Puss-Puss was mostly white with light and dark brown spots along her back, tail, and ears. She had a habit of licking her lips and lying by the fridge door with her tail curled around her bottom. If she was really tired from the heat, Puss-Puss would lie with her back flat on the floor and doze off. She usually looked drowsy and somewhat drunken by midday. One might have mistaken her for a lazy house cat, but she was not lazy.
Life is hard for domestic animals in Antigua. Dogs are not fed nearly as well as cats. Dogs get the chicken and pork bones after they have already been chewed by the owner, and some clumps of rice. I remember that if our dogs wanted any other nutrition they had to find it for themselves. People treat pets like their eighteen- or nineteen-year-old children – you are old enough to go as you please, but you are also subject to retribution for insolence. The mere fact that your parents still feed you also keeps you in your place.
Well, in the early 1990’s, Puss-Puss and her ten siblings were kittens, curious and angelic in appearance. For fun I put them in a box and walked around the house showing them off to my family. My uncle asked me, “What you got in there, JJ?” I showed him the kittens. They had been a gift from him after all. But hearing their yelps and scratches inside the box was disturbing. It was as if I was hurting them. Imagine being carted off by some being, infinitely larger and more powerful than you, and stuffed in a box on top of other frightened people, completely shut out from the sunlight and worse, your fate. When I opened the box to look at the kittens, they were clawing at the sides of the box and climbing over one another. Their sharp opaque claws made small, but noticeable, punctures in the cardboard. I imagined how imprisonment might be: me behind gray steel bars, clad in white and black stripes, and with only a small metal nail-file to saw my way out. I freed the kittens, and poured Carnation evaporated milk into several bowls. It seemed strange how such small tongues, light pink with the film of saliva, could extract so much milk. Watching them was satisfying, and I soon refilled their bowls.
When some of the kittens had had their fill, they wandered away from the bowl. I wanted to keep them together, so I scuttled around picking them up and placing them by the largest bowl. I laid Puss-Puss, a runt at that time, on my lap. I fed her the most because of her size. Around lunch time I snuck into my grandmother’s mango-colored kitchen and got either sardines or tuna for Puss-Puss. She was transfixed by the sudden smell of meat. Her head cocked up and followed her eyes as they followed my every move, from opening the sardine can to getting a bowl and pouring the fish into the bowl. If I bent down to place the bowl in front of her but suddenly took it back, Puss-Puss would yelp curt, high-pitched squeaks and her eyes would show frustration. Her eyes became glossy and wide, shifting back and forth from me to the bowl of fish. Puss-Puss looked hesitant, as if she were calculating on jumping me for the fish.
Shortly after I got the kittens, all but Puss-Puss disappeared. My older sister told me that the kittens and their parents went chasing chickens in the neighbor’s yard. Out of spite, the neighbors boiled our cats alive to teach my grandparents a lesson about property rights. The image of boiling animals alive, creamy furry animals with pink noses and wet eyes, burrowed itself into my six-year-old memory. I held a negative view of our neighbors thereafter. The story of Puss-Puss’ family was my first supposed experience with death. I felt that I had developed a “thicker skin,” for whatever came next. When our dogs had four puppies that died shortly after birth, on the front steps of the porch, it did not bother me. We still had Puss-Puss. Or did we? I was worried we had mistaken Puss-Puss for another cat. Had one of the cats that boiled that day actually been Puss-Puss? Was the one brushing her fur against the insides of my ankles her imposter?
When my sister and I went to Antigua for summer vacation a year later, I was seven and she was twelve. We lived in New York City, but our mother usually sent us to Antigua for summer vacation when school ended. Puss-Puss was a grown cat! She was big but fast. My sister would grab her by the tail and swing her around, then let go and see where she landed. Puss-Puss mostly landed on her feet, but my sister’s terrorism was disturbing. Sometimes my sister crept up on Puss-Puss and then launched the cat’s flailing body into the back yard with a swift kick. However, even I did things that hurt Puss-Puss at times. One day we were blowing some bubbles from a bottle filled with soapy, foamy, hot-pink solution. I had on a cute pinkish watch that day, probably Barbie, and I tipped my hand to tell my sister the time. Well, Puss-Puss screeched and ran from between our feet. The side of her coat was hot pink and soapy. I remember wondering if she would stay outside for the rain to wash it off.
I think in 2003 my grandmother changed Puss-Puss’ name to Phyllis. Why? I am not sure. When I asked her if she remembered how the neighbors had boiled our cats, Grandma flung her head back and laughed. Her jaws opened wide and her small eyes closed, her belly rumbling as she shook. “Puss-Pusssss!” Grandma shouted. “Pu-pu-pus-Puss!” She sputtered out. Grandma had a habit of calling Puss-Puss in a shrill voice like a clucking hen. Grandma then rested her head against the back of her chair, feet outstretched, and told me that the neighbors could not have boiled our cats, but she did know of people who would: people in Dominica who ate cats for food. It seemed I had assigned memories to a cat that probably was not really my favorite childhood pet. To this day I do not know what happened to the other ten kittens — Puss-Puss’ brothers and sisters — or what really happened to Puss-Puss. Phyllis was probably just some new elderly cat my grandmother thought should be called “Phyllis.” On random rainy nights stray cats would sneak into Grandma’s house, either through the shutters that she did not close or some other openings. Waking up to go to the bathroom, I saw many iridescent pale yellow eyes peer out from under the dining room table. Those post-midnight early mornings were nippy, the cool moisture settling on the inside of my nostrils. Mostly the dark cats, the color of coffee with a bit of cr??me and some black swirls, were brazen enough to lie on top of the dining-table. It was an eerie scene so I ran into the bathroom. When I had finished tinkling I ran back and slid under my bedcovers, promptly covering my head, only exposing my mouth to breathe. Grandma could have easily decided to keep a new cat in morning, replacing Puss-Puss.
Whether the boiling incident did or did not occur, the story was true for me. It was also true for most of my life that Puss-Puss was the best pet I ever had. She would stare at me when I opened a can of sardines, head slightly tilted with wide eyes. We did not buy cat food, so we fed her scraps of whatever we had. But cats deserve a good meal, too. It was unfair she had to hunt for food, even though she may have liked it. One afternoon Puss-Puss caught a mouse and ate it. She walked slowly inside through the back door and lay under a chair. Afterward, she vomited up white and grayish chunks. When Puss-Puss/ Phyllis died three years ago in 2004, grandma called us from Antigua and somberly told us she was a good cat.