by Robert Boucheron
Words, Music, and Cyrus the Cat
In December 2001, I bought a vacant lot on Redbud Lane, north of Charlottesville, Virginia. I drew myself a cottage, listed my house in town for sale, and got an excellent offer. The timing meant that I had nowhere to live. A third-floor apartment was nearby and available. I signed a lease for a few months, crammed in my belongings, and hoped that by spring I could move to my new house.
Instead, the soil failed a percolation test, meaning it would not support a conventional septic drain field. There was more to the story, including a lapse of twenty years since the lot was platted, changes in health department rules, and a fraudulent seller.
I called Bill, the realtor who helped me buy it, and said, “Try to sell the lot. And find us another house.”
“Cyrus the cat. He hates the apartment.”
Bill showed me house after house, in town or outside, in good condition or in need of repair, attached or freestanding. All were in my price range, and all had something to recommend them. Each time I made an offer, an inspection revealed some fatal flaw or another buyer got the house before me. In the spring of 2002, the real estate market was heating up.
One morning, we stood outside a bungalow whose crawl space emitted the odor of a decaying carcass. Bill checked his cell phone for a message.
“A house just came on the market. It’s a few blocks away, on Park Street. Do you want to see it?”
I had driven past this house countless times and never noticed it. Set far back from the busy street and hidden by a stone retaining wall and a row of arborvitae, it was a small brick ranch built in 1957. Bill unlocked the front door. The tenant had moved out, leaving a trail of debris. I looked at the hardwood floor, glanced in the two small bedrooms, and noted the kitchen—knotty pine cabinets, ancient appliances, sunless nook.
“I’ll take it.”
Bill took out his cell phone, and within minutes we had a deal. Toward the end of May, I moved in. Park Street was a good address. Whether I stayed a year or a lifetime, the house would be easy to sell. Meanwhile, it provided a convenient perch. Cyrus took to the yard with enthusiasm.
A small, beige tabby from the SPCA, Cyrus was used to living outside. He bellowed when he wanted in, and he jumped on windowsills and tree branches to get my attention. He was scrappy with cats, affectionate with people. Age 14, he had lived with me at three addresses.
Memorial Day weekend found me in the smallest bedroom. I had a can of white paint, a roller and tray, a screwdriver, and a pile of newspapers. The walls and ceiling were a ghastly shade of green, like algae stains in an aquarium. I removed broken blinds and fusty curtains from the windows. I spread newspaper on the floor, pried open the can of paint, and filled the tray. I would make this room my study, with a wall of bookshelves and a plain pine table. The sun streaming in and the walnut tree in back made it a delightful place to sit.
As I painted, David and Diane dropped in. A married couple from the neighborhood, they were my oldest friends. Each had burned through two or three careers. Trim and quiet, from a southside Virginia farm, Diane once owned a bookstore, then worked as a graphic designer. Tall, with shaggy white hair, David was a painter, taught art, and edited text for a law publisher. I laid the roller in the tray and showed them around.
I knew they’d give me good advice on my planned renovations.
“The wood mantel can stay,” I said, “but the slab doors are bland—how about replacing them with raised panel doors?”
“Natural pine to match the trim?” Diane asked.
“Good point. What about the kitchen?”
“You have to keep the cabinets. They’re original. The pulls and hinges, too. Very 1950s Mock Colonial, very blacksmithy.”
“The stove and refrigerator are encrusted, must go,” I said. “What do you think of the floor?”
Diane looked down thoughtfully. Worn and discolored, the vinyl pattern recalled a spaghetti western saloon or a bad dream set in a bordello.
“You have my permission to replace the floor.”
“Where’s Cyrus?” David asked.
“What does he say about the new living quarters?”
“Plenty. He likes to trot upstairs, his own private suite.”
Over the summer, I repaired the heating and cooling system, removed shelves, patched the walls, and inserted a skylight in the attic bedroom. The doors and the miniature bath would have to stay. Much as I liked the way it looked in my sketch, a front porch was out of the question. Shutters relieved the plain brick.
The houses to either side were older and more substantial, late Victorian or Queen Anne from the early twentieth century. My lot had been subdivided from one of these. What appeared to be a deep backyard stopped short at the walnut tree. The vegetable garden beyond belonged to Mr. Naylor, who visited on weekends. In straw hat and denim overalls, he tended the garden. A white-haired woman, perhaps a relative, lived in the house.
