“The devil’s name is dullness.” — Gen. Robert E. Lee, 1807-1870
The long-vacant house had a strange odor in the entryway, which sits right next to the driveway. A cat odor. Not a terrible or necessarily unpleasant odor, but the unmistakeable smell of a housecat.
Funny, the realtor said, the house has been vacant for over a year, and the previous owners didn’t have any pets. Probably just a random old-house smell. After the tour, on the way out, it was gone.
We bought the house, and every now and again, the entryway cat smell would return briefly, then vanish.
It wasn’t long in our new home, when we began to notice other strange things in the entryway. Caught a fleeting blur once that I figured was one of our cats, but they were both fast asleep together on the chair. We’ve heard a creature late at night running up and down the stairs in the entryway when our own two cats are cozily nested at the bottom of our bed.
The skinny one, PJ, obsessively pooped at the foot of the stairs for a while, though he’d never done that before. Then one day he stopped. Carl, our fattest cat, sits and stares at the entryway sometimes and cocks his head like he’s trying to understand something.
Neighborhood cat Robert E. Lee enjoyed a territory of six historic homes along Willamette Avenue many, many years ago. The polite and agreeable Russian blue spent his days wandering the block, resting in the shade of maybe one home in the hot afternoon, then seeking the sun in the backyard of another as the day wore on.
Overall, Robert E. Lee was a welcomed fixture in the neighborhood, except maybe for the pigeons he menaced. And the mean and miserable widow Jennings who lived at the end of the block. The woman you saw only through curtain slits as she spied on the neighbors or when she shuffled to her mailbox. She never said hello, never waved.
One day, middle-of-the-block neighbor Patty, the quasi-owner of Robert E. Lee, answered her door to widow Jennings, surprised, of course, to see her at her home. She wondered maybe if they would talk finally, or if she needed help. Maybe this would be the start of a dialogue, a friendship, maybe. Patty opened the door to invite her in and saw at widow Jennings’ feet the lifeless lump of Robert E. Lee’s body.
“Found your cat dead in my driveway,” widow Jennings said. Without another word, she shuffled off the porch and back to her dark home at the end of the block. Patty sat in her doorway with Robert E. Lee for a long time, stroking his soft and beautiful gray fur and trying not to cry.
Many, many years later, the widow Jennings is gone. Most of the other neighbors are gone, except Patty. There have been births, marriages, deaths, divorces. The neighborhood is less close than it used to be, probably a byproduct of modern life more than anything else. But everyone still knows everyone else and tries to be neighborly.
Soon after moving in, Patty organized a meet-the-new-neighbors party, and at the dining room table, with drinks and snacks, the first story she told was of the day many, many years ago that the mean old woman who used to live in our house poisoned her cat.
When she finished her story, everything made sense. The driveway where Robert E. Lee died, right next to our entryway. The sounds, the smells, the curious and inexplicable flashes of movement. Robert E. Lee lives in our home.
And we are happy to have him.
*OK, not very terrifying. Whatever. Happy Halloween.