By Becky Cummings.

Cleveland, Ohio
West 10th Street

I got my two cats when they were little poofs of orange fluff, rescued by the lunch lady who worked at the isolated New Hampshire boarding school where I was teaching. She pulled them out from under a double-wide trailer not long after they were born.

Now I’m teaching theater at a variety of places in Cleveland. I live in a little bungalow in a walkable neighborhood on the West Side, Tremont. The little orange fur balls are large orange tiger cats with mustard-colored eyes. Their names are short for TOMato and AsparGUS. T.S. Eliot writes of Gus the Theater Cat, from which I stole the name. Tom and Gus weigh about 14 pounds each.

Gus, the Manx, has long, pointy ears like Spock. He’s goofy Garfield orange. His hind legs are bigger than a normal cat’s, ramped up like big tires on a monster truck. Manx cats come in three different tail lengths: nubbies, stubbies and shorties. Gus’ stubby is a furry pom-pom that moves up and down. He doesn’t walk straight but sidewinds like a snake, shoving up against your legs, rowling for attention. Gus is more nervous than Tom.

Tom with the tail is slightly more sandy color. He purrs in an appealing resonant tone. Like a modern dancer, he gracefully moves his head and shoulders and suddenly curls up on the ground, his stomach exposed, his paws limp in a fey gesture. He charms. He rolls. He is the Cary Grant of the two. Suddenly you find yourself crouching down to pet him. He will twitch his back, roll over, adjust so that you can scratch both sides. He comes up to family and friends and throws himself down in front of them, demanding to be adored.

Tom and Gus are my friends. They hang out with me as I weed the flower beds. Standing regally, blinking at bugs, flicking a tail at flies, digging up worms. They curl up with me at night and become butterbean balls in the crook of my knees as I watch movies. We greet each other when we return home from our travels.

I’m proud that I’ve kept them alive. I know that doesn’t sound good. I’m terrible with house plants, always forgetting to water them and then feeling guilty when they turn to dust and crumble.

Tom and Gus are indoor/outdoor cats. They have a cat door in the window. They jump up onto a red stool outside and push their heads and then bodies through the opening, and ooze out like play dough onto an end table on the inside. Maybe it’s like pushing through the birth canal–but with this door, you can go back from where you came.

Then Tom is gone. I don’t see him for a day and then two and then three. It’s October, getting cold, and the light is waning, the leaves crumbling and cluttering the sidewalk. I call his name. I wander through the backyard, peering over fences and under bushes. Still no Tom. So I begin walking around Tremont, a neighborhood on the Near West Side of the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland. It was a neighborhood that had been there for a long time, many of the old beautiful houses, built by the immigrant workers who had worked in the steel mills in the valley below.  Some say the area has the highest number of historic churches per square mile in the country. It sits along the edge of the Cuyahoga Valley. Below, the river snakes under steel bridges reaching across with Xs. You can stand at the edge of the town  and look across the river at the downtown landscape.The tall proud buildings, the Terminal Tower, the boats slowly moving up and down, the seagulls calling out loneliness and diving into the wind.Here is something magnificent in the crumble and decay and transformation of brick mortar and steel.

Passing out fliers for the lost cat Tom, I round the corner of Merrick House, a nonprofit school and community center. There are three kids on a playground

“Hey!” I wave. The kids run to the fence. Green iron gates hold us back from each other, elegant Victorian bars.

“Would you guys let me know if you see my kitty? He’s been missing since Tuesday.” I pass the flier in through the bars.

“Oh … he’s so cute,” says one girl.

The kids look down at the paper, yanking it from one another’s hands. They whisper to concur..

The leader kid: “Hey. We’ve seen your cat.”


“The lunch lady at school.”

“The lunch lady?”

“On Tuesday, when it was pouring rain? The lunch lady at our school, she looked at this big wet yellow cat. It was just sitting there. So sad. Soaked. She grabbed it. Put it in her car.”

“For real?”


My heart beats so fast.  I feel adrenaline surge through me.

My bungalow is tucked away behind a large Victorian House. Across the street looms the Tremont Elementary School, a big three-story brick building surrounded by a black iron gate one might picture around some fancy old Graveyard. The back of the kitchen opens up on 10th St. A cement ramp slides up to two silver doors. The cafeteria staff would slip out onto the slight slope for a break. Catch a little sunshine or a little smoke and a little gossip and head back in. Near lunchtime, a roar like the sea coast of small voices crashes around the gymnasium walls, a cinderblock two-story hole that doubled as a cafeteria.

