One Sunday afternoon, Kalamazoo and I channel-surfed from the couch, for me a mindless respite from the classroom and for him a break from crouching on the deck in tiresome surveillance of squirrels and birds. We happened on a rodeo and got caught up in the interplay between man and beast, hooves thudding, horses and bulls snorting, flailing-armed cowboys defying gravity. He sat up on his cushion, tail twitching, ears pricked.
Yet, as the events rolled by, the cowboys proved to be mediocre: the bronco riders never lasting long, the bull riders averse to digging in their spurs, and the steer wrestlers inept at forcing their animals to the ground—like Hollywood actors more than the real thing. Mooze returned to washing behind his ears and I reached for the remote.
I’m not sure which of us started the snide remarks, but when I said, “Mooze, I can ride and rope and wrestle as well as those jokers,” he was quick to agree.
“You took the words out of my mouth, Jimbo.”
I went on to say that it might be fun to try that steer wrestling right here in the apartment. Mooze gave me one of his sidelong glances and yawned. I took that gesture as a subtle challenge. He thought he had me pegged as a talker rather than a doer. I’d show him. Instead of our usual games involving a flashlight or balls, we verged on a more sophisticated brand of play.
Over the past year we’d grown more co-dependent, each still in a funk from the loss of a significant other. I hadn’t had to deal with death, only divorce, but Mooze had lost Della, his Siamese buddy ever since they arrived from the animal shelter six years before. In case you’re wondering about these names, they came from a line in a Hoyt Axton song, “Della and the dealer and a dog named Jake and a cat named Kalamazoo.”
A brief argument ensued about who should be the cowboy. Much as I hated to use the line of reasoning, I convinced him that I simply would not make a good steer since I’d have to fake the four legs by crawling about, and I simply couldn’t buck my rear end properly. He was most disappointed because, as the steer, he wouldn’t require a costume. This cat truly loved to dress up. Another time he wore a red bandana for days after we watched The Cowboy.
So as not to hurt his feelings, I prepared for the game by dressing minimally—jeans, a plaid shirt, an old straw cowboy hat, and boots. I knew the boots would set him off, but how could I be a cowboy without boots? I avoided the bandana and, of course, wore no spurs. We fashioned a pen out of a cardboard box, setting it on its side and using the top flap for a gate. He got in and I closed the lid then climbed up on the sofa, holding one end of the string that we had attached to the gate.
I made like an announcer. “Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the annual El Paso Rodeo.”
The steer broke character long enough to sing the first two lines of his favorite Marty Robbins song.
I cleared my throat. “Our next contestant, appearing here for the first time, is Rusty Hawkins from Mesquite, Texas.”
Mooze wrinkled his nose. “You made up that town name, right, Jimbo? I like the sound of it.”
“Enough of this palaver,” I said. “We’re ready for action.”
I pulled open the gate. Mooze bounded out and charged along the sofa. When he got within range, I sprung down toward the little steer. My momentum landed me leaning forward rather than backwards like they do on TV, so I couldn’t dig in my heels. I ended up in a crouch looking, I’m sure, something like a frog. I reached over and grabbed Mooze by the ears and proceeded to wrench his neck until his chin pointed toward the ceiling.
This was one time I wished I’d had his rear claws removed. He evidently thought I’d been too rough on his ears, so he easily escaped my grasp, nipped my hand, and rolled over to start those hind legs pedaling against my forearm.
“Mooze, stop. Please.”
He glared at me, shook off the discomfort in his ears, and licked the imaginary wound on his left foreleg. Momentarily, we commenced to laugh and decided to give it another try. I promised that if we got it down right, I’d let him be the cowboy.
Mooze returned to the pen and waited till I had the gate secured and was back on the couch, knees bent, gate rope in hand. I sped through the announcer’s preamble and yanked the rope. Mooze came out flying. He was giving it all he could. I took aim and lurched forward, again losing my balance, but managed to latch onto the scruff of his neck on the way down. Mooze jerked his head back and forth a few times real authentic-like. I leaned back on my rear with my boot heels dug into the carpet and tucked his head under my arm as I simulated a twisting motion. He let out a mean meow because I’d caught his tail under my right elbow. We kept going, him jerking and bucking in spite of the fact that I had his neck twisted into an uncomfortable position. Finally, he succumbed gracefully. I leaped to my feet, brushed dust from my imaginary chaps, and tipped my hat to the roar of the crowd, all the while moving toward the safety of the couch.
Mooze licked a couple of wounds this time and said nothing for a spell. Then he did a truly amazing thing for a cat: he applauded my effort. It must have been hard for him to congratulate me. Cats take so much physical skill for granted that they hardly ever think humans do anything remarkable. Anyhow, I was caught off guard and didn’t know what to say except that I was impressed with his performance and his courage and his trust in me. It was one of those times where I’d wished I’d said something first, because it sounded like I was just repaying the compliment. We stopped just short of getting maudlin about it, realizing how funny we must have looked and went from serious to grins to belly laughs in no time.
We should have quit while we were ahead, but we went on with the spoof, this time changing roles. Mooze wandered off to his room and took the longest time in preparation, while I put away my hat and boots. I left the shirt on since it was sweaty anyhow. I was about to call him when I heard a slurred, “Buenas tardes, amigo.”
He made his entrance in style, sashaying into the living room wearing the fanciest boots I’d ever seen on a cat—blackened armadillo, mind you. His little ears poked through a tiny black Stetson. Chaps with more studs than a rock star protected his rear legs. A black silk bandana circled his neck. He must have practiced the bow-legged walk, because he had it down pat, and I mean pat.
He knew he was the cat’s meow—one of those phrases he detests. His hat was cocked so low I couldn’t see that he was grinning, but I knew he was from the way he pranced about. We tipped up that box so I could stand inside it, and he grabbed the string with his mouth as he leaped up onto the couch. He nodded meaningfully toward me, and I commenced to snort and tramp and kick the sides of the box as he strutted back and forth on the cushions, milking the introductions for all they were worth.
“Ladies and gentlemen, our final contestant is a crowd favorite from south of the border, Jose Garcia Alvarez, better known in his homeland as El Sombrero Negro.”
I could hardly wait till the introductions were over. When Mooze yanked that cord, I hopped out of the pen and went down on all fours. As I scampered past the sofa, I saw a blur out of the corner of my eye. Mooze lit on my shoulders and wrapped his forelegs about my head, covering my eyes in the process. Then he slid off to one side and twisted my head around enough to catch my undivided attention. I rolled over onto my side to relieve the discomfort. In a flash, Mooze hopped off of me, removed his hat, and waved it to the crowd, while I lay there, stunned. I started to tell him that he wasn’t playing fair, but I recalled the last argument about fair play and bit my tongue, unwilling to hear his lecture on the role of play in everyday life. I regained my composure and saluted him, assuring him that he was just about as good a steer wrestler as I’d ever laid eyes on. He was kind and didn’t tell me I had been a great steer.
We haven’t played the game since, and I doubt we will. We remain good buddies, but just don’t talk about steer wrestling. Fortunately, we haven’t watched any more rodeos on TV either. Every once in a while, I catch Mooze in his El Sombrero Negro outfit, however, parading back and forth in front of the bedroom mirror and pausing to bow, hat in forepaw. And I can tell by the looks I get when I walk up the front steps that he has told the story to every cat on the block. Worst of all, I think Mooze is putting it down on paper. I’ve seen letters from publishers to Mooze and I’ve heard a muffled tapping on his keyboard late at night. I don’t really object to that either. I just hope he’s as kind to me as I am to him.
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