In the Company of Cats

Red had left a present for me on the back steps, and like the others he'd brought, it was not to my liking. The small brown sparrow lay feet up on the bottom step. But because it was whole, and not a meal for Red, I knew that it was intended as a gift. Just as the small lizard, its copper brilliance dimmed to a dull brown, had been a gift. That was followed by the squirrel's tail. As I went to the garage to get a shovel to remove the sparrow, I thought about how this friendship had begun.

Red is a big tom with a coat the color of candied ginger and a white spot on his nose. He belongs to my neighbor but has adopted me as cats will do. As a freelance writer, I work at home, and once summer's heat has abated, I begin leaving my doors open to Savannah, Ga.'s, mild autumn days.

Most days, I work until late afternoon. Then, I turn off the computer, make myself a cup of tea, and go sit out on the back stoop. Red began wandering over to sit with me. I don't know how he knew I was out back -- he couldn't see me from his house across the street -- but wander he did to sit companionable with me, enjoying the quiet and the satisfaction that comes at the end of a task.

Some time later, he began coming to the back door when he'd decided it was time for me to quit work, usually about the same time each day. He'd yowl from the back door with a voice like a rusty foghorn, wait until I'd made my tea, then sit on the warm flagstones or stretch out along the bottom step.

I thoroughly enjoy his visits. I live alone with neither kith nor kin to keep me company. My cat, Sister, had died just before I moved into my house. I told my mother about Red. ''You're just like your grandmother,'' she said. ''No matter what, she'd have a cat for company. If one disappeared or died, another would take its place. Red is replacing Sister for you.''

But I wasn't sure that I wanted old ''hoot-and-holler'' Red, who stalks, hunts, springs, and fights, replacing my gentle female Persian. But then, one doesn't usually choose a cat; it happens the other way around. It certainly did for my grandmother, Huberta.

My grandmother lived with my aunt Bardie in a big rambling white house that sat on a rise in the middle of a pecan grove in rural Alabama. Huberta's room was at the top of a stairway whose bottom landing split the stairs into two flights. Just below this landing was the favorite hiding place for Tom, my grandmother's tom cat. Tom was only one in a long line of cats, all called Tom, that showed up to live with Huberta. She never had more than one at a time, but she was never without a cat for more than 2 4 hours.

Tom was big and orange and had ears that looked as though they'd been cut with pinking shears from his many fights and exploits. He was the bane of existence for Polly, my aunt's cook, and for Uncle Doyle and Aunt Bardie. They, as well as any visitor, were fair game to be waylaid from under the stairs by Tom, whose joy it was to lie in wait, then spring at the ankles of anyone descending the staircase. But Huberta's slender ankles were never touched.

On the other hand, my own skinny legs were particularly appealing to Tom, and I spent part of every summer day peering around corners and stopping two steps above the landing, hoping for a glimpse of terrible Tom.

One day, Tom was not there. He didn't show up for his breakfast or his dinner. And by suppertime, my grandmother was out walking in the garden, calling his name.

''Don't worry,'' said my uncle. ''He's just out prowling. He'll come back.'' That night, unbeknown to my grandmother, my uncle was out walking the sides of the road in front of the house, his flashlight a small beacon in the dark. He found Tom's body, brought it back and buried it, then went inside to tell his mother-in-law the bad news.

The next day, Polly was standing at the kitchen table, adding chicken gravy to the vegetables that would go into the hoecake she made for my uncle's spoiled Brittany spaniel. ''Guess Judge'll get it all,'' she said, stirring cornmeal into the mixture that would then be fried up in an iron skillet.

''I wouldn't count on it,'' my aunt said, putting the cover over a caramel cake. ''Just wait. She'll have another cat in a day or so.''

Polly put the hoecake on to cook. ''Ya'll goin' to get her a kitten?''

''Nope,'' said my aunt. ''But one'll show up at the back door. I can promise you that.''

After supper, I was finishing up the last piece of cold fried chicken that normally would go to Judge. Too bad for him, I thought. He's too fat anyway, since he quit hunting. The tall kitchen fan turned slowly, stirring the warm vanilla-scented air.

Over its hum, I heard a tiny sound and went over to the back door. On the porch was a scrawny, half-wild kitten with ears like bat ears and eyes still baby blue. Aunt Bardie peered over my shoulder and said softly, ''Better call your grandmother. Her new baby's here.''

''You don't even sound surprised,'' I said.

''It always happens,'' Bardie said. ''Mama's a magnet. Cats will find her, no matter what. I'd best tell your uncle.'' Then, pouring two glasses of iced tea, she took them out to the screened porch where white moths hit the screens with gentle plops and the scent of honeysuckle sweetened the evening.

And even that was not the last of the cats. There was a gray tabby in residence on the day Huberta died. After the funeral, when all the guests had left the house, Polly went out to feed the current Tom. But he was nowhere to be found.

My aunt and Polly walked the grounds, calling him. And again, Uncle Doyle walked the roadside. But Tom was gone. He had disappeared without a trace. And there was no replacement for him. No more kittens appeared at the back door. Only Judge remained for Polly to feed.

I put away the shovel, checked the time, and saw that it was almost time for Red's visit. We can try putting a bell on him again, I thought, without too much hope. Red's owner had tried, but somehow Red always managed to get the collar and bell from around his neck. I suppose I'll just have to overlook Red's baser side as hunter, lover, and fighter and enjoy his gentler side, that of companion and friend.

Besides, in a way I've inherited him, and for Huberta's sake, will continue to enjoy his company.

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