"Ai, Papi!!! Your Mamma brings you into dis world real quiet -- all hunkered down -- lookin' out for you -- so when your time comes, you gotta exit with a yowl -- a battle cry -- so they know you was here." Billy Three-Legs
Throughout the entire borough of the Bronx, there never has, and there never was, and there never will be a cat as tough as me. Period. End of story. In fact -- even my name is Tuffy. Well, not originally. Originally, it was Arthur. But, let me go back. I was born on Radcliff Avenue, underneath a house owned by a lovely Polish lady name of Geneffeffa. This woman raised me on kielbasa. Cooked to perfection. Beautiful.
After about a year and a half, the nice old lady passed away. I never knew my mother, my father, or if I had any brothers or sisters. So, I was alone and emerging out of kittenhood. The dog from across the alley, Prince, was starting to give me the stink-eye now that the old lady was gone. So, it was time to leave Radcliff Avenue. So, I ventured down Brady Avenue -- annoying flocks of blue jays screaming and swooping down to peck at me. I saw a street the humans called Matthews Avenue. I hung a right, and then I came upon this kid -- with a ball. He kept throwin' it through a hoop -- over, and over, and over.
The kid was all alone. He looked real sad. So I figure, let me get his attention. I did to him what I always did with the old lady. It worked with her, maybe it'll work with him. I gave him the chirping sound. The friendly hello! "Budd-didddrrrrrr-didrrrr" -- real high pitched! The kid turned and looked at me. I was ready to bolt. But there was somethin' about this kid that was so friendly, and so sensitive. He had such sweetness and intelligence in his eyes, which is rare among most humans, by the way. The kid got down low, on my level, to make me feel comfortable, and he invited me over. I went over to him, very hesitant. I sniffed his hand. He was wearing a blue sweater, that to humans probably stunk to high heaven, but to us cats - it was like perfume. So I rubbed against the kid's sweater and he started scratching me - gently - and I knew I was in business.
I've been livin' with the kid ever since. He treats me like family. We are family. But the old man, he's not a big fan of mine. Every time he sees me, he turns to the kid with the comment, "Again with the stinkin' cat?" Not exactly a warm welcome when you been out all day. The mother? Unbelievable. If you thought the Polish lady was a good cook, this woman cooks Russian Jewish dishes, I can't even pronounce them. They're delicious. I put on some weight, but now I work it off in the summertime.
So, life was pretty good. As I hung out in a nice neighborhood, I made a lotta friends, a few enemies, and won many matches. Twenty-seven wins, no losses to be exact. I'm still in the pink, still in my prime after ten years. I made a good friend over on Wallace Avenue - Billy Three-Legs. Maybe you know him, he lives with the Medina family. They're originally from Puerto Rico. Billy was born in the Edenwald Projects. Abandoned as a kitten, he found his way from Parkway to Parkway to Wallace Avenue, a few miles away. Now, he pretty much runs a building on Wallace, and let me tell you, there ain't no more rats in this building. He's got plenty of perks. The Goldbergs in 3F shtup him the occasional gefilte fish; the Jacksons in 4J introduced him to macaroni and cheese. The Medinas treat him to arroz con pollo. He's a made man with a rep. Not a pigeon on the roof.
Billy lost his left hind leg to a bulldog on the Parkway. He was just a kitten, so he healed up nice. Let me tell you this. That dog did not walk away unscathed. Today, there is a retired bulldog living on Bruckner Boulevard missing an eye, an ear, and he don't walk too good anymore. Billy does everything today like any other cat. He still flies off the top of a parked car. He can jump from a fire escape, he hops a chain link fence in record time. The Medinas love him fiercely. They whisper to him in Spanish, scratch him, give him his own room, and on occasion the mother makes him flan. Billy often turns to me and says: "Papi, it was worth a leg to have this life."
Billy is like an older brother to me. We been hangin' out together for years. He counsels me, teaches me how to stay out of trouble. I'm lucky to know Billy Three-Legs. Last summer, all the cats in the neighborhood started to hear "the sound." Every summer night around sunset we would hear a real low, deep, sad moan. It sounded like "egyyguuuuww ww, egyoooouuuu." At this time of night in the Bronx, the only sound you should hear is the air conditioner in some window, music from a radio, or the occasional elevated rumbling down the tracks. Other than that, life generally gets quiet at that hour.
This sound just pierced the night. None of my buddies could figure out what it was. I told my crew I would ask Billy about this. Word on the street was that Billy was gone on one of his excursions. Cats like to disappear for a few days. Breaks the routine, makes the humans appreciate you more when you return.
About three weeks ago, Billy pays me a visit. I ask him about the sound. It turns out the sound was driving Billy nuts, so he decided to track down the source of this deep crying. Cats are curious, everybody knows that. Curiosity doesn't kill us, it keeps us alert and alive. Billy sits me down under the elevated train trestle on Brady and Matthews. He explains to me the source of this moaning is from "our King." I look at Billy with a confused expression. I'm thinkin' if too much flan has weakened his mind.
I said: "Billy, what are you, stunad? You gone loco on me?"
Billy gave me a big alley-cat grin and leaned in close and whispered: "Papi, we got a King, and he's doin' time for no reason. He's behind bars just so the dopey humans can be entertained."
I scratched my chin with my left hind leg. I needed to buy some time to digest this information. I snagged a flea and sent it hopping down the road to find another feline to bother.
I said to Billy: "Well, where is this King? Rikers? Spofford?"
Billy laughed and said: "No, Papi … the Bronx Zoo!"
I stared for a second and asked: "Yankee Stadium?"
Billy tumbled onto his back hysterical and took advantage of the concrete to scratch his own back. "No, no, baby-boy, the Zoo, the real Bronx Zoo. Our King is a big bad African lion ... and we gonna bust him outta that damn cage. No cat should be in a cage. Especially no King of cats."
I leaned in close to Billy and sniffed his mug. "You been messin' with catnip toys again, Billy." Billy laughed real hard and grabbed me in a head lock and we wrestled like kittens for a few minutes. We threw half-jabs and kicks, puffed up our backs, hissed, spit … all for fun. We both got tired and got on top of a Chevy rag-top and settled down to finish our conversation.
"Alright," I said. "Talk to me, Primo."
The next day I was busy with a capital B. I got word out to the crew for a summit meeting at sunset under the trestle. I even called upon some extra talent for back-up. This was one intense posse. First, the trackers. They walk "the point," mostly females since their hunting skills are better than the guys. Lead point-walker was Whitey, an albino, red-eyed, deaf cat. Smart, diplomatic, and truly the MapQuest of felines. Flanking Whitey was a chorus line of femmes, all beauties, and tough as nails. Jasmine, an elegant Siamese; Sister Sammi, a petite fireball and a gorgeous puddle of mink. Sammi should be the poster girl for "black is beautiful." Mattie, a grey tabby, a huntress, and a love-bunny. Last but not least of the Bronx girls, Twinnie, a debutante with teased fur, captivating green eyes, and the ability to street-fight like nobody's business.
I've had a thing for Sister Sammi forever. She ignores me totally. In the Bronx, this is love. Riding shotgun in the formation behind the ladies, two more tabbies: Simply Red and Easy. Two spayed housecats. They are lovers since they lost their cojones, but nobody gives them any attitude. They each weigh fourteen pounds and can tackle like the Jets' defensive line. Billy taught me tolerance. He once caught me making fun of them and scolded me.
"Listen up, baby-boy. Those two are your bros. They would take your back any day of the week. It ain't their fault they got clip-clip downtown. It's their stupido humans. So they love each other, so what? Comprende? Besides, they are your familia. You gotta hang with them. Have a big heart - grande corazon. OK, Papi?" Billy is the man, a regular urban Socrates.
