Today I drove past the Wonderful Smiths’ house and noticed that it is vacant. Not just vacant, but abandoned. Where have they gone? Were they ever really there?
The reason I will always think of them as the Wonderful Smiths is that I had one of the most enormous luck wallops of my life in their back yard, and I give them all the credit.
At the time all I gave them was an expensive bouquet of flowers, because they were the sort of people that would just love that sort of thing. The only time I met them and their back yard I imagined that they had lots of grandchildren who adored visiting there.
To explain what happened in their back yard, I’ll have to start writing about cats. The only time that I met the Wonderful Smiths was preceded by a time of cat disappearances. Cats disappear ALL the time, but six years ago there was a bad rash of missing cats.
The first to go was my neighbor’s cat, Chong, a big nasty Siamese. Then his twin, Cheech, stopped showing up for cat chow. We began to speculate that Meathead, the creep next door, was the cat-napper, but that didn’t seem likely, since his only near-virtue was an extremely sentimental love of animals.
About a week after the second Siamese went missing, the unthinkable happened. My Kitty disappeared too.
To explain anything else about this, I’ll have to start writing about Kitty. Kitty was my twelfth cat, not that I had that many at once, but the twelfth ever. Out of twelve cats she was the best, the most unusual. She hated everyone except me. With me she behaved like a dog, greeting me, kissing me and displaying all sorts of un-catlike friendly behavior. She had three other names before I settled on Kitty: there was no point in calling her anything else when she only answered to Kitty.
When I realized that she was gone I was frantic. I wished they’d taken Ted instead. Ted was the anti-cat, the most stupid, filthy, lazy, worthless, towel-peeing-on feline that ever lived. Ted’s presence in my house was mocking me once she was gone, but I still couldn’t kill him. I couldn’t give him away, either. Even though I hated Ted, I’d have to hate someone else ever more passionately to make him their present. He was just that bad.
So I kept Ted and made posters. The posters presented the most basic problem of the cat-finding mission: Kitty was very difficult to describe. She was every cat color and had every cat pattern. Her fur was neither long nor short. She was a delicate, declawed psychedelicat.
As soon as possible, I called the city’s Animal Control Officer. She said, “I can’t say just what I’ve scraped off that road lately. They all look alike. I can tell you we don’t have any live cats here now.” Officer Cupcake was such a charming person.
I called the county’s Animal Control office. They encouraged me to bring a picture and make a report and then they helpfully refused to describe the cats in custody. I’d have to come to them in any case.
Pet Hell is not a place to visit in that county. It managed to be depressing and horrible in every way. Only twice was I able to force myself into that nasty rundown building and speak with the harried, hippie volunteers about Kitty. The first time they pushed a bunch of “handouts” at me that described the horrors of kidnapped pets turned into lab animals. Great. Now I could have pamphlet-induced nightmares.
The second time I visited Pet Hell, I went with my mother. We were not lucky. When we were leaving, a big old truck backed up to the building near her parking space. A large dark man opened the back of the truck as we were getting in the car. She started the ignition and said quite suddenly, “Don’t look.” Naturally, I looked. It seemed that he was hefting a sort of frying pan. He tossed it in, grabbed another, which I then heard thump into his vehicle. That wasn’t any kind of cookware, I saw, but dead cats being lifted by their stiffened tails. This was bad enough, but it was made infinitely worse for having been witnessed with my mother. Now she was going to be having nightmares too.
After two more weeks, I placed an ad to run for a month in the local paper. I got a couple of leads that dead-ended with me trying to interrogate teenagers about a cat they MIGHT have seen “a while ago.”
I gave up for a time. Kitty had been gone for a month and I began to suspect that the charming Animal Control Cupcake had mistaken her for squirrel guts.
The guilt was hard to deny. Who let her out? Who let
her out knowing that both Cheech and Chong had vanished? Who couldn’t organize a proper search, whining about job and baby and school and no time for cat hunting? I was a rotten pet owner with only a rotten pet to show for it. Ted was still not among the missing.
At six weeks
after the disappearance, I decided to make one last effort by expanding the search and placing an ad in the big city newspaper:
Well-loved female cat, small,
DMH, declawed, spayed, multi-
colored tortoise shell with
some stripes. MARYLAND.
The kooks really went for this one. I had a call from a woman who said she was dying and wanted to find a good home for her cat. Suddenly everybody wanted to give me some other cat. I was pissed that I had paid real money for really bad prank phone calls.
A few days after the ad ran, my husband took a call. Exhausted and jaded, I had to be persuaded to go to see these people. A very shy feral cat had been visiting their shed. They fed it and they kind of thought that maybe the streak they’d seen through binoculars fit my half-assed description of Kitty.
They were impossibly far away. How could a little bitty de-clawed cat have traveled seven whole miles? How could she have possibly crossed the constantly busy interstate?
Just do it, he said. So we went.
I was glad we’d done it as soon as we got there. It was a sweet old house in a semi-rural neighborhood. The windows looked like they opened with cranks, every one.
The Wonderful Smiths brought us in their home, even though the shed was really what we came to see. They admired the baby and told a long story about how they had first come to notice the wild cat in the woods behind the shed. This cat was fast and jumpy and preferred to eat at night. Asking when they had fed it last, I was amazed that they had gone ahead and fed it on schedule, after dinner, completely blowing any chance we might have of coaxing it out of the heavy underbrush.
Stifling my annoyance and wholly skeptical of the idea, I walked with them down the slope of their enormous back yard toward the dilapidated shed. My husband stepped away from the group and called to the cat loudly for a few minutes. I felt stupid. The Wonderful Smiths felt stupid. He looked pretty stupid but I loved that he was trying. He came back up the hill to us and made thank-you-for-your-trouble noises at the Smiths.
Quite suddenly, I didn’t want to leave and handed the baby to him instead. I called out softly as I moved forward, peering into the bushes, “Kitty-Kitty-Kitty-Kitty…” I heard a cry and felt adrenaline pulse – one beat from my chest to my fingertips.
“Kitty-Kitty-Kitty?” Another cry and rustling noises. I couldn’t breathe. The Wonderful Smiths were still chatting, oblivious.
Goosebumps. “Kitty-Kitty-Kitty?” A tiny cat burst through the foliage, meowing over and over. I didn’t have to look more than a split second to know it was my very own indescribable psychdelicat. She walked right to me and let me pick her up. I cried enough to bathe her on the spot.
The Wonderful Smiths refused to accept my reward. “We don’t take money for doing the right thing,” said Mr. Smith. So I spent all the reward money on flowers for them.