After the fire, Joan received a post from Next Door about free kittens. Looking at the picture of the five kittens lying peacefully next to their black mother, Joan thought about her dear cat, Henry, which disappeared after the fire, and decided she would adopt some. She picked them up from a kind old man who wore red-checkered slippers and smiled at her warmly. He handed her one kitten after another, and Joan pet the smooth black one and decided she would name it Midnight. The other one was Spot.
Joan felt like Noah saving the animals from the flood. After the fire they’d had no clothes, no toothbrushes, no bed to return to. The hotel smelled like air freshener. It took a month to find the rental, also foreign. She never knew where anything was. She would open up cabinet after cabinet to find plates. She made salad in a large pot, her salad bowl painted with sunflowers gone. She felt like everything she’d been able to supply for the family was gone. That plate a friend of Darren’s had made for their wedding, and the clothes she’d worn, well, they hadn’t been important, but the leather jacket she’d bought in a New York flea market had been precious to her. It had so many zippers. Joan liked zippers, how they closed pockets. Her life was a scattering.
When she arrived home with the kittens and cat food, the expensive kind that used organic chicken even though they were broke, Darren was at the kitchen table putting together documents for the insurance company. He lifted his head, looked at the kittens, and said, “Joan, for God’s sake.” He sighed.
“Now that Henry is gone, we should give a home to something else that needs it,” she said, pleading.
“We signed a contract that says ‘No Cats’,” said Darren. “Dammit, Joan.”
Spot began scratching on the rental’s blue couch and ripped lines across its plush surface, and Midnight lunged at Darren’s toes.
“What happened to that plastic pink bowl? We could put the water in it.” Joan brushed the hair out of her eyes and began rummaging through the cabinets with the handful of dishes they bought after the fire. They only had four bowls for the family, but she decided she’d just use a coffee mug for the tomatillo soup she would warm for dinner. Motherhood was sacrifice. She didn’t need a damn bowl.
Darren yelled, “Shit,” and kicked Midnight off his leg, where three thin scratches began bleeding. Spot went to the carpet and started kneading, then pissed.
“Oops, I forgot to buy a litter box.” Joan found a mixing bowl and poured cat litter into it and lifted Spot. She put him in it and he knocked it over. The litter scattered on the floor.
The next week she bought birds at Petco, chose them from a huge cage set in the middle of the store, parakeets blue and green that she named Pan and Bitsy. Her teenage children were playing with the kittens on the kitchen floor, and Joan set the cage with the parakeets on the table and said, “Look what I got!”
But the children remained indifferent to the birds, and though beautiful, they were noisy and covered the floor with seed and feathers, and the kittens would jump on the counter and try to knock the cage over. One day Midnight decided to lunge his whole body at the cage, and it fell. Pan and Bitsy flew across the living room and landed on the T.V. While flinging himself against the television screen as he flew up to try to catch one, Spot tumbled on the floor and meowed loudly.
Michele was reading a book and yelled, “Mom, Pan is pooping on the carpet. And aren’t we supposed to clip their wings?” she asked.
“Birds are meant to fly. That would be cruel.”
“Mom, they’re supposed to live in cages,” Michele reminded her.
Joan began to sweep up the birdseed and wipe down the spilled water. “Maybe we should put rocks in the cage to make it more heavy.” She looked out the window at the pebble-strewn square outside their house. Gathering a handful of pebbles, she thought about how amazing water was, how it can crumble mountains into small stones. She was thirsty. She came back into the house to pour herself a glass of water, but they had no glasses, so she found a coffee mug that said “I love New York” on it that she’d found at Goodwill, but it was crusty with last night’s dinner of barbeque pork, so she stuck her head in the sink and drank out of the tap.
Joan locked the kittens in the bathroom and spent an hour coaxing the birds back into the cage, now filled with gray stones. Pan had somehow lost his blue tail feather, which shimmered and made Joan think of the sea. She put it in the vase with the sage she had collected to purify the house of ghosts.
When Joan brought home the gerbils, which she named Sam and Artie, her family confronted her.
“Honey, this pet business is getting out of hand,” said Darren.
“But Michele has always wanted a gerbil!”
Michele looked at her, exasperated. “Mom, I was six years old then. I’m sixteen now.” She rolled her eyes.
Her son, Jeremy, peered down at the gerbils and asked, “Where do gerbils actually come from? Do they live wild somewhere?”
Joan thought about it and decided she would just say Australia, because it seemed like if they had kangaroos, they probably had gerbils, too. “Australia,” she said with conviction.
Joan looked in the aquarium, where one of the gerbils was running on its wheel. The kittens were swatting at the glass walls, and then Midnight jumped on top of it and peered down and scratched at the screen, looking hungry. Joan went outside and collected more pebbles and set them on the bottom of the aquarium.
The day the landlord from California called, she had just brought home a snake. It writhed and slept in the aquarium and ate mice she bought frozen because now she was getting attached to Sam and Artie, who were soft and furry to the touch and had perfect, small black eyes, and Joan decided she loved rodents. But then one morning she awoke and the snake was gone. She called his name, Lezane, which means “loved one,” because she had decided she would also love the snake even though it wasn’t furry and didn’t seem to do much except wrap itself around Jeremy’s body when he showed it to friends, its triangular head swaying near his neck like the rhythm of waves, which made her think of her landlord in LA and wonder if he surfed. She searched behind the couch and under the beds. She pulled all the clothes out of the hamper and even looked in the washer and dryer.
When the landlord called, he asked, “How’s it going?”
“Oh, great,” said Joan. “But the window shades in the living room broke.” Midnight and Spot had torn them apart with their sharp claws.
“No problem. We’ll fix them when we return.”
Joan liked her landlord. All landlords should live in California, she thought. They could surf on the Pacific waves while she claimed her new home.
A week later it turned out that the gerbil Sam was Samantha, and the cage was full of squirming pink babies. They were the color of worms, and Joan thought they were cute, but Jeremy said that maybe they should feed them to the Lezane if they ever found him. But Samantha was a bad mother. Before her babies could open their eyes, Samantha ate them all. One day they were writhing in the cedar chips, and the next day they were simply gone. At this point Joan felt a bit of regret.
She looked at the bags of cedar chips, the scattered seed, the blue feathers, the granules of cat litter on the wood floor, and listened to the cacophony of bird song. Sometimes it sounded like sirens.