Smudgy wasn't my cat.
I always told people that, right up front. Smudgy was one of a litter of three wild kittens that showed up in the neighborhood more than three years ago.
One of my many faults is assigning names to animals - domestic or feral - as a shorthand way of keeping them straight in my head or when I talk about them.
It's clumsy to say "Did you see the tortoiseshell female kitten, gray tabby male kitten and black-with-a-white-star-on-his-chest kitten playing on Frank and Verla's front steps today?" It's much easier to say, "Ella, Stripes and Smudgy were so funny wrestling and chasing each other around."
One of my neighbors, Janet, faithfully put out food for the strays every day. Two winters ago Janet died, and the cats were left at loose ends. Of course, they were outdoor cats who had the ability to hunt. But they were used to having their food neatly served at regular intervals in a dish at the side door of a house.
My backyard had an abandoned dog house for shelter, and I had a side door, so the cats decided that I could substitute for Janet in the task of keeping the cat food coming. I also put out a heated water dish for them in the winter.
There was never any question of them becoming house cats. I had already taken in a stray who thanked me by delivering a litter of kittens in my basement. Funny thing, everybody you know wants a kitten until you actually have kittens to give away. The family, collectively known as "the Bad Cats," continues to live in the basement, shred the laundry, knock over anything breakable that has monetary or sentimental value and race loudly along the ductwork at night.
There was no room at the inn for more house cats.
One day, Ella simply quit showing up. A neighbor thought he saw her body at the bottom of the Soldier Creek ravine. Later, Stripes disappeared, without a trace.
But Smudgy faithfully made his presence known, at least three times a day, to check on his food dish. I often knew he was there before I saw him because he was a talker. He meowed if he wanted food. He meowed if he wanted attention. He meowed because he liked to meow.
Especially in the mornings, he would come right up to the door, eagerly seeking the Friskies. But he never tried to come inside.
Some cats just don't seem to want to be domesticated. Smudgy loved to be petted. He liked to throw himself on his back for tummy rubs.
But he hated to be picked up; that made him full-fledged cat crazy. The last time I took him to the vet, he slashed one of his caretakers and tried to destroy the exam room by literally climbing the wall and attacking a framed print hanging on it. He wasn't an indoor cat.
Smudgy was blissfully content to lie in the sunshine on one of the benches in the backyard, take his meals as served and stare wistfully at the birdfeeder and its diners (I never saw him catch a single bird). Stretching across a sofa and staring out the picture window just wasn't his style. He was a wild thing.
Unfortunately, wild things often live short lives. Smudgy, who never missed meals, didn't show up for lunch or dinner Monday. Tuesday morning, he wasn't there for his wee-hours breakfast. I called and called out to him, in the dark, hoping I would see his furry form running up the driveway.
Cats sometimes decide to show their independence because they can, and I tried to convince myself he was just staying away to prove to me that he didn't answer to anybody.
While I was out of town Tuesday, Smudgy was found, curled up in the old dog house, crying out softly. Despite a quick trip to the vet, he died minutes after his arrival. The vet speculated Smudgy got into something, maybe anti-freeze, because of how quickly he was gone.
Smudgy wasn't my cat. But I sure do miss him.
Barbara Wallace Hughes is the managing editor of The Messenger.