I sprint right around the block, cross the street and pound on the silver doors that separate me from my kitty.  Big silver nautical boom boom boom. The door opens and a woman with a large nose and a hair net peeks out at me.


Another lady pushes out past the first and puts a cigarette to her lips.

“Move over Charlene, I got ten minutes to get my fresh air.” She steps to the side and flicks a banana-yellow Bic lighter, lights her cigarette, blows smoke out of the side of her mouth and narrows her eyes at me. She throws her weight against the silver double doors. They clank securely shut.

“We don’t buy nothing from people who sell stuff.”

“No soliciting.”

“Yeah, no solicitors.”

“I need help.” I get out my flier. I tell them about my situation, about the kids, about my cat. I gesticulate wildly. “I think Mrs. Shivelly has my cat!”

They step back. They look at my face. Their faces soften. They take my flier.

“Well, she’s not here right now. We’ll take a flier and give it to her.”

She parks right there on the street. They point in front of my house. The woman throws down the end of her cigarette and clamps her white tennis shoe toe to put it out.

The next day, I get up early. I walk around the block to the coffee shop, Civilization, and buy two raspberry croissants and two small coffees. I balance all this on a cardboard carrier and load it up with half and half and sugar, in case Mrs. Shivelly likes those. I wait on the strip of grass between the sidewalk and the road. I look like a butler. I wait for Mrs. Shivelly’s red car. I wait and wait and wait. Eventually, she pulls up and parks.   A woman in her mid 50s with an auburn long pony tail scowls at me. I move toward her with the bag of treats, coffee, and a flier.

“I’m looking for my cat. I heard that you might’ve picked him up.”

“I know. I heard.”

“Want some coffee?” She waves away the coffee.

“The cat I got? He ain’t your cat.”

“Oh.” I’m deflated. “You sure?”

“Yeah, I’m sure.”

Frowning, she lugs a heavy canvas bag from the back of her car. I lean forward to adjust the front seat lever so it opens up. Her back to me, she stiffens. She turns to face me.

“Look, this guy is skinny, not taken care of. I seen him around for awhile. He’s not yours.”

“Oh. Okay.”

“Sorry. I can’t help you.”

“Please take this flier in case you might see him.”

She slams her car door, beeps it locked, takes the flier and smashes it into her bag. She marches across the street to the school. The big silver doors slam shut behind her. I feel shaky. I sit down stunned on the grass for a moment. The sun is warm. It’s a beautiful fall day. Except I lost my cat. I look in at the pastry and they have become a crushed heart failure oozing out of crumbly filo dough. I stand up. I begin to walk. I walk and breathe deep. The leaves are dropping and whirling, scuttling and scuffing.

Ten minutes later, my cell phone whirs away in a desperate ring in my pocket. I put everything down on the sidewalk and finally find the phone. It’s Mrs. Shivelly. Her voice is different now, softer, full of tears.

“It’s not your cat. She says.”

“It’s okay.”

“He’s just skin and bones.”

“It’s okay,” I say again. “Thanks for calling.”

“He didn’t have a home.”

“Well now he has a home,” I say.

“I want you to come over and see the cat.”

“I don’t need to do that.”

“I want you to see it isn’t your cat.”

“It’s fine. I really appreciate you calling back.”

“I’d feel better if you did.”

“Uhm. Okay. When?”

“Now. Meet me back at the car.”

I scamper back. Ms. Shivelly clicks open the car and I open the door. I figure she lives in the neighborhood.  We’ll go a couple blocks around the corner to see the cat. She drives through Tremont, making a couple turns.  Silence. She turns on her signal and we turn right onto a ramp that takes us to 490 East. To our right, the steel mills blows smoke, the rusty smoke stack reproducing the material that made it. To our left, downtown Cleveland’s familiar skyline slips by. Sea gulls drift on warm drafts over the Flats.

I sit in silence with the two coffees in my lap. One dark, the other cream. I sip from one and then the other.

Ms. Shively begins to talk.

“After you left, I thought about it.”


“I want you to see it.”

“I believe you.”

“I thought, you know what? I’d hate it. If I was you? Thinking that maybe my cat was alive. My cat was alive and living with someone else. Drove me crazy. I couldn’t take it.”

490 turns into 77 South. I remember, age 10 or 11, riding North up 77 from Richfield, to Cleveland with my family. My sister and I dressed up. Colored stockings on. Dresses. We were headed downtown to see The Nutcracker.

As soon as we wheeled around the ramp to East 9th my mom demanding, “Lock your doors! Lock your doors!”

