Great Afro-Americans in History

Faith Adiele

WHEN I OPEN the door and see them standing there, I have to fight with myself not to slam it shut. There’s something familiar about the family on the other side of the screen door, but not in a reassuring way. The woman is young, only in her twenties, with gray teeth and a dull lank of butchered hair. Her thin, striped tank top reveals small, sagging breasts. A sallow, pinch-faced child flanks her on either side, while a third, a giant toddler with a broad, flat head, clings to her hip, causing her to list to one side. All three kids stare with bulging eyes. They look hungry.

The woman mentions our newspaper ad for free kittens and ventures a ragged smile, wincing a bit as if she expects to be swatted. I find myself wincing back.

“Uh…” I stall. I crack the screen door and try to look pleasant, the way I imagine Harriet Tubman would’ve welcomed a skittish passenger on the Underground Railroad. (Despite a Nigerian father and a white mother, I’m deep into my Great Afro-Americans in History phase.) “That litter is gone.”

I wonder how she plans to feed a pet.

Not for the first time, I find myself wishing I had an easier mother. My friends who live on the Hill simply march to church Sunday mornings and then retire to ruffled, pastel bedrooms with their private phones and stacks of glossy teen magazines. They don’t suffer embarrassing mothers who boycott church but construct elaborate lessons on the tenets of Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Buddhism and Paganism, who run their own Afro-American History Month at home (since the local school district “doesn’t do shit”), who carry on as if white lies and sins of omission are tantamount to real lying and sins of commission.

My tongue is trained to tell the truth. “We only have one cat left, and it’s quite a bit bigger.” I hope this sounds discouraging.

I think about Akhmatova out in the cattery. She’s been with us a long time. Tabbies are difficult to place, and she’d already passed the cuddly kitten stage by the time we found her, rail-thin and hoarse from crying, in the irrigation ditch. It had taken weeks to clean and fatten her up, though she needed no taming. As family after family arrived in response to our kitten ads, she would scamper up the climbing trees and wave frantically until they approached. The visitors would laugh, rub her eager, adolescent body, and then bend down over the latest box of newborns someone had dumped on our steps once word got out about The Cat Lady. Still she wove in and out of their legs, purring loudly, eternally optimistic.

Some people had no intention of taking a cat at all. They came to hold ours, and to talk. As soon as we heard a car pulling up to the curb, The Cat Lady would peek through the blinds—the only covered picture window in the neighborhood—to check. If the car were unfamiliar, she’d grab her pot of tea and a book and head for the garage. She claimed to be “working on lesson plans.”

That left me to walk the visitors, usually women, through the backyard and out to the cattery, where they would ooh and aah at the carpeted interior and screened porches Old Pappa had built, his farmer’s disdain for fancy cat living eventually giving way to his inner carpenter. The women would wander from room to room, Akhmatova trailing them, and tell me about how much they loved cats and how their husbands or fiancés or boyfriends were allergic or didn’t trust cats or their lease didn’t allow pets.

Fully aware that copious amount of tea, combined with a pea-sized bladder, would eventually make Mom’s garage hideout torturous, I encouraged the women to linger. I dawdled along the flowerbeds of floribunda and bachelor’s buttons, the sky clear and round as a bowl above us.

“She sure is a nice kitty,” they’d eventually say, handing Akhmatova back. “Wish I could keep her.” No one could fail to be impressed by her personality and the effort she threw into each encounter; however, they invariably left with a kitten, or nothing at all.

“CAN I SEE the cat?” the young woman on the porch asks. As she speaks, the toddler reaches out proprietarily and swats one of her pointy breasts. The woman flinches momentarily, but otherwise does not react. With a sigh, her body seems to shift and settle to accommodate the child’s rough clutch. I want to turn away. It feels like I’ve just witnessed her naked.

“Uh, sure.” I glance around, wishing Mom didn’t love the masses quite so much in the abstract and then disappear when they’re actually on our doorstep. I need someone to stop me. I need the eloquence of Frederick Douglass rousing an Abolitionist crowd to action. I consider saying, I have to check with my crazy cat-lady mother, but I’ve been doing this for so long myself that I’m afraid she’ll see right through me.

“But, like I said, we just have the one cat, and it’s nearly grown.”

“That’s fine.” The woman says, and I find myself outside, allowing her desire to lead me around the side of the house, past the orange honeysuckle vine with its riot of feelers, and into the backyard.

THE WOMAN DOESN’T even look at the cat. As soon as Akhmatova steps out of her carpeted cubbyhole, stretching and blinking sleepily, the woman scoops her up and flattens her to her chest. “I’ll take her!”

This has never happened before. For a few minutes the world moves as quickly as the landscape of my childhood viewed out the window of Old Pappa’s Chevy pick-up: smudges of hops-asparagus-sugarbeets, the Hill a blur of cherry-peach-apple-pear orchards, wire fences like lines of static along the irrigation canal, the lone horse-coyote speeding in pastures alongside the sky-blue truck.

I grip the Formica counter and try to slow it down. “I’ll get you a box for the ride home,” I offer. The boxes are in the garage where Mom is drinking Earl Grey and probably singing along to Buffy Sainte Marie on the stereo.

The woman shakes her head, insisting the cat will be fine in the car. She seems to have an instinctive fear of anything that will slow the adoption process. She clutches Akhmatova hard, as if someone plans to pry her away at any moment. I am scheming hard how to be that someone. Akhmatova squirms in her grasp, both of us gasping for breath.

Averting my eyes, I mumble our agreement with Old Doc Querin: when any of our strays is old enough, he’ll spay or neuter it and charge it to Mom’s account. He’s a gruff large-animal vet who for some reason has agreed to see our cats. Farmers quail in his presence, kneading their caps in wide, scarred hands as he silently pokes and prods their ailing livestock, but I once saw him cry because one of the strays we’d brought to be spayed turned out to be pregnant. He stood in the waiting room in his wooden clogs, tears running down his weathered cheeks, and yelled at me.

I’d reported this to Mom, more amazed than upset. Why, since that time one of our ferals bit off his knuckle, he only laughed and called me “Darlin’”?

She’d shaken her head. “You have to understand—he had to abort the kittens. He’s not angry at you.” She wrinkled her nose. “Apparently he’s a big softie.”

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