I thought the Cat Lady lived in our backyard for the longest time, way out beyond the scraggily pine trees and tall grass. Whenever my friends and I would play back there, we made sure not to run out too far. We knew the Cat Lady lived somewhere out there, at the rear of our long, deep yard.
As I got older I realized that she actually lived on the street behind us, deep on her lot, as hidden from the world as possible. It made me feel better knowing that she didn’t share our property. The Cat Lady scared me.
But even so, as a teenager I did venture back to her property twice. The first time I had just turned 13 and a couple of my girlfriends were at my house for a sleepover. That night as we became more hyper and giddy, playing games of truth or dare and drinking way too much soda, we decided to sneak out back and try to catch a glimpse of the Cat Lady.
It was after midnight when we snuck out of the house and ran through the backyard, the tall grass already wet with dew. The low moon cast shadows of us on the slippery grass – three paper dolls in the dark weaving to and fro.
We had barely made it past the property line when we saw her. The Cat Lady was outside in the moonlight trying to catch fireflies. There was a line of mason jars on her wrecked picnic table, glass prisons winking with the taillights of the bugs.
We watched as she trapped another firefly in a jar. She moved towards the picnic table with her prize, her witchy hair hanging lank in her face, covering one eye. In the glow of the moon it looked as though the Cat Lady possessed only half a face. Suddenly she turned towards where we stood in the trees, her eyes piercing the woods. We were sure she couldn’t see us – we were far enough back to be in the shadows – but she stared long enough that we began to panic. As if reading each other’s minds, the three of us pivoted as one and ran screaming back through the pine trees and tall grass to the warmth of my parents’ house. I made sure to double lock the backdoor behind us. My father scolded us for making so much noise in the middle of the night but I didn’t mind. I was glad to see that he was safe-guarding the house.
A few years later, when I was 15 and feeling brave and invincible, I decided to visit the Cat Lady again. I was going to write an essay about her for my journalism class and I wanted to interview her. Although this meant I had to walk over to her property, again – and alone, this time – it wasn’t going to be in the dead of night, this time. I may have been older but I wasn’t stupid enough to venture over there in the dark again. She was still a complete mystery to me and, while I was pretty sure she wasn’t an actual witch, that didn’t mean she wasn’t crazy or dangerous.
A week before my essay was due I made my way through our backyard and past the trees that separated the two properties. When I crossed the border and stepped into her yard, I was shocked at how much worse it looked in the light of day. There was a legion of long, stringy vines and tall weeds in her yard pushing right up to the edge of her house. An old, rusted trash can sat in a small opening and a fine finger of smoke rose from it, sputtering to its end. The wrecked picnic table was still there, worn even more so two years later. I noticed a trail that appeared to lead away from her house to what I assumed was the other street although everything was so overgrown it was hard to tell for sure.
I picked my way through the scrubby, wild grass to her ‘house’ – a word I use loosely. It was actually little more than a shack with tarpaper walls and a thatched roof. I wondered how she survived in a place like that through the seasons. One good storm and it looked as though it would topple over like the third scoop of an ice cream cone.
I approached the place warily, swiveling my head back and forth, making sure she wasn’t staked out in her yard somewhere. I know I should have just walked up the stoop and knocked at her front door, but now, actually on her property and close to the Cat Lady herself, I found myself starting to sweat. It was damn creepy there and the memory of her half-face during that dark night two years ago crowded my thoughts.
Still, I crept slowly towards the house until I was against its side. My heart was thudding, loud and afraid, but I also felt stupid. Why had I decided that writing essay on the Cat Lady was a good idea, I asked myself?
It was then that I decided to forget it all and go back home. I turned to leave but at the last second I couldn’t resist the urge to peek in the low window just to the left of me. I had to blink my eyes several times at what I saw. The entire room was moving; the floor, the furniture, the shelves – all in constant motion. It made my stomach drop, the undulation of it all, and I stuttered back for a moment, unsure and queasy. When I stepped back to the window I realized it wasn’t the objects in the room that were moving, it was her cats. There were dozens of them in all shapes and colors, mewing and wailing, climbing, jumping, sleeping.
Suddenly a group of cats moved together at once and I realized it was her – the Cat Lady – underneath them all, covered by her pets. As though by instinct she turned exactly towards the window I was at and cast her eyes directly at mine.
And then she smiled.
I fell backwards on my butt and spider walked my legs until I could stand again.
And then I fled.
I didn’t tell anyone about my encounter with the Cat Lady that warm, spring day. I’m not sure why. Maybe I was afraid the Cat Lady would send her mountains of cats to climb all over me, weigh me down and suffocate me. Maybe I thought that I had been stupid to have spied on her in the first place and would get in trouble if anyone knew. Who knows? But it wasn’t too long thereafter that I heard my parents talking at the dinner table about a Miss Jensen and how she had over 60 cats living with her in a one-room house when animal control came and took them all away. The fact that the Cat Lady had such a normal, harmless name – Miss Jensen – made me suddenly feel sorry for her at losing all her cat friends in one, fell swoop like that. I asked my parents what happened to her.
“Oh, she’s still living in the same place,” my father told me. “I’ve heard that she’s taking in strays again, already. She just loves cats.”
“She’s a millionaire,” my mother piped in and I stared at her, mouth open.
“She inherited a lot of money from her grandfather years ago. I think she kept very little for herself – just enough to live on. I remember there was an article on her in the newspaper after she donated the money and it said all she ever wanted was to live alone and help stray cats.”
“She does get carried away, though,” my father piped in, “and every few years she has to call the Humane Society to help get her cats adopted. They always do. After all, she gave almost all of her inheritance – two million dollars, if I recall – to them.”
And then I remembered – the short, squat building that sat right next to the Humane Society on Center Street: The Janice Jensen Cat Shelter and Adoption Center.
I laughed at myself and my parents looked up from their dinner plates briefly, but I just smiled and went back to my meal.
(photo credit: Tracie Harris)