Most people prefer cat-sitting over dog-sitting because cats are low-maintenance pets. Many of them do not even wish to be petted or acknowledged; they seem more like walking home-decorator accent pieces. Try a calico one for your cozy country motif, whereas a jet-black one nicely complements the streamlined modern decor.
A couple of years ago, I accepted the job of watching my neighbor's cat while the family was on vacation. My neighbor, Wehttam Renrel, who shall remain anonymous thanks to the clever backward spelling of his name, has often wondered when I would tell this story in my column. I was waiting decently for his cat to pass from this earth, in order not to malign it. However, time's up: It appears his cat is only on its seventh or eighth life.
Let me begin by stating that I am allergic to cats. But if I don't touch them - which they don't seem to require - I'm OK for short periods. So I said, "Sure, no problem" when approached by Ttam, which is short for Wehttam. Ttam gave me the briefest of instructions: Just enter the home once daily at my convenience; fill the water dish and put out fresh food.
Ttam forgot to tell me that I'd better either hold my breath or put on a respirator while I opened the cat food.
Maybe you've never smelled cat food, but let me assure you, it smells like ... cat food. I'm sorry, but there just isn't another way to describe it. Once, at Pennsylvania Station in New York, I overheard someone say: "Man, this comfort station smells like cat food." So now you have an idea.
After receiving my instructions, I thought, "How hard can this be?" Upon reflection, perhaps there was a subtle warning in Ttam's tone and word choice when he concluded my instructions with the words, "Well, you know, Janet, um, Kirby can be kind of funny. ... "
But as a humor columnist, I naturally assumed that he meant Kirby was exceptionally amusing. I expected Kirby (whose name has not been spelled backward because he's a cat, for heaven's sakes!) might even do some cat impersonations: "Let me guess, that's Garfield! Wow, The Cat in the Hat, right? Don't tell me: the entire cast of the Broadway show, Cats."
Turns out Kirby could do some killer impersonations. By midweek, I had to call in reinforcements while I crouched in terror on the top of the Renrels' kitchen island.
The first day went deceptively well. I took care of business and was outside in a matter of minutes, never having laid eyes on the cat. A perfect day for an allergic cat-sitter.
But the next day, Kirby followed me around rather closely and, I thought, menacingly. If I tried to pet him, he rushed away, but otherwise, he was always right next to me, sort of like a creepy cat-escort.
It was on the third day that Kirby experienced some sort of break with reality when I entered the Renrels' home. He not only stalked me, he began swiping his paws at me and hissing. I dashed about to finish my job so as not to agitate him further. But without provocation, Kirby showed me his "full cat teeth" face and made a most inconceivable sound that somehow inflated him in my eyes to a larger, nearly pachydermous member of the feline family. I leapt onto the Renrels' kitchen island, off-limits to Kirby, and dialed my husband on my cell phone.
"Help me!" I whispered.
"Where are you?" he said. "What's wrong?"
"It's Kirby," I said, my voice quavering.
"Kirby, the cat?" my husband said.
"He's going to get me," I pleaded.
Well, I don't have to tell you, I narrowly averted the fate, oft depicted in cartoons, of having a cat affix himself to my face. And yet his face appears still in my nightmares; hissing that he will meet me again, in my next life.