“Is that,” Mark says, putting down his hot cup of tea and moving the curtain so he can see better, “MAX????”
I join him at the window and we stare across the street. A mostly black cat sits on the brick stoop at Barbie and Ken’s–a cat with a triangular white fur bib and a head like a squashed softball. THIS cat, though, appears to have a smear of white on his nose. Did Max have a smear like that?
We can’t remember.
We don’t think so.
Mark goes out to check, to see if this porch-snuggled visitor might really be our intrepid buddy Max. The cat disappears.
I grew up in middle America in the 1960’s, when neighborhoods were static things, and a move out or a move in, a major event. In fact, my family constituted the event more than witnessing it–we moved three times between my fourth grade year and the start of high school, moved so much that other people raised their brows in alarm at our rootless ways.
Most people we knew stayed put, sent down roots, raised a family in a place where the kids’ “2 years old” heights were marked off on the same basement pole as their “16 years old” heights. That dent, a friend might say, pointing, is where Dickie fell off his bike and his noggin hit the porch. The accident might have been ten years past. Houses, back then, held family histories within their architectural quirks.
But today, neighborhoods are more fluid things, with some stay-ers and some move-ers making a constant ebb and flow. People buy starter homes when kids are little, planning, by the time those little ones hit junior high, to be in a bigger house, with more bathrooms and more yard, and maybe, just maybe, a paved drive and a basketball hoop.
And so the cute little house across the street has seen changes in tenants in the almost-five years we have been here. First it was Kim, who rented. Then it was Julie, who bought.
Julie moved out and her tenant, a very nice person named Ann, moved in, and therein ties the tale of Max.
Kim, who was tall and lean and tanned and had that kind of curly hair that peaks at a high point above the middle part of her head and fans out just above the shoulders (a Triangle Do, I call it), whose age was impossible to guess–she could have been thirty, and she could have been sixty,–had been a fixture in the neighborhood long before we moved in. She introduced us to Shirley, and Sandy, and to Colleen and Terry, and to Phyllis, and to Pat.
She invited us to throw the branches and leaves and twigs piled up after vigorous gardening down the steep bank behind her house. Natural mulch, she theorized.
She showed us her beloved Corvettes, which she kept in a garage behind the little white house she’d rented. She toured our house after the workers had transformed it from a highly floral wallpaper palace to a calmer venue with less vocal walls. She pronounced it good, and heartily approved the placement of a half-bath in the storage room by the back door.
And she discovered that the little white house she’d rented for twenty years or more was shifting on its foundations,—was in danger, in fact, of sliding off and down that steep, mulchy bank. When the long-term landlord wouldn’t fix things, Kim up and moved away.
As new as we were, we could tell something intrinsic to the neighborhood culture left with her.
And then the little white house stood empty for a couple of seasons, before some flippers with construction skills came in, lifted the thing right off its foundations, and fixed its sliding woes. They put it on the market then, and Julie–pretty, dark-haired Julie with her mini-me dark-haired daughter named Natalie–bought it and moved in.
Julie worked at the hospital, and we would encounter her in her colorful scrubs running to her SUV at odd hours, heading off to work. Often her inside cat would sit in the picture window while she was gone, curled up on what was surely the back of a couch, patient and waiting. That cat never came outside; it was only noticeable popping up in excitement when Julie’s car moved up the street.
Then Natalie added a new cat friend to the household. That cat was Max.
Natalie’s best friend was going off to college, and Natalie’s friend’s father was NOT a cat-lover. He was a hunter, though, and he matter-of-factly informed the friend that, as soon as her car was out of the drive, he was getting his gun out to kill her cat.
The friend was horrified and broken-hearted; Natalie was pro-active. She grabbed Max, threw him in her old white jeep, and brought him home to Julie.
And so Max, with his squashed-looking head and loud vocals, his white-toed feet and insistent manner, came to adopt (and rule) our neighborhood.
Max preferred the outdoor to the in, probably to the vast relief of Julie’s indoor cat, with whom Max communicated through the window. Max would sit on Julie’s porch table; Indoor Cat would be on the back of that couch, and they would stretch and paw and bat at each other. All the while, Max would be warbling, telling his long sad tale of woe (“Can you believe that dude was going to SHOOT me???”) to his indoor kitty counterpart.
We could, of course, not hear the reply,which was probably something like, “I’m glad my food dish is INDOORS and yours is out.”
Max only went inside Julie’s house when the temperatures were so cold he would literally freeze to death if he stayed out.
But he loved going inside Barbie and Ken’s.
Max, once arrived, immediately started working the neighborhood. He scored a bed in the window well at Shirley’s house. Shirley, who thought he was a stray at first, put food and water out for him everyday. That practice didn’t end when Shirley met Natalie and discovered Max was ‘homed’ but thoroughly independent. By then, Max’s morning breakfast was part of the routine of Shirley’s AND Max’s lives.
Max sat in Sandy’s yard sunning himself while she gardened, and he tormented her excitable little dogs, resting just beyond their chained reach. He would calmly inspect his sharp pointy claws while they jumped and strained, choking their little selves in their anxiousness to pounce at him.
We often thought we saw cartoon thought-bubbles floating above Max’s head. In Sandy’s yard, when the dogs were yipping and straining, Max’s bubble contained the words, “Ho hum.”
Max adopted Mark, who is NOT a cat-lover, running up the driveway warbling his sad tale of woe whenever Mark embarked or arrived. Mark would stand and wait for his cat-buddy. Max would twine around Mark’s legs, often leaving hairy evidence of a black kitty neighbor on lawyerly khaki pants.
