Popeye didn’t accept change of any kind. You kept things consistent and did it his way or there was hell to pay.
Several times Popeye slipped in through the front door of the bar and leaped onto the cigarette machine to keep an eye on me. He knew my binges, didn’t approve of my over-imbibing.
You only get one cat like him, if you’re lucky
By Dell Franklin
By Dell Franklin
I moved to Shell Beach from Manhattan Beach in October of 1986 and brought with me only a station wagon full of second-hand clothes and furniture and an eleven-year-old cat named Popeye. Unlike most cats that cower inside for weeks upon the culture shock of new surroundings, Popeye bounced immediately into the street and went exploring. During the ensuing week, while I moved things around and acclimated myself to new digs after seventeen years in L.A., Popeye strutted and sniffed up and down the street that connected the bluffs overlooking the ocean with Shell Beach Road, staking out turf and occasionally stopping to eyeball a fellow feline perched on a fence or windowsill or lawn furniture.
The man a few doors down, a retired school teacher and principal from Whittier named Harry, wandered over to make acquaintances.
“That stump-tail cat belong to you?”
“Oh yeah. That’s Popeye. Lost his tail in a fight.”
“Popeye…good name. There’s a couple cats that run this street, but he’s already got ‘em cowed. He’s got an unusual style for a cat. He doesn’t hiss or make those awful sounds. Just sits down flat, so nonchalant, and gives ‘em that stare. Quite a stare. Reminds me of Sonny Liston, the boxer, when he fought Ali. I wouldn’t want old Popeye staring at me like that.”
“He wants everybody to know who he is, right off, Harry. Down in Manhattan Beach, I had two signs in my window—BEWARE OF CAT, and DOG FIGHTER ON PREMISES.”
Harry laughed. “Everybody’s feeding him, too, ya know. He doesn’t say please or thank you, just gives you that look and folks give him something to nibble on, and then he moves on.”
“He doesn’t believe in begging, Harry. He demands.”
I landed a job as banquet bartender in a new luxury hotel in San Luis Obispo. I’d been a neighborhood and nightclub bartender in dives in Manhattan Beach and wanted less action and fewer patrons who knew me. I needed a change of scenery, a new routine. So, I left a girl, too damn many drinking buddies, as well as various female friends who’d caused friction in all my relationships, and found a quiet place in Shell Beach. I wished only to write, be celibate, drink less, ride a bicycle through surrounding foothills and along the fine, new coastline, and have Popeye as my only companion, a situation he welcomed.
The working class folks across the street, Allan and Candy, took a liking to Popeye, who occasionally used their lawn chair to warm himself when the sun receded on our side of the street. Neighbors complimented me on Popeye, because his quickly won dominance of the entire street prevented other cats from fighting over territory, since it all now belonged to Popeye and there was no use fighting over it. He liked swaggering down the middle of the street, ignoring dogs barking at him from behind fences and windows, while the other neighborhood cats crouched in hiding.
Up the corner from my cottage was Alex’s Bar-B-Q, with the only bar in the area. Since this establishment was only eight doors away from my one-bedroom beach cottage, Popeye often followed me up and waited outside. Women in the bar felt this to be cute, which made conversation easy. A few local blue-collar workers warned me that their tied up dogs might attack and kill Popeye, which provoked laughs all around.
Several times Popeye slipped in through the front door and leaped onto the cigarette machine to keep an eye on me. He knew my binges, didn’t approve of my over-imbibing, though he stayed out all night every night and came through the front window around four in the morning, chattering, snoozing at my feet and then swatting my ankle angrily the moment I was up and about, demanding food.
And so, Popeye and I settled into our new home.
Rocky was a plasterer who lived in an apartment across from Alex’s with his girlfriend and ninety-pound black lab Doberman mix, “Blue.” Rocky was a strapping, bearded, good-natured, boisterous macho guy who liked to watch the closed-circuit boxing matches between fighters like Tyson and Duran and Sugar Ray and Hagler on his big screen TV. He’d invite everybody who drank in Alex’s and lived on the block over to his place to watch the fights with him. A hunter and fisherman, he scoffed at tales of Popeye’s heroics in the neighborhood, and especially at my sign in the window, DOG FIGHTER ON PREMISES.