Bringing up the rear - two heavyweights who should be with the WWF. Shabu, a black-white martial arts master who lives with Mrs. Takahashi. Mrs. Takahashi's son owns a sushi restaurant, so Shabu is a lean and mean fish and rice eating machine. Finally, Chairman Meow, the mascot of the Hong Wo Restaurant on Lydig Avenue. He is one big cat. Thank heavens he is friendly. When you see these two cats together, you can hear the inside of your brain howl: "Let's get ready to ruuummmmble!" Our extra talent for the mission was Washington-Washington, a twelve-pound, muscle-bound, black prince who also loves Sister Sammi. She ignores him, too, so we're spared a rivalry. Washington-Washington got his name from his human, Mrs. Jackson. You can hear her three blocks away calling her "baby" from the fire escape: "Washington! Washington!" He greeted me first with his regular salutation: "Wha's goin' on, mah brutha from anutha mutha?" The crew loves him; he makes them happy.
Billy had already briefed the posse. They knew it was time to liberate a POW. In this case, royalty. He addressed the troops from the top of the rag-top Chevy.
"OK, my peeps. Two surprises tonight. First off, we got extra security. Besides Shabu and The Chairman, we got the Queen of Scotland herself accompanying us."
Out of the shadows came the only dog we all ever knew and loved; Agnes, a Border Collie who thought she was every cat's mother. The crew was relieved. She had sheep herder blood, so she was born to protect and serve. A sigh of relief went through the posse. Some of the squad rubbed up against Agnes and she doled out some motherly licks and nuzzles.
Billy continued: "We got a rookie with us tonight, so you all gotta be on the alert and look out for our new recruit. Everybody, here he is."
From behind Billy out tiptoed the smallest, most adorable fluffy Russian Blue male kitten. The girls took one look at this little cutie and simultaneously went, "awwwwwwww."
"This is Mousie!" Everybody guffawed and high-fives went all around paw to paw. The little kitten, embarrassed by his new moniker, looked at Sammi and puffed up like a Romeo on the make. Trying to be a big shot, he winked and purred at her: "Hello, sweetheart."
Sammi smiled, reared back her head and giggled out a "pulleeeezze!!!" The other girls, and even Agnes, all playfully pounced on Mousie, held him down and planted kisses on him, nuzzled and babied him with joy. He got one sweet initiation, the lucky sucker. I took the opportunity in the midst of the melee to whisper to Billy: "What's his story?"
Billy whispered back: "Orphan."
My heart sank. Billy picked up on my expressive, drooping whiskers.
"We know what that's all about."
"Listen T." Billy calls me T. "You gotta watch over this little guy for me. I can count on you, bro?"
I nodded again. We bumped shoulders.
Billy whispered: "You da man, Papi."
Billy leaned back on his haunches and lowered his eyelids to half-mast and growled in a low tone. He looked all around at the crew.
"We know what we gotta do. Let's go do it. Stay low. Stay alert. Under cars, through the bushes -- keep the formation. No talkin' till we get to Big Tree."
Big Tree is the biggest tree in The Bronx. Overlooking the Bronx River on the Bronx Zoo side of Fordham Road. It's a weeping willow. Gigantic. None of us had ever seen it, but we heard stories, and when the wind was pushing east down the Parkway, we picked up scents in the breeze from all sorts of beasts. Some scents were foreign to us, but they piqued our natural-born curiosity.
The team proceeded up Brady Avenue in the shadows, like ninjas, silent and determined. I kept Mousie close to me, directing and prodding him with my whiskers. Mousie looked up at me and whispered: "You got some big curb-feelers, Uncle T."
The girls giggled and Billy growled the hush-up sound. When the little tyke called me Uncle T, he closed me and didn't even know it. I had never been a parent, never thought I would be. I looked down at the tiny blue youngster, my heart pounding in my throat, a tear in my eye. My family had just expanded. We all slinked up Brady Avenue on velvet paws.
The formation, practically invisible in the shadows, made it to Wallace and Brady, the top of a hill, and began our descent towards Bronx Park East. We lifted legs and squirted our scent on tires, parking meters, and the occasional tree. On our right was the lawn to the main entrance of P.S. 105, a temptation to explore, but we were on a mission.
First obstacle in our path was White Plains Road -- wide street -- a challenge to cross due to the cars, cabs, buses, elevated train noise above and, perhaps, the wandering, wild street dog rifling through the trash. This night we were blessed. No targets in sight. Billy bopped to the front of a parked car and hunkered down. He looked at Whitey and chirped in a low tone that meant 'go'. Whitey couldn't hear but recognized the posture so he tore off in a mad dash. Billy continued to chirp low and the crew obeyed. Furry, four-legged rockets zipping fast and low. Me, Billy, and Agnes went last, Agnes carrying Mousie by the shoulder fat gently in her mouth, just like a mamma cat. You gotta love that dog. Not all dogs, just Agnes.
Next block was Bronx Park East. We repeated the same drill. Perfecto. Break time was needed so we all hid together in thick bushes on the edge of Trojan Field. Two baseball diamonds and a lot of wide, open space. Too much exposure to mean-spirited humans or wild dogs. The crew got in a huddle. Billy gave Agnes the nod. She addressed us in a calm whisper: "Well, lads and lassies, we have a wee bit of vulnerability ahead. No worries, my dear children, we'll all make it. I'll watch over you like you were newborn lambs."
Easy turned to Simply and whispered: "What's a lamb?"
Simply rolled his eyes and hissed back: "Something you like to eat, city-boy. Pay attention."
Agnes continued: "The ladies and Whitey will go first in a cluster. Girls, I'm counting on you to dig a quick tunnel under the cyclone fence bordering the Bronx River Parkway. Just enough for a feline to pass under. And myself as well."
Shabu whispered to The Chairman: "They'll need to do some serious excavation for us, we've been livin' the good life." The Chairman grinned. He and Shabu were well-nourished, to say the least.
"When you're done," Agnes instructed, "let's have Sammi look back at us. We'll see your eyes reflecting the moonlight. Two blinks mean 'go'."
"No problema, Auntie," Sammi responded with ultimate confidence. Sammi looked at me and said: "Arthur, take good care of the Mouse. I like that child."
Mousie purred, and I was speechless … in shock. I couldn't believe she talked to me. The crew was grinning and giggling from hearing me called Arthur. I could care less. She talked to me.
Billy growled low: "Cut it out, niños. Listen to Tia Agnes."
Agnes tilted her head to Whitey, Sammi and the girls, and in a flash they shot across the field like meteors. The 'parkie' who cuts the grass must have been on vacation 'cause they disappeared once they crossed the cement Parkway. We all gathered around Agnes like kittens nesting. We waited to see Sammi's pretty eyes give us the signal.
The four Bronx girls -- Jasmine, Sammi, Twinnie, and Mattie -- were at the base of the cyclone fence digging a tunnel at a frenzied pace. They all took a quick break to catch their breath. Whitey stood guard -- nervous, sniffing the air, whiskers twitching. Twinnie noticed Sammi's beautiful claws.
"Girl," Twinnie said, "your nails are gorgeous. Who does them?"
"My human takes me to Dr. Katz," Sammi cooed elegantly.
"Seymour Katz?," Mattie chirped.
Sammi nodded, enjoying the attention and the girl-talk.
"He's a brute and a lousy vet," Mattie blurted.
The four girls all giggled and started chattering at the same time. Whitey tilted his head to one side watching them and trying to read their posture.
"What do you think of my fur?," Twinnie asked the group.
"You look fine, girl," Sammi said.
"Kind of a wind-swept look?," Mattie added, turning to Jasmine.
"Adorable. You got it goin' on, Twinnie," Jasmine concluded.
"How come none of these boys even notice?," Twinnie asked no one in particular.
"They low class," Sammi declared. All the girls nodded and affirmed.
Whitey sniffed the breeze. He was uneasy. Back in the bushes, Agnes leapt up on her paws, nose and head held high, nostrils flaring. Agnes tasted the air, eyes bugging. Something was wrong.
