Mohammed swatted his bell and I went to let him in, relieved that he had once more returned safely.
Mo’s doorbell was really just a toy mouse with a bell on a piece of stretchy elastic. It was attached to the door handle and one day got shut outside.
Forever after, it was Mohammed’s door bell.
My friend Tim had a guide, once, in Yemen, or some such place, who liked to chew a stimulant called khat, a process Tim likened to chomping your way through a privet hedge.
So the guide was told, that if Tim ever acquired a cat, he would be named Mohammed.
Mohammed’s time pre-dated digital photography, so I haven’t nearly the collection of pictures that I accumulated of my later cats. Also, they are not great.
Still, there are some.
How did Mohammed come to be my first cat?
Well, here’s the story:
After working full time for a year at JFK, I summoned every gram of courage that I could find, went home one night and announced that I was moving out.
My uncle was enraged, as I expected, but it was the look of hurt on my aunt’s face that nearly undid me.
However, I had committed to share an apartment with one of my co-workers and I never could welsh on a commitment. Besides, I was desperate.
Move I did, to Kew Gardens, a street or so away from where Kitty Genovese had called in vain for help, before she was murdered.
Which my uncle was very quick to point out, of course.
The apartment was a dump and I never liked sharing a bedroom. There were a lot of adjustments, however I was very adaptable and it would have been OK.
But my uncle started stalking me.
He came one night, apparently and listened at the door.
My roommate was watching television, I suppose, and “uncle” interpreted the noise as a loud, debauched party.
I wasn’t even there at the time, but he caught up with me the next day and gave me hell. He was often at the airport and was unpleasant to my roommate.
Why would I put up with such treatment?
Simply, if I protested, by notifying the police, it would make trouble for my aunt and she knew nothing of my uncle’s obsession. I often hinted, to people, that things at home weren’t right, but no-one wanted to get involved. People have enough of their own problems.
“Well”, scoffed my uncle, “you’ll need to come home soon”.
I had no idea what he meant. Back then, though, doctors were not so restrained by the law. Uncle frequently spoke to my aunt’s doctor, who had become my doctor.
As it turned out, I had nodes on my thyroid and my uncle knew that I was going to require surgery. He found this out before I did. Outrageous, right?
Anyway, he was correct. Thyroid surgery in 1971 was a big deal, lots of pain, several days in hospital, then recovery.
And my roommate wanted to go back to her abusive boyfriend. She concocted a story and we broke our lease. I wasn’t strong enough to deal with it all. Back “home” I went.
However, I had established my right to freedom and when Tim invited my to dinner one night, I accepted.
Ah the grief! Going to a guy’s apartment un-escorted!
Tim cooked a good meal, we watched TV and talked and became great friends.
Then Tim acquired a tiny black kitten.
Pretty soon, Tim’s curtains were shredded, as Mohammed’s favourite pastime was to run the length of the small apartment and launch himself up the living room drapes.
The drapes hung in tatters and the ancient sofa, which belonged to the landlord, downstairs, was also shredded. When Mohammed reached a certain age, he was neutered and then Tim decided he should be a man of the world and gave him the privilege of exploring the outdoors. I cringed, but he was not my cat. It was a quiet neighborhood, not much traffic. And Mo loved it.
Never mind, that Mo brought home little passengers in his coat that transferred to the aforementioned sofa upon which I sat, in the summer, wearing shorts. Soon I had a nice ridge of itchy bites. Mo was given a flea collar, but the sofa was permanently infested!
Fast forward to 1975. My aunt and uncle were retiring and moving to Maine and I took up residence in an apartment of my own in Lynbrook. It was expensive and not very nice, but it was mine , convenient to work and I was free.
Soon after, Tim received an inheritance and decided to purchase a house and I had the brilliant idea of taking over his small, cheap, cheerful apartment which was the top of a two-family house in Long Beach.
My condition was that I should bring my own furniture. And curtains! The landlord was delighted not to have to search for a new tenant.
In the meantime:
Tim called one day, from work to ask if I would like a little white kitten for my new apartment. Someone was giving them away. Which was the first and last time I heard about the kitten becoming mine!
