The cat was in such bad shape. His toe beans were hard as rocks, his fur wiry, some of his teeth either broken or missing, and his ears and whiskers showed signs of frostbite. I pet him carefully, running my palm over his back, tracing the black stripe from head to tail. He was so muscular it was like petting marble covered by horsehair. He rolled over and exposed his belly. I placed my hand ever so gently on his downy, snowy belly.
“His fur is so soft here,” I said to my mom. We were in the only finished room in the basement, this one designed as a bedroom back when my sisters and I were teens. The cat was on the bed between us. “Will the rest of his fur soften?”
She shrugged dismissively. “I've no idea. I've done what I can, but he can't stay here.”
My mom took in cats. The neighborhood knew this and would occasionally present her with a stray. The most recent of which was a mewling, tiny little kitten covered in motor oil and found under a car. She scrubbed him clean with cornmeal, patiently rinsing him over and over. Clean and shiny, he grew to be a huge fluffy grey cat with a white snout. Smoky Guy became her absolute favorite of the seven cats in the house.
Eight, if you counted the one I was petting.
This one found the house all on his own. Some cats did, as if the feline residents went out regaling strays with stories about their hostel, where food was plentiful and freedom to roam encouraged with a simple meow and stare at the door.
So it was no surprise one bitterly cold winter morning when a pair of cat eyes peeked out from under the broken back step. No amount of encouragement would make this cat come out, and I couldn't blame him. It was below -30C and windy. I'd stay under a warmish step instead of going into a strange human's hands too, if I was a cat.
Rather than continue trying to get the cat to come out, my mom boiled milk and set the bowl outside near the step. She trusted the cold temperature would chill the milk enough for the cat to drink it.
She did this for about a week before tricking him. Instead of actually going inside after setting the bowl out, she opened the door and closed it, then waited.
Sure enough, the cat peeked out and started lapping at the milk. My mom grabbed him by the scruff of the neck and hauled him inside.
He ran down into the basement and hid in the crawlspace under the stairs. She put a pan of cat litter nearby, correctly guessing that he wouldn't want to use the communal box that was a five foot wide swimming pool containing fifty pounds of litter.
It took over a month of leaving food and water near the space for her to see him again. When she did, she grabbed him by the scruff of the neck and took him to the vet, where he got neutered. Every cat was subject to this, females after one heat, males before a year, strays as soon as possible.
The cat spent another ninety days avoiding my mom, understandably so. The food still got eaten and his private litter box was used daily, but never when people were stamping around.
The other cats weren't impressed with him. Even neutered, he oozed testosterone. The other seven had their own hierarchy and didn't much appreciate this new arrival. He moved out from under the stairs and into the basement bedroom, which was as far away from the communal litter box as the house allowed, and settled nicely.
There, my mom rubbed baby oil onto his beans to soften them, clipped his toenails, combed him, and checked for permanent frostbite damage. Her plan was to integrate this absolute unit of a cat into the household, but the cats were having none of it. A couple of them started to leave piles of poop around as they refused to go all the way down the stairs to do their business. That's when my mom called me, asking if my apartment took cats and if I'd like one.
“Have you named him?” I asked, marveling at his cut physique. His puffy cheeks were actually muscle, not fluff, and his shoulders would rival a cheetah's. However, after so long with my mom, he developed a bit of a paunch. She fed her cats well.
“Crawlspace,” she said. “It seemed fitting.”
Crawlspace rotated his head to her, then me. He rolled over and moved closer, where he set his jaw on my leg. One paw lifted and settled on my thigh, as if he wasn't sure if the motion was allowed. His shyness and desire for love tugged at my heart. He came home with me that day.
Once in my apartment, other health concerns arose. Crawlspace had troubles breathing sometimes. He'd gasp and choke at random intervals. I took him to a vet closer to my place, where he had x-rays done.
The doctor stormed in with the images. “What have you done?” He said, anger evident in how he snapped the pictures into the light box. “Why would you do this?”
