“You ever hear the one about the cat lady who died alone with her precious pussies? By the time they found her, the cats—” Ralph’s voice boomed across the open room.
“That’s an urban myth, Ralph,” I snapped back. I couldn’t help but see his broad grin. “And you know it.” I was sorting through a stack of mail on a big, empty desk in a big, almost empty newsroom, but I heard him hoot with pleasure. He’d gotten to me
“They’re heartless beasts, you know.” He swiveled his bulky bottom in the ergonometrically correct desk chair and called back over his shoulder. “No point in loving them.”
“Well, you’re not any kind of winner,” I muttered. “Not with that attitude.” Head turned away, he didn’t hear me, and I saw him swivel back toward his desk, the only exercise he apparently ever got. He reached into the mountain of paper and cardboard mailers, cleared a space to reveal a computer keyboard, and pushed his Discman headphones back up on his head. As his tiny ponytail began to bob, I knew I’d been dismissed. Still peeved, I was tempted to grab that thin grey queue, as I’d never grab a cat’s tail. To pull him on his rolling chair through the city room would be pure fun.
But that kind of fun was too expensive for me. I was a freelancer, an interloper in this newsroom, even if I preferred to call myself talent for hire. An outsider, despite having labored as a paid employee here for the better part of a decade. Ralph was a staff writer—the Morning Mail’ senior rock critic—which made him a fixture while my kind came and went. And I’d just sold my former boss on a story that I cared about. Better not to ruffle any feathers—or fur for that matter. Despite the itch in my palm as I walked by that paltry bobbing lock, I resisted. Instead, I dumped the junk mail that had accumulated in my mailbox, tucked a long reporter’s note pad in my bag, and walked toward the escalators that would lead me out
Sunlight, one of the first real days of spring. I fished my dark glasses from the big, flat courier bag that held my life, pushed an unruly red curl back out of my eyes, and enjoyed the view through the paper’s glass front. The trees were budding, the strip of earth that rimmed the building glowed with a faint green that would soon be lawn. Next week, or maybe in two, either the heat would kick in with all its wonderful bugs and mugginess, or it would turn frigid again. In Boston, you could never quite tell. But on one glorious May Monday, it was spring.
After years of using the grim employee’s entrance in the back, I stepped out through the big, glass doors of the Mail and enjoyed the damp, fresh scent of the season. The first hint of lilac, salt from the nearby bay: it smelled to me of freedom. Which, considering I’m thirty-three, was coming just in time. Thirty-three, the “Jesus year,” which my friend Bunny, a lapsed-Catholic-turned-Wiccan, had assured me would be a year of changes and decisions. Professionally, at least, she’d been right. Sure, my income had plummeted when I’d left the copy desk a few months back, giving up nights of spelling checks and correcting grammar for financial instability and freedom. But now I could tell anyone who asked that I was Theda Krakow, writer, and not want to correct myself, to tack on “part time” or even “hopeful.” I had three months’ rent in the bank, a reasonably sound Toyota, and I was doing what I loved most, finally, with no restrictive clause attached
Thinking of claws, I tried to remember my cat food situation. The Mail was located right by a huge supermarket with a well-stocked pet department. It was just a moment’s thought, but suddenly the bright sky turned misty. For a moment there, I’d forgotten this year’s most devastating change: James was no more. The huge gray former stray who’d been my loyal feline companion for twelve years had succumbed three weeks before to kidney failure and an intestinal blockage that the vets had decided, too late, was cancer. Twenty-three days ago, actually. The bright sun no longer warmed me.
Time to work, I reminded myself. After several weeks of never leaving James’ side and nearly daily vet visits, I’d thrown myself back into my career, such as it was. My closest friends, I knew, were a little worried about me. Their attempts to drag me out hadn’t met with much success, even after James was gone, and when they did they noted the weight that had dropped from my normally healthy five-foot-nine frame, the rings that almost matched my dark eyes. At least one of my girlfriends had asked if I needed more time to mourn, or at least be with people, before diving back into a full work schedule. But I’d made the step out of my secure little job and toward a dream, and no matter how much I was hurting I wasn’t going to let that become a mistake. Editors didn’t understand delays, didn’t understand anything but deadlines and word counts. The freelancer who was late might have the best excuse in the world, but she wouldn’t get the call the next time that editor wanted a thousand words by Thursday. Putting grief aside, I’d typed up fresh story pitches, Xeroxed my best clippings, and gone looking for assignments.
