JIM DODSON: Old Virgil the Cat Still Rules
Jim Dodson is taking the week off. This is a reprint of a piece that appeared April 29, 2007. The subject of the essay is still missing, though there have been some reported sightings.
Last Sunday morning, an hour before sunup, I put on the coffee and let Virgil the cat out to poke around his new yard.
"Have a nice day," I said sarcastically to him. "Feel free to find a new home, old buddy, if you don't care for this one anymore."
I was just joking. Sort of.
This is what I've said to Virgil the cat, you see, for at least 20 of his 21 years.
When he wants to go out, at whatever hour he chooses to make his desire loudly known, Virgil makes such an ungodly racket that it sounds as if a prisoner is being tortured with a cattle prod.
"That yowl of his could be used to make uncooperative terrorists spill their guts," I once commented to my wife. "We could record that noise for the CIA and earn the praise of a grateful nation."
Invariably, though, Virgil directs his verbal assaults exclusively at me, the fellow who thought it was a swell idea to pluck him as a feral kitten -- a wisp of wild gray hair with a pair of glowing golden eyes -- from the rafters of a 200-year-old barn one fine summer morning back in 1986. I had to do it with a six-foot fishing net. To this day, I have no idea what possessed me to do this.
Without my foolish intervention in the ways of nature, young Virge most likely would have lasted another month or two before something bigger came along to make him a tasty bite on a Ritz.
That was the summer we moved to Maine from a village north of Boston. He's generously thanked me ever since by making my life a living hell at 4 in the morning or 11 at night, whenever the spirit moves him.
"I'm personal valet to the Valentino of cats," I used to complain to anyone who would listen to me gripe about having to get out of bed at midnight to let him in or out. "A butler to a barn cat."
Weirdly, nobody else in the house ever seemed to notice my whining or his outlandish demands, a duet of strident complaints that could easily rouse the dead -- just not wake my sleeping family.
"Do you have any idea how lucky you are I don't take a frying pan and chase you off for good?" I'd ask him as he sauntered blithely in from his nighttime rounds demanding a yummy post-midnight snack or trotted importantly out to see what was happening in the meadow over by the moonlit woods.
There were coyotes in those woods -- and bobcats and other things that kill house cats.
But Virgil never failed to come back. Lucky him. Unlucky me.
So naturally last Sunday morning, two weeks after he arrived here from the cold North country to settle into his new Southern home, I thought little or nothing of it when he began his usual racket demanding to be let out before dawn for his morning constitutional.
"Have a nice day, old buddy," I said to him as always. As he tooled away into the flowering shrubs, I added: "Feel free to find a new home if you don't like this one."
Being a country cat who was new to town, he was sporting a new collar and name tag.
He'd also been having a grand old time since arriving in the neighborhood -- enjoying something of a second childhood in fact, checking out the flowering azaleas, sniffing the last of the spring blooms, as usual never venturing far, soaking up the warm spring sunshine that his ancient bones and joints craved.
Just the other day, I saw him sitting on the side terrace gazing up at a pair of wooing cardinals. He looked drunk with contentment, like he'd landed in the lap of the gods.
Virgil, you see, was never much of a killer cat. He was more of a poet birdwatcher. That's why I named him for the Greek poet who named the stars. Our Virgil loved the night, too.
This time, however, he finally seemed to take my early-morning words to heart.
It's been exactly one week this morning since old Virge went out for his Sunday morning walkabout. He hasn't been seen or heard from since.
Between you and me, I used to look forward to the day when Virgil finally translated to the feline hereafter. Maybe after he's used up his nine lives, I used to tell myself, I'll finally get some peace and quiet and freedom from the bane of my nighttime existence.
"Don't worry," I used to say to my wife, "Virge is almost 15. He can't go much longer. A cat rarely lives to 20." That was six years ago.
She laughed and replied, "Every time you say that, he lives another year on purpose -- just to irritate you, dear."
I know how unfeeling this admission sounds for someone who claims to love animals the way I do. For years, after all, I'm the chump who has picked up half a dozen stray animals that cowardly nitwits dump at the end of our country road and either found them new homes or paid for their veterinary bills.
For what it's worth, though, I'm far more of a dog lover than a cat fancier, I've given decent Christian burials to probably four or five old Toms and Sallies that just wandered up to our property sick and dazed and disoriented, cast off or thrown out. At times I've wondered if word must have spread through the area that we were operating a feline hospice in our patch of woods. Neighbor Stephen King may well have used us as a working model for his book "Pet Sematary."
