THE STORY OF BELLO, THE CAT
Bello and I met in Paris at the same time that I met his owner, David. As cats go, he wasn’t much to look at. Bello was one of those non-descript white cats with various, asymmetrical blotches of color here and there. Although he was not yet full-grown, he had a decidedly suspicious and unfriendly demeanor. “He’s a strange cat,” his owner told me. The only reason David had Bello at all, he explained, was because he’d gotten him as a gift for his last girlfriend, but the girlfriend was terrified of the cat and gave him back. “Afraid of a kitten?” I sneered. But that was before I knew Bello.
My first night at David’s apartment, the cat pounced on the bed the minute his owner was asleep. Being accustomed to cats, I initially had no objection. But I began to get an uneasy feeling and, when I opened my eyes, Bello was sitting at the foot of the bed just staring at me. He seemed to be calculating something, and I watched for a long time as he gazed at me out of the darkness - a faint, yellow glow emanating from his eyes.
The second night at my new boyfriend’s house, Bello once again jumped on the bed as soon as David fell asleep. This time, the cat approached me and started sniffing at my wrist and hand. The behavior struck me as unpleasantly bizarre so I put my hands and arms under the covers and went to sleep. This was the beginning of what was to become a nightly ritual. As soon as David would drop off to sleep, Bello would leap on the bed to sniff at my wrist and hand. Within a few days, I had developed the habit of putting my hands under the covers to go to sleep. But one night, my curiosity got the better of me and I decided to find out what he would do if my arms were left out in the open. It was the right arm that seemed to interest him most. He sniffed once, sniffed again, and then took hold of the flesh on the back of my wrist with his teeth and started to carry the arm away as if it were an edible prize! Of course he didn’t get far, as I yanked my hand back almost immediately. From that night on, I slept with my hands and arms buried under the covers.
David and I fell in love and were married within a few months of our meeting, so the two of us plus Bello became a family of sorts. A year and a half later, a friend announced that his Siamese cat had gotten pregnant by the local tom, and there would soon be kittens. It had been years since I’d had a cat of my own and I put dibs on one of the kittens – a little, brown tabby. An avid reader of mystery writers of the 1940’s, I named the kitten Dashiell Hammett, III, allowing room somewhere in the world for there to be a Dashiell Hammett, II. The little cat was dubbed “Hammy,” for short. Hammy was so small when I brought him home that he fit easily into the palm of David’s hand.
Do you remember the Keene paintings of the 1960’s? Keene was a popular artist who painted cartoonish images of children on black velvet, instead of canvas. The one, standout feature of all of his paintings were the children’s enormous eyes, which were disproportionately large for their faces, giving the children a look of caricatured innocence and vulnerability. Hammy’s eyes were so large in his tiny face that he was like a Keene painting of a kitten. He was almost unbearably cute.
At the time of Hammy’s arrival, I was spending a lot of time with a friend of David’s, named Maité. Maité was a gypsy of about 50 years with raven-black hair down to her waist, who bore a strong resemblance to the Wicked Witch of the West. She was also a real, live Madame and earned her living running a ring of prostitutes. (David and I traveled in elegant circles in those days.) Maité was also a pathological liar, and mean as rust. She claimed to have a brain tumor although she had no symptoms, and said she needed help cleaning her apartment and cooking her meals. Since I wasn’t eligible for a French work permit and needed money, I agreed to help her out. The job ended abruptly one day when a mutual (male) friend learned that I was working there and blew a gasket. Apparently, Maité had half a dozen outlaw brothers, each one of whom was meaner than the next and all of them were scarier than she was. In addition, they drank heavily, carried knives and lacked a number of fairly important social graces such as - to pick an example at random - troubling themselves to ask permission from a woman before engaging in intercourse with her. And each one of these boys knew where Maité hid the spare key.
One of my main duties during my brief career at the gypsy Madame’s house was to clean the litter boxes and feed the cats, of which there were 13. The one perk of the job was Maite’s extensive knowledge of cats and feline behavior. This was knowledge I needed, as Bello’s increasing cruelty towards Hammy became a serious concern. The older cat had undertaken the care and training of the youngster and was so mean to the kitten that it looked as if he would do him serious harm. Bello routinely slapped him, pounced on him, bit, and gnawed on him. Frequently, he would pick him up by the nape of the neck for the sole purpose of dropping him on the hardwood floor, to say nothing of buggering him blind.
The Hitler of cats, Bello had a variety of specialized techniques for torturing a kitten. For example, we had a dining table with four chairs, each of which rested on a semi-circular metal base. One of Bello’s favorite pastimes was to take Hammy by the nape of the neck and drag him over the metal chair bases, one at a time, which would make the kitten cry pitifully. Because the metal bases were semicircular, Bello delighted in being able to thump him twice per chair – BOOM, over the metal on the right side, across the floor under the chair, and then BOOM, over the metal on the left side. I would, of course, rescue Hammy whenever Bello performed this routine in front of me. Upon telling Maité the story of Bello, Hammett and the chairs, she interrupted me, yelling, “For God’s sake, stop interfering! Whatever you do, leave them alone! If you don’t, the older cat may kill that kitten!”
