Back in 1988, when Sally and I were still figuring out our commitment to each other, we lived about a mile apart on Doheny Drive in Beverly Hills. Sally decided we should share a cat. I explored during the day, and found a place called Pet Pride, a former private house nestled under an overpass of the Santa Monica Freeway. On my first visit there, I found a wonderfully friendly eight-year-old orange tabby named Annie, who crawled into my lap and purred and nuzzled me. And I found a white shorthair with big gray patches named Genie, who would come when she was called.
Then I brought Sally on a weekend. She took one look at the comfy old bungalow, carpeted with cats, and pronounced it “the kitty halfway house.” I showed her Annie, and then said, “And there’s one who’ll come when she’s called. Here, Genie!” From across the yard, Genie lifted her head, twitched her whiskers, and trotted right over to us. Sally made up her mind.
I hope Annie found a home. Genie certainly did. The Pet Pride people couldn’t tell us a lot. They thought Genie was about three, and had lived with an old lady who had died. Certainly, Genie had a lot of little old lady about her. She had fine manners. She did not scratch furniture. She would not jump on tables or on counters, and she would not steal food, only eating her own.
But as for coming when called? When she felt like it. Her first day home, she took a stroll along the balcony row of Sally’s condo building. We called and called. Genie stared back at us contentedly, seven stories up. I had to climb over nine balconies to get her back. And for the longest time, she would not sit on our laps.
During the day, I brought her to my apartment for company while I wrote. At night, she stayed at Sally’s place.
Then came big news. Sally had been offered a new job in Boston, and we had a chance to move to a city Sally loved, and to live together. We packed seven bags and one cat, and flew to Boston on the first day of December, 1990. Genie got her introduction to radiators, which she loved, and to cold weather, which she hated. When we opened the door to the house we eventually moved into, Genie would stand disgustedly in the front hall, flicking her paw to make the cold air go away.
By the time of our move to Boston, Genie had come into her own. She had all the catly virtues. She kept her fur sparkling clean, all white on the belly and gray on her back and down the middle of her head. Apparently left-handed, she left only one grimy spot, inside her right ear. She purred like a champ, sitting now on our laps whenever we took a chair, and on our bed every night. Sally took to calling Genie “the Velcro cat,” she stuck so closely to us.
We moved again, to New Jersey, and we moved again, back to Massachusetts. Along the way, we acquired two children, whom Genie tolerated, and a dog, Cody, who became Genie’s pal in lazy inertia. On the drive from New Jersey to North Andover, to our new house, we stopped once at a hotel near the Western Massachusetts border. The place catered to pets. Morning came, and we had lost Genie. We left in sorrow, knowing that the hotel staff, all animal lovers, stood a better chance of finding her than we did.
Seventy miles on, my cell phone rang. The hotel had found Genie. I turned around to pick her up, and, when I got there, found her in a display cage in a cat show in the hotel’s ballroom. Very well treated, mind you, she sat glowering at me in reproof. And on we drove, with Genie, as she had throughout the trip, sitting in my lap.
Genie died last week at the age of eighteen. A few months ago, she had started looking feeble, but she had snapped back. Not this time. Never very big, she dropped down to no more than five pounds. She had no muscle left, and she would not eat. The vet pointed out the yellow on her mouth and the rims of her eyes, and in the translucence of her ears. Liver failure. Genie was in no pain, the vet assured us. She just felt like she had the flu.
She breathed her last on my lap.
I wrapped her in a towel and carried her to the yard, where I started to dig. My older son Bud came out to say, “It’s okay, Dad, she was really old.” “I know, Bud,” I said, and kept digging. Bud went inside. As I put Genie in the grave and began to tuck the sod around her, my chest broke open, and I could hardly see. I finished the job and went inside, filthy, stripped off my clothes, and let a shower pour over me while I sobbed so hard it felt like I would break into a howl.
She had purred to the last, responding to touch, to her favorite pets on the nose and along her whiskered cheeks. Even at the end, when her head hung limp, I swore I could feel a vibration in Genie’s belly, as though she were still trying to tell me she could feel. It was probably just the longing in my fingers.