At first I'd wanted a dog but decided that a cat would be better because a cat would require less maintenance. And I had never owned a cat before. I don't count Moon, a kitten who was lobbed out of a passing convertible at my feet one night as my date and I were leaving the Full Moon Saloon. We adopted him, but I eventually lost him in a custody fight.
Then I decided that two cats would be better than one. Janet Juice (as I called the proprietor of the juice bar) said her daughter Jenny's friend Laura knew of a 6-week-old litter of barn kittens. I ordered two with character and spirit, and Laura outdid herself.
They came in a shallow cardboard box with sawdust in it; for the time being, I named them Calico and Red. The female, Calico, had a black mink coat, frantically curious olive eyes and a stripe down her nose. She was very quiet, her voice a soft squeak, as if she had laryngitis. The male had an orange coat and one clouded eyeball, ate like a bear and would soon acquire the agreeable disposition of a mellow dog. The vet prescribed some drops and said clouded eyeballs don't bode well for a cat's future.
For two or three days they became Explorer and Eater. But as they rolled off the tongue, the names didn't work. The image of my standing at the door and calling "Explorer! Eater!" seemed absurd.
It sounds slightly callous now, but it was in the spirit of brotherhood that I renamed Eater Blind Brother when the cloud over his eye thickened. It seemed that his sister's wide eyes might have to lead them both. But when I observed him chasing and catching a moth, I upgraded him to Half-Blind. Explorer became Calico again, the word sounding appropriately feminine and spirited, and for one unforgettable summer the three of us lived in the sunny cedar house in woodsy Cooper Hollow.
Despite a passion for tortilla chips, Calico became elegantly lean, so slinky her sides rippled. She was easily freaked out, and when she was mad her ears swept back, pantherlike. Half-Blind was fatter, furrier and something of a slob. His nose often carried dirt from some hole he had dug, and his tongue seemed to have a weak return spring. He liked to sleep sprawled on his back, flaunting his furry white belly, snoring. Calico did his grooming for him.
On sunny afternoons they lounged on the deck in the shade of a table made from a cable reel. I leaned a plank against the edge of the tabletop, a ramp to make it easy for Half-Blind to join Calico up there. He would sit on the table and stare at the sun. An antibiotic ointment didn't retard the haze over his eye, which sometimes swelled and resembled a big emerald. The vet said he might have some systemic disease and might deteriorate into idiocy, but I didn't believe him.
The cats spent a lot of time on a chair next to my desk, a big mahogany rolltop at which I was camped for a few months. I put a draftsman's lamp next to the chair to warm their spot. Half-Blind's coat shone like gold against the chair's rust velveteen cushion, while Calico's tiny fine hairs floated toward the hot bulb when I petted her. To cross from the chair to the desk, Calico tripped lightly over my shoulder while Half-Blind groped his way across my lap or stumbled over the word-processor keys. Often he would stop to gently feel my face.
They napped on the desk under the lamp, their forelegs wrapped around each other tenderly. After an all-nighter their bodies would be spattered with burned-out gnats. But sometimes the lamp's beam became the spotlight over the ring at a Thrilla in Manila. The desk blotter was the canvas, and I was a giant with a ringside seat, able to hear the soft whumps of their blows as they sparred inches from my eyes. They were Ali and Frazier: Slinky Calico floated and stung, while sturdy Half-Blind just kept comin' at her though he didn't have a prayer against her looping hooks—he couldn't even see her telegraphed haymaker coming—so she landed five blows to every one of his. Once I caught Half-Blind shadowboxing on the floor, sitting up and jabbing thickly at the air, apparently practicing.
Boxing on the desk often evolved into wrestling on the floor, with an oval rug as the ring. Calico circled, struck and ran; Half-Blind worked into clinches when he could. He would stand and wait for her to strike. She was as quick as a cobra: Her teeth were on his neck and he was on his back. He had her where he wanted her now. Stoically he took her bite, while his sturdy legs pounded into her belly until she squealed uncle.