Friday, October 14, 2011

Cat Lady

Marvin lived on a side road running out of a tiny town containing a Post Office and a small café. He had five acres at the front of which sat a low roofed bungalow entirely covered in galvanized steel. Around this rather industrial looking building were scattered an assortment of old cars, radiators, tractors, steel drums, and old farm machinery. To most this collection was simply a messy pile of junk but to Marvin it was a kind of garden of meditation. In the mornings, after breakfast, as he strolled through his yard examining a commercial air conditioner, poking his head into the engine compartment of a 93 Mazda or running his hand over the bonnet of an ancient Massy tractor, his mind was a flux of imaginative possibilities and his heart filled with pleasure and delight.

Luxurious, timeless mornings were now a feature of Marvin’s life for he had recently retired. But this was less a change for Marvin than it was for most people. Marvin had always refused the ‘iron harness’, as he called it, eschewing it for odds and ends of employment, mostly self employed. He cut grass. He hauled scrap. He painted houses. Sometimes he fixed cars and he had an old bulldozer he used for digging dugouts and grading. From all these he had made a barely sufficient living which was good enough for him. He still did some work when one of his old customers phoned with a problem but by the age of seventy this had become less than half time.

An old lady lived on the property next to Marvin. She lived in a farmhouse long ago the envy of the district but now fallen into old age and disrepair. It was a rambling building cladded on the outside with dried out and crumbling shingles and walled inside with decaying plaster. Five years before, Marvin, along with three of his drinking buddies, had replaced the asphalt shingles on the roof with old steel roofing they took off an abandoned barn, or at least a barn they considered to be abandoned. When the owner showed up six months later looking for his steel Marvin explained the situation to him and gave him one hundred dollars as a belated recognition of his property rights. Marvin arranged to have a small article published in the local paper praising the owner for donating steel for such a worthy project. The steel stopped the rain from coming into the old lady’s house, dripping from the ceilings and running down the walls. The year after the roof was redone was dry. The old place dried out very well and, as the old lady herself said, it was just as good as new.

The old lady’s house was full of cats. There were cats on all of its three floors, cats in the basement and cats in the three ramshackle out buildings nearby. There were cats of every shape, size and colour imaginable. Since the old lady had no car, and even if she did she would not be able to drive it because of poor eyesight, Marvin brought the cat food necessary to keep all these cats alive in his quarter ton every Tuesday. Monday was his day for going into the city to visit his son and when he came back out on Tuesday he brought the bags of food and carried them into the house.

The smell of cat urine in the house was staggering. But after many visits Marvin had got use to it and now had no problem at all sitting down at the old lady’s kitchen table and having a cinnamon bun and a cup of tea. The old lady made top notch cinnamon buns. Unlike the modern skinny variety they were topped with a generous slavering of icing. Marvin, who at the age of seventy could still eat as much as he wanted without getting fat, ate two at a sitting, washing them down with three cups of tea. While he was doing this with one hand Marvin patted an endless procession of cats with the other. Sometimes, an old tom, a favorite, leaped into his lap and Marvin suffered him to lay there and even fed him a few mouthfuls of cinnamon bun for as it often goes with old animals, the cat had a sweet tooth. While Marvin was consuming his breakfast and patting cats, the old lady, Matty by name, kept up an endless patter concerning the doings of her vast brood.

It was very hard to put a number on the cats although on occasion Matty gave it a try. Firstly cats, when not sleeping, are constantly on the move, bobbing and weaving in and about and trying to count them with out counting some twice or even thrice and leaving out others all together is difficult if not impossible. Secondly none of Matty’s cats were spade or neutered so every week or so births occurred which would invalidate any counting. As the mother cats often gave birth in the outbuildings or even in the woods, the presence of five, or six or seven new cats was not revealed until the little ones grew enough to totter about on their own, making their presence known. Matty’s rough calculations were one hundred and fifty but Marvin put the number at more like two hundred. Fortunately the cats defecated outside in the yard which was bad enough but much better than in the house. However cats are territorial animals and the house reeked from their marking and urinating. If Matty noticed this she gave no sign. Marvin thought that her sense of smell was gone.

Matty was ninety-eight and she looked ninety-eight. When young and middle aged she had been rather husky but in old age she shriveled up into a scarecrow and the skin on her hands and face took on the look of old withered parchment. Despite this she was a tough and vigorous old thing. She cut all her own wood for the winter. She did all her own cooking and cleaning. At one time she used to run three chicken barns but those days were over and she now lived on her pension check. Sometimes the government social worker would phone and suggest that Matty move into town for the winter or accept homecare but Matty always refused. She was polite but she refused. What would happen to all her little darlings? And she didn’t want any government social workers snooping around her house and then putting reports in files and so on. Once when the social worker suggested a home visit Matty refused very emphatically. So emphatically that she was moved to use swear words, most unusual for Matty, a strict Anglican. When Marvin came to eat cinnamon buns he had to be careful with his language. When he and his pals had redone the roof she had given them three or four severe lectures on the topic of bad language.

