My wife, Carrie and I nuzzled into a cozy small one bedroom apartment on the third floor of a courtyard-building on the upper northside of Chicago, known as East Rogers Park. We lived there for a couple of years back in the early 1990’s. I worked in the city and my train stop was on Jarvis street, the last stop before reaching Evanston. We mostly kept to ourselves, but Carrie did have a few close friends in the building including an elderly woman named Alice who took a real shine to Carrie, leaving her some antique jewelry when she passed away. We found living in Chicago exciting and full of wonderful things to fill our weekly calendars.
The “U” shaped courtyard was surrounded by a three story brownstone apartment building, housed several large trees and a couple of squirrels that passed the days running back and forth from tree to tree. I never knew if they were lovers or enemies. Sometimes this is hard to determine regardless of the specie. The landscape was well maintained, complete with garden after garden of flowers. We lived in a nice neighborhood. But there was always talk of petty crime just behind your shoulder. Living in an urban setting, it is best to keep your eyes open.
The building itself had no working elevators so hauling groceries and other items up three flights of stairs was never much fun, but we were young and took to the task without much complaint. Arriving on the third level, our front door faced another door across the hall with neighbors we did not know. One day they moved out and someone else moved in. We met the young couple on moving day and I had a strange feeling about them. I’m 61 years old now, and if there is one thing I’ve learned to count on over the years, it’s my gut. That day, my gut told me that the woman was not threatening to us, but the man, well…
It was some time later one evening when we were interrupted from our weekly routine in front of the television with Jerry Seinfeld and his gang. We heard a loud knock at our door and muted the tv, turning to the hallway. Upon opening the door, we found our new neighbors standing in the corridor. “Hello, sorry to bother you but we are leaving town for a week, a family issue we need to deal with in New York City. Is there any chance you could keep an eye on our cats while we are away? We have a key here if you are interested. It would be a great help to us.” I struggled to look into the man’s eyes, but the woman had a sincere smile and so, “of course we will” we responded, accepting the keys. They guided us across the hall to their open door and into their unit. I was startled to learn they had six cats. We were led into the kitchen and given some quick instructions on what the cat’s expectations were going to be while they were away. A couple of them followed us in to make sure we got the rules right. No mistakes please.
I remember walking back to our place and thinking to myself, “What do you call a group of cats?” This story predates the internet, so I had to look into my encyclopedia (third book) to learn more about this question. Clowder. A group of cats are called a clowder. A clowder of cats was what lived across from us. Fun fact on our encyclopedia collection. The sixth book was resting in the middle of the letter “G”. So, it always made me laugh when I looked along the row of books and saw book number six identified as, “Girl to Grab”. After closer inspection, alas, it was just an encyclopedia book. But, back to the clowder. There’s a story here that needs to get told.
After having met said clowder, Carrie and I settled back into our weekly episode of Jerry Seinfeld. This was back in the day when you had to still be in the right place at the right time if you were going to see your favorite tv show. Times have certainly changed with today’s technology and video streaming. We watched it and laughed over a couple of beers, leaving popcorn between the sofa cushions and then headed off to bed for the night. Got to love Jerry. He could really tell a great story about nothing.
The next two days were jammed-packed with Todo lists and other errands that had become quite pressing. Trips to the grocery store, butcher, shoe cobbler (yes, shoe cobbler), and dry cleaning. These stops and more kept us busy throughout the weekend. The weekend highlight was a visit from my brother and partner, Mark. We made a full night out of recording videos and eating Leona’s pizza. Great times and loads of fun. But as it would have it, another Monday morning was knocking on the door and that meant work and time schedules, commitments and promises, etc. You know the drill.
Tuesday proved to be a very interesting day. At work, my team had decided to take a day off work and fieldtrip it to Wrigley Field to take in a Cubs baseball game. I always looked forward to the seventh-inning stretch, singing in the arena was awesome. For more arena fun you can always check out my story about Elton John and a Full Bladder, but for now, let’s keep on schedule. Tuesday… check the box. Now, Wednesday.
Wednesday was another interesting day. I took the day off because we had been anticipating a delivery of a 36″ tube color tv. It was massive and heavy. The only way up to the third floor was the outside back stairwell. The delivery man did not have any extra help so I had to pitch in. I remember by the time I got to the last flight of stairs, the knuckles on both my hands were bloody from rubbing up against the exterior red brick walls in the stairwell. I paid him a handsome tip and found the box of bandages to stop the bleeding. That afternoon, Carrie returned from work and we decided a bike ride to the lake was a good idea. Riding along Lake Michigan on a bike is always a fun exercise. At one intersection though I abruptly slammed on my brakes to avoid some pedestrians and their dog. But Carrie could not stop fast enough. She slammed into the back of my bike and tumbled to the ground. Fortunately she was okay, just a few scrapes, but the Hemphill family was going through a lot of bandages that day. Better put bandages on our shopping list. Dusted off and ready to bike a bit more, we meandered further south to enjoy a summer evening in Chicago. The beaches and the bike paths were strewn with locals and visitors all falling in love with a great American city, like we did again and again.
Thursday, I awoke early preparing for a new work day, I shaved and found something in the fridge for the two of us to breakfast on. Finishing my coffee, I turned to Carrie to say goodbye as I fumbled for my house keys. My key ring had an extra key on it.
“HOLY SH*T!!! THE CATS!!! THE CATS!!! I have completely forgotten about the CATS!!!!”
They haven’t eaten in three days, no wait, four days! We ran out of our apartment across the hall and neared the door. I quietly slid the key into the lock and gently turned the key. I have owned cats long enough to know it is near impossible to sneak up on them, so I expected a full on confrontation that is if they were still alive. Oh boy, they were alive! We had never heard so much cussing & yelling coming from so many cats all at once! But then something amazing happened. As we approached the kitchen with the stack of unopened cat tins, cats began to flock around us. One jumped, touched my buttocks and landed on my right shoulder. He began licking my ear. By the time we turned into the kitchen, another cat had sprung into Carrie’s arms. Two more passed us by and hopped up onto the kitchen counter indicating where the food was, just in case we needed any guided support.
I must have opened six or seven cans. It just didn’t seem to be enough food. This clowder was finally feasting and we could not keep the feeding dishes full. Water was dispensed in large quantities to them while they gorged. All cats alive, all cats eating and drinking. Now, for the last part, the worst. The dreaded litter boxes…
To my utter surprise, they were full, but not in a bad, neglected, cat-savage way I’ve seen before in my life. I wrote it off as they probably had not been using it since they hadn’t had any food for so many days in a row. I went back into the kitchen and a cat, the small white one, danced up to me and leapt into the air, I extended my hands at the last moment and caught her. She looked deep into my eyes as if to say, “Thou Art My Savior”, and with heavy guilt in my heart, I calmed her down and set her down on the living room sofa, scratching her behind her ears. Our work here was done. We left, turning the key and locking the door. No more meal misses occurred on our watch.
“Later that week, I turned to Carrie and inquired, “Did we return the key to our neighbors?” She went to my bedside in our master bedroom and confirmed that I still had their key. “Well, they have been home a week now, right?” I need to get this back to them. “We never see them. I think they work nights.” Carrie said. “I think you are right.” We tried calling them, but the scribbled down number proved to be wrong and the rude person on the other end hung up on us. So what to do? I decided I would open the front door and put the key just inside on a small table and stay up late listening to when they come in and tell them. But when I opened their front door the man was lying on a sofa across the room. Eyes wide open and staring at me. He was snoring, only like my father could do, snoring with eyes wide open. I left the key with a short note and closed the door. My gut is never wrong, that guy was weird. Sorry clowder!
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