I hope I like living with this woman, Harriet thought, as the cat scampered through worn, ragged streets of the South Bronx. She spent the afternoon cavorting with feline friends in a neighborhood alley. Not even the sweltering heat and humidity of August wore her down. The cat was anxious to be with her new owner, Keisha Spellman.
Slipping through bars on the open ground floor window, Harriet saw Keisha fanning herself at the kitchen table, talking on the phone. Judging from the scowl on Keisha’s baby face, Harriet surmised her new owner was cranky or just overwhelmed.
“Miss Mangino, you said if I had a place to stay my kids could visit. You never said it had to be my own apartment.”
Keisha wiped her sweaty brow with a tissue. An overhead fan circulated hot air around the room but it did nothing to sofen the stifling apartment.
“What difference does it make? I’m not homeless anymore. Kenny and Brandon belong with me, not with some strange foster lady. They’re only 4 and 6 years old.” She sipped ice tea listening when anger twisted her face. “That’s crazy. You call yourself Family Services. You’re tearing my family apart.” Keisha gripped the receiver so hard her fingers ached. “I don’t need a lecture about the mistakes I made. When can I at least visit my children?”
Lips quivering, Keisha slammed down the phone. She buried her face inside her bony hands and sobbed. Tears dripped down her face onto her bare legs. A few seconds later, she noticed Harriet sitting by her feet.
Sniffling, she said, “Hey there skinny cat, I wondered where you were. At least somebody’s on my side.”
Keisha reached down and stroked Harriet’s pointy ears. “Sometimes I wish I was a cat like you. Maybe life would be simpler.” She motioned for the scruffy gray feline to jump on her lap. “My caseworker is giving me a hard time. I wanted to cuss her out but I held my tongue. That wasn’t easy for a smart mouth like me.”
Staring at a crack in the dingy yellow wall, Keisha continued to carry on a conversation with Harriet as if the cat could understand her.
“Miss Mangino makes it sound so simple. Rent an apartment. Yeah, you old witch. Have you looked at rents in New York City lately? You know what else she said? Why aren’t you working? Like I’m a lazy ho or something. Good jobs aren’t easy to find. I can’t support my family working as a cashier in a fast food joint.”
Harriet’s purring made Keisha grin slightly. “Then she asks me about drugs. Yes, I quit using. She doesn’t believe me because I left the rehab program and lived on the streets. So I have to submit urine samples. If that’s what it takes to get Kenny and Brandon out of foster care, I’ll do it.”
Although Harriet appreciated that Keisha had swept her off the grimy streets, would the arrangement last? The great Harriet had her doubts. For the past year or so, Harriet lived as a stray barely scraping by. She foraged for food through garbage cans, drank water from dirty puddles, fended off stone throwing troublemakers, and survived vast extremes of weather. Having steady human company was a luxury she hadn’t enjoyed since living with Candace Burton in Wyoming. That seemed like ages ago when the Girl Scout found her in Wyoming and brought her to New York. The little girl didn’t know however that Harriet had a home, a good home. So much had happened since then. Harriet’s former owner’s lifestyle was orderly, calm and structured far unlike Keisha whose life was a steady stream of chaos and confusion. Would Harriet fit in?
“Listen up, slim,” Keisha said. “I need my own place to get my kids back. How can I rent an apartment I can’t afford without a job I don’t have?” The thin bronze skinned woman stood up and moved away from the table. Through the open window, she stared at a group of little girls playing a lively game of double Dutch. “If I weren’t such a pig-head, my boys Kenny and Brandon would be playing outside right next to those girls jumping rope. I really blew it big time, didn’t I?”
Sensing her new friend needed support Harriet brushed her furry body against Keisha’s lower legs.
“Too bad you’re a cat. I need someone to talk sense into my thick head.” She glanced at the crooked wall clock. “My friend Charlene should be home from work soon. I’m glad she let me stay here.”
Harriet jumped on the lumpy sofa and watched Keisha tidy up. Keisha’s friend Charlene may have a big heart but she was a slob. Piles of her dirty clothes strewn about cluttered the boxy four-room apartment. Dust caked the windowsills. There were old magazines scattered around the living room floor. At least Harriet’s water bowl was clean and fresh.
