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September 25, 2023

The Joy of Cats 3

By Anna Sykora

Adrift in a baggy jumpsuit, Walt waited outside the TV room. "Evenin,' counselor," said Lead Lips, the poker-faced guard, jingling his keys.

"Good evening, Gus," Walt replied, and the grizzled guard unlocked the door. At once a crowd of younger, muscular men in orange jumpsuits came shoving in, grabbed all the plastic chairs and sat down.

"We only get an hour," Wild Turkey yelled. "I wanna watch 'Law and Order!'"

"Aw let's see the news," grumbled Lumpo, flexing his thigh-thick biceps with the I LUV MOM tattoo. "We see 'Lord in Order' every night."

"Who cares what's on?" cried a sunken-cheeked youth. "The sound isn't working anyhow."

"Make up your minds, if you've got any." Lead Lips waved the remote control.

"This is America," Walt declared, and heads -- shaved and sweaty, dread-locked or unkempt -- swiveled and considered him, bald and paunchy, standing in the door with the guard. "Why don't we vote like men?"

The detainees gawked up at him, and then quarreled louder than before. "The thing is to see something, anything," Lumpo bellowed. "While we can."

"How about a compromise?" cried Walt.

"These young guys wouldn't know one if it bit them in the nose," warned Lead Lips. "They're not retired attorneys like you."

"Well how about half an hour of the news?" Walt went on with Don Quixote's fervor. "And then the climax of 'Law and Order?' Men, we're just wasting time here fighting. Can't you see?"

"The hell with them all," said the guard, and tapped the metal-clad Bible in his breast pocket. "Let's watch the news; it's new at least." Some men groaned, some cheered as Lead Lips flicked on the TV.

Walt gasped at the screen shot of a bony dog silently howling from down a manhole. The mutt's ears stuck up and then hung out like a cross between German shepherd and floppy puppy ears. When a ladder pushed down and he grabbed a rung in his jaws, and two men with Animal Control on their jackets hauled him up, out of the hole. Walt shuddered as they pinned Hulk with padded Y-poles. Then a third man speared him with a sedative pole, and the huge, brindled dog crumpled in a heap.

"I've gotta save him," Walt muttered as he watched the officers bundle Hulk into a cage. "I've gotta get out of here."

The picture changed to stick-thin models sashaying down a catwalk in shimmering gowns. "Look at those beautiful babes!" cried Wild Turkey.

"No meat on 'em," Lumpo complained.

"Counselor, I thought you wanted to stay on in detention," said Lead Lips. "To avoid your wife."

"But I have to save Lily's dog. It's all my fault." Walt wrung his hands. "I promised to take care of him while she sang in the Open City Competition. He must have fallen down that hole when the mounted cop hit the florist's cart."

"Are you feeling OK? I know our chow isn't fit for a dog."

"I'm fine. It's a long story, though."

"Tell me quick, before the TV hour ends."

[Dear Readers, Part 1 of this tale appeared on March l5, and Part 2 on June 28.]

"You can't bring that cat in here," the manager scolded, a plump man shaped like a roll of Charmin. Chessy pulled his head into his bag Lily had stowed in the shopping cart, next to her backpack and scuffed guitar case. The manager glared at the skinny young woman pushing the cart through the checkout lane: her wild purple hair and tattered jeans, the "Open City Now" sticker on the case.

"What am I supposed to do?" Lily asked, pulling her frizzy wig straight on her head. "If I leave Chessy in the street somebody will steal him. He's a show cat, a Himalayan Persian. That's Persian with the markings of a Siamese."

"Then why don't you leave him home?"

"I'm homeless, mister."

He swallowed and wiped his forehead with his hand. "Well get him out of my store, miss, and don't come in here again."

Lily hung her head, counting out small change for a quart of milk. Then she shouldered her heavy rucksack, picked up the cat's duffel bag, grabbed her guitar with the other hand and marched out of the supermarket, leaving the cart for somebody else to put away.

She unzipped Chessy's bag on a bench at the sunny end of Minetta Lane as traffic poured past on Sixth Avenue. "People can be so mean," she murmured. Purring, the fuzzy old beige cat blinked his pale blue eyes and rubbed his head on her hand. "You must be feeling hungry, and your nice fur's getting so tangled too. You need a special brush, I guess. I'm starved; let's drink our milk at least."

