By Brion Boyles
“DAD!….COME HERE, QUICK!”
This was my youngest son, Mason, just about a month ago. The house we have moved into has a creek and about an acre’s distance behind us, separating our backyard from that of the next street. There is a steep drop of about 20 feet— from our yard to a flat but heavily wooded area on this side of the creek’s banks. Our large deck projects well out over this embankment, and it was to the edge of the deck that that I ran in answer to Mason’s frantic call. Mason has completely cleared out the flat area of this parcel… from the footings of the deck to the creek. He has weeded, sprayed anti-poison-ivy juice, seeded for grass, erected a hammock and engineered pulley contrivances to lower snacks to what I laughingly refer to as his “Field Of Dreams”. He also has several items of our household property commandeered into his possession, and I had sent him down to retrieve a plastic tub I wanted returned to use for storage. He had just gone down for it when he first called out….
I got to the deck railing, fully expecting my youngest to be slipping into quicksand or some other fitting end. I instead spied him standing in the clearing with the desired tub in hand, but pointing a finger to a muddy, leaf-and-stick camouflaged animal of some sort… galloping towards him, howling out a Hallelujah-like “THANK YOU, SWEET JESUS!” with a desperate “MAH-AHAHAHAH-OW! MAH-AHAHAH-OW!
A cat. A rather small, frantic, terrified and pathetically wrecked cat. Oh, no. Not another cat.
Now, I like people to think I am not a “cat person”. At least, that is the persona I like to display. We already have two cats…gained from a shelter, without my permission. Well, not really. Yes, my wife Andi and sons Cooper and Mason (then 14 and 13, resp.) had already adopted them from the shelter where my dear mother-in-law volunteers, and yes, they were kept at mother-in-law’s house for a few weeks until they could figure out how to get me to think it was all MY idea. Eventually, the secret was let out and by then the two felines were already well-immersed in Boyles’ waters, so, yes, I gave permission for them to darken the threshold of our home. It’s been two years, now.
We have “Shadow”, The Window Sphinx… jet black, very large and with all the characteristics and charm of the Egyptian version. She will make visitors nervous and check themselves for scorpions.
We also have “Willow”… a precocious, tortoise-shelled, long-haired beauty…with huge fuzzy feet that look like she has been mashing moths with them like Italian girls squashing grapes for wine. She also has the temperament of a teenage girl —showing Coyness and Affection when she wants something she cannot steal from you, and Disdain mixed with Contempt the remainder of the time. I have developed a tolerance for them, and have been known to pet… but as I said, I prefer to not show weakness for furballs that regard me as hired help. Nonetheless, here now was an animal in distress —and for a Real Man, grace towards wounded animals—even shooting a lame horse— is regarded as a required sentimental nod to masculinity, the absence of which is a clear window to the soul…
“DAD! I think it’s hurt! What do I do?
The poor thing was practically barrelling towards Mason…I said, “Well, try to lift it up into the bin and bring it up here…!” Mason simply laid the bin on its side near the poor refugee, and it promptly leapt inside, as if to say, “GET me the HELL out of HERE!”
All this ruckus brought Andi outdoors. When Cooper told her what was happening, she hollered out “OH NO YOU DON’T! KEEP IT AWAY”…
Now, dear Reader, one mustn’t be quick to judge this outburst. Our two cats are indoor cats. They have the minimum of shots and so forth, but not rabies or the sort of precautions meant for wildebeesties. She was horrified at the thought of an unwashed creature of the wild mixing it up with our more sanitary versions, and I understood that. All I wanted to do was to determine the depth of this one’s need and render bare first aid and rescue.
Boy, did this cat need it?
A cursory look revealed the following:
A youngish thing, maybe 6 months, overall black with white “Bobby-sox” on all fours, white chest, and chin. She (we determined that) also looked like she had been caught napping early in her 9th life…her right front “arm” half-stripped of fur and flesh as if it had been run thru a lawnmower, and her tail looked like a shark had been gnawing at the base of it…it hung limply from her narrow butt like the end of a stubby broomstick. All of the wounds were caked in a few days worth of dried mud, leaves and gore. She was VERY thin, her face gaunt and triangular. A real mess. All the while we examined her, she wailed, “Mah-ahahahah-ow!”
We brought her up and gently spilled her onto the deck. While Cooper ran to fetch an old towel as a blanket for the bin and some food/water, Andi kept on with her worry…”NO! Keep that cat away! Disease! Fleas! Who KNOWS what!” She was adamant that this new thing would be the death of her favorites…and when the boys fed her and said, “We shall name her “Socks”!
