Archive | October 2011

Shelter cat diaries

The great Harriet woke up cranky. The shelter ran out of her favorite cat food so workers served a brand that was not only unfamiliar but stale too.  What nerve she thought serving this junk to us cats. She picked at the kibble for a few minutes when she heard commotion nearby.

“Keep it down over there, I’m trying to avoid choking while I eat,” Harriet said.

An orange tabby cat bared her fangs at the great Harriet.

“Like I’m supposed to be afraid,” Harriet said, sitting by her food bowl. “What’s your name?”

The new cat jabbed her paw into Harriet’s dish, spilling kibble on the floor. Hissing, she turned around and stormed away.

“I can see you’re in a bad mood,” the great Harriet said as she followed the new cat. “No one treats the great Harriet with such disdain. I’m the queen of this cattery and I expect to be treated with respect.”

The orange cat squeezed herself into a corner space, curled into a ball then closed her eyes.

“I’m talking to you Miss Kitty Cat Cat. What’s your name?”

“Go suck on a mouse.”

“If I wasn’t such a lady, I’d pounce on you,” Harriet said glancing at her claws. “I’ll come back later when you’ve reconsidered your foolish behavior.”

Harriet skittered away and resumed eating. She barely ate half a bowl when she licked the crumbs from her paws and whiskers. Despite shelter living, Harriet kept up appearances. She looked regal at all times.

The cattery was full like most days. Cats were everywhere, lounging in cozy beds, scratching their nails on carpet-covered posts, eating, playing with toys, or jostling with each other good-naturedly. Workers breezed in and out, cleaning up hair, litter and hair balls or dispensing medication. Harriet adjusted to the daily routine and took it all in stride.

A long-term resident, Harriet considered herself as head cat in charge. Someone had to assume that role and Harriet decided the role suited her. Nearly every day, Harriet reminded cats that only her superior feline skills maintained order in the busy cattery. Some cats tired of her incessant yammering but most caved into her bossy behavior. It was easier than arguing with her. When brawls erupted over sharing litter-boxes or cramped quarters, Harriet settled arguments by calling for cat cool-offs.  Even though Harriet scraped by in the alleys, she demonstrated the diplomacy of a show cat. She also had a lion-sized ego.

The new cat’s behavior still miffed her but Harriet stretched for a nap instead. Addressing the cat’s surly manners could wait until she woke. As she pawed her pillow into place her friend Big Bessie caught her eye. Bessie just ambled from another room where she schmoozed with cats. Bessie headed to the feeding station.

“Old gal, trouble just arrived,” Harriet said as Bessie passed in front of her.

“Is that the new cat’s name?” Bessie asked.

“No you ninnie,” Harriet said. “The cat is trouble. She nearly mauled me. I was lucky to escape with my life.”

“Harriet, don’t insult me but you’re known to exaggerate. What really happened?”

“I kid you not,” Harriet said. “The new cat is a brute.”

“I’ll see if I can talk to her.”

“No, that’s my job,” Harriet said. “The beast is resting. I’ll tend to her later.”

“You’re not the only one around here who cats listen to,” Bessie said. “They like me too.”

“No one is as successful as me,” Harriet said. “Leave it to a professional. Aren’t you going to ask how I am?”

“Harriet, how are you today?”

“You don’t really mean that,” Harriet said.

“I hope you get adopted soon,” Bessie said. “You’re getting on my nerves.”

Harriet snuggled up, saying she needed beauty rest to confront the testy cat. Bessie however generously chomped down a hefty serving of kibble, washed it down with water then she too settled down for rest. The new cat, however, isolated herself from the others, remaining in a corner.

Both Bessie and Harriet opened their eyes around the same time, stretched and yawned. Bessie sidled up against Harriet. “How’d you sleep?”

“Fine but don’t get too close. The other cats will think I’m too mushy.”

“You’re so unreasonable at times. Hey, I don’t see the new cat? I wonder where she is?”

“Let’s look around,” Harriet said. “She could be in another part of the cattery. Follow me.”

Harriet and Bessie scampered through the cattery, checking with friends about the new cat’s whereabouts. Staff hadn’t moved her to the clinic yet no one could find her so they separated. Harriet said it’d be easier with two sets of eyes and noses snooping around.

A new volunteer recently built ledges in the cattery so cats had views outside the windows. Cats without social skills often hid on the ledges until they became acclimated to their surroundings. For some reason, the ledges escaped Harriet and she never looked up.

The orange tabby peered down and watched everything. Finally she jumped and landed in front of Harriet and Bessie. She pushed up against Big Bessie.

“Leave her alone,” Harriet said. “This is your new home so get used to us.”

“I don’t want you or your fat friend. I want my babies.”

“Start by telling us your name,” Harriet said.  “Insulting other cats is unacceptable.”

“My name is Ginger,” she said. “And I got separated from my kittens in the alleys. I’m so worried about the two of them.”

Abandoned by her owners when they moved across town, Ginger gave birth to two kittens a few months ago.  The feline family scratched out a living on the streets, often eating out of garbage cans in the alleys. Yesterday, a stranger tricked Ginger with a trap. The aroma of canned food lured Ginger inside. “That’s how I ended up here,” the orange cat said.

“I guess no one knew about your babies,” Harriet said. “Jeez. I don’t know what to say.”

“I’m sorry if I behaved badly but I’m trapped in here and my babies are out there,” Ginger said.                 “I wish I could help but even the great Harriet is short on suggestions,” Harriet said. “I’m truly sorry.”

Ginger thanked Harriet but said she was too distraught to socialize. She trusted that Harriet understood. She said she did.

Now that employees finished daily cleaning, Harriet pranced around the cattery looking for attention and snacks. She staked out her favorite employees, brushing up against their legs. Her love me routine usually worked and she was rewarded with a treat.

Helen the manager set out cat beds in the front office for their comfort. Harriet made herself available for petting whenever staff members like Helen had a few minutes to spare. She missed not having a special person to call her own. As Helen stroked Harriet’s fluffy gray fur, she chatted on the phone.

“That’s such good news about the kittens,” Helen said. “I told the trapper the orange cat isn’t feral and that we’ll keep her. I’m so glad she’s finding homes for the two kittens. We don’t need any more cats here. We’re full.”

Harriet scurried away, knocking into another cat outside the office. She found Ginger hiding inside a covered litter-box.

“Come out, Ginger,” Harriet said. “I have news.”

“Tell me from out there.”

“I was at the front desk for my daily dose of affection when I overheard the manager talking about you. Evidently a trapper thought you were feral and wanted to get you fixed. Spaying is a good idea you know.”

“Get to the point,” Ginger said.

“Don’t rush me, I’m almost there.”

“The trapper picked up your kittens and will find them good homes.”

“Are you sure?” Ginger asked.

“No, I’m not absolutely sure but it sounds like it’s the same person who trapped you. Same location. Same number of kittens. I thought the news would relieve you.”

“It sort of does,” Ginger said. “I still miss my babies but thanks for telling me. At least it sounds like they’re safe because someone cared. I’ll never see them again but I’ll get a new home. That’s not too bad.”

“I’m still waiting for my home but until that happens join us cats. We have a lot of good times here.”

“Why are you the great Harriet?”

“Hang out with me and you’ll find out.”

If you like the great Harriet buy Emmy’s Angel on Amazon.com Kindle books for 99 cents

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animal rescue in Denver

Acting as Mother Theresa to homeless dogs in Denver almost got me killed once. In 1991 I chased a pint-sized white mutt with protruding nipples down a side street in the Five Points neighborhood, a run down section. The dog’s alleged owner, a shabbily dressed man with a long unkempt beard, lashed out at me, accusing me of trying to steal his dog. I thought the new mom was a stray.

“I didn’t see any tags on your dog,” I said. “She ran loose on Lawrence Streetand almost got hit by a car.”

“Stupid dog,” the owner said.

Stupid owner, I thought.

“She looks like she recently had a litter.”

“The puppies under that house on the corner,” he said, acting a bit calmer. “She was probably on her way to feed them. You interfered.”

“I thought I was saving her.”

“You want her?” the man said.

“Yes, I do,” I said. He picked up the scruffy dog and handed her to me. I put her in my car.

“What about the puppies?” he said. “They’re in that abandoned house.”

I was surprised he even cared.

“I’ll see what I can do.”

The narrow two story house was typical for Five Points. Garbage cluttered the alley. The yard was overgrown with weeds. Windows were shattered. I tried to open the front door but it was locked. Instead, I poked my head inside an open window and listened for whimpers but heard nothing. I went back to the man’s house.

“That house is locked,” I said as I stood on his cracked front steps. “I listened through a window and didn’t hear any puppies.”

“They’re in there. Mama feeds them all the time.”

“Are you sure?” I asked, nervous about entering an unstable abandoned building. Besides, I’m sure it was illegal as well.

“Want me to show you?”

