Kitty Cornered: How Frannie and Five Other Incorrigible Cats Seized Control of Our House and Made It Their Homeby Bob Tarte
Bob Tarte had his first encounter with a cat when he was two and a half years old. He should have learned his lesson then, from Fluffy. But as he says, “I listened to my heart instead, and that always leads to trouble.” In this tell-all of how the Tarte household grew from one recalcitrant cat to six—including a hard-to-manage stray named… See more details below
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Bob Tarte had his first encounter with a cat when he was two and a half years old. He should have learned his lesson then, from Fluffy. But as he says, “I listened to my heart instead, and that always leads to trouble.” In this tell-all of how the Tarte household grew from one recalcitrant cat to six—including a hard-to-manage stray named Frannie—Tarte confesses to allowing these interlopers to shape his and his wife’s life, from their dining habits to their sleeping arrangements to the placement and furriness of their furniture. But more than that, Bob begins seeing Frannie and the other cats as unlikely instructors in the art of achieving contentment, even in the face of illness and injury. Bewitched by the unknowable nature of domesticated cats, he realizes that sometimes wildness and mystery are exactly what he needs.
With the winning humor and uncanny ability to capture the soul of the animal world that made Enslaved by Ducks a success, Tarte shows us that life with animals gives us a way out of our narrow human perspective to glimpse something larger, more enduring, and more grounded in the simplicities of love—and catnip.
- Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill
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Kitty CorneredHow Frannie and Five Other Incorrigible Cats Seized Control of Our House and Made It Their Home
By BOB TARTE
Algonquin Books of Chapel HillCopyright © 2012 Bob Tarte
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThe Wisp of the Woods
Linda burst into the house in her usual door-knob-through-plaster fashion shortly after I had finished feeding Agnes. The floor bounced like a drumhead as she stomped the snow off her boots. Peering around the corner from the kitchen, I felt grateful that I wasn't still climbing the basement stairs, or the tremors might have pitched me off where an underfoot Agnes had failed. Linda tossed her boots onto the porch and then shucked off the pair of plastic bread bags that provided the waterproofing her thrift-store boots lacked.
"I saw that white-and-black cat again," she told me with the mixture of excitement and disbelief of a child glimpsing Santa Claus. "She was on the edge of the woods kitty-corner from the trailer park, but closer to us than when I saw her the first time I went to the store today, and I better not have forgotten to buy the shredded cheese again."
I went back to cleaning Bella's cage as Linda chugged into the kitchen. The parrot pinched my finger with her beak when I whisked her off the countertop to save her from getting clocked by a sack of groceries. "You have to be a better girl," I said.
"I couldn't see her very well through the trees," Linda said. "She was definitely after something and headed in our direction."
I pictured the stray running in that oddly unhurried but determined feline fashion: erect body, stiffly trailing tail, legs flickering like the frames of a silent movie. She trotted in a straight line toward our house until the honk of a diesel horn sent her scampering off in the opposite direction.
"She better not come here," I said.
Bella squawked to come out of her cage and resume her battle with an ice cube on the countertop. "Shh," I told her, leaning my face close to hers. "You're giving me a headache."
I loved our three cats, but I was a bird person at heart. Sixteen years ago, Linda had indoctrinated me into her world with an ever-increasing parade of fowl creatures who now lived with us, both inside and outdoors. And I'd discovered, after a long struggle, that I understood birds and their mysterious otherness. The cats had slipped in under the radar while we were otherwise engaged cleaning parakeet cages and making toys for parrots, and I'd assumed that in comparison to birds, they were the tame ones. The ones who basically followed domestic rules. Hadn't we always learned that cats were "domesticated animals"? I found more to laugh at than lament in naughty behavior from our birds. But I expected better manners from a fellow mammal and not the long stretches of brooding aloofness and general lack of gratitude of our cats. I wanted them either to act more like us or to play the role of cuddly toys, but time and time again they disappointed me on both counts.
"I forgot the cheese again," Linda said after pawing through two bags. In a noble, self-sacrificing, wounded tone of voice I volunteered to return to the store for her. But the errant cheese had become an orange badge of honor, and she resolved to retrieve it on her own. Moments later she thundered back into the house, an envelope of arctic cold clinging to her jacket as she kicked off her boots. Fortunately for her good mood — and for the church potluck supper — she had found the cheese inside the car skulking between the passenger's seat and the door.
