This story is about an extraordinary cat, a black cat to be a bit more specific. Wait, let me back track a bit. This is not a story but a legend. The difference here is that every single word of this legend is absolutely true. This is the legend of Q.
I can still see him crossing the courtyard like he owned the place, and a number of estimations that might have well been the case. Sleek and lean, with smooth shiny black hair, his intense Spring-green eyes reflect the August grass. His stride is confident. He is master, and undisputed.
One Summer, some years back, a murder of blackbirds were stalking him. Six gathered on the power lines at the back of the yard. I shooed them away several times, but Q seemed content to taunt them, moving and crouching about the yard. I went back to work in the house, prepared, should I hear a fight I was sure Q would not win. Each of the birds, experienced predators all, probably outweigh Q by better than a pound and a half. Apart from sharp size, claws and deadly beaks Q was outnumbered six to one. All at once at the patio door came a terrible screeching sound. Bolting to my feet I discovered Q holding one of the Blackbirds between the wing and torso, the creature squawking and beating its wing madly. Those proud and satisfied eyes were stunning. Throwing a blanket over the bird, I released it out doors and promptly gave Q a small treat. We never saw those Blackbirds again, and little did I know, would spark a prolific partnership in the annihilation of vermin in the neighborhood.
We live in condos on sort of a wedge-shaped island between three busy streets. At the back of the property, across the smallest of the three roads a steep bank of weedy trees hides the metra rail track. Beyond that, more houses and apartment flats. Long neglected, like any unmanaged urban space, trash and a lack of predators attracted rats. A lot of rats. a McDonalds on the corner and Misricordia across the street attracted still more. Not necessarily the best place to raise cats, but as it turns out, a veritable oasis for a preeminent predator.
Q came to Ana and me quite by accident late one frigid December night. We’d spent more than a week scouring the neighborhood and animal shelters for our rescue black cat, Jinx. Ana and I nicknamed Jinx “Archie Bunker” after he adopted our leather recliner, hiking one paw over the armrest. That point is important, even a bit eerie, as we’ll soon see.
Ana and I went to bed that night prepared to reconvene the search for Jinx in the morning. we’d just fallen into sleep when Ana’s phone rang. it seemed that someone had found Jinx almost a mile from the house. Teeth chattering, in coast and still in our pajama’s we jumped in the car and raced right over. A young couple out walking their dog couldn’t shake this persistent black cat following them down the street. Recalling a post to social media about Jinx, they made the connection.
Overcome, I thanked them profusely, swept the wayward little scamp into my arms and rushed to the car. Ana lifted the cat before her and promptly announced, “Bill, this isn’t Jinx. I think this is someone else’s cat!”
Back at the house, Ana and I prepared now for a continued search for Jinx and to find the owners of this new black cat. As we were discussing the possibilities this new cat leapt onto the recliner and immediately assumed Jinx’ position. We’ve had other cats over the years. None of them ever took to the recliner. It struck us as a bit odd.
It was two days later. By now, having had no luck finding the new cat’s owners and with overwhelmed shelters unable to take on any new animals, we gave him the interim name of Q, for question. Later that day a neighbor discovered Jinx. He’d been hit by a car and managed to pull himself into the weeds along the tracks where he succumbed the night we found Q. Ana remarked, “I think Jinx sent him to us.”
If that was true, Jinx had one hell of a sense of humor. Q was hardly content as an indoor cat. What was more, be had an uncanny way of communicating when he wanted something. It was incremental. First came a paw brushing a calf or arm. Depending on his mood, he might do that a couple of times. Then the claws came out. Just a touch at first, but then a bit harder. Not enough to break the skin, but enough to get attention. If that filed, he’d knock something off a shelf. Something carefully chosen that it wouldn’t break, but make a lot of racket. failing that, the nuclear option. He’d pee in a plant! We were family, Ana and I. We were Q’s sanctuary, but fate was all his own. A strange thing to say about a cat, but Q was no ordinary Cat.
We learned that quickly when rats that had proliferated unchallenged along the tracks began appearing dead, lined up along a tree in the yard. In a dish by the door, Q would meticulously clean himself with a bit of water, eat and sleep on Jinx’s chair through the day. Rinse, dry, repeat. Three rats the first week. Seven the next. We kept count.
q quickly became master of the Fountainview condominiums of Rogers Park. he adopted the elderly Cuban Couple two doors down and the Hungarian opera singer across the courtyard. I knew whom he had visited by the scent of their cooking, or a hint of tobacco in his fur. The rats piled up beside the tree. If they were too big to carry, he’d drag them into the street. Rinse, dry, repeat.
