BIRMINGHAM—Early morning. The sun is low. Fog rests on the trees. And I have a persistent case of writer’s block.
I leave my hotel on foot because I love morning walks. They help in more ways than one. When I walk, I’m able to think in straight lines, clear my head, and most importantly, pull a hamstring.
I see a pest guy spraying outside my hotel. He wears a COVID mask, and carries a spray canister of noxious chemicals.
“How’re you doing this morning?” he asks.
“I have writer’s block,” I say.
“Oh, no. I used to get writer’s block, but I don’t get it anymore.”
“Really? What’s your secret?”
“I had four kids.”
I make my hike across a nearby parking lot, aiming toward a shopping complex. Outdoor malls are great places to walk.
This is when I hear tires squeal behind me.
I turn to look. It is a bad dream happening in slow motion. A white Mitsubishi swerves through the parking lot like a runaway diesel, roaring straight for me.
The vehicle fires forward and misses me by an eyelash. I don’t even have time to shout any religious language at the driver.
I am left standing on the pavement. Adrenaline has made me cold. I am doubled over.
The guy with the sprayer calls out, “You okay?”
All I can do is nod. “Just dandy,” I say.
It takes a few minutes to gather myself. I am still sick to my stomach. But I keep walking.
I walk across culverts, ditches, decorative shrubbery, thorny bushes, and steep embankments until I reach the mall. My nerves are shaken, but I’m alive, and that’s the important thing.
The shopping complex is empty this morning except for a few older women out power-walking.
I pass a slew of employees in shopfronts. They’re unlocking display windows, doing inventory, drinking coffee from paper cups. And I am finally starting to calm down.
When I reach the end of the complex I am about to turn around and head to the hotel. But I don’t. Because I see a white Mitsubishi.
The car is parked beside a large dumpster. A silhouette of the driver sits in the window.
The door opens. Out steps an old woman. She is hunched and wiry. She has over-the-counter red hair, and tattoos on her white lower legs.
She sees me looking. “What’s up?” she says.
This gal is something else.
She walks to the back of the Mitsubishi and opens the hatch. She removes an enormous bag of cat food. And even though I hate to be Captain Obvious, I feel it’s my civic duty to speak up.
“You almost hit me,” I tell her.
“You were in the road,” she says.
“No, I was in a parking lot.”
“You should be more careful. Cars drive through parking lots.”
“Not doing ninety they don’t.”
But she’s done paying me any mind. And in her defense, I don’t think she is being rude. She is just sort of, well… Elderly.
She offers no apology. She shows no remorse. She’s too busy. The lady lugs the bag of dry food toward the dumpster.
She whistles once and 3,532 cats creep out of the nearby trees to swarm her. You’ve never seen so many ferals. They just keep slinking from the woods.
She fills several bowls behind the dumpster and uses a high-pitched voice to remind each cat to be nice, behave, be sweet, share, use manners, brush their teeth, pay their taxes, take their Omega-3s, etc.
I stick around to watch her interact with the animals. Because, to tell you the truth, I find it unbelievable that the same person who nearly murdered me is feeding strays like Saint Teresa of Calcutta.
“They’ve all been spayed and neutered,” she says to me. “You can tell ‘cause of their clipped ears. See how their ears are all clipped?”
This woman goes on to say that this morning she still has hundreds of local cats left to feed. Hundreds, she says.
The cats are located all over town. In every side street, dumpster, and back alleyway. She says she’s been feeding cats for twenty years in Birmingham. Every morning she does it.
“You’d be surprised where cats hide,” she says. “They’re smart. They know who they can trust.”
I ask how she got into taking care of cats.
“My dad,” she says. “He used to always feed strays. Didn’t matter whether it was a cat, dog, turtle… Once he even had a goat.
“He’d take me out looking for animals back in Texas. That’s where I growed up. He was a good man. Never turned an animal away. Real good man.”
She loads the food into her Mitsubishi. Slams the trunk door. Then she fires up her little car. The asthmatic engine spits out blue exhaust.
Before she leaves, she leans out the window and locks eyes with me. It looks like she’s going to finally apologize.
She says, “You’re in my way. Move, dadgum it. I’m backing up.”
Our little Hallmark moment is cut short when she guns her four-cylinder until it throws a rod, then peels away like Dale Jr. on a liquor run.
I’m not sure if this was her version of an apology or not. But I guess it doesn’t matter. After all, she’s a busy woman, and I can understand that. She is doing important work this morning. She has a lot of mouths to feed.
And thankfully, I’ve got something to write about.