Cat People

Published: June 26, 2015

She knocked again at the door. If necessary, she could knock all day.

In the 15 years that Eleanor Kappleman had been the president of her condo’s board of directors, she never missed a monthly meeting. She cooked dinner seven days a week, played mahjong three days a week, and kept the books for her son’s exterminating business. She brushed her teeth for at least three minutes every night and creamed the creases in her elbows and her knees. Eleanor was a serious person.

But there was no job she took more seriously than enforcing the rules of her community. In three months’ time, the residents would either vote to re-elect her or give the seat to Lotty Plotkin. Lotty Plotkin! A woman who neglected her begonias and left her trash out on the curb! Some days it seemed like the future of South Florida, perhaps the future of the world, rested on Eleanor’s shoulders. It was up to her to tackle the dirty jobs no one else wanted to do.

Through the slit in her living room curtains, she kept track of her neighbors’ comings and goings. If a workman stayed past 5 o’clock, expect a call. If your grandson parked his motorcycle in your driveway, anticipate an email. Forget to bring in your garbage can? Three times and you’d be fined.

Now a new neighbor was tormenting her. Three townhouses down across the street from the Schwartz’s. Somewhere from China or Vietnam or the Philippines — Eleanor could only guess. Bent like a question mark. Papery skin. She appeared to be friendless but you never knew.

The 60-foot walk had become a daily occurrence. It wasn’t easy but someone had to do it. Fisting her hand, Eleanor rapped on Margaret Soon’s door. Her chin bobbed while the flab in her forearm shook. Knocking louder now. The old woman was hard of hearing; hoisting herself up from the couch and inching through the foyer could take at least five minutes maybe 10.

The door opened a few inches, tethered by a chain. “What can I do for you today, Eleanor?”

An eternity spent unlatching the chain. Eleanor pictured the gnarled arthritic fingers. Clawing. Groping. The beady eyes not working too good either. Missing where the metal knob fell into the hole. The door was wide open now. The smell of boiling cabbage, of mildewed sweaters and thrift-shop furniture curled out like a finger.

“So good to see you, Eleanor. Would you like a cup of tea?”

Of all the seniors in the hundred-home development, Margaret Soon was probably the oldest. Living alone, traipsing up and down those stairs, schlepping three blocks in the Miami heat to get her groceries and pulling the cart behind her like she was playing golf. Smiling. Always smiling. Missing half of her teeth and smiling like she won the lottery.

Eleanor narrowed her aim and delivered her speech.

“You’re only allowed three cats, Margaret.” She waved the papers in the elderly woman’s face. “Three cats. That’s what the condo documents say. More than three cats and we fine you. First $50. Then $100. Then $200. You’re gonna bankrupt yourself, Margaret, is that what you want to do?”

When the old woman blinked, Eleanor spoke louder.

“I counted eight cats, this morning, Margaret! Eight feral cats in front of your house!”

Still the blinking.

Eleanor held up eight fingers. “Eight! Eight!” she screamed. “Ocho!”

“You’re going to the boat show?” asked Margaret.

“STOP FEEDING ALL THESE CATS, Margaret!” shouted Eleanor. “IT’S DRIVING US ALL CRAZY!”

Eleanor looked to her right and looked to her left. Good grief! She could have wakened the dead and given herself a stroke to boot. It must have been ninety degrees in the shade. Every sane human being was indoors, pickled in a brine of air-conditioning. Eleanor was ready to reload when the old woman stepped backward. She clutched her hand to her cheek as if she had been hit.

“I leave out a little food. A little water. What’s the harm? I can’t see — what’s the harm.”

A large white cat walked out of the shadows of the old woman’s foyer as if on cue. It leaned against Margaret’s shin, purred. Hunching over, wincing while she bent, Margaret scooped the cat and cradled it in the crook of her arms. Its eyes were the color of cornflowers, the color of the sky on a cloudless day.

“Angel, meet Eleanor. Eleanor, Angel.”

Now it was Eleanor’s turn to step backward. Arguing was so much easier. Mr. Schwartz with his garbage cans rolling down the street. The Hochmans with their teenaged sons who drove too fast. Yelling was easy. Negotiation was hard.

“If it was up to me, Margaret, I wouldn’t mind.” The lies rolled out. Who could look at this woman with her apple face and raisin eyes and tell the truth? “But the board of directors has a strict policy. Three cats inside a house. Period. No feeding of feral cats. End of story.”

