Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Prissy and Prudence

When I was born, my parents were expecting a daughter and they had a name picked out: Priscilla Jane. Thankfully, my anatomy and their adherence to cultural convention saved me from that fate. By the time my sister came along, though, mom and dad had planned ahead with TWO names (just in case), and this time Priscilla didn't make the cut. So, in the 1980s, when we had the opportunity to adopt a little black toy poodle, mom finally got to use the name on someone who couldn't complain about it.

Prissy joined our household despite the disgust and disdain of our other four-legged resident, a tortoise-shell cat named Prudence. Prudence had dealt with a canine cohabitant before, but Prissy was nothing like our old dog, Maverick. Where Maverick was an affable and good-natured mutt who had welcomed the little kitten into the family several years before (probably establishing a bit of that Alpha dog mystique), while Prissy was  an aptly named intruder on territory that Prudence had come to consider her own.

It didn't help that my sister and I treated Prissy like a celebrity. Competing for her affections, we each tried to coax her to sleep in our respective rooms, and fought over the honor of "taking care of" the dog. Now that I'm older, I realize that Prissy probably didn't appreciate the "stable" that my horse-crazy sister built for her out of Lincoln Logs, and I'm sure she had similar misgivings about my attempts to turn her into the Rancor in my homemade cardboard reproduction of Jabba the Hutt's palace.
This is not a toy poodle.
I suppose it's a credit to Prissy that she didn't let all of the attention go to her head. Or maybe not, since there wasn't much in her head to begin with. She put up with our attempts to relate to her, but she mainly wandered the house doing her own thing. Prudence,being a cat, was at first rather aloof about the whole dog thing. After some sparks struck during their first few meetings, she elected to pretend that there was no dog in her house, and for a while they got along splendidly by not interacting.

This began to change when mom decided to try breeding Prissy. We didn't have papers proving anything, but Prissy was supposed to be a pure poodle, and one of mom's friends had a boy toy (poodle) named Pepper - so they decided to try their hand at animal husbandry. We borrowed Pepper for a week or so when mom predicted Prissy would be "in heat" - and despite the fact that Pepper was a lot younger and smaller than Prissy, apparently magic happened.

Looking back, this was probably where I learned about sexual reproduction, but being both Southern Baptist and born with our family's sense of humor, I don't think I learned about it in as direct and matter-of-fact a manner as I might have under other circumstances. I would hear the adults plotting out Prissy's cycle, and I remember asking what "in heat" meant; I think they told me that was the time in a month when Prissy could have puppies. Since the week came and went with no puppies, I didn't really get the connection until much later.

The connection I did make was with Prissy's array of "gentleman callers" - all of the male dogs in our remote stretch of barely settled desert could smell her, and they would come parading by our house at all hours. Terriers, Shepherds, setters, and a few dodgy looking characters who might not have been entirely domesticated would find their way through our fence and onto our porch, where they would curl up and wait for a glimpse of the source of the alluring scent that was pulling them to our door.

For several years, as I recall, there was an uneasy monthly ritual that surrounded leaving our house.  We had to check the door before opening it to leave, and if it was too crowded on the porch, we would sneak out the side- or back-door. Dad tried patching places in the fence where they were getting in, but there were always a few eager diggers around the neighborhood. Even when the fence held, they would just gather at the gate, waiting to dart in when we tried to get our car out.

The most patient and brazen of these horny intruders was a basset my mom nicknamed "Frederick B. Moose." He was implacable. He would place himself stolidly to one side or the other of the road, and wait for Dad or Mom to go chasing his bolder rivals off. Then he would grunt into motion and trudge his way towards our door. Once inside the fence, he was impossible to dislodge.  Mom and Dad each tried to drag him out by the collar on more than one occasion, just to have him go limp and flop in the dirt. Gravity seemed to favor his bulk. Once, Mom even tried out her new canister of pepper spray (no relation to Prissy's actual beau), catching Fred full in the face. He simply snorfed, shook his head, and pressed on like an aroused avalanche of saggy meat.

