Patio Cat (Copyright 2018 John Dreese)
(A one-page, not-scifi, not-sad story that is a mix of truth and fiction.)
I didn’t grow up with cats. In middle school, my friend Collin used to drop his cat on me and watch as I convulsed in pain when the cats claws came out. The cat didn’t know any better. Collin did, but we were in middle school. We were both idiots.
Instead, I had a dog named Tiger. He was my best friend from first grade through college. Then for many years I didn’t have any pets. When I got married, I inherited a cat. He was a Maine Coone with luscious beautiful fur. At night, he slept on my wife’s head like a hat.
Then I had kids and fell in love all over again. Twins. When they reached the end of elementary school, we adopted a cat. He was an indoor cat and taught me that cats were put on Earth to sleep. Occasionally neighborhood cats would run across our patio and drive our cat crazy. One cat in particular would only visit at night. He was a grey cat and well-fed by somebody. Not us.
Fifth grade for the kids arrived much faster than I thought childhood should. That winter was cold and my kids and I built an insulated box for the patio cat. We could watch him from a back window. When the temperature got below freezing, patio cat would show up, sniff the box, and climb inside. He’d stay all night, leaving around the time we ate breakfast. During all this time, I never saw him up close. Only through the window. And he never meowed or asked for food. Our patio was just a place to snooze.
On the warmer nights he never showed up. Where did he go?
Middle school came and went like a flash. My kids no longer asked to have stories read to them before bedtime. They were getting older. It happens.
Every winter, like clockwork, patio cat would show up on the coldest nights and camp in his box.
When the kids started high school, I was the only one concerned with patio cat anymore. The kids would laugh at my obsession with how patio cat was doing. “It’s Dad’s third child,” they would joke. It was funny. And true. And still, I’d never seen patio cat up close. He was only a visitor in the night, stopping by to sleep.
The drive home from the kids first day of college was strange. I had the Eagles on the radio. The time went very fast. I got home and my wife and I had dinner. I thought I heard the door open, followed by the faint sound of the kids backpacks being thrown on the ground. Nope. Just us.
During the winter of their sophomore year at college, patio cat stopped coming around very often. I think he found some better digs. I guess the elaborate two story cardboard condo I’d built wasn’t fitting the bill anymore. It happens. Even cats move on to bigger apartments.
We had unusually warm weather just before Christmas. I sat out on the patio and read my favorite book. It was my turn to take a cat nap in the soft evening sunset. I woke up to something grazing my fingers. I looked down and patio cat was rubbing his neck on my hand. My third child had returned.
It was the first time I’d ever seen him up close. He had beautiful gray fur and dark yellow eyes. He looked up at me, purring like an old Volkswagen. After a full minute of petting, he trotted over to the cardboard box. Patio cat gave it a few sniffs. Then he peed on it and ran away.
The doorbell just rang. The kids are home from school with lots of laundry and questions about calculus. I can’t wait to tell them who else is back.
Stuck In A Pipe (Copyright 2018 John Dreese)
(Names have been changed to protect the innocent)
I grew up in a neighborhood called Clintonville and it had a waffle grid of streets. They all looked the same except for Walhalla Road. It cut across the landscape like a jagged diagonal gash. As a deep valley without houses, it could’ve been set in medieval times – steep walls hid it from civilization and a tiny road at the bottom meandered next to a babbling brook the entire way.
Growing up, Walhalla Road was between my house and my middle school. I crossed over a dilapidated concrete bridge spanning the valley every day. This school was my only brush with fame, sortof – it’s where the guitarist Joe Walsh went when he was a little kid. That doesn’t really mean anything to anybody, but I still tell people.
At the northern end of the Walhalla valley was Mooney’s Mansion, up on the hill. It was an abandoned house where some guy supposedly killed his family which is why we dared each other to go knock on the door. At the southern end of the valley was a funeral home that had an underground cave system where slaves used to hide on their way to Canada. Aside from those dwellings, there were no other buildings – it was just nature.
As a kid, Walhalla was addictive. After school nearly every day, my friends and I would barrel down the hidden dirt path into the belly of Walhalla, disappearing from our suburb and dropping into another world. On one occasion, this was where our friend Gary showed us the electric guitar he stole from the local music store by shoving the fretboard down his parachute pants and keeping the guitar body hidden inside his winter coat. I’m pretty sure he lied. Walhalla was a great place to hangout for hours on end, but the two biggest attractions for us were the bridge and the castle.