Soon after I moved in, the neighbor on the other side appeared at my front door carrying a basket of fruit. Mr. Hall was in his sixties, slender and affable, with a gray pompadour.
“I picked out the fruit myself. With those shrink-wrapped gift baskets, you can’t be sure what you’re getting.”
I invited him in, but Mr. Hall preferred to smoke a cigarette on the front stoop.
“I’m retired,” he said. “Not married, never wanted to. That house is driving me to distraction. Endless repairs—the slate roof, the plumbing. I live with my older sister, who can no longer care for herself, and her husband. You’ll see him puttering outside in all weather. If he was ever mentally sound, which I doubt, he has certainly lost it. I’m so glad you decided to live here. The last tenants were a trial, coming and going at all hours with their friends and vehicles.”
Mr. Hall’s property shared a drive with mine. Parking and turning space were limited.
I said, “I have one car and no friends. At least, none with vehicles.”
“Cyrus the cat. You’ll see him in your yard.”
“Oh, I don’t mind. I have two little dogs, but they stay inside. Listen, if you need anything, just call or come over. I might be upstairs with Mildred and not hear the doorbell, so it’s better to call.”
We exchanged phone numbers, Mr. Hall went back to his invalid sister, and I returned to unpacking.
Over the next year, my architectural practice expanded. The projects were spread through several counties, so my road time increased, too. I hired a drafting assistant, then another to keep up with the volume of work. We took over an adjacent space and, after a year, moved to a larger office in the same building.
While I felt capable and proud to meet a payroll, I faced aspects of practice not covered in school. Couples came to me about a house but expected me to solve their marital problems. Clients brought me crude sketches of their dream house and were offended if I showed them a scheme suited to their budget. Fees were subject to haggling, which interested some more than the design. I went to appointments, sent proposals, and tried to balance expectations of what I could do, what my employees could do, and what my clients would do. This balancing act produced stress.
My way of coping was through music. The previous year, I was offered a part-time job singing tenor in the choir of an Episcopal church. In the fall of 2002, a friend, Randy, convinced me to join a new men’s chorus in Richmond, Virginia. Randy was an Irish tenor, with a sweet voice and an outgoing personality. As he promised, the Richmond group was fun and social. I made new friends, stayed overnight a few times, and learned my way around the city. The Christmas concert sold out.
In my absence, Cyrus took to roaming the neighborhood. Even when I was home, he would vanish for a day or two. One afternoon, he showed up at the office, a mile from home. I had taken him there on one of our nightly walks. He meowed at the window, we let him in, and he curled up on the carpet.
Late that winter, a storm caught me in Richmond. I stayed the weekend, which stretched into Monday. By midday, sleet was still falling. I crept home on Interstate 64, which had one lane partly clear and wrecks strewn to each side. On reaching Charlottesville, I could not get up the drive, so I parked on Park Street in a snowdrift. I trudged to the house, where Cyrus had been a prisoner for three days. He wolfed down some food, then insisted on going out.
Snow buried the basement windows and the new attic skylight, plunging those rooms into half-light. The weight of snow collapsed a metal awning at the back door. A week passed before I could dig out my car and shovel the drive. My little study was a refuge. At the pine table, in a bound art sketchbook with blank pages, I copied poems, cartoons, architectural sketches, letters to friends, quotes from reading, ideas for projects—scraps that might come in handy. I had kept a sketchbook in architecture school, then abandoned it. This time, the habit stuck.
In February 2003, walking the site of a new project in tall grass and weeds, I banged my leg on a hidden stake. I pulled up the leg of my pants, pulled down the sock, and saw blood. It was late afternoon, cool, with patches of snow lingering in hollows. Standing in the overgrown field, I did a mental calculation. By the time I got home, tended the wound, grabbed a bite, and drove to Richmond, the rehearsal would be over.
I dropped out.
Randy was dismayed. “You don’t have to attend every rehearsal, no matter what the director says. At least come to the parties.”
Without regular trips to Richmond, the social scene faded. I was busy with work and the church choir. In April, I flew to Rome for a week to see architecture and ancient ruins. At the hotel, I met a single older man from Brussels. We struck up an acquaintance, speaking French and English, and continued by letters in French. I copied mine, full of personal news, into my sketchbook.
