That's life: I'm not in charge

Tony Bender
Local Columnist

Well, things are back to normal here at the ranch, which is to say I'm an empty nester again. One of the silver linings in the pandemic was that it made it easier for India to finish her semester at West Virginia University online at home while helping me recover from cancer treatment. (I'm cancer-free and feeling terrific.)

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After eight months of music, comedy, and good cooking, India headed back for her senior year, so it's just me and the livestock, Gus the Wonder Pug, Squirrel The World's Grumpiest Cat, and the doe, fawns, foxes, coyotes, raccoons, and the multitude of ravenous birds I feed bushels of seed. It feels like I'm in the middle of a Hitchcock movie. Not to mention another 50 houseplants India left behind, and let me tell you, that's a lot of pressure.

Gus has emerged from his funk after his girl left him, and Squirrel is his old cantankerous self, only worse because India turned him into a shameless beggar. Today's menu included Ashley sausage, cheese curds, and three feedings of Greenies, a snack that helps alleviate bad breath, from which Squirrel, and subsequently, I, suffer. I always say, only half-kiddingly, that I lost the custody agreement and got stuck with the cat.

Squirrel got his name from his odd behavior after he was rescued from a shady pet store as a kitten. Turned out the poor guy had ear mites. We keep his medical records taped to the inside of a cabinet door from which India would report his birthday and his age, all well and good until we discovered she'd been counting rabies shots. He's 17 rabies shots (or possibly years) old.

Gus will be eight in December and remains convinced he's a Rottweiler. Although he's a constant companion, a big fan of r-i-d-e-s, and demanding of lap time each evening, he's also my nemesis. He loves to join me outside—Squirrel not so much these days—where I stay busy rescuing about 40 containers of flowers and a large garden from the drought. I also write from several seating areas, whichever is the shadiest, as I'm doing now. The summer evenings always end outside with a cold drink and a concert from the birds, but I always outlast Gus. He's an early to bed, late to rise Pugasaurus Rex, so he pesters and pesters until I finally go in. I'd love to just open the door for him but as my wingman, he won't go without me.

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Now, you'd think he'd be grateful, instead, when I finally rise, hands holding my phone, an empty glass, and my laptop, he circles my ankles growling and snapping. He loves my mock terror as I recoil. “Oh, Gus, you're too powerful! You're too strong!” So it goes, and when he's feeling particularly fierce, he'll tug on my shorts. Twice this summer, including last night, he pantsed me. So, I waddled in with my pants around my ankles. At least my ankles were protected. If I ever have a fatal fall under those circumstances, it's going to be a weird-ass crime scene. I've never feared death, I just don't want to die like Elvis on the toilet. But dying on the front steps with my pants down would even be worse for my reputation. I can imagine the headlines: “Once Beloved Columnist Turns Out to be Some Kind of Sicko.” “Bender Dies with Boots on and Pants Down.”

This is our ritual. And get this, once inside, Gus gallops to the kitchen and parks in front of the pantry until I give him a biscuit as a reward for his abhorrent behavior. I'm an enabler. I definitely should not be training dogs, but as someone pointed out to me recently, he's training me.

Squirrel has been merciless, too, and every time I'm in the kitchen he gets feral, yowling until I give in. He. Will. Not. Quit. It wouldn't be so bad if he didn't have the most grating yowl. He's incapable of sweetly mewing, instead he sounds like I'm stepping on his tail.

That's how my morning begins, too. I have an alarm cat. He hates that I start my coffee first thing, and moans until he can escort me down the stairs to his food dish for inspection. It matters not whether it's full or not, he just needs to know I haven't forgotten where it is.

Tonight, Squirrel will perch on the armrest of the couch, purring as I scratch his mite-free ears while Gus snores, cuddled up close. And in the morning it will start all over again.