Robbie was long gone and J.T. had been changed and fed and rocked back to sleep, and Toby, too, had been fed and dressed and read to before Brenda had the chance to look through the three 5 x 7-inch panes of glass in the door that lead to the mudroom. Like trailers are supposed to have mudrooms, Robbie had said when she’d begged him to build it for her. Brenda had never even heard of a mudroom until she’d seen a picture of one in a discarded Country Home magazine her mama had retrieved from the Holiday Inn in Hagerstown where she worked as a maid. Honey, you wouldn’t believe the stuff those folks throw away, she said. Sometimes, when she was rocking J.T. to sleep, Brenda dreamed about what people threw away. She dreamed that Mama would take it all and borrow Lenny’s pickup truck and bring it up to her—magazines, books, CDs and tapes, blouses that were missing just one button or skirts with torn hems, chairs that smelled a little of cigarettes, dressers that the drawers didn’t slide right into anymore. She’d mend the clothes and Robbie would fix up the furniture. And she’d model the clothes for him like the women in the magazines did.
“B, don’t you ever think I get the shits of doing this?” Robbie had moaned to her when she pressed him about the room. He was a carpenter and came home complaining about how “damn picky” everyone was—never satisfied, he said. Never satisfied. She’d convinced him, finally then, to build “the addition” by telling him that this time he’d be his own boss, he could use his own materials, and he could set his own schedule. And when it was finished, the 8 x 8-foot room connected to the rear of the trailer. When Robbie came home from work muddy and dirty, he entered through it, leaving his boots in one bin, his gloves and sometimes even his pants in another. Brenda made lace curtains to put over the room’s single window and fashioned a few shelves by stacking old wooden crates on top of each other on the hardwood floor topped with a single oval braided rug. It was perfect.
But now, as she looked through to the other side, that wasn’t what she saw. Brown Beauty, the misfit mother cat, had knocked over the cardboard boxes Brenda had been saving, had even littered in one, disregarding the make-shift litter box Brenda had fashioned from one of the lids by filling it with some of the new kind of kitty litter she’d picked up for her mama at the mall pet shop. It had cost too much money, so that after she’d bought it she couldn’t stop at McDonald’s with Toby on the way home, couldn’t buy a gallon of milk. And then her mama had never even stopped by to get it. Brenda told everyone she didn’t even like cats. She just felt sorry for them, sorry that people left them behind when they moved, sorry they took them in their trucks and dumped them along back roads in the darkness, turning even the tiniest kittens into predators, set out only to survive. Besides, she could always find a little extra food to feed them. And, she supposed, the word got out. The number of stray cats had grown to six since they’d moved into the trailer right before J.T. was born a year and a half ago.
Their closest neighbors lived in a house about a quarter of a mile down the road and they were old—their children long gone. The Stoltztfus and the Beiler farms were about a mile off in the opposite direction, but Brenda heard the clatter from their buggies more than she saw who occupied them. She tried to keep in touch with her friend Anna, the woman who tended the roadside market where the Amish sold their baked goods and flowers during good weather. And Robbie? He was gone all day and often into the night when he made those stop-offs on the way home. Yet as long as he had steady work Brenda wanted to stay home with the boys. Before she knew it, Toby would be going to kindergarten. Enjoy your babies when you’ve got them, Mama had always said. They’ll want no part of you soon enough. Still, although tending to the boys took up a lot of her time, Brenda sometimes felt like the boxes in the mudroom—cardboard and empty. And the cats listened to her—her on the inside, them on the outside—and never tried to tell her what to do, like Robbie and Mama and everyone else. So what if she befriended cats? And they befriended her? It was nobody’s business.
When J.T. and Toby were both down for their afternoon naps, Brenda would sit on the rocking chair next to the window. And soon after, Polar Bear, the pure white fatcat, would leap onto the screen, sprawl across it, his eyes bright and clear clean through to his soul, intent on meeting her own. The pink insides of his ears and the tip of his nose would twitch like a rabbit’s, and he would meow powerfully as if he were a Great Cat rather than just a tomcat, until just as suddenly, he’d lose his grip and fall back onto the porch. The minute she stepped outside, the cats would surround her, seeking—their paws padding closer, their bodies stretching luxuriously, then leaping to the railing to be loved, purring from their guts as she petted them. There was always something she could find to feed them. And they’d grown to appreciate it. Sometimes, when Brenda and the boys would return from a trip to the market, they’d be greeted by another cat ‘present.’ Once it was unknown entrails. Another time it was a head. Just a head. A squirrel’s head, upright, its eyes looking up at them. When Brown Beauty brushed against Brenda’s legs, proud of herself, she’d told the cat, “I’m disappointed in you.”
