Updated: a day ago
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. Perhaps you’re sleepless, haunted by a guilty conscience, having committed some small act of rebellion that has left you open to prosecution. Fear not: we do not act in any official capacity. In fact, we are inmates ourselves, breaking the law at our own risk, for the betterment of ourselves and of humanity – and for the sheer joy of it.
We travel under cover of night, since four-legged Pleasantville prisoners must suffer the indignity of leashes, at all times, out of doors. 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 reconnaissance team and I wait for the coast to clear before advancing into the shadows. Out the front window is a fortress of wall-to-wall townhomes 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. All 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, sternly warning of impending punishment. 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 townhomes that face out toward the wider world. Given the choice, I elected to inhabit 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 meant to approximate a charming sense of distinctiveness; it is an illusion. There are 247 townhomes 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 can’t bear 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. Flanked by cells on either side, my unit offers no view to the east or west; to the north and south, it consists of forbidding banks of windows and walls which block the horizon. Within the opposite dwellings, I could clearly see prisoners going about their private business, and realized that I was similarly exposed. 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 crabapple. Weathered wooden picket fences, meant to lend a rustic air, enclose each lot. Having decomposed into rickety disrepair, however, the fences present both a safety hazard and a looming financial quagmire not covered by our substantial condo fees. As I was to learn, their function is pure deception, since outdoor spaces 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 April found me beneath a cloud of apple blossoms, happily digging up “my” lawn to make way for plants. The Pleasantville Policeman arrived soon after. This stooping, balding, bespectacled vulture lives on the corner of our row, across the way and two units to the right of my own. Overlooking access to our walkway, as well as the Pleasantville entrance gate and the units that flank it to the west, he has an excellent location from which to survey the activities of his neighbors, which he does, constantly, from his porch. Like my trusty scouts and me, he has no official authority, but his private vocation to ensure universal compliance to the rules set us at odds immediately.
He shuffled up the walk in his slippers and bathrobe, with his little white dog sniffing the ground before him, properly leashed. A green poop-bag fluttered from his wrist and a cigarette hung from his jowls, poisoning the spring air with its stink. He greeted me pleasantly, inquiring as to my occupation, history, and purpose; and then proceeded to explain my error.
In point of fact, he pointed out, the lawn I’d desecrated belonged to everyone, not just myself; the blooms escaping “my” perimeter were an affront to my neighbors, destroying the careful uniformity of the landscape. He informed me that I have only escaped a fine due to the imminent demise of the fences; that soon, they will be torn down to create a common green space, to be landscaped by direction of the Board. Further, that I will have to pay for the return of my flowerbeds to grass.
Unbowed, defiant, I continue to garden, under the Policeman’s disapproving eye. By June, the apple blossoms have departed with the wind, but a shimmering wall of leaves take their place, allowing me some respite from the sense of being continually monitored. Facing north and south, our tiny yards are at their best when the sun rises and sets, setting banks of blooms alight; through the fences, it casts bars of brilliance and blue shadow across glowing carpets of green, tidily mowed as per our condo contracts. Bees and butterflies spangle the air, distracting us from our captivity, until the urge to step outside of our own little parcel of pleasantness overwhelms.
But we are wiser now. Our education began as we were enjoying the late afternoon sun, I working in the garden while the cats prowled the walkway happily, swatting bugs and rolling on the warm concrete. A cold shadow descended; I looked up to find the Policeman staring down at me with eyebrows raised and lips pursed into a prissy pout.
“Um, you make it hard to be a good neighbor,” he said. “You know that animals are supposed to be leashed, don’t you?”
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 behavior. I was lying. Foolishly, I antagonized him further by pointing out that the rule actually specified hand leashes, and gestured towards his mutt, which was tied to the porch railing on a long line. Almost everyone with dogs in Pleasantville does this; nobody complains, since almost everyone has dogs, and doing so might invite a complaint against oneself. 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.
Leaving a dog on a line unattended is generally frowned upon, but people risk it; not everyone wants to sit around waiting for a dog to poop. If the dog starts barking for some reason or other, the owner is now open to a potential noise complaint, as well as one for ignoring the hand-leash bylaw. However, even the Policeman has been known to vacate his porch for short periods, leaving his dog unsupervised.
