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