Lily guzzled some -- cool, sweet and delicious -- right out of the quart, wiped a hand on her jeans and then poured about a teaspoon into that hand. Greedily Chessy licked it off and burped, and she brushed some milk off his nose.

"Take it easy, boy; milk's good food; don't you waste a drop." She poured him some more, which he nuzzled off her hand while her stomach growled and churned. "Ooh, if I could remember Walt's last name we could look him up in the book. What was it? Blanky, Blanket? I'm drawing a blank ... That's funny, Chessy.

"What I don't understand is where Walt went after the talent show. He took my dog and your asthma pills. Something must have happened. I hope Hulk didn't make any trouble ...

"I guess if we keep on hanging out together, Walt will find us ... I sure miss my dog. Hulk loved me and protected me, and kept me warm in winter." Though the day felt hot she turned up her jacket's collar, shivering in advance. "If we'd won third place, we'd have free rent for a year." She took another long drink of the milk, and Chessy meowed piercingly.

"Your turn." She shook the last drops into her hand, and he licked it clean. She checked the cup near her cardboard Homeless and Hungry sign, which held exactly 11 cents and the wrapper off somebody's chewing gum.

"I've got an idea," she said brightly, and rummaged in her pack for half a crayon, then added to her sign in extra-fat letters: "My cat has ASMA. He needs pills." She buttoned Chessy into her jacket so only his head hung out. He blinked at the noisy traffic for a while and then nodded off.

The next old lady to totter down Minetta Lane found two dollars for Lily in her worn purse. The one after that gave a five dollar bill and a kind-hearted vet's address.

"Your Honor, I wish to post my bail." Walt, in an orange jumpsuit was representing himself. From her bench in the almost deserted courtroom, Judge Hildegard Waffle -- pink and plump-cheeked as an albino hamster -- gazed down at him curiously.

"Your honor," rasped squint-eyed Alexander Covet, throwing back his narrow, stooped shoulders, "his wife is petitioning the court that he first undergo a mental evaluation."

"On what grounds?" the judge asked sharply. "Nobody has suggested Mr. Blanken poses a danger to society." She patted a file on her desk. "He has been a model prisoner in detention."

I've had 34 years of practice with Olympia, Walt almost blurted out. Modestly he nodded at the judge.

"Your honor," rasped Mr. Covet, "Mr. Blanken has behaved irrationally starting on Labor Day weekend. First he took a cat to a baccarat game in Atlantic City. Subsequently he abandoned a brand new Mercedes at the Babylon Resort, a silver sedan with burl walnut interior trim."

"Where is it now?" asked the judge. "Was it stolen?"

"No, your honor," Olympia put in, who sat alone in the first row in an elegant navy pantsuit, while the lawyers crowded near the judge. "I had it towed."

"Please continue, Mr. Covet."

"Next Mr. Blanken brought a dangerous dog to a talent competition in Bryant Park, a dog which created a nuisance by barking and knocking down wooden barricades. Furthermore it assaulted a mounted policeman, causing personal injuries and property damage."

"That dog had good cause," Walt said firmly.

"This is not a hearing about a dog," the judge retorted.

"Where is he anyway?" Walt ventured.

"Impounded, I suppose," rasped Mr. Covet.

Judge Waffle cleared her throat. "Mr. Blanken seems as sane as any New Yorker. I'm granting his motion to post bail."

Walt spun around and faced his wife: "See? Somebody believes in me."

Olympia stood up. "Walt, I expect you to come home with me."

"I have to find the dog I lost, and poor Chessy."

"Order!" The judge banged her gavel, which broke. "Case dismissed," she groaned.

That night Lily settled down in an empty store's entrance, arranging her things so nobody could lift them while she slept. When she slipped off her wig and smoothed it with her fingers a chunk of the purple frizz fell out.

"I wish I had a new one," she complained, and Chess, curled up in his bag, blinked his eyes as if in sympathy. She ran a hand over the stubble of her once thick and glossy dark hair. "I got this wig from a theatrical supply near Times Square. They didn't want it anymore. Ooh I wish I'd left my hair alone; I wanted it blond for the talent show so I tried one of those hairdressing schools that do your head for free... I guess you get what you pay for, Chessy; you make your choices and live with the results. At least it's growing back." She pulled on it a little.

After laying out some old newspapers, she picked up a soft lump of book for a pillow. "Hey, it's a phone book." She rifled through the pages, and some fell out in her hand. The "Bs" looked intact. By the streetlights' glow she skimmed through the columns beginning with Blank.

