Paris is a city of many things — lights, sounds, whispers… and cats.
Cats haunt modern Paris like fur-clad ghosts — whiskered faces through window panes, gray mousers plying their trade in alleyways, rooftop cats and cats who sleep and dream curled on chairs in the cafés of the city. They thrive here, at one with the city like a part of its architecture.
Then there was the Cat Man, with his cat show, which he performed daily on the sidewalks of Montmartre. I first noticed him shortly after I moved to Paris as a young man with dreams of writing a great novel. But in reality, the words came slow of late, so in the afternoons I would sit at a sidewalk café near my flat and take a few glasses of wine.
At first glance he looked like any other street performer — an old man clad in frilly Eighteenth Century garb, a domino mask over his eyes, his face painted with white grease. He walked with a limp, pulling a cart full of knick-knacks, on top of which stood a small tortie cat.
He would set up a small table, place a tip jar upon it, then lift the cat and hold her high in the palm of his hand, supporting her by the rump. I watched him with interest as I sipped burgundy and whiled away the afternoon. He stood frozen, like a mime, occasionally shifting the cat to his other hand. Sometimes he placed the cat on his head where she would dutifully perch for a time, the cat perhaps as true a mime as the man.
Montmartre was full of tourists, and they passed and sometimes paused in front of the Cat Man; many leaving tips in his jar. He seemed to have a good racket going. About dusk he would pack up shop and limp away into the depths of the city, his tip jar quite full.
After about a week of watching this spectacle, I decided I’d derived a good deal of entertainment from the Cat Man. I approached him. The cat, just then, was on his head — the big finale of the show.
The Cat Man winked at me. He had a cardboard sign on his cart that said in French, I am not a vagabond, I am an independent artist. My cat and I are here for your enjoyment and to make your dreams come true.
I took out a five euro note and dropped it into his jar.
Over the next few months I got to know the Cat Man during my Paris afternoons. I started talking to him after his shows were over, when he would open a tin of cat food and let his cat eat while he put everything away. I found out he was called Maurice, and the cat was named Pettisha. I thought this was a beautiful name for a little cat.
Once I invited him to join me for wine. He told me over burgundy that he lived nearby and was on a disability pension, but that it was okay about the tips because, “the cat, she is not on such a restrictive pension.” As he laughed at his own joke, I felt that unnamed emotion that is at once both joy and sadness for another’s lot in life. Maurice said that he had been a street performer for many months after an injury, as there was nothing else for him to do. He was quite unsuccessful, then one day Pettisha wandered up and joined him, and the tips flowed freely that day. They’d been together ever since, nigh on ten years now.
One day I had some loose ends to tie up, so I got to the café late. When I arrived, a crowd was gathered. I figured the cat show was in full swing. I was wrong. Maurice had collapsed, and EMTs were working on him. Soon he was spirited away in an ambulance, his cart, his tip jar, and Pettisha left on the sidewalk.
For a moment, I was at a loss. I didn’t know what to do. As the crowd dispersed, Pettisha gazed up at me with her golden eyes. I picked her up and stroked her black and tan fur. I couldn’t just abandon her to the streets.
It was late by the time I found the hospital. It took some questioning, but at last the staff knew who I meant when I described Maurice’s garb. Maurice, they told me, had passed away not an hour earlier.
My clock stuck midnight as I at last entered my flat that night, Pettisha in my arms. She and I had just wandered the streets in the darkness after I’d left the hospital. I didn’t know why I felt as I did — I didn’t know Maurice that well. He was a stranger really, but now I guess I would care for his cat.
I opened tuna for her and she lapped it up. Opening my own nightly treat, brandy, I sat at my writing desk, the manuscript of my half-finished novel lying where I’d left it. I pushed it away — it was garbage. I’d been here six months — and that was all I had to show. Dad’s generosity in funding this lifestyle wouldn’t go on forever.
I switched on my laptop and stared for a while at a blank page in Word. Nothing was coming. Soon Pettisha joined me, jumping into my lap. She seemed at ease, as if she understood the whole situation and was at peace. Somehow, I began to feel the same.
“Well, you brought Maurice a long streak of good luck,” I said to her in French. “Let’s get to work, little cat.” And as I said those last two words in French, petit chat, I realized where she had gotten her name. I chuckled at this last little joke from Maurice.
“Paris,” I typed, “is a city of cats.” Perhaps now I truly had a story to tell.
Christopher Owen lives in Texas with his wife and two cats. He likes to write about rain, booze, twilight, sad guitar players, cats and love, as well as other idiosyncrasies and trifles. Sometimes he writes for no other reason than the poetry-in-motion that is putting words together in a certain way that has never occurred before, and perhaps never will again.
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