My Weekend in a Gutter

This week, like so many times before, I am housesitting/dogsitting/catsitting for my younger brother and his family. I am not Guinea pig sitting because, alas, Manu has passed on to the next realm. But, I do have three dogs and a cat in my charge, which, as it turns out, is no small responsibility. It would be fine if my life were only about feeding, letting dogs outside to poop and subsequently picking up poop and emptying litter boxes. My brother and his family have a swimming pool decked out in limestone and they have a home cinema. Totally worth it.

But, as I said, other things happen. The little bastards want to run away. Why? I mean, my sister-in-law is the best pet mother ever to walk on the planet. These animals want for nothing. Even so, the last time I was in charge of them, I noticed at one point that it was quiet. I like quiet, so it took me a while to get suspicious. When I noticed it, though, the quiet was SO eerie that I knew something was amiss. It would seem that the side gate to the back yard sticks before it completely closes and two of the dogs took advantage of my ignorance and were wandering the neighborhoods, making new friends and spreading the word of ‘spaying an neutering your pets’. Sadie knows what life is like on the outside, so she didn’t leave the yard. (She’s always been my favorite. She smiles when she sees me. If you’ve ever had a dog literally smile at you, you’ll understand where I’m coming from.) I had walked the streets calling their names and I was in my car driving around the neighborhood when I got a call from my sister-in-law that somebody had called her because they found her number on the back of the dog tags. *sigh*  At least I was able to go pick them up. The man who called had not been able to put them in his vehicle, but he did a remarkable job keeping them corralled until I got to where he was – in the next neighborhood over!

Not this time, though. Not this weekend. I planned to not even use the side gates. That would keep me out of trouble.

The first morning I woke up in the house I went outside to drink my coffee. Summer has officially set in, here in Central Texas, and the humidity hasn’t quite left. So, it could have been more pleasant, but I don’t complain. The dogs weren’t terribly interested, though, and after a while I gave up and went back inside. I went shopping a little bit, then back home to let the dogs out before I went to meet Barry with one of his clients for brunch. It was a nice brunch – about 30 minutes before dinner was beginning because Barry is an artist living in Artist Standard Time – and afterwards I came back home to let the dogs out again and feed them dinner. When I went to feed the cat, though, I noticed that the morning’s food was still in the bowl, mounded just as it had come out of the scoop. Mister, the cat, had not touched his food, which is VERY much not like Mister, the cat.

I looked around to see if I could find him. I hadn’t gone into very many rooms in the house, so there weren’t a lot of placed he could have gotten into. Cats have ways, though; this I know from experience. If he was not feeling well, then it would be best to give him time alone.

I tried to relax. It was Sunday and I could get into the pool, or the Jacuzzi or write. I could not focus on any of these things, though. In the back of my mind, I was not comfortable with Mister’s absence. I have cats. (Lord! Do I have cats.) With my cats I’m used to them disappearing for hours at a time and wandering back as if nothing had happened. But, I wasn’t used to it from Mister. Wandering around outside is a lot more physical effort that I am used to him being willing to put forth. My brother later confirmed that even when he gets outside, he chills in the flower beds in the front of the house. But, I’m getting ahead of myself.

Around 8 in the evening I was wondering whether I should alert my brother and his wife. They might be able to call their neighbors, or suggest something else. It turns out my brother texted me to see how everybody was doing, so I mentioned that Mister, the cat, was missing in action, that I hadn’t seen him since earlier that afternoon, or morning, and he hadn’t eaten his dinner. This last part, naturally, caused him to sit up and take notice. (If you get the idea that Mister is overweight, you’re correct. He’s down to 20 lbs, last time I heard.) He told me Mister’s favorite hiding places, most of which were in rooms that I had not entered since I'd first arrived. I looked around the house and the back yard. I looked up and down the street and in the front yard. My sister-in-law chimed in and began suggesting some other places: "Under Daughter’s bed, in Daughter’s closet, in movie room, behind Daughter’s headboard, behind sofa upstairs, on dining room chairs, under Daughter’s bed, in closet under staircase, in pantry at the back in a box, did you look on the dining room chairs?" I asked if Mister tended to meow when he was trapped somewhere, and my brother said that he did not, and that this had caused problems on more than one occasion. I gave up the idea of ruling out rooms that I had not entered; my sister-in-law's father might have come by and anything could have happened. So, I looked in all of the rooms, all of the closets, under all of the beds and I thought, "Is this a home or a Manor House?!" I mean, who has this many rooms in their house?!