I contend that Condo association meetings are the only known cure for insomnia and neighborliness. They are the only natural competitor to drying paint, hospital waiting rooms and economics text books. then came the Fountainview condo association meeting of October 2016. Twenty owners sat in the laundry room on chairs I supposed were last used as torture devices prior to the Nuremburg trials. We were listening to riveting narratives such as the income and maintenance costs of coin operated washers and dryers, and peonies along the back wall: Pro or Con?
Ten minutes into the meeting there arose racket at the door, a fervent sweeping or brushing sounds. Opening the door, in walked Q, tail up, brushing against various neighbors. Reaching the center of the room, Q laid down and sat with us through the entire meeting. When the meeting adjourned, he rose and strode satisfied from the room.
Rinse, dry, repeat. the rats grew more and more scarce. Q would leave them by the treat, come for his reward, clean himself and fall fast asleep. It got so neighbors would tell us they’d seen a rat-vermin 911. I’d deliver Q to the spot and by morning I’d dispose of yet another unlucky critter. By Christmas 2018 we’d counted better than 600, now mostly small and foolish rats venturing into the wrong neighborhood maintain by the right cat.
Not just rats. Q dispatched a fair number of wild rabbits now threatening to become a nuisance. One night chatting with a neighbor, a wild commotion drew our attention. Out of the trees along the tracks came red fox with Q in hot pursuit. once, confronting a n’er-do-well in the alley, the dog turned and retreated. Q, ready for a fight sat down right beside me.
That winter was tough on Q. he picked up a nasty infection. Sniffing, a terrible discharge from his eyes. He was losing hair and weight at an alarming rate. Bloody sores appeared round his mouth and ears. it attacked his left eye. He rarely went out, hardly ate. it seemed so cruel the king could be felled like this, wasting away. Visits to the vet weren’t productive. I daily cleaned his sores, but I feared losing Q. Didn’t look like he’d survive the Spring.
I knew it was an infection. The hit and miss antibiotics from the vet weren’t doing the trick. At a local feed store I picked up a bottle of farm grade antibiotic made for sheep. Adjusting for size and weight, I tripled the dosage the vet prescribed. Risky, but Q was on death’s door already. There wasn’t much to lose. By April, after two exhausting months Q recovered, though the damage to his left eye was permanent.
For Q the rats were now simply a maintenance problem, should any critter happen into his domain. while the city grappled with a growing rat problem driven by perennial budget problems our advice was simply this-Support your local cat! Q now turned to the rabbit issue in the neighborhood.
Every morning come 5:30 I’d walk the dog. Invariably Q would appear, trotting up the driveway to join us.
“Come on, Little Legs,” I’d say, urging the dog to wait for Q to catch up
He’d meow good morning and rub up against my leg. The three of us would make the rounds. I’d scoop Q up, appreciating the sound and vibration of his soft purr against my chest.
Friday, August 18th was the 2 year anniversary of the passing of Smudge, our 21 year old cat. She’d fallen ill suddenly that summer. Smudge passed quietly in our arms within a week of falling ill. The date wasn’t auspicious. We missed it that Friday. Life overwhelms.
A security camera at the front of the building is focused on a small fountain and the yard. at the top, beyond the sidewalk and narrow parkway runs busy Ridge Avenue. across the road is the front gate of sprawling Misericordia, a vast array of resident homes, buildings gardens and lawns. The rabbits love it there. Q rarely crossed Ridge, even when he had two good eyes. That night he chased a rabbit across the street. the camera caught him emerging from the gate and sitting on the sidewalk. Always keen and even a little wary of traffic one thing could be said for Q, and that was he was never impulsive and generally cautious to a fault. It was just past 9pm. Traffic was much lighter than normal.
It feels a little odd treating the video of a cat like the Zapruder film. But comparatively, at least in my life, that damn cat held far more relevance. I keep watching, as if Q randomly bolting directly into the path of a minivan might somehow make sense. Maybe it was the bad eye, or just one of those random miscalculations in the moment we all are prone to, but nothing of it ever fully explains.
At the last instant Q ducks, but it is too little too late. the bumper catches him across the side of the head. There’s no blood or apparent outward damage. Q tumbles beneath the van, which likely never saw the black cat dashing across fresh blacktop at night. It doesn’t stop. Miraculously, Q finds his feet. We’ve seen him take down prey, dispatching a squirrel once in the blink of an eye. He knows how to roll. He staggers three feet to the grassy parkway.
