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A Bum and a Cat Named Jensen

Gary wagged his finger, motioning for me to follow him down the creek bank. He was missing a few teeth, stood at least six-foot tall and scrawny. He wore a camouflage baseball hat and blue jeans. It was right in the thick of summer, so the lush foliage completely veiled the creek’s edges. I was walking three dogs, but I still wasn’t following him down that bank.

He said he had planted a tomato plant. He wanted me to see it. The amateur gardener in me wanted to see what he managed to grow along a creek, but the 125-pound pragmatist wasn’t moving off the greenway’s paved trail. I shook my head. He flinched. I didn’t trust him, and it hurt his feelings. I felt a keen sense of guilt, said goodbye as kindly as possible and kept walking.

I’d known Gary for over a year when he asked me to see his plants. When I say “know,” I mean I saw him on the Springfield Greenway where I walked my dogs. The greenway connects three city parks and runs two miles in each direction. There was no way to avoid him because he parked his green Ford pick-up truck, dented bumper and smashed-out taillight, next to the baseball field at Travis Price Park. He pulled it onto the grass between two picnic tables, where a patch of trees offered shade. He stayed in the same spot from morning to night. It didn’t take long to figure out he lived out of his truck.

At some point we had started waving to each other. Then he had introduced himself, and we greeted each other by name, but that was as far as I wanted our relationship to go. Sometimes being too nice to a bum can get a girl in trouble, and I reminded myself about that very fact when I felt guilty about keeping my distance.

But for whatever reason, he wanted my trust, and he wouldn’t accept no for an answer. Multiple times he waited for me next to the trail with a gift in his hands. His body language, shoulders hunched, a shy and hesitant smile on his face, reminded me of the way young dogs get as low to the ground as possible when they greet pack leaders. Gary wanted to convey he wasn’t a threat.

One time he handed me a daisy, a wild one picked from the field across from the steel bridge. It matched the tattoo on my forearm. Another time he gave me tomatoes from his plants, then wild blackberries, then bananas and a marijuana bud wrapped in a cellophane wrapper from a pack of smokes. Close to Thanksgiving, he gave me a ten-pound frozen turkey.

“Where did you get this?” I asked. I’d never been gifted a frozen turkey before, and I really had no idea how to respond.

“From the getting place,” he answered.

Most of the time Gary’s attention made me feel strangely flattered and uncomfortable all at once. But, there were also moments it made me downright uneasy because it bordered on creepy. He knew too much about my movements. He mentioned when I missed days or when I walked three dogs instead of four. Even though I parked almost one mile away from him, he knew the color of my Honda and whether I was running early or late.

Sometimes, I walked through the historic district in town and avoided the greenway altogether because I didn’t want to see Gary. I didn’t want his gifts. I didn’t want him noticing days I missed or how many dogs I walked. And I especially didn’t want to feel guilty about not being nicer to him.

As time went on, more and more people I knew became friends with Gary. He was the kind of person who attracted a crowd. Mr. Dennis, the park’s maintenance man, spent a few minutes on his morning rounds chatting with him, so did a local politician. An avid biker named Barry occasionally ate lunch with him on sunny afternoons. Eventually, I learned Gary sold eight-ounce bags of weed, which explained why he attracted such an eclectic crowd. A pot dealer is everybody’s best friend in a state where it’s still illegal. Even with his popularity, I stood my ground and kept my distance.

But, one day my feelings about Gary changed, and they changed within seconds. He was standing next to the paved path, just like he did when he had a gift. In his hand, his callused, dirt-creased hand, sat an orange longhaired kitten. For the first time since I met him, I walked straight up to him. I didn’t think about the reasons why I shouldn’t. I couldn’t because that adorable kitten overrode all my instincts. Like a beagle on a scent, I couldn’t reason.

“Who is this?” I asked. The kitten’s eyes were emerald green, his nose as pink as a puppy’s tongue.

“This here is Jensen,” he said.

“Jensen,” I repeated.

The name settled comfortably between us.

“Where did you find him?”

“He found me,” he said.

I was standing closer to Gary than I’d ever been before. I smelled the booze on his breath, saw his cloudy, red-rimmed eyes, the broken blood vessels across his cheeks. This man had a disease. He was an alcoholic and had been for years. That’s probably why he lived in his truck and sold drugs at the park. But none of that mattered. All that mattered was Gary had rescued a kitten. It was all the proof I needed about his character.

