"There are drug dealers upstairs," she said. Her apartment was on the lower floor of a two-floor complex built in the late 1950s. The exterior was getting new vinyl siding to replace the turquoise and pink clapboard it used to have, but the inside was still a lovely gold and brown shagadelic style from the last attempted refurb in the 1970s. The fact that a collection of people from a lower caste populated the interior was no surprise. But how did she know they were drug dealers? You just know, apparently.
While we went out to get mom groceries for the upcoming 4th of July festivities (private time at home, really), a woman met us in the hallway. She didn't fit the West Virginian stereotype. She was dressed rather well, like she was normally shopped at Rodeo Drive, and she was smoking a brand-name cigarette. "Someone put a bunch of kittens in a dumpster," she said when we passed her, "behind the IGA." The IGA was a supermarket that had dried up and died off a few years ago in this former coal mining town populated by increasingly aging citizens. The fact this woman introduced herself with a rather oddball news fact only made her seem stranger. "Okay, then," we said, trying to stay polite enough to acknowledge her presence and prevent a repeated crazy statement, but not enough to have her continue as if we mutually agreed to a conversation. "Imma go get 'em," she continued, pulling a drag on her cancer stick like she made the decision right then and there just BECAUSE we answered her.
Later that night, local kids were shooting fireworks all over. Most decent fireworks were extremely illegal in this state, so most people smuggled them from Virginia in car trunks and fired them into the poorer areas of town. As West Virginia has no wamprats and the median income forbids a T-16, most local kids chased local fauna with bottle rockets, roman candles, and other incendiary devices in their version of extreme prejudice. As we sat on the stoop that faced a modern arrangement of abandoned cars of a nearby automotive hobbyist, a furry object with a poofy tail darted under our legs. This was a small, skinny, but curiously fluffy cat coated with burrs and burn marks. Nature never meant a creature of the woodlands to have silky fur of this nature, but she had no collar, so she might have been some kind of offspring from a Persian and a stray. While she made friends with us, it was apparent that we were only temporary refuge from the psychotic offspring of welfare recipients. As the noise of the fireworks subsided, the insects that suck the blood of the disadvantaged drove us back inside. We said goodbye to our feline stranger.
The next day, this cat was still hanging around. My wife went to the part of the building where a single washer and dryer set provided some small income, 4 quarters at a time, to the the owner of the apartments. While her reasoning was more clothing related, she bumped into the strange woman again, who demanded conversation due to the smallness of the space. When my wife returned, she informed me that this conversation revealed that our former feline asylum seeker was the mother of these dumpster kittens. And the "drug dealer" had rescued them from their cabbage box which smelled of chlorine. This woman continued to stalk us, until hours before we left to take the 3 hour drive home, my wife showed up with a small gray and furry bundle that wiggled and squeaked.
"It's a kitten," she said, describing the obvious as a baby elephant would have been smaller, less furry, and definitely would not have said "mew!" repeatedly.
"I know," I said. Now, I also knew where this conversation would inevitably lead. What most people do not know is that the Egyptian Goddess Bastet did not die, but became a kind of social worker who thinks I should end up with a lot of cats. I like cats. In fact, I love cats. This both explains why we already had three cats at home, and why I didn't want any more. Bastet seems to have my number on speed dial, a reference that shows how old I am because phones these days store pretty much any number that calls you. "Nice," I said, trying to show I did not hate kittens, but I really didn't want another one.
"She's cute," my wife said.
"She's also missing a chunk of her tail," I noticed. This kitten seemed oblivious to a perfect stripe of fur missing about an inch from the tip of her tail; like a ring of bald that might have been the beginning of some kind of horrific fur-eating disease for all I knew.
"I can't return her," my wife informed me in a hushed voice like Russian spies were about, "they are drug dealers."
"How do you know?" I asked.
"How can you not tell? I can't just leave the kitten with them."
