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The Mean Cat and the Vacuum Cleaner

(February, 1987)

The big kitchen door in our house has fifteen panes of glass in it. With so many windows, you can look out at the woods when you eat breakfast, and you can see when it's raining or when the racoons are climbing around in the black walnut tree. It opens onto a porch which is on the second story. If you use this door, you also have to go down the back stairs to get anywhere.

Next to the big kitchen door is a little kitchen door, way down near the floor. It's for Boris, the cat, who uses it when he takes a stroll after eating or when he explores in the backyard.

There is no glass in Boris' door. But it does have a special hinge at the top with two pieces of rubber which swing down and catch with tiny magnets so that the door automatically stays closed, which is good on cold and windy days in the wintertime. It makes a flap-slap sound when Boris uses it, so we all know when he coming or going. In fact, there is actually a pause between the flap and the slap when he squeezes himself through because Boris weighs eighteen pounds, which makes him a pretty oversized fat cat. His door was made for regular-sized cats.

Boris has no sharp claws on his front paws because they were removed by the veterinarian when he was a kitten. This is good for our furniture because cats love to practice scratching on sofas and rugs and curtains. But sometimes it is not so good for Boris when he meets other cats, especially when they are mean ones, because he can't really fight the way cats properly do. Mostly, Boris counts on being mistaken for a dog or maybe one of the racoons: when there is a face-off between him and new cats in the neighborhood, he puffs up bigger than life and just stands still. This is usually enough to confuse and maybe even scare the strangers, and after a while they go away.

Next to us lives a skinny lady who never smiles and always complains about the slightest things. She has a mean and scrawny Siamese cat named Zoom, who is always fighting and scratching and terrorizing the neighborhood. We don't like the lady or her cat. Nobody else does, either.

Zoom has a bad personality. When he rubs against your shin and you stroke his fur and his purring engine starts up like a Rolls Royce, you think you have made a friend. But be careful! It's really a lie. No matter who you are or how much he's purring, he spins around fast as lightning and bites so hard that his teeth sink in. And then he reaches his claws to your wrist, and sinks them in, too, in case you try to pull away. It's all one quick motion, sort of like a frog catching a fly with its tongue. And the worst part, except for the pain, is that Zoom looks you right in the eye as if to ask, "So what are you going to do now, big human?" You are so shocked that time stands still, and the experience leaves a memory that is hard to forget. We have seen many hands in the neighborhood wrapped with real gauze, not just band-aids.

Everybody knows that you aren't allowed to hurt the little creatures of the world like puppies and kittens and dogs and cats, so most people who meet Mr. Zoom in this surprising way just smile and pretend it doesn't hurt and claim that the bleeding is just a scratch. Especially when it all happens at the skinny lady's house and they are being polite. Later, people go home and take a hot bath and apply salve and talk about tetanus shots.

So, when we discovered that Zoom would come into our house through the little door in the kitchen when we were away, we weren't too happy. This was after Zoom learned that Boris was all bluff and fluff and scratched Boris in the ears so badly that he had to go to the hospital.

It seems Zoom would spend his afternoons hanging around on the white pillows on the bed in the sunny guest room; then he would polish off Boris' food and maybe use Boris' litter box; then he'd just saunter off at sunset, maybe to catch a few more of the little chickadees at the bird feeder near the black walnut tree. We never saw him do this last thing, but we figured it was in his personality. He was a bully.

For three months during the summer, when we came home and found Mr. Zoom inside our house, we gently shooed him out, treating him like a decent person and calling "Zoooom, come on Zoom, out you go..." in lilting voices and opening the front door for him. Of course, it wasn`t honest, this friendliness we were showing, but at that time we didn't know how you explain to a cat, especially a mean cat, that he's not welcome to come and go in our house, putting paw prints on the linen and leaving strange hairballs on the carpet and eating Boris's food.