From that day forward, Jensen never left Gary’s side. He acted more like a dog than a cat and followed Gary to the bathroom, the picnic tables, and even to the creek bank to check on the tomato plants. When Gary was busy with his acquaintances, the kitten played with walnuts and sticks and dandelions. He chased butterflies. He snoozed on the Ford’s hood or in the bed or under a tire during the summer. In the fall and winter, he slept inside the cab. When it was really cold, Gary pulled out of his shady spot so Jensen could sun himself on the dash.

As Jensen grew into a cat, my relationship with Gary grew into a friendship. On the rare occasion when he wasn’t parked by the baseball field, I worried and asked if he was okay as soon as I saw him. He never told me where he went, but he beamed when he heard my concern.

I met his closet friends, like Crazy Lou, Sniffer Johnson, and CB. They were all poor, unemployed, uneducated, and harmless. They all told stories of family drama, legal woes, and disabilities. Yet, they made me feel like a welcome part of a clique I never even knew I wanted to join in the first place. It became a ritual that when I passed them, they would all wave and holler my name. And right there in the middle of it all was Jensen. For the year he lived at the greenway, he became the park mascot.

I saw Gary and Jensen for one of the last times on July 4th. People were gathering at the park for Springfield’s fireworks display. It was early evening. Since it was a holiday, Gary’s crowd was bigger than normal. Like always, the group waved and yelled when they saw me. Either Gary or Crazy Lou or CB offered me a hotdog they were grilling on a hibachi. I passed on their generous offer because I was in a hurry. I wanted to get my pack walked before the fireworks started. Nearby, a group of strangers were setting up lawn chairs.

“Are they bothering you?” they asked.

“Bothering me? They’re my friends,” I said. And I realized it was true. Gary was my friend, and it was all because of Jensen.

Later that week somebody, maybe the people from the July 4th festivities, complained about the rowdy crowd hanging out at Travis Price Park. One afternoon as I crested the berm leading to the baseball field, I saw five Springfield City police cars surrounding Gary’s truck. When I inquired, the cops motioned for me to keep moving. The next day I found Gary’s mugshot online. He had been arrested for public intoxication and possession of narcotics with intent to distribute. I called local shelters, but nobody knew anything about Jensen.

I didn’t hear a word for two weeks. In those two weeks, I looked for Jensen every day, twice a day. Finally, I ran into Crazy Lou. She said Jensen had “done time” in the dog pound while Gary was in the slammer. She said it had been funny as hell to watch those cops wrangle Jensen. It took them hours. Gary and Jensen had finally been released and reunited, but both were banned from the park for “infinity.”

I was thrilled they were together again. After all, they only had each other. But I also felt a keen sense of sadness because I’d never see them again. For me, their relationship was proof about the unconditional nature of an animal’s love. Animals don’t recognize social class or material wealth. All that matters to them is how good a person is on the inside. I imagine that for Jensen living with a bum in a truck was the best life he’d ever known.

It’s been almost two years since I last saw Gary and Jensen, and I still think about them when I pass their empty parking spot. At first, the park felt so lonely I occasionally walked through town just so I didn’t have to see that empty spot. I often thought about how ironic it was that I used to walk in town to avoid Gary. After Crazy Lou told me about the “infinity” ban, I started checking on Gary’s tomato plants. They thrived for months. Then one week it rained so hard the creek flooded and washed them away.

Harriet by Melissa

Harriett

I dug this picture of Harriet out of some forgotten file on Mason’s old computer. It’s not the best shot, but it’s all I have. About seven years ago, Harriet moved into our house, staying in the basement for a total of six months, appearing in a sweltering southern summer and disappearing again sometime that winter, but she left us with a story that I tell over and over again because it was such an unusual experience, at least for Mace and me. If anyone out there has stories of feral cats or stray dogs moving in, uninvited, please write to me. I’d love to read or post your stories.

Anyway, Harriet was a petite, longhaired calico, peering at us from behind a fuzzy little face that looked flattened by an iron. She was like a feline version of a pug. Her shy glances beamed with gratitude when we’d offer her a bowl of Cat Chow and faucet water. Unlike the Farnival’s heartless feline posse, Harriet’s manner exuded gentleness.

