Arlene awoke to the loud purring and uneasy shuffling of Purdy the pregnant barn cat ready to pop. She reached over with a chin scratch to calm the aches of the mother-to-be. Once Purdy gave birth, Mrs. Krieger promised Arlene a kitten to keep as an early eighth birthday present. She couldn’t wait to raise the baby animal the same way the Krieger’s had adopted and raised her on their Wisconsin cattle farm. Every day was a new chore, a new harvest, or a new blossom as the grass grazing field blended into the golden hay field, all rippling like water in the wind. When Arlene’s unwed mother got knocked up once again by a local, she was sent to live in a convent for wayward women near Chicago, where the land swelled with hardened brick and empty pavement. The concept of family wasn’t as black and white as other townspeople liked to preach.
Arlene kicked bare feet over the side of the iron-frame bed. The Krieger’s said that a young lady should never walk barefoot on a farm, but they also kept the hardwood floors swept and mopped for clients who often came over for coffee and a morning yarn. It seemed okay to walk in her own room without slippers. Who would know? Except for a handful of thin rugs, everything else in the entire home was hand-crafted from wood. The pitter-patter of approaching footfalls made Arlene briefly consider sliding into slippers, but she also enjoyed the feel of the cool floor on her toes.
“You risen yet?” Mrs. Krieger asked, knocking softly on the girl’s bedroom door to push it open. “Got eggs and sausage once you’re up and at’em.”
“Purdy is hurtin’,” Arlene whispered. Mrs. Krieger shuffled to the side of the bed and placed her left palm on the cat’s stomach. A life on the farm had kept her body and mind strong, but her knees bore the brunt of a life of labor.
“Six, I reckon,” the woman said. “Any day now.” Pulling away and flicking shed fur from her fingers, she squatted down in front of Arlene. Both arthritic knees popped like kindling. “Open,” she said.
Arlene opened her mouth as wide as she could to let Mrs. Krieger peek inside. The woman poked a loose molar. The tooth wiggled in the socket, which created a soft crunching like Mrs. Krieger’s knees.
“It hurts,” Arlene said.
“Means change is a’comin’, sugar bean,” Mrs. Krieger said, and pinched the girl’s nose.
Purdy mewled and twisted to her side. The barn cat rubbed her face along the quilt in agony as discharge leaked near the tail.
“Oh Purdy, you’ve got some timing!” Mrs. Krieger said. She groaned herself upright and opened Arlene’s closet for a towel. “Go tell Mr. Krieger. Tell him about Purdy. Hurry now.”
Arlene looked at the writhing cat and, without thinking twice, bypassed her slippers and ran downstairs, out the front door, and toward the barn.
Through the muddy trails along the grazing field, she came upon Mr. Krieger and his shock of white hair as he attempted to wrestle a goat back into its pen. He had it in a front headlock so tight that the goat couldn’t break free. Mud collected thick at the bottom of his overalls. The blue denim melted into brown, blurring the edges of what was supposed to be, and what actually existed.
“Dag nabbit! Ye beast! Goat stew for diner, I says!” Mr. Krieger grunted. The goat bleated and struggled before ultimately submitting with a huff.
“Purdy’s giving birth!” Arlene announced. The wind blew and the quiet fields swayed.
“’Course she is,” Mr. Krieger said. He turned to the goat. “This ain’t over ‘tween us.” He let go and the goat trotted inside the pen. Mr. Krieger latched the gate and wiped his hands on his overalls. “Emmie inside with Purdy?”
Arlene nodded, eager to return to her bedroom and become a mother in the adoptive sense. Today was the day it all happened, the day that purpose reemerged as the start of a better life.
Seeing Arlene without any shoes, Mr. Krieger scooped the girl up and started toward the house. A red truck pulled onto their gravel drive. Arlene felt Mr. Krieger’s face get hot and flush with anger as a gentleman stepped out in a black suit and shining shoes. Slicked back hair sparkled in the sunlight and fell into smooth skin, indoor skin, not farmer’s skin made tough by laborious days of fieldwork.
“Mr. Krieger,” the man said, keeping both hands behind his back. “Daniel Chapman. I run Chappie’s Hamburger Stand.”
“I know who y’are,” Mr. Krieger said. Arlene felt his arm tense. A soft wind blew, curving the distant fields into the shape of the hunched back of a pounce-ready cat.
