Ask the Cat came free with the car the winter a lot of things came free for me. A couple months after I left my house and husband and moved my kids into a one-bedroom apartment that reeked like fresh paint and old furnace gas. Checks folded inside flowery stationery came in the mail, sometimes from people I barely knew, and it didn’t feel right but I always cashed them.
I got the car, this old beast of a Volvo wagon, from a friend who said she was going to donate it anyway, so she’d rather give it to me. She’d moved out of her marriage in that car, too. “Drive it like an Amish pony,” she said. 236,109 miles on the odometer. I loved that car.
The Ask the Cat cards were in the glove box in an envelope marked “Important Documents,” stashed between the title and the repair records. I played those cats like the I-Ching, laid one hand flat on the deck and asked my questions. They said “take a chance” and “tell the truth” and “trust life.” Mostly rah-rah stuff like that with a few stingers thrown in to think on. On the box in small print was “Daily Wisdom From Your Inner Cat.” That winter, and all the spring and summer that followed, I took wisdom wherever it was offered. I took just about anything.
Roxie and Lila stayed the first half of every week with me so I could work nights the other half while they were with him. They slept on twin mattresses on the bedroom floor and I crashed in the living room on a futon couch I rarely bothered dropping to a bed. We grocery shopped with a pretty state-issued card that had a dark blue sky and a Conestoga wagon on the front, and when I picked up enough freelance gigs, most of the bills got paid.
There wasn’t much time for freelance, though, and no way could I work when the girls were home.
On her own, the little one, Lila, might have been one of those mellow toddlers who’d sit by a bookshelf all day looking page by page through anything she could reach. She hated having dirty hands and even at two she put away toys when she finished playing. But Roxie, that one was pure energy and Lila always charged right up with her.
Together they never quit moving or making noise unless they were asleep, and sometimes not even then. If they were awake they were talking, and if they were talking they were walking fast circles on the living room rug or climbing up the back of the couch or jumping off the little green slide beside it.
The first morning of summer vacation I set my body for early and woke before sunrise when the sky was still a flat gray. The way I always did on deadline and it was a deadline day. Sharing tight space, you learn to steal moments in the grace of any hour you can, and sometimes you just don’t sleep. I learned how many days I could ride on black coffee and crushed Ritalin tablets before the dizzy all through my head and arms and ankles told me to grab the closest anything and hold steady.
My story that day was hybrid technology and I’d already taken two extensions. This was the drop dead deadline.
I pushed my body up on the futon mattress with one arm until I could reach the slatted blinds, parted them with two fingers. Those three glorious windows lined up side by side by side along the south wall to deliver the day. I lay there looking up through the glass squares and window panes, through the leaves, patches of sky. The way they let the outside in made my apartment feel bigger than it was.
My eyes burned a little on the inside corners. Emma Lou, the fat grey cat we watched that summer, was curled warm against the backs of my knees. One bird sang her early morning song. There was quiet around the notes.
I reached under the futon for my computer and notebooks and recorder to get to work without getting out of bed. It was just six steps across the room to the desk, but the girls were sleeping in the bedroom and the lightest nothing of a noise could wake them, so I stayed put. The kind of light that was in the room drained all the colors to blue-grey and it meant about two hours to work, three if they slept in.
I held a pillow over the computer’s speaker to muffle the start up noise. It was a slow old thing that came on loud and ran with a kind of high-pitch. The password screen had my ex-mother-in-law’s name. She gave the computer to my ex, who gave it to me, and it didn’t feel right, but I kept it.
Before I could get her name off the screen, footsteps hit loud on the bedroom floor. Emma Lou stretched herself cat long against my calf and re-curled behind my knees. I closed my eyes and tried to pretend it was just the upstairs neighbor getting up for work. The bedroom doorknob click-clicked around and I rolled onto my back and held my breath.
Roxie came walking soft on her tip-toes, hand out and she stopped at the arch between the living room and hall. Just stood there watching me, her bangs down to her eyebrows and the rest of her hair all forward and grown out of the winter break hair cut.
