When I was five years old my mother took me to Woolworth’s to buy a kitten for $2.99. Reduced from the original price of $5.99, they seemed like such a bargain. I picked the largest one, a yellow and white striped kitten I appropriately named Tiger. The sales lady was so nice. I remember her petting Tiger on his forehead as she instructed me to always “pet the kitty, and never, never pat him.”
I practiced a couple of times, slowly stroking Tiger from his forehead to the middle of his back. Even without instructions I knew never to touch or pull his tail. I petted Tiger twice more before he got shoved into a shoebox-like container with handles. I carried Tiger to the cash register and my mother forked over the three bucks.
“Are you happy?” she asked me with a smile, all the while looking at the snack counter adjacent to the registers.
“Yes, Mother. I am very, very happy,” I responded, holding Tiger’s box from the bottom with both hands. “I just wish Tiger was happier about being in this box. Why is he crying so much?”
“Come!” my mother said, oblivious to Tiger’s piercing meows. She reached her hand out for me to hold, but I couldn’t grasp it as I struggled with the box. “Let’s get you an ice-cream sundae while I get a Cola so I can take my pills.”
Everyday around three o’clock my mother took her three little pills. One pill was a little white one. When she swallowed this pill she always said, “Thank God for birth control!” She always said that. Sometimes very loudly with a grinning smile, but most of the time, sorta just under her breath. I thought it was nice that she took the time to thank God, the Father. Like grace before a meal.
The second pill was pale-yellow and oval shaped. This pill made my mother smile all the time, and sometimes slur her words. One time we were pulled off the highway by a Pennsylvania state trooper who claimed my mother was driving too slowly.
“Slow as Christmas,” he said.
The trooper checked her license and gave her a verbal warning. He also told my mother she had a beautiful smile. My mother turned to me and said three words, “it’s the pill.” That pill that made her smile all the time, also made her drive as slow as Christmas.
The third pill, the little red pill, was for my mother’s back pain. She referred to this pill as “the pain pill.” Without that pill, my mother was mean. She was mean because she was in pain. One morning she cursed at our milkman, Mr. O’Leary, for delivering sour milk once—three months ago. My mother had laid awake in bed at 6 a.m. listening for his truck to pull curbside before quickly jumping up, throwing on her robe and slippers and leaping out the front door to yell, “You son of a whore! Sour milk again and you’re history!” Only she couldn’t get “history” out. It sounded like “hidery” or “hickory”, or ‘hinery.”
I prayed every night before I went to bed that my mother would always have an adequate supply of her red pills.
At the snack counter in Woolworth’s my mother ordered her Cola and a vanilla fudge sundae for me. I loved the sundaes at Woolworth’s because they made them with lots of whipped cream, the kind sprayed on top with an upside-down tin can.
The price of the sundae was determined by the price written on a tiny piece of paper inserted into a balloon, then blown up and hung all around the counter. Some balloons had slips of paper that read 99 cents, and others read one cent, though most were for 59 cents. The rule was this: a customer finished his or her sundae, then selected a balloon. The waitress would then take her pen and pop the balloon and read the price.
After my mother took her pills and I finished my sundae she told me to pick a balloon that had a price under 59 cents because she only had a dollar and a quarter left and needed to pay for both the sundae and the Cola.
I thought that was going to be really hard because I could not see any prices and the last time I popped a balloon it was for 99 cents. I was really feeling the pressure as my mother opened her handbag and started taking things out, searching its bottom for loose change. She was cursing now, not at the milkman, but at me! How could this be?
I then did only what I knew I should do to solve this very bad situation. I reached down to the floor and put tiger’s box onto my lap. I opened the box and petted Tiger for luck. I knew Tiger would bring me luck – enough luck to choose the right balloon that would stop my mother from cursing.
The waitress, hearing my mother’s swearing to Jesus Christ, now looked bewildered as she leaned forward to ask me, “Well, kid, which balloon?”
My tummy started to ache. I closed my eyes and said, “The yellow one to the left of the milkshake maker, please, oh please!” The waitress gave my mother a cold stare before clicking her pen and reaching up to the yellow balloon. Just then I noticed my mother patting Tiger on the forehead.
“No!” I yelled. “Don’t pat him, pet him!” The balloon popped. It sounded like a gunshot. It scared Tiger so much that he jumped out of the box and made a mad dash to the record department.
The waitress, unaware of what just happened, turned to us and screamed, “One cent! I don’t believe this. I’ve never seen one for only one cent.”
“That’s fucking great,” my mother said, as she slammed down one dollar, telling the waitress to “keep the change.” My mother hadn’t noticed Tiger was gone.
“He’s gone,” I cried. “Please help me find him.” My crying was loud with horrible choking sounds.
My mother grabbed my wrist and said, “Don’t worry, honey, I’ll help you find Tommy.”
“His name is not Tommy, it’s Tiger, and you are not supposed to pat him. You should pet him. He hates patting. He hates to be called Tommy. He hates to be called a son of a whore. He hates his box, and he hates loud noises, like the kind balloons make when you pop them.”
My mother alerted the young girl in the record department, and she went and got a security guard who made a phone call that was broadcast over a public address system. And somebody said they saw a kitten fitting Tiger’s description make a mad dash out the automatic doors, to the open pedestrian mall area, and into the parking lot and out to the wooded area behind the gas station, over by where the 18-wheeler trucks park and refuel before getting back onto Interstate 95 on their way to Florida. Tiger was history.
My mother tried to console me by suggesting I take my receipt back to the pet department and pick out another kitten. But I just couldn’t. I couldn’t. We had one chance with Tiger, and we blew it, mom.