The flyers went up overnight, on every lamp post, street sign and telephone pole in Birchwood Village, laminated beneath a sheet of clear plastic with a single round red helium balloon tied to the top so you could tell it was important: Chubz the cat was lost!
The Johnsons, those poor Johnsons, what a string of misfortune for them. It wasn’t bad enough that their house caught fire last month — and twice in one day — but now the beloved family pet had gone missing, and on Derby Day of all days. Chubz, spelled with a “z” and not the common ending in “bs” for Chubz was no common cat, had been part of the Johnson ménage for as long as anyone could recall, with his chestnut coat that had begun to grow gray with age, eyes slightly askew, and a kinked tail the crooked consequence of umpteen run-ins with swinging screen doors and rocking patio furniture. Yet perhaps it was his demeanor that most set Chubz apart from the average domesticated feline. Chubz had never met a stranger, would greet even the shadiest character (“shady” by Birchwood Village standards was merely someone no one had seen around before, like the new meter reader from the gas company that had everyone on edge until the police officer from Ridgeland who was contracted out by Birchwood Village to patrol the streets in his off-hours gave the all-clear) with a welcoming purr and a lick of his sandpaper tongue. And now poor Chubz was lost, and the flyer said he was probably scared too.
Young Billy Milner, 10-years-old for another 14 days and 4 hours and 36 minutes, according to Billy, was the first to report the news, having discovered one of the flyers at 5:28 while on his morning paper route. Billy reckoned the red balloons announced an upcoming block party, perchance with inflatables and a snow cone machine. But his excitement at the prospect of such a shindig was short lived when a closer inspection of the flyer led to disappointment, and then to alarm, for Billy and Chubz were buds. Chubz would wait on the Johnsons’ front porch for Billy to amble by during his rounds and toss out a handful of Cheerios that Billy had sneaked from his cereal bowl, often accompanied by a rub behind the ears. “Morning, Chubz,” Billy would say with a chuckle before heading on his way.
Billy ripped the flyer down from the stop sign at Swan and Forest, allowing the balloon to gently drift aloft with the hope that Chubz might see it wherever he was and rest assured that rescue was certain, and bee-lined it home, completely forgetting to deliver Tom Canari’s paper, who would no doubt call the newspaper’s customer service department to complain and demand both delivery of the paper and a pro rata credit to his account as restitution. However, unbeknownst to Tom, the newspaper’s customer service department recognized his phone number, as he was a frequent caller, occasionally for legitimate reasons but usually not, and would simply allow the call to roll over into voicemail, further infuriating him.
Billy’s mother scrutinized the flyer that Billy bounded into the kitchen with and, confirming from him that it was not “some kinda joke or something,” leapt into action. She logged on to the Birchwood Village neighborhood website and sent a blast message to all subscribers, with the subject line, in all caps, EMERGENCY!!! — agonizing if one exclamation point were enough to convey the gravity of the situation before settling on three. She also texted, emailed, and rang everyone whose contact essentials she had or could easily retrieve, regardless of the early hour on a Saturday, and Derby Day of all days. By sunrise, as a result of Billy’s mother’s efforts, and villagers who had noticed the flyers while on their constitutionals, jogs, and dog walks, a sizeable and quite eager crowd had assembled on the Johnsons’ front lawn, which sadly had just been resodded, but desperate times called for desperate measures.
Hank Rogers O’Bryant, the ranking member of the Birchwood Village council and a highly decorated Eagle Scout in his day, according to Hank, naturally stepped up to oversee the operation and to manage the command center located in the dining room of the Johnsons’ house, primarily because he wanted to help and felt that someone of his stature and status in the community should assume a leadership role, but also because he longed to see how the Johnsons’ house had been repaired after the fire — or fires — a home-remodeling enthusiast himself. With regard to the repair, he was very much impressed, commenting repeatedly, to nobody in particular, that it didn’t even smell of smoke, but of lavender.
