|The Cat Room
At The Shack on Shasta Street, the waitress stopped coming after the seventh coffee refill. Outside in the blinding sun, we spent less than a minute before we about-faced and re-entered, this time through the tavern door even though it was still well-before noon. It was damn hot, too hot to do anything but swill beer and press our burning foreheads against the frosty glass of our mugs.
During breakfast my husband, Richard, and his friend Jon, had turned in tandem to watch jiggling teenage flesh as the waitress wiped a table. They'd both ordered the waffle special with sausage patties and three fried eggs, sunny-side-up. Now in the mirror behind the bar, I watched their shared glee as they gossiped about people I'd never met, and never wanted to meet in this world or any other. "And did you know that Donna Irons came back from Chico and married Matt Korbett, and that Shirley Ann Reams had a baby and gave it to her sister, and that Lenny Grant graduated from Harvard and stayed on to manage a Der Weinershnitzel?"
Jon turned to me and smiled, including me in the conversation as if I gave a rat's ass. All I knew was that the whole of Shasta County lacked independent films, decent bookstores, and organic food markets. I was more than ready to bolt the four hours south back to San Francisco. I just needed a good enough excuse to leave my new husband after ten days of marriage.
"Hey, listen up," I said when they took a break for a communal swig. "I have some names." I'd been scribbling on a cocktail napkin.
"Names?" they asked.
"Yeah, 'Edie's Gourmet Café and Muffin Shop,' 'Muffins, Mayhem, and More!' or simply, "Muffins, Muffins, Muffins,' What do you think? I'm going to open a muffin shop in this god-forsaken hell-hole."
Finally their expressions took divergent paths. Jon seemed perplexed at either my rude intrusion or query. Richard seemed annoyed and responded with a rote, "I think you ought to work in a restaurant first." His own resume included soaking in a tub of tomato juice to dilute the essence of refried beans. I'd put in a notorious stint at a Frito Lay in San Jose, whacking the rotten parts off of spuds with a machete. I knew what it was like to smell like a chip, but that didn't seem to count.
"You don't get it do you?" I said. "Success comes from pure inspiration." How dare he stomp my dream and discount my ever-changing blackboard menu featuring a lunchtime special complete with savory muffin!
"I'll get you a job at Lim's on the Miracle Mile. I went to school with the owner's son."
If we were a violent couple I'd have clipped him under the chin. Maybe it was the mix of beer and pancakes at eleven in the morning, or the swamp cooler that failed in anything over eighty degrees, but in that heated moment I hated my new husband and his cohort and this godforsaken wasteland without an ocean or a single moist breeze.
I stumbled to the Ladies Room with foam bubbling up my throat, sobbing, "You'll never in a zillion years understand me, will you?" Why did I marry you? Why, why, why?"
Thank god we were the only ones in the bar except for the bartender who swiped at a glass with a stained towel while shaking his head in commission with one or the other of us. Jon simply mopped his brow with a red bandana and poured the last of the brew into his mug. Our discord gave him a bad case of déjà vu. He tried to redirect the discussion the only way he could, to his pat solution for every problem including his own lost love, loneliness, and two divorces before the age of twenty-four.
"You two sure could use a kitten from my cat room. Luckily, I have a new litter ready to go."
"A kitten?" I asked, as I slipped back onto my stool and rested my muddled head on the bar. I lacked the energy to move from under the blast of tepid air ruffling my bangs, let alone pack my bags. Maybe I could let the muffin dream go for the time being and get a cat instead. I vowed to stay put until the end of the day. But did Richard want a kitten? I realized that I had no clue of how my spanking new husband felt about cats, dogs, or even gerbils for that matter. Remarkably, the subject of pets had never come up.
Jon cohabited with his felines in a crumbling Victorian on Magnolia Street. I sobered as soon as we entered the front door. The tang of ammonia rose from the peeling wallpaper, the sodden mattress on the floor. There was a low-lying cloud of litter-dust, the commingled smells of fur and blood.
According to Jon, there was always drama, randy Toms competing for Head of State with rebellions, abscesses, and the occasional slow, crippling, death. Richard hovered in the doorway, but I dove right in.
"Take any over six weeks, but you might still have to wean it," Jon said. Twin tabbies adorned his ankles like fluffy Santa cuffs.
I witnessed no infighting or territorial spats but the room pulsated with a definite verve. Infants clung to their mothers and young adults sharpened new claws on a stretch of carpet nailed to the wall. Full-grown cats lounged on old throw rugs, or curled in a pair of tattered lazy-boys. Cats sprawled with legs akimbo licking their own soft bellies. They came in three colors, orange, white, and orange and white.
I scooped up the tawny little spider clinging to my left shoe for dear life. The feet looked as if the kitten wore tiny catcher's mitts. Upon closer inspection, I found that each foot had two extra toes.
I held it up. "What do you think?"
"Do what you have to do," Richard said.
"Take it," John said. "You won't be sorry. In fact take four or five. Start your own cat room."
"I think one is enough for today. Is it a boy or girl?"
Jon peered under the tail.
I named the kitten, "Padds," right on the spot. Jon swathed my foundling in an old towel. With just her face showing, she resembled a small furry heart. He held the bundle aloft, waiting.
Richard reached out first. "I'll take it," he said. "You drive."
As I manuvered down Placer Street, the kitten shivered and mewed in Richard's arms, traumatized by the sudden loss of family, friends, and sense of place. He stroked the velvety space between her ears murmuring soft reassurances, telling the kitten that she simply needed some time to adjust, that rural life held its own charms. You could see the stars at night. The grocery clerks knew your name. She would make new friends and have kittens of her own someday. Soon the car would stop and there was nothing to fear, nothing at all.