Some names and identifying details have been changed to protect the guilty.
If you live in Pleasantville Prison, and you happen to glance out the window in the middle of the night, you might catch us: the pussycat patrol, on the prowl. Maybe you’re sleepless, haunted by guilt, having committed some small act of rebellion that has left you vulnerable to prosecution. Well, you have our sympathies. If you’re like us, you know that the public good is composed of happy individuals, and that some laws simply beg to be broken.
We travel under cover of darkness, since four-legged Pleasantville prisoners must suffer the indignity of leashes, at all times, out of doors. Around here, unfettered ramblings are subject to a fine of $150, as directed by the Condo Board - a faceless, merciless assembly of high-minded volunteers whose duty it is to preserve the peace, while also denying it.
Every evening, my accomplices and I wait for shadows to fall before creeping out to taste the forbidden freedom we covet. Out the front window, we stare at a fortress of wall-to-wall town homes mirroring the row in which our own cell is embedded, separated by a walkway down which we long to travel during daylight hours, but do not dare. Across the expanse, hostile eyes may be scanning the landscape in search of infractions to report. So we wait.
Neighbors may smile and wave, they may chat about this and that, they may even commiserate about the burden of by-law that binds us all, but each has the power to invoke the judgment of the Board via email or phone call. Soon after, an ominous envelope will arrive in the mailbox, delivering judgement. I have received several.
Our row is one of two within the larger compound, both encircled by an alley and an enclosing square of adjoining town homes that face out toward the wider world. Given the choice, I took a unit on one of these interior rows, the better to protect my feline family from street traffic. Little did I know then that I was consigning us to solitary confinement.
At first glance, you would be hard pressed to detect the sinister power that holds sway over Pleasantville. Individual units have been painted with a varying palette of quaint seaside pastels, approximating a sense of charming distinctiveness; it is an illusion. There are 217 town homes here, each identical to the other in most details – the gabled and peaked roofs, the tidy white trim, the useless faux shutters that do nothing to shut out the harsh reality of subjugation we all suffer. I hate window coverings, anyway. I’m used to living in the country, where they are needed by only those worried about the surveillance of coyotes and owls.
But cruel circumstance has brought us to the confines of civilization. It was early March when I moved in; snow drifted past my windows as I sat surrounded by boxes containing the remnants of my previous life. Through the windows to the north and south, I could clearly see prisoners going about their own fishbowl business, and realized I was similarly exposed; with adjacent cells on both sides of my walls, I had no view at all to the east and west. Sadly, I drew the blinds, but the full measure of my internment had not yet sunk in.
Like other residents, I had been lured by the pretense of land ownership promised by the tiny yards out front, fiercely guarded but fallacious. Each has been granted a few flowering shrubs and a small tree; mine is a crab apple, under which I had naively imagined my felines napping peacefully throughout the daylight hours.
Weathered wooden picket fences enclose each lot, with a charming rustic effect; but as I was to learn, their function is pure deception. Slowly decomposing into rickety disrepair, theses fences now present both a safety hazard and a looming financial quagmire not covered by our substantial condo fees; while all outdoor spaces, fenced or not, are common property owned by the Condo Corporation. That hasn’t stopped residents from attempting to individualize their bitsy ersatz empires with garden gnomes, wind chimes, flowerpots, and the like.
I was no different. A bright morning in May found me beneath a cloud of apple blossoms, happily digging up my lawn to make way for plants, while the cats prowled the walkway, swatting bugs and rolling on the warm concrete. A cold shadow descended; I looked up to find a man-shaped vortex of darkness silhouetted against the sunlight.
I rose to meet the pointed gaze of a stooping, balding, bespectacled vulture, comically clad in a white bathrobe and slippers. A cigarette hung from his jowls, poisoning the spring air with its stink. A green poop-bag fluttered from his wrist, as his perfectly coiffed and properly leashed Westie, bristling and shuddering with barely contained small-dog ferocity, stood guard. “Good morning,” he said, falsely. The sweetness of spring had already begun to leach from the day.
He introduced himself by name, but I always think of him as The Policeman. His unit on the corner of our row overlooks the our walkway and the Pleasantville entrance gate, and is an excellent location from which to survey the activities of his neighbours, which he does, constantly, from his porch. Like my trusty scouts and me, the Policeman has no official authority, but his private vocation to ensure universal compliance to the rules set us at odds immediately.
Eyebrows raised and lips pursed into a prissy pout, he pointed out that the lawn I was desecrating belonged to everyone, not just myself; the blooms escaping “my” perimeter were an affront to my neighbours, destroying the careful uniformity of the landscape. He informed me that I have only escaped a fine because our crumbling fences are soon to be torn down to create a common green space, which will be landscaped by direction of the Board. Further, that I will have to pay for the return of my flowerbeds to grass.
I tried to meet this unwelcome information with neighbourly good humour, but was answered by a further complaint that struck my vitals to ice. “You know that animals are supposed to be leashed, don’t you?” he enquired, gesturing towards my felonious felines, who had retreated to the safety of my porch, where they sat flicking their tails and staring contemptuously at the salivating dog.
"I see cats wandering around here all the time," I protested.
"They're from the outside," he replied, waving at the entranceway behind him. "There's no town bylaw against the neighbourhood cats, so we can't do anything about it."
The lack of logic inherent in trying to maintain an island of cat-lessness in a sea of feline freedom was beyond my ability to express. Instead, I explained that my cats were used to being outdoors, had never been leashed, and presented a threat to no one.
“They bury their poop in people’s gardens,” he said flatly, frowning. I personally can’t see the harm in this. I think of it as fertilizer. And I always feel sorry for people who have to trail after their dogs with poop-bags; somehow, it seems demeaning to both man and dog.
I argued that my cats prefer their litter-boxes, and never indulge in this behaviour. I was lying. Foolishly, I antagonized him further by pointing out that the bylaw actually specifies hand leashes, and that I had often seen him tie his mutt to the porch railing while he smoked his morning cigarette. Tying three cats to lines in the same vicinity presents obvious complications; I wasn’t about to attempt it, and said so. The Policeman was not convinced, and walked away shaking his head and muttering. I resolved to ignore him in the future, failing to register the depth of threat inherent in our unpleasant introduction.
Leaving a dog on a line unattended is generally frowned upon in Pleasantville; an unsupervised pooch may invite harassment, snap at passersby, or begin barking, inviting a potential noise complaint. People risk it, though; not everyone wants to sit around waiting for a dog to poop. Even the Policeman has been known to vacate his porch for short periods, leaving his dog untended. My eldest and wisest cat, Buddy Buddha, took diabolical advantage of one such occasion a few days later.
He sauntered up the walk, sat himself just outside of the Westie’s reach, and casually began grooming himself. The white ball of fur tied to the Policeman’s porch erupted into a frenzy - yipping, yapping, straining and slobbering, unable to reach the maddeningly provocative puss. Buddy appeared deaf to the dog’s yowls, deigning not a glance, and continued to lick his behind insolently. I had to laugh; but the dog’s strangled voc