THE ALLEYWAY behind my Verdun apartment was a jungle of cat noises all summer. They yelled to be let inside for dinner. They caterwauled as they cruised the streets at midnight. They screeched between parked cars just before dawn, fighting, as I returned from my job at a bar on Crescent Street.
Four years working the night shift meant I had few chances to see my real friends. On weekends, I dismissed their attempts to set up plans with a quick text, “Sorry, working!” The messages eventually stopped. Night after night, lacking human friendships, I still heard from the cats. Sometimes they even visited my second-floor balcony, hoping for some catnip, before returning to their nightly politics.
One evening in June, I was smoking out there with my girlfriend when she told me that she could hear a cat calling—just one. We waited until our neighbours’ windows went dark before we snooped through their yards and traced the source to an old wooden tool shed. From the streetlight, we could see a nose sticking through a rotted-out mouse hole. It belonged to a grey tuxedo—a big one, too; he must have been twenty pounds. We decided to name him Boss.
I came back the next morning and tried to lure Boss through the hole with breakfast. Too fat. I pulled at the door. Locked. Freeing him would mean talking to the neighbours. The teenager who answered the door said that he didn’t know where the key to the shed was, and his parents were out of town. From the Mario Kart music playing in the background, it was clear he wasn’t too interested in helping.
I returned to the shed for the next two days. I fed Boss kibble, scratched him behind his ears. As soon as the food was gone, he started yelling. Come visit me once you’re free, I told him. On the third day I walked out to the shed and it was empty.
MONTREAL IS A CITY OF CATS. Most get let out the door on Moving Day, never to find home again. Strays have imprinted themselves on the local consciousness: they skulk out from the streets and into the books of Heather O’Neill and Yves Beauchemin, where they follow drunk eight-year-olds and neglected teens, characters who don’t seem particularly capable of living amongst other people.
When I saw the empty shed, I worried that Boss wasn’t a stray after all— that he’d gone home to his owners and I would never see him again. But that night, he appeared on our balcony, meowing like an alarm clock: Feed me.
From then on, Boss felt like my cat. I left him breakfast on the balcony every morning. Sometimes he even slept on my lap. “Where did you get so fat? Are you even homeless?” I’d ask, picking him up. He licked his nose and stared at me with dumb, dilated pupils.
BY SEPTEMBER I wasn’t making much money, and the bar on Crescent Street looked like it would be going under. Summer had been quiet and winters always left servers fighting for hours. I regularly came home smelling like beer and Jägermeister, and was drinking on the job more than I should’ve been.
Having Boss around gave me a project, though: after finding some instructions online, I decided to build him a shelter for the coming winter. (We couldn’t let him stay with us—he didn’t get along with my girlfriend’s tabby.) By the time I brought home a big plastic tub and inch-thick Styrofoam sheets, there was snow on the ground. In need of a box cutter, I went downstairs to our landlords’ apartment to see if I could borrow one. When they answered the door, a ball of grey ran past me and into the alleyway. It was Boss.
I asked them if they knew the cat. My landlords, a couple from Russia, said he’d been staying with them for the past few weeks. I’d been sleeping in after my shifts, so Boss had started creeping through their window and helping himself to their kitchen. They’d quickly given up on trying to kick him out.
I knew I had to let Boss go, but it felt like I was the one getting abandoned. For the next few mornings I dismissed his meows for a second breakfast with a quick, “Sorry, you’re big enough!” The visits eventually stopped.
The bar on Crescent didn’t shut down and I kept coming home at five in the morning. Night after night, I still heard from the cats.