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yard cat

Behind the House
By VERLYN KLINKENBORG

For the spring semester, I am renting a small house in Claremont, Calif., a modest ranch in a modest neighborhood. Like most of the houses on the block, its facade pays a dutiful, if glib, homage to the street, but the house’s real attention — its gaze — is directed toward the carefully fenced backyard, where an orange tree grows and there is shelter from the sun under the long, wide roof of the porch.

For wildlife, there are cats. In fact, I seem to be living in a feline observatory. Large windows look out onto the porch, and the porch seems to have been used — for how long, I have no idea — by the cats of the neighborhood as a kind of theater, a place to work on their soliloquies. One by one, they come across the yard and up onto the porch, where they rehearse a fixed repertory of poses. Then they make their exit, stage left, departing through a small gap between the gate and the fence.

I cannot see these cats — I’ve counted nearly a dozen so far — without thinking of a sentence by the writer Guy Davenport: “My cat does not know me when we meet a block away from home, and I gather from his expression that I’m not supposed to know him, either.”

Perhaps that’s the value of my backyard as feline habitat. It’s a college-owned house, and it sat empty for the past few months. I’m unknown to these cats, and therefore they put on no pretense. Perhaps some are genuinely feral street cats. I suspect most of them have good homes with owners who let their pets out. My yard is where they come to be themselves.

I especially admire one nimbus-gray cat that comes walking across the yard looking as much like a feline bull as it is possible to look. I’m fond, too, of the longhair that spends a good part of the day sitting on top of the van parked across the street but takes a tour of my backyard around dusk. I stand back from the windows, hoping to remain undetected, but at least one of the cats — a gray and white — has found me out. It sits watching me as though it has never seen a writer in its habitat before. Then it walks away, jaded.

I would trade these cats for birds, of course, but the one precludes the other. I’ve seen a flicker and a scrub jay, also a hummingbird and several doves. The rest of the birds have been turned into cats over the years, just as the desert has been turned into houses with cats in them. Meanwhile, the neighborhood dogs stand behind their fences and bark at what they think is going on.



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