The Good Heart of Beatrice Cravet
If Bea Cravet had a temperament for contemplation, she could have invented the adage — but with an adjusted emphasis — that “Children are best heard and not seen”; for in her view the “sniveling pests” were best not seen at all. She disdained their begging in grocery stores, abhorred their chatter at movies, and would slap every roving hand she could at the zoo and the chocolate shop if only she had not inherited her mother’s passive avoidance. In the whole, her impression of children was that they are all self-interested and contrary.
All five of her siblings, two younger brothers and three younger sisters, had children — probably a few dozen in all, if she had ever thought about it — and she was never sure whether to feel sorry for them or laugh out loud of their idiocy. In her own life, it was unnerving to have to listen to the constant thump of the basketball across the street and the whiny yelps down the hill, as well as to bear sight of the weanies and gorillas constantly tripping and flailing through her yard; these intrusions, and others, reminding her of how she had practically had to rear her own kid brothers and sisters on account of a mother who had always been too exhausted to do it herself and a traveling-salesman father who, when he hadn’t been pitching on the road, had sold out at the local tavern. Now she praised God almost daily for her near misses and reveled in the knowledge that her own space would never be impinged by a child’s chaotic and needy whims. Further, she was fortunate that her husband, Bill, with her help, shared this viewpoint. Before she had accepted his marriage proposal she had tempered his desire to have a family with hugs and smiles and appeals for patience; yet over twenty-two years, as he had come to resemble her, he had just as surely also mimicked her prejudice. And when one day he arrived home from work to discover a cat balled up on the radiator, the sight of it instantly reinforced his own childless bliss — which could have always been traced, after all, to the stresses of his banking career.
Still, Bill was not immediately sure how to feel about the animal. He was not surprised by it so much as by the principle of it — he wondered why Bea had not discussed her intention first. The orange cat, a male tabby, was of a mature age (she would note that it was three years old: an adolescent). As he put down his briefcase and unloosened his tie, its spine rose into a camel’s hump and he offered the back of a hand to sniff. He had not the first idea about cats: what to feed them, how to clean them, entertain them, where they slept and did their duty,... Yet as soon as Bea arrived home herself, from stocking up on pet supplies, and the cat stretched its front paws toward her to be held, a little ease stirred in him from his sense that she knew the answers — if not exactly, at least maternally.
Grace Gifford had easily compelled Bea to take the cat home, considering that if she had not it would have been euthanized the next day at the animal rescue shelter where Grace (like her best friend, she had retired that spring) had gone to work part time. In a gesture of relief, the veterinarian had absorbed the adoption fee as well as all vaccination costs, and had tossed in a bag of cotton balls, three yarn spools, a scratching post, transport cage and two food samples: one dry, one wet. On her way home Bea had stopped to pick up a month’s worth of food supply, a bowl, a litter box and scoop, and a dozen toys from a list of “Kitty Favorites” that Grace had compiled; all of which she would hide in the back of the garage until Bill had had a chance to “connect” with the darling little Teddy Bear. —Oh, how happy she was! This precious with the voice of a violin and the face of a mink that she had looked at so often, she had missed two stoplights and nearly struck a median. Such a love! — such a perfect addition to the family! Why, it’s even self-cleaning! she chuckled; and she was sure her heart had skipped a beat. Indeed, long before Bill had arrived home she was calling it her “baby.”
During dinner neither could think of a reason why the cat, which Bea had named Laddie, could not stay on the table while they ate, and so it did. And actually only once did it make a mess, though of little consequence as it yawned and stretched a paw into Bill’s pudding like a paintbrush; otherwise it stayed curled up, licking itself. Ultimately Bill asked Bea what had compelled her to bring the thing home, and when she answered with the story about the scheduled execution and her last-minute intervention, he smiled; yet when to his next question, how long would it stay, she said, “Forever,” the smile drooped and a flush of rare authority empowered him.
“Nope, can’t stay,” he said.
“This is my house, too,” he said.
“And this is my life, too,” she said.
“Well I can’t accept this,” he said, “I don’t like this one bit,” a stiff finger darting the table. And he added: “There’ll be trouble—”
“Trouble?” she said. “It’s a cat, for God’s sake.”
