Cat’s on the Roof and He Won’t Come Down

My father told two jokes that I remember, though he was devoted to the practical joke as an art form, with particular fondness for April Fools’ Day. One of the jokes he liked to tell, or told once, or I’m pretty sure he told once, maybe, was about a guy who went out of town on vacation for the first time in a long time, and left his brother as a house and pet sitter.
After just a couple of days, the guy on vacation calls his brother to check in, “Hey, how’s everything?” or something like that.
The brother’s like, “Oh, shit, man, your cat died.”
“WHAT!?!” says the guy. “Died! What are you doing, going and ruining my vacation and telling me the cat died?! Now I’m gonna be upset the whole trip, I’m gonna have to tell the wife and the kids why I’m upset, and they’ll get even more upset, and it’s all because of you! First vacation I’ve taken in years and you’ve ruined it! Man, you gotta learn to manage the information, you know?”
The brother, he doesn’t know.
“Manage the information! It goes like this,“ says the guy. “It makes no difference if I know exactly when the cat died. I’m on vacation! You can feed out the bad news a little at a time, see? Like breaking it to me slowly, like that. I call today, you say, ‘Oh, the cat’s on the roof and he won’t come down.’ I worry, but not a lot. I call back in a couple days and you say, ‘Cat fell off the roof, he’s at the vet, we don’t know if he’ll make it.’ Like that, see? You tell me the news, it gets worse bit by bit, and then right before I get back you tell me he died. But you don’t ruin my whole vacation over it. Jeez.”
After a pause the guy asks his brother, “So, how’s Mom?”
And after an even longer pause the brother says, “Uh, Mom’s on the roof, and she won’t come down.”
So last night when I tweeted, “The cat’s on the roof and he won’t come down,” my brother recognized the old joke as something he knows I like to tell, and he had to text me to ask, “…are you joking around or did something bad just happen?”
By the end of last week, the weather was cold enough at night that we were waking up at the farmhouse and finding it was 55F in the kitchen. Time had come to take the AC units out of the windows, store them in the basement and turn on the heat. This was accomplished by the Bacon Provider, doing his gender-normative best to uncomplainingly lift heavy objects and carry them downstairs.
The next day, after a long drive back from our youngest son’s school’s Parents Weekend (that included both a bank of overwhelmingly positive teacher conferences and a very sunny autumn soccer game where the youngest son was observed running, participating in defense, and kicking the ball), the Bacon Provider found that the sun into which we had been squinting in Connecticut had heated our Dutchess County farmhouse bedroom to an uninviting stuffiness, and opened the windows (including the one that had previously housed the AC unit, and had no cat-restraining screen). When Schwartz walked into our bedroom, he did not hesitate to jump up onto the windowsill, and did not further hesitate to disappear out the window into the dark night.
When you are sitting five feet away from a particular window and it is completely dark outside and it is a house you know but don’t know especially well, you are not immediately sure if–when your cat leaps out of that particular window–he lands on the roof of the porch below or if he falls to the grass, two stories down. I suggested, as one such person, sitting five feet away from the particular window, on my tired butt (worn out completely by a barrage of teacher conferences, by witnessing an athletic spectacle completely ordinary to parents the world around but actually quite out of the ordinary for me, and by driving back the two plus hours from the Connecticut school), and pretty determined not to move, saying aloud, “Hey. The cat just jumped out the window,” in the least alarmed voice I have, given that I haven’t actually been practicing sounding unalarmed. The Bacon Provider got out his tactical flashlight (which he carries at all times just in case, because you never know, and I might have a history here of rolling my eyes about it), peered into the darkness and assessed that the cat was already far from the point of his initial roof access from that particular window.
The cat, having left through the particular window in the dark, was, I felt, responsible for getting himself back in.
 

The cat’s on the roof and he won’t come down
The cat’s failure to promptly return was blamed on me. The cat’s ability to have left in the first place was blamed on the Bacon Provider.
I obtained a different flashlight, on principle, a large flashlight belonging to the owner of the house, for which I had recently purchased replacement batteries when I discovered that its had run down, changed the batteries, and went outside to assess the cat’s situation from the ground. I could hear the snuffling of horses in their overnight turnout paddocks, and then, the frantic call of a very frightened black cat, alone, in the dark, on top of the house. With the flashlight I revealed that the cat had ascended to the highest point of the roof.
The cat was on the roof, and he wouldn’t come down.
I may have tweeted this. Probably right away. Maybe.
Strategically chosen windows were opened, and lights were arranged to illuminate the cat’s easiest re-entry into the house, but no amount of our coaxing from these windows would persuade Schwartz to take even a single step down.
Bacon Provider made a persistent effort, sitting on the windowsill for a while, trying to reason with the cat, and finishing by telling him he was “a fucking idiot.” We went to sleep knowing that the cat was on the roof, and he wouldn’t come down.
Just after dawn, Schwartz had shifted away from the chimney and was demonstrating awareness of the illuminated window (you could see him from it). I pointed out to him (the cat) that I would be able to reach him if he would just take a few steps towards me. The cat tried to take a few steps, but the crumbly feeling of asphalt shingles and the steep-ish pitch of the roof was too much for him. Schwartz retreated to the peak of the roof.
Next, the Bacon Provider got up and gave the situation some serious analysis (this is not unusual behavior for him). Obtaining a towel to change the objectionable footing, and opening the top of the window so he was reaching across the gap to the top of the dormer, my husband thought he could grab the cat if he could get him do the unthinkable: to come to the edge.
The cat had come out to the dormer of the roof, but he still wouldn’t come down.
Well, dear reader, they don’t call him the Bacon Provider for nothing. He went to the kitchen and brought to the theater of cat rescue operations a bit of cat kibble in a cat dish, with that cat-familiar rattle and cat-enticing smell. This was all Schwartz needed to take the steps down the scary slope, just enough to be grabbed by the scruff of his fat, black neck, re-grabbed (and possibly almost dropped from a great height), and pulled, confidently, inside. Along the way, the entire enticement of cat kibble was scattered all over the roof. When Bacon Provider put the cat down on the carpet, the cat sat down and licked his shoulder as if nothing had happened—nothing at all.
I hope that crows find the cat food on the roof and enjoy themselves.

