It was an odd sequence of events that began with a tickle on my neck and ended with me trying to explain to a police officer why I was sitting in my car, under a tree, next to the lake, with a vehicle full of imprisoned cats.
About a week ago, I was lounging on the couch, watching some skuzzy reality show on TV, when I thought I detected something itching around my collar. Probably just an allergic reaction to the quality of the program, I thought, some mild communicable disease I had picked up from a syphilitic bachelorette. (Disease transmission via television, turns out, is rampant in these days of high-def programming).
When I went to scratch my neck, I looked down into my lap to discover a large roach, about three inches in length, strolling down my thigh.
Having been born and raised in the subtropics of Miami, I’m usually not alarmed by unexpected wildlife encounters. Where I grew up, it was not uncommon to find giant bufo toads hopping around the backyard, at least until I ran over them with the lawn mower. We had alligators in drainage ditches, chameleons all over our shrubbery, poisonous snakes working the drive-through at McDonald’s. My mother still proudly tells the story of the time we removed a dying tree from our property, then woke up the next morning to find a window so darkened by the coverage of palmetto bugs that you couldn’t see out.
So to me, a roach is not a big deal. But to my family, raised in more civilized parts of the country, it was a huge deal. I made an appointment with the exterminator.
The nice lady at the aptly named Killingsworth Pest Control answered my questions patiently. The treatment would take about an hour, and could be scheduled for Monday. They couldn’t guarantee a completely roach-free lifestyle after they were finished, but we should see a significant decrease in vermin. It was okay for humans to be in the house while the spraying was done, however it would be a good idea to remove any pets.
“Some people will schedule vet appointments while we’re there,” she said. “Or maybe just take them for a nice ride in the car.”
In my home, all the pets are cats. Unlike dogs, they are not familiar with the idea of a “nice ride in the car.” You rarely see cats driving down the road, their heads straining out the window to feel the onrushing air in their slobbery jowls. That’s a dog thing. The cat thing is to cower in a puddle of your own vomit while howling at ear-splitting volumes.
When the appointed afternoon arrived, our plan was in place to evacuate our three cats into three separate cat carriers, and put them in my car. I was to crank up the air conditioning, drive to a shady location and wait with Harriet, Taylor and Tom until we were called with the all-clear signal. Beth would supervise the bug guy and make sure he didn’t spray any pyrethrum on our toothbrushes.
We maneuvered the cats into their respective cages without too much trouble, though Harriet did put up a respectable resistance. As the more elderly cat of the three — she’s about 13 — I would place her carrier next to me in the front seat. She would ride shotgun and I would calm her as we drove. Tom and Taylor would take up the back seat. I positioned their cages so the open ends were facing away from each other, since imprisoned cats are not known for comforting their comrades.
I drove toward Winthrop Lake, a tree-covered recreation area about two miles from our home. Marie howled piteously the entire route, while the two backseat cats were a bit more restrained.
“Don’t worry,” I told them. “We’re not going to the vet. We’re just going for a little ride in the car. You guys don’t get out much anymore and I thought you might enjoy a trip to the park.”
When my quiet, deliberate speaking tone didn’t seem to work, I turned on the radio. Neal Conan was hosting “Talk of the Nation” on NPR, and that man’s voice could soothe a caffeinated Jack Russell. The meowing started to subside just as we pulled into the park.
I knew that next to motion sickness, my biggest concern in maintaining the cat’s health would be the temperature of the car. It was almost 90 degrees outside, and the full-blast air conditioning of my Civic could provide only so much relief. If I parked under a tree near the cooling breeze that came off the lake, we should be comfortable.
Once the car had stopped moving, everybody settled down. Outside, I could see a few college students playing Frisbee across the way. A slightly older man was roller-blading on the road that ran around the lake. Young moms were dropping their children off at a nearby rec building for some kind of after-school enrichment. Inside my car, Neal was transitioning out of a discussion of the 2008 banking crisis, which all three cats agreed was a wake-up call to the perils of capitalism run amok. Though they had been very upset about the bailout at the time, they had now calmed down nicely.
When he returned from the break, Neal introduced his next guest. The man was an ex-pat American who had grown up in Chile, and was on the show to discuss how the current entombment there of 33 miners represented a recurring theme in a Chilean culture that had relied for two centuries on the extraction of minerals for the nation’s economic survival.
“Children learn from a young age that entrapment is something that can happen,” the man told Neal. “There’s a certain mythology to it in Chile, not unlike how Americans feel about the adventures of the Wild West.”
Harriet stirred in her cage. Taylor started poking a clawed paw through one of his breathing holes. Tom began turning in tight circles, rocking his carrier back and forth. Clearly, they were not interested in hearing that being confined in a closed space with no escape in sight was an acceptable state of affairs.
This was about the time that the police car pulled up next to mine. The officer climbed out and approached us. I rolled down my window about halfway, trying to strike a balance between further alarming the cats with noises from the outside, and easing the tension that all law officers feel when they encounter a suspicious vehicle.
I tried to start off the conversation on a light note.
“I’m sure you’re probably wondering why I’m just sitting here in the middle of the day with a car full of cats,” I chuckled. “This probably seems a little weird.”
He peered into the car to see a trio of rocking cages, each with a furry body part poking out the side. I’m sure he wanted to believe they were just cats, not the twitching remains of a dismembered corpse, but he had to be sure.
Harriet went into full howl mode, and the officer seemed reassured.
“We got a report of a suspicious vehicle, and I had to check you out,” he said.
Just then, my cell phone went off. Beth was calling to say the exterminator was finished, and it was safe for me to bring the cats home.
“That went pretty quickly,” I told her. “Does he feel like he killed them all?”
I realize now that this was probably not a good question to be asking in front of a policeman. He looked like he was taking it in stride, though I could sense he was thinking of pulling out his tazer and training it on us. I didn’t relish the thought of what would happen if you tazed a cat.
“We had an exterminator out to the house, and they said we shouldn’t have pets around during the treatment,” I told the officer. “I didn’t know what else to do with our cats, so I figured I’d ride them around in the car for a while. Then I was afraid they’d get carsick so we stopped here.”
He eyed me cautiously.
“They’re very nice kitties,” I continued. “They don’t usually make this much racket.”
“So you’re ready to go back home then?” he asked.
I answered that I was, and he appeared relieved. He stood up straight and motioned for us to move along.
I started the car and we had an uneventful ride back home. About halfway back, my phone went off again. It was Beth, suggesting that I might want to write a blog post about this experience. She’d meet me in the driveway to take a picture to go with the article, and here it is…
Yes, Harriet, we are there.