The last I saw of Norbert on Thursday night/Friday morning, he was perched on the white metal kitchen cabinet at about 4 A.M., peeking around the doorway into the bedroom, having used every trick in his repertoire—rampaging through the bungalow, knocking an ashtray, a candlestick, a tea cannister onto the floor, leaping with a thud from the refrigerator to the balance beam of the wall that doesn’t go all the way up to the ceiling—to wake me up. This, and the steady purring and nuzzling of Madison, beside me on the pillow, is sometimes enough to make me get out of bed and give them what they want: a between-meals snack that would buy me a few more hours of sleep. But that night I remained steadfastly in bed.
Now, Norbert is not exactly underfed, but this did not prevent me, when he didn’t come to breakfast in the morning, from feeling guilty for having made him share one small can of cat food with Madison the night before. I can’t leave dry food out because of the ant problem. And Norbert needs a constant supply of kibble the way I need a constant supply of Kiebler’s.
I looked in all the rooms and on all the high shelves that Norbert launches himself up to, and then I checked the front-porch screen that bellies out and that a cat could possibly tumble out of if he jumped up on the ledge in mid-rampage or leaned his weight against it. I should have stapled it down long ago, but I always thought if I lost my keys I would have this inlet, and Norbert, who was a foundling (albeit a foundling on Fifth Avenue), has never shown any desire to escape. I went out and looked between the houses, just in time to see a black cat crawl under the bungalow. I had this wild hope that the black cat was showing me where Norbert went. My flashlight battery was all but dead, but I knelt down and tried to see under the bungalow. All I saw was that my plumbing had sprung a leak.
I needed to shower and get to an appointment on the Upper West Side before work, which meant being on the A train platform at 7:59. I knew I was going to call my neighbor C., the Catwoman, who might have some idea not where Norbert went but how to go about looking for him. But it was still only seven, so I made some coffee in order to think straight about my missing cat. The other cat, meanwhile, was blissfully unconcerned. She ate her breakfast, and she ate Norbert’s. Then she stretched out in a sunbeam on top of some boxes, looking ravishing. Chill, she tells me. We don’t need him anyhow.
Norbert has a weakness for kibble, so I got the kibble bag out of the oven (where I have to keep it so he can’t get at it; he recently mistook a bag of bloodmeal for a kibble bag and tore it open while I was at work, spreading dirt all over the living-room floor) and took it outside and shook it as I called his name. For some reason, I walked down to the deli, as if that would be Norbert’s first destination. (Maybe I was projecting.) He would certainly be easier to spot on the street than in the bungalow colony, a block dense with houses, like a checkerboard, and full of cats, both strays and outdoor cats with owners, all of whom, I might add, respond to the sound of kibble. This adventure was further complicated by the fact that Norbert rarely meows. He’s not mute, but for some reason he has developed the habit of silence. I’ve heard him meow only a handful of times, and have never figured out what motivates him, so I have no reason to believe that he might find his voice in a moment of distress.
I called and cancelled my appointment, then woke up my neighbor C. She came over with a flashlight and we poked around under the bungalow some more. Unlike me, she was certain that Norbert had stayed nearby and not gone to the deli. “I think I see him,” she said, and I had a momentary sensation of relief when a pink nose appeared from under the latticework, but it was Buster, our court's top cat, who is dark gray and white like Norbert but darker over all, and slimmer and more muscular. Buster pads down the walk every morning with his tail sticking straight out behind him. We were also assisted in our search by Buster Jr., a smaller replica of Buster who is fitted with a green collar, as well as by the black cat I'd seen earlier, Harley, and a white-and-pale-gray cat. I went down to their house and poured them a pile of kibble in the hope that it would keep them occupied long enough to give Norbert a chance to come out. “If only people would keep their cats inside!” I wailed to C. She has nine indoor cats, and feeds a whole passel in her court, which the ASPCA has fixed and tagged, so they are an official colony. Our block may sometimes reek of cat piss, but at least we don’t have rats. The other dramatis feles are Nestor, a fluffy strawberry-blond in the corner house (his name in Queens is pronounced Ness-tuh), and Smooch, on the back court, a mostly white cat with a little black Hitler mustache who is sometimes neglected and sleeps on the roof. My two cats don’t go outside: Madison has no front claws (her previous owner did this; I would never declaw a cat), and Norbert knew he was onto a good thing when Daysi, my catsitter, rescued him from in front of her employers’ building and adopted him for Madison and me while I was in Greece four years ago.
Everyone loves Norbert, though he has a tendency to nip and put his head in your pocketbook and hiss when you try to get your bag back. He didn’t purr at all at first, so unaccustomed was he to comfort, but finally a velour throw or a fleece robe would do it for him, and he began to knead and purr. He has a face like parted curtains—an inverted widow’s peak, gray framing white—and a pink nose. His other markings are like a tuxedo cat’s, except that instead of pure black he has black-and-gray tiger stripes that morph into a tortoiseshell spots. C. said recently that he looks like he’s wearing a white scarf, but I see it the other way: a white cat wearing a gray-and-black saddle blanket. He walks like John Wayne.
