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Rest in peace, gentle cat

WE HAD TO put her down the other day, the tiny cat that had been around for 11 or 12 years, no one’s quite sure. Now, in the house she never ever left, a little of the background music is gone. And I am suddenly missing, of all things, a cat.

Pepper was a good cat, don’t get me wrong. She had only 15 personalities, far fewer than most cats. Far fewer than many of the people I work with.

There was the docile cat and the attack cat, the amorous cat, the loud cat. She could be Britney Spears one moment and Sarah Vaughan the next. She could be a street corner junkie. She could be a fading beauty queen.

We acquired her during a Little League game back in the 20th century, which was a pretty darn good century, looking back on things now.

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The kitten was being passed around by a bunch of little urchins during one of the boy’s evening baseball games. You know the urchins, the little brothers and sisters who play in the bleachers and harass the snack bar moms during an older sibling’s game. They spend the game getting as dirty as humanly possible. Dickens would’ve loved them.

Anyway, during this particular game, one of the urchins showed up with a homeless kitten, a little black morsel with green eyes. They passed the cat from kid to kid to kid, trying to figure out if there was any way of scamming some parent into taking home a fine kitten like this. Heck, you could look into this kitten’s eyes and see she was a person of remarkable character.

“See this cat?” the little girl asked; she was 4 then.

“No,” I said.

“Daddy, I’m holding a cat,” she said.

“No,” I said.

I remember the season more than most. The boy was 9, a kitten himself, and playing against 12-year-olds. Some of those 12-year-olds were like lumberjacks, with little wisps of facial hair and sideburns. There was a rumor going around that one had a wife and kids. What chance did a little 9-year-old have against a flame-throwing left-hander with a second mortgage?

That season, I worried over the boy’s every at-bat. So when the urchins came around holding the cat, I couldn’t have been less interested.

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“Daddy, see this kitten? See how good she is?”

“No.”

Besides, I had always been a dog person. To me, a house is not a home without at least one dog. I would sooner go without furniture than go without a dog. I would sooner go without food.

Most dogs don’t have a deceitful bone in their bodies; they are protagonists, even heroes. Ever hear of a rescue cat? A hamster would rescue people sooner than a cat would.

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Most cats seem to have no political affiliation, and if the republic crumbled tomorrow they would secretly rejoice. Cats spend most of their days curled up on your favorite jacket plotting a palace coup. “Shouldn’t the smartest one be in charge?” cats think to themselves. “That would be me.”

Of course, we got the cat. Their mother explained away the acquisition, saying the little kitten was amazingly well-behaved at the ball field and great with kids, which she was.

Pepper was probably the only living creature that could survive being held by a 2-year-old. She had this ability to relax in a toddler’s arms so that she no longer had a skeletal structure at all. When a small child held her, her eyes would go all languid and she’d seem to drop into a kind of coma. Her bones became tissue. Even fully grown, she was still small, about the size of a dress sock. Holding her was like cradling a black, green-eyed cotton ball.

With me, she was a thousand claws. On the rare instances I held her (“Here, Daddy, hold Pepper!”) she would suddenly become rigid as a pipe wrench and afraid for her life. In a dozen years, I don’t think she ever found the litter box once. Believe me, she had reason to fear for her life.

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Now, she is gone. Her back wheels gave out about a week ago and she was no longer eating, not even the remnants of the nightly ice cream she loved so much. So, on an otherwise unremarkable Thursday, my wife placed Pepper in a little towel-lined box and took the little cat for her last car ride.

“The angels came and took Pepper,” a teary little boy explained to me later.

She was probably putty in their arms.

Chris Erskine can be reached at chris.erskine@latimes.com. For more columns, see latimes.com/erskine.

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