But as I said, Pepper was the winner in this genetic contest, and after only a couple of failed attempts, a litter quickened within the womb of Priscilla Jane Poodle. I distinctly remember the smell in my parents' bathroom after the puppies were born. It was vital and terrifying, and of course very gross. I think there were five pups, though I really only remember two of them; the two that my sister named "Bob" and "Nancy", after my dad's parents. We managed to place most of the puppies right away, but Bob stayed with us longest. He went on our summer camping trip with us, and we were pretty attached to him by the time Mom finally found him a home of his own.

Between the bother, expense, and disappointed children - not to mention the uninspiring profit margin - that was pretty much the end of Prissy's career as a breed... mare? ...and her next big adventure involved getting fixed. You can imagine that this provoked a number of questions with illuminating answers about biology, too.

During all of these various adventures and upheavals, Prudence suffered on the periphery. She avoided the puppies, the noise, the amorous packs of gentleman callers, and pretty much everyone in the house while still trying to maintain a semblance of ownership over as much of the domain as she could.

I remember asking if Prudence would ever have kittens, and I think Mom dodged the question at first.  But eventually I learned that Prudence had been the world's worst mother. Apparently, she would sneak off (as cats will do...loudly, just under one's window) and return home with a belly full of joy and erratic behavior, only to sneak off again and deposit her litter in some remote corner of our property. Not knowing what to do next, Prudence would then leave the new kittens wherever they dropped and forget about them. Mom told of finding feeble, nearly dead kittens under bushes, in the tool shed, and even in the attic. She spoke tearfully of trying to save them and find them homes - only to have them succumb to the initial neglect and rejection of their mother.

The last straw was the day my Mom's mom came over and went out on the back patio to play the battered old piano that Dad had found somewhere. It was out of tune, of course, but one section of the keyboard seemed to be muted, and when the adults peered inside the machine they found six little kitten skeletons tangled in the hammer mechanism. The sentence for this crime: uterus removal.

Still, despite the cold, remorseless evil clearly dwelling in her soul, Prudence was a pleasant enough companion. I lost the battle for Prissy's affection early on; she didn't like coming up the stairs to my hot and messy room, and besides, she was too deeply devoted to Mom to leave her side. But Prudence would roam the house more widely, and she seemed to favor places that were Prissy-free, so I would sometimes wake up with her curled up peacefully on the foot of my bed. Of course, being a cat, it was just as likely I would wake up with her standing on my chest, working up a hairball, or that I would catch her skulking into one of the closets in my room to leave unpleasant little treats that I would then have to clean up. 

While the bulk of their time was spent studiously ignoring each other, as Prissy and Prudence got older, they began to take pleasure in annoying each other. Prissy, while never a big thinker, learned that Prudence liked to nap in certain places, and the dog began adjusting her navigational patterns so that she could appear as close as possible to the snoozing cat and nonchalantly poke her with her snout. The first few times I saw this happen, Prudence would launch herself up as if she'd been lanced with a hot needle, and backflip awkwardly over the arm of the couch in an amazing display of cat-fu. Once she popped herself nearly straight up and over the back of the couch in an amazing arc, and when she didn't come back out right away, we peaked behind it to see her sitting regally, contemplating the wall under the big picture window as if that had been where she was sitting all along.

Gradually, Prudence learned to sleep more shallowly, and became quite alert to any movement near her napping spots. As the shock of canine nose nudges decreased, she tried ignoring her nemesis, patiently not reacting to the prodding. But that only emboldened Prissy, and if she got away with the first few pokes, she would start adding a bark or two to her attack until Prudence had had enough and responded with either a rousing chase/fight around the living room, or a hasty exit from the house altogether.

