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Saturday morning and I’m out of cigarettes. Not good, because on Saturday mornings the tabac on the corner is closed until nine o’clock, and so is the other one across the avenue and down a block. I’ve never figured out, or bothered to ask, if this is the law or just the bone-laziness of the guys who run the tobacco counters in cafés. It wouldn’t make any difference, anyway. They’re closed, not open, no sale, Joe. What’s worse, Baba won’t open the café until seven and it’s only a little after six. Cafés can sell cigarettes, presumably as a convenience only to their customers, but not to the general public, at a very modestly extortionate mark-up. They know what they’re doing.
So do the tobacconists. Paris is not an early-to-rise city and has no use for what Parisians would no doubt call the Anglo-Saxon virtue of rising early and getting about one’s business, especially on the weekend. Why rise and open the store to go about their business when there is no business to go about? They have a point. The bakery is open at six, if not on the dot, as usual, but that’s part of running a bakery. The sour-puss woman I see behind the counter there every morning, except Wednesdays when the bakery is closed, is as miserable as always and probably, as I am convinced, contemplating suicide or simply hating the idea of being alive. That’s what she does at six in the morning and why she works in a bakery.
But, true enough, I’m the only one on the streets this morning. The street sweepers who meet at six during the week at the corner of the park to smoke, drink coffee and spend a lot of time shaking hands with one another, come later Saturday mornings. The bus that passes is empty—well, there is a driver—and nothing is going on anywhere. I start to eat my croissant and walk.
For no good reason, I cut through the park across from my apartment and head toward the northern edge, formerly Winos Corner, now the pétanque court, which I suppose is an improvement. Unlike many parks and squares in Paris, this one is decidedly asymmetric. Slightly off center, there is a playground with climbing bars and all the other hardware that entertain children while their parents can sit on benches and entertain themselves with talk and, almost always these days, sandwiches. Families arrive here from just across the street or around the corner with picnic baskets or knapsacks so full you’d expect them to have loaded up for a massive all-day family picnic in the country. Not at this hour. The southern end is a little more manicured, low bushes and hedges, benches, nothing much else. But the northern end, a little beyond the terrain de pétanque tends to wildness. Bigger and more unruly bushes and shrubs, looking lush and thick this morning. Pleasant and a good way to distract me from my withdrawal symptoms. I slow down, take my time, hands in my pockets, sauntering, even whistling. All the time in the world.
And all by myself in the early-morning quiet. But I hear something, down and to my left. It’s not a squirrel. It’s not the rustling of greenery that a mouse or a pudgy peripatetic pigeon would make, more like a hoarse chirp. I squat down and look, look somewhere. Nothing, can’t see a thing or hear either. Then the chirp again a little to the right of where I was looking. There it is… or there they are, two eyes, seemingly disembodied. I shuffle a little closer. The eyes swivel up toward me as I move and advance. There are ears behind the eyes and there are whiskers below.
It’s a cat. He looks at me, and I at him. He chirps. A cat in a Parisian park a few minutes after six. Not all that likely, but not impossible since there he is.
The French are famous for loving dogs, especially little yappy ones, the kind you can tuck into your pocket. One of the delights of Paris is to see a big guy, covered with tattoos and who looks like he wrestles elephants for a living (and wins) walking along with a dog the approximate size of a rabbit’s foot and cooing baby-talk at it. They tend to love their dogs so much that they leave their residues behind on the sidewalk for everyone else to enjoy and delight in as much as they do. But there are cats in the neighborhood. There’s one I see most days just down the street from my apartment, perched on the little railing outside the window, always looking to his left and yawning. There are also two posters up around the park for lost cats. One simply says Chat Perdu which is the name of most lost cats around here. The other, picture and all, is named Jack. With a description of his collar. I think I have just made his acquaintance.
The eyes, the whiskers and the nose are leaning forward, the eyes peering right at me, the whiskers twitching a little, the ears back. Jack, presumably Jack, is trying to figure me out. Same here. Having lived part-time with a cat in Paris for a couple of years, I speak pretty fluent French Cat, or chatçais, as I think it may be properly called. I greet him, using his name. The ears straighten up. He cocks his head a little to the left. I ask how he’s doing this morning. He
cocks his head to the right. Would you, Jack, like something to eat? He begins to lick his right shoulder. This is a good sign. When in doubt, a cat will always lick his shoulder. It’s the cat’s way of buying time, like, oh, lighting a cigarette in the middle of a conversation… unfortunate example, now I’m remembering I want a smoke.
After a good twenty seconds’ worth of shoulder-licking, Jack has evidently decided to stick his neck out, more or less literally. He leans forward, far enough so I can see his collar which was clearly visible in the color photograph and precisely described as black, white and orange with an ID tag. All there. Well, Jack, what do you want to do? He takes a step or two out of the bushes and looks up at me. I straighten up and ask if he’d like to take a walk. He cocks his head, but doesn’t lick his shoulder. I start off, Jack trailing very slowly in my wake. He’s still behind me, so I’m twisted a bit to my right as I keep up a patter, remarking how cold it is for this time of year, pointing out that the Tour de France is even more boring than usual (no one’s been caught doping, yet), telling him we’re going out of the park. I hold the gate, he looks puzzled. Come on, Jack, I don’t have all day. He darts through the gate, but doesn’t run off. He waits for me to start walking and follows. When we get to the street right across from the door to my building, I tell him I better carry him across. He looks dubious, but after about a minute of reasonable talk and a little head stroking, he lets me pick him up.
As soon as I unlock the door to my apartment, I put him on the floor. He hesitates for a moment, looking left and right and up and down—there’s not much to see in the entrance hall—then he sprints ahead, into the séjour, a word a touch too elegant for my living room, over the back of the sofa, around the chair opposite and out onto the terrace in the back. He perches on the table and stares around. Not what I had in mind is what he seems to be thinking. Well, maybe food and drink would help, so I bring him some milk which, so help me, he chugs, if a cat can chug without being able to pick up the dish. Then some chicken left over from last night. Jack purrs. All is well.
All is very well because it’s three minutes of seven and we’re heading for the café right now, Jack, my boy. I tuck my phone in my pocket and Jack inside my fleece vest, head out the door and go to the right where I last remember seeing Jack’s Wanted poster, tear it off the wall, then left at the corner and down two streets to the café where Baba has just opened. Cigarettes and coffee, please—oh yes, Bonjour, ça va?—and look what I found. Yes, he is adorable. Cigarettes and coffee, please! She hands me the cigarettes, tells me to sit down outside, she’ll bring the coffee, and shows up four minutes later with coffee and some rillettes on a dish for Jack. I take him out of my jacket, put him on my lap, move the dish right in front of him. He eats, I drink and smoke. All’s swell.
After the smoke, I fish the phone out of my pocket and call the number on the poster. A good ten rings and a man answers. Who? Do you know what time it is? Who? I tell him I have Jack, Jack the cat, do you want him? Yes, yes, can you bring him here? Where’s here? He gives me an address about three streets away. No, you can come and get Jack. Where are you? I tell him, give directions. We’ll be here, I tell him, don’t worry, Jack and I are on the terrace in front of the café, smoking and drinking coffee. I’m sure you’ll recognize us. I light another cigarette, Jack purrs in my lap. We snuggle in to wait.