Mark would usually run back into the house to snatch a bit of frozen turkey from the freezer, offering it to his cat friend. Max preferred his meat defrosted; he would bat the tidbit away, complaining (Thought bubble: What? You don’t have a microwave???), and then come back later to eat it.
When the weather got cold, Mark the Great Cat Hater took my old fishing basket and lined it with a snug, worn rug, and slid it under the bench on the porch–a refuge from wind and snow. Just, you know, in case.
Often, there was evidence that something had slept there. (We may have been sheltering neighborhood raccoons, but it was relieving to know there was shelter from the storm for our buddy Max, if he needed it.)
But when Barbie and Ken moved in across the street, right next door to Julie, Maxie fell in love. One of their trucks would pull into the drive and Max would come bounding from wherever he was in the neighborhood, yelling. He’d leave Mark, mid-warble (“Chopped liver, that’s what I am,” Mark noted, sadly), or he’d stop stalking the mouthy black squirrel in the tree down the street, and he would bolt to see those new neighbors whom he idolized.
Once we watched the crazy cat leap into Ken’s arms, a feline rocket so big, so heavy, and so fast that Ken, a hefty guy, staggered backwards. But he held on–Max’s affection was completely requited by Ken and by Barbie.
They would crate their dogs, who wailed, and let Maxie in, and Max would make himself at home. He knew, Max did, that he lived at Julie’s; he returned there time after time, but Barbie and Ken’s house was his favorite place to be Inside.
Most of the time, though, Max ruled the neighborhood and beyond. We would see him wandering far afield when we drove home, doing his rounds, Mark said. Julie, not wanting to be responsible for a world populated by second and third generation Maxies, took him to the vet. There, Max’s manly valves were permanently wrenched into the ‘off’ position.
Maxie came home, spent a single day recuperating, and was back on the prowl. His amorous instincts may have been permanently dulled, but the cat remained a mighty hunter. Mark was forever knocking on the front window.
“MAX!” he’d yell. “Put down that baby bunny! Put it DOWN!”
And Max, who knew when he was being chastised, would turn his head toward the window. His face would be all innocence. The thought bubble would read, “Bunny? What bunny?” even as the wretched baby twitched its last in the cat’s iron jaws.
Julie and her new boyfriend, a funny, wonderful guy named Terry, would smack their heads. Mark would wander over to commiserate with them, where they sat on Julie’s front porch, enjoying a brewski in the evening cool.
“What are we going to do with that cat?” one of them would say, but acceptance and vast affection swirled with the chagrin.
The neighborhood rodent population sank rapidly. Squirrels became wary tree-toppers. Bunnies poked their noses out to their own peril. We never saw a chipmunk while Maxie roamed the streets.
And then, their relationship having deepened and matured, Julie and Terry decided to throw their lots together and form a new household. They would move to a home out in the country, surrounded by nature’s beauty.
“Max the mighty hunter will love THAT,” we agreed, a little sadly. We wondered, though, about Max’s tendency to hunt down people to talk with as well as rodents to terrorize. We wondered about his love affair with Barbie and Ken.
But, just shy of Memorial Day, the UHaul pulled up, and Julie and Terry and Natalie and a vast and varied crew of helpers took Julie’s household apart and put it into the truck. There was a pile of junk at the curb; there was a cat in Julie’s SUV. And there was Max, looking unhappy (Thought bubble: What the…????) in the front seat of Natalie’s jeep.
They waved, vigorously.
We waved back.
Silence fell into a little, lonely vacuum.
“I’m gonna MISS that cat,” said Mark sadly, as he turned to go into the house. He paused.
“And Julie and Terry and Natalie, too,” he added, “of course.”
Ann, who is very nice, moved in with her quiet teen-aged son, and the neighborhood settled into its post-Max persona. Chipmunks returned to Normandy Drive, and the squirrels climbed down their trees and frolicked in the yards, boisterously. The bunnies grew bolder; on Sunday, Mark and I stood by the window with our steaming morning beverages and watched two of them alternate clover-munching with a gleeful game of rabbit-run tag.
Later, I walked the dog, who snuffled in Shirley’s ivy and scared off a couple of tiny black-furred moles.
The rodents didn’t miss that cat. But everybody else did.
And then this morning–the black cat on Ken and Barbie’s porch. That nose, though, that smear of white…I pulled up a photo of Max, and we compared:
Nose smear: UNcheck.
I walked out the back door to see if I could spy that kitty, and my eyes lit on the plastic bowl where I’d been soaking a white-paint brush in cold water. The water was completely and thoroughly gone. I had a vision of a cat lapping up the water and rubbing his nose on the painty white brush.
“OH, my gawd,” I said. “Mark! Do you think he drank…?” I ran to cross the street and check the cat–couldn’t ingesting latex paint make a kitty badly ill? But as I hurried out into the yard, Barbie’s white truck pulled out. Inside, I was sure I could just see the swishing tip of a black tail, and a floating thought bubble that read, “REALLY? Paint in my water bowl????”) I imagined him purring, reunited with his beloved Barbie. I imagined her driving him the five miles to Terry and Julie’s house, returning him to his family.
By lunchtime, the rodent population of Normandy Drive had breathed a collective sigh of relief and were frolicking on the lawns. But I wonder if they’re not a little premature. That cat’s smart and he’s intrepid. I bet we haven’t seen the last of our friend Maxie.