Finding Jack

Finding Jack
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…

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