A tangle of black kittens played in the small, fenced-in yard just behind the dumpsters one summer morning as I went to dump my trash. I hurried back in, filled a lunch bag with cat food, and tossed it over the chain link fence onto the lime-colored grass. They sprang onto it, all except for one, a puff of black fur no bigger than my hand.
I pressed my face against the gate and heard a faint wheezing sound as the tiny shape expanded and contracted, so I walked around to the opposite side. The eyes were badly caked over with yellow, as sometimes happens with feral kittens. Aside from the tiny head, he was all ears and bushy tail connected by a small, matted clump of long, black fur.
As soon as I started up the fence, the other kittens bolted. I climbed down and slowly approached the sick one, but when I was only a few steps away from grabbing range, the kitten spun around, then darted straight for the gap between the bottom of the gate and the grass. As soon as he was outside the gate, he stopped cold, lay on his stomach, and huffed and puffed, making that wheezing sound all the while.
I climbed back up the fence across from the gate, the same way I came, so as not to startle him. Once up and out of the yard, my simple plan was to sneak around slowly to the gate, then try for the quick grab again. When I darted towards him, he somehow found just enough wind and will to again spin around and escape under the gate back into the tall grass of the yard.
This went on for what seemed like a long time, long enough for me to nearly give up; but then finally, after one of the kitten’s mad dashes out of the fenced-in yard, when he was wheezing like crazy, I simply walked up, picked him up, and carried him into my mobile home. I set him down on the wood floor of the bathroom, then went about scrounging up a litter box, water, food, and bowls.
I didn’t have enough money for a vet, so I consulted a lady I knew who ran a no-kill cat shelter on her own, even though she held down a paying job as well, and the stress of it all was killing her. I drove out there to rural Russell Village and paid her what I could. She gave me some eye drops and liquid antibiotics, which I brought back to Puff, who had climbed into my peeling, blue bathtub and was huffing and wheezing like there might not be a tomorrow.
I opened the tiny bathroom window and put a fan in there, but it was still too hot. Mobile homes are like giant, hot, tin boxes in summertime, but I couldn’t let him out into the air conditioned “living room” with my healthy cats. I thought of my father’s big, white, immaculate house, only minutes away, with its several empty, air-conditioned rooms (since his divorce), and an empty, cool basement.
The old man wasn’t exactly an animal lover, but he petted my cats when he visited, didn’t have a cat allergy, and I couldn’t help envisioning him taking Puff in temporarily, with me agreeing to stop by twice a day to medicate him. My father was always asking me to visit him more often. He might even find in Puff a companion to help him deal with his loneliness. A sick kitten might even bring my father and me closer together.
I called my dad and asked how he was doing. He wondered if I would be stopping by to visit soon.
I said sure and then told him about Puff, how I’d found him, finally caught him, and then explained Puff’s dilemma. I waited to hear his deep, low voice say something like, “Well, I have a nice, cool basement over here,” but there was only silence. It was a silence I knew well.
“You know humans can’t catch diseases from other species, right?” I said.
“You can’t save them all,” he said.
“Yes, but we can save THIS one. Dad, if you don’t help, he might not make it.”
“Not everything can survive, son. Not everything survives.”
Twice a day I gave Puff his medications in the hot bathroom. I’d load him into a carrier and set it on the toilet seat whenever I had to take a bath. The steam helped clear up his lungs. The worst part was that my healthy cats kept sniffing under the bathroom door,so I suffered several panic attacks about massive veterinary bills since the lady who ran the cat shelter could only spare very limited amounts of medications. But those fears didn’t come true; instead, his eyes continued clearing up, his breathing normalized, and his appetite became legendary.
His recovery was nearly total; only the fact that his right eye remained watery, as if he’d been crying only from that eye, reminded me of his illness; and when I could finally afford it, I took him to the spay/neuter clinic to be “fixed” and tested. Puff was given a clean bill of health and joined my family of indoor cats.
My father kept calling. Sometimes I even took his call and spoke to him. Over the years he talked about many things: China’s growing economy, the rising value of gold investments, the difficulties of retirement, his loneliness. He offered to buy me dinner, and invited me, more and more insistently, to come and visit. I never did, but I tried to listen, sometimes even strained to listen, always aware of his age and knowing that he was not long for this life; but nothing he said reached me, as though I heard his words only faintly, as though they were nearly drowned out by louder echoes of words he’d once said to me: “Not everything survives.”
Frank Grigonis teaches English, plays guitar on youtube, and is working on a novel.