Ezra Titus

1966 – 2009

Lincoln the Survivor

That summer, Tampa Bay was torturous: everyone agreed. Even those who had lived there all their lives complained about the oppressive heat. I waited until midnight when it was below a hundred degrees to do my laundry and get the mail. I avoided going outside during the daytime. Unfortunately, sometimes, there was no way to avoid it.

The tap water, which was so heavily chlorinated that it only made me thirsty, somehow retained a subtle yet unmistakable hint of swamp. I decided I had to go to the store for a case of bottled water. Inside my car, it must have been two hundred degrees. I screamed when I touched the steering wheel.

The girl at the grocery store wore a nametag that said, “Kitty”.  She was tiny, just over five feet tall, and lithe: not a single ounce of fat. She had five different colors streaked into her waist-length, dirty-blonde hair, and that made me laugh. She was attractive and, altogether, evoked a pleasant feeling in me.

Outside again, where the sun poured down heat like a flamethrower, I put the water in the trunk and got back into my rolling sauna. When I got home, I noticed a black cat, lying under the stairs outside. Most of the hair on his head had been torn out, and deep claw marks were visible on his nearly bare scalp. But there was something more: the cat had lost its will to live and had resigned himself to death: I could see it in his expression. When I approached him, he didn’t even look at me, being no longer capable of considering self-defense or escape. He appeared to be breathing his last.

I felt so bad, I walked to the corner and bought him a can of “Fancy Feast” (gourmet chicken variety) and some tiny paper plates. I emptied the cat food onto the plate. The cat tried to stand but faltered and fell on his side, exposing a long, deep wound and visibly broken ribs. I brought the food to him, laid it close to his head, and after a moment’s hesitation, he began, slowly, to eat. I thought it might well be his last meal.

The next morning, he was in the same spot. It had rained and he was wet, still awaiting death. He lowered his head in dejection as though he didn’t want to be seen in that condition. I bought a few more cans of cat food, thinking, if he dies, at least he won’t die hungry. He ate just a tiny bit more enthusiastically than he had the day before.

Things went on like that for about five days as, gradually, he started to look a little more alert. Everything that anyone cares about should have a name, so I made this wounded cat the king of my apartment complex, Lincoln Palms: I called him Lincoln. At the end of a week, he could stand and walk. I petted him, usually just scratching under his jaw. I’d have scratched behind his ears, but he had deep claw marks there. He started making a noise whenever I went into or out of my apartment. It was like a meow, but Lincoln threw in a trill. I had never heard a cat make that sound. I started feeding him twice a day, and he ate eagerly.

I would have taken him in, but I have a very severe allergy to cats. I once adopted one when I lived in New York City. It was black, like Lincoln, but it was a female, which I named Tabitha, the witch’s daughter on “Bewitched”.

Within days of bringing Tabitha into my apartment, my nose and eyes were watering all the time. Worst of all, my throat became constricted, and after a week, I could hardly breathe. A doctor told me I could either take steroid injections for $275 a week or get rid of the cat.

When I brought her to the ASPCA, I couldn’t help thinking about the name of my old band, “Inhumane Society”. I actually wept as I surrendered her to the attractive young girl at the counter. I insisted on donating a hundred dollars to the shelter, hoping to buy Tabitha favorable treatment. I also insisted on giving the ASPCA girl my designer sweatshirt, which had been incredibly costly. “She likes to sleep on this,” I blubbered desperately through my constricted throat, tears streaming down my face. A pathetic clown, I left the humane society embarrassed and in tears.

I promised myself I’d never go through that again so, in assisting Lincoln, I had limited objectives. He wasn’t allowed in the apartment. I was able to clean his eyes and ears, which were infected, with saline solution. He seemed to enjoy that, especially the ear cleanings. He flinched and scowled when I blotted hydrogen peroxide onto the gash across his ribs, but he didn’t run away or scratch me.  After four weeks, Lincoln was looking pretty good, and became fairly spry. He walked confidently, and stood up on his hind legs whenever I was lowering a plate of food for him, swiping at it with one paw. He wanted it now. Anyway, by then, the hair on Lincoln’s head had re-grown halfway and, amazingly, my hydrogen peroxide and saline washes seemed to have helped rid him of disease. Then, one day, he brought me a bluebird as a gift. If he was hunting, I thought, he must be almost back to normal. It seemed Lincoln had at least one more life left in him.

After a while, I relaxed the rules.  I started letting him into the apartment for short periods of time.  He was surprisingly docile for a cat, and as long as I washed my hands after petting him, my allergies didn’t flare up.  After eating inside, having his ears and eyes cleaned and being fawned over for about twenty minutes, he’d look at the door and start mewling.  It seemed he preferred the outdoors except for brief visits to my place.

Since Lincoln lived in the parking lot, I began to feel somewhat like I imagine a parent must feel when their child is away at college.  I worried about him and made it a priority to check on him once in the morning and once at night.  I taught him to come out from underneath whichever car he’d chosen to hide under by jingling my keys.  Things became fairly routine.

