Cats lost their ambassador to dog people this week, and I lost a good friend. Degas was a Siamese who lived across the street. I’d never much liked cats until Degas came along, and now that old cat has broken my heart.
He introduced himself years ago. Long before I moved to Florida, I came for a weekend visit and was walking off the beach with my mom one morning when this skinny Siamese walked up and started making pitiful noises. “Oh, you poor thing!” I said. “You’re hungry.”
Mom started laughing. “That’s Degas. He makes rounds in the neighborhood begging for food.”
As it turned out, Degas lived directly across the street from the house I eventually bought. I must have made a good impression when we first met because when I bought my house, he began coming over every morning around nine, scooting under my front gate and standing at my door meowing until I let him in. He never stayed more than an hour, and his visits were always the same: Degas following me around the house, sitting on my desk as I worked, and talking the entire time.
He didn’t meow. Degas had a guttural, growl-like “rowr,” its pitch, tone, and volume varying with his mood. He didn’t just make noise. Degas told stories.
I kept treats for him, but in the last few years, he seemed to lose interest in begging for food. Maybe it was because he didn’t have many teeth left. As often as not, he politely refused the treats. He was just stopping by to chat like old friends do.
I moved here permanently in 2010, and Degas was dismayed by the fact that I brought my dogs. I was afraid he would no longer be my friend, but he mostly forgave me. He occasionally came to my door when the dogs weren’t in the yard, but he started spending his days in the alley behind my house. He made friends with the neighbor across the alley, Earl, and liked to stand in the driveway and tell Earl how to wash his car or prune his oleanders. When I walked down the alley – on my way to the beach or mailbox or simply taking the trash can to the street – Degas found me, and we’d tell one another about our day. Sometimes he bitched at me for having dogs, but mostly, I scratched his head while we exchanged pleasantries.
I was friendly with his owners, Katy and Margaret, two middle-aged women who are cousins. They often voiced their concerns about Degas roaming the neighborhood during the day, but Katy said to me more than once, “He’s miserable when we try to keep him in the house. He loves visiting everyone, and people love him. We worry about him, but what can we do?” I told Degas he reminded me of the old Cole Porter song: Give me land, lots of land, and the starry skies above, don’t fence me in.
In late February, I was standing in my kitchen, and I heard Degas. I went to the door, but he wasn’t on my front porch. He was standing at the door to his house begging to go inside, and his begging was loud enough that I could hear him all the way across the street. The day was cold and windy, and it was beginning to rain. He sounded pitiful. It was so out of character that it scared me. I called Margaret and Katy. They didn’t answer, so I walked across the street, planning to take the poor guy home with me and get him warm. I rang the doorbell. When no one answered, I reached down to pick him up, and I spotted something in the flower pot by the front door — half of a key sticking out from under a rock. I grabbed the key and tried the deadbolt. The door opened, and Degas sprinted inside.
I’m sure Katy and Margaret were surprised to find Degas inside when they came home from work. I fully intended to tell the ladies what happened, but I didn’t see them for several days, and then I forgot about it.
There was an accident this week, and we lost Degas. Despite the fact that we all watched carefully for him when driving down the alley, no one realized that he couldn’t hear our neighbors’ new electric car coming. He walked in front of that car at a bend in the alley where they couldn’t have seen him.
Later that afternoon, Katy and I talked about how much Degas was loved and how she and Margaret had decided that loving him meant letting him be outside. Yet that choice made it impossible to protect him. “He never wanted to be inside,” she said, crying, and it occurred to me that I should tell her how, just a few weeks ago, he had begged to be inside. But it would have made her sadder, I decided, so I said nothing.
I think they’d prefer the legend. And being the great storyteller he was, I think Degas would prefer it, too.
Send me off forever, but I ask you please, don’t fence me in.