Goodbye, Cheese

A story about a 20-something writer and his big, fat, orange cat

“I’m just here to look.”

That’s what I told the PetSmart employee who pointed out that plenty of kittens were available to adopt during the adoption event that I attended in August, 2011.

I had been in the Twin Cities for a few months, and I was thinking about getting a cat. And as a newly-minted “admission representative” (salesman) at a for-profit college that has since been shuttered by the U.S. government, I had some money to burn. But if my dad taught me anything, it was to do extensive research before big purchases — appliances, cars, living things—so I was not intending to make a quick-trigger acquisition.

When I saw him, he was truly a pitiful creature. Surrounded by rows of dainty kittens was this fat, orange monster cat stuck in a cage far too small. He was circling in his litter box with nowhere to go, and he looked up and me with his big, round eyes.

“Can I pick him up?” The shelter volunteer opened his cage and handed him to me, and he immediately latched onto my shoulders. The purring was like a mix between a broken lawnmower and an idle train as I held the mammoth cat. I tried to put him down, but he didn’t want to let go. So I said I’d take him home.

They told me that his name was “Chezel” (randomly generated by a computer application), but his nickname around the shelter was “Cheese.” He was an elder there, as his age was estimated to be anywhere from three to 12 years old. Cheese was on sale for $120 (the kittens were $150), and after gathering an XL carrier and a big bag of food, the 18-pound, bargain-bin orange cat and I headed home.

I was moving the next day into a Como rental, and so I stuck Cheese in a spare room by himself for a night. He howled incessantly, which was understandable if you imagine his situation. I was worried about my roommates complaining, so I went downstairs to pet him a little bit and film a video to send to my parents.

Look how happy he is. Finally, someone loves him. I picked the Simon & Garfunkel song “Keeping the Customer Satisfied” because of these lyrics:

Gee, but it’s great to be back home,
Home is where I want to be.
I’ve been on the road so long my friend,
And if you came along,
I know you couldn’t disagree.

Things were great in the new house (besides having to sue our deadbeat landlords for our security deposit at the end of the lease, but that’s a different story). Cheese learned to coexist with two different dogs, including a rambunctious puppy who liked to play a little rough.

Watch the end. Such a classic Cheese face.

In December 2011, I landed a dream job with the Minnesota Timberwolves. Ever since launching a fantasy football website on Geocities in 7th grade, writing content for a professional sports team had been the goal, and as far as the daily work, I had an incredible opportunity.

As far as the pay, though, I might as well have been back at the grocery store I bagged for in high school. As a Web Editorial Associate, I worked a full 40 hours per week for the Wolves (often more because of game days, but I didn’t mind) for an hourly rate of $7.25 per hour. That came out to $400-something every two weeks, after taxes. My rent was around $500 a month, to give you an idea of my finances.

So I rode the bus and picked up some night shifts at Franklin-Nicollet Liquor Store, a popular booze shop on an infamous corner. My days often consisted of creating web content about the best basketball players in the world from 9 to 3, followed by stacking cases of Miller Lite and Hamms in a cooler from 4 to 10. Then I went home, fell asleep with Cheese, and started again the next day.

Don’t get me wrong—my time with the Wolves was an absolute blast, besides the penny-pinching. One of my more memorable experiences was when long-tenured employee Jeff Munneke challenged me to come up with 20 cut-out heads for the new fan section in 101, and along with Kanye West, Jerry Seinfeld and Charlie Brown, I managed to sneak in Cheese. He quickly—and I’m not just saying this—became a fan favorite.

The funniest part was seeing Cheese’s face on television and looking at him on the couch—asleep, fat, and blissfully unaware.

At the end of my tenure with the Wolves (there was a legal limit on how long the team could pay somebody full-time without offering benefits), I had to make a choice. I could either move around the country and chase the sports dream like many of my colleagues, or I could stay in the Twin Cities with all of my friends and connections while waiting for an opening at one of the four pro sports teams.

I decided to play it safe and stay. I then went on to make the single worst professional decision of my life and turned down a social media position with MN United, a then-upstart soccer franchise entering its first season, because I “wasn’t sure about how long they would be around.” If you were wondering how accurate my concerns were, the team has done very well and is slated to enter Major League Soccer in 2017.

