Linda L. Faulkner
Jennie Hamilton frowned at the unsightly mess beyond the rail of her back deck. A quick survey of the area revealed just how much work lay ahead of her. Tufts of wild grasses and clover were springing up everywhere, infiltrating the azaleas and creeping phlox along the garden pathways.
Any other year she might have been out enjoying this mild April weather, cultivating the moist Spring soil and envisioning a season of flowers to come. But this year she couldn't muster enough ambition to tackle the job.
The usual quail chattering and bird songs were absent this morning, leaving the hillside oddly quiet. Only a faint mewing sound broke the stillness, coming from the live oaks a few feet away. She glanced up and spotted a kitten perched on one of the main branches, not much older than seven or eight weeks.
"Just what we need around here," Jennie grumbled, "another animal making a nuisance of itself."
Realizing it had an audience, the kitten immediately turned up the volume. She paused to listen a moment as old memories began to stir in the distant regions of her mind. Memories of another kitten. A lot like this one, come to think of it. Black with a white collar and white paws. And the little girl who found that stray kitten and wanted it with all her heart.
Jennie's parents, however, were practical folks, hardened by the Great Depression of the thirties. They believed that animals were meant for working on the farm and providing food for the table. To waste hard-earned money on a pet was unthinkable.
So, with kitten in hand, she canvassed the neighborhood in search of a good home. But after knocking on countless doors, it was becoming obvious that nobody had room in their lives for her precious cargo. By late afternoon only one person remained on her list. A dismal prospect, at best.
Mrs. Johnson, the elderly woman who lived alone in the brick house on the corner, yelled at anyone setting foot on her lawn. Jennie wasn't even sure if that old grouch liked people, let alone animals, but it was worth a try.
The minute Mrs. Johnson answered the door, Jennie launched into her sales pitch, now polished after many repetitions.
Mrs. Johnson shook her head slowly. "Got enough animals messing in this yard already. Don't need one of my own. Try the Marshalls across the street."
Jennie's lip quivered as huge tears began cascading down her cheeks. "I did! I tried everyone!" she sobbed. "Daddy says he's going to take Kitty to the Pound. You were my only hope."
The old woman took a long, hard look at the furry ball of golden-eyed innocence staring back at her. Heaving a sigh of resignation, she asked, "May I hold Kitty?"
After a quick examination, Mrs. Johnson smiled knowingly. "I think we'd better call him, Mr. Kitty. But I'll only accept him on one condition. You'll have to come over and play with him, whenever you've got time."
It was the perfect arrangement for all concerned. And although Mr. Kitty lived elsewhere, he was devoted to Jennie. Every afternoon he would wait for the school bus to arrive and drop her off at the corner. Like clockwork. For almost eleven years. Until the day he died.
Jennie's eyes misted, her thoughts returning to the present. "Now I'm the old woman who lives alone," she told the stranded kitten. "But don't you worry, little one. I'll find your owner and have them come get you."
About the time Jennie completed her quarter mile walk to the main road, she saw Greg Parker backing out of his driveway. The Parkers had moved in from Los Angeles two years ago to open up another branch of his booming real estate business and to build their dream castle in the foothills.
The neighborhood hadn't been the same since their arrival. Greg earned a handsome profit by subdividing his thirty-acre parcel, leaving nearby residents up in arms over the loss of their rural environment. His children seemed to take malicious pleasure in racing their dirt bikes past Jennie's house, stirring up clouds of dust and leaving ruts in the gravel road. Greg, who loved to mingle with the upper crust, charmed the local elite with lavish parties that lasted well into the night.
Not that she begrudged the man his money. It was his attitude that irked her to the core. When he insisted on planting tomatoes in early May last year, she'd tried her best to warn him, "I wouldn't put those in the ground yet, if I were you. Winter isn't over 'til it snows on the Dogwoods."
As always, her neighbor refused to listen. "Now, Jennie, don't tell me you actually believe that nonsense!"
Just thinking about the smirk on his face made her blood boil. Then, about a week later, a whole foot of snow fell on the Dogwoods. And Greg Parker's tomato plants!
Greg rolled down his car window and showered her with phony pleasantries, then moved in for the kill, "Say, there's a nice two-bedroom apartment opening up in town. You ought to take a look at it."
