Francis was the first pet of my adulthood. He probably led the most interesting life of any pet I ever had.
After I married a family of one wife and three daughters, it was inevitable that we would get a pet. But a dog was going to be too difficult for us to manage at first. I had never cohabited with a cat, but my new daughters all insisted they wanted one. We wound up with an orange and white tabby whom my wife named Francis after her father.
Francis was a perfectly placid apartment cat. In the summer he liked to go through the open window and sit on the fire escape. Other than that, he never left the apartment–except for one accidental time. At Christmas, the kids had painted a snow scene with detergent paste on the fire escape window. Eventually they cleaned it off. Later that day, Francis apparently looked at the window and decided that because all that white stuff was gone it must be open. So he jumped right through the glass, and, startled, fell off the fire escape onto the roof of the building next door, one storey below. A friendly neighbor rescued him and brought him home, with nothing but a tiny spot of blood to show for his adventure. That was his last excursion outside the apartment.
After we’d had Francis for a couple of years, we moved to a house on Staten Island. Francis was happy to live in the house. I somehow had the idea, though, that in a safe, low-traffic neighborhood a cat would want to go outside. He didn’t, really. I would toss him out the back door into our backyard, and he would run back into the house before I could get the door closed. But after several such adventures, he tried wandering around the yard. That hooked him on the idea of the great outdoors.
Francis was, I’m now sorry to admit, an unaltered male cat. After a few times going outdoors, he discovered the excitement awaiting him in our neighborhood. He took to going away for a day at a time, occasionally returning with minor signs of combat on his fur. Francis’s wanderings took a dangerous turn when we moved from Staten Island up to the Ulster County town of Phoenicia. On the day we made our main move, he was nowhere to be found. Two days later, I came back to the Staten Island house with our moving crew to get the last item, my grand piano. We did find Francis. But the van in which we took the piano had no door on the passenger side. Although I was holding Francis in my lap through the whole trip, after the truck blew a tire and stopped for repairs he got loose from me and rushed out the door. I was lucky to catch him and get him up to Phoenicia safely.
He took a little while to get used to his new neighborhood. Then Francis started making longer excursions from our house. While he was home he was a perfectly ordinary housecat, sitting in people’s laps and purring his head off when he was being petted. But his trips away from home often lasted a week or more. He would come home looking emaciated, spend a few days renewing his family contacts and eating voraciously, and then go off again.
We lived across the stream from the main part of Phoenicia, and since we never saw Francis when he was away from home we often speculated on whether he was crossing the bridge into town. We learned that he was when some fool ignored the large sign on the bridge and tried to drive a truck over it. The truck was too tall for the bridge; it hit the metal crossbar with such force that the fragile old bridge collapsed. With the bridge gone, Francis did not come home.
We didn’t see him again for about two years. Then, one day, my wife called me from town and said she had seen Francis. I immediately drove into town, and there he was, looking entirely like his old self and quite well fed. I put him into the car and drove him home. He acted just like the Francis of old, snuggling with the girls and purring. But after three days, he took off again and never came back home. A friend told us he had seen Francis hanging out with a tribe of feral cats who lived behind Al’s Seafood Restaurant, where they lived comfortably on fish scraps.
I still imagine Francis, on a chilly fall evening, sitting around the campfire with his cat friends and telling them about his days as an apartment cat in Brooklyn. They probably didn’t believe him.