When I was born, my mother and father lived in a small apartment. The landlord lived in an adjoining apartment and controlled the thermostat. In the morning, after a cold winter's night, there was always a thin layer of ice on the dog's water dish. The warmest room in the apartment was the bathroom, and so on those cold nights when my twenty year old father went off to work the late shift at the DuPont factory, my nineteen year old mother would bundle she and I up in blankets, and we would sleep in the bathtub. Sadly, there's no family picture of a young mother and her baby snuggled together there in that porcelain tub. Such a picture would be a treasure to me now, and such a picture might also prove whether a recurring dream I've had for as long as I can remember is fact or fiction. In this dream I'm frightened by a little square of darkness that hovers above me, and then happily dazzled when that little square of darkness becomes a brilliant display of golden sunshine refracting through a little window covered with delicate patterns of frost.
Patty Lee Jensen, December 2, 1929 - August 29, 2012.
Saturday, August 3, 2013
One morning, during the last week of the Arlington Park meet, I'd heard the laughter of a Neanderthal. Knowing such howling could only be coming from a groom who worked for a trainer at the other end of the barn, a trainer who paid more attention to Jack Daniels than he did his horses, I stepped out from under the shedrow to investigate. The groom, a slope-headed giant, was in hysterics as he used a hose to squirt water at an orange tabby kitten he had cornered. I went into an arm-waving fury that made the horse Neanderthal was holding throw its head up and shuffle backward away from my rapid approach. Neanderthal dropped the hose and used both hands to hold onto the horse's shank.
"It's only a cat!" Neanderthal yelled.
My fury doubled, and words came from my mouth that would have scorched the tongue of a saint. As if to seek safety back in the stone age, Neanderthal jerked on the shank and hurried away, the horse at a trot behind him.
I picked up the half-drowned kitten, and while she mewed and shivered, I took her into the tack room. She was half-starved and in terrible shape. Most of her tail was gone, and when she looked up at me, her right eye blinked. It took no veterinarian to know the involuntary blinking was due to the quarter-sized bald spot on her head. I dried her off, cleaned the mud from her matted fur, then gave her a saucer of milk. After that I placed her on a horse blanket. She sat there looking up at me, blinking and purring. Now, I've always prefered dogs over cats, after all no cat ever led anyone to safety during a snow storm or drove off an intruder, but this cat winked her way into my heart.
In the next few days, she recovered, gained weight, and entertained me with her antics. She crept up on the wiggling end of a leather shank as if she were a mighty tigress stalking a python. She navigated the hazards and obstacles of the shedrow with ease, going in and out of stalls to visit her new horse friends. She made it known that the tack room was her domain, and with a wave of a paw, reprimanded anyone who wanted to use the horse blanket she claimed from that first day as her own. Then there was the morning I discovered a box of donuts on my desk had been plundered, bites taken out of every donut. To find the culprit all I had to do was turn around. She was sitting on her horse blanket winking at me, her little whiskered face white with powdered sugar! I swear she could eat half her weight in donuts. Besides being a donut thief, she also presented another problem. In a short time she became so special to me, I couldn't come up with a name for her. I just couldn't bring myself to give her a name like Tangerine, Orange Juice, or some other thoughless label like the suggested name Donut. So I gave up for the time being, deciding I wouldn't give her a name until I came up with one that suited her.
At the race track, you don't measure time by a calender, you measure it by race meetings, and the Arlington Park meet was over. The horses were loaded on the van, everything was packed, and the van driver was waiting for me because I was going to follow the horses down to Gulfstream Park in my car. The problem was, the kitten was nowhere to be found. I called for her, using the generic "Here kitty, kitty" because I still hadn't come up with a name that suited her. But no bouncing orange fluff of a kitten came running. My voice only echoed in an empty shedrow. Finally, after going through all the stalls and tack rooms once more, I had to admit she was gone. All the way to Florida the thought that Neanderthal had gotten even caused a sickness in my stomach.
The Gulfstream meet passed, and after running some horses late at the meet at Sportsman's Park, we were back at Arlington Park. One of my grooms had gotten his foot stepped on by a horse, and I was on my way to visit him in the dormitories Arlington provides for backstretch help. I climbed the stairs and began to walk past the row of doors when I went by one that was open. Out of the corner of my eye there was a flash of orange. Without turning around I took two quick steps back. There she was, full grown yet recognizable, lapping at a saucer of milk. But I didn't go in, didn't make demands to have her back, for when she looked up at me and winked, I could tell by the pretty red collar she wore that someone else had already given her a name.