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 this little dog’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 vocalizations brought the Policeman to his door, enraged – first at the dog, and then at me, once he realized the source of the disturbance.
“No harm done,” I called cheerily as I gathered Buddy up and returned him to my yard. I was wrong. A week later, I received notice of my first fine.
Thereafter, it seemed wise to offer the cats free time in the garden in the hours before the Policeman was likely to appear. This was a tricky exercise, though, since his schedule is somewhat varied; and the necessity of watching his door with the same care and attention he applied to my own not only cast a pall over my outdoor activities, but also proved beyond my scope as a criminal.
I was happily intent upon pulling weeds one morning when the Policeman emerged, dog on leash, earlier than usual. At the sight of Buddy reclining peacefully on the walkway, he reached down and unclipped his mutt, which then made a beeline for the feline at a flat run. No dummy, Buddy dashed for my front door, alerting the other two cats along the way; the trio disappeared inside with the dog in hot pursuit.
Leaving the Policeman standing dumbfounded on the walkway, I too chased inside, where harrowing sounds of interspecies war issued from the stairwell – growls, yowls, hissing and barks. I raced up the stairs where the wild-eyed, yipping and snuffling scamp was furiously chasing his prey from closet to bed to bathroom. I gathered the wriggling mass of fur into my arms – none too gently - and delivered him back to the Policeman, who was waiting on the walk with arms crossed and eyes blazing. “Your cats are driving my dog crazy,” he informed me. “You’re the crazy one!” I shot back. Shortly afterward, I received notice of my second fine.
In desperation, I tried to leash-train my cats. Only Teeny, my cross-eyed Snowshoe Siamese, will tolerate this insult for any period; she is young, innocent, and eager to please. She climbs into her halter quite willingly, naively thinking it some kind of game. Once shackled, however, she quickly becomes entangled in fence or branch, requiring constant rescue. Upon sight of the Policeman and his dog, she panics and takes off at a high run. Upon reaching the end of the leash length, her body snaps into a centrifugal cyclone, strangling her in the process.
Applying the leash to Buddy Buddha, my blue-eyed Birman, has opposite results. Though descended from a long line of mystic temple cats, he has not quite mastered the art of equanimity; it is easy enough to get him into the halter, but once bound, he lowers his belly to the ground and sits miserably, on strike. Staring up at me with haunted eyes, he inches sadly back to the door, towards the relative liberty of confinement inside.
Feisty Princess Priscilla (a.k.a. Miss Priss, or Missy) is pure Himalayan royalty and will have none of it. Her reaction to the halter and leash was an indignant explosion of claw and fur that has left us both scarred for life. Clearly I was going to have to come up with some other plan.
Cats are hunters and prowlers by nature, and like any living thing, need the stimulation of fresh air, agency, and the unexpected. In Pleasantville, squirrels may scamper, and birds flit fearlessly beyond bounds; to attract them, I installed birdfeeders in the crabapple tree, and provided comfortable perches by my windows, so the cats could have some distraction during my long hours at work.
Soon after, I got a letter instructing me to take them down, due to risk of rodents and an excess of bird poop. This, I judge, is the result of further meddling from the Policeman, in response to my defiance; now there is one less pleasure I can offer my captive cats. They pace the windowsill, craning and peering, hoping for signs of life, counting the hours until darkness provides cover for our illegal excursions.
As evening approaches, the yards out front begin to fill with prisoners on leave from work detail. Their little dogs strain at the end of their leashes, eager for action; cats prowl the opposite windowsills, frustrated in their fishbowls. A sale at the local hardware store last spring has resulted in an excess of brightly colored plastic Adonirack-style chairs littering the landscape, now occupied with beer and wine drinkers bent on squeezing a little enjoyment into the last hours of the day. They greet each other, pleasantly, across the crumbling fences.
