Tuesday, September 25, 2012


Our yellow/orange cat is named Number One.  Back in the 1990s when she was born, Star Trek was still popular, and folks assumed we named her after the executive officer of the starship Enterprise, who was always called Number One by Captain Jean Luc Picard.

Number One: Early Edition cat

The truth is, back then someone left a cardboard box on the wide front porch of our farmhouse when we were away.  It contained three yellow kittens with their eyes matted shut.  We suspected feline leukemia and did not expect them to live.  Rather than give them names, my wife referred to them as Number One, Number Two, and Number Three.  The last two shortly died, but Number One survived.

We had her checked out by our vet, given shots, and at the appropriate time, she was neutered.  In our experience, yellow/orange cats can be quirky, but Number One charmed us with her loving personality.  A couple of months later, she disappeared.

We assumed the worst.  Farm life can be dangerous.  A couple of weeks later we began to spot her out in the pasture, stalking mice.  She wasn't very friendly any more; nay, she had become super wary--the same cat with a much different personality.  You could tell she wanted to be loved on, but she was too skittish to get near enough, caught in a J. Alfred Prufrock type of paralysis.

We don't know what brought about this sudden change, but we suspected brain damage.  Possibly she had been hit by a car or kicked by one of our horses.

Number One remained a semi-feral cat for many years.  She always seemed to have a scowl on her face, what I called the Calvin scowl after the comic strip, Calvin and Hobbes.  One day, just a few years ago, she suddenly decided to become our full-time number-one house cat again.  She still has the scowl and she can be quirky, but her personality reverted back to the loving, domesticated self she had displayed as a kitten.

Perhaps, over time, her brain developed new circuitry to get around the damage, but we just don't know.

Which brings me to the yellow cat fog in T. S. Eliot's "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," part of which is used as an epigraph to the book I'm now reading, Philip Kerr's edgy crime novel, A Philosophical Investigation.

In the Eliot poem, the yellow cat is a symbol of the protagonist's semi-feral alienation.  He is an outside cat longing to be inside.  He is skittish, half-paranoid, lacking good social skills.

Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherized upon a table;
Let us go, through certain half-deserted streets,
The muttering retreats
Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels
And sawdust restaurants with oyster-shells:
Streets that follow like a tedious argument
Of insidious intent
To lead you to an overwhelming question. . .
Oh, do not ask, "What is it?"
Let us go and make our visit.

In the room the women come and go
Talking of Michelangelo.

The yellow fog that rubs its back upon the window-panes
The yellow smoke that rubs its muzzle on the window-panes
Licked its tongue into the corners of the evening
Lingered upon the pools that stand in drains,
Let fall upon its back the soot that falls from chimneys,
Slipped by the terrace, made a sudden leap,       
And seeing that it was a soft October night
Curled once about the house, and fell asleep.

"Let us go, you and I, when the evening is spread out against the sky..."

It is a fall poem, halloweenish, with an indefinite menace behind its intelligence.  On youtube, you can hear it recited by many different voices, even by the long dead author himself.  But by far the best reading of this is that of Anthony Hopkins, who has just the right amount of spooky ambiguous menace/humanist nuance.  The youtube link is here.

This poem has influenced a great many novels, of course, both genre and literary.  Here's Cormac McCarthy's opening line from Suttree:

Dear friend now in the dusty clockless hours of the town when the streets lie black and steaming in the wake of the watertrucks and now when the drunk and the homeless have washed up in the lee of walls in alleys or abandoned lots and cats go forth highshouldered and lean in the grim perimeters about, now in these sootblacked brick or cobbled corridors where lightwire shadows make a gothic harp of cellar doors no soul shall walk save you.

Hemingway's opening in To Have And Have Not:

You know how it is there early in the morning in Havana with the bums still asleep against the walls of the buildings; before even the ice wagons come by with ice for the bars? Well, we came across the square from the dock to the Pearl of San Francisco Café to get coffee and there was only one beggar awake in the square and he was getting a drink out of the fountain. But when we got inside the café and sat down, there were the three of them waiting for us.

And the cat-scowl from Nelson Algren's A Walk On The Wild Side:

For what had embittered him Fitz had no name.  Yet he felt that every daybreak duped him into waking and every evening conned him into sleep. The feeling of having been
cheated--of having been cheated, that was it.  Nobody knew why or by whom.

But only that all was lost.  Lost long ago, in some colder country.  Lost anew by the generations since. He kept trying to wind his fingers about this feeling, at times like
an ancestral hunger; again like some secret wound. It was
there, if a man could get it out into the light, as palpable as the blood in his veins.  Someone just behind him kept turning him against himself till his very strength was a weakness...

When opening time was closing time...where hungry young hustlers hustle
dissatisfied old cats and ancient glass-eyed satyrs make pass at bandrats..."

And the remarkable cat opening sequence of the movie made from A Walk on the Wild Sideat this link.

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