We took in Jenny and Riley in 2012, after they had a spent a couple of years in the shelter. Best Friends was a clean, beautiful shelter — more like an elementary school full of cats, some of them playing with feathered toys and others lounging on towers and in carpeted caves — but a shelter nonetheless. Best Friends is a no-kill shelter, so the worst fate possible for Jenny and Riley was a life lounging in an air-conditioned, cinder block elementary school in suburban Los Angeles with several dozen other cats.
The shelter people told us that Jenny was five and Riley a year younger. They came as a package because they had lived at Best Friends longer than any of the other animals. Then again, that could be a story the shelter people use to unload two cats at once. And now that I think of it, there will always be two cats who have been there the longest. I’m beginning to believe we were scammed a little.
For three years we lived with Jenny and Riley in downtown Los Angeles, first in a 12th-floor penthouse and then somewhat closer to the ground in a second-floor apartment directly above not one but two restaurants.
The first apartment had windows galore but the view included little fauna except pigeons. Pigeons in flight are old news when you’re a birdwatching cat. In the second apartment, our few windows opened onto an alley. The cats would sometimes sit on the windowsill and look out but I can’t imagine it was a very stimulating thing to do. Speaking only for myself, I would rather read a book or play with a feathered toy than watch men pee in an alley.
The restaurants downstairs did a bang-up business in beer, judging by the frequent dumping of bottles into the dumpsters beneath our windows. Bottles crashed at regular intervals from mid-afternoon until after 2 a.m., when the restaurants closed. It can’t have been good for the cats’ nerves to hear all that bottle-crashing when they were nervous cats to begin with.
They knew right away that something was up when the cardboard boxes started coming in and when, once full, they piled up in the living room. The end of Los Angeles, when everything but Jenny and Riley was loaded on the truck for the cross-country move, meant stuffing them into their carriers. But there would be no stuffing them until we caught them.
In a loft apartment there are no rooms, only an expanse of real estate within which a cat can easily evade a human wrangler if he wants to, and Jenny and Riley wanted to. Corraling them was a two-man, two-broom effort that delayed our departure by a half hour. Giant butterfly nets would have been useful but we didn’t have any of those.
In normal circumstances, the 1,900-mile drive from Los Angeles to McComb can be made in three not-too-trying days. Calvin’s and my circumstances, however, were far from normal. For one thing, we were in a 24-foot truck whose pickup was not what you’d describe as zingy. Zero-to-60 was a matter of about three minutes. For another thing, we didn’t want to keep the cats boxed up for as long as would have been necessary on three very long driving days.
On the first day, we made Phoenix. Tucson would have been better but the cat-herding had slowed us down. Once in the motel room and after a brief sniffaround, Jenny and Riley dashed straight under the bed. The next morning, indications were that they had emerged long enough to eat a bite and use the litter box, but the sense was that they would have been quite content to stay under the bed in that Phoenix motel room for several months.
The next morning, eager to hit the road, we packed our bags and loaded them into the truck, then returned to the room to restuff the cats into their containers. The cats, however, had other ideas.
A queen-size bed, it turned out, is precisely big enough to render a cat unreachable by human hands as long as the cat parked itself in the middle.
Calvin and I lay on the floor in the blue shag carpet as we reached, reached into the void from opposite sides of the bed. We felt nothing and would not have known there were living creatures under the bed at all except for a muffled rumbling that sounded like an opera baritone might if he were chanting Oms, or like a police siren would if you slowed it down by about 90 percent.
After several minutes of unsuccessful reaching, we took the more drastic step of moving the entire bed away from the wall, then removing the shade from the lamp on the nightstand and using the shadeless lamp, turned upside-down, as a prod.
There was no question of keeping the cats calm; we just wanted them away from the bed. And out they raced, the lamp-waving having had the desired effect. We chased the critters briefly around the room, herding them toward the bathroom, where we were able to grab them, one at a time, and stuff them into their boxes. Jenny, the more petite of the two, slipped in fairly easily. But Riley splayed his front legs apart, resisting, requiring Calvin to reach between my legs from behind and shove Riley’s bottom while I pushed down on his shoulders — Riley’s, not Calvin’s — and pried his paws from the sides of the crate. I was wearing blue jeans, so the resulting blood stains were not too visible.
After Jenny and Riley’s Arizona merrymaking we felt less guilty about keeping them in their crates for the rest of the trip. Day Two took us as far as Fort Stockton, Texas, where the Motel 6 blessed us with a bed built on a plywood platform, which gave the cats no place to hide. The packing-up the next morning was a relative breeze.
By the time we reached Houston at the end of the third day, we and the cats were past the inclination to quarrel, and we arrived the next day in Mississippi intact. The scars on my thigh had begun to heal.
Where we live now — Calvin, Jenny, Riley and I — there are windows facing every direction. Squirrels, bird and bunnies romp gaily in our yard, and, while I wish the rabbits would do less romping in my vegetable garden, the cats have a dawn-to-dusk buffet of interesting sounds and sights to amuse them. When the weather’s nice, only a screen separates them from an outdoor world they have not experienced since before their time in the shelter, if at all.
Their noses twitch and their eyes narrow as they try to make sense of the smells drifting through the house with the breeze. They kill the occasional lizard that makes its way in but never know what to do except stand over the corpse and stare. I’m convinced that sometimes they nudge the lizard corpses under the refrigerator so they won’t have to inconvenience Calvin and me with them. One day, when we remodel the kitchen or get a new refrigerator, we will probably find several dozen desiccated lizard corpses. If they’re desiccated enough they could make interesting swizzle sticks.
As alluring as Jenny and Riley’s new sensory pleasures might be in Mississippi, they were not prepared for the weather. In Los Angeles, we didn’t have weather. It rained now and then and the wind picked up sometimes, but we didn’t have weather. You know — weather.
In Mississippi we get rain, thunder and lightning. A lot of it. Unlike in Los Angeles, where the local news rolls out Team Storm Coverage whenever there’s enough drizzle to smear the grime on your windshield, here in southwest Mississippi we get real storms, storms that’ll shatter your windows, blow your roof off or send your F-150 into a ditch. Lightning is vivid enough to be beautiful as long as you’re not too terrified of losing your roof to admire it.
Jenny and Riley were not prepared for Mississippi weather. When the first boomer blew through a few weeks after our move, it took about a half-second for them to scram from the living room window and across my bodily person to the bedroom, leaving a wake of overturned glassware and scratched forearms behind them.
An hour or two after the thunder ended, the cats made tentative reconnoiters of the kitchen and, seeing that the food was still there, forced down a few bites, sneering at us as they chewed.
“What the hell have you done to us?” they asked wordlessly. “What is this shit?”
But with time, the nerves calmed. The thunder-induced scrambling became a little less frantic and the underbed cowering periods shortened. Jenny and Riley dealt.
Last week, a storm passed through. Its lightning didn’t shock but the thunder was like nothing I’ve heard. One jolt shook the house more than any earthquake we remembered from 15 years in Los Angeles.
The cats, though, showed no more frazzle than Calvin and I did. They looked up but didn’t run and hide, reminding me that emotional responses can change. One day’s terror is another day’s mild annoyance. Maybe, just maybe, if the cats can manage, so can I.
I didn’t want to come to Mississippi but here I am. There’s plenty to like — cheap gas, short commutes and tons of nice people. It’s up to me to deal, and I do a lot of that. I think about the cats when I do.
Jenny and Riley don’t hide during thunderstorms anymore, but they still make themselves scarce when we have company. Severe weather is one thing but people are something else. We mustn’t expect too much where cats are concerned.