In the kitchen, I watched her stash the cheddar in the crisper, where it was instantly swallowed up by a vegetative tide of "baby" carrots for Rudy the rabbit, hunks of ginger root for my tea, partially filled boxes of margarine sticks, shriveled flat bread, an empty plastic lemon, and, of course, another package of shredded cheddar cheese.
As I was taking inventory of the drawer, Agnes skittered up the basement stairs to rub against my leg until she had my attention. I turned toward her, and she trotted back down the stairs and stared up at me from the bottom. All I could see in the gloom peculiar to unlit basements was an incandescent pair of sulfur yellow eyes. Even in the full fluorescent light of indoor day, our black cat's facial features tended to merge into an inscrutable blur, especially compared to her inverse counterpart, the blindingly white Moonbeam, aka Moobie.
"I think she wants to go out," Linda told me.
"I think she's just angling for another treat." With Agnes safely planted at the foot of the stairs and out of range of tangling up my legs, I decided to make the descent, despite the futility of it all. To convince Agnes to come inside each evening, I had initiated the habit of rewarding her with a dollop of canned cat food. This turned out to be a huge mistake. She would beg to go out, come in, go out, and come in again several times a day in hopes of earning a spoonful of food, and darned if I wasn't weak enough to succumb to her sheer audacity.
This time, though, she didn't step outside by as much as a toenail. I opened the basement door, and a blast of Michigan air hit us like a frozen anvil. She pivoted, raced to her dish, and shot me her best "you might as well feed me" look. I scooped her up in my arms, rubbing her face in an attempt to rustle out a facial expression that I could see. I squeezed her and received the bleat of a crabby sheep in response. "I just fed you fifteen minutes ago," I said, putting her down next to her empty bowl.
But I failed to exercise necessary vigilance on my ascent. Just a few steps away from the kitchen landing, Agnes intervened between my foot and the stair. I pitched backward trying to avoid her, my hand attempting to latch onto the nonexistent railing which I had been intending to have someone else install for years. Slamming my shoulder against the wall saved me, but I had come so close to falling that I felt the cold, clammy fingers of the cement floor reaching for the back of my skull.
Oblivious to my close brush with the reaper, Linda said, "I wouldn't be surprised if the white-and-black kitty shows up at our back fence."
I didn't give the matter a single neuron of attention. Once or twice a year, cats materialized in our yard only to disappear as soon as I opened the door and tried to engage them in conversation about how they needed to do something productive with their lives. These fleeting and possibly mythical creatures didn't much interest me, and a cat a mile away that I hadn't even glimpsed was completely off my radar, especially when we had a cat of homicidal bent literally underfoot.
"It's probably not a stray," I told Linda. "It probably lives with some long-suffering family at the trailer park who didn't realize what they were getting into when they took in a cat." I directed this last remark at Agnes, who had returned to the gloom of the basement to glare up at me from her bowl.
In the post-potluck days that followed, as Linda rattled back to the store for soymilk, or to the post office for stamps with pretty flowers on them, or to the dime store for plastic wading pools for our pet ducks and geese, she saw the cat in ever-increasing proximity to our home. I feared that it was only a matter of time before the kitty would stumble onto the secret messages that other strays had left in the woods to guide more strays to our doorstep. In a language of scents and signs that only felines could decipher — an old mouse skeleton here, the heavily scratched bark of a sapling there — the cat calligraphy would tell her that in the blue house between the river and the road lived people who would shower her with food and affection — two softies whom even the dullest-witted critter could effortlessly wrap around its little toe.
Food and affection she would get, assuming she was just stopping by for takeout and not intending to reserve an inside table. We already had three cats, and we definitely didn't need a fourth. Agnes, Moobie, and our most recent acquisition, Lucy, gave us more trouble than our other fifty-some pets put together. I kept telling myself that their good qualities more than outweighed the negatives — just as I also imagined that our parrots were mild mannered and our geese as quiet as falling snow.
