It was, predictably, Starsky who first adopted the cat.
The cat, a black and white tabby, showed up in their back yard, thin, scruffy, and dirty looking. After it had hung out there for two days, Starsky rummaged through the pantry and brought out a can of tuna and a bowl of milk. The cat devoured the tuna ravenously and drank the milk with gusto, then curled up in a sunny spot and fell asleep. Starsky was hooked. The next day, actual cat food made its appearance, and the day after that, a cat carrier for a trip to a vet for a checkup.
Hutch was less impressed. “Starsk, what do we need a cat for?” he asked logically. “Take it to a shelter if you want, and drop it off, it’ll be fine.” Instead, Starsky brought the cat to Dr. Navarette at the Bay City Animal Hospital.
Dr. Navarette examined the cat thoroughly, and pronounced it a neutered male, about two years old, and in apparently good health aside from a case of fleas, and one of ear mites. “Probably someone’s one time pet who was either lost or abandoned,” she said sadly.
She took blood tests and sent them off, and gave the cat a series of vaccinations, then put some drops on his neck for the fleas. “What are you going to name him?” she asked, as she showed Starsky how to treat and clean the cat’s ears.
Starsky had been thinking about that. “Zebra,” he said. “For our old call number. And because he has black and white stripes.” Dr Navarette nodded and made a note on the chart.
“Now, are you going to keep him in or let him out?” she asked. “I advise keeping him in. It’s much safer. And easier to treat the ear mites.”
Starsky considered it. “Hutch’ll have a fit,” he said, “But if you say he should stay in, I’ll keep him in.” He mentally added a litter pan to his list of things to buy.
As predicted, Hutch was not happy. However, he knew better than to fight with Starsky when his mind was made up, so he resigned himself to their new house-mate.
And Zebra was not as much trouble as Hutch had expected. At two, he was past his initial kitten exuberance, and settled in nicely to the two men’s routine. Starsky fed him in the evening so he didn’t wake them up in the morning crying for food. He used his litter box neatly, and Starsky kept it clean. He didn’t enjoy having his ears swabbed out, but Starsky quickly learned how to do it with as little fuss and bother as possible, and eventually the mites were cured. He did have a tendency to climb, and the first time he got up on top of Hutch’s music cabinet, and knocked off some loose sheet-music, there were angry words. But Starsky got him a cat-tree which solved that problem, more or less. He never made much effort to get out of the house, seemingly quite happy as an indoor cat after his adventures.
He was definitely Starsky’s cat, and Starsky was enthralled by his antics. He got a brush and brushed him every morning. He got cat toys, and played with him every evening. Zebra greeted Starsky enthusiastically when he came home from work, and, when, after dinner, the two men settled in to watch TV, or read cozily on the couch, Zebra snuggled up to Starsky and Starsky stroked him hypnotically.
Still Hutch at best tolerated him, declaring that Zebra only showed affection for Starsky because he knew who fed him. He complained bitterly when Zebra walked over the Monopoly board while they were playing. He grumbled that Zebra watched them when they made love, and insisted that he be shut out of the bedroom during their amorous moments. Then he complained that removing the cat took away the spontaneity of their sex, which Starsky pointed out was illogical of him. The real outburst came when Zebra nibbled on some of Hutch’s beloved plants. Starsky got him his own pot of grass, which helped with that problem. But Hutch refused to be mollified.
Finally Starsky asked him outright what he had against the cat.
Hutch sighed. “I don’t have anything against him particularly, Starsk., except when he eats my plants, or watches us get it on. I just don’t see why you wanted to get a cat at this point in our lives.”
“I didn’t want to get a cat,” Starsky pointed out. “He showed up and needed a home.”
“Well, you decided to keep him. I told you, you could have taken him to the shelter.”
“But he’s so cute, Hutch! And he loves us.”
“He does not love us, Starsk. He may have a certain affection for you because you feed him, but he doesn’t care about me at all.”
“Is that your problem, Hutch? Are you jealous of my relationship with my cat?”
“I am not jealous of the cat! I just think our life was fine without one.”
“And our life is more fine with one,” Starsky said defiantly. He scooped Zebra up in his arms. “Look at that face, Hutch. How can you not love that face?”
Hutch sighed. “Easily. He is cute, I will admit that. But we didn’t need to take him in, and our lives were perfectly good without him!”
The discussion ended with nothing resolved.
In truth, Hutch had nothing against the cat, or against cats in general. He simply was more of a dog person, and aside from that, didn’t like having his comfortable life disrupted by an alien presence. But as time went by, he got more accustomed to Zebra, and less bothered by the changes in their lifestyle that he required. He complained less about the disorganization that the cat sometimes caused, and Starsky even occasionally caught him giving Zebra an offhanded pat.
Then Starsky got sick. Very sick. It started with a cold that went down to his chest. Then it turned into pneumonia. Starsky was missing part of one lung from Gunther’s assassination attempt, and pneumonia was a very serious problem. Hospitalization was required, in the ICU. Hutch was not allowed to stay the night.
Before Hutch was forced to leave, the last thing Starsky said to him was, “Take care of Zebra for me, Hutch.” With tears in his eyes, Hutch promised he would.
Zebra met him at the door when he went in, mewing. He looked around for Starsky, and, not seeing him, went up to Hutch, who had sunk down on the couch, still mewing.
“Sorry boy, he isn’t here,” Hutch said, dully. Zebra mewed again, and jumped up on the couch. Hutch reached out a tentative hand and Zebra sniffed it delicately. He made a small whimpery sound.