“I hope Charlene doesn’t mind but I can’t live in filth,” Keisha said as she swept clumps of dirt from the bare floors. “My place wasn’t much but it was always clean. If only I hadn’t wasted all the money away on drugs.” She looked at Harriet and said, “I bet Kenny and Brandon miss their cat Buster. I miss him, too, especially the way he used to meow when he wanted to eat.”
What happened to the family cat? Too bad Harriet couldn’t pepper Keisha with questions. If Keisha had given him away, would that change Harriet’s mind about her new owner?
Keisha scrunched up her nose as she picked up a pair of crusty looking leather sandals. “Girlfriend, your shoes stink. I wish you’d put them away. Better yet, this pair belongs in the trash.” She held the offending shoes at arm’s length from her body, walked to the trash can and tossed them inside. She returned to the living room and resumed cleaning.
“I doubt Charlene appreciates all my hard work, but at least I’ll feel better. When I’m done, the place will look good and smell fresh,” Keisha said, holding onto a broom. “Who knows how long I’ll be here?”
Without looking, Keisha stubbed her foot knocking over a cardboard box. Photos spilled across the floor. “Ouch, that hurts,” she said. “Charlene, I wish you’d put your stuff away instead of leaving it all over.” She sat down and took a few minutes to massage her throbbing big toe.
What a mess. As Keisha gathered the pictures one by one, she sorted them into neat piles. When she came to a set of Christmas photos that Charlene had taken of Keisha and her children last year, a lump jammed her throat.
“Look at my Kenny, how scared you were on Santa’s lap. I’ll never forget how you cried when Santa said ho ho ho, Merry Christmas,” she said. All attempts to crack a smile failed.
Putting the photos down, she said, “I don’t know how, but I’ll get my boys home. I want my family back.”
Suddenly, Keisha was transformed into a maid on a mission. For company, she flipped on the radio and sang as she worked. She zipped through the apartment dusting, sweeping, and mopping. To stay out of her way and avoid being splashed with water or accidentally swatted with a broom, Harriet crouched behind the sofa. But the ruckus didn’t keep Harriet awake. She squeezed in a nap.
In no time, the apartment looked spiffy. The second hand furniture glowed. Keisha was so proud of herself. Exhausted, she flopped onto the sofa and slumped over. She said, “It nearly killed me but I’m finally done.” She closed her eyes for a well-deserved rest.
A little later, she woke up. Studying the shipshape room, she said, “Hey cat, where are you?”
The sound of Keisha’s voice rousted Harriet from sleep. She stretched her body, scooted out from her hiding place and sat by her friend’s feet.
“You need a name besides cat,” Keisha said. “I’ll think of something nice later.”
I have a name that I like very much, Harriet thought, but how can I tell you? Communicating with humans was impossible. Harriet hoped that Keisha wouldn’t pick out something that was hokey or corny. How would she respond to a name like Ludera, Petunia, or Auntie Festus? Oh the woes of being a cat.
“Maybe I’ll fix dinner for Charlene. She’ll probably come home hungry from driving the bus all day.” Keisha rubbed her stomach. “I’m hungry too. Wonder what’s in the fridge?”
Harriet thought that housework, in an odd way, seemed to define Keisha. It gave her a sense of purpose. How could Harriet pump more structure into mixed-up Keisha’s life? Her new owner needed something substantive to do, a job with more responsibility than housekeeping. That’s how she’d get her kids back, Harriet thought. An urgent mission lay ahead for the great Harriet. How would she accomplish this? After all, she was a cat but that never stopped her before.
As Keisha removed hamburger meat out from the fridge and shaped it into patties, she smiled at Harriet wedged into the corner. The whiff of meat wiggled the cat’s nose and her skimpy tail lashed back and forth.
“Listen up, cat,” Keisha said. “I can’t be eating Charlene’s food all the time. She says it’s OK but what kind of example will I set for my children if I’m sitting on my butt doing nothing? Kenny and Brandon need a strong mother, not some lazy loaf.”
She turned her attention to potatoes. Once she scrubbed them clean, she cut thin slices, placing them on a platter and returned to the stove. With cooking oil in another pan, she started frying potatoes.
Keisha lowered the flame and left the sizzling potatoes on the stove. Barely turning around, she bumped into the shallow sink. She readied the patties for frying.