Hank doled out assignments and divided Birchwood Village into a grid system of equal distance quadrants and sub-quadrants. (Hank was also a civil engineer.) The Blenheim Boulevard Bird Club was placed on hawk patrol, starting out near the park then extending diagonally toward Birchwood Village proper. The Bird Club had been keeping tabs on the hawk this spring and, despite their affinity for all things fowl, the members agreed to a man, and a woman, that that hawk was a real jerk, worse than the pair of nesting geese that had taken residence smack dab in the middle of Dee Brown’s driveway, forcing him to park on the street, in clear violation of Ordinance 19-66, but the police officer from Ridgeland was willing to look the other way given the circumstance, and plus he was more concerned with ticketing cyclists for pedaling through intersections without yielding.
Everyone else dispersed to their designated areas and assignments. The starting lineup of the St. Martins Dragons, the reigning regional Little League champs, canvassed the area rummaging through bushes and climbing trees and peering into the storm drain on Old Cardinal Way that emptied into Bluegrass Creek until they became distracted by a school of spirited pollywogs. Chip Caruthers, pushing his sleeping infant son, Chip Junior, in a stroller, went door-to-door with a picture of Chubz taken for the Johnsons’ Christmas card, inquiring if anyone had seen the cat, minus the Santa cap of course. Even Old Man Williams pitched in, powering up his ham radio to transmit an S.O.S. He received a response from someone in Germany, which wasn’t any help, but still kind of neat.
Those who were not enlisted into service, due to age or infirmity or a general unwillingness to “traipse through the streets like a vagabond,” said Tom Canari who was bitter from not yet having received either his newspaper or his pro rata credit, contributed in other ways. Lila Durham, local socialite, who had set the trend of displaying on front doors this time of year colorful replica jockey silks, incidentally for sale at her upscale boutique in Poplar Square, brought over Horse Race in May Pie, her take on the traditional chocolate and walnut pie that was sold under a trademarked name. Lila definitely did not need to deal with any more attorneys, not after the unpleasant episode in February when a branch from her sugar hackberry broke off during the ice storm and dinged Max Chetak’s Honda Civic next door, so out of an abundance of caution she called her pie Horse Race in May Pie and insisted everyone else do the same and not refer to it by that trademarked name or she would put it away.
Widow Skiouros, dressed head to toe in black after her husband died, a while back, and she refused to buck Greek custom and wear anything of any color, in spite of veiled attempts by her bunco group to nudge her in that direction by slipping pages from the Sears catalogue of floral dresses, frocks and muumuus into her purse, prayed to Saint Phanourios, the patron saint of lost things. Timbo Donathon declared this an excellent idea given that was how his daughter, Joella, found a husband, no matter that she had since divorced. “It wasn’t the saint’s fault that Joella married a good-for-nothin’ bum,” Timbo asserted in Saint Phanourios’ defense. And Lizzie Armstrong and Junior Postlewaite worked together, distributing moist paper towels and orange slices, Junior at long last able to accept as bygones that Lizzie, Junior’s ex-fiancée, had left him at the altar two years ago June to take up with a traveling circus performer of the sword-swallowing variety and they seemed to be fairly smitten.
The search proceeded with military procession, albeit with no tangible results. A group of renters who shared a two-bedroom suite at the Stonemill Apartments at the end of Blanchard brightened the mood by performing peppy tunes with their guitars and bongo drums and tambourines. The spirit squad of Crabbe Elementary shouted cheers they had made up on the spot. A smattering of residents carried over their own cats in the off-chance that cats possessed an extra-sensory power that, when pooled, could reach out to Chubz and lure him back. It was a bustling affair, with many moving parts. Then, mid-afternoon, On-Your-Left, which was what everyone called the guy who ran through the neighborhood and barked “on your left!” when he passed, came sprinting in with a disturbing development: a pile of sheared fur had been unearthed on Fox Hollow Lane.
Dwayne Weatherly was immediately dispatched to the scene. Dwayne dabbled in taxidermy, mostly squirrels and rabbits and the odd chipmunk, whatever he happened upon, which folks found a bit unsettling, but he was the tenor in the Birchwood Village Church choir and had such a lovely falsetto, “straight from the heavens,” some described it, that most were willing to overlook his propensity for preserving roadkill. Dwayne dutifully examined the pile of fur, getting right down into it on his elbows and knees with a magnifying glass, poking and prodding using a an old fork, before concluding that it was the fur of a wayward raccoon, much to everybody’s relief, except for Naomi Persimmon who audibly gasped at the thought of a raccoon “roaming amok” through Birchwood Village but Dwayne assured her that this particular raccoon was most likely no more. “Hawk!” the members of the Blenheim Boulevard Bird Club exclaimed in unison then scampered off. The search continued.
