The Third Marj
Part Five - The Cat and the Redbirds

Part 5

 

The Cat and the Redbirds

 

NOW THAT the nights are chill, the cat's back on my roof,

He doesn't even wait until the house is darkened for my sleep. When he's ready for bed, he climbs the big tree by the porch, drops down on the roof, saunters over to the chimney, settles down and that's that.

It's kind of comforting to know he's there. And I always wonder where he sleeps on rainy or snowy nights.

The other bright moonlight night, he arrived about 10 p.m. I didn't hear him scramble up the tree because there was enough of a breeze to send dry leaves fluttering down, and this friendly sound masked other noises.

The first thing I knew there was this big solid bounce on the roof over my head. Then a slow four-footed walk across the low sloping bedroom roof-and I smiled. My friend was turning in early. He must have had a busy day.

If the night is very still, I can heat him making little groans of pleasure as he settles down. This night, though, the dry leaves kept up a background melody and, before I was aware of it, both of us were asleep-one beneath the roof and the other on it.

The next morning, I didn't linger long at home. I was outside early, pausing in the driveway to savor the morning air. As I stood there looking at the outline of the trees shorn of their leafy garb and seeing a little ground squirrel peeping out of the woodpile at me, I heard an unmistakable greeting.

I turned and saw the big gray cat who sleeps on my roof. He'd overslept, I guess. Here he was, walking carefully along the edge of the roof until he got to the twisted old tree by the kitchen window. He said "good morning" as clearly as could be. There was no mistake about it.

I answered. "Good morning to you. Did you sleep well?"

He gracefully climbed down the tree, came over and rubbed his head against my shoe, murmuring friendly comments all the while. For the first time I could see that he wore a leather collar-so, somewhere, there is a human creature who provides his meals. I provide only his lodging on moonlight nights.

Trustingly, the big gray cat lay down on his back and stretched and rolled and purred and let me admire his graceful movements.

I told him I'd love to stay home all day. but that I'd made some appointments I'd better keep. He knew what I was saying. He decided to coax a little to test my will power.

With every step I took, he was right there rubbing against my ankles, stepping on my shoes, twisting in and out, and purring at a grand rate.

"Honestly, I can't stay home today," I told him.

He blocked my path. I had to stop and rub his head and behind his ears. His pleasure was audible. I walked him back to the house steps, told him to sit there our of the path of the car when I backed our of the garage, and hoped he would mind.

You could see he didn't understand the idiocy of leaving such a beautiful autumn morning when there were leaves to be scuffed and backs to be scratched, bur he allowed me the privilege of being idiotic.

Oct. 24, 1964

 

 KATHY CALLAHAN, 5, had an evening prayer which she said every night to ask forgiveness for any wrongdoing. This is the way it came out one evening:

"God, if I've done anything wrong, forget it!"

 

 

The Truth Is Out

 

DISILLUSIONMENT is a sorry thing.

To believe with all your heart that something is one way-and then to learn it is another-is to dissolve into a nothingness with the backbone of a handful of mush. It is unnerving.

I have been disillusioned.

I feel like a handful of mush, without cream or sugar.

Speak softly when in my presence, else I shall fly in all directions at once. And you know what a mess mush makes when it flies in all directions. You can be a week cleaning it up!

It's that cat. You know the one, the big gray tomcat with no name.

The one who sleeps on my roof sometimes. The one who talks to me. Oh, how he talks to me! That's part of my downfall. I was a pushover for his sweet talk. A pawn in his paws.

HE is not a he. He is a she. A neutered she.

He/she has a name. Zsa Zsa-as in pampered.

He/she has a home. Next door. A home as in regular mealtimes, a place to sleep indoors and out, and kind attentions.

Hc/she isn't even GRAY! She's a blue Persian!

The rest of it is still intact: that cat DOES sleep on my roof. That cat does talk to me, mainly, "Purr purr please give me a bit of food purr purr I am about to faint away with starvation purr please let me have a crumb from your table purr purr purr the night is cold and I shall perish without your help purr purr purr ... "

If the cat world has confidence men in it-call them con cats if you will-then Zsa Zsa is their leader!

I have been conned by an expert.

I have been conned into worrying about a homeless cat without shelter on raw nights, without regular food, without proper pampering. I have been mesmerized into thinking a blue Persian is an alley cat gray tom. And, believe me, that takes some mesmerizing!

