Michael and Julius have a new friend. She’s about 75 years-old and lives on our block in a semi-rundown house. I have heard random gossip from the morning dog walkers that her recyclable garbage contains only wine bottles. Another neighbor labeled her a nasty, old lady.
Until recently, I had never met her. I knew her house, but like so many people who are close enough to touch, our paths never crossed. Then one day, while playing on our lawn, Michael and Julius spotted a black cat across the street. It became our activity for the next ten minutes to follow it. No matter how it scampered from us, we pursued. At least they did. I pursued them. Finally, the cat stopped at her driveway, walked up toward the porch and laid out on the concrete, stretching like he owned the place, which he obviously did.
“Her name is Marina,” said a quiet voice off to the side.
I turn my head and notice a woman in a blue, flowered housedress sitting on an old kitchen chair on her porch. It’s not even a porch really, just a small, guard-railed area to stand and get your key out for the door.
“She’s a little skittish, but mostly playful. Come around to this side of her and pet her head.”
My boys listen and beam proudly when Marina rolls over for them and sticks her head under Michael’s hand for continued pleasure.
The woman goes on like she’s talking with a friend over tea. “I took her in. She was a street cat and it took a while to get her to trust me, but now she’s very comfortable. Not like that one.” She points, and we all turn to see another cat strut out of her open door, rub up against the leg of her chair and saunter down the steps. “That’s Valentine. He’s not nice.”
Valentine had Garfield’s body and Cujo’s expression. “I think he was abused.” The woman said and Michael and Julius automatically take a step back. Marina did as well. “You never know the story with rescue cats. Where they come from, what’s happened to them.”
Two more cats emerged from the house, and Michael and Julius stared in awe. “Are they good?” Julius asked.
“That one’s Cocoa. She’s very friendly. And this here is Pumpkin, she’s sweet but very shy. I don’t think she’ll let you touch her.”
Michael and Julius slowly approached, with cartoon-quality, quiet faces and matching exaggerated, quiet steps. I almost expected them to turn around with a finger to their lips and go “Shhhh. I’m hunting wittle cats.”
Cocoa loved up their loving and, Pumpkin, as expected, stayed a safe distance away, jumping backwards anytime one of the boys invaded her space.
We stayed too long, the boys obsessed with the felines running round, and watching Valentine (“the meanie”) mess with the other cats, stalking and then pouncing on them. I said a few words to the woman, and she acknowledged me, but spoke mostly to the boys in a soft, adult-voice, schooling them on each cats temperament and history. The boys were fascinated, asking questions, listening, not just politely, but with interest. Wow.
There was no condescending baby talk. No, “Oh those are cute kids.” She spoke with my four and seven year-olds as equals. I wondered about her. Alone, in her house with her rescued cats and a reputation. I remembered she gave out inappropriate candy on Halloween the first year we lived here – sticky, wrapped hard candy, probably from a bowl sitting on her table for 5 or 50 years. We never knocked again.
It was getting late. I was getting bored. “Guys, come on. We’ve got to go home.”
“That was so cool.” Michael exclaimed as they skipped back towards our house.
“Yeah!” Julius chimed in.
“Can we go back later?” Michael asked.
“Yeah!” Julius again concurred, nodding expectantly.
“No, not today guys. We were there long enough.”
“Can we get a cat?” Julius asked hopefully.
“Uh, we have a cat. Remember? Fuzz.”
“Yeah, but he’s boring.” Michael said glumly.
“He is not.” I defended poor Fuzzy. “Come on. Let’s go play with him”
We walked in our house and neither kid showed the slightest interest in Fuzz. “It’s okay, boy. I’ll play with you.” I cooed and stroked his fur.
We’ve been back to the cat lady at least half a dozen times now. She always steps out onto the porch in her house dress, like she’s been waiting for us. I know as little about her as I did the first day. The boys love going. They enjoy her conversation. They love her cats. They’ve won Marina and Cocoa over completely. Pumpkin is still a spectator but a less jumpy one, and “Meanie” Valentine is still not showing the love. I’m the real outsider. Watching. Waiting. Wondering. Do I really know any of my neighbors? Not really. So close. So distant. Who was she? Who is she?
Every so often I run in my neighborhood and sometimes notice her door left wide open. The gaping hole looks dark and empty and full of quiet, and I wonder, is she the one who needs to be rescued…?