing for one reason: my daughter desperately wanted a cat.

At the time, I was wrestling with a mess of a novel, and I figured getting a cat would prove a great diversion. Wrong. Trying to get my daughter a cat proved as tortuous as trying to get my novel into shape.

Neither my characters nor my daughter were holding their breath.

Flashback to…The Setup
We’re a family of four and up until this cat thing making do with pet guinea pigs. But eight-year-old Emily wants a cat. She has eighteen stuffed cats; she crawls on all fours meowing. This kid has wanted a cat half her life and she swears she’ll clean the litter box.

I resolve to get my daughter a cat.

In theory, I’m a cat person; my husband Chuck is a dog person; hence, the guinea pigs. My fourteen-year-old daughter Molly leans toward the dog camp but she’ll go along with the cat thing. Chuck agrees: just do it.

But first I need to research.

I buy CATS FOR DUMMIES and read. There are complexities, I learn. Claws will need trimming (you access the claws how?). The cat will have to stay indoors because we live in the hills and there are bobcats with untrimmed claws outside. If we get a kitten, it will tear around the house like Genghis Khan. I think this through. Molly has a disability and gets around the house with a walker. Perhaps an older, settled cat is what we want.

But what kind?

I hit the Net. There is, I find, a breed of cat called a Ragdoll that loves kids and goes limp when you pick it up so you can cradle it like a baby. I imagine getting Emily a cat she can cradle like a baby. I imagine a Ragdoll sweetly sidestepping Molly’s walker. Then I hit a snag. There’s no Ragdoll breeder in my area. The cat will have to be air-mailed. What does that cost, to say nothing of the mood this cat will be in when it arrives? There’s another, more fundamental snag. Ragdolls cost in the neighborhood of $500.

I’m mulling this over while I take another pass at my novel. The plot’s working, but the characters are flat. They hang limp, like a Ragdoll.

Back to cat research. I find an ad for an animal rescue group. They have a boatload of cats needing homes.

The Protagonist
The family goes to a cat adoption fair. We meet Cyrus.

Cyrus is an eighteen-month nine-pound orange-and-white tabby. He’s handsome, with a lengthy tail in bold stripes, and seems very mellow. His foster owner puts him on Emily’s lap, where he sits quietly while she strokes his fur. He’s transferred to Molly’s lap, where he sits quietly; he doesn’t give a hoot that she’s in a wheelchair. Emily’s in love, Molly’s in love, I’m astonished—this is the first cat at the first cat fair and I have a long list of others to check out. Chuck looks at the kids and the cat and his watch and says, well what’s wrong with that? He’s an engineer; it’s not a dog but it looks workable to him.

There is one small issue. We’re told Cyrus doesn’t like other cats. We confer: all we need is one.

Cyrus turns out to be nine-tenths the perfect cat. He doesn’t claw the furniture, he’s a lap cat thirty percent of the time, he likes to play but he’ll take no for an answer, he’ll put up with having his claws clipped, he politely sidesteps Molly’s walker.

However, there is one-tenth of him that’s not perfect. It’s a fundamental flaw. He doesn’t like Emily.

He likes adults, he’ll take a teenager in a pinch, but he doesn’t like high-voiced bounce-around-the-house Emily. Not only does he dislike Emily, follows Chuck like a dog.

This really hurts. My daughter is heartbroken. After much hand-wringing I decide that Cyrus goes. I’ll look into Ragdolls again. But Chuck balks: hey, we adopted the cat; hence, the cat is ours. Besides, Chuck thinks Cyrus is a cool cat.

But Cyrus doesn’t like Emily, I protest.

It’ll be one of those life lessons.

She’s heartbroken.

Maybe he’ll learn to like her.

What if he doesn’t?

Chuck shrugs. If you wanted unconditional love, you should have gone with a dog.

I go back to my novel where I’m in charge. But my characters are still balking; they don’t believe in the plot.

Meanwhile, Emily tries to win over Cyrus, who hides under the table wrapped in his tail.