“Been over a year since I got fired from my teller’s job at the bank. Wonder if I should lie on my applications or tell the truth?” Keisha watched the cat’s movements as she prepared the evening meal.
“Or should I take my sorry self to an agency that helps people like me who’ve been in trouble get back on their feet? If you were me, what would you do?”
Harriet’s long whiskers twitched as she meowed loudly.
“Good, that’s what I thought you’d say. I’ll ask Charlene what she thinks. Be a good cat and I’ll give you some hamburger later on.”
Harriet, having done her feline counseling, slipped away. By the time Keisha finished preparing hamburgers with fried potatoes Charlene breezed through the front door. Cute and cuddly like a teddy bear, Charlene had skin the color of a plain brown wrapper. Her smile was as sweet as pumpkin pie, considering the house was soggy like a steam bath.
“Looks like Mr. Clean zipped through here today,” Charlene said, grinning.
“I hope you don’t mind,” Keisha said.
“Mind? I love it. I guess I got a little behind in my cleaning,” Charlene said. “My friends won’t recognize the place. I should get my cell phone and take a picture. Hey, where’s the cat?”
“She was just here, maybe she’s taking a nap somewhere.”
“What’d you name her?”
“If you bothered to drag that cat all the way from a homeless dump on Hunt’s Point, don’t you think she deserves a name?”
“Yeah, I guess,” Keisha said. “Here pussy cat. Come to mama.”
Charlene held out two plastic shopping bags. “I almost forgot. I stopped at the store on the way home and bought cat food and litter. She’ll get spoiled and fat eating Chicken McNuggets. I’m sure she doesn’t like using ripped newspaper in her box either.”
Out from underneath the couch crawled Harriet. She scooted across the floor and stopped next to Keisha. Softly, she purred.
“Charlene bought you cat stuff,” Keisha said as she greeted her feline friend with a warm smile. “That’s very nice of her to let you stay here, too.”
“Food smells good. Thanks for cooking. After dinner, we’ll play name that cat,” Charlene said. “Be back in a sec. Let me change out of this bus driver’s uniform.”
“I’ll feed the cat then set the table for us,” Keisha said.
There was a time when the prospect of cat food would’ve made Harriet barf, but compared to the trash she’d eaten on the streets cat food held quite an appeal. She dashed into the kitchen and waited for Keisha to fill up her dish. In no time, she finished every last bite. She licked her paws and her whiskers then resumed her nap. The heck with name that cat. She had a name and she didn’t care what they came up with. Nothing could ever dethrone the great Harriet.
Over a relaxed dinner, the two friends talked at length about the pressing issues, of which there were many, confounding Keisha’s life.
“Apply to the Transit Authority,” Charlene said. “I heard they’re accepting job applications.”
“Accepting doesn’t mean they’re hiring. Besides, I have an arrest record,” Keisha said, staring at the faded linoleum floor.
“Maybe they won’t hold it against you?”
“They will,” Keisha said. “It’s my own fault for stealing from that bank where I worked. I can’t blame the drugs. I knew what I was doing.”
“Someone has to hire you.”
“Tomorrow I start, soon as I leave a urine sample at the drug rehab center,” Keisha said. “I have to get a job before Family Services gives my kids back. And I don’t want to mooch off you.”
“I told you not to worry,” Charlene said.
Keisha’s voice cracked. “How can I repay you for this?”
“You were there for me when I needed a friend after my parents died,” Charlene said. “I’m returning the favor. No more tears.” The calm mood in the kitchen bounced back. “Are we ready to name the cat?”
“How about Missy?” Keisha said. “Or Lady? Yeah, I like the name Lady.”
“Nah, that’s too common,” Charlene said. “This cat needs something to fit her classy personality. A name with style. With elegance.”
After batting around names, they eventually settled on Latifah, after the female rap artist turned actress and TV hostess. Keisha said her cat deserved a name fit for a queen.
“When I get paid I’ll get her a collar and a nametag,” Charlene said. “Don’t be letting that cat roam from here to Kingdom come. She might get pregnant and I don’t want kittens in my house.”
