In 1992, when I was “between wives,” I began a relationship with a woman named Leila (pronounced Lee-i-la). She was more than 10 years my junior and quite scenic. But her beauty wasn’t what attracted me to her, it was her personality – she was quirky bordering on neurotic, unfiltered, unpredictable, and very funny. She was like that hot little sports car in the showroom. The one that grabs a man’s imagination and makes his heart beat fast, the one he has to take out for a test-drive, and the one that goes back into the showroom when he drives away with the sensible mini-van.
Leila was a cat person. She had an orange tabby that she doted on and almost from our first date, she was after me to get a cat of my own. When we were in my little house she would show me where my new cat’s dishes would go and where was the best place for a litter box. When we were in her apartment she would make me pet her cat and tell me how much better off I’d be if I had one. Finally, after all the kitty proselytizing, I allowed as how I might consider it.
“But,” I said, “I’m not interested in just any cat. It has to be a particular cat, okay? I want a male that’s calico-colored. I want a kitty who’ll grow up big and stocky and have a take-no-crap attitude. His name will be Sluggo and he has to fit it.”
She was as pleased as any missionary with a new convert and said that we should start looking that weekend. I smiled and tried to put on the face of a man who’d just seen the light. I looked forward to spending a lot of time with her, driving around looking for addresses of people with kittens to give away, playing with lots of cute little squeakers, and then going home afterward seemingly disappointed and ready to be cheered up. For I knew something she did not. Calico cats are always female.
For a while things went perfectly. We lived in a little Iowa town of 7,000 souls called Fairfield and Leila kept her eye on local bulletin boards and newspaper classifieds. Several times a week she’d find a “Kittens looking for a home” notice and the next day we’d be ringing their doorbell.
“”Look at this one,” she’d say, holding out some little fluffball. “Isn’t it adorable?”
“Very cute,” I’d agree and skritch it between the ears. “Too bad he’s not a calico,” or “too bad she’s a girl.”
One evening I had just pulled a nice little rib steak off the barbecue and was sitting down to eat when Leila walked through the back door with a folded newspaper in her hand. She sat down next to me and, without a word, drilled me with a disgusted look. I was well aware of her strict vegetarianism and so happily continued my meal, ignoring her attempts to drown each bite with guilt. I confess I even smacked my lips as I ate and grunted with pleasure.
Being able to stand it no longer, she yelled, “LOVE ANIMALS, DON’T EAT THEM!” Then she flounced into the living room (which in my little place took about two steps) and plopped herself onto the couch.
I had to take a little time for my ears to stop ringing before I could finish the last bite. After I had scraped, rinsed, and stacked my dishes, I turned and said, “Hi Leila! Nice to see you. How have you been?”
“You’re despicable, “she said, “I detest the ground you walk on. But I’m also very fond of you for absolutely no reason I can think of.”
“Well that makes us even, because I’m fond of me too. So what’s up?”
Suddenly excited again, she held up the newspaper she’d brought.
“I got a copy of the Ottumwa Courier. Look in the classified ads.”
She turned the paper to a back page, folded it over, and handed it to me. Under “Miscellaneous” an ad had been circled with a pen. “Calico Kittens to give away. Big litter. Lots to choose from.” Underneath that was an address and phone number.
“”Feel like taking a drive to Ottumwa?” she grinned.
Ottumwa is about 30 miles East of Fairfield. In every geographical area in this country there is one town that the surrounding communities all make fun of as “The place where the stupid people live.” In Southeast Iowa, the butt of these jokes was always Ottumwa.
“Tomorrow’s Saturday, and I’m off work,” I said. “How about we drive over after lunch. That’ll give me time to get some aluminum foil to make hats for us.”
“Brain protectors,” I said with as straight a face as I could muster. “No use driving into Ottumwa if you’re not prepared.”
The homeowner, Margaret, introduced herself and led us around to the back of her house where a high-sided cardboard box sat on a wooden picnic table.
“We had them in a shallower box for a while, but the little boogers kept climbing out so we put ’em in here.”
We looked into the box and at the mass of little fuzzy bodies therein. Most of them had white, orange and black spots all over. What with the constant motion it made it almost impossible to count them. There was one gray kitten and one black.
“Look at this one,” I said to Leila as I picked up one of the kittens. “It’s got a patch over one eye like a pirate.”
She didn’t answer as she had a kitty in each hand and was burying her face in them. “Don’t you love how the little meemers smell?” she said as she pulled her face away.
Margaret said, “The gray one and the black one are the boys.”
“You don’t have any boys that are calico?” Leila said, a little crestfallen.
“Heavens no, dear,” came the reply. “All calicos are female, didn’t you know that?”
As we drove away I was all innocence and surprise. “Well. that’s bizarre,” I said. “No wonder we haven’t been able to find Sluggo. He doesn’t actually exist.”
She gave me an appraising look and decided to let it go. “I feel like a cup of coffee. let’s look for a place.”
While I waited for the coffee, she excused herself and was gone for a lot longer than the average trip to the bathroom. When she returned, she had a slip of paper in her hand.
“I noticed a laundromat across the street. They always have good bulletin boards,” she said as she dropped the paper in front of me. “Check it out, Sweetie.”
scrawled on the paper was the following notice, “We got a bunch of kitens to give away.”
I found a pay phone and a deep, spooky voice gave me an address. It turned out to be a shoddy doublewide trailer with a weed-choked lawn. There was an old pickup on concrete blocks instead of wheels in front. As we walked to the door I was thinking I should have made those tinfoil hats after all.
The woman who answered the door was missing some teeth, but very friendly as she offered us some lemonade.
“Oh no, thanks anyway. Where are the kittens?”
“They’re just all over. You’ll have to look around.”
They had blankets hanging over the windows so even though it was a bright, sunny day, inside that trailer it was a twilight world. Luckily her husband – tall, gaunt, and pallid – was watching a game show on television and the reflected light allowed us to see a few kittens as they ran around and climbed the furniture.
Leila had found an orange kitten under the toe kick of a cabinet and was bringing it to me to look at. At that moment I saw a dark shape with a little bit of white run out from under the coffee table and hide under a rocking chair. I got down on my knees and fished him out. Yes, it was a “him,” I checked. I held the kitten up and looked him in the face. He had a small nose and mouth, big eyes, and giant ears. Then that “small” mouth opened into a huge cavity and a plaintive little squeak emerged. In that moment, there was a connection.
“Sluggo?” I asked. “Is that you?” He began to purr.
If a person could hurt themselves by smiling too much, Leila would have had to put her chin in a sling for a week. The little guy went to sleep in a fold of my jacket as we drove back home to Fairfield.