Whenever I touched her, I did it gingerly, afraid to scare her off, but as we got more comfortable with each other, she let me pet her for longer periods of time. She was too thin, but she never finished a whole bowl of food. After she had her fill, she’d needle her dainty paws against the warm brick steps, mewing in appreciation.

She appeared first and every time afterward at the tree line east of the house, waiting near the gray trunk of a sugar maple or the brown bark of a fir tree, her fur blending into both hues, for a sighting of Mace or me. When she saw us, she’d prance across the yard with a pleased expression in her gold eyes. For maybe a month, she never ventured past the front porch, mainly because my cats, all neutered and male, smacked the poop out of her every time she turned the corner.

Overall, she showed up so infrequently that if days went by without a Harriet sighting, we didn’t worry about it. She could have been anyone or no one’s cat. But whenever Mace or I saw her, we’d report her appearance, appetite, and general disposition like it was important household news.

For a while we called her Harry, assuming she was male, until, with disbelief, I noticed her mushrooming stomach and swelling nipples and realized that Harry was a Harriet. We took her to Dr. Dan, our country vet, who said he could spay her, but explained it would kill the litter, which he could already feel squirming. We decided against it.

Not long after I discovered her gender, Harriet somehow crept past my feline posse and moved herself, uninvited, into our basement through the doggie door, nesting in the frame of an old couch and delivered a litter of six kittens. As soon as the kittens were big enough to crawl outside the safety of the couch frame, Lucy, our German shepherd, killed all of them while our pet sitter slept upstairs. We had seen Lucy kill both moles and opossums with one snap of her powerful maw, but back then we were naïve when it came to animal behavior and assumed Lucy could somehow distinguish kittens from mice.

Another hard lesson that Harriet taught us was that cats are able to go back into heat a week or less after giving birth. Needless to say, sixty days later, when Harriet delivered her second litter, we built her kittens a fortress that kept them safe until we could find them homes.

Accepting the fact that Harriet was our responsibility whether we wanted it or not, we took her to the Robertson County Animal Clinic and got her on antibiotics, spayed, dewormed, and vaccinated. Because she had made it into the basement, Boo and Goo treated her with contempt instead of brutality, so her life among the pack became somewhat easier.

To Harriet’s credit, she stuck around for a few months, sleeping, eating, and resting, putting on a little weight but bearing the same gracious, gentle face she had arrived here wearing. After she felt better, she would venture out into the woods for days, then weeks. The last time I waited for a month before the fact that she was never coming back dawned. Mason waited longer than I did, sitting on the steps after he had finished his smoke, staring into the tree line for a Harriet sighting, but there was never anything to report. She just disappeared.

P.S. Our buddy, Peacock, adopted Amos, one of the kittens from Harriet’s second litter. Amos is still alive and well in Tallahassee, Florida.

The Orange Cat Who Wasn’t by Charlotte Padfield

006When I was seven, I went for a car ride in our 4-Runner with my mom and my six-year-old brother Rex that I still slightly remember. I’m seventeen so it happened ten years ago, but that ride is one of those memories I like to think about because it’s still a special day for me. It’s the day I found Fiona.

Mom had given us old towels before we left the house so that we could hold “them” in our laps. “Them” meant our new kittens. Mom had found “them” through someone at church whose cat had a litter. When I was seven, cats were completely foreign creatures to me. We had one cat before, but we never interacted because she lived in our barn. Mom had gotten her in 1987 and had to put her down in early 2004 because she was both deaf and blind, and coyotes surrounded our farm.

But ten years ago, spring breeze wafting through the open windows in our car, I was about to get my own cat. My criteria: an orange and white-striped cat. Orange was my favorite color. I refused to settle for any boring plain brown and black-striped cat. I hadn’t come up with a name yet, but I wasn’t too worried. Besides, we were going to see Shrek 2 that night, so I had plenty of time to commit to a name. My eyes flitted from home to home in the middle-class neighborhood, and finally settled on the house with a sign that advertised: FREE KITTENS!

Rex and I left our towels in the car, and an old man that limped took us into his garage. There, we saw a litter of five kittens. My eye instantly snagged an orange and white-striped one, just like I wanted.

