Excerpt: Old Mother, Little Cat

 

For my mother, Jessie Sorblum Gerber,
Who was awarded
The Eighth Grade Gold Medal
For Academic Excellence
At Public School 9, New York City
June 1920

 

DECEMBER 17

On this particular December morning, I am having enough troubles as it is: troubles of the heart that can’t be fixed as well as ordinary troubles that can be. Even as I kick an old towel around on the kitchen floor to sop up the leak from the dishwasher, I’m thinking of what I need to take to my mother today at the nursing home: mints, a small pillow for her paralyzed arm, the sharp scissors so I can give her a haircut-if the nurses have been able to convince her to sit up in the wheelchair for a while. I’m also making mental lists of the errands I have to run afterward.

In order not to flood the floor, I grab the dripping towel and run with it to the back door. I do this automatically — I wring it out and hang it over the pool wall, I gather up the dry one from yesterday in order to lay it down under the leak. J., my good husband and man of the house, definitely plans to fix this leak, but I don’t think he has the faintest idea of what is wrong. Still, he says he’s not ready for me to call a plumber. He wants to think about it a little more. My mind is everywhere at once; I need to do food shopping at the market after I see my mother. My college girls are coming home for the Christmas break in a few days and I’ll need lots more grains and vegetables (J. and I haven’t quite given up our meat and buttered potatoes diet, though we’ve improved).

I stand outside near the pool for a moment, watching the water drip from the towel, looking around at the bleak winter view, at the dead leaves on the deck, at the pecans from the tree floating like black beetles in the icy water.

A squadron of crows descends on the lawn, calling out with loud caws for others to join them to forage for newly fallen pecans. In this gray morning hour, the large birds, bent forward over their task, look like black stones on the paltry stretch of winter grass.

And it is then, just then, that I hear the cry. It seems to come almost from the tips of my toes — the saddest, most forlorn moan I have ever heard.

“What is it?” I cry automatically.

But there is only silence. Did I imagine it?

I look around now, alert and aware; I sense nothing but the faint movement of the trees in the chill winter wind (a cold wind, even for California) and the occasional clack of a crow.

I am about to go inside when the sound comes again. It’s an urgent sound, as close to a plea as it can be without words. Is it our old cat, Kitty, hurt or trapped? Even as I imagine this, Kitty appears on the pool wall, walking in his slow, majestic way, his great old gray coat thick and fluffed with winter fur. When the cry repeats itself, we both hear it. Kitty freezes and stares at my feet. Nothing is there but patterns on the darkened cement — the splotchy water stains that are dripping from the towel.

“What is it, where are you?” I say again. The cry is vocal now, loud, full of pain, desperate. Then I see something just behind the wire screen that covers a square opening under the house, a crawl space to a place where no one ever goes. Something is pressed against the grid. I kneel down and see a pair of round green eyes looking back at me. They are both like little mouths open in terror.

“Oh my God,” I say to Kitty. “It’s some kind of creature.”

The creature opens its mouth to cry out as if to verify this, and I hear the sound clearly and recognize it for what it is.

The meow of a kitten. Oh no. No, I won’t think of it. Absolutely not. I won’t consider it. I am done with these matters. I don’t have the strength for it. I’ve done my duty: three children, a dog, dozens of mice, fish, birds, and two cats, one of which (Korky, the Beloved) we buried two years ago in the back yard at a solemn funeral rite. Only old Kitty is left, and when he dies, which J. hopes will be in our lifetime, we can finally travel somewhere without endless arrangements and worries.

The hackles are up on Kitty’s back; he wants no new friend, either. Fine. We’re in agreement.

Go inside and forget about him. The next time you come out he’ll be gone.

Even as I’m thinking this, I’m trying to pull the screen away from its frame, saying, “Shh, shh, don’t be afraid, little one, you’ll be fine, no one is going to hurt you.” (Whose voice could this be? It can’t be mine, not when I’m thinking something else entirely!) With a great heave of my arm (I wrench my back doing it), the rusted old screen comes away and the green eyes withdraw and vanish. I get a glimpse of something hopping, bunny-like, away into the dark recesses under the house.

My heart is full. I feel passionate, a long-gone sensation I barely recognize. I’m energized, full of purpose. I rush into the house and get a bowl and fill it with milk. I shake some of Kitty’s dry food into a plate. I don’t say a word to J., who is reading the paper at the kitchen table. This will have to be a secret between me and Kitty, who has followed me into the house and whose eyes are narrowed as he watches me.

Outside again, I set the food dishes down in the place where I first saw the green eyes, in the hollow dark place under the house, on plain dirt. In the twenty-five years we’ve lived here, I’ve never really looked into this hole, into the cavernous darkness there. How could a kitten have gotten underneath, into this inhospitable cave? And why did he stay?

I wait, watching the food bowls, but there is no sound, no motion. Even Kitty, seeing that I have set out food, and having a passion for almost nothing else, does not try to venture there.

I look at him, fat and furred, in his thick gray coat. His enormous paws are like cartoon drawings. He, too, appeared in our lives as if by design on a day at least twelve years ago, now. J. was in the driveway with our daughters, all of them washing the station wagon. The tiny gray kitten wandered shyly up to the bucket of suds and pitifully began to lap at the soapy water. J. shooed him away, and a chorus of protests arose: “Ooooh, the poor thing.” “Look how hungry he is!” “Oh, see how he’s shivering.”

“Don’t anyone feed him,” J. warned, “. . . or he’ll never leave.”

Exactly! Our three daughters, as if by signal, dropped their rags, ran into the house and in half a minute brought out a feast: cream and raw eggs and bits of salami. The kitten ate ravenously, making gasping, almost sobbing sounds.

“He shouldn’t eat so fast,” said my youngest. “He might have to throw up.” She then saw that the kitten had seven toes on one paw, and eight on the other. “Oh no, he’s a misfit,” she cried. “We have to adopt him, so he’ll feel loved.”

“Don’t even consider it,” J. said. “And don’t give him a name.”

“We’ll just call him Kitty,” she told him, as if to reassure him that a generic title could prevent ownership. And so she did call him Kitty. And so did her sisters. And so did I. And so he has been called ever after.

*

Now I say to him, after all these many years that he has been called, merely, “Kitty,” “Don’t worry, Big Kitty, we love you, too.” And I realize that by naming him thus, I’ve just made room for one more.

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