“No, that’s OK.”

I kept dog dried food and bottled water in my car for strays. I shoved supplies for the puppies beneath an opening in the ratty looking building, just in case they were inside. Noticing the time, I’d be late for work. Not that I had work piled up but Deborah my boss would crawl up my ass if I staid out any longer on my lunch hour. I drove to the clinic, left the little white dog in my car and called Denver animal control. They picked her up about an hour later. That was the best I could do.

I called the Denver Dumb Friends League and told them about the allegedly abandoned puppies. They dispatched an investigator who called me a few days later.

“I see what you mean about that building,” the DDFL investigator said. “It looks like it might collapse. I couldn’t get inside.”

“Did you hear anything?” I asked.

“Not a sound,” she said. “I left out food and water. I also taped an official abandonment notice on the door. Not that anyone will read it. If the owners don’t show up, we can legally break into the house. I’m just not sure how someone can get in. That house is dangerous. We love animals at the DDFL but I don’t want any of our people getting hurt.”

“Let me know what happens.”

I fretted that the puppies, if they were inside, might starve or freeze in the middle of winter. I drove back the next day and studied the building. To get inside, I would have slide through a first floor broken window in the back of the house. And even if I got in, the interior was trashed. Finding the tiny puppies would be risky. I worried about taking a chance but I always had a bit of daredevil in me. Because I was in the backyard, no one saw me, or at least I didn’t think they did. As I shimmied through a wobbly window frame, I slipped and fell to the pavement below. I escaped serious harm, save for bruises, bumps, cuts and scrapes. My heart pounded thinking that if I had become lodged inside the building no one would have heard my cries for help. The homes in the immediate area were abandoned too. That ended any further rescue attempts. I called my contact at the DDFL and told her what I did.

“Don’t ever do that again,” she said. “You’re not trained for animal rescue. We are. Please leave this to the professionals.”

“After what happened today, I swear I’ll never do something so stupid again.”

“I’m glad to hear that. I don’t know you, but I believe you have a good heart. If you died doing something foolish, think of all the animals that won’t be helped.”

I don’t know if those puppies were really in that building. Maybe that scuzzball wanted to see me die. Who knows? I never risked my life like that again. My arms full of cuts, bruises and scrapes scared me away from that building. I always wondered about those puppies and the callous man who said he was the dog’s owner.

As the litterbox turns

The great Harriet purred as she joined Roscoe the dog for her shift at the front desk. Management rules required two animals per shift. People Palace Plus was an exceptionally well run shelter.

“How’s business today?” Harriet asked, as she swished her tail back and forth.

“You’re late,” Roscoe said.

“A devastatingly gorgeous cat like me needs time to get ready.”

“Enough feline fluff,” Roscoe said. “It’s been slow. Not that many people were dropped off. We only had one 25 year old man left this morning.”

“The reason?”

“The cats are moving to a new kitty condo and said taking their owner was inconvenient.”

“What rot,” Harriet hissed. “Is he a nice man?”

“Sweet, lovable and perfectly housebroken. I’m sure he’ll make someone a great husband. He’s at that perfect age.”

“Assuming, that is, we can get him adopted. Cats and dogs always look for kids. Remember, I found my human here when she was a baby. She grew into a great gal,” Harriet said. “Dotes over me all the time. But then, who wouldn’t?”

“When you stop gloating over yourself, make sure those lazy dogs are feeding the humans. When people start crying and banging on the cages, the noise gets on my nerves.”

“I’ll get right on it,” Harriet said. “Nothing I can’t stand more than lazy dogs. Present company excluded.”

While Roscoe browsed through the Canine Weekly checking the scores on last night’s Frisbee contest, the phone rang. He pawed the receiver and said, “People Palace Plus, may I help you?”

“I lost my human, I wondered if you had her?” the gruff voiced dog asked.

“Our people picker uppers aren’t due in till this afternoon,” Roscoe said. “Check our on-line lost and found or come in. Look around for yourself. We have over 350 cages.”

“Why can’t you look?” the caller said. “She’s an old lady, easy to spot. Gray hair, liver spots on her hands. Answers to the name Daisy.”

“Listen, dog breath. We have so many people here I can’t check each time one of you dogs and cats call up with a missing human. Look for her picture on-line or walk through our shelter. We’re open until 6:00 p.m.”

“I live on the other side of town.”

“I suggest you put tags on your people. This way if they get lost they’re easier to return. We just started to offer micro-chips.”

“I never thought Daisy would wander off,” the caller said. “Usually, she never left our front yard. I miss her.”

“I’m sure you do. Put up signs in the neighborhood,” Roscoe said. “Maybe one of the neighborhood dogs or cats has seen her.”

Harriet scooted back to the front desk. She meowed at the orange tabby working in receiving, a friend she occasionally shared a fish lunch with.

“Hey Buzzie, I’m sure you’ve missed me,” Harriet said.

Buzzie meowed warmly. “Your attitude is hard to miss. How about lunch soon?”

“At the Manx Manor?” Harriet asked.

“Next week after we get paid. I just paid a chunk for my human’s dentist bill.”

Harriet flopped down next to Roscoe and gave a full report. “As usual, I arrived just in time. Those good for nothing dogs were slouching off. The great Harriet whipped them into shape.”

“Selfish cat behavior,” Roscoe said. “It was my idea to check on the humans, not yours. At least they’re fed for another day. I hope food shuts them up. Maybe a few cats and dogs will come in to adopt.”

“We’re full. You know what that means?”

“At least I’m not on the selection committee,” Roscoe said. “I hate making those choices.”

“If only dogs and cats would act more responsibly.”

“Yeah, if only.”

 

Take me with you

“Reggie you bad cat, get over here,” Josephine yelled.  “I’m sick of cleaning up litter. You get it all over my nice clean floor.”

Once Josephine yanked a broom from the kitchen closet, she slammed the door shut. She swept bits of litter scattered across the Linoleum floor into a whisk pan. As she stood by the trash, she said, “Reggie, don’t ignore me.”

Despite her ranting, Reggie paid Josephine no mind. The misty gray cat scampered downstairs. Whenever Josephine flew into a tirade, which was often, Reggie escaped to the basement. Josephine hated the dank basement so Reggie knew he was safe there.

Settling underneath an old wicker chair, Reggie curled up for a nap. “A cat has to sleep,” he said to himself, despite lying near a clump of dust. From the corner of his eye, however, he noticed an unknown feline standing in front of him.

The snow-white cat said, “She’s at it again Reggie, isn’t she?”

“It’s Reginald to you,” Reggie said, ears pressed back against his head. Arching his back, he said, “Hey, what’re you doing in my basement?”

“I’d be in a bad mood if I got yelled at like that.”

“You didn’t answer me?” Reggie said, staring at the strange white cat with a wary eye. “Who told you Josephine is crabby all the time?”

“I guessed.”

Reggie glanced at the windows in search of cracks. “How’d you get in? Windows look closed to me.”

“I’m the great Harriet, friend to all.”

Slowly, Reggie emerged from his hiding spot. Sniffing, he checked out Harriet from tail to snout, making sure she was friendly. Once satisfied, he purred with relief.

“Quit ignoring my question,” Reggie said. “How’d you get in?”

Harriet stopped licking her long whiskers and said, “Getting in is a secret. I’m from far away.”

“Far away?” Reggie asked. “Where’s that?”

“Forget about me. Let’s have fun and watch birds.”

Uncertainty temporarily rolled off Reggie’s furry back and he led the great Harriet through the basement to the nearest windowsill.  Both cats settled into comfy positions for a round of bird watching.

“I’ve watched a lot of birds from this spot,” Reggie said.  “Josephine never lets me outside.”

“I’m inside a lot, too where it’s safe.”

“Guess we both have mindful owners, even if mine yells a lot.” Looking at his friend, Reggie licked his front paw. “You never said where you’re from?”

As the great Harriet readied to speak, footsteps interrupted the feline conversation. Face scrunched up, Josephine stood with arms akimbo by the window.

“How’d this beast get in here? Get away, Reggie, you might catch something.” Josephine rolled an old magazine and waved it at the gleaming white cat. “Shoo, get away.”

Knowing Josephine couldn’t decipher cat chatter, Reggie said to Harriet, “You better go. She might throw something at you.”

“OK if I come back?”

“How will you get in?”

“Leave that to me,” Harriet said as she skittered away.

Josephine lunged in Harriet’s direction, but the cat already vanished. Eyes widened, Josephine checked the windowpanes only to find each one in securely in place. “How that stray cat get in here? Maybe I left a door open somewhere.”

By the time Josephine finished inspecting the basement Reggie fell asleep on a pile of dirty rags. Josephine hiked up the stairs, muttering about the mysterious white cat.

 

Hunger pangs roused Reggie from a sound sleep the next evening. Josephine would be home soon to feed him. Yawning, Reggie glanced at his empty food dish and said, “Maybe she’ll come home in a good mood.”

