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Chapter Ten

 

The Old Woman’s Zoo

 

 

 

In the land of giants, Sheldon, Tanya, and Penny, three more members of the species felis catus, made their way through a hostile maze of feral cats and dogs, unfriendly humans, and sudden and dangerous turns.  So far, in their quest to survive, they had found an unoccupied crate in an alley to hole up in, but today, as hunger and thirst plagued them, they had been forced to leave their haven to find sustenance.  Sheldon, of course, was the first to suggest this.  Penny, who still seemed to be in shock, didn’t protest.  Tanya, who wanted to protest, seemed to be too exhausted and overwrought to try.

          With great trepidation, therefore, the trio had exited the crate, looking back fondly at this warm refuge, which the philosophical Sheldon saw as sort of primal womb.  As the leader, he was afraid to move too fast least Penny linger in the shadows and become lost or move to slow and allow the impulsive Tanya to charge ahead of him into the path of a moving vehicle and be crushed to death.  At this point, barely a half hour after they had left the crate, Sheldon, who had the greatest challenge of all the cats, nudged the two females along tirelessly, almost lovingly, moving back and forth from front to rear in a fashion similar to a dog shepherding sheep.

          The safest place for them in the light of day was not the alley anyway, he had convinced the girls.  The alleys of this part of the city were filled with all sorts of dangers, foremost of which were the crazed derelicts roaming the streets.  Trotting inexhaustibly back and forth down the boulevard as he coaxed the females along, Sheldon was at the end of his wits as he listened to Tanya gripe and prevented the catatonic Penny from walking off by herself.

          “I’m tired…. I’m hungry…. When can we stop?” Tanya groaned.

          “Come on girls,” he prodded them gently, “we have to find food and drink.  We should find a restaurant next to an alley where we can rummage through its garbage.  They throw perfectly good food away at times; we should be able to scrounge up a meal.”

          “I told you,” Tanya hissed, “I’m not eating garbage.  I wanna Big Mac.  I wanna coke and fries.”

          At that point, even the taciturn Penny looked at Tanya in disbelief.  Sheldon was encouraged by this reaction and nestled her affectionately as the trio paused on the street.  In many ways, Penny, a sleek and ruddy Abyssinian, personified the deep, inexplicable mysteries of her breed.

          Above them, looming what seemed to be miles up into the bleak sky, the dark buildings contrasted the bursts of warm light from the storefronts lining the street.  Pawn shops, liquor stores, and retail stores had begun to sprout up as they left skid row, but so far there were no restaurants sitting next to alleys or dumpsters that were visible from the street.  The sidewalks and gutters were cleaner now and there were fewer derelicts up here, but there was much more traffic now and consequently more dangers when they crossed the street.  Several times Sheldon hissed at Tanya for not paying attention to such threats.  At one point, as he looked ahead and saw a McDonalds on the corner of Eighth and Main, he panicked when Tanya bolted ahead.

          “Stop you stupid woman!” He cried out in her head. “Wait for the green light.  Don’t you dare run that light!”

          “Big Mac, coke, fries!” She replied in rote.

          Looking back at Penny now, he said simply as if he was talking to his pet Irish Setter “Sit!” and raced frantically toward the scampering cat.  The wide boulevard now teeming with morning traffic was barely a city block ahead when Sheldon began to gradually gain ground.  Penny sat serenely watching him charge ahead, the thought fixed in the darkness of her brain that she was lost but was among friends who would feed and protect her.  She was going nowhere.  There was nowhere to go.  Through the sluggish legs of early morning shoppers and passed a street lined with noisy cars, Tanya and Sheldon darted in and out, until on the very threshold of the thoroughfare, Tanya ran squarely into the legs of a woman pedestrian on the sidewalk.  The woman let out a yelp and swiped at her with her cane.  Sheldon realized, after seeing the way she struck out while staring straight ahead, that the woman was blind.  This fact helped save the dodging Tanya from being clubbed to death and allowed Sheldon a chance to get in front of her and stop her in her tracks, as the woman ambled on her way.

          “So help me Tanya, I’ll fight you before I let you run across the street.”

          “It’s green now,” she hissed and spat, “get out of my way!  I’m going to cross!”

          “We’ll wait for Penny,” he transmitted menacingly. “It’ll turn green again.  We’re not leaving Penny behind!”

          “I hate Penny,” wailed Tanya. “I hate that stupid bitch!  She’s slowing us down.  This is all her fault!”

          “No, listen to me,” Sheldon’s feline face tried its best to show emotion now, “India Crowley is at fault here, not poor Penny.  She’s not slowing us down, you are by this nonsense.   I told her to wait for me back there.” “Now come on Tanya,” he nudged her with his nose, “I’m worried about Penny.  She might wander away in her state of mind.  That will be your fault!”

