Lewis Turco

 

  Lewis Turco (right) receiving from Dana Gioia the Fitzgerald Prosody Award at the West Chester (Pennsylvania) University Poetry Conference, “Exploring Form and Narrative,”  Friday, June 6, 2008.  
 
Lewis Turco is the author of The Book of Forms: A Handbook of Poetics.  His book The Museum of Ordinary People and Other Stories was published last year by www.StarCloudPress.com and reviewed on-line in www.PerContra.net. He is also author of The Book of Dialogue: How to Write Effective Conversation
in Fiction,
etc., www.UPNE.com, 2004, a new edition and expansion of Dialogue, Writer's Digest Books, 1989. His stories can currently be found on-line at www.PerContra.net and  www.nightsandweekends.com. His latest book, Satan’s Scourge: A Narrative of the Age of Witchcraft in England and New England 1580-1697, has just been published from Star Cloud.



POOKAH, THE GREATEST CAT
IN THE HISTORY OF THE WORLD

 

My wife Jean, my daughter Melora, four years of age, and I were living in Michigan when we found in the classified ads an offer for free kittens at a farm outside of Hillsdale. When we got there the farmer indicated a bunch of little cats scuttling around near the barn. He said, “Take any one you want.”

We looked them over and my eye latched onto a smudge of furry smoke in the dooryard. I reached for it, and it disappeared into a hedge. I walked around to the other side, reached for it again, and the same thing happened. After a while I become frustrated and I called Jean over to help. “I’ll stay here,” I said. “You go around and chase it through the hedge,” which she did, right into my hands.

Since we had been children both Jean and I had always been cat people. My first cat, Bozo, had gotten stepped on by a horse when I was in the third grade, living in a farmhouse on Curtis Street in Meriden, Connecticut, a fact my parents had kept successfully hidden from me until I got so insistent that they finally told me Bozo had gone to a far, far better place. I didn’t see how that was possible, but he was gone.

Before we were married, while I was in the Navy and Jean was attending the University of Connecticut, a gray tiger had strayed into the Kappa Kappa Gamma sorority house (actually, they called themselves a “fraternity”), and Jean had brought it along with her to my car when I came up one weekend on liberty to take her back to Meriden. Her family accepted my name for him, Regit, which is tiger spelled backwards, and soon Reggie was proving to be one of the biggest feline characters any of us had ever seen. He was smart, too, being the only cat in her family ever to have received a college education.

Now, here we were in 1960 living in the Midwest with a black kitten that didn’t yet have a name, a situation that continued for some time — so long, in fact, that his name eventually chose itself: “Pookah,” which is short for “pussy cat,” though it means other things as well, for a “pooka” is an Irish hobgoblin, and “pukka” is a British adjective meaning “genuine” or “excellent.” Also, of course, Jimmy Stewart’s invisible friend, a big white rabbit named “Harvey,” was a pookah. All of these things were, one way and another, appropriate to our new pet.

Pookah and I began a period of rigorous training almost at once. Aside from the standard things having to do with string, balls, and wads of paper, I would get down on the floor with him and turn my hand into a menacing jaw. I would open and close it slowly right in his face and then suddenly dive in and grab his head, almost immediately let go and menace him again. He would lay his ears back, bare his teeth, tense, and often take the initiative by jumping forward to try to grab the hand, but I was usually quicker, especially at first, and the hand would be gone by the time Pookah arrived at his target. As time went by, though, my opponent got faster and smarter, and he would manage to grab and bite me — not terribly hard, of course, because he knew we were playing, but still the hand pissed him off.

As soon as we began to fight Pookah would begin to purr, of all things.  It made me grin. Eventually I had to wear a leather glove. My hand would be in his grip as he lay on his back, my fingers working his belly, Pookah raking the palm of the glove with his hind claws. He knew the difference between skin and leather, though, and eventually he caught on to the glove and would aim for the bare skin just above it. Our combat was getting serious; at this point I had to concentrate or be sorely scratched, and I developed a lower armful of thin white scars to show that I was not always fast enough. We entered the lists less and less as time went by. I still have an armful of those slender white scarifications; they are my most tangible reminder of the greatest cat in the history of the world.

Melora was five and Pookah was one when we left Michigan for Oswego, New York, on the shores of Lake Ontario where I had taken a teaching job at the S.U.N.Y. branch there. Pookah didn’t think much of the move, but he didn’t know what to do about it. He did what he had to do: he adapted and came to recognize the big rear ground-floor apartment where we lived on West Sixth Street as home. One of the features of Oswego, of course, aside from the lake, was the lake effect snows that began around the middle of November every year. It happened that the first school year we spent there, 1965-66, would be a record breaker.

