It’s said that cats have nine lives thanks to their unique (some might say creepy) ability to dodge life-threatening circumstances with a grace normally reserved for Olympic figure skaters that is oddly combined with a chronic aloofness. If a cat landed a Triple Axel, it would likely skate to the sideline with as little effort as possible, light a cigarette and take a soak without so much as a head nod – the burden, no doubt, for the most agile of God’s creatures I suppose.
I’m not sure if it was his constantly wobbling eyes or a general fear of everything, but as anyone that met McMurphy will tell you, he was rarely graceful. If our dog, Fenwick, zeroed in on him, he would leave a trail of destruction in his wake so vast, the pursuit would end prematurely out of sheer disbelief. If he was trying to jump to the top of the refrigerator, someone would inevitably need to push him up by his hind legs as he dangled perilously by his front paws, hanging off the top of the target.
McMurphy was at his best when his paws were planted firmly on the ground, yet he was obsessed with perching himself on ledges and overhangs routinely out of reach for even the tallest members of the household. I often thought he had more in common with the gargoyles that famously protect Notre-Dame, hanging out from a distance above the goings-on of everyday life, taking it all in.
McMurphy became part of my family in the spring of 2004. Through a friend, I had hand-picked his brother Jor-El out of a litter brought in from some anonymous farm in the Georgia countryside, floored by the way Jor-El’s nose was stamped with the famous “S” that represents the House of El from Superman lore. McMurphy, on the other hand, had been cast out from his original home and came to me, already named, as an orphan through a passing acquaintance that I would never see again. I figured it was a win-win; McMurphy got a home and Jor-El would get a companion for long, lonely days in the cramped studio apartment I lived in at the time, itself a transient home borne out of circumstance.
They were the same age and could not have been more different; Jor-El being the black and white Domestic Shorthair, a slightly tubby and obedient guardian that rarely let me out of his sight and McMurphy being the skittish Birman loaner marked by his long sandy hair, dark gray face and tips and blue eyes that seemed to stare right through you whenever he rewarded you with eye-contact. McMurphy also had an odd habit of curling up in a ball and sucking on his hind feet. Everyone always assumed he’d been taken from his mother too soon and had resorted to that in place of nursing. He would never grow out of this.
As kittens (and adults), the two cats got along great. That McMurphy didn’t seem to like people never stopped him from forming a bond with his brother that saw them together almost all the time, excepting that morning in June when I awoke to find the screen-door leading out to our balcony collapsed and only Jor-El sitting by the bed staring at me. Confused, I scrambled out of bed, determining instantaneously that that shadow-boxing they often engaged in while hanging off of said screen-door had escalated into something a bit more destructive.
At first, the thought of peering over the balcony railing to find a flattened cat at the bottom of the six story drop wasn’t all that appealing, so I mustered up hope that McMurphy had been scared into hiding somewhere in the apartment. Considering the lean 600 square feet that studio apartment covered, a sweep of the area took all of 30 seconds, but it was enough to buck up and do what needed to be done, so I wandered out to the balcony. Peering over the railing, I was relieved to see a giant turd right smack in the middle of the landing zone in place of a flattened cat. The fall had, literally, scared the shit out him.
Armed with hope that he survived, I raced down to the lobby in my pajamas. As I entered the lobby, one of the building staff, Rachel, immediately spotted me and asked, “Are you looking for a cat?!” I didn’t need to answer. She indicated that she would be right back and emerged from her office a second later with a box. “Flattened cat” I thought, but as Rachel handed me the box, she told me that he was alive. I took a look and, though alive, realized that he was still in bad shape. He was having trouble standing and, not surprisingly, was in a complete haze (though this was not all that far from normal).
Rachel told me how she and the rest of the staff were in their morning meeting, sitting at the conference table immediately in front of the window that overlooked the area where McMurphy landed. Motioning with her hand, she described how he had come out of nowhere, paws outstretched like a flying squirrel and planted down on the pavement, punctuating her anecdote with the recollection that someone in the room had said simply, “Hey, where’d that cat come from?”
Thanking her, I sprinted back upstairs with the box, threw on some clothes and raced to the vet. Now, at that point, I had only been working at my current job for about three months and had proudly established myself as a reliable and trustworthy member of the staff. I was not prone to leaving frantic messages on my boss’ voice mail that went something like, “Brian, I’m gonna be late because my cat fell off my balcony, he’s in a box and I’m on my way to the vet in an emergency!” Brian would later call me back to say that if I was going to be late to work in the future, I needn’t make up any wild stories about cats and balconies and boxes.
Checking into the clinic was, to put it lightly, an exercise in effortful understatement since one should always be reluctant to tell a medical professional of any kind that you, a complete dumbass, allowed anything living under your roof to fall off a ninth-floor balcony. Despite my effort to be as vague as I could, it was impossible to dodge the proverbial, “From what height did the cat fall?” question without coming clean. Thankfully, the attendant at the check-in desk recognized that any further explanation of my blunt “6 stories” answer would have been, at that point, superfluous even if I had said I plummeted with him.
Pets are your children and in the twenty excruciating minutes I waited for the veternarian to come out, I died several times over. I kept thinking of that scene in Malice where Alec Baldwin gives that killer “God complex” speech and, momentarily, hoped that the she hadn’t had seven martinis the night before like Baldwin’s character had before he accidentally removed both of Nicole Kidman’s ovaries. Thankfully, the veterinarian emerged holding McMurphy in a towel and reported that he was just fine, save for a concussion. She had detected nothing out of the ordinary, going so far to say that he was free from any possibility of brain damage. As she was saying this, I was cradling him in my arms, staring into his wobbling eyes, knowing full well that he and I both knew he was the craziest fucking cat he or I would ever encounter.
Over the next few days, McMuprhy slept. A lot. He eventually emerged from his bleary condition and returned to the odd little fellow he was before “the fall” (as we would refer to it from that point forward). In the intervening years between then and now, he grew into his quirks and lived a scattered, if not lazy, life. He rendered the dog from a constant distance and apprehension that saw him literally float on air to avoid detection. He would insert himself on the countertops from seemingly nowhere whenever I opened a can of chicken noodle soup (and, of course, just chicken noodle soup). In one of his few displays of affection, he would strangely seek me out every morning at about 5 AM, perching on top of me, always facing the foot of the bed, watching over the bedroom as wife, dog and other cats stirred to waking. And, as if he had no recollection of days previous, he would jolt to the ceiling every time the alarm sounded the start of a new day.
McMurphy passed on Christmas night, apparently one life short of escaping another unforeseen jam. He left my life the same way he entered it; unexpectedly and profoundly.
The Smoking Cupcake, December 2010