The two renegades stalked out of the edge of the tree line, crossing the cement path between the paddleball courts and the tennis courts. They moved low and slow, like they were hoping the bright moon would not blow their cover. They smelled and saw their prey at the cyclone fence, a mere 150 yards away. They signaled to each other silently. They were the only two alphas left from their pack. The only two to survive a hard and heartless existence. Agnes recognized Bo and Butchie from her puppy wandering days. Time had not been kind to them. Other dogs feared and shunned them. Humans tried to capture or kill them. She moved quickly and quietly down the hill in their direction.
Sammi finished the tunnel. The others went under and through, and lickety-split across the Parkway to wait for the rest of the crew. Sammi turned to the hill and blinked twice. Everybody zipped double-time toward Sammi. Except Mousie, He was scampering behind Agnes. I remembered Sammi's words: "I like that child."
As my heart started to pump, I turned to Billy and said: "Primo, get them all through. I'll be along in a minute." He stared at me for what seemed like an eternity, then gifted me with: "I know you will, Papi. I know you will." Billy's belief in me made me believe in myself. I charged down the hill like a feline locomotive. I passed Mousie quick, then as I passed Agnes, I hesitated for a millisecond and whispered: "Mousie. Behind you. Get him through the fence. Now."
Agnes responded in a hushed whisper: "Arthur, are you out of your mind?"
"Agnes, do it. Please."
Agnes is a lady. Please and thank you go a long way with her. She grabbed Mousie and made a beeline to the fence. I turned and took off, like a bolt of lightning, straight for the two stalking hunters. Here's where I gotta let you in on a little secret. I ain't really that tough. I am actually the encyclopedia picture for "scaredy cat." I feel fear intensely. It embarrasses me, so I compensate by getting overly aggressive. Maybe even a little stupid. Hey, twenty-seven wins, no losses. Being a chicken in cat's clothing and nobody knows, seems to have paid off. My fur puffed up and my paws moved faster and faster towards the mutts.
Bo whispered to Butchie: "Will you look at the food chain in motion. We chow tonight!"
Butchie grinned and growled low: "No prisoners."
They both stifled their desire to laugh out loud. They transitioned to loping from their stalking. Then they picked up their pace to a charge. Everybody wriggled through the fence except Agnes and Mousie. Agnes heard the approaching dogs and turned to protect Mousie.
Bo and Butchie were so focused on Agnes and Mousie they never saw me coming. I zipped across Trojan Field like a shooting star. Came up on them from the right, blind-sided them with a few fast clawing jabs, and a yowl came outta me so low and fierce, I almost scared myself. My battle cry was so loud that lights in the apartments on Bronx Park East started turning on fast. Humans sticking their heads out to see what was the ruckus.
Bo was yipping in pain from a left hook claw sandwich I planted on his right rear flank. Butchie put on the brakes, all freaked out from the surprise attack. They both lunged at me, humiliated and furious. I am not exactly the poster-cat for athletics. I'm stocky and low to the ground, but my one secret weapon is boundless energy … and I am fast. Not just a sprinter. I can outrun anything on two or four legs. Fear is a great motivator. I turned like a top and shot back towards the tree line, baiting the two canines, letting them get close while they could almost get a bite. Then I'd do a left, right, left, right - changing directions, changing running patterns, sending them crashing into each other.
The backstop for the second baseball diamond was on my right. I shot around it and reversed direction toward Sammi's tunnel. The key to being a good runner is to always finish strong. Save one last sprint to the finish line. As I went into my hyper-space sprint, my stubby body stretching long, grabbing grass and soil. As I flew, I got a present from Agnes. She was bounding next to me on the outside of the fence, baying like a hound dog at Bo and Butchie, just enough to get them unconcentrated for a second, and for me to gain a half-step in flight.
Diving through the tunnel, I turned to defend it and Agnes met me, and we stood together as Bo put on his snout through. Agnes nipped his nose. He reared back in pain. Butchie tried and got the same. Agnes stayed crouching and uttered some very unlady-like remarks that I won't repeat. I was surprised to hear her use that language, being Scottish and all. But, hey, she lives in The Bronx.
Bo and Butchie decided they had enough for one night and loped off towards White Plains Road. It was trash night so they wouldn't starve. Not that I cared one way or another. Agnes and I looked at each other, checked for traffic, and shoulder to shoulder tiptoed across the Bronx River Parkway to re-unite with our family.
We all huddled up in the pasture that used to belong to The Farm in the Zoo. Now it was a new section. Mousie sounded out the sign "Endangered Species." He read proudly.
Easy quipped: "Hey, T, Bo and Butchie tried to make you a candidate for this joint tonight."
The crew laughed and I grinned. I was trying to cover my panting. Sammi slinked over to me and gave me a quick sniff and a nuzzle. My heart leaped. "You still in one piece, Arthur?," she whispered low, so only I could hear it.
Mousie tiptoed over to us, tail up, and settled in between us, and began purring. The three of us cast a pretty moon shadow on the grass. I let that image imprint in my brain.
Billy piped up just loud enough for the crew to hear, so as not to draw attention: "OK, gatos, we good so far, No casualties. We look good, we feel good, we on our way to meet the King."
"Elvis?," Easy whispered to Simply.
"Did you bump your head as a kitten?," Simply responded.
Agnes spoke up: "Hearty gratitude to Arthur. I mean Tuffy. A fine lad he is. The rest of you all have done so well, keep to the plan. On to Big Tree. Stay alert. There are all sorts of beasties in the woods. No worries. They're all scared of you and will burrow in the ground as we approach."
"Let's do it," said Washington-Washington.
Whitey led the point with the girls. Washington-Washington, Shabu, The Chairman, and Billy in the center of our caravan. Agnes and me in the rear with Mousie between us. Simply and Easy a half-step behind Mousie. I think Agnes may have wanted to make sure Mousie's scampering was monitored, so the dynamic duo was assigned that task.
We detoured off the cement path to traipse through the woods. Lots of sounds we never heard before. Lots of scents from unknown sources. We got back on the path and saw a bridge in the distance. A light was on in the guardhouse. A guard dog on a chain picked up our scent and started barking at his human. The human swore and told the dog to "put a sock in it." Dopey human. He wasn't even as smart as a dog, and that ain't saying much.
We halted. Whitey turned to look at Billy. They exchanged a glance. Whitey slinked into the bushes and we knew he was on his way to scout out the situation. We waited in a clearing between two large fir trees.
We all sat in the light of the moon, waiting for Whitey to return from reconnaissance. Mousie was copping some Z's between me and Sammi. He snored a little.
Easy turned to Simply: "This kid can saw some serious wood."
"You should talk," Simply replied.
"What?," Easy asked.
"That schnoz of yours sounds like the D train during siesta," Billy teased. The crew laughed low.
"Everybody's a comedian," Easy complained.
Whitey crept back into the family circle, looked at Billy, shook his head with a "no chance" expression. After a long moment of silence, Agnes stood up and whispered to us all: "Lads and lassies, I'll get you across that Bronx River without the help of a bridge." She looked at Billy. Billy got up and announced to the crew: "Single file through the woods and down to the water. Let's get some muscle in the back … for protection." The Chairman went last. He was one big dude.
Sounds of the forest were eerie and so different than what we were used to. We were street cats, but every step deeper into the woods, our ancestors' instincts started to lead us and help us know how to proceed in a pine-scented, dark world of creatures. We were alert to any and all movements. Yet, at the same time, we were calm. We all heard and smelled the water before we saw it. One last clearing and we reached the edge of the Bronx River.
Directly across the small, rushing river, huge and majestic and bathed in moonbeams, stood Big Tree -- a weeping willow of prehistoric proportions. The crew stood silent, awestruck and staring at this giant and its willowy tentacles. Shadows danced on the river and across our furry faces.
Easy turned to Simply: "That is one big effin' tree!"
"Thank you for stating the obvious, nature-boy," Simply retorted.
Suddenly a head emerged out of the water and exhaled, coughing and staring at us. We all reared back, fur up and puffed across our spines. We had our teeth showing, our claws out.
" Zoekt u het landgoed van Jonas Bronck?" ["Are you seeking the estate of Jonas Bronck?"] a waterlogged voice asked us in a foreign tongue.