By the end of the summer it was clear that the message wasn't getting across, and we decided to get firmer. We started stamping our feet and acting angry and when we chased him through the front door, we would hiss a little between clenched teeth because that usually tells cats that they are in unfriendly territory. But it didn't work.

The way we found out about talking with mean cats was quite by accident.

One day, when the house was really quiet and people were reading or taking naps, we heard the little door in the kitchen go flap-slap really quick, not at all like when Boris worms himself through. It had to be a regular-sized cat, and we had absolutely no doubt about who the uninvited guest might be! It was finally time for a serious talk with Mr. Zoom, even though we we were not quite sure how we were going to say it or even what we were going to say to this mean cat. Something, we knew, had to be done.

Silently we tiptoed through the house and closed all the doors. The bathrooms, the bedrooms, the guestrooms, the dining room, and even the kitchen door we shut. All the doors. If Mr. Zoom was in the house, we had him!

Naturally, we found him in the guest bedroom with the clean white pillow cases. But he was under the bed, this time, not on it. Even mean cats know when something is up; maybe in his heart of hearts, Zoom knew that he had made a big mistake.

At first it was a stand off. Zoom under the bed. Us standing in the room in front of the closed door, wondering how to get the message across that he was not only unwelcome, but that he shouldn't come back.

And there it was! The accident of chance! Behind the door, standing right next to us like a helpful robot, was the maroon vacuum cleaner! With a cry of satisfaction, we suddenly knew how you speak to mean cats in a language they understand.

Our vacuum cleaner is especially good for rugs because it has a brush underneath that beats on the floor and loosens the dirt and dust. It has a bright light on the front so you can see what you are doing even in the darkest corners. And the heavy-duty motor drives a screaming air pump that has two settings, powerful and more powerful. The dust bag pops and bulges out in front like a fat-bellied tyranosaurus rex.

It came alive with the flick of a switch, and we just stood there for a while, us and this new teaching tool. It idled like a hungry carnivore, jerking now and then as if it hadn't eaten for many days while the light of its bright eye shone directly into Zoom's hideaway under the bed. We were holding it back, but already it was getting the message across, we knew. "Zoom, you mean cat, you are not welcome here!", it said.

As we slowly moved the vacuum cleaner towards the bed, there was a quick flash of beige and thin tail. Zoom, who had prudently decided he didn't want to stay and talk, made a hasty dash for the door using two walls and a dresser top as jump points and keeping as much distance as possible between himself and the angry vacuum cleaner. This put him in a semicircular trajectory about three feet above the floor. But what he hadn't seen from under the bed was that the door was closed!

Realizing too late that there was no exit, he rolled over in mid-air on his last jump, hit the door hind feet first just above the knob, and sprang back across the room to the top of the bookcase in a very fancy upside-down-and-over spinning turn. Zoom is a mean and lean cat.

But the vacuum cleaner still had a message for Mr. Zoom, and without pausing, it began rising toward the top of the bookcase. When its beating brushes left the floor, the vacuum motor needed to do less work, and the sound of the roaring suction pipe suddenly became the shrill scream of a giant flying insect. This was too much for Mr. Zoom, who performed a stunning variation on his last aerobatic trip to the closed door, using five jump points. No miracles. It was still closed. He rebounded finally under the bed again.

Three times Zoom went around the room at various heights and off various walls. We knew the message was getting across. "This house is not a good place for mean and nasty cats! There are stomping monsters and growling cat eaters here that can fly! Stay away from this house!"

We opened the front door. We opened the guest room door. And quick as you have ever seen a cat move, Zoom was out of the house and into the woods.

We know that he got the message and understands how we feel about cats like him because we have only seen him once since the day he talked with the vacuum cleaner. He was slinking across the backyard on one sort of erand or another; we made a short hiss between our teeth, and he disappeared in a flash!

Little birds have come into the yard again this spring, and for the first time in three years, there are sparrows making nests in the birdhouse in the black walnut tree. Boris is happy. And nice new neighbors have moved into the house up the street.