As I heard feet shuffling toward me, I thought again about the minds of cats. Envy, yes; shame, no. Disappointment, yes; regret, no. This foolish lucubration was cut short by my neighbor's arrival at the door. "Who?" she called. I told her, and then waited while she undid three or four locks and opened the door a crack. She was wearing fuzzy pink slippers and a matching bathrobe, and her white hair was rolled in orange curlers. Girding myself to launch into the speech I had prepared, I hesitated, intimidated by her scowling silence. Since her rent checks were always mailed to me promptly, and since I, in turn, kept the building in tip-shop shape, instructing my handyman to perform assiduous routine maintenance in order to pre-empt the need for costly repairs, my interactions with this neighbor, when we happened to meet in the vestibule or in front of the building, had been limited to token exchanges (like the grumbling about her son).
Now the atmosphere was blatantly adversarial. I ventured a smile that I hoped would be reassuring, but, if anything, her scowl deepened. Then, I heard it, a blood-chilling yowl from somewhere in the back of the apartment!
If this were one of those who-done-it's I have mentioned, the yowl, unmistakably issuing from the throat of my beloved Charles, would have turned out to be either the first in a chain of red herrings, or the solution of the mystery, to which, after a series of tortuous and amusing detours, the writer would return at the end of the book. But this was life!
When I heard the horrible noise, a conditioned reflex kicked in. Charles' yowls, I knew, were normally attempts to manipulate me. For example, he would yowl if the second half of a can of food was not fresh enough for him, or if I did not scratch the precise millimeter under his chin that gave him maximum pleasure. This time, the manipulation must be a cry for help. Having heard my voice when I addressed the tenant, Charles was crying out for me to rescue him.
"My, my, Mrs. --," I began, trying to be cagey. "I never knew you had a cat."
"Well, Sonny," she replied. (I am not more than a few years younger than she is.) "I guess you live, and you learn." And she slammed the door in my face. But I was not so easily put off.
Pressing my ear to the door, I could tell from her stertorous breathing that she was still on the other side. In my firmest, most no-nonsense voice, I borrowed from the hostage situations about which I had read in policiers. "Are you listening, Mrs.--?" No reply. "I know you have my cat in there." Still nothing. "If you'll just hand him out, you will still be able to avoid some extremely unpleasant consequences." Did her breathing grow louder? "What I mean is, I will summon the police. And, as you know, since I am your landlord, I have the legal right to demand access to your apartment in an emergency, which I consider the theft of my cat to be." A sigh. Was she weakening? "In that event, I will not only immediately institute eviction proceedings, but I will press criminal charges that could result in your conviction for a felony offense, punishable by up to ten-to-twelve years in prison. Do you understand me, Mrs. --?"
This farrago of legalese gobbledygook finally had an effect. "Well," she said, in a furious voice, "you can just go fuck yourself!" Then, I heard her padding rapidly away down the hall inside the apartment. A few seconds later, I heard a series of yowls, which suddenly grew loud, presumably because she had opened the door to the room in which Charles was being held captive.
What should I do? I had a horrible premonition that my tenant was about to murder my cat. Luckily, I had had the foresight to bring my passkeys, and fumbling at one of the two exterior locks, in a few seconds, I had it open. But I realized that I did not have a key for the other lock, which she must have had installed without my noticing.
Then, I heard another expletive and, I could have sworn, the sound of scrabbling claws racing toward me. This time, instead of yowls, there was a series of loud meows that sounded increasingly desperate, followed by the sound of the slippered feet, running now.
"All right, all right," she said. "Hold your horses, I'm coming." Fumbling with the locks, she cursed again when the door did not open.
"The top one is already unlocked," I said, assuming she must have re-locked it. A second later, I heard another click, and pushing the door open, I was met by Charles, who flew into my arms. The poor cat smelled like fetid dust and looked awful. He was thin and filthy, and his white blaze and paws were soot-colored. His expression mixed extreme consternation with what can only be called profound relief and gratitude. My felonious neighbor witnessed this touching reunion with a mixed expression of her own, scorn and fear.
"I'll deal with you later," I said, and leaving her at the door, I cradled Charles in my arms and carried him downstairs.
The aftermath and explanation can be narrated readily. After Charles had wolfed down three-quarters of a can of his favorite food, kidney-and-bacon (wet), he spent half an hour restoring his coat to pristinity. Meanwhile, Muffin keened with excitement. I could see him struggling to contain his ardent happiness as he observed the return and revival of his best friend. With his usual sensitivity, he did not yet try to engage Charles in play. Touchingly, their first interaction occurred while Charles was still busy washing himself. The big dog lay down beside him and gave the cat's face a loving flick of his big pink tongue. Totally out of character, the cat tolerated this invasion of his personal space.
When Charles was completely clean, he clicked off to the kitchen, and to his box, which I had left in its usual place. Urinating only (he would presumably proceed to his other business when the trauma lifted), he re-joined us in the living room, where he stretched, yawned, hopped onto the couch, and closed his eyes. Stationing himself on the rug, and snuggling up to the cat's resting place, Muffin assumed the role of sentinel. As for me, settling down in my armchair, I just watched. Once again, all was right with the world.
