Monday, January 31, 2011

Carl the Cranky and Tabby Tom: Part Two

Wherein we read of un-looked-for collaboration, suffer a shocking assault, and give chase to a pair of  scoundrels.

Sasha in Shadow

(Be advised, Dear and Gentle Reader, that this post is the second part of a tale, the telling of  which began last Monday with Carl the Cranky and Tabby Tom: Part One. )

Summer waned and gave place to the brilliance of Fall, who waned in her turn, stepping aside for the arrival of Winter. I, no less than the colony of cats, took a deep breath of appreciation when at last Spring, vigorous and green and full of bright life, waved a flowery handkerchief at old Winter and bid her be gone. It had been a cold and an uncomfortable three months. We welcomed the return of warm days and sunshine.

There is nothing more relaxing, nothing better for the unknotting of tensions that sneak in and settle about the head and shoulders, than to sit quietly and gaze at a cat who is sleeping in sunshine. This is a deep medecine. I suspect it is an ncient one, too,  for people have been watching cats for millenia. This particular spring I was happy enough to sit on the back deck, whenever I could, quiet and still. The cats would come, after a time, hunting their favorite patches of sunshine.
Handsome prefers to drape his fluffy yellow self on the railing, stretched out full length, soaking in the rays. Miss Kitty likes the deck itself, the southern, sunny side, just outside the back door. Skitter swings in the glider. Each cat has her own favorite spot, and I have mine. We spend many companionable hours there, in the company of the silent trees, watching the antics of squirrels and the flighty comings and goings of birds. When the cats are dozing, lost in a lazy somnambulance, mocking birds and robins, blue jays, sparrows, and others of birddom will come cautiously onto the deck, feasting from leftovers, from the bits left by the cats in their various bowls. The colony cats, drowsing in the sun while they digest, will watch the birds through half-open eyes, mostly uninterested. It's a picture of  The Peaceable Kingdom.

It was afternoon on a day such as this. After sitting for some time outside with the cats, I came inside and poured a glass of iced tea, then settled down with the laptop at the kitchen table to write.  My own cats, my four indoor cats, settled down companionably in their own spots of kitchen sunshine. It was no time at all before I was in The Zone. Relaxed from visiting the cats, the trees, and the sunshine, the creative parts of the brain were soon humming along at a productive buzz. This is the way we always hope work will be. Easy.  Fun.  Perhaps even lucrative.

There was a sound like an explosion; a gunshot, right inside the kitchen. The startle reflex kicked in; I froze. I listened. .

Everything was quiet. I thought I had imagined it, but the cats had dived for cover. Nope, hadn't imagined it.

I stood up. Another explosive sound, this time with the crystal sound of shattered glass attendant. Too much sensory input to make sense of immediately. A brick, or a piece of one, launched with force landed in the middle of the table and missed the laptop by centimeters. Tea glass explodes, adding more glass to the mix. The brick ricochets; continues its trajectory, smashes against the wall behind me. All this in perhaps a second, maybe two.

Like all of us, I'm equipped with a functioning "fight, flight, or freeze" response. Freezing hadn't worked. My flight mechanism never engages. I attribute this to my body's instinct for survival. At five foot two, I can't outrun a four year old. In an emergency, physical, psychological, or social, I can hunker down and hide, or I can bare my teeth like a badger and hope for the best. I was out the door with cell phone in one hand and pepper spray in the other before my thinking brain had even fully registered that a brick had come through my kitchen window.

The shortest and fastest route to the alley is out the front door and around the corner; adreneline is a miracle drug. By the time I got there, the two aspiring thuglets were still sauntering casually along, without a seeming care in the world. One of them was tossing and catching a half brick, as the pair went walking along, looking over fences and into backyards, scoping out their next target.

They were boys, maybe thirteen, maybe fourteen. One was of African descent, one of European, and they were clearly enjoying the warm spring afternnon. I rounded the corner into the alley and hollared a good loud Texas hollar.

"You wanna tell me what you think you're DOING!"

Now, I do admit, the sight of an enraged granny in fuzzy slippers can be startling, unsettling even. My greying hair, still long then, was in a ponytail on the exact top of my head. I was wearing the knit capris I enjoy for yoga, pants that end, in other words, just below the knee. My calves shone, white, untanned, and unshaven below, while I have already mentioned the ever fashionable fuzzy slippers. A red, long sleeved T-shirt completed the ensemble. Braless and free of make-up, I confronted the hoodlums. Who can blame them, really, if the lads dropped the brick and took to their heels? I'm sure I made a fearful sight.

