The twentieth century was dying, and for Christmas I finally moved out of my parents’ place.
I had a ground-floor unit in a four-flat brick building designed as spinster apartments in the 1920s, complete with pushbutton light switches and redolent with decades of dead mouse compost in the lath-and-plaster walls. It was square on the line between Grosse Pointe and Detroit. The front wall had bullet scars, and the folks behind me had BMWs. But it was mine, paid for by working nights at my first ever Internet job, answering the phone and yelling at the phone company. The place was furnished with the traditional mattress on the floor, a fourth-hand couch with only a small ant colony, and a folding card table to eat on. My fiancee (She Who Must Be Obeyed) came over for the celebratory dinner, and we had to swap the sharp knife back and forth.
Freedom. Ten bucks a month for groceries, but pants-optional living. You know.
The first morning there, I got home from work and plunged into unconsciousness. An hour later, someone hammered on the aluminum screen door out back.
When you work nights, you get cranky about those bizarre daytime folks. Especially those who dare interrupt your slumber. I had hung up a hand-written sign that said “Night Worker, Do Not Disturb,” but some illiterate cretin had ignored the implied threat. I yanked on my bathrobe and staggered to the door. The person knocking on my back door?
A large black short-haired tomcat.
Cat looked at me, shouted You’re not my mommy, and bolted.
Well, I thought, that was weird. I went back to bed.
A couple hours later? BANG BANG BANG
And every couple hours thereafter.
My brain was thick with sleep, but after a few rounds I figured out that the previous tenants had abandoned their cat. There is a special place in the afterlife for people who abandon inconvenient pets, and that place is full of sandpaper and lemon juice. Unfortunately I didn’t know my predecessors’ names or phone numbers. Neither did my charming new neighbor Larry the Leg-Breaker.
Could I have adopted the cat? Probably, but the cat wanted nothing to do with me. I was not its mommy, and no other thumb-beasts could be trusted. I looked at the poor critter and said “Dude, I’d do better by you than the folks who dumped you.” I spent a chunk of my food budget on a bag of cat food. Cat food comes in a bewildering variety, especially if you know nothing about cats, but fortunately up on the top shelf I spotted Alley Cat Food. In retrospect, cat food manufacturers saw me coming.
Over the next couple weeks, the knocking slowed. I figured out that he was sleeping under the porch in a nest near the furnace vent, so he wouldn’t freeze. I filled his dish every morning when I got home. We named him Tiddles because heck, we didn’t have to live with the name.
Spring came. Tiddles stopped knocking. We would often take our card table out onto the back porch to eat dinner. Tiddles would sneak up, hoping we we would miraculously transform back into his mommy, and was always disappointed. He wouldn’t come closer than ten feet or so, but we’d fling him bits of dinner: a chunk of chicken, a stub of hot dog, a syrup-soaked square of waffle.
Events proceeded until SWMBO finally graduated from university and passed her nursing boards and we could get married. We decided to spend our honeymoon on our first cruise, so that whenever we felt peckish we could lift a finger to summon the Shrimp Boy. Turns out a real cruise is not like that, but that’s another story. We asked SWMBO’s mother to come by and feed the fish, rodents, and Tiddles. Tiddles was still skittish and wouldn’t come within five feet of us, but no way was I gonna abandon Tiddles again. He’d at least get fresh food and water each morning, if not discarded bits of baked potato.
What nobody expected was that the cat would take one look at Mom, shout MOMMY, and immediately crawl into her lap.
At this point, Tiddles’ collar had rotted off. He had not been bathed in years. He was pure post-apocalyptic Detroit: hard-bitten, greasy-furred, and proud owner of a collection of ctenocephalides felis that would impress any entomologist. Nobody would mistake him for House Cat On Walkabout. We would not have expected that Mom would let him crawl into her lap. But she did.
We also did not expect that Mom would come by after work and sit for hours on the back porch, combing him and informing him he was a good cat, yes he was. Because she’d have to go buy a cat comb. And playing with a mouse on a string attached to a stick. Which, when we left on our honeymoon, we also did not own. We were on our lovely relaxing tropical honeymoon, where a mistakenly bounced credit card led directly to a man with an AK-47 escorting us through dark alleys past the Goat-On-A-Stick wagon with its wheels parked in bright green sewage and not even thinking of home. Except to hope that Mom would remember to feed Tiddles every morning. “We really ought to bring her something.”