She’d checked herself in the mirror and laughed when the hairdresser finished cutting.
“I look like Mr. Willy Wonka,” she’d said.
That was Roxie. Everything about her was big and at five she was strong enough to take down a ten-year-old boy. Most people couldn’t see far enough past the big and loud to see how she was hyper-tuned-in to everything, too. How all that motion was Roxie pushing out what she took in because what she took in was way more than one little body could hold.
“I really bad have to pee,” she said. “100 times bad.” And she turned on her toes toward the bathroom.
I called out a silent little prayer that she please, please, please go back to bed and scanned the room for things that shouldn’t be left out. An empty bottle of cheap Australian shiraz on the end table and not much more than a purple stain in the glass beside it. A plate with some crumbs. Half smoked joint, lighter, bottle of Ritalin. No cap. Opened a drawer and brushed the joint in with one hand, took a little green pill between my fingers and swallowed it down without water.
It was already getting hot. My feet kicked off the down comforter and pushed at it until the fabric scrunched against the end of the bed. One of the cat cards was sweat-pasted face down to the top to my thigh. When I peeled it up, that orange cat looked straight-faced at me with its eyes narrowed and its lips curved down in a thin line.
“You have a lot to learn.”
Tore that card into four even pieces, tossed it on the floor.
Roxie was out of the bathroom and she was for sure not going back to bed.
My chest tightened around the air in my lungs until everything in there felt curdled.
“Mama,” she said. “Good morning, morning bright new day.”
Her bedtime was sixteen hours away.
She walked like her dad, same build to her body, the way her arms hung not touching her sides, and her pajamas were an old T-shirt of his with the silhouette of a rebel Zapatista ski mask and the words Todos Somos Marcos. I bought it for him outside Hospital de Jesus Nazareno in Mexico City the spring we hopped trains down into Oaxaca. Asshole.
Roxie pushed back her hair with both hands and rubbed the heels of her palms into her eyes. She stepped around a Lego tower onto the edge of the carpet. The floor from me to the kitchen nook was Light Brite pegs and little plastic animals dressed in Polly Pocket clothes, coloring books, and a half-deflated balloon stuck under the kid-sized rocker. The cat cards were scattered face up and face down through all of it.
I held up a thin notebook filled front and back, and a little gray voice recorder with more interviews to show her how I’d intended to spend the morning.
“It’s very early, sweetie,” I said. “I need you to go back to bed while I work.” I tried to make my voice sound happy to see her, the way a kid should feel every morning, but there was pinch in my throat and I heard it.
“Emma Lu, Lu Lu,” she said.
“Rox,” I said. “I. Have. A. Dead. Line.” The inside my of chest cinched tighter and the squeeze wrapped all the way up around my skull. But I smiled at her.
“I need you to go back to your room.”
“This is my plan, Mom,” she said. “We wake up Lila right now and get dressed and go buy cat toys for Emma Lou.”
My fingers pressed hard in small circles on my temples. Whole summer ahead and not even full daylight yet. Day one.
“Can we?” she said. “Cat toys.”
Roxie got up and tilted her head until her right ear was on her shoulder. She walked fast tight circles, weaving around toys and talking rapid-fire flow, like she does when she’s excited. Her left eye closed in a wink and the left side of her mouth curved up into a smile.
“And I want to get her a mouse with a bell,” she said.
I wanted a cigarette. I wanted to climb way up into the tops of those trees outside my windows. I wanted the old house.
At the old house Roxie could have gone into another room or opened the door and played in the big, fenced backyard. I’d have turned on a video, set her up with some breakfast and ducked out in the basement office. Sounded pretty good right then. Forgetting comes quick, and the miserable was already just a word. My body had no memory left of the way misery had been in my skin. My soul in trade for a little space sounded like an all right deal.
Roxie circled back to the futon to pet Emma Lou.
“I love Mommy,” She sang. “I love kitties.” One hand was on the cat and the other pushed way down under the comforter looking like she was about to pick-up Emma Lou blanket and all. But she stopped. Gave me that winking half-smile and I knew what was in her hand before it was out from under the blanket.