Easy whispered to Simply out of the side of his mouth: "I think he's talkin' to you." Mousie tiptoed to the river's edge, and peered at the head and slowly smiled. The head returned a big, friendly buck-toothed grin. Mousie turned to the crew, relieved, stuck out his chest and proclaimed: "I know what it is." Agnes sniffed the air and grinned. She looked at the crew: "It's a worker and a helper."
"It's a beaver!!!," Mousie announced.
"What's a beaver?," Simply whispered to Easy.
"A rodent with a paddle-ball racket for a tail," answered Easy.
"How do you know?," Simply asked.
"Me and my human watch Animal Planet," Easy bragged. Simply rolled his eyes.
"Bent u Engels pelgrims? Bent u verloren?" ["Are you English pilgrims? Are you lost?"]
Whitey tilted his head, wishing he could hear. Agnes said to the crew low: "He's a beaver and he speaks Dutch."
"Ik spreek -- I shpeak Engelisch, too," the beaver piped in and crawled out of the water to shore. He was the size of three cats, with wet chestnut brown fur and big teeth. "The brother got some choppers," Washington-Washington concluded.
Agnes whispered so only the crew could hear: "The beasties in these woods have always been here, generation to generation. They are living in the past. This sweet fellow was taught that Jonas Bronck still owns this land. The land here never changed, so his beliefs are from centuries back. His ancestors passed the story on, and it remained as it was, like the rivers and the woods."
"Thank you, Hiawatha," Easy wise-cracked. "Meanwhile, how do we get across the river?"
"I help you," the beaver said proudly, and waddled over to a tall, thin birch tree and started rapidly gnawing the base of the tree.
I turned to Easy: "Looks like you at dinnertime, Ease."
The crew laughed low. Easy stared at the beaver, then turned to the crew: "This kid can really saw some serious wood." The tree started to crack and make a moaning sound, and it fell across the river making a perfect footbridge.
"Eeeeyouuu," the roar of our imprisoned King echoed across the woods. The roar was louder than we'd ever heard it. The beaver heard the roar, shivered, turned to us and said: "Good luck, Engelisch!," and dove under the water and disappeared. "We gettin' closer, niños," Billy said and started walking across the birch bridge, testing it. He made it to the other side. Cats are sometimes copycats. Within minutes a kitty conga-line crossed the river. Agnes happily swam across. We assembled on the far side and resumed our trek. The scent of caged beasts led us up the hill.
We climbed up through undergrowth, and the top of the hill spilled us out onto another cement path. Bathed in shadows of beasts, we froze looking at the images. The girls gently pawed the flickering animals on the road. Mousie motioned to the right and whispered: "Look!"
The main gate was the source of the dancing shadow-beasts. Moonlight casting its beams through the gate had projected bears and elephants and all sorts of animals. I wondered if this was a welcome or a warning.
"To the left, niños," Billy whispered. We carefully moved away from the gate and approached a huge fountain with two long sets of cement stairs climbing up to a cool, dark, green lawn. Our noses and whiskers were twitching from a bombardment of scents. A cloud covered the moon and our eyes lit up the landscape like fireflies.
Easy whispered to anyone in earshot: "Somethin' smells fishy." We slinked up the stairs to the lawn where there were huge buildings with cages protruding out onto the walkways. Directly in front of us was a pool surrounded by curved, iron bars. In the center of the pool was a rock island with a cave-like opening. A head peeked out of the cave doorway, then another head. The heads looked at us, looked at each other, and ducked back inside. In a flash, two dark figures dove out of the cave into the water and up onto the inside cement ledge. We freaked. Some of us scattered, some hid under Agnes's belly fur, some went up the nearest maple tree.
Mousie peered out from under Agnes, narrowed eyes focusing on the sign and announced: "California Sea Lions."
One of the big shiny creatures opened its dog-like mouth and said inquisitively: "Hey, furry dudes, what's up?"
The second one piped in: "Yeah, rilly."
"We visiting a friend," Billy answered.
"Kew-el!," commented the first sea lion.
"Gnarly," remarked the second.
"This is how they talk in California?," Easy whispered to Simply.
Easy spoke up: "Where exactly are you two from?"
"Baja in the winter, and in the summer….," the first sea lion responded. "Malibu," they barked simultaneously, and high-fived each other with their front flippers.
Easy looked at The Chairman, Shabu, Washington-Washington, and went around the horn looking for someone to explain foreigners to him. Agnes leaned into Easy and spoke in a hush: "My sweet boy, everyone is originally from somewhere else."
Easy leaned into Agnes, motioning to the sea lions: "A couple of shmendricks … and they talk funny, too."
Billy spoke to the two West Coast characters: "OK, wet-suits. We be checkin' you."
"Righteous," snorted the first one. "Later," said the second.
We all followed Billy and Agnes into a quick huddle on the lawn.
"No more scatterin'," Billy gently scolded. "We keep our formation and take each other's back. Comprende?"
We all nodded and grunted in unison.
"Eeeyouuuuu," the roar of His Majesty bellowed across the lawn and made the ground vibrate.
"Can a cat look at a King?," Washington-Washington asked the crew.
"We find out, Papi … momentito."
The crew got in position and began a defiant but careful march to the lion house.
The flashing hazard lights of a parked zoo vehicle obscured our sight line as we approached the century-old lion house. The passenger door was left open. Leaning against the bars, armed with a hose shooting cannon blasts of water, was a zookeeper in a dark green jumpsuit. His left hand held the hose, his right hand a bottle of scotch. He took alternate swigs and shot water at the huge, young lion. The water torture was punctuated with howling, hooting laughs from the jumpsuited sadist. He added to the majestic beast's misery by hurling small rocks through the bars.
We stayed low on the lawn in the dark and gathered around Billy and Agnes for a last-minute strategy huddle. There were some serious expressions on the mugs of these usually jovial felines.
Billy whispered to Agnes: "You be the playmaker, Tia."
Maybe Agnes's ancestry of keeping sheep out of the jaws of wolves was the inherent trait that made her brain work. I tend to think she is just a naturally smart lady. Like all of us, immigrants at home in our beloved borough, and like any city dweller, ready to figure all the angles. Billy had some earlier visits with the King, gato-a-gato. What they formulated, Agnes would fine tune. While Jumpsuit was taking his umpteenth swig, the four sirens -- Sammi, Jasmine, Mattie, and the glamorous Twinnie -- delicately pranced to the left of the drunk causing him to look away from the cage. Twinnie emitted a pleasant, high-pitched chirp that had a "Hello, big boy" quality to it. The girls started a soprano chorus of mewing, beckoning the keeper to feed them, or come over to pet them. He stumbled towards them, cursing and waving a broomstick. They lured him away from the cage.
"They're good," Easy whispered to Simply.
"You can say that again," Simply responded.
"They're good," Easy repeated.
"Awright, awready," Simply growled low.
The lion peered out at us, recognized Billy, and slowly broke into one big knowing grin. His eyes half closed, and he purred. Just like us. It was amazing.
Then he spoke directly to Billy: "Liddle bruddha Willyam … you come back … and you bring your pride." He looked at us warmly, like a papa cat.
"Very impressive, Willyam." His accent sounded African and British combined.
We enjoyed his compliments but we had work to do. In a flash, we built a feline pyramid at the cage door. Agnes whispered instructions into Mousie's ear, then Mousie climbed up the backs of the kitties until he was level with the keyhole on the cage door. The Chairman and Agnes stood guard like sentries. Mousie got his itty-bitty paw into the padlock, and once his paw was inside, he opened his little claws and started to turn the tumblers inside. He tried to match the shape of his paw to the lock and make it click open, like Agnes had instructed him.
The King of Beasts leaned into Mousie and spoke encouragingly: "You can do it, little blue bruddha."
Mousie looked at the King and said: "Can you give me a little room there, chief?"
The lion smiled at the youngster and said with a chuckle: "Yes, suh."