“So do I.”

Reggie snapped his head to the right. “The great Harriet, you’re back.”

Harriet purred softly and rubbed her furry body against Reggie. “I thought you’d need company.”

“I’m glad you’re here. Josephine isn’t fun and I don’t have anyone else to play with.”

“Why does she have a cat?” Aunt Mary asked.

“Her daughter Denise, my former owner, lost her job and then got an eviction notice. One day, Denise stuffs me inside my carrier and brings me here. She tells her mother it’ll only be for a short time until she gets back on her feet.” Reggie hissed.  “That was months ago. Denise must’ve lost her feet.”

“Mind if I hang around for a while?”

“Stay until Josephine gets here. If she sees you, she’ll get mad.” Reggie hissed. “Then I’ll have to listen to her fat mouth.”

“So what should we do until then?” the great Harriet asked.

“Sleep, what else?”

“Sleep later, let’s have fun,” Harriet said. “I have a fake mouse. Let’s go play with it.”

The two cats took turns biting into the cloth toy then tossed it back and forth. Next, they chased each other across the living room, through the hallway and into the den. They worked themselves into a frenzy when the front door popped open. Before the great Harriet disappeared, Josephine spotted the strange cat.

Dropping her purse, she said, “That awful beast is back, ruining my house.”

Reggie and Harriet scrambled downstairs for cover.

“Hurry, I hear her coming,” Reggie said.

“I hate leaving you again,” Harriet said.

“Take me with you?”
“How?”

“Come back after she goes to work tomorrow,” Reggie said as he watched Harriet disappear. “I have an idea.”

Josephine stormed through the basement, demanding to know where the intruder was hiding. Reggie cleared out and took refuge underneath the living room sofa. Still in the basement, Josephine ranted about the strange white cat. Reggie also wondered where Harriet came from, but he didn’t care. He enjoyed the spunky cat’s company.

 

Like clockwork, Josephine pulled out of the driveway the next day and the great Harriet appeared. She found Reggie snuggled on Josephine’s bed. “Wake up my friend, I’m back. Hey, what’re you doing on her bed?”

“It annoys her. Every morning when I hear the front door close, I jump on her bed and settle in for a long nap. The cheapskate never bought me a bed so I use hers.”

“What shall we do today?” Harriet asked.

“Sleep, I’m still tired. Aren’t you?”

“If that’s what you like,” Harriet said. “Mind if I sleep next to you?”

“No, hop up and make yourself comfortable.”

“If I wake up feeling rested, maybe we’ll watch birds again,” Reggie said.

The cats awoke to a key turning the door lock. Jerking his body off the bed, Reggie said, “Josephine’s home. Follow me. She won’t look in the basement.”

The two cats dashed through the hall and down the stairs.  Reggie and the great Harriet took positions underneath the wicker chair.

“You stay here while I go upstairs for dinner then I’ll be back.” Reggie looked at Harriet and said, “What about you? Aren’t you hungry?”

“Don’t worry about me.”

Reggie heard Josephine’s call and took off. As he nibbled on a bowl of cat food, the seafood grill kind he liked, the doorbell rang. Josephine looked through the peephole to see a man wearing a dark blue suit and a striped tie. “What’d you want?”

“Excuse me, but I’m looking for my white cat.”

Unlocking the door, Josephine scolded the man. “You ought to be ashamed for letting that rascal roam around other people’s property.”

“Yes ma’am. I apologize,” he said, taking off his gray fedora.

“I haven’t seen that pest today, but she seems to like my cat Reggie. I’m sure she’ll be back.” She noticed Reggie as he headed for the basement. “Give me your number so I can reach you.”

The man shook his head. “I don’t have a phone.”

“How about e-mail?” Josephine asked.

The man shrugged.

“Are you new around here?”

“You could say that,” he said. “I’ll return tomorrow.”

As the man headed for the door, Josephine said, “Wait, maybe she’s downstairs. Somehow, she’s sneaks into my basement.” Josephine gestured for him to follow. She opened the door leading to the basement and said, “There must be a crack in one of my windows. How else would she get in?”

Meanwhile, Reggie found the great Harriet resting by a window. He hustled over and said, “Your owner is looking for you.”

“He’s not really my owner.”

“Who is he?” Reggie asked, tail wagging.

“A guard. They want me back.”

Reggie swatted his paw at Harriet. “Explain. What’s this all about?”

Harriet escaped from a distant planet where cats ruled. Due to a sudden death in the feline family, the great Harriet inherited the throne and became the new ruler.

“Hey, if I could be in charge, I’d order fresh fish every night,” Reggie said. “And I’d outlaw cranky cat-owners like Josephine.”

“I’m not cut out to be a ruler,” Harriet said. “I’d rather be an ordinary cat, like you. In our government there’s too many hissy fights, haggling but the guard won’t let me back out. I thought I covered my trail but somehow he found me. Guess it’s time to go back and resume my feline duties.”

“I’m sorry to see you go,” Reggie said. “Can you hide and come back later?”

“No, he’ll eventually track me down.”

The dapper looking man appeared in front of the cats and said, “Harriet, I’ve been looking for you for such a long time.”

Reggie whispered to Harriet, “Does he understand what you say?”

“Yes, he’s really a cat disguised as a human.”

Smiling with relief, the man said, “Are you ready? Everyone has been worried sick about their new leader. They sent me to find you.” He bent down to pick up Harriet. “They’ll be so happy.”

“No, I’m not going,” Harriet said, squirming away from the man. “I’m staying with my friend Reggie.”

“Don’t give me a hard time,” the man said, “you have to come. I’m under strict orders to take you back.”

“Let someone else be ruler.”

“Harriet, you’re the new head cat in charge and you must come back.”

“OK then but I need a minute to say good-bye to my friend.” Harriet glanced at Reggie.

In an instant the two cats dashed off and hid behind a pile of storage boxes. Reggie said, “Take me with you, please. Don’t leave me with Josephine.”

“You can’t come. He won’t let you,” Harriet said. “Wait, I have an idea. If it works, then we’ll always be together.”

A few minutes passed when the man wandered over and gasped as he flipped on the overhead light. Seeing two identical white cats, he said, “Harriet, you tricked me. Which one are you?”

The great Harriet meowed with delight. “Looks like you’ll have to take us both.”

“That’s not nice,” the man said.

“If you don’t take us both, how will you know you have the right cat? If you’re wrong, you may never find me again.”

The man put the fedora back on his head. Sighing, he said, “You’re such an imp, Harriet. A very clever imp.”

“You ready to leave yet?” Harriet asked as she snuggled next to Reggie. “We’ll be together. Always.”

“I’m ready to be the head cat in charge now,” Harriet said.

 

 

 

 

 

Uncle Ernie’s

A string of hard words spewed out of Joe’s mouth. “You’re late again dummy. I ought to…”

“One of the nurses called in sick,” his wife Vickie cut him off. Head held down, she stood by the stove. “I had to stay late.”

“What about my dinner? I came home expecting to eat.”

“Honey, people’s lives depend on me.”

Joe pounded his fist on the table, sending a coffee mug sailing to the floor. Glass scattered everywhere.

Sirloin, the family mutt, took off, ears flopping as he dashed out the doggie door. He skittered across the backyard towards his doghouse, but when he stuck his head inside, he yipped surprise. Harriet the gray and white cat had beaten him to the refuge.

“What’re you doing here?” Sirloin asked.

“When I heard that beast get out of his car I left.”

Sirloin nibbled at his little brown paws. “I hope he doesn’t hurt Vickie again.”

“Or us,” Harriet said, hissing.

Paw by paw, Sirloin crept through the picture perfect yard towards the back door and poked his nose through the clipped hedges. He saw only the empty kitchen filled with sparkling white appliances and a rack of pots and pans so shiny they almost glowed.

He returned to the doghouse. “I don’t smell him inside.  Must be upstairs.”

“I’m staying here,” Harriet said, “The car door just slammed. Vickie probably went to her mother’s again.”

“What about our dinner?” Sirloin asked. “I’m hungry.”

“Forget eating.”

Evening melted into darkness. Hundreds of gleaming stars splashed across the heavens. All was quiet except for crickets chirping and the occasional drone of a small plane flying overhead. For the rest of the night, the animals slept outside of the house they called home.

Early the next morning, Harriet and Sirloin heard a creaking noise and raced to the back door. Vickie smiled as they rubbed furry bodies against her bony legs. Tears slowly crawled down Vickie’s cheeks. “I’m sorry I left you.” She hugged each animal. “I wanted to take you, but mom’s building doesn’t allow pets.”

Sirloin slobbered all over Vickie’s face, licking away her tears. Harriet sat by her feet and purred.

“Don’t be mad.” Vickie cradled them in her arms. “I’ll fix you something special to eat.”