"She's craaaazy..." my wife said, in a voice so low, only humpback whales and sympathetic husbands could hear it.
"Gweg... gweeggg..." she whispered. I knew that voice. When my wife wants something ridiculous, she seems to develop a speech impediment like she's turned into a 4 year old with a cleft palate. "I can't wetoown her..."
"Mew!" complained a kitten who seemed to want down on the floor to eat a bug or something. She was gray like storm clouds, and her eyes were ringed with white like a squirrel. She was half "Crazy-West-Virginian-Mountain-Kitty," as we would later explain to people. We called her Storm, which was the first and last time we ever gave a cat a name with one syllable.
For the next 13 years, I would tease her about this. In the times she teased me about bringing it strays, like a kitten that looked like Hitler, I retorted that she forced me to take a kitten from "crazy drug dealers that lived upstairs."
We had no cat carrier. We had to put her in a cardboard box with cutout airholes because I did NOT want a loose kitten in the station wagon. About 50 miles out, we discovered why the CFA did not recommend cardboard box with cutout airholes as a proper kitten transport method. After a few minutes of intense mewing, my son announced from the back seat that the kitten was chewing her way out via the airholes with a desperation of a prisoner at the end of an escape tunnel. His attempts to poke the kitten back in with his fingers was rapidly decreasing in effectiveness, and the kitten grew angry and growled. My son expressed some choice comments about his future of counting to ten without a calculator. Somewhere near Cumberland, we had a loose kitten in the car, which was exactly one more than we started with and one more than we felt necessary during this voyage. This kitten had imprinted on my wife already, and as we drove home, Jesus had to share his copilot duty with a small kitten who decided, damn the seatbelt laws, the best place to sleep was behind the driver's neck and headrest.
Storm was very personable at first. The hair on Storm's tail grew back, and the vet said she was free of any disease. But a few months later, we left all our cats and went to the beach for a week. When we returned, Storm was so traumatized, she nearly went feral, and for the next six years, didn't care about humans at all, who were obviously fickle kitten abandoners.
Later that year, due to hospital neglect, mom's knee surgery turned deadly when a nurse refused to believe mom was allergic to morphine. Storm became the kitten immemorially tied to mom, even though Storm took a while to become friendly again. She survived a move, but in her later years, she became crabby and bitchy. None of the other cats liked her, because when they got to close, she'd hit and hiss at them, and then run away before the issue could be addressed in a mature, "I'll hit you back, bitch!" manner the other cats wished to apply. Crazy West Virginian Mountain Kitty.
She had this complex where she had to eat food if you got near her bowl; sometimes she'd meow until you got up, and then she'd rush to her bowl and chow down. We knew she ate when you weren't around, but it always seemed like she needed a dining companion. Crazy West Virginian Mountain Kitty.
She was the chattiest cat we had. She hated it when you went to the bathroom, and she'd scratch at the door. When you opened it, she fled like she didn't expect the door to open. Crazy West Virginian Mountain Kitty.
In the last few years, she was the only cat to realize that the dogs had a good thing going: food fell from the sky when I was cooking. She wanted in, and was the only cat who was bold enough to grab cheese or meat and run off with it before a dog could rush her and steal it. Crazy West Virginian Mountain Kitty.
On Friday, I had to leave for a job in Norfolk. My wife said that night, all the other cats "started acting weird." They were clingy. My wife called for Storm, but she didn't come, but that was not unusual. By Saturday, all the cats were acting "real weird." So my son went to go look for Storm.
Storm was curled up under the platform we keep the cat food on (it's raised up to prevent dogs from eating cat food). She was dead. She had not acted sick or anything the day before. There was no indication she was unhealthy, and the vet said she didn't show any obvious signs of poison or trauma. "Her heart probably just stopped," he said. We lost another cat that way once as well. Just curled up to sleep and never woke up.
Thirteen years of damn good service. I will miss you, Storm, crab-pot and everything.