“—Well why didn’t you consult me?” he said.
“Because I knew what you’d say,” she answered quickly, as if she’d anticipated the question....
Afterward, for many days, a tense, almost hissing, silence divided them. Bill would arrive home and toss his briefcase and tie onto the bed, which was nothing new, but now he did it aggressively; and she would put them away, which was nothing new either, but now she would not enter the room until he was in the garage fetching his nightly beer. Then they would sup in silence, the cat licking itself between them. —As punishment, he started using the animal against her. As soon as he arrived home he would rub his woolens or corduroys across the cat until they would seem as if they had been dragged through the dryer filter or tossed into the garden shrubs, and therefore would be forbidden to hang up without a good brushing first; then, during dinner, when she wasn’t looking, he would push something, a dressing or sauce, under the cat’s tail and then release the furry marker to scrawl a long sticky note of defiance across the table; and after dinner, he would retire in his den until she had turned in, his shut door bearing the neatly crafted poster, ‘Humans Only.’
Yet, as with most stalemates, theirs dissipated when submission finally yielded; and one night, when Bill beheld the cat on the table, he saw not a furball but a friend; not an intrusion but an innocent. And afterward, in fact, it was he who mostly coddled the new member of the family. After dinner Bea would go off to sew, saying in parting only that he should not allow the cat in the suds as he washed the dishes (to which he would whisper something derogatory to his buddy, adding that it was their “little secret”). And invariably the two of them, the dad and his boy, would end up in the den together, inseparable for the rest of the evening, where they would play Bouncy Ball and peek-a-boo, tease the yarn, as well as some ribbon he had found in a box of holiday packing, and finally lay down together on the pull-out couch, where he would knead “Junior’s” scruff as it fell asleep under his chin.
By then Bea had told everyone about Laddie; she felt so proud to be a Mom; and of course everyone couldn’t wait to hold him — although she had immediately set limits as to who would be allowed to at the house and who must wait to elsewhere. Her sister, Katie’s, kids, since both were older than twelve now, were welcome, as were Danny’s and Mikey’s; but Bunny’s and Darling’s, all younger than twelve, either had to wait until she visited or they could meet the cat publicly, such as at the park. She had learned, by process of elimination after many cry scenes, temper tantrums, spilled milks, dirty footprints and other disruptions, that there was an age of intolerance for kids, twelve and younger, and an age of forbearance, teenage and beyond. She was trying on sweaters — liking so much how a green and burgundy button-up complemented Laddie’s coloring to settle on it — when she calculated this family accounting and its protocol; and the first thing she did back home was to write down the names of the ‘Alloweds’ and ‘Not Alloweds.’ And she was just finishing an emphasis on the word Not when she felt — the cat having discovered a housefly — her coffee puddling on her crotch. She yelped, of course. And to gently infuse a lesson, she wiped up the spill with the cat’s scruff....
Two days after Bea and Bill made up, he came home to find another cat balled up on the table, this with a gray-striped coat (and a meow-type gargling). Hard-gripping his briefcase and not loosening his tie, he gestured to the animal, timidly, as if it were a lion. When Bea appeared, she matter-of-factly said that Laddie had needed a sister, then formally introduced her husband to Lily, who hissed. “Is it fixed?” he said. “Spayed,” she corrected, “yes.”
Weeks passed, and Bill discovered that he loved Laddie and Lily equally, just as they loved each other like a brother and sister; they were always entertaining each other so: even licked each other. During this time he also discovered an increasing number of toys, furnishings and accouterments: bells and feather rods; a spin-the-ball contraption; a velvet-lined cylinder through which they chased each other; two beds, each with a smiley face stitched in the middle; a water bowl with a continuous-loop flow; even a collapsible stroller which, of its size and design, looked just like the kind one got for kids, the only difference being that this came in a box with a picture of a cat on the front. And though he mildly protested that she was spoiling them and complained about the costs — which she countered by reminding him that the money she made from her part-time work at the animal rescue shelter was her own — he rejoiced over his little family and its ideal number, and felt quite like the king of his manor. Besides, he was not privy to the mischief and accidents; Bea never mentioned them: how the cats used the plant pots like sandboxes; spit up their hairballs on the carpet; routinely turned the shelves into obstacle courses, knocking over the knickknacks, photos and books like dominoes; how they snuck sips of her ice-tea and nips of her sandwiches; tore the curtains swiping at birds; peed on the end tables; barfed on the sofa chairs; how they had just recently taken to making knotties all over the stereo speakers;... Yet how could he not be moved at the end of each day to see his wife so happy with their kids? And anyway, always by the time he got home enough of the goop-and-glop had been wiped up that, unless he were looking for it, it would remain incognito; all the damages caulked, painted, hidden, or turned the other way. And why would he stop trusting the housework, anyway? — someone other than Bea did it now: that nice lady from Happy Housekeepers.