As libations take effect, voices rise, echoing between the two buildings. A choice topic of conversation is those inmates not present. This person has not removed the forbidden satellite dish they installed; that person is storing their garbage on the balcony. Worse, there is a foreclosure on the next row: drugs. Somebody else has been entertaining the handyman while her husband is at work. Delicious.
Of course, the Condo Board and management are favorite subjects. The entrance garden needs weeding; the landscaping company should be fired. The window washers have not appeared since last year; somebody should write a letter. Someone has been reporting those inmates who use the visitor’s parking stalls for their convenience, resulting in fines. I can’t think who it might be.
Condo fees and property values drift into the discussion. The first are rising, the second falling. These facts prohibit easy escape. Added to unit values on the current market, our fees make monthly expenses higher than the cost of financing detached housing in other parts of town, and makes resale difficult; soon, we will be saddled with the additional cost of dealing with our collapsing fences. Property tax notices are reviewed: they are exorbitant, since a school is located on our east perimeter. This feature has attracted families, but adds to the tax burden; the childless are resentful.
When the topic of the renters who live in our midst arises, it is often flavored with disdain. Board members own many of their units, and are reluctant to serve evictions, despite multiple infractions against the rules. Unit X has an uninsured camper van in the parking spot out back; Unit Y still has Christmas lights up in July. And look at Unit Z – there is an old couch in the front yard. Renters are seen as threats to property value, while also bolstering the pride of ownership so dear to those of us shackled to mortgages.
Nobody discusses our status within the neighborhood that surrounds the compound. We are the poor relations in our larger community family, our stockade an unwelcome stain on the landscape. The wide, tree-lined streets outside the Pleasantville entrance are graced with great three-story shacks featuring rolling lawns, triple garages and exotic landscaping out front; trampolines, swimming pools, and spacious decks behind. The grandest of these homes border an enormous park to the south of the prison, which features a small manufactured lake. The tranquil path around it, landscaped with trees and flowerbeds, provides common ground for those living both inside and outside the compound; another justification for our high taxes.
Perhaps by parental decree, however, children from outside Pleasantville are rarely seen within its borders. Cats are another matter – there is no leash bylaw restricting their movement, so they parade through the compound regularly, taunting their imprisoned cousins haunting the windows.
Since political correctness prohibits leashing kids, the Pleasantville children run wild. Hooting, hollering, climbing fences and trees, leaving their bikes and toys littering the walkway, their juvenile bids for freedom grate upon those who have accepted their fate, sometimes sparking a prison riot.
Mrs. X advances up the walk towards Mrs. Y, fists clenched, perspiring, her face twisted into a red mask of rage. “I’m calling the police!” she yells. It seems Mrs. Y, now backing away, wide-eyed, from her opponent, has nearly run Mrs. X’s children over with her SUV while trying to navigate a game of street hockey.
The Policeman, who has been monitoring the situation from his customary perch, stomps over. “These kids shouldn’t be playing in the alley! What kind of parents are you?” Now the vitriol is fired in his direction. “Mind your own business!” screams Mrs. X. Fat chance. Each party is likely to receive a scolding missive from the Board next week – Mrs. X for failing to control her children, Mrs., Y for driving dangerously, and the Pleasantville Policeman for disturbing the peace with his interference. The combatants eventually disperse, slamming doors behind them, punctuated by the delighted hum of their observers, now given something truly interesting to talk about.
The summer smell of barbeque signals the beginning of an exodus. One by one the little yards empty. Now the action swings to the narrow strips of balcony overlooking the alley to the north, which is decorated with garbage bins, garage doors, and signs advising us to DRIVE SLOW CHILDREN PLAYING. The sounds of bouncing balls, skateboards, and children’s voices reverberate between the two buildings, amplified by the concrete and vinyl surfaces that enclose them. Men appear on the balconies, busy immolating burgers and steaks, hollering at each other across the expanse. Conversations are shorter and more to the point, due to distance - but louder, for the same reason. “Did you get a new car?” shouts Mr. X to Mr. Y. “No, it’s a rental, the Hyundai is in the shop!” yells Mr. Y. Now everyone knows.
