We're driving around the neighbourhood as usual. Sometimes we come straight home, and sometimes we cruise, circling this block, that block, doubling back and driving in what is almost a spiral pattern, and all because we like to see cats. We live in a web of suburban sprawl strung between a couple of highways, Harry Wurzbach and Rittiman - single story homes with massive yards and a lot of trees like much of San Antonio. It's a good place for cats, our little corner, because there isn't much traffic and the roads are mostly crappy so no-one races out onto the highway at unreasonable speed. There are a few regular places which we like to drive past so as to admire the cats - the little calico and ginger colony down on the corner, then a couple of snowshoe cats who are usually sat upon the immobilised car at the house opposite; or we'll cross Rittiman into the Heights, the wealthy part, and drive past the house of Kitler, so named because black patches of fur on his otherwise white face give him a passing resemblance to Adolf Hitler. There's the sea of tails house, identified as such because my wife passed it one morning as she was out running just as the door opened and the yard briefly swam with happy tails aloft as everyone went in for breakfast. Bess says she couldn't actually see the person stood in the shadows holding the door open, but something about the scenario suggested the phrase fuck my life.
We have seven cats, or twelve if you count the strays which I feed and which don't really belong to anyone but tend to spend a lot of time hanging around our yard. Personally, I don't officially count the strays due to a city ordnance preventing us from having more than eight cats, which is probably for the best.
Our cats, in order of age, are Fluffy, Nibbler, Grace, Snowy, Kirby, Holly and Jello; and for the sake of convenience I address the outside cats - in order of size - as Gary, Mr. Kirby, Gus III, Charlotte, and Gus II. Gus was our senior indoor cat before she passed on to the great couch in the sky. Two of the strays approximately resemble her, and are hence titled as her successors. Gary isn't technically a stray because he belongs to a neighbour, but they don't appreciate him so he spends all of his time at our house. His actual name, as heard screeched by a mad, old German woman, is Fat Cat, which seems undignified so we call him Gary instead, after a former neighbour of mine with whom he shared certain characteristics, namely that he's massive, pushy, and always hanging around whenever you go out into the garden.
Suffice to say, we like cats.
We like cats so much that we drive around looking at other people's cats; and one of the places past which we drive on a regular basis is the home of Catman.
He lives on a corner a few blocks from us, a distance of maybe a mile. He probably has more cats then even we do. His yard is heavily shaded and always full of them. Sometimes he too is there, sat in a wicker chair with his cats, so we wave as we drive past and say, 'Hey, Catman!' in the general amiable spirit of Earl Hickey greeting the Crabman on an episode of My Name is Earl. Catman can't hear us but he usually waves back.
Sometimes I encounter him in the local supermarket. He's difficult to miss because he has long straggly hair and a huge white beard of Gandalf proportions. He looks a little like a crazy person, and his shopping trolley is always piled high with cat food and cans of twisted tea - an alcoholic variant on iced tea which is popular hereabouts for obvious reasons. Sometimes he's talking to somebody, because I guess everyone knows Catman; and sometimes he's just talking to himself so I'll say hi, and he'll smile and return the greeting because I guess he says hi to everyone. Sometimes he is accompanied by a certain aroma, but nothing so strong as the bouquet of the eye-watering park tramps I recall clearing the upper decks of Lewisham bound buses in south-east London. Texas is fucking hot, a place where you can work up a real world class stench if you really put your mind to it, and possibly also your arse; so I guess our boy at least makes some concessions to personal hygiene.
A few nights ago we drove past Catman's place and saw kittens, only a few weeks old by the look of them, three or four little black ones with the spike of fluff tails and all jumping around, pulling air-ninja moves on each other. Naturally, we're back for more.
'Hey, Catman,' we call in unison as we notice him sat over by the tree. He waves back, puts down his twisted tea, and comes over to us. I realise that this is in response to my wife having slowed the car and wound down her window.
'We saw you had some kittens,' she says.
'You want a kitten?'
'Oh no - no!' We wave our hands with some urgency, sign language approximating no thank you, we already have twelve and that's more than enough.
Catman extends his hand into the car and we all shake.
'Mark,' he tells us.
I can see four or five cats behind him, lounging around in different parts of his yard. I don't see the kittens. Maybe they're inside.
'How many cats do you have?' my wife asks.
He doesn't answer directly, or indeed at all, instead telling us about his cat colony permit. It sounds like something he's made up, although I later discover that there really is such a thing and that they cost only ten dollars. Anyway, he talks and I immediately recognise a cadence consistent with someone living at a tangent to what the rest of us generally agree to be reality; it's kind of as I suspected, and why a small part of me wanted to scream what the hell are you doing? when my wife slowed the car.
Then again, I've known my share of nutcases over the years, and statistically speaking most of them are a lot more sane, or at least a lot more fun, than the regular boring arseholes and shitbags one is obliged to deal with as part and parcel of daily existence. Mad isn't necessarily a problem, although what kind of mad can be a concern, partially because we've now been here five minutes and Mark hasn't stopped talking, or even given indication that he might pause for breath any time soon. He tells us about the neighbour shooting at his cats with a BB gun and we're duly horrified.