I called the office and said I couldn’t come in till I'd found Norbert. I made one trip to the hardware store for a new flashlight battery. I had a pit in my stomach as if a meteorite had landed there. Every once in a while I’d go out to the street with the kibble and shake the bag and call his name in all its variations: Norbert! Norbertino! Norbertone! (C. calls him Norby.) There is a honeysuckle vine blooming on the street, and though I’ve always loved honeysuckle—it’s blooming now along the A-train tracks—for the first time it smelled too sweet. Had Norbert ruined honeysuckle?
There was another source of guilt: Two days earlier, my neighbor T., across the court, had lost one of her turtles. She had put the two turtles, about the size of bicycle helmets, outside in a plastic pool. “I’ve been dying to do this,” she said. She arranged a few stones in the middle for them, in case they wanted to bask, and bought them a bag of goldfish—real goldfish, not Pepperidge Farm—which they chased around and snapped up. I had watched one of the turtles stand on the other to try to heave himself up over the lip of the pool—he toppled back, in classic turtle-on-its-back style, but was able to flip himself over by using his hind feet—so I was not surprised when she told me, mournfully, that one of her turtles had escaped. Now I felt that I hadn’t shown T. enough sympathy. The turtle was probably under the deck, which was securely fenced in, and short of ripping up the deck, it looked like it would be impossible to find him. She’d taken the other turtle back inside. “Think of it this way,” I said. “Now you have an indoor turtle and an outdoor turtle.”
The first sign of hope was when the Catwoman heard something by T.’s fence and looked under the deck. “It’s the turtle!” she said. Just then Buster Jr. came along, and the turtle fled (as best it could). I got my stepladder and climbed over the fence onto T.’s deck. C. fetched a plastic dish pan from my kitchen, then spotted the turtle again. He was out in the open. I knew that one of the turtles was called Snappy, so I was very careful picking him up, but he wanted to be rescued. “Look how dehydrated he is,” C. said. I hosed him down a bit. When he started trying to climb the walls of the dish pan (stupid turtle), we decided he’d be better off in the cooler, which was deeper. In case he was hungry, I threw in a few big leaves of escarole. Meanwhile, C. called T. on her cell phone to give her the glad tidings. I allowed myself to hope that if we had found a turtle, we could find a cat.
Everybody said, “He’ll come back. My cat got out once, and he was gone two days/three days/one week, but he came back.” Three days! I couldn’t be out here kneeling in the dirt next to the bungalow at five in the morning for three days, but then again I couldn’t not. Norbert is famous. His name is known from Hastings to Provincetown, Montreal to Aruba. A year ago, I had gone to a big group art show in Red Hook, Brooklyn and, turning a corner, come across a Coney Island sideshow-style banner of a black-and-white cat: “The Amazing Norbert—Sees All, Knows All, Eats All—25 lbs. Alive!” I left a note for the artist—Johanna Gargiulo Sherman—telling her that, incredibly, I, too, had a cat named Norbert with a tendency to overeat, and she got in touch. Her Norbert was also a foundling with a weakness for kibble, and had a crush on a cat named Lily, who wouldn't give him the time of day. "The Amazing Norbert" was not for sale, because she was putting it on Cafe Press, meaning that there was a whole line of Amazing Norbert products, everything from thongs and baby bibs to trivets and bicycle messenger bags. I have since become her best customer. Would all those mugs and T-shirts and calendars turn into bitter reminders of the day Norbert went away?
My mother used to tell the story of my brother, as a toddler, getting lost at Euclid Beach, our local amusement park. It may have been for two minutes or two hours, but I could imagine her distress, her inability to be consoled by people saying, “Oh, he’ll turn up,” or “Pray to St. Anthony.” This is just the sort of thing that makes me promise to reform, to lose weight and give up caffeine and alcohol, to tithe ten percent of my income to the church, if only I can see his little face, with his pink nose and heavy black eyeliner, peeking around the bedroom door again.
T. got home in the evening and, after taking her turtle inside, came out to shake kibble and call Norbert with me. Suddenly it seemed like there were an unusual lot of airplanes leaving JFK in a flight path directly over the bungalows, one every two minutes, and intolerably loud. Norbert would never come out from wherever he was with all this racket.
By now I had also cancelled my evening plans, and people were saying Norbert was more likely to come out after dark, when things had quieted down. I was inside agonizing when a neighbor on the back court came to my front door and said, “Did you lose a cat? Is he big and fat?” This was no time for vanity, so I admitted that, yes, Norbert was on the portly side. “We think we see him. He’s between two bungalows, across from my girlfriend’s.”
I went over there, where the girlfriend and her little boy were out in front of her house. She pointed between two bungalows, and there at the end of the gravel path was Norbert, his back to the wall. I walked over some piles of siding stored between the bungalows, and when I got to Norbert he ducked under the house. I lifted a flap of siding and he stuck his head out. I took him by the scruff of the neck and drew him out from beneath the house and lifted him up. T. and her husband were coming up the walk as I came out with Norbert, and they looked as happy as if Norbert were their own prodigal son. When I got him home, he went back to the porch ledge by the loose screen, which I’d put masking tape over but which I now hastened to staple firmly into place, and then staple some more. I think he was trying to reconstruct what had happened. I gave him some kibble. The next day I had to work in a trip to the pet store, because there was no doubt that during his day in the wild Norbert got fleas.
My religious feelings have now subsided, and I can resume buying Amazing Norbert products, but I’m not sure honeysuckle will ever be the same.
Photo by Hylary Kingham