Authors: Emily Cheney Neville
Kate has a permanent cat named Susan and however many kittens Susan happens to have just had. It varies. Usually there are a few other temporary stray kittens in the apartment, but I never saw any father cat there before. Today Susan and her kittens are under the stove, and Susan keeps hissing at a big tiger-striped tomcat crouching under the sofa. He turns his head away from her and looks like he never intended to get mixed up with family life. For a stray cat he's sleek and healthy-looking. Every time he moves a whisker, Susan hisses again, warningly. She believes in no visiting rights for fathers.
Kate pours me some tea and asks what's doing.
"My pop is full of hot air, as usual," I say.
"Takes one to know one," Kate says, catching me off base. I change the subject.
"How come the kittens' pop is around the house? I never saw a full-grown tom here before."
"He saw me buying some cans of cat food, so he followed me home. Susan isn't admitting she ever knew him or ever wants to. I'll give him another feed and send him on his way, I guess. He's a handsome young fellow." Kate strokes him between the ears, and he rotates his head. Susan hisses.
He starts to pull back farther under the sofa. Without stopping to think myself, or giving him time to, I pick him up. Susan arches up and spits. I can feel the muscles in his body tense up as he gets ready to spring out of my lap. Then he changes his mind and decides to take advantage of the lap. He narrows his eyes and gives Susan a bored look and turns his head to take me in. After he's sized me up, he pretends he only turned around to lick his back.
"Cat," I say to him, "how about coming home with me?"
"Hah!" Kate laughs. "Your pop will throw him out faster than you can say 'good old Jeff.'"
"Yeah-h?" I say it slowly and do some thinking. Taking Cat home had been just a passing thought, but right now I decide I'll really go to the mat with Pop about this. He can have his memories of good old Jeff and rabbit hunts, but I'm going to have me a tiger.
Aunt Kate gives me a can of cat food and a box of litter, so Cat can stay in my room, because I remember Mom probably gets asthma from animals, too. Cat and I go home.
Pop does a lot of shouting and sputtering when we get home, but I just put Cat down in my room, and I try not to argue with him, so I won't lose my temper. I promise I'll keep him in my room and sweep up the cat hairs so Mom won't have to.
As a final blast Pop says, "I suppose you'll get your exercise mouse hunting now. What are you going to name the noble animal?"
"Look, Pop," I explain, "I know he's a cat, he knows he's a cat, and his name is Cat. And even if you call him Honorable John Fitzgerald Kennedy, he won't come when you call, and he won't lick your hand, see?"
"He'd better not! And it's not my hand that's going to get licked around here in a minute," Pop snaps.
"All right, all right."
Actually, my pop sometimes jaws so long it'd be a relief if he did haul off and hit me, but he never does.
We call it a draw for that day, and I have Cat.
Cat makes himself at home in my room pretty easily. Mostly he likes to be up on top of something, so I put an old sweater on the bureau beside my bed, and he sleeps up there. When he wants me to wake up in the morning, he jumps and lands in the middle of my stomach. Believe me, cats don't always land lightly – only when they want to. Anything a cat does, he does only when he wants to. I like that.
When I'm combing my hair in the morning, sometimes he sits up there and looks down his nose at my reflection in the mirror. He appears to be taking inventory: "Hmm, buckteeth; sandy hair, smooth in front, cowlick in back; brown eyes, can't see in the dark worth a nickel; hickeys on the chin. Too bad."
I look back at him in the mirror and say, "O.K., black face, yellow eyes, and one white whisker. Where'd you get that one white whisker?"
He catches sight of himself in the mirror, and his tail twitches momentarily. He seems to know it's not really another cat, but his claws come out and he taps the mirror softly, just to make sure.
When I'm lying on the bed reading, sometimes he will curl up between my knees and the book. But after a few days I can see he's getting more and more restless. It gets so I can't listen to a record, for the noise of him scratching on the rug. I can't let him loose in the apartment, at least until we make sure Mom doesn't get asthma, so I figure I better reintroduce him to the great outdoors in the city. One nice Sunday morning in April we go down and sit on the stoop.
