The house was falling apart, another slumlord outrage- rot, mold, vermin, blight, and home, or the closest thing I had to it at the time. When Brent left for work in the mornings and I slept in, I pretended to live there, I pretended to be him. I wore his too-big shirt and his ineffectual jacket. Brent’s roommate had a habit of one-sided venting; I figured maybe he wouldn’t notice I wasn’t Brent. I hung out in the kitchen, made coffee, tolerated the inevitable shirtless tirades on another sexual injustice, his failed seduction attempts the night prior at a show. “Why don’t these girls… They seemed like they wanted… And she gave me her number…” Roommate would follow up his soliloquies with amped guitar so loud I could hear it for a block when I drove away, a stilted Orpheus looking for a sweet punk girl to rescue from hell, no chance.
That Spring, we tried to take care of the stray momma cat and her babies who lived under the house. I discovered them in a storm. The driveway was a lake, and I sloshed through the pond with its cigarette-stub fish and hamburger wrapper lilies, following a chorus of mews to an enclave behind the dumpster where they were sheltered. The kittens were breathing entrained, collapsed in one collective mass of sibling fuzz, amazing, intact, blind. Momma curled around them and hissed at me, all teeth, claws, and heroics.
I used this encounter to justify purchasing wild-caught Alaskan salmon to eat for dinner that night, for me and for them, a pink, flaky offering that solidified our respective roles of feeder and fed. We became friends, developed a rhythm. The kittens pretended to be me. They wore my too-big shirt and my cheap jacket after getting loved up in my bed. They pretended to live there.
After the fleas, the swelling, and the first tornado, but before the second tornado and prednisone psychosis, Brent and I began doing Kitten Check. This was a mandatory kitten-location game to ensure the kittens were not hidden in the tall grass under his car before he left, that they were as they should be, napping under the porch or challenging a grackle.
Brent told me about a Kitten Check when I was sleeping and he was late for work. He found four of the kittens, he could not find the fifth. He was frantic, couldn’t afford the threatened consequences of tardiness. Sweating from the humidity and the vindictive early morning sun, Brent tried under the car, the porch, behind the trash, nestled behind the fence, the roof, the street. He gave up, frustrated, and got in his car, put the key in the ignition. But “something told him” not to start the engine. He popped the hood on intuition. There was the fifth kitten, curled up on the engine block, oblivious to its near-obliteration, gazing up at him sleepily through the heat waves and fumes. It’d found a quiet, shady place to snooze for an afternoon, the engine block seemingly as suitable as any.
It is always a terror and a wonder, to witness or even hear about innocence of any kind, human or animal, so idiotic and pure. A noble thing, I sometimes think, to try to protect, sustain, or even remember, once it’s gone.