I know where I went wrong. For years, an alley cat gray tom, the real thing, an outdoor cat who didn't care for people, who ran when he encountered them, took shelter on my roof from time to time. He encountered an opossum on the roof one night and the resulting battle on the roof above my bed is something I shall never forget. The din was terrific and they both slid, claws Out, down the tin roof and hung momentarily on the edge before dropping down into dry leaves and continuing their brief but violent battle.

The gray tomcat was old and battle-scarred and probably died as he lived, defiant and aloof. There was no cat in my vicinity for a while. Then I began seeing snatches of a cat on my roof. In the dark, all cats are gray-you've heard that before. Gradually, the cat on my roof insinuated itself into my outdoor activities.

From there to a bowl of milk in my kitchen and a nap on my chair is but a single step as Paul Gallico points Out in all his wonderful stories about cats. So I really have no call to blame myself. I was manipulated by a smart cat.

I learned the truth only because my father has been giving me fits about the lack of a fire extinguisher in my house. I've had a kitchen fire extinguisher ever since there was a kitchen. I never used it. The last time the kitchen was painted, the extinguisher was taken down and never put back. It has been in the garage gathering dust until my father found it and began scolding me for such negligence. He said I should buy a new modern kind. Immediately. And keep it in the bedroom because many winter fires started at night and a fire extinguisher should be as handy as a phone.

My father was so insistent, you'd think he sold extinguishers, but he doesn't. My neighbor does. My father spoke to my neighbor. So when my father and my neighbor confronted me with a brand-new fire extinguisher and my father said, "Pay Hugo-and I'll give you $5 towards it-and I'll even hang it in your bedroom tomorrow"-what was I to do? I did what I was told. I wrote a check.

That's how I learned the truth about the homeless starving cat who was, at that moment, full of milk, sitting on a chair looking contented and comfortable with his paws curled in.

Hugo Funk, my neighbor, came into the living room and said, "Zsa Zsa, what are you doing here?"

That exploded the whole myth-and exposed the double life of a blue, gray, alley cat, Persian, female tomcat.

All I got out of this disillusioning experience is a new red fire extinguisher that doesn't purr. Press the handle and it spits.

Zsa Zsa stalked outside after the expose. My father's the only one happy about the whole deal: there's a fire extinguisher in my bedroom!

Jan. 22, 1966

 

 

Con-Cat

 

FOR A CAT who doesn't belong to me, Zsa Zsa-the gray cat belonging to neighbors-certainly takes a great interest in where I live and what I do. Let her hear my car rum in the driveway and she makes a bee-line from wherever she is to my back steps.

Try as I will, I can't ease the car in silently. I can't hear a noise on the gravel-but Zsa Zsa can. She fairly flies an inch above the ground through last year's leaves on my neighbors' slope, slips through the fence without hesitation, dashes right in front of the car knowing full well I won't hit her-and makes it to the top step. There she sits, an unmoving gray fur statue, until I put the car in the garage, gather up my packages and get out the house key.

If I speak, she answers. If I don't speak, her voice is silent but she greets me by leaning against my leg as I try to hold the screen door open with one elbow, hold all my packages and handbag in my arms and still fit the key in the keyhole.

Her nose is at the crack of the door and she's braced to get inside before I do. I've tried coaxing her away, even putting a foot under her belly and lifting her gently off the step and down to the ground, but she's on to me now. She evades each attempt more skillfully each time. I must give her credit for that.

If she's napping on the roof when I come home, she comes over to the roof edge to watch me drive in the garage. Then as I walk toward the steps, she climbs down the tree trunk and lands with a soft greeting right at my feet. I have to watch that I don't step on her-she certainly takes for granted that I won't.

Once inside the house, she is in the exact spot where I want to set my feet. She follows me while I set down the packages, take off my coat and hat, hang the coat away and put the hat in the drawer. The one day I managed to keep her outside, I found myself walking in rather an odd manner, with one foot and leg braced to ward off gray cats.

I'm always willing to share a bit of supper with Zsa Zsa but I don't always eat the minute I step inside the door. Zsa Zsa does. Well, she'll give me two minutes but that is all. I have given up trying to do things my way. It's easier if I do it her way.

I fill a paper bowl with milk and she follows me outside. She holds her tail in the screen door opening (knowing again I can't bring myself to shut the door on her tail) until she sees that I am going to put the bowl down beside the steps. Then, JUST as I get the bowl two inches from the ground, she jumps down, bumps my arm-and I spill the milk!