 “I really like that one.” I said.

 “Well,” the man said, hesitating. “That’s the one my granddaughter wants.”

What? If his stupid granddaughter wanted it, then she should’ve taken it, I thought. I was heartbroken and resorted to what every seven- year- old who read too many books and thought they had some sort of intuition resorted to: I sat on the concrete floor and waited.

The first cat that comes up to me is the cat I’m going to get. It took some time; the lawnmower apparently looked much more appealing than I did to a group of playful kittens, but eventually one approached me. I was ecstatic, but then I noticed the brown and black stripes, exactly like the cat I didn’t want. For some reason, I didn’t care. This plain, striped kitten and I had a special connection. I was sure of it. I gently picked her up, like Mom had taught me.

“What about this one?” I mentally crossed my fingers.

“Yeah, you can have that one,” he said.

Once Rex had picked out his cat, grey and white-striped, we walked back to the car, wrapped them in the towels, and took them to our corn, soybean, and tobacco farm in Robertson County, Tennessee.

We all gathered in the living room, Dad, Mom, Rex and I. The kittens roamed around our living room, creeping behind our TV stand and exploring the plants we kept by a wall of windows. They used the litter box perfectly, even though they hilariously struggled to jump over the tall plastic sides. I asked my mom if we could figure out their genders. If we were going to name them, then we had to know if they were male or female.

Mom printed out information from the computer and instructed us to gently hold up their tails. For the girl, the “pee hole” and the “butt hole” were close together, for the boy, they were farther apart. Rex and I easily concluded that both of our cats were girls. As Rex and I wondered about potential names, Mom and Dad said it was time for Shrek 2.

I enjoyed the sequel about the giant green ogre almost as much as the first. I admired Fiona’s toughness. An ogre princess, she was both feminine and rough around the edges. As a kid I was a huge fan of girl characters in books and movies that wore pretty dresses but were also strong. Watching Fiona, I realized I had picked a name for my kitten.

As soon as we got home, I declared, “I’m naming her Fiona!”

Rex decided to name his cat Shrek, completely disregarding the little grey cat’s gender.

KidsCats

Fiona and Shrek were mostly outside cats. Unfortunately, a few months after they arrived at the farm Shrek disappeared for a really long time, long enough that we had given up hope of her return. But then on Dad’s birthday, we got a knock on our door. Our neighbor had found Shrek. After a second of staring at the cat in our neighbor’s arms, it was easy to determine that it wasn’t Shrek at all. We all knew it, but decided to keep her anyway, and named her Paris (Taking after Paris Hilton, we watched ‘The Simple Life’ religiously.)  Just like Shrek, Paris disappeared a few months after we got her. My family wondered if it had been a snake or coyote, but I didn’t want to think about it.

Four years later we moved from the farm to Springfield, and that was a huge adjustment for both Fiona and me. Neither of us had ever lived close to other people before. At our old house there was a highway about an acre away that rarely got traffic. Now, busy streets were everywhere. At our old house we didn’t encounter any other domesticated animals. Now, we lived in a place with neighbors that had other pets in their yards. And what worried me the most: If Fiona roamed, she would never find her way back home. She would disappear like Shrek and Paris. For these reasons, I tried to keep Fiona in the house as long as I could.

Eventually, Mom persuaded me to let her out. Mom explained that she was an outside cat and keeping her inside was unfair. I finally decided to let her out before catching the bus for the first time at my new house, hoping that it would be some special moment. I unlocked the garage door, set Fiona in the grass. She took off running and my heart sank.

When I got home from school, she wasn’t back yet.

Not the next day.

Not even the next day.

On the fourth day, ready to start posting pictures around the neighborhood, I confronted my mom, willing to use any means necessary to enlist her help.

“Look out the kitchen window,” she said.

Fiona was lounging peacefully on a wicker chair. She was home.

Now, Fiona is almost ten- years- old. She sleeps in my bed every night and will meow when I move too much. Her favorite treat is string cheese. She goes absolutely crazy if she sees someone in the house eating it. Even though she has gotten older and sleeps most of the time, she still plays once in awhile. She loves ‘The Cat App.’. And I love watching her swat at fluttering birds on a screen.

