Wednesday, November 26, 2003

PRETTY UGLY ( ? - Nov. 20, 2003)

Our cat Pretty Ugly got his name because Ann thought he was ugly and my stepdaughter Erin thought he was pretty. So I suggested "Pretty Ugly." Since Erin was so young, she didn't realize that we might as well have called him "Very Ugly."

Pretty Ugly weighed sixteen pounds. He had a rip in his right ear. He had two fangs missing (a third got torn out later, in a fight, after we took him in). Although mostly white, he had rather distinctive black splotches--on his head and ears, and on his back (near his butt, so we called that splotch his "butt spot"). His tail was black except for a tuft of white at the very end, almost like a dandelion tuft. It was only later that we realized how beautiful he really was.

We first became aware of Pretty Ugly because he hissed at us from the edge of our yard. He hissed like no cat I've ever heard. It was a kind of spitting, belligerent hiss, with his fur all standing on end. At the time, we were trying to rehabilitate and find a home for a cat called Plushy who was infinitely friendlier than that ugly white-and-black cat hissing at us from the edge of the yard. We figured Pretty Ugly wouldn't be around for long. At that time, our yard seemed to attract stray cats, all of which stayed around for a few days and then left.

But after a few days, Pretty Ugly was still there, hissing from the edge of the yard. All of the other cats had gone away, and Plushy had been placed with an owner. After awhile, it became kind of routine--we'd come home and there Pretty Ugly would be, hissing and spitting at us from the hedges. We began to grow attached to him. Ann started leaving food out for him.

Winter came, and it actually gets cold in north Florida during the winter, so we got a little worried about Pretty Ugly. He wouldn't come inside, so we put out a cardboard box lined with towels in the garage and made sure the garage door was open enough for him to get him. Soon, the hissing and spitting came from the garage. The few times when we'd go look in on him, there he'd be, gutting out the winter in his box, staring around the side of the box long enough to hiss and spit, spit and hiss. He liked to vary it.

Over time, and as spring came, Ann found that by bringing his food closer and closer to the house, she could get him close to the front door. Eventually, he ate on the mat outside the front door. Ann would sit there patiently day after day, feeding him. Then, one day, still hissing, he came inside when Ann dropped a couple of treats inside the front door. After a week or two of sitting inside the front door, he began to explore. Hesitant, suspicious, fearful. At first, he wouldn't sit in our laps, so one time I just picked him up and plopped him down in Ann's lap. He didn't stay long, but he got used to it, and soon he was sitting on our laps and…purring. (When we took him to the vet to have him fixed, we found out he already had been, and there was a sudden anger at the thought of someone having abandoned or so badly treated him that he took almost six months to even think of trusting us.)

It was then that he really became Pretty Ugly, a web of myth and folklore built up all around him.

First, there were the names. Pretty Ugly wasn't his only name. Oh no. Of the names that are not protected family intellectual property, I can reveal the following: Pugsley, Butt Spot, Chubs, and the Bowler-Hat-Wearing Cat Detective (Ann didn't like this last name very much). Sometimes we called him "Pritz," for short.

Second, there was his tail. We were very afraid of Pretty Ugly's tail. We soon realized it was a creature in and of itself. It might be slashing back and forth while Pretty was calm. It might be calm while Pretty was sinking his teeth into us. The Tail, we were convinced, had a mind of its own. One did not mess with Pretty's tail. Because the Tail and Pretty had an arrangement--and that arrangement was to bite the shit out of us if we messed with the Tail. Still, sometimes we did, and got what we deserved.

Third, there were the scars. Pretty loved to be petted. He loved to sit in our laps. But too much of a good thing and he'd suddenly go wild. He'd bite and claw us--sometimes enough to draw blood. He'd just go nuts every once in awhile, even though he was such a sweet cat most of the time. After the first year of this, we became so used to it that we would sit down to watch TV together, Pritz would jump on one of our laps, and when we got up after an hour, we'd have these bite or claw marks on our hands and not even realize how it had happened. Over time, those marks became a sign of our love for Pritz, and of his essential eccentricity. The last of Ann's scars from Pretty Ugly are healing now, and there will be no more scars caused by him. We will miss those scars as much as anything.

Fourth, there were his forays into the yard and beyond. For a long time, before he became ill, he was an indoor and outdoor cat. In the yard, he became a different kind of cat. It took him awhile to realize he didn't need to catch birds anymore to survive. It took him awhile to realize it was wrong to stalk the neighbor's Chihuahua. Pritz was always most hopeful about the outcome of this enterprise around Christmas, when the stupid Chihuahua wore a little sweater and a hat with a bell on it. Pritz would home in on the bell quite easily, and begin his gliding stalk of the poor little dog. (As I say, he was a big cat, and although for a time he was fat, most of his sixteen pounds were earned.)

He also loved to take dust baths in the front yard where the grass had been defeated. He loved nothing better than to roll around on his back in the dirt in the sunlight while Ann or I sat in a chair nearby and read.