Whatever glory the setting sun may sport, it goes unseen in my corner of Pleasantville, blocked by the wall of units that face to the west. It is heralded only by the treetops, quivering in golden flame, until the shadows rise upward to swallow them. Mothers call their children home and balconies empty. The trapezoid of available sky dims to lilac, then black. One by one, windows darken, and then flicker with multicolored flashes of cold neon as people gather around their televisions, seeking warmth.
My cats gather at the front door, flicking their tails, waiting. They know their time is coming. I watch for the Policeman and his dog to complete their final inspection; they traipse the walk slowly from end to end, one nose to the ground and the other in the air, sniffing for corruption. Only when his porch light snaps off and the blinds are drawn will we dare to step out of our cell.
I fasten Teeny into her halter, which has been fitted with a flashing light and a small bell. She is new to the pussycat patrol, and bears close watching. Having spent most of the last year literally caged at an animal shelter, she was at first confused and overwhelmed by the enormity of open space around her. We began with short solo excursions; at first she would dash headlong out into the night, chasing from yard to yard and sometimes even out into the street, heedless of my whistle. She’s since learned that if she ignores me, she’ll be gathered up and delivered back indoors, forthwith, reduced to sentinel duty at the window while I and the other two make our rounds. Buddy and Missy have learned from long experience to follow me closely, trusting me to alert them to unforeseen hazards and protect them as best I can.
There is some risk, I admit. I grew up on a farm, where no one ever thought of restraining cats; we relied on their natural instincts to keep them safe. They had license to roam where they pleased, but always returned home at night. Occasionally, a story of a cat being killed by a coyote or owl would surface, though I’ve never lost a feline friend that way myself. In my new surroundings, other hazards, like cars and cat-haters, seem more to the point. Though I judge a short, happy life better than a long one in chains, I can no longer rest until I know where all of my cats are at all times.
But such dark thoughts aren’t troubling us now. Tonight, a southern breeze is blowing through the open window, beckoning us with scents of bough and bloom. When the wind shifts to the west, it carries the fetid funk of the feedlot just outside of town, crammed with miserable captives far worse off than we. Their destiny is a few kilometers north, from which direction blows the thick stink of blood and death. This sickening scud issues from the meatpacking plant, a hungry maw that devours 4000 victims a day. It also employs many of our inmates and provides fodder for their barbeque dinners.
Through the window, I see Callie in her garden. She is a middle-aged woman like myself whose life revolves around her cats. Her cell is located at the Pleasantville entrance, directly opposite the Policeman’s western windows. Her nocturnal activities are illuminated into sharp relief by the glare of the enormous street lamp standing sentinel above visitor parking. Installed to deter prowlers, this blazing beacon also murders sleep and the stars; curtains, blinds and heavenly objects are no match for it’s unnatural light, which shoots into bedrooms and out into space with the magnitude of a small sun. Callie attempted to circulate a petition against it, as her bedroom window is in the direct line of fire, but it was ignored. As for the Policeman, I imagine he finds it helpful in identifying parking infractions to report, as well as allowing him to better observe the general vicinity by night.
I can see she is wrangling her two Bengal cats, both on leashes, trying to get them to come inside. One is climbing the fence, the other a tree; Callie is splayed like a starfish trying to contain them, gamely. These acrobats are recent additions to her household, and to keep them safe, she has elected to try and abide by the rules.
Like me, Callie has run afoul of the Policeman several times by ignoring the leash law, but her recent submission has more to do with harsh experience than neighborly interference. On moonlit nights, she couldn’t bear to confine her old tabby Clarence indoors, and would leave her kitchen window open so he could come and go at will. One morning he never came back; she found his body half-eaten by coyotes beside the lake. His first successor died soon after, having ingested some part of the daylilies that festoon the Pleasantville entrance garden, poisonous to cats; the petition she circulated for their removal was also unsuccessful. Since then, I’ve restricted our patrol to the interior alleys of the compound, except on rare occasions when the beauty of the night tempts us further.