The dilapidated bridge had concrete arches underneath that launched from one side of the valley to the other side. With good shoes and a dose of immortality, anybody brave enough could climb them – the daily dare being to walk up and over the arch. This meant scooting around the vertical piers every few yards which put us close to the edge and, in all honesty, would’ve been instant death from those heights. But we were in middle school and didn’t know death was possible.
Not far away was the Old Brokendown Castle – a mighty stone building perched halfway up the valley wall that had fallen into such disrepair that only two walls and a chimney remained. Nature had consumed most of it back, leaving it as a terrarium for salamanders. Our job, as kids, was to continue the decay process by removing bricks and hurling them into the creek below.
At any given time, some of us were crossing the concrete arch, some of us were in the Castle and some of us were wandering the creek – it was a virtual hive of kids every day.
On this day during my sixth grade year, my friend Ricky and I were stomping through the creek where it flowed under the bridge. There was a large pipe that went just under the road down there. It was big enough to crawl through, but usually half filled with creek water, so we never went through it.
In the distance we heard the rumble of an old 1970’s gas guzzler rolling down the tiny Walhalla Road. Its headlights sent shifting shadows through the woods. But then the headlights turned off as the car came closer while slowing down – we knew that wasn’t good. My buddies in the Castle ducked down. My friend Gary (the lying guitar thief) was at the very top of the concrete arch, suspended 100 feet above our heads. Ricky and I dashed into the pipe filled with nasty creek water.
The car came to a rest on the road just above our heads. Ricky and I stayed wedged in the pipe and didn’t say a word. We heard the car door open. They left the engine running.
“Shouldn’t he be here?” asked the driver.
“Yah, he’s coming. I can see him,” said a different voice.
They both sounded like teenagers. We heard footsteps walking down the same path we used.
“Hey!” the driver yelled. “You’re late!”
“Come on, man, I’m here now, but I got a problem with the money.”
Apparently, the new guy didn’t have the right amount of money to pay for the “stuff” that he’d purchased from the car driver. From the sound of things, that’s when the driver punched the new guy in the stomach. There were some threats about breaking bones too, but I don’t remember exactly what was said because that’s when the first brick hit.
Our friends in the Castle had decided to help us by throwing bricks down from their high position. They were mainly hitting the creek near us and one ricocheted into our pipe. Then one hit the car.
“Hey!” the driver yelled. “I’m gonna kill you kids!” and he started running up the hill toward them. My friends in the Castle booked, climbing up the steep hill and melting into a cluster of back yards.
“Should we run for it?” Ricky asked me.
“Yah, I think so,” I said. We counted to three and bolted out of the pipe, splashing through the creek toward the dirt path.
I stepped on a nail and my curse words echoed throughout the canyon. But Ricky and I went into four-wheeler mode and climbed the hill like it was flat ground. The car driver saw us and yelled, “You little narcs!” and started our way, but he was too far behind to catch us. We were up the valley wall and over into some random back yard before he could even get across the creek.
We didn’t go far, of course, and hid behind a lawn shed so we could look down on the action. My foot was still bleeding.
Our friend Gary, the guitar thief, was laying down at the very top of the concrete arch trying to hide from the teenagers below him. He looked at us, obviously terrified of the beating the car driver would give him if caught.
The driver returned to the road, frustrated. He looked at the guy he’d just punched and said, “Go see if there’s anybody else in the pipe.”
Taking the drivers command, the guy limped to the edge of the creek and ducked his head down to look in the pipe. “Nobody.”
The driver looked angry and slammed his fist on the hood. Then he snapped his fingers and said, “Get in the car.”
They slammed heavy doors shut and drove away. We watched as Gary scooted down the arch. He climbed up the hill, constantly looking back over his shoulders. We headed home. They made me walk in the grass so I wouldn’t leave a bloody footprint trail to our houses on the sidewalk.
At school the next day, we told all our friends about how close we came to getting killed and how we fought the teenagers and scared them away. We never went back down there.
I think we all have a Walhalla Road in our past – where adventures got imprinted in mental clay that’s worn dull over the years. And if you’re lucky like me, some even required a tetanus shot.