"His wife's name's Olympia, like the Games. I just have to find a 'W and O.' Ooh what if they've got a private number? No -- they're here!" Heart beating hard, she ripped out the page. "We better call them right this minute; New Yorkers are only home in the middle of the night."

The pay phone across the street had a high heeled shoe hanging up instead of a receiver. "Aw, I'm too tired to schlep our stuff again," she groaned. Plucking some dry garbage from an overflowing dumpster she mounded it over the guitar and rucksack, and then shouldered the cat's bag again. Chess meowed complainingly as she carried him down 4th Street, keeping her eyes peeled for an undamaged phone.

Olympia was lounging in bubble bath, a tray of crackers and Beluga caviar beside her, when the phone in her bedroom played the cavalry charge from the 1812 Overture. "Must be the Hong Kong office," she said. "They never leave me alone." Splashing out of the tub she grabbed a plush towel and then her phone.

"What's up, Ah Chu?" she demanded.

Lily gulped. "Hello? Is Walt Blanken home?"

"What do you want with my husband?" she asked warily.

"I've got his cat; he's got my dog. I just don't understand --"

"What have you done with my darling baby Castlewood Cheshire of Dempsey?"

"Chessy? Nothing. I'm trying to feed him, and give him his pills so he doesn't get sick."

"What's that noise?" Parading down Bleecker Street, drunken students were bawling out "America the Beautiful."

"Ma'am, I'm calling from a pay phone."

"Who uses pay phones anymore?"

"Please, I need to talk to Walt for a minute."

"He's out looking for you, near Port Authority station." A robotic female voice interrupted:

"To continue your call, please insert another coin."

"Where the hell are you?"

"In Greenwich Village. I've been singing at the Art Show all this week. Can Walt please come down, and get your cat and give me back my dog? Everybody wants to steal Chessy. I never had that problem with --"

"You want money, girl?"

"I just want my dog."

"You're a catnapper; that's what you are, and I'm gonna call the --" The phone went dead.

"We're out of change again," Lily said glumly as Chess snored inside his bag. "Maybe Walt will come looking for us? Maybe he knows what happened to my dog?"

"I got to the ASPCA first thing this morning, sir, and they sent me here." Haggard, unshaven, in wrinkled chinos, Walt gripped the dingy counter's edge while the City Animal Shelter's employee eyed him uneasily. Short and thick, he wore the name-tag Jimmy Scuggs on his tee-shirt lettered "Don't Ask ME."

"They told me they never euthanize animals," Walt hurried on, "but you do. They told me the dog I'm looking for was in this morning's truckload of unadoptable pets."

"Well, if he was," Jimmy drawled, hooking his thumbs in the pockets of his jeans and gazing down at the linoleum. "It's too late, mister, I reckon. All of them's already gone."

"Put to sleep?"

"That's what we call the gas, yeah."

Bunching his hands Walt slammed the counter. "Damn."

"Mister, it's not my fault. Don't blame me for city procedures. Nobody sane likes killing dogs. Your worst dog's better than your rotten man."

"I'm sorry; I didn't mean to be rude; it's just I've been up all night. I've been searching for his owner. I can't find her. Now he's gone." Tears misted Walt's eyes.

"We got a few live dogs," Jimmy said hopefully. "Maybe there's another one she'd like. We're not supposed to do adoptions, but ..." He rubbed his fingers together and winked.

Suddenly they heard a wild rage of barking from outside. "That's him!" Walt cried. "That's Hulk!" He turned and stumbled back into the dazzling sunlight.

In the parking lot, two men in polyester suits and sunglasses crouched next to a big black SUV with tinted windows, the taller one waving a bat at the dog barking in the front seat.

"Don't hit him, Axlee," urged the shorter man, cheeks studded with acne pimples. "After we paid good loot for him."

"If he don't get out of my driver's seat, Pickles, how we gonna drive him back to the club?"

"Wait a minute, please. I know that dog." Bald head gleaming like a halo, Walt strode towards them while the huge dog barked as if he'd burst himself.

"We just bought him for 40 bucks," said Axlee. "We need a watchdog. He's big and ugly."

"I'll pay you double." Walt fished out his wallet. "Then you can buy another dog, or two."

"It's a deal." Axlee eyed Walt's crisp twenties. "If you can get him outta my front seat. He's sheddin' all over my new tiger-stripe covers."