Rough voices disrupted Harriet’s afternoon nap on the patio.  The cat spit when she saw Joe’s gnarled face. Vickie followed him, acting like her husband’s servant.

Joe shoved Vickie. “I’m not going to AA.”

“But honey,” she said.

“Get off my case.” Joe flopped into a lounge chair. ”Bring me a beer.”

Vickie sidled next to her husband and grasped his hand. “You threw them out, remember? You said you were giving up drinking.”

“Take your skinny self in the car and drive to the store. I want a beer.”

Joe wasn’t finished. “Get the heck out of that pool, stupid dog. All that hair clogging my drain. I ought to get rid of you.” He caught a glimpse of Harriet under the lawn chair. “I see you over there, you sneaky cat. Wait’ll I get my hands on both of you.” He lunged forward but stumbled.

Into the middle of the pool Sirloin paddled, wondering what Joe would do next. He saw Harriet and said, “Hurry and jump in.”

“Are you crazy? Cats hate water.”

When Joe tried to kick Harriet, the cat sucked in her breath and plunged in. Swimming was hard, but she followed Sirloin’s lead. They ducked under the water and were gone.

Sloshing through the pool, the pair surfaced in a new place. They crawled to the shore’s grassy edge. Harriet collapsed onto a patch of ground. “I can’t believe I listened to you.”

“Relax. You didn’t drown.”

“Relax nothing.” The cat studied her soggy fur. “Look at me. Hey dog breath, where are we?”

Open-mouthed, Sirloin stared at bushy tailed canines munching on dog biscuits, as if they were in pet paradise.  Frisky cats chased tiny plastic balls, but most felines slept soundly on pillows scattered about farmhouse.

Harriet crept next to Sirloin. “Where’d you take me?”

“Uncle Ernie’s.”

“Who?”

“Uncle Ernie, our best friend in the whole world,” Sirloin said, speaking as if he had known Uncle Ernie for years.

Harriet poked Sirloin’s ear. “Where is he?”

“Around somewhere.”

Ears flattened against her head, Harriet asked, “Stop joking. Where are we?”

Tail flapping, Sirloin yelped as he licked his friend’s face. “Forget about where we are. This place is great.”

Harriet glanced at piles of string, scratching posts, and comfy beds for everyone, feeling very suspicious.

“Have fun while I check in with Uncle Ernie,” Sirloin said.

“Wait, I want to meet him.”

Sirloin nudged Harriet the other way. “Let me tell him I brought company.”

The scent of fish lured Harriet to a food bowl, heaped with flakes of baked trout. She helped herself then washed the meal down with a swig of water. After she licked her paws, she saw another feline reclining on a pillow. Harriet approached the cat. “Excuse me, but who cooked the fish?”

The tortoise shell cat lazily rolled over and opened his dreamy eyes. “Uncle Ernie’s friends.”

“Who are they? How do I meet them?”

The cat lifted his head off the pillow and lashed his tail in surprise. “Why, you didn’t like the fish?”

“What’s going on?” Harriet asked, meowing frustration.

Disappointed because the tortoise shell cat snuggled into a ball and drifted to sleep, Harriet went from sleeping cat to sleeping cat until she found a wide-awake feline.

“What’s going on around here?” Harriet asked.

“Start by asking my name,” the cream-colored cat said.  “It’s Sasha, by the way.”

“How’d you get here? How’d I get here?”

“Life was hard but my family and I managed until the war came. A fighter jet whizzed over and dropped bombs. Only I survived.”

“Gee, I thought I had troubles,” Harriet said.

“I was so terrified I hid inside the barn for a week. I poked my head outside and was stunned by all the devastation.”

“What’d you do?”

“I ate a few potato peelings then left.”

“You came here?”

“No, I wandered through the countryside, horrified by the all the demolished villages. I thought it was a bad dream until I saw a soldier. He chased me, trying to poke me with his rifle. I ran until I got to the lake. I figured he would shoot me so I jumped in.”

“And you ended up here?” Harriet said.

Sasha purred. “How’d you know?”

Harriet stared at Sasha, “Aren’t you curious about where we are?”

“This is cat heaven.”

“I should go home. My owner needs me.”

All of a sudden, a fluffy black and brown dog the size of a German shepherd wagged his tail as he stood next to Harriet.  Sirloin trailed behind. “I’m Uncle Ernie. I’ve heard a lot about you.”

Harriet edged back. “You’re Uncle Ernie?”

“Yes.”

“Where are we?”

“At our place,” Uncle Ernie said. “Isn’t it grand?”

Harriet dug her paws into the ground, staring at Uncle Ernie. “Where exactly is your place?”

“Don’t be afraid. Life’s different here.”

Harriet stared at Sirloin. “Shouldn’t we go home?”

“Why? No one fights here,” Sirloin said. “Everyone gets along.”

“Vickie is alone with Joe,” Harriet said. “What if he hurts her again?”

Uncle Ernie nodded. “Pussy cat, all animals are welcome here but you two got to decide. That lake is funny. Just because you’ve come here doesn’t mean you can return.” Uncle Ernie trotted down the winding path leading to the big house. He said he had chores to finish.

“Hey,” Sirloin said to Harriet, “you find out where those other pets came from?”

“From unhappy places, like us,” Harriet said.

“I’d rather stay here, but let’s go before I change my mind,” droopy tail Sirloin said.

Harriet waited for Sirloin to hit the water first. “Sure there’s no other way back?”

“Nope.”

Dipping her front paw into the water, Harriet hesitated. “I really hate water, but here I come.”

And the two disappeared.

 

Sweat trickled down Vickie’s face. Her hands trembled. “Something must be wrong, Joe. They’ve never done this before.”

“So they ran away. Get over it.”

“Joe, Sirloin couldn’t have escaped from this yard. The gate is closed and he’s too small to jump over the fence. Harriet doesn’t roam.”

Joe poked a finger toward Vickie’s face. “Nobody would steal those two worthless animals. Come in and fix my dinner.”

“I have to keep looking.”

Eyes bulging, Joe grabbed her arm and yelled, “No, you will not. Those filthy animals are only here because I’m a nice guy.”

Vickie launched into tears. “What about the promise you made at the AA meeting?”

“Quit reminding me about those losers. I only went to shut you up.”

“But honey….”

Joe crumpled an empty bag of potato chips and tossed it aside. “AA is history just like your animals. Get inside before I really lose my temper.”

Water splashing halted Vickie’s walk to the house. She flew towards the pool, risking Joe’s fury. “Sirloin, Harriet. My babies.” She stopped at the pool’s edge. “I’ve been so worried.”

Vickie bent down to hug her four-footed friends as they climbed out of the pool. “Sirloin, I know you like to swim, but my cat?”

The joyful reunion abruptly ended as quickly as it started. Joe shoved his way in front of Vickie and kicked Harriet in the side, sending the cat wincing in pain. “She’s supposed to be inside making my dinner, not fussing over these two jerks.”

Vickie winced as he grabbed the back of her neck. “Joe, please don’t do that, it hurts.”

“Then make me a steak.”

Inside the house, Sirloin pretended not to hear Joe and kept walking towards the doggie door. Harriet was right. He should’ve listened to his feline friend and stayed in the back yard. Joe caught up with Sirloin and said, “You deaf or what? I was calling you.” He handed Sirloin a small rawhide bone. Sirloin gripped the treat in his mouth and stared at Joe, not sure what to do. Wag his tail to show gratification? Brush against his leg to say thanks? Bite him for beating on Vickie?

Joe smiled as he stroked Sirloin’s head. “Every good dog needs a bone.”

Sirloin scampered to safety outdoors and dropped the bone.  Although the noise was slight, it aroused Harriet.

“Who gave you the bone?”

Sirloin held his head down. “Joe.”

“It’s probably coated with poison. Don’t chew it.”

“He wouldn’t do that.”

“Don’t be so sure.” Harriet bared her fangs.

“They’re having a barbecue this weekend. Invited lots of people.”

“That doesn’t explain the bone,” Harriet said as her ears perked up. “Something must be up.”

“So I shouldn’t chew the bone?”

“Go ahead and chew,” Harriet said. “I’ll bet my whiskers he gets drunk at the party and throws one of his fits.” She glanced to the side. “When that happens, I’m up that tree and out of here for good.”

Sirloin picked up the bone and scooted away. He couldn’t listen to Harriet any more. His friend had to be wrong about Joe.

Sirloin headed for the doggie door before the guests arrived but found Vickie had blocked it from outside with the ironing board. Rats, Sirloin thought. He rammed his head against the door anyway, but couldn’t budge the barricade. Sighing, he rambled across the room and flopped on the floor by the sofa.

“She locked us inside,” Harriet said.

“How’d you know?” Sirloin asked.

“Cats are smart.”

Sirloin rolled over on his side, snuggled into a comfortable position and was lulled into dreamland.

