The Return of the King
Updated: Sep 14, 2022
On November 2, 2019, our cat went missing. On January 11, 2021, fully one year, two months, and nine days later, he showed up again at the Vet Clinic. His coat is healthy, his missing tooth has mysteriously healed, and he's put on weight. The microchip says he's the same cat, and so does his response to Sophie, which is one of endless purring. Here are some pictures of his return. We are obviously overjoyed but also perplexed. How did he survive both winters? With 2020 being a COVID year, how was he able to live in a bingo hall, a restaurant, or a church, none of which would be open? Why did he decide to return after over 400 days? I guess we'll never know.
But first he has to escape.
On Saturday morning, November 2, 2019, Lionel got into a cat fight. At least we think it was a cat - he arrived at the door with one fang missing. Janette sprang into action, and the vet agreed to see him immediately. There were two additional problems: I was away, and couldn't take him, and Janette had to teach a workshop. So she called Sophie, who willingly agreed to come over in her shiny new Honda and take her cat (it was always Sophie's cat) to the vet. Problem solved: full marks to Sophie for rising to the occasion, and another demerit for Dad, whose absence was made worse by the fact that he had left town to play Scrabble.
Except that the problems were just beginning. Sophie called Janette from the vet, utterly inconsolable. The cat had pissed all over the car, scratched Sophie as soon as the door opened, squirmed out of her grasp, and run away into a junkyard. Sophie, still recovering from an ACL injury, couldn't catch him. Lionel was gone.
Berwick is an interesting area of town. It is a kind of nowhere, as Jan Morris describes Trieste in Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere, a place that is literally off the map. Like the stairwells of parking lots and the spaces between airport terminals, it must exist, but you never see it. Next to the Animal Clinic is a bingo hall, a truck garage, a UPS freight center, and a banqueting house that now offers meals on card tables to local residents. There used to be an excellent mini-golf place there but it's closed. The anchor mall, Eastland, is mainly known for shootings and Lids, a store that sells hats. Looking for a cat in that landscape is like looking for a golf ball on the surface of the moon.
Calming Sophie down was never going to happen - I've seen her go incandescent at the unfairness of the universe since she was 4, and it's an unstoppable force of nature with the power of several suns. "WHY DIDN'T YOU GIVE ME A BOX???" Lionel's never had a box. He's not that kind of cat: he sleeps on the porch during the day and prowls at night. We have a collection of his abandoned collars and tags that we find everywhere. He's owned the neighborhood since 2008, and sometimes goes on walks with the two dogs unattended. (Olive and Bertie need leashes at all times, being the kind of breed that runs into traffic, but Lionel keeps guard.) Here he is playfighting in the garden:
Janette finished the workshop early, and staked out the area. No luck. A whole world of feral cats behind the banqueting house. Truckers receiving blowjobs from prostitutes. Drug deals. On her last trip out that night she took a golf club with her. (I have her own report for this - to protect my sensitive heart and not to ruin my Scrabble tournament, all information was withheld until I drove back from Asheville on Sunday night.) She spent forty-five minutes trying to open a hole in the wire fence to the junkyard at the spot where Lionel was last seen. A squad car pulled over and told her to move on. She spent the night in tears.
At this point, you may be wondering where this story is going. I did the same driving in the dark from Asheville to Bristol on I-26, hearing the narrative that had been honed to perfection at a retirement party on Saturday evening, discovering that what had begun as a funny story was still horribly unresolved. On Sunday Sophie and her friend Harley scoured the area without success. On Monday morning I got up early and took the dogs on a Lionel hunt. We spent 2 hours in the area, making sure that the scent was laid down well. Lionel loved the dogs and would come back to them. A small tin bowl of Lionel's cat food was left beside the dumpster.
I met and named all the local wildlife: Greybeard, who was completely unafraid of the doggos, Patches, who reared up like a cartoon cat, and Snowball, her kitten.
There were at least a dozen of them, presided over by Alice, a big orange tabby who looked a bit like Lionel, and had the habit of disappearing at will.
In the back of the banqueting house, next to the electric fence that protects the UPS distribution center, I hit the jackpot. In some corner of a forgotten field was a riot of kennels and boxes filled with hay, loosely circling an area strewn with dry cat food.
Kitty heaven. If Lionel could hold his own, even with a tooth missing, with this group, he would be the King of the Cats.
The staff at the Animal Clinic knew the feral village well. "They eat Italian every night," said one, as she promised to look out for Lionel. Over at the truck garage, a man called Elias said he would look out for him too. I returned later in the afternoon with posters, which the lady at the banqueting house said she would give to the cooks in the back, who took care of the cats. The man at the garage on the other side of the bingo hall was sympathetic, as was the bingo hall manager, a pinched thin blonde woman in a long black dress. The Somali owners of the truck repair place offered to let me tape a poster to their glass door, but then recommended that I put it on a telephone pole for better visibility.
I took another long walk around, said goodbye to Alice and Patches, and went home.
I still don't know how this story ends. But I have learned something about microcommunities. The little village of feral cats has blossomed out of nothing, lovingly curated by a couple of cooks in a basically deserted waste land in a triangle of nowhere off of state route 33. The ten or fifteen people eating at the card tables in the banqueting house pay a small amount of cash for decent food every lunch time, behind the doors of a basically closed store. The bingo hall is surprisingly full at 2 in the afternoon on a Monday. The United States of America is full of small groups of people who have shared a common tragedy. The New York Times did a fascinating piece about fifteen years ago about the community of highway memorial curators, who go from site to site refreshing the flowers, remembering a day when their lives changed forever. Halfway between Columbus and Cleveland there is a McDonald's that serves as the exchange place for children of split families who live on each side of those two urban areas. I know this because it also serves as the place where I would bring our dogs to stay with grandma. McDonald's knows this because they upgraded the restaurant (it's at Exit 169 near Mansfield) to include a fireplace unit, because so many parents and children were waiting there to effect the transfer. I expect that halfway between every two major cities in the country within three hours distance of one another, there is a similar place. It is a place where nothing happens. A nowhere place commemorating a shared grief. And that is now, for me, the corner of Refugee Road and the Winchester Pike that is the last place we saw Lionel, his tail just eluding the grasp of the man who chased after the cat after it scratched Sophie and ran, disappearing between a gap in the fence on his way into the junkyard.
First update (from November 19, 2019): After two weeks of fruitless searching, it's now clear that Lionel was picked up by a trucker and is now in Arizona. Or that he decided that the life of a junkyard cat was too good to resist. The cook at the banqueting house has the flyer and will look out for him, as will the dog exercisers at the vet, and the lady in the health clinic attached to the enormous church of the Living God. The Berwick spy network is on the case, as is Pet FBI. We will keep expecting him to show up at the back door, as Olive and Bertie do. Goodbye Lionel: you really were the King of the Cats.
Second update (from January 11, 2021): He came back! And for the next eighteen months he lived happily on our front porch. (Which he is doing right now.)