On the face of it, I KNOW I'm smarter than a cat, but her timing is quicker than my reflexes. She gets spilled milk drops on her nose-and then she looks at me. A few seconds only, she looks directly at me. But I feel as if I've committed the most awful blunder and should apologize in writing. And it's HER fault the milk got spilled!

If, for some unaccountable reason, I let her sip her milk in the kitchen, she is very genteel and tidy. And the minute I take my eyes off her, she disappears. So far I've found her curled up on my bed or on the double chaise or in my favorite reading chair or under my desk or snooping in the shower or investigating the controls on the washer or sniffing disdainfully at my Saturday loafers. I escort her to the door-and she sasses me with her back turned.

Now if I owned a cat, it would be a house cat under my full control -and then it could sleep on my bed in purrfect comfort. But Zsa Zsa, despite her pampered name, is an outdoor cat who catches and eats all manner of small things found in the country. When it snowed, she sat or slept daytimes on top the woodpile entirely ignoring the weather. Snow and rain never get through that thick fur. She is truly an outdoor cat-and that's where I think she should stay.

Not to her way of thinking! On special days when I have good things roasting or baking in both Flair ovens, Zsa Zsa climbs the gnarled old tree outside the kitchen window, stretches our on a horizontal limb and stares-yes, she does!-stares in at me. It is unnerving. Sometimes I turn out the oven lights and go to a far corner of the living room to read a while just to get away from those cat eyes glaring.

When I'm working at my desk, concentrating on a particular project, my attention is attracted out the window again-and not to the birdfeeder this time. It's Zsa Zsa, acting the clown in a deadly serious way. She climbs another old tree by the corner of the garage, steps our on a long horizontal limb and then plays with her tail. She pretends it is attacking her and makes heart-stopper lunges after it, back and forth on a limb six feet off the ground.

When she slips on the limb, she deliberately slips all the way, gripping four paws around the limb with her body slung beneath it like a hammock. She looks like a picture of a sloth sleeping. How on earth can I keep a straight face or my mind on my work when there's a clown putting on a pantomime act outside my window!

When Zsa Zsa tires of this game, she will look at me--directly, again -and pretend great surprise that ANYone should be looking at her. Then with the dignity of a dowager, she descends the tree, strolls down the driveway, out the gate, across the lane and through the farmer's fence to his pasture which she considers her small game preserve.

For a cat who doesn't belong to me, Zsa Zsa certainly doesn't let it influence her influence over me!

 

 

The Redbirds

 

ALL THROUGH this bitterly cold weather we've been having, the red birds have been sleeping under the metal awning over my office window, They fly in early, even before it is dark, and if they find me sitting at the desk, they flyaway ... wait a few minutes ... and then fly in again. This second time, if I'm still at my desk, they scold me noisily-and then fly out.

I know enough then to get the heck out of that desk chair-so the red birds can get to bed! If I wait maybe two hours and then go back in and turn on the desk light, they will open one eye and watch me but they won't unruffle their feathers. However, I can leave the light on for no more than 10 minutes because, after that, they get restless and fly out into the cold black night.

I can't get anything done, thinking about disturbing such little creatures on a cold night, so I don't do anything at the desk any more that takes more than five minutes. If I need the light to dial a number, I flick it off as soon as I've dialed and do all my talking in the dark.

It does seem a bit ridiculous, on the face of it ... ordering my life to the routine of a couple of red birds spending the winter in Ohio. But that is what is happening.

The other night I took some desk work out into the other room, using a TV table as a work-top and making several trips back and forth until I had all the articles I needed to work properly, I told myself that it was more pleasant to work in front of the fire. Quit kidding, Marjorie. It was more pleasant to work where the red birds wouldn't be accusing all the time!

When friends drop in at dusk or later, I wait a bit and then ask them to tiptoe in my office and be very quiet. I turn on the desk light and show them the sleeping birds.

Recently, one visitor was more surprised than the incident warranted, "I'll never doubt you again," said my friend. "You DO have red birds sleeping under your awning ... "

Well, of course ...

" ... although, sometimes, I admit I think you are exercising a writer's prerogative and making up some of those things you write about!"

The truth is: I'm so busy living these things, I haven't time to remember what stories I'd make up about them and then I'd get into deep water, so I just tell the truth. It is so much simpler that way.

DO have red birds who sleep under my awning in the winter. And I give them breakfast in bed.

If it's snowing and they don't want to fly out to the suet-and-seed bell hanging in the tree, I tuck a piece of bread into the awning near their perches. Breakfast in bed.

