I was eight years old when I brought the kitten home. It was the summer I started riding horses, and to pay for my lessons I worked in the barn. I had the usual work to do: feeding and watering the horses, shoveling out stalls and sweeping the barn. One of my favorite chores was feeding the barn cats. Every morning they would scurry to the door of the tack room to await their feast of Mighty Cat. I served it to them on shiny aluminum pie pans, like they were royalty.
About once a month, a barn worker would arrive with a new stray to add to the growing population of the farm. Sometimes they were dogs. Sometimes they were cats. Once we even got a little white goat. But I will never forget the day when Gina Roberts brought a sack of kittens to the barn.
As she crossed the bridge over Miller’s Creek, Gina saw a burlap sack at the edge of the water. I doubt she would have noticed it except that she saw the sack moving. Working at a barn, one learns the methods people use to dispose of unwanted animals. Some are shot. Others are dropped off at the animal shelter. And some people simply put them in a bag and toss them into the river. As soon as she saw that burlap sack move, Gina stopped the car and ran to the edge of the creek. She opened the bag and found two kittens, a yellow one and a tabby. That month the barn population grew by two kittens. I named the yellow kitten Laverne, and the tabby I called Shirley. Shirley was prissy. She had a soft, dainty mew; but Laverne had a loud nasal meow. She followed me around the barn while I worked, climbing the leg of my jeans.
My daddy never liked cats much. He said they stunk up the house and climbed all over the furniture. Daddy had his hunting dogs, and my parents had a little dog, Sam, once, but he stayed outside. I have a vague recollection of a big fluffy cat being stuck at the top of a telephone pole, but it wasn’t ours. I had the usual nameless goldfish, and a guinea pig named Honeydew. Don’t get me wrong. These were all great pets, but I wanted a cat more than anything.
My mother was sympathetic to my wishes for a cat. One evening during the week of Laverne and Shirley’s arrival, she picked me up from the barn. That’s when I sprung the question on her.
“Mom, can I take Laverne home? Just for tonight.”
“Now, Joy, you know how your daddy feels about cats.”
“Please, Mom? Just for one night.”
“We’ve got to wash your hair tonight. And your daddy will be upset if he knows we’ve carried a cat in the house.”
“Oh please, Mom?”
Then she sighed and gave me the look. “Well, I guess so. But we can’t let your daddy find out.”
Needless to say, I was elated. I made painstaking efforts to create a cozy box for Laverne’s ride home. I gathered some straw and unrolled leg wraps from the tack room and placed them inside a small cardboard box. Laverne fit nicely inside it and seemed to like her new bed. She never made a noise on the drive home.
We pulled into the garage and my mother quietly carried Laverne up the stairs to the foyer. She left me there with the kitten until she scouted out the den and bedroom. In a few seconds, she came back and motioned for me to come upstairs.
“Your daddy’s in the bathroom. Take the kitten to your room, and close the door.”
With the box clutched against my stomach, I smuggled Laverne into my bedroom. I put the box between my bed and the wall and draped the corner of the bedspread over the top of it. After dinner, my mother carried small bowls of milk and water to my room for Laverne. The kitten lapped at the milk with her tiny pink tongue. Afterwards, I lined a shoebox with plastic and straw to make a litter box, which I put on the floor at the end of the bed. Once I had Laverne comfortably situated, I went to get my mother. It was Wednesday night – shampoo night.
At eight years of age, I had a tremendous head of hair. It was so long that it often got caught in the waist of my jeans. Rats’ nests formed in my hair daily. My mother had no small task in maintaining it, and to lessen her turmoil, she set aside one night a week to wash it.
I hated the forty-five minute ritual. I would bend over the side of the bathtub and hang my head under the faucet. My mother would dump a handful of Flex onto my head, lather it up and rinse it out. I still hate the smell of wella-balsom. She never used enough conditioner because when she was finished, I was still left with a mop of knots.
Drying my hair was the most time-consuming part of the procedure. My mother would brush and blow-dry my hair into a silken straightness that amazed even me. And after a little less than an hour, I would emerge from the bathroom ready to battle the next week of tangles.
That night, my mother tucked me in so my father would not discover our furry contraband. She set Laverne on the bed next to me and turned off the light. My dreams were filled with kittens. I dreamed that my father happened upon Laverne, fell instantly in love with her, and insisted that we keep her. It was the soundest, most glorious sleep I could remember. At least until I awoke to a terrible smell.
I turned on the lamp on my nightstand, opened my bedroom door and tiptoed to my parents’ bedroom. I quietly went to my mother’s side of the bed and tapped her on the shoulder. She woke up, and I whispered for her to come to my room. She discovered what I already knew as soon as she stepped in my room. The odor was terrible. First, we checked the litter box, but it was empty. Laverne was still on the bed. We searched my bedspread and sheets, underneath pillows and stuffed animals. We looked under the bed and in the closet. We searched for about twenty minutes. Then, just as we were about exasperated, I reached to scratch the back of my head. Tears began to fall from my eyes, and with a whimper, I informed my mother of my discovery.
“I found it.”
She turned my head around and said, “Well, I swanny!”
I don’t have to tell you that it took my mother forty-five minutes to wash and dry my hair again. And I don’t have to tell you how hard it was to do all that without waking my father. That night, with my head bent for a second time under that dreaded faucet, I learned to cry in silence.
Joy Beshears holds a BA from Salem College and an MFA in Creative Writing from Queens University of Charlotte. Her poetry has appeared in various journals and anthologies including Surreal South, Main Street Rag, BREVITY, Southern Gothic Online, R-KV-R-Y Quarterly, Poet’s Canvas, THRIFT, In the Yard: A Poetry Anthology, Mountain Time, and Caesura. Her poem, “Rapture” was chosen by Kathryn Stripling Byer as Honorable Mention in the 2006 NC State Poetry Contest.
Viktorie Lexova is an artist living in the Czech Republic and maintains an account on Flickr.