Beasts of Burden


She finds the kittens in the hallway, in a box just to the right of the door, on the morning she moves in. The apartment is in one of the last rent-controlled buildings left in Crown Heights, or so her broker has said. She believes him, though. She is in love with this building—it is prewar, faded brick and cracked friezes, beautiful—and besides, he has helped her find all three of her apartments. First the five-bedroom loft in Bushwick with a painter, a photographer, a dancer, and a poet—all men, most of them gay, and they made less money than she did so she took the only room with a closet. Then the three-bedroom in Bed-Stuy, where she moved with the poet-turned-marketing-assistant and the dancer who was actually making it. Finally, she can afford to live alone. She has dragged her suitcase up the four flights of scuffed marble stairs, unable to stop smiling. She has planned out already where to set up her walnut writing desk, an antique, her great-grandmother’s. It will now sit proudly under the largest window in this apartment, in the living room, where the previous tenants had placed plushy ottomans. The kittens, in their cardboard box, mewl and wail—the box is tall, the kind an analog TV would fit in, but the kittens scramble weakly up the sides of it anyway, searching for a way out. She hasn’t met the couple who lived here before, she only walked through their fussily furnished living room, kitchen, bedroom and en suite bathroom: the ottomans, the imitation Oriental rugs, the heavy, dark drapes over the windows, the pink and red lamps with tassels swinging down from the shades, and the tassels did swing, madly, when the A train, dozens of feet below, rumbled by. Funny, she remembers seeing no evidence of cats—no clumps of hair on the rugs, no ragged edges on the sofa, no beige carpeted cat tree, no food or water bowls, no litter box. She has always wondered what kind of people abandon animals in this way—packing up, leaving, maybe taking the mother cat, now spayed, with them? Don’t forget to leave the kittens outside the door. Did they think their neighbors would come by and scoop each kitten up, one by one? More likely they figured the kittens would be her problem, like the ornery toilet or the cupboards that had been installed backwards or the front gas burner that never worked. Welcome home.

She lets go of her suitcase—it is filled with her laptop, her best pens and notebooks, and her first edition books, the only things she couldn’t entrust to the movers. She used several scarves to wrap the books, put the pens in baggies in case they burst. She bends over the box, notices now that there is a scrap of lined paper, its frayed edges Scotch-taped to one of the flaps of the box, and on the paper, in blue cursive, is the word Kittens. She laughs—how absurd, to take time to spell this out in prim handwriting, as though the kittens would otherwise be mistaken for snakes. There are six of them—one light grey, one dark grey, one brown, two striped orange, and one white. The white one is the smallest and has a patch of black fur over its left eye. Their yellow eyes gleam up at her, their tattered whiskers askew. She unlocks the apartment door, having trouble getting the key in, turning it the wrong way, then turning it the right way, toward the door frame instead of away from it. She discovers that she has to pull the door knob toward her while simultaneously pushing the door in with her knee. She is familiar with these cold, solid doors and their old locks—there is always a trick, a rhythm of twisting, pushing, pulling, her body against the door like a lover. She lifts the box and carries it inside, then retrieves her suitcase from the hallway, wedges it between the door and its frame. The movers will be here soon. She wonders if the couple has left anything else behind, labeled so she would know what it was. She opens all of the backwards cupboards, the drawers, the refrigerator, everything creaking, but no, there is nothing else, just the kittens, who are mewling again, worried she’s forgotten them. She could run down to the bodega across the street, pick up some tuna and milk. Or she could introduce herself to one of her neighbors on the fourth floor, ask them for scraps, tell them she’s just moved in down the hall and she’s taking up a collection. Her first time living alone, and already she is the crazy cat lady of the building, and it’s true, yes, that sometimes she prefers the company of her writing desk and a glass of cabernet sauvignon to the company of men.

She moves back toward the box, reaches down to lift the little one with white fur and a patch over its eye. Though she is tiny, this kitten, she is the loudest of the litter—such a cruel word, she has always thought, the same word for rotting apple cores or cigarette butts, the same word for a box that houses buried cat turds and clumps of hardened urine, the more obsolete usage denoting a bed of straw and dung, but still there was a more modern formulation of litter-as-bed, right up into the late nineteenth century, a sort of couch shrouded in curtains, used to transport the sick or the wounded, carried on men’s shoulders or by beasts of burden—that phrase she remembers distinctly, beasts of burden. She holds this smallest kitten, strokes its fur, feels its wiry body begin to relax against her chest, its claws seize and then release the fabric of her shirt.

“Little pirate,” she says. “Welcome home.”  

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