“NO! NO! NO! No naming! NO NAMING!” (Any parent will tell you that a name is the end of all argument. I found THAT out two years ago.)
“Well, Huuuh-ney…” I said, “let’s just give it a little food, water, and rest—and she can be on her way. We’ll leave her here on the deck, and go to dinner….she’ll probably be gone when we return”. And with that, we all headed thru the sliding door and off to dinner. I didn’t DARE tell her that “Socks” tried to follow me inside—I’d left her on the patio, at the foot of the door… where she promptly plopped down to wait.
My eldest son Allen (30) was home for a few days. A welcome visit. I had been in an incredible, unshakable funk for a number of weeks—my creative muse had become dusty and Allen has always managed to help me shake it. He buys red wine, and by the second bottle, we are in high spirits. As it so happened, the reason I needed the plastic bin from Mason was due to Allen. He had sensed my doldrums. Looking at all the claustrophobic disarray, with the stalagmites of trinkets, clutter, mementos and assorted junk in my shop, he had deduced that the place was too crowded to really breathe, much less work in. “You need room for what MATTERS in here, not all this “stuff” that doesn’t DO ANYTHING anymore.”…and he was right. I needed room for things that matter. Therefore, we had spent the day going thru it all: clearing out a lot of it and rearranging my shop into two distinct areas—one for work, one for play/relaxation. We were just finishing up when Mason had first called out.
So we went out to a buffet and were gone for about 3 hours….and when we returned, “Socks” was still at the back door. So much for Plan “A”. In fact, the cat soon joined Allen, myself and two bottles of red inside my newly redesigned shop.
“THAT CAT had better not be in your SHOP!”, came the warning from our open 2nd story bedroom window….
“NOOOoooOO….well….NOT REALLY”, said Allen and me.
“WELL, WASH YOUR HANDS before you come inside if you touch that thing!”
Meanwhile, the cat had leapt into my lap, dragging its limp tail behind it, and gingerly curled up for a nap. I was there about an hour.
The next morning, I had an appointment—a housecall— in Alexandria. I have been rewiring a small model railroad layout for a 93-year-old retired Air Force General, and I go one day every week, all day. As I gathered my tools, housecallit came as no real surprise the cat was still at the door to my shop. Before I left, I made a deal with The Missus: You call the Animal Shelter to come pick her up. They can take her IF 1) they are going to treat her wounds AND/OR 2) if they are NOT going to treat her wounds, they put her down immediately. I didn’t want her her lingering in pain for two weeks with little or no attention, only to be deemed “unwanted” and put down. Andi agreed, and I headed out the door. I had arranged the Manly Thing.
All the way to my house call, I couldn’t help but feel like Dr. Evil. Here, this cat looked upon me as her Savior, and I was going to be nice and comforting —until the Nice Man took her for a ride to her new home “in the country”. Ugh. I couldn’t stand it. Then, some weird anxiety began to come over me. Nothing distracted me from it…or the thought that I am a horrible Man….not even the irritation I usually felt when hearing a 93-year-old man peeing into a plastic jug a foot from my ear as I work under his railroad. I couldn’t finish the day’s work fast enough. All the way home, I was hoping I wasn’t too late.
When I got home, I went directly to the shop. Seeing the cat at my door, I went inside the house, where Andi told me, “They don’t make Pick-ups”
“Well, Hon… I’ll tell you what. Let’s just let her stay or go. She can live around the shop, or she can take off. I don’t really care—I just want to give her a fair shake.”
“Fine.” says my Honey.
So, later that night I mused… “You know, there have to be a couple thousand cats named “Socks”. No, we must do better.
“Mehitabel” . You are “Mehitabel”.”
(I pronouce it “mehta-bell”)
Mehitabel was the name of a she-cat in a long-running and popular newspaper column, written in New York City during the 19-teens by a man named Don Marquis. The column was the nightly dictation of the tales of Mehitabel; a very worldly, worn and rather shady cat on her 9th life. These stories were dutifully recorded using an old-fashioned manual typewriter, operated by her best friend…a cockroach named “Archy”. Archy, however, being of diminutive stature and weight, could only jump up and down on one typewriter key at a time—and could not engage the “shift’” key at ALL. Those of you familiar with these ancient machines know that in order to operate the “shift”, you had to use TWO fingers at once—something Archy couldn’t possibly do—so Archy’s submissions were completely bereft of capitalization or punctuation. No matter. “Toujours Gai, Archy, Toujours Gai…” (“Always merry!”)Mehitabel would constantly tell him. He got it all down: when she was Cleopatra in a former life; when she danced and dined with Dukes and Kings; when she slummed around with Bowery bums and bred their litters…There was even a Broadway musical based on this collection, with Carol Channing as Mehitabel… a spot-on actress for the role, to my mind… for those of you who remember who Carol Channing was. For those of you who don’t, try Fran Drescher (The Nanny), or maybe that is still going back too far. Try one of the Mob Housewives Of New Jersey or something. You get the idea. Bonus: Mehitabel’s markings in the book’s illustrations, to my joy, were exactly the same as the sample cat snoring at my feet.