Mr. Naylor planted his garden, weeded it, and left a bag of ripe, meaty tomatoes at my kitchen door. Mr. Hall tended his sister, while his idiot brother-in-law puttered. Cyrus came and went.
In September 2003, Hurricane Isabel struck. Fallen trees blocked streets, power lines were cut, and daily life ground to a halt. At Park Street, my basement flooded, submerging the new carpet. I lit candles, listened to the wind howl and the rain beat down, and hoped for the best. Cyrus was missing.
Electricity returned, water drained from the basement, and I picked up windblown trash from the yard. The house suffered no damage. Cyrus returned, also intact.
During a year and a half, the realtor had some lookers at my vacant lot, but no sale. Meanwhile, engineered septic systems were becoming less odd and more in line with green design. With my growing practice and income, I could afford to build, but what? The bylaws of the subdivision now required a larger house.
I set aside the cottage plans and drew a big square box with a neoclassical porch, three bedrooms, a kitchen open to a family room, a glass door to a wood deck, and a spacious two-car garage. It was upscale and suburban, the sort of thing I drew for my clients. Troy, a builder I knew well, started construction at the end of 2003.
“We may finish in May,” he said. “I won’t make any promises.”
About this time, Cyrus left for good. A veteran of several cats, Diane said: “Fifteen years is near the end of a normal lifespan. Sometimes cats go away to die. Sometimes they just find a better deal.”
I was sad to lose my pet and couldn’t help wondering if I’d neglected him.
Mr. Hall invited me to Christmas dinner with his extended family, which numbered thirty or more. It was the first time I set foot in the house. Mildred was dressed and transported downstairs for the occasion. Seated in an armchair, she greeted relatives, made small talk, and bossed Mr. Hall, who flew in and out of the kitchen. The house was beautifully furnished and decorated, with a huge fir tree in the living room, and the longest dining table possible, set with china and silver and a centerpiece of dried roses. Mr. Hall’s pompadour looked superb.
“I swear this is the last time I play host to this crew,” he said. “It’s too much effort. Everyone mills around and treads food in the carpet and watches television and asks for more ice. Not what I would call a festive occasion. I don’t even recognize some of the children. Isn’t that awful? Oh, my sister is calling. I have to get back to the kitchen.”
In April 2004, I listed the Park Street house for sale. The day it went online, the realtor was flooded with offers, and in three days we had a contract. I urged Troy to hurry with the construction of my new home. The contract called for me to deliver the vacant Park Street house in three months. Giddy with real estate success, I shopped for new furniture.
Weeks later, I woke after midnight to the sound of paws landing on my bedroom windowsill. I padded barefoot outside. A mist fell in the warm night. Cyrus was back.
I let him in the kitchen door and opened a can of tuna. After four months, I had given away his bag of chow, his bowls and toys. He ate some of the tuna. Then he jumped in my lap and settled down as though he had never been away. His fur smelled like flea shampoo. Someone had taken him in.
I went back to bed. Cyrus lay on the bed beside me, and I dozed off. An hour or two later, he demanded to go outside.
“The next time you visit,” I said, “I won’t be here. I’m moving to the country. You’d like it there.”
I picked up my cat, all seven pounds of him. He liked being held. Then I opened the door and let him loose. The next morning, the episode seemed like a dream, and Cyrus no more than a revenant. The plate of tuna was still on the kitchen floor.
After I left Park Street, the little brick house faded from view. I visited the neighbors once. Mr. Naylor planted his garden, and stray deer ate most of the produce. Mr. Hall smoked on the front porch and tended his sister, who became bedridden that autumn. No one saw Cyrus again.
Robert Boucheron is an architect in Charlottesville, Virginia. His stories, essays, poems, and reviews appear in Atticus Review, Construction, Cossack Review, Foliate Oak, Montreal Review, Mouse Tales Press, New England Review, New Orleans Review, The New Poet, Niche, North Dakota Quarterly, Pachinko, and Poydras Review. His first novel has been accepted for publication by Bagwyn Books.
“Life on Park Street” is one of a series of essays about places he’s lived. Another of these essays, “A Hermit in Chelsea,” appeared in TW’s May/June 2012 issue.