I do more research. The animal rescue group, it turns out, has on staff a cat behaviorist. Hopeful, I call in the cat shrink.

Jennifer the behaviorist and Emily and Cyrus have a meeting. Jennifer teaches Emily to read cat body language, she observes them interacting—or not—and she makes her diagnosis. Cyrus is a butthead.

Possibly, in Cyrus’s kittenhood, a small person didn’t treat him kindly. Possibly, Cyrus just doesn’t like kids, the way Emily just doesn’t like potatoes.
We embark on a program to change his mind. Emily will be the sole person to feed him, play with him, pet him. The rest of us will ignore him. If he wants love, Emily will be his only option. This program will run ten days.

Ten days later, Cyrus is still a butthead.

The way Jennifer sees it, we now have three options. (1) Wait until Emily is less bouncy, say two or three years. (2) Trade Cyrus in for another cat. (3) Keep him and bring in a kitten for Emily.

Bring in a kitten? I remind Jennifer that Cyrus doesn’t like other cats.

Ah, Jennifer says, but a kitten is not another cat. It’s small and submissive.

The Antagonist
Enter Coco.

Coco is a three-pound twelve-week gray-and-white male tabby with a splash of Siamese. He’s got huge ears, a long nose, gray teardrop markings at the corners of his eyes, and he motors like a truck when you pet him. He’s been rescued from a household of too many cats and kids, so kids don’t faze him. He allows Emily to flip him on his back and carry him around like a baby. And he doesn’t cost five hundred bucks.

Emily is in love. Molly is in love, and now firmly in the cat camp. Chuck thinks Coco is a cool kitten.

All that stands in the way of total victory is Cyrus.

Jennifer isn’t worried.

The program will run thusly: Coco will be brought out of his safe room (Emily’s room) daily in his protective cat carrier and placed on the living room floor, and we’ll go about our business as if there’s nothing there. As if, should we notice the creature in the carrier, we wouldn’t care. Kitten? So? And Cyrus is supposed to think: there’s a kitten in the room and they don’t notice, so they’re either stupid or kittens don’t matter. They can’t be stupid because they chose me, so my position in the household is secure. And gradually, the king will surely come to accept the subservient newcomer.

Cyrus reacts in three modes. Mode one is the Big Orange Weenie. Nine-pound cat cowers under the table wrapped in his tail wishing the cat carrier and its cargo would disappear. When this doesn’t happen, mode two appears—King Of The World. Cyrus circles the carrier, hissing. Coco pokes a paw through a hole in the carrier. Cyrus swats the paw. Coco thinks this is a game and pokes his paw through another hole. Cyrus swats. Coco pokes. Defeated, Cyrus goes into mode three: Bored Socialite. That gray creature is here again. Yawn. How utterly predictable and uninteresting. Think I’ll sit on the windowsill and watch the world go by.

This is not bad, the cat shrink says.

But I worry. Little Coco is sweet and cuddly…and very playful. Actually there’s a touch of Genghis Khan in Coco. He’s not aggressive, he’s simply undeterred. If he wants something, he takes it. I’ve kitten-proofed Emily’s room and armed myself, as the cat shrink advises, with a squirt bottle. The theory is, the cat goes after something it shouldn’t—the doll’s hair, say—and you surreptitiously squirt the cat. So the cat concludes that the doll’s hair has squirted it, and thus believes that a doll’s hair will forever make it wet. The squirt bottle worked with Cyrus, the few times Cyrus misbehaved. Cyrus jumps on counter, I squirt Cyrus, who levitates out of there and wouldn’t get on that counter again if you paid him. Coco’s a different kettle of fish. Coco wants the doll’s hair and you can squirt him until he drips.
It’s this tenacity, I worry, that will lead to trouble. Will Coco really let Cyrus be king? And if he doesn’t? I need the characters in my book at each other’s throats, not my cats.

Thinking of my book, I throw in some obstacles to pit my characters against one another. They have other agendas. I have nightmares in which I squirt my characters but they won’t behave. They just shrug, dripping. My characters are buttheads.