Some of Matty’s cats had names but there were so many and their ranks so constantly added to that most did not. There was a coterie of ten ancient cats who spent just about all their time in the big kitchen with Matty. They all had names. They slept in a corner behind the wood stove where, in the winter, its heat kept their old joints fluid enough for them to hobble over to the food bowl and go out into the yard twice a day to do their business. Mostly they slept. Some of this group were on a special diet. On the stove there would be steaming pots of ground beef or liver. Matty had a small pantry off the kitchen filled with jars of medicinal herbs. When Marvin came into the kitchen on Tuesdays there was often an old cat on her lap (like laying on an oven grating) being spoon fed some kind of concoction.

Things had changed in the neighbourhood. Twenty years ago it had all been country people. Nobody had much but there was an ethic of live and let live. People were friendly but they left one another alone. Then city people, looking perhaps for an English country estate, started buying up acreage, knocking down the old farmhouses and building new middle class homes. The houses were immaculate and looked like they were scrubbed squeaky clean every morning. Vast sod lawns were laid and then cut with ride on mowers. To keep this grass shining in an unearthly shade of green the owners regularly doused it with pesticides, herbicides and chemical fertilizers. Three car garages held large SUVs which the country people were now told were an essential part of country living. These people looked askance at Marvin’s yard which they considered unsightly. It did not matter that Marvin thought their perfect lawns and freshly washed houses were unsightly and their chemicals an abomination for as time went on those who thought the way he did became a minority. If when these new people looked at Marvin’s yard their hearts were filled with a correcting fervor, when they looked at Matty’s they were filled with horror. They could not believe that such a thing could be allowed to go on and when they elected some of their own to the local council they started to do something about it.

The Council had never had unsightly premises or animal control bylaws. No one had ever seen the need for them. If you saw an unsightly building then you just kept driving and it was soon gone. If stray domestic animals showed up in your yard one day, then you adopted them, gave them away or took them behind the barn and shot them with the twenty-two. Eccentrics such as Matty were looked upon humorously, even fondly, rather than censoriously. To the newcomers this laissez faire attitude was deplorable.

It took the new people some time to pass the new laws. Five years in a row the proposed laws were brought before Council and defeated but then two new councilors were elected and they passed.

One day, in the early spring when the roads were muddy and rutted and the fields great seas of shining black water, Melvin was sitting on his front steps. He was drinking a cup of what he called cocoafee, a combination of cocoa and coffee, a mixture, which as far as he knew, he had invented himself. The early birds were back and Marvin was listening to them singing. He was also thinking of overhauling the engine of his quarter ton and where he could find the money to do it.

When he had been engaged in these activities for twenty minutes a vehicle came along the road, a shiny new SUV. When it came to Marvin’s gate instead of continuing on as he expected it turned into the driveway. It stopped in the drive behind his truck and a man got out. He walked up to the steps where Marvin was seated.

“Good morning,” said the man.

“Good morning,” Marvin returned.

“A beautiful morning,” said the man.

“Absolutely. Couldn’t be better,” said Marvin.

“Do you know the old lady next door?”

“Yes I do.”

“A Miss Lalaber?”

“Uh huh.”

“What do you think of her cats?”

“I can’t say that I think of them at all.”

“Don’t you find them a nuisance?”


“There are many that do.”

“Well, that would be up to them.”

The man seemed a little disconcerted with this attitude and came to the conclusion that he was in enemy territory. He looked around nervously at the junk strewn about the yard. He stuck a baby finger in one of his ears and twisted it a few times. Then he said. “There are new laws now about these things.”

“About what things?”

“Animals and yards filled with litter.”

“And what do these new laws say.”

“I could give you a copy.”


The man reached into his inside pocket and brought out a folded piece of paper. He handed it to Marvin who opened it and read it. At least the new bylaws were short and succinct rather than long winded. When Marvin was finished reading he held out the paper to the man but the man waved his hand in refusal.

“You can keep it.”

“Thank-you,” said Marvin.

The man turned to go but when he was half way to the vehicle he turned back and said,

“I’ll be back.”

“Why?” asked Marvin.

“I am responsible for enforcing bylaws.”

“I see,” said Marvin. “Well then I will see you when you come back.”

“The yard will have to be cleaned up. And the old lady’s cats will have to go.”

“I see.” Said Marvin.

“If it’s not done then the law will be invoked.”

