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Spring 2012 - Act•ionLine

by Catherine Podojil | Spring 2012

Lost and Found

He was an altogether ordinary gray and white alley cat, larger than most, sleeping in the open basement of the Chicago apartment I moved to in 1973. Full-grown but thin and sickly, he scarcely noticed me coming and going. I learned from neighbors that he belonged to a woman whose landlady would not allow him inside.

Later I met Mrs. Williams, who was burdened with her brother’s illness and worried that she couldn’t take regular care of the cat. She grinned with relief when I offered to take over that task. She called him Tommy; sometime later I christened him Mozart for reasons I can’t remember. He would continue to visit Mrs. Williams regularly until she died.

In the meantime, with routine feeding he began to fill out, though my uncharitable friends would say “filled out” was a euphemism. That’s true; he got fat. It’s hard to do anything else when you eat regularly and don’t ever move. Never had I seen such a phlegmatic cat. He wasn’t interested in coming inside, but he did deign to move his sleeping place from the basement to an old stuffed chair on my back porch.

And did I say ordinary? Well he was, in the sense that gray and white cats are as common as dandelions. But he had lovely green eyes, and a loud ratchety purr that sounded like a machine in need of oiling. And he was a kind creature, treating my other cats in a grandfatherly manner. I was quickly hooked.

Soon it was time for him to be neutered and given shots, so I scooped him up, popped him in the car, and drove to my vet. Phlegmatic means slow and stolid, right? Not always. He leapt from my arms outside the vet’s office and disappeared into the adjoining neighborhood. I tracked him from backyard to backyard all morning before managing to corner and retrieve him. Neutering accomplished.

Late that winter he didn’t show up for his meal one day, then the next, and the next. He had never stayed away so long. Mrs. Williams and I walked the icy, windswept alleys calling, listening, and calling again, to no avail. It was searingly cold, and I worried that he might have sought shelter in a garage and gotten trapped.

Two weeks passed, while I fretted and fumed. Then one morning I glanced out my kitchen window to see him picking his way gingerly over the frozen gravel toward my basement. I rushed downstairs and cursed him soundly; he observed me placidly and waited to be fed. A mid-winter vacation, I supposed.

But I was getting tired of his disappearing acts, short or long, and decided to try to make a house cat out of him. I don’t approve of domestic cats going outside, though I understand that when you adopt a stray, his/her background often means they need to have access to the outdoors. To deny them is to threaten the peace of your household, to say nothing of creating a miserable cat.

Though Mozart tolerated coming in for a short while each day, he always wanted to go out at bedtime. So I learned to wake at 4:30 each morning to let him in off the window ledge, where his loud non-Mozartean yowling threatened to rouse the neighborhood.

When he was inside he didn’t seem to know how to play. I wondered at his lack of grace and balance, qualities characteristic of most cats. When he would leap for a toy or at one of my indoor cats, he would miss and sprawl clumsily short of his mark. The other cats quickly caught on and wouldn’t even bother to take evasive action when they saw him lying in wait. But even his odd gracelessness grew on me, developing its own singular charm. Though outside for much of each day, Mozart became for me an emotional equal to my house cats.

Once I moved back to Chagrin Falls, Ohio, near where I’d grown up, I hoped Mozart could be persuaded to stay in. But he insisted on honoring his street heritage, at least partially. So I spent lots of time showing him the new surroundings, checking on him often when he was out, and keeping him inside overnight.

One evening I called him in for bed. He wasn’t there, or anywhere in the immediate vicinity, as an hour’s check proved. I slept poorly and woke at 4:30, my Chicago waking time. But he had not returned.

In the morning I called the local police and pet warden to report him missing. Then I wrote out and made about 75 copies of a descriptive leaflet and distributed them to the houses in the area, as well as stores, the Post Office, library – anyplace that would have them.

Later I called vets and animal welfare organizations with Mozart’s description, and followed up later with leaflets and pictures. I placed the first of many lost-and-found ads in Chagrin Falls and Cleveland papers.

The postman hesitantly informed me later that day that according to federal law, nothing could be put into mailboxes that hadn’t actually gone through the mail He didn’t care, you understand, nor did the recipients, but it was the law, so could I just put the notices in, on, or under the doors? I took the hint.

About noon I hit the corner bar. Someone there had seen a dead cat on the road that morning. Would he please show me where? He would and did. But there was no dead cat, nor had anyone in the neighborhood seen one. “Maybe it was some old rags,” mumbled my source, and headed back to the bar.

By late afternoon I was already getting calls. Someone had seen him going through the basement window of the street’s resident eccentric. I crouched outside the window straining to hear something and collecting enough nerve to knock on the man’s door. At first defiant, he finally opened it a minimal few inches and allowed me to scrunch through. In the basement the dust was inches thick; nothing had been down there for years – not even a cat.

As the week progressed I risked asking questions I wouldn’t have dared earlier. “Yes, I know the cover to your portable pool is airtight, but may I look under it anyway? Cats can get through very small openings.” She agreed, struck perhaps by the lump in my throat.

