A collection of deeply heartfelt, humorous, and insightful stories of cats written by a true wordsmith and raconteur.
From deep friendships to brief encounters, this is the story of the cats in Katie Haegele's life, or rather the story of her life in relation to the many cats she meets in Philadelphia's streets, alleys, houses, apartments, and bookstores. Through Haegele's sharp, wise, and at times hilarious gaze, we see cats for what they truly are: minor deities that mostly ignore the human foibles being played out around them. They accept our offerings with equanimity and occasionally bestow some nice thing on us.
Haegele, author of White Elephants and Slip of the Tongue , has a unique and compelling sensibility, and it's a treat to see the world through her eyes as she shows us all the meanness, weirdness, and vulnerability of humans, against an ever-shifting backdrop of the cats we often take for granted, and who ignore us all democratically in return.
About the Author
Katie Haegele is a writer, zine maker, and book critic who lives in Philadelphia. She is the author of the memoir White Elephants , and the essay collection Slip of the Tongue: Talking About Language. Her written works have been published in Utne, Bitch, Adbusters, The Comics Journal, Philadelphia Magazine, The Believer Logger , and elsewhere.
Read an Excerpt
Ophelia was beautiful and aloof, and the first cat I ever knew. She was my mother's cat, and the cat never liked anyone but her.
My mom got Ophelia when she was sixteen, which is why she gave her that fanciful name: They were reading Hamlet in school. Her neighbor's cat had kittens and she was invited over to choose one. The girl who would become my mother peered down into a cardboard box in her neighbor's garage and all but one of the kittens scrambled around, trying to get her attention. The one she liked best was pure white, with bright green eyes, and that one sat away from the others in a corner and paid no attention to my mother at all.
"I like a cat that has personality," my mom explained — her preferred personality, I guess, being grouchy.
Still, the cat had gumption. After high school, but before she got married, when my mother still lived with her parents in the old neighborhood, she had a bedroom on the third floor. She liked to sit in the window seat up there and read, and her cat, when she could manage it, liked to sneak out the open window and tiptoe around the eaves of the roof, three stories up, thirty feet in the air, like a tightrope walker.
Ophelia had a partner-in-crime in that house, too — Tuesday the dog. The cat would jump up to the shelf in the pantry where the dog food was kept and knock the bag over so that it spilled out onto the floor, where the dog was waiting to gobble it up. I don't know if the dog ever did anything for the cat in return.
Ophelia lived to be nineteen; pretty old for a cat. Long enough for my mother to finish high school and go on countless dreary Friday night dates with boys from the neighborhood, start working in an office downtown, meet my dad there, get married, leave the cat with my grandparents when her new husband got a job in one foreign country, then another, return home a few years later, have a baby, then a second one. I was six when her beloved old cat died and was unable to imagine my mother existing before I did, but when it happened that's what she grieved for, all those years and things she'd lived through with her constant, quiet companion as a witness. With the cat gone there was no longer a through line from that time to the present, and her past lifted up into the air and disappeared with nothing to anchor it.CHAPTER 2
Sylvester was our family cat when I was growing up, but he wasn't much of a pet. He didn't care for cuddling and he preferred to be outdoors, killing birds and terrorizing the neighbors' cats. We could hear them fighting a block away, their long screams like wild banshee cries in the night. He was one badass tuxedo on the prowl.
When he was little, my parents took Sylvester to the vet to be neutered. The doctor put him under the anesthesia and attempted to perform the very routine surgery, but couldn't; mysteriously, though his anatomy looked normal from the outside, there was nothing there. My parents liked to joke that Sly, as they called him, was hiding his stuff from the doctors so that he could keep it. That's how big of a boss he was.
In keeping with his tough-guy persona, Sylvester liked to watch boxing on TV. It was the only thing he ever took notice of on the screen. When my dad put on a match, the cat would come sit on his knee and watch the fighters, rapt, his eyes flitting back and forth and his tail waving like a flag.