Instead of joining a promising and local professional sports team, I took $2,000 more per year to blog for a small marketing agency on such hot topics as pesticide, twine, and landscaping. Internal financial concerns were apparent, my 90-day contract was not renewed, and the company folded a few months later.

Waiting for my cab home at 6 a.m., outside the hospital.

During my stint as a disgruntled twine blogger, I attended a party at my friends’ house in Northeast Minneapolis. Like a good Minneapolis boy, I biked there and tried to bike back. A block into my ride home, I was drilled by an SUV and flipped over the hood. My transverse process vertebrae in my back was fractured, my hand was broken, and my head sustained an abrasion that swelled to the size of a baseball. I dodged surgery and was in the E.R. for a few hours before being cleared and taking a cab home at 6 a.m.

After limping up the stairs into my duplex, I remember laying down on my bed, still bleeding, with Cheese purring softly next to me.

What an imperfect pair… we really were made for each other.

I later found work at a start-up sports marketing agency that may very well go down as the worst work experience of my career. Long story short, I spent about four months working scared for my job and frantically applying elsewhere, along with the rest of my coworkers.

I managed to latch on to a local college in the communications department for an 18-month stretch of rather uninspired marketing work. Twelve months into the gig, enrollment was down, budgets were tight, and I was informed that I would not have my contract renewed.

For the fourth time in two years, I was a writer looking for work. Officially washed up, I came home, teary-eyed. Nobody thought my writing was any good, but Cheese was there with me. Unemployed, again, the failed writer laid down next to the overweight, borderline-diabetic orange cat with gingivitis.

What an imperfect pair… we really were made for each other.

My professional story didn’t—and won’t—end tragically. I’m having fun every single day working in Minneapolis Public Schools, I’m learning tons at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design, and I’m very optimistic about my future job prospects as a kind of hybrid designer/photographer. I’m resilient, just like Cheese.

My only wish is that Cheese could have been with me to see everything come full circle. Unfortunately, he didn’t make it that far.

I had always been warned of his kidney issues from veterinarians. We managed to get him down from 18 to 13 pounds, but the damage had already been done. By Summer 2016, he was laying around the house and not moving very much. We attributed his sloth-like tendencies to the heat, but things didn’t get any better in the fall.

A few days before Cheese died.

I never knew how old he was, but I knew he had a fair amount of years on him when I adopted him. I just wish I had more than five golden years with my little friend.

The vets rated Cheese’s creatinine levels on a scale of 0 to 5.0, with 5.0 meaning kidney failure. In mid-September, he rated a 4.4. We radically changed his diet and heavily encouraged him to drink more water. Two weeks later, he registered a 5.1... a death sentence.

Two days ago, I woke up to find Cheese refusing to eat or drink and hardly standing. He looked mangy, foggy, and weak.

I remembered all the times he laid with me when I was broken, and I tried to give him some comfort for all the times he comforted me. But it was too late for him.

We made a call, I brought my best cat friend into the vet’s office, and I shakily told the doctor that I couldn’t bear to watch this decline anymore. He agreed and said that even with weekly treatments, Cheese still might only have a matter of weeks left.

Sobbing like a baby with my amazing, wonderful, empathetic girlfriend Sarah by my side, I held Cheese as the vet put him to sleep. I’ll never forget watching the life leave his wonderfully round eyes.

Here I am, typing with tears welling up, about to go to bed. I’m still getting used to this empty house, to cooking in the kitchen without him meowing at my feet, to falling asleep without his company in my cold basement room.

As a self-proclaimed washed-up writer, it feels good to write my longest piece in years about a gentle soul who I cared about so very much. It was my honor to welcome such a wonderful cat and friend into my home for the last five years. I leaned on him more than he ever knew; he defined my 20s.

What an imperfect pair… we really were made for each other.

Gee, but it’s great to be back home,
Home is where I want to be.
I’ve been on the road so long my friend,
And if you came along,
I know you couldn’t disagree.
The last photo of Cheese ever, three days before he died.