A thud against the wall snapped them both awake. Harriet said, “What was that?”

“It came from the kitchen,” Sirloin said, heart pounding.

A few moments of silence passed when Joe’s booming voice shot chills through both animals. Sirloin said, “Not again.”

“And you said he gave up drinking,” Harriet said, hissing.

The conversation drew closer. Harriet and Sirloin listened to bickering in the kitchen.

Sniffling, Vickie said, “Don’t make me do this.”

“Either I dump them or you take them to the shelter.”

Vickie cried and Joe shouted.

“Let’s run away,” Harriet said.

“We can’t,” Sirloin said. “Vickie put something in front of the doggie door.”

“Follow me. They never lock the basement.”

As the animals zoomed through the living room, Joe hurled a glass at Sirloin. It smashed on the floor, sending jagged pieces across the carpet.

“Get out you beasts,” Joe yelled.

Puffy-eyed Vickie wedged her body between Joe and her pets. “Honey, please, don’t.” The animals tore out of the room, flying downstairs into the basement then out into the yard.

Shoving his wife aside, Joe barged through the back door. When he saw the animals standing by the pool’s edge, he ran towards them, flailing the leather belt with his hand. “You’ll be sorry.”

Sirloin said to Harriet, “Either we try Uncle Ernie’s or he’ll hurt us.”

“I hate water, but that’s better than facing him.” Harriet watched Joe’s red face as he stood only a few feet away, ready to strike. “I hate leaving Vickie, but let’s go.”

The pair jumped into the pool, ducked beneath the water, and paddled as fast as they could, down, down, until suddenly they headed up. When they surfaced, there it was, just as they had left it – Uncle Ernie’s farm with dozens of frolicking dogs and sleeping cats.  Sirloin and Harriet took their place among the pack and shrugged off years of bad memories.

Uncle Ernie spotted the pair from his place below the kitchen window. He ambled over to them and said, “So, you two made it back.”

Sirloin yapped relief. “We’ll never leave here again, Uncle Ernie.” He locked eyes with Uncle Ernie. “Never.”

“Uncle Ernie welcomes all four footed friends who need a home. No one hurts animals at Uncle Ernie’s place.”

 

The end.

 

Cat on a mission

Fourteen-year old Frankie Paxon’s custody hearing was delayed yet again. Not enough deputies were available to bring his parents, Ray and Angie, to the Natrona County courthouse on time. This was his parent’s third arrest for manufacturing and selling methamphetamines in their mobile home outside of Casper, Wyoming. Frankie and his attorney Rob Morris had to wait.

“Hey Frankie, summer is coming,” Rob said, browsing through the local section of the Casper Daily News. “Time for the annual state fair inDouglas.”

“So,” Frankie said staring at the tiled floor.

“You’re upset buddy,” Rob said, folding his paper.  “This can’t be easy on you.”

“Yo, you don’t know what I feel because you never asked. You’re only here because the county pays you.”

Rob fumbled for words. “We just met this morning, but I do care about you. That’s why I went into legal aid after law school, Fritz.”

“If you care so much Mr. Lawyer, get my name right next time.  It’s Frankie, not Fritz.”

The bailiff, a dapper old man in a crisp tan suit, shiny black cowboy boots, and a string tie, called out Frankie’s name and indicated he was next on the docket.

Still blushing, Rob grabbed Frankie’s folder and stuffed it into his briefcase. Once he straightened his glasses and buttoned his jacket, he said, “Ready?”

“Guess my druggie parents must be here,” Frankie said with a smirk, as he followed Rob into the courtroom. “I wonder what lies they’ll tell this time.”

Wearing baggy blue jeans, a torn Denver Broncos T-shirt and high top sneakers, curly-haired Frankie sat next to Rob. Across the courtroom were his parents clad in bright orange prison jumpers, looking haggard and gaunt. Frankie glanced at them once or twice but acted as if they were strangers, not his family.

The old cowboy announced the entry of Judge Estelle Morgan, a fortyish woman with silky skin and dark hair tied in a bun. Peering down from her seat on the bench, she picked up a gavel and called the proceedings to order. She stared at Jon Dixon, public defender for the Paxons, through reading glasses pinching her nose.

“Raymond and Angela Paxon, I have a petition from the Natrona County Children’s Services to sever your parental rights,” Judge Morgan said. “I intend to sign it but I’m giving you a chance to speak to your son.”

Ray stood up, hands in his pockets, and spoke like his mouth was full of bread. “I’m really sorry for all the trouble I caused you, Son. I guess I haven’t been much of a father.”

“Yeah right,” Frankie said, with a shuddering sigh. “You’re sorry the cops busted you and Mom and that you’re going to jail again for a long time.”

Angie flew out of her seat and lunged towards Frankie. Rage distorted her weathered face. “Shut up, you little brat. Wait till I get you for this.”

Court officers as well as both lawyers restrained her and forced her to sit. The sheriff’s deputy immediately handcuffed her.

“I ought to hold you in contempt, Mrs. Paxon.” Judge Morgan was like an angry barracuda. “That’s your son you just threatened.  Any more outbursts like that and you’ll face additional charges.”

The judge took on a kind, sort of motherly role. “Francis, stand in front of me please.”

Frankie fidgeted with his hands. When Rob nudged him in the side, he finally got out of his seat and walked toward the judge.

Judge Morgan removed her glasses. “I take great pains whenever I’m put in this position, which, by the way, your parents left me no other choice.” She threw a contemptuous glance at Ray and Angie. “I’m sorry to say your other relatives around here are on drugs, in treatment or in jail. The county found no one in your family suitable as foster parents. I wish I had better news.”

“I’m going to foster care. What’s the big deal?” Frankie said.

“As I was saying, I’m reluctantly placing you into the state’s child protective custody. Because of an unexpected change in plans today, Mr. Robert Morris, your lawyer and not your caseworker, will take you to a foster home where you will reside until the state finds you a permanent home. Any questions?”

“No.”

“No what?” the judge said.

“No, ma’am.”

“Good luck son.”

Rob drove through a sparsely populated but tidy middle-class neighborhood on the outskirts of Powder River. When he reached a pale blue, wood frame house with a thriving flower garden brightening the front yard, he slowed down and pulled into the driveway. Behind the screened-in porch were a few wicker rocking chairs, end tables, a magazine rack, and along with a swing. A gray cat with a splotch of white on her chest rested on a comfy pillow.

“This is your new home,” Rob said as he walked toward the house with Frankie by his side.

“I hate cats,” Frankie said.

“Frankie, please, try and get along,” Rob said, knocking on front door. “Your caseworker Jennie Castro had a hard time finding this home.”

Frankie made an ugly face at the cat named Harriet. Birds chirping in the nearby trees sidetracked her attention so she never noticed Frankie glaring at her.

A petite woman with easygoing green eyes and graying brown hair opened the door and said, “You must be Mr. Morris.” With a tiny smile, she turned to Frankie and said, “You must be Francis.  Welcome to your new home.”

Frankie said nothing as he trailed Rob into the living room.  Happy family photos hanging on the wall, sharing birthday celebrations, holidays, and every day events punched a hole in Frankie’s stiff armor. For a moment, he wished his family life hadn’t been so miserable.

“Frankie, this is Mrs. Shaw,” Rob said. “She’s your new foster mother.”

“My husband Tater, Mr. Shaw, is still at work but he’ll be home later,” Mrs. Shaw said.

Rob moved closer to Frankie and asked, “Do you have something to say?”

“No.”

Rob rolled his eyes.

“I hope you like animals,” Mrs. Shaw said, trying to pull the plug on a deteriorating situation. “There’s my old dog Sirloin, who’s sleeping somewhere.” She glanced out the window. “We have a horse named Shamus who’s in the barn. We’ll show you around later. And Harriet, the cat you saw on the porch. She’ll be with us for a few months while my sister Candace travels inEuropeon business.” She motioned for Frankie and Rob to follow her to the kitchen.  “Would either of you like something to drink? Or eat?”

“No thanks,” Rob said, following Mrs. Shaw into the kitchen.  “I have to go. Jennie Castro, the caseworker, will be here next week to visit. Remember, caseworker visits are unannounced.” He opened his wallet. “Here’s my business card. If either of you need me for any reason, please call.” He caught Frankie’s attention.  “The school bus will pick you up at 7:00 a.m. every morning. OK buddy?”

“My name is Frankie, not Buddy.”

Mrs. Shaw knitted her eyebrows. “I doubt he meant any harm, Frankie.” Shifting her attention, she asked. “Mr. Morris, do you have to leave already?”

At the same time, Harriet poked her body through the doggie door that led from the porch and she breezed through the kitchen.  On her way to the water bowl she brushed by Frankie’s lower leg.

“Why is that cat in here?” Frankie said, staring at Harriet as if she was a roach.