“I bet somebody had that cat fixed,” Keisha said, staring at Harriet with tender eyes. “If she isn’t pregnant by now with all that flitting around, she never will be. Soon as I get myself together, I’ll get her to a vet.”
Naturally the great Harriet took the news in stride. It was about time they recognized she was regal. As for the name Latifah, Harriet figured it would eventually grow on her. Responding to another name would take a while, but what else did she have but time? It seemed highly unlikely that she’d ever return to her original home in Wyoming. She didn’t know who this Queen Latifah character was but she figured she’d hear about her from Keisha and Charlene. They seemed to like her.
As usual, the next morning Charlene’s alarm clock buzzed at the crack of dawn. By 6:30 a.m. she was showered and dressed. After a quick breakfast of corn flakes, toast and hot coffee, she was ready for work. On her way through the living room, she stopped by the pull out couch.
“Wake up sleepy head,” she said to her slumbering friend who, despite the heat, had the covers yanked over her head.
Groggily, Keisha said, “I’m awake.” But she made no effort to move. Not even a muscle twitched.
Charlene ripped off the fraying sheets. “You said not to leave until you were standing up. If I don’t go now, I’ll be late.”
There were a few signs of life starting with a few low grumbles. Slowly, Keisha moved her legs and dangled them off the edge. Rolling over, she yawned and said, “Girl, I’m up. Now go to work.”
“Don’t forget to clean Latifah’s litterbox,” Charlene said as she headed for the door. “I’m going to the movies tonight with my co-workers. Catch you later.”
Eyes half-open, Keisha stepped into a pair of flip-flops and shuffled into the kitchen. She filled the teakettle with water and turned on the burner. While the water boiled, she made herself a slice of rye toast. In waltzed Harriet who eked out a tiny meow.
“Good morning my queen,” Keisha said, finally breaking out of her fog. “Guess you want to eat. Thanks to Charlene the cupboard is full of cat food.”
Keisha opened a can of Fisherman’s Delight and scooped it into Harriet’s dish. The cat went to work on her morning meal, a welcome relief from the assorted bits of stale food she had grown used to. Harriet hoped that Keisha would resume her twice daily feeding schedule that she grew accustomed to in Wyoming.
“Going job hunting today.” Keisha sat and watched Harriet savor her food. “Not that I’ll find one, but when I see Kenny and Brandon soon I can tell them Mommy is looking for work. Wish you knew how far I’ve come. You’d be proud of me, Latifah.”
Oh that name, Harriet thought. How would she get used to it? The cat couldn’t pretend to be hard of hearing. Keisha knew otherwise. Sooner or later, she’d have to respond. Otherwise, Keisha and her friend Charlene would think she was intentionally obstinate. Or worse yet, they’d think Harriet was dim-witted. The great Harriet would have none of that. Out of necessity, she might be compelled to accept the new name and respond when called.
The tea kettle let out a shrill whistle. As Keisha poured a few scoops of coffee into a filter, placed it into the Mr. Coffee maker along with the hot water, her nose wiggled from the tantalizing smell. She returned to her seat at the table and waited for the coffee to brew. She talked to Harriet who sat tucked between the empty chair and the wall.
“You met me at my worst when I was living on the streets. Then again, you didn’t have a home either.” She reached out to stroke Harriet’s fur. “Where you from? You’re not just any alley cat. Bet you lived in a nice place with somebody who loved you. Without an ID tag, you’re stuck with me for now. And Charlene, too.”
Indeed, the great Harriet was no alley cat. A fine lady named Candace Burton, all the way from Laramie, Wyoming once doted on her all the time. Who wouldn’t primp and fuss over a devastatingly gorgeous cat like Harriet? Although Candace wasn’t swimming in riches, Harriet enjoyed the pampered life of a princess. If only Harriet could tell Keisha about herself and the long journey, which ended on the streets of the South Bronx. Why couldn’t humans understand meow?
When the buzzer on the Mr. Coffee zinged, Keisha poured herself a cup and resumed her conversation as if Harriet was a close friend and confidant.
“My life is in the pits but I make good coffee.” She flashed a weak smile. “Cats are smart. They don’t get messed up on drugs like humans do. I played around and lost everything. My kids, my job, my self-esteem. Now I’m paying the price for what I thought was a good time.”