If that lion wore boots, he would have been clicking them for effect. This African cat had never hung with Bronx cats. We weren't about to hold that against him. Just as the lock clicked, we heard a cat yowl, and Jumpsuit came running towards us, swinging Twinnie by the tail. In a flash, The Chairman charged, he circled around Jumpsuit and flew up on the drunkard's back, inserted four sets of claws, and hung on like a rodeo star. Jumpsuit's howling was different now. In shock, he spun trying to get Chairman Meow off him. Agnes and Shabu attacked Jumpsuit's ankles, attempting to trip him. Washington-Washington came to Twinnie's aid as she was hurled, semi-conscious and twitching onto the lawn. The rest of the crew cleared from the cage door as the miserable zookeeper went blindly screeching in their direction. With the light touch of a massive paw, the regal African feline opened the cage door just in time for it to clip the jumpsuited dancer squarely on the head, immediately knocking him cold.
The huge young lion exited the cage like royalty. He bent down and sniffed the zookeeper and then looked around at all of us, cleared his throat, and in a deep, warm voice announced: "This creature will sleep for a while. Maybe when he awakes, he'll feel differently about us. He deserves to die, but a better punishment is to let him live. Do all my liddle bruddhas and sistahs agree?" We all nodded in unison.
"Well then, my young pride, may I beseech you to get me to the ship that brought me here. Willyam and I have transportation. The African Star sails every six months from the south Bronx's Hunts Point. I will be its largest stowaway ever, if you all will assist me."
Again, we nodded. Billy piped up: "Niños, we getting' in this vehicle. The King will steer from the back seat. He's watched the jumpsuit steer before and feels sure he can do it. The Chairman will be the muscle for the accelerator; Shabu on the brake. We all been in vehicles on the way to the vet. If this dopey human can drive, so can we."
Easy looked at Simply. "Don't say a word," Simply warned.
Washington-Washington was nuzzling and licking Twinnie, trying to wake her. She began to stir. We all padded over to her. She awoke slowly, found the handsome Washington-Washington ministering aid to her and decided to fake it a little for sympathy. Jasmine, Sammi, and Mattie saw the behavior and all winked and nodded to each other. Sammi whispered so only the other females could hear: "You go, girl."
Agnes led all of us into the vehicle. We piled in the seat and in the back. We were hesitant, a little nervous, but also excited. Billy had traveled more than any of us, so he was the navigator, instructing the King with "lefts" and "rights." The Chairman was our gas pedal, Shabu our brakes, and as the zoo van rumbled out of the front gate, we heard a cacophony of beasts behind us cheering and sending "Good Luck" in a hundred animal languages.
Traffic was practically non-existent at this late hour. The crew stayed low in the seats and we made it to Hunts Point in record time. If there is a Supreme Being that looks after cats, a cat god, that big kitty in the sky was guiding us that night. The sight of a lion driving a van didn't raise an eye except for one cabbie in a turban that freaked when he saw us, and went careening into a 24-hour fruit and vegetable stand.
Safe and sound, a van full of wide-eyed cats, a King, and a sweet Border Collie pulled up into an alley near a dock. Standing tall in the water in between two oil tankers, the African Star glistened with steel and lights and the hope of getting home.
Three African merchant marines were squatting on bales of twine at the foot of the gangplank. They were chattering and talking with their hands rapidly.
"Nigerians," the King whispered as he lay low protecting the entire crew like a giant papa cat. "They speak of their home. Mine is not far from their township."
"Hey, King," Mousie whispered, "You got a name?"
"Adewalli," the King replied.
"Adee-whatee?," asked the Russian Blue kitten.
The big lion chuckled low: "Liddle bruddha, you can call me Walli."
"Yo, Walli," mewed Mousie, trying to posture like a hip-hop street cat. The crew smiled and Walli nuzzled the youngster. Agnes came out of the back seat with a Bronx Zoo Frisbee in her jaws. Through gritted teeth, she asked the young King: "Do they play fetch in Nigeria, Your Majesty?"
"I don't rightly know," answered the puzzled beast.
"Perhaps they can learn," Agnes replied and dove out the window of the van with a huge orange and green Frisbee jutting from her jaws. We were all wide-eyed as Agnes boldly approached the marines, dropped the disc ten feet in front of them, and barked.
They were alarmed, up on their feet looking wary. They acted like their relationships with the canine world had not been too rewarding in the past. Agnes shoved the Frisbee closer with her snout and let loose another inviting, friendly bark. The three Nigerians exchanged pleasant words with each other and to Agnes. The biggest one picked up the Frisbee and flipped it backhand in a line drive down the dock. Agnes charged it, leaped up in an arc like Michael Jordan heading for the hoop, and snatched the disc in midair landing gracefully on all four paws. The Nigerians cheered. They were delighted. Agnes trotted back to them, Frisbee in her jaws. This time she made the big merchant marine follow her down the dock, his pals right behind him. Another line drive, accompanied by Agnes's air ballet, and they were ecstatic. The entrance to the African Star was now open and unguarded.
"You gotta make your move, Your Majesty," Billy instructed. "We send Whitey on board with you. He can scope out a hiding place in seconds flat. He's the best. You ready, Whitey?," Billy mouthed his words straight at Whitey.
Whitey nodded confidently, and gently pawed the King's nose, letting him know it was time to follow his little albino brother. Adewalli looked at all of us and with misty eyes said: "Bless you all. I never forget you, bless you all." In a flash, a little white shadow and a large brown shadow slinking low down the street, across the dock, and up the gangplank. They disappeared into the big ship like two puffs of smoke.
Whitey's nose and whiskers twitched rapidly, his brain and instinct were on overdrive as he navigated the King to the lower first level, into the belly of the cargo ship filled with huge containers. A soon as they were below, Whitey found a container with a rotted hole big enough for the King to crawl in and hide. Whitey went in first, the King followed. Their little and big eyes glowed inside. Whitey slowly grinned at the contents and motioned to the King to look at the bundles. Adewalli sniffed the bundles of beef jerky and his stomach rumbled. Whitey looked the regal young King straight in the eye. The deaf cat purred and slowly mouthed the word "jackpot." The little cat rubbed affectionately against the big cat.
"You must leave me now, liddle bruddha," Adewalli gently commanded.
Whitey gently pressed his paw up to the King's chest. The young lion licked Whitey's head and said: "Yes, my friend, I will be led by my heart. My heart will lead me home," and suddenly Whitey vanished out of the container, up the steps, and down the gangplank like a ghost.
As Whitey's paws hit the dock, the ship's horn let go three blasts announcing its departure. The merchant marines said good-bye to Agnes and started to hustle back to the gangplank. Whitey waited on the street corner for Agnes and they headed to the van together double-time. The Border Collie and the albino cat hopped through the window to rejoin their family circle. Once inside, Billy waited for all eyes to be on him and quietly announced: "We got a little problem, niños. How the hell do we get home from here?"
After multiple attempts, none of us had been strong enough to turn the steering wheel. Driving the van home was no longer an option.
After a moment of dead silence, Easy turned to Simply, gulped and uttered: "Oy, gevalt."
A cadre of stunned felines and a canine sat dumbfounded and staring. In an attempt to lighten the mood, Easy suggested: "Choose up sides for ring-a-leevio?" Not a peep.
"Rough room," Simply whispered to Easy.
"Downtown," Easy complained.
If things weren't tough enough, the summer humidity transformed to raindrops bursting onto the windshield and roof of the vehicle.
"Water," Easy commented.
"And?," asked Simply.
"Just trying to make conversation."
Simply rolled his eyes. Mousie was pawing at the parking tag hanging from the rear-view mirror. It was his new toy. Mousie suddenly froze, narrowed his eyes at a pretty orange sign, and slowly read it aloud: "City Tunnel Number Three -- Under Construction -- Do Not Enter."
The sign hung over an industrial staircase that went into the ground like a subway entrance. Whitey got up on his haunches and stared at the entrance, and his whiskers and nose started twitching like a Geiger counter. "Is he part rabbit?," Easy asked no one in particular.
Whitey turned to Agnes and Billy, eyes bugging, whiskers dancing. He mouthed the words: "Water … home!"
