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The girl’s lips parted. “But game’s not over,” she moaned. I looked at her, crooked my lips and shook my head with a shrug. The girl’s eyes flicked over the board. “Can’t take any more?” my brother teased, “She wear you out already?” The girl rapidly moved the pieces across the board, her arms cranking, flashing like metal spokes in a music box. The game pieces stacked in piles to the side of the board as she leapt them over each other, red black red. The girl stood and exclaimed, “You win!” I locked eyes with my brother, “Why bother?”
It felt like we were in a warehouse, the fluorescent lights and the white-white walls, I felt exposed. I was glad to be short, young, a kid, excusable in being dragged along by my mother’s devotion to the Lotus of Buddha. Her leather purse, the one with flowers stamped along the lip, held her prayer book and the bead strand, along with her discount cigarettes, steak colored lipstick, and the keys to other people’s houses. Later I’d have to haul the vacuum out of the Corolla and listen to her complain about her bad back while she cleaned those houses.
I was taller than most of the ladies. Tiny Japanese women, former war brides, war refugees, long-time natives of Tacoma, Washington, pioneers, few of them spoke English. My mother bowed, Konichiwa, and smiled, her hands pressed together displaying yellow stained fingers of a seasoned chain smoker while her lipstick cracked apart. I was embarrassed. A couple of women tittered and smiled, Irrasshaimase, panning their cupped hands over the room to indicate we could sit where we wanted. Domo arigato gozaimasu, my mother said. I heard the women whispering Gaijin, Gaijin. They settled into rows, tucking red mats under their knees.
My mother hadn’t brought mats, we didn’t have mats. She had invested two nights of dinner in beads alone. “Next time we’ll have a mat,” she said. The woman next to me nudged me with her elbow and a river of words flowed from her as she jabbed her fingers to the other side of the room. “I think there are mats over there,” I said. “You go and see,” mom said. “But what if they aren’t free?” “They won’t charge you. If they do send them to me.” “But, mo-om, I can’t talk. They probably won’t talk either so…”
“So go over,” she pushed me up. “They aren’t going to say no to a cute little blond girl like you.” All I could think of was Nazi Germany and the American bombing of Hiroshima. Being a little blond girl could get me killed in some parts of the world. I knew well enough that blonds have more fun and pay the penalty for it. If we don’t now, we will some day, I’m still sure of that. A wood rack was propped against the far wall with mats filed perpendicular. I reached for a mat and a man approached.
I didn’t understand a word he said. He was tall as my shoulder and hunched with his face wrinkled and sunken so he looked like a mummy, like one of those NOVA specials on pre-Vikings trapped in peat moss bogs and preserved, dehydrated and furrowed like an apple-head doll. “I’m sorry,” I said, dropping my hand. The man laughed, his head tossed back and I could see him young and teasing on a sunny day somewhere far away from this warehouse Buddhist temple. “Take,” he said, “take.” I held up two fingers and he nodded, “Sure, sure.” “OrReGahTo,” I said.
I hurried back to my mother, feeling thoroughly conspicuous. We were the only white people in the building. I was the only child in the building. More women shuffled into rows on the floor without guidelines or instruction. They all seemed older than my mother and shorter than me. They put their bags to one side; canvas totes, rumpled grocery sacks, silk pouches; and deftly wrapped beads through their fingers. One after another the chanting began. All those voices and then my mother’s, hers clear and tight, tongue sharp on her teeth, so different from the slouching, old Japanese women.
I remember sitting on the brown striped sofa, five years old, my bright blue shorts riding up. The sofa’s alternating wool and velveteen fabric made my legs itch. I remember this day because I’m thirty now. Birthdays, shit, bills, ruined boyfriend and the empty beer bottles: I never liked birthdays. Five years old and my mother can’t bake. What a fucking gyp. Aaron always got a cake. He’d invite me over and make me eat a piece all the while knowing my mom couldn’t bake. Not that his mom baked, either. She bought his cake at a bakery in town.
My father pretends he doesn’t know my birthday is coming. Still. He never liked acknowledging anniversaries. Through the years it was always my mother that made sure I had a present, a card and a cake, no matter how foul smelling and brown. To this day my mom sends me a package: a pair of acrylic crochet booties, an orange acrylic crochet poncho, a set of acrylic crochet pot holders that melted when I grabbed a pan from the oven. My father sometimes gave me a book or an album, something he was through with and figured I wouldn’t mind.
For the most part I’ve gotten over it: my father’s ambivalence and my mother’s cluelessness. He never expects me to remember anything and she doesn’t dare ask for more than an occasional phone call. As distanced as they are now, it is by their own doing. Their choice in the matter as drawn out from the first time I remember, when I was five. Carl tries to make up for it. Threatens me with parties, asks me daily what I want months in advance: you know the type. Those people who always had it made. It was always so easy.