Everybody tells me I'll never have any birds around my house if I let that big gray cat hang around, too. They're both there-cat and birds, although I don't always see them both at the same time.

The other Sunday when I went outside for more firewood, I heard a faint sound. There, stretched out along a branch enjoying the brief winter sunshine, was the gray cat looking for all the world like Alice in Wonderland's Cheshire cat. From that branch hangs the suet-and-seed bell out of reach of a cat's paw ...

The cat stretched, dug his claws into the bark of the branch and yawned.

A small gray and black bird swooped out of the air and grabbed hold of the bell. It pecked a couple of seeds before it became aware of the cat a few feet away on its own level. It darted away at once. The cat wasn't interested. It jumped out of the tree and came around to have its head rubbed.

While the cat and I were exchanging verbal compliments, the bird returned to the suet bell. After a bit, the cat jumped on the old stump and started grooming its fur. The birds took their refreshments. Neither bothered about the other.

The outdoor chill sent me back indoors then, with an armload of firewood. I always attempt to carry more than I can handle at one time so it is all I can do to get in the door without trying, also, to hook the screen and shut the door. I always have to go back for this ...

And now, at last, there is another reason for that small low window cut into the door, the window Buff, the cocker spaniel, always used. There is no dog to look out that window any more-there's a cat that looks in at me!

That window is the right height for the big gray cat to use when it sits on the back steps and contemplates Marj in the kitchen ...

Feb. 3, 1965

 

 

How It Works

 

THE RED BIRD and I have come to a working agreement, a kind of truce for the moment.

To state the facts: he goes to bed earlier than I do. He likes to have his perch, under the metal awning over my office window, quiet and dark from about 6 p.m. on until daylight.

There are times when I take a notion to do a little desk work between those hours and then he makes it quite clear that I am disturbing his rest.

In the beginning, he didn't like my turning on the desk light at all.

The minute the desk light lit up his bedroom, he made a disagreeable noise and flew out into the night with a noisy flutter of feathers.

In a few minutes, he'd fly in and out again to indicate it was time to turn off the light. Most times I'd take the hint. He'd return to bed. Bur if I forgot the time and worked too long, he would never return that night. I'd go back rime after rime to peek-but his perch would be empty.

You can see what that did to me! I had a guilty conscience, especially on cold, stormy, windy, rainy nights. I'd worry. I'd call myself a heartless brute for sending a little bird out into the storm without a place to sleep for the night ...

Then I began to talk to him. Every time I'd turn on the light, I'd say, "Hi, little chum." And then: "I won't be long. Just let me have a few minutes-and then I'll go away."

After a while, he wouldn't even ruffle his feathers at me-but he'd be alert, always keeping one eye on my movements at the desk.

Then I began to notice that it was the typewriter he didn't like. He'd tolerate its clatter for a few minutes and then he'd flyaway. So when I began to do household accounts and write checks, I'd address the envelopes in longhand instead of flipping them in the typewriter as I usually did.

The other night the phone rang and it took me a few rings longer than usual to answer it. Said the caller: "Where were you? Did I disturb you-or the red bird?"

I was in the living room, writing, and I'm sitting here in the dark now. Let me flip on the light. Yes, he's still there, so I guess the phone doesn't bother him. We can talk.

"Well, thanks a lot!" said the caller with heavy sarcasm. Then: "Why were you writing in the living room? Do you have to drag your typewriter in there just on account of that bird?"

I laughed. I'm writing in long-hand.

We both laughed-because all my friends know that I love to use modern gadgets from typewriters to dishwashers, and every appliance in-between. To write by hand when there is a typewriter available is to fall back a hundred years.

"And," laughed the caller, "if the ball-point pen bothers the red bird, I suppose you'll go to a quill?"

We used nearly all our allotted telephone time (I'm on a rural line and have an automatic cut-off) talking about that sleepy-headed red bird whose bedtime habits are forcing me to change my home life!

The time has come for me to begin a short training program to get this fine feathered friend adjusted to typewriter clatter. I wonder how long it will take ...

Feb. 19, 1965

 

ONE OF THE greatest treats for a nice little old lady living in a certain small town is to visit the local funeral home when they're having a funeral. She goes whether she knows the deceased or not. The funeral home knows this but they keep up the pretense nurtured by the nice little old lady.

Not long ago the funeral home had two viewings scheduled at the same time. They had to call in extra help.

When the little old lady arrived, the new employe didn't recognize her so she said, gently: "Whom did you wish to see?"

The little old lady leaned closer and said, brightly: "Who have you got?"

 
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