Not long after giving himself a temporary pass on self-coat-inspection, Schwartz joined me in my room, going directly– without pausing to say “Hello!” or “Look! I made it!” or even, “Meow!”  –to that particular windowsill where he made his initial escape, checking to see if maybe that particular window was still open so he could do it all over again.

A Cat Story

Because I got my first cats when I was only in first grade, they were subjected to a socialization process that included being captured imperfectly, being lifted inexpertly, being carried in strange positions, being put inside things, being dressed in doll clothes, and wearing socks in all the ways a cat might wear a sock. When I was in my early 20s and got my second set of cats, I believed that a certain amount of this kind of handling was necessary to raise a well-adjusted, happy, friendly cat.

To some degree it is true. If you want to be able to roll your cat onto his back and trim his nails without a struggle, you’ll need to practice this with him when he’s a kitten. 
In the case of our white cat, he was perfectly docile for me to handle in any way. I could cut his nails, give him a pill, put him in a bag. 
Other people were unacceptable to him. Other people who sneezed were growled and hissed at. Other people who tried to pet him might have been scratched. Many people visited our home and never saw him. Cat-sitters, who came to feed him while we were out of town, called us on the third day to say they still hadn’t seen him. My half-brother visited, and saw him in the dark and declared he was a “Mummy-Cat.”

Our current cat, Schwartz, tolerates all manner of handling, including nail trims, being carried in awkward positions, rude dog inspections, and meeting strangers.  At his most recent vet visit, it took three of us holding him down to give him his shots, but no one got scratched. Schwartz was fostered by a volunteer for Purrfect Pals, a no-kill shelter in Arlington, Washington.  His mother was feral, so he needed to learn not to bite and scratch, and some volunteer I can never thank did the job.

The most docile cat I ever owned came from the Burlington, Vermont animal shelter in 1985.  I was a college student in my senior year. She was a stray tuxedo cat.  I was told she was found in a dumpster. My professors were frustrated when they heard I’d adopted a cat. “Cats live a long time,” they said. “You’ll move around. What will happen to the cat?”

My boyfriend and I moved with the cat from Vermont to Utah and back to Vermont.  We moved with the cat from Vermont to California.  We moved with the cat from California to Washington.  She saw us get a second cat, get married, have a baby, get a dog, have another baby, get another dog, and have another baby.  The biggest excitement she ever had was in the summer of 1986, when she got trapped in the ceiling of my mother’s house. 

No one ever bothered her: not the other cat, the dogs, or the kids.  She lived to be 19.

The Cat in the Ceiling

The summer that I was getting married, I spent a few weeks at my parents’ house in St. Louis, having my dress fittings, tasting cakes and lying in the sun.  I brought my two cats with me, and they stayed with my parents while we were on our honeymoon.

The house I grew up in was built in 1929. It is brick, with a slate roof, plaster walls, and oak floors. The bathrooms had all the original tile and enameled cast-iron fixtures. The basement had its original asbestos covered heat pipes serving the radiators. Summer in St. Louis means air-conditioning, all day, every day, and our old house had yet to get central air. Growing up, we slept with the windows wide and the attic fan on, wiping down our arms and legs with a wet washcloth to cool off enough to go to sleep. Later, we got window-unit ACs, and I cranked mine to the coldest setting I could get, even if it meant having to sleep in a sweatshirt. Once you adjusted to the noise of it, the AC created a zone of privacy; you kept your door closed and the shades drawn.
I had both of my cats with me, in my room, so they did not disturb Sugar, the cat of the house. It seemed they could not get into any trouble this way. One night, the black and white tuxedo cat found her way into the plumbing access panel in the back of my closet. This panel was perhaps intended to be fastened to the wall, but had been simply propped there for all the years that it was my room. Once inside the wall, the cat ventured further in, ending up about ten or twelve feet away in the floor of my room. In the morning I could hear her calling.  You could also hear her calling from inside the living room ceiling.
I do not actually remember being hysterical about the cat being trapped in the wall. My brother says I was, and I believe him.  My point of conflict centered around the fact that my mother would not commit to ripping up the floorboards.  I threatened to call off the wedding. While I do not recall saying this, I trust my brother’s memory, and agree that it sounds like something I would have said when I was 23.
Mom and her handyman were sure the cat would find its way out. I was sure it would die there, create a stink, and the floor would need to be ripped up anyway. After about 30 hours, the cat appeared, close to dawn, unrecognizably black from head to toe. I gave her a bath, restoring her to white and black, whereupon she was attacked by the other cat; he no longer recognized her smell. My solution was to also bathe the attacking cat, to level the score anyway.