Few things reveal our character like our relationship with animals. Beyond kindness, for those of us so inclined, is there not an awareness of how much the creatures we encounter teach us about life in general and often, about ourselves?
If you’ve ever wintered in the heartland, you know the kind of blizzard I mean...gale-driven snow that burns like tattooing needles. I pumped gas for three cars, that night, each appearing suddenly from the swirling white void like an apparition. The drivers huddled behind the wheel while I filled their tanks, paid wordlessly and drove off, swallowed whole by the blinding storm.
Just after midnight, a long-haired black cat appeared, eyes glittering in the station lights as he paced outside the glass entry door. I don’t remember if I sensed him subconsciously and looked, or saw him first and noticed he was yowling, his voice stolen by the pitiless wind.
I let him in. He ate a bit of left-over burger, washing it down with water from a paper cup. All the while, his watchful eyes never left me. Immediate needs met, he went exploring.
It didn’t take him long to find the sofa, situated between the rusting soda cooler and the compressor powering the service bay lift. The sofa wasn’t much to look at, but it made the best of the inadequate overhead heater.
It smelled of gasoline, engine oil and over brewed coffee, and was clothed in an ever-changing collage of stains the origins of which it was best not to contemplate. The cat didn’t mind. He curled up with every intention of going to sleep. On my sofa. Would the rag bin work, I wondered? It certainly smelled better. But would he let me pick him up?
He did. When I set him down in the rag bin, he eyed me with offended dignity before going to work pawing at the rags. After a couple trial circles, he settled into the resulting indentation, and I congratulated myself on my successful bait and switch. Less than an hour later, I settled in for a nap of my own, serenaded by the howling wind.
I slept lightly, back then. So when the cat’s weight hit my chest, it startled me to full consciousness. He shifted around for a moment or two, eventually finding comfort with his nose less than four inches from mine.
I remember wondering if he’d had his shots, as he pawed my nose gently, then crept closer to nose-butt me. After less than a minute of stroking him behind the ears, his purrs competed with the drone of the soda cooler behind my head. My new companion moved only once that night, momentarily spooked by the compressor kicking in to repressurize the service lift.
The next morning, Jerry ratified the cat’s new status as station mascot, dubbing him Sinbad. Jerry’s unstated plan seemed to be to underfeed him, hoping he would keep the rodents in check. I doubt he realized I was feeding Sinbad each night when I arrived for my shift. In less than a month, Sinbad had developed a fondness for venison jerky and the thick vanilla shakes from the truck stop down the road. He spent part of every night parked in the middle of my chest, purring and kneading me with his paws. Occasionally with enough energy to keep me awake. And so it went through the long plains winter.
By the time the Chinooks blew and the snow melted, Sinbad and I took each other’s companionship for granted. Warmer weather had him coming and going at will, but never missing his evening snack. When I studied, he treated my textbooks as his own. His favorites seemed to be Hansen’s History of Art and Box and Jenkins’ Statistics and Forecasting.
Sinbad was not a cat to be ignored. Somewhere along the way, he had perfected the nose-butt, for use when subtler attention-getting techniques failed. By May, he ruled the back room and the sofa with the regal hegemony only cats can pull off.
One night when I came in for my shift, Sinbad was nowhere to be found. I asked Jerry about him the next morning, but he was as mystified as I. A week came and went, but still no Sinbad. He’s a cat, I reminded myself each time I worried about him. Cats do this. He was never yours, so get over it.
Sinbad had wandered in one night seeking refuge. I had provided it, along with a comfortable sofa. Neither the sofa nor Sinbad was mine. He had moved on when it suited him, just as I would move on when I completed the requirements for my degree. And when I moved on, my sofa would become someone else’s. That’s how it is, I told myself.
Still, I worried. Had he been snatched by coyotes, mauled by a dog or hit by a truck? Or had he just gone home, now that the snow had melted? Gradually, the distractions of my senior year gave me other things to think about, driving Sinbad from my thoughts...until Jerry replaced the sofa in the back room.
He was as aware as I that the old sofa was years past its best. So when he bought a new sofa for his den at home, he brought the old one out to the station. With Midwest pragmatism, he loaded the stain-soaked sofa from the back room into the pick-up and hauled it to the dump. In his mind, he was merely replacing an old thing with a newer, more comfortable thing. I should have been grateful, I guess.
But I associated the old sofa with Sinbad, who had not simply curled up with me on it but had also curled up in my heart. I missed my chance companion and, by association, the sofa we’d shared. Somehow, the newer sofa was never as comfortable.
It’s been more than forty years since Sinbad wandered into and out of my life with the effortless grace of cats everywhere. I have been through at least half a dozen sofas of my own since then, all nicer and less aromatic than the one in the back room of Jerry’s Standard station. I have also come to know countless men and women, over those years. Most, like Sinbad, have wandered into and out of my life.
Many have etched memories into my story, before moving on, often with little or no explanation. I have come to accept these unexplained disappearances. But some people...and some critters...never truly leave.
They hang around, like Sinbad, long after they’re gone. Remembering always leaves me with a bittersweet twist in my gut. It’s part regret, part reluctant acceptance, but mostly deep, enduring love. As the years have piled up behind me, Sinbad, along with the people and the many creatures I’ve known, have become a kind of internal clock by which I measure my life and how much of it I have left.
Occasionally, on nights when sleep eludes me, I feel Sinbad rubbing against my thoughts. When he does, I tell myself his disappearance was just him listening to the mysterious inner wisdom that guided him to me and shelter on that bitter winter night...just as it drove him to move on when it was time.
But mostly when I think of him, I hope that at some level he remembered the sofa we shared...and that it was a place of deep contentment for him, as it was for me that winter so long ago.