And later on down the street: “Do you mind if I rummage through your woodpile?” I’d never have thought of this had I not seen cats “nesting” in woodpiles in Chicago.

The calls kept coming in, not in dozens, but enough to keep me hopping. He was in this backyard or that barn, in this grate or that culvert. Except that he wasn’t, not by the time I got there. But it comforted me to know that people had seen the ads and responded to them. I even got a certain gallows chuckle out of the fact that Chagrin Falls’ two funeral directors called me about “sightings” within a day of each other. Not of Mozart, though.

I prowled up and down the streets, railroad tracks, and wooded areas at different times each day. There is an hour just before dawn when all the sounds of nature, humankind, and technology are at their most muted. I found that time the most positive. Surely I would be able to hear the faintest meow from behind walls or the bowels of a drainage pipe. Nothing. It was truly as if he had vanished from my small area of the Earth.

For the first two weeks, I maintained a fair amount of hope. He had been gone that long before, after all, in much worse weather. I missed his purr and his ordinary green-eyed presence, and waking each morning to face his absence was awful. My chest ached and I had trouble breathing. But I still had hope.

Then the weather changed. After a heavy rain it stayed damp, turned windy and chilly. I turned chilly inside, too, and began to give up. “Don’t torture yourself,” people said. “You’ve done everything you can. Let it go.” But I hadn’t done everything; what an odd and unreasonable thing to suggest. I believed that my move had disoriented Mozart and contributed to his disappearance, and I felt I owed him more time, much more time.

Another blow fell. My landlord’s lawyer informed me that the couple had sold the house I was renting; I had to be out within the month. Now I couldn’t even count on one of the “happy ending” stories people had been telling me – “Ours came back after a month,” “Our cat was trapped in a garage but she had water, so she was okay,” – and variations thereof. What good would it do for Mozart to come back if I wasn’t there?

I found new places to post signs. A local, boisterous roller rink had disturbed my evenings often enough that I thought the least they could do was post a notice for me. And one day after a long search I took a second look at an unassuming little building not far from my house. It was an auto parts supply store. Hmmmm, probably lots of people in and out of there, I thought. The manager was happy to put up my notice.

But the phone calls I was receiving were more and more disappointing. Though the ads clearly said gray tiger with white, I had gone to check out cats that turned out to be calico, black, even bright orange!

Except for one. The weekend before I moved, someone living around the corner and up the hill called to say that a cat had come out of his woods that looked exactly like the description. When I got there the cat was gone. And the man looked at my photograph and shook his head slowly, noooo, that wasn’t the one. Still, I wondered. It was so close. And I tramped around at the edge of the woods for awhile.

The weekend I moved I began to talk to myself quite sternly about putting my professional and personal life back in order. I had responsibilities to my work, my other cats, and my family, after all. It was a good lecture; I almost believed it.

I drove out to Chagrin Falls the following Tuesday to vote, and spent some time looking, but knew I couldn’t continue to do this with any regularity. On Friday morning in my new apartment, the phone rang. “Is this Cathie Podojil? This is Carol Larson on Chagrin Road. Your cat is in our back yard.”

I sighed, remembering all the false alarms, then said politely, “I really appreciate your calling, but I don’t live in Chagrin Falls anymore and I’d rather not drive clear out there if the cat doesn’t look a lot like mine. Could you describe him, please?”

There was a polite silence. “I guess I wasn’t very clear,” she said. “He has a tag with your name on it. It says his name is Mozart.”

I don’t remember much about the drive out there except it’s a good thing no traffic police saw me; they’d have had to shoot out my tires to stop me.

When I drove up the Larsons’ drive, I hesitated. What if it was a horrible mistake and it wasn’t Mozart? Mrs. Larson came cheerfully around the corner of the house. “I’ll bet you’re here for a cat. We’ve got him tied in the back.” Indeed they did. And looking very wild-eyed he was, at being restrained.

I knelt quickly to look for wounds or broken bones. When I touched Mozart he began to purr, while I began to cry. He looked awful – not bloody, dirty, or covered with burrs and mud – but so thin. My fat cat was a fur-covered skeleton. Later that day my vet confirmed that Mozart had run out of fatty tissue and was about to start consuming his own organs. After six and a half weeks, he had been found none too soon.

As I think about the chronology of Mozart’s saga, one element stands out. Carol Larson told me that they often saw strange cats around their place and thought nothing of it, since their house bordered a large wooded area. They had taken a second look at Mozart only because family members had seen the notices at the auto parts store and the roller rink. These two ads had gone up long after I had consciously given up hope and even longer after people had told me I had done enough. If I’d stopped looking for Mozart at that point, I’d likely never have found him. Compulsion has its uses, it seems.

Mozart again “filled out,” more than before. He lived 11 years, reaching at least 19 and maybe older. You can’t ever be sure with strays. I wondered, always, about where he had been, and why, but mostly I was just filled with wonder that he was back.

One last thing. For the rest of his life, Mozart never again went outside. Not because I kept him in, but because he didn’t ask to, not once.

Catherine Podojil

Act•ionLine Spring 2012

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