Given my dubious history with animal care, I must assume it was either optimism or ignorance that caused my fellow librarian Abbey to entrust me with her mini-menagerie for the week she and her family road-tripped it up the UP in late July. She left me five small charges: indoor kitties Milo and Mabel, Fergie (“no, not like the Black Eyed Peas”) the free-range guinea pig, and Captain Jack and… I wanna say Pepper(?), a pair of carnival fish long past their promised two-to-four-year shelf life.

By Thursday (exactly two months ago from the day I’m writing this), I had cultivated a dangerous sort of confidence in my own petsitting competence. I know it was two months ago today because I had just sat down to begin writing the month’s post calvin article when a yowling hell descended upon our makeshift household. Milo, engaged in his after-dinner entertainment of sitting alone in a paper bag, had contrived to get his head stuck through one of the twine handles. His response—running around the house bashing his head into walls—spooked Mabel into doing the same. And then all three (Milo, Mabel, and the paper bag) vanished.

Fergie and the goldfish, thankfully, seemed unaffected.

Things I did in the first hour after Milo and Mabel disappeared:

  1. Searched all three floors of the house
  2. Googled “can animal suffocate in paper bag”
  3. Called my cat-owning sister
  4. Placed cat treats at strategic points around the house
  5. Drafted a text beginning “I don’t mean to bother you, but” to Abbey

Things I did in the second hour after Milo and Mabel disappeared:

  1. Searched all three floors of the house again
  2. Left a third of a can of cat food at strategic points around the house
  3. Nervously read a few pages of Homegoing (thanks, Katie) while waiting for the cats to lured out by the food’s scent
  4. Sent a text beginning “I don’t mean to bother you, but” to Abbey
  5. Got a call from Abbey

Things I did in the third hour after Milo and Mabel disappeared:

  1. Searched all three floors of the house for the sixteenth time
  2. Walked around with my phone on speaker while Abbey called their names
  3. Sent an email explaining that my post calvin article would be a bit late
  4. Drove to the nearby Family Fare for catnip and whipped cream in a last-ditch appeal to feline hedonism
  5. Cried

When you’re lying on the floor of your coworker’s basement, sobbing next to a third of a can of cat food and imagining how she’s going to have to explain to her eleven-year-old that their incompetent housesitter allowed his beloved kitty to strangle himself in a Kinko’s bag, you begin to reevaluate your recent life choices.

As with many a melodramatic evening, the stalwart wisdom of someone’s grandmother finally saved the day. Abbey put her mother on the line and she, very calmingly, talked me off the ledge and through the coziest, safest-feeling nooks the house had to offer.

We found Mabel first. I knew she was alive and upstairs because 1) I’d seen her briefly upon my return from Family Fare and 2) the upstairs bowl of strategic cat food had been eaten and Mabel is a food whore. After Abbey’s spare bedroom, her son’s closet, her closet, and several clothes hampers proved catless, Abbey suggested her laundry room, which is one of those glorified closets with a stacked washer/dryer combo. We were pretty sure Mabel was in the impossible-to-see-let-alone-reach space behind the appliances, but at this point I was searching for peace of mind (if Milo was going to suffocate himself, he’d have done it by now), so “pretty sure” wasn’t good enough.

The only thing for it was to climb on top of Abbey’s stacked washer/dryer like a maniac (apologies, Abbey, since you’re just now learning about this) and take an incredibly blurry photo of the rear side of the appliances in which Mabel blessedly appeared, looking very much like a diminutive version of that Sasquatch still from the 1960s.

Milo, being more traumatized and less food-motivated, was a more committed runaway. I did several maddening circuits of the basement before Abbey’s mother suggested, “Have you tried behind the built-in shelves?” I had not, assuming that the “built-in” part of built-in shelves implied a flushness with the wall, and this particular set of shelves was indeed flush with the wall—on the top half. Between the bottom half and the plaster, however, existed a cat’s-width gap and, nestled inside and down two lives, a gap’s-width cat.

“See, I told you it would be fine,” Abbey said, reminding me where she kept the unopened bottle of sangria.

“I guess you were right. Enjoy the dark sky park,” I responded, thankful that I had not ruined anyone’s vacation or their cats.

I did do a number on that sangria, though.


  1. Laura Sheppard Song

    “Between the bottom half and the plaster, however, existed a cat’s-width gap and, nestled inside and down two lives, a gap’s-width cat” is the best-crafted sentence I have read in a long time. Thank you for the needed laughs!

    • Katie Van Zanen

      every month, such dry humor and exquisite sentence gymnastics!

  2. Abbey (yes, that Abbey)

    I adore you. Just in case I forgot to tell you last week.

  3. Carol

    Love this! So glad you found the missing kitties. Love your way with words.

  4. Geneva Langeland

    I, too, know that exquisite terror of knowing that there should be a cat in the house and being utterly unable to find it. This particular feline’s special hiding place is behind the water heater and a bunch of paint cans.

  5. Kyric Koning

    One more reason why there will be no animals in this house.

    Glad that at the end of it all, humor remained strong.


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