Oliver the cat is asleep on my head. His strong, steady purring causes a vibration in my cranium, numbing my brain. We are comfortable together.
It was not always this way between Oliver and me. When first we met, eight or nine years ago, Ollie’s only interest in me, and in the rest of the human race, was to assure us that if we came within ten feet of him, he would rip us to shreds with his claws and bite us with great fury. Odd behavior from an animal that was being fed fresh salmon twice a day.
This handsome, ferocious little tiger had entered our lives through the basement of our restaurant, Olives Bistro, on the Mountain Road. I remember hearing movement from somewhere in the bowels of the building, and going off to investigate.
Whew, I thought when I saw him. It’s only a cat. A hissing, snarling cat; but still, just a cat. Could have been much worse.
“Hey, little guy. Come here.”
“Hiss, hiss. Snarl, snarl. Growwwwwl.”
“Alright, then. Don’t come here.”
As I moved a step closer, he retreated five, growling all the way.
One step forward; five steps back. One step forward; five steps back. We were getting nowhere fast.
“You hungry?” I went off to the kitchen and cut some meat from the belly of a salmon. Returning to the basement alley where we’d been dancing, I held the salmon out, inviting him to come.
Not a chance. Oh, he was hungry alright. You could see it in his eyes. But you could also see the fear and the anger that said: “I’ll eat your fish, man, but come too close and I’m going to make you bleed.”
Discretion being the better part of valor, I tossed the salmon at his feet. He snatched it up and beat a hasty retreat. That was the last I saw of him that day.
The next day he was back, and the same scene was re-played. And the next day, and the next. And every day for the rest of that winter. The only thing that changed was the menu. He seemed particularly fond of Chilean sea bass.
Spring arrived and the cat departed. I missed him.
I might have felt worse about my failure to befriend and tame this animal were it not for the fact that Lorrie had likewise tried and failed. And Lorrie, far more than me, is a cat person. She gets cats, and cats get her. Sorry, hon, not this cat.
Turns out I was wrong. Summer followed spring. Autumn followed summer. The weather turned cold. The cat came back.
This time Lorrie was determined to win him over, in aid of which she would don oven mitts to protect her hands and forearms, and would sit on the cold, concrete basement floor for hours at a stretch, encouraging the cat to approach. Fresh fish, canned cat food, catnip, balls of yarn – she tried it all. She cooed and wooed and spoke to him in that soothing, mellifluous language that is the exclusive province of the cat woman – the human purr. By New Year’s the cat had stopped moving backward when she would move toward him.
By mid-winter he would come and retrieve food that Lorrie placed beside her. He would still not allow her to touch him.
Their first touch came some time around President’s Week. Shortly thereafter the oven mitts came off.
And then one day, when Lorrie was sitting at the desk in her basement office, the cat crept in and jumped up on her lap. He was scared. She was scared. But they got past it, and pretty soon they were both purring.
It was then that we named him, though we were pretty sure that he’d take off again in the spring.
Oliver had no intention of going anywhere. He was still incredibly skittish, and any sudden movement could send him careening through the basement to hide in the sanctity of his lair. But little by little he was becoming domesticated. He would now allow not only Lorrie, but also me and Katie, the bartender, to pat him. He had discovered the dining room of the restaurant, and in particular the very comfortable couch at the entrance.
It was curled up on the couch that we would find him when we arrived each morning, and the purr fest would begin. Before too long he got altogether too comfortable with the dining room, to the point of making reconnaissance missions in the evening when the room was full of diners. It was when he seemed ready to start begging table to table that we decided it was time to take him home.
Getting Ollie into a cage for transit took us on a sentimental journey back to his feral days, and I was pretty bloody by the time that he was good to go. Once safely stowed in our bedroom, far from the curious noses and eyes of our two big dogs and two other cats, we set him free. He immediately went under the bed and stayed there for the better part of a month.
But at length he surfaced, lured again by Lorrie’s indefatigable entreaties. And, in the course of time, he befriended the other animals. Soon he was sleeping between the legs of the German shepherd, and sharing mice with the other cats for breakfast.
Ollie, I’m beginning to notice, is getting old. And he’s truly become quite a pussy of a cat. Oh, he still hunts for sport. And he’s not beyond mixing it up with the other village cats from time to time. And I’ve yet to meet the vet who can get within twenty feet of him. But overall, he’d just as soon follow me around the village when I walk the dogs, and spend endless hours asleep on my head while I bang on this machine, as do anything too vigorous.
It was Ollie who suggested that I write this piece. “What should I write about today?” I had asked him as I set up shop.
“Why don’t you write about Mom,” he answered. “And tell everyone how she saved my life.”