Saved, by a whisker
WASHINGTON -- The sweetest moment of my day is often the first moment of my day, when I open my front door and say hello to Philip and Buster, the stray cats who patrol my block. They are always right there. I suspect their cue is the sound of the plop of newspapers on my lawn. That's when they arrive, and they stay until their bellies are filled, which is where I come in.
Buster is what is commonly called a "tiger cat," meaning only that he has stripes. He sort of resembles a tiger only in the sense that a goldfish sort of resembles a barracuda. Philip is black with white feet and an elegant white bib, which suits him. Philip is fastidious, unlike Buster, who wallows in the dirt. In this odd couple, Buster is Oscar the slob. Philip stays sleek and spotless. Buster lumbers; Philip promenades. Philip bears the mark of a lifelong stray -- the tip of his left ear has been scissored off, which is the conventional way veterinarians let the neighbors know that this cat has been neutered and is no sexual threat to theirs. Philip wears this indignity with grace.
Philip and Buster live by their wits, which entails collaboration, and that looks a lot like best-friendship. In the winter, in a little plastic hut I put out for them, they huddle together for warmth. Buster is the hunter, but I have twice seen him share a mouse with Philip. Sometimes the two will squabble, but when they do, it is a momentary thing, a single swat or a hiss over some violation of cat etiquette, the rules to which I am not privy.
Buster was Buster long before I moved into his neighborhood, but there was no consensus about Philip. To different people he was "Boots," "Ezra," "Socks," "Black & White," and on the rare occasion when he ventured off my block onto the next -- a whole separate ecosystem -- he was "Moe." When I chose to become his chef, I claimed Final Naming Rights. My father was named Philip, and I loved him, too.
This Philip answers to none of his names, of course. He is a cat.
When I am out walking with my dog, Murphy, we often get a feline escort, which makes the dog feel pampered and important. She struts. Drivers will stop to ask if the cats are mine, too. "No," I say, "they just like my dog, and my dog likes them."
"Huh!" the drivers say, departing, perhaps with a slightly adjusted worldview.
Buster and Philip live precarious, over-your-shoulder lives. Unleashed dogs are always threats to life and limb, as are bigger, meaner strays. Raccoons. Also, big lifeless things, and not just cars. Not long ago, a calico was crushed to death under a teetering sofa that had been left out with the trash.
Compared to Buster and Philip, my cat, Barnaby, lives a cosseted life. He knows no anxiety that even remotely approaches theirs. He will sit at a window for minutes at a time, looking out at Buster and Philip in what I presume is hero worship. Barnaby will likely live longer than they will, if far less eventfully. I sometimes feel good about this; I sometimes feel like his jailer.
Buster and Philip's morning meal used to be spent warily: One would watch for threats while the other nibbled. But recently I have been standing out there with them, just a foot away, so they can dine in peace. There are very few certainties in their lives, but one of them is that the old guy with the funny hair poses no threat to them, and in his presence is protection.
Of late, the old guy's life has been filled with uncertainties and anxieties too, things he has not shared except with the closest of friends. There is no good rule book for what to do or how to cope when a marriage collapses at 65. You feel a little like a stray yourself.
You want to be comforted. And you are, in a real way, every morning at the break of day in that small moment of peace of mind, for the three of us.
Gene Weingarten can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter, @geneweingarten. Chat with him online Tuesdays at noon Eastern at www.washingtonpost.com.
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