Confidence acquired is an act of profound discipline. It is developed in the tiniest increments over years of concentrated effort in much the way an oyster builds impenetrable layers around a grain of sand to form a pearl. I have an earnest respect for anyone in possession of the brand of confidence that gives no heed to vanity.
Some years back I had a friend named Jerry Rasmussen. The first time he had me over to his house we were sitting in the living room when my eye caught a small shaggy figure stumble past the light at the end of the hall behind him. I didn’t see clearly who it was and I knew Jerry lived alone so it was a bit unnerving. In that brief glance the creature struck me as a fuzzy black pygmy or gremlin.
“WHAT is that?”
He didn’t bother to look. “My cat.”
“That’s not a cat. Someone’s here with us.”
“It’s my cat, man.”
“Cat’s don’t walk upright.”
Unfazed, he called out, “Williker!” The name prickled my spine.
The spindly figure reappeared with a stagger and began scuttling unsteadily up the hall in our direction, leaning here and there into the wall. The light behind him painted this diminutive, shaggy figure in stark silhouette. Long, uneven spikes of wildly matted hair and an incredibly twisted, arthritic frame some 20 inches in height made for an alarming visual.
“What the hell happened to him?”
“He doesn’t like to be touched, has a skin condition, and has trouble with grooming. Plus his front legs don’t work so he learned to walk on his hinds, one of which is giving him trouble.”
This poor creature’s shocking appearance brought me to my feet. What must have been a Persian mix of some kind accounted for the extra long fur and his inability to adequately groom himself. So naturally his greasy hair twisted and spiked in the most bizarre configurations. Two withered and useless front legs curled unevenly, one paw at his side and the other slightly raised, lending his manner something of a prissy affectation. This cat would have made a terrific James Bond villain.
Williker’s stance was never quite steady. Even when standing in one place, his balance on those two husky hind paws was in a continual dance of correction, hips constantly jerking one way or another while his ratty, mostly hairless tail snapped back and forth as a kind of counter balance. The effect was that of a rickety old man who desperately needed the use of a toilet.
A coat that might once have been black had devolved into a greasy gray-brown mass of knotted burrs and patches. His shoulders were bare and calloused from rubbing the walls for support. And sure enough, a glance around the house revealed a series of oily telltale streak marks rubbed into the paint, confirmation enough that no room or hall was off limits to Williker.
“Been this way since birth. Nobody wanted him but his eyes got me. Got great eyes, doesn’t he?”
Clearly, among the most shocking aspects of this creature were the eyes. Perhaps the unruly arrangement of all that matted fur made the skull appear too small relative to the girth of the rest of his knarled body. It would be easy to presume that the smallness of the face tended to exaggerate the size of the eyes, but I decided the eyes were much too buggy to begin with and still inordinately large. The face as a whole was remarkable, but the eyes were startling — intense, unblinking, and far too searching.
Those wide black orbs seared straight into your marrow as if to say, “Don’t move. I just want to memorize your soul.”
While his body forever quivered in a palsied act of two-footed balance, his head was eerily even-keeled and remained smooth and steady. It was almost as though someone had made a fuzzy faced bobble head figure but got the mechanism reversed — the body bobbled and the head kept an even gaze. When it did move, the head snapped to and fro in the manner of a bird of prey.
Williker was no doubt one crazy configuration of a cat. While his general appearance was at first shocking, giving the impression of a deadpan drunk, he managed to radiate a distinct sense of purpose that actually made him more creepy than hilarious. And still he was overpoweringly mesmerizing and smart as could be.
Williker’s gaze was so very intense that I was about to ask if he had been born without eyelids. But then he’d had his fill of me and turned back to Jerry with a blink.
“Is this why you don’t date?”
Jerry told me about the last woman he’d brought home. Of course he’d forgotten to warn her about Williker and, at a most inopportune moment of physical intimacy, Williker had wandered into the bedroom and walked right up to the poor girl’s face trying to make sense of her carnal grunts and facial contortions.
Apparently tempers flared and there was some hysterical name calling. After that episode Jerry had determined he would henceforth bide his time and wait for someone of a more delicate and tolerant temperament to come into his life before he would try again. Williker of course had remained unaffected by the incident and the girl had been nothing more than an oddity.
Yet, I actually kind of empathize with the devastated young woman who ran naked from his house that fateful night with only her purse and a bed sheet. She never even came back for her clothes and shoes. Williker was more than an acquired taste — a shock to the system and a blunt contradiction of everything expected in a pet. But Jerry adored Williker.
People love the ugliest things.
In my friend’s cat there was no gamesmanship and no pretending. In the absence of pretense, there is the essence of all that is beautiful. I saw in Williker a stubborn willfulness that frankly staggered me. It’s not that he overcame his shortcomings. This animal was wholly unaware that he was deficient in any way. His life in Jerry’s house was just the way things were and he made due admirably with what he had.
In the end, I went away with the knowledge I had looked directly into the face of dignity and found the most beautiful thing life could display — sheer, stainless steel confidence. Utter, unmitigated and unapologetic.
Every one of us admires the gentle geography of a beautiful creature. It’s the kind of appearance to which most people aspire. We all want to look our fittest. But somehow I still marvel at the kind of inner stamina and self-possessed dignity exhibited by that singular and profoundly hideous feline.
On days when I’m feeling less than stellar, I call to mind my hour with Williker and remind myself that most of us are little more than a jumble of mismatched spare parts. And yet, beyond the body, we are really so much more — a fine mind, soaring spirit, and sturdy heart that, despite our physical limits, always allow us to far exceed our reach.
As Williker, this admirable and beautiful creature, staggered his way back up the hall, my attention somehow gravitated to a spot just below his tail. There, matted in a straggle of long fur dangling between his legs, was a sizable pair of droppings that hadn’t quite found a point of departure. Suddenly I could only admire him more.
A human equivalent to this toilet-paper-on-the-shoe moment could only be a grown man hobbling along with an entire toilet stuck to his foot. And yet this poor, pathetic, twisted hair sack convulsing and twitching his way up the hall still struck me as the very definition of dignity. Even while dragging his muffler, he had more class than any number of grown ups I know.