Tom & Me

A lonely boy and a neighborhood cat become friends to the end

By William Campbell

Growing up, I’d become accustomed to moving and on very short notice. Whether it was after mom found a cheaper place to live or after eviction-minded sheriff’s deputies would begin showing up and tapping on window panes with bullets trying to get us to open up as we kept still and out of sight, I learned to be quick about cutting chords and going from one neighborhood to the next.

Never moreso then in our 1977 move from our two-story apartment at 1933 Holly Drive north of Franklin to one half of the duplex located at 514 S. Wilton Place a few blocks from Paramount Studios. Not only was mom trying to avoid the process servers, but she lucked into finding a place owned by a seemingly congenial guy named David Bruns, who gave mom a break on the rent (I’m sure in hopes of ultimately having a relationship beyond that of landlord-tenant). Trouble was the guy later showed himself to be an absolute mental case.

Sure, I hated leaving my friends Casey and Brady Riggs and “little” Luis DeJesus and elderly next-door neighbor Jack Demers who used to let me borrow his WD-40 whenever I needed to loosen up a rusted nut on my bike or skateboard. And I would miss the vacant lot on the corner where we played baseball and had dirtclod fights and bike races with the other neighborhood kids. And I hated saying goodbye to the bedroom where I’d French-kissed Ruth Goldstone so many times to the sounds of Elton John’s “Don’t Shoot Me I’m Only The Piano Player,” and Queen’s “A Night At The Opera,” wafting up from my mom’s old Admiral hi-fi downstairs.

But there was good news, too. I wouldn’t have to change schools. I was still within the boundaries to continue my days at Le Conte Junior High on Bronson between Santa Monica and Sunset boulevards.

Mom and I and our cat Puddy made the move uneventfully and got settled in to find the new place definitely had its benefits. Inside, there was a fireplace in the living room and a china cabinet in the dining room that rotated 180 degrees to reveal a queen-sized brass Murphy bed that pulled down with much screeching of springs. Outside there was a grassy backyard and a large avocado tree next door accessible for climbing. My bedroom even had an outside door of its own.

The place also came with a skinny neighborhood cat who beautiful green eyes started coming around shortly after we arrived. Given his dirty and matted gray and black fur and his scabbed and scarred ears, it was clear he belonged to no one specifically. The very definition of a tomcat, Tom’s what I called him.

But for as rugged and mean as he looked, his demeanor was entirely the opposite. And given that there weren’t a lot of other kids around for me to play with, Tom’s visits helped occupy my loneliness. Home from school or on a weekend afternoon, I came to look forward to when, during his rounds, he would meander through the chainlink fence and hang out with me.

It didn’t hurt that I always had some cat chow and water ready for him when he arrived.

Eventually any wariness with me waned and he permitted me to pet him without reservation. He even allowed me clean him up by taking scissors to the large knots of fur that he carried around all over his body. And he didn’t object when I put ointment on his ears to help them heal up. With my steady food supply, first-aid and friendship he became healthier and happier and practically presentable.

But he never would come into the house. Perhaps he smelled Puddy, who had acclimated to the area nicely and soon was back to her old tricks of disappearing for days on end. Or maybe it was just part of being a tomcat, call it Tomcat Rule No. 1: Never cross that line between outdoors and indoors. So Tom and I spent the our time in the backyard.

It was there I learned that he played fetch. No, nOt just some sort of pansy cat version of the timeless activity. Tom played a game of fetch better than any dog ever.

Stranger still, he played it with superballs.

One afternoon I was out in the backyard flinging one of those quarter-sized, high-bouncing rubber balls off the concrete of the south perimeter wall. I’d gotten it out of rack of gumball machines at the 7-11. Eventually Tom showed up inside the fence and instead of coming over right away, he just watched seemingly disinterestedly as I’d throw the ball to the wall about 30 feet away and it would come bouncing back across the grass and driveway to me where I would short-hop it off the concrete.

Tom just watched the back and forth of the ball until I flubbed a short-hop and it shot past me and through the wooden fence to the north. I hadn’t even turned fully around when Tom bolted across the driveway and dove through a narrow space between the slats. Before I’d even crossed to where Tom had shot through, there he was coming back, with the superball grasped firmly in his mouth. And rather than run away with it like it was some sort of prize, he set it down on the ground at my feet and sat beside me, looking up.