"Fire … bad!," Easy chirped.
"Not now, Frankenstein," Simply chided. Whitey was twitching and quivering, practically having a convulsion. "Niños," Billy announced, "I think Whitey got an idea." No longer able to contain his excitement, Whitey dove out the van dodging raindrops and hot-footed it to the staircase to Tunnel Number Three.
The crew emptied the van like a fire drill and we descended quickly and cautiously behind Whitey, into the underworld. A subterranean city of gauges, pumps, pipes, valves, walkways, and metal bridges arose in our path. Instruments hummed, valves hissed, water dripped from grates and pipes above us. We continued our descent into an angular, mechanical world without sky, without sun, without moon. Even Easy was uneasy.
Whitey walked on point, boldly leading us down stairs, across platforms, down levees -- into darkness. Our glowing eyes lit the passageways like pairs of fire flies. We lost all track of time as we quick-marched down an underground boulevard with the occasional work light strung overhead. The air was cool and moist, and we started to pick up the scent of water -- lots of water.
Staying close to each other, like a pride of young lions prowling the night, we entered a large chamber that had the feel of a stadium. Open space, circular, the ceiling seemed the height of a three-story apartment house. Whitey halted. The crew followed suit. We all felt something, sensed a presence. Our nostrils flared as we started getting a stronger scent. We tasted the air.
Billy saw it first. About thirty yards ahead, a pair of glowing, red eyes blinked, then disappeared. Then two sets of eyes, then ten, then fifty. Then we lost count.
"Those ain't gatos, niños," Billy uttered in a whisper.
"Tha's no lie," squeaked a little, Nuyorican-accented voice. The voice was about fifteen feet ahead of us. A tiny ginger and white fur head peeked out from the floor grating.
"Who are you?," asked Billy.
"Tito … from Southern Boulevard," answered the voice.
"What are you?," asked an increasingly inquisitive Billy.
"A guinea pig," the voice answered proudly. "My pet store burnt down." As Tito said 'burnt down,' he held up his front paws, two claws extended on each paw, making the quotes sign. Whitey's head tilted to one side. We all got the drift. Some low-life landlord had torched the store for the insurance. Crummy humans.
"If you promise not to kill me, I can show you the way to Southern Boulevard," said the little guinea pig.
"Why should we help you?," asked Billy.
"I saw your peeps help the grande gato … the lion from the zoo van. I could tell you all got heart -- corazon. Also, you gonna get attacked in a minute, so I'm here to warn you."
"Attacked by who?," asked Agnes.
"A gang … a big gang," whispered the red-eyed, little guinea pig.
"Of?," asked Easy.
"Sewer rats," Tito uttered low and carefully. "They been looking to whack me, but I'm too foxy for them. They may be rodents like me, but I rather be with you gatos and the perra," Tito motioned towards Agnes.
Whitey tiptoed to Tito. Tito bravely stayed in striking distance of the albino. They touched nose to nose, for what seemed an eternity. Whitey seemed to be downloading the little guinea pig's whole being. Whitey gentled licked Tito's head. He was accepted by our scout. Billy and Agnes exchanged positive nods. The little guy was in … at least until Southern Boulevard.
Agnes trotted over to Tito, lowered her head, and whispered: "Get on, laddie." Tito climbed on top of Agnes's head and clutched with all four paws and claws. It looked like Agnes had a little guinea pig hat on.
Easy turned to Simply: "Get a load of Davy Crockett."
"Not now, clown boy," Simply said dismissively.
"What do we need to know about your rodent cousins, tipo," asked Billy.
"They big as cats, but they all cowards. I put my money on your crew," answered Tito.
Billy turned to face us all: "Niños, we move together like one big gato. We keep tight formation. We take each other's back. We gonna get through this." Our adrenalin was pumping, mouths dry, as we slowly moved down through the center of the open space heading for the heart of City Tunnel Number Three. Red eyes were flickering like Christmas lights as we proceeded through the great hall.
"As big as cats?," whimpered Mousie. Simply, Easy, Twinnie, Sista Sammi, Jasmine, Mattie, Washington-Washington, Shabu, The Chairman, and I surrounded Mousie, Agnes, and Tito in a protective cluster, moving forward on feathery paws, our coats puffed out as a warning. Agnes could feel Tito's little heart beating on top of her head.
We moved in unison like a huge tarantula made out of felines. We were one giant cat-dog-guinea pig organism. I caught our reflection in a puddle as we passed and thought "prizewinning float for the Halloween parade." We moved towards the mouth of the connecting tunnel that Tito and Whitey indicated was the beginning to our journey home.
The shock of the first wave was bone-chilling. Rats of all colors and sizes leapt from the rafters like paratroopers. They landed on us scratching, biting, and gnawing when they managed to sink their teeth. These rodents were veterans of many assaults, one eyed, one eared, fur missing in patches. They were crazed, wild-eyed, ferocious, and downright suicidal.
Another team of swimming rats shot out from the water at the mouth of the tunnel heading for us like furry, wet torpedoes. Agnes reared back her head and grabbed an invader mid-air. Tito heard a crunch as the Border Collie ended the life of the enemy rodent. Agnes threw the dead invader at the oncoming wet torpedoes. A baying sound like a hunting dog's emerged out of Agnes's throat. Her barking was a call to arms for our family.
The crew was no longer stunned. We fought side by side, slashing with our claws, biting, taking out our enemy, and rushing forward to the mouth of the tunnel. The underworld was filled with the echoes of barking and cat yowls. Tito surprised a few rats when they jumped on Agnes and got poked in the eye with guinea pig claws. Our instincts overtook our bodies and souls and turned the battle around. One cat saved another from death, then moved on to help another brother or sister.
Rodent reinforcements formed at the mouth of the tunnel creating a line of defense. The rats backed off and regrouped. Many of us were wounded, cut and slashed, but no fatalities. Agnes looked around like a worried sheep herder and did a quick head count. Where was Easy? I looked up and couldn't believe my eyes. Easy was walking along a pipe like an acrobat on the high wire. His fur was puffed out in a contained rage, ears down, eyes slits, moving forward like a body builder doing a promenade for his audience. His lower jaw vibrated and his little mouth erupted with stalking chatter. We beckoned him to cease and desist. But, he had his cross-hairs on a target. Even the rats were in wide-eyed disbelief.
The Chairman looked up and murmured in Cantonese, then translated for us: "Little bro is possessed by the ghost of a dragon." We all nodded. Easy may be a wise-cracking, well-nourished housecat, but he was born on the streets of The Bronx and his heritage took over that night. Whitey left the family cluster like a shadow, slinking along the ground to give Easy back-up. We all moved forward as well.
Agnes picked up the scent of fear from Easy's target. A big fat boss rat, bigger than the others and getting very nervous as Easy's eyes began their pre-strike hypnosis. The other rats started to retreat, and suddenly big boss rat was unguarded and vulnerable. In a fraction of a second, Easy leaped like a high-diver, his body elongating as he plummeted like a heat-seeking missile. Easy bulls-eyed his rodent target, and he and boss rat went tumbling, locked together in combat. They wrestled as they rolled and stopped at the edge of the open trench stream. Easy screamed and hissed and had all four paws working combinations on the boss. Easy's claws shined in the dark like daggers. The rat and the cat were wrapped around each other, not moving.
Our hearts stopped when we heard the death shriek. It was high pitched. We couldn't tell who had ceased to be. Slowly, very slowly, Easy got up and turned to the rest of the rat brigade and hissed long and low. His mouth open, eyes burning, teeth glowing, the rodents scattered, and the tunnel was liberated.
Easy was going to need some time to come down from his frenzied state. We gave him time. After a few minutes, he slinked back to the family cluster. He hunkered down in the middle of us, panting. Not a word was said. Mousie padded over and sat next to Easy. After a while Mousie said in a quiet little-boy-kitten voice: "Uncle Easy, can we go home now?" Easy lifted his head and placed his chin on Mousie's forehead and, with the slightest of movements, smiled at his family and passed out.