But for all our menagerie of dogs and cats, Virgil was far and away the most high-maintenance animal and the only one who ever seemed to single me out for his particular brand of annoying personal harassment. Yet almost everyone else who ever came near him was utterly charmed by the noisy little dude, proving nature is full of surprises.
I suppose it might have been the lustrous wild gray hair that turned a beguiling ginger as he aged, a la Thomas Jefferson, or maybe those bewitching bedroom eyes. Raised by golden retrievers, he also has no particular fear of dogs and no problem sharply batting a pushy canine in the puss if it got out of line.
Slept With Dogs
Unlike the other cats, Virgil loved sleeping with the dogs, following them around, eating their food. When he purred, it sounded like cement mixer cranking up. When he slept, he snored like a drunken Maine lumberjack. If you scratched the end of his small black nose with your finger, he would bury you both in disgusting drool.
He loved kids of all kinds and positively adored my father-in-law, Bill, though I have no earthly idea why. Bill is a big guy with a gruff bark. All animals adore Bill. Maybe it's his aftershave.
"Virge rules," middle son Connor likes to say, in the teenspeak of an admiring 13-year-old.
For years, whenever we gave a dinner party, Virgil was invariably directly in the middle of the action, soaking up the cocktail chatter and village pump gossip, fielding compliments over his wild gray coat, putting on a shameless show of sophistication, like a Tom to the manor born.
Looking back on it, he was such a constant presence in our life -- a perpetual pain in the hindquarters to me, to be sure, but evidently an abiding joy to everyone else -- that it was easy to get the impression this wild little cat fellow just might outlive us all.
His best revenge was living well -- and never failing to let me know about it.
Last year we took him in for his first checkup in over a decade. (OK, if you must know, we simply forgot to take him for routine checkups -- so go lodge it with the ASPCA if you want.) Sue the vet looked him over, laughed and declared, "Virgil looks better now than he did a decade ago. What do you suppose his secret is?"
"He lives to keep me up at night," I suggested. She thought I was joking.
Frankly, I have no idea what his secret to longevity was. He ate like a starving refugee and slept like Viceroy on vacation. It's impossible, I suppose, to know really what goes through a cat's mind, particularly one born in a barn.
Missing in Action
When he didn't come back by late afternoon last weekend, I knew something was up.
My wife and I both went out and called for him. She walked the dogs around the neighborhood with our neighbor Jean.
We put the word out up and down the block, an APB for an old missing friend: "Be on the lookout for a small, gray cat, friendly to dogs and children, prone to drool and snore, may eat you out of house and home, can peel wallpaper with his bossy nocturnal cries."
That night, we slept with the kitchen door open in case he came back and yowled to get in; we put his bed outside with a bowl of his favorite dog food in case he came back in the middle of the night.
I awoke at 2 in the morning and walked outside in my bathrobe and called his name into the peaceful void of the starry spring night, setting off every yard dog from here to Eagle Springs.
Someone was having a raucous party over on Massachusetts. I was tempted to go see if our missing party animal was right in the middle of the action. Wouldn't have surprised me in the least.
The next day, I learned the latest Nor'easter to hit New England had washed away our driveway, so I reluctantly headed home to face that annual spring misery. My wife stayed an extra day to comb the neighborhood. We debated how to tell the kids old Virge was missing. She eventually packed up and drove north, too.
'Happy to Be Here'
Since then, my father-in-law Bill has routinely checked in at the cabin to see if the barn cat who worshiped him has come back to his new Southern home. My mother-in-law Jan has been keeping his food bowl full, his water bowl ready. She even put up signs.
Our closest neighbor looks in twice a day, hoping she might just find him birdwatching from the azaleas.
"He seemed so happy to be here," she said when she phoned to try and cheer me up. "Whatever else is true, that was one happy barn cat."
As for me, the chump who despite our complicated history knew him best and possibly loved him most, I've come to conclude that old Virge may have decided he'd finally reached Paradise and simply stretched out somewhere nice to pass away in peace.
A long life may not be good enough, someone once said, but a good life is always long enough. What a perfect ending that would be. I take some comfort that Virgil the cat had both kinds of lives, thanks to my modest skill with a fishing net.
Award-winning author Jim Dodson, The Pilot's writer-in-residence, can be reached at email@example.com.
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