Mrs. Shaw tilted her head. “She’s my sister’s cat and we’re watching her. She goes in and out but mostly she stays in where I keep an eye on her.”

“That’s just great,” Frankie said with enough contempt to sink a ship. “I hate cats.”

Mrs. Shaw sighed and stared at Rob, as if pleading for help.

“Jennie will see you soon,” Rob said as he rushed out the door.

Mrs. Shaw opened the refrigerator and poured herself a large glass of iced tea. “Care to join me? I baked vanilla snap cookies this morning.”

“No.”

“Francis, this will go a lot easier if you open up a little.”

“Look lady, I don’t want to be around you, Mr. Potato Head, or your stupid animals.”

Frankie stormed out of the kitchen, nearly tripping over Harriet as she lapped water from her bowl.

That was enough.  Noticing Frankie barge through the hallway, Harriet scampered the other way. She headed towards the den, nestled in the rear of the house. There, she found Sirloin sound asleep underneath Tater’s desk. To waken him, she nuzzled next to the old dog’s ears. Sirloin was hard of hearing.

“Get up,” Harriet said. “I have news.”

The fluffy dog, about the size of winter galoshes, opened his eyes and said, “Just remember one thing. I’m not as crabby as you are when I disturb your nap.” The dog rolled over and sat up.  “What’s going on?”

“The newest foster child is here and I don’t like him,” Harriet said. “He’s not at all like the two nice boys who left last month. I miss how they fussed over me which of course I deserve. That new brat Frankie had the audacity to tell Mrs. Shaw he hates cats.”

“I wasn’t crazy about you either when you first showed up. But you grew on me.”

“It’s only natural you’d love me. Who wouldn’t adore a devastatingly gorgeous cat like me?”

“When you stop gloating about yourself,” Sirloin said, picking at a tiny twig on his underbelly, “I’ll listen to what’s going on.”

“Behave like a gentleman and stop grooming yourself,” Harriet said. “I was minding my own business drinking water when that beast tried to stomp on my tail.”

“Are you stretching the truth, as you sometimes do, or are you telling the truth?”

“The great Harriet never lies.”

“That’s a little more serious,” Sirloin said. “From what I know about foster children, he’s probably having a hard time. Mrs. Shaw will help him warm up to us.”

“Take my advice and stay out of his way.”

The dog moaned slightly. “Oh great cat, my old bones are aching. Drop in on Shamus, our horse friend, so he knows about our new guest? Too bad humans don’t understand us. You could talk to Mrs. Shaw about the boy.”

“Quit fooling around, dogbreath. Wait till this kid takes his anger out on you. You’ll be sorry.”

Frankie had skipped breakfast and lunch so luscious smells from the kitchen whetted his appetite. At home, he mostly fended for his own meals. The kitchen cabinets held scant amounts of packaged foods and canned goods. To survive, Frankie stole money from his parents drug stash and treated himself to fast food. His favorite was extra cheese pizza with sausage topped off with a strawberry ice cream cone and sprinkles. When he felt lonely, which was often, he invited himself to a friend’s house and had dinner with their family. He often stayed late to enjoy his friend’s company and avoid the confusion at home.

With dinner was nearly ready, Mrs. Shaw took off her apron, turned down the burners on the stove, and found her husband resting in the den on his comfy chair.

“Now that you’ve changed clothes and freshened up, knock on Frankie’s door and see if he’ll join us for dinner. He’s been hiding all afternoon. I bet he’s hungry.”

“He’s probably nervous, too. All the kids are when they first get here. I guess they can’t help it, considering the bad situations they come from.”

Before leaving, Tater bent down and glanced at Sirloin, sleeping soundly on a fluffy pillow. “Looks like somebody had a rough day. Where’s Harriet?”

“Probably on the porch, looking at birds, or sleeping on our bed,” Mrs. Shaw said. “Tater, take it slowly. Frankie has an attitude sharp as a pick ax.”

“I can handle him.”

Tater took a deep breath, put on his slippers and shuffled a few steps down the narrow hallway. In front of Frankie’s bedroom door he rapped once. “Hi Frankie, I’m Mr. Shaw. It’s dinnertime and we’d like you to join us.”

A few seconds passed so Tater said, “You can stay in there all night if you want to, but Mrs. Shaw fixed a special meal. My wife’s a good cook.”

“I’m not coming out,” Frankie said.

“What if I come in?”

“Don’t.”

Tater nudged the door open and slowly inched his way inside.  There, he found Frankie sitting on a chair, rocking back and forth. The boy stared out the window at the sun setting behind the snow-cappedGrand TetonMountains.

Keeping a safe distance, Tater stayed by the door. “Have dinner with us. If you’re still uncomfortable, go back to your room, but at least eat something.”

Frankie chewed on his lip. Both arms were wrapped around his slender waist. Although he was a teenager, his eyes pleaded with Tater to be pick him up and hold him.

“I take it that means yes. Follow me,” Tater said.

Out of desperation, Frankie reluctantly tagged along behind Tater and joined the Shaw’s for dinner. A red-checkered tablecloth covered the round wooden table. Each setting had a ceramic plate with silverware on a folded white cloth napkin. In the middle sat a vase with a bouquet of freshly picked daisies from Mrs. Shaw’s garden.

Frankie was impressed. In better times, he remembered eating meals as a family in the cramped kitchen of their mobile home. It was nothing fancy but they ate together. That was a long time ago when Frankie’s parents worked at the plastics factory before it closed down. His parent’s self-esteem plunged when they couldn’t find work. Trouble started when his parents manufactured meth to make ends meet. Drug dealing was supposed to be temporary but the arrangement spiraled out of control. Memories of those happier days soon fizzled when reality set in.

From his seat at the dining room table, Frankie was surprised by the amount of food available. He helped himself to ample servings of Yankee pot roast with gravy, creamy mashed potatoes, and fresh string beans. He even dug into the tossed green salad, a rarity at home, and grabbed two hot seeded rolls.

“We’re glad to have you with us,” Tater said, as he buttered his vegetables and took a bite of salad. “Feel like telling me about yourself.”

“Nothing to say.”

“How about I tell you about me?” Tater waited for Frankie’s response. When there was none, he continued. “I’m aViet Namvet.  Got drafted in 1967 when I graduated from high school. Not what I wanted but that’s life. Served two years in the Army until I hurt by enemy crossfire.”

That caught Frankie by surprise. “What happened?”

“Can’t remember much except the pain. I came to in a chopper on my way to an Army hospital,” Tater said. “The bullet ripped a hole in my back and made me lose a kidney. The service discharged me so I came home toWyoming. Mrs. Shaw and I got married and we’ve lived in this house ever since. Raised three children.” He stopped, sipped water and said, “I work for a gas company over at the Powder River Basin. It’s hard, grimy work but good money.”

“Why do you take in foster children?” Frankie asked.

The Shaws glanced at one another.

Mrs. Shaw put down her fork. “Children need us. We raised three healthy, well-adjusted children and we think we’re good at what we do. We enjoy helping young people like yourself.”

Frankie had nothing to say.

“Shamus needs feeding,” Tater said. “If you don’t mind, I could use a hand spreading clean straw around his stall. We also had a delivery yesterday of hay and I haven’t had time to store it yet.”

“Yeah, if I have to.” Frankie showed the enthusiasm of bricks.

Sirloin lumbered through the dining room on his way into the kitchen. He looked up as he passed by, barely wagged his tail, and kept going.

“How’s my best dog?” Tater said.

“Tater, I’m a little worried about him,” Mrs. Shaw said.  “He’s slowing down a lot lately. Maybe I should call the vet.”

“He’s 15 years old, darling. In dog years, he’s nearly 90. If I live that long, I’ll probably slow down too.”

“That’s a dumb name for a dog,” Frankie said. “Sirloin.”

“We think it’s cute,” Mrs. Shaw said. “Tater found Sirloin in a dumpster when he was a tiny ball of fur. We had to feed him with a medicine dropper for the first week. Tater had steak for lunch that day and somehow the name just stuck.”

“When you’re done with supper, please help Mrs. Shaw with the dishes then meet me in the barn,” Tater said.

“I didn’t do dishes at home,” Frankie said. “Why should I do them here?”

“Son, our own children had chores up until they left for college. All our foster children helped around the house. You’ll be no different,” Tater said, without raising his voice.

“Make me do dishes.” A sharp edge cut through Frankie’s voice.

“You have a choice, Frankie,” Mrs. Shaw said, as if she was laying out simple options. “Either help with the dishes or go to your room.”

“You’re not going to hit me?” Frankie asked.

“No, we’re not. What’s it going to be?” Tater said, standing with his arms akimbo. “The dishes or your room?”

In a huff, Frankie stacked the dirty dishes into a pile. He carried them into the kitchen and left them by the sink. As he started to walk away, he bumped into Mrs. Shaw.