It wasn’t just the money. I found the rhythms of reporting and writing to be mercifully seductive, particularly when my one-bedroom apartment had become so still and quiet. This kind of work was the perfect distraction—how can your own story bring you down when you’re trying to get inside someone else’s? I’d head home just long enough to make some phone calls, set up interviews, and immediately head out again. No point in crying or sitting around staring at the empty plush cat bed on the filing cabinet by my computer. There was always a source to be called or a fact to be checked. A story was in the offing, and it was time to hunt it down and pounce.
The story that was waiting for me this afternoon was one I’d been pushing for, one that sprang out of my adopted home town. Since coming to the area for college, I’d lived in Cambridge. This smaller city, across the river from the paper’s Boston base, had been dubbed “Boston’s Left Bank” and “The People’s Republic” with varying degrees of affection by the academics, immigrants, and aging hippies I called neighbors. Of course, the presence of staff and students from Harvard, M.I.T., and a dozen smaller schools hadn’t always blended easily with the area’s solid working-class base, a mix of old Portuguese families and newer arrivals from Africa, Asia, and the Caribbean, but that’s what kept things interesting. With the final demise of the Tasty, the old diner’s linoleum counter giving way to a chi-chi chain store that peddled overpriced swim trunks, some said the real Cambridge was dead. What kind of town was it where you couldn’t get an honest hot dog for under two dollars anymore, not to mention a lime rickey? But outside of Harvard Square, the balance still held. We still had more independent bookstores and coffeehouses than McDonald’s, and for that I was grateful.
My area, at least, was resisting gentrification. Stuck between the universities and the river, Cambridgeport wedged town and gown together too tightly for anyone to take on airs. Even the architectures lived cheek by jowl. Right around my block, with the rusty brick buildings where I’d found a rent-controlled apartment a couple of years back, was a row of old Victorians. Despite the wear, the graying clapboard, they had grace, not to mention the wrap-around porches and high ceilings I’d always longed for, and they gave the area character and a sense of warmth. You could wave at someone lounging on a swing on one of those sprawling porches, and he or she would wave back, regardless of color, language, or income level. The next time you saw that person, waiting in line at the drugstore or walking along the sidewalk, you’d both smile, like you knew each other. In a way, you did, thanks to the forced proximity of the neighborhood.
I’d made a habit of strolling through these tree-lined blocks as the dirty snow receded into the gutters these past few weeks. Deep in the heart of the riverside city they sat like a warm oasis. The neighborhood was definitely urban: traffic lined up on Putnam, the main cut-through, with loud salsa competing against NPR from the car windows as commuters sought a short cut to or from the turnpike. And in the mornings a definite sweet smell often filled the air—sometimes mint-flavored, sometimes pure sugar—from the confectionery factory that shadowed the area. I’d had roommates who said it made them gag, but Cambridgeport was home to me. I loved the mix of languages and people as well as the filigree touches that embellished an old arch, the detailing on top of a painted wooden column. And until I could afford one of those magnificent old houses, I was happy enough to live in a big brick box nearby as long as I could walk by those aging beauties and pay my respects.
It was on one of my morning walks, just two days earlier, that I’d found my story. It had found me, actually. Or she had, a small black and white kitten who’d barreled into me, nearly tripping me as I strolled unaware, eyes up on a particularly well preserved bit of masonry detail.
“Yow!” I’d exclaimed, catching myself from a stumble and seeing, at last, the black and white dumpling who’d woven between my ankles. “What’s up, little kitty?” But she took off, not deigning to answer, and I followed. Partly, I’ll admit, because she was adorable, those tiny white boots kicking up behind her, but partly too because she looked awfully young, with fur that still clumped like wool and a little spiky tail that seemed too short for her round body. I hadn’t spied a collar, but if I found one on her I’d make sure to deliver her right back to her mama’s door
She was too fast for me, however, and ducked under an overgrown holly bush before I could scoop her up. I could see two light green eyes staring back at me from beneath the dark green cave, but the thorny leaves that came almost to ground level made access challenging.
“Okay, little girl. Maybe you’re home.” I’ve always spoken to cats. Who knows how much they understand? More than we knew, I’d venture. At any rate, she didn’t respond, and I stood to straighten my back. Suddenly I was aware that I wasn’t alone. Standing up had brought me eye level with the elevated porch of one of those Victorians—and face-to-face with three of the largest cats I had ever seen. Two tabbies and a long-haired gray stared at me, and as I stepped back—an involuntary response to their pure size and majesty—another, somewhat smaller, joined them.
