A Smitch in time
“Outta My Yard” takes a break from house-hunting this week for a holiday story. Just call it the Peavey version of letting Little Billy cover for Bil Keene in “The Family Circus.”
“Don’t kill me.”
Now, I’m still fairly new to this marriage business, but if I’ve learned one thing, it’s that these three words mean trouble. While not as bad as “I have something to tell you” or “We need to talk” (the leitmotifs of my dating career), “Don’t kill me” usually means the spouse has done something that’s going to make you want to kill him, but the mere asking you not to almost assures you can’t. I guess it’s the marital equivalent of cootie shots.
So, when I picked up the phone on that rainy, sleety December evening three years ago and heard those words, I braced myself. John finally spoke again. “I found a kitten. She was in a puddle. I’ve gone door to door. No one knows anything about her.” There was another pause. “I’m bringing her home.”
OK, so this was where the “Don’t kill me” part came in. It meant I couldn’t say no – not that I would. I may be self-involved and self-indulgent, but I am no kitten killer. It also meant I couldn’t immediately say: “Remember? Remember what happened last time? Remember when we found Cat on the street and how you convinced me we should take her in and how you told me to pat her but I wouldn’t because I said she’s not our cat and that she belonged to someone else? And remember how you promised she would sleep on your side of the bed but, instead, sprawled over to mine the minute you fell asleep, driving me out to the couch, where she followed me and wedged herself into the crook of my bent knees, so that I was pinned to the back of the couch and couldn’t sleep? And remember how I made that awful choice to let her back out even though we both wanted her to stay and how we would look for her for days and weeks thereafter, waiting for her to show back up on our doorstep? And how, after that last flicker of hope faded, I said never again?”
But since John had given himself his DKM cootie shots, I couldn’t say any of that. I had to say, “Sure, bring the kitten home” – even though I was planning all the while to take it to the shelter first thing in the morning.
When I heard John’s key in the lock, I rose to meet him at the door and to lay down the law. Yet, when the door swung open and he stepped out of the shadows, his arms where empty. “Crisis averted,” I thought – that is, until I saw a tiny, fuzzy black head (no larger than a Christmas clementine) poking out from behind the black lapel of John’s jacket. The head turned, and I saw a triangle of white that should’ve fit squarely over her nose but was slightly askew, giving her a befuddled, half-cross-eyed appearance – kind of like how George W. looks when asked an unscripted question at a press conference.
I could tell John had been rehearsing his sales pitch. I heard something about a slushy puddle on Park Street, a shivering kitten, how he rang the buzzer at the Lafayette Building, how she rode home curled on his shoulder. The cat peered at me with addled eyes, and my Grinchy heart busted. “Give me my kitty!” I cried, as I plucked her from his jacket and cradled her down the hall, whispering my plans to transform our home into Operation Kitten Rescue.
Within a day, our world had been transformed. After I postered and John called shelters, we set up shop – litter box, pet food (I read every label to figure out what and when she should eat) and toys. Her favorite was a small twig hoop hung from a drawer knob by a thin red ribbon. Meanwhile, she set about killing us with kitten cuteness. She’d bat her hoop. She’d take a running leap into a large pottery bowl on the floor. Her best trick, though, was to jump from the couch to the chair and then fall behind the chair onto the windowsill, slide down the wall and emerge from under the chair like she meant to do it. She knew she had us.
During this time, the Christmas tree remained undecorated. (Too many fragile things for her to break.) The presents went unwrapped. (She’d just shred them.) The cards were not written. (Who had the time?) Although I resisted, we couldn’t help naming her. Because she was so tiny and because she was a Christmas kitten, we called her Smitch, as in “Not a smitch of temperature” – the line Zuzu says when George Bailey returns to the embrace of his family after his glimpse of what the world would’ve been like without him in It’s a Wonderful Life.
I told John we had to give it ‘til Monday before we could assume Smitch was ours, and all weekend I jumped every time the phone rang. Miraculously, Monday arrived and we still hadn’t heard anything, so John called our friend Amy at the Brackett Street Vet Clinic to make an appointment to take the kitty in for her shots. But when he did, Amy had some news. She told him someone had called saying there was a sign up at Videoport for a missing kitten… a missing black-and-white kitten. Lost on December 11.
I tossed and turned all night. It might not be the same one, right? Right? By morning, however, I knew I had to go get the number. The sign was written in ballpoint pen on notebook paper. If there had been any question whether we would respond, the words “small reward” closed the deal. I made John call. Maybe there was a chance this was just an ordinary kitten and another could replace it. Maybe John could work his charm and convince them Smitch needed to stay with us and they could get a different kitten. I almost had myself believing this is what would happen when John called to let me know Smitch belonged to a 12-year-old girl who had, we were told, been praying for its safe return. It was all she wanted for Christmas.
That next night, the family — mom, grandma and the girl — came to pick her up. John answered the door while I sat on the couch with Smitch in my arms. The girl rushed at me and cried “Sasha!” and plucked the kitty from my grip. The mother wanted to hug me, but I did not want her hug. I wanted these people to go. I thought I would feel virtuous reuniting this girl with her kitten, but I did not. I felt mean and rotten, and I wanted my kitty back. But I stood and let the woman hug and bless me and hug and bless John and I watched the kitten go.
When they were gone, the two of us sat on opposite ends of the couch and let the tears roll down our faces. And then we sat together in the middle of the couch and cried some more. And then we decided we needed a little Christmas. Right that very minute. So I went down cellar and brought up the ornaments. But the first thing I hung on the tree was a small twig hoop with a red ribbon, very high, near the top.
It hangs there now as we celebrate our second Christmas in our new home, as it has these past three Smitch-free Christmases. And each time I place the hoop on its high bough, I think how doing the right thing is sometimes but a small reward.
Elizabeth Peavey says: Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night.