“Mommy, that’s so gross.” Toby covered his eyes, then, and peeked through the cracks so he could keep looking at the sight, while the brown cat went off to lurk in the corner of the porch, her tongue working hard to clean away her sins. Later, Robbie remarked that Brown Beauty was getting fatter.
“Looks like she’s knocked up,” he’d said. “Just what I need. Something else to take care of.”
Only the morning before, Toby had called out to her through the screen door: “Mommy, come look at the cat.” But J.T. was a shitty mess, and by the time Brenda made it to the porch, Brown Beauty was off in the corner, giving birth right in front of her—and Toby.
“What is it? Brownie’s bleeding all over the place.” Toby was again fascinated.
“Go on inside.” Brenda was fascinated herself. Still, there would be no time for lengthy explanations; besides, she wouldn’t know how to explain this anyway. “And be quiet. J.T.’s finally calmed down.”
Brenda left the cat and walked out to the shed where Robbie stored the lawn mower and a few tools. She found the dog bed their beagle had used right before he died. Grabbing it, she hurried back to the porch. The minutes-before breeze had now become a full wind, bearing down, bringing rain. A crash behind turned her around. She’d forgotten to close the door of the shed, and a sudden gust had caught the flimsy metal and peeled it back and off, leaving it looking like the top of a sardine can. Then one half of the shed collapsed onto the other. Robbie would be pissed.
So what? He was gone. And he was going. Things were changing quickly like the breeze-turned-wind that was now rushing at her, tipping the tops of the trees toward her, blowing things around. And away. The valley where they lived was narrow, and the mountains on either side of it dipped and dented in an odd way. In the winter, they looked like a giant chocolate cake that had been baked in one of those bundt pans Mama used around Christmas. And when it snowed just a little, Brenda told the boys that God dusted powdered sugar over it. The wind got caught here in the ridges sometimes and it had to fight hard to get out. Once it picked up a metal garbage can that had twenty pounds of rock at the bottom to weigh it down—and smashed it into the side of Brenda’s car. Once it tore the neighbor’s eighty-pound basement door off and tossed it onto the road in front of their house, right in Brenda’s path when she was coming back with the boys from Anna’s market.
She knew she couldn’t upright the shed. Just for a moment she allowed the wind to wrap around her, let it take her forward. Whatever was going to happen would happen. When she turned and dug in to face it, then, the other cats were on either side of her, meowing, the scent of summer’s ripeness on their fur, as she maneuvered to the porch.
By then, three kittens had been born, all with different colors: One amber, one nearly black, one a mottle of colors. For all her years of living in the country, Brenda realized, she’d never seen any animal giving birth. How quiet this was, even in the rain and wind; not a sound came from Brown Beauty, and the other cats hovered in the background, leaving her in peace.
The newborns had been mobile—almost immediately. Brenda marveled that things so tiny could even be alive, let alone able to maneuver. Still, something innate was guiding them to their mother. Then, just when Brenda thought the event was over, she saw another kitten, this one gray.
“Brownie, I didn’t think you had it in you, you scrawny thing.” She watched while the cat licked away the membranes from each kitten, ate the placenta and the umbilical cord, then cleaned herself.
“Mom,” Toby had (thankfully) remained inside. “Can I come out now?”
“Sure, baby.” Brenda had to retrieve the dog bed from the yard, where the wind had blown it, and she found its inside cushion almost in the trees below the trailer.
“What happened to the shed?” He started running toward it like he was heading for a carnival ride.
“Toby, get over here! That metal’s sharp. It’ll cut you. Get over here on the porch out of the wind. Come look at these babies.”
Brenda coaxed the mama cat onto the dog bed. And when she found it satisfactory, Brownie carried her babies over to it. Toby moved in beside her. “They’re even littler than Sampson was,” he said.
“Yes, but she hid him for awhile,” Brenda had said. “When he was first born, he was little like them, too.” She was thinking of the little black fur ball that was now a big black fur ball—a “Halloween” cat, Toby called him.
Brenda heard her own baby inside the trailer then, so they left Brown Beauty on the porch with hers. By then the other cats had circled the bed, as if to greet the new kids on the block. But about an hour later, when she looked out from the rocking chair, the brown cat was gone, and her babies were huddled on top of each other.
“Now where the hell is that cat?” Maybe she went with Robbie. He’d never even come home from work. And by this time, it was getting dark. Toby held the doors while Brenda carried the kittens, still in the dog bed, to the mud room.
Robbie wasn’t home even after Brenda got J.T. and Toby bedded down for the night. But when she’d gone to turn on the porch light, Brown Beauty shuffled over, leaving the nearest neighbor’s tomcat, Cooper, on the other side of the road. The cicadas were singing in the darkness.