Cat sits down, very tall and neat and pear-shaped, and closes his eyes about halfway. He glances at the street like it isn't good enough for him. After a while, condescending, he eases down the steps and lies on a sunny, dusty spot in the middle of the sidewalk. People walking have to step around him, and he squints at them.
Then he gets up, quick, looks over his shoulder at nothing, and shoots down the stairs to the cellar. I take a look to see where he's going, and he is pacing slowly toward the backyard, head down, a tiger on the prowl. I figure I'll sit in the sun and finish my science-fiction magazine before I go after him.
When I do, he's not in sight, and the janitor tells me he jumped up on the wall and probably down into one of the other yards. I look around a while and call, but he's not in sight, and I go up to lunch. Along toward evening Cat scratches at the door and comes in, as if he'd done it all his life.
This gets to be a routine. Sometimes he doesn't even come home at night, and he's sitting on the doormat when I get the milk in the morning, looking offended.
"Is it my fault you stayed out all night?" I ask him.
He sticks his tail straight up and marches down the hall to the kitchen, where he waits for me to open the milk and dish out the cat food. Then he goes to bed.
One morning he's not there when I open the door, and he still hasn't showed up when I get back from school. I get worried and go down to talk to Butch.
"Wa-a-l," says Butch, "sometimes that cat sit and talk to me a little, but most times he go on over to Twenty-first Street, where he sit and talk to his lady friend. Turned cold last night, lot of buildings put on heat and closed up their basements. Maybe he got locked in somewheres."
"Which building's his friend live in?" I ask.
"Forty-six, the big one. His friend's a little black-and-white cat, sort of belongs to the night man over there. He feeds her."
I go around to Twenty-first Street and case Forty-six, which is a pretty fair-looking building with a striped awning and a doorman who saunters out front and looks around every few minutes.
While I'm watching, a grocery boy comes along pushing his cart and goes down some stairs into the basement with his carton of groceries. This gives me an idea. I'll give the boy time to get started up in the elevator, and then I'll go down in the basement and hunt for Cat. If someone comes along and gets sore, I can always play dumb.
I go down, and the coast is clear. The elevator's gone up, and I walk softly past and through a big room where the tenants leave their baby carriages and bicycles. After this the cellar stretches off into several corridors, lit by twenty-watt bulbs dangling from the ceiling. You can hardly see anything. The corridors go between wire storage cages, where the tenants keep stuff like trunks and old cribs and parakeet cages. They're all locked.
"Me-ow, meow, me-ow!" Unmistakably Cat, and angry.
The sound comes from the end of one corridor, and I fumble along, peering into each cage to try to see a tiger cat in a shadowy hole. Fortunately his eyes glow and he opens his mouth for another meow, and I see him locked inside one of the cages before I come to the end of the corridor. I don't know how he got in or how I'm going to get him out.
While I'm thinking, Cat's eyes flick away from me to the right, then back to me. Cat's not making any noise, and neither am I, but something is. It's just a tiny rustle, or a breath, but I have a creepy feeling someone is standing near us. Way down at the end of the cellar a shadow moves a little, and I can see it has a white splotch – a face. It's a man, and he comes toward me.
I don't know why any of the building men would be way back there, but that's who I figure it is, so I start explaining.
"I was just hunting for my cat . . . I mean, he's got locked in one of these cages. I just want to get him out."
The guy lets his breath out, slow, as if he's been holding it quite a while. I realize he doesn't belong in that cellar either, and he's been scared of me.
He moves forward, saying "Sh-h-h" very quietly. He's taller than I am, and I can't see what he really looks like, but I'm sure he's sort of a kid, maybe eighteen or so.
He looks at the padlock on the cage and says, "Huh, cheap!" He takes a paper clip out of his pocket and opens it out, and I think maybe he has a penknife, too, and next thing I know the padlock is open.