I was up at the school in my office at Sheldon Hall when, on the last Friday in January of 1966, the snows began. I didn’t think much of it until I went out to my car and had to work it out of an already substantial drift. I got home all right, parked the car in the garage at the foot of the driveway on the north side of the house, and went in to hunker down. The “back” door opened from the kitchen onto the driveway, but the “front” door opened south onto the stone porch of our rear apartment.

The storm continued all day Saturday and Sunday, and it finally quit on Monday morning, leaving an incredible 102 inches of snow in drifts all over town. The sun came out, and Pookah said he wanted to go outdoors. I said to him, “You’re sure you want to do this?” I offered to let him out the back door into the driveway which had been swept clear by the wind: I could have backed the car out of the garage all the way to the street, but there the snow took over.

No, Pookah said, he wanted to go out the front door. I shrugged and said, “Okay, you asked for it.” I opened the door. He started forward and stopped in amazement. I do mean amazement — you could see it written all over his face and in his startled eyes, for in front of him there was a solid wall of smooth white snow four feet high. He looked up at me and asked me what the hell was going on. “I told you,” I said, “but you wouldn’t believe me.”

One of my writing students from those early years in Oswego was Steven E. Swerdfeger who wrote in a book he edited long after, “I also remember visiting Lew & Jean’s home. As we waited for dinner, Lew’s marvelous and gorgeous black cat Pookah entered the room, deigned to look at us lesser mortals, and then proceeded to jump up on Lew’s lap and make itself at home. In its manner and behavior there was no doubt that this was singularly Lew’s cat, a poet’s cat, and no mortal being should endeavor to come between them.”

It’s absolutely true. By that year, 1970, Pookah had developed an unlikely gravitas for a cat. If he wasn’t pompous, he was certainly stately, and he walked with hauteur practically dripping off him, a king among pussycats. We understood each other down to the bone.

He was an extremely literary cat as well. Often when he saw that I was at work writing something at my desk, he would come over to give me a hand, or at least a word of advice or two. I remember clearly sitting at my desk in the room I used as a study on Sixth Street and having him hop up on it, walk over to the pad on which I was writing, and sit down in the middle of a poem to stare at me face-to-face. Who could win that battle of eyes?

If Pookah was, in his opinion, my cat primarily and no one else’s, he did not complain if there were something wrong with him, not even to me. One spring while we lived on West Sixth Street, he disappeared. It was a Sunday that we missed him and began looking. My good friend and colleague Jack Reuter happened to come over, and it was Jack who discovered Pookah dying in the shrubbery next to the house. We brought him in, discovered that he had a crusty wound on his belly, probably from a fight with another cat. We called the vet, Dr. Dimon. He agreed to open his surgery for us, and we went on up to his office on West Bridge Street, by the college.

He used no anesthetic, so Jack and I held Pookah down on the table while Dr. Dimon reopened the wound. A huge amount of pus spilled out onto the table, but Pookah never moved under our hands. He knew we were helping him. When he had squeezed all the matter out of Pookah’s belly, the vet poured powdered sulfa into the wound, sewed it up, and gave him a shot. We took him home where, within a few days, Pookah was his dear old pompous self again. I thanked Jack profusely, and I am grateful to him and Dr. Dimon still for saving the creature that would soon prove himself to be, without a doubt, the greatest cat in the history of the world.

In warm weather, if we were still in Oswego and not on the family farm up in Dresden, Maine, Jean, Melora and I would take evening walks along the tree-lined streets of the west side. Once, we noticed that we were being followed. I caught a glimpse out of my left eye of a shadow slipping from bush to hedge to bush as we made our way around the block. From then on Pookah accompanied us on our excursions through the dusk. He knew the neighborhood, of course, and he knew there were dogs and other cats in the area, so he couldn’t walk boldly beside us, but he was always there, peering out from beneath a frond or a child’s wagon, the only cat I ever knew who would take a long walk with his people, like a dog.

