The Bad Cat
© Copyright 1997 by Richard Loller
Photo by the author.
I wrote 'The Bad Cat' after we returned from vacation in Mexico to a house trashed by a feral tomcat. We love cats, but there are limits. Beyond the cat story is a reflection on my father and all of the things I wish I had learned from him before he died.
We pulled into the driveway and there was the house we had lived in for 25 years. Thin green blades of alfalfa showed sparsely through the rotting straw in my vegetable garden. Sherry's flower beds were dark and bare. A few broken stalks still stood dripping in the cold February mist. The gray stone border was shiny with wet. A feeling of home welled in me. Two weeks in Mexico seemed like a sunny dream. We had seen and done a lot and now I was ready to be back home. I zapped the garage door and watched it slowly rise. Far in the back something large and orange moved. Then it was in the drive, skidding in the gravel, and disappearing through the hedge.
"That damned tomcat. If he found the cat door to the garage he probably found the one to the house...DAMN!"
"If he did we'll smell it." Sherry said.
I pushed in the key as well as I could with a travel bag hanging from my wrist. Inside, I dropped the bag, and punched in the alarm code. The smell was strong. Hard to mistake. In the den it was stronger and there was a pile of cat poop on the couch. I looked out the picture windows across the shining wet deck to the river. The Cumberland was brown and fast. The water was only a few feet below the back yard. The animals from the thickets along the river bank had moved up. We always had a surge of displaced mice in the winter. The cats got bored with killing them, but they would play with them for hours. I looked back down at the couch. There was another pile on the Persian rug under the coffee table.
"Damn that cat if I don't kill him."
Sherry was looking behind the chair by the window. "There's more over here. Poop, that is. The pee is all over. And there's a lot of hair that looks like Cutie Pie's. He beats up our cats."
"No. She's not afraid of him. He beats up Eppie and Cutie Pie if he catches them."
"He won't after I blow his head off."
"He's only a homeless cat. Scare him away."
"Hell, I tried. I damn near got him with a bottle rocket. That cat does not scare. And when we're gone he poops all over the house and beats up our cats to get even. The way to end it is with a BANG!"
"You'll just have to catch him and take him somewhere."
"Shotgun shells are a lot less trouble and a lot more certain."
When I woke up it was Saturday morning. We always try to come back on Friday so we'll have the weekend to rest up in. I store scrap wood above the rafters in the garage. I climbed up and threw down some 2 X 4's and some pieces of plywood. My idea was simple. A long box with a wood frame and sides of chicken wire. If he could see out on all sides he'd be more likely to go in. My hands were cold. I kept bending nails. The frame seemed as heavy as a small piano. I had punctures and scratches on both hands from the chicken wire. I kept the cut ends outside. I didn't really hate the damn cat. He was just wild. He had to hustle to live. If he had stopped at food stealing I would have let it ride. But terrorizing my cats and pooping my house had to stop. I wanted him dead or far, far away.
I knew the perfect place. Across the river there were farms with cattle and crops. And in the river bottom there were woods, wide and wild. It was wild cat paradise.
The door came last. It was a solid square of plywood that would drop like a guillotine. When it was finished I stood up. It wasn't pretty. It was rough and out of square. But it was solid. It would hold any cat short of a lynx.
I rubbed my back and looked at it. My mind went back to a time when I was a boy and Daddy would build traps to catch the rabbits that raided our garden. His were long boxes made of four boards nailed at the edges. He closed up one end and rigged a dropping door like mine. The trigger was a stick with a notch cut in it. The stick went into a hole about the size of a quarter. There was a string from the trigger to the door. If a rabbit tried to get to the bait he would jostle the stick, the notch would slip, the stick would drop, the string would jerk, and the door would fall.
Daddy kept the rabbits he caught in a cage until Mamma would cook them smothered in gravy for Sunday dinner. I can see those big brown gravy bubbles rising slowly in the black iron skillet. I can smell that delicious smell and almost taste it, now, remembering.
I tried to picture how the door was tripped, but I was only a boy then. I wanted to play, not help make rabbit traps. I thought about my daddy and how he could make damn near anything he needed, or fix anything he had to buy. I thought about his left hand with the missing finger ends, lost to a log chain somewhere in Guatemala. He was a self-taught Caterpillar tractor mechanic then, in the late 1930's, before I was born.
I remembered Daddy with sadness sometimes. I wish I had tried to learn all the things he had to teach me, but I was too busy being independent, doing everything my way. I didn't think he had anything to teach me then. Now, I have to figure out things I could have learned so easily. I studied the trap.
