When Keith was six, I separated from his father. Keith and I moved into a duplex in the worst neighborhood within the Albuquerque city limits. I understand there were worse barrios in the South Valley, but in the city proper, the Eugene Fields School district-- south of Lead and Coal Streets-- was very scary. Our house was a lovely renovated Victorian (about every fourth house in the neighborhood was renovated and gentrified), but the whole area had a long way to go.
The other half of the duplex housed a nice young woman I made friends with; I can’t remember her name any more. One night I was awakened by a tremendous crash on the other side of my bedroom wall, which was the wall of her living room. In my dazed, just-awakened state, I thought maybe her TV had fallen down by itself. I called her phone number quickly and she answered, knowing it was me: “Alison, call the police, someone just broke my door in!”
It was probably a drunk person. There was a big apartment house next door to us (later condemned) which regularly released late-night squeals, and screams, and bellowing demands. Perhaps one of the denizens there, or a friend-of-denizens, had mistaken her doorway for an annex of the apartment house. Anyway, the landlords came and fixed her door and we went on living there.
All this is by way of introducing how we obtained the best cat in the world, Mr. Tumnus. One day in April of 1985 Keith, a kindergartner, and I, a graduate school student, exited the car in front of our place. I was getting some stuff out of the back seat when Keith said, “Look mommy.” (He was so unbelievably cute then.)
(Not that he isn’t just as cute now, in an older way.)
I turned around to see him holding a very handsome male kitten, white with dark gray markings and with dark coloration around his eyes that made him look like he was wearing eye make-up. Being an incurable cat-lover, I did not say, as parents are supposed to do, that Keith should put the kitten down and not encourage him. No, I invited him in and began to feed him milk. As the days went on, the kitten hung around more and more, friendly, gentle, likable, purring, winding around our feet, letting Keith love him with all his might and main. One time he got on top of the roof our the duplex and cried for about six hours before finding his way down. We could only call up to him to be brave and try to risk it. I began to buy cat food.
Then one day it was clear the kitten had been in a terrible fight. One of his cheeks was twice the size of the other, all puffed out with an abscess, and it made him have trouble eating. I sighed and took him to the vet where they fixed the abscess, “fixed” his reproductive capacity, and gave him his shots. He was a nice kitten and had attached to us and he seemed by now to be my responsibility. We named him “Mr. Tumnus” after the half-human, half-goat faun in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by C. S. Lewis, one of my truly favorite childhood books and one that Keith had enjoyed when I read it to him.
Shortly after all this, you can imagine our dismay when a boy across the street, who lived in a structure best referred to as a “hovel,” told us that our Mr. Tumnus was his cat and that his name was “Crystal.” This boy, whose name I also forget, was a member of a large and very poor family. The kids used to show up at my door regularly asking for things “their mom” needed: a cup of sugar, some aspirin, a cigarette or two. I obliged at first, but one day when one of the girls showed up and said, “My mom says give me cigarettes, or money!” I put a stop to it. (I think now the kids were eating the sugar straight and smoking the cigarettes themselves.) Anyway, it turns out the kitten was theirs, or had once been theirs.
So at some point I went and talked to the mom about the vet bill and so on, and she ended up telling her kids that if I had paid for the cat to have all that work done, it was our cat. But the kids were so heartbroken that I said we would “share” the cat. But Tumnus stayed at our place and always came when I called, and it didn’t seem the kids across the street missed him all that much. Their tiny house was full of many other animals: a puppy, some gerbils, a hamster, Keith says some other kinds of rodents. He remembers many animal droppings on the carpet. I remember roaches all over including on the walls. This was a very bad place for people to have to live.
So the day came when Keith and I left that duplex to go stay with my dad in Iowa for the summer. I was reeling from the emotional stress of the separation and impending divorce and really needed to feel okay in the bosom of a loving family for a time. I got a U-Haul rooftop carrier and moved out of this apartment in the slums after five months. I took a few things to Iowa and stored the rest at my husband’s place, knowing that Keith and I would not be moving back in there. And Keith and I snuck Tumnus out of the Eugene Fields neighborhood early in the morning, with a catbox on the floor of the car in the back seat and cat food in the trunk.
Tumnus learned to travel well. When we got to Iowa, he walked with us up to my dad’s front door, and when my dad greeted us, he was surprised: “You didn’t say you were bringing a cat,” he said, smiling. (I come by my suckership with animals honestly.) We had a good summer. Tumnus learned the neighborhood quickly. After the summer was over, we moved back to Albuquerque and Tumnus re-adapted to a new neighborhood there, a much more middle-class place.
Keith and I went back to Iowa again, sometimes to visit and sometimes to stay, over the next couple years. Tumnus always went with. When we came back to my dad’s after the first year away, Tumnus ran far away from us as soon as we opened the car doors in my dad’s driveway. I was quite distressed because I had no idea if he would remember anything about having been in this area before. I need not have worried: hours later he showed up meowing at the front door as he had done the year before. He remembered everything and was just checking it all out.
One final Tumnus story: One time my closest and oldest friend Jodee and I were talking in my dad’s living room. I don’t remember what we were talking about, but she was sad and crying a little. The phone rang and I went to get it. When I returned to the living room, Tumnus was on Jodee’s lap, and she said in a strange voice, “Alison, the most amazing thing just happened. I was sitting here wiping my eyes and sniffling, and the cat walked up to me and sat and looked at me for a while. Then he jumped up on my lap and reached his paw up and patted my cheek.”
Tumnus is still alive. He is living on a farm in southwest Iowa; he is healthy but has no teeth any more and is visibly old. I miss him. When I went to the farm most recently, he did not respond to my old call and seemed not to recognize me, but he still purred when I patted him. Sigh, it makes me sad. I haven’t been able to give my heart truly to a cat since him.
Alison reports that since she originally wrote this post, Tumnus died at the age of 20 on the farm that he loved.
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