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Bella’s Neighborhood

The Tale of a Cat

By Elizabeth Cook Strance

“A cat improves the garden wall in sunshine, and the hearth in foul weather.”

                                                                                                  —Judith Merkle Riley

 

During my four-year acquaintance with Bella, we seldom crossed paths two days in a row, yet successive meetings occurred October 2004. The first was uneventful. She paused while padding across my driveway, allowing a sideways glance toward my kitchen window where I stood at the sink rinsing dishes. After that slight hesitation, the calico cat followed an invisible path toward my home’s foundation and disappeared behind the boxwood, continuing her self-appointed rounds.

The next afternoon in my backyard, I met her again as I struggled with rearranging the rock edging of a flowerbed. Bella roused from napping in a sunny spot nearby and stretched her head in my direction. The instant the canvas gloves slipped from my fingertips, she maneuvered the top of her head under my palm. “Yes, kitty-kitty, I’ll scratch behind your ears.” I couldn’t resist first teasing the scruff of her neck.

Although a cat’s special joints enable it to contort into amazing positions, they denied Bella a satisfying scratch between those teeny furrows at the base of her ears. That snag in a feline’s quest for comfort evoked my empathy whenever I faced the challenge of placating an itchy mole on my back. Living alone led me to depend on two simple itch-soothers: that bristle brush hanging in the shower or a long-handled spoon from a kitchen drawer.

However, my scratching behind Bella’s ears was not enough to appease her; she squirmed to be held. Her wordless request gave me reason to break from my gardening chores. As I traipsed across the yard to sit in the faux wicker chair under the redbud, she glided at my heels. I’d barely settled in the shaded chair when she hopped onto my lap and leaned against my chest, snuggling beneath my chin. I cast aside an impulse to maintain a bit of space between us and positioned my hand under her rump. What did it matter that she would bequeath me an abundance of her nose-tickling fur when she departed our siesta? She leaned into me as I stroked her tummy, her neck, her back. The gentle rumblings from Bella’s feline throat soon created a medley with my human heartbeats.

I held Bella close for seven minutes—my self-allowed break. After settling her on the lawn, I eyed the fronts of my purple tee and green shorts decorated with fuzzy, multi-colored fur. Bella alone heard me giggle: a damp spot on the front of the tee where she’d drooled gave evidence of her absolute relaxation and total trust in me.

 

Whenever newcomers moved onto our block, I usually met children playing on the sidewalk days before greeting the rest of the family. So it was with the scruffy calico cat. We’d exchanged pleasantries on my driveway for a week before I learned the cat belonged with the house across the street and one door north. The get-acquainted chat with the new human neighbor occurred one afternoon when she paused from weeding her front flowerbed.

“I haven’t unpacked all the mover’s boxes,” Terri said, “but I felt I couldn’t ignore this flowerbed any longer. Needed to give Mother Nature a helping hand.” The calico stretched from her observation point in the grass a few feet away.

“Mother Nature never rests, does she?” I glanced at the fuzzy feline. “Who’s your helper?”

“Oh, that’s Bella. She’s my daughter’s cat.” Terri sighed. “I hope she hasn’t been a bother—the cat, I mean.”

“Oh, no bother. She’s really friendly for a cat. So often they keep their distance, especially around strangers.”

“Well . . .” Terri hesitated, shrugged in Bella’s direction. “You got a minute, for the tale of Bella?” At the sound of her name, Bella flexed the cup of one ear toward Terri, the better to hear what might follow.

“Of course,” I said, “I’ve always got a minute for a cat.” As though responding to a cue, Bella rose and sidled over to me. Then trailing her generous tail around my ankles, she nudged her head against my foot. You are one friendly feline.

“My daughter received Bella—she was just a tiny kitten—as a gift from her boyfriend. They shared an apartment . . .” Terri shook her head, smiling as I tickled Bella behind the ears. “The short version is that Bella grew into a cat, my daughter and her boyfriend broke up, and next thing I hear is Mom, you’ve got plenty of room in that new house; can I bring Bella with me?