One night, while Bea sewed as Bill peddled the stationary bike, she suddenly stood up, having detected something aglow under a corner nightlight. When she got closer, she shrieked.
“What is it?” he got off the bike. “A mouse?”
Wrinkling her nose, her arms akimbo of anxiety, she turned away from the soft brown mound: trying to hide it with a heel.
“Oh, lovely,” snorted Bill, somewhat forgivingly. “Which one, you suppose?”
She was not listening; she’d thrown her face into cupped hands, as one in spiritual sorrow.
“That Lily!” he went on, having stooped for a better look. “You’d think she was the boy—!”
“Stop it!” Bea said, stamping a foot like a prissy schoolgirl. “Stop being so goddamned amenable! You’re the father here! Show some gumption! I’m so sick and tired of your lenience! And your pandering! Oh, God! ‘Come here li’l Snookers, yas, thaas right, there you go, there, there, now, come to Papa!’ Oh, spare me! Be a parent!”
Bill tried unsuccessfully to hug her. “There, there, now,” he said. “So what if Lily made a mess!”
“See, you can’t even tell their poops apart!”
“O.K., Laddie’s, then!”
“Neither!” she huffed.
She dragged him by a sleeve to the laundry room, where in the semi-darkness two pairs of yellow eyes peered from the transport cage in which she had brought home Laddie and Lily. “I’ve adopted two more,” she said. “Why did you do that?” he said. She placed the black kittens, no bigger than mittens, into his hands; and his whole body felt wrapped in warmth. And he had to admit that they were irresistible; and after a moment of silence he offered acceptance, if only by a rationalization of how harmoniously they complemented the two older cats. And for the third time he submitted to the charge of fatherhood.
“But this is it!” he said.
“Yes, these are the last,” she agreed. “I promise.”
She started biting her fingernails. “Except that I’ve now agreed to foster, too,” she added.
“You know, keep a stray every now and then — but only until we find it a good home!”
“And how long’s that take?”
“A day, a week,... —Listen, Bill,” she cupped her face again, “I’ve never felt so fulfilled! After twenty-five years at that stupid company, I feel my life has purpose now! I love my work at the rescue shelter! Why, ever since we got Laddie, I haven’t been able to look at these poor creatures knowing they’d die unless—! Oh, Bill, look at our Laddie and Lily, and our Tom-Tom and Bat! Can you imagine the world without our babies?”
What could he say? In middle age she had become a cat-lover and a crusader....
The next night Grace Gifford emailed Bea close-up photographs of four kittens that had just arrived at the rescue shelter. The donor had not realized her cat was pregnant, she said. “Of course, all, the mother and the kittens, will have to be euthanized.” How could Bea refuse them? After her shift the next day she packed them up in her transport cage and brought them home.
When Bill arrived to see his exercise room turned into an animal lounge, a tan, a mottled, three calicos and two black longhairs romping through it like windup toys, Laddie and Lily hissing at them from opposite corners, he felt violated at first; but then, recalling his wife’s promise, propped down among them as Papa Cat, reveling in their wee squeaks and nuzzling.