“Hello.” It couldn’t hurt to be polite. They didn’t respond, but a fifth walked up, a bright orange tiger, coming, I could see now, from the opened window that let out onto the sagging, paintless porch. She (or he, I couldn’t really see) was joined by another, basically white and frankly a little grimy, with a black spot like an eyepatch on her right side. “Meh!” she said, summing me up rather quickly, and flopped on the boards beside her colleagues.
Six cats, seven counting my kitten. I was beginning to wonder who lived here. Forgetting my original intention of simply perambulating toward groceries, I walked up the pitted driveway that ran up alongside the house and was nearly tripped again as a door opened inward and four more kittens—adolescents, really—charged out, all long legs and skinny tails as they batted each other and wrestled their way around me to disappear in the weeds of the lawn.
“Do you have a kitten?” I looked up at the sound of a voice so faint it could have been the rustle of the leaves. “Did you bring me a kitten?”
I was momentarily dumbfounded as I looked up into a small round face surrounded by white curls. Despite the day’s growing heat, she wore a blue-gray cardigan, which I couldn’t help noticing was misbuttoned. And on her shoulder sat another cat, a small one, brown and sleek with at least a little Siamese in its background.
“Did you?” Her voice had grown a bit louder. Was she expecting tribute? Then I remembered how I’d first noticed her brood.
“There was a kitten, a little black and white one. I thought she might be lost.” My answer sounded feeble. Clearly, I realized, this kitten was part of a much larger pride. How many cats did this woman have?
“Ah, Musetta. My little flirt. No, she’s fine. We’re all fine here,” she said turning back into the house. On her shoulder the almond-shaped blue eyes of the Siamese turned back to watch me and blinked once. “We’re doing fine.” The door closed behind her and I was once more alone in the sun. The cats on the porch had disappeared, as had the adolescents play fighting in the long grass. All that remained were my questions and the memory of one roly-poly kitten, too young to be out on her own and destined, I feared, for trouble.
“Excuse me. Excuse me!” The sharp voice that broke my reverie didn’t seem to be begging anyone’s indulgence, but I looked up automatically. Was I blocking someone’s way? I’d begun to wander away from the cat lady’s house, my mind lost in a vision of cats’ eyes, and stood at the end of her driveway, where an overgrown lilac had begun to show its first dark-purple buds. “Excuse me!” A thin thirtyish woman in a bright turquoise suit was waving to me from the steps next door, one of the nicer houses on the block. “Are you with animal control?”
“No, I just thought there was a lost kitten…” I began to reply, raising my voice to match her volume, when she cut me off with a wave of her manicured hand. I caught a glimpse of a gold bracelet, the obvious mate to the heavy gold chain around her neck. At her gesture, I approached.
“Kittens! There are always kittens there.” She said it as if it were a bad thing. “People are always bringing them by to her. I don’t know what to do.”
“Do you think she’s a hoarder?” Ever since I’d seen those cats assembled on the porch, I’d wondered. While true cat hoarders—the kind who take in so many stray felines that both their health and the well-being of their pets is endangered—might be uncommon, the number of cats that I’d seen, plus their caretaker’s unwillingness to chat, had set off a small alarm in the back of my head. Cat hoarders, or collectors, tended to avoid outside contacts. We are all the enemy in their eyes, since we often come around to remove the animals that we see as endangered and they see as family. I’d heard of hoarders who lost almost all connection with reality, as their isolation fed the wild stories that grew around them and they were ostracized by their neighbors. This woman had seemed to recognize the kitten I’d described, so she wasn’t too out of it. But why had she brushed me off like that? How many more cats were sheltered inside the rundown house? Sure, the old lady might just be a bit reclusive, a private person or shy. But I’d thought of this as a friendly block. Here was her neighbor, a woman who obviously had a life—and a well-financed one at that—willing to talk with a perfect stranger.
“Hoarder? She’s a freak, that’s what she is.” Her clipped tones accented the word dismissively, leaving no room for discussion. “A freak. But everyone brings their cats to her. Never mind what they do to our yard or to the songbirds in our trees.”
“Do they look healthy and well fed?” I asked, knowing full well that some hoarders will feed their cats before they put dinner on their own tables
“The cats? They make this area look like a ghetto!” She spit out the word. It didn’t answer my question, but her own gesticulations brought her attention to the thin gold watch that lay beside the bracelet. “My ten-thirty!” She disappeared inside. Just as I turned to walk on, her glossy dark-green door opened again.
“If she’s a friend of yours, you tell her that I’m calling animal control again. You tell her.” She ducked back in before I could reply, but there was no doubt in my mind who the nicely dressed woman was talking about. All I questioned now was my own readiness to believe appearances.