“Get in here and take care of your babies,” Brenda scolded her, scooting her into the trailer, into the mudroom. “You’ll do it even if I’ve got to make it happen.” There. That’s that. Maybe Mama just needed some rest before she could handle things.
Now, when Brenda looked closer through the panes of the mudroom, she saw dirty paw prints on top of the freezer her mama and Al got her and Robbie last Christmas. And those kittens, just barely one-day old and too tiny to meow, were only mewing weakly.
“Goddam you, Brownie,” Brenda said, opening up the door. She picked up the cat and belted out a little appropriate Metallica for her—right up in her face:
Still the window burns
Time so slowly turns
And someone there is sighing
Keepers of the flames
Can’t you hear your names?
Can’t you hear your baby’s crying?
The blank expression on the cat’s face was a surprise. The cats had grown accustomed to Brenda’s singing—even stood still and listened; at last she’d acquired her captive audience. Brown Beauty’s eyes were muddy as her paws. Brenda didn’t dare touch the kittens—maybe then Brownie really would abandon them. “You’ve never given them anything,” she said absently. How long could they live? At least the kittens had remained on the dog bed. But as Brenda watched, the gray one started to venture out from the others, a tiny pilgrim, its legs faltering with each step. Before it had nearly cleared the dog bed, Brenda set Brown Beauty down next to her kittens. “You’ve got to stay here this time. Look at them. Please, Brownie!” If privacy was what she wanted, Brenda decided, she’d give it to her. Besides, she needed to remove herself from this. It hung heavy around her like the gray clouds of yesterday afternoon, it was in her, deep. “Whore,” she whispered, as she closed the mudroom door.
And then the day’s activities caught Brenda up, spinning her through the trailer like an over-wound top, until she caught a glimpse of the clock when Toby started whining that he was hungry—again. It was nearly four in the afternoon. The baby hadn’t slept since morning. His gums were raw—again. And Brenda had carried him around on her hip all day, mopping his nose, drying his eyes. Hadn’t she made lunch? She couldn’t remember. So she fixed Toby a peanut butter sandwich, heated some noodle soup for him, offered the baby some of the broth. Supper? She should have already started it. Something else, like Robbie would say. She considered that if only she had teats like Brown Beauty, her life would be easier.
Desperate to just sit, Brenda dropped into a chair and read to the boys from The Girl Who Spun Gold, a book she’d ordered from one of those book clubs where you could get 5 books for $2.00. It had arrived only yesterday. Toby sat pressed up against her on the rocking chair making comments, asking questions about every picture, while J.T. chewed his fingers and drooled on the book’s pages. When Brenda looked up at the window, Polar Bear was there, hanging onto the screen for dear life as long as he could—his eyes darting from her to the children. Then just when the story started to get good, Toby jumped down from the rocker, moved toward the kitchen.
“I didn’t get enough to eat, Mommy.” His fat stomach was sticking out from under his T-shirt.
“All right. All right. How’s about some spaghetti?” It was going on six o’clock when Brenda started spinning again, until who knows when they sat down together at the table. J.T. had drifted (at last!) off to sleep. Again, Robbie hadn’t returned home, but then it was Friday night. Friday night. Those words used to mean something to her. J.T. looked like he was wearing his supper rather than eating it, but Brenda sat, immobilized, watching while he scooped great spoonfuls of sauce and spaghetti up to his gaping mouth, thinking instead of the sights of the summer evening lingering outside the open kitchen window—the lengthening shadows cast by the trees, the sliver of moon already in the sky—and of a night like it years before at a carnival, when teenagers were holding hands and smooching wherever they could find places dark enough to sneak off to. She even saw Davey tucked away with a girl Brenda didn’t recognize, his lips pressed against her thin blouse like a baby put up to a bottle. But Brenda wasn’t like them. She stayed with her friends like she’d promised. And when night fell and the lights began sparkling and blinking like lightning bugs, it would be time to ride. She knew she would go for the Scrambler first. She’d feel like there were bugs in her stomach before it started, but that fear would fade when she was free—spinning from side to side, round and round, just flashes of lights and faces, and the air swirling her hair and rushing into her mouth that was wide open for an “AAAhhh.”
“Aaahhh! I’m messy, Mommy.” It was Toby’s voice, breaking her reverie. There would be no more time for daydreams, for nightdreams, for any dreams. He was taking off his T-shirt, strings of spaghetti were spilling onto the tile floor; he was stepping on the mess as he approached her, wiping his face on her pant leg before she could stop him.
“Oh, Toby, look what you did!”
Her voice must have startled him. He was stepping backwards and tripping over his shoe. He looked up at her from the floor. “I’m sorry, Mommy.”
Brenda found herself, finally. “It’s okay, baby. Let’s get you cleaned up. Go into your room and build something with your blocks while I get your pajamas, O.K.?” He shuffled down the hall wearing only one shoe.