Our locks weren’t electric then. We pressed the silver golf tee down with our own pointer finger. Clunk. Click. Safety. Later still, when the silver paint flaked off one revealing plastic, I was like, “Whoa, the world is not what it seems. What would my mom think now?” 30 years later I sit in a car with a stranger, a lunch lady, going South on 77 to see a cat that isn’t mine. 77 South turns into 480 East and we zip along the two-mile bridge stretching across the Cuyahoga valley. I sit in silence. Waiting. For what I didn’t know. And then she begins.

“My husband died.” The coffee’s now cold.

“Oh. I’m sorry. When?”

“11 months ago.”


“Heart attack.”

“What was his name?”

“Jerry. He worked for the steel mills most of his life.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Yeah. Didn’t know I would miss him so much, you know?”

We get off at Garfield Heights. Twenty-five minutes later, 15 miles from the spot where I lost my cat and she picked up another yellow tiger stray, we pull into a neighborhood of ’70s split-level ranches.

“Okay.” She stops the car and look at the house for a second.

“Is this where you and Jerry lived?”

“Yeah. For 20 years.”

“That’s a long time.”

We enter through the garage. There is a 1970 sky-blue Ford XL convertible with a white top.

“That was my Dad’s car. Jerry was working on it. My grandkids want it now. But I just can’t.”

She leads me down a long hallway and opens the door of a bedroom. There is some scuttling sound and a slinky skinny cat peeks from behind a velour recliner. Orange tiger cat, a teenager, not been neutered and is forming the masculine face of a cat man, peers at us nervously.

“You’re right,” I say. “That’s not my cat.”

We turn around and walk back outside and get back in the car,

“I just wanted you to see.”

“Thank you.”

“I imagined  you wondering all the time, you know, wondering and wondering if that was your cat and I didn’t want you to do that.”

“Thank you.”

“You’re welcome.” She’s looking straight ahead. The cityscape is like a small monopoly set on the horizon.

“Did you name him?”

“Yeah. Pooky Bear.”

“Like Garfield’s teddy bear?”

“Yes. Jerry and I used to really laugh over that comic strip.”

“Must be strange to yell ‘Pooky! Pooky!’ out into the neighborhood.”

“Oh. He’s not going outside. Pooky stays in.”


“Sorry he’s not your cat.”


It begins raining, surprising splashes on the windshield. She turns on her wipers, smeary bleary. We’re passing the former LTV Steel office Building now vacant with a for rent sign on top of it. Up ahead in the valley, the flame leaps like a belch out of hell.

“Sorry your husband died.”

“Me too.”

Mrs. Shivelly slips back into the parking space, as if we never left. I felt like we had traveled far. Father than I ever expected to travel that day. We look at each other. Maybe we smile. We’re  strangers and yet we’ve shared what we lost. Maybe that was just what she needed, to tell a stranger on the highways of Cleveland, how much she missed her husband who died.

“Well, thanks,” I say. I offer the coffee

“I don’t drink coffee,” she says. “It makes me shake.” I pour it out onto the grass, covered in leaves.

“But I will take the pastry.”

“Cherry strudel,” I say. “It’s smooshed.”

“Thanks,” she says. And takes the bag. We say goodbye. She walks across the street and joins the other two lumpy lunch ladies outside. They’re smoking. After a second, they all turn to look at me and I wave, they wave.

Maybe it’s because I’m not looking, but I don’t see that lunch lady again.


That evening, I got a call from a woman whose backyard is backed up to our backyard, separated by bushes and shrubs.

“I think your cat is in our barn.”

“Oh gosh!”

“I drove up tonight and there was a little cat face looking out of the top window. My little girl says we don’t have a cat. Then we found your flier in the mail.”

“I can’t believe it.”

“We cleaned the barn this weekend. We must have shut him in.”

I run around the block with the cage in hand. Their home is a beautiful urban rehab of an old farmhouse.  Pumpkins carved with lopsided grins sit on steps. Corn stalks tied to porch posts. Rust-colored mums welcome fall. I knock on the door and am greeted by woman with honey-blond hair. Two kids peek from either side of her. I’m anxious, but stop to smile at them and their shyness. The little girl points to the barn in the dark out back.

“He’s in there,” says the mom. “My husband will help you out.”

A tall man wearing an old faded red cotton baseball hat and a navy polyester vest from Eddie Bauer smiles at me and motions me to follow. I take the cage and we go back towards the dark barn. He shoves opens the door with a creak and a crack. The door slides aside on hinges, creating a wide-open grin into darkness. No lights in the barn. I charge in with only the dim glow of street and porch lights to help me navigate around boxes and tools.

“Tom!” I call. “Tom, Tom!”