008

I’m going to Western Kentucky University in August and am going to miss not being able to spend time with Fiona everyday. But I have plans; as soon as I get my own apartment, I’m snatching her away from Mom. I’m so glad Fiona is in my life, and I know without a doubt that I’d choose her over any other cat any day, even one with orange and white stripes.

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The Farnival’s Feline Posse by Melissa

Creepy boo

After Cozette La Cerva came and went from our lives, I’ve been thinking a lot about my own three black cats, Boo, Goo, and Fuzz, all male. I don’t talk about them much. I don’t write about them at all. They seem to know this. Every once in a while, I swear they eye my computer, wondering when I’m going to give them a little space because, of course, they deserve it. Since they are very much a part of our lives at the Farnival, they shouldn’t feel excluded.

I’ve never considered myself a cat person, and even though I’ve lived with at least one for eleven years, I still don’t consider myself a cat person. Please don’t mistake me; I take my responsibility to my felines very seriously. I may not exactly like them, but I unconditionally love them. They will have food, shelter, and medical care until the day they or we pass.

Speaking of which, I have absolutely no idea what happens when we die, but the irony of my feline distaste is that if reincarnation is the answer, then I want to return as one of my cats, who are the happiest, most self-satisfied creatures I’ve ever met in my life. But sometimes, the reality of our relationship hits home, and I understand with reluctant acceptance that I don’t like them because they are also inherently evil. Murder, it seems, is in their nature.

Let me explain: Boo, Goo, and Fuzz have free reign of the house and eight wooded acres that make up the Farnival. Freakishly intelligent creatures, they started using the doggie doors as kittens, which means they can come and go as they please. The fence – that is so effective at keeping the dogs contained – is useless at restricting our cats. They‘ll sit, sometimes one, two, or all three, on top of separate six-foot fence posts, poised like stone gargoyles at a medieval castle, for several long minutes before they pounce to the ground, throw an amused glance back at my writing room window, then creep into the tree line.

I’ve caught flashes of them beyond our borders, roaming as far as our closest neighbors, Miss Pat five hundred yards east and Greg about the same distance west, but they don’t do that often. Why bother, they seem to say with their exotic triangular snouts, green opal-like eyes twinkling with chilling confidence.

In our rural southern wilderness, the game is bountiful, meaning it’s easy for my three heartless assassins to satisfy their instinctual urge to murder on a daily basis. They don’t need to travel more than a hundred yards in any direction to find the mice, rabbits, chipmunks, squirrels, snakes, moles, lizards, and birds they capture, torture, and eliminate.

In the beginning, when a beheaded chipmunk still made me cringe, I considered closing the doggie doors permanently in order to save the lives of countless innocent souls. But now, I’m a desensitized pro at discarding carnage and keep a “special” glove hanging in the basement to pick up the remains they scatter around the house.

But, and this is the important part, as much as their viciousness repels me, it also fascinates me. I observe their acrobatic, patient hunt with horror and awe. Like Spiderman’s minions, they leap, lunge, pose, balance, climb, and attack with the kind of ruthless skills that I’ve only ever seen in a Marvel movie. Because of their extraordinary prowess as executioners, I’ve accepted my posse for what they are and keeping them inside now seems like repression in its worst form. It would be like asking a bird not to fly or a writer not to write.

Killing must take up a lot of energy because they spend most days on top of the dresser in the bedroom, nestled together like three evil dragons reenergizing in their lair, needle-sharp paws, pointy ears, whip-like tails, and luminescent eyes disappearing into each other’s fur and parts until there’s just a black mass, purring in the warmth of each other.

Although I’ve seen them butcher during the day, their ideal hunting time is at night. As dusk descends they rise, Boo first, separating from his two brothers, a shadow elongating then splitting from its source, like it never belonged with them in the first place. Boo is the boss of this deadly posse, slinking around the house with a conceited look on his sleek face. I don’t know if appearance has anything to do with how a cat gains status, but Boo is by far the most handsome, well-groomed feline in our pack. He exudes elegance, even when he licks his nether regions, he manages a dancer’s form, leg rod straight, neck bowed, pink tongue flicking over his perceived dirty spots.