Though Bella’s early life occurred within the confines of an apartment, after a very short time in Terri’s home the newcomer showed she preferred the uncertainties of the outdoors to coexisting with two indoor cats. As the months rolled by, I learned Bella frequented families for blocks around us, receiving favorable marks from almost everyone. She acclimated to sleeping among the shrubs. “Bella seems to prefer the outdoors,” said Terri, “but what a mess that makes her fur. As you might guess, she comes home at night to eat.”

Living on our quiet cul‑de‑sac, Bella had no need to worry about traffic when she crossed the street to my yard. One afternoon I turned around from watering an arrangement of potted plants near my front porch and glimpsed Bella hesitating to jump onto a birdbath. I assumed a weight gain prompted her hesitation, deterring her from her usual eager spring. Letting the hose drop onto the grass, I hurried into the kitchen. By the time I returned with an empty bowl, Bella was lapping from the birdbath, but when I began filling the bowl with water from the hose, she dashed to the porch and drank till I thought her sides would burst. That incident alerted me to include Bella in my watering routine.

 

I sat at the studio desk writing in my journal when a thump on the kitchen floor startled me. More annoyed by the interruption than concerned about the happening, I followed my curiosity into the kitchen. Bella sat flicking her long pink tongue from one side of her mouth to the tip of her nose. On the countertop above her, an open jar of mayonnaise wobbled on its side. Not only had I failed to secure all luncheon items, I’d left the kitchen door ajar, oblivious that the outer door in the garage remained open to the backyard, welcoming the pleasant summer afternoon and its roving inhabitants.

One mild autumn evening, I left the supper table and stepped nonchalantly into the kitchen. “Oh, Bella! Not again!” Bella cocked an ear in my direction but remained hunched over the countertop, indulging in leftover flecks of canned albacore. Arrrggh! That pesky kitchen door.

Interaction between neighbors dwindled during the winter months to little more than the occasional wave, but in a chilly moment on a blustery sidewalk I learned Terri’s daughter had moved to her own apartment, jilting Bella. Terri’s two favorites retained their roles as top cats beside the hearth, leaving Bella to wear the fur of step‑cat.

Throughout the year Terri often spent weekends at a quiet acreage she owned a short drive from Tulsa, allowing Bella to continue courting the neighbors. One balmy evening at dusk, Terri and I happened out at our respective curbs to bring in trashcans.

“Say, I’m glad to see you,” Terri called from her curb. She hastened into the street and I met her midway. “I’ve already told Helen, and I wanted to let you know I’m moving.”

“Well, that is news to me. Where to?”

“I’ve reached the point where I want to spend more time on my acreage. I love being away from the noise, having space around me.”

“Will you sell your house here?”

“Oh, no. I’ll rent this place to my niece. She has two preschoolers—they really need to be in a house with a yard, not in that apartment where they are now.”

Six weeks later Terri moved out, taking her two housecats. The niece moved in with two young children. The next day, Bella dropped by my porch to quench her thirst. Before the month passed into history, the niece laid out the welcome mat for a girlfriend with toddler in tow. As weeks droned into months, Bella appeared more unkempt than ever and worried with fleas.

Even though Bella had been prodded into the role of roaming Cinderella, I expected Bella’s basic needs would be met. However as fall approached, my confidence on her behalf began to waver, and I mulled over how I might contribute to her well-being. Helen, a neighbor who cherished two housecats, one almost twenty years old, had acknowledged feeding Bella occasionally. “It’s the humane thing to do, but I intend no permanent commitment,” she said.

I pulled out pet dishes stored away more than five years, since a pair of shorthaired, neutered and spayed indoor cats last shared my dwelling. Bella would no longer need to finagle sporadic dining forays at my place sans invitations. On the tail of my fresh pledge to Bella, I filled a gravity feeder with dry food, which I placed atop the worktable in my garage. A bowl of water on the floor completed my oblation.