Hutch sighed. “OK Zebra, I know I’m not your preferred food source, but it’s feeding time. Do you want to be fed?” Zebra stared at him mournfully.
“I’ll assume that’s a yes,” Hutch said. He pulled himself off the couch and went to the kitchen where they kept Zebra’s food dishes. Zebra followed.
Hutch got out a can of cat food and opened it. “Turkey slices,” he said with false cheer. “Looks almost like something we’d eat.” He emptied it into the cat’s bowl. “Here you go.”
Zebra poked his nose in the cat food and pushed it around a little. He looked up at Hutch and mewed plaintively.
“What, don’t you want turkey?” Zebra ate a little, then looked up at Hutch again, and mewed. He left the food dish, and went over to the front door and mewed some more.
Hutch sighed. “Missing Starsky? So am I. He isn’t coming home tonight.” He went back to the couch and slumped down.
Zebra padded over and jumped up next to him again. He headbutted Hutch’s hand. Hesitantly Hutch stroked his ears. Zebra pressed up against him. Hutch put his arm around the cat, and Zebra curled tighter against him. They sat like that awhile.
Then there was a noise at the front door, and Zebra sprang up, his ears pricked. The doorbell rang, and he ran over to the entryway. Hutch followed. He opened the door.
It was Huggy Bear, with a paper bag in his hand.
“Hey, Hug,” Hutch said. “What’s up?” He stepped aside and let Huggy in.
“A little bird told me Starsky was under the weather big time, and I knew you wouldn’t be eating. So I brought you dinner.” He held up the bag. “One ‘Huggy special’, just the way you like it.” He carried the bag into the kitchen. Hutch followed. So did Zebra.
“Now sit down at that table,” Huggy commanded. He looked pointedly at Zebra’s food dish. “You took the time to feed the cat, and I know you didn’t feed yourself.”
Meekly Hutch sat down. “I’m not very hungry,” he said.
Huggy snorted. “You need to keep your strength up. You won’t help Starsky by starving yourself.” He took a plate down from the cabinet and put it on the table, then pulled a wrapped burger from the bag. “Ta da! And fries, too!”
Hutch mechanically unwrapped the burger and took a bite. He was hungrier than he had realized; soon he had finished everything.
The paper wrapping had fallen to the floor, and Zebra delicately licked it. “Oh no you don’t, furball!” Huggy exclaimed, and whipped the paper out of reach. Zebra pouted, and then started eating his own food.
Huggy cleaned up Hutch’s plate. “You don’t need to do that,” Hutch objected, starting to get up.
“Sit down. It’s the least I can do, my man,” Huggy replied firmly. He put the plate away, got out a glass, and poured Hutch a drink. “Now drink this, and then get some shut-eye. I know you, if someone doesn’t force you, you’ll stay up all night brooding.”
Hutch sipped the whiskey, and felt some of his tension begin to loosen. Zebra wove around his feet on the floor, and Hutch bent to give him a pat. “Starsky’s really sick this time,” he began, but Huggy cut him off.
“Starsky will be fine,” he said. “My man is made of steel; he can survive anything. You need to keep yourself strong to be there for him, you dig?” Hutch nodded slowly, and finished his drink. “Now you and this furball here need to go beddie-bye. I’ll see you into bed and then let myself out,” Huggy went on.
He led the way to the bedroom, Zebra padding along behind. “It’s funny about the cat.” Hutch said. “I thought he was only interested in Starsky because he fed him but he really seems to miss him.”
“Are you jivin’ with me?” Huggy snorted. “I’ve seen that critter with Starsky, he is as smitten with him as you are.”
“Yeah?” Hutch said dubiously as he stripped down to his shorts and crawled in bed. Zebra jumped up next to him and curled up.
“Yeah,” Huggy affirmed. “Now you get some rest and don’t worry ‘bout nothing till tomorrow.” He snapped off the bedroom lights and Hutch heard him make his way to the front door.
Hutch didn’t think he would sleep very well, but he closed his eyes anyway. The soft, warm ball that was Zebra pressed up against him was more comforting than he expected, though, and eventually he drifted off.
True to Huggy’s prediction, Starsky improved over the next few days and Zebra kept Hutch company faithfully during that time. Soon Starsky was able to leave the hospital. Hutch brought him home, and Zebra met them at the door.
“Hey. There’s my boy!” Starsky said when he saw him.
“He’s missed you,” Hutch said as he settled Starsky in bed. Zebra jumped up too.
“No kidding? Well I missed him too.”
“Yeah, he really did. I owe you both an apology, I guess. He really does seem to care about you.”
“I told you so, Hutch.” He scratched Zebra’s head.
Hutch climbed in next to them and gently pushed the cat aside. With an indignant whuffing noise Zebra settled down at the end of the bed. “As long as he’s not replacing me in your affections, I guess he can stay,” Hutch said lightly.
Starsky laughed and snuggled up against Hutch. “Nothing could ever replace you, Babe. But I’m glad you changed your mind about Zebra.”
Hutch put his arms around Starsky and held him tight. “How are you feeling? Up for anything?”
“Always,” Starsky replied, turning to face Hutch and pulling him in for a kiss. “I guess you’ll want to put the cat out,” he added, letting go and moving back.
Hutch chuckled and pulled him closer again. “No, we can leave him there,” he said.
From the end of the bed came the contented sound of Zebra purring.