We held a vigil over our seemingly comatose comrade. He had some wounds that bled; the girls and Simply licked his wounds like a trauma team. Simply got frustrated. His rage for his fallen lover sent him charging into the darkness with the hope of killing a rat. The girls kept licking.
"I didn't hear no final yowl, no last battle cry. He still with us. I can feel it," Billy declared. Easy wasn't breathing. Little Tito barged into the cluster like a medic, and held his ear to Easy's chest. Tito's whiskers started twitching. He turned to Whitey and The Chairman and announced: "Gimme cover, gatos. I got an idea." Tito charged to the edge of the open water trench, Whitey and The Chairman protectively hot on his heels. Bent over like a migrant worker, Tito gathered up some wild greens and mushrooms that managed to grow in the dark world. He balled up the vegetation between his little front paws until it turned to pulp.
Tito hot-footed it back to Easy and his guardians with the ball of herbs in his mouth. Whitey and The Chairman escorted him like body guards. Gently, Tito leaned over Easy's mouth and nose and squeezed the pulp ball until a little drip of liquid fell on Easy's nostrils. No response. Again, Tito squeezed out another drop. Nada. With all of his minute guinea pig muscle, Tito squeezed a raindrop-sized drip onto Easy's mouth and nose.
Whisker by whisker, Easy's muzzle started to twitch, vibrate, and tremble. His ears started moving like they were playing drums in a jazz combo. Paws making dream-running movements, and Easy awoke in a huge sneeze. "Yahchoooo!"
The crowd of feline faces broke into cat-nip grins of relief. Simply bent over and licked Easy's head and ears. Mousie purred. Agnes barked triumphantly. We all turned and stared at Tito. Agnes addressed Tito: "Dear sweet little man. How did you do it?"
"My mama was a bruja," Tito quipped. Then he winked at Mousie. Agnes leaned into Tito. "Get on, "she smirked. Tito climbed on Agnes's head, raised his paw in a little fist and hollered in a squeaky voice: "Vayamos, gatos. Southern Boulevard here we come."
We galloped down into the mouth of the tunnel like the cavalry heading home.
After a few miles of endless straightaway, our gallop slowed to a trot, then to a lope, then to a tired walk along the water's edge. The underground river got deeper with a fast churning current. There was a narrow cement path between wall and water, and we proceeded in single file.
"What do you call this little road?," Mousie asked any adult with an answer.
"A cat-walk," Easy chimed in. Giggles, nods, grins, and a "right on" from Washington-Washington echoed down through the tunnel. The handsome black cat's voice carried through the underworld tunnel. A mile down, a pair of yellow eyes opened under murky water. Two little ear holes opened as well. A large, dangerous subterranean dweller jolted awake by the sound of intruders started to swim up from the river bottom.
The band of cats, dog, and guinea pig proceeded bravely, having won their first battle as a troop. Tito's whiskers started twitching as he picked up two scents. First, he could smell the cuisine of Southern Boulevard wafting from the world above, then his keen sense of smell picked up another, unknown scent. Tito wasn't sure if he smelled something or felt a vibration.
Agnes couldn't smell near water and the cats were not exactly thrilled to be near the wet, cold liquid. Little Tito kept his thoughts to himself. Agnes could feel Tito's heartbeat quicken on the top of her head. Both dog and guinea pig chose to stay quiet for the moment. The crew trudged on with an overwhelming desire to get home … even if they had to share that home with humans.
Cats don't need clocks. They instinctively know when the sun and moon appear. The crew could feel that sunrise was only a few hours away. They felt it in their hearts, in their bones, in their souls. The desire to get home before daybreak quickened their pace. They couldn't have hustled any faster if they were vampires dreading the oncoming daylight.
Tito was anxious. He wanted to get back to Southern Boulevard to make a home for himself. There was a little human boy who came to visit him in the pet shop before it burned down. Tito would see the little human boy, staring from his living room window into the pet shop window. He loved Tito but couldn't afford to buy him. "The niño won't have to worry about the dinero now," Tito thought to himself. Finding the kid would be a piece of cake once Tito got back up into the world above. He had every inch of Southern Boulevard imprinted in his brain. He was going to find that boy and be an outstanding pet for the boy to cherish. Tito's reverie was interrupted as the crew came to a halt. The water level was rising, making passage by foot almost impossible.
Billy called a huddle: "Ai, gatos. I know we ain't exactly fond of the dog paddle, you'll excuse the expression, but we ain't got much of a choice if we wanna get back to the Parkway." Hearts sank, jaws dropped. The crew knew they could swim in a pinch, but were not exactly thrilled with the turn of events. "Look!" Mouse exclaimed, motioning towards the left wall of the tunnel. Leaning against the wall, stuck on a crag, was a large, bright blue, plastic milk carton. It was extra large for carrying jugs on a truck.
"That's our boat!," Mousie declared excitedly.
"This is one smart kid," Easy said to Simply.
"The boy's a genius," Simply concluded.
Agnes piped in: "Well, lads and lassies, providence has saved us."
"Who's providence?," Easy whispered.
"Never mind," Simply hushed.
"Everyone help level our life raft and pile in," Agnes ordered. The crew happily complied and, in moments, the crate was full of cats anxious to shove off. Eleven cats and a kitten sat in rows in the crate resembling troops in a landing craft headed for Omaha Beach.
"I'll be the engine," Agnes announced, and courageously walked into the water with Tito still on her head and got behind the makeshift craft and pushed … and pushed again … and with one powerful nudge, got the carton flowing with the current. Agnes paddled and steered the carton with her snout. Tito stood on his haunches and announced, like a subway conductor: "Next stop, Southern Boulevard!"
"I hope this is an express," Easy whispered to Simply.
"I'm with you, pal," Simply responded, "I'm with you."
I don't know who coined the phrase "light at the end of the tunnel" but it really exists. Our milk-carton boat increased its speed with the help of the current and Agnes. Way off in the distance, like a small glimmering star, we saw daylight. We were stoked. It was still early enough to get home. We headed for the tunnel's opening. Tito could sense he was near his 'hood. He smelled it. He knew it. The little guinea pig had traveled through this underworld and was ready to live above ground again. Tito saw a ladder hanging down and recognized it. It was about 100 yards away. He whispered to Agnes: "That's where I get off, Tia."
Agnes nodded and began to navigate the milk-boat over to the side. A silhouette appeared across the little river, blocking our exit and the far-off daylight view. Whatever it was, it loomed in seeming repose across the canal. Something was lying horizontally in the water, like a bathing beauty. A huge head propped up by a big claw-laden paw … or leg … or some kind of hand. We all picked up an unknown scent. Agnes stopped the carton by jamming it on the side with her strong body.
We all peered at the thing. It batted two huge fiery yellow eyes and declared: "Tell the truth, mes enfants, ain't I bee-yoo-ti-full?" A deep Louisiana [French and Southern] accent echoed. Our eyes adjusted to the sight of one huge alligator blocking our path, glistening and green, with scales and armor and a big country-girl grin. The female gator was twelve feet long. This was the biggest creature we had ever seen.
"Wh-wh-wh-what are y-y-y-you?," Mousie stammered. The giant gator lifted her head and smiled wide.
"Alligator mississippiensis," cooed the giant reptile, "but you can call me by my proper name, chile … Mademoiselle Boudreaux." With refined elegance, the gator held out one limp, curvaceous front leg that ended in a clawed-lined crescent, and waited patiently.
Agnes whispered to Mousie: "Kiss her hand …or paw …whatever. It will be alright."
The crew was puffed out, freaking out, dead silent as Mousie bowed like a gallant knight and silently kissed the gator's outstretched meat-cleaver limb.
"Oh, blue-boy," the gator declared in a deep, feminine vibrato, "très charmant. You, I believe, are my foist gennelman caller."
"Wh-wh-where are you fr-fr-from?," asked Mousie, trying to be conversational.
"Weeee-zee-anna, originally," said the reptile proudly, "the bayou, to be exact, M'sieu." The gator grabbed an old paper plate floating by and coyly fanned herself with it.
