“Couldn’t you get out of town?”
“No,” Ole Andreson said. “I’m through with all that running around.”
So I’ve been feeding two cats outside my day-job office. One is completely feral but as sweet as any feral cat can be. Small and dark with a little white patch on his/her chest (after two years, my wife and I still haven’t gotten a good enough look at the nethers to gauge the sex). This one I’ve been feeding for a while; his/her ear is notched, suggesting he/she was spade/neutered, at some point long ago, before I came into the picture. A few weeks back, a second cat showed up: big, scarred, missing some teeth. A real big-headed male Tom bruiser. But he got along sweetly with feral Littlecat, who seemed to welcome the company. His presence even seemed to help socialize him/her, who started meowing for the first time after Bighead showed up. And with us, well, he was perfectly insistent that we feed him and love him and not touch his head (I have the scar to prove it).
It was Crystal, I think, who first noticed Bighead’s toes. She counted seven on one forepaw, six on the other.
Over the years, we’ve made a few pilgrimages through writers’ homes, among them the rural farmhouses of William Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor, Carl Sandburg, and — nothing farmy about it — the Key West estate of Ernest Hemingway. Of course, Hemingway’s house was the best, if only because it was, in fact, home to several generations of mutant cats. Polydactyl cats: if you’ve never seen one in the flesh, wow. What a treat you’re missing. There, they have names like Charlie Chaplin and Nick Adams, names that suggest they are, in fact, heirs to royal personalities: grand entertainers and characters that spring forth from traditions both literary and cinematic. Two things, well, I love.
So. Yeah. We weren’t looking for another cat. Really. But it wasn’t that long ago that I bought Criterion’s double-release of The Killers, both the 1946 and the 1964 versions, featuring Burt Lancaster and Lee Marvin, respectively, as the washed-up prizefighter Ole Andreson, the Big Swede two men have come to town to kill. And so, imagine my delight, when into our lives walked a twenty-two-toed brawler with no upper teeth and scars so thick they bent two needles at the vet’s office. A cat equal parts Lancaster and Marvin: all Swede.
We came out to feed the pair of them last Friday and discovered Bighead’s left foreleg — the one with seven toes — was swollen and fevered. So we got him to the vet, after taping towels around my arms, just in case he didn’t want to walk into the carrier of his own accord (he did). And thus Ole Andreson — after a snipping and a lancing and a tending — was ours, and my years-long dream of owning a polydactyl cat, ever since meeting Charlie Chaplin at the Hemingway estate in Key West, came to pass. In his story, Hemingway describes Ole as a “heavyweight prizefighter” who’s “too long for the bed.” Of the big boxer’s fate, Nick Adams says: “I can’t stand to think about him waiting in the room and knowing he’s going to get it. It’s too damned awful.” I guess that’s how I felt, seeing him with a fevered leg. George advises Nick not to think about it, and that’s the end of the story. That’s never been an option for me, when it comes to critters, and so: welcome to the family, Ole Andreson. You don’t have to run anymore.