Our flight home was delayed because Puerto Rico’s hard-wired telecommunications were down and Air Traffic Control was coordinating everything on a single satellite phone, but eventually they found us a place on an Aeromexico flight half filled with very angry exhibition-grade chickens and the remainder stuffed with even angrier Americans. Shortly before dawn we cracked open the bedroom window, agreed we would never cruise again, and collapsed in what was officially our bed.
Shortly after dawn, something a foot from my head shrieked MRAAOW.
When I say shrieked, don’t mistake me. This was not a cry of anger. Nor did it indicate physical agony. This was a cry from the depths of a creature’s soul, expressing a rending misery too deep for any mortal frame to bear.
After enduring years of valiant questing, Tiddles had rediscovered Mommy. Mommy had shown up every single morning and afternoon for over a week. But now Mommy had vanished again, and Tiddles was not having it.
Tiddles knew Mommy was in this building. She was here. This was unquestionable. And he was going to get her attention, no matter the cost.
He circled our building. The fact that the ground floor windowsills were ten feet off the ground was irrelevant. He would climb the brick. Pulling himself up by his teeth if need be. He had not come this far, endured this much, to fail now.
When Mommy did not emerge after the first loop, he continued.
Well, we had to be up anyway. There was no food in the flat, other than nine ten-pound bags of “Nourriture Pour Chats Super Raffinée” and a heap of cans of overpriced D-grade tuna labeled “Feline Luxury Excelsoir Deluxe” that had somehow materialized. Weirdly, the half-empty bag of “Alley Cat” had found its way into the trash. I left food out for Tiddles and went grocery shopping. When I returned, Tiddles was still at it.
Nobody can maintain that intensity for long. Each loop of the house took about an hour. He needed several attempts to reach most of the windows. Brick ain’t easy to climb. He did it anyway, breaking only to crawl under the porch and fall into exhausted sleep.
We proceeded with the post-vacation we-go-back-to-work-tomorrow cleanup, but every so often a banshee screech would declare Tiddles’ despair. He kept going all night. About three AM, Larry the Legbreaker shouted something about shooting that damn cat. He had a point–this couldn’t go on. None of us could take it. Coming back from your honeymoon tired and hung-over is one thing, but if that kept up even the most understanding employer would feel obliged to let me go.
That next day, I stopped on my way home from work to borrow an airline kennel. I set the kennel on the back porch, baited it with one of those mysterious cans of Pussycat Prowess and a dish of water, left the door open, and stepped back to wait.
Larry the Legbreaker looked out. “What are you doing? Oh, good, get rid of him.” The most civil thing we heard from any of those neighbors, even Larry’s successor who got a fallen tree branch stuck up his butt and showed up in the emergency room on SWMBO’s shift. Larry did rate above the family who lived above us, the ones who kept a goat in their flat.
Tiddles reached the porch. The windows there were only a couple feet off the floor, so he didn’t spend much time there. He looked at the kennel. Sniffed. Looked at me. Sniffed in the kennel. Looked at me. I kept myself still, my brain screaming all the while take it you stupid cat I need some damn sleep and you’re gonna give yourself a stroke so you have to go.
Tiddles looked at me and said, I want you to know that you’re not fooling me. Defiant and proud as Lucifer stepping into Hell, he stepped into the kennel and began to eat.
I snuck up behind him and closed the door.
He immediately objected. Loudly and fiercely.
I moved the kennel into the apartment’s tiny kitchen. He eventually quieted down, so long as we didn’t go into the kitchen, the dining room, or the bathroom, or make any noise whatsoever. Dinner was stealth pizza in the front room. Fortunately we were young and still had robust bladders.
The next morning, we hauled Tiddles to the vet and had his snipped, dipped, clipped, and shipped him to Mom. “Surprise! You now own a cat! And he comes with a heap of expensive cat food!” We left with him curled up on her lap.
Two weeks later, we stopped by to see how they were doing. Mom cheerfully explained that he preferred his dry food in the morning and wet food in the evenings, and he would graciously agree to accept a treat if offered. He had a preferred cushion on the couch, in prime position to watch TV. Mom and SWMBO wandered off to collect some things from upstairs, leaving me alone with Tiddles. He was sprawled on his favorite cushion, licking his pristine paws.
I gave him my best glare. “I know for a fact that you’ll cheerfully eat cold waffle with cheap syrup.”
Tiddles grinned. Yeah. I know.