Of Cats and Neighbors copyright c 2015 Stroble Family Trust. All rights reserved.
Cover photo and artwork by Jean Stroble.
Being a cat is not easy, Cleo thought as she searched for a place to nap for a few hours before her nightly prowl. Humans were the main problem. If only they could act more like cats do.
When she wanted to sleep, they would turn on the big box that made moving pictures and too much noise or one of the small boxes in the bedrooms or kitchen that played something they called “music.” Cleo thought some of it sounded like the tomcats that serenaded her when she was in heat.
That was the other odd thing about humans. They “ohed” and “ahed” after her six kittens had been born last summer. But as soon as they could drink milk from a bowl, her litter had been given away to other humans. Worse yet, total strangers had walked away with her four sons and two daughters. If such behavior was acceptable, why didn’t her humans give away that baby that the masters of the house had brought home a month ago?
But all in all, Cleo thought her family did their best. Oh, there had been many changes since that new human that lived in the crib moved into her territory. Cleo could no longer enter the smallest bedroom, a place the humans had renamed “the nursery.”
It was located at the back of the house. Besides being quiet and perfect for catnaps, its big bay window gave a nice view of the backyard. That window’s foot wide sill had been Cleo’s favorite vantage point to monitor the squirrels, birds, and other cats that trespassed on her domain.
Didn’t those other creatures know the backyard was hers, her jungle? Oh, a few foolish birds might build nests in the oak or cherry trees. And the neighborhood cats that could scale the six-foot fence liked to use it as a thoroughfare during their daily circuits. The nastiest ones left behind their feces and urine, which perturbed Cleo and her humans. What do they think my jungle is, just a giant litter box for them to use as they are passing through, Cleo often wondered.
If any marauding feline dared to enter Cleo’s sanctuary when she was outside, she always faced off with them. Her low growls would escalate as her fur stood on end, followed by hisses. If those warnings failed to evict the four-legged trespasser, Cleo attacked. Her claws were always sharp because she groomed them by scratching her humans’ furniture and carpets.
Only once had she sustained worse injuries than those she had inflicted on a fat tomcat named Tiger. He lived two doors down the street and thought he owned the neighborhood. After that fight, it took a week of Cleo’s humans throwing whatever was handy at Tiger and squirting him with the hose before he stopped climbing into her backyard.
The bill from the vet for treating Cleo’s bleeding wounds and bruises had angered the man of her house. Only the arrival of the new baby had stopped him from complaining about it. Now, he fretted over the money spent for doctor’s visits, baby food, clothes, and furniture for the nursery.
Yes, being a cat would always be less complicated than doing what humans do, Cleo concluded as she watched mother nurse her baby. The sight reminded her of six hungry kittens kneading her breasts with their tiny paws as they sucked milk from them.
Sometimes even a cat does not realize how blessed she is until her predictable lifestyle of sleep, eat, sleep, roam, sleep is interrupted. For Cleo, the one who stole it from her was Mr. Withington, the neighborhood grouch. Even Cleo’s masters did not like him.
Not only did Mr. Withington not like the children whose play and antics distracted him from his mission in life to impose his cheerless disposition on all who came in contact with him, he especially did not like the cats that left their turds and pee around the basins of his beloved roses. After months of listening to his complaints, a co-worker had offered a solution.
“Get yourself one of those cages that people use to trap raccoons and possums in. Put some cat food in it.”
“But I don’t think I can kill them after I catch them,” Mr. Withington refilled his paper cup at his office’s water cooler. “And their dead bodies would stink so bad in the trash can that neighbors would call the authorities and turn me in. Especially that nosey Mrs. Gaffer. She’s an old crow.”
“You don’t need to kill them at your house. They might make too much noise and you’d get busted. Just take them in the cage down to the river.”
“And drown them?”
“No. Set them free there. Cats want to be free anyway, just like their big cousins. Don’t you ever watch those animal shows on TV about lions, tigers, cheetahs, leopards, and mountain lions? They –”
A glare from their boss sent the dawdlers scurrying to their cubicles and computers.
The co-worker’s suggestion was a rare opportunity that seemed to be a win-win situation to Mr. Withington. He stopped at a hardware store on the way home from work that evening. The clerk showed him how to set the trap and safely release “any wild critter who’s been trespassing on your property. Unless you like to eat them, of course. Squirrel pie makes for mighty fine eating. I have a recipe if you need one.”
Noticing his customer’s frown, the clerk added, “main thing is to season them right.” He took Mr. Withington’s $100 bill and made change.
“Thank you, my good man.” He reserved such monikers for those who irritated him, in hopes they would shut up. Not using his credit card deprived him of bonus points that he could have used toward next year’s vacation in England to search for rare rootstock to expand his collection of rose bushes. But by using cash, no one could trace the transaction of recent trap purchases to him once neighborhood cats started to disappear.