"Gee, how'd you do that?"
"Sh-h-h. A guy showed me how. You better get your cat and scram."
Golly, I wonder, maybe the guy is a burglar, and that gives me another creepy feeling. But would a burglar be taking time out to get a kid's cat free?
"Well, thanks for the cat. See you around," I say.
"Sh-h-h. I don't live around here. Hurry up, before we both get caught."
Maybe he's a real burglar with a gun, even, I think, and by the time I dodge past the elevators and get out in the cold April wind, the sweat down my back is freezing. I give Cat a long lecture on staying out of basements. After all, I can't count on having a burglar handy to get him out every time.
Back home we put some nice jailhouse blues on the record player, and we both stretch out on the bed to think. The guy didn't really
like a burglar. And he didn't talk "dese and dose." Maybe real burglars don't all talk that way – only the ones on TV. Still, he sure picked that lock fast, and he was sure down in that cellar for some reason of his own.
Maybe I ought to let someone know. I figure I'll test Pop out, just casual like. "Some queer-looking types hanging around this neighborhood," I say at dinner. "I saw a tough-looking guy hanging around Number Forty-six this afternoon Might have been a burglar, even."
I figure Pop'll at least ask me what he was doing, and maybe I'll tell him the whole thing – about Cat and the cage. But Pop says, "In case you didn't know it, burglars do not all look like Humphrey Bogart, and they don't wear signs."
"Thanks for the news," I say and go on eating my dinner. Even if Pop does make me sore, I'm not going to pass up steak and onions, which we don't have very often.
However, the next day I'm walking along Twenty-first Street and I see the super of Forty-six standing by the back entrance, so I figure I'll try again. I say to him, "Us kids were playing ball here yesterday, and we saw a strange-looking guy sneak into your cellar. It wasn't a delivery boy."
"Yeah? You sure it wasn't you or one of your juvenile pals trying to swipe a bike? How come you have to play ball right here?"
"I don't swipe bikes. I got one of my own. New. A Raleigh. Better than any junk you got in there."
"What d'you know about what I got in there, wise guy?"
"Aw, forget it." I realize he's just getting suspicious of me. That's what comes of trying to be a big public-spirited citizen. I decide my burglar, whoever he is, is a lot nicer than the super, and I hope he got a fat haul.
Next day it looks like maybe he did just that. The local paper,
Town and Village
, has a headline: "Gramercy Park Cellar Robbed." I read down the article:
"The superintendent, Fred Snood, checked the cellar storage cages, after a passing youth hinted to him that there had been a robbery. He found one cage open and a suitcase missing. Police theorize that the youth may have been the burglar, or an accomplice with a guilty conscience or a grudge, and they are hunting him for questioning. Mr. Snood described him as about sixteen years of age, medium height, with a long 'ducktail' haircut, and wearing a heavy black sweater. They are also checking second-hand stores for the stolen suitcase."
The burglar stole a suitcase with valuable papers and some silver and jewelry in it. But the guy they were hunting for – I read the paragraph over and feel green. That's me. I get up and look in the mirror. In other circumstances I'd like being taken for sixteen instead of fourteen, which I am. I smooth my hair and squint at the back of it. The ducktail is fine.
Slowly I peel off my black sweater, which I wear practically all the time, and stuff it in my bottom drawer, under my bathing suit. But if I want to walk around the street without worrying about every cop, I'll have to do more than that. I put on a shirt and necktie and suit jacket and stick a cap on my head. I head uptown on the subway. At Sixty-eighth Street I get off and find a barbershop.
"Butch cut," I tell the guy.
"That's right. I'll trim you nice and neat. Get rid of all this stuff."
And while he chatters on like an idiot, I have to watch three months' work go snip, snip on the floor. Then I have to pay for it. At home I get the same routine. Pop looks at my Ivy-League disguise and says, "Why, you may look positively human some day!"