The black cat summoned me — and hastened my departure months afterwards.

I was weary and thirsty that late September day in 1928 as I trudged up Main Street. I passed the attractive Gray Rock Inn, but I knew it was beyond my means. However, just north of the inn, I noticed a smaller stone house with a sign: “Room and Board, Women Only, Inquire Within.” There, I spied the creature coiled in a rattan chair on the sprawling front porch, and beneath the cooling shade of an immense fir tree. The inviting scene and the slumbering cat drew me in. At the time, I was also in search of employment, overnight accommodations, and a place to rest.

I approached the porch tentatively, carefully climbing the steps, hoping not to arouse the cat. But it sensed me immediately and straightened, rising and alert, whiskers quivering. As I reached the porch floor, it appraised me frigidly with glaring, golden eyes.

I stood a few feet from it, maintaining my distance, and murmured, “Hello, sweet kitty,” as I extended my hand. I crouched, allowing the cat to gaze at me from above. He eyed me suspiciously. A moment later, a middle-aged woman peered around the front entrance.

“May I help you, miss? I’m Martha Harlow, the owner. Are you seeking a place to stay?”

“Yes. My name is Florence Platt,” I said, rising to my feet and nodding. I told her briefly of my plans to find work and lodging after departing my home in the small town of Clyde, west of Asheville, where I’d been living with my family. I mentioned how I’d yearned to come to Asheville after graduating high school the prior spring. I didn’t disclose my aspirations of pursuing an education in the arts — that is, learning to make jewelry and mosaics — fearing she would think me impractical.

“We have a small room available. Two dollars per night or twelve dollars for a week’s stay, meals included. There are more substantial accommodations, as well.” Mrs. Harlow elaborated on the home’s larger and more commodious rooms as her complexion grew rosy, then florid. She corrected herself several times, seemingly eager to provide the information quickly.

I listened sympathetically, replying, “I could not afford even the smallest room. Is there a chance you would accept less? Maybe I could assist with household tasks.”

“Well,” she responded, scanning me from head to toe. “Do you have any experience in housekeeping or cooking? It happens that our housekeeper had a terrible accident, and won’t be returning.”

“I’ve been cooking and cleaning since Mama died,” I answered. “That was three years ago. I’m skilled at taking care of children, too, as I’ve looked after my three younger siblings since Mama passed.”

Mrs. Harlow looked to the sky, finger to pursed lips. “Room and board, then, would be six dollars a week . . . Yes, I think that’s fair. But you would need to manage all the cooking and tidying on Saturday and Sunday, from seven in the morning until seven at night. Yes, after seven you would be free. Oh, and I’m sorry to hear about your mother. I just lost my husband back in April. Still feels fresh as yesterday.”

At that point, the cat leaped from his rattan throne to the floor and swooned before me, circling my legs and rubbing its sleek body against my calves. It purred softly.

“Well, Elroy has accepted you. That is a good sign. He is a quick judge of women.”  She seemed to relax, her cadence slowing, and she eyed me again with a trace of a smile. “You said your name was Florence?”

That is how it began — my stay and my employment with Mrs. Harlow.


That afternoon, Mrs. Harlow and I discussed the house rules and my responsibilities. She then showed me my room on the second floor. Elroy followed us, but Mrs. Harlow forbade him from entering. “On your way, Elroy,” she commanded, placing her hands on her hips and looking sternly at him. His ears flickered ever so slightly — a sign that he understood, as I came to learn. “He is a curious cat and one with a mind of his own,” Mrs. Harlow said. “One must be firm with him. He’ll take advantage of any small kindness, otherwise, and before you know it, you’ll be taking directions from him.”

It was a narrow, compact room with cream-colored walls and a high ceiling. A tall window in the eastern corner provided ample light. A corded brass light fixture hung from the ceiling with three flame-shaped bulbs dangling below. A single mattress on a thick-spring cot was placed in the corner below the window opposite a sturdy porcelain sink. Mrs. Harlow pointed to a tall oak wardrobe with a set of drawers beneath two French-style doors. “There is no closet, but you can store your clothes and other items here. My late husband built this cabinet for that purpose many years ago.” She noted that there was a full bathroom down the hall, which I would share with two other residents.

