Saturday, June 5, 2010
Alphonse is not really evil, it's just that our own cat, Martha, thinks he is. In truth he may be misnamed as well. He may be Alphonsa. Or Alphonsina?
This cat, black with a white chest and white paws, has prowled the neighborhood for upwards of five years. He survives all weathers. I have seen him loping down ice-crusted backyard snowdrifts in the howling winds of February, and trotting along the alley in the sunny blazing heat of August. What he eats or drinks in any season is beyond me. He must know how to hunt, for I've seen him eagerly tearing at and gulping down things in the neighbor's lily of the valley bed. And yet he is also glad to consume a plate of roasted chicken by porchlight on a darkening winter afternoon, when nature's pickings must be slim.
Last spring, a full year ago, he emerged with a friend who looked exactly like him, accompanied by three gambolling gray kittens. Unhappily, the three gambolling kittens were picked off, I fear, rather quickly by an impersonal and pitiless fate following the glorious day in May when they leaped about the soft green grass, learning the difference between sun and shade, and practicing climbing trees. In a few weeks there was one kitten, and then there were none, and Alphonse's friend also disappeared. But the two adults looked so alike -- perhaps it was Alphonse (or Alphonsa?) who disappeared. Perhaps this seeming long-term survivor is actually the Friend.
At any rate one of them is back, and taunting Martha as usual. Martha used to be a stray herself. She is an enormous and beautiful calico, picked up on the streets of Whiting, Indiana, three years back and shipped off to the local Humane Society shelter in nearby Munster, which is where I found her. When I first brought her home she was thrilled to be with people and to have a whole domain to herself. She sat in laps, and purred. Then after two weeks she came to her senses, remembered she was a cat, and became cat-like again: aloof and imperial, willing to tolerate being fed and let down into the basement to prowl her daily rounds, willing perhaps to sleep on the humans' ankles at night provided they didn't thrash about too much. To this day she hovers about doors and windows, always anxious, it seems, to get outside again and give the local squirrels what for. I don't allow her out, for fear that she would be taken, at best, or at worst meet another impersonal fate under the wheels of a car or in the talons of a local hawk. (As the Lolcats site might put it, "hawwks -- we haz tehm.") We scold her that she "doesn't really" want to go back to Whiting and all her reprobate friends.
Now that the good weather is here and the windows are open again, and only flimsy screens stand between her and freedom, the main and terrible excitement of her life has become Alphonse. She does enjoy some mild excitement year-round in the form of our other cat, Nicholas, whom I adopted (much to her shock and disgust) a few months after Herself. But he is so fat, and deaf, and friendly, and oblivious, and he slouches so in doorways, that he hardly counts as a proper enemy. One may sneak up behind him and box his ears -- she seems obsessed with his ears -- and be done with it; and as for the times he chases her under a bookcase and keeps her penned there hissing, his white tail puffed up like a bottle brush, well, the less said the better.
But Alphonse. Alphonse is a challenge. He saunters along the sidewalk of a morning, under the mulberry tree. He has the effrontery to actually mount the steps to the back porch, and once even to jump on the purple table there and peer into the office window. Her office window. Sometimes on deep quiet nights in summer he patrols the front of the house, skulking along close to the wall in the soft dirt beneath the evergreen bushes, directly below another of Martha's very special observatory windows. And she can't get at him, because of the d----d screen. She sits there, fat and tense, watching Alphonse's lithe virileness, and she makes horrible high-pitched noises in the back of her throat.
We named the virile one Alphonse in a moment one evening this week. My daughter had been saying that if ever "we" get another cat, a good name for it would be Alphonse. I thought this an excellent idea, and then as we pulled into the driveway, returning from a family party, there he was -- the black neighborhood stray with the white chest and the white paws. "Ooh, look!" I said. "There's that evil cat Martha hates. Let's call him Alphonse." And while I was babbling about Taking Him In, my son got out of the car and bounded up the porch steps three at a time to go in the house. It was a late and chilly evening, past eight o'clock. The summer darkness was at last falling, and the robins were chirping, not only their evening carols in the distance, but their slow, rhythmic bip--bip--bip that means "danger" closeby.