“We’re not done yet,” Mrs. Shaw said. “Scrape food off the dishes then load them into the dishwasher. After that, you can help Mr. Shaw in the barn. He needs help storing the hay and spreading straw.”

“I thought his name was Tater.”

“That’s his nickname,” Mrs. Shaw said. “His real name is James Carl. But you’ll call him Mr. Shaw.”

While Frankie finished, Mrs. Shaw opened a can of cat food and scooped the contents into a food bowl. In waltzed Harriet wiggling her nose. When Harriet finished eating, she ducked underneath the table. By then Sirloin showed up for his dinner. Mrs. Shaw filled his dish with a generous amount of soft kibble.

“Frankie, I’ll be right back,” Mrs. Shaw said. “I want to make sure everything is cleared off the dining room table. Before you go to the barn, let’s talk about a shopping trip for new school clothes.”

Sirloin moseyed over to his dish, which sat on the floor next to Harriet’s and nibbled on his food. Due to his age and lack of teeth, he ate slowly.

From her hiding spot, Harriet kept a close eye on Frankie’s every move. His gruff attitude was unbecoming but all the boy did was put away dishes. Bored, Harriet moved on. Swatting at birds against the porch window held more of a punch. Just as she was ready to leave, Frankie snuck behind Sirloin and lifted his big foot as if to kick the old dog. Harriet swung into action and charged at Frankie. Back arched, she spit and mewled, creating quite the feline frenzy.

“Shut up you stupid cat.” Frankie held up a dish towel and tried to smack her, but Harriet evaded him by bouncing off the table and landing on top of the fridge. She bared her fangs and hissed.

Hearing the ruckus, Mrs. Shaw rushed into the kitchen.  “What’s the matter? Why is Harriet carrying on like that?”

“I swear it was an accident,” Frankie said. “I was finishing the dishes when I tripped over her. I didn’t mean to hurt your cat.”

“Please be careful,” Mrs. Shaw. “Where is Harriet? Is she hurt?”

“Up there.” Frankie looked up. With the innocence of an altar boy, he said, “Hey Harriet, I’m sorry if I stepped on your tail.”

Since stiff-neck Harriet refused to come down off the fridge, Mrs. Shaw used a step stool to reach the cat. She lifted Harriet into her arms and felt the cat’s body to check for signs of injury. Mrs. Shaw realized Harriet was OK. She hugged her and carried the cat into another room, far away from Frankie.

“I hope he didn’t hurt you,” Mrs. Shaw said, as she stroked Harriet’s back. “This boy will be a challenge.”

Harriet soaked up the tenderness like a stray starved for affection. She rewarded Mrs. Shaw with a soft meow.

“My sister Candace described you as one tough broad, but I’ll keep an eye out for you, just in case,” Mrs. Shaw said.

Back inside the den, Mrs. Shaw fretted over Sirloin to make sure her dog was unharmed, even though Harriet did all the hooting and hollering. Satisfied, she picked him up and took him out to take care of business. While the dog futzed around the back yard and sniffed the bushes, Mrs. Shaw watched Tater show Frankie around the barn. As the sun slowly disappeared, she cradled Sirloin in her arms and brought him inside. She left him on a pillow in their bedroom.

As the dog rolled over to sleep, Harriet appeared. “I told you he was trouble.”

“Maybe you’re right. He tried to kick me while I was eating,” Sirloin said.

“Be glad the great Harriet was there to protect you,” Harriet said. “Did you see how he tried to whack a lovely cat like me? I was nearly killed but I showed him who was boss, didn’t I?”

“Mrs. Shaw says kids who act like that must be angry because of their previous home life,” Sirloin said. “They were probably abused.”

“What, now you’re the canine philosopher?” Harriet said.  “Stay out of his way if I’m not around. I hope my Candace comes home soon.”

“Have you checked with Shamus yet? See if he’s bothered him?”

“No yet, but I’m going to the barn now. The brute was out there earlier.”

Mrs. Shaw moved his pillow into her bedroom. At first, the dog resisted the change. Every time Mrs. Shaw left him alone, Sirloin sauntered back to the den. Only when Frankie was around did Mrs. Shaw close Sirloin in the bedroom. That didn’t sit well with Harriet. She popped in and out of the den and had access to her friend at all times.  To see Sirloin, Harriet parked herself by the bedroom door.

Mrs. Shaw, lugging an armful of dirty clothes, saw Harriet and said, “Let me guess, you miss Sirloin?”

She opened the door and Harriet scooted inside.

“Keep Sirloin company for a while. I’ve got so much to do and he’s probably lonely.” Mrs. Shaw spoke as if Harriet could respond. She shut the door and was gone.

“I’d rather be in the den,” Sirloin said. “That’s where I always sleep.”

“You’re safer here,” Harriet said. “You can’t defend yourself the way the great Harriet can. I’d rather cuddle with him than be on the defense all the time, but he leaves us no choice.”

Sirloin curled into a ball. “Maybe he’ll change and leave me alone.”

“Maybe I’ll bark, wag my tail, and catch a Frisbee.” Harriet looked at Sirloin’s closed eyes and limp tail. “Guess I might as well sleep too.” Harriet jumped on the bed, got comfy and fell asleep.

 

Not long after the sun rose one day, Mrs. Shaw brewed a pot of coffee. Waiting for Frankie to join her, she assembled the ingredients for French toast. He had mentioned liking that for breakfast. Rubbing sleep from his eyes, Frankie came into the kitchen, Mrs. Shaw fixed him a mug of hot chocolate.

Sitting together at the table, she asked, “Do you want to visit your parents? I don’t mind driving you.”

Frankie scrunched up his eyebrows. “What for?”

“Because they’re your parents.”

“My classmates think Mom and Dad were killed in a car wreck.  You won’t tell anyone the truth, will you?”

Mrs. Shaw seemed rattled. “Are you ashamed they’re in prison?”

“My friends at this school would think I’m a low life, just like they did at the last school I went to. I can’t go through those hassles again. Don’t talk about my parents anymore.” Frankie glanced at the clock. “I better go. The school bus should be here.”

“You’ll miss your breakfast. I was going to make your favorite, French toast.”

“I’m not hungry.”

A week or so later, Frankie sat at the kitchen table with Mrs. Shaw, eating a bowl of corn flakes. Harriet pushed through the doggie door and breezed through the kitchen.

“You think she’d let me pet her?” Frankie asked.

“I thought you didn’t like cats,” Mrs. Shaw said, her eyebrows arching. “Why the change in attitude?”

“I don’t know.”

“Harriet is not just any cat. Be gentle with her,” Mrs. Shaw said. “She is used to being the center of attention.”

Mrs. Shaw called Harriet, who at first ignored the requests. So Mrs. Shaw walked through the house until she found Harriet in the den, cuddled next to Sirloin. She picked up Harriet and brought her into the kitchen.

“Take your hand, Frankie, and rub her softly against her back,” she said. “If she likes it, then play with her ears.  Remember to be soft and easy.”

Harriet hissed like a demon.

“She doesn’t like me,” Frankie said.

The cat squirmed so much Mrs. Shaw had to let her go. “Give her time. She’ll come around. We’ll try again when you come home from school.”

Zipping through the house, Harriet found Sirloin snuggled under Tater’s bed. She leaned her body against him.

“Wake up,” she said.

“What now?”

“The bully wanted to touch me and Mrs. Shaw let him. I was almost mauled to death.”

“I doubt it,” Sirloin said, lashing his tail from left to right. “Maybe he’s softening.”

“Wouldn’t you run if you saw him coming?”

“My dear, I’m too old to run from anyone, even from you.”  Sirloin lifted his head off the floor. “Honestly, if I saw him coming and I was alone, yes, I’d be nervous. But he’s been

here for a while and he deserves a second chance.”

“I don’t know if I could be so forgiving,” Harriet said.

“Be a good cat and try,” Sirloin said.

“The great Harriet has to think this over.”

 

While cleaning out the barn on a cool, crisp Saturday morning, Tater asked Frankie, “Feel like riding Shamus?”

“For real?”

“You ever rode a horse before?”

Frankie came alive. “I had a horse named Misty, but we couldn’t keep her in our mobile home park. We boarded her at my uncle’s place. Dad drove me over there all the time. I rode her, I brushed for her, and fed her. I did all kinds of odd jobs to make money to pay for her care.”

“What happened to Misty?”

It was like a fog rolled in, blanketing everything.  Frankie’s bunched up his fists. To keep Tater from seeing his tears, he turned away. “Dad sold Misty when I was in school. He needed money to feed his drug habit. I was so mad. That horse meant everything to me.”

Tater saw the hurt shattering Frankie’s heart. He held him and said, “Son, I’m sorry.” He let go after a few seconds. “That wasn’t fair.”

Frankie wiped his eyes. “He took away my only friend.”

“Let’s saddle up Shamus and ride through the pasture.”

A tiny smile brightened Frankie’s face. “I’d like that.”