I knew. The Rabbit.
A few weeks after I got the car and the cat cards, I got a five-speed vibrator from another friend who sold sex toys at parties, like Tupperware. It had pearl beads inside the shaft and sticking out of the base was a bunny head with ears that wiggled. Roxie had both hands around it now, pink bunny ears almost up her nose.
“Huh?” she said. “Is this a toy?”
“Not for you,” I said. “Put it down.”
She squinted both eyes, held the vibrator out from her face.
“Mommy,” she said. “It looks like a penis.”
My voice snapped up loud into the yell I couldn’t stop.
“Go to your room,” I said. “Right now.”
She pointed the pink bunny penis at me so the tip was almost touching my chin.
“You yelled, Mom.” Roxie said. “We don’t yell.”
“I need to work,” I said. The words came out flat.
Some days I could have been a better mom. I could have laughed. I could have loaded both girls into the car and taken us for sunrise picnic someplace up high where you could see the mountains and the airplanes in and out over the river. But I didn’t laugh and I didn’t want to be a mom at all that morning and I pushed my nails a little too hard into Roxie’s skin when I peeled her fingers off The Rabbit.
The Rabbit dropped between us. Landed on the switch and started wiggling its pink bunny ears, the beads circled one way and the shaft circled the other and I threw the whole thing into a laundry basket still going.
“Fuck,” I said. It was out through my teeth.
She looked at The Rabbit doing its thing in the basket and my computer doing nothing on the bed.
“Mom,” she said, “are you just fucked about work?”
Roxie rubbed one hand, then the other down my back.
“It’s okay, Mama,” she said. “I’ll go get you some yogurt.”
“I got it,” I said.
On each step from the futon to the kitchen, my feet pushed toys and cards out of the path. Sat myself between the sink and the stove and curled into a human ball of arms around shins, head down so my knees pressed my eyeballs deeper into the sockets.
The thing I wanted most was time and no one had it to give. You can’t dole out hours like a food card, can’t wrap them or mail them or save them in a brown paper bag for later. Time’s a trickster, too, the way it looks all even, every hour is 60 minutes and every minute is 60 seconds, always the same length yet it moves too fast through the places you want to hold and stretches out to almost stopped where you least want it to stay. And time disappears gone.
A day like this was slow hours ahead and all of them useless to me.
I turned my head, cheek to knee, and looked eye-level at that spot in the cupboard door where the pressed-board was caved in and exposed. Little fissures spread out from it through the white paint. A map I couldn’t read. I kicked that door in one night. They wouldn’t go to bed.
Flat to the floor, arms stretched behind me, my body covered most of the galley kitchen. I looked upside down at the kid art, scribbles and paint blobs and coloring book pages taped floor to ceiling up the narrow wall. The pink speckled linoleum was the kind of institutional floor you’d find in a school cafeteria or an old hospital and it felt cool on the backs of my arms and legs.
Roxie was singing to Emma Lou in the living room, Lila coming toward the kitchen. Delicate steps, the way she moved.
Sometimes I saw them all grown. Strong women, wide across the shoulders. Roxie ahead of me on some dirt mountain trail. Up above the tree-line. The back of her head, a long braid to her backpack and she’s leading. She leads me. Lila stacking clothes in a dorm-room drawer, everything lined neat in its place. Everything in its order. Lila precise.
“Where’s Mama, Roxie?” Lila said.
She was to me before Roxie could answer.
Past the cracked paint, the dishes piling out of the sink above it.
A little fish tank on the counter. Those three guppies were always swimming in the surface bubbles, up where they could keep close to the air.
Lila stretched herself long on my chest and belly, top of her head against my chin, toes pushed into my thighs, her light weight on me and her steady, steady heartbeat.
Outside the gray had burned off into a full morning blue, summer smells came in green through the window. Fresh cut grass and late blooming magnolias.
Roxie came into the doorway, pressed her palms flat against the frame.
Lila held out her arm, a cat card in hand, and said nothing, just held it there steady until my fingers closed in a fist around hers.
She couldn’t read, but she smiled like she knew what it said.