Once I deem the coast to be clear, I open my door. Teeny is out like a shot, but stops at the end of the walk, looking back towards me for direction. The other two head directly to the catnip patch, helping themselves liberally before beginning their inspection of the surrounding yards. Teeny is in charge of the treetops, scrambling joyfully up and down; Buddy and Missy investigate the shrubbery and porches. I remind myself as they trespass that I own a tiny portion of each yard they traverse, and that our purpose is wholly benign. Waiting for their deliberations, I shift my attention from one cat to the other constantly, staying alert for the unexpected.
Walking cats is not exercise. It is more an exercise in patience, or a meditation of sorts; one has to put oneself in their paws, considering how important to them each scent, sound and sight is, especially after having been cooped up indoors all day. Resisting the urge to speed their course requires some discipline, and I am rewarded by my own senses in the process.
The dew sends the scent of earth upward, rich and damp with the redolence of growing things. Leaves glitter in the dark, whispering; a gust of wind sends them dancing across the walk, with Missy in swift pursuit. Shimmying down a tree-trunk, Teeny startles a small bat, which at first I take to be a bird. It flaps through the trees like the fragment of a dream, careening in crazy silhouette against the streetlight.
Our usual route has us descend stairs at either end of the walkway to access the alley, then tracing its path around the inner perimeter of the compound. Tonight, Buddy leads us west, past the Policeman’s door, down the steps opposite the entrance gate; from there, we turn south. The cats have spread out, all staying within ear and eyeshot as we begin our counter-clockwise tour.
After midnight, the alley is deserted. The buildings rise up three stories high on each side of us, with a parking pad, a garage door and small tree in front of each. Studded with more monster-sized street lamps, our way is well lit, but no one is watching; the only signs of life are lighted windows on the upper floors, where a few night owls are still tucking themselves into bed.
Occasionally we hear cries and moans from this bedroom or that; people have no idea how their voices carry when the window is open. Hearing the sounds of people making love always makes me smile. If I had a lover, I might not be traipsing the alleys with my three cats. When the sounds of arguing float out into the night, I thank my lucky stars that I have such compatible company.
There is a welcome sense of mischief that arises when inhabiting empty urban spaces at night; a sense that anything can happen, and sometimes does. Once, we found a wallet on the ground; another time, a set of keys. I was later able to return them to their owners, thus justifying our subversive activities.
I walk down the center of the alley, while the cats cross back and forth – sniffing garbage cans, examining bicycles, chasing beetles and moths. Every now and then we come across a garage door that has been left open; under these conditions, whistles and calls do nothing to restrain my zealous patrol from entering, searching for contraband. I can’t comfort myself with the thought of garage spaces as common property; all I can do is wait nervously until each cat is satisfied that the area is secure, and they emerge one by one.
As we progress, the cats spend so much time inspecting the undercarriages of vehicles that I wonder if they don’t aspire to careers as mechanics; afterwards, they enjoy dining on bugs that have collected on front bumpers. While parked vehicles are a rich source of amusement, occasionally a car in motion presents cause for alarm. A truck rumbles slowly round the corner; Teeny and Buddy scramble for cover. Missy, meanwhile, sits regally in the middle of the alley, expecting it to drive around her. I gather her into my arms until it passes, and we resume our patrol.
We round our first corner without further incident, heading east. Up ahead is an unaccustomed disturbance; there are three rowdy fellas drinking beer and smoking joints on the balcony above. I forgot – it’s Saturday night, which usually means more traffic, and more risk of the unexpected. Their voices bounce around the empty alley like bowling balls, making the cats uneasy. I’m annoyed myself; don’t these goofballs realize there are windows open all over the place? They’re keeping people awake. There’s going to be a noise complaint. I’d make it myself, if I wasn’t busy walking my cats. Then one of them spots us.
“Hey, there’s a cat whisperer!” one of them shouts. I suppose I must appear that way; all three cats have scampered to my heels and are following me in tactical formation as we pass on the opposite side of the alley. “Wow, how do you make them do that?” another shouts. I don’t reply, but my heart melts and I give them all thumbs up as we pass by. Somebody else can make the noise complaint.
