If you took a cup of orange icing, just warm enough to flow freely, and poured it over a white alley cat, you would know what Orange Crush looked like. Stella bought him because she needed some company while Buck worked nights at the distribution center. Orange loved Stella. So when she came home after work, Orange met her at the door, to meow until she picked him up and took him over to the easy chair to tickle his ears and rub his head and back.
Orange was a happy cat, until the day he saw Stella and Buck packing up stuff, and putting furniture into a U-Haul, which Buck drove to her new apartment. After she left, the house seemed empty, and the emptiness was much deeper than that caused by the absence of furniture.
“You could have gone with Stella,” Buck said, “except she can’t have cats in her new place. So you’ll just have to stay with me.”
But a lot of days, Buck was sad, and didn’t feel like being a substitute Stella. Orange didn’t feel he was much of one, either.
So one night while Buck was at work, Orange began his evening ritual of entering the spare bedroom and clawing the curtains. He had worked on them for about a week before Buck came in to see what he had been doing.
“I know you are hurting, Orange,” Buck said, “but I can’t have you doing this.” He touched the frayed bottom of the curtains, and touched Orange’s claws. “You have to stop this.” They went out and Buck closed the bedroom door.
While Buck was at work, Orange found a way to reach his paw under the door and free the latch, to take out his frustrations on the drapes. When Buck found out what Orange had been doing, he took the cat into the room and showed him the evidence. “I’ll have to have you de-clawed if you keep tearing up these curtains.”
But Orange continued. Buck called him in and showed him the now stringy-bottomed curtains. Orange relented, but a few nights later he began to claw the couch in the den.
“OK, Orange,” Buck said, “this clawing’s got to stop.” He picked up the phone and made a call, and on his next day off, Buck put him into the travel cage and they took a trip in the car.
They went into a building where a lot of dogs and cats were sitting with their masters.
“I’m sorry, Orange. But you are an inside cat, and you like to scratch things.” Buck touched his front claws. “These have to go.”
When Orange woke up he had lost front claws, but he had gained a new reason to live. Knowing Buck would never get rid of him, he had already played “I’ll wreck this place if I want to.” Now he began another, more hurtful, game, which human psychologists call “If It Weren’t for You,” or IFWY. For Orange, the game was IFWB.
If it weren’t for Buck, Orange said, his paws wouldn’t hurt. If it weren’t for Buck, he could still scratch the curtains. If it weren’t for Buck, he could still riddle the leather couch. If it weren’t for Buck, Stella would never have left and Orange would still be happy. If it weren’t for Buck, Orange would not spend the rest of his life a cat without claws. If it weren’t for Buck…
Beginning his new game, Orange ignored his owner when Buck came for him. He did not look at him as they rode home. When he got there, he ran into the curtain room and hid under the bed. He stayed in that hiding place every hour Buck was at home. If he was on the sandbox when he heard Buck coming in, he finished his business in a hurry and scatted for the spare room. For years, Buck provided food, water, and a clean sandbox for a cat he never saw.
A few times Buck thought he had found a good home for Orange, but each time the adoption fell through, Orange heard him say, “Well, I guess we’re just stuck with one another, Orange.”
Five years passed. Sometimes when Buck was home, Orange would come in under cover of darkness and sleep on the bedroom floor. But he ran away before Buck got up.
Five more years passed before Orange started having trouble breathing, but he managed a hiss when Buck caught him to put him in the travel cage.
The vet gave him some medicine. Orange began to come to come to the bed while it was dark, to be near Buck, but he would not let Buck touch him. Finally, Orange coughed so much that Buck took him back to the vet again.
“If it was my cat,” the vet said, “I wouldn’t let him suffer.”
“You mean put him to sleep?”
The vet nodded.
“I can’t decide that now,” Buck said. “I’ve got to have time to think.”
For nine years, Orange had been a selfish, spiteful game-playing cat. But they had spent 10 years together, and he guessed that ought to count for something. When he wanted to get rid of Orange, he could not. But now that he had the chance to be rid of Orange once and for all, he was not so eager to do so. The decision was so final. He did not sleep much that night.
Next day, Orange came over for Buck to pet him. He winced, but did not hiss, when Buck put him in the carrier.
At the vet’s, from his carrier on the floor, Orange kept looking up at Buck. His gaze was different now, his eyes had a light much like they had when Stella was with them.
He was so fragile, Buck was afraid to pick him up, so he just opened the carrier top and reached down to stroke Orange’s back. Orange looked over his shoulder at him; he looked so tiny, his breathing was slow and shallow. But in the examination room, when Buck opened the front gate of the carrier, Orange walked out unaided and lay down. Buck stayed with him stroking his back, even as the vet gave Orange the shot.
Almost immediately, Orange stopped breathing. Buck noticed he looked so peaceful now. When the vet said, “He’s gone,” Buck walked outside.
“Orange, to me, you were always a useless cat,” he said. “ You didn’t like me when Stella was with us. And you purely hated me after I had your front claws taken out. Then you paid me back playing ‘If It Weren’t for Buck.’
“But at the end, you changed. You gave up that pitiful game and began to act like you loved me.
“I am glad you can breathe easy now,” he continued. “I never thought I would be able to say this… but I am truly sorry you are gone.” He paused. “ I’ll miss you.”
Buck walked around the parking lot, then decided to drive to town. As he cranked up, he turned the radio on.
“I wonder if cats go to heaven,” he said to himself.
“I’m pretty sure about old dogs and little children,” he continued. “ But do cats like Orange go to heaven? Most of his life was just hell for him, and for me. But in the end….
“Orange, where are you?” he asked.
Just as he passed Walmart on the left, the song on the radio got loud, as if a hand had cranked up the volume. Chris Tomlin was singing:
“And I will rise when He calls my name
No more sorrow, no more pain
I will rise on eagles’ wings
Be-fore my God fall on my knees
And ri-ise, I will ri-ise.”
Buck leaned over the dash and looked up into the sky. “But you got a new game, Orange.” He paused. “ I liked playing ILY.”
Leon Smith, a resident of Wingate who grew up in Polkton, believes the truth in stories and that his native Anson County is very near the center of the universe.