Motor Cat came back.

They thought she was a goner.

For several years now, Motor Cat and her riding partner, J. Catman, have been causing double takes all over the metropolitan area. After all, it's not every day you see a cat astride a Suzuki 500, tooling down the highway. With both riders wearing helmets. Ears pressed down under the helmet, the slightly pudgy feline always projected the insouciant air of a hep cat.

But this past Memorial Day, Motor Cat and Catman were separated after a heated confrontation between Catman and officials at Sligo Seventh-Day Adventist Church in Takoma Park. Catman says he was delivering an emergency message to a friend attending an eighth-grade graduation ceremony there when church deacons asked the pair to leave. The church declined to comment, but others reported that Catman and his pet were disruptive.

In the ensuing scuffle between Catman and the deacons, the frightened cat ran off into the adjacent neighborhood. After more than three weeks, the somewhat skinnier Motor Cat was found by Catman.

"Actually, she found me, a half a block from where the {incident} took place," says the thirtyish Catman, who declined to give his real name because "I don't want people beating my door down." (He also says he is looking to change his name legally.)

After Motor Cat's disappearance, Catman quit his job doing landscape maintenance in the Takoma Park-Silver Spring area to devote himself to a round-the-clock effort to find her, distributing several thousand fliers to every home within a half-mile of the church. Catman says he virtually abandoned his Arlington apartment to camp out in Takoma's Sligo Creek woods, "plotting and planning on ways I was going to get the cat back."

"I put food out every day, all over the area, hoping she would at least get something to eat," Catman adds. Last week, exhausted after another day of searching, he sat down in Palmer Lane, a small side street near the church, for some curried chicken and rice. And suddenly, "she appeared, trotting pretty quickly and meowing very loudly," says Catman.

"She was begging to be picked up."

And, it turns out, rrrrrr-aring to go.

"I didn't think she'd be in the mood for a motorcycle ride -- I certainly wasn't -- so I was going to call a taxi," Catman recalls. "Actually, she was overly enthusiastic to get on and ride home. She was talking the whole time, or meowing, for lack of a better word. And she was happy to be home."

After all, that's where her Jimi Hendrix records are.

They met in 1987. Catman had taken his car to a less-than-ept mechanic. "Actually, he was a lousy mechanic but he had a very nice cat, so in exchange for his lousy performance, he threw in the cat, which I thought was a good idea since she was literally starving to death. But even then, she had an incredible personality."

Back then, the cat's name was Greasy -- "she had dirt and grime and grease all over her from playing inside the garage" -- and according to Catman, she started exhibiting strange behavior from the moment he put her in his car. "Driving down the street, I couldn't find the cat and I looked under the seats and then, there she was, sitting calmly in the back seat, like a person."

At home, Greasy would perch on a windowsill, and "every time a loud motorcycle would go by, she'd stare it down, which I thought was unusual since most cats run away from noise." And when Catman, who's been riding cycles for 20 years, played racing videotapes, "she'd be very interested and get up on the chair and start looking at the TV. Eventually, I had to accept her behavior."

Even when it shifted toward the bizarre. One day, Catman was in his car, driving on the Beltway, when he noticed a woman following him, speeding up. He tried to ditch her, but she was persistent and finally caught up alongside.

"She was screaming bloody murder and told me there was something on my roof and I better look at it. When I pulled over, she was standing on top of the roof. She apparently had surfed on top of the car at relatively high speeds. ... But I don't like her doing it and I discourage it as much as possible. Now I look on my roof every single time to make sure she hasn't snuck up there."

In fact, Catman recalls a time when he checked the roof only to find a few miles later that she was hanging on the side of the car -- on its rain groove!

The motorcycle riding began in 1988, and Catman had to temper Motor Cat's instinct with training.

"She wasn't born a motorcat," he admits. For the first year, they never traveled over 35 mph, and Motor Cat's usual spot was on the gas tank, looking behind the wind screen. There are rug pieces both fore and aft of the Suzuki, says Catman, "because it's hard and slippery and I don't think anybody wants to sit on a piece of metal." He would give Motor Cat nudges to let her know about turns: "Everything is preplanned. It's a discipline. Now it's streamlined and she also relies on turn signals."

Motor Cat lives to speed. "She likes the wind, tries to get me to go faster," says Catman. "She gets impatient, she'll jump over my head and then land on the wind screen and look at me like ... "

But they've never wiped out, he says.

In the past year, Motor Cat has also begun riding on the back of the Suzuki, and sometimes on Catman's shoulder. "She likes looking at traffic."

Traffic sometimes has problems looking at Motor Cat, though.

"I've had about three people run off the road," Catman says. "One older woman, I made a U-turn and came back and she was in the ditch. I asked her what kind of car she had, she asked me what kind of cat I had. She was still more interested in the cat than the ditch."

No one's been injured yet, Catman says.

Motor Cat wears a helmet to reduce wind and traffic noise. She used to ride without a helmet, but mostly because Catman couldn't get one manufactured. Then he found a West Coast company willing to make the mini-helmet, which Catman color-coded with his motorcycle and emblazoned with her name.

After that, they became easy riders.

"We understand each other," Catman says. "It's her ability to communicate and understand about 125 words. I keep a computer file of words she does understand, and she understands sentences. Now, if you start talking about politics or mechanics, she's not going to understand much."

At home, "she likes me to put on loud music. ... She likes Jimi Hendrix. That's what got her thinking, that mind expansion music."

A week or so before the confrontation at the Adventist church, Catman had come to a small park near Sligo Creek to talk about Motor Cat, and at one point mused about his troubles with churches.

"They don't like my cat at churches," he asserts. "They may be following their old traditions and Christianity has traditionally been against cats. In the medieval period, the church tried to annihilate cats as devils. I just go in {a church} to use the bathroom or to get a nap in or something like that -- and they raise holy hell."

Which sounds like what broke loose that Saturday.

Catman says he was confronted by ushers, and that after he explained he was looking for someone, was told to make it brief. Then another usher told Catman to leave -- and when he didn't, shoved him up the aisle and against the door. He says he was eventually knocked down on top of Motor Cat, who ran across the street, limping.

Pastor Paul Anderson of Sligo Adventist declined comment, but the Takoma Voice reported that Catman had gone into the church after deacons twice told him not to bring Motor Cat in and then disrupted the service when asked to leave, shouting, "God made this cat and she has as much right to be there as anyone." The Takoma Park Police arrived, but no charges were filed and there is no report of the incident.

Now, Catman and Motor Cat are reunited. She's still a little traumatized, he says. "We're not riding as often -- we've been taking it pretty slow, with short little trips.

"I don't think I'll be going into any churches at all after this."