Two days later, three more cats joined the parade. By the beginning of the new week, their house had become a subsidiary of the animal rescue shelter. With the acquisition of the Chinchillas, Bea felt compelled to call in sick just to have enough time for the feedings, the throw-ups, the knocked-over plants and the litter-box disposals. Having come from a long line of shedders herself she was used to retrieving tuft rings from the shower-stall drain, but could never have imagined so much hair everywhere else: the kitchen-sink drain; the pillowcases; the bed sheets and blankets; the plants, from which it hung like tinsel;...! The next day she called in sick again to catch up on what she hadn’t the day before and also her emotions — all the while nearly tripping over nine kittens hopping back and forth around her slippers like dream sheep over clouds; and she hardly saw her two adolescents anymore, whom she had come to ignore, anyway.
On Wednesday she called the rescue shelter for a leave of absence, then, when the Happy Housekeeper would not commit on what was regularly a day off, sister Darling, who was also a professional housekeeper. Darling brought along her seven-year-old Joey and six-year-old Holly, who were both off from school, having pressed hot washcloths on their foreheads to feign fevers. At the front door Darling received the kind of older-sister look that was a cinch to translate, and, defying it, wrapped both children in her arms as she proceeded in.
“Where’s Rex?” Bea snorted. “You couldn’t drag him along, too?”
“He’s at Camp Wichikaya,” Darling said sweetly of her five-year-old. “Having the time of his life, I’m sure. —Such a big boy!”
As she said this, her other children threw themselves belly-first into the buzz of kittens, inciting so much pawing and licking that they, too, tangled in Bea’s legs, and she asked kindly that they take their roughhousing outside. And when she disappointed them by announcing that the cats were as yet too young to follow — “for they might lose their way” — the children protested and went instead to their uncle’s den, where promptly they turned on his computer and romped in a game of Barbarian Hordes. “They better not be bad!” said Bea. “Oh, relax,” said her sister. “I don’t like that!” Bea continued: an ear heightened to an erratic noise like slapping. “Oh let them be kids!” said Darling. “—Are their hands clean, at least?” Darling ignored her sister then to gaze admiringly out the picture window into a wilderness of flowers and bramble, wild and beautiful in its natural unkemptness, which her children would have entered had they tarried outside — a lush, wild garden which, the previous spring, had been an earnestly cultivated plot of spinach and Brussels sprouts.
The hour before Bill arrived home Bea spent wiping little fingerprints off his computer, including every key, and also checking his desk and the bookcase and books and the model ships and Plexiglas statuettes he prized for more smudges, before finally beating his chair pillow to purify it — still angry that her sister’s children had not said goodbye to hers. And all this time she could not have said where any of the cats might have been, except that Laddie and Lily and the others probably were napping, as usual, among the cords of her own computer, and that probably she should have kept the fosters, who were disobedient, in the laundry room, and closed the door.
When Bill appeared he glowed like the pink sun that peered from behind his turkeyberry. His collar was open and his tie hung in two lengths, crossed like hands in peace; and he let slide his briefcase onto the table like a beer down a bar. Bea was absent until dinnertime, when she arrived from the den to put out a mixed salad from the refrigerator and take her chair, wooden and abstracted. That’s when Bill made his proposition that they keep the three Chinchillas since, he said, they looked as though they were frail; and, what’s more, in the brief time of their stay had become such pals that it would be almost cruel to separate them.
“But that would make twelve!” she said.
“We’ve already got nine of our own,” he countered; and this was reason enough for her in her stupor to give in. And then he left, the Pied Piper leading the children.
The next morning she came inside with the newspaper to hear a vase topple and a branch break and Grace Gifford impelling her on the phone machine to return to her responsibilities at the rescue shelter on Monday or else have her paid status change to volunteer; and then she called her brother, Mikey, who lived just up the lane, whose twins had grown into such fine young men, biting her fingernails that they’d be able to stop by for a while with their human faces. When she got no answer she called Danny, having forgotten that his daughters were still in high school, and then Katie, who said that Jes had accompanied her to the office to help collate for an upcoming meeting. She would have called Grace first, of course, but Grace was like a foreigner these days. And she absolutely would not call her mother.
