98: Puffed-Up Pussycat

98: Puffed-Up Pussycat

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: The Cat Did What?

Puffed-Up Pussycat

Never wear anything that panics the cat.

~P. J. O’Rourke

As I am known as the “animal whisperer” of my family, I was surprised when my sister Sharyn cautioned me to be careful around our parents’ cat.

“Why, what’s the problem?” I asked.

“He’s mean,” my sister replied, describing a few unusual encounters she had had with the animal. My sister, who is a nurse practitioner, had a theory. “You know, he used to be nice. I think something happened to his brain when he had that surgery. He’s never been the same.”

“Really, Sharyn,” I replied. “How bad can he be? Maybe you’re the one who should be cautious. He likes me.” My sister gave me a look as if to say, “You’ll see.”

Mom had waited a while before getting this cat, having lost two cats within a few months of each other. But one day, a mouse scampered across the kitchen floor of our timeworn home and Dad announced, “We’re getting a cat!” So off to the shelter we went. Mom picked out an orange and white tabby called “Orange Juice.”

“Not very original,” I said to my mother when she informed me of the name.

“Well, what else are we going to call him?” she asked, as I stared into the four-month-old cat’s amber eyes and sweet expression.

“I guess it’ll do,” I replied. You have to understand that my mom, Jan, has a way with words and especially pet names. I recalled her last cats’ names: Mozzy, named for Mozart [Mom’s a musician], and Biddy, for his spinster sister, short for “itty bitty kitty,” a play on words. Somehow, O.J. seemed all too common. Eventually, his name morphed into Oj.

Like his predecessors, we felt sure Orange Juice would live in tranquility in the quiet Horn household. Mom played fetch with Oj, even bathed him. He was active but gentle. He had the most handsome face with large soulful eyes. He drew you in with a mesmerizing half-smile. Dad was not a cat person at heart but his fear of mice or anything rodent was strong, so he bonded with Oj. Dad would curl up with one of his mystery novels and before long, Oj would be lying on the top of the sofa, relaxing. Then, crisis! Oj stopped eating.

He was about six months old at the time, and a few hundred dollars later, the vet said he would need surgery for an obstruction. Though a hardship for the retirees, Mom and Dad scheduled the surgery.

“This is what was blocking Orange Juice’s intestines,” the veterinarian explained, handing an object to Mom. “He’ll be fine now.”

The object was a small metal religious statue. How had an indoor cat swallowed an object that didn’t come from his home environment? That mystery would never be solved. Oj came home with a cone on his head and stitches in his belly. All seemed well. At his follow-up appointment, the trouble began: Oj hissed at the veterinarian.

“Understandable,” Mom said to me, “after all he’s been through.” Another time, Oj swiped a paw at Dad’s leg, causing a scratch. My dad, now loyal to the feline, brushed off the incident. “I must have startled him,” was all he would say. Little attacks were common and the mystique grew. The whole family became cautious around Oj but no one had the heart to get rid of him.

That summer, my parents decided to take a vacation. My sister Sharyn and I, the designated cat sitters, staggered our schedules. My day came and I entered the house. Oj was in the hall, no smile, his fur puffed up all over his body, like a dog raises his hackles. But this was a cat, an average-sized cat, looking large, his neck hair like a lion’s mane. He stared me down and growled.

“Here to feed you, buddy,” I said, moving toward him, dismissing his reputation. He disappeared behind the sofa and I have to admit I was relieved. I made my way to the kitchen. I cleaned the litter box, put out fresh food, and washed and refilled his water bowl. He trotted over to me purring, no more puffed-up pussycat. I patted his head. See, my sister was wrong. He is a good cat, I told myself.

My next encounter was one to remember. I arrived and didn’t see the cat. “Here Oj, here kitty kitty,” I called. No sign of him. Exiting the powder room, I turned. In a nanosecond, an enraged puffed-up Oj attacked. I was wearing a cat on my jeans! I tried to pull him off me but he clung tightly, biting my hand in the process.

“Ouch, Oj. Stop. Let go. You’re hurting me.” He let go and dropped at my feet, looking angelic. My leg stinging and my hand red, I didn’t blame the cat. I had startled him. Sharyn did the next few feedings and gave me a tip. “Go in with an open umbrella; keeps him at bay.”

“That’s a little extreme,” I commented, with visions of a lion tamer and a chair.

“Your choice,” she said knowingly.

My next visit was on a Sunday morning. I picked up the paper from the doorstep and a sample bottle of hairspray fell out of a plastic sack attached to the paper. I opened it and smelled — nice. I unlocked the front door and entered. My heart flipped as I saw the puffed-up “catzilla” staring me down. I should have taken the umbrella from the porch. Oj stalked. I backed away. He came closer. I shimmied to the side. In that moment when you are in total fear and not thinking clearly or not thinking at all, you act. I lifted the hairspray and gave a squirt. The cat froze then fled up the staircase. Oj was afraid of hairspray. I quickly did my duties and emerged unscathed, that day, onto the front porch.

My folks returned home and though Oj was an occasional aggressor with them, he generally was okay. Years later, when my father was ill, I came to spend some time with him and help out my mother and sister. I slept in the bedroom at the top of the stairs. In the middle of the night, flashlight in hand, I emerged in my thigh-length nightshirt, bare legs exposed, to use the powder room. As I padded to the bathroom, unaware in my sleepy state that I might encounter Oj, I remembered! Panic. I’d forgotten my trusty hairspray. My nemesis was running up the stairs toward me, tail high, determined, puffed-up. I prayed. Dear God, help him calm down. I sucked in a terrified breath. Should I go back in the bedroom? Should I make a run for the bathroom? Oj was going to tear me apart. My sister had been right! With the cat advancing and my lack of protective clothing, I ran barelegged into the bedroom, barricading myself behind the closed door, breathing hard. Then, I turned in horror to find the puffed-up Oj in the room with me. “Ouch!”

~Ellyn Horn Zarek

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