My jaw dropped open as I tried to comprehend what had just happened. Not only did the cat just save me a trip over the fence into the yard next door, he brought the thing back directly to me. Kneeling over to pick up the ball, it had to be a fluke, I thought. Cat’s don’t play fetch. Transfering the ball to my left hand, I stepped forward and cocked my arm back, and the moment I did, Tom moved from sit to crouch, ready to spring into action.

I let the ball go and Tom flew after it. And when it bounced off the wall and back toward me, Tom did an about face and came racing in right behind it, snagging it about four feet from me before coming to a full stop at my toes and setting it down on the ground.

I believe the sound that came out of me was nothing less than a full-blown squeal of unchecked delight and in the next moment I had scooped Tom up in my arms and was hugging him for joy.

In immediate retrospect, with Tom letting out a loud cry before squirming and scratching his way out of my arms and then running away through the chainlink fence and disappearing around the corner, it became clear that Tom interpreted my abrupt action a bit differently. To Tom I wasn’t hugging a friend, I was violating Tomcat Rule No. 2: Avoid confining embraces.

Some things you just have to learn as you go.

It took a couple days, but Tom eventually came back to the backyard, and we commenced regular sessions of fetch that would usually end because my arm would wear out long before Tom did. He could catch the superball in midair off a high bounce, scoop it up as it burned a trail through the grass, body-block it like a goalie, or chase it down and pounce on it like the predator he is, and finish each and every round off by bringing it politely right to my feet and setting it down beside me.

It was like that every day or so until we lost the ball late one afternoon after several throws. Tom was sitting close to the wall and I winged it as hard as I could hoping it would run through the wood fence behind me just like it had on that first toss several weeks earlier. My throw rebounded hard off the concrete a few feet above where Tom was crouched and he jumped straight up to try and knock it down but it flew past him and shot through the fence. With Tom in hot pursuit about a second behind, it only took him a second or two to emerge with the ball clenched firmly in his teeth.

Not this time. After a few seconds, I peered through the slats and found Tom standing still in the middle of the neighbor’s yard looking tense with his tail twitching and jerking back and forth. After a couple seconds, he’d move to another point in the yard and look around, then to another point and another, but no ball.

Eventually I climbed over to help look, but it was risky for me to do so. I’d already been busted by the home’s owner who’d earlier caught me up in his tree helping myself to some future guacamole. Angrily he said he’d call the police if he caught me on his property again.

So I didn’t linger. I took a quick look though the grass and when the ball didn’t materialize, I scampered back over figuring I could always just get another ball.

Turns out that was easier said than done. I went back to the 7-11’s gumball machines, but wasted the change in my pocket getting everything but another superball. It’s sad to think all this time later, that our last game of fetch came about because it didn’t dawn on my little 13-year-old brain to just go to a toy store and get another one — especially when you consider that I did go to the Hollywood Toy Store on Hollywood Boulevard around that time, where I bought myself a wooden sling shot I’d had my eye on, one that came packaged with a handful of metal pellets. Little did I know the deadly role the purchase would play.

I remember it was a school day and I was at my desk doing homework when I looked out the window to find Tom out of nowhere laying as flat as he could on the driveway and doing his best to avoid and fend off an angry bluejay who was divebombing him and viciously pecking at him at the bottom of every attack before rising up and screeching dropping on him again.

My guess is that Tom got up into the avocado tree and too close to the nest for the jay’s comfort.

Everytime Tom would make a move, the bird would be right there with another stab, causing Tom to freeze. Not knowing where the next hit was coming from he would move in another direction and get hit again. From inside my room looking through the window glass I could see that the top of his head was already wet — with blood. He was totally pinned down.

In a heartbeat I was running out my door, down the narrow walkway and into the backyard waving my arms and trying to scare the bird away. It didn’t work. The bird was so crazed he swooped down on me and tried to have a poke at me. Retreating, the bird didn’t back off until I was around the corner of the house, whereupon he promptly went back to torment Tom some more.

Half in anger and half in fear for his life, I strode back into my room, ripped open my desk drawer, grabbing the slingshot and a handful of whatever pellets remained. Back at the corner, I took careful aim at some metal trashcans near to Tom and fired, hoping the loud clatter would scare the bird off. Startled by the sound momentarily the jay went back on the offensive against Tom, who by now was laying there like a sphinx with its head down, disoriented and apparently too woozy from all the blows to try and escape.

