Almost three years ago, Raina and the kids found a stray mother cat and four tiny kittens living on the hard streets of Bellaire, Texas. Being animal lovers and good citizens in general, they gathered up the family and took them to the local veterinarian, had them checked out, vaccinated and placed in the waiting room for adoption. The mom and two of the kittens were quickly adopted by others, and two of the kittens became our cats. Mystic, an all black cat, and his orange, white and smaller sister, Pipsqueak, joined our family when they were around eight weeks old.
Both cats fell easily into the lifestyle of housecats, meowing their gratitude every time their food bowl was empty. They ran around late at night like possessed lions chasing invisible impalas. They climbed the curtains and sharpened their leisure-atrophied claws on the furniture. They are cool cats and each made friends easily with Lucky Dog. For a couple of years, life went on relatively smoothly, interrupted only by occasional trips to the veterinarian and, for Mystic, one foreshadowing day several months ago when he managed to sneak outside for some brief exploration. A few hours later, he came home and no one thought anymore about it.
Until April 15, 2009, when he apparently decided to give up his domestic life of luxury for the wild and feral life of a stray cat. Somehow, he slipped outside again. Only this time he didn’t return. We looked everywhere, and put up posters all over the neighborhood. We even offered a reward. We had several tips, but each of them led to a black cat that was not Mystic. After a month or so, we began to lose hope. Mystic and Pipsqueak turned three on May 15, 2009, with Mystic’s whereabouts unknown. Talk had begun about declaring him dead, probating his meager estate of cat toys and treats and, at least according to the kids, getting another cat.
Then came the first big break.
There is an abandoned house on our street, across the street and two houses down from us. That car has been there for years and is two years out of inspection.
Our across the street neighbor (who lives in the house to the left of the abandoned house) mentioned to Raina last weekend that she had seen a black cat, along with a motley group of neighborhood and stray cats, hanging around that abandoned house. I couldn’t imagine that Mystic would be living a few hundred feet from us, and ignoring all our frantic calling, not to mention all the posters on all the telephone poles up and down the street. But Cassidy and I decided to take a look.
As soon as we walked into the back yard of that abandoned house, we saw a black cat that looked exactly like Mystic (does that remind anyone of an Alec Baldwin SNL skit?). We called to him, but he casually hopped through a wide open pet door conveniently located on the side of the house. Later, we learned from other cats that this abandoned house is a sort of clubhouse for the neighborhood cats, as well as a few possums and, as the story goes, a raccoon or two. The neighborhood animals refer to the house as the cat frat. You can often hear music coming from inside, and the smell of catnip is unmistakable.
After that, we made regular trips over to the cat frat, and we saw the Mystic-looking black cat several more times. But he would not come to us, and ran away when we tried to approach him. We called the realtor listed on the rusty For Sale sign in the front yard, but she would not confess to having a key, claiming correctly that no one was going to buy that house to live in it. Unless one or more of the cats could find gainful employment. She seemed sympathetic, but did not provide access into the cat frat
Since we couldn’t get inside the cat frat to reclaim Mystic, Cassidy and I decided to trap him. We set a humane trap, baited it with a bowl of his favorite cat food and waited patiently like the expert trappers we are. A possum, innumerable squirrels and another cat later, we caught the black cat. Sure, he looked like Mystic, but he was really freaked out and didn’t seem to recognize us. I thought about calling Patty Hearst for advice, or maybe one of the cat-obsessed secretaries at my office. Ultimately, we settled for the veterinarian. The cat was a male, was neutered (thereby calling into question the value of the whole cat frat scene, but I digress), and was about the right age. So we brought our wayward kitty home. We put him in a dog carrier and set it down in the house. Lucky Dog seemed happy to see Mystic and Mystic was not the least bit nervous about Lucky Dog. Pipsqueak hissed at him, but we figured that could be because she had been dealing with her fear and sadness at his disappearance. I yelled at Delaney once after she almost got run over, because I was scared.
Or maybe she’s pissed because he didn’t take her with him.
We don’t know what happened during his five weeks away. Did he pull a Chris McCandless and intentionally walk into the wild, only to be returned involuntarily via our trap? Does he think he’s in college. Did he get cat amnesia? Is he a Lou Reed fan? Did we not give him enough vitamins?
Very quickly, we confirmed that this was, in fact, Mystic. We let him out of the pet carrier and he fell immediately back into many of his old routines. He and Lucky Dog started hanging out together right away. He immediately found his litter box. He sits on my lap while I work, the same way he always has.
But he’s different now. He and Pipsqueak generally ignore each other. If he gets too close to her, she hisses at him. He seems older, maybe a little world weary.
And every now and then, I see him gazing at the door, and the great wonders beyond it. His life on the road was not perfect. He has some battle scars and is much thinner. But across the street, at the cat frat, there is a party going on.
I think part of him misses it. The question is how much?