And now Leiber.
Out of the multitude of cats sharing my life over the last half-century, Leiber (pronounced LY-ber) was the only one where I knew his exact birthdate. April 13, 2002. This was due to his mother being a rescued stray who was already pregnant when she was rescued, and she was up for adoption at the same time as her kittens. We were still mourning the deaths of my two cats Jones and White-Ears, early victims of the Science Diet melamine poisoning scandal (and I still have no problems with forcing the executives of Hill Foods watch their children eat their products to ensure either that their products are safe or that a gaggle of psychopaths no longer contribute to the gene pool), none more so than Caroline’s cat Tramplemaine, so we had high hopes for the little ball of grey fluff that peered up with bright green eyes and plotted galactic domination. At least, that’s what we thought, hence his being named after the famed writer Fritz Leiber. For the next sixteen years, though, every time he’d trip on the carpet pattern or fall off the couch, I’d just sigh and tell him “I swear, if you get any dopier, I’m renaming you ‘Doctorow’.” That wouldn’t have been fair: the cat could occasionally say more than the same three catchphrases ad nauseam.
Yes, we had hopes for our little mutant being at least as smart as Tramplemaine, and he gave every indication early on that he might live up to his namesake’s legacy. That lasted about three weeks, until I received a job offer to move to Tallahassee, Florida. On the day I left Dallas for the roadtrip to establish a new life in Tally, I kissed my fiancé goodbye, rubbed the cats’ ears, and left knowing that the separation wasn’t permanent. Three months later, the project for which I was hired was cancelled, I was told that my services were no longer needed, and I flew back to Dallas the day after my layoff for a wedding and a reevaluation of plans. That reevaluation involved staying in Dallas, so it was time to fly back and load up the car with my Florida possessions, such as they were. The whole trip back, and I do NOT recommend a straight nonstop drive from Tallahassee to Dallas unless sleep is a friend who never visits, I kept thinking of that odd little kitten and how I’d finally get a chance to make his acquaintance. I arrived to discover that the woman running the cat rescue service handling Leiber’s adoption was just a little TOO attached to her charges and was freaking out that we dared change his name from “Pico.” That kept up for another five years of spot-inspections, as she was absolutely terrified of someone adopting one of her cats to feed it to a big snake, and she refused to acknowledge the name to which he’d become accustomed in all of that time.
Not that the name made much of a difference: as with most cats, he responded to his name when it was convenient. What WAS different was that Leiber was a fetching cat: throw a cat toy past him, and he’d grab it and bring it back to be thrown again. His problem was that he apparently had heard of stopping himself to avoid collision with walls and objects, but only as an abstraction that didn’t apply to him. We very rapidly learned that he’d enthusiastically run full-tilt into walls, doors, furniture, sliding-glass doors, and anything else that might stop or slow his frantic chase of his favorite toys. Correlation is not causation, but after watching him attempt to impersonate Wile E. Coyote with the front door, we weren’t sure if his repeated collisions were a factor in his sweet but dopy disposition, or if his sweet but dopy disposition was a factor in his collisions. In the meantime, we aimed his toys toward soft objects and started to price cat-sized football helmets before he finally started to watch where he was going.
In the ten years that he and Tramplemaine were companions, we saw another side of him. Tramplemaine was in retrospect an incredibly competitive cat, who looked at Caroline as the ruler of the house and the rest of us as inconvenient but tolerated accessories. Since I at least had the ability to open cat food containers and use a brush, this meant that Leiber was at the absolute bottom of the hierarchy, and he didn’t like it one bit. This meant that for years, we’d go to bed and then hear Tramplemaine and Leiber attempting to establish dominance through war cries. To his detriment, the best Leiber could manage was a squeak that wouldn’t have worried a sparrow, so when he’d respond to Tramplemaine’s throaty yowl, the laughter that ensued when he’d emit a loud “MEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEP!” just made things worse. Between that and his natural insecurity, he first inspired and earned his first nickname: “FreakBeast.” For his first ten years, his default expression upon hearing his name was a frantic “ohGodwhatdidIdo?”, and no amount of reassurance could convince him that we weren’t about to do something unnamed but completely horrible to him with no warning.