As Mrs. Harlow left the room, Elroy was planted opposite the door, attentive as a soldier. “Off you go now, Elroy,” she said, and the cat — before following her downstairs — looked back at me, not unlike a departing friend. Mrs. Harlow had an exceptionally good command of Elroy, unlike other aspects of her life, as I was to learn in the coming weeks.

Elroy was nowhere to be seen the next morning when Mrs. Harlow met me in the kitchen. She introduced me to another early-rising resident, Miss Belvedere, who helped with bookkeeping there and also taught school.

Miss Belvedere rose to greet me with a meek smile, having just finished breakfast. “Good day, Miss Platt. How wonderful to have another lady here. I can tell you’ve a nice quiet disposition. Haven’t you?” Her blonde hair, streaked with gray, glinted in the morning sunshine as she trundled out of the dining room without waiting for an answer, her satchel over her shoulder.

“We have one other boarder, a pretty young woman, Jessica Wells. She sleeps late most days and arises around noon. She works in the afternoon and evening as a hostess at the Battery Park Hotel’s restaurant. You needn’t worry much about her meals as she takes her breakfast late, which she fixes herself. She’s not usually here for supper either, except on her days off.”

As it happened, I did not speak with Miss Wells until weeks later when I passed her in the corridor one evening. She was a pretty woman, her dark hair cut in a fashionable bob. She wore a sleek black dress, satiny black shoes, and a string of pearls. I gathered she was getting ready for an elegant outing. She offered me her hand, smiling, and said, “Oh, you must be our newest boarder. It’s nice to meet you — I’m Jessica. But I must be off to work.” And she gracefully descended the stairs as I called after her, “Glad to make your acquaintance.” I soon learned the restaurant was a fine and popular place to dine, and no longer wondered at her exquisite clothing.        

Later that day, I found a part-time job at a dry goods store on Lexington Avenue. Mr. Briton, the owner, needed assistance on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday mornings. The job would prove to be more predictable and agreeable than I’d imagined, and a respite from Mrs. Harlow, who worried aloud, often seeking my company. Fabrics and threads, flours and sugar, nails and hardware didn’t talk or complain, and most customers were polite as I assisted them with their small purchases.

Back at the house, Elroy became my evening companion. He joined me at suppertime, sitting near the dining room entrance, not far from the corner table I preferred. His golden eyes followed my every move. He would comment intermittently by emitting a bright mmrrrrr as if he had just happened on an extraordinary idea or found the answer to a long-pondered question. Maybe this was also a remark of approval. The sound was repeated each time I secreted a scrap of food into my folded paper napkin, the contents of which I would offer him later when I returned to my room.

Mrs. Harlow was right. I was indulgent with him, and I eventually believed he was directing my actions when in his presence. But I liked his company and welcomed him to my room after the evening meal. I would sprinkle the tidbits from my napkin onto the floor for him to consume. He ate daintily, but with relish.

One weekday morning, not long after breakfast, I was lying on my bed observing a stream of light pouring through the window above. It cast a warm glow onto the white porcelain sink, prompting an illusion of stars to burst off the metal hardware. I felt secure and serene, heartened by the sunshine, and not at all sorry that my room was tiny. It was cozier, as a result. I would have lingered except for a sudden groan and squeal. I supposed that the front door had been thrust open, its hinges wanting for oil. A man’s bellowing voice followed. I heard explosions of “payment plan” and “foreclosure” before noticing a scratching noise outside my door. Sure enough, it was Elroy, and I snatched him into my arms before I proceeded down the steps.

From my stance on the landing, halfway down the stairs, I paused, hoping to garner some sense of the unfolding events. Mrs. Harlow’s frail shoulders and silvered hair, gathered in a bun, stooped below a hovering, tall, full-cheeked man. His eyes appeared as tiny dashes in his enormous face. “You are two months in arrears,” he was expounding, until Mrs. Harlow interrupted him.

“Sir, I am trying my best. Mr. Harlow, rest his soul, left me little other than this house, and it’s expensive to keep up. I’ve only three lodgers now, and two of those three are employed part-time here, so . . .”

