The family cat was gray with white paws and belly. We named it Murphy. He wore an arrogant cat-smirk of contentment and he would purr when I rubbed behind his ears. I went with my father to a farmhouse in the country that had listed an advertisement for kittens in the newspaper. My father chose the one that seemed to show an interest in us. We drove home in the darkness. The kitty cried inside the cardboard box on my lap.
The cat quickly grew into an expert hunter. My parents never declawed it and it ran wild outside killing birds, mice, rabbits, dragonflies and even the occasional garter snake. At the front of our first trailer a pair of berry bushes grew. The cat would sit in the shade of the bushes atop the trailer hitch. At least once a day he ambushed a robin or mourning dove and then carried the bird to his dark lair underneath the trailer. For a period of two weeks, he began leaving dead baby rabbits on the sidewalk below our front door like an offering. Then one morning in the predawn hours there was a murderous screaming in the front yard. The whole family was disturbed from sleep. We ran to the window and witnessed a dervish of fur and claws as our cat engaged in battle with an angry mother rabbit. There were no more dead bunnies on the sidewalk after that.
Murphy regularly fought certain neighborhood cats whose territory overlapped his own. Sometimes he would return home with his face badly wounded and he began to accumulate scars. We tried to keep him inside at night, but this made him so stir-crazy that he would keep us up tearing around the house. Sometimes my father shot the rival cats that entered our yard with my BB gun. There was an orange tabby that seemed to have our cat’s number. It beat Murphy up horribly and started spending a lot of time in the yard. My father found an animal trap somewhere and captured the feline. He took it into the shed and murdered it with a hatchet. My brother and I were not supposed to know about it. He came back into the house shaken with scratches all over his forearms. The next day I stood in the shed contemplating what had been done there. I noticed some clumps of fur that got missed in the clean-up like evidence from a crime scene. They unsettled me.
We had a bell we rang when it was time for the cat to eat. If the bell proved ineffective we would run the can opener. The cat always booked back to the house when it heard the can opener which signaled the meaty food that it liked so much. One day the cat did not come back. As the days passed with no sign of him we became increasingly concerned. We walked around the neighborhood calling for him and ringing the bell. After a week, it seemed like he was never coming back. My father became very upset. He started crying about the cat. He acted like it was the end of the world. He took me in the car to a beach. He picked up a twelve pack of beer on the way. It was very hot. We sat together at a picnic table while he drank. He continued to mourn the cat and the general shittiness of his life. As the alcohol flowed through him he started getting red-faced and angry. He tossed what was left of the beer in the trunk. We almost got in an accident pulling out of the parking lot. The tires squealed as the oncoming driver honked at us. I just disappeared inside myself.
Then out of nowhere, the cat returned to us a month later. I watched him scamper into the yard, joyous to see us. We hugged and petted him. It seemed like a miracle. We figured he had been on quite an adventure. The older I got the more critically I looked at my father. In many ways, he was not so different from the other working-class fathers of the trailer court who came home every day pissed-off because they worked too hard for too little. I grew to realize that his rage was as much a symptom as a behavior, and that this life was just too much for him. I had become familiar with his insecurities and paranoia, but his erratic actions still frightened me. It was just a fucking cat! I was only a boy and I could see that.