Being more alert than the dog, though, Prudence could mount surprise attacks with very little notice.  I got to see her in action one afternoon when I was changing the laundry. I spotted Prudence coming inside from what was probably an enjoyable morning of murdering birds and lizards; she was sauntering aimlessly across the family room, but when she reached the door to the main hallway, she reared back comically (like a cat version of Oliver Hardy) and darted into the kitchen instead. A few seconds later, Prissy came towards the kitchen from the hallway, clearly heading for her water bowl.

As she came around the corner, Prudence sprang out like a furry, clawed Jack in the Box, and bopped Prissy on the nose. Prissy yelped in surprise, and immediately gave chase. Prudence led her around the legs of the dining room table, back through the kitchen, and up the hallway to my sister's room.  My sister's bed was a pedestal-style waterbed, with cast iron headboard and footboard, and her lacy bedspread hung down to create a neat 1-foot-square runway all the way around the bed. By the time I got to the room, cat and dog had both slipped under the bedspread, and were doing laps around the bed at top speed.

Prudence, being slightly quicker, and a lot smarter, timed her exit perfectly. She reached the corner of the bed, and instead of continuing around the racetrack to the left, she made a right ...just as she passed the post of the foot board. Prissy did not manage to make the same turn.


By the time the dazed poodle regained her senses enough to extract herself from the tangle of lacy bedspread, and could walk in a straight line, Prudence was well out of reach on top of Mom's armoire, cleaning herself innocently, as if she had been there all day.

At some point, Dad had installed flaps in the doors so the animals could let themselves in or out as they pleased. From the kitchen, there was one door out into the garage, and another across the garage exiting to the side yard. This was generally convenient for everyone, but it did create several prime ambush points. I probably don't need to spell out the details - suffice to say the cat was an expert at hiding where the dog would least expect it, and she had the patience to wait for the most opportune moment.

Eventually, my sister and I grew accustomed to this game, and we all got used to seeing Prudence saunter to some corner, nook, or cranny and just sit for hours, so we often didn't realize what she was up to until the trap was sprung and the chasing was over. For her part, Prissy had figured out that she needed to be on guard when going in or out through any of the door flaps. Even when Prudence was nowhere to be seen, Prissy would nudge the door two or three times before actually pushing through - and a few times, she actually worked herself into a paranoid fury, barking at the swinging flap and smacking it with a paw or her snout before deciding the cat was really elsewhere.

One morning, as I lingered over my bowl of cereal, I noticed something moving out the corner of my eye. In the entryway, Mom had several bags of empty cereal boxes that were piled up, waiting to be sorted. She was an avid coupon-collector, and always had brown grocery bags full of boxes with barcodes, coupons, promotional games, etc. Prudence's black tail was extended out from between two of the bags - furred out with anticipation and twitching manically.  On my way to the sink, I peeked between the bags, and saw that her attention was fixed on the door flap.  Glancing over my shoulder, I could see that Prissy was out in the side yard, and headed for the door to come inside.

I didn't think about what I did next. I just casually leaned down and said, in a normal speaking voice, "Boo."

The cat's reaction was a thing of beauty. If I could take my camera phones back in time to capture one moment in the highest definition possible, that would have been the moment. Prudence's legs pushed her up, farther up in the air than I had ever seen her go, and her body went rigid, with all four of her legs as fully extended as they could get. She somehow rotated in this completely stiffened state, like a taxidermist's model of a cat, white-eyed and staring at me in absolute terror as her body followed a parabola across the tiny foyer. She landed - nothing but net - tail first into one of the grocery bags full of discarded cardboard, and disappeared from view.

At that moment, Prissy poked a tentative nose through the door flap and gave a questioning "woof" - coincidentally, right at the bag where the terrorized cat had only just come to rest. This is the part that I would have wanted on film, because I swear that cat passed through the side of that bag at the molecular level. The bag was not torn, but Prudence, trailing a confetti of UPC symbols and scraps of paper, streaked out of the entryway at an altitude of between three and six inches, and we didn't see her for two days.

So, when I jump out at you from nowhere and can't stop laughing while you mutter angrily and try to put your skin back on, please don't take it personally.  I got the taste for this from my cat.

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