Over the next several days, I thought about my neighbor, whom I did not see. Gradually, my vengeful impulses were replaced by empathy. I thought I understood her loneliness all too well! I wound up knocking on her door again, this time to invite her down for a cup of tea, explaining first that I had decided to let bygones be bygones. Her expression of relief was lovely to behold. Worried, however, that she might be deranged, I knew that I must initiate an exploratory conversation to determine whether my pets and I would be safe if I allowed her to remain in the building.
"Have another piece of pound cake, Mrs. --," I encouraged her. Charles was hidden behind the skirts of the sofa, in front of which Muffin once again stood guard. The woman was seated in a small Windsor chair that matched my own chair. "It's good, I hope?" I had baked it myself. With an affirmative nod, she accepted a second piece, took a small bite, and washed it down with a gulp of tea. Instead of the dressing gown and curlers, today she was wearing an old-fashioned navy blue suit and matching pillbox hat. The hat, especially, which must have been at least three decades old, looked very chic. Not just her appearance, but her demeanor and behavior during this visit, were revelations to me. People, like pets, can be full of surprises.
After giving her time to swallow, speaking very softly, I posed the question I had been waiting to ask. "Why did you take my cat, Mrs. --?"
She blushed crimson, avoiding eye contact. Charles stayed where he was, and Muffin eyed the visitor warily. Carefully placing cup and saucer on the coffee table between us, she replied, speaking as softly as I had. "I'm very sorry for that, Mr. -- All I can say is that one day, about a month ago, I returned home to find the cat just outside the building. I was surprised to see him there." So far, she sounded completely sane. "When I opened the front door, he followed me in, and then stopped at your door. I rang your bell and, when you did not answer, I assumed you were out." She paused for a deep sigh. "I'm not sure why I did what I did next. I went upstairs and found some leftover chicken in my fridge. Cutting it into small pieces and putting it on a plastic plate, I opened the door and called to the cat. Since I did not yet know his name, I just said, 'Pss, pss, pss.' And he came bounding right up the stairs!" Another sigh, accompanied by a furtive glance to see how I was taking this. "I had placed the food just inside my door, and very slowly, with great caution, he stepped into the apartment." Again, she paused, this time looking sad.
"Well," I said encouragingly, "That was very kind of you, Mrs. --. But why..."
"It was very wrong of me!" she burst out. "Very! At first, I just thought I'd let the cat stay in the apartment until you got home, and then I'd return him. But ... you were out for such a long time that day."
It occurred to me that this must have been the day I had had the notices printed, and then gone around the neighborhood posting them. I remembered that I had not returned until well after dark.
"And then, the next day, I saw your notices about ... Charles ... everywhere, and realized what must have happened. After that ..." She began to sob. I gestured to the box of Kleenex that I had placed on the coffee table, and taking a handful, she dried her eyes. "Thank you," she said. "You're very kind." Gathering herself, she continued. "After that, every day I would tell myself I should return the cat to his rightful owner. I mean, he looked so unhappy! I could hardly get him to eat or to clean himself. But ... but ... but ... he's such a wonderful animal, Mr. --. And I was so lonely. I don't know how to ... I'm so sorry." And she began to sob again.
"There, there, Mrs. --," I said, reaching across to pat her hand. At that point, Charles's triangular face emerged from beneath the sofa. Muffin remained on guard. "I completely understand. Please don't worry. As far as I'm concerned, the incident is over."
"You're a sweet man," she said, which was true, and we resumed our tea party. The next day, I accompanied Mrs. -- to a nearby animal shelter, where I helped her select a kitten.
Several more weeks have now passed, during which I have assumed the role of mentor, training Mrs. -- in the finer points of animal care. Tomorrow will be a very special day. I have invited my new friend down for brunch, instructing her to bring along her kitten, whose name is Timmy, for a play date. I plan to spend the interim preparing treats for everyone, and trying to think of ways to make the introduction of this stranger-kitten into the home of Charles and Muffin as harmonious as possible.
By evening, having baked another cake (an upside-down peach sponge), and having returned from shopping for the animals, I found myself becoming trepidatious about Timmy's visit. So, dipping into the wicker rack, I dug out a handful of the pet magazines, and once again settled into my chair. Muffin and Charles were similarly ensconced in their regular places.
Inspiration struck! Recalling some of the facts I had read in one of those odious articles, I would now re-read them -- aloud -- to those whom they would touch most closely. First, I made sure that both the front door of the apartment and the one leading to the garden were firmly secured. Then, I began to read:
Among the most common sources of stress in pets is the misguided attempt to introduce a new animal into their midst. This often stems from a well-meaning attempt to enrich the social lives ...
Looking up to gauge whether my recital was having any effect, I saw the tip of Charles' tail as he scampered under the sofa. And as I watched, Muffin ostentatiously rolled his heavy body over in his bed, so that his back was facing me. The next lines in the article stuck in my throat:
Cats may experience disappointment, but not regret. The single exception is that they most likely regret not being large enough to eat us.