I HAVE escaped to the screened porch at the rear of my house hoping to finish my breakfast in peace. The mantel clock in the living room has tolled seven times, but the household has been stirring since 6 o'clock. Moments ago my son and daughter met the bus that will convey them 40 miles to school. The porch overlooks a large backyard and a portion of the valley extending down to the Mississippi River. I have the illusion of privacy, since bushes and trees growing on both sides of the porch block out most evidences of the subdivision around me. Our cats, Mohegan (Moe for short) and Tess, have also sought the quiet of the porch. Moe, a black male with a white chest and paws, lies curled on the gliding chair. Tess, a long-haired tiger gray, sits quietly near the edge of the porch. Neither of these cats has been with us long.
For years I had been unable to reconcile myself to a need for cats in the house, so when the second of two cats that had been in our family for over a decade departed, ``Fine,'' I said. ``We've enjoyed their company and shall have pleasant memories. But let us have no more cats.''
For 13 years we had cleaned up after them, fed them, endured odors in places where odors shouldn't have been. We'd been awakened at 3 a.m. by the grating sound of cats fighting. We'd endured the seasons of cats. Our first, a Siamese, yelled for 18 days, an experience not unlike filing one's teeth with a rasp. Then, too, there have been those loud crashes in far rooms and the rushing there to find a shattered lamp or a shivered vase in a room wide-eyed with silence.
But all that was to change, and I looked forward to a clean house without cat litter or plates on which hard particles of wet cat food have dried (they can be easily removed if you hold the chisel just right). I could wear navy blue.
Almost a year passed. Then, late one afternoon, as I pulled into my driveway, a neighbor trotted up to me, whispering so as not to alert my children who were playing nearby - ``Would you like a kitten?''
``Nooo!'' I responded quickly in a like voice. I knew she'd picked up the castaways that I'd seen along the road near where we live.
``I have a male and a female that I've just bathed,'' my neighbor went on. ``Why not come take a look.''
Now, I grew up with cats, among them a tom cat named Timothy. On cold winter nights when the wind buffeted the house and whistled eerily through the flue cover just above my bed, I'd take Tim to bed with me. He'd crawl under the covers and stretch out soft and warm against my stomach, purring and kneading the pillow. Every now and then his claws would prick the soft underpart of my arm, but I was nourished by his warmth and found an opening between the soothing vibration of his purr and the small pain of his kneading and passed through it into sleep.
So, involuntarily, like scratching an itch, I took an emaciated male kitten home with me, ``to see about it,'' I said. I did, however reserve the right to name the new cat - hence the sobriquet ``Moe.'' I dislike fluffy names.
Now one cat and one dog seemed sufficient. Then, a couple of weeks later, I visited an artist friend of mine in her studio. A young gray cat perched demurely on the edge of a large table. And it had a calm, seductive, sleepy-eyed composure that said in effect, ``Here, in my presence, the world is right.''
``She's a stray,'' my friend chirped. ``We have to get rid of her. Would you like her?''
I liked her but masked my enthusiasm by suggesting, shrewdly, that my wife might take a look and make the final decision. So Tess, as she was already behandled, came to live with us, strolling through the house with her satisfied smile and her low-slung stomach as though she'd always resided there. Only after her belly further distended and she began waddling from room to room like a pontoon on legs did I realize that her calm flowed from deep maternal springs. My artist friend has hazel eyes: I shall never trust them again.
Meanwhile, back on the porch, Tess, slightly altered, continues to watch the yard. Moe has raised himself to a squint-eyed sitting position.
It's only 7:30, but the phone has already rung at least five times. My wife has joined me on the porch, and we chat quietly as she works out a list of duties she must execute before sundown - put in six hours at the office, make curtains, grocery-shop, pick up the kids, etc. During the conversation, Tess lifts her right paw and washes it, keeping her eyes closed. Moe stretches languorously, pauses briefly to consider his options, then jumps to the floor and sprawls on his side in a wash of sunlight.
At my office I will settle at my desk behind a mound of paper work. Down the hall, doors will open and clank shut with cold metallic bangs. I'll hear shuffling feet and voices pulsing in agitated staccato rhythms as the day's activity increases. By 8:30 the commerce of life will have come to full speed with all the wheels spinning.
I have to be in my office by 8:15. So at 10 minutes to the hour I stir. In his pool of sunlight Moe shifts to his left side and, pushing with his rear legs and pulling with his front, elongates himself slowly into an arc. He quivers for a moment in the full tension of his stretch, yawns, and relaxes. He remains arched, blinking in the light. I run my hand along the underside of his body, extra warm from the sun. His soft meow throbs audibly against his purring as he hooks his front claws far ahead of him and stretches to lengthen the stroking space.
At five minutes to the hour, Tess has washed both paws and her face. She's settled into a sphinx position. She arches her back slightly and flexes the end of her tail as I run the tips of my fingers along her spine. Her warmth flows into my finger tips. I'm ready for work. I feel rested and well fed.