He drove his black Saab into his garage and closed its door. After a quick dinner, he set up the metal cage next to one of his nine rose beds in his spacious back yard. Lastly, he set an opened can of tuna fish in the cage. He left his bedroom window ajar so that any capture could awaken him.
Must not have any trapped cat’s caterwauling awakening the neighbors, he thought as he turned off his bedroom’s light.
Cleo climbed through the six-inch wide pet door that led to her back yard a few minutes past 11 p.m. Her inspection of her jungle complete, she trotted to the back fence and gazed at the top two-inch by four-inch by eight-foot cedar rail that supported the tops of a section of the dog-eared redwood fence boards. She crouched and propelled herself high enough for her front paws’ claws to dig into the rail.
After swinging her body onto the rail, she walked its length to the corner of the backyard and leapt onto Mrs. Mendon’s soft fescue grass. Her schnauzer’s frantic barking through Mrs. Mendon’s sliding glass door caused a light to illumine the porch.
Cleo bolted across the wet grass to the fence that kept a fragile peace between Mrs. Mendon and Mr. Withington. Whenever her dog’s barking had grated his nerves, he would spray it with his hose, night or day.
Cleo pulled a loose board’s bottom and squeezed through the opening into her favorite potty stop during her nightly rounds, rows of sweet smelling roses that masked her foul smelling excrement. She dug a tiny hole in the recently laid peat moss, squatted, and deposited a slimy mess into it. Then she carefully covered the hole and its contents. She was proud that her species were so much more sanitary than canines.
Just as she turned to retrace her steps home, Cleo caught the scent wafting from the can of tuna. She followed it to the strange looking metal contraption that held the unexpected snack. When its door slid into a locked position, Cleo ignored it.
Not until after she had eaten most of the fish did she begin to feel confined. No matter how hard she pressed against the door or the cage’s sides or top, freedom escaped her. A grinning Mr. Withington answered her mournful cries with his flashlight dilating her black pupils.
“Why, hello there, kitty, kitty, kitty. How nice of you to visit. Why don’t you come on inside where it’s nice and warm? We wouldn’t want you catching cold out here.”
He carried the cage to the garage and placed it on the back seat of his Saab. At the doorway into the kitchen, Mr. Withington paused. “See you in the morning flea bag. Bet you can’t wait to see your new home. He switched off the garage’s fluorescent lights and shut the door.
The darkness made Cleo’s cries grow louder. They ceased three hours later as she drifted off into a series of nightmares.
Waking an hour early, Mr. Withington drove his car to the river that bordered the south end of the city where he had spent his lonely life. On the way he inserted a CD of the soundtrack from the movie Rocky and played the theme song over and over. From the blares of triumphant trumpets to the repeated words that described new strength, the song fed his sense of triumph, of solving what irritated him most about his neighborhood.
Cleo paced inside of her two-foot by one-foot by one and a half foot prison. Dehydrated after a long night of no water, she panted and no longer cried. Of the hundreds of humans she had met during her seven years of life, Mr. Withington had seemed the most evil. His soothing words did nothing to calm her.
“Well, here we are, cat. Your brand new home.” He placed the transmission in park and left the engine running. After opening the passenger side door, he gently placed the cage on the asphalt parking lot next to the river and slid the wire door upward.
Cleo waited until he stepped away from the cage before she bolted from it. Her head rotated as she searched for a familiar sight or odor by which to get her bearings to point her to the safety of home. Mr. Withington cackled as he threw the trap into the trunk of his car.
“Happy hunting, fur face.” He slammed the driver’s side door and gunned the engine. The tires spun and left acrid smoke that assaulted Cleo’s nose as she crouched behind a row of thorny bushes. Her soft meows went unanswered.
Enough daylight had risen with the sun to allow her to view the strange area. Famished by not having eaten her normal breakfast, Cleo padded toward the odors coming from a trash can. Ignoring the ants that covered the meat left on smoked pork ribs and fried chicken bones, she pulled some of them from the can and ate the worst meal she could remember. Then she sought a place to hide.
Because a maintenance shed was perched on concrete blocks, the space between its plywood floor and the ground was adequate for her to crawl into. She curled up into a ball and slept until strange cars began to fill the parking lot. Saturday morning always brought out the fishermen to the river. Cleo watched as a group of them exited their vehicles and trudged to the muddy banks of the slowly flowing river. The friendly tone of their conversations tempted Cleo to follow them.
“You think we can catch our limit?” asked one of them.
“Sure. The guy on the radio said that they are running pretty thick up through the Delta. Nothing tastes better a freshly smoked salmon. I can’t wait.”