One night, while sitting at the bar with my neighbor, Bob Muñoz, we jeered at Rocky. “Listen,” I said. “D’you notice a few weeks back, when Blue had a swollen, gashed nose?”
“What about it?” Rocky asked testily.
“Popeye did that.”
“Yeah, Pops and me, we were sitting on that sofa I got out front of my place, when Blue came bounding up in attack mode, like he was gonna eat Popeye, and Popeye swatted him clean on the snoot and poor Blue yelped and went whimpering away, his nose bleeding, like a scuttling cur. He won’t come near the place any more.”
“Bullshit. Blue’ll eat that mangy cat of yours for an appetizer,” Rocky said, laughing.
“Ha ha ha,” scoffed Bob Munoz, a pipe-fitter. “I tell you what, Rocky—Popeye don’t take no shit. I never seen a cat like that. He follows Dell up and down the street…he’s more like a dog.”
“You two are so fulla shit. No cat can take a dog, especially an ass-kicker like Blue. Blue got into it with a big ol’ pointer and nearly killed him. He’s got no quit in him.”
“Fighting dogs is one thing, but a cat, that’s different.”
A week or so later, early in the morning, I set out to fetch my L.A. Times at the liquor store down the road from Alex’s. Popeye followed. He usually waited for me in the small parking lot behind Alex’s. This morning, Rocky was preparing to go to work, driving his gigantic pickup with all the tools and ladders. Blue was out, standing alert, glaring across the road at Popeye, who lay down flat, very nonchalant, issuing his Sonny Liston glower. I went and got my paper, and when I returned they were still engaged in their stare down.
“Blue, go get that mangy fucker!” Rocky shouted.
Blue wouldn’t budge. I started home, Popeye at my heels. Blue loped across the street and trailed us, at a safe distance, Rocky imploring him to attack. A house or so down the block, Popeye stopped suddenly and turned to hiss at Blue, who froze in his tracks.
“Goddamnit, Blue, get that fucker!”
“He’s afraid,” I told Rocky. “That ninety-pound dog’s afraid of a twelve-pound cat. Popeye bloodied his nose and has him buffaloed.”
Popeye and I started out again. Blue followed. Twice, until we got to my place, Popeye stopped Blue cold with the same act. Rocky was cussing Blue now, ordered him back to his truck, ashamed, calling Blue a wuss, and from this point on Rocky kept his mouth shut about Blue and Popeye, not wanting to be the laughing stock of the bar and the block.
Around the holidays, I became very busy at the hotel, working banquet after banquet. Meanwhile, a Siamese cat in heat kept perching on my fence, cozying up to Popeye, who was fixed and had no use for females. Like me, he had too many other things going on to be bothered by women. And, the fact was, the more ornery he behaved, the more female cats flocked to him.
I found the owners of the Siamese and pleaded with them to keep her in the house, because she was squalling and caterwauling all night on my fence, begging to be laid, and it would not be long before toms were in my yard, and I didn’t want my old cat fighting a bunch of young toms who’d kill for a whiff.
These people were haughty, both doctors, and ignored me, gazing at my dilapidated 1950 Chevy parked out front. I thought about keeping Popeye in at night, closing the window, but such a move would, no doubt, provoke him into tearing the place apart and hating me. Popeye didn’t accept change of any kind. You kept things consistent and did it his way or there was hell to pay.
So I went across the street and asked Allan and Candy if they’d keep an eye on Popeye when I went to work for a big banquet on the night of a full moon, because I had a feeling something bad was going to happen over this damn heated Siamese cat. They vowed to help as best they could, and my other neighbor Harry also vowed to stay up with an eye on things until I got home.
I was very busy that night—from four in the afternoon until midnight. I stopped at Alex’s for a nightcap, and when Popeye didn’t show up at the door, like he usually did, I hurried to my cottage. Popeye, who usually greeted me with loud, angry squawking, was curled up beside the door, making no move to greet me, issuing a wee, plaintive meow. I opened the door and turned on the lights, and discovered he was totally swathed in mud, water, and oil, which drained down the gutters from Alex’s. I picked him up and took him into the tub and spent an hour and a half scrubbing him, picking the oil off him, and he was quiet and still as a clam, looking me straight in the eye as I checked him for cuts, gashes and various injuries. But he was fine. I toweled him off and he climbed onto the foot of my bed, as exhausted as I’d ever seen him.
