A NOTE BEFORE READING: This is the third installment of a four-part story. To begin at the beginning, go here.
Mort, Kitty, and I moved again in 1986, this time up to Inwood (“upstate Manhattan,” as Ben called it). Already planning our marriage, Ben and I decided to expedite the cohabitation, and so we established our household in the apartment that he had been renting on his own since he moved to New York two years before. We shared the apartment with the two cats and Brodie, Ben's docile German Shepherd, who had seen her prime and was aging gracefully.
There, and in subsequent apartments, Mort would continue to pee pretty much wherever he wanted. And no attempt at disciplining him would take hold. A few years down the line, after Ben and I had seen the Clint Eastwood movie for which he would get the Best Director Oscar, Ben made a comment.
“You know,” he said. “If they ever write a movie about Mort, it'll be called Forgiven.”
At the time of the comment, we were living in L.A., and our apartment in the Beverly Hills adjacent area became Mort's ticket to freedom. We let him roam at that point because we were on the first floor, because the building's front door was always open, and because I knew there was no way to stop him.
Even with his access to the outside, though, Mort would still play his games with other apartment-dwellers. If they were on the first floor, he'd enter their apartments through their windows, and then he'd do his stray-cat routine, listing and looking hungry. The young couple who lived across the hall from us were responsive to my requests. “Don't feed him,” I said. “He's just pretending, and he's plenty fed.”
(I could imagine the act he'd been playing for them. I had fallen for it myself. I remembered one of the early weeks of Mort's and my life together. He'd been limping. I made a mental note of the limp and decided that if he were still limping two days later, I'd take him to the vet. Two days later, he was still limping, but he had switched legs. He was a pro.)
In addition to working his ways with our across-the-hall L.A. neighbors, Mort also charmed Paulo, the elderly gentleman and professional violinist who lived upstairs. When we moved into the building and met Paulo, he had a dog. But, shortly after the ’92 riots, he had to give up his dog (they both had health issues), and so he was particularly responsive to Mort. They had meals together, Paulo and Mort. I recognized that this was good for Paulo, and so I didn't invade on the friendship. But I always would make sure that Mort “came home for bed,” and Paulo was agreeable to this rule.
One night, when I went upstairs to retrieve Mort, he was asleep and smiling in Paulo's violin case. I also got a whiff of room deodorizer. I didn't let it become my problem. Paulo could buy a kitty litter box if he wanted to, I reasoned. It was his decision.
While we were living in that building, Mort spent a good part of the day outside. And he'd always seem to hear me come home from work. I don't know if he recognized the sound or smell of the car or the radio station I frequented, but whenever I parked on the street, Mort would emerge from wherever he had been, run toward the driver's side door, and greet me home from the day. It was charming.
And it was actually kind of more charming that night when Paulo returned from the grocery store just as Mort and I were crossing the street together. Mort saw his friend and stopped, and Paulo, pulling grocery bags out of his trunk, said, “Tonight, Mort, we're having steaks!”
Paulo climbed the stairs with Mort fast behind him. I went into Ben's and my apartment.
“Ben,” I said, “Mort's just gone upstairs to have steaks with Paulo. We're having cereal for dinner. What's wrong with this picture?”
Mort, Kitty, Ben and I didn't leave Paulo because of the steaks. We left for a bigger apartment. That was 1993.
Our new place was a two-bedroom in the same Beverly Hills adjacent ‘hood. About seven blocks north, it was closer to the commercial drag of 3rd Street. It also was a second-floor unit.
Although our front door opened directly to the staircase that led to the great outdoors, Mort no longer demanded egress. He was in his early teens at that point, and I guess he was settling down. The only time I remember him going outside was when I would go down to the courtyard to sit in a lawn chair and read in the sun. He’d come along, and most often he would rest in the shade under my chair. Otherwise, indoors was fine with him.
But indoors was trickier for Ben and me, and in 1995, Mort, Kitty and I left Ben.
We moved to a second-floor apartment in Los Feliz – the apartment I still occupy today. And although Mort had had plenty of experience moving (this was our 8th apartment together), I guess he entered into these digs with a bit of anxiety. One morning, as I was rushing to get to my downtown job, I did a cat-count, as per my OCD rituals. Kitty was present, but Mort was nowhere for roll call.
I checked the window screens, which seemed to be intact. But I also knew that Mort had a way of working screens that was near-magical. Realizing that his wanderlust may have returned, I made a beeline outdoors and checked the perimeter of the building. There was no sign of him, so I came back indoors.
Cats, of course, have an amazing capacity to find hiding places, and so I checked around, peering in every corner of every closet, in every corner of the apartment. Mort was nowhere to be seen.
Now on a schedule that would make me late for work, I had one final strategy. I would pull out the can opener and open a can of cat food. Surely the noise would bring him forth from whatever lair he had discovered in our new place.
As I began to open the drawer in which I kept the can opener, it seemed to resist in a strange way. It was heavier than usual. And that’s when I saw the tabby grey fur. Mort had gone into the cupboard below the drawer and then had accessed the drawer via its back end. A squeeze much tighter than imaginable to the human eye, but it was his mission, and he accomplished it.
For the next several days, and until he adjusted to our new home, I would entertain the same ritual before leaving for work. Finding Kitty on the couch or a chair, I’d pet her and say goodbye. Then, I’d go to the kitchen, open the drawer, and wish Mort a good day.
to be continued on March 15th.