In November I flew to Albuquerque for a holiday with my daughter and son, satisfied the provisions for Bella in my garage would supplement Helen’s offerings. In anticipation of falling temperatures, I’d reinstated the long-closed pet door leading from the garage into the backyard. In an interior corner, a large basket filled with an old plumped‑up blanket welcomed Bella to nap.

Ten days later, gray skies greeted my return to Tulsa. I soon settled in front of my Mac and began transcribing penciled revisions into a vignette about those two sibling cats I’d treasured during a previous decade. Whenever I took a break, I hoped to find Bella in the garage. Two days passed; no Bella. Aware of the forecast for continuing cold temperatures, I reluctantly clipped on the panel closing the pet door. Perhaps another neighbor had laid claim to Bella, repealing the neighborhood joke that she was up for grabs. I acknowledged she just visited, yet I welcomed Bella’s frequent stopovers.

A week later I leaned against the sink gazing out the kitchen window while nibbling a tuna sandwich. A sudden thud on the outer windowsill jolted me to attention. The thud meowed. Bella was back!

Leaving my sandwich on the counter, I skipped to the front door. “Bella-Bella, come in–come in!” As I shut out the cold she wound around my ankles, purring full throttle. Scooping her into my arms, I moseyed to Grandmother’s rocking chair. Oh! Bella’s feet pressed cold against my forearms, and her nose chilled my neck as she nuzzled. I held her for several minutes until she wriggled free and trotted to the kitchen, looking over her shoulder. Me‑ow. Follow me-ow. Acknowledging Bella’s instructions, I quickly refreshed the feeder. She merely nibbled, which reassured me she’d not missed any recent meals. However, her rumpled coat indicated no one had brushed her in quite a while. After dining she allowed time for a brushing, then with aplomb departed my premises.

Crunching sweet pickle with the last bite of tuna sandwich, I fretted about my dilemma: Shall I reopen the pet door for Bella? Seems sort of silly—allowing cold air to leak through the pet door. While that nearly new Overhead Door insulates the front of the garage. Ahh . . . In the garage, I filled the water dish, left the pet door closed, and vowed to keep a sharp eye out for Bella, fairly confident she was on multiple watch lists.

Three days later, Bella surprised me with another visit. Even the December sunshine failed to warm the nip in the air that rushed into the hall behind her. By the time I’d closed the door, she was nearing the dining table. “Bella! That’s a no‑no!” My scolding reached her ears just as she alighted atop the table. She dropped to the floor, cringing for several steps before turning to peer at me. “Bella-Bella, that’s a good girl,” I said in a stage whisper. In the past I had slapped a rolled‑up newspaper against the edge of counters and tabletops to train cats to stay away. Bella graduated to obeying a stern vocal command. Who says you can’t train a cat?

“You’ve earned a reward, Bella. And time in from the cold.” She tagged along while I selected a large floor pillow from the living room, returned to the dining room and settled the pillow under the table. “There you go.” I patted the pillow top. “It’s for you.” Bella took to the dim and quiet space, napping for two hours, until I gathered her in my arms and, with a bit of regret, escorted her outdoors. Knowing Bella’s neighborhood, I believed she’d find a cozy place for the night. If not, my windowsill awaited her me‑ow!

Earth continued on her axis while I took cues from Bella to fill needs not met by her household or neighborhood. Spring equinox visited, setting the scene for summer’s warmth and reminding me to check my inventory of flea collars to ensure Bella’s relief from that blood-sucking Ctenocephalides felis, the cat flea.

One morning in early June, as I was filling the birdbath in my front yard, Helen waved to me from her front porch. She descended the steps and walked across her yard toward me, prompting me to meet her on the sidewalk.

“Guess what?” She sneaked a peek over her shoulder toward Terri’s place. “That niece asked me to cut off the flea collar you put on Bella ’cause she said it’s been on Bella forever.”

“Ah, Helen,” I said, “seems to me that just proves that that girl can’t bear to even touch Bella. Or anything related to her.”

“I agree.” Helen nodded. “Otherwise she couldn’t miss seeing the buckle on the flea collar—a white collar, at that.”