          Trotting reluctantly behind Sheldon after his rebuke, she continued to bristle, emitting an occasional hiss, until they reached the spot where Penny had been.  A visual line between the legs of advancing pedestrians told him that Penny was gone.

          “Oh my God!” Sheldon lamented. “She didn’t wait.  Look what you’ve finally done Tanya.  She knew you she didn’t like her.  Now she’s gone!”

          “I-I didn’t mean to,” Tanya’s snout quivered, “I’m sorry—”

          “Stow it Tanya!  It’s too late for that.  I don’t have the foggiest notion where she’s at.  I don’t see her up and down the street.  She could be anywhere now!”

          “What about this alley?” Tanya thought desperately.  “There’s doors in back of these buildings.  Maybe she ran into one of them.”

          “Well, let’s go find out,” he retorted, scampering ahead of her, “she couldn’t have gone far.”

 

                                                                       ******

          Sheldon felt great sorrow for Penny and only anger at the repentant Tanya now.  For several moments the pair ran down the alley, sniffing and looking each way, hoping that Penny had merely stopped to recline somewhere in her dulled state of mind.  When they reached a midpoint in the passage, however, both cats were exhausted and nearly out of their minds with dismay.  It seemed to be an endless alley with nothing but dirty back doors and barred up entries along the way.  There was no sign of a living soul in this corridor let alone a small Abyssinian cat.  When, with much less confidence, Sheldon and Tanya decided to continue on, they could finally hear, after a few more moments, a distant telepathic surge: a plaintive cry, that of a cat in distress, rising in volume in their heads as a sonar blip on a submarine from an approaching ship.

          “Penny!” Sheldon cried.

          “What if it’s just another cat?” Tanya looked ahead with dread.

          “No, that’s alarm we feel, Tanya, human alarm,” Sheldon insisted, scampering ahead toward the source of the noise.

          Tanya followed reluctantly behind, fearful of the unknown.  Seeing Sheldon dart sharply to the right several meters ahead, almost paralyzed with fear, Tanya now called out to her protector: “Wait! You’re going to fast!”

          No longer in his proximity, Tanya became immediately disoriented by the in and out, sonar-like, instructions transmitted.

          “Tanya,” came the broken message of her fiancÚ, “…this corridor… Penny’s voice… not far ahead!”

          “What?  You’re breaking up,” she called out frantically to Sheldon. “Which corridor?…. Which way did you go?”

          Suddenly, one of the denizens who roamed the boundaries of skid row, emerged from a dark corner ahead, reached down and grabbed Tanya by the nape of her neck, and began to carry her back into the darkness from wince it came.  The little Siamese spat, clawed, and hissed continually, but to no avail, as the creature carried her into a small backyard beneath a single gnarled tree to a cage in the corner of the yard.

          There, in what looked to Tanya very much like one of the rabbit cages her grandfather had kept on his farm, sat none other than her fiancÚ Sheldon and Penny Gruber.  Swiftly, before the other two could escape, the lid was opened by the creature, Tanya was dropped in, and the lid was latched quickly shut again.  It was only then that Tanya, looking back with momentary relief, could see the old women walk away into her shadowy house.

          “Now you’ve done it!” she spat at Penny. “Your little zombie routine has landed us all into a cage!”

          “No-No-No!” Sheldon vigorously shook his head. “Penny was grabbed by that lady just like you and me.  It might be my fault for leading you into this trap, but it’s your fault Tanya for getting us into this jam, not poor Penny’s.  This would never have happened in the first place if you hadn’t taken off like you did!”

          “My fault!  My fault?” screeched Tanya. “You run into a trap and it’s my fault?

          The sounds emitted from the cage sounded typical for angry cats.  The old lady looked out her timeworn door and smiled.  Tanya and Sheldon were both hissing and wagging their tales, whereas Penny suddenly humped her back up as the old woman approached, indicating feline alarm. 

The old woman was returning with two dishes in her gnarled hands: cat food and water.  She had a kindly face.  Her balding head and ragged dress and coat made her seem like one of the homeless folks roaming the streets, and yet she obviously had this small shack to live in and could afford to feed three cats.  Upon opening the lid, Sheldon was tempted to leap up and out in order to escape these daffy girls.  One of them wouldn’t talk and the other one wouldn’t shut up.  Is this how I’m going to spend eternity?  He asked himself, forgetting that the others could read his thoughts.

          “I’m sorry,” he said simply now, looking down at the cat food and bowl of water deposited by the crone. “Let’s eat!”

