Our rooming house hovered over an abandoned storefront, a second-floor dimension not everyone could touch or see. Sometimes police officers stood at the bottom of the oak staircase and shouted up names of people who were wanted, but the officers must have questioned the stability of the staircase or the substance of the second floor, because they never came up those stairs. They shouted, and no one responded to them, except to yell meaningless obscenities. But on Sundays, old Jehovah’s Witnesses ladies climbed the stairs in their pumps and stockings, because the invisible was real enough to them. They knocked on doors, looking for tenants who were desperate enough to accept Jesus as a personal savior, and we hid in our rooms, terrified.
One day, our landlady woke at two in the afternoon to a sack of kittens. The door to her two-and-a-half rooms had been left unlocked in the night, and someone had left a crisp brown grocery sack beside her bed. She’d stepped upon a corner of the sack as she got up, and when the sole of her foot felt the warmth of wriggling flesh beneath the brown paper, she screamed. Those of us who were awake when she screamed rushed from our rooms to hers, keen for a new drama to distract us. The betrayals of the previous night that had finally put us all to bed, angry and cussing, were dim trails back to darkness in the afternoon haze. Awake, we became anxious for the revelry to ramp up again, and it began that day with this sack of kittens.
Who toted those kittens up the stairs? No one knew, though we all wondered if it might have been one of us. Memories were often hazy, so arguments often broke out over what had really happened in regard to an incident. The kittens, though, were a warm, soft miracle, so, rather than argument, there was speculation about whether the kittens had been found like that, swarming, nearly blind in a paper sack, or if they had been collected from an alleyway and placed in the sack for easy transport. The landlady, who never left the rooming house, sent Billy to the store for her red port wine and for a half-pint of milk, too, and then she took a seat in the wing chair beside her bed, as her tenants settled to the floor. No one had yet touched the kittens, and the landlady forbade us to, as they might have fleas, so talk turned to speculations about what had happened the previous night, and from there to remorse, and from there to promises that whatever had happened would certainly never happen again.
When Billy returned, the landlady poured the half-pint of milk into an ashtray and set it on the floor beside the sack. Some of the kittens continued to doze contentedly, snuggled against each other like rags, but others began to mew and fuss. Could the kittens get out of the sack by themselves? No one knew, but soon two of the kittens became boisterous, stepping on their sleeping siblings, trying to claw their way up the high walls of the paper sack. They were too light, only a few ounces of nearly newborn flesh and fur, to collapse the sturdy paper of the sack, but the scent of milk enticed them. We urged the two brave kittens on, creating names for them – Spook for the gray tabby and Scat for the money cat – and soon small bets for cigarettes and beers were being placed about who would get out first.
“Look,” cried the landlady from her seat. “Spook is going to make it!” The little gray tabby had learned to leap, and kept jumping against the side of the bag, rocking it a bit so that the tipping seemed inevitable. “He’s tough,” one of us declared. “A survivor,” said another. “Not some candy-ass,” said a third.
The sleeping kittens were dismissed by all of us as losers, and soon Spook had indeed tipped the bag enough to crawl over the edge, topple to the floor, and make his way to the solace of the milk. And all of us praised him as one of our own, lifting our bottles and plastic cups in tribute to him as he lapped at the milk, harking back to memories of our own cleverness in escaping some dead-end job or unsuitable spouse or misbehaving child and finding freedom, and we praised Scat in turn when he, too, escaped from the sack, as a survivor, a winner. The other kittens were forgotten as the afternoon darkened into evening, and someone, maybe me, kicked the sack under the landlady’s bed during a squabble that broke out over stolen cigarettes during the business of finding solace from our unworthiness in the rooming house that hovered over an abandoned storefront, a second-floor dimension not everyone could touch or see.
“Kitten Sack” is excerpted from Before the Bar, Michele Leavitt’s (as yet) unpublished memoir about her journey from teenage runaway to trial attorney. She earned her J.D. from Suffolk University Law School, and her M.F.A. from Vermont College of Fine Arts. Her poetry and prose are most recently published in Per Contra, Mezzo Cammin, The Journal, and Umbrella. “No Trespassing,” an essay about violence against women, won the 2010 William Allen Award from The Ohio State University and received a “notable” listing in Best American Essays 2011.