"Don't worry, I know what makes this dog happy. Please put your baseball bat away. He goes crazy when he sees anything like a stick. We think somebody beat him up when he was just a pup."

"I got beat too, lotsa times," said Pickles, "and I'm not crazy yet."

"You wanna bet?" asked Axlee. Pulling open the SUV's hatch, he tossed the bat into a clutter of assault rifles and cases of beer.

Meanwhile Hulk's barking softened as his nose worked overtime. Keeping a respectful distance, Walt leaned towards him and sang in a smoky baritone:

"You are so beautiful to me ..."

The gangsters gaped as the dog, gazing hungrily at Walt, grew still. "You are so beautiful to me," he crooned, and Hulk opened wide his jaws and howled in rhythm to the song, as if singing along. Soon Walt reached in and grabbed the rope knotted around his worn red collar:

"Come on, boy. Let's go find Lily." Wagging his tail like a windshield wiper, Hulk came floundering out of the SUV, as Walt's phone tootled "This Land is Your Land."

When he picked up his wife demanded: "Where the hell are you, Walt? I've been trying to reach you since midnight."

"I turned off my phone, dear. I had to seek, and I have found."

"What are you raving about?"

"I found Lily's dog, who sings. A pearl without price."

"And I'm Genghis, Lord of the Mongols." She explained about the young woman's call.

"Then I'll head for Washington Square right away." Walt hung up and nodded at the gangsters, wished them a nice day and trotted away, Hulk bounding by his side. He helped the bony dog into the silver Mercedes parked across the lot.

"You heard." Axlee eyed the gleaming car. "A 'pearl without price,' he said. I bet that mutt swallowed it to hide it, for fencing it. Let's tail him and steal back our dog."

"Boss, I don't think ..."

"Pickles, I don't pay you to think." Axlee dove into the passenger seat: "Just follow that silver Mercedes."

Artist's stands, with gaudy paintings and bosomy sculptures, filled the sidewalks around Washington Square Park, spilling into the neighboring streets. Artists in handmade hats and hand-printed tee-shirts hunched on folding chairs, patiently scanning the crowds for a gleam of interest in their wares. The leafy park brimmed with people strolling or sunning themselves on this golden September afternoon.

Arriving early, Lily had claimed the choicest spot to sing and play: right under George Washington's arch on the park's north side. Performing for hours between its white anklets of anti-graffiti paint, she gathered almost l5 dollars. The big cat felt too warm to wear around her neck, so she soothed her nerves by peering down at him as he gazed up at her benevolently, like a portable Buddha.

The sun blazed down, parching her throat. "Chess, I need a soda and pretzel," she murmured at last, "or I'm gonna faint. There's always a peddler near the fountain. You stay here with my stuff." She looped his leash around the neck of the guitar case, and then peered around.

On a bench nearby sat a pint-sized old lady, knitting away at a violet scarf that already looked about two yards long. Lily asked shyly: "Please, ma'am, can you watch my kitty for a minute?"

"Sure." She grinned, disclosing teeth like an amber necklace missing a few beads. "What a beautiful, long-haired cat you have. Needs a good brushing though."

"I know. I don't have a brush, so I use my fingers."

"That's better than nothing," she chuckled, working her needles click-click-click.

As Lily hurried towards the park's cement basin fountain, she noticed a plump, red-bearded youth lazing on his back in the grass, with three books beside him: Introduction to Psychology, Abnormal Psychology and Tomorrow's Psychotherapy Today.

"Hey," she called out, and he scowled up at her. "Didn't you perform last Sunday with the Juggling Gigolos in Bryant Park? Your act won third prize, though you broke two empty bottles."

"What's that to you?" He looked her up and down, and ripped the wrapper off a chocolate bar.

"You're not homeless; you didn't qualify. You're just a student at NYU."

Snorting, he tossed a stylish leather jacket over his books. "Prove it, Lily Trump," he challenged. "You don't even know my name."

She pulled his jacket off the books, grabbed one, peeked inside and read aloud: "Jacob Jaccuzzi--and your address is an NYU dorm!"

"That book isn't mine."

"I don't believe you; you look too well-fed to be living in the streets. I'm gonna call Open City now and tell them how you cheated."

"Gimme my book." She took a step back, hugging it to her breast. He grabbed it and tugged, explaining to worried pedestrians: "She's trying to steal my book!"

Meanwhile a ragged man was poking at Lily's possessions. Chessy squinted up at him; he smelled of wild cats.