When, many years later, we found poor Sylvester dead of old age near the basement steps out back, we barely noticed. It happened about a month after my father died, during the hottest summer we'd had in years, and the three of us remaining humans — my mom, my sister, and I — were just too tired. We didn't have any sadness leftover for old Sly. But that seems fitting, now that I think about it. He died alone like the cowboy he was, and didn't need anybody to mark it. If a bullet had taken him down he would have taken a glug of whiskey and pulled it out with his teeth, saying, Yesterday's gone on down the river and you can't get it back.CHAPTER 3
the white cat "statue"
When I was growing up, my grandmother's house had this ornament in it: A white plastic cat about eighteen inches tall that sat on the living room floor. It must have been a bottle that held, like, bubble bath or something, because its head screwed off at the neck. The cat's face had that retro 60s look, with shapely eyes like a woman's made-up with black eyeliner, and they were a garish green that looked so beautiful to me. When I was a kid, every time we went to visit, my grandmother would play hide the cat head with me and we'd take turns hiding it around the house for the other to find.
I wonder now if my grandmother kept that bottle because she liked it or because she thought my sister and I would. Grandmom Cookie, as we called her, had tons of cool stuff in her house. She always had cookies, hence the nickname. She also had a wooden box that was a cigarette holder for loosies hanging on her kitchen wall that said COFFIN NAILS on it. She had piles of secondhand jewelry — painted metal flower brooches and plastic clip-on earrings — in jewelry boxes with drawers. She even had her own shopping cart thing with wheels, and because she never learned to drive, she'd push her cart to the bus that would take her to the supermarket and back. Her house was smaller than ours and it was jam-packed full of her things, which gave the rooms a cozy, muffled feeling — and yet it was tidy and so ferociously clean you could have performed surgery on the arm of the couch.
There was plenty of ... less cool stuff in that house, too. Poor Grandmom Cookie was a little loony about her Catholicism. She'd been raised in the church, but was forced out of it when she married a Jew. Back then, marrying anyone who wasn't a Catholic was enough to get you kicked out of the club, and she either didn't mind this or coped with it well for a while, but then got very weird. The most obvious expression of this weirdness was the amazing amount of lurid Catholic paraphernalia she'd festooned her small house with. And the worst example of that was her copy of the Pietà. You know Michelangelo's Pietà, the sculpture of Mary holding the body of Jesus after the crucifixion? That was done in white marble? Well, my grandmother had one, in plaster, in color. The colors were bright and there was a lot of red. For blood. You could see the statue when you climbed the stairs to the second floor, where it seemed to peer out of the dimness of a quiet, disused bedroom. You had to run as fast as you could to get around the corner and away from it every time you went up to use the bathroom.
But the white cat statue, that was really nice. At a thrift store a few years ago, Joe and I found a black cat statue, a shiny, painted, ceramic one that was about the same size and style as the one I remember from Grandmom's house, sitting pretty, slender, and elongated, tail wrapped around the feet. I bought it, of course, and it sits on our bedroom floor now, next to our bookcase, reminding me of hide the cat head and other sweet things.CHAPTER 4
Sister Eustace & the Library Cat
Sister Eustace was evil, like all the other nuns who taught me in school. She wasn't a teacher, though — she was a librarian, the steward of our small but surprisingly complete school library, with its hard-woven industrial carpeting and crispy, brown houseplants. This was back in the Dark Ages, when you used the library the old0fashioned way: With a card catalog that was a piece of furniture filled with actual cards. We had computers too, but you couldn't do research that way; not yet. Maybe somebody knew how to, but all we used them for was typing simple lines of code in Fortran, which, like magic, could spit back the answers to your math homework. Things were so different back then. The internet wasn't everywhere, invisible in the air around you; it lived in our uninspiring computer lab and got locked up in there at night. When you had a report to do, you went to Sister's library and used the books you found there, unless your paper was more challenging and you had to make use of the public library instead. It didn't occur to us to do it any other way because there wasn't any other way to do it.
So yeah, the library was Sister Eustace's domain, and though she threatened to throw us out for giggling during every study hall we spent there, she wasn't much for shows of anger. She was just sour, in a not-especially-nun-like way. She could have been any other ground-down, middle-aged person who detested youth and beauty or whatever; whatever it is that's wrong with all the mean people who are put in charge of kids.
