I awoke to beautiful autumn foliage. Deep shades of red, orange, and yellow that bled into the pale morning sky and gave the valley a lovely earthen feel.
I sat there contemplative, letting the colors fill me up. At some point overnight we must have crossed the border into Vermont. The driver of the van pulled into a gas station and asked me if this was a good place to let me off.
I said yes, and thanked him for his generosity.
“Think nothing of it,” he said, and pulled away.
I stretched and gathered my bearings. The road before me was wide and littered with colorful leaves. A car whizzed past and the foliage flew up into the air only to settle again in a different but equally beautiful arrangement.
I followed the road until I reached a town. It was a few square blocks built around a charming main street that boasted a handful of shops—including a little used book store.
I’m always in need of books to keep my wandering mind occupied during my days of travel, so I decided to have a look inside.
The store was a dimly lit maze of tall wooden bookcases. There didn’t seem to be any particular rhyme or reason to how the books were arranged. Skinny little paperbacks were sandwiched in between thick hardcover encyclopedias. Large piles of books sat stacked upon eachother on the floor. And absolutely nothing was alphabetized.
“Can I help you find something?”
I turned around to reply but saw nobody.
“Up here,” the voice said.
I looked atop the bookcase and saw a cat. “Hello” the cat said.
“Hello,” I said.
“Do you need help finding something?” the cat repeated. It had a smooth low-pitched voice, that sounded remarkably human.
Yes I told him. “My mind likes to wander. I’m looking for something that can bring me back.”
“Something more grounded in reality?” the cat asked.
“Perhaps, but I do enjoy elements of unreality too. When appropriate.”
“I have just the thing,” the cat said.
Gracefully, the cat bounded down the side of the bookcase and landed silently on the wooden floor. “Follow me” it said.
The cat brought me to a bookshelf in the back of the store. It leapt to the second-highest shelf.
“Grab this one for me,” the cat said while nudging a paperback with its head.
I pulled it off the shelf: “Kafka On The Shore” by Haruki Murakami.
“One of my personal favorites,” the cat said.
“Is that how you learned to talk,” I asked, “by reading books?”
“One of the ways,” the cat said. “My owners were always big advocates for reading. That’s why they opened this bookstore.”
“Are they here now?” I asked.
“Unfortunately no. The husband passed some ten years ago. And the wife about six years later.”
“Oh. Well I’m sorry for your loss,” I said.
“It’s okay. They were good people. They had no kids of their own, so they treated me like their child. Better actually. They were both college professors, so they did everything to make sure I was well learned. Because of them I not only know how to talk, but I can run a business.”
“So you own this place?”
“My owners passed it to me after they died.”
“It’s not easy running a small business as a cat, but I’ve found a way to make it work. And it gives me something to occupy my time now that I’m all alone.”
There was a long pause. The cat seemed to be deep in thought.
“So how much do I owe you,” I asked, breaking the silence.
“This one’s on me,” the cat said. “I was watching you when you came in. You look like you’ve spent a few too many nights sleeping on the floor.”
The cat wasn’t wrong, and suddenly I felt a bit self-conscious about my rugged appearance.
“How about this,” the cat said. “I enjoy chatting with you. Come join me at this coffee shop across the street and talk to me a bit more. Then I’ll send you on your way.”
A warm cup of coffee felt like just what I needed. And it wasn’t everyday I got to converse with a cat.
“You’ve got a deal,” I said. “But can I ask for your name?’
“My owners had a name for me but I haven’t heard it in many years. It’s a bit embarrassing, but I don’t really remember what it was anymore.”
“So what should I call you?” I asked.
“The Alley Cat works,” the cat said.
“But you don’t live in an alley,” I said.
“No, but it has a nice ring to it, I think.”
I slipped the book into my backpack and followed The Alley Cat out of the store. In the morning light, I realized that its fur wasn’t as dark as it appeared indoors. It was more of a grey-ish color with black stripes across its back. Its eyes were a pale shade of green, and there was a small chunk of skin missing from its right ear. I was curious what had happened, but felt it impolite to ask.
We crossed the street and came upon an old fashioned-style diner. It’s interior was just one long counter with a dozen little red cushioned stools arranged before it. Behind the counter three pots of coffee were brewing, and through a little window you could see an elderly man puttering in the kitchen.
An old woman in an apron—presumably his wife—greeted us from behind the counter and encouraged us to pick any seat we like, given that the diner was empty.
The Alley Cat and I decided to pick the two seats in the center of the counter. “What’ll it be,” she said with a sense of warm familiarity.
I waited for The Alley Cat to say something but it just sat on the stool wagging its long gray tail.
“I’ll have a cup of coffee please,” I told her.
She spun around and in one swift motion placed a fresh mug of coffee in front of me and a little cup of creamer.
