Ginger Hamilton Caudill was raised in Charleston, West Virginia. Her work has been featured in numerous publications including The Binnacle, Mount Zion Review, the HerStory anthology, Southern Hum, Unlikely Stories, StorySouth, Quiction, Dead Mule, Mountain Echoes, Pen Point View, and USA DeepSouth. Forthcoming publications include edificeWrecked, Dispatch Literary Journal, The Landing, Cup of Comfort for Grandparents, Cup of Comfort for Expecting Mothers, and various anthologies. Caudill maintains a blog at http://chickenscratches.blogspot.com/.
Bicycle Charlie and the Cats
Every morning, a white-haired leprechaun wobbles up the road in front of my house on a push-brake bicycle with two milk crates tied on to hold his groceries. I don’t know his real name, so I call him Bicycle Charlie. He makes his shaky ride each day to visit Big Rita, my name for the cat lady who lives across the street. I don’t know her real name either.
At seven each morning, Big Rita lumbers onto the porch decked out in a crocheted purple-and-red poncho and knitted green cap. Sometimes a stray cat will nip at her ankles and she’ll kick it out of the way just far enough so she doesn’t trip on it while she’s coming down the steps. Then she shambles up the hill to the Kroger deli to buy breakfast.
Half an hour later, Big Rita hobbles back and disappears inside her shabby house. When she reappears with a metal pan overflowing with chow in each hand, hundreds of stray cats swarm her yard like a wriggling sea of larvae. The craftier cats are already lined up shoulder-to-shoulder when Big Rita steps outside. Some of the hungrier or less experienced strays press forward in the queue and a lightning-fast paw slap soon re-establishes the feline pecking order. A cacophony of yowls greets Big Rita when she rocks out the door in her bad-hip gait and sets down the first pan of cat food. She totters back inside and returns with the second, third, fourth servings – however many it takes to satisfy the beggars.
When the feeding frenzy is over, one by one the cats leave in a strangely choreographed routine. Reinvigorated by their meal, the first ones energetically sprint away holding their tails high. Next, the battered and scarred old toms lope off to make their whizzing rounds, invigorated enough to defend their territory one more time. Then the nursing mothers slink away, hugging the shadows on the edge of Big Rita’s house until they fade from sight. The stragglers -- the chronically hungry ones -- won’t leave until Big Rita goes inside.
Bicycle Charlie usually weaves his bike up the hill in between the toms’ departures and the mothers’ retreats.
Charlie and Rita chat for a few minutes every day after feeding time. I’ve never seen Charlie bend down to pet any of the cats, but they still weave between his feet and the wheels of the bike, making kitty love to his ankles, ever hopeful for a stroke or another scrap of food. Charlie brings Rita two sacks of cat chow every morning and she gives him a little money. Sometimes I wonder if he manufactures cat food in that wacky house of his.
Bicycle Charlie lives down the hill, around the corner and a couple of blocks away in a tiny white cottage protected by a three-foot-high chain link fence and a No Trespassers or Salesmen sign. The gate is secured with a loop of neon-pink jump rope slipped over the metal fencepost. Inside the fence are myriad stacks of ritually hoarded…objects…that he’s toted home in the milk crates. The five-foot-high mounds seem neat enough on first glance, yet the individual components are curiously unrecognizable. Looking at Bicycle Charlie’s yard is like looking at a sea of people from a distance -- you can’t make out specific faces.
Only Charlie and maybe God knows what’s inside that little house. I imagine there are oh-so-neatly stacked piles of…more things…that Bicycle Charlie collects. There could be a million dollars in ten-dollar bills wrapped in recovered typewriter ribbons inside, but no one will ever know. When he dies, the city will tack a condemned sign on the front door and after 45 days the wrecking crew will show up. By the end of the 45th day, Bicycle Charlie’s house and all his collections will be a chaotic pile of rubble. By the end of the 46th day (unless it’s a Sunday), the little postage stamp lot will be reduced to a bare earthen square.