“Mehitabel”…I thought. “Perfect.”
Over the following 2-3 weeks, I tried to clean her wounds, but she was better at it than me. In fact, I had to be careful not to hurt her even more, as she had taken to following me around like a puppy. EVERYWHERE, no matter what I was doing. In the shop, she’d sneak up under my feet (resting on the bar at the foot of my work stool), and I had stepped on her a couple of times. If I went to cross the room, she’d be under my feet again before I got there. I got used to it… Even Andi soon relented. After the first week, she bought Mehitabel a genuine, wrought-iron food/water stand, with stainless-steel cups. She even brought literature from PetCo, showing various discount veterinarian and vaccine services they offered a few days a week. We are perpetually living hand-to-mouth, paycheck to paycheck, so vet services were out of the question for her wounds, but with cleaning and a relative leaf and mud-free surrounding, her front leg healed entirely by the second week. By the 3rd week, she was lifting her tail, and this week she was climbing the deck railings and being very perky, waving her tail at me and lolling about when I got home from a house call…rolling on her back and exposing her white belly as if to say “I can’t believe I AM HERE…BUT…YOU KNOW I was CLEOPATRA, once….”.
All this, very annoying to a “non-cat person”, you understand….
With all this distraction, my work in the shop has taken a lesser degree of urgency or frustration. When I would become engrossed in some little detail on one of the models I am building, I would feel her eyes from some newly discovered nook she had crept up or into, to peer over my head. She stayed in the shop at nights but spent days surveying the backyard from one of the deck chairs—unless frightened back inside by the lawn mower. She didn’t mind the vacuum cleaner though when I’d run it in the shop to clean around the litter box I’d made out of one of my parts drawers and put on the floor
This morning, I dropped Andi off at her work extra early. She is a manager at a crab house on the Potomac River, and today they had a boating event that required a rare breakfast offering. She had worked until 3 AM the previous night, and had I stayed up until she got home–we were both up at 5. I got back to the house—very unmotivated and tired. I made the pot of coffee that I hadn’t had time for before taking Andi to work and grabbed a cup and a Camel to sit on the deck a minute and try to work up a head of steam. Mehitabel came running out of the shop as I made my way onto one of the deck chairs, and kicked my feet up onto the seat of another chair…and Mehitabel jumped up on the same chair to curl at my feet.
I don’t really know why, but my mind wandered and wondered….Mehitabel would probably live another 15 years—about what I expect for myself. Sitting in that glorious, dappled, early morning sunlight under the trees around the deck, I thought, ” I could be content to sit here with this cat for the next 15 years.” Well, it wasn’t 15 years…but it WAS 3 cups and 3 cigarettes before I finally broke it off to get on the road for another appointment at the General’s house.
When I got home tonight, I stowed my toolbag in the shop and went inside the house. We decided on ordering Chinese delivery for dinner, and I grabbed the menu and phone, heading out to the deck to sit and place my order. I was FAMISHED. As I sat waiting for the phone to be answered, I noticed….No Mehitabel. I hurriedly placed our order, then went into the shop. I checked the nooks. Crannies. Roof (She went up there once and freaked out). Then the yard. Deck. The Field Of Dreams. No Mehitabel.
My hunger gave way to a knot of a different sort.
I spent the next hour going up and down the creek, thru the vines, trees, and ivy in the growing dark. I stepped in a deep root hole and really did a number on my left shin. I went up and down the street, looking into neighbors yards from the sidewalk as I passed, shaking the Tupperware cat food container that usually brought her out of any slumber or mischief…and was bitten on the right ankle by a shitty little pug/Chihuahua mix that came tearing out of an open gate… Chinese food arrives. I loaded up a plateful of my favorites and went to sit out on the deck, making more noise than necessary for good measure. I watched and listened, but no Mehitabel. Chinese food tastes like old Corn Flakes.
I quit and went into the shop to look again… My cramped and crowded shop looked full of meaningless junk again But very empty.
I wrote the notes to this by candlelight on the deck…amongst the half-empty Chinese food, and I am hungry again.
‘Toujours Gai, Brion….Toujours Gai”
I may not claim to be a “cat-person”
But I was no match for Mehitabel.