Before long, lawn chairs and chaise lounges and an upholstered sofa that Austin Crothersville kept in the garage for when he wanted to smoke a cigar in peace were set up on the Johnsons’ yard, with card tables and TV trays of casseroles and salad and a cold cut platter from the Kroger deli, seasonal berries, mixed nuts, Horse Race in May Pie, along with ice chests of glistening bottles of water and cans of soda. Gene Bowling pulled out a flask shaped like a horse head full of Pappy Van Winkle he saved for special occasions that he offered to share with a select few, and one of the college kids, or rather college graduates as commencement had occurred earlier at the Fairgrounds, called out, “let’s tap a keg!” but he was hastily rebuked by Mrs. Shuttleford, who did not suffer fools gladly, scolding that this was neither the time nor the place for such “hooliganism.”
At six-fifty, all activity was suspended while Mr. Johnson turned the volume up on a boom box he had borrowed from one of his children, the older one, however old they were, to play the broadcast of the Kentucky Derby. It was quickly obvious that more than a few people had money riding on the race when the hushed murmurings of “go, go, go” rapidly rose to a roaring crescendo, with jumping up and down and clapping, as the seven horse, a longshot, charged to victory by a nose. Mavis Jacobs joked that drinks were on her, eliciting a typically snide reaction from Mrs. Shuttleford, while Brendan Dupré proclaimed that he would finally buy that leather recliner with the cup holders built into the arms just like at the movies. Alas, with the temporary repose ended, it was back to the business at hand, with still no sign, nary a clue, as to the whereabouts of Chubz, poor lost and scared Chubz.
Day turned to dusk, and dusk to night, and Chubz remained gone. A fire pit was lit, s’mores were assembled, and two steaming pots of coffee, regular and decaf, were freshly brewed. Hank Rogers O’Bryant, abandoning the command center inside to be closer to the s’mores, unfolded a crumpled map of Birchwood Village and by flashlight re-assigned quadrants and sub-quadrants to the weary volunteers. Mrs. Johnson thanked everyone for their succor, as Mr. Johnson ushered the children to their rooms, prompting Hank to comment, to nobody in particular, with a nod at the house, “smells absolutely like lavender in there — I swear to it.”
Hours later, when all seemed lost, people were reluctantly readying to call it quits, folding up chairs and packing away food. Gene Bowling polished off his flask of Pappy with a gulp and a sneer. Young Billy Milner, who was up way past his bedtime, and considering that the Sunday paper would be especially thick tomorrow with stories about the Derby and a special photo section on all the fancy hats, as Tom Canari had a sinking feeling he might not receive delivery of that newspaper either, let out a joyous noise and pointed through the darkness. There, beneath the flickering yellow bulb above the Johnsons’ garage, a twenty-something couple no one could place kissed passionately locked in a firm embrace, and at their feet, curled up and asleep: Chubz!
The roar that erupted at this miraculous revelation was enough to startle Chubz from his slumber (although not enough to disturb the twenty-something couple from kissing, notwithstanding Mrs. Shuttleford’s exhortation to “get a room already!”) and he jerked his head around and flailed his front paws to gain his bearings. Once he realized where he was, he nonchalantly staggered back over towards the Johnsons’ house, into the awaiting arms of Billy. “You sure gave us all a scare, Chubz,” Billy said, cradling Chubz against his chest, nuzzling the cat’s face, and everyone concurred, reaching out to scratch Chubz’ fur, all happy it was still attached to his body. Mrs. Johnson repeated her appreciation and took Chubz for a thorough washing and a hard-earned saucer of milk. “With Cheerios!” Billy added.
As the villagers gathered their belongings to depart, there was talk of fitting Chubz with a collar or “one of those chippy things” to contain all of his and the Johnsons’ pertinent information, or maybe just a bell around his neck. Yet it was subsequently decided, following a surprisingly heated exchange, to leave Chubz be, that hopefully he had learned his lesson, and if not, the denizens of Birchwood Village were now at least somewhat more prepared to group together and fetch him, if this day were any indication, the time Chubz the cat went missing.
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