An average suburban neighborhood in Texas. The kind of place with plain, older homes that look like they were thrown together with Elmer’s glue and popsicle sticks.
When Gerald moved in about 30 years ago, he began feeding stray cats. That’s sort of how this story begins.
Feeding animals was sort of an occupational habit for the old man. He worked as a veterinary assistant for most of his adult life until he retired.
He had a special place in his heart for strays. And you know how stray lovers are. Their mission in this world is to seek out new animal life and to snip its private parts with surgical tools.
Gerald became the neighborhood cat whisperer. That’s how most children looked at him.
“There musta been twenty or thirty cats on his porch when I was growing up,” says one former kid. “It was crazy.”
Gerald gave the cats a free, all-you-can eat buffet on his front stoop. And it wasn’t just hardtack, it was canned designer cat food. He spoiled them.
He would spend his time with these cats. He would talk sweetly to them until they trusted him enough to let him hold them. Then, once he’d befriended them, he would feed them, pamper them, and have their reproductive organs disconnected by a doctor wielding a No. 3 scalpel.
But the cats didn’t hold this against him. After all, Gerald was their friend. Cats know people. A cat is smarter than some realize. A cat is not blindly loyal like a dog.
If you scold a dog, he’ll sulk, tuck his tail, and whimper. If you so much as pet a cat’s fur the wrong direction he’ll vomit in your shoes and set fire to the house.
Neighborhood kids came to see Gerald all the time. Sometimes, just to hang out on his porch with the cats. If you’ve ever seen a mass of cats intertwined together on a porch, you know there’s a certain novelty to it. A lot of kids also came to Gerald for animal-related help.
“I remember going to his house when I was like five,” says one man. “My sister and I found a squirrel that was hurt. Gerald treated that squirrel like we were bringing him the Queen of England or something.”
The neighborhood kids never knew much about Gerald’s personal life except the basics. He wasn’t married. He had adult kids, but they all lived in Oklahoma City, several hours away.
Gerald once told them he’d always wanted to be a veterinary doctor when he was young, but he never had enough money since AVMA accredited school tuition costs more than a medium-sized fighter jet.
So he got a job as an assistant in a vet’s office when he was younger, with no training. And he enjoyed every minute of on-the-job education. He spent his early days working the rural circuit. He visited farms, helping birth calves, or caring for sick anguses afflicted with bloat or food rot. He even treated pigs for constipation.
In other words, this guy didn’t exactly have the world’s most glamorous job.
The inside of his house was plastered with the photos of animals. A dog, a cow, a horse, you name it. They say the old man found a beauty in animals that some people never find in their fellow man.
“We thought he was a real hero,” says one neighborhood man. “Kids took animals to him, he knew everything about’em, and how to make’em better.”
One neighborhood legend floating around about Gerald was about the time a child found a frog that was missing one leg. The kid brought the animal to Gerald. The old man ended up keeping the frog. He built the frog a special outdoor garden behind his house. And a few weeks later, another frog showed up. Then several more. Pretty soon, his backyard became a frog haven.
“You had to be careful where you walked back there.”
He was a good man. Whenever any animal died, he held a funeral for it. He did this for all turtles, all squirrels, all birds, and even lizards.
“There was just something special about him.”
Months ago, when the coronavirus lockdown began, Gerald was staying home like everyone else. Neighborhood kids would ride bikes back and forth past Gerald’s house. They usually saw him sitting outside, reading on his iPad, smoking a cigarette. He would always wave. And the cats would always whip their tails.
But a few weeks ago, some kids noticed that Gerald had not been on his porch lately. They tried knocking on his door, but nobody answered.
One local mother says, “When I saw the EMTs, I was like, ‘Oh, please no.’”
The flashing red lights in the neighborhood drew a small crowd. People in bathrobes gathered around to see paramedics place Gerald’s remains into the back of an emergency vehicle.
It was a heart attack. The funeral was for family only. People in the neighborhood felt like there was a crater on their street where a good man used to live.
So a few neighbors held their own funeral. Nine children and eight adults gathered in a backyard, in an average suburban subdivision. They told a few stories. Someone played guitar. Before everyone went home, they restocked Gerald’s cat-food bowls the way he would have wanted.
Said one 8-year-old child, wiping her eyes, “I’m gonna be a vet person one day, just like Mister Gerald.”
Would that this weary world had a few more Mister Geralds.