Every morning and night, I’d walk out into the parking lot, jingle my keys, and he’d appear.  As he was black and silent, I often couldn’t see him coming at night, and sometimes, he’d surprise me by rubbing up against my leg before I’d spotted him.  He ate at least once a day, but sometimes he was extra hungry, and he’d get my attention by jumping up onto my window and hanging onto the screen with his claws.  I guess he figured out which window to cling to, as usually, I was working on my computer, so he’d cling to the window right next to my table.  The first time he did that, I must admit that it terrified me, but after a while I got used to it.

After about a month of consistent feedings and medical attention, Lincoln started to look pretty good.  Then, after he’d filled out a bit, he disappeared.

I walked around in the parking lot jingling my keys, but he never came, and after the second day, I started to worry, thinking he might have been taken away by Animal Control or run over by a car.  On the third day, I spotted him, hiding behind one of the air conditioning units.  “Lincoln!” I said, “Where have you been?  I couldn’t find you for two days!  Don’t you know you’re my only friend?”

When he came walking out from behind the air conditioner very cautiously, I was horrified to see that one of his beautiful yellow eyes was puffed over with red, swollen flesh. Thick, white fluid was dripping out of it.  I picked him up and brought him inside to take a closer look.  He kept turning his head as though he didn’t want me to see the bad eye, but I held him in place for a second. It looked awful.  In fact, it looked to me as though he’d lost the eye entirely.  I was shattered.  I took out a leather jacket with silk lining and made a little bed for him.  That night, he stayed in my apartment.

I took a bunch of Actifed to combat the allergies.  He didn’t want to eat.  He just slept on the silk lining of my jacket. “What happened?” I asked him desperately, “Did you go out fighting?”  He regarded me momentarily with his good eye, and went back to sleep.

That night, an acquaintance stopped by.  Yes, at the time, Lincoln the only living thing I thought of as a true friend, but there were one or two people who came by once in a while, usually to ask for favors.  Lincoln was much easier to please.  Cans of the finest cat food were only 79 cents each.  People, on the other hand, would ask for ten or more dollars at a time.  I’d always think about how many cans of Fancy Feast I could’ve purchased with that much money. (Over time, I found that Lincoln preferred the beef feast with gravy.)  I came to resent the people I helped out now and again as being comparatively “high maintenance.” Well, I thought, at least I don’t have to clean their ears.

The guy who stopped by that evening looked at Lincoln and said, “Ezra, he’s diseased,” suggesting I shouldn’t have the cat in my apartment.

“Shut up!” I said. “You’re diseased.”  I had to do something about Lincoln’s eye.  The next day, I brought him to a veterinarian.

After he’s been at the animal hospital for a few days, I got the call and went to pick him up.  He screamed at me for having left him in that little cage, but when I picked him up and looked at him, I was happy.  “Look at you!” I said, “Two beautiful eyes!”  I put him over my shoulder, paid the vet, took Lincoln out to the car, and returned him, now in perfect health, to his kingdom in the parking lot.

For about five days after that, he remained angry at having been left at the veterinarian’s office.  He leapt onto the screen, demanding three cans of food a day, and continued screaming at me whenever I fed him.  After he ate, I’d try to give him the affection he’d loved so much before the vet had gotten a hold of him, but he’d raise a paw, implicitly threatening to splay my hand open, then walk away in a huff.  After a while though, he got back to normal, and enjoyed sitting in my lap after feeding.  Once again, he purred as I scratched his head, by then completely re-carpeted in shiny, thick black hair.

One day, when I was playing with Lincoln in the parking lot, one of my neighbors, a construction worker named Ruben, said, “He’s looking good.  He’s fat.  He hasn’t looked that good in years.”

I was amazed.  “Years?”  I asked, “You know this cat?”

The neighbor said, “Oh yeah, everybody knows ‘Sy.’ Wendy over in building 18 always has a bowl of dry food out for him, but he hasn’t been interested ever since you started giving him that canned food.”

Realizing that everyone knew about my relationship with the cat, I asked, “You call him ‘Sy’?  How many years has he been here?”

Ruben said, “Oh, he was here when I moved in.  That was seven years ago.  We were all about ready to have him put to sleep when you found him.”

“Seven years?!  How do you know when I found him?”

“Eh,” Ruben chuckled, “We watched you out the windows.  Wendy said we should give you a chance to try and fix him up.  We saw you cleanin’ him off and all.  You did a hell of a job.  He never would’ve let anyone else handle him that way.  Of course, by then, I suppose he was so beat down, he couldn’t put up much of a fight.”

“Yeah”, I said,  “his ribs were all opened up and broken.”

Ruben said, “Yep.  We think a car must have hit him.  But hell if you didn’t fix him up.  Did you take him to a vet?  Man, when I saw his eye a couple weeks ago, I thought, ‘Well, that’s about it for you, Sy, one eye and all’… but, they look real good now.  I always get a laugh when I’d see him hung onto your screen.  He’ll stay up there for a half an hour if you’re not home.”

