The summer I was nine my father lived in the back few rooms of a motel in Northern Arkansas. The rooms were railroad style, with connecting doors, and each had a door to the dry, dirt lawn and gravel drive dead center.
My father’s couch was in one room, a make-shift living room parlor, and my one toy, a large wooden doll house with peeling paper, was shoved against the wall. From lack of toys and things to do, my brother and I put our kitten in the doll house and watched her wreck it. The tiny rooms became her spaces and she stuck her paws from the windows, nails ripping down the old-fashioned paper on the plywood walls. There was no doll furniture, so she rolled around on her back, eyes wild, ready to clamp around stray fingers or a hand.
The middle room was the bedroom, a double bed and a dish of stray coins from my father’s pockets. He emptied them before bed. A TV on a stand and dirty carpet underfoot lead way to a kitchen or broken tile floor and mismatched dishes.
I’m not sure how there was a kitchen. It was out of synch with the rest of the rooms, which were identical aside from the furniture he put in each. The kitchen was a real kitchen, counters and burners, and maybe a pile of unpacked boxes on the floor.
You couldn’t complain, because Daddy wasn’t happy there, either. To say “i’m bored,” or “sad” or “miss Mommy,” might make Daddy yell, or worse, cry, so instead my brother watched TV (we got motel channels with movies and pornography) and I played outside.
There was an abandoned sedan in the drive and a mama cat had had babies there. Surely my mind has run away with me, but I remember twenty or thirty, swarming when you opened the hood—which was empty of parts and held only kittens, all wide yellow eyes and pink noses. I named them all and can’t remember even one.
Sometimes, though, Daddy would come outside and sit with me while I pointed them out and recited their names. And, just like I didn’t say I was homesick, or frightened of how dark his rooms got at night or the scary films the television would play; Daddy didn’t say I was stupid or dull for naming all those cats. In fact, he picked out a few and told me how they were like other cats he’d had—as a kid, as a boy in college, in law school or when he and my mother first married.
“This one looks like Muffy,” he told me, “and that one’s a little like Kitty Marie.” Muffie died at the vet, because no one told my parents she couldn’t eat before surgery. She threw up while she was sleeping and choked.
I know we named one Muffy. Maybe two. There were a lot of strays needing names and fortunately, we had a lot of names to give out, my dad and I.