In no time, they were at the end of the alley, rounded the corner, and were out of sight. I've had occasion to notice, after almost two decades of living in the City, that the Bad Guys are, one and all without exception, shameless cowards. It takes a coward to pull a gun to commit a robbery. (what, Mr. Bad Guy, you afraid a chubby lil ole Granny might put up a fight if you plied your robber's trade with no weapon?) Only a coward will break into a house when the residents are away, fearful of getting caught, unable to look the people they plunder in the eye. Only a coward preys on the physicaly weak, as rapists do, and pedophiles. I've never had much tolerance for cowardice.

I've also noticed that females of every age and species are remarkably irrational when their home is threatened, or their children. The adreneline rush to my brain had definitely shut down the rational functions. I was slower, physically, but I rounded the corner not so terribly far behind the cowardly brick throwing lads.

"I SAID," I hollared after them again, brandishing my cell phone, "WHAT do you think you're DOING?"

Now, the lads, the aspiring thuglets, were halfway down the block, on the next street from the one where I live. They had been laughing, congratulating themselves no doubt; They had been slapping each other on the back. My emergence from the alley, cell phone in hand and fuzzy slippers flapping, must have put them off their game a bit. This time they looked truly startled; an expletive was uttered. They took again to their heels, this time looking over their shoulder from time to time as I stood in the street. Several blocks up, they made a careening right turn. I had lost them. There was no way I could catch up. Besides, the adreneline was beginning to receed just the teensiest bit, and I was beginning to hear the rational part of my brain screaming, "WHAT do you think you're DOING?"

Grumbling, furious, I headed back up the alley, back towards home. A man I didn't recognize was headed my way at a grandfatherly trot, his own cell phone in hand. We met up in the middle of the block.

"Did you catch 'em?" he asked, giving a quick glance at my short chubbiness, my fuzzy slippers.  I allowed as how I had not. To his good credit, he didn't laugh.

"White kid and a black kid?" he querried. I allowed as how it was so. I told him about my window; we discussed a recent string of just such vandalism in the area. I promised to call the police and make a report, to "get it on the books," as they say, even though I knew the little cowards were long gone and that the police would have no luck in tracking them down. This time.

And then, because it's what one does when meeting a neighbor, I stuck out my hand and introduced myself. "I live at the end of the block," I told him, as he took my hand in a tight grip. "Down where the alley makes a T."

"Oh, I know who you are," he said. "You're one of the ... cat ladies." To his credit, he omitted "crazy" from his statement.  I did hear the pause, though.

"I am," I told him. I smiled in what I hoped was an amiable fashion. "I live across the alley from Sam and Jackie....."

He interrupted me. "Oh, I know Jackie," he said. "We've had words before about those cats." I cast around, looking for something friendly to say.

He indicated the open garage we were standing behind. "This is my house." I nodded, opened my mouth to speak, but he beat me to it.

"I'm Carl," he said, releasing my hand. "I'm that damn ass hole."

Now, Gentle Reader, I am from The South. My mother and my aunts, my grandmothers and my great aunts, all the women folk who had the training of me as a child, were from The South. We will not tackle, here, a full description of all it means to be indoctrinated by one's womenfolk into the culture and etiquette of The South. Let us merely note that the indoctrination is effective, complete, and irreversible. There was no possible response to the statement Carl had just made.

And yet we had just completed introductions. A response was required.

I stood in the alley, nodding, smiling, casting around for something to say. "Carl," I said, stalling for time. "It's nice to meet you."

"I doubt that!" he said. He stood there glaring at me; I continued to nod and smile, looking like an idiot. Then I caught sight of the thing that was to save me.

"I see you're a Marine," I said, indicating the Eagle, Globe and Anchor decal, the "Semper Fideles" motto carried in the proud eagle's beak, on the back window of a red pickup truck in the garage he had indicated was his. Carl the Cranky paused for a moment, taken slightly off guard, perhaps. I pressed on. "My father is a Marine."

"Ah," he answered, recalibrating. "Active or inactive duty?"

"Inactive," I said. "He died several years ago."

"Oh. I am very sorry to hear that." The sympathy and respect were immediate, and totally sincere.

