Cat Neighborhood

Cat Neighborhood

No one tells you that homeownership is pulling headless dead cats out of your crawlspace.

After we moved in to our new house I was pleased to find that there was a large roaming cat

population in our new neighborhood. Having always preferred cats, I’ve spent the last three

years of my life trying to convince my partner that taking a daily allergy pill would be worth it

so we can adopt a kitten. He does not agree. But here, as I walk our dog in the mornings,

curious eyes peer at me from the roots of trees where their fur matches the tones on the bark,

and from behind tall grass in the numerous empty lots. Afraid or unaccustomed to cats in his

daily life, Rye’s hair stands up and he crouches low, daring one of them to approach. The cats

remain motionless, just two bright lights watching as I pull him down the alley.

 

As we walk around our new neighborhood, I take note of the houses that have made attempts

at landscaping. There is a surprising number of neglected rosebushes in the yards of my

neighbors and I wonder what the initial attraction to the flower was. A perennial that promises

to return year after year. A flower associated with romance or friendship depending on the

color. Some kind of imagined idealism that roses belong in the gardens of the elite and

planting them in our .01 acre lots raises our neighborhood appeal. The block I live on is a mix

of identical, newly fabricated homes, and hundred-year old houses in various stages of repair.

At the end of the block a newly constructed two-story home sits up against a condemned

single story. Its roof is covered in fallen walnut shells and the privacy hedge in the front yard

no longer produces leaves. On the porch, trash and mail have built up, discarded sheets of

drywall stacked with orange buckets and old paint brushes. A previous tenant left behind a

black statue of a lion in the yard, its head turned toward the street as it crawls across the grass.

Before realizing it was inanimate, my dog barked at it while pulling me closer to the street to

increase our distance from the sculpture.

 

While walking, I think about my own gardening plans that I intend to conquer come spring and

wonder why I want to inflict more responsibility on myself. Before moving into our first

purchased home, I could barely make time to water my house plants. But there is something

about big life changes, like buying a house, where you think you might suddenly get your life

together.

 

The first few days in the new house, Rye wouldn’t step off the carpet in the hall and onto the

linoleum. He would cry and whimper as we made food in the kitchen, occasionally taking

tentative steps before retreating back to the safe fibers of the hall. I tried luring him out with

chicken and then cheese, but he just sobbed and laid down. I tried to ignore him as I organized

dishes in cabinets and searched for missing glassware, but his cries place an additional layer of

tension into the air. I didn’t want to take his sobbing, his dislike of the new home as a sign that

we had made a horrible mistake. A few more days after moving in, we discover that the

bathtub in the master bathroom leaks from the drain into the crawlspace. As I watch the water

poor out, a stage three leak as my partner calls it, I ask what the point of hiring a home

inspector was.

 

On Saturday morning, I walk through our backyard trash bag in hand and stop when I see the

slightest movement out of the corner of my eye. Hiding under my neighbor’s wilting tomato

plants, an all-black cat stares at me with yellow eyes. I yell out a cheerful hello, and the cat

responds by peering at me with greater interest. I step outside the gate to take out the trash,

and when I return the cat has moved on. His interest in me dwindled in a few lazy steps. Seeing

as it is early October, I spend the rest of my day decorating our porch for the upcoming holiday.

This work seems more important than trying to organize the mess that is inside. I hang witch

hats from the ceiling of our porch and place ghost lights across the front window. As I shove

the post in the ground that collects sunlight to operate the lights, it slips and I bang my head

on the porch. Inside my partner is hanging shelves and when he comes out to join me, I show

him my new bruise. My first home improvement battle scar. Over the next few weeks, my

pumpkin and mum collection will grow with every trip to the grocery store, but I quickly find

that I am the only house in a three-block radius that has opted to decorate for Halloween.

 

Two weeks after moving in, I tell myself it’s okay that there are still unpacked boxes. That my

collected artworks and framed photographs that rest propped against walls instead of hung

will eventually find a wall space to call their own. The house doesn’t feel like a home. Not when

the bathroom lacks towel hooks and we are using a blanket as a curtain in the living room to

hide our meager belongings from the prying eyes of passersby. I obsessively peruse the

internet for design inspiration saving images in a folder on my computer. Organized by room,

interior and exterior. The list of projects I want to undertake will keep us busy long after we

have moved out.

