Once when I was a young girl, in fourth or fifth grade, my grandmother came to stay with us for a few weeks in Indiana while she looked for a home of her own in the area. Nothing could have made me happier at that time (or today) than a visit from Grandma Toni, who spoiled me rotten and let me do pretty much whatever I wanted (still does, but now I’m growed up).
Since both my parents were working full time Grandma was alone with me and my siblings for a few hours after school for all the weekdays of her stay. Let’s refer to this time as “the shenanigans hour.” Halfway through her stay, we found a stray cat during the shenanigans hour. Or rather, he found us, wandering up our gravel driveway to lie in the sun-warmed pebbles. It was a black and white longhaired tomcat.
The ugliest fucking cat you could ever imagine--that was him. His face was squashed into itself like he’d been punched, with two long white stripes descending from his nose down to his chin in gentle curves, cutting the blackness of his fur into a ridiculously pompous shape. His tail was feathery, his gait arrogant, his eyes a watery yellow which should have been a warning.
A warning about how full of piss he was.
Instead, all Grandma saw was the moustache.
“Oooh look at this kitty with his little moustache. Does he want to come inside?” Grandma said to the cat through the back screen door. She stood just inside smoking a cigarette. Her voice has always been one of my favorite things about her, brassy as a trumpet. Her tongue finds English sluggish, thick and foreign, heavy on the consonants. She bravely rolls over the bumps of r’s, gets flippant with the vowels. She’s Italian by birth, and she loves cats despite their longtime association with bad luck in her native culture.
“He’s really ugly,” I said back then with a giggle.
“Hey, I was always ugly when I was your age,” Grandma said. “Look how I turned out.”
My grandmother is beautiful and she knows it, but that wasn’t on her mind that day. She stared at the cat consideringly, taking a long draw on her Virginia Slim. I think she must have felt some commiseration with him--school of hard knocks and all that. She called to him again, trying to get him to approach the door. The cat loitered outside, milled about rolling in the stones and covering himself in dust. He didn’t appear to give two shits about Grandma or her attempts to get his attention, but she didn’t need him to. She had decided—Fate had spoken--the cat was hers. They were kindred spirits.
“We can put him in your bedroom, Amb,” Grandma said to me. “That way he won’t fight with the other cats. I’ll take him home with me, he can be my cat once I move here.”
This must have seemed sensible to me, or maybe I just did what I was told. I certainly liked the idea of the cat being tucked away in my room. It was something novel and illicit. If we were lucky my mom and dad would never even know he was there. Right? I was confident we could keep Moustache a secret, and so was Grandma.
Grandma picked up the now-resistant cat by the armpits and carried it down the hallway to my room, still managing to keep a lit cigarette pinched between the lengths of her pointer and middle fingers of her right hand. She trailed smoke like an express locomotive, the squalling cat the whistle announcing her approach.
My room wasn’t pristine, but it was passable considering I shared it with my sister. Grandma dumped the cat in the room with little ceremony and shut the door. She went back to the kitchen for a small bowl of water and a second dish of kibbles from our cat bowl, delivered the rations, and settled down to cooking dinner.
Mom came home and went down the hallway to her room to change. My parents’ bedroom was across the hall from mine, and our two closets were connected by a tunnel of sorts. Looking back, it should have been no surprise when Mom returned looking puzzled.
“Why does my bedroom reek like cat piss?” she asked. Moustache chose this moment to start wailing like he was being stabbed to death by the unicorns on my wallpaper. We all rushed down the hallway and opened my bedroom door to find that war by urine had been waged within. More specifically--Moustache had decided to mark my bedroom as his territory. The side of my bed was a rich uric gold. The papers under my desk were a sodden sticky mess, thankfully including the math workbook I’d been avoiding for weeks. My sister’s stuffed animals were marked as well, their plastic-synthetic fur doing a poor job of absorbing the beaded musk on their hairs. The cat himself streaked past our legs into the darkened bathroom which was up the hall.
“What the fuck? Is that a cat?” My mom shouted.
“Yeah, he’s going to be my cat,” Grandma said, her tone just as offended, as though my mom had no right to ask the question. She followed Moustache into the bathroom without another word and shut the door behind them. While Mom and I cleaned up the carnage we could hear her soothing the animal with soft baby talk. We listened to her crooning while we discovered the gym shoes he had peed in, tracked his trail through the closet into my parents’ belongings, though thankfully he hadn’t made it into their bedroom proper.
Grandma emerged alone, leaving the cat there.
“That cat isn’t going to stay in there, he’ll spray everywhere,” Mom said.
“No he won’t,” Grandma said, lighting another cigarette. “I talked to him.” Her words were final.
And so, we sat down to dinner, pasta or something. Moustache yowled from the bathroom. Afterward, it was discovered that he had marked on the shower curtain, on the wall, and into the corner during the short amount of time he’d been left alone in terror.
Now Grandma was angry. Her trust in her scruffy comrade had been misplaced. It seems the cat hadn’t understood after all about the opportunity she was offering him. She chucked Moustache out the door like she might have tossed a bucket of dirty dishwater decades before in Italy.
“That’s what you get, you ungrateful bastard,” she shouted after him into the night.