The South has a culture, an aesthetic, but the Marines are a Corp, a body. And you are never released from that body, ever. Such is the mythos, at any rate. Perhaps the reality is sometimes less than the myth, but in my own experience I have never found it to be so. "There are no former Marines," my father has said to me before. "Only Marines on inactive duty." My father served eight years of active duty between the Korean and Vietnam wars. He was on inactive duty the day he died. I suspect in Heaven he is as well.

The Marines also have the legacy of  always bringing home their own. I still remember watching news footage in 1995, after the Oklahoma City bombings, when cleanup work stopped momentarily; a respectful and silent crowd stood aside. A group of young men in  uniform carried out, on a stretcher, a covered form which was obviously a body. The news commentator spoke in hushed tones: "The Marines are bringing out their own." 

When my father lay dying, as depression and low spirits began to take their toll, as my mother and children and I racked our brains for anything to help Daddy keep his spirits up, to the lighten in however small a way the load he carried, it struck us to call the Marine recruiters. They came. Several men, several times. They came to visit my father in his hospital room. Men of the Corp. They brought him the message that he was still one of them. Still honoured. Still important. Still needed. Never forgotten.

And they came again, when the end had come. In uniform, bearing a beautiful flag, to my elderly mother's small house, where my children and I had gathered, when my father's ashes came home. My mother was embarassed of her house. The long months of Daddy's illness had taken their toll on the housekeeping. She apologized.

I can still see that beautiful man, resplendent in his dress blues, a sabre at his hip. He knelt at my mother's knee; he took her old hand in his; he looked directly into her eyes.

"Ma'am," he said, "I have performed or assisted at this ceremony in trailer houses and in homeless shelters, and even in a leaky tent or two." The men with him, stood tall, nodded solemnly. One of them passed him the recently folded flag, which he placed gently in my mother's hands. My children and I stood about the room, quiet, quiet as one is in a holy place.

He stood, snapped to attention; snapped to a salute. The men with him did the same. "Ma'am," he said, "it is an honour."

And then they were gone. They  had brought my father home.

So there I stood, the Crazy Cat Lady, in the alley with Cranky Carl, the aging daughter of a Marine, and a Marine on inactive duty. The weight of that bond washed over us, and we regarded one another with different eyes.

"I can't let them starve," I said, indicating the cats.

"No," he allowed, frowning, scuffing a pristine running shoe in the gravel of the alley. "No, I s'pose not."

We talked of the cats, of the challenges and frustrations and joys of their presence. How, even if all the cats were removed, another colony would just move in. I did the best I could to explain Trap-Neuter-Return (TNR). I told him how all the cats in the colony were now neutered; how there would be no more kittens.

"I don't hate cats," he told me. "I have two of my own." Turns out the cats he has are rescues. Curiouser and curiouser.

We talked about dogs; I talked about how I missed having a dog, and hoped someday to have one again. I was introduced to his bouncy bulldog, whom I petted and scratched. We discussed options for protecting the ragtop of his car from cats and squirrels and from the leavings of  birds. We agreed that rats and mice were terrible things to have about.

"I wouldn't want to see the cats poisoned," I told him. "I worry about that."

"Hmmm," he said. "I can see that." I looked toward that red pickup, to the Eagle, Globe and Anchor displayed so proudly there. I offered my hand again.

"I'm glad to meet you, Carl," I said. His grip was tight; I hope mine was as well. "It's always so good to meet a neighbor."

"I'm glad to meet you as well," he said, and stood in the alley to watch me safely back to my own yard.

The brick throwing scoundrels were, to my knowledge, never caught, though their depredations came to an end shortly after our encounter. All the neighbors I spoke to or heard from were on the lookout for them; ours was not the only window taken out in their joywalk. Like the cockroaches they resembled, when the light of the neighborhood began to shine brightly, they scuttled for the darkness and have not been seen nor heard from since.

As for Carl and I, I won't say we parted friends, but we parted non enemies. We parted, perhaps, on terms of mutual respect, and there's a very great deal to be said for that. I felt the cats were safe, for now, from the threat of poisoning. And I really was pleased to have met another neighbor. Of such meetings are community bonds formed. We were building our village. Brick by brick.

So ends part the second of Carl the Cranky and Tabby Tom, a tale in three parts. On Monday the next, being February 7, 2011, our tale concludes in Part Three when strange alliances are called into play to save a life.

stlcatlady is a poet, blogger, and freelance writer of shortstories, news articles, and other such oddments, many of which center around her favorite subjecs: cats , philosophy, and folklore. You may contact her by sending email to stlcatlady1 at gmail dot com.


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