Waiting was Cleo’s strategy for the next four hours as she crouched in a thicket of oak trees. She thought these humans acted strangely. Whenever they caught a fish they measured it and sometimes threw the smaller ones back into the water. She hoped they would toss at least one into the stand of trees so she could finally eat a decent meal. Or maybe they would clean the fish and at least leave behind the heads, tails, and internal organs in the trash can as she had seen her master do after his fishing expeditions.
But instead, the four anglers took their catch home intact in chests filled with ice. So the lost cat waited until the last of the hikers, picnickers, and bike riders left the park at dusk. Then she scavenged the picnic tables and adjacent trash cans for what the humans had tossed away.
After a week of no milk and barely enough food to keep her alive, Cleo decided to risk contact with humans. She had grown weary of running from the raccoons, skunks, and occasional fox that treated her as a trespasser. A bird unlike any she had seen before proved especially bothersome. The tufts on its head and huge yellow eyes seemed evil to Cleo. Its talons had almost snatched her into the air twice as its three-foot wing span propelled the bird of prey nightly. The owl’s ability to rotate its head 180 degrees especially unnerved the cat.
On her eighth morning at the river, she walked up to a group of picnickers and meowed her introduction.
“Oh, look Daddy.” The youngest one at the table pointed. “What a skinny cat. Can we keep it, please? It looks so sad and hungry.”
The father cut a piece of the steak he had bar-b-queued and tossed it by Cleo’s feet. She chewed it and swallowed it in chunks and then begged for more. Within five minutes she had edged next to the young girl and purred and rubbed her cheeks and whiskers against her ankles.
“It likes me, Mommy. It’s purring.”
“Does it have a collar or any tags?”
“No. Can we keep her, please? I always wanted a cat.”
The mother studied the cat’s matted fur and mournful expression. “Well, she needs a bath before she can come inside the house. Will you promise to take care of her, Debbie?”
“Yes. I think we should name it Tiger because of its stripes.”
Cleo’s new owners proved to be kind. But after two weeks of resting and regaining her strength, she began to feel restless as she sensed that her former owners must miss her. So on a Friday while Debbie was away at school, Cleo ran through the open gate that connected back and front yards and set out to find her real home. A day later, hunger caused her to follow her nose to an open can of cat food placed in a cage. This time Cleo did not try to escape but ate the food and groomed herself as the other feral cats gathered around it and watched.
“Looks like we got one.” Sally Crashaw said as she lifted the cage in which Cleo lay. Kindness accompanied her words, which the cat welcomed.
“Is its ear clipped?” A boy helped Sally position the cage on the back seat of her minivan.
“No. Off to the vet with this one. Time to get fixed before we bring you back here.” She rubbed her face next to Cleo’s.
The interior of the veterinarian’s office was unfamiliar to Cleo, but the sounds of yapping dogs and meowing cats reminded her of the place that her masters had taken her about once a year. There, someone who always wore a long white coat would poke and inspect Cleo’s body, shine a light into her ears, stare at her eyes and mouth, and then poke long thin sharp metal spikes into her.
She crouched in the cage’s corner as a gloved technician pulled her from it. He ran a device Cleo had never seen before over her back.
“No chip inside of this one. Looks like you’ll be getting…” He pulled up Cleo’s tail. “…spayed today. No more litters of wild cats from you.”
Twenty minutes later a woman who looked the same age as Cleo’s master came into the room. She frowned as she read the chart.
“You sure look tame, kitty. Are you sure there’s no microchip in her, Daniel?”
“Yeah.” He grabbed the microchip detector and ran it over Cleo’s tense body, this time slower. “Oops. Guess I missed it the first time I scanned her, boss.”
The vet shook her head. “Copy down the information and call the owners.” She hugged Cleo. “You still have at least some of your nine lives left to live. What’s her name?”
“Your lucky day, Cleo. You’re going home to where you belong instead of back out into the wild.”
All four of Cleo’s masters arrived at the vet’s office. She meowed and purred as she wondered why it had taken them weeks to find her. Eight year old Charlotte was the happiest.
“Why did you run away from home, Cleo? Mommy says you are going to stay inside from now on.” She clutched her pet as they walked to the car. “That way you can never ever get into trouble again.”
Cleo yawned and stretched out on the back seat in between Charlotte and the baby strapped into his car seat. She slept during the half hour ride home and dreamed of Mr. Withington’s rose garden. But next time she would ignore his open can of tuna.
Thank you to our cat Moose (known as Cleo by our daughters) for the inspiration of her adventures and misadventures for the last thirteen years. Her most memorable one was disappearing for two days and returning home at 3 a.m. with nonstop meowing about where she had gone. She ended her tale with a yawn bigger than the one on the cover and took a catnap for nine hours.
Thank you to my alpha reader for the past thirty-nine years, Jean, and her photo of Cleo that appears on the cover.
Any errors that remain in these pages are mine.
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