I let another pellet go against the trashcans, but this time the bird didn’t even flinch. Neither did Tom.

With no further thought of the possible consequences, I stepped out from behind the corner and into full view of the marauding bird so that I could make a full extension of the sling and take straight aim against such an erratic moving target. Exponentially increasing the odds, I closed my eyes.

And the sling flew past my ear with a loud snap.

In an instant, the shrieking stopped, replaced with a weird half-squawk. Opening my eyes, I saw the jay, suddenly discombobulated, flutter upwards to about six feet in the air and then fall straight down dead to the concrete a couple feet behind Tom.

Immediately petrified at what I’d done, I crept past the now stirring Tom to find the bird’s breast now concave from the pellet I’d buried in it. No blood, strangely, just an indentation where the feathers there had been suddenly shoved inward.

Breaking into racking sobs and collapsing on the grass, I was inconsolable. Of course, I hadn’t meant to kill the bird. But I did and I couldn’t stand it. Good lord: with a slingshot at 30 feet aiming at a moving target with my eyes closed! How could I?

Tom, on the other hand, took it all in stride and readily set to cleaning himself up while I moved my guilt-riddled grief inside and destroyed the damnable weapon of destruction with a hacksaw. Cut the handle off and broke the rubber sling. Taking it outside to throw it in the trashcan, I was surprised momentarily to find the bird gone. Perhaps I’d only stunned it somehow?

No, there was Tom, almost through the wooden fence. In his mouth? His dinner… the jay. I wanted to resent him for doing so, but something inside understood he was just doing what cat’s do. And besides, he was getting rid of the evidence.

That evening mom came home from work to find me still bawling at my desk and relating to her what I had done. Whether or not it’s a true representation of her reaction, the sense I’ve retained from her all these years was along the lines of “get over it.”

It took awhile.

Tom’s visits after the jay attack became fewer and farther between. He’d healed up fine and all and I’d rebounded from my grief, but things were different. My afternoons had become occupied with a job I’d taken as the neighborhood paperboy for the Herald Examiner.

Tom would still come by and grab a nibble of the food I always left out for him or I’d look out my window while folding my newspapers to find him lounging about the yard waiting for me to come out and play, but I was a businessman now. It was pretty much mutually understood that our carefree superball days were behind us.

Tom’s last visit to me occured some months after the jay incident. I’d finished up my route for the day and came home to find him laying on the backdoor step. As I approached him, nothing looked out of the ordinary, but as I got closer I could see that he was breathing heavily, and when I came up beside him, I could see he was terribly wounded. There were large scrapes along his flank that had taken away the fur and had become badly inflamed, and he was missing part of his tail, the end caked with blood.

With my heart in my throat, I knelt down and laid my hand on his shoulder. At my touch he lifted his head shakily to look up and gave me a very weak meow. As best as I could determine, he’d been on the losing end of a nasty fight a few days ago with another animal, or perhaps a moving car.

I stroked his back and had no idea what to do. I brought him some food but he wouldn’t eat it. I brought him some water and he refused that, too. He felt very cool to the touch, so I got a towel and covered him with it to try to keep him warm.

Then he started shivering so I decided to break Tomcat Rule No.2 and pick him up, followed by Rule No. 1 and bring him inside. He didn’t resist the violations at all. Wrapping him fully in the towel, I carried him through the kitchen and into the dining room where I sat down at the dining table and lowered him to my lap. Then I closed my chest over him so he could have my body heat.

Tom was never as big as he was tough, but in my lap he felt like he weighed nothing at all.

Hunched over him, I prayed for all that I was worth that he would be all right. As if in answer, he stopped shivering. Leaning back, I allowed myself a shred of hope as I peeled the towel back in time for Tom to stretch himself out in full tension before releasing himself back into relaxation as if settling in for a nice long catnap. I petted softly him between his ears and told him what a great cat he was. He labored through a few more breaths before he died.

I sat with Tom in my lap for another 10 minutes, just quietly rocking him and looking at him. The tears didn’t come until after I found a shoebox big enough to contain him and not until after I lowered him into the deep hole I dug with my mom’s garden spade beside a large bird of paradise beneath the south wall we played fetch against in our backyard.

The pain that comes from losing such a unique friend never fully goes away, and while the heartbreak is still there, it has long been tempered by the memories of the fun we shared and the knowledge that he chose not to die alone, but instead in the arms of someone who loved him.