 

                                                                       ******

          As Buck and his gang continued their odyssey across town, Sheldon, Tanya, and Penny sat forlornly in the backyard of the old lady, looking out of their cage.

          “I’m not eating cat food!” Tanya mentally protested with a pouty little meow.

          “It’s not so bad,” Sheldon said spiritedly. “Come on Tanya and Penny, eat up; we need our strength, so we can escape.”

          “You keep talking about escaping,” Tanya sneered. “You still haven’t come up with a plan.  Come on, mister hot shot, give us a clue!”

          “The plan is simple,” he said patiently. “We wait for the old bitch to reach into our cage and then we spring!”

          “That’s not a plan,” Tanya snorted, “that’s an act of desperation!  That crazy old woman will club us to death!”

          At just that moment, they both looked back in the cage to catch Penny nibbling at the dish of food.

          “Oh my God.” Tanya made a face. “She’s eating that stuff!  She’s must really be gone!”

          “I dunno.” Sheldon pressed in toward Penny. “She’s got her appetite back.  Maybe that’s a good sign!” “Penny,” he tested, “is that good?  Do you really like that shit?”

          “It tastes like my mother’s meatloaf,” Penny relayed mentally, munching thoughtfully on her food.

          Sheldon and Tanya rubbed up excitedly against their companion, surprised and delighted by her response.

          “Penny!  You’re all right now!” Sheldon exclaimed. “We thought you were nuts!”

          “Oh, I’ve always been nuts,” she said matter-of-factly, ready to shovel more in. “I’ve just had so much on my mind.  My head seemed so crowded when India turned me into a cat.  I guess I was in shock, but I don’t really mind being a cat.”

          “Don’t say that,” Tanya scolded her. “Shame on you for saying such a thing!”

          “Yeah, Penny,” Sheldon agreed. “You don’t want to wander around scrounging for hand-outs and shelter all your life.  I used to hate cats.  Now I realize how special they are and how mistreated they are, but I don’t want to be one of them.  What kind of life would this be, Penny.  We got to escape.  I need you gals with me on this!”

          “Tanya is right,” Penny looked up from the plate, “the old woman would kill us before she’d let us go.”

          “Do you have a better idea?” Sheldon asked, looking at each female now.

          “Yes,” murmured Penny, “as a matter of fact, I do.”

          Walking over to the cage door, she pointed with her snout, thinking, “that’s not the way.”

          “Then tell us, already,” Tanya sneered.

          “I think we should play dead,” she said simply. “People don’t keep dead things around.  They throw them away.”

          “That’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard,” Tanya exclaimed in amazement. “She’d probably have us stuffed.”

          “Wait a minute,” Sheldon thought, nudging Tanya’s head, “that might be a good idea.”

          “What?” Tanya started. “You’ve been a cat too long.  Your brains are addled.  Play dead?  Are you serious Sheldon?”

          “What is the first thing you’d do if you found one of your pets lying dead in its cage?” He tried to reason with her.

          “Well,” Tanya considered, “… I wouldn’t pick it up right away.  I’d go get some newspaper or a rag to pick it up.”

          “Precisely,” Sheldon said enthusiastically, “and what else would you do or shall I say not do?

          “Shut the door!” cried Penny. “Oh, I like his mind.” She turned for agreement to Tanya then.

          “Back off, woman.” snarled Tanya. “I liked you better when you were mute!”

          “This is no time for petty jealousies,” Sheldon chided her now. “I think this might work.  We’ll wait until we hear the squeak of her back door, and then we’ll get in freaky positions.”

          “Freaky?  I’m not sure what you mean?” Tanya rubbed up against him coyly. “You sure you don’t mean kinky?  I know what kinky means.”

          “You sure are stupid,” Penny thought, shaking her head.

          “Tanya knows what freaky means too,” Sheldon tried to smile. “It’s like in road-kill.  Come on, girls, you’ve seen dead things before.”

          “Ooooh yuck.” Tanya shuddered. “I ignore such horrors.”

          “Here’s an example,” Sheldon dropped down, rolling over on his back and sticking out his paws.”

          “And like this,” Penny, dropped to her side and stuck out her tongue.

          “I can do that,” Tanya said petulantly. “Watch this!”

          Tanya rolled onto her side too, stuck out her paws rigidly as had Sheldon and let her tongue hang out of her mouth, similar to Penny’s pose.  Clearly, Tanya’s pose was the best.

          “Well, we know one thing for sure,” Sheldon observed. “There’s only so many positions a dead cat can take.  I think our basic positions will do.”

          “Now that this is settled,” sighed Penny, “let’s eat.  I’m famished!”

          “Move over,” Sheldon joined her at the dish.

           “Yuck,” gagged Tanya, “I’d rather starve!”

 

 

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