“Business is . . . waning. I’d like to speak about buying direct from your cattle farm.”
“Well ain’t that a happenstance,” Mr. Krieger said. He put Arlene down and whispered for her to run inside and close the door behind. “You help out Emmie upstairs. I’ll deal with this.”
The girl nodded and looked at Daniel Chapman. The man smiled softly and waved, twinkling his fingers like bits of spiderweb had caught between the tips. It made her stomach tense.
She ran to the front door, each foot slapping the rocky mud, but skidded and jammed her toe into the brick stairs. The sandpaper sting of skin peeling away from her big toe burned against her foot, the toenail cracked upright like a load-bearing beam.
She screamed. The goat bucked and rammed the gate, cows mooed their tuba disinterest, and somewhere a truck drove down the nearby dirt road jangling like a metal workbox filled with rusty tools.
“Five!” Mrs. Krieger shouted from upstairs. “Come on Purdy, one more!”
Arlene looked down at her foot. Blood and mud pooled around the purple and black toe. She imagined the scene upstairs with the barn cat to be much of the same and did her best to hop into the kitchen. Babies got tended to but not people old enough to have their own kitties, and Mrs. Krieger had enough on her hands. The girl wet a napkin and dabbed it against the roaring fireplace of pain. She snapped the toenail forward and winced. The tender underside looked like a beef patty sizzling on a grill. When she looked up, Mrs. Krieger entered the kitchen with a stained towel balled in her arms.
“Five,” the woman frowned, gray hair shedding from her scalp. “That’s all you need to know.”
Mrs. Krieger helped Arlene patch the toe. The old woman looked tired and distraught, with a tempered look in her eyes.
“I’ll show you them kittens,” Mrs. Krieger said. “But no touching. Can barely see and barely hear yet.”
Arlene agreed and headed for the stairs, battling the disappointment that despite her best efforts, she still had to get help for her toe. Maybe she wasn’t cut out to be a caretaker just yet despite the approach of an eighth birthday. How many years would she have to wait? How could she prove herself willing?
Mr. Krieger walked through the front door and let it slam behind.
“Emmie, a word?” he said.
“Go upstairs, sugar bean. Be with Purdy and the kittens. What’s our rule?”
“No touching yet,” Arlene said. She limped to the stairs and hopped up each wooden step. Before she was inside her room, the mood between her adopted parents dropped like the air on a summer evening as thunderheads gathered across the open fields.
“You know why he’s here,” Mr. Krieger whispered.
“If he puts in an order, what difference does it make? We ain’t doing as good as we used to,” Mrs. Krieger said, and the way she said it felt pointed and sharp like a prong on a pitchfork.
“Aw hell, Emmie, it ain’t about the orders!”
On the bed, five small balls of wet fur mewed. Four of them suckled against Purdy. The little creatures didn’t look like kittens yet. The large ears and blueberry eyes, the tiny fangs and triangle noses, the leftover birthing fluid that Purdy hadn’t yet licked clean—they seemed more monster than lovey.
Even still, Arlene’s heart swelled at the high-pitched twang of baby squeaks and awkward, clomping steps.
“That man wants something,” Mr. Krieger said.
“All men want something,” Mrs. Krieger said. Their voices bounced into the room clear as fountain water.
One of the kittens shivered on the outskirts of the suckling feeding frenzy. The others hadn’t allowed room and Arlene cocked her head to investigate.
“I’ll fill the order, but I’m tellin’ him not to come ‘round here anymore,” Mr. Krieger said.
“A client is a client,” Mrs. Krieger said.
“Don’t call him that,” Mr. Krieger said.
The kitten toppled to its side and tried to right itself. Arlene noticed the back leg was shorter than the others, a small stub with a malformed paw like the exposed roots of a tree.
“It might solve all of our problems,” Mrs. Krieger said.
“That girl upstairs ain’t a problem, Emmie.”
“That’s not what I meant,” Mrs. Krieger said.
The four feeding kittens unlatched from Purdy’s teat and did their milk-drunk waddle to curl up and sleep beside their mother. Arlene watched the fifth cat approach the nipple but before it could nurse, Purdy sat up and hissed. The kitten backed away.
“That’s not nice,” Arlene said, and without thinking twice reached out with a chin scratch for the rejected kitten. The fur was soft and wet. It stunk.
“Nobody wins here,” Mr. Krieger said.