The truth is, I don’t make them do anything. You can make a dog do something, but not a cat. It has to want to. My cats follow me, and come to my whistle, because they know it’s in their best interest. And though they may have spats at home, when we are on the lam, they keep an eye on each other as well as on me. If one lingers, the others wait; if one runs ahead, the others follow. We travel as a pack.
At last, we turn north for the last leg of our journey. There is a single, muffled yelp from the inside of one of the garages on the right. None of the cats are surprised; we have encountered this poor prisoner many times before. His owner locks him up in this dark, windowless enclosure at night, and during the day when he goes to work. The animal has learned that barking will only bring him more misery, so he restricts his vocalizations as Buddy approaches the door and sniffs delicately along the crack at the bottom. On the other side, we can hear the dog also snuffling and sniffing; Buddy’s visit is probably the most interesting part of his day.
This part of the journey always makes me feel a little sick. I don’t understand how a human being can treat another living thing this way. Taking a page from the Policeman, I indulged in a little meddling myself; I called the Humane Society. They informed me that as long as the dog was being fed and watered, and I had no evidence of it being beaten, there was nothing they could do. Before we leave, however, Buddy always spends long moments rolling around on the concrete in front of the garage door, leaving his scent behind for company.
Up ahead are the stairs that climb up to the eastern end of our cellblock. On the other side of the alley, bisecting the opposite building, is a dark pathway that heads towards the green space that separates Pleasantville from the schoolyard on its eastern perimeter. Before Teeny came, I would sometimes take Buddy and Missy out there, so they could enjoy exploring the islands of shrubbery that rise from the turf that extends the length of the buildings.
Lately, I’ve been directing our route to the west side of the alley so as to avoid this temptation. Teeny is helpless to the intoxication of empty space, and is apt to rush out into the darkness, ignoring my calls. She is ignoring me now, as I whistle, galloping down the path towards the open expanse beyond. Buddy and Missy are delighted with this change in itinerary, and follow us up the stairs and out of Pleasantville Prison.
Faux Victorian street-lamps, smaller and dimmer than the huge searchlights within the compound, are casting periodic pools of light across the pathway that borders the buildings from north to south. Beyond them, above the field beside the school, the sky opens wide and black. It is speckled with an impossible array of stars. The red light of Teeny’s collar bounces through the darkness beneath them, heading eastward. The chain-link fence separating the prison from the school finally stops her; she looks through it longingly, tail flicking back and forth. I seat myself on the cool grass, stroking her sleek fur and staring out at the sky while Buddy and Missy prowl the bushes behind us. A yellow three-quarter moon is rising to the southeast, wrapped in gauzy cloud, casting unearthly light across the sleeping town around us. I, like Teeny, crave space and sky, and in this moment I am utterly fulfilled.
And then suddenly, for no good reason at all, the thought of the Policeman insinuates. A flood of bilious resentment courses through my being like poison. The stars are still hanging in the sky, but instead of counting them, I am counting my grievances. How he cranes and peers into my yard in search of infractions, his very gaze a laser beam of irritation. His petty objection to my birdfeeder, discourteous not only to me and my cats but also to the blameless wildlife. His disdainful comments about my garden, in which I labor to create an oasis of tranquility. And the ultimate insult: the needless fettering of my beautiful, wild-hearted, but harmless companions.
There is no reasoning with him; so how can I teach him a lesson? I fantasize: I could write a letter complaining of harassment to the Board; yet, his actions are backed by by-law. I could spray-paint his porch with accurate adjectives: KILLJOY. TEACHER’S PET. NOSY PARKER. Well, this is likely to get me in trouble with the police. I could get a restraining order, to keep him away from my yard; but I doubt I have legal grounds. I can see no way to return his meddling with adequate consequences that will grant me immunity, and I am beaten.
He is a maddening mystery, a sore spot I return to again and again, pressing and probing with no relief. What confluence of experiences combined to create a man whose circle of concern has reduced to the obsessive necessity of enforcing the rules upon his neighbors, ensuring their disgust and dislike? If only we were all to comply, to submit, would he then be at peace? Would we?
