I have to tell the man I buy the wine from that it’s for my parents who are home now, breaking up. I left when Dad was packing things and Mom was saying, “Go on, Chick. Go get a bottle of cheap wine. The white kind, Gallo,” and then handed me a ten and said, “Go on now. Take the car to Mackey’s,” and I did, without reminding her I’m barely old enough to drive.
“You don’t look old enough,” the man says when he puts the bottle in the paper bag.
He counts the change into my palm. My hand looks funny held up there, suspended like a cloud. A lot of cats—like twenty—live with us, and cat hairs cling to my white watchband—black ones, probably from the stray. “You tell your parents, lighten up,” he says.
I have to suck the air out of my belly just to wedge the dollar bills into my pocket. “Thanks,” I say. My ears feel clogged, as if I’m underwater in a bathing cap.
When I drive up our road, I pass by Mom and Dad who walk together in the rain. They’re holding hands. I can’t remember when I’ve ever seen them touch. My own hand floats up by itself and waves at them. I turn into the driveway where the house is dark; my brothers are all old enough to have real jobs and live away from home. My summer job as swimming counselor to the four-year-olds at Camp Monadnock helps me feel grown-up.
I put the Gallo in the fridge. I have to watch three reruns till I hear my parents stomping on the porch outside. Mom’s shiny face looks in on me. “Thanks Chick. There’s TV dinners.” Then she winks at me, another thing she’s never done.
My parents tiptoe up the stairs and close the bedroom door. Suddenly it feels as if the house belongs to someone else. I stay right where I am as if I’m at a babysitting job and watch TV until it’s late enough to go to bed. The phone rings sometimes, and I answer it, but mostly it’s for Mom. I say she isn’t here.
Then noises sound from upstairs in the bedroom. Mom runs down the stairs, her bathrobe barely on. She starts into the TV room, but sees me there and backs out with her eyes on something else, as if a bug is hovering in front of her. The screen door slams against the house. She stumbles down the steps and bangs the trash cans open. Then it’s quiet out there, but for rain.
Dad comes down next, his steps much heavier than hers. He doesn’t bother looking in the TV room and walks straight through the kitchen, out the door, to the garage. His car starts up. The automatic door slides open and the engine revs. I picture black exhaust as it whirls in around the hanging tools and how the fumes will linger, leaving outlines on the pegboard once the tools are moved and gone.
Mom stays outside. I go upstairs into their room and see the bed unmade, Dad’s drawers left open, empty. Shirts and sweaters hang across the rocker, but they’re Mom’s. The Gallo wine stands nearly empty by the bed. I bring the bottle down into the kitchen and see Mom has moved herself inside and sits, hunched over at the table with a cigarette. I pour a glass of wine for her. Her face screws up. “Dad’s leaving, Chick,” she says. She looks like someone else.
Rebound, the stray, pops up onto the table, arching her back underneath my palm as she moves back and forth across the red-checked tablecloth. The whole house smells of dried up cat mess. Somewhere down the line, Mom couldn’t bear to give up all the kittens that were born.
She runs her palm across the wrinkled tablecloth to smooth it. Purple veins crisscross the backside of her hand. “Let’s go somewhere this summer, you and I. You know, the Panama Canal or something.” She stares at where her palm lies flat against the tablecloth. “Chick?” she says. Her eyes look up at me, but I can tell she doesn’t really see me. Her hand waves across her face as if to blur the picture of me out.
I push the cat away. It lands on the linoleum, a solid thud: four paws at once. I rub my hand across the strip of flesh where my jean cut-offs pinch a lump of thigh. “The cats,” Mom says. “He hates the cats. He always has.”
I don’t say anything. Dark roots are growing in beneath Mom’s Clairol blonde. The lamp casts a small circle of dim light around itself.
“I should have taken all those kittens to the clinic like he told me to. Those kittens. Who’d look after them?” Her voice is high again, so high it squeaks.
“They wouldn’t die, Mom. Workers care for them until real people come and take them home.”
“Real people wouldn’t take them home,” she says. Her eyes are following a fly that’s landed on the tablecloth. It disappears, then reappears a second later on the shade. “What’s going to happen now?” she says, as if her question is directed at the fly. “Nobody wants a full grown cat.”
“The camp might, Mom.”
“Not twenty cats.”
She murmurs something I don’t hear.
“What did you say?”
“S. P. C. A.” She sounds each letter out for stress, as if she’s reprimanding me, then pulls a strand of hair across her forehead, tucking it behind her ear. I cannot sit there any longer. I get up to start a pot of tea, but when I turn to ask her how she wants it, she is gone.
While I am urging kids with bellies shaped liked pears to blow into the water at the shallow end, the lunch bell rings from far across the baseball field. Already I have pulled my counselor’s t-shirt over my wet bathing suit so I can get a second helping from the kitchen staff. Today, I start with two grilled cheeses and a bag of chips.
We sit at pint-sized picnic tables that my knees scrunch underneath, forcing rolls—not wrinkles—in my stomach to bunch up above my shorts. A child sitting next to me, her ponytail still wet and perched upon her head, says, “Hey. You’re s’posed to get just one.”
I chew in tiny motions, trying to make the food inside my cheeks seem daintier, nodding at her till I’ve swallowed it all down. “I’m on the staff,” I say.
“You should be on a diet.” She reaches over, picks the triangles of sandwich off my plate and places them down carefully upon her own. When I look up, Lou’s standing in the doorway next to Mom and motioning for me to join them. Working my way out from where I’m trapped inside the picnic bench takes time. I walk as casually as possible across the cafeteria, pretending it is normal to adjust my shorts where they have wedged themselves into my crotch.