Despite knowing, I stare at the screen, thinking each time somehow it will be different. But it is always the same. The damage to Q is catastrophic. Just five minutes earlier Ana had asked me to take the dog out for walk. It’s been a long hot day and I just want to go to bed. The humidity comes in waves, rising an collapsing. Reaching Ridge, I’m lost in an article on my phone. Bleu, or lab/corgi mix is sniffing along the hedges behind me. From the corner of my eye, I spot an odd dark shape beside a small tree at the curb. I believe, or a moment, it is part from car.
“Q!” i gasp, falling to my knees beside him. he’s breathing, but not well. he’s barely semi-conscious. The end of his tail curls slightly. I can’t be sure, but believe he recognizes me.. Maybe he’s only knocked cold, I hope, and by morning he’ll wake up with little more than nasty headache.
My fingers move over his lean body and limbs. Nothing feels broken. His belly feels normal. Then I see dark ruby-red blood pouring from the side of his mouth. His eyes rolled back and I know.
“Oh, Q,” I sigh, voice quivering slightly. Bleu comes close and lays beside us, concerned. Gently, I scoop him into my arms. He is warm but limp. I know he is filing. Fifty feet to the house feels like a lifetime.
“We love you, little buddy,” I say again and again, hoping he will hear. “You’re home, little legs.”
Bleu follows dutifully, close at my side-the first damn time he’s done that without being told six times. he hardly takes his eyes off his mortally wounded feline pal.
I leave Q on the step with Bleu watching over him and rush to find Ana. She’s in bed, turned on one side. her face is gently lit by the glow of the phone. I dread what I am about to tell her. There is no other way.
“Ana,” I find the words, choking at the back of my throat. they don’t seem to make any sense. “It’s Q.”
“Oh, no,” she gasps, bolting upright in bed. She can hear the anguish in my voice, the tragedy in my expression.
“I found him out front.”
“Is he…?’ she begins.
I grab a small pet cushion. “He’s breathing, but…”
Back outside, slipping the cushion carefully beneath Q, I can see he is still breathing, but it is desperately shallow now. His pupils are fixed and dilated. Blood his pooling beneath his cheek, I am shallowly comforted in that he isn’t suffering now. His lips sag from the gums. The paws and end of his tail are so much colder now. Ana and I resolve to stay with him. We won’t let him go alone…
A day after we laid Q to rest, someone from McDonalds stopped by, having heard. Someone else brought us a mixed berry pie. neighbors were in tears. two blocks away, a veritable other world in a big city, a neighbor commented forlornly about Q’s passing. the condo association lamented now the rats would return. Q was hardly just a cat. he was a lesson. He was larger than life. He was a personality. He live the perfect life of a cat. he had everything.
Many years ago, I use to sit and visit with this large Black woman everyone called Mama. She had a hole-in-the-wall kitchen at the corner of Sheridan and Columbia in Chicago with the best Steak Fries and Rib Tips I ever tasted. Drenched in Mama’s homemade BBQ sauce in a round tinfoil plate, I would sit and chat with Mama. Everyday I’d see her through the window or on the step. Then one day the place was closed. Mama never closed. A week I found her sitting on the step in her spotted apron.
“I lost my boy,” she said, telling me that he’d gotten shot by gang member. i hugged her and said how sorry I was.
“One thing I can say,” she replied. “I told that boy every day that I loved him, so I know he understood that he was loved. Best I could do.”
Do animals feel love? that’s an arguable point. But Ana and I have always made a point to telling our animals that we love them in direct relation to treats and petting and nurturing in hopes they will equate the sound of the words with us and with pleasure. in that way they construct their own concept of love. in that way love truly becomes universal, transcending species.
Strange, but in the weeks before Q passed, I told him more than usual how much I loved him and that he was a good boy. I rubbed that belly as if I was savoring and saving up the moments for something I feared might happen. We’d always feared something like this would befall Q, but his life would have been miserable locked indoors, and he would have been intolerable. We saw Q as a member of the family, with his own agency and his own life. We were just thankful that he chose to include us as strongly as he did. More than that, Q knew that he was loved.
We’ve discussed getting another good mouser to continue Q’s extraordinary legacy, apart from giving another cat a loving home. There is no replacing Q, and it would be unfair to another animal to attempt such a thing. We’ll do our best to train the new cat to the property as we’ve done successfully with two other cats, but they are less pets and more family. As for Q, lot’s of heartbreak, but not a single regret. He live a life. He lived a cat’s life and made us a part of his life on his own terms. Painfully poetic that he was gone just as suddenly as he arrived. Thanks Jinx. See you in the great beyond, Q. Rinse, dry, repeat.