"How'd you end up here ... in The Bronx?," inquired Mousie.
"Oh, my," complained the gator, "it was them horrid Frères Ringling who done kidnapped me when I was a babee in a cellophane egg in my maman's nest. They brought me up here with the soykus, put me in a plastique bag and sold me to a little fat human boy and his ugly Tante," she stated. "When they got tired of my beauty, them ungracious humans flushed me down the twalett, thinking they would destroy me … but, it takes more than a Bronx sewer to stop a Boudreaux," she declared proudly.
Tito piped in: "Thass a nice story, Mami, but you be blocking our way. We got to get home." Mademoiselle Boudreaux grinned and licked her many yellow, spiked teeth.
"But, hawnee," drawled the Southern French debutante, "you mus' stay for lunch."
"We appreciate the offer, sweetheart, but we gotta get back to our neighborhood," Easy diplomatically stated.
"Ooooh, mes enfants, vous ne comprenez pas! Oh, my sweet little fur-coated friendlies, I believe you will have to cancel the remainder of your social calendars. 'Cause, childrens, you are lunch."
Like a streak of green lightning, Mademoiselle Boudreaux shot forward and grabbed the entire blue milk carton full of kittens between her huge jaws and tried to crush the vessel and its inhabitants. She shook it and shook it, but the man-made plastic held its cube shape. The giant female reptile underestimated the weight of eleven Bronx cats and, losing her balance, flipped over on her back. Her light green belly was exposed. In a flash, Tito turned to Agnes. Neither of them had been grabbed. "Miss Agnes, place me in the middle of that slime-bag's belly. I got an idea," Tito squealed. Agnes had a sense of what Tito was up to, grabbed him gently between her jaws and placed Tito dead center on the gator's belly. Mademoiselle Boudreaux tried to whack Agnes with her armor-plated tail. Agnes leaped out of the way. The Scottish lady was too agile for the Southern belle. Tito got on his back like a hip-hop street dancer and started spinning himself around and around.
"Spin me," Tito hissed to Agnes. The Border Collie lunged in with her snout, gave Tito a spin, and darted away from the attacking tail. Tito spun like a top, round and round, massaging the upturned, exposed gator abdomen. Mademoiselle Boudreaux's eyes began to flutter and half-close. Her claws trembled, her jaw slowly relaxed its grip. Little Tito spun like a headliner from the Ice Capades. The gator's eyes closed, her jaw relaxed, and the blue box of cats slid out of her gaping mouth. Mademoiselle Boudreaux would have been appalled to know she snored like a drunken sailor. Agnes peered into the blue box. All the felines were huddled at the bottom. Agnes leaned in and licked a few heads and whispered: "All is well. Stay put. I'll get you home, I promise."
A very dizzy Tito staggered off the snoring Mademoiselle Boudreaux directly into Agnes. "Tia Agnes, get me up that ladder. My 'hood is straight up that manhole."
Delicately, Agnes picked up Tito by the scruff of his neck, got on her hind legs, and tossed Tito up in the air. He grabbed the lowest rung of the ladder with one paw and dangled for a second. His other front leg made contact, and the courageous guinea pig began his ascent to Southern Boulevard. Before Tito disappeared up the ladder, he turned and looked down at Agnes, grinned, and whispered: "Take good care of them gatos." Agnes grinned back as Tito disappeared to the world above.
Agnes wasn't sure how long Boudreaux would sleep, so she hustled to the milk carton, gave it a shove with all her might and paddled towards the light. As Agnes swam and pushed on, the felines began to recover from shock and stand up in the craft, staring at the early light of dawn at the tunnel's end. Smaller tunnels fed water into the main artery, picking up the current and propelling them forward like a log flume. Daylight and the exit from the dark world grew larger as the crew and Agnes flew farther ahead.
'"Where's Tito?," Mousie asked in a worried little-boy-cat voice.
"Safe and sound, darlin'," Agnes struggled to answer. The crew saw trees, bushes, and grass coming up fast. They all smelled the fresh-cut grass of Trojan Field and were elated. The blue cat-laden crate and Agnes shot out of the tunnel into a cement silo that exited at the side of Dead Man's Hill, next to Motorcycle Precinct Number One. The water split in several directions and into a large drain. Skidding across wet concrete like a toboggan, the crate came to a halt and the whole outside world was very still. Sparrows saw the crate of cats down below their nests and started chirping. Agnes leaned in the crate, did a head count, and in a near-exhausted whisper, uttered: "We're home."
Billy, Sammi, Easy, Simply, Washington-Washington, Twinnie, Mattie, The Chairman, Whitey, Shabu, Mousie, and I slowly exited our lifeboat. Easy leaned down and kissed the cement.
"Is the monster coming back?," Mousie asked Agnes.
"No, sweet boy. Your friend Tito took care of that," Agnes answered.
"Tito?," Easy asked, "how?"
"I'll explain later," Agnes grinned.
"Let's get back to our cribs," Billy announced.
Agnes led us up the hill to Unionport Road. Billy got us across White Plains Road. We all bid each other a quick farewell and scattered to our separate dwellings. Sammi and Mousie came with me to Matthews Avenue. A new day brought wonderful life-altering changes.
Hector Ramirez stepped off the front stoop of his building to wait for the bus to take him to day camp. His thick glasses were a source of teasing. So was his belly. Hector was lonely, no friends, and as straight A student.
The moment his sneakers touched the sidewalk, he felt a slight scratching on the toes of his sneakers. He immediately looked down and saw the ginger and white guinea pig from the pet shop. Hector's heart soared. He bent down and gently picked up the guinea pig and hugged him. The guinea pig cuddled and nuzzled Hector, which brought some mist to the twelve-year-old boy's eyes. The little ginger and white rodent started making squealing sounds: "Ree-ree-ree-ree."
"You must be hungry, little guy," Hector announced. Hector gently put the guinea pig in his red backpack, which was full of biscuits, avocado, and fruit. Hector opened the biscuit sleeve and the little guinea pig started munching ravenously. Hector smiled from ear to ear. Hector looked down and noticed the letter T had been etched on the rubber above the toe of his sneaker. "T on my toe," Hector pondered aloud. "T … toe. I'll call you Tito," Hector stated proudly.
Hector peered into the day pack, and when he said "Tito," he swore he saw the little rodent stop chewing, looked at him, and make a face that looked like a smile. Hector's trance was broken as the sound of the day camp's bus doors opened. Hector stepped aboard a happier kid than he had ever been.
As I led Sammi and Mousie to Matthews Avenue, I was a little worried that the kid and his family might not want two more cats. My fears were alleviated. I scratched at the front door and the kid, his sister, and his mother scooped us up with hugs and cooing. They went nuts over Sammi and Mousie. An unfamiliar hand scratched the top of my head. I turned and almost passed out from shock. The old man was petting me … me. No "stinkin' cat" remarks, either.
His big leathery hands picked me up, put me on his lap, and he leaned over and whispered in my ear: "Nu, Arthur, you're a family man, now? Very nice! Very nice!"
I did what I was born to do. I sat on his lap and purred. The sound of cat food cans opening got me, Sammi, and Mousie hustling to the kitchen.
Word spread around the neighborhood cats about our adventure but nobody believed it. Even Agnes's testimony raised eyebrows and whiskers. Bronx cats are very dismissive of tall tales and legends, especially when you try to explain to a neighborhood feline that there are some good rodents in the world. They don't buy it.
As summer started to fade into autumn, we were all sitting around watching TV with our humans one evening when Mousie started mewing at the screen. Sammi and I awoke from our cat naps to see a story about a lion sighting in an African port. There were reports that a male lion had been seen leaving a cargo ship, charging through the port city, heading for the nearby plains. The authorities were unable to capture the beast.
"What's CNN?," Mousie whispered to me and Sammi.
"Cat News Network," I said with a smirk.
Sammi lightly batted me upside my head for that comment. What can I say? Life is good. Period. Well, nice talking to you. That's my story and I'm sticking to it.