His response. A loud forlorn howl. It’s him!

“Oh, Tom!” I yell.

“Meowrh!!” I clamber halfway up the stairs to the loft and Tom slinks down, body pressed to the floor. I grab hold of him tight. He’s dusty and a bit ratty and skinny, but he’s my Tom. I press him to me awkwardly and gangly kissing his boney head. I shove him into the cage which the man is holding and together we bring the cage outside.

I look at the man and he is looking at me with wide eyes of concern.

“Oh my god!”  I say. “Thank you thank you thank you!” I throw my arms around the stranger and begin to cry.  I sob, I weep, I laugh, I sob some more.

I thought he was gone. I thought I’d never see him again. I thought it was my fault. I thought he was dead! My emotional damn breaks. Feeling alone, looking for things we lost, wandering through the neighborhood, not recognizing the world. Sometimes we fear that will we will never see people again and sometimes we don’t.  Sometimes people leave and cats get lost and they don’t come back. And it is almost unbelievable that strangers step in and hold you for a minute, while you lose your balance. Eddie Bauer man and me, two strangers hugging and swaying on a cement driveway, under the basket ball headboard, in between parked cars. Tom in the cage, grumpy and looking up at me, his little fuzzy face, my friend returned.

I pull myself together, pick up the cage and we move back into the light. The kids want to peek at the cat that lived for days in their barn and isn’t theirs. I thank the woman again for calling. The husband comes and joins his family. He puts his her arm around his wife. The two kids stand on either side of their parents.  There they stand, all together, all connected, having helped a neighbor reunite a family of another sort. They shake my hand. They say no problem. Then I realize by the tone of the voice of kind Eddie Bauer man, he is deaf. He says  “I’m sorry that I didn’t catch much of what you said back there in the barn. The light’s burned out. I couldn’t see your lips. I only read lips.”

I pick Tom up in his cage and walk him down the driveway, onto the sidewalk out into the darkness. I turn and look back. They’re watching us. I wave. They wave. I turn around and I leave that family there. I’ve done this before.  Leaving. Walking away. Soon we are gone.


The calls continue. People are so kind. Tom is home and he is out in the neighborhood again, doing his rounds.  People call and say, “He’s sitting right here! Right in my yard! Tom your cat!” I go and take down the fliers I can find.

I get one more call.

A husky smoky voice, Marge Simpson as a tenor.

“I got. Yahour cat.”

“Oh wow! I found my cat.”

“Come and get him.”

“I got my cat back.”

“What? This isn’t your cat?”


“Whose cat is it?”

“I don’t know.”

“He’s sitting here in my bar eating ham off a paper plate.”

“Wow. You treat cats well.”

“I treat everyone well. If they deserve it. Hang on. [In the background.] Get down cat! Ya don’t own the place.”

“I really appreciate your call.”

“Ya know who this is?”


“Ma. Ma Hotz.”

“Hello, Ma Hotz”

“I own the bar on the corner.”

“I’ve never been there.”

“Ya know what day it is?


“My birthday.”

“Wow! Happy Birthday.”

“I’m 87. Don’t tell no one.”


“I want ya to come to my birthday party tonight.”


“8 o’clock.”

“All right. I’ll see you then.”

“Now I’m gonna let this cat that isn’t yours outta here. Come here, cat. Scram cat.”

It’s cold, the earth has turned away from the sun. I step out into the dark city night. It’s the end of October, Halloween and my birthday, too. I breathe in deep the cold air of the end of harvest season. This is my season.  This is when I came into the world, in the midst of burgeoning darkness. The sidewalks are old, big slabs of stone, crooked at slants pushed up by thick tree roots. They are like graveyard headstones pitching in a frozen landscape of zombie wonderland.  No path on this earth goes smoothly and to expect otherwise is a recipe for disaster. The oak trees forever holding onto their leaves, have sprinkled a few crusps on sidewalks. I step on them, pretending they are giant bug shells.

Up ahead a pink neon sign heats up just a slice of the neighborhood. The corner bar. Hotz Café. Ma Hotz, a stranger, invites me into her life. Just for a moment. When you think about it. That’s all we’ve got. The moment.  Moment, after moment, to moment, after moment. Remember some moments create meaning–there’s your life. Without loss, without the search–for my cat, for myself–none of these moments would’ve happened. I walk towards Cafe Hotz where life, in one form or another, continues.

Becky Cummings is a writer, teacher, and theater artist in Cleveland.

“Lunch Ladies, Lost Cat” by Becky Cummings appears in Dispatches from the Rust Belt: The Best of Belt Year One, our first-year print anthology. Order the book here: