The block across the street is like this: first, an old man in the “other Loretta’s” house. She is in a protected environment in Conrad since she’d begun to wander in her mind, but she came to visit Valier yesterday and everyone said she looked fine and remembered them. Next is the little house where “old Dave” used to live. He was still remodeling when he died, but he was always remodeling. Now this house belongs to the next house over where there is a young vigorous family who uses Dave’s house as overflow, either for mothers-in-law or old friends or sometimes friendly renters. They like to barbecue and play basketball and their youngsters are in all kinds of activities.
Also, their household is full of pets, most notably Caspar who still resents my cats though they’ve been here for years now. Caspar, white with gray ears and tail, ranges far. I often see her (she’s an altered female who evidently has a lot of testosterone in her system) coming back down the alley that ends at my yard, trotting along from blocks away. I think she may hunt on the weedy unbuilt lots out that way. She’s a bold and vicious fighter who put Crackers on the sick list for a week not long ago.
Next to that family is a double corner lot for a young couple who belong to one of the most prosperous families: among other things, their network owns the only gas station and a not-quite-ranch on the edge of town where steers are fed all winter and sold in spring. Then alfalfa is grown in the field where they’ve been fed, to be cut and baled just in time to bring in a new herd of steers.
The young rancher who is the father across the street drives a massive diesel pickup that runs almost continuously in winter because diesels are so hard to start when it’s cold. His wife drives a neat little “nurse car” because she IS a nurse. She has a swirl of friends and keeps in touch on a cell phone which means the whole street hears her chattering to them since cell phones don’t work very well indoors around here. There are two little children, growing unbelievably quickly.
On my side of the street, left to right, is a small rental apartment that’s under Section 8 so has a constantly changing population of beginning teachers, or sometimes transient heavy labor or single mothers. Next is Loretta’s house and then mine. Our houses were built by a barber in the Thirties. They are very modest. Hers is more maintained and upgraded than mine. Next to me is a vacant lot and then the Baptist church with its boisterous carillon.
The church, which is only used for ceremonies and a short Sunday worship service, is a haven for cats, mostly because of a long hedge of honeysuckle and lilac at the back of their lot along the alley. (This village has a generous plat with alleys which the town is vigorous about keeping clear. The alley behind my house is the transition from commercial to residential because my street used to be a business street.) Cats find that long hedge a good place to curl into nests for a nap. They also investigate my shabby back garage, which stands open all summer and is accessed through a cat hole in the door all winter.
Across the alley behind the church is an older couple who sold their house in order to live in an RV so they could spend winters in the SW. The man lost an arm in an accident and now they stay here in a mobile home so that he can have the same doctor year round. He’s on Workman’s Comp which won’t pay for a doctor in the SW. They don’t have cats, but two “min pins” (Miniature Dobermans) and there was a poodle but I don’t see it anymore.
The next lot beyond them is pretty well trashed, an old once-turquoise mobile home with a collection of sheds, now empty which is an improvement. One shed had a greenhouse extension with a collection of plants that looked rather like marijuana, but evidently weren’t. An old man lived there with a big chow-mix dog, his son, and a floating population of single males with their machinery: broken cement mixers, pickups in pieces, motorcycles likewise, and a lot of tall weeds. For years they’ve had an equally floating population of cats produced by a whip-thin female who lived under the trailer. The old man fed them by tearing open a big sack of catfood on the ground once a month. Probably the real food value was in the rodents who visited to fortify their diet.
The first winter that I had a cat door in the kitchen a black male from that bunch began to sneak in and out when I was asleep. At twenty below and snowing, I was reluctant to throw him out. When challenged he cowered down and went rigid. (Caspar, by comparison, threatens to kneecap me, even after I smack him with my hand.) If I picked him up, he was all muscle with a thin coat of fur. I called him Hammerhead. My mild fat cats didn’t interfere with him -- gave him lots of room. Then one spring day he moved onto my bed and that was over the line. He went OUT and I barricaded him out. His backup refuge was across the street where he found access to the crawl space under their house and somehow managed to move into their hot tub room. Then he took a trip to the country, or so I was told. If anyone was equipped to survive a feral life, Hammerhead was.
But the resourceful tom I really rather liked was The Fox. I think he came from the trailer mixup in the back. SB Poet says that the really intensely red cats are male for complex genetic reasons and this one was as red as any fox. At first I only saw a red streak and thought it really WAS a fox! But then he began to pause now and then, so I’d watch from the window before I went out to run him off. He left when the old man back there sank into Alzheimer’s, the bank repossessed his old mobile home, cleared out all the weeds, and evicted everyone.
Yesterday my neighbor and I were standing in my kitchen looking out my big east picture window when she said, “Oh, there’s those kittens again! They belong to the nurse across the street and they keep coming across -- the cars will hit them sooner or later.” Right, if Caspar doesn’t make chowder of them. Sure enough, a elegant little Siamese kitten with a rhinestone collar that matched her blue eyes was prancing towards Crackers who was doing her Buddha pose under a yard chair. Even in the house I could hear Crackers’ warning growl, though she didn't move.
The rumble of menace finally registered on the kitten, who froze in her tracks with every fuzzy little hair on end. Then veeeeerrrrryyyy slooooowly she backed up, turned, and began to creep away, moving slo-mo. My neighbor and I went out to intervene. I waved my arms and yelled, but the kitten thought I was calling and came to my feet, so I picked up the little mite. “I’ll take it home,” I said.
“It won’t stay,” predicted my neighbor. And here came the other one, rolicking over to see what the fun was about. I picked it up, too, and the pair settled into my arms, purring as though they had known me forever. They gazed confidently around as I toted them home. The nurse’s big old black dog who lives outside and guards the block night and day was alongside the house.
I took the kittens over to him and explained that now they were “His Kittens” and he must keep them in the yard. He seemed to nod wisely. I dumped the kittens between his front paws and left. When I looked back, he was giving them a good licking and they were enjoying every minute.
Cats are territorial. Their lives are the drama of boundary defense, even after spay and neuter. Crackers’ strategy is to stay in the house and defend the bed. Squibbie’s policy is constant vigilance. She sits at the T where the E-W alley runs into the N-S alley and cranes her neck to see what’s going on. Have the feral cats who live out of the store dumpster come this way? Is that butterscotch and white formerly-male cat that belongs to the gallery man trespassing? (He never is, but his twin brother used to.) I find them as worthy of study as any “wild” animals and check on them hourly. “Where are my cats?” I ask out-loud. And two heads appear from somewhere. I don’t need a cell phone.