I hadn't grown up loving animals. In fact, I had been diffident to my boyhood beagle, Muffin. But marrying country gal Linda Sue seventeen years ago flipped on a switch that had been so deeply embedded in the whorls and dead ends of my fractured psyche that I'd never even dreamed it existed. Two of our first pets were profoundly unsuitable for companionship with humans. When we weren't besieging their previous owners for advice, we were trying to eject them from our lives, until we discovered that we had fallen hard for them. Belligerent bunny Binky and the Mussolini of "pocket parrots" Ollie relentlessly bossed us, but their sparkling personalities filled our house with jagged light.
My brother-in-law soon brought us a Muscovy duck that his co-workers had been pelting with stones. So more homeless quackers and consequent backyard pen expansions followed. Then came a quartet of geese abandoned in a roadside ditch, an increasingly affable succession of rabbits, African grey parrots, parakeets, doves, hens, and cats, not to mention the orphan songbirds that Linda raised and released each summer.
Though I might call any of them "baby," I never thought of our animals as surrogate children. I was the infant of the house, whiny, weak, helpless, crabby, and frequently in need of a nap. I was still trying to learn resilience from our pets, since the smallest bantam chicken was stronger, smarter, and more emotionally balanced than I was. But the best that I could muster was an extra smidgen of patience. I needed it to deal with the parrot who had devoured the dining room woodwork or the goose-size duck with the vice-grip beak who thrived on chasing us around the barn.
Mostly I loved our animals for their flighty yet constant companionship and the way their wildness was mitigated by an addiction to comfort. Dusty the parrot had learned to call Moobie by name. Rudy the rabbit had started mountain-goating up the backrest of the couch. Liza the goose stared longingly at the bowl of cat food that Linda had set for the white-and-black stray.
The kibbles went untouched. Then one afternoon the wisp of the woods became flesh and dwelled beneath our sunflower seed feeder, scattering the tree sparrows to the winds, and I grew alarmed. I didn't want her munching on wild birds that already had enough trouble surviving a cold and sunless winter.
She was white with mostly black hind legs that made her look as if she were wearing a pair of tights that were falling down. Her tail was black. A black continent floated in a sea of white on her right side, and a few black islands had broken off and drifted to her left side, shoulders, neck, and head. Although her eyes weren't large by cat standards, they formed an alliance with her pink nose to dominate her slender face when she peered up toward the house.
She looked smaller and more delicate than I had expected. The bright white expanses of her fur embarrassed the dinginess of the compacted snow, made the cloudy sky seem even gloomier. The flitting of goldfinches to and from the seed perches apparently didn't interest her, nor did a feeder-robbing squirrel who hung back behind the pump house flicking his tail as he scolded her. She seemed fixated on some other concern.
Her body twitched as she sat. It could have been a reaction to the cold, but I feared that she was pretending to ignore the birds while on the verge of an explosive strike. I leaned forward to scare her away before she managed to snag a goldfinch. But before I could knock on the bathroom window she glanced up at me first with that heart-shaped face. One moment, she was crouching on the icy ground a leap away from the feeder. The next moment she was melting into the woods, running until her white-and-black coat faded to a gray smudge on the riverbank.
The merest flicker of eye contact had passed between us. But in the brief instant between the crouching and the rocketing away, as my cloudy blues met her metallic yellows, I felt the spark of a connection between us. It was a serious crush, though I had no idea at the time how deeply she would set her hooks in me.
Partly, she had moved me in the same way that any homeless animal would. But I also recognized a special quality in her that resonated with my own temperament. In my scant few seconds observing her, I had identified a kindred spirit, a creature who in spite of her many strengths was apparently as anxiety laden as I was. She was a shadow afraid of a shadow.
I told Linda about my encounter, leaving out the touchy-feely, neurotic aspects. "I put a dish of kibbles out for her in Don's driveway last night in case she didn't find the dish out back," she told me, referring to our former neighbor's empty house. "But it looks like a raccoon got to it first. The food was spilled all over the driveway and the dish was all chewed up."
Excerpted from Kitty Cornered by BOB TARTE Copyright © 2012 by Bob Tarte. Excerpted by permission of Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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