Carl’s family calls him, ships him boxes of mementos and gift cards and relics from his childhood that they carefully preserved though they moved across the nation to retire in the sun. My folks divorced, burned the memories away with their anger, threw out marbles and journals and tugged me between them until I broke apart and landed in my father’s house, unknowing of what to expect, of what was to come, of what I should do or what I could say. But when I was five they were together and I didn’t think people ever fell out of love.
I didn’t know how anything worked except the record player. I remember my dad watched me, his fist out ready to flick a finger of scrutiny. “Ahgt-ahgt-ahgt,” he’d jag, if he thought I would drop the needle too quick, too far in, too far out. By five I could cue the tracks. He’d say, “Put on ‘Wanted Dead or Alive’,” and it’d be done careful to keep him resting on the sofa. On my birthday my mom said I should put on whatever music I liked. I knew my dad wanted reggae. It was all he listened to those days.
What I liked, what I really wanted to hear, the album that made me transport from the stale air of that crappy little house was Camelot. Richard Burton in tights. I already knew he was dreamy because the album opened up to a photo montage of him and Julie Andrews singing in the lusty May breeze of a closed movie set. Looking back, my father must have found Camelot insulting. What would the simple folk do, indeed? They’d tell their daughters to stop listening to Camelot and wizen up to the government regulations compromising the simple folk’s quality of life.
It was a few months before my fifth birthday that I managed to beg my parents into obtaining the one thing I wanted more than anything else in the whole world. Being five, my needs were pretty limited and my wants revolved around other mammals. Specifically, I wanted a kitten. A kitten I could call my own. A kitten with whiskers and a tail and retractable claws, though I didn’t realize how sharp they’d end up being. I wanted rotating ears, a hunger for tuna fish and the urge to sleep on my pillow at night. Words were not enough.
They made the fatal mistake of taking me to the grocery store and walking me by a teenager with a cardboard box on the curb by the entry. I may have said something like, “OOOOOOOOO! KIT-T-TENS” Or, “Can I have one, Can I Can I Can I Can I Can I?” Thinking back, I’m pretty sure I heard the mewling before we left the car. I think I knew my day had come. I had already experienced the subtle disappointment of birthdays, I didn’t know yet that the feeling would carry over forever, I was hopeful, I had a vision.
A vision of me and a cat curled on the sofa in sweet, sweet mammal love. I wish I had never asked for it. But I suppose that’s what living is. My father sure didn’t want a cat. “I don’t want a cat in the house,” he said. “Especially not a kitten.” My mother said, “Oh, Hal.” And picked up the calico runt. The teen ran her fist under her nose and sniffled. “Five dollars,” she said. “It’ll spray. It’ll claw things. It’ll stink up the place. It’ll shed.” Mom pointed to me as her argument. How could he win?
I think I was either attempting to drape all the kittens on my shoulders or was throwing a tantrum. I can’t recall. I wasn’t one for making a scene but I do remember how fervently I wanted, how palpable the desire, how desperate and determined I was. I would not leave the store without a cat. My dad insisted we take care of the groceries and if I still wanted a kitten after we could consider it. This may have worked on other children, but I doubt it. Thirty now, I know what my father was hoping and how pathetic.
Mom led us back through the same doors and past the girl. All the kittens were still there, including the one I’d locked my heart on. I didn’t know gender. I didn’t care if it was a boy or girl. It was grey with the tiniest patch of white, a dollop, a spill, a thumbprint, a cork-sized white mark on his chest. His belly was round and hot and his eyes were green. I held him up to my parents and said, “I want this one.” Mom held the calico to her heart and closed her eyes. It purred butterscotch.
“Fine,” dad said, handed the teenager a ten and shoved the grocery cart to the car. My mother grinned and told me to hold my kitten tight in the car. When we got home dad laid the rules: no cats in any rooms except the shared areas. “You know that won’t work,” said mom. “She’s going to have them in her room.” “Fine.” I held my kitten high above my head, supported by palms, his tail twirling anxious, a worm wriggled from his ass and I realized the cat was mine, mine forever, my pet, my kitten, my perfect. “Yippy!”
If I could have had any cat I wanted, the ideal was a white and fluffy. Now I know it to be a Himalayan, preferably flame-point. Then I simply wanted white and fluffy. Fluffy enough to never feel the bones, fluffy enough to have the claws disappear behind the foot fur, fluffy enough to turn the shed into yarn. White so I could name her snowflake. A female she must be. But I never got the fluffy white cat. She wasn’t around then. She still isn’t. And now I wonder if maybe I won’t let myself have her, on purpose.