“I sympathize, ma’am. I sincerely do, but this house would go quickly in the current market. There must be . . . “

I interrupted him, descending the stairs as Elroy twitched in my arms. “Do you need some help?” I called, loosening my grip and letting Elroy scamper down the stairs. He positioned himself alongside Mrs. Harlow. I followed.

The man had ceased his monologue and appraising Elroy with a frown, said, “I must say — your cat is giving me the evil eye, Mrs. Harlow.” Turning to me he added, “I’m not sure I know this young lady’s impression,” then he extended his hand towards me. “Gabriel Jackson. How do you do?”

I kept my hands folded behind my back. “I’m Florence Platt, one of Mrs. Harlow’s residents. I heard a commotion from my room.”

“No commotion intended,” Mr. Jackson replied.

Mrs. Harlow, her eyes grateful, said, “I am fine, Miss Platt. Thank you for your concern.” Emboldened then, Mrs. Harlow turned toward Mr. Jackson. “I only have business with you, sir, and this is no place to discuss business, especially at your chosen volume. My home is known for its quiet and relaxing ambiance.”

“I’ll give you fifteen days. By November 15th I expect to have payments for September and October.” Mr. Jackson reached for the doorknob, but Mrs. Harlow grabbed it first and hurtled the door open with venom.

“Good day, sir.”

“And so to you, ma’am,” he sneered, stalking across the porch and proceeding down the path with a shake of his head. We both watched Elroy follow, circling him, blocking his way, and eventually causing him to stumble. “Evil creature,”  he growled, “out of my way!”

Elroy padded back to the porch and sat, observing, poised and still, as Mr. Jackson disappeared around the corner. He then leaped onto the rattan chair, curled up, and rested his head on crossed paws.

Mrs. Harlow turned towards me with a hesitant smile. “I don’t think Elroy is fond of Mr. Jackson, either . . . I’ll be frank with you. I am having a few financial troubles. I haven’t been prudent about drawing more boarders here. But Mr. Jackson knows how to intimidate a woman. I believe he wants to repossess my house.”

“I hope not, ma’am. But Elroy may be a help sizing up any man seeking a room. Do you intend to continue to rent only to women?”

“I may need to reconsider. I’ve tried to maintain that rule since my husband died. But it’s putting me at a disadvantage.”


A week or so later, Mrs. Harlow had changed her mind; she would consider male boarders who didn’t drink or smoke. She altered the sign, in turn. “I wouldn’t mind your own opinion of candidates, too,” she said. “I am not the best judge of men, especially in this modern age. And I suppose I should put an ad in the Asheville Times.”

“You’ll grow more confident,” I said. “Yes, a classified ad would help to attract boarders.” Privately, I was wary. Mrs. Harlow could be bold and speak up for herself, I’d learned. But at other times, she’d lose her confidence quickly, shrinking like a violet.

Late in November, on a Saturday morning, I was washing the few breakfast dishes at the kitchen’s wide porcelain sink. As there were still only three boarders, it was not a lengthy task. I’d just rinsed the last teacup and was scrubbing the frying pan when I heard the clang of the doorbell. I dried my hands on my apron and peered through the peephole, noting a neatly dressed man wearing a gray coat and fedora. He appeared young and handsome and he sported a thin, debonair mustache. I opened the door halfway, leaning around it. “May I help you, sir?”

The man tipped his hat graciously. “Good morning, Miss. I’m Charles Gunther. I’m new to Asheville and need lodging for the next several weeks. Do you have a spare room?”

I was taken aback by his handsome features — his dark eyes, aquiline nose, and his lean, chiseled jaw. He smiled warmly. I found my voice quavering as I replied, “Actually, sir, I am not the owner. Mrs. Harlow is upstairs. I’ll see if she is available. Please, come in.” I showed him into the living room, pointing out Mrs. Harlow’s favorite upholstered burgundy chair with a tasseled skirt. “Have a seat, sir. I’ll be right back.”

I climbed the stairs, regretting my quick invitation toward Mrs. Harlow’s chair. I’d been too accommodating to the man. As I scolded myself, I admitted that I’d been impressed with the man’s appealing looks and had wanted him to be comfortable.

