One morning some years ago, we suddenly realized we had a stranger in the house. He was standing there among our cats eating breakfast as if he had always lived with us. That was the first time we saw Shorty.
He was a small Manx cat, a stray with no tail who adopted our entire neighborhood. And he entered the lives of the neighbors in the same way he came into ours suddenly, without any warning, apology or fear.
Shorty just walked straight into any house in the neighborhood through any open door whenever he felt like it. I think all the stuff left over from not making him a tail had gone into enlarging the brassy part of his brain.
The neighbors encountered him the same way we did. They would walk into a room and find him eating or sleeping, not even looking up, let alone running away. One neighbor told me that Shorty walked into her house with such fearless bluster that it scared her little dog silly and sent him yapping into another room.
That first morning we saw him, he was calmly scarfing down the food from the cat dish as our cats watched. Ordinarily, they would have asserted territorial rights and run him off.
But they just sat there amazed, as we did for an instant. Shorty acted so completely like a cat who belonged that, for a moment, we almost thought he did.
I have heard of thieves who walk into stores, waving to clerks, and openly pick up a toaster or something, acting like they are on some mission that everyone knows about. They walk out the same way, with the purloined merchandise in plain sight, smiling and waving all the way blithely shoplifting with all the world watching.
Shorty operated that way. But it was no pose for him. He figured he did belong. He was the opposite of the normal stray. Rather than a cat who belonged to nobody, he was a cat who belonged to everybody. He was a child of the world, instantly comfortable with anybody who came along.
Shorty was a piece of work, as cocky as they come. He swaggered, which was all the more comical because he was shorter than the average cat. He was squat and blocky with an odd little flat head. His hind legs were huge by comparison with his front legs, tilting him forward and giving him the appearance of walking downhill.
I always had the feeling as he approached me, bopping along with his cocky head swaying back and forth, that he was saying in a gravelly voice, ''Hi, ya. Hi, ya. Hi, ya.'' I think he was Irish.
We saw more of him inside the home than most of the neighbors because we have a cat door a little flap in the people door through which our cats can come and go. In seven years with that door, Shorty is the only outsider ever to have the gall to invite himself inside.
When he came in, he chose the rudest locations to light. We usually found him asleep in the middle of the dining room table. And cleanliness was not one of Shorty's virtues. In fact, he was a filthy little pig the least appetizing centerpiece I've ever seen.
He was so tacky and dirty because he didn't have a home. He was just a rolling, hairy stone, a roamer with no permanent address, no steady friends. And it showed in his health as well as in his appearance.
So we found him a home with a people doctor who is partial to Manx cats. But apparently Shorty's health was too precarious. He didn't make it through the winter. I have known people like Shorty, brassy, friendly, charming, irritating people mixed blessings who invite themselves in at inopportune moments and practically sleep on the dining room table.
And in truth, it wasn't especially pleasant to sit down to dinner with the dirty body print of a small cat on the tablecloth. But we missed him when he was gone. He was a pain in the neck. But he had more personality than any cat I have ever known, and more than most people.
I mention this now because I was driving through the neighborhood the other day when I saw a dirty cat with large hind legs, swaggering along with half a tail Son of Shorty!
I suddenly find myself getting up each morning and checking the dining room table for dusty impressions of a cat.
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