Two days. I had 48 hours to find Cougar a new home. Someone who could see in him all the wonderful glowing, feline qualities that I did.
Nancy Birnbaum was 7. Our backyards met diagonally and she was perpetually left outside alone. Her parents were nice and good people. Her brother Jimmy was in my class. He was pink-skinned towhead kid who was constantly auditioning for school bully sidekick. One time Davey Shoemaker, our class bully, told him to follow me home after school and give me a gut punch. It had rained that day and I caught him following me and whacked him squarely in the forehead with my umbrella. It left a mark. He didn’t speak to me again but he didn’t try to punch me either.
I suspect he had managed to punch the smaller kids in the neighborhood, which is probably why Nancy had no one to play with. We had nothing in common except that no one wanted to play with us. Nancy had met Cougar twice. She had seen me head to the garage with the cat food and had been curious.
Cougar leapt from his perch in the rafters and circled us. He tilted his head and narrowed his deep golden eyes. I handed Nancy one of the cat food cans and let her feed him. “She’s a friend. It’s okay.”
He rubbed against her shin and she plopped down, putting the food on the floor between her outstretched ankles. He purred and rubbed his ears against her pink canvas shoe. Then he shoved face in the cat food, grunting happily while she petted him.
“A silver cat with gold eyes!” she giggled. “Cougar’s my friend!”
“He really is the best cat. He’s a ratter too! Not afraid of anything. He’s silver like a knight wearing armor.”
Cougar wound around her, nudging and making tiny sounds of happiness. Nancy was small, not so wild. Most importantly she was kind.
“Somebody has to take care of him. I’m moving away. I have food for about two weeks and a brush. You probably need to ask your mom. I don’t want you to get into trouble.”
“Oh she won’t care! I love him!”
“She probably will when you run out of food or spend all your time in our creepy garage. So please just ask.”
“You mean because of Howie?” Her face darkened. My stomach felt like lead. “My mom says he’s dangerous and not to play over here with you.” Her bottom lip stuck out and she fought little sobs.
The whole neighborhood had seen him chase me, yell, threaten. They had peeped through curtains and shutters and shook their heads and clucked their tongues. They had engaged in gossip feeding a deep poison cauldron of speculation about what else went on in our house. Isn’t is sad and awful. Isn’t it tragic? That girl is in trouble. That girl IS trouble. There was a swell threatening to drown me. And they were helping to make the weather.
But I had Cougar. He had been my champion. And now I had to be his.
“Tell your mom to meet me here in about an hour. Make sure no one sees her come in.”
I sent Nancy off, skipping with the possibility of having her own champion. I made it into the house silently, locked myself in the bathroom. I filled the sink with water and cleaned myself up, brushing my teeth, putting baby powder in my hair to dry out the oil. I found some clean clothes that my mom had bought from a garage sale and squeeze myself into them.
Once I was somewhat presentable, I went quickly to the garage and gathered up all the cat food, little homemade toys and the brush into a paper sack from Lawson’s.
I sat on the cushionless plaid couch and gathered Cougar into my lap. This could be goodbye. He mewed tiny question marks, batted at the sack and started kneading my leg.
“I don’t want to leave you, but I can’t leave you here. There’s too many bad people, my love. You deserve someone who loves you.” I felt dizzy, acid cloyed at my stomach. My shoulders ached. Why did they call it a broken heart when you felt it all over?
The door creaked and Nancy stepped inside with her mother. Mrs. Birnbaum was a chubby, no-nonsense lady. She wore her dark, wiry hair in a Dorothy Hamill bob and a Hawaiian floral housecoat that snapped up the side. Her hands moved from the housecoat pockets to rest on her hips. She sighed and looked at me and Cougar, colorless lips in a curl.
“So this is the cat?”
“Mom! MOM! Look! He’s perfect!” Nancy bounced up and down like a tiny version of her mother on springs.
“He’s big. He’s a biggie. He eats a lot probably.”
“Well, he’s a mouser, but I give him two of these cans a day.” I handed her one of the Friskies tins.
“Mmmm. You love this cat? Why are you giving him to my kid? What’s wrong with him?”
“I’m…I leaving. Going to live with – somewhere else. I don’t want him to die or starve or be left here with Howie.”
She put her arm around Nancy. “That guy’s an asshole. I shouldn’t use that word in front of you, but he is. That’s a big cat, Nancy.” She shook her head, looking at the garage floor.
“I know! Cougar’s huge!” Nancy crowed.
“You’ll be someplace safe?” Mrs. Birnbaum looked me in the eye for the first time.
“Yes. There’s a lady in Cleveland I’ll stay with.”
“Oh Mom! I love him! I love you! I hope Jimmy loves the cat.
“Jimmy will love the cat or I’ll beat Jimmy’s ass. Don’t worry about it.”
“Okay. C’mon then, Biggie.”
Biggie? Cougar looked at me, patting my red face with his velvet footpads. I stood up and handed the food bag to Mrs. Birnbaum. Cougar never took his eyes off the bag. I watched his graceful exit as he padded after her and across the yards to her backdoor.
I thought my heart would crack and splinter and ache. But it did not. My Cougar, my valiant friend and champion was no more. In a sweet 30 yard journey, he had left his feral life with me to become the adored, well-fed Biggie Birnbaum.
And now I was ending my time as a feral girl. Tomorrow, I would move into a beautiful townhome in Cleveland with Barbara Scully. I would learn the joy of doing girly things like makeup and putting pink rollers in your hair just right. I would learn about Buddha statues, Night Gallery and Sha-Na-Na. She would teach me to cook eggs and make Irish coffee. For three weeks, I would learn to be a normal human girl again. Barbara was an amazing lady. And like Cougar, she would be my friend for the rest of my life.