It was midday and cloudy, meows filling the house, when she realized she must move, so she got up and righted the overturned pot, swept up the vase fragments, cleaned the litter boxes, opened several windows, refilled the water cups, shut the doors to the laundry room and her own computer, and left for a walk. As she entered the fragrant spring air, she immediately noticed her next door neighbor, Mrs. Charter, acting like an idiot skipping with her two grandchildren in two-by-twos over her sprinkler, and across the street the basketball pounding the garage door every time the Neville brats missed the hoop. Three houses away, where the young couple had recently moved in, she saw the stupid girl trying to make sense of her toddler’s stroller strap, and standing over them like a nitwit, her husband, who was twenty-five (she thought she’d heard) and still in college. She continued on toward the point which, after another hundred yards, the lane abruptly veered left and down the hill, where resided the Telley brats, forever giggling and splashing in their built-in pool (which their parents never invited her to). And there she encountered, coming up, a woman walking two cats on leashes. Within a breath she could have slapped this woman, she was so taken aback, but instead fell away and began to turn — but the lady had already made eye-contact so Bea only half-turned, to feign a polite yielding. As the woman, her untouched gray hair, natural pink complexion and elegant posture affirming sophistication, completed her approach, she let go the straps, knelt down to her dependents, and softly kneaded their scruffs until it was Bea who passed. And not understanding what to make of this gesture, if anything, Bea kicked the skateboard that now impeded her passage with such a thud, her toes throbbed. But she continued forward as if undaunted, ridiculing every neighbor for some deficiency. Finishing the loop and arriving back home, she spent the next half hour variously cawing like a savage, beating the garage door with her palms and slamming the garbage-can lids together like cymbals, finally slamming shut the front door behind her to give it, too, a long-overdue dose of her grief.
That night, when Bill arrived home, the house reeked of a petting zoo. He called for Bea, but heard no response. Downstairs, cats and kittens were proceeding in and out of the cracked door of the laundry room at will, pouncing on tables, scratching at walls, leaping off the wet bar, jumping over candlesticks, chasing shadows, crisscrossing avenues and bumping at intersections, lounging, feeding, humping: making of the basement a dominion for their own species. He held out his hands to them and asked them to desist. “No, no, Batty,” he gestured to one of the black kittens, who was using a stereo speaker as a climbing wall. “No, no, Laddie,” he gestured to his first child, who would not stop sneering at the Chinchillas. “No, no,” he waved at them all. “Be good you guys. Be good!” To try to corral them, he dashed to close the laundry-room door, then back to close the main. It’s mayhem, he thought. Where the hell is Bea? He tried to understand if they were hungry, thirsty. “Li’l Tom-Tom, tummy growling? Sadie kitty, want a tweat? Hector, how ‘bout some Chunk-O-Chic?” But none of them would slow down long enough to respond. He dropped to his knees to try to divert their energy. The calicos stopped wrestling to come by and rub his thighs, but then simply renewed the struggle among themselves. And all the others were in perpetual motion: exactly as he had found them. He decided to divide them, began carrying them by twos upstairs so that there would be six above and six below. And that’s when he saw Bea. Her hair, normally primed as if every day she visited the salon, was mussed; and her face pallor-white. She was sitting on the top stair, oblivious.
The next day, Bill used the lunch hour to organize profiles of animal-care professionals who specialized in providing in-home care. The night before, he had written down the names of two presumptive candidates from the Internet, and that morning had called Grace Gifford, who provided two more. A half hour before leaving work, he called Bea to say that he was in a meeting and would be late — but not more than an hour, he added, sensitive as he was to her present condition. Indeed, after sixty minutes on the phone, fifteen minutes given to each solicitant, he easily settled on the person Grace Gifford had recommended, given the fact that this candidate, distinct from the rest, had grown up with cats. As soon as he saw his wife he informed her that, starting immediately, she would once again have the good fortune to work full time outside the home. At the news of the pet nanny and her new freedom she felt weak-kneed and fell into his arms, and a cat hair that had been fused to her lashes floated away on a tear. He had already decided that they would have dinner out, and before leaving, put the kids in the screened-in porch, with snacks and milk for all.
As they walked outside, Bill and Bea waved to a handsome old couple who were taking turns pushing a gleeful grandchild in a little car. As Bill opened the door of his own for Bea, shivering a little she suddenly noted how calm the world was, as if everything were aligned in obeisance.