 

On a Tuesday morning as I struggle to get ready for work and out the door, I find that one of

the neighborhood cats has found the courage to come over and greet its newest neighbors. On

the porch he chirps sounding more like a bird then a cat. I walk outside and pet his orange

head, taking note of the tattered ear and crust around his mouth and wonder how homeless he

is. I leave the door open so Rye and this new feline can stare at each other through our glass

security door. Neither make a sound and I wonder, if given the morning who would be the first

to move. Impatient I push an attentive Rye out of the doorway and close the door on their

budding friendship. The orange tabby chirps at me and I pet his orange back as he rubs against

my pumpkins. A few weeks later I’ll see my neighbor, singing in Arabic to the orange tabby on

his own porch. I’ve never seen him happier than he is with the cat.

 

One Friday night, after my partner has started working nightshift I stay up late placing

artworks around the house. Since he has been gone, I no longer sleep at night. Each tiny creak

and gust of air has me convinced someone is trying to break in. So, I opt to work instead. A

world map goes above a console table in the hall. I place a painted portrait of an old friend

above the bed in the guest room. In the entrance way I slowly piece together a gallery wall

hanging a work by Stephen Irwin and one by Drew Nikonowitz. I piece them together with

personal photos, and the logo from a gallery that no longer exists. The Nikonowitz print is the

first piece of art I ever purchased. A black and white photograph of a heavy stone bench rests in

front of an all-black wall covered in white dust. In the image, the bench looks like it is sitting

in front of a window to a galaxy. My partner doesn’t understand why I was willing to pay 700

dollars, the equivalent of one month’s mortgage payment, for this 16 by 20-inch print. But

when I first saw the image, I was immediately drawn to how expansive it was, and I cannot

explain what series of books or events or classes merged inside of myself to develop the taste

that I have. I spent a month thinking about it before I contacted the artist to purchase it.

Unknowingly, I bought a cheap frame and now the white border of the photo paper has aged

and turned a pale yellow. There was a time when I was in graduate school that I thought that

all art work must mean something to have any relevance. That if it doesn’t in some way engage

with current societal issues it is worthless. There was also a time in graduate school where I no

longer liked art. I didn’t want to look at it, or think about it, or read about it. And I guess this is

why I ended up paring with someone who is not engaged with the art world. Since I am not that

person any more, I have grown to love art again. But now I accept that I can love art that is

conceptually powerful and art that just is.

 

When Halloween arrives, I leave work early so I can pick up bags of candy at the grocery store. I

leave the door open as we wait for trick-or-treaters, and we watch the wind blow the witch

hats with such force, I have to congratulate myself on my knot tying skills. After my partner

leaves for work, I sit down in the kitchen and gut a pumpkin, separating the seeds from the

rest of the innards. I carve out a basic pumpkin face and placing a candle inside, I rest the

pumpkin on the front porch. According to Halloween lore, ancient Celtic cultures carved

turnips on Hallows Eve to ward off evil spirits, a tradition they brought with them when they

immigrated to the United States, and eventually substituted pumpkins. I am not really

superstitious but just in case, I think it is best to keep the ghosts out.

 

Forty days after we have moved in, my partner and I have finally purchased the tools necessary

to fix the master bathtub. As I work on my computer he dutifully descends into the cellar so he

can access the crawl space under the tub. Unfortunately for me, he cannot fit through the

opening from our cellar into the crawlspace under the tub. To access the tub drain, you have to

lay on your stomach and drag yourself under a metal vent. I change my clothes and place a

shower cap over my head because I am convinced spiders and other crawly insects will make a

nest in my hair. Then I pull on gloves and put the flashlight in my mouth and scoot through,

occasionally waving the light around so I can check for spider crickets. Satisfied that the coast

is clear I continue slowly crawling to the drain when I see a small mound of dirt I had missed

before. I instinctively go to pat it down when I notice some matted hair on the opposite side.

Pulling my flashlight from my mouth I shine the light directly at it to find the large decaying

body of a cat. As the light moves across the body, I find that the animal is missing its head and

I am surprised that my reaction is to say “oh” and not to scream.

 

With instructions from my partner, I disassemble the plumbing under the tub applying

plumbers puddy to the joints to stop the leak. After, he hands me a trashbag and I close my

eyes and attempt to wrap it around the cat’s body without actually having to touch it. But to

get it out, I have to place the bag between my feet and drag it behind me as I craw back under

the vent and into the cellar.

 

After I drag the cat out, I do a perimeter check around our house and wonder where the poor

thing crawled in. As I examine my yard I think again about the landscaping I plan to do. The

fence we will build, the raised garden beds. I want to plant my own perennials in the front yard.

I wonder if I will get tired and neglect to water them.

 

Later we install the new blind we bought for the window at the front of the house. Our dog

watches us work from his favorite spot on the couch. He has long since conquered his dislike of

the linoleum floors. After it is hung, we agree that it would look great except we purchased the

wrong length and it is six inches too short. We take it down and the blanket goes back up.