Enter Caesar. Now, in this photograph, it looks as if they became best buddies. But Mohammed’s nose was out of joint. He sat in the bathroom, peering around the door with one eye. “What’s THAT?” he demanded.
Poor Caesar. He was a dear little chap, but not terribly smart. So Tim decided he must stay indoors. In due course, Tim, Mohammed and Caesar moved to the other end of Long Beach, leaving me to de-flea the carpet in the apartment.
But Mohammed was not happy. To start with, Tim and I went off on holiday, leaving a friend camped in the house with clear instructions not to let either cat out.
When we returned I was informed, casually, “oh, Mohammed got out but he came back after a few days.” I freaked out at the mere thought!
As Tim settled in, it was clear Mo was most discontent. The move had discombobulated him. In the apartment, he had territorial seniority rights over Caesar. The house, however, was new to them both and Mohammed seemed daunted.
Caesar was growing into a big cat. He was very mild mannered and totally soft, but Mo seemed to be threatened by him and took up residence on top of Tim’s new fridge, giving Caesar the evil eye.
“You know”, said Tim, I think he yearns for his old home. “Why don’t you take him back to Coolidge Ave?”
I was overjoyed. Of course I would take him! And Mo was clearly very relieved to be back in his old home. The two of us were already friends and he seemed to switch his allegiance with no qualms.
Oh, how I loved that boy! He shared my bed, he took over my heart.
But Mohammed loved to patrol his neighborhood. I tried to persuade him to become an indoors cat but he wailed at the door so pathetically, I had to give in, admonishing him to be careful. My heart always sank when Mohammed went out.
One year, around the Christmas holidays, it was very cold and snowy. Mohammed went out one night and did not return. I jangled my keys, which always brought him running, no Mo. I called for him, but there was no sign of my dear black boy. We put signs up. We hoped.
Next morning, as I went to get in my car to go to work, a little calico cat accosted me. “Hi!” she said. “Hi sweetie, you’re very pretty. You should go home. It’s cold out.”
That afternoon, as I opened the lower door to climb the stairs, I saw a cat outside my apartment. It was not Mohammed. It was the little calico. She was sheltering in the staircase. I put some food and a blanket out for her and urged her again to go home.
Then, I was moved to a midnight shift and when I staggered home, my door hung open just long enough for the little cat to run inside and straight to Mohammed’s dry food bowl that was still in the kitchen. She was so sweet. It was really cold (below zero farenheight), so she came to bed with me. She wore a flea collar, so I knew she had a home, somewhere. But she appeared un-interested in returning there, and I felt terrible about putting her out in the cold. She was always waiting when I came home.
One evening, about a week after Mohammed had disappeared, I heard his bell jingling. It was HIM! He looked thin and unkempt. I had the impression that he was muttering, crossly, and oh no! The little calico was with me. Quickly, I threw her in the bathroom as I called Tim.
“Mohammed came home! But now I’ve got this other cat and she won’t go home. What shall I do?”
The calico became Cleopatra (duh, Caesar and Cleops) and went to live with Tim. I felt bad, but no-one ever seemed to look for her and cats kind of find the place they want. I know this too well.
After his great Arctic adventure, Mohammed was not interested in going out. I suspect he had been nosing in someone’s garage and got shut in over the holidays.
So I hoped his yen for the outdoors was gone.
But in the Spring, he cried again at the door, pitifully.
So with a sinking heart I opened it.
Mohammed was with me for several years and I loved him so much. Each time he went out I said a mental goodbye, just in case. And one day, he did not return.
Once more I searched and called and waited. Days became weeks, became months. I wanted to grieve but I could not believe Mohammed was dead. He didn’t stray far, so surely I would have found him? It was possible he had climbed into someone’s car or truck and been driven away. He was very nosy. Or maybe someone had just picked him up. He was very friendly. I didn’t want to believe he was dead. I wanted to believe he was happy somewhere, even if it was not with me. Maybe Cleopatra’s people took him?
I’ll never know. It still tugs at my heart, even after all these years.
The picture on the wall is one of my favourite photographs of Mohammed.In the basket, the two cats that came after.
But that is a whole other story.