Finally I used a thin wire attached to a bag made from the foot from a pair of old panty hose. I filled it with dry cat food. The wire from the bag ran up through the chicken wire and forward to the door. I drilled a hole in the door and pushed a hair pin half way through. It kept the door from dropping. The wire would pull the hair pin out when the cat pulled the bag. I tried it several times. It wasn't very certain. It was hard to pull out. Once it came part way out, stuck, and the door jammed half way down.
This trap was not going to catch Mr. Devil Cat. He'd been around. If I botched the first try he'd never enter this trap again.
In the attic I found an old mousetrap. I tied it to the top of the trap and ran the wire from the bait to the trigger of the mouse trap. Another wire went to the jaws of the trap. Jaws? Anyway, it went from the part that whacks the mouse to the hair pin. Now if I barely touched the bait the mouse trap snatched the hair pin out of the door. It popped me on the cheekbone an inch below my left eye the first time. The second and third tries I stood back. It worked perfectly. It had taken all day but I had a good trap.
After dinner we blocked the cat door with books. I wanted our cats inside. The trap was heavy and awkward so I used a dolly to get it to the side of the house near the cat door. I figured he'd come back to see if he could still get in. When he couldn't he'd want the bait. Anyhow, that was the theory. I sprinkled a little cat food near the door of the trap and went inside.
At four I woke up, listening. I thought I heard something, maybe a cat yowling. I groaned and sat on the edge of the bed. God, I was sore. Getting old.
"What's wrong, darlin?" Sherry whispered.
"Nothing. Go back to sleep." I pulled on some clothes. Quietly, listening, easing stiffly out the back door into the cold dark. Slowly. If he wasn't caught I didn't want to scare him off. I eased my head around the corner. I could dimly see the trap. Something moved. I heard a screech and the crash of cat against chicken wire. I pointed my flashlight. The big orange and white stripped tom lunged. There was red on his face. His big yellow eyes were bloodshot. The wire was bulged out, but not loose. It looked O.K. I cut the light and backed slowly. No point in causing more cage bashing. I eased back into bed.
"Did we catch the cat?" Sherry yawned.
"He's in there."
"That's good," she sighed. I went to sleep.
The alarm buzzed at six. I got up and made a cup of coffee. It was still dark outside. After the coffee I got the dolly. It's rattling over the rough stone walk roused the cat. He crashed the bulging wire. In the pre-dawn light I saw him clearly. His face was flat and broad. There were scars there that were deeper and longer than the scratches from the wire. He hunched back into a corner, crouched, watching me with yellow eyes full of pain and hate.
"Well, old boy, you're not a pretty sight." I reached to pick up the cage. I jerked back as his paws hit the wire. Five little red circles dappled the gray stone walk. I licked the deep scratch and shook my head. Stupid. Back in the garage I found gloves and an old green tarp. Once the trap was covered with the tarp I got it onto the dolly. It was a struggle to fit it into the back of my wagon. A little flaw in the construction plan.
Across Briley Parkway bridge to East Nashville. Stopping to buy a bag of cat food at a rip-off market on Gallatin Road. Down Neeley's Bend until the houses gave way to farms. At the very end, below the farm land, was the new city park. It had a boat ramp and a large parking lot. As I pulled into the lot I saw it wasn't empty. On the far side an old man was sitting on the tailgate of a beat-up green pickup. I was nervous. I didn't want anyone to see me release the cat. The Neeley's Bend folks might not appreciate his little ways. I drove slowly over to the old man.
"How's it going?"
"Tolerable, son, tolerable."
"You're out mighty early."
"Running some worthless dogs. Times is they don't like to quit, you know. Reckon they'll drag they asses in fore long."
"Well, I bet that's right. Good luck."
I drove half way down the boat ramp, out of sight of the old man. The sun was a dazzling semi-circle above the dark cliffs across the river. It ricocheted from the burning silver and gold of the Cumberland and blazed blindingly into my eyes.
I stopped the car and got out. When the trap was down onto the ramp and the tarp was off I tore the top off the box of cat food and laid it on its side where he could see it. He hit the wire and yowled. I pulled up the door. The cat looked at the opening and froze.
"Get to hell and be gone, you old devil." But his orange tail was vanishing into the brush before the words were out. I loaded the trap. I left the cat food. Something would eat it, maybe the coon dogs. Not him. I backed up the ramp and drove out of the lot. The old man waved. I felt fine. All the tension was gone. That old man wouldn't give a damn if I let loose a tiger.
The light reflecting from the river danced among the dark branches and dead leaves of the trees along the river. Sparks from the melting frost flashed in the brown and green fields. Life was beautiful and full that cold morning. I though of Daddy, the cat with the bloody face, and breakfast.
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