The kittens were always fun. My dad came around quick. It wasn’t before bed time the day we got them that he was laughing at them. They crooked their tails and tripped; they crossed paws and fell; they climbed with prickle sounds and wriggled before they jumped. They smelt like chocolate bars. Dad cursed when he saw the worms. He took them to the vet the next day. I had to force the pills. He didn’t want to have claw marks, he said. We felt more like a family this way. I kept the bowl full, mom and dad laughed.
As the day got closer, my mom ramped my birthday. “Do you want a Sally Suzy doll?” “Do you need socks?” How could I tell her I had everything I wanted? Everything in the kitten, in his big belly, in his pounce, in his curling tail and direct nature. Mom named the calico Pumpernickel and kept asking me what I’d name my kitten. “Smokey? Ash? Pussywillow?” I named him Battleship. He took to sitting on my shoulder like how I imagined a gun would, resting there waiting to attack. And he did. Once I walked by Dad and Battleship jumped.
Carl had a cat named Frankie when he was a kid. He’s told me many times about how he didn’t get along with Frankie and spent time with the family dog, Rapier, instead. I asked him once if we could get a pet but Carl said he couldn’t stand the hair. He is particular. Tidy. For my last birthday, 29, he took me to a downtown restaurant with a view and invited everyone he could think of. Less than ten people showed. They felt obliged to bring gifts. A journal, a record, a book, a pack of gum from Japan.
This year I told him to leave it alone. He kept asking me if he could rent a room at the beach or organize a party. “It’s the big three oh,” he argued, “You can’t ignore it. Your friends will want to celebrate.” Then I remembered my mom, “You’ll be turning five. It’s a big age. In a few months you’ll start the first grade!” And then she smothered me, stuffed me into her skin and polyester, the smell of her sweat and Jean Nate perfume. I wished my kitten could interrupt, kindly claw her leg so she’d drop me.
That bottle of perfume, so yellow, with the stylized butterfly; the way her blouse cut open because the buttons were too small for the holes; the leather clogs she always wore though the heels of her feet were callused and cracked raw; her calico kitty always on her lap, at her feet, in her hands, purring so loud I could hear them in my room, my mother’s murmurs and the cat’s reply. Battleship and I would sit on my bed, side by side, and pretend we were someplace else: Paris, Berlin, Tokyo, Cape Town, any place better than another birthday.
And then it was my birthday, my fifth, and Battleship was still beside me when I woke. His green eyes slit and a slow, deliberate purr as he watched me scratch my head. When I kicked my feet out he curled his face under his tail and resolved to sleep. I shimmied into clothes, proud to remember underwear and socks first. Then I flopped by Battleship and felt the fineness of him, his tiny nose, one tiny paw, until my mother knocked and entered with her smell and her smile. “Good morning, birthday girl! Are you excited? Ready for presents?”
I cupped Battleship onto my shoulder and followed mother into the family room. I sat on the sofa, Battleship slipped to my side, and I felt the wool prickle my legs as my shorts hitched up. I didn’t feel any older. I wore the same clothes as always. Dad still ignored me, his paper up over his face while he read. He still ate eggs with ketchup. Mom still bustled in the kitchen pretending she knew how to cook. Battleship walked over my legs, dropped to the floor and went from view. Hungry, I thought, He’s getting food. How wrong.
Dad had dictated the kittens be outdoor cats. He said he would have nothing to do with a litter box. I didn’t know what that meant. It seemed right. Of course they go outside. That’s what cats do. They come back with brambles and rodents and smelling of moss until the next morning when the chocolate smell returns. Mom plied me with soda and cupcakes for breakfast. “You can have anything you want, dearest.” I didn’t know what I wanted. Not really. Now I’d ask for understanding, less pretense, fore-knowledge. At age five, I wanted to never go to school.
After the cake, after the unwrapped doll, the unwrapped book, the unwrapped miniature bubblegum machine, I wanted to go to my room. I was both overwhelmed and underwhelmed. How could they not know me? What was there to know? All I could think about was Battleship. How the perfect birthday would be letting me follow him outdoors and watch him climb trees and shadow grasshoppers. I wanted to be Battleship. I wanted to sleep all day wherever and whenever, on dad’s lap even. I wanted to eat alone, by the dryer, with no mom to push more food on me.
Aaron had knocked on the door, invited himself in. He said happy birthday and handed me a gift but he looked odd. He wasn’t proud, self-congratulatory as usual. I tore the paper and inside was a board game. “You should play,” Dad suggested. Aaron shrugged. “Wanna go outside?” “Yes.” Aaron led me down the street. “You got a kitten?” “Uhhuh.” “I saw one down there,” he pointed across the street. “Is it yours?” I saw on the curb a lump of red. I never told mom or dad. They wondered what happened to Battleship but Pumpernickel was enough for them.
The Tip Jar