She nipped his dream of a sales commission in the bud by changing the subject. "Did anyone in the neighborhood get a new kitten? Got one stuck up a tree at my place."
"Not that I recall, but I'll check around for you."
Jennie smiled at this stroke of good fortune. Giving Greg Parker any excuse at all to contact people was almost as good as broadcasting it live from the local radio station!
"Want me to get it down for you?" he offered. "I can bring my ladder over this noon."
"Good idea, Greg. Maybe it'll find its own way home."
Anna Reinhardt was in the habit of calling Jennie every day around eleven. The two women had very little in common until Jennie became a widow last summer. Anna, having lost her second husband to cancer over five years ago, was now in hot pursuit of a third 'Mr. Right'. She wasted no time in getting to the point. "You know...the singles group is having a dance next Saturday. With a Forties-style band. Would you like to go with me?"
Jennie groaned at the thought. "I know somebody who went to one of those things. She told me the men our age just about trampled her to death, trying to get to the younger women!"
The hurt silence on the other end of the line quickly became unbearable. "Oh, I'll think about it," she relented.
Minutes later Greg Parker pulled his shiny new truck into the driveway and unloaded an extension ladder.
"Be careful, now," Jennie cautioned as she led him around to the back deck. "Kittens have sharp claws."
He secured the ladder in place with an omniscient smile and began his ascent. "No problem," he assured. "I have a way with animals."
Catching sight of its would-be rescuer, the kitten started backing up slowly. "Oh, no you don't!" Greg managed to grab it from behind, but the startled animal dug its claws into the bark. The instant he freed one paw, the kitten let out a fierce yowl, taking dead aim at his face. "Ow!" The rest of Greg's monologue was completely unintelligible as he abandoned his mission of mercy and scurried down the ladder.
"I'll get something for the bleeding." Jennie volunteered.
Ignoring her offers of assistance, he fled to the safety of his truck, shouting all the way, "That damn thing is vicious!"
Smart cat, she decided on the spot. I wouldn't trust him either! Meanwhile, the kitten was glaring down at her in righteous indignation for sending that barbarian to the rescue. "I should have known better," she admitted with a sigh.
Jennie knew that cats could be downright picky when it came to humankind. Her education in the aspects of feline behavior began shortly after she and her husband moved to the country.
Jennie had married Wade Hamilton right out of college. They took their ambitions to the city, where she hoped to become a famous author and Wade would undoubtedly set Wall Street on fire. It wasn't long before her father-in-law became seriously ill, pleading with his only son to move back home and help run the family hardware business. Jennie eventually took a job teaching English at the high school, and somewhere along the way, the young couple set aside their dreams to get on with the business of living.
Staying in the area was a decision she never regretted. It was a wonderful place to raise a family, with lots of room for children and animals. They had many pets over the years, but the cats always held a special place in Jennie's heart.
Not long after they moved to the foothills, during a rare Sunday afternoon excursion, they found an elegant white cat sitting at the doorstep of some little antique shop. When the owner told them it was a stray, Jennie's husband suggested they take it home with them. On that day she fell in love with Wade all over again.
Samantha proved to be a faithful companion and thankfully, good-natured with children, since she had to put up with the antics of two mischievous little girls growing up in the country.
After Samantha was killed on the main road, Jennie's young teenage daughters pleaded for a new kitten. They decided to buy one at a pet store this time. As the family circulated the room admiring each charming ball of fluff, one feisty little Siamese male refused to take no for an answer. The minute they walked away from his cage, he began protesting their rude dismissal in no uncertain terms.
"I don't know if you realize or not," the clerk intervened with a laugh, "but that kitten is choosing you."
Jennie knew better than to question feline judgment, and her family agreed. Caruso, named for his amazing vocal repertoire, ruled the house and its occupants for many years.
Wade was about to retire by the time they lost Caruso. Both agreed that the last thing on earth they needed was another cat, since they were going to travel and do all the things they'd been putting off for years. She started collecting brochures and weaving fantasies around the exciting places they would visit. Sadly, only one week after his retirement party, her husband died of a massive heart attack, leaving Jennie alone and bitterly disillusioned with life.
