This is a story about Gus the cat. He was one of the most wonderful cats that ever lived. He died a few months ago, in July. This is the story of who he was, and how he lived.
My wife and I met Gus at an animal shelter in January 1995. He greeted us at the door with a loud meow and tried to get past us to go outside. He was one of the largest cats either of us had ever seen. He was an orange tabby, short hair, and looked quite a bit like Morris the cat from the TV commercials.
My wife and I had decided to adopt a cat. I already had one cat, a small gray tabby named Jezebel who had been mine since she was a kitten. My previous roommate and I both had had cats: my Jezebel and his Sybil. (Our hope was that if we named our cats after erratic women perhaps we could avoid dating them. Unfortunately, Sybil truly was erratic; she clawed the furniture to shreds and pooped in the bathtub.)
In late 1994, Sybil and Jezebel parted company when my wife and I purchased a condo on the far north side of Chicago. Jez was very lonely. When we arrived home after a day’s work, she acted as if she had been abandoned for weeks. We felt guilty. Jez needed a friend.
The animal shelter was an old Victorian house on Irving Park Road in Chicago. It was full of hundreds of cats of every shape, color, breed, and personality. Cats were everywhere. (There was also one unlucky dog who lived in the enormous house of cats.) My wife and I entered the animal shelter. Gus followed us.
We explored the nooks and crannies of this cat shelter. There were cats everywhere, playing, napping, eating, fighting, occasionally trying to get our attention. When we went downstairs, a cat tried to attack our hair from his hideout near the ceiling. Everywhere we went, Gus followed. When my wife sat in a chair, Gus leapt into her lap, and started purring loudly.
We decided to adopt Gus.
People may “adopt” cats, but cats choose people. Since I was Jezebel’s person, we wanted Gus to pick Karie as his favorite human friend. So after we got him home, I attempted to ignore him for a few weeks, while Karie lavished him with love. Jezebel hid under the bed for several days at first, emerging to eat and hiss at this intruder into her house.
It didn’t take long for Gus to work his way into our hearts. For a start, he wasn’t like other cats. Make a quick list of the traits that cat-haters cite when asked why they don’t like cats: haughty, arrogant, non-loving, diffident, mean…Gus was none of these. Indeed, Gus seemed to have the personality of a dog – he loved all people, strangers and friends. Countless times we heard, “I’ve never much liked cats, but I love Gus.”
Gus was gentle. He’d play with you, and sometimes chew your finger, but it was never a hard bite. He would let you do anything with him; you could pick him up and carry him around upside down and he would just purr. He lived for attention. He was like Will Rogers – he never met a person he didn’t like.
Everyone loved Gus, but Gus loved no one as much as Karie. When Karie arrived home every day, Gus greeted her at the door with a loud yowl. “Where have you been? Why did you leave me?” If Karie was watching TV, Gus was on her lap. When Karie went to bed, Gus slept on her pillow – indeed, he took most of it, being the large-size fellow that he was.
He was the smartest cat I’ve ever known. He knew how to open the doors to cabinets and crawl inside. When my parents visited us in Colorado after we bought a house, they investigated a curious sound coming from under the sink in the guest bathroom. It was Gus, curled up and purring. He gave them a plaintive “meow” that said, “What took you so long? I’ve been starved for attention!”
Karie and I often wondered where Gus had come from. We found him at a shelter, but clearly he was a cat who had grown up in somebody’s home, giving and receiving love. He was no stray alley cat who tolerated people; he loved people.
Gus lived for two things: attention and going outside. When we lived in Chicago, he would occasionally escape into the hallway of our building or onto the back porch. He knew we would chase him when he made these escapes, so after running to the end of the porch, by our neighbors’ apartment, he would lie down and wait for us to come and get him. While he waited, he would snack on their houseplants.
When we moved to Colorado and bought a house, we started to let the cats into the back yard. Jezebel was timid and would stay close to the house, ready to run inside at the first sign of anything scary. Gus, however, was clearly in his element. He would eat grass and weeds, hide under shrubs, and lie in the sun. He soon learned to jump the fence. When he jumped the back fence, he could visit the neighbors’ dogs, who barked and growled and yipped and yowled, which didn’t faze Gus in the least. If he jumped the front fence, he could visit our front yard, where there might be kids. He loved kids. After a while, he didn’t bother jumping the back fence anymore.
All the kids in the neighborhood knew Gus. He was he most docile, affectionate cat anyone had ever seen. Kids who had cats at home would come across the street to play with Gus in our front yard. If there were no kids nearby, he would wander down the street looking for them. It got to be a regular event: we’d let Gus run out the back door, and about 45 minutes later, a small kid would ring our front doorbell, struggling to hold enormous Gus, who was completely relaxed and purring loudly. Karie kept a jar of Tootsie Rolls by the front door to give to kids who brought Gus home.
One time, three neighborhood kids, two boys and a girl, decided to take Gus for “a walk.” Gus may have been dog-like in many ways, but walking on a leash was not one of these. The kids hooked up a leash, and then proceeded to drag him around the yard. When they stopped, he purred. Then the kids decided that it would be interesting to watch him climb the enormous cottonwood tree in our front yard. Since Gus was more interested in being petted than climbing trees, the kids thought maybe they should give him a head start. They began pulling him up the tree by the leash. At this point, any other cat would have freaked, but not Gus. He simply hung there by the collar, several feet off the ground, as kids exhorted him to “Climb, Gus!” I think he would have hung there until he was hanged if my wife and I hadn’t rescued him. We removed the leash, and Gus looked up at Karie with much love and purred.
Gus was full-grown when we found him at the shelter. As he grew older, he slowly lost his hearing. He stopped greeting my wife at the door when she got home from work because he couldn’t hear her arrive. Karie would go looking for him, and there he would be, asleep on a shelf in the linen closet. Sometimes he would be startled when she reached down to pet him, since he hadn’t heard her approach. But he always gave her a big “meow” and then started to purr.
Gus was the loudest purring cat I’ve ever heard. You could hear him purring on Karie’s lap from across the room. He purred on Karie’s pillow every night, until finally everyone fell asleep. When you retrieved him from a neighbor’s yard, and carried him, belly up, he purred the whole way home.
Karie usually goes to bed before I do, and Gus would always stay up with me. Jez would follow Karie to the bedroom and curl up with her, but Gus wanted to be where the action was. Before I turned out the lights, I would pick up Gus and carry him upstairs (invariably he would be asleep at this point, having grown bored of whatever I was doing). He lay still in my arms until I reached the bedroom, whereupon he would spring from my arms to the bed, and settle down on Karie’s pillow. Sometimes he actually settled down on Karie’s head if she hadn’t left him enough room on the pillow.
Karie is a musician. She teaches piano to a few of the neighbors’ kids. During many of these lessons, there were three on the piano bench – Karie, cat, and kid. She also plays French horn in a quintet, which occasionally practices at our house. Gus would sit in the middle of the circle, listening to two trumpets, trombone, French horn, and tuba. He would also manage to get orange hair all over the instrument cases.
My wife and I are both cat lovers. We both grew up with cats around the house. The one piece of love advice that Karie’s mother had given her as a girl was, “Look for a man who loves cats.” I scored big points when we started dating and I introduced her to Jezebel (it was lucky that Jez immediately approved of Karie as well).
Between us, we’ve lived with nearly a dozen cats. But there was only one Gus. We miss him terribly. And while we will continue to love cats, Gus will always occupy a special place in both of our hearts.
Jezebel, Karie, Gus