"Get away," warned the old lady on the bench, waving her knitting like a flag. "That cat's not yours, and I know karate!" Cursing in Armenian, the hungry man shambled away.

Walt, having parked his Mercedes in the entrance of a funeral home, was searching for Lily on the park's south side, opposite the arch. Suddenly Hulk snuffled the air, and dragged him towards the spouting, cement basin fountain, as Axlee and Pickles hurried after them.

"She's got to be here," Walt muttered as the eager dog dragged him along. Then Hulk pulled free and bounded away. "Come back!" Walt rushed after him, the gangsters scurrying behind.

Just then a police car pulled up, flashing its blue lights. Out burst Olympia, followed by three sturdy cops.

Chessy, tired of waiting for Lily, snapped a hot dog from a diapered toddler. "Daddy, daddy!" She pointed at the fuzzy beige cat loping away with her lunch.

"Come back here, you greedy puss!" yelled the old lady on the bench. "I seed what you did."

Chased by three yapping terriers -- soon joined by a greyhound in a rhinestone collar -- the cat galloped over a chess game, knocking pieces aside as two ancient men in yarmulkes cursed at him in Yiddish. He leaped into a tree's low branches then and scrambled out of range. As the four dogs barked and danced around the tree, he bit into this succulent lunch he'd hunted by himself.

Hulk -- who'd found Lily -- rose up on his hind legs, his paws on her shoulders. Squealing, she embraced him as he slobbered all over her face:

"I thought I'd never see you again." Her purple wig slid off, into the fountain.

"Gimme back my book," warned Jacob Jaccuzzi.

"Take it, but I'm gonna tell on you."

"That's the woman who stole our cat: I recognize her voice." Olympia pointed Lily out to the policemen.

"What's going on here?" Walt demanded. "Lily Trump never stole our cat."

"Walt! You're my lawyer; you can help. I should've won a year's free rental. I just found out how the jugglers cheated."

"If that's true, I promise to help you."

"Help her?" Olympia stepped closer, onto a subway grating. "Where's my precious baby cat?" She stamped her foot in fury -- and the grating gave way, and down she tumbled into the dark, as if Manhattan had swallowed her whole.

"Oh dear!" Lily cried. "My mother said you should never, ever walk on those things." Walt stared aghast at the gaping hole.

"Call an ambulance!" roared a police sergeant. He got down on his knees and peered into the pit. Lurking Axlee took this chance to grab Hulk's rope, but the dog turned on him and nipped his knee.

"Leave that poor dog alone!" ordered Walt. "I bought him fair and square from you. Olympia, dear, are you hurt?" No answer.

"Call the fire department," the ruddy sergeant roared. While sobbing Axlee rubbed his knee, Pickles picked Jacob Jaccuzzi's pocket.

Passersby flocked around the brand new pit. "Is this a performance?" asked a pale woman. "Aren't you from the Minetta Theater troupe?"

"Where's my wig?" Lily clapped her hands to her stubbly scalp. A fat dachshund was waddling away, clutching it in its jaws. "Aw, who cares? Walt, where's the cat?"

"Up a tree," reported the pint-sized lady, clashing her needles like castanets. "I can show you where he run to. Cats are smarter than people; they know how to stay out of trouble, or how to save themselves."

Walt sat beaming in his easy chair, an open letter on his lap. He lit a cigar and blew two perfect smoke rings. "Lily got a year's free rent with the dog," he told Chessy. "Isn't it great how we helped out? I love helping people."

The old cat lay curled on the velvet divan, under the portrait of himself as Best in Show. Lazily he opened one pale blue eye, which glowed like the planet Earth.

"What peace and quiet. Home sweet home ..." Walt enthused.

The well-groomed cat raised his head and yawned. Almost time for his asthma pill.

"Are you happy, dear?" Walt asked his wife, nodding in her wheelchair in a puddle of sun, and she made a low, rumbling noise. The new phone tinkled its "Ode to Joy."

"Ginnie, honey," Walt exclaimed. (This daughter never called.) As he filled her in on her mother's new and perpetual state ("I think she's as happy as she's ever been"), Chessy stood up and stretched himself long.

Dropping softly from the divan, he padded over the Persian rug to where Mommy was sunning herself. He leaped into her lap and rubbed his head on her hands, and she cuddled him, and smiled and cooed, tirelessly combing her fingers through his silky fur.

-- Anna Sykora

Article © Anna Sykora. All rights reserved.
Published on 2010-07-12
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