Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Of Cats, Landlords, and Bats by Stephen Mead

Of Cats, Landlords & Bats
an excerpt from “A Thousand Beautiful Things”
by Stephen Mead

Before beginning a “tour”, so to speak, of my apartment, I always think it a good idea to issue a couple of warnings. You can picture me saying this over my shoulder, a foreboding concierge with key raised to the lock. You may even notice a quick flash from the key ring, a gift from my partner, that flash a blue rhine-stone chip beside an engraved silver schooner. In any case, as you may have guessed , I smoke, Native Lights actually, a miraculous inexpensive Indian Reservation import, and even though in summer with windows open and fans blowing, the trace of cigarettes is pretty undetectable, it is now only March and the apartment’s been closed up all winter long.

True, in every room and passage there are “powder fresh” stick ups and “ tropical rain forest” scented plug-ins, but they are scarcely a match for the miasma of my vice. This is not an apology. I’ve enough useless guilt as it is. This is just a statement of fact. Between the deodorizers and cigarettes there is a chance here for spontaneous combustion.

The other warning is probably no more of a surprise than the first. I also have two cats. Thomas and Speedy are their names. Thus, when I open the door, scoot in fast, for Speedy especially lives up to his namesake. Also, and I do apologize, but watch your feet, because one or both cats might be trying to run in between them, rubbing your ankles and purring. At least that is if they think you’ve come to worship them with food. Furthermore, Speedy has a sensitive stomach, and I wouldn’t want you to run into any cat vomit.

If that weren’t enough, Thomas must be part rabbit for, when excited, (plus he is overweight), has been known to drop a small pellet turd here and there. Don’t say you weren’t warned. I mean I try to keep a clean place. I come home from work every day and with typical obsessive compulsion take a lint brush to de-fur the furniture. (I really should start saving these collections and knit them into outfits so I can get on “Believe It Or Not”.) And it’s not like I deliberately leave these feline fecal and/or intestinal calling cards lying about. I just might not have been present at the time they appeared. A person does have to get out of the house once in awhile.

One morning as I was leaving for work, lugging my usual heavy backpack, Speedy was sitting on top of the stairwell having ominous stomach heaves. I therefore attempted to catch the upchuck in mid-stream with a handy waste basket. In the process, juggling backpack and waste basket, I nearly threw my back out. If there is one lesson in life which I have learned it is that puke must be allowed to fall
where it falls.

Funny, the cats don’t seem to be bothered by any of this, and I guess that out of all the “prized possessions” around here these two are the most problematic.

Who am I kidding? These two own me.

I am their thing to be sat on and jumped on and even scratched like a post when the mood strikes. It is also evident that they own me due to the fact that my partner has developed an allergy to them, and can now only stay here for two hours at a time. Yes, they’ve interfered with my love life and I still keep them around for fear of hurting their feelings since they seem so comfortable here. Is there a “Co-dependent No More” group for this sort of thing?

What’s funny is I never sought out either of these animals as pets. What’s also funny is that the year when they both separately arrived in my life was a year when I was coming out of a long term relationship, silently vowing never to have any sort of live-in entity in my space ever again.

Thomas came first, a skinny four month old charcoal black and gray tabby. He’d been abandoned by college students of an English professor acquaintance I knew. There I was in, a Border’s Bookstore Reading Group, trying to start my life over, single and free, when in comes this harried professor with a tale of woe about this kitten’s plight. The next thing I know I’ve got myself another cat, Thomas.

Thomas is named after a patient I’d struck up a closeness with while working as a Hospital Aide. Speedy, a lighter gray flannel hue, with shimmers of white and big golden pear colored eyes, arrived shortly afterwards. He was dropped off by a former roommate frantically banging on my door one morning after I’d just got done with a night shift. Half asleep I listened to this good hearted woman excitedly explain how her husband was kicking Speedy about, and how she was afraid for the cat’s welfare, and wouldn’t I take it awhile?

“O.K.”, says I, wanting more than anything just to go back to sleep.

Good thing she didn’t show up with a family of illegal aliens.

I’ve made some of the worst decisions in my life due to feeling either groggy or sorry or both.

In any case, quick as an apparition for one of my past evil deeds, my former roommate left, most likely chuckling to herself, and I’ve scarcely seen her in the years since. But of course Speedy stayed. This is how I’ve come to view poor Speedy, who is, after all, very sweet if slightly brain damaged. I view Speedy as the cat who came to visit and stayed. Unfortunately I also think Speedy’s self esteem has been stunted a bit with this subliminal message. He certainly skulks about skittishly enough. Thomas, moreover, didn’t exactly give him the warmest of welcomes. More like a spitting, hissing tornado Tasmanian Devil of claws, than anything else.

At the time I was living in what one might call an Efficiency. I’m not quite sure what was efficient about it. I called it a one room skid row for roaches. Then, like now, I was residing on the third floor of an old rooming house type of building. (I seem to have an affinity for third floors, the tree house life.

Perhaps this is due to something aerial, bird-like, or just plain spacey in my nature.) Yes, there I was living in a third story one room roach motel with two battling cats, one of whom had a pair of broken legs.

Ah, forgot to mention that.

Since that place was so small and stuffy I often had the windows open and the windows either lacked or didn’t have the best screens. Also, since the leaky efficiency fridge and kitchen was so small I often put things on the kitchen windowsill. In fact, I should have had some inkling of danger my very first night
when I placed a gallon jug of punch on the sill and then tried to sweep, the place being so small that the broom handle collided with the jug and sent it ricocheting off somewhere into the night. (Hopefully not on to anyone’s head.) I like to think Thomas didn’t have a similar experience, but I really don’t know how he wound up falling three stories.

