“I found old Whitey behind a gas station,” said the old man, stroking the cat who lingered beside his feet. A white cat.
We were sitting together on John’s porch at dusk on Halloween. The neighborhood was steadily being overtaken by trick-or-treaters with dangerously low blood sugar. I was returning a borrowed weed eater to John’s house when the Pabst loosened the old man’s tongue.
John has a bushy white beard, unruly eyebrows, and he usually has the whole unkempt-old-man thing going on. His hair was disheveled, his shirt was stained, and his ratty sneakers looked like they had more mileage on them than my truck.
Kids in costumes stopped by John’s porch during our conversation, dressed as officially licensed cartoon characters, half blinded my misaligned plastic masks.
John had placed a barrel of candy on his steps and told kids they were free to help themselves.
“We operate on the honor system around here,” said John between swills.
I watched one kid who was dressed as Uncle Fester Addams take an armful of candy the size of a bowling ball and run like hailfire.
“When I met Whitey,” John went on, “the gas station people were feeding her behind the Dumpster. Only problem was, not all the store employees actually cared about cats. Usually they forgot to feed her.”
The white cat knew we were taking about her. She crawled onto John’s lap and leaned into John. Whenever John stopped moving his hand upon the feline’s slender body the cat would weave beneath his hand and force him to keep stroking.
“She loves to be pet.”
It sounded like Whitey had a small motor beneath her hood.
“Lemme tell ya,” said John. “This girl was hard to catch. Harder than most cats.”
John ought to know. He has fourteen cats including Whitey. They all have stunningly creative names like, Brownie, Blackie, Red, Gray, Yellow, and Susan.
“Why Susan?” I had to ask.
“It was my mama’s name.”
Catching a renegade cat behind a Shell station is tough business. Cats can be standoffish creatures. To win the cat over, John bought fresh salmon filets and left them on the pavement for Whitey. Then he hung around the Dumpster so she’d get comfortable with his company.
“Don’t care what the books claim,” John says, “cats are smarter than humans. I been rescuing feral cats since I was a ten-year-old. You gotta respect their intelligence if you want a cat to trust you. They know who loves’em and who don’t.”
John left food for Whitey twice per day. Every morning, and every evening. The gas station employees would often see this unkempt, bearded man hanging out behind the store and mistakenly think he was homeless.
Employees brought John spare change and shriveled up gas-station hotdogs that had been spinning on the roller grill since the Punic Wars.
“The hotdogs are actually pretty good,” says John.
Although it bears mentioning, appearances can be misleading. John might not be a sharp dresser, but he’s doing okay. He still works as a computer consultant for a large company, he lives in a nice house, and in a decent neighborhood. His house has oak cabinets and central vac.
Anyway, after six months of feeding Whitey, the cat finally came to him.
“It took six months?” I said.
He nodded ominously. “Six. Long. Months.”
The day Whitey finally broke through the barriers of feline caution is one John will always remember.
It was nighttime. And when Whitey came trotting out of the shadows, she had an open gash on her face, her skin was dangling. She’d either been in a catfight or fallen into a heated disagreement with a lawnmower.
“Broke my heart,” recalls John. “So I reached out my arms to her.”
Whitey practically fell into him that night, passing out from exhaustion. In his sixty-five years of rescuing feral cats, a cat has never collapsed in his arms like Whitey did.
He took her to the doctor to get her fixed. When Whitey awoke from anesthesia, she was on a pallet in his garage with the doors wide open.
I asked why the doors were left open.
“Because. Ain’t no creature gonna live with me if they don’t want to.” He chuckled. “My first wife taught me that.”
The rest, of course, is history. Whitey has been living with John and his gaggle of cats for nine years now, eating salmon by the metric kiloton. The vet thinks she is about sixteen years old, but there’s no way to know for sure.
Today, Whitey has a hard time getting around on her old joints, but she is loved, and content. Also, she is the only cat among John’s crew of strays allowed to sleep in his bed.
“Don’t know what I’ll do when she leaves this world,” John said. “She’s one of the best friends I ever had.”
Before I left John’s porch, a young trick-or-treater dressed like Darth Vader interrupted us to ask John what kind of Halloween costume he was wearing tonight.
John smirked, then glanced at his own wrinkled T-shirt and ratty jeans.
“Can’t you tell?” he said to the kid. “I’m the crazy neighborhood cat guy.”