Considering Maité and her family of origin appeared to be experts on the specialized field of violence, cruelty and death, I headed her advice and stopped intervening when Bello attacked, bit, slapped, chewed, dragged, dropped and humped my poor Hammy. Eventually, the cruel behavior began to taper off. It was clear that the kitten was out of the woods the day I washed my favorite cashmere sweater and laid it carefully on a large towel in the middle of the living room floor to dry. A short while later, I entered the room only to discover Hammy, peeing on my freshly washed sweater! I started shrieking and tore after him to administer punishment. As I ran through the apartment, Bello - who had been lying in ambush around a corner - flew at me like a cougar from a boulder with claws bared. He impaled my left hip with a solitary claw of pure steel and hung there - the weapon embedded so deeply in my flesh that he just sort of swung back and forth like a lethal pendulum until I could disengage him. The resulting wound was large, purple and - I assumed - fatal, so I got myself a tetanus shot the following day. The good news is that this was proof positive that Bello had adopted the kitten. Kind of like when 340-pound Bubba, the career convict, doesn’t let anyone in the yard pick on his 94-pound “friend,” Sylvester, the bookkeeper.
Eventually, David and I moved to a larger apartment and, of course, took our cats with us. Bello was two years old by this time and mean as sin. He would allow me to pick him up and hold him for a minute or two but, when he’d had enough - with no warning whatsoever - he would explode in a swirling rage of claws and fur, leaving my arms scratched and bloodied. (I bear the scars to this day.) Once, while cradling him like a baby, he pushed his back paws against my forearm with such force that the resulting wounds looked like a botched suicide attempt. I was convinced that all Bello needed was love, and he would eventually abandon his heathen ways. Al Capone’s mother would have totally related.
There were lamb chops for dinner the night I finally abandoned all hope of rehabilitating Satan's cat. I’d forgotten the salt, and left the table to get it from the kitchen. Upon my return, Bello was under the table, devouring a chop he’d stolen from my plate. When I bent down to retrieve the meat, he squared off, fixed me with a molten glare and growled like a rabid dog. Several times I tried to take the lamb chop away from him, but he growled and hissed with such vehemence that it was hard to believe I was dealing with one cat and not a barrel of rattlesnakes plus seven or eight wounded tigers. It was only when I whacked him several times on the head with an empty, plastic water bottle that he finally abandoned the project. When I saw his yellow eyes seething with hatred in a far corner of the room, I knew he was plotting revenge so I took Hammy with me and locked the bedroom door before I went to sleep. As I lay sleepless, it became clear that it was survival of the fittest and Bello was definitely the fittest.
That cat had to go.
So how does one get rid of a diabolical cat? It seemed to me the most logical thing would be to simply put him out on the street, so that’s what I decided to do. Now, understandably, many people will be shocked at the heartlessness of my decision. Without a doubt, you - the reader - as you take in this story, will accuse me of a total lack of humanity. “Where was your compassion?” you will ask, with the light of horror and judgement glistening in your eyes. “Have you no heart?" you will continue. "What about the pain and suffering of another, sentient being?”
Rest assured: I did struggle through many a sleepless night with questions such as these. Please believe me when I say that my decision to put Bello on the sidewalk was not taken lightly! I would be the first person to agree that innocent creatures need compassion, protection and care. But honestly, how can a single individual be expected to protect every man, woman and child in a city the size of Paris? Frankly, that’s just unrealistic.
As for the nitty-gritty details, I enlisted the help of 6’3”, slender, yet broad-shouldered Paul. He was my closest friend as well as a courageous, young man. Besides, he was staying with David and me at the time, so he was more or less obligated. It was a blistering day in July when we decided to put Bello out and Paul dressed appropriately: jeans, leather boots, goose-down jacket, latex ski-mask and elbow-high rubber gloves. The only thing missing - because they are hard to find in France - were leather chaps. Armed with my thickest comforter, Paul lurked in the shadows like grim Death and waited for Bello to pass on one of his routine find-someone-preferrably-a-human-from-whom-to-draw-large-quantities-of-blood missions and - when he did - 6 feet and 3 inches of human muscle and bone descended upon the feline demon. Paul wrapped him up tightly, and wrestled the snarling, snapping, struggling bundle all the way down the six flights of stairs and onto the street. Feathers flying, he rolled him out of the comforter onto the sidewalk and booked it back into the building before the cat got his bearings and could retaliate. That was that, and I’ve slept with my arms out in the open ever since.
A year later, I was walking past the wood and coal depot next door to our apartment building and saw a big, grey cat with spots of random color. “Bello??” I said, illogically, as Bello wasn’t big and grey at all, but slender and white. At the sound of the name, the cat came over to me, meowing, and rubbed against my leg. I bent to pick him up and cradle him in my arms. Stroking him, my hands grew black, because he was covered in coal dust. It was Bello, after all! As I caressed him and crooned to him lovingly, a young boy emerged from behind a stack of wood with a terrified expression on his face. “Madame,” he said, “that’s amazing! That is the meanest cat in the entire world – I’ve never seen him let anyone even touch him, let alone pick him up!”
I explained to the boy that Bello had at one time been my cat and the boy looked at me as if I were a superhero. “Does he live here now?” I asked.
“Yes,” the boy said. “We don’t even feed him. He hunts rats.” Aha! That would be the explanation for the added girth.
Any uncertainty about Bello’s wellbeing vanished in that moment. As the cat allowed me to hold him, he seemed to be thanking me for giving him freedom and a life in keeping with his wild nature. After a few minutes, Bello let me know he’d had enough and I put him down. It was the only time in our relationship that I emerged from an encounter without an additional scar.
A year later, my first child was born – a son, named Taylor. When the baby was three months old, he, David and I moved from France to the United States. Leaving the apartment building for the last time, I stopped by the wood and coal place to inquire after Bello. They’d moved him to a farm in the country that was in need of pest control. Presumably he lives there still, maintaining the rodent population at an acceptable number and terrorizing the occasional human.