Dressed in his tuxedo, Boots, my next-door neighbor Cheryl’s big black and white cat, quite tall on hind legs, leans over the rim of the birdbath for a drink. He looks like a little man attending a jazz age party who has boozed too much and is throwing up in the fountain. Despite the bowls of fresh water Cheryl leaves all around outside the house, Boots prefers drinking from the birdbath. Enticing as that water may be, frankly, what bird would flap about gleefully in a basin of water infused with cat backwash?
Boots didn’t always live with Cheryl. In fact, he’s her first cat. He used to live down the street with Thelma and her family. When he was a kitten, Boots broke his jaw. The situation was touch and go. Determined to save him, Thelma held him in her lap for weeks and nursed him back to health. Nevertheless, Thelma’s big dog and other cat didn’t much like Boots. So, he set out to find a new home.
Quite the gadabout, Boots promenaded up and down the block, perennially dressed to the nines in his evening clothes, his long white whiskers flowing, hobnobbing with passersby, and filing into neighbors’ homes with family members as they entered, as if to drop in for tea and bread-and-butter.
Cloaked in black on top, white underneath, his cheeks white below a Lone Ranger mask, Bootsie looks like the theatrical Joker, always laughing – and probably is, at us. We suspect he was a man in his last life who lived on our street, died and came back as a cat.
Bootsie often visited Cheryl. One summer evening two years ago, she sat out on her front porch suffering from the aftermath of dental surgery. Bootsie padded up her steps, onto her gray porch boards and leaped onto her lap. He nudged her cheek with his big pie face and then patted her jaw with a paw resembling a white-gloved palm frond. “That’s it,” Cheryl said. “I’m adopting him.”
Thelma was O.K. with the idea. After all, he would be free to come home any time he wished. He never has, though, except for a quick schmooze. Well fed, party to every toy in Catdom, Bootsie clears tabletops of alarm clocks, lamps and other annoying debris, where he sprawls vainglorious in his new domain.
When he first moved in, Cheryl had nearly finished putting together a thousand-piece puzzle laid on a glass tabletop. Noticing Boots sitting under the table looking up at the engaging array, Cheryl placed a white cloth beneath the puzzle and then folded the four corners, covering the puzzle. She was blowing her hair dry in the other room when she heard the crash. Bootsie had jumped up onto the table, pulled at the cloth and dragged the bundle across the table and over the edge. There she found him, standing amid a thousand scattered pieces looking, well, puzzled.
Every day, near time for Cheryl to come home from work, Boots, as if taking a pocket watch out of his waistcoat, at the appointed hour looks for her car to pull up behind her house, and runs across the lawn to greet her. “He is such a little man,” she says. “If I’m not home on time, he gets mad, like ‘Where were you? What were you doing? Who were you with?’ He turns his back on me. He jumps on me ready to play at three-thirty in the morning, and then I can’t get him off the couch all day.”
On those days, when Cheryl gets home from work, there he is curled up on her bed. “Hey, sleepyhead, are you going to get up today?” Cheryl asks.
He wakes up and yawns such a cavernous yawn that you’d half expect bats to come flying out of his mouth. He stretches one arm and then the other as if to say, “Hey. How was your day?”
On days when he goes out, Boots does have his adventures—he was part of a chase scene involving a slobbering German shepherd with big yellow teeth, and has gone for a ride on a red bicycle.
He nonchalantly held a squirrel hostage on the low roof over Cheryl’s enclosed back porch while he lounged on a bench, back to his prey, evincing “What squirrel?” The tip of his dangling tail twitched barely perceptibly while the squirrel ranted and howled, forearm to forehead, and scurried hither and thither over the roof – one suspects squirrels tend towards the theatrical – for 20 minutes until Bootsie got removed from the scene and taken into the house.
While the squirrels are away, Boots amuses himself by crouching in the grass by the hedge and intently peering down the rabbit hole beneath our shed.
One afternoon I baked chicken. He nosed his way in my door: “I like chicken—squirrel and fresh rabbit, too,” I think he said. Just inside the hall, I gathered him up, draped over my arms like a five hundred pound boa scarf. His large, clear, pale yellow-green eyes surveyed the rooms, his black and white chessboard nose twitching slightly. A brief inspection and he was ready to head out. So, I carried him to his porch where he dropped into a doze on a cushion until time to check his watch.
A week ago, Bootsie and Cheryl moved. Not far away, but I will miss his affable presence, stretched out sunning himself on my green porch boards on bright, warm mornings.