I moved the search to the outside and by now it was dark, so I used my mobile phone as a flashlight, looking (again) through the bushes and in the flower beds. I was wondering how it must look to have a stranger to the neighborhood on his knees, looking through the bushes with a flashlight and I couldn’t stop thinking about Betty White’s character in Bringing Down the House when she was talking about Mexicans in the neighborhood. “Oh, please. If those people are on this block and not holding a leaf blower...” I was relatively certain that I was going to be arrested. It also crossed my mind that it’s a good thing that I use sunscreen. My sister-in-law had mentioned hearing a cat in heat across the street, so after looking through the bushes for the 3rd time I crossed the street... to do what? I wasn’t quite certain. But, across I went and the light from my mobile phone/flashlight fell across the storm drain and I saw a black tail.

“For the love of cake,” I thought to myself. This cannot be where he has been this whole time. I crouched down and he began to meow like nobody’s business. It was a deep meow and it was unmistakably Mister’s. He moved around and I could see his head. The storm drain is a very steep drop-off from the street into a cement box under the sidewalk, and the sidewalk hangs over the box. So, I had to look at an angle and could only see Mister when he was at the back of the box. He stood with his paws on the side of the box, but he couldn’t get out. I called my brother to give them an update and told him I was going to try to get him out.

It was incredibly awkward, though. I couldn’t see unless I held the phone/flashlight and I couldn’t reach if I was holding it. I lay down on my belly on the street and reached my arm inside the drain. I could grab tiny bits of Mister’s scruff, but he’s a big boy and I’d need more than a tiny piece of his scruff in order to pull him up and over the edge of the drain. Plus, the opening is only about a foot high. Reaching and grabbing I think I finally got on his nerves and he moved out of the way to where I couldn’t see or hear him. As I lie prone on the street with my arm in the storm drain I thought, “If this doesn’t get me arrested, I’m not sure what will.”

I called my brother back and asked him if he knew any of his neighbors well enough to call them. I needed help. People had been walking up and down the street earlier, but there were no pedestrians now. (Can you blame them?) He said that he didn’t know anybody well enough to call at that hour (After 10PM by that point.) I asked about calling 311 and he was hesitant. I could hear him talking to my sister-in-law laying down the law that we were not going to call the fire department. I looked at the manhole cover over the storm drain and it was bolted down and the whole thing looked rusted and very, very heavy.

I tried coaxing with a doggie treat, I tried reaching down. I tried calling and sweet-talking. It seemed that there was a tunnel that I couldn’t see; I could see the back and both sides but not directly under me, because of the angle. I mean, of course there’s a tunnel – for the water to go through. The problem was, I could still hear Mister every once in a while and he sounded weak. When I had seen him earlier he had been panting. It is summer in Central Texas and he had been stuck in a drain under the sidewalk most of the afternoon. It was dark and it was still warm. Imagine in the heat of the day. No, on second thought I don’t want to imagine.

My brother agreed that I could call 311 and at least see what they had to say. The nice lady I spoke to was very understanding of my concern, that Mister had been in the storm drain all afternoon and he was too tired and too heavy to be able to get out by himself. She immediately put in a service request and told me to call back with the reference number if I hadn’t heard from the Animal Control in 30 minutes. I was wondering if 30 minutes would be quick enough.

Apparently, while I was on the phone with 311, my brother had changed his mind about calling the neighbor, because he texted that Neighbor Dave was going to call a friend at the fire department. Dave emerged from the house next to my brother’s and walked over to me. We discussed the possibilities and he was of the mind that Mister could jump out. Then he heard him and quickly changed his mind and redoubled his sense of urgency. I told him that I had called 311, but he ran back to his house saying that there was no need, that he was going to call his friend at the fire department. He eventually came back out stating that his friend was on vacation, but he was going to run over to the fire department to ask for help. He was very sure that help was on its way and away he drove, like a hero appearing out of nowhere and then flying off for back-up. I communicated back and forth with my brother and sister-in-law. My brother told me that he had given Dave my number and sure enough, I got a text that he couldn’t find anybody at the Jollyville fire department but that he was heading over to another station.