The only semisweet thing Sister Eustace ever did was make a fuss over Pet Week, which now that I think about it must have been something she made up. Students were encouraged to bring in photos of their families' cats and dogs (and, more rarely, birds and snakes and fish) and tack them to the bulletin board; the same board that my best friend Maura and I once defaced by changing around the letters in GOING ON THIS WEEK to GOING ON SHIT WEEK.
Sister loved cats above all other animals and she had a cat of her own. She brought it into the library as often as she could get away with and it could usually be found there all throughout Pet Week. It really was a treat to see an animal at school. Her cat had the seal-point coloring of a Siamese, but it was round and luxurious rather than angular and bony. When you took your book up to the desk to be checked out, there the cat would be, curled up fat and sleek on the counter looking disdainful and self-satisfied, like any cat that's worth a damn.
The thing that makes this story noteworthy is how completely unusual it was for a nun to have a pet, or really anything that cost money and made a display of any sort of individuality. That's the thing about being a nun: They receive no salary, having taken a vow of poverty, and they live together in communities and dress alike. Individuality is more of a worldly thing, you know? But Sister had somehow snagged this sweet deal for herself. The nuns who taught at the school all lived across the street in the convent house, which was on a rather large property for the modest city neighborhood it was in. But instead of living in the main house with the other evil nuns, Sister Eustace lived alone in a cottage on the property. And she had a cat, like any other single lady you might know. I have no idea how it was that she had such an arrangement, but as you know, in school every tiny personal detail about the teachers gets scooped up greedily and shared widely, so we all knew about Sister Eustace's bachelorette pad. I still think about that sometimes, about Sister's secrets, and the private lives of nuns in general, and the ways that women have found, across generations, to get a piece of independence wherever they could grab it.
I stroked her cat's fur once and it bit me.CHAPTER 5
Locust Moon is closed now, but it was everybody's favorite West Philly comic book store for a few years. The store was always dimly lit and cozy, and they had this beautiful aquarium set into the wall with a picture frame around it, so it looked like an animated painting.
It had a magical energy, like all the best bookstores do. When you walked in, one of their two cats was likely to greet you or ignore you or some tantalizing combination of the two. Rooster was a scruffy ragamuffin whose fur was longer on his tail than on the rest of his body so he looked like a squirrel. Inky was the bigger, badder of the two. He'd nudge your hand roughly with his big, old head to let you know you should pat him, then pop his behind up in the air so you'd be sure to get his back, too.
One time I went in there to pick up some books the owners had donated to a fundraising effort I was helping to organize. I felt shy, as I always do when I enter a mostly-masculine space, especially when I have to announce my presence in some way. The awkwardness levels can climb dangerously high.
Sure enough, the only folks who were there that day were guys — the two owners and a young teenager who I got the feeling spent a lot of time there after school. They were all hanging out by the front counter — including Inky, who was standing in front of the register. I made a fuss over the cat and we all took a moment to admire his I-don't-give-a-crap-itude. He liked my attention, but gave the impression that he could take it or leave it: The hallmark of the cool cat.
I wanted to ask about the books, but I could feel my face burning with the old embarrassment that to this day rises up in me whenever I'm the only woman in a group of men. It must be the lifelong legacy of going to all-girls schools. But then the kid, who'd been standing beside me, said with surprising passion, "I wish I was a cat," and I knew I was among friends.
"Me too!" I said, and hopped around in a little dance of dorky excitement. "I've always said that!" Like, I really have always said that it would be awesome to be a cat. Total superhero status: You'd be nocturnal and elegant, with superior eyesight and a set of mean blades at the end of each foot. Me and the kid agreed that it would be baller to slip around town at night — to own the city and all its invisible hideouts like one of the dark fighters of crime. You know, like Batman. Catman. Catwoman!