Honking horns and laughing children caught Keisha’s attention. She glanced out the window. “If it wasn’t so hot, I’d shut the windows. Charlene’s right, you don’t need to be traipsing around the neighborhood. The bars keep out the hoods but do nothing to keep you inside. When I get some money, I’ll buy screens.”
Listening to Keisha cook up plans brought Harriet back to the day she first met her in another part of the Bronx several months ago. Just like now, Keisha played a take charge role then and impressed Harriet with her courage.
On a dreary afternoon with suffocating cloud cover, hunger had overcome the great Harriet so she rummaged through a pile of garbage underneath an isolated highway overpass. A group of homeless people milled about the area but the cat didn’t think she was bothering them. Next thing she know this big beast of a man grabbed her from behind and whacked her. An angel, who turned out to be Keisha, appeared from nowhere and snatched Harriet from the ill-mannered creep. Holding the scruffy cat close, Keisha promised to protect her.
Right away, Keisha organized the squatters to eject the bully, who had only arrived yesterday. That suited Harriet just fine. Frog face scared her, although she would never admit it. The great Harriet had a stoic image to uphold.
“Hey yo,” Keisha said as she squared off with the burly man, who had his back to her. Her voice grew louder and bolder. “I’m talking to you, Mister.”
Still, the man ignored her.
“Why’d you hit that cat for? She didn’t do anything to you.” Keisha approached him and pressed her face into his. “Pick up your stuff and get out. There’s no room around here for troublemakers like you.”
Initially, the man resisted Keisha’s demands but when he saw the rest of the crew backing her up, he picked up his knapsack and stormed off.
His exit relieved Harriet. Because the cat was only passing through with no place in particular to go, she decided to stick around a while. Months of grinding street life had fractured Harriet’s relationships with humans, but as time passed, she slowly forged a guarded relationship with Keisha. Tidbits of previous experiences with Keisha brought Harriet down memory lane.
“Cat, why are you so stubborn? I’m not going to hurt you,” Keisha said as she vainly attempted to get Harriet to sit next to her lounge chair made of a grungy cardboard box.
The great Harriet had to protect herself from these strangers just in case they turned out to be riffraff or other undesirables who didn’t like cats. That was possible although probably unlikely. Still, Harriet hovered on the camp’s fringes and hid behind a steel girder, mostly refusing to socialize.
Meal times were a different story altogether. The sweet smell of food temporarily relaxed Harriet’s guard. Obviously Keisha noticed. She tossed scraps in the cat’s direction.
“I see you hiding over there, Miss Gray Kitty. Feel like eating? Somebody just came from the Salvation Army with our lunch. The chicken is tender today. That stuff we had yesterday was as tough as boots.”
One cool, damp night a week later, Harriet crawled into Keisha’s sleeping bag. Harriet remembered Keisha’a surprise when she rolled over and found her lying there.
“You scared me. I thought you were a big fat rat,” Keisha said with a racing heart. When she calmed down, she said, “See, I told you I wasn’t going to mess with you.” She smiled as she listened to Harriet purr.
Over the next several weeks, Harriet stuck with Keisha on her daily routine. For food, Keisha and her homeless friends ate at soup kitchens or they panhandled by the subway station for spare change. A local church allowed them to shower once a week. Sometimes, a social service agency permitted homeless people to make local phone calls. Keisha fashioned a leash out of old twine, but mostly she carried Harriet everywhere pets were allowed. From sharing so many experiences, the pair bonded. The cat was glad they did. That was her ticket off the streets and into a new home.
The great Harriet, who rarely expressed even a shred of doubt about her string of exceptional abilities, was only accustomed to rescuing wayward animals in distress. One time, she had led a wimp of a horse back home after the lunkhead equestrian became lost in a surprise thunderstorm and Harriet got dunked in a river. On another occasion Harriet guided a scrappy little dust mop dog to safety after his owners dumped him in a forest. And then there was the time when she calmed an excitable floppy-eared basset hound after a speeding car hit the dog’s owner and the dog had nowhere to go. But tackling a human relationship was a challenge above and beyond the great Harriet’s level of expertise. What role would she play in Keisha’s tattered life? And would Keisha still want Harriet around, presuming she regained custody of her three children, found a job and moved into her own place?