I know he did love hanging out on the roof, drawn to both sounds of children in the day school play yard next door, and to the menagerie of squirrels and pigeons who were his neighbors. Even with the screens shut he would pull and pry at them to gain access, thus Thomas either fell while in the midst of one of his antics, or one of the crotchety people in the building pushed him when he popped up in their window.

In any case, he was missing for over a day when I finally found where he dragged himself, and he was wearing two front casts at the time of his first meeting with Speedy. (You might find it of interest, or not, that the vet, who chuckled a bit when showing me Thomas’ s x-rays, comparing them to a Wily Coyote Road Runner mishap, said that in a NYC study it was cats that descended from third floor heights who usually break limbs, whereas ones who fall from higher or only second floor ones, tend to make out all right. I wondered how they got the results of that study. Were people all over NYC dropping cats out windows to test Newton’s Gravity theories?)

I guess it was a bit fortuitous that Thomas was a little incapacitated during his initial meeting with Speedy. That way he only had his back legs to bat with while his front ones were sort of mummified.

He actually did look rather Egyptian with the casts, and I toyed with the idea of painting them in gold leaf but feared blood poisoning. Speedy, being the one on new turf and somehow aware of the squatter’s rights Thomas had, did his best to be placating. He did not avoid Thomas at all, but instead made these little ngratiating tribble-like mews from his throat, and followed Thomas about with his head sheepishly lowered. Good strategy. They became pals in less than a week, and even now still play that crouch mew chase me chase me game, which can really get on one’s last nerve at four in the morning.

Of the two, Speedy is the one to let Thomas have first go at the food dish or sit on my lap, before staking claim, yet can also be more needy and gregarious, happily running to investigate and be petted when company comes. Speedy wants the attention the way a dog would, whereas Thomas mainly wants to show who’s boss or be left alone. Speedy also can be terribly vociferous and whiny, often sitting at one’s feet repeating the same sort of nails-on-chalkboard banshee hell cat squawk, or wandering from room to room doing the same thing. He’s like some sort of pathetic orphaned Edward Gorey waif.

Thomas, meanwhile, is still the on who tries to be mischievous daredevil, the one whom I have to electric tape the screens against. Yes, even in this new third story place, he has a thing for the roof. In fact, one night he did get out there, and from there to a nearby tree where he called and called at the moon, waking me up instead. I went to the fire escape and called back, but of course his meows just got
more woebegone. Not until I went to rescue him with a ladder did he react: scampering over my head and off down the street. He only returned when I lost my balance and the ladder tipped over and I lay on my back looking at stars.

This is why I can never seem to have enough electric tape to seal up the screens, but even so, once or twice every summer, I still wind up with a baby brown bat somewhere in this attic apartment. The cats are of course thrilled, an angel mouse to play with, they think. Me, I recall every vampire movie I ever saw, pull the pajamas up over my head, slam the door of whatever room the bat is in, and call the
landlord. One night the landlord wasn’t able to find the bat in the bedroom where I’d trapped it, so I slept in the living room with a light on until Fall.

My partner has been very butch and dear about this, not only coming over to catch one of the bats, but also helping me get some plug-in bat repellents for each room. They have a night light which emits a comforting green hornet glow, and hypersonic pitch only bats can hear and be warned away by. Quite useful, and quite a different technique than the one my landlord adopted, usually coming over with a very big toolbox, wanting to socket-wrench the creature I suppose. He mainly laughs about my fear, thinking of the free entertainment value the bats provide, or says I should just spray them with water. Funny, I never seem to have a garden hose handy at the time.

This is the typical sort of advice I’ve received from landlords wherever I’ve lived, and whatever the problem may be. I was also told that the reason I was so cold one winter was because my furniture was too close to the radiators, not the fact that there wasn’t any heat coming up the pipes. It wasn’t until I called Code Enforcement, and my landlord was given a citation that he, none too pleased with me,
discovered that the thermostat wiring had been chewed threw by squirrels.

I stay here because it’s cheap and I have a built in resistance to the work of packing that a move would

entail. I may have even stayed longer in my last third floor roach motel, but the ceiling developed leaks that all the contact paper in the world could not seal out. (I know. I tried.)

Yes, when it comes to landlords, I pay my rent on time mainly to keep them away.

Even the current one, who is certainly nice enough, but whom, when he comes to make repairs, does things like tie a rope around his waist and the other end of it around a wooden plank which he then props floor to ceiling across a room, sort of like bungee jumping, just so he can paint the trim outside my windows. Very nerve wracking stuff. I asked if he could caulk around the windows too, as long as he was
out there, to seal up the cracks where the bats sneak in, but I’m afraid he found that idea rather silly.

Still, “How are your cats? Especially that fat one?”, he always asks when I do see him, and I do my best not to think of the stereotypical would-be witticisms others have made when they’ve heard my landlord ask this.

You see, my landlord happens to be Chinese.

He’s also often thoughtful enough to ask how my art is going:

“Been discovered yet?”

In addition to being my landlord one of his hobbies is carving jade, so I suppose he is not without understanding of my struggling artist persona. I can imagine him sometimes, painstakingly whittling away at the phosphorous emerald stone. He is creating a dragon perhaps, or even a bat, something grand and misunderstood, something kind of mythic and maybe even lucky.

Author bio:

Stephen Mead can be found on the internet at various sites: Portfolios, Lulu, Blurb, CD Baby, Cafe Press, and Zazzle.

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