Capone is the orange tabby cat who lives with us. Like his namesake, he is quite the mobster, both in his willingness to inflict grievous bodily harm on a whim and in his devotion to looking sharp. Nothing delights Capone so much as a long bath in a sunny spot, unless it be lurking behind a chair in order to pounce on an unsuspecting set of ankles, or wrapping his limbs around a forearm and gnawing at the wrist of someone (me) who is trying to pet him on the head. When we adopted him, he was going through a teething phase that he’s been in now for almost five years.
I’m Capone’s wannabe moll. I fill his food bowl, arrange throws invitingly on the sofa so he’ll have a soft place to nap, open the windows wide enough so that he can settle himself comfortably next to the screen. My devotion is unrequited.
Only one member of our household is really important to Capone, and that’s Sonny. When Sonny walks into any room containing the cat, Capone immediately mwrrls in welcome. His tail ascends and fluffs out. He does a figure-of-eight around Sonny’s knees, then stretches up on his hind legs so Sonny can pet him more easily. He purrs his loudest. When Sonny watches the Channel 4 news in the morning, Capone settles against Sonny’s hip or on his lap. Sometimes he parks his front paws on Sonny’s thigh, gazing adoringly at him. When Sonny’s off at high school, and my husband Dave is not around, Capone will sometimes sit on my lap, but with his rear end facing me, gazing out at more interesting things, like the carpet. (It’s still 30 seconds that I treasure).
I don’t know why I want Capone to love me, but I do, so I embarked on a campaign to move up in the hierarchy of his affections. I figured I had a good shot at beating out Dave, who I was sure wouldn’t mind, as he is a dog person at heart.
I began with food. Capone’s favorite treat is a Ritz cracker crumbled into a dust. He attended kindly to me for exactly as long as I held the cracker in one hand and the plate in the other. Once said cracker was plated, he head butted my hand out of the way and focused his attention on licking up every atom of cracker dust. I waited until he was finished, ready to pet. Capone avoided my hand and jumped to the top of a kitchen cabinet, where I couldn’t reach him.
I then tried drugs, in the form of a toy mouse whose belly could be stuffed with catnip. I lured Capone into my music studio and waved the mouse at him. He snagged it with a claw, rolled his face into it, and lay on the floor biting it for some time. Finally he moved about a foot away from the mouse and looked at me. This was his typical pattern when he wanted me to throw him a paper ball, so I bent to pick up the mouse. Capone is fast. His claw sank near a half-inch into my index finger.
I stomped into the kitchen and slammed a few cabinet doors. The BandAids are never where I leave them. As I ran cold water over my hand, Dave asked why I was swearing. He was less than sympathetic.
“What did you expect, giving Capone catnip? It peps cats up, and when in hell would we ever need this cat pepped up?”
By the time my wound was cleaned and bandaged, Capone had lost interest in the catnip mouse. It lay, still damp with cat saliva, on my studio floor. Capone was in the living room, pressed against Sonny’s chest like it was made of sunlight. I put the mouse in a box of old clarinet ligatures, tuners, and reed clippers, and other musical detritus, set on a low shelf of my bookcase.
I abandoned the idea of catnip, but not of cat toys. Target sold battery-operated birds; I bought one. The bird had wheels at its base, with a brownish-gray feather of a tail that clashed violently with the blue felt covering its torso and the orange felt of its (frankly vestigial) wings. The packaging promised the bird would wheel in circles, leading any cat a merry chase.
I lured Capone into the studio, shut the door, and displayed the bird to him. Not a whisker twitched. I pressed the on switch, and the bird emitted a loud grinding sound. I set it on the floor in front of Capone, and he immediately leaped–onto the piano bench. Circular was not the motion of the bird’s travels. Instead, it went in a relatively straight line until it hit something, then changed direction. Eventually the bird encountered the bottom sill of the piano, got stuck, ground louder, and flopped onto its side. I turned it off and shook the bird hopefully at Capone, but he was already waiting by the door, ready to help Sonny sit on the conch.
I put the mechanical bird in the box with the catnip mouse.
Later that evening, a series of bangs came from my studio. I left the noodles boiling on the stove and went to see. Capone had fished out the bird from the box. He lay on the floor, his body wrapped around the bird, biting, clawing, and kicking at it with his back paws. Ferociously. Joyously. The bangs came from the bird’s body being thumped against the wood floor. I stepped into the doorway, and Capone stopped clawing and gnawing for a moment to glare at me. His tail whipped the floor, pointing straight towards the stove.
I returned sadly to the noodles, realizing that the campaign to change Capone’s hierarchy of affects had succeeded only in moving me further down the ladder. Now I was lesser than the battery-operated bird.
“Maybe it’s something about the way Sonny smells,” Dave said, trying to comfort me. “Testosterone, pheromones, something like that.”
I was happy to hear such a face-saving theory. “I believe you’re right, Dave.” I was even a bit relieved. There are many things–almost anything–that I’d do for love, but smelling like a teenage boy…I won’t do that.