It was in a house that back in the day must have been a showpiece, long ago when the Merrimack River powered the mills that employed thousands, and when the mill owners lived on the hills, like this one, looking down on their anthills. Lawrence, Massachusetts, was never an easy town. It was always a city of blue collars and dive bars and shady, desperate characters. But now the mills were closed, the river was choked with pollution, and Lawrence was known as the arson capitol of the nation.
Now, the house was cut up into little apartments. Mine, on the ground floor, hadn’t been painted in a decade, the walls faded to a dirty sidewalk color. It sported an industrial-style rough carpet in the living/sleeping area. The bathroom had a door that opened onto a porch. The closets for clothing were in the kitchen. The front room still had its magnificent windows, floor to ceiling. The sun is bright when you can’t afford curtains.
Where she came from — I’ll never know.
She showed up one night on the front porch of my roach-ridden $300 a month castle. She appeared to be waiting for me as I got home from one of the two jobs I needed to pay for the place. She looked up at me with her enormous green eyes and simply said — ‘Meow’.
No, I said. You don’t live here. Go home.
She was back the next night, when I got off the bus. She looked far too thin. Being a sucker, I went to the bodega around the corner, bought a couple cans of 9 Lives, and left them out for her. She enjoyed her feast, licked her paws and cleaned her magnificent whiskers, and walked off into the night.
The cat was no fool. A friend brought me home the next night, saving me the nightmare of the marvelously inefficient hour-long suburban bus journey any car could handle in 15 minutes. There she was, waiting at the door. You should just open the door and see what she does, said my friend.
I opened the door. She stood up and entered, and walked directly to my door. She sailed right into my little studio, sat precisely in the center of the room, and looked at me with her enormous green eyes as if to say: this will do.
So began a friendship that lasted almost 17 years.
That cat was filthy. I couldn’t afford a vet, so I filled up the bathtub and gave her a soap-and-water bath. Bugs and dirt fled her flesh and fur. She let me do it, though, with only ear-splitting yowling — no bloodletting.
In one of the more unusual experiences of my early 20’s, I went to the pet store in the mall where I was working to ask how to determine the gender of feline. In a kindly display of mall employee solidarity, the clerk brought out samples of male and female kittens and showed me the discreet differences available to the layman’s eye.
Now we had a gender. Now it was time to pick a name.
There were many factors to consider. First, this cat was obviously badass, having spent time on the streets. Perhaps she was in a gang? The Pussies? The cat was determined, having negotiated her way into a home. The cat was gorgeous, with those eyes and white belly and paws, and black and caramel markings along her body, and the distinctive ‘M’ of the tabby on her forehead. This cat needed an extraordinary name. The name of a survivor.
I named her Eleanor Roosevelt. And I added Rigby at the end. Eleanor Roosevelt Rigby. Because she and I, we were the lonely people.
What do you think? I asked her. It appeared the name would do.
Eleanor began earning her keep right away, not that she had to. I was often presented with the corpses of mice. One time, after a bees’ nest was discovered, much to my terror, outside my front door, I came home to find her proudly standing over a pile of black and yellow bodies.
She would not show me her belly, or allow me to pet her there. But she would come to bed with me at night, as I was falling asleep, and purr. She had the loudest purr I’d ever heard from a cat.
When I was able to get her a vet, he said she’d likely started her life as a domestic cat. She knew how to use a litter box, for one. She was not afraid to approach a human for food. But she’d been out on the streets for a long time. She was about three years old, and the vet said the scars he felt under her fur suggested she had been fighting her way through life for a while. She’d never been fixed. (that was remedied, although it broke my bank) And her attitude! She didn’t trust easily. She wouldn’t let the vet check her heartbeat, let alone take blood, without her being sedated.
“Eleanor,” I said, on the way home, “that is not the way a lady behaves.” You could almost hear her thought waves whisper fuck being a lady.
Eleanor hissed at me to announce she’d had enough of ear scratchings and backrubs. She growled to announce her dissatisfaction with me daring to shift position on the couch or bed. She snarled when I awoke one night to discover her snout submerged in my nightstand water glass, making me realize I’d been drinking leftover cat spit every morning for a decade.
But she purred on my lap when I cried after the bill collectors called. She covered me with feline head butts when I chose to stay home on my 21st birthday rather than admit I couldn’t afford to buy myself a drink, not a single one. When I was sick, she didn’t leave my bedside. She waited in my window – our window – for me to come home from work, howled from three stories above, and ran to the door to greet me. When I got into video games, she curled up next to me on the couch and watched every move on the screen. Eleanor liked Grand Theft Auto. I called her my Furry Gangsta.
I was never so honored as the day Eleanor, after five years of companionship, finally rolled over on her back and allowed me to rub her belly. At last.
It takes me a while to make friends, too.
Eleanor and I moved across three states together. She was not at all pleased when we moved to New York, as we moved in with the man who is now my husband. Mr. Bunny didn’t bow to Eleanor when meeting her; in fact, Mr. Bunny put her in the bedroom when he drove up from NYC to visit me in Providence, inflaming Eleanor’s fury for a decade.
“I’m the human!” he argued.
“It’s her house!” I said. “You don’t like Eleanor, you can wait for me at the fucking mall.”
In time, an uneasy truce was declared. The Paw of Friendship was never fully extended, but Eleanor did stop hissing every time the Mama Kitty’s Male Human walked by. More like, every other time. Eleanor also made it point to steal Mr. Bunny’s seat and spot on the bed every time he got up. Eleanor had the memory of a Mafia Don.
Eleanor didn’t trust others easily. But she was my girl. She would follow me from room to room. She liked to be carried around, like she was a baby, her rump in my arms, her front paws slung over my shoulder. She would rub her nose into my shoulder, over and over, purring until I couldn’t hear anything else.
Eleanor got older, and older. We found a vet in the neighborhood who marveled at her age. It took two vet techs to hold her down so he could do an examination. “Are you sure she is twenty?” he asked. At least, I replied. “If she can fight like this, she’s in good shape,” he said. One of the vet techs said Eleanor reminded him of Sophia from The Golden Girls. But the vet had some things to warn me about. The first was thyroid disease, which we caught. The second was abdominal cancer.
Eleanor was being examined at the vet two years after that warning for the swollen belly I’d noticed when she stopped breathing on the table. The staff was wonderful. All activity in that office, except for the emergency that was Eleanor, stopped. It was bizarre to watch, like a TV drama, except involving cats. We got her heartbeat back, one of the vet techs came back to tell me, adding I shouldn’t get my hopes up. Then she held me as I cried. I called my husband at his new job, who was allowed by his boss – who was my former boss – to leave immediately.
They took me to see her, and I knew my girls wasn’t there anymore. I asked myself, what would I want done to me?
I held Eleanor the way I’d always held her – rump against my chest, arms over my shoulder. I held her while they took out her breathing tube. I held her while the doctor gave her the shot that stopped her heart. I wrapped her in the blanket on the steel exam table in the vet’s office. And then I had to leave her there.
Today, I have a locket with Eleanor’s name engraved on it, that I bought especially for her. It has green flowers on it that reminds me of her beautiful eyes. I keep a bit of her fur in it. I miss her as much today as I do the day a year ago, when she died.
July 9, 2010, was the day Eleanor died. I started writing this the day after she died. It has taken me this long.
A friend recently asked me how long Eleanor had been with me. From the age of 20 to 36, I said. “That’s almost half your life!” she said.
It is a long time to have had a friend. I hope you’re following the sun, my little furry girl.