“He's an alley cat!” I pulled Crawlspace closer and wondered if this vet was a good idea. Maybe the one father away, the one my mom used, the one that neutered Crawlspace, might have been a better choice. “I only just took him in. What's wrong?”
The vet calmed somewhat. “Someone shot him with a BB gun. Probably while he was in a tree.” He pointed to the dots on the x-ray. “They're lodged in his neck, throat, lungs, and jaw. They're slipping and blocking airflow.”
I squeezed Crawlspace closer, horrified that someone would do such a thing. “Can they be removed?”
“No. They've been there too long and there's too much scar tissue.”
The vet did what he could about Crawlspace's broken teeth but warned that eating will likely always cause pain, so feeding him soft food was best. Also, Crawlspace appeared lonely, so a kitten, preferably a female, might be advised.
I took his advice. I bypassed the pet stores and went directly to the ASPCA, even though finding kittens there was a rarity. I was in luck. Someone brought in a litter barely past the weaning stage. One of them, a black tabby, came home with me. I named her BittBitt.
Crawlspace didn't mind BittBitt. He seemed okay with the idea that he had to share cuddles and soft sleeping spaces. Her playing perked him up a little and he'd join her, softly batting a toy to her where she'd attack it with youthful vigor. Mostly, he spread out in sunbeams, content to rest while she zipped around the apartment.
His lack of physical activity caused him to put on a bit more weight. The muscle remained, thick and ropy under his softening fur, but his tummy expanded enough that his nipples poked out. BittBitt found them and suckled. Whenever this would start, Crawlspace would stretch out to give her better access, then fall asleep to her making biscuits on his belly with her forepaws.
Where Crawlspace taught her how to be a cat, BittBitt helped him too. They created their own hierarchy where, the instant food was set down, Crawlspace got first bite. He'd eat exactly half of the soft food, then go off and groom while BittBitt ate her share. Any leftovers were consumed by Crawlspace immediately after she walked away from the dish.
I hadn't bought crunchy food for Crawlspace, but did for BittBitt. Her teeth needed to be clean and healthy and hard food helped. I didn't expect Crawlspace to eat it and he didn't, not after discovering the unending supply of soft food.
One day, I watched her bite down on the crunchy food and spit it out. Not sure if she was doing this because she didn't like it, or because Crawlspace didn't teach her how to eat properly, I kept an eye on it for a few days.
Eventually I caught Crawlspace ambling over to the crunchy bowl where he licked the pieces off the floor. My heart squeezed. BittBitt was helping him eat crunchies by breaking them up into smaller pieces.
Our lives went without incident. Crawlspace would maneuver his bulk onto my lap when invited, play with BittBitt if the sunbeam wasn't too strong, and purr contentedly at the slightest provocation. He greeted me at the door after work, always pleased to see me, and never tried to run out of the apartment. Never a nuisance and never in the way, Crawlspace remained on the fringes until invited closer.
He didn't live long, only a few years. He was a full adult by the time he found my mom's back step. Since his early life was hard, I ensured his later years were soft. Food was always on time and semi-soft treats were provided on occasion. Cuddles were plentiful and warm laundry left out for his sleeping pleasure. I went out of my way to demonstrate that human hands were for kindness and love, not pain and misery, and made sure every visitor understood the same before arriving.
At night he would sleep on my hair, jaw resting on my head, drooling in his sleep. One night he huffed and pushed his mighty body upright, only to saunter to the foot of the bed where he curled up and slept at my feet. The following morning I dropped my hand to him to find his body rigid and stiff.
Crawlspace was a delight. A beast in size and as gentle as a newborn, his death weighed heavily on my heart. I'd only wished I could have found him sooner, rescued him from whatever broke his teeth and from whomever shot him with the toy gun. I would have loved to provide him with a few more years of comfort and joy. I am, however, grateful for the few years we had together.