by Stephen Benz
My mother is at wit’s end with her neighbor.
When I come for a visit she says, “Can’t you do something, dear—all those cats. And the smell, the filth, the poor woman’s gone plumb mad.”
From an upstairs window I watch the adjoining lot where cats—at least thirty—loll in the sun of the unkempt yard. One scratches at a pine tree trunk. Three more pace nervously at the patio door, tails erect and twitching. It’s a motley collection: tabbies, calicos, and tuxedos. A few torties mixed in.
When I cross the yard—the stink getting stronger with each step—five or six cats scamper off into bushes. Two start up, then freeze in a tense crouch, alert to the threat, ready to run. Up close, I see mange, missing eyes, bit-off ears, deep wounds oozing and infected. There is mewling and hissing. The dead grass is pocked with crusted piles.
No one answers my knock.
I remember when boyhood home runs crossed this fence, and I’d jump over to fetch the whiffle ball. The grass was thick and green back then, and Mrs. Burke waved brightly from her window. She had maybe two or three cats in those days. But the feline silhouettes decorating her mailbox and welcome mat suggested a fondness, and so the neighborhood came to think of her as a cat lover. When the Glenns moved away they left Rosie with her. The Harwoods gave her a couple of kittens from an unwanted litter. And at least twice we kids brought her the strays we had found, surprised and impressed by her joy and kindness upon taking them in.
“Oh, look at you, yes, just look at you, little kitty, kitty, let’s get you some milk, there now you poor hungry thing.” I remember the pathos in her voice as I look through the listings to find the proper agency of city government for handling the matter: Animal Control, according to the blue pages.
While the men in white jumpsuits snatch the cats, their long poles equipped with noose-like loops, Mrs. Burke is bawling and beating her fists against the porch rail, a caterwauling that brings neighbors to their doors.
“Typical case,” the lead agent of impoundment tells me. “Old woman, all alone, noone to care, just the cats. She fits the profile to a T. Tragic, really, but far worse for the animals. Most of these will have distemper or leukemia. We’ll end up putting them to sleep, I bet.”
And then he hands me the clipboard, pointing out the X where I am supposed to sign, confirming the Citizen’s Complaint.
Next morning, well before dawn, I am up making coffee. Through the screen I see a beam outside in the darkness. It’s Mrs. Burke in bathrobe and slippers, wandering the yard with a flashlight. Just audible above the noise of night insects, she’s calling out in a hoarse voice: Tabatha? Marlene? Henry? Jezebel? Sapphire? Here, kitty, here kitty, kitty.
Along with two books of travel essays–Guatemalan Journey(University of Texas Press) and Green Dreams: Travels in Central America (Lonely Planet)– Stephen Benz has published work inCreative Nonfiction, River Teeth, TriQuarterly, and other journals. One of his essays was selected by Ian Frazier for Best American Travel Writing 2003. Formerly a writer for Tropic, the Sunday magazine of the Miami Herald, Stephen now teaches professional writing at the University of New Mexico and offers workshops in travel writing at the Taos Summer Writers’ Conference.