For months after that, Lincoln was the star of the apartment complex.  At night, when everyone got home from work, we’d all hang out in the parking lot with him for a while. He’d go from one of us to the other, soaking up all the attention as we all talked about him.  “Sy,” or Lincoln, as I called him, brought me together with a bunch of people, and they were all cool, as anyone who loved Lincoln would have had to be.  One night, Ruben and Wendy invited me over to Wendy’s place for dinner.  We had a good time as Lincoln ate his Fancy Feast in the corner and then sat in each of our laps, one after the other.  He was a happy cat, and I was finally making decent, human friends thanks to him.  I don’t know why, but I never did get an allergic reaction to that cat.  Maybe it was psychological.

One evening, I came home during a violent lightning storm. Tampa was famous for them.  People told me there was more lightning in that city than anywhere else in America.  Sometimes, as I walked around the lake at night, I’d watch the lightning in the distance.  The sky was often clear overhead, but I could watch the storms to the south as hundreds of lightning strikes touched down and I learned the literal meaning of the term, “rolling thunder,” as it was truly continuous.  The very scope of the universe would strike me during these lightning storms.  I felt like a part of something enormous and beautiful.  I don’t know why, but I’ve always felt oddly comforted by lightning storms.

The rain was coming down in sheets that night, so I ran from my car, across the parking lot and into the sheltered hallway where my little apartment was.  Lincoln came running after me, calling out his distinct, quavering meow. He was soaking wet, so I let him into the kitchen and set out a plate for him.  He didn’t eat anything though. It was the first time I’d ever seen him pass on food. I dried him off with a towel.  After that, he just kept on with his unique mewling, and rubbed his head against my ankles.  He looked up at me as though wanting something, so I sat down on the kitchen floor to pet him.  He climbed into my lap, curled up, and presented the top of his head to be scratched.

As I attended him, he slowly lowered his head and went to sleep.  Sometimes, a particularly loud lightning strike would stir him slightly, but I’d tell him there was nothing to worry about, and he’d fall back to sleep.  He purred softly for a while, and then became silent.  I moved only if I had to get up for a cigarette.  I took him into my arms gently and placed him on the towel I’d used to dry him off.  He uttered a short meow, almost like the feline equivalent of a bark. Then, he laid his head down.  It was the first time I’d ever seen him so completely relaxed.

I sat on the couch, smoking, occasionally looking over at Lincoln on his towel.  I wondered how long it had been since he’d been hidden away from a storm, sleeping inside on a clean towel.  At around 8:00, I felt like going out to eat. As I walked around him, getting ready to go, I meowed, whistled and said, “C’mon Link.  It’s stopped raining.”  He didn’t move, but I knew the sound of a can of cat food opening would get his attention.  When it didn’t, I grew concerned.  I touched his forehead gently, then ruffled his fur a little bit.  He was dead.

“If there’s one thing life’s taught me, it’s that great things never last.  Great friends often fall apart.  Great cars rust and rot.  Great people never stay as long as you wish they would have, but while they’re around, you treasure them. Cats don’t do too many things wrong.  They usually just want a little food, and maybe once in a while, shelter from the storm.”

That’s what I said at Lincoln’s funeral while Wendy cried. We held the ceremony on Sunday morning in a nice secluded area near Sweetwater Creek, the stream that babbled past Lincoln Palms.  It was attended by 18 of Lincoln’s close friends. I shoveled out a grave, a deep one, as we didn’t want other animals digging up our … well, our child, our benefactor, our leader and friend.  Ruben had made Lincoln a very nice little coffin out of pine on very short notice He had given it a deep, tan stain and carved both of the cat’s aliases on the lid, along with a cross.  I put a can of Fancy Feast on top of it before we buried it, and said, “May you never go hungry.”  Wendy added a flower and said, “I loved him so much.”  She fell to her knees, weeping.  Ruben picked her up and held her as I respectfully placed the first shovel full of dirt over the box.

As I’d said in Lincoln’s eulogy, some friends don’t last. But the bond Wendy, Ruben and I had formed over Lincoln was one that did, and we remained the best of friends. We continued meeting in the parking lot after work.  Still, there was a somber atmosphere.   Wendy’s bowl of dry food remained outside her door.  She wanted a new cat to come around.  When that didn’t happen, Ruben surprised us all.

One day, after an appropriate period of mourning, Ruben told us all to wait in the parking lot after work.  He went into his apartment and came out with a beautiful little black kitten he’d rescued from the local animal shelter.  This cat was official, and wore a collar with a brass nameplate listing all the pertinent phone numbers.  It said, “Corporal Reilly.”  Ruben said, “I named him after my old army buddy, but of course we can all call him by different names.”  I jingled my keys and Corporal Reilly looked at me, smiling.

24 Feb 2006 17:04:10:  Dedicated to Lincoln the cat, and my mom, who called him, “An Abyssinian Warrior”.