In the morning, he stayed in bed, and I went outside to find Allan, Candy and Harry pawing at patches of fur—brown, yellow, black, white…. They were all eager to tell me what had happened.
“It was like that movie, ‘Demetrius and the Gladiators,’” Harry blurted, all excited. “Popeye took on five cats! One after another! Until he was the last man standing.”
“I had the hose out,” Allan said. “I kept hosing them down. There’d be hissing and squalling, then a ball of fury, fur flying, splashing in the gutter and in the street and in your yard, and then one of those toms would take off…”
“One went up a flag pole,” Harry said. “Another scampered off into the bushes.”
“I’ve never seen the likes of it in my life,” Allan, a locksmith, went on. “That Siamese, she was just begging for it, but Popeye wouldn’t let anybody near her, because it was his yard, his fence.”
“He didn’t want her,” Harry said, moving around his false teeth, clicking them. “But by God he wasn’t going to let anybody else have ‘er. That’s the goddamnedest cat I’ve ever seen.”
“We kept hosing those cats,” Candy said. “But they wouldn’t go.”
“They had the scent.” Harry said. “He was pretty pooped fighting the last cat, a big black one named Dracula, lives two blocks over on Leeward. I know the owner—he’s got to fix that bastard. Popeye chased him over the fence. Better than any movie I’ve ever seen. Sorry you missed it, Dell. A real show—better than Leonard and Hearns.”
“Oh, I’ve seen him in action before, Harry. Down at the beach, it was a cat jungle, and he took many a beating before he learned to take his lumps and retaliate and use new tactics.”
“He was very economical,” Harry went on. “I did some boxing, in my younger days, and if you watch the great ones, like Ali, and Joe Louis, Sugar Ray, they don’t waste energy, or motion, they cut right to it. Popeye, he knew just how to go about mauling those cats. He used a different strategy, a different technique for each opponent. Simply amazing.”
“How’s the poor thing doing?” Candy asked, looking distraught.
“He’s resting. No nicks, just pooped.”
“We tried to help him,” she said. “We wanted to clean him up, and check him out, maybe take him to the vet, but he wouldn’t let us near him. He hissed and swatted at us when we got close to him.”
At that point, Popeye, moving slowly, stiffly, materialized beside me, swatting my ankle, and went into the house, and I shrugged as everybody laughed and then I went inside to feed the warrior.
In January of 1989, as Harry, Allan, Candy and I stood gabbing in the morning, a teenager in a hotrod ran over Popeye right in front of us as he zigged when he should have zagged. I went numb with rage, ran down the car, pulled the kid out and was prepared to kill him when Allan and Harry pulled me off of him.
Back at the cottage, Popeye went through the last writhing death throes and lay still as Allan herded me into the house. He kept a bear hug on me, sat me down on the couch.
“Dell, get in your truck and drive,” he said. “Drive south, find a place along the beach you’ve never been to, and walk. I’ll bury Popeye in the back. I’ll dig a deep, deep hole. Go on now. Get out of here.”
I did as told, returned hours later to an empty house, tossed all reminders of Popeye in the trash, went to work as a cabbie that night, asked for three days off, and went on a monumental binge, unable to shake from my mind the vivid sight of my cat writhing in his death throes in the middle of the street that was his realm—until I passed out and began drinking again.
Everybody at Alex’s was sympathetic, buying me drinks, joining me in a personal wake. Rocky gave me a big, long hug and told me Popeye was the greatest cat he’d ever seen, and had the bartender back me up with beers and shots.
Allan and Candy kept an eye on me. Neighbors kept showing up and telling me new Popeye stories. None of it did any good. I could not live there anymore. I went and found a place in Cayucos and a month later was out of Shell Beach. I’ve had cats since, good cats, owning three at one time, but they’re not Popeye, no, they’re amusing and sly and mostly sleep and eat and lay around…you only get one like Popeye in a lifetime, if you’re lucky. §
Dell Franklin is publisher of The Rogue Voice. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.