It is easy now to look back on that night and sort of lose the perspective and the context of the night. I wonder why I didn’t put the thing up under my shirt so it could get warm against my body and take it home and crack a can of tuna for the both of us. Usually, I choose to forget that I was as wet and hungry and cold and alone as that stupid animal and had no place to come from or go to. I like to forget these things. It’s better that way, but sometimes, for the sake of a story, you remember.
I stood there for a while, getting no wetter or colder as I had reached the depths of those sensations hours ago, wondering what it meant in the grand scheme of the world that I had become the owner of a beast. I thought about taking it out and setting it down again, but really, from the time I lifted it off the sidewalk I felt responsibility for the thing. I mean if I set it down now it would die and it would be my fault. I finally decided to head over to Marty’s to warm up and think.
Now Marty’s Donut Land is a unique little refuge for those like me because it opens at midnight. It also happens to offer a free cup of coffee provided you have enough pocket change for the donut. On nights like that night, a hundred and six cents was invaluable to me as it gave me a space and a time to get warm and dry and fed without too much hassle. The folks down at Marty’s generally want to like everyone as that is the sort of small town I had been frequenting and they consequently wanted to like me. The problem is I am a wholly unlikable person by almost all standards starting with the fact that you can’t call me by name. I don’t have one. They resolved to tolerate me since they could do nothing better, and I respect them for their choice. They, in turn, respect my humanity by serving me a cup of coffee and always expecting me to pay full price.
So I sat there pondering the meaning of kitten ownership while my socks pretended to dry and my hands actually got warm wrapped around the mug. Until about a half hour ago I was the sole proprietor of a windbreaker with a broken zipper, a hooded sweat shirt, three t-shirts, one pair of pants, three socks with holes and one without, a knit hat and a pair of sneakers. Everything was wet except for one t-shirt and a pair of mismatched socks, which were only dirty, my back half of a Book of Common Prayer, and my harmonica that were all living peaceably together in my bag. Now everything was wet except for nothing, and I owned a cat that I suddenly cared very deeply for and could not feed. I couldn’t reconcile this.
It was one thing if I could not feed myself. This was and always would be my own fault. If I couldn’t find my own food and was too proud to beg and too moral to steal very often, I was the only one to blame. But this thing now living in my bag with my few other possessions could do nothing about the fact that it had been claimed and could not choose one way or the other to better its situation. It was at this point not its own fault that it was starving, it was mine. And just like setting it back down again would be some type of cruel murder so would not feeding it. However the only way I saw to feed it would be to ask for a handout which I had not ever done and would not ever do. Similarly, I did not pick up kittens, yet I knew there was one sleeping in my bag between my feet and it was hungry.
I flipped open the bag just to be sure. It opened its eyes at the disturbance, made a strange sort of tired and starving but at least warm kitten smile and went back to sleep. Yes it was there and yes it was mine.
I don’t know that I ever reached a philosophical conclusion to my problem, but I do know that I reached a physical one. I am still shocked when I remember myself standing up and walking awkwardly over to the counter. What I said was something like, “Look, I don’t do this and I think you know that, but I have this kitten now that I found tonight and so I guess its mine. It needs something to eat that’s all.” At that point I realized what I was doing, shut my mouth and went back to my cat-bundle to finish my coffee.
Much to my combined dismay and relief, my host came over after a few minutes of digging around behind the counter and set a dish of milk on the table. He asked to see the cat and after a few moments of inspection he introduced the kitten to the milk by my feet. I was too engrossed in watching my animal eat contentedly to notice that my host pulled up a chair and sat down. I jumped when he started talking.
He said, “I don’t give handouts because you don’t take them. This for me is an investment and since your partner is already eating his breakfast you can’t at this point say no because I know you don’t have change to pay for it.” I winced when I realized I was trapped but whether he noticed or not he just kept talking. “You may not have a name but that cat down there needs one. I will pay you the cost of the milk for his naming rights. You call him Marty. He can be a four-legged billboard if anyone asks you about it. I intend to protect my investment as well. If he ever gets hungry or cold or sick you bring him here and let me know. He is welcome here any time.”
With that he left the table and went to visit with some regulars. I put my wet shoes back on while I waited for Marty to finish, then I tucked him back in my bag and we headed out into the cold together. He was full and happy and therefore I was happy which is something I could not remember being for a long time.
Marty took fairly well to the vagabond life he had been born in to and eventually we found out that he was actually a she when she had kittens. There was some sort of contest at the donut shop to parcel out the kittens when they were old enough. One still lives at the shop and I think another ended up at the police station. Marty and I live in an apartment a few towns over and we do pretty well for ourselves. You might wonder how I got from this place to that one but well, that’s not a story worth remembering.