Painting of alley
"I met Alice in an alley near my house..."

Painting 1991 Mary Jane Card

Alley Cat

I met Alice about ten years ago in an alley near my house. The house was on a busy street in an immigrant, working-class section of Toronto. This was the spring of 1987 and the city was drying out from its usual grey bitter winter. As was I, or trying to, from a winter that had lasted almost a decade and still showed little sign of thawing.

It was a Saturday and I was in a deck chair in the backyard thinking of what to do with the rest of my life when my neighbour's son poked his head over the fence. A kitten, he said, had been coming to their door the past few evenings and maybe I wanted it and there it was in the alley right now.

I had had a cat, a crazy orange one, Charley, a stray who came to the back door one day and gradually moved in. Only two weeks before, he had been killed, beaten to death by a red-haired construction worker out on the street. My neighbour's son had found Charley's body and I guess he was trying to replace him in that way that kids look for justice. So, partly for the boy's sake, I went to have a look.

The kitten was in between two garages in the alley, frantically running up and down a dead end, garbage-strewn passageway about half a foot wide. She was far too young to be out on her own and may have wandered away from the rest of a litter, or more probably had been abandoned by the owner. I wasn't sure I wanted another cat right then but she couldn't be left there. I decided I had better get her out.

The opening was too narrow for my body. I could put my arm in past the shoulder but not far enough to pick up the cat. Standing on the toes of one foot, holding in my breath and bending over, I rammed and squeezed between the sides of the garages until, by a stretch of the fingers, I could just reach the kitten. Suddenly, she backed down the passageway, climbing farther in through the piles of refuse and tin cans, all the while hissing and baring her teeth at me.

She looked wild and sort of terrifying. Which was crazy since she was only about seven inches long, maybe six weeks old, a tattered, ratty, striped tabby. The world around her, the cars speeding down the alley, the rush and bustle of this steel-and-concrete, self-absorbed city were all built to kill her. They had no room for her. Everything was stacked against her living another week.

But this cat didn't think she needed saving. I crouched down on the ground and called softly to her, trying all the known entreaties. Nothing I did could coax her to come within reach. The day was getting hot and I was getting nowhere. My neighbour's son had left by this time and along came a little fat boy. He took one look at the kitten, decided to claim her, and ran off to ask his parents for permission to bring her home. I knew then for sure that I had to rescue this cat.

The boy lived in a house that bordered the bottom of our yard. His family had kept a dog outside in a wooden box for years. It was misshapen from being penned up. I had called the Humane Society but they would do nothing unless I made a formal complaint using my name in the process against these neighbours. Fearing retaliation against our own animals who frequented their yard, I did nothing. One day the dog was gone. I asked the boy what had happened to it and he said his father had told him that the dog was now working for the Toronto Transit Commission. I'm still not sure if that is a startlingly original euphemism for death or if I've been on that bus once or twice. Or both.

I ran home and got a saucer of milk, placed it just outside the crevice, and waited as the kitten approached to drink. When she got to the saucer, I reached down to grab her. And grabbed air. She had darted back into the passage before I knew my hand was empty. So I pressed close against a garage, out of sight. As she came out again, I leaped from my hiding place and, in a split second move, swooped down, thrust out my arm, and missed. I tried again. And missed again. And again. It was a Saturday morning cartoon. I began to imagine someone watching from an upstairs window, laughing at this leaping idiot in the alley.

At last I surrendered and put the saucer inside the opening. The milk was gone in seconds; she was starving. How had she survived this long?

The alley was now baking hot. Out on the street, the Saturday traffic blared and growled. The sky was far away and empty. And down here it seemed lonesome: two specks in the grid of the city, man and cat, in an obscure little drama. I felt desperate. The little fat boy would be back any minute.

Out of nowhere came another kid. Maybe he was the one who had been laughing at me. "You trying to catch this cat?" he says. And he bent over in the alley, sifting through the gravel, and came up with a dirty old piece of string. Then he began to dangle and snake this string along the ground in front of the passageway. He was fishing for cat.

And here came the kitten, starved, scared, lonely, and helpless -- but now the huntress, moving slowly, with knees bent and tail flicking, all seven inches, paw by paw, to stalk the wild string. She had put aside all troubles to come and play the cat. When her concentration was at its fullest and she had batted at the string a couple of times, I snatched her up.

Like a little Tasmanian devil, she struggled and hissed at me while I carried her back to the house. There, fumbling key and cat and saucer, I managed to get the door open, set everything down inside, and slam it shut. When I turned around, the kitten had disappeared.

For half an hour I scoured the house from top to bottom but there wasn't a whisker of her. I had to go out to rehearsal so I left a note for Mary:

There's a kitten somewhere in the house.
I don't know if we should keep it.

When Mary came home and saw the note, she searched all over for the cat with no better luck. Finally giving up, she sat down to read. About two hours later, long after Mary had completely forgotten about it, the kitten marched into the room, looking, Mary told me, "like she owned the place."

Indeed she did. There seemed to be no question of whether to "keep it." She had decided to stay. Alice had joined her life with ours, and now my fate and time were bound up with a force and a soul which would leave me changed forever. Changed as a human, as an animal, as a piece of creation.

Copyright 1997 by Phillip Schreibman

Chapter 1/ Chapter 2/ Chapter 3/ Chapter 4/ Chapter 5/ Chapter 6/ Chapter 7/ Chapter 8/ Chapter 12/ Chapter 15/ Chapter 22

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