by Stefani Nellen
She comes in the afternoon, alone, with that headscarf tied under her chin and a layer of zinc ointment on her nose. She says, “Hi, Dr. Pick, have you seen Mimi?”
Everyone on the street calls me Dr. Pick, in this considerate tone, as if I’d eat the face of anyone failing to see my academic distinction.
I push my fist with the sleeping kitty forward. “I assume by ‘Mimi’ you mean this.”
Her brown stump of a chin quivers. Kitty, Kitty, you found yourself a weak mistress.
For the heck of it I say, “I think I’ll keep her. We’re good friends, Mimi and I.”
She says, “Please.” Her eyes widen.
Do you think someone taking away your kitty is so bad, lady? The worst?
Stop squirming, furball, or your intestines are jelly. Squeeze.
She comes back later with Mr. Birkner and his wife. I let Kitty glance through a slit in the screen door. Kitty blinks and yawns.
“They’re coming to get you,” I whisper in one shell-shaped ear.
Kitty’s heart beats fast between my fingers. It’s like holding a warm bag with marbles shifting inside.
Mr. Birkner rings the bell even though he sees me standing behind the screen. Simpleton. I open the door.
He says, “We heard you took care of Mimi for a while, Dr. Pick. We really appreciate that. But you see, Mimi belongs to Mrs. Gerard here. You have to give. Mimi. Back.”
Mrs. Birkner oozes a fake smile. “Why are you doing this, Dr. Pick?”
Oh, the slow talk of the people authorized to take things away from me. They came to my door with their loud voices and forms and concerns and took the children. There’s no mistaking that slow talk. I hear it all the time.
Why are you squirming, Kitty? You want to go back to your headscarf-wearing zinc-anointed mistress? You want that? You want to go back to heart-shaped cardboard snacks? You need raw liver. Yes.
I think you want to stay. You need to rest on my belly and drool on my shirt. Right? Right. See, you calmed down already. That’s my Kitty. My good little Kitty.
Mr. Birkner wrestles Kitty out of my hand. His wife wails, “Oh my God oh my God”
Kitty’s heartbeat still tingles on my palm.
My hand are of medium size, with clean nails and freckles on the back. They cracked a soft spine. They pushed bowels up a ribcage. It keeps happening. I dont understand.
Mr. Birkner calls someone on his cell. He pushes my name out of the corner of his mouth. Kitty slides out of his hand and drops onto the stone floor, head first.
And now she steps closer. Mrs. Zinc Ointment Gerard. She is going to slap me or spit at me. Lonely old ladies tend to be irrational. I brace for wetness on my cheek. But she just looks at me. She purses her lips and draws her eyes into slits. A soft moustache covers her upper lip. She studies me. I shrivel like an insect under a magnifying glass.
“Why?” she says.
“May I come in?” she says.
We enter my house. This wasn’t supposed to happen. Her steps sound wrong. The floorboards sense it. They creak out of tune. And her shoes are too small for her. Her feet are bulging plastic branches.
She shuffles forward. My house is clean. I tidy up every single day. You could eat off the floor, and sometimes I do. She continues to look around. Oh, why dont you go ahead. You will find them.
And she does. I shouldn’t keep the photos. I won’t keep the photos. There’s room for them in the basement. But for now, she picks up one of them and trails her brown fingertip over the glass. Under the glass, I’m holding the children, my son and daughter. My hands arebig enough to cover their bellies. They grin and bite into their fists. I can recall their bellybuttons whenever I want.
Mrs. Gerard nods and puts the picture down. She goes on to the kitchen and finds the plate with liver. The raw maroon splotches jar the room. When I put the bowl with liver in front of Kitty, she lapped at it like mad, gulped, and licked her fangs as if she’d been starving. It reminded me of my babies clawing my tie, their ecstatic caws and clean spittle. They loved me.
“You fed Mimi,” she says.
“Liver is good for cats,” I say. “The best.”
She bites her lips and nods again. Something seems to come together in her headscarf-protected head, and she turns around and goes to the door.
Outside, she says, “I’m sorry.”
She doesn’t make sense.
I put out my hand, and for a moment her chin quivers again. Then she takes my hand. She stiffens. Yes, she expects me to squeeze. But I’m on guard. I shake, one, two, let go. Someone once told me my palm felt nice.