I imagine that when Big Rita dies, no one will dare enter her house for fear of being eaten alive by the cats. Once I stood at the door and chatted with her. As far as I could see into the shadowy recesses, the house was full of boxes stacked to the ceiling. There were cardboard boxes stacked upon paper cartons, piled up on more boxes. The window blinds were closed. There’s not even a curtain hanging oddly with a permanent grimy section from being pulled back so she can peer outside. For all I know, Big Rita clones cats and stores them in all those boxes.
* * *
After their morning rendezvous, Big Rita waddles back inside and Bicycle Charlie sets off on his push-brake bike. The few remaining strays wander off and become neighborhood scenery once more.
Bicycle Charlie won’t be with us forever, and I’ll miss him. I don’t like to brag, but I once saved him from a ghastly fate.
About a year ago, Big Rita went out of town for a week when a relative died. The morning after she left, cats teemed around the yard anxiously. Big Rita hadn’t gone to the deli for breakfast. The trouble started with some edgy snarls; then a few scruffy tails switched. Random skirmishes broke out between some of the cats. The hissing, growling buzz intensified as the hungry horde grew more restless.
There was an electric tension in the air by the time Bicycle Charlie arrived with two bags of chow. The cats’ irritable growling quieted as they analyzed him to see what he would do. Charlie reached inside a milk crate and ripped the string on the cat food bag. A hundred hungry cats relinquished their temporary territories and moved toward the bike. The yowling, snarling, howling, growling and hissing horde rushed Bicycle Charlie as if he himself was cat food. Charlie’s eyes grew huge and he stumbled backwards into the street, throwing handfuls of cat chow away as the throng surged forward. He wasn’t able to throw much at a time and the few crumbs he did manage to throw were immediately gobbled up. Charlie worked his way to his bicycle, desperately tossing handfuls of chow as he went. He almost escaped.
Charlie wildly kicked the stand up and straddled the bicycle. The feral felines closed in around the frightened old man. Three of the more aggressive cats leapt up onto the milk crates while a fourth climbed up Charlie’s back. Charlie frantically swatted at a cat clinging to his faded corduroy jacket, and I decided I had to act before the old man was eaten alive by the swarm of beasts.
“Throw the bags away from you, Charlie.” I shouted over the noise of the cats’ screams. “You gotta throw the bags away.”
Charlie gestured helplessly. He couldn’t hear me over the commotion. By now, more cats were climbing up his legs and hanging off his arms. Charlie slapped at the ravenous beasts like they were huge hungry mosquitoes. The tiny man disappeared beneath a multi-colored living fur coat.
I pantomimed throwing the bags away, and Bicycle Charlie slung the open bag into the street. It burst, spilling cat chow and drawing most of the cats away as they pounced on the kibble in the road. The chow was gone in a few second’s time. Charlie grabbed the second bag and hurled it in the opposite direction. The poor man trembled so hard that I worried he’d have a heart attack. Fear-inspired leprechaun legs pumped pedals in double time and he disappeared around the corner, safe at last. I didn’t see him for two weeks after the cat attack.
Somehow the cats survived until Big Rita returned. She hollered across the street to me, “Hey, you seen that old man that rides the bicycle lately? He ain’t fed my cats and it ain’t like him to let me down.”
I told her about Charlie’s near calamity. Big Rita looked at me like I was crazy. “I can’t believe that happened,” she said. “Are you sure you ain’t making that up?”
I chuckled; it was a pretty wild story.
“Ask him if he’ll feed the cats the next time you go away, and see what he says.” Big Rita shook her head and toddled back inside.
I was trimming my rose bushes a couple of days later when Big Rita waddled down the hill from the deli. She called to me, “Hey, reckon you was telling the truth. The old man said he won’t feed them cats no more. Can you do it the next time I need to leave for a few days?”
She must’ve thought I was crazy to take on those cats after what I saw them do to Charlie.
“Only if I can feed ‘em with a slingshot,” I answered.
Guess I never will learn Big Rita’s real name.
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