Then there was a sudden, startled movement, a confusion, a blur, and a rattling among the furniture and empty clay pots at the corner of the porch. My son reared back and gasped, "Nick got out." This is bad news. Nicholas really is deaf, and commensurately panicky at any moment. (The staff at the Humane Society warned me that he is a sweet cat of course and just like other cats, only um -- moreso, because of the deafness.) When he decides a certain situation has become uncomfortable, he bolts for safety where another cat might merely begrudgingly shake itself and saunter off. We call it freakout mode, and there's no knowing when it will come. Since he has never been declawed and since a characteristic of freakout mode is that all twenty little nails flash out as he gropes for traction, we just stand back. Indoors, he need only fly under a bed or a couch until he feels better; the danger of his ever escaping the house is that there would be no way to call him back, and increasing panic would send him shearing ever off into the beyond like a great, fat, white fur golf ball. Like Martha, he would be a beautifully colored target for any predator.
Indeed "Nick" had gotten out, but how could he possibly? We were away at the party and had safely locked the house. Then we noticed. The screen on the office window, giving out on to the porch -- one of Martha's special observatory screens, looking over Alphone's porch, you might say -- had been burst through, and dangled crazily off the window frame. There inside the office, perched on her computer printer but with full free access to the outside world, sat Martha, looking somehow determined, guilty, and perplexed all at once. Nicholas cowered in corner of the porch, amid last year's clay pots. Alphonse had long since vanished.
I grabbed Nicholas from behind, after first trying in vain to get his attention with hand-wavings near his head and with thumps on the porch floor beside him. (I should explain that it's a high porch planted with tall bushes here and there, and built in such a way that I could approach it, and him, directly from the driveway, with him at my eye level but unable to notice me.) I didn't know but what one unexpected touch of a human hand might go through him like an electric jolt and send him soaring into the darkness, claws scrabbling for a hold. But there was nothing to do but grab him before he bolted anyway.
He held steady, my husband cleared away the protective furniture, picked him up, and brought him inside, and we all followed in and made sure of ourselves and him and Martha being inside the house. Then we looked about, secured the hanging screen, stepped on a few large flying bugs that had taken the opportunity to explore the world of humans, and generally talked and exclaimed and worked off the adrenaline that had gone coursing through five people at once, at this unprecedented crisis. A stenographer taking it all down would have found us talking in enough soulignes to satisfy Queen Victoria herself. How did it happen? We thought someone had broken in. And Martha -- what a brave cat, protecting her home! And I petted her as perfervidly as if she had brought home one of those offerings -- a bird, a mouse -- that we are always supposed to praise our pets for. Honestly, the things that pass for crises among pampered people really don't bear thinking about. Our hearty ancestors used to tie cats up in bags, with only their heads exposed, and hang the bags from a tree to use for archery practice. Not that I agree with doing that.
After that stimulating evening, the next morning Alphonse returned. I was calmly eating my breakfast when I heard Martha, once again in the office and at the vital window, making that horrible high-pitched noise in her throat which either sounds as though she is sick unto death, or as though she is seeing pure evil in action. And there he was. Alphonse, the neighborhood cat.
He is frightened of people and of doors opening, but I moved quietly. After spying out how things lay, petting Martha and reassuring her on her wonderful good sense and keen powers of observation, I went into the pantry. I fetched a handful of kibble from the plastic jug where we keep it -- she knows the delicious sound of that rattle, of course -- closed up the jug again, and then softly opened the back door and stepped down the porch stairs. She was still on station at the office window, but made no move to burst through the screen again. (We've wondered whether, for all her imperiousness and growlings, it may have been Nicholas who did that anyway. He was the one actually outdoors. This morning, however, he was asleep and oblivious.) I laid out the little handful of kibble on the sidewalk, and in a few moments Alphonse came along and ate it. Then some people walked past, and he scampered off. Until next time, I presumed.
I have thought that really I ought to make an effort to collar Alphonse, as someone once collared Martha, and bring him to the Humane Society where he too may be cleaned up, fed regularly, and have a chance to go to a "forever home." But then I think, after all, Alphonse so far has been doing all right for himself. He is free, he shows no signs of being in any major cat fights, he seems not to be ill or even overly skinny. And anyway he has all the amusement he wants in Martha -- and sometimes Nicholas -- and their observatory windows. The occasional plate of chicken or handful of kibble may or may not be welcome. When he returned for a third morning, I thought, O God -- now I've done it. He expects to be fed, poor thing. So I stealthily put out another handful. But at the end of the day it was still there, food for ants. Apparently he had better things to do, or to eat.
Only do not tell Martha that. Souligne.