Mom’s wearing just her bathrobe. Lou is nice about it all and says, “Your mom here wants to talk to you.”
I lead her through the hallway to an area outside Lou’s office. The orange carpeting reminds me of the second sandwich I’m entitled to. I sit down on Lou’s couch.
“The cats,” she says. She pulls her bathrobe tighter where her left breast almost shows. “You’ll have to drive them out to Medfield clinic, Chick. Just drop them off. I’ll call your father at the office, say they’re gone. You think that you could do that for me, Chick?”
I don’t answer. Mom sits down beside me on Lou’s scratchy sofa, leaning over folded hands above Lou’s ashtray where burnt cigarette stubs lie, distorted into weird shapes. “You’d think he’d feel for them,” she says.
I stir the stubs around the ashtray with my finger till the ashes form a perfect ring around the edge. “He won’t feel anything,” I say.
“I don’t think I can be alone,” Mom says. “Chick, drive me home?”
The front wheel of my bike won’t fit into the back end of the station wagon. Lou’s standing in the office doorway, watching, so I try to hurry with the bike. His hand shoots up and waves, but I can tell he’s really shooing me away. “Don’t worry about us,” he calls. “You take care of your mom.”
When we get home I make Mom tea and tuck her into bed. She takes one of her sleeping pills and tells me she’s sorry. Then I wait until she’s sleeping and creep downstairs.
The first cats I collect are easy, sprawled out on the driveway, soaking up the sun. I scoop them up and cradle them. They’re purring, warm fur brushing up against the insides of my arms. Once I have moved them to the car, they struggle, hunkering like snakes when they’re inside and slithering, or hissing through their teeth. Each time I catch another one, I have to squeeze it through the crack between the car and the car door, then press the door closed so another doesn’t get away. I move the kittens’ box down from the attic, but can’t see ahead of me and miss a step and send the four new kittens toppling and scattering, none of them so quick to land on all four paws at once.
When I can’t find the grown-up cats, I take a can of gourmet cat food from the shelf and start the buzzing of the automatic opener. Cats come scurrying from out of hiding places everywhere, skidding on the slick linoleum as they race through the kitchen to the bowls.
I steal one at a time: first, Knickers, Blast-Off, Flashback, then the others: Zipper and Torpedo. Rebound hisses at me, scowling, but then sees it’s me and drapes her body, limp, across the hollow of my arm. When I have finally reached the car, she bolts up, panicking again, and hooks a sharp claw in my arm.
I roll the windows closed so no cats jump, then inch Mom’s car out past the mailbox, down the hill and out through town past Mackey’s, onto old Route 22 and past the Camp, which Lou has closed now for the afternoon. The air inside the car is sweltering. The air conditioner has never worked since Dad brought home the car and now the cats are panting, open-mouthed, their eyes glazed over as they stare out of the windows, disbelieving. Drops of sweat slide down the fleshy part behind my knees. Flashback throws herself against the windshield, trying to catch the forward motion of the car.
The ramp that climbs the new Poughkeepsie highway is still under construction and I hit a pothole, dead on. All the shocks are busted. Mom still has the coupon for the dealership stuck to the fridge. The jolt flings cats around the car. One of their claws sinks deep into the backside of my neck. I try the radio: a crackling static only.
When I get on the highway I’m not sure how fast to drive. I’ve never driven on a road this big. The hatchback jerks—first fast, then slow—and then I lose control of keeping the car smooth. There are no exit ramps. The Medfield clinic’s still ten miles down the road. I swerve the car into the breakdown lane and find the button for the flashers, keeping my speed eighteen miles an hour through the wavy heat that rises from the road.
As I move past the mile markers in slow motion, the sudden whoosh of passing trucks shoves us aside. A billboard: JESUS SAVES. A school bus filled with kids who lean out windows, mocking me. An overpass with a large banner, WELCOME HOME TO MOM AND DAD! Finally, I can see the clinic sign show in the distance and I switch the flashers off and inch the car off of the highway, past the Medfield Mall, and then into the driveway where we first found Flashback—skinny, cold, and trapped inside a metal cage beside the road.
Trash lines the torn-up parking lot. I stop the car beneath a tree whose leaves ooze sticky, puffy bubbles of white spit. The cats are strangely quiet. Muted barking from stray dogs in outdoor kennels reaches me beyond the rolled up glass. I squeeze out through the doorway, gripping the hard knob of Knickers’ head to keep him in the car.
Weeds choke the flagstone walkway to the door. Sometimes Mom makes me help her pull the weeds from our herb garden when she wants us to spend time together, like the mother-daughter sessions you might read about. I reach the door. A tiny store-bought sign says, CLOSED.
I look back at the car. The cats are panting at the windows—mouths hung open, eyes reduced to small, blank holes. A poster hanging in the game room at Monadnock recommends you crack your windows open when you leave a pet inside your car. I sit down on the step to wait for someone or for some idea of what to do. Rebound swipes her paws across the window, silently.
My fingers pinch the smaller weeds at first: the ones that cluster by the step. They’re easiest because their roots have not had time to burrow in. When I have pulled the weaker ones, I stand and work my way along the walkway gradually to where the roots have sunk in deeper, growing in fat clumps that I have trouble getting my whole hand around. Huge wads of dirt come up with these and I make sure to shake them, scattering the soil evenly, brushing it until it settles in between the flagstones, neat and smooth, invisible—the way Mom taught me to when I was just a girl.
Rebecca Boyd is a graduate of the Bennington MFA program and has been fiction editor for Post Road magazine since its inception in 1999. Her work has been published in Harvard Review, Mississippi Review, Watershed Review, Pif online, Sun, and elsewhere.