Mrs. Harlow had just finished dressing. She appeared unsettled upon opening the door. “Yes, dear, what is it?” She had a hairbrush in her hand, and her long gray strands hung loose around her face, accentuating her deep facial lines. She looked older.  

“There is a gentleman downstairs. He just stopped by, inquiring about a room.”

“And what did you tell him?”

“Only that I would find you. I can suggest that he return at a more convenient time if you aren’t ready to see him.”

“Oh yes, I will see him,” she sighed. “I must see him. I need another boarder, as you know. I never did put an ad in the newspaper. It slipped my mind again.”

Returning to the living room, I felt irked with Mrs. Harlow. She wasn’t even trying to attract new boarders. For a moment, I sympathized with the banker, Mr. Jackson. Maybe Mrs. Harlow wasn’t capable of managing on her own. I told myself then and there that I would never become dependent on a man, or anyone else, for keeping a roof over my head. I pledged to be vigilant about finances, married or single.

After informing Mr. Gunther that Mrs. Harlow would see him soon, I returned to the kitchen to plan the evening’s supper. As I opened the pantry, examining the provisions, I turned to see Elroy behind me, tail a-swishing. “Sneaky kitty!” I said. I reached down to pat his head, whereupon he abruptly sat on the floor and howled — emitting a scream, a deliberate, warbling shriek, sounding much like a wailing child — all while he looked intently into my eyes.

I raced to the living room, Elroy at my feet, when I was privy to a man’s authoritative voice followed by a high-pitched whimper. “How dare you come here, sir, and pretend to seek a room, and then accost me. You and your handsome face! You think you can take advantage? You can tell Mr. Jackson . . .”

“You are served, Mrs. Harlow. You had your time. Now you have notice. You are still in arrears.  Repossession begins on Monday.” Mr. Gunther spoke calmly but in an imposing tone. Mrs. Harlow cowered and sat in her burgundy chair, hands over her face as if protecting herself from an expected strike.

“Please ma’am, I’m not going to harm . . .” But he didn’t finish his statement. A flash of black unfurled upon him. 

Elroy clawed and scratched at Mr. Gunther’s cheeks, ears, and eyes, then attacked his hands, growling all the while. Mr. Gunther tried to wrench Elroy off him, but his claws were deeply entangled in the threads of the gray coat. As Mr. Gunther groaned in agony, blood trickled down his cheeks and off the tip of his nose. He pressed one injured hand against an eye, wailing. Elroy, satisfied, dove over his shoulders, bounced onto the carpet, and disappeared.

I then met Jessica Wells for the second time. She had been aroused out of sleep, and she dashed down the stairs wearing a silky scarlet robe and slippers. “Whatever is the matter?” she demanded, then hastened towards Mrs. Harlow and soon escorted her upstairs. Mr. Gunther left in a flurry, without a word.

I found Elroy later, hiding under my bed. He gazed at me, his golden eyes alight in the darkened room. He purred.


Soon, Mrs. Harlow lost the house, as the banker had warned.

As to Mrs. Harlow, she’d been admitted to Highland Hospital. While she received treatment for nervous excitement, she allowed me to care for Elroy. I stayed with Mr. Briton’s family through the first months of the new year. He had credited me, in part, with the growing success of his business, and he increased my hours, a portion of my pay going for lodging. Elroy proved to be a help catching mice in the store and broadened his repertoire of vocalizations, relying less on his claws and teeth, at least in the presence of people. He proved to be a master at hissing his disapproval rather than resorting to physical attacks.

I tried to visit Mrs. Harlow late in January of 1929 but discovered that she was no longer in treatment. Upon my inquiry, a patient attendant at Highland explained, “Yes, Mrs. Harlow! She met a fellow patient — an older handsome man. She was discharged a week after his departure. I understand that they planned to marry — maybe he was the tonic she needed.”

“Did she mention her cat, Elroy?” I asked.

“No. No mention of her cat,” she replied.

So Elroy stayed with me, even after I found a new job — a treasured position for Allanstand Cottage Industries, where I was introduced to the business of mountain craft and eventually jewelry design, which I pursued and apprenticed in. Elroy stayed with me for nine years until he died quietly in his sleep one spring day while lounging in his favorite wicker basket.

Since then, I’ve managed my affairs and always kept a black cat named Elroy at my side.