And, sometimes, while outside, Pritz would quite literally go crazy. Possessed of the energy of not just his body but the Tail, he would scurry up and down trees in the front yard at a break-neck speed. It made us laugh until we cried, the way he'd zip up one tree and zip down it in search of another.

He could be a scared cat, too, though. The oddest things used to scare him. He loved playing with bits of rolled up newspaper or magazine. (In fact, nothing pleased him more than to sit on a Sunday newspaper and then slowly shred it to bits with claw and fang.) He loved to play with catnip mice (and loved catnip itself, although we're not sure if the Tail liked it). But he hated the kitty tease that our other cat Shoshana liked to play with. The kitty tease wasn't really different from the rolled up newspaper--it was a small fishing rod, basically, with a moth-like strip of cloth hanging off some fishing line. But it terrified him.

What terrified him sometimes changed. For example, he'd been fine with the telephone for the longest time, but one day happened to noticed the cord from the receiver to the phone itself. For the next few hours, he would hiss at it, attack it, jump back, and repeat the process. Maybe he thought it was a snake? Regardless, when we got a new phone, we got the cordless kind.

Another time--eerily enough soon after the Blair Witch movie came out--we'd come home and find him staring blankly into a corner for minutes on end! And whistling--Ann whistled once, only to find Pritz running up to her, meowing weirdly. From then on, if we wanted him to come to us, we had only to whistle and he'd climb up on our laps, making this odd meow--a very serious meow. It almost seemed as if he thought we were hurt and he was concerned about us.

Pritz also had a number of ailments during his life. During the first few years we had him, he got these odd warts on his lips. The vet told us he'd contracted feline acne, of all things, and we had to give him pills and change the kind of water dish he drank out of it. Our cat was a teenager!

Once, we were about to go on vacation when we found that he was sick. It was so sad--we found him sitting right underneath an outdoor water faucet sticking out of the side of the house. It was leaky, so he was sitting there with this look of irritation on his face while one slow drop after another fell right on top of his head. We immediately took him to the vet.

Then, later, he began to yowl in the middle of the night and eat a lot more than usual (and he was a pig to begin with--often eating Shosh's food as well as his own) and run around the house. Eventually, the vet discovered he had a thyroid problem and he had to have one of his thyroids removed. For awhile, he had a patch of naked skin near his throat that I know irritated the heck out of him, no matter how we helped him scratch it.

Pretty Ugly survived all of this, only to be diagnosed with a cancerous tumor early this year. He began to lose weight and become more and more listless. He stopped going outside. He stopped eating regularly. We had to put him on pills and feed him Gator Aid through a syringe to get his electrolytes up. It was really only a matter of time, but for awhile we thought he might be okay--the medicine got his white blood cell count back up. But the tumor grew and the cancer spread. Right before the end, he was little more than six pounds, down from thirteen, and it really hurt to see him like that, all tiny and wobbly, tottering around and looking up at us for help. Still, he liked to sit on our laps, and he still purred, and his Tail still seemed like something separate from him. Some days were better than others.

The worst thing about all the book-related trips we've had to take this fall and winter was having to leave Pritz behind with a cat sitter. We were in New York City when the call came in last Thursday that Pretty Ugly had passed away in his sleep. It was almost unbearable.

We'd had Pritz since 1996. We never knew exactly how old he was--somewhere between 12 and 15. He'd been the best, most eccentric cat we'd ever had.

Pretty Ugly had spent many a morning curled up in my lap while I wrote Ambergris stories. And, in turn, I wrote about him, for hundreds of thousands of third graders, when I had to turn in an English passage for my day job (Web-based sample tests as prep for the state standardized test).

Pritz loved Ann's shoes. He loved to just sit on them. One day, we came home and found that he had actually put Ann's shoes on. He'd managed to sit on them with one paw in each shoe. It was one of the funniest things I've ever seen. He liked to drink out of the toilet. He'd stand up on his hind legs and spread his front legs out like he was hugging the bowl and drink in the middle of the night. We'd turn on the light, and there he'd be, looking slightly apologetic. Sometimes, he also liked to sit in the bathtub, which is one of the reasons we thought he might be part Turkish Van, since they love water. In the mornings, when he wanted to be fed, he would bite Ann on the forehead, or walk on her head, or claw the bookmark out of her book. Some nights, he would plop down on my right side and I'd curl over on my side and I'd cuddle with him while he purred loudly. He had a really really loud purr; you knew when he was happy.

We would never have been prepared for his death, even if he'd lived to be thirty or forty. Even now, we turn at the dinner table to feed him a scrap, or go through our routine of "Pretty Ugly get me the remote control" before stopping short and realizing he's not there. We didn't anthropomorphize--we just loved him for his quirky eccentricities, for the way he made us accept him on his terms, scars and all.

So this blog entry is for Pretty Ugly, an extraordinary cat. We'll never have another like him.


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