“It’s sort of funny, when you think about it.” I glanced at Helen with conspiracy in my gaze. “That girl has never caught on that I change flea collars from time to time, as they expire. The one you cut off was only a month old.”

One summer weekend the comings-and-goings of the niece and her entourage signaled change. The tribe increaseth? No—they vamoosed. I felt no immediate panic because Bella had caught the attention of a recent repairman in Helen’s home. His family accompanied him on the service call, admired Bella—friendly furry that she was—and considered giving Bella a home.

But that prospect fell through. And Bella was demoted from neglected to abandoned.

Although Bella’s predicament tugged my heartstrings, I held fast my resolve not to adopt her. I lacked patience for grooming a longhair cat except on a whim and declined to assume responsibility for a free-roamer, an irreversible pattern. I ranked ownership of a pet as a serious commitment, and my reluctance combined with Bella’s established norms precluded any claim we might make on each other.

Almost immediately a crew began readying Bella’s abode for renters. Amidst that positive activity, Helen decided to quit the occasional feeding of Bella alongside her own cats and instead to place food at the back door of Bella’s home. Could there be any doubt that future occupants would thrill at finding the charming Bella on their doormat? My arrangements of food and water and sleeping basket required no changes. Doubtless, the prevalence of pleasant weather influenced our optimism.

During the following weeks, telltale behavior hinted at the effects of Bella’s demotion. One morning Bella’s meowing startled me as I watered a patch of newly sprouted grass near the driveway. She eyed me while I “talked” to her, and she “talked back.” Quite unlike her infrequent single meows. One afternoon when I sat on my porch steps reading the mail, she strolled past me, declining the usual petting session, and settled in a flowerbed out of my sight. One evening when I returned from running errands, I surprised her in the living room—Who left that kitchen door open?—where she’d just shared a spray pattern on my TV cabinet.

Another evening as we sat together on my backyard bench, Bella rolled onto her back, inviting a typical tummy rub. When my attention grew lax, she grabbed my arm, signaling me to continue.

“Ouch!”

For a moment my surprise disguised the pain.

“Bella! You bit me!”

Bella escaped the bench. Two punctures on the inside of my lower arm. Bella scrambled over the wooden gate as I hurried to perform first aid on my wound. During the next couple days Bella was nowhere in sight while I tended my injury, grateful that no infection occurred. A few days later when she visited my yard, she eyed me from safe distances. She may have sensed my cold shoulder, yet I imagined the uninterrupted allowance of food and water warmed her innards if not her heart.

By the time the autumn equinox appeared, Bella had formed a perfect fit with the young girl in the family who rented the house with the doormat. I caught up with the grandmother and the girl strolling on the sidewalk one afternoon. My sincere albeit hasty welcome to the neighborhood apparently held little sway over their reclusive lifestyle. Though I willed it to be more, our interaction resulted in little more than smiling and nodding. Rare glimpses of Bella reassured me she was well cared for, and the homeschooled child was never far from her.

One morning after the menu of seasons had served up a year, my doorbell rang. The grandmother and the girl needed a box to hold Bella for a trip to the vet. It took me only a couple minutes to oblige them, and they soon drove away from the cul‑de‑sac. The following days accumulated into a week while I waited expectantly for news of Bella’s recuperation. Since my welcoming overture to the family had failed to encourage communication, I hesitated to inquire.

A few months later, the family quietly moved from our neighborhood.

 

During the year leading up to the taciturn family’s departure, I had accepted Bella’s absence from my everyday life. Yet just a week after they moved I found myself glancing up from my kitchen sink to look out the window, fully expecting to see Bella trotting across my driveway on her appointed rounds. Sadness splintered my spirit. I yearned for Bella’s presence.

Was she alive or dead? Perhaps Bella never recovered from the visit to the vet’s and lay tucked in a shoebox, buried in the backyard across the street.

Maybe Bella thrived in a new neighborhood with the quiet little girl, meeting strangers who fell in love with her as I had.

With that thought, I tingled with expectation.

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