Meanwhile, I got a call from the animal control. I got a lot of “I see” and “Okay…” She seemed convinced that Mister would eventually get out by himself. I assured her that this was not going to happen. She asked if I’d reached in, if I’d called and all of the things that I had done. The she suggested that I put a branch in so that Mister could climb out. I felt like she wasn’t really listening to me, though she did sympathize with me. I asked if she could remove the manhole cover and she said that Animal Control did not remove manhole covers. (The nice lady at 311 indicated that they most likely would. I guess I've learned something here.)

So, wait again. I looked again at the manhole cover and I remembered that I have a ratchet set in my car and that I am, after all, clever. As it happened, I couldn’t find my tools, but my brother is a man and he has tools. So, I went inside, found a can of salmon (there was no tuna) and went to the garage and grabbed a pliers and screw driver, leaving the salmon on the counter in case I needed it. I hadn’t been arrested so far and I was beginning to feel immune. Outside, back at the storm drain, I looked at the nut on the manhole cover and tried to see if I could turn it with the pliers. (Not likely, I thought, but worth a try.) The damn thing wasn’t even screwed in! It was just the head sitting on top to give the illusion of being secured. So, I angled the screw driver into the small hole revealed and made short work of lifting the (very heavy) cover off.

I could see the tunnel that Mister had gone down. I couldn’t see Mister, but I knew he hadn’t gone far. I went back inside, opened the can of salmon and brought it outside with me. By this time Dave was returning saying that his buddies from the Fire Department were right behind him. I was moving the cover back over the hole when I saw Mister pop out of the tunnel. Whatever, I thought. Let them do what they want. I moved the cover back off the hole and dropped a piece of salmon down. Mister came right up to it and began eating. I laid down on the sidewalk and reached in, but I couldn’t reach him. I told him that he needed to work with me, but he wasn’t being reasonable at this point. He was focused on eating.

The fire truck pulled up, shining their white light on me as I sat on the sidewalk with a can of salmon, next to a manhole cover that I may or may not have been legally allowed to move. They took no notice of that, but began discussing the situation, basically starting with the thought that Mister would get himself out. (Clearly, nobody understands this cat’s girth.) Dave was 100% on my side about it and one of the firemen went to get a glove and coat. Dave did say that this was a particularly gentle cat, but I can understand their concern. Mister, though, had concerns of his own about a gloved hand that he did not recognize coming at him and he ducked back down the tunnel. (I had put a few more chunks of salmon down to get him to come out again.) Dave is a good guy. He said that he could probably reach him, and he took the can and dumped almost all of it in the hole. I said, “You blew my wad,” but none of them paid any attention. (I mean, there was only one can in the pantry. What if we needed more?!) Dave lay on his belly and reached in while the firemen held onto him. He came up with Mister in his hand and I took the cat into my arms. We were all afraid he would jump back down the hole to eat more salmon, so I said a quick thank you and hustled Mister into the house, leaving my mobile phone and everything on the ground across the street, but not before Dave caught the moment on video – me with a black line on my face and my mad-scientist hair. After I got Mister situated Dave came in with my phone, the salmon can and he had brought the watering can that I had used to try to give Mister something to drink while I waited, which had only resulted in him running back down the tunnel, as it turns out.

Before I could tell my brother and sister-in-law the good news Dave had sent them the video. I felt (feel) horrible, like I'm the worst petsitter in the world. They both took pains to tell me that it wasn't my fault, that Mister is sneaky. The thing is, one of my cats also likes to sneak out, so I thought I was being very watchful. Oh, these animals! We discussed it a little bit more and then called it a night. It was after midnight by then. I had been prepared to take Mister to an overnight vet clinic and front the cost, just to have him checked out and pumped with fluids, but he was actually not as distressed as I would have thought. He did drink a ton (a day later he’s still drinking a quite a bit), but he had that Big Lebowski expression on his face. “The Dude abides. Where ya been? Meow.”


This is, of course, the dogs' water bowl.

Best of Friends

And, that's how I spent my Sunday evening in a gutter.