Boo and Goo’s past is a mystery. I adopted them together from Noah’s Ark in a bordering agrarian town called White House, Tennessee in 2003. As bad as dogs have it in Robertson County, cats have it a hundred times worse. One female and one male cat, plus their litter can produce 420,000 kittens in seven years. That’s an astounding rate of reproduction.

A brash-talking, big breasted, like-minded animal activist I met a few years ago told me she lures her neighbor’s cats into a trap with sardines, gets them fixed, then releases them without anyone even noticing. She said it’s reduced the cat population in her neighborhood by 80%. I asked her about what happened to all the litters of kittens that came before her valiant efforts. “I don’t know, girl. Most just disappear.” That’s the fate of thousands of kittens in Robertson County in a nutshell. They just disappear. Like they never mattered in the first place.

Goo will rouse shortly after Boo, stretching in his own yoga-inspired pose, then perch at the dresser’s edge, evaluating the dog situation on the bedroom floor. Although Boo swipes at any dog that annoys him, Goo chooses to avoid the situation all together, saving his energy for the kill. He’s the muscle behind the posse, weighing about ten pounds. He’s the only one with any white in his coat, a diamond patch on his chest, like a medallion. His pet peeve is the water bowl. If I’m late refilling it because I’m writing, vacuuming, or studying (in that order,) Goo will pee in it, clearly signaling that I need to get my shit together because waiting for water isn’t on his agenda. But for the most part, Goo sports a contented, patient look. His primary passion is hunting, and I’ve seen him swat his prey with joyful cruelty.

Fuzz, our enigma, rises last. Fuzz retains a wariness that he’s never been able to shake in the five years he’s lived here. It makes getting to know him a challenge. There’s nothing graceful about Fuzz, he scampers down the hallway with his saggy belly jostling from side to side. If a dog tries to chase him, he refuses to engage and hunkers, waiting to outlive a canine’s short attention span. Fuzz spent the first eight months of his life as a feral barn cat on my neighbor’s hundred-acre tobacco farm down Sandy Hill Road. Every week or so, Greg would dump a bag of Cat Chow on the barn’s dirt floor. One night, a scavenging coyote killed the mother and every kitten, except for Fuzz, who is blacker than nighttime.

My feline posse often presents their gruesome gifts in every room in the house, but they particularly like leaving it in my bathroom, directly in front of my baby blue throne. I’ve seen more brains, intestines, livers, and hearts first thing in the morning than I care to remember. Besides organs, I’ve received a mouse’s head, a rabbit’s tail, and a de-feathered bird. And they have no scruples about their prey either. They once cornered a six -foot rat snake in the rafters of the basement. And last fall I watched Fuzz tiptoeing after a bearded turkey across our front yard.

Recently, my friend Nancy and I were walking on the trails behind the Farnival. Boo, Goo, and Fuzz followed us at a distance, but once in a while Boo would sprint forward to catch up. Nancy carried a stick, and when we stopped to look at how the recent rains had gorged a new valley in the dry creek that splits our land, Boo dashed beside her. He started rubbing against her walking stick, moving back and forth the length of the branch in an erotic tango-like dance. His manner was aggressive yet contained, tail erect and swaying. Nancy watched his behavior for a few seconds, realized how weird it was, and jerked back the stick. Boo looked up, surprised, a glistening drip of drool fell from his fangs, and the slits of his pupils seemed to contract with annoyance, as though he couldn’t believe she had the nerve to interrupt his pleasure.

“Look at that cat. What’s wrong with him?” she asked.

I just shrugged my shoulders. How could I answer? I have no idea what’s wrong with any of my cats. I didn’t raise them to be freaky, sadistic killers, but that’s what they are. And being their companion means accepting both the good and the bad about the nature of this oddly endearing feline posse.

Cozette La Cerva: Update by Melissa

B and Cozette

On Tuesday Donna, ICHBA’s one and only administrator, took Cozette La Cerva to the Fix Foundation in Franklin, Kentucky. The good news is that the clinic will vaccinate and spay her. The bad news: I’ll never know where she finds her forever home. The Fix Foundation adopts out their cats at Petco and Petsmart. Letting her go without knowing where she’ll end up is like reading a great book, but never finding out the end. I just have to hope that whoever finds her realizes what a smart little sugar shit they have on their hands. Good luck, Cozette. For more click here.