'She doesn't like cats,' he sighs. 'I went round there and you know she has all these hummingbird feeders all in the trees in her garden, everywhere you look, and she loves her hummingbirds. She has names for them, and so I guess I can see why she wouldn't like cats, but I tried to talk to her. I told her when she shoots at a cat, can't she see how that's like someone shooting at one of her birds? She just couldn't seem to see it. So where do you live?'
Bess tells him. I tell myself that he probably won't remember the address.
'I had this beautiful Siamese cat and you know this guy wanted to buy her. I said, I told him, she ain't even mine. I have a permit, you know. I went to the city and got me a permit for a cat colony. He lives over that way.'
Mark gestures towards Rittiman, beyond which are the Heights and the home of Kitler.
'I was at his house and you know it has these big metal gates and all of the security alarms. He wanted to buy my cat but I wasn't going to sell her.'
I study his face. It's been hard to keep from noticing the little cuts and scrapes. They show because he's the palest man I think I've seen in a long time, which must take some doing in Texas. He doesn't look unwell, despite reddish rings beneath his eyes, but he looks as though he's had a bad fall, or he's recovering from something; and yet his eyes are clear. He looks at you and understands. He is intelligent.
Nevertheless here it comes, just as I knew it would.
'You see I was dead and they brought me back to life.' He lifts his shirt to reveal pale green scabbing on a couple of burnt patches around his ribs. The injuries look painful. He's telling us something about being revived with electricity, like you see on the television with the doctor yelling clear, but the account is becoming confused and his testimony leaves no room in which to refer to that which we've already been told. This is one jigsaw puzzle we won't be piecing together any time soon. He was in the house in the rich neighbourhood, or else he was in the pharmacy on Broadway, just across the road from the old Methodist place. My wife later tells me that the wandering spirit was supposedly that of the dead guy to whom the funeral service was dedicated, but somehow I recall a different version. Possibly the confusion comes from Mark's telling.
'The pastor - I mean the preacher - he came in through the door and I could hear him speaking to me, but not with my ears. It was like telepathy in my head. I knew then that he wasn't a good man. He was fallen - you know like the yogis in the Himalala - Himalya - the Himmo—'
'The Himalayas,' Bess suggests.
'That's the place. He was talking to me but there was no sound, and I was just in the pharmacy.' He pauses, maybe realising what he's just said. 'Doesn't that sound crazy? I mean, I ain't saying that was what really happened, but that was how it seemed to me.'
The story continues, branching further. He was in the pharmacy and he was dead, or he was somewhere else, maybe the rich neighbourhood. He was in space looking back at the Earth from a great distance, and there was that light we always hear about, but he wasn't going to go towards it. Jesus Christ was there with a censer like the kind used in a church, swung back and forth on a chain, but there was blood in the censer.
As he relates the tale, he pauses to remind us that he isn't suggesting that any of this is literally what happened, only that it constitutes his experience of something. I recall reading of a similar defence made by Philip K. Dick, the science-fiction writer who famously experienced all manner of visions and delusions whilst remaining otherwise lucid and aware that what he experienced might not be entirely real by any accepted definition of the term. I have also read of some condition whereby the two halves of the human brain fail to communicate with each other as they should, meaning that thoughts crossing the divide will sometimes appear to have originated from somewhere beyond the self - hence those voices in the head we've all heard about. It strikes me that some of this may apply to Mark.
He doesn't know when to shut up, but otherwise he's polite and he's amiable and intelligent. His madness doesn't express itself as anything malign or necessarily likely to endanger anyone excepting possibly himself. Clearly he is able to function as well as any of us. He has a place to live and he takes good care of his cats and he gets by; and as he talks I can't help but notice how it's difficult to truly dislike him. He's weird and eccentric but he's kind of a regular guy too, in all ways that count.
'Where did you say you live again?'
This time my wife amends the address given so freely earlier, subtracting five from the house number. He probably won't remember, but it seems a little early in the relationship to be inviting him in for iced tea and further discussion of psychic forces he has known. I breathe an inward sigh of relief and hear myself saying, 'Listen, Mark - it's been nice to meet you but we really have to get going.'
We've been here thirty minutes, just sat in the car listening. Notice of our impending departure caused a brief stalling as he acknowledged that maybe we had other stuff to be getting on with, but he somehow manages to keep us there another ten minutes, and the narrative begins to eat its own tail: died, met Jesus, brought back to life, there was a light, planet Earth seen from a distance way out beyond the moon, brought back to life again, the censer full of blood, the pharmacy over on Broadway...
We leave, and he doesn't seem to mind. He's just happy to have met us, and we're happy to have met him. He goes on a bit, but I'd still rather listen to some guy tell me about mysterious lights and astral travel than how much he earns or how to get ahead in business.
Crazy probably depends on where you're standing.