The soft little cries emanating from the branches overhead began again in earnest. Why don't people take care of their animals? she wondered, annoyed that this burden had somehow fallen on her shoulders. The longer that kitten stayed out in the open, the less chance it had of surviving. There were all kinds of predators looking for such easy prey. Hawks soaring overhead. Bobcats. Coyotes. Even raccoons were known to rip a small animal to shreds.
After giving the matter some thought, a method of luring the kitten down from the tree came to mind. She decided to pick up a couple cans of tuna at the market. Food just might do the trick!
There were three major supermarkets in nearby Placerville, but Jennie preferred to take her business to Gold Country Market, the small family-owned store just down the road. The clerks all knew her by name, and the darkened hardwood interior rekindled fond memories of childhood. Each time she entered the market, it was like stepping back in time and going home again.
Greg Parker arrived shortly after Jennie, and they bumped into one another at the end of the first aisle. She tried not to smile at his bandaged face.
"I found out that cat is a stray. And it probably has some awful disease, so I'm going to have to get a tetanus shot."
"That's too bad. Are you sure it's a stray?"
"Someone dumped a litter of kittens near the Tyler place a couple days ago. They say the rest got run over. Too bad it wasn't a clean sweep. Anyway, I'll call Animal Control for you when I get back to the office."
"Oh, don't trouble yourself, Greg," she told him sweetly, biting back a more colorful reply. "I'll take care of it. I'm still quite capable of wielding a telephone."
"Well, you'd better do it right away, before somebody else gets hurt!" he insisted, shaking his finger at her as he marched toward the front of the store.
"Just because I haven't got a man telling me what to do," Jennie muttered to the wheat bread, "he thinks I'm helpless!"
She caught up with him again at the checkstand. While he was unloading his haul of potato chips and candy bars, the clerk made the mistake of commenting on his injuries. Greg immediately took center stage, expounding at length about being attacked by a vicious wildcat on Jennie's property.
As soon as her neighbor was well out of earshot, she couldn't resist amending the story just a bit. "Greg sure hates to admit that a one-pound furball got the best of him."
The clerk picked up a can of tuna and winked. "Is it really vicious, Mrs. Hamilton?"
"Nope!" she barked. "Just a good judge of character!"
Jennie arrived home in high spirits. Figuring that no cat in its right mind could resist tuna, she placed a generous helping of the fishy feast at the base of the tree.
A few minutes later she looked out the back window and saw the kitten pacing back and forth on its perch, crying in anguish. She ran outside just in time to catch a glimpse of the Cahill's twenty-pound tabby waddling away from the empty dish.
"Now what?" she sighed, pondering the ladder still sitting in place by the tree. Unable to come up with any other solution, Jennie threw caution to the wind, inching up the ladder until she came face to face with the notorious 'wildcat'. This time, instead of backing away, the kitten ran forward and hopped aboard her shoulder for the ride down. Once they were safely on the ground, her small passenger let out a fortissimo purr, a masterful appeal for clemency that made the whole idea of calling Animal Control out of the question.
"Think I'm going to call you...Lucky," she decided, taking the kitten inside for his first meal, "'cause you're just plain lucky to be alive! We'll have the vet check you over tomorrow and pick up some kitten food. But in the meantime, young man, we have work to do."
Jennie brought her gardening tools out of the storage shed and started weeding the flowerbeds, while Lucky darted from place to place, exploring his new home with insatiable curiosity. He reminded her so much of Mr. Kitty. Once again she thought of the woman whose unexpected kindness allowed Mr. Kitty to be part of her life so long ago.
Mrs. Johnson later told Jennie that their first meeting had been a real wake-up call, forcing her take a hard look at herself and the sour old woman she'd become. Now it was Jennie's turn to look in the mirror. Life had indeed come full circle.
"Think I'll call Anna this evening," she told Lucky. "No harm in watching the young folks dance, and listening to music that doesn't grate on your soul...is there?"
With that, the kitten scampered up the oak tree, then came right back down again, as if to say, "See what I can do!"
"Why, you little stinker!" she cried in amazement.
No doubt about it. The joke was on her. Jennie threw her head back and laughed out loud, marveling at the uncanny wisdom of this tiny creature. Long before human logic could begin to sort things out, he had managed to find his way to a heart that needed healing.
She scooped up the kitten and gazed at him in wonder. "On second thought, maybe we're both lucky."
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