Ever since Frankie showed mild signs of adjustment, such as cooperating with a few household chores and completing some homework assignments on time, Mrs. Shaw relaxed her guard a tad.  Besides, Sirloin had so much trouble being locked in the den that she started leaving the door open again. If Frankie was home, though, she kept an eye on him when the animals were around, just in case.

One morning, Harriet visited Sirloin. As always, the dog was zonked out. Harriet poked him in the side to awaken him.

“Get up,” Harriet said.

Sirloin was startled. “Can’t an old dog get any rest around here? I was dreaming about eating a big steak until you came along.”

“Frankie’s been acting nice. He’ll never be as refined as my Candace, mind you, but I find his behavior in recent days somewhat tolerable.”

“Isn’t that good?” Sirloin asked, barely lifting his head off the pillow.

“I’m still suspicious. All cats are. That’s why we have nine lives and you mongrels only have one.”

“You had to wake me to insult me?”

“I see you’re uninterested in your own safety,” Harriet said, kind of snarky. “Maybe I shouldn’t bother worrying about you.”

“Oh, stop the attitude for crying out loud. Thank you for alerting me.”

“You’re just saying that to appease me. I’ll go someplace where I’m wanted.”

Having said that, Harriet was gone.

Harriet perched on a windowsill on the front porch and spent the afternoon gazing at birds. When one of the feathery creatures came too close to the window, Harriet got all riled up and rammed her paw against the window as if to nail one. Frankie noticed Harriet all alone on the porch. He stepped outside and sat on the swing.

“Hi girl,” he said.

Harriet froze, not sure what to make of him.

“I’m not going to hurt you,” he said. “We can sit and look at each other for a while or you could sit on my lap.”

Slowly, Harriet inched forward. She let Frankie pick her up.

“That’s better,” he said. “I know you’re just any cat, but I need somebody to talk to. The Shaws are good people, but nobody understands me. Maybe cause I never give them a chance.”

Frankie continued to push the swing with his legs. The rocking motion soothed him. “I hate my parents for what they did to me. They turned our home into a drug factory. You’re lucky cats don’t get involved with drugs. All kinds of seedy people came and went through our house. It made me sick. Now they’re in jail and I hope they get their lives together.”

Frankie hugged Harriet. “Will you love me?”

Later on a delightful Saturday afternoon, Frankie was in the front yard, trimming the hedges. Errands demanded Mrs. Shaw’s attention. Behind the house, Tater had his hands full cleaning the barn and brushing Shamus.

A teenager cruising down the road in a pick-up truck suddenly screeched to a halt. The youth with the nose ring wore a T-shirt that revealed muscles with multiple upper arm tattoos. He jumped out and swaggered towards the Shaw’s front yard.

“Hey foster boy, where’s Mommy and Daddy?” the thug said.  “Still in the slammer?”

“Leave me alone, Joey,” Frankie said, backing away from the fence. “I’m not bothering you.”

“Now you’re scared,” Joe said. “You little punk, I ought to break your legs after the way you dissed my kid brother. Then knock out your teeth,”

For balance, the teen grabbed the fence and hopped over then charged at Frankie. He knocked him over. “No one makes fun of my kid brother and gets away with it.”

Frankie stumbled on the short staircase leading to the house.  From the bottom step, he looked up and said, “I’m sorry, Joe. I didn’t mean what I said. Really.”

Joe scoffed at Frankie. “Poor little foster boy, begging for help. Ain’t that a shame.”

It wasn’t a shame. Harriet heard the commotion and flew out an open side window. In a flash, she was at Frankie’s side. Just as Joe was about to pounce on Frankie, Harriet landed squarely on Joe’s head. She dug her nails into his scalp and acted like it was a scratching post.

Joe let out a high-pitched scream. “Ouch, you stupid cat.  Get off me.” He reached up and swatted Harriet away.

Harriet fell to the ground but stood her ground. She hissed at Joe and bared her fangs.

“If you think some rabid cat’s going to protect you, think again,” Joe said. “You’ve had it. And so has that cat.”

Joe was wrong however. Harriet charged Joe, scraping both lower legs with her sharp claws. The surprise knocked him off balance. As he fell to the ground, Harriet was ready to sink her teeth into his hands when Tater appeared.

“What’s going on,” he said to Joe as if he was the school principal. “Get up and explain yourself.”

Joe brushed off his pants and stood. He pointed towards Harriet. “That cat bit me. I want her reported to animal control.”

Tater noticed the frightened look in Frankie’s eyes. “What’s wrong, son? Did this young man hurt you?”

“I was just leaving,” Joe said. “Ask your smart aleck foster son why I paid him a visit.”

Joe got inside his truck, slammed the door, and sped off down the road.

Tater picked up Harriet and saw that she was OK. He said, “Frankie, let’s talk.”

Together, they headed towards the kitchen. Tater poured them each a glass of lemonade. They took seats around the table.

Frankie explained what happened at school earlier in the week.  For no good reason, Frankie had poked fun at the boy because he wore leg braces and walked with a limp. His older brother Joe paid Frankie a visit for payback.

“That’s not a very nice thing you did,” Tater said. “What made you say such hurtful things?”

He stared at the floor. “I don’t know.”

“You’re angry, son,” Tater said.

“No I’m not.”

“Your dad sold Misty while you were at school, that made you furious. Didn’t it? Now you’re living with strangers.”

Frankie stared at Tater with teary eyes.

“You’ve got lot bottled up inside,” Tater said. “If you don’t want to tell me, talk to the school counselor.”

Frankie sniffled. “I’m not crazy.”

“I didn’t say you were crazy,” Tater said. “I saw a counselor for a long time when I came home fromViet Nam. War is ugly. I needed someone to talk to.”

“Did you feel better?”

“I never forget about the horrors of the war, but yes, it helped talking to someone about what I went through,” Tater said. “Give it a try.”

“I guess I could, at least once.”

“You also owe that boy an apology. Let’s drive over there and settle this like men.”

“OK.”

Harriet pranced through the room and nuzzled Frankie’s feet.  Then she purred.

Frankie smiled as he reached down to touch her. “She came to my rescue and I’ll never forget that.”

Tater’s head cocked to the side. “Harriet did that?”

“When I was on the ground, scared about what Joe would do to me, Harriet just appeared. She jumped on his head and scratched the heck out of him. I wanted to hug her.”

“You said you hated cats.”

For the first time since he came to live with the Shaws Frankie broke into a genuine smile. He reached down and stroked Harriet’s ears. “Thank you Harriet. Maybe cats are my friends after all.”

 

The End.

the benefits of laughter

We don’t laugh because we’re happy but we’re happy because we laugh says the late psychologist William James. Some might say what’s to laugh about with unemployment nagging Arizona. Our foreclosure rates are among the highest in the nation. So is our state’s deficit.

Laughter pumped up my sagging spirits in January 2010 when I was on the verge of homelessness. The house I shared edged towards foreclosure. A pedestrian car accident in 1994 had rendered me 100% disabled with brain and spine injuries leaving me reliant on Social Security Disability. Where would I live with my scraggly rescued dogs? Parting with my pets wasn’t an option. Affordable housing is as scarce in Arizona as a rainy season so I panicked. I buried my face inside my hands and wept. I saw no way out. Then I discovered the monthly laughter group at the SW Institute for Healing Arts in Tempe. It was free so that fit my budget. That January evening I felt more relaxed than I had in months. I also slept soundly for a change. I saw a glimmer of hope instead of closed doors.

Laughter groups originated with Dr. Madan Kataria, an Indian physician. In 1995 Dr. Kataria laughed with small groups of strangers on Mumbai streets. Now there are 6,000 laughter groups in 60 countries such as China, Egypt, Australia and Jamaica. In 2000, 10,000 people gathered in Copenhagen and set a world record for the largest group laugh. Not only does laughter bring people of diverse backgrounds together but it has beneficial physical effects too. Laughter lowers blood pressure, elevates mood and induces sleep. Overall, laughter fosters positive attitudes and improves self-image.

The benefits of laughter caught on in the US. Corporations use laughter to boost employee morale. When employees are happier they are more productive. Hospitals offer laughter groups to help patients cope with debilitating illnesses. There is nothing funny about cancer but laughter brings calm to chemotherapy patients. Prisons offer laughter so inmates can deal with long sentences, congregate living, and separation from family.

Laughter won’t solve all your personal problems. Nor will it end bring about world peace. Laughter does however have incredible physical and psychological healing powers. It really is a tranquilizer without side effects as the late humorist Arnold Glascow said.

Laugh locally with the monthly laughter group at SWIHA (1100 E. Apache Blvd. Tempe) on the second Friday of the month at 6 p.m. There is no charge. Bring an open mind and laugh for an hour for no reason. Leave feeling light-hearted and happier.

I eventually found housing in a trailer park that accepted pets. I laugh every day.