The Climax
Three weeks pass and Cyrus is, by and large, the Bored Socialite when Coco’s carrier appears.

It’s time.

What you should watch out for, Jennifer says, is if Cyrus rolls Coco, in which case assume that Cyrus is going to rip Coco’s guts out. You might want to have a broom on hand. Otherwise, pretty much anything goes.

Jennifer can’t be here. Molly isn’t here either; she hates conflict and she’s gone to a junior high dance.

Chuck, Emily, and I gather around the cat carrier. I open the door. Cyrus, sitting bored nearby, comes to attention. Coco’s long nose pokes out. He locates Cyrus, hesitates.

This is good. Coco is showing common sense. I breathe easier.

Coco charges.

Cyrus hisses, the kind of sound that if you were in the woods around the campfire and you heard it, the hairs would rise on the back of your neck.

Chuck raises the broomstick.

Coco brakes to a stop.

Cat and kitten face off.

I want Jennifer. Now.

Coco lunges. What’s he thinking? But it quickly becomes obvious what he’s thinking: I’m FREE, I’m free of that stupid carrier and I WANT TO PLAY. This is better than doll’s hair. I want to play with HIM. Coco lands on Cyrus, Chuck circles with the broom, Emily yells CAREFUL OF MY KITTEN, and I’m thinking five hundred dollars for a Ragdoll isn’t so bad. Cyrus hisses—the whole campground would have cleared out—but little Genghis Kitten just extends a friendly paw and bats Cyrus in the face.

Oh shit.

Cyrus has had enough. Wham-wham-wham, right between those gray-teardrop eyes, and Coco finally gets the picture and prostrates himself. He rolls onto his side and bares his neck, gazing up at Cyrus. Cyrus lays a big paw on Coco’s little belly.

Chuck and I are frantic. Is gut-ripping the next step, or is this part of the establishment of rank?

Emily dances around. Don’t let him kill my kitten!

But cat and kitten are coming to an understanding: who’s king, who’s not, and for the next several minutes there’s a minuet of batting and hissing and prostrating and so we relax and start thinking about dinner.

Cyrus, too, suddenly thinks about dinner. He switches to Bored Socialite and saunters into the kitchen.

Coco is pleased. A tail to chase that isn’t his own.

And it’s back to battle stations…

The Denouement
Well how’d it go? asks Jennifer.

No blood on the floor, I report.

And so it goes, over the next couple of weeks. Coco takes over Cyrus’s scratching post, Coco eats Cyrus’s food, Coco chases Cyrus around the house and Cyrus’s hissing begins to lack conviction.

At night, Coco sleeps on his back in Emily’s arms.

I scratch Cyrus behind the ears and assure him that kings are overrated.

And then one day I find the cats napping together, and when they wake Cyrus licks Coco’s ears and Coco licks Cyrus’s nose and the world turns upside down.

The cat shrink is a genius.

I’m thinking of calling her in on my book.

Back to the Present
Emily grew taller and quieter and one day Cyrus climbed into her lap. The king had found his princess.

Coco grew mellower, but remained the alpha cat.

I found a new subject for a book series. My characters liked it.

The two protagonists are forensic geologists, a young woman and her father-figure mentor. We’re all happiest when I’m not in charge.


Other Lisa said...

Awesome! A perfect description of feline dynamics! And a happy ending!

Carla Krae said...

Ah, yes. LOL! I grew up with cats, so this behavior wouldn't have been a surprise, but I can totally picture it. We currently have a nearly-12-year-old orange tabby and an 8-year-old white and brown patch cats. The younger one is nearly twice the older one's size, but the older one is Alpha and he's never let the youngster forget it.

Before, I had girl cats, and they're different. You end up with two queens who eventually develop a mutual-respect society, but are still snobs, LOL. The best case was when our cat and the next-door cat were BFFs, and we'd moved into next-door's territory. They'd "knock" on each other's screen doors to go play. Or whatever they did.

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