Kitten Con Brio
My wife, Sandy, had decided that the best time to find homes for the kittens was on Chelsea School’s graduation day, when there would be dozens of proud parents milling around wanting to do nice things for their children. Once the ceremony was over, and I’d finished directing the choir, Sandy figured I’d have time to supervise our fourteen-year-old, Charlotte, as she stood outside the Chelsea General Store with four kittens in a cardboard box. They were an awfully cute quartet, if I do say so myself. Charlotte had hinted that she’d like to keep them all, but I had already decided that there was no question of the kittens, cute or not, staying with us. We hadn’t planned on becoming a maternity home for cats. In fact, if Alice, our calico barn cat, hadn’t been seduced by that ginger rogue next door, I’d have been spending the afternoon after the ceremonies, swinging gently in a hammock under the maples in the back garden, listening to Scarlatti on my iPod. It had been a long school year, and even though there are people, who shall remain nameless, who think a music teacher’s life is a piece of cake compared to staying home and looking after the house and barn, I reckoned I deserved a break. So there was just this one last chore before I could forget about school -- for a few weeks at least.
Still, the day had turned out beautiful, and the sun was making its way allegro across the Vermont sky as Charlotte interrogated the prospective owners in front of the store. I stood by in case she needed help, but she was handling things very well. She had let one kitten go to the McTavish family, who lived in New Hampshire, and wanted a second cat to keep their first one company. A few minutes later I heard her telling Jason Netherfield’s mother in a heavy whisper that the kittens probably had fleas. After the Netherfields had walked off in a huff, Charlotte had judged, correctly, that I might require an explanation of this blatant lie. She explained that Jason, one of her classmates, lived too far away.
“They live in Massachusetts, and the kitten would have had to travel for hours to get there, and it wouldn’t have liked it, honest, Dad,” she said, with an earnest expression that she knew I would find hard to resist. I happened to know that she didn’t like Jason much, and I suspected that was the real reason she didn’t want him to have one of her kittens. I tried to be firm.
“Honey, if you keep turning people down, we’ll have to take all the kittens home, and you know we can’t do that.”
She sighed. “I know. But it would be nice to keep one or two, wouldn’t it?”
I was saved from having to lay down the law by the arrival of a motley group of people, firmly led by Helen Dixon, a graduate of about one hour’s standing. She had only just managed to graduate, after that incident in the school’s organic herb garden. We had made the kids dig up all the marijuana and burn it, which of course had brought its own problems, as they stood around inhaling the smoke as deeply as they could, and giggling. Perhaps, in retrospect, we should have done the burning. I can think of several teachers who would have volunteered. Helen appeared to have about six people in tow, ranging from someone old enough to be her grandmother, to a young woman with a toddler in her arms. Helen was beaming at me and Charlotte, and asking how many kittens she could take home.
“Well, that’s not up to us, really. It’s up to your parents, Helen,” I said, trying to decide which of the group were her parents. These days you can never tell.
“Mummy, can we have two kittens, please,” Helen said, startling me by suddenly speaking in a purely British accent.
Her mother, who looked like an older and blonder version of Helen, didn’t seem to notice anything odd about this vocal progression from Vermont to London, and answered in the same accent.
“I don’t think so, Helenka. The most we could manage would be one.” The mother was looking a little frazzled. Maybe it was something to do with the older lady who was elbowing her out of the way to give the kittens a quelling look.
“You don’t want a cat, Jean, definitely not,” contributed the old lady, sounding like the Queen of England. “They’re just a nuisance – something else to look after, as though you didn’t have enough to do already.”
This was addressed to Helen’s mother, whose jaw line suddenly tightened, as she bit her lip. Meanwhile, the younger mother was leaning over the toddler, who was prodding the kittens with an inquisitive finger.
“Remember, Freddie, we’re gentle with all living things,” she said with yet another English accent.
“Quite right, Auntie Susan,” said Helen. Then to the little boy: “This is how you do it, Freddie.”
With that, she reached over and scooped up the feisty little kitten who was trying to climb up the sides of the box. The kitten made a grab for her long brown hair as she hefted him expertly against her shoulder, nestling his head against her. Helen started making some cooing noises at it, which, to my amazement, it seemed to enjoy.
“Actually, that particular one is rather a good-looking kitten,” said the grandmother, peering over her spectacles at it. She looked me straight in the eye. “It could almost be Polish.”
I was beginning to lose the thread of this conversation, if that’s what it was. Helen came to my rescue.
“My grandfather was Polish,” she said, “So Grandma’s got a bit of a soft spot for them.”
At this moment the only man in the group chimed in.
“Darling,” he said, “You do realize that we don’t actually need a cat, don’t you?”
I gave him a sympathetic look. I could tell the poor stiff was up against it. Four Englishwomen against one American? And which one was the “darling” he was talking to?
A chorus of voices answered this comment.
“That’s just what I said,” offered the Queen.
“Freddie, don’t poke the kittens,” said Auntie Susan.
“But, Dad, he’s so cute. I’ll look after him, honest.” Helen begged.
“Jean,” began Helen’s mother.
“Everyone needs a cat.” This from Charlotte, who, I was amazed to see, had evidently decided to let at least one more go. Maybe we would manage to give all the kittens away this afternoon.
“Tell you what,” said Dad, loosening his tie, as though he were being choked by it. “How about a cup of tea? They have things to eat and drink in the store here, don’t they? We could talk it over.” He ran a harassed hand through his hair.
I recognized delaying tactics when I heard them.
“Why don’t you do that?” I said. “I expect we’ll still be here when you come out.”
Twenty minutes later, the party emerged from the store. The toddler’s face was covered in chocolate, which its mother was trying to wipe off with a handkerchief. Helen was making a beeline for us, with a determined expression on her face. Her parents and grandmother brought up the rear, treading carefully down the steps to the street.
“Still here, then?” said the dad. I could tell he was hopelessly outclassed.
He looked down into the box. There were two kittens left, and one of them was the kitten Helen had picked up.
“We’d like that one, please, wouldn’t we, Dad?”
Dad looked at me. He didn’t need to explain.
“You never know when you might need a cat,” he explained.
“Right,” I said. “Mice and so forth.”
“In honor of you Mr. Stern, we have thought of a musical name.” said Helen, smiling down at the kitten. “We’re going to call it Chopin.”
“Perfect for a Polish cat,” Helen’s grandmother was consistent with her leitmotif, at least.
“Great,” said Charlotte, happily fishing the last kitten out of the box. “So how about we call ours Scarlatti, Dad?”
Helen’s Dad grinned at me. I gave him a shrug of the shoulders. It was only three o’clock, and the hammock beckoned. I knew when I was beaten.
“Great idea, honey,” I said.