I still smile when I remember this conversation, a rare moment of connection between me and a nerdy teenage boy, two people who would most likely have remained terrified of each other if it wasn't for Inky bringing folks together.CHAPTER 6
Sylvia was a cruel little creature. Beautiful, but cruel. She was my mother's cat, even though she adopted her when my dad was still alive and Liz and I were still in high school — an intact family. I guess she wanted a cat of her own, and left to her own devices she picked the kind of cat no one else in the family would have chosen: A tiny, perfect, pedigreed one that no one could get near without being skinned alive.
Sylvia was a purebred Persian cat, with papers and everything. My mother bought her from two kooky breeders, a couple who lived in a Philadelphia suburb a few miles from ours. She got to choose the kitten she wanted from a litter that had been born several weeks earlier by going to the ladies' messy house to meet and play with them all. She must have been in heaven.
Sylvia looked like an adorable insect, with a flat face and huge round eyes. Her long, thick fur was like a rainbow, if rainbows were made up entirely of every shade of the color grey. The day my mother brought her home she ran and hid under my parents' bed, and there she remained for the rest of her life. Not under the bed, but on it. For the better part of the day, every day, for the following twenty years, she sat curled up on that bed, surrounded by pillows like a sultan. Walking past the room, it was tempting to stop in there and try to touch the cat's silky fur, but you did so at your own risk. Lots of cats are mean because they're fearful, and they only swipe at you because they don't want to be touched. They have boundaries. I can respect that. The unusual, and frankly ridiculous, thing about Sylvia's meanness was that it was petty. She could hold a grudge. If you stroked her fur for too long, say, or sat down too close to her on the bed where she was installed, she'd get mad at you, and she'd stay mad. She'd remember your transgression and then, some time later — once you'd moved to the foot of the bed and forgotten about her — she'd run at you from behind and give you a smack. You know that THUMP that cats can give you? Even when they don't use their claws, it hurts! Every time she did that I thought of the mice she'd killed, tiny huntress that she was, and tried to imagine what a whack like that would feel like if you only weighed half an ounce.
My father enjoyed teasing my mother for her devotion to the little monster and her habit of calling the cat "my darling Sylvia." And now that I think about it, Sylvia wasn't mean to him. He was one of the few people who was allowed to pick her up in his arms, and he'd do so fairly often, carrying her around like a baby, stroking her head, and cooing to her — pretending he was kidding around, but totally not. His mood could be as prickly as the cat's; I guess they understood each other. Poor Dad.
Sylvia's fur tended to get tangled and matted, so it had to be cut fairly often. If you have any acquaintance with Persian or other long-haired cats, you may be familiar with the lion cut. If not, go ahead and Google it. It's an endearingly unattractive look. A few times a year, my mother would take Sylvia to a groomer's to have her entire body shaved down, except for her tufty, bearded head — which then resembled a lion's mane — and the tip of her tail — which came out looking like a mace. A soft, fluffy mace. I don't know, I Googled "lion cut" just now and those pictures don't quite reach the same levels of ugliness that Sylvia's haircut always did. She was unusually tiny, with delicate, prominent bones, and the buzzcut made her look like a squirrel — a pitiful squirrel, like one that had forgotten where its acorns were buried. Poor Sylvie.
Sylvia died a few months ago of good, old-fashioned old age. I know my mom is still feeling down about it. Nineteen years is a long time to be friends with somebody, and the death of a beloved pet is an unhappy reminder of the fate that's in store for all of us, even if we, like Sylvia, are lucky enough to live a long and healthy life.
Excerpted from "Cats I've Known"
Copyright © 2017 Katie Haegele.
Excerpted by permission of Microcosm Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Introduction: The Backyard Saga Begins,
The White Cat "Statue",
Sister Eustace and the Library Cat,
The Truth is Out There,
The Backyard Saga Continues,
The Landlord's Cats,
The Ghost Kitten,
The Backyard Saga: The Bad Mammer Jammer,
Emma & Dee,
Punk House Cat Fight,
The White Witch's Cat,
Polly & Onyx & Boris,
Bad Bad & Farfel,
More Bookstore Cats,
Pet Shop Kitten Party,
The Backyard Saga Goes On and On,