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In New York, and no doubt Chicago and Kansas City, the general rule is that you should try to get along with the people next door without actually becoming more than casual acquaintances. What starts as little back-and-forth requests for some confectionary sugar or a red onion leads to cocktails and then dinner. The next thing you know you are planning trips together, which can only end in disaster.

However, some sort of commerce with the people next door is unavoidable, as for example when you run out of Vermouth on Sunday when the liquor store is closed, or when the UPS guy is due the morning you have a dental appointment. Recently, the credit balance was in the Potables’ favor when Jerry Potable knocked at our door. “We’ve got to go see Aunt Sally in St. Louis. They told her not to eat stuffed dates, but she wouldn’t listen. Can you feed the cats?”

“I don’t know anything—“

“Don’t worry, it’s simple. I’ve left some cans of cat food on top of the refrigerator. They can’t jump that high.”

“They can open cans?”

“No, of course not. But they push them off the counter and roll them around on the floor. It annoys the people downstairs.”

“I can see that,” I said, casting hastily around in my skull for a way out.

But Jerry was in full cry. “Cranberry gets the yellow bowl. She should have her dinner on the counter where Obama can’t get to it. He always gobbles down his own food right away and then goes after Cranberry’s.”

“Obama?”

“We like to give them interesting names. They like it. It would be bad for their egos to be called Jim or Bob or Bill.”

I couldn’t bring myself to use either name. “What kind of bowl does the other one get?”

“Obama gets the Mother Goose bowl. He likes to have something to read while he eats.”

“Read?”

“You know what I mean. Something interesting to look at.”

“I should think he’d have ‘Jack and Jill’ pretty well memorized by now. Maybe he could recite it for us someday.”

Jerry ignored the witticism. “They’ll want fresh water. Just dump out what’s left in the bowl.”

“Which bowl?”

“The one with water in it. That should be obvious.” He paused. “I’m not asking you to clean their litter box. But you might pour in some fresh Kitty Litter. There’s a bag under the sink.”

My heart was also under the sink. I knew perfectly well that my choice was between cleaning the litter box or living in a cloud of mustard gas for as long as the Potables were away. However, if I wanted Jerry to collect our UPS parcels or empty the mailbox the next time we went up to Lake Moil, I would have to comply. So a day later, I cautiously entered the darkened apartment. Instantly Obama disappeared under the sofa while Cranberry emitted a fierce hiss and swatted at my ankle. I jumped back, banging my elbow on the door frame. My temper was not improved. “If you want your supper, stupid, get the hell out of my way.”

She hissed again and took another swat at my ankle. I lost control and aimed a kick at her gut, but she was quicker than me and in a lot better shape. She hastily joined Obama under the sofa, where she sat hissing and challenging me with a cupped paw. However, this allowed me to gain access to the top of the refrigerator. Quickly I distributed the largesse and escaped.

Over the next few days Cranberry, Obama and I established an armed truce. They stayed under the sofa when I was present, and I refrained from kicking them when they swatted at my ankles. The Potables were due back in a couple of days. I figured I could hold out that long.

Then I received a phone call from Jerry. “Aunt Sally’s taken a turn for the worse,” he said. “They don’t expect her to last through Tuesday. How are the little darlings?”

I gritted my teeth. “We’re managing,” I said.

“Aren’t they wonderful? Don’t you just love them?”

“Up to a point,” I said. “I suppose you’ll want to race home to see the little darlings the minute the funeral is over.”

“Well, there’ll be things to do. Clean out her house and so forth. I told them at work I might be gone for a bit. Give our best to the darlings.”

I’ll be sure to,” I said with what I hoped was a note of coolness in my voice. But already the truce was breaking down. Emboldened by my pacific nature, both of the little darlings now began hissing and swatting the minute I walked in, and didn’t desist until the food was on the floor and they could begin gobbling it down in their unmannerly fashion. For a couple of days I took this, and then something snapped. The next thing I knew Obama was flying through the air and Cranberry was streaking up the stairs. Yet there was a smile on the face of the care-giver. Thereafter, as I filled their bowls and changed their water they stood well back in the doorway staring at me uneasily. I knew that they would squeal on me the minute Jerry Potable put his suitcase down, but I didn’t care. The next time the little darlings needed a care-giver I would have business in Boston. The little darlings could look after themselves.

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