A Kitten

by

Mama’s frown deepened, her hands went to her hips and I knew I’d pushed her limit. I also knew a kitten was what I needed. “I want a kitten,” I begged. “Just one little kitten.”

“We aren’t home enough to give a kitten the attention it needs. I work and you go to school.”

“Molly, in my class, has a cat and her mother works,” I countered.

My mother rolled her eyes. I thought maybe she’d say, ‘If Molly jumped off a bridge would you do it too?’ But she didn’t.

“We live too close to the road. It’ll get killed,” my mother said.

“I won’t let it out of the house.”

“Who’s going to feed it and clean up after it?” she asked. That sounded like a maybe, like she was giving in.

“I will. I’ll do it all, feed it, clean up after it, brush it, everything.”

“Pets are expensive. It’s all I can do to feed the two of us. Besides…”

“Please Mama, a kitten’s small. It won’t eat much.”

The phone rang.

My mother answered it with a smile, but that faded and her head dropped into her hand. She rubbed at her temples with her thumb and middle finger, keeping her eyes closed. She only answered with “yes,” or “no.” Her voice was quiet and she sounded sad. I knew the look on her face, the tone of her voice. My Daddy was back in town and he was coming for me.

He showed up every six months, fresh off the ocean, tall, handsome, and bearing gifts from foreign lands: a set of dolls with costumes and matching hats, a tiny leather purse with labels like “Paris”, “London”, “Sweden”, and “Japan” stitched on it, a royal blue tapestry decorated with solid white kittens, and two days of his time.

I kneeled on the couch, holding the sheers back, my faced pressed to the glass, waiting. He drove a shiny black convertible with a silver stripe that ran across the hood, and trunk. I got to ride up front with him. He pulled to the curb, looked up into the mirror, ran his hand through his hair and put on his sunglasses.

I jumped down from the couch and ran outside to meet him, a whirlwind of arms, legs, ruffles and ribbons. He picked me up and swung me around, laughing and calling me doll baby. Mama handed him my overnight bag. I didn’t look back.

“What’s my girl wanna do?”

“Go to the park. The one with the train.”

My Daddy and I had fun, went to the park, and rode the little train through the tunnel. He folded up his long legs so he could sit beside me, his strong arm wrapped around my shoulder, his sunglasses on my face. He smelled like spice and his face was a little scratchy. We laughed and ate ice cream and drove fast with the top of the car folded down behind the back seat. My hair blew into my eyes, and it didn’t matter.

“I bet Grandma fixed a good dinner for us. We’d better head over there before we’re late and get in trouble,” he said, throwing his head back, laughing.

While he was in town, we stayed at my Grandma’s house. Her kitchen smelled like black pepper. We sat at her red, Formica and chrome table, eating pot roast, pull-apart tender, green beans cooked with new potatoes on top, corn pudding baked golden with yellow kernels nestled in custard. Grandma’s biscuits rose thick and hot. Her homemade blackberry jam dripped out the sides, all the food, my Daddy’s favorites.

At the supper table, he winked at Grandma, then told adventure stories about pirates with peg legs and hooks for hands, how he turned the tables on the meanest one with an eye patch and made him walk the plank. The Navy sounded exciting with sunny ports and big adventures. My Grandma looked at Daddy like I wished my Mama would.

Two days went as fast as six months went slow. Before my father left, I watched the clock over the mantle in my Grandma’s living room. The second hand ticked his time away, pushing me closer and closer to my mother, further and further away from him. I couldn’t talk in the car.

“No tears,” my Daddy said, “we’ve had too much fun to cry.”

He carried me to the apartment door. My fingers tightened into the back of his shirt, my face pressed into his shoulder. He hugged me tight and then began to push me away. I clung. My mother was behind me, trying to pull me away from him.

Both of them were talking to me, wanting me to stop crying and clinging, wanting me to give up the struggle so everything could return to normal. My father needed to rush off to some other part of the world and my mother needed to pull me inside the apartment and close the door, so things could go back to the way they were before the weekend started. My sound was a wail; my grief, determined.

Every six months, he turned his back and left me crying. My mother was left to try to put a small broken child back together.

“I found something special for you,” Mama said, her hands behind her back.

I looked up, tears running off my chin. I still couldn’t talk, but my mother had a gesture. She smiled at me and presented me with a small orange-striped kitten. I reached out and took the ball of soft fur. I held him in my arms as I cried, my tears making wet spots on him. He was nice, but he wasn’t my Daddy.

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