Arlene tongued her loose tooth. It wiggled and sent a fireball of pain down her back. Suddenly her foot throbbed again. She let out a whimper and Purdy looked up.
“Take care of your baby,” Arlene said, pointing to the shivering babe.
Purdy blinked, then put her head down to sleep.
Arlene slept in the same bed as Mrs. Krieger that night so that Purdy and the kittens could rest undisturbed. Mr. Krieger took the downstairs couch and was still snoring when the two ladies changed for church the next morning.
“I know which kitty will be mine,” Arlene said. She stood with her arms outstretched while Mrs. Krieger buttoned up the back of the blue velvet dress with lace frills around the neck and sleeve cuffs. The bruised big toe pulsed against her white stockings.
“Oh?” Mrs. Krieger said. She wore her green dress with white pearls, the one with fabric that went down to her shins. She smelled like powder and flower perfume.
“The smallest one,” Arlene said. Mrs. Krieger stopped buttoning. She gently squeezed Arlene’s shoulder, then patted her back.
“Let’s get a good look at’cha,” she said. She stood back and tilted her head to admire the young girl in her Sunday’s best. “Shoe time.”
Arlene held her breath. The black shoes for church were stiff and inflexible. They shoved her toes together like a goat’s hoof and after a few minutes it hurt to walk anywhere.
Still, she wanted to prove she was a big girl who could handle the responsibility of a kitten, so she crammed her feet inside of the shoes and bit down hard on her teeth. The loose molar wiggled and crunched.
The two set off to church while Mr. Krieger snored from the couch. His barrel chest rose and fell, swelling to twice its size before deflating with strained nose hisses. Arlene thought about how she would sit atop that belly, a kitten in her own mind, listening to Mrs. Krieger scan the radio for evening prayer shows. Sometimes she imagined what it would be like if her mother was around, or if a father came calling, but every daydream ended with wishes that life would remain the way it was on the farm with the Krieger’s.
The road to church was a long walk for a seven-year-old. For every one step that Mrs. Krieger took, the young girl took three. The sides of the road waved with golden barley, or green corn stalks, or hay that stretched into the horizon.
When they finally reached the too-large doors of the church, Arlene breathed easy at the thought of cool air behind stained glass saints. The stiff pew and hard velvet seat cushions were a welcome relief.
The sermon was full of slow-moving hymns and a long speech about how God sees everything. By the time the collection plates were passed, Arlene’s belly roared with hunger. The idea of walking home felt as though a cruel God must have seen her walking without shoes or petting the baby kitty and this was His punishment. It made her stomach tense and she felt suddenly dizzy. If she kept disappointing Him, would God leave her, too.
“Heavens!” Mrs. Krieger said, bending down. “Your foot is bleeding through the stockings. What pain you must be in! Why’d you keep quiet?”
Arlene looked up at Mrs. Krieger, unsure of what to say.
“I don’t want to be a problem for you,” Arlene said. She bowed her head to find blotches of wet blood seeping toward the calf. The summer sun prickled the back of her neck. She felt faint again.
“Hey, you listen to me, young lady. You ain’t never a problem, you hear? You got only love from me and the mister. Forever.”
Arlene wanted to nod but her eyes came undone by dizziness. Her ears whistled and the ground spun. Her tongue began to swell as something from her belly lurched upward. She fell forward into Mrs. Krieger’s arms.
The next thing she knew, she was sitting in the shade outside of Chappie’s Hamburger Stand as Mr. Chapman brought them both an ice water in a plastic cup. When Arlene sipped, the world shifted back into focus.
The small stand-alone building was no bigger than a shed in a plowed field, but there were wooden picnic tables spread around the mowed grass. Just beyond the tables, long stalks of hay swayed with silent hello’s.
“The heat got her,” Mr. Chapman said. “May I?”
He reached and put his palm across Arlene’s forehead. Mrs. Krieger watched carefully.
“No fever,” she said. “Satisfied?”
Mr. Chapman held his hand there for a moment longer.
“Christ, she looks just like her,” Mr. Chapman said. The words hung in the air like a swarm of flies over the body of a cow out to pasture.
“I know we ain’t never been here before, but I’m thinking maybe today we try some of your world-famous burgers. Since we’ll be supplying you and all,” Mrs. Krieger said.
“On the house,” Mr. Chapman said. “For your troubles.”
