Interviewsand Articles


Pal : by Richard Berger

by Richard Berger, Apr 8, 2016



Some time in winter 1985 I saw, from a second story deck off the back of my house, a large grey cat in my backyard. The cat was stretched for maximum exposure in the meager mid-day sun and, in rolling away from encroaching shadows, revealed his gender and a right rear leg that ended half way down from his hip in a cross section of raw flesh, splintery bone and tattered fur. A rustle from me made him look up in fright, and his struggle to right himself and hobble under the house next door told of the wounded in flight, of the maimed and aching, and of the determination not to be wounded again.
     I thought he might like a meal so I went downstairs and put some cat food in a bowl in the back yard and went back into the house. Moments later, when I looked out the window the food was gone. He must have inhaled it.
     I continued this backyard feeding and at the end of several weeks, I was able to watch this ragged character’s cautious approach to twice-daily meals. He was disheveled and seedy. His wariness brought an air of comical mock criminality to his dining. He approached his dish in a crouch looking from side to side, but when he reached the dish he abandoned this cautiousness and became the embodiment of resolute stolidity. After engulfing dinner for two, he’d revert to commando mode and steal back to his lair. It didn’t take long for my presence to become associated with mealtime and, finally, one day I was able to reach toward him and, at maximum arm extension, touch his nose. On a certain scale, it was an event akin to the one portrayed on the Sistine Chapel ceiling, of God touching Adam. He sniffed my finger and lost interest in favor of the food.
     It was time to give this guy a name, something that would strike an ironic counterpoint to his threadbare appearance. Maurice, Marcel, Nigel, Rupert, Percy, Colin, Raoul. Montague? It didn’t work. I decided that Pal was a fittingly wry name for my new friend. It reminded me of kids’ movies where there was always the precocious mutt with a name like “Lad” or “Rex”—one syllable. These dogs were always guileless agents of simple-minded virtue, slavishly devoted to their human masters. Like Pal wasn’t.
     Pal’s terrible wound healed slowly. It was an affliction of Biblical dimensions. He could move around slowly, always taking a step and discovering with a lurch that there was nothing there to support him. It affected his ability to sit on his haunches, cat-style. He would pause, sit, and pitch to his right and catch himself. The simplest acts were skewed and arduous for him. My other cats gained access to the second floor deck, where I first spied Pal, on two steep and precarious catwalks. I built each catwalk out of long of one-by-four, with small cleats running crossways every six inches or so, strong enough for a cat, but not tempting for a person. They deflected slightly as my cats trotted deftly up the forty-five degree incline from the yard to the roof of a shed attached to the back of the first floor, and from that roof to the second floor deck. Pal’s eventual scaling of these inclines was harrowing to watch. He crept on his stomach trying to minimize the asymmetry of his gait, and by the time he reached the middle of the catwalk, it was oscillating steadily as he lurched for traction and balance. At the end of the perilous ascent Pal was rewarded with the multiple wonders of at least two kinds of cat food, sometimes including exotic table scraps, and a secure, elevated perch for serious loafing.
     A hilarious look into the mechanics of Pal’s world was provided by his reaction to my sudden appearance on the deck: he would flee to the small hole I had cut in the wall of the deck for access to the catwalk and step half in and half out of the deck.
     To Pal, he was “gone,” when in fact his hind quarters were still protruding onto the deck. I never had the nerve to reach down and pull his tail.
     Pal became a regular. He grew robust. He was always deferential to the other cats, allowing them to eat first and giving ground, and wary of me if I moved suddenly in his presence. In the spring and summer he would diminish slightly in size due to the thinning of his fur and the rigors of “Pal patrol,” his sometimes two-week long hormone driven odysseys. Stealth was out for a three-legged cat of size. Though walking was slow and clumsy, he learned to run swiftly and with assurance on his three legs. His chest broadened and his hips narrowed in compensation for the missing leg, and when he was in full pursuit putting pretenders to rout, he seemed like a demonic Egyptian milking stool.
     His return from patrol would be heralded first by frantic scratching for traction to gain access to a hole at the top of the backyard fence, then an alarming thud as he belly-flopped into the yard, then more grappling for traction up the catwalk and finally emergence on the deck, sometimes sporting a new notch chewed in his ear, sometimes something worse. He was amenable to human contact, if the human brought food, or nearly as important, if the human scratched the areas of his head, shoulder and back that could not be scratched because of his missing leg. On those occasions, he became a squirming mass of crusty feline gratitude. The remains of his missing leg would chug frantically to establish harmony with the splendor of his gratification.
     One day he seemed transformed when, after a particularly vigorous orgy of scratching, he sat sated in the afternoon sun, front paws close together, chest out, head erect, territorial boundaries secure, all pretenders at bay, eyes blissfully closed. A wave of contentment and knowing seemed to pass over him clothing him with a Boddistava’s venerability, and then he lost his balance and lurched to his right.
     Pal was around for about five years, an incredible tenure for a creature with such a handicap in the down and dirty world of feral competition. I’ve wondered about the skirmishes and the mysterious decorum of animal territorial and reproductive imperatives that seemed hard-wired into these creatures. Years ago I saw two male cats facing each other, lunging, transformed into that yowling, cartoon, spherical dervish of legs and flying fur, coming to rest and engaging again. During one of these face-offs, one of the cats was possessed by a sudden itch and he calmly broke off the confrontation to chew on the flea high on his back. His opponent waited for him rather than exploit this lapse of defense. High protocol in a situation where each seemed so resolute in his conviction that the other required an ass-kicking.
     The irrefutable truth of a creature like Pal slugging it out with a mirror image at the behest of forces unknown and unquestioned, where one leg more or less is irrelevant to the equation of what’s in the blood and in the heart, humbles our own urges born of self-inflicted complexities and the judgments of others.
     In the last few months of his life, Pal experienced a rapid decline. He seemed to be moving with some pain. When I picked him up, he groaned and finally he seemed uninterested in food. I didn’t intervene in these events any more than I had in the rest of Pal’s life. No neutering, no flea collar, no car rides to the vet. Our lives were parallel, occasionally tangent, but never intertwined. I gave him support in the form of food, scratching and chicken soup when he was hurt. He gave me a crusty, three-legged microcosm of existence where pain, fear, sustenance, gratification and triumph came and went without anticipation or regret. On a sunny morning sometime in 1990 Pal sniffed his chicken soup, wasn’t interested, hobbled painfully under the house next door and I never saw him again.  

About the Author

Richard Berger was on the art faculty at SFAI for over forty years. He was revered by his students and other artists alike. "Pal" appeared in Deus Ex Machina, the magazine that preceded works & conversations. A long interview with Berger appeared in issue #1 of w & c and additional features followed in subsequent issues: To All Artists Known and Unknown and Elephanta. Some reflections in memory of Richard Berger appeared in issue #30.


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