R.I.P., Ernesto

Categories: Flotsam
This is Ernesto's story.

I don't know where it begins because I didn't know him then. When we met, Ernesto was an old man, a veteran of the streets around my South Beach apartment but clearly once an indoor cat — his front claws had been clipped. Someone had pushed him out and closed the door for good.

When he first came ambling off the street and into my building's courtyard, Ernesto looked like the elderly refugee he was. I guessed he was 11 or 12, with unsteady legs, a missing fang and an out-of-place rib. He was skinny as all get out. His black and white fur was dry and his face looked puffy, as if he had grown tired of defending himself against other alley cats. He was timid and spooked easily, but a bowl of water or a can of tuna was too good to hold him back from long.

I shooed Ernesto away from my door once or twice. He might become too attached, insist on taking up residence. I could barely take care of myself, I reasoned. But then, one afternoon in late August, a tropical storm changed everything. As the sky darkened, my cat lady neighbor urged me to take in this sorry-looking feline, keep him out of the storm for the night. She offered a litter box and wet food, said she would take him in if she could but her three cats wouldn't approve. What's one night?

The storm didn't amount to much: some gusts and rain, better-than-average surfing. When I got into bed that night, the wind was only half-heartedly rapping at my windows. As I was drifting off, there was a light thud at the foot of the bed. Ernesto creeped up and, rather boldly it seemed, laid down next to me. He propped his chin in the crook of my left arm.

Ernesto didn't leave the next day or the day after. He slept with me every night. So I named him after the storm that brought him and borrowed some more cat food from my neighbor. In the weeks that followed, he filled out a bit, his fur took on a sheen, and he slowly came to trust me. He was a big fan of baked chicken and lying on the sun-warmed brick courtyard pathway. He rarely let me read a book in bed undisturbed.

Last Friday, Ernesto stopped eating. He had never been a big eater, though. I thought maybe he would get his appetite back. On Monday, the veterinarian said Ernesto's kidneys had likely shut down. He drew blood for testing. That night and into Tuesday afternoon, Ernesto grew weaker. When he got up to quench his insatiable thirst, he wobbled and occasionally fell down. He smelled of urine and decline. He couldn't hold his head up when I carried him in my arms.

Ernesto was limp when I held him for the last time. In a white room at the animal hospital, he faded away, his ulcer-covered tongue slipping out of his mouth as Phenobarbital coursed through the catheter in his paw. His eyes were still open when I wrapped his little body in a sky-blue towel on the examination table. -- Rob Jordan

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