The two ladies stayed put in the shade while Mr. Chapman went inside to prepare their lunch. As the door flashed open, Arlene saw a sweaty cook standing over the grill and a woman taking orders at the small window. When Mr. Chapman came back out with baskets of fries, onion rings, burgers, and milkshakes, the woman taking orders crept to the side door with a hand over a rounding belly.
“Eat up. Get your strength,” Mrs. Krieger said, and Arlene dove into the burger, taking bite after juicy bite. It was heavenly, the ketchup and mustard sliding down her throat, the bun and meat ground into jam, and the salty French fries—oh the salty French fries were a delight.
“If things don’t change, I may have to sell,” Mr. Chapman said. He spoke quietly so Mrs. Krieger and Arlene were the only folks to hear. “Coming to you as a last-ditch effort.”
“And if it don’t work?” the woman asked. They both looked at Arlene. Mr. Chapman shrugged. He scratched the side of his face.
“Maybe go to Arizona. Start over. I’m uh . . . I’m going to become a father,” Mr. Chapman said. He nodded at the woman behind the screen door. Mrs. Krieger turned beet red and twisted her face into a scowl.
“Become? Well ain’t that a phrase . . .” she said.
Arlene stopped chewing. Her body dissolved into weightlessness. They didn’t say it outright because they didn’t have to. As much as she couldn’t believe it, as much as she didn’t want to believe it, she understood her relation to Mr. Chapman, and her appetite vanished.
“I’m getting a kitten,” Arlene said, proof that she was growing up just fine, that she was well enough to provide love and comfort for another creature without needing to run.
M. Chapman let out a deep sigh and bounced his foot on the ground. He picked up a fry and chewed. He stared into the hay fields.
“Good, good,” he said, and excused himself from the table. When he went inside, he closed the heavy door behind him and that was that.
Mrs. Krieger carried Arlene home from Chappie’s. Her arms never once trembled under the weight.
“When we get home, can we see the kitties?” Arlene asked, her face pressed hard against Mrs. Krieger’s bare shoulder.
“Of course,” Mrs. Krieger said, and walked the winding dirt roads through endless fields of crop and sky.
Inside, Arlene kicked off her shoes and limped upstairs. Mrs. Krieger followed with a sponge and porcelain bowl to dress any aggravation. She sat Arlene on a stool and went to work.
The cool water turned pink after a few passes, but the tingling water cleansed any sin. The toe, though still battered, could finally breathe. Arlene stood and looked at her bed where Purdy and the kittens slept. She only counted four.
“Where’s mine?” she asked, turning her wide, hopeless eyes to Mrs. Krieger.
“Sugar,” Mrs. Krieger said, and pulled up a chair to sit and be eye to eye. “Sometimes a mama cat rejects a baby if they know they ain’t gonna make it. The paw being what it was . . . nature is a cruel beast. I’m so sorry.”
Arlene’s eyes welled.
“It’s because I’m bad,” she cried suddenly. “I went outside without shoes, and I touched the kitten when I promised I wouldn’t, and that’s why mama left and no one wants me!”
“Child,” Mrs. Krieger said. She kissed the side of Arlene’s head and rocked her gently. “Your mama is . . . complicated. Lord knows I love her, but you’re not her. You’re us, now. Y’understand?”
Arlene didn’t, not even close, but she nodded yes, thinking that admitting something might ease the pain.
But it didn’t.
The hallway creaked with heavy steps that strained the wooden floorboards. Mr. Krieger stepped sideways into the room with a towel cradled under his arm.
“Got somethin’ for yas,” he said. “What’s with the tears?”
He bent over with a groan and pulled back the edge of the towel to reveal the small fifth kitten nursing on a bottle.
“She’s alive?” Arlene asked, astonished.
“That she is. Gon’ have to feed her this way. Rub a cotton ball on her belly to make her pee and poo ‘til she’s big enough, but we got ourselves a rascal. Came in to check on Purdy and noticed the situation. Some animals need to be placed in the care of others because only others can see the care needed to grow’em into the world. All of us are better for it.”
Arlene ran to Mr. Krieger with arms wide open so fast and so hard that she tumbled forward. Her jaw collided against man’s strong shoulder. Something inside wiggled and came loose. Arlene tongued the newly empty socket as the sharp edge of change pushed its way through tender, bloody gums into the world to finally take its rightful place.
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