It was when Brenda walked by the door to the mudroom that she heard the faint mewing from behind the mudroom door. When she switched on the light and looked through the window, there was Brown Beauty, lying by the door that lead into the back yard—as far away from her babies as she could possibly be. And the babies? Where were they? Heat rushed up Brenda’s neck, onto her face. She flung open the door. Brown Beauty was immediately at her feet, tripping her up. Brenda stepped away, her eyes scanning the room, searching.
Not one of the kittens was on the dog bed. Neither were they behind the crates, nor under the knocked-over cardboard boxes. It wasn’t until Brenda looked behind her and into the corner beside the door she had just closed that she saw the gray kitten. He (or she—what did it matter?) was still. “Goddam you, whore! Look what you’ve done. Your baby’s dead!” She picked up the kitten and carried it into the hallway, closing the door on the sounds of the others. Brown Beauty could go to hell for all she cared.
She sat on the floor in the hallway, holding the little fellow, stroking its fur. Would his paws turn cold, colder, like her daddy’s hand had when he died?
“Mommy!” Toby was coming toward her down the hall—naked. “I’m ready.”
“Get in the bathroom. Now.”
Remembering he’d already gotten in trouble once, Toby slipped quickly and quietly into the bathroom. And Brenda held the kitten up so she could see its face. She wanted to see its eyes, but they were sealed, soft tufts of gray around them. “I’m so sorry.” She took an empty coffee tin from the kitchen counter and put the kitten in it, took it out to the only garbage can that had a lid, put it in, closed it, came back inside. She’d bury it tomorrow.
J.T. kept sleeping, probably because he had worn himself out. Babies couldn’t tell you much, and even when they started to chatter, it amounted to nothing, Brenda decided. Still, his gums looked so sore she had to rub them with her finger. That was what put him to sleep. It was the not-telling that told everything. Words never worked. Like with that little kitten. Brenda thought of how she’d ranted at Brown Beauty—for what? They didn’t speak the same language. It was what she did after—picking up the little gray fellow and holding onto him—that amounted to something. Doing something. Saying nothing. That was better. But still, she was too late.
Robbie still hadn’t come home. You watch, honey, and you take care of him, Mama had told Brenda, or he’ll be whoring around. She never would have talked that way when she was married to Daddy, Brenda knew. But everything had changed since she had taken up with Al…
Brenda didn’t know if Robbie was whoring around or not, and by this time of the day, she was too tired to worry about it. She was just glad she had managed to keep Toby from seeing the gray kitten. She wasn’t sure how she’d tell him—another thing she was too tired to think of. It was all flying around in her head, after she’d bathed Toby, while she was reading him a bedtime story, when she lay down beside him, after, even. Things got still then, and she heard the cicadas singing outside, saw the curtains flutter in the summer wind.
Then she dreamed she was in the yard again, and the wind swept across it and blew down a rain that grew the grass as quick and high as buckwheat, and bowed it low. The cicadas sang so loudly and the rain fell so hard that she couldn’t tell one sound from the other. And the rain didn’t touch her, but it was all over her, soft and sparkling, and each of the cats was with her, each grown full from the wind in its fur, with their eyes on her clear as the rain, beside her. The yard opened wider with each of their steps, and the shed stood ahead of them, longer, wider. And each of the cats stopped at its doors, and only the gray kitten went in with her. The wind blew inside the shed, too, and it blew the rain away and strings of stars sailed above their heads. The floor was the dust of hulled buckwheat. Robbie came across to her, home, and they lay down together where the soft buckwheat still grew and they loved. But Robbie was only a word, and after, the eyes that looked clear into hers didn’t belong to him.
The next morning, Robbie touched her shoulder. “What happened to the shed?” She was rubbing her eyes, trying to sit up before she spoke.
“It was the wind. It wasn’t locked.”
“Goddam. Something else.”
Brenda looked at him.
When he left, she slipped out through the mud room, stopping to listen. Not a sound. She looked around. There was only Brown Beauty. She threw her out the door, considered that the others might be under the freezer. She went out to the garbage can, collected the coffee tin, took a small shovel from the collapsed shed, and buried the gray kitten before Toby was awake.
A few days later, the smell of mortality started to seep from under the door of the mudroom. There was nothing Brenda could do. Robbie wasn’t home to help her move the freezer, and by the time he got home he’d be of no use—maybe he’d notice the smell tomorrow. And even if he didn’t, it would go away after a few days more.
She went outside when both the boys were taking naps, and the cats came close around her again, mewing. She threw her arms up at them and they took off running, their tails high. Then she heard another sound. Brown Beauty was walking down the road to the neighbor’s house, Cooper by her side.
“Wait,” Brenda called out to her. “Come back.”