“And how would that happen?” asked Marvin.

“There are many ways. Orders could be issued. Expenses could be put on your taxes.”

“I see,” said Marvin.

“And so will you be doing something about it?”

“About what?”

“The condition of your yard.”

“What condition? What’s wrong with it?”

“It’s messy. There is junk laying all about.”

Marvin looked at the front yard and then he looked back at the man. “It’s been like this for fifty years. And if you don’t like it nobody asked you to come driving over here and look at it. You could have stayed at home and saved yourself the aggravation.”

“Other people complain.”


“That’s confidential.”

“Well if there are people who don’t like the look of my yard there are many that do.”

“Such as.”

“Me to begin with. Many others as well. Matty loves my yard. Joe Criegton, Bill Stopover and George Fulton often spend an entire afternoon poking about in my yard. Sometimes I trade them some of my stuff for some of theirs. That’s easy to do when things are spread out nicely the way they are.”

“Spread out nicely?”


“Well,” said the man, “I suppose it is a matter of phrasing. Anyway something will have to be done. And you are telling me you won’t do this voluntarily?”

“I said no such thing.”

“O. Then what did you say?”

“Nothing. I didn’t say anything one way or the other.”

“Perhaps then you could do me a favor and bring yourself to do so.”

“To do what?”

“Tell me if you are willing to clean up your yard voluntarily.”

“Of course I am.”


“Yes, really.”


“Very soon.”

“Could you be a little more specific?”

“Not really. I have health issues and never know from day to day what I can or cannot do. Maybe I could get at it next week or maybe the week after.”

“That is a bit vague.”

“So is my blood pressure.’

“OK. So let me get this straight. You will get at it within two weeks.”

“More than likely.”

“More than likely.”


“OK, I’ll tell you what. In two weeks I’ll be back.”

“Fine,” said Marvin.

The man climbed into his SUV and drove away.

Over that spring and summer the man came to see Marvin ten times. Each time Marvin had moved a few things about or constructed a poplar pole fence, or cut a small patch of weedy grass. The man couldn’t say he did nothing yet he was insistent that a major effort would have to be made rather than little bits here and there. Marvin agreed that a major effort would be the best. He was very disappointed that circumstances had made that impossible. But Marvin, if he was anything, was an optimist. He had always been an optimist. He was sure everything would work out for the best in the long run. The man was not so sure. He mentioned penalties under the law. He mentioned orders. Marvin said that the man should do what he had to do. Marvin certainly didn’t take it personally. There was an early snowfall which stayed down that year and the last time the man came Marvin said. “We’ll have to wait until the spring I suppose. It’s hard to find anything under all that snow.”

Meanwhile Matty had received an order about her cats. All but three would have to be removed. She showed it to Marvin the next time he brought cat food. Matty was in tears.

“They want to murder my darlings,” she said.

“When is he coming back?” Marvin asked.

“Two weeks he says.”

“Don’t worry about it. I have an old pal who’s a lawyer. I’ll talk to him.”

Marvin’s old pal sent a letter to the council. Apparently there was some technicality which made the order illegal. At their next meeting the Council corrected the technicality sent out another order. But there was something wrong with that one too so they had to send out another. There were many corrections and reissuings and they went on all winter and into the spring. In May, on a warm sunny day, Marvin took his camera over to Matty’s. She put on her best dress and sat her in a chair in the kitchen with two of the most photogenic cats on her lap and another in her arms. Marvin gave this picture to the local newspaper and they printed it along with a human interest story about a woman, soon to be one hundred years old, a pensioner and long time lover and rescuer of cats, being harassed by rich, heartless bureaucrats. The Council received a bagful of letters expressing indignation and it backed off.

That spring Marvin began to kill some of Matty’s cats. He used a twenty two pistol. He picked up a cat, carried it into the woods behind Matty’s barn. Here he put down a bowl of canned tuna. When the cat was almost finished eating Marvin shot it through the head. He carried the corpse home in a bag and buried it in his yard. Matty’s hearing was not very good and she did not hear the pistol shots. Over the summer he killed fifty cats but there were so many to begin with that at first Matty did not notice. But by winter he had cut down the population by half.

“There seems to be less of my precious babies,” Matty said to him one day.

“They say that when there are too many animals in one spot,” said Marvin, “then nature makes it so the mothers have less babies.”

“Isn’t that interesting,” said Matty.

The bylaw man came to Marvin’s twice more that year, once in the spring and once early summer. The last time he sighed very deeply before he took his leave. Marvin sees him at the coffee shop now and again. He nods and the bylaw man nods back. Occasionally Marvin sees him driving along his road but he doesn’t slow down and come in the gate anymore. He just waves as he passes by on the way to some important appointment.

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