Not that Tramplemaine didn’t get back what he gave. In the years before the gallery, Saturday mornings were usually dedicated to lawn mowing and weeding, and then a quick nap before Caroline got home from her old day job. Tramplemaine usually crashed out on a pillow next to the couch, and he’d relax so much that he’d start to snore. That’s when Leiber would exact his revenge by carefully sneaking up and teabagging Tramplemaine, who was far too dignified to say anything. I speak from experience, there is nothing in this universe quite like being awakened from a dead sleep to the sound on one cat’s testicle-free scrotum smacking up and down on another cat’s forehead, and it was just bizarre enough that it would wake me up every time. He once tried it with me, and that’s when I learned that he understood one phrase in English on a genetic level: “Keep it up, and I’ll turn you into a Davy Crockett cap.”
After Tramplemaine died in 2012, Leiber mellowed out considerably, and no longer felt compelled to push boundaries. instead, he challenged our respiratory systems. Every Saturday morning, he’d attempt to wake me up to play his absolutely favorite game. The rules were simple: I had to start brushing him and collect the accumulated cat fur, and the first one to scream “WHY IS THIS CAT NOT BALD?” automatically lost. His favorite time to play this game was right after I’d finished vacuuming the living room, where I’d measure the accumulated cat fur and dander in the Dyson debris receptacle in “Leibers.” Nine years at our current location, and I still get tremendous yields of sweet potatoes grown in the little garden out back due to all of the Leiber fur dumped in it for the last near-decade. (Seriously: dump excess cat fur in the garden. It not only makes an excellent source of slow-release nitrogen for greedy plants, but it improves the tilth to no end. Nine years of adding cat fur and compost to Dallas’s indigenous “black gumbo” clay, and the garden soil is so fluffy that you can harvest sweet potatoes with bare hands.)
Even with the brushing, and possibly because of it, Leiber fur could be found everywhere: coating ceiling fans, accumulating behind the toilet, clogging air conditioner filters, and attempting to gain enough mass to achieve sentience. Leiber also shared with tarantulas the ability to shed irritating hairs at potential threats, and he took being held as a Defcon 1 threat. Pick him up, and put him down with a nose full of what we called “cat felt.”
There are a lot of Leiber stories, such as the box turtle that fell madly in love with him, only to be frustrated by his climbing up stairs to get away from her. The oddness, though, escalated after we adopted Alexandria after Cadigan’s death in 2015. Alexandria has her own quirks: among other things, she’s completely silent, and we only learned what her meow sounded like after she’d locked herself in a closet. She also has a strange fascination with the garage: she has absolutely no interest in going outdoors, but she begs and rolls to be allowed to wander around in the garage, and she regularly meets us at the door when we get home from the gallery. Leiber had no patience for this, as the garage is where Odd Things Make Odd Noises, and he’d watched two cats leave through the garage and never come back. When we’d come home especially late after open houses, we’d find them both at the door: Alexandria trying to get free as Leiber tried to pin her to keep her from danger. When that failed, he started calling for her as we were getting ready for bed. Every night, as we were all winding down, he’s grab a particular cat toy with his mouth and wander through the house while letting loose the most pathetic yowl. It was so odd that I had to get video, if only because I figured that nobody would believe it otherwise.
Mostly due to Alexandria’s influence, Leiber settled down immensely, and the FreakBeast just became known as the Old Man. Around the time he turned 15, we knew every extra day was a gift. He’d already lived longer than any other cat we’d known, and until about two weeks ago, he was still getting around. He was a little too stiff to jump into windows, but he’d still roughhouse with Alexandria for a few minutes before deciding that it was time to get back into his heated cat bed and catch his breath. His teeth got sensitive to dry cat food, so we augmented it with regular treats of chicken and tuna and he kept plowing on. We honestly figured that with his indoor life, he might live to see 20, which was unlikely but actually plausible.
Just short of his 17th birthday, though, he scared us by suddenly refusing to eat. He rebounded about a day later, but it was then a slow decline, and we could only stand by and try to help as he faded. He could still drink and use the litter box, and he wasn’t in any pain, so we made the decision to leave him among familiar surroundings instead of traumatizing him with that one last trip to the vet.
I can’t get angry: 16 years was already an impressive life for any cat, and I’m glad that other than his first few months, the vast majority of it was spent sleeping on my feet. That said, if things go quiet around here, that’s the reason. For such a little cat, he left a bigger hole in our lives than we realized.