Larry & Banana

The first time we saw Larry he was rolling around in the dirt. Scott and I were on one of the long morning walks we had resolved to start taking when we moved into our current neighborhood. Before moving here we had been living in a tiny condo in a concrete building near the (then-future) site of the Olympic Village. At the time we bought the place, the area was essentially an industrial zone: ours was the only residential building on a blighted landfill along False Creek covered with car repair shops, restaurant supply emporia, and decorative wrought iron dispensaries. After nearly four years in a 600-square-foot sixth-floor apartment with nowhere to walk to but the Starbucks in the lobby of our building, Scott and I were just about ready to kill each other. And we were eager to have a neighborhood we could stroll around in. We would have been happy enough to enjoy wandering the shady residential-ish streets with their dusty pocket gardens and disused tire swings, but we soon discovered that our new neighborhood near Commercial Drive came with a bonus we hadn’t counted on: cats. People—insane people—actually let their cats outside in this part of town, and for every heart-rending “HELP US FIND SNOWBALL” poster plastered to a lamp post, we would see one or two still-alive cats strutting on the street or splayed on the sidewalk for a death-defying nap. We quickly developed favorites, discovered who liked belly rubs from a couple of strangers and who did not, and learned to give wide berth to those who were on a songbird-murdering spree in their front yards. But no one compared to Larry: the Champion, the King, the Platonic Form of neighborhood cats. He had it all: laziness, softness, benign friendliness combined with gentle contempt, and an utter lack of dignity. That first day we met him, we thought he was perhaps a squirrel. It was a bright sunny day in mid-summer, and as we rounded the corner onto Charles Street we saw some kind of animal burrowing in the traffic circle in the middle of the road. The circle had just been constructed, and nothing had been planted yet in the giant mound of soil in the middle of the concrete barrier. Larry was rolling blissfully on his back in the hot dirt, clearly enjoying the hell out of his life. Of course we didn’t know his name yet at that point. After we approached him and offered a belly rub (which he, no idiot, gratefully accepted as the perfect add-on service to his dirt spa treatment), Scott reached out for the name tag dangling from his collar. This is always a tricky moment—I have said many times that I don’t think he should do this, as it startles the cat and invites nipping. The cat doesn’t understand that you’re trying to learn his name, I would remonstrate; he just thinks you’re going for his carotid artery. But Scott never listens, and thus we learned that day that the name of our new feline bestie was Larry—or as Scott immediately dubbed him, “Dirty Larry.” From that day forward we would watch out for him on every walk, ridiculously gratified when we saw him and got a minute or two of his attention, crestfallen when he didn’t appear. A morning with a Larry encounter was sure to portend a good day. We soon learned that he had a companion cat named Banana, also a sweetie who loved belly rubs, although somehow not as compelling a personality as her louche, rakish brother. Typical. We also learned that we were not the only regular victims of Larry’s lackadaisical magnetism: one day when we were walking past what we assumed was his house, I noticed that on the bollard at the end of the block someone had scrawled “Larry and Banana ==>” in black magic marker. This should not have surprised us, but I have to confess that it made me feel a little jealous. I started working harder on my belly rubs, really going for the under-chin scritch, trying to jostle my way to the top of the cutthroat tournament bracket of random strollers who stopped to pet him. There is, apparently, nothing that I cannot turn into a competition.

A year ago, when Scott and I left Vancouver to spend our sabbatical in Philly and Asheville, I was worried about Larry. He was starting to get on in age, and in the past couple of years I noticed that he was growing skinnier and was obviously slowing down. He spent more and more of his time on the narrow strip of grass directly in front of his house, and didn’t move very much when we stopped to pet him. He accepted the attention gratefully, but was distracted: his eyes remained fixed on the mountains on the horizon as he allowed us to stroke his fur, one paw in this world and one in the next. So on our last walk around the neighborhood before leaving last August I worried that this visit with Larry might be our last. It crushed me to think that we would return a year later and he simply wouldn’t be there any more. We might see Banana, I fretted (who seems much younger and more robust than her companion), but Larry will just be … gone, and we’ll never know what happened to him. We don’t know who his people are or even which exact house he lives in, and there will be no one to ask. We don’t know who wrote “Larry and Banana ==>” on that bollard, or how to contact them. One day we simply won’t see him any more, and eventually the magic marker will start to streak and fade and then disappear. Unfortunately that last walk was a rare Larry-less one, and I didn’t get a chance to say goodbye. Probably this was for the best, as his people might not have appreciated the sight of a strange lady in workout clothes hanging over their prostrate snoozing cat, weeping like an anguished Victorian mother over the sickbed of her consumptive child. We went off on our year-long adventure, and I even made another good neighborhood cat friend, a slim orange number with light silver eyes, who spent hours in the backyard of our rented house and clearly thought he owned the place. Unfortunately he didn’t wear a collar, so we never learned his real name. Our friends Trish and Thomas’s daughters also became obsessed with him, and eventually Juliette, age 6, grew tired of his moniker-less state and dubbed him “Esthurd.” “Esther?” we repeated, puzzled. “No, Es-TURD. Like the name Esther, but with TURD at the end.” So Esthurd it was. A grand cat, an officer and a gentleman, whom it was also difficult to leave. So many departures, so many wordless goodbyes. And so much uncertainty about what awaits one’s return. So it was with much trepidation that Scott and I embarked on our first neighborhood walk since coming back to Vancouver the other day. Neither one of us said anything in advance, but we both knew what the other was thinking about: Larry. As we rounded his usual corner, I caught my breath, bracing myself for the sight of the empty stretch of grass in front of his house. There was a lot of glare coming off the asphalt from the hot, bright sun, so it was hard to make it out clearly from a distance, but it looked like there was some kind of shadow, perhaps a shape in the grass? We quickened our steps, and then suddenly—there he was, stretched out in his usual spot, napping in the heat. We made our way to him as quickly as dignity would allow, and then our hands were in his belly fur and he was purring and rubbing his cheeks against our fingers and vaguely wondering who we were again? And then Banana came too.