I stepped off the plane from San Francisco balancing my four-month-old son, Alexander, and my overfed tomcat, Carter, one under each arm. We were in Detroit, our new home.
As I headed for baggage claim to collect our ten boxes and suitcases, passengers from our flight whispered and stared. His first night in Detroit and Carter had already burst into legend as an injured raccoon, a baby puma in transit to the zoo, a long-tailed Manx and a skunk. It was whispered that he had attacked a child, died on the plane and sent an elderly passenger fumbling for her heart medicine.
Carter was, in fact, a mild-mannered alley cat, notable only for his many female conquests, his twenty-five-pound bulk.
These were the days before “Frisk ‘em” metal-sensitive gates and black-curtained x-ray counters, before narrow-eyed Pinkertons roamed the airport, before plastique explosives, and sarin gas, and shoe bombs. In the spirit of those more innocent times, most airline companies permitted all cats and small dogs to travel with their owners in the passenger cabin, provided each beast was issued a ticket — $14 in Carter‘s case — was properly tranquilized, and was confined to a container of specified dimensions. Even sunk in his Acepromazine haze, though, I knew that Carter might not take to confinement, so I approached the ticket counter, feeling uneasy, even vaguely criminal.
My history with Carter had, after all, begun with transgression. OK, I‘d stolen him. A year before Alexander was born, Carter had been a gangly kitten, inexplicably Siamese in a litter of orange tabbies. One of my fellow students at Berkeley had boarded the kitten with me over Christmas break. He‘d planned to retrieve it, leash it and parade it to classes next term. But when the showoff came for his pet, it had already taken up residence in the hollow of a cinder block that supported my desk. Suddenly I burned with the righteous fire of a child of the sixties. I refused to surrender the cat to a life of indignity. I saw the student not long afterward parading a de-scented skunk.
My apprehension grew as two burly attendants dragged my doped and limp tom from his red-carpeted Kitty Koach and stuffed him like laundry into an airport-issue cardboard carton, his grey fur tufting through the air holes.
“Regulations,” they explained.
I climbed aboard the plane with my two burdens, obediently stowing the boxed cat under the seat in front of me and turning my attention to nursing my baby son.
After take-off, the middle-aged gentleman in the neighboring window seat fidgeted awhile in his business suit, then asked the stewardess for a cocktail. We were somewhere over Nebraska when a woozy feline head bulged from the carton under the seat in front of me and swiveled like a periscope. I tamped it down with my foot. It shot up again. I shifted all my weight onto the box. The head popped through at the other end and emitted a long, atavistic moan. Baby Alexander turned from my breast toward the sound, gurgled, and emptied a stream of milk into my purse.
Hurriedly buttoning my blouse, I glanced at my neighbor, who was gazing at the airplane wing that blocked his window seat view, while sipping his second cocktail. Remembering the half-empty vial of animal tranquilizers in my purse, I pinned baby Alexander in my lap with an elbow, fished the Acepromazine from my soggy purse and plunged a half-dozen tablets down the cat‘s throat. Within minutes, the yellow eyes glazed over and became slits. Carter sank into ominous silence. But when minutes passed with neither sound nor movement from beneath the seat, I panicked, leaned forward, plunged an arm into the box, and brought out a handful of fur dripping with blood.
“My cat is dying!” I screamed in Shakespearean tones, then slipped baby Alexander into my neighbor‘s lap, draped a diaper over his shoulder and eyed him beseechingly. My neighbor picked up the startled baby and held him stiffly, at arm‘s length.
“There, there,” he attempted. “There, there.”
Miraculously, the baby gurgled and smiled as I punched the emergency call button and hauled Carter up from his box. Overwhelmed with horror and guilt, I clasped the cat to my breast to gasp his last breath.
A platoon of flight attendants arrived. “Do you want a Band-Aid?” asked the one with garish blue eyelids. I snarled at the preposterous question and clutched Carter to my bosom. His short life flashed before me: his dog-like companionship during neighborhood strolls, his brushes with death at the paws of romantic rivals, his nightly post at the foot of Alexander‘s crib …
“Do you want a Band-Aid?”
It was the flight attendant again, leaning over from the aisle in a cloud of Jungle Gardenia. I glared. Then I felt a throb of pain and looked down to discover that the blood flowed, not from an expiring cat but from a deep paper cut on my own hand.
“I must have cut it on the cardboard when I reached into the box,” I said to the stewardess, smiling weakly and accepting the Band-Aid.
Carter lazily raised his head and fixed me with one dilated yellow eye.
Slowly his fire returned. The whiskers twitched. The familiar refrigerator purr started up. The front paws stretched languidly over my knee, claws opening and closing rhythmically, shredding my best wool slacks.
Carter regained the use of his front legs. He flopped to the floor and began testing his prowling gears, moving like a disoriented sloth.
“You must keep that animal under the seat,” came a voice of law and order from the aisle.
Grown calmer in the wake of crisis, I smiled at the flight attendant. “Why don’t youtry putting him back in the box,” I suggested.
She leaned closer, but not too close. “Back in the box, you,” she commanded, but the injunction had no effect on the half-collapsed cat.
My neighbor having warmed to the role of nanny, was crumpling and un-crumpling the New York Times editorial page to the delight of baby Alexander. They seemed content to carry on, so I leaned back, lulled by the soft roar of the engine.
Carter‘s resurrection had filled me with a sense of peace that bordered on a religious experience. How else can I explain my complacency as I snuggled beneath the child-size airline blanket and watched my cat dragging his numb butt along the blue and gray carpet like a seal, past the green neon “Exit” sign, headed for first class.
What happened in the interval between Carter‘s disappearance into first class and his reappearance minutes later under uniformed escort, I can only guess from the cold stares I received as I straggled past the official greeting party at the plane‘s exit in Detroit. “We‘ll have to report all the complaints,” the flight attendant informed me. “You‘ll have to check your animal in the future.”
Later that evening, I buttered Carter‘s paws — the folk cure for wandering cats — and he established himself on a windowsill of our family‘s new home.
When I made plans to fly back to California with Alexander to teach summer school and visit my mother the following June, I called the airline and inquired about accommodations for cats. A stern voice informed me that the company no longer allowed pets to travel in cabins. It was not without apprehension that I left Carter in the half-hearted care of my husband, Peter.
In a few days a distraught phone call came to my mother‘s house. Peter had lost Carter. Carter had disappeared.
Three weeks into our extended visit there was still no sign of him. In despair I locked myself in my mother‘s bathroom with a recorder, taped a thirty-minute segment of “Here kitty, kitty,” then flipped the tape and recorded thirty minutes more. I emerged surreptitiously from the bathroom and mailed the tape special delivery to Detroit with an unambiguous order: “Find the cat.”
What passersby thought of Peter, the disheveled young professor, plodding down Detroit‘s main boulevards on a sweltering July afternoon with a female voice shrilling “Here kitty, kitty” from beneath his trench coat, I will never know. That must have inspired as many legends as did an unidentifiable beast slouching toward first class in a jumbo jet, twelve thousand feet over Des Moines.
I do know that, as I write, my twenty-five-year-old cat is watching me with one drowsy yellow eye. My son Alexander, now a longhaired Earth Sciences post-doc, calculates that the cat is 118 in people years. “He‘s always been here,” Alexander says. “He‘s going to live forever.” As if in response, Carter yawns and stretches out in a patch of sun on the kitchen table.