My Mother Takes a Tumble
Chapter 16: Chasing Kittens (My Life in Miniature)
YOU CAN READ THE FIRST HALF
A BEAUTY the next day was, one of those late spring days that make one
want to go on living, a June day that, confused, had blundered into April.
Everyone slept late. In the afternoon, we were all on the front lawn.
Gumma, Guppa, and my parents were sitting in lawn chairs on the half of
the lawn near Mr. Beaker’s house. On the other half, separated from
them by the front walk, I was chasing Gumma’s cat’s six black kittens.
When I caught one, I carried it, often by the tail, to my little red wagon,
plopped it into the wagon, and went off after another. The kitten
sniffed around in the wagon for a while, hopped out, and wandered away.
I brought another kitten to the empty wagon, plopped it in, clapped my
hands and giggled, and scrambled off after another. I was having
a fine time. If my mother had not tumbled from her lawn chair, there
is no telling how long I might have continued happily chasing those kittens
without ever caring whether I got them all into the wagon at once, but
the innocent and useless pursuits of childhood cannot last forever.
When Mr. Beaker’s front door opened, we all heard it. We stopped what we were doing, turned, and watched a leggy blonde in a white sunsuit start down the steps. Mr. Beaker followed her, grinning, and saying something that I couldn’t quite make out. We watched them every step of the way from his house to Gumma and Guppa’s, for we knew that we were watching something important, a change, and that we were likely always to remember this day as the day that Mr. Beaker stepped out of his house with a blonde.
The kittens soon stopped watching and went back to hopping and tumbling about, but I watched the introductions, which were a little stiff, Eliza holding back a bit until Mr. Beaker put a hand on her nates and nudged her forward. Guppa and my father hopped out of their chairs and offered them to Eliza, but she wanted to stand, and my father nearly said that if he had legs like that he’d rather stand too, but he thought better of it and offered Dudley and Eliza a beer. Gumma pointed out the crescent of crocuses in a corner of the lawn; everyone turned at once to look at them, and there were remarks about their beauty and the beauty of the day. When Eliza bent at the waist to look more closely at the crocuses, my mother looked away, turning toward me again. She looked as if she wanted me to get back to work chasing the kittens, so I did.
“Oh, look, Dudley, isn’t Peter cute?” cooed my mother. She twisted in her folding chair and reached for her iced tea.
“Cute,” said Gumma. She clapped her hands in just the way that I was clapping them and giggled just as I was giggling. I clapped and giggled back.
“What he’s doing is pretty damned stupid, if you ask me,” said my father. “Like trying to carry water in a sieve, wouldn’t you say, Dudley?”
Mr. Beaker didn’t answer, but he did give my father a look of interest and encouragement.
“Why doesn’t he see that he’ll never get the kittens to stay in the wagon, and just give up?” my father asked. “That’s one of the big lessons in life, knowing when to quit.” He took a long, bracing pull at his beer and glanced at my mother.
“Kin,” I said.
“Kitten,” said Guppa, aiming his box camera my way.
“Kin,” I said.
“Kit-ten,” said Mr. Beaker. “Kit-ten. Kitten.”
“Oh, leave him alone, Dudley,” whispered Eliza.
“Smile, Peter. Say ‘cheese,’” called Guppa.
“Kin,” I said, and clapped my hands and smiled into Guppa’s camera.
Reaching for her tea but watching me, my mother bumped her hand against the metal folding table that held the tea and her cigarettes and ash tray. The table, poorly balanced on the uneven lawn, tipped away from her. She felt it move and glanced at it. She saw it tipping and knew at once that she would not be able to stop it. If she tried, she was likely to end up on the lawn herself, with her skirt halfway up her thighs and people fussing over her.
With a frantic, desperate effort, my mother lunged for the table.
My mother, her chair, and her table began to fall in an arc, as if the lawn had been a rug someone had yanked from under her. My mother was wearing a white skirt and blouse and a look of surprise. Her arms were thrown out to the side, toward the falling table, and her legs were raised high in the air, flapping out of control. I could see the tops of her stockings and her garters and the pink flesh of her inner thighs. A glass of tea was in the air above the table, and beside it, drifting away from it, floated a clamshell ashtray under a cloud of ashes. I clapped and giggled again. Another kitten hopped out of the wagon.
The table struck the lawn, its circular top resounding like a gong, flying off the base, and rolling toward the street.
“Ye gods and little kittens!” shouted Gumma, clasping her hands over her heart.
“Shit!” expostulated my mother, reaching the lawn herself.
My father and Mr. Beaker ran to my mother at once. Gumma and Guppa struggled out of their chairs and rushed over to help. The tea had ruined my mother’s cigarettes and stained her skirt.
Mr. Beaker gripped my mother in the left armpit and began helping my father haul her to her feet.
Eliza ran into the street after the tabletop and was nearly struck by a passing Studebaker. At the sound of its squealing tires, Mr. Beaker turned, saw Eliza holding the dented tabletop, cried “Oh, God, no,” and let go of my mother to run to Eliza, leaving my father struggling with my mother on his own. When he got her to her feet and satisfied himself that she had suffered no serious harm, he too dashed out to the street to see if Eliza was all right.
My mother stood still for a moment, looking into the street, where my father and Mr. Beaker were checking Eliza’s legs for scratches. There were none. Finally my mother made her way toward the house on her own, clucking at herself and brushing at her skirt.
“I don’t know what came over me,” my mother said aloud. “I knew that I didn’t have a chance of saving the table, but I just had to try—”
She stopped at the front door and turned toward the street again, where my father and Mr. Beaker were still fussing over Eliza. “I didn’t have a chance,” she said. “I don’t know what came over me.” She went inside.
Mr. Beaker, Eliza, and my father stood together, laughing nervously. Gumma and Guppa were straightening up the mess my mother had made.
“I think we could all use a drink,” said my father. He began opening bottles. When they each had one, they clinked them together, and my father said to Eliza, “Well, at least you won’t forget this day.”
“You know, Bert,” said Mr. Beaker, “I think you’re almost right about Peter and the kittens, but not quite.”
“Oh, yeah?” growled my father.
“Dudley—” said Eliza.
Mr. Beaker nodded in my direction. “It’s not a matter of foolish persistence in pursuing an impossible goal, it’s a matter of focusing the attention.” He raised his voice. “‘True genius,’ it has been said, ‘lies in the art of focusing the attention.’” He paused to let that sink in, and Eliza took advantage of the pause at once.
“I don’t know about that,” she said. “It seems to me that a true genius ought to be able to keep a lot of balls in the air at once.”
There was a pregnant silence. Gumma, Guppa, and my father stood still, unbreathing. The kittens and I stopped romping. We all looked at Mr. Beaker.
“No, no,” he said. “You have an example right in front of you.” He pointed his pipestem at me. “Now if little Peter there were to narrow his focus, concentrate on and pursue only one kitten, he could catch it and keep it. You know what we’re seeing here, Bertram?”
My father looked at Mr. Beaker over his glasses, raising his eyebrows to say, “What? Go on. I’m listening.”
Mr. Beaker began poking and tamping at his pipe.
“What, Dudley?” asked Eliza.
Mr. Beaker tamped and poked until he had put the fire out. He put the pipe tool into his pocket and bent over and began knocking the pipe on the heel of his shoe. When he had finished knocking it, he began refilling it. My father was growing annoyed.
“Damn it, Beaker, what?” he demanded.
Mr. Beaker brought out his lighter, pumped it several times, and spun the striker.
My father clenched his teeth.
“Get to the point, Beaker!” he cried.
While Mr. Beaker directed the flame into his pