I burst open the screen door; the hinge squeaks on the old rusty frame and my hand nearly rips through the screen, but luckily it just leaves my fingers’ imprint. A whole summer, finally: they’re born. My grandma is muttering and cursing a tirade under her breath. She is crouched down on the back porch with an old white rag and a large sponge. She flashes me a grimace. Not how I had imagined this moment. Her hair is in pink spongy curlers and as she’s speaking I can see she’s taken out her dentures; it makes her slightly slur her words. I try to look away from her fleshy, pink gums as she grumbles,” Old stinkin’ tomcats.” I know she’s referring to what’s happened to Old Grey, who is lying limply in a cardboard box from giving birth to her second litter of kittens this year. In human years, Old Grey is probably about eighty, so this is a bit of a miracle and a bit of a mistake.
The old cat is so thin and bony you can see her ribs, and her matted fur is completely covered with flaky dots of white dandruff. Grey’s pale tongue can barely make a dent in the blood and placenta covering her sticky kittens. My grandmother is doing the real cleaning; she is quick and rough, her movements a flurry that seems to almost drown the kittens as she scrubs.
“Better not let your grandpa see these cats.” Her pale, blue eyes pierce my heart with fright as she packs up her cleaning supplies. I peek down at the helpless little kittens. Two, only two. One is gray like its mother. The other a little tiger-striped kitten. I know why my grandma is telling me this. Grandpa was a hunter and he didn’t think twice about shooting an animal that he felt was not going to make it. Survival of the fittest, that was the hunter’s law; also he just didn’t like cats. He found them bothersome. They weren’t for eating and they didn’t listen to you like a dog, so what good were they?
My grandma is in her housedress, which might as well be her robe or her nightgown; she has on a pair of flesh-colored, knee-high stockings that are rolled down to her ankles. Grandma stands up in exasperation and begins to shuffle away in her beat-up matted blue slippers. “Put them in the barn.” I start to run after her. “But, Grandma, will Grandpa? I mean, he won’t hurt them, will he? The screen door slams right into my nose. “I don’t promise anything.”
“Janie, Janie.” My grandmother was gone and the echo of her voice overtook the yellow and white wooden house. It’s time to wash the Sunday dinner dishes; that’s Janie’s job. After all, she’s a girl. My uncles burn the trash; I’m surprised they don’t burn the place down. I get off easy; no chores for me, except to behave.
I always spend my summers with my grandparents. I am a bit of an oddity. A granddaughter amid my aunt and uncles who are more like my siblings since my youngest uncle is two years younger than me. Boy, was my grandma mad when she found out she was going to have Joey. Well, that’s what I heard my mom telling a friend of hers one day. “Six kids; the last one in your forties.” My mom and her friend both said “nightmare.”
I thought about the picture of Grandma that I had discovered in a photo book at my house. She was standing next to the washing machine in a white and black checked tent of a top with black capris. I knew that this was a picture of her pregnant with Joey. She looked miserable; her hair was already gray and it was cut into severely short bangs with the rest an ear-length bob. She was giving quite a scowl in her black rhinestone, cat’s-eye glasses, as if she might pounce at any moment and rip to shreds whoever had dared to take her picture.
I look back at the kittens. Their squeaks sound nothing like meows; they are so small. Grey is all the way on the other side of the cardboard box. I push the old mother cat over toward the kittens as gently as I can. The kittens’ mouths are swung open like little baby birds; their pale pink mouths continue to cry for food.
My heart hurts as I stare at the goopy, deteriorating cat and her skeletal kittens. I put them down in the corner of the barn and begin to whisper a few words of prayer like the preacher in church, hoping for a biblical miracle. I look over at Grey to see if she will rise up like they did in the Bible after Jesus touched you. I pray out loud, “Rise, Grey, rise.” Grey barely lifts her head and gives a limp lick at her mirror-image kitten; I sigh with halfhearted relief. I figure it can’t hurt so I cross my fingers also. I hear my grandma hollering for me, “Ann Marie, get in here. Time for bath.”
As I run into the house, making it past the laundry room, Joey slams the bathroom door at me and laughs. Well, I guess my bath will be a while and I stick my tongue out at the wooden bathroom door and yell, “Little stinker.” I start to run past the large wooden dining table that pretty much takes up the entire dining room and I almost plow right into my great-grandma who is doing the only activity that I ever see her do: rocking over the furnace heating grate as she blankly stares out the window. Maybe she is looking for thieves. Grandma says Great-Grandma will never be the same after a ring of crooks stole all of Great-Grandma’s belongings while she was at my great-grandpa’s funeral. They took everything she had, something about selling them for antiques. It reminds me of How the Grinch Stole Christmas. I wonder if someday someone will bring her things back to her.
I can hear Grandpa rustling his paper on the other side of her in the living room in his faded green, La-Z-Boy rocker. I take a deep breath as I run past them; I can see Grandpa peering over his black-rimmed glasses at me and I shudder. He is scary. He never speaks; he just grunts. If he does speak you better run and run fast. Well, actually you don’t run. You want to run. Instead you just do whatever he says, with those dark furry knit brows and a stomach larger than Santa Claus’ and his shiny bald head; one squinty mean look and all he has to do is say “sit” and you obey.
I jump a little bit above the ground as he clears his throat as I pass by him; not daring to look back, I open the black iron latch to the upstairs stairwell and fly up the stairs before he can intercept me. I like the word intercept; hah, Joey isn’t the only genius in the family.
I pause at the top landing of the stairs to look at the last bits of daylight from the sheer lace-covered window. My white Keds squeak on the peach and blue flowered linoleum as I make a quick turn to the left into my Aunt Janie’s tiny bird’s nest of a room. The warm breeze from the upstairs windows brings in the faint cry of the kittens from the broken door in the barn. I wonder if Grandpa can hear them. I’ve heard stories of him drowning cats in pillowcases or shooting them if they were spraying around the garden and the barn; I just can’t believe they are true. Who could really do that?
I sit on the bed and pull out my Bible lessons for Bible camp tomorrow. I like learning the verses; I enjoy the challenge and I like the gold stars you get to put in your workbook. I begin to think about that black-hat-and-coat preacher who gave his sermons to us in the big tent. He wasn’t the regular preacher; he was some kind of guest preacher. He was screaming at us today, telling us how the devil can fly right in your window if you’re not careful. I jump up to the window and freeze not knowing if I should close the window; if I do, I wouldn’t be able to hear the little kitties or Grandpa if he walks out toward the barn.
I shut my eyes and start praying to God. Something makes me open them and I nearly faint; I see a crooked, red devil horn diving in under the window space. I slam the window down as hard as I can. The glass in the frame wobbles and shakes. Grandma yells at the top of her lungs from downstairs into the heating grate in the hallway, “Stop slammin’ things, right now; don’t make me come up there.”
I don’t think any crazy, old devil would dare to come in this house with Grandma here and I tentatively open a tiny space in the window. Maybe it was my imagination, what I saw, but just in case I start singing “This Little Light of Mine” to ward off any devils, then I add “Jesus Christ died on the cross and shed his blood for me” three times for good measure. Nothing can touch me now.
I squeeze myself between the wall and the crack of the tiny twin bed. My Aunt Janie, who sleeps with me in the miniature bed, always manages to squish me while she laughs out loud in her dreams. Maybe if I make myself small enough I wouldn’t have to try to roll her off of me while she is sound asleep. Of course, who knows when she will show up; she’s a teenager and she always disappears and stays out most of the night. She’s so lucky to have a boyfriend with a red convertible. I wonder if I will ever be that lucky to have a boyfriend as dreamy as Gavin.
I start to say my prayers. “Now I lay me down to sleep… If I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take.” What kind of prayer is that to make, and at night? Devils and death…God almighty. It is starting to make me angry. I take a deep breath and imagine myself dancing in pretty sparkly shoes in a long, glittery gown, just like those that the movie stars wore in those old black-and-white movies.
I can hear doors opening and shutting and the sunlight through the lace curtains is forcing my eyes to open. I jump out of the bed and run to the closet. I want to see the kittens before I go to camp. I throw on my red cotton jumper, white knee socks, and black patent-leather shoes. The heels make a clank-clank sound like a dull bell as I speed past the metal rods that hold the carpet runner on the steep stairs. My heel catches on the bottom step and I almost fall facedown on the green carpet as my hand is opening the latch of the door.
I catch myself just in time; my heart is beating so fast that little dum-de-dums are vibrating my chest and moving right up into my throat. Why do I hear my heart thumping in my ear? I run past my grandpa’s chair. I almost topple onto the corner of the dining room table as I round the wall to the laundry room. I push open the screen door running as fast as I can to the barn. God, I hope Grandma doesn’t call me in for breakfast. I swing the barn door open as the sunlight falls on the cardboard, tomato-soup box that they are in.
I can see Grey moving and take a quick breath of relief. “Hi, kitties. What are you doing, Grey?” No. No, no, no, no. I am silently screaming in my throat. Stop. It’s not audible; I can only make the motions of the word not the sound. A kitten is in Grey’s mouth; half of its little body is furless, pink and bare; the other kitten lies next to her dead, stripped of its fur. Her watery, glassy eyes stare at me. I spin in reverse flying toward the kitchen and my grandma. How could she?
The little kittens I fell in love with yesterday are dead. Why, God? She was eating it. Eating her baby. I see my grandma at the kitchen stove as I run to her heaving and sobbing. “Grandma, Old Grey, Old Grey she’s eating, she ate her kittens.” The tears are slipping off my chin and landing onto my dress. She doesn’t stop her frying; she only sighs and nods to herself. “Grey just got too old. I guess she couldn’t feed them. If she hadn’t, one of those old nasty tomcats would of.”
Grandma’s eyes show little emotion. Does Grandma think this is okay? I am horrified. Grandma hands me a plate of scrambled eggs. I take the plate to the kitchen table. I’ve heard my mom say Grandma never wanted six kids. I guess that’s why she’s so mad and yelling all the time. The plastic tablecloth is smeared with jelly, coffee, egg yolks, and breadcrumbs. I am the last to sit down to breakfast. I stare at the yellow swirls of egg yolks dotted with breadcrumbs around my plate. Eat? I never want to eat again.
Joey yells from the sidewalk, “Hurry up; the bus.” I go upstairs to get my Bible and workbook. My grandma yells, “Don’t slam the door,” as I make my way out the front to the old yellow bus humming at the edge of the sidewalk. My black patent-leather shoe hits the rubber ridges on the bottom step of the bus and I stop. I can’t move. All of the kids begin to yell, “Come on.” Why do they care about going to listen to some black-hat-and-coat preacher and his devil sermons? I hate that preacher. A shiver, cold and tingly, moves up and down my spine; all I can think about is what just happened and what is to come.