No one ever visits him. He has no occupation other than patrolling the prison. No doubt he is lonely, and derives a sense of importance and purpose from his incessant surveillance and reportage. I should have compassion, tolerance, and pity for him; at the very least, his very existence should not have the power to darken my own. But it does; and in suffering the humiliation of this fact, I realize that my own lack of charity is the true source of my imprisonment.
It’s August, and the heavens are celebrating with their yearly display of meteor showers; I catch one zooming earthward. It feels like a blessing; a great sigh of surrender escapes me, and I have to laugh at myself. I think of the poor dog locked in the dark garage. I think of Callie and her lost cats, and of the doomed cattle in the feedlot to the west. I think of the other Pleasantville prisoners, slaving to protect their precarious foothold on security, taking what comfort they can in a hostile world. I think of those without homes at all, and realize how lucky I am to have a roof over my head, the pretense of land ownership, and a Condo Board to complain about.
Someday, I will escape this prison for good. Perhaps, some unforeseen circumstance will deliver me to an ideal situation where cats can bask in the sunshine undisturbed, where birds and squirrels are valued residents, where unruly flowers offend no one. Maybe then I’ll be satisfied; but I doubt it. My guess is that even those who live in the mansions that surround us suffer want – for more space, more status, or possibly, for a simpler life. Whether the fence is falling apart or standing strong, it will at some point, need mending; and the grass on the other side is apt to tempt, wherever that fence may stand. The loss of my rural paradise has taught me to recognize the freedom I took for granted; and it can still be found, here in Pleasantville Prison, even under the watchful eye of the Policeman.
Callie’s experience proved him right about keeping close watch on my little family; clearly there are threats in town, and not just from his vicious guard dog or the Condo Board. Because of him, I have made the pussycat patrol a ritual, and thus am treated to midnight magic, to this sudden expansion of my cramped soul. I wish that for just a moment, he could share the wonder and beauty we are experiencing now. Perhaps then, he would find a happier vocation.
The stillness is suddenly pierced by the yips and howls of coyotes, coming from the direction of the lake. All three cats snap their heads toward the sound, then up at me, their eyes wide. I gather Teeny into my arms and we head swiftly back down the dark mouth of the lane toward the safety of Pleasantville, Buddy and Missy close at my heels.
I let Teeny go for one last romp as we cross the alley and mount the stairs to our row. She scampers up first, the other two close behind, while I follow. When I reach the top, I see the cats have stopped dead in their tracks, looking westward.
The hulking shape of a man is silhouetted against the streetlight at the far end of the walk. A small dog is at his feet. It can’t be. I saw him draw his blinds. He’s never out at this time of night. But it is. It’s the Pleasantville Policeman.
It’s too late to whistle my cats back down the stairs. He’s seen us. Another ugly exchange is imminent. There will be a letter from the Board. There will be a fine. He may loose his dog, sending the cats scattered into darkness, perhaps lost for good. I am frozen, uncertain, guilty – and busted.
The Policeman is motionless, but his little dog shoots forward on his leash, straining and panting. Buddy glances up at me, then back at the man and the dog.
Then he begins pacing towards them, staring straight ahead. His slow, measured gait is resolute and unwavering.
Missy follows, then Teeny. All the long distance towards my door, the three cats tread softly in single file directly toward their adversaries, never varying their pace or betraying the slightest fear. I match their steps, taking up the rear, hypnotized by their calm. One by one, they reach my walk, turn and mount the doorstep, while under the streetlamp, the Policeman stands motionless, gaping.
As I open my door, the sudden sound of spout and sputter erupts. Ah yes – the irrigation system, which turns on at this time every Saturday night, blasting showers of icy water in every direction. Our timing is perfect; we have narrowly escaped being drenched. The Policeman and the dog are not so lucky. I hear him muttering an expletive as they dash for the shelter of their porch.
The cats file in, utterly content. They are ready for their midnight snack. Enveloped by the comfort of home, our mission complete, it appears the universe is turning just as it should. There is no axe to grind, no point to be made, no retaliation required. There is justice in Pleasantville Prison, after all.