“What else,” she said with a grin.
“Well, how about some eggs over easy? And a few slices of bacon,” I said.
“And a can of tuna,” The Alley Cat said.
“Yes, and a can of tuna,” I repeated.
“I’ll throw in some hasbrowns for ya, we make ’em good here,” she said.
I gave her a smile.
“Would you mind if I had some of that,” The Alley Cat asked, motioning towards the creamer.
“Of course not,” I said. I took the cup and poured a little bit of the creamer into a saucer, then placed it on the stool. I watched as The Alley Cat lapped it up with its tongue.
“Thanks for that,” The Alley Cat said when finished. “So, what brings you to Vermont?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “I heard it’s beautiful this time of year. I guess I wanted to see it for myself.”
“That’s it?” The Alley Cat said, sounding disappointed.
“Does there have to be more?” I said.
“Not necessarily,” The Alley Cat said. “But I got the impression you’ve been on the road for some time. And Vermont isn’t your final destination.”
This was true. I conceded that I had left home some months ago, with a lot more than what I currently had on me. But as the days turned into weeks, everything seemed to fall away. And the less I had, the less tied down I felt. I was contented to keep drifting about until something told me it was time to stop.
“That’s interesting,” The Alley Cat said. “I can relate.”
“Really? You’ve done some traveling?”
“I probably haven’t covered as much ground as you. After all I’m only a cat. But after my owners passed, I too felt the desire to get away.”
“Where did you go?” I asked.
“I went to seek out more of my own kind. Cats, that is. There’s actually a farm in New Hampshire where hundreds of cats live freely. I’d heard about it from some of the cats in town and thought I’d see it for myself.”
“And what was it like?”
“Deeply saddening. You have to understand that for most of my life, I lived with my owners in their home. We did everything together. We cooked, went to the movies, saw friends, and had lots of long and interesting conversations. It was a very good life for a cat. But it was also an unnatural one. If a cat spends too much time living amongst humans, they can, in a way, become a human themselves. Do you understand? Now obviously I’m not a human, but I’m also no longer a cat really. Going to the farm made that abundantly clear. Cats don’t want to be around a cat that knows how to talk. They looked at me like some sort of grotesque novelty. They gave me no choice but to leave. Which is why I’m here now running the bookstore.”
“That is sad,” I said.
The elderly woman arrived with our food and we ate in silence. After I had mopped up the last bit of egg yoke with my toast, I turned to face the cat again.
“It’s been great chatting with you, but I really do need to be going, otherwise I’ll be sleeping on the floor again tonight.”
“I understand,” said the cat. “But before you go I need to tell you something.”
“Of course,” I said.
“It’s something I’ve never shared with anyone,” The Alley Cat said. “And I’m a bit embarrassed to even tell you, but it feels important to say out loud. And you’ve been nice enough to listen to me thus far.”
“We all have things we’re sensitive about,” I told The Alley Cat. “Lord knows there are things I don’t want others to know about me.”
“You’re right,” The Alley Cat said. “Ok here it goes: I love women. Human women. In a romantic way.”
“Oh, I see. Well, how does that work?”
“It doesn’t,” The Alley Cat replied. “It’s an impossibility that I will ever know a human woman romantically. But the cruelty of my nature—the fact that I lived a human life for so long—makes me feel very strong desire towards them.”
“What about female cats?” I asked.
“There’s nothing there. And believe me I’ve tried.”
“I didn’t know it was possible to love romantically outside of your species,” I told The Alley Cat.
“Nor did I. But the feeling is there. Every now and again, a beautiful woman will walk into the bookstore, and I’ll fall in love. And I’ll try as best I can to soak up as much of them in those moments, so that it can last me until the next time. It’s really all I can do.”
We both sat in silence once more. After some time I got up to pay. The Alley Cat tried to cover the bill, but I insisted. Then I walked it back to its bookstore, and we said our goodbyes.
I continued on in my current state for a few more months. Eventually things clicked into place for me and I managed to settle down. Never again did I pass through that Vermont town, and never again did I see The Alley Cat.
As time passed, the event felt more and more surreal, to the point where I wasn’t sure it happened at all. A talking cat that loves human women? The idea was too ridiculous to even bring up in conversation.
But then something happened recently that made me think differently. I was cleaning out my attic when I came upon a box of books. At the bottom was “Kafka On The Shore,” by Haruki Murakami.
I felt guilty for the fact that I had never managed to read The Alley Cat’s gift. So I began thumbing through the pages and noticed a little slip of paper fall out.
It was a photo of a woman in her late 50s or early 60s holding a grey cat that was missing a piece of its ear.
The caption below the photo said “Joan & Oscar” with a little heart around it. The Alley Cat was staring deeply into Joan’s eyes, trying to soak up every moment.