Usually, however, we were in Dresden for the summer, a five-hundred mile drive from Oswego, in those days a good ten- to twelve-hour excursion, though nowadays with all the mega-highways I can make it in eight hours. We had to stop for an overnight once we got through Albany and crossed the Massachusetts border. Usually we would stay at a motel just off the turnpike in Stockbridge. Once while we were in our room Pookah went to the door and asked to go out. He was quite insistent. Jean and I consulted, and neither of us thought he would run off, so I let him out. Ten or fifteen minutes later I opened the door, ready to step out and call him, but there was no need: he was sitting on the doorstep waiting. From then on we would let him out whenever we stopped on the road, and he’d return to our room, no matter which one it was. I’ve never heard of another cat that would do that.

Perhaps I shouldn’t have been so sure, though. In 1971 the Oswego hospital, which was just up the street from our apartment house — really an old converted manse — bought the property for doctors’ offices, and we had to move out. We searched awhile and finally settled on a two-story house on West Eighth Street, a couple of blocks farther west and four or five blocks closer to Lake Ontario.

Several times after we moved from West Sixth Street to the new house Pookah disappeared. He was an extremely finicky eater, and if we fed him something he considered inedible he would turn up his nose and walk away. One time he walked away and didn’t come back. Jean and I searched everywhere for him, and then we sat down to consult. “I wonder if he could be back over at Sixth Street,” I said. I got up and went out to the car to find out. Sure enough, there he was at our old place, waiting for his family to come home and feed him properly.

When I got him back to Eighth again, Jean said, “He liked the food over there better.” I could see the logic in it. The next time the same thing happened we didn’t look for him, I just drove over to Sixth and picked him up. Eventually he got the idea that his ploy wasn’t going to work and he accepted West Eighth as home. Of course, he couldn’t walk back to Oswego from Dresden Mills, so he adapted to the farm readily. It was there that Pookah developed into a mighty hunter.

In Maine he had many acres in which to range around — a big back yard that slid down steep banks to the tidal Eastern River; a barn; a patch of bamboo that hid our view of a meandering stream, the Bog Brook across the street but still on our property; cleared fields where there were many birds and small creatures; woods and copses, lush raspberry and blackberry patches that hid who knew what?

One morning Jean, Melora and I awoke and went into the kitchen. We wondered where Pookah could be, for he wasn’t there for his wonted breakfast. There was a swinging cat door at the farm, so he could come and go at will.  I opened the kitchen door into the dooryard in front of the barn to call him, took an amazed gander at what lay out there, and summoned my family over to take a look. Pookah sat proudly behind a precisely lined-up display of game, and I mean precisely — it appeared as though he had used some sort of measuring device to display his haul. There were, from left to right, a star-nose mole, a shrew, a small garter snake, and a frog, all in perfect condition, unbloodied.

Pookah had missed his own breakfast because he clearly felt it was time he contributed something to the upkeep of his family after so many years of their feeding him. We told him how much we appreciated it, congratulated him profusely on the results of his safari, and said he was the mightiest cat hunter on the planet. He, in turn, was extremely pleased, purring up a storm as we stroked him.

On another occasion during another summer I was sitting on the big screen porch behind the house watching Pookah who was outdoors, in front of the screen door, playing with a live mouse he had caught. He would bat it back and forth when it tried to escape, pick it up in his jaws, let it drop, and then hold it in place with one paw. He was standing on the grass with the mouse in front of him when, I guess, he lost focus and the mouse, which was facing him, took off between his hind legs.

As quick as Pookah was, he saw what was happening, figured it all out, and simply sat down, on top of the mouse as it ran. To say I was amused would be to understate magnificently. As I sat watching I could almost hear the wheels turning in my cat’s brain. “Now what do I do?” he asked himself. “Ah, I’ve got it.” From his squatting position he jumped straight up, turned 180 degrees in mid-air, and came down on the mouse before it had a clue what was happening. Pookah looked at me with the mouse once more in his mouth, and I applauded him at great length. What a maneuver!

These were the mid-seventies and Pookah was about eleven years old when he developed what used to be called “cat leukemia.” Not too long afterward a shot was developed that prevented the disease, but it was too late for the greatest cat in the history of the world. It was a wasting disease. He grew very weak and eventually couldn’t make it up into my lap by himself. I would have to pick him up and try to make him comfortable, but the day came when he staggered as I put him back on the floor.

Neither Jean nor I can bear to see an animal suffer, so we took him up to Dr. Dimon who did what had to be done on one of the saddest days of our lives.

 

R.I.P. POOKAH

The words upon his banner, if unfurled,

Would read, “The greatest cat in all the world

Lies here below puffing on his hookah.

Make your obeisance to majestic Pookah!”

Copyright  © 2010 Lewis Turco