The old woman had rheumy eyes, cataract eyes; she was always carrying a handkerchief in a pocket just to wipe them. So it was hard to tell if Eleanor’s arrows had struck their mark. The women faced each other for a full minute. Then, without saying goodbye or have a nice day or maybe you should check your blood pressure at the CVS, Margaret, you’re looking a little peaked, Eleanor turned. Looking back, she should have said something. Instead she walked the 20 yards back to her home.

Even if Eleanor wanted to ignore the problem, others refused to. At least a dozen cats of every size, shape, and color squeezed through the community’s entrance gates or vaulted over them. And on their way to Margaret’s door, they traipsed over her neighbors’ flowers or peed on potted plants. When a stray cat jumped into Herb Edelstein’s gold Camry, an emergency meeting was called. As usual, they met in the card room of the clubhouse. A pot of decaf was percolating. A plate of fresh rugelach sat next to a bowl of perfectly scooped and rounded melon.

“First I had the cockroaches and palmetto bugs. Now it’s these filthy cats!” shouted Mavis Schwartz. “They’re trying to get into my home. I open the door with a broom in one hand and a can of Raid in the other!”

“I’m allergic,” complained Herb. “A single cat can give me asthma. If I had an attack, it would be on your shoulders. A medical emergency. Maybe a lawsuit. My hand to God I tell you that right now.”

The list of complaints was a yard long. People imagined an onslaught of rabid raccoons, of vermin of every shape and size. And all because of the cat food Margaret left in two Tupperware bowls discreetly hidden under her front hedge.

The biggest complainer was Lotty Plotkin. There were homes that needed painting. The monthly maintenance fees needed to be raised. Important business needed attending to! But just like a shifty politician, Lotty zeroed in on an irrelevant issue that gave a few loudmouths heartburn. Margaret, she claimed, had extended her reach. She was aiding and abetting all the feral animals between St. Augustine and Everglades City.

“She’s feeding them from that grocery cart!” screamed Lotty. Her dentures didn’t fit quite right so she sprayed as she spoke. “That woman’s like the Piped Piper — luring every stray cat in Dade County. Either we get rid of the cats …” she pounded a card table theatrically “or we get rid of her!”

There was an abundance of throat clearing and shoe shuffling. Eleanor stood up.

“I’ve done a little Internet research.”

Many of the elderly homeowners didn’t own a computer let alone know how to work one. A dozen faces looked up, listening.

“There are several possible solutions to the problem. Fox urine, for example. Cats seem to hate fox urine.”

“You’ve got to be kidding,” said Lotty. Herb Edelstein snorted. Moogie Schwartz got out of his chair and appraised the remaining cookies.

“Then there’s a device called Cat Stop,” continued Eleanor. “You stick it in your yard. High frequency sounds chase away the cats.”

“And the dogs? What about dogs?” asked Mavis. “It would drive my Bitsy crazy.”

Eleanor set her jaw, closed her eyes, and counted to 10. Mavis’ miniature schnauzer regularly terrorized the mailman. It yipped incessantly. When Eleanor’s grandchildren came to visit, if she saw that dog, she grabbed their sweaty little hands and ran the other way.

“Then there’s the Cat Network,” said Eleanor. “For $25, the Meow Mobile will come to the complex, spay a cat, give it shots, and release it.”

“Can they release them someplace else?” asked Lotty. Working the crowd now. On her feet, walking up and down the aisles. “Like Century Village? Can they release them at Century Village?” She shrugged her shoulders and lifted her palms like a borscht belt comedian. Then that mouth full of horse teeth broke into a grin.

Eleanor smiled back. Whatever Lotty was selling she already had. She stood up a little straighter and made herself a mental note to buy a gavel. She always wanted a gavel. If she had one in her hand, she’d aim it right for Lotty’s skull. “The point is,” said Eleanor. Margaret’s face popped into her head. The rheumy eyes. The knobby hands. “If the cats were healthy, if we can get them spayed and vaccinated, are they really hurting anyone?”

“We’re not the zoo, Eleanor,” said Lotty. “We’re not the ASPCA.”

Eleanor waited a full week to break the news to Margaret. Mr. Lopez, a longtime renter, had died three days earlier. Eleanor, as always, planned on going to the funeral home to pay her respects. This was one part of her job that she hated. When her husband, Morty, got sick, Eleanor spent a whole year watching him deteriorate. Like a piece of fruit left in the sun, he withered, dried up, turned into a husk of his former self. Lopez, like most Cubans, would have an open casket. Eleanor hated open caskets. She figured she’d get both unpleasant tasks out of the way.

Dressed in her cemetery outfit, a tasteful black cardigan with matching slacks and pumps, Eleanor rolled back her shoulders and again marched down the sidewalk. Once more she knocked on Margaret’s door. When it finally opened, the woman looked even older. Her eyes were black specks, pinpoints. The white cat nestled in her arms.

“Margaret, the board of directors is going to start sending you fines. Do you hear me? Fines!”

“Thank you, Eleanor. You look fine as well. Is that a new outfit?”

“This is what I wear to funerals, Margaret. I’m going to a funeral.”

“Did someone die?”

“Of course someone died. It’s not like people have dress rehearsals. Mr. Lopez died. The man in 409.”

“Oh, I’m so sorry. I didn’t know. No one told me. I must bring a bundt. A nice banana bread. Some cake.”

Lopez’s son was the local handyman. Everyone knew Lopez. A parade of wheelchairs and walkers were heading to the funeral but no one had thought of telling Margaret. A flush of guilt coursed through Eleanor. Gossip usually flew through the community. There was a phone tree. Postings. Emails. But some people were on the fringes, standing on the outside, always looking in. Once an immigrant always an immigrant. They talked funny. They acted differently. They sucked up people’s patience, and patience was always in short supply.

“If you don’t mind me asking, Margaret, where are you from?”

The sun peeked out from the clouds. Margaret shielded her face with her hand. “From Milwaukee. My family’s from Milwaukee. You know Milwaukee?”

The woman was a magician, thought Eleanor. The way she twisted everything around. Up was down. Down was up.

“My arthritis always acted up in Milwaukee. It’s such as pleasure to live here. The weather. The water. And I’ve met so many wonderful people.”

Eleanor slowly inched away from the doorway while nodding her head. Margaret could have been a commercial for adult congregate communities.

“The shopping. The malls. The early-bird specials …”

“You bake that bundt cake, Margaret. I’m sure Mrs. Lopez will appreciate it.” Then Eleanor turned around and sprinted toward her home.

They found the dead cats the following week. One was under the Schwartz’s car. Another was hidden under the arboricola bushes. It didn’t take Eleanor’s son long to figure out that someone had put rat poison in the Tupperware bowls. The job wasn’t professional, he told Eleanor. Anyone could have bought the stuff. There were so many suspects Eleanor could only guess who the vigilante was.

Again she had to knock on Margaret’s door. This time she waited longer. Inside a TV was blaring. A light shone in an upstairs window. She knocked so loud her knuckles turned red, the veins in her wrist bulging. People Margaret’s age keeled over all the time. A bad meal. A little upset. It didn’t take much. And who did the old woman have to turn to? From her lookout station behind the curtains, Eleanor had never seen a relative or even a friend walk up Margaret’s driveway. A sheet of sweat rolled down Eleanor’s face. She was one minute from calling the rescue squad to break down the door when it finally opened.

Margaret squinted in the sun.

“I want to tell you that I’m sorry,” said Eleanor. “We didn’t mean to … I didn’t mean to …”

“Angel. My Angel. Something terrible has happened to Angel.”

Of course, thought Eleanor. The food. How hard would it be for a cat to sneak one bite, to lick one sip?

The next month Margaret moved out. She didn’t tell anyone. One afternoon a moving van showed up and a few hours later she was all packed. The neighbors peeked from their windows. First the couch. Then a bed. A set of bureaus. The detritus of a life stored in cardboard containers. No one ever saw Margaret leave. One minute she was there, and the next she was gone. A for-sale sign popped up the following day.

The only item left behind was the grocery cart. It was the practical kind that folded flat. The four wheels needed a little oil. The handle was a little bent. At first glance Eleanor thought about tossing it in the dumpster, but for some reason she parked it in her own garage. A few days later she bought the cat food. And then it was only a matter of time.

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  • J. Allison

    Great story!

  • Eileen

    It only took a minute to see my former Miami life come alive in the chsracters. Which One AM I, I wonder. Thanks for the colorful storytelling.

  • Joan

    You really captured the essence of senior living. I love Eleanor. I think I know Lotty.