Tabby (Or, The Accidental Cat)
I grew up in the suburbs of Mobile, Alabama, a little area just west of downtown known as "West Mobile." Mobile sits on the edge of a bay, where the Mobile River and Tombigbee river meet and become the Tenessaw Delta, that empties into the Gulf of Mexico. The city expands west from there through three major streets. At first they are covered in oak trees, and then as you pass from historic palatial homes you get to apartments, ranch-style homes and split-level three-twos. Suddenly, the neighborhoods start to spread, become more irregular. On a street full of mismatched houses, is my old home on a half-acre of land.
The backyard, before my father started growing vegetables and fruit, was mostly a few odd pine trees. We loved seeing animals: bossy Cardinals faught squirrels for first dibs on a bird feeder hanging from the back terrace (hopping sparrows scavenged for the pieces that they left behind). In the mornings a hawk would circle the sky and turtles stopped on the carport for shade. I woke up a few nights and turned on the front porch light to see an opossums grinning back at me, I don't know how they made it past the raccoons.
One hot afternoon after school my mother called to me, there was a cat on the carport. He was gray, with white on his nose, mouth and belly. He was meowing loudly.
"Be careful," my mother said as I put down a bowl of milk for him, and sat down on the concrete of the carport. I spent a lot of time trying crouched down, meowing, hand outstretched, to the cats that crossed the yard. They usually ignored me or an in the other direction. This cat seemed to need me. His cries were so desperate.
"I wonder what's wrong with him?" I asked my mom as the cat licked up the milk and then ran his tongue along the bottom of the bowl as if there'd be more. My mother shrugged.
"Maybe he's injured?"
The cat climbed into my lap, his tail flailing. His paws left dirt on my middle-school uniform skirt. Then he wandered around sniffing under the car, pushing his nose into the open laundry room door and retreating from the noise. When the sun went down he trotted back through the neighbors yard and disappeared.
The very next day, another warm, sunny day, I was sitting at my bedroom desk when I heard my mothers voice through the kitchen.
"Ariel!" she hissed. "He's back!"
I ran to through the house to the kitchen window, and sure enough there was the same cat at the same time, coming down the same path. Again, crying at the back door.
"Don't feed him this time," my mother warned. I stepped outside and he ran between my legs, pressing his furry head against the hairs on my calves and ankles. After a moment I went into the house, he tried to follow me through the screen door.
This happened each night that week: the cat would come running from the yard next door, right after we finished our dinner, before sunset. That Saturday morning I woke up to the sound of crying: the cat had stayed outside the house all night.
"Well, looks like we have a cat," my parents said. For me, this was a miracle. We tried having goldfish as children, and a parakeet named Raffi (after the popular singer of kids songs) who died of a heart attack. When we moved to Alabama we bought two Lovebirds, and my parents thought the cages were cruel and set them free.
"They were flying sideways," dad said. "who knows where they'll land."
We asked for a dog once a week. My parents knew a dog would mean someone to walk it and train it and clean up after it and didn't think the effort was worth it. But now I'd gotten what I always wanted, a pet I could hold in my arms. Back then I believed in a very orderly universe. Before bed my sister and I would kneel to pray. I would ask for a boyfriend or a cat. In my preteen logic, God was rewarding me.
I announced to the family that we'd name the cat Tabby. I woke up every morning before school to feed him. As soon as I opened the door with the food in my hand he followed me from the screen door to where I would drop the bowl. He would devour it, and nap, or disappear for a few hours. In the afternoons I'd write in my bedroom window which looked onto our front porch. He would sit underneath it and squint in the sun.
A close relative grew up on a farm and saw the savagery of animals. Very cruelly, when he was young, the pig that was his friend was strung up and served for dinner.
When the cat was scaling trees to reach birds nests, he would walk through the yard clapping his hands to scare away the birds so they'd be safe.
"It's not fair," he'd say, "the cat has an advantage."
"But it's nature!" I remember someone saying. Sometimes after prowling we'd hear the birds crying in protest and diving down to peck him on the head. Eventually the bird feeder had to be removed, Tabby was using it to stalk his prey. Like all cats, he left his conquests as gifts: a bird, a headless rat (he'd helped himself first) and eventually, the mole. He held an all-night vigil for that mole.
"I've been chasing those for forever," my dad said gruffly the morning the dead mole appeared at the back door. "feed him twice today, as a reward."
He was very predictable: when we went to the grocery store we'd return home and open the trunk of the car. Tabby would jump in and start licking the raw chicken packages. He knew the smell of meat. He also liked the warm laundry piles, like most cats. Whenever we opened the back door Tabby would try to get in the house. On the few times he was successful he ran to the couch and layed down on the cushions.
"This has to be someone's cat," my dad would say. "he knew to run inside, to sit on the sofa." We had a theory that Tabby actually had two lives: he spent his mornings with us, and perhaps his afternoons at another house, his first house.
Summer came and with it came a July family reunion. Some of my relatives from the next town over were coming to our house to change for a fancy dinner. We warned everyone: "The cat will try to get inside" but he was too quick for the houseguests. It was like a scene from a film: we chased Tabby from the backdoor, in a circle through the living room, and through a second door to the hallway. My mother lounged at him and he lounged in the other direction and then darted between her legs. One of our guests was coming out of the shower in a towel and when she opened the door Tabby skirted past, and she screamed. The guests who were afraid of cats were running from him to their bedrooms and slamming the doors. In the living room he managed to get around the coffee table and hide under a couch, when suddenly I had an idea. I opened cabinet and got a can of his favorite cat food. When the can snapped open Tabby stuck his head out from his hiding place and started meowing.
"It's working! Run outside!" someone yelled. I held the can up high and ran out the door. Tabby was at my heels. The guests were laughing, relieved. We retold the story all night.
In the fall an elderly man moved in next door. He'd built a house on the land specifically for his handicapped son, with big rooms and extra wide door frames. His son died before the house was finished, so he moved in alone. He was lonely and like me he fell in love with Tabby. He let him sleep on his bed and fed him, though Tabby still came to our house for breakfast. One morning we woke up and there was a second cat, a mangy, multicolored, tailless cat we named Carley. In another two weeks, there would be three cats, another gray cat, we named Mitzi.
"See how he bullies them. See the hierarchy?" dad observed through the screen door. When I fed them, Tabby would fight off the other cats and eat first. After he had filled his belly he'd walk away, and the other cats would eat in turns. At this point I started to think it had gotten out of hand. We weren't owning the cats, the cats were owning us. I was getting tired of waking up early on the weekends -- 6 am sometimes -- to run outside and be chased by three cats for food.
Thanksgiving day, at midnight, the doorbell rang. It was our neighbor. He didn't give much detail but Tabby bit him, and his arm was so swollen it was unusable. My father drove him to the hospital where he was given shots, and they decided that night to have the humane society pick up all the cats. I would be in school while this happened. I fed Tabby, went to school, and came home and he was taken away.
I imagined he would be adopted by a family, a better family. I hoped he'd get to live inside, to rest on a couch! One day the neighbor came by, looking ashen, "I hear if no one adopts him in 24 hours they'll put him to sleep," he said. It was a kill shelter, after all, and I had not known. A month later we watched a show on veterinarians and I saw a film of a cat being put to sleep and I cried.
It only took a short while for the yard to become what it once was. Families of sparrows began building nests again and the raccoons returned at night. My father hung the bird feeder. For many years after my mom would look out the window and laugh to herself. "Oh Tabby," she's say wistfully as she remembered him. "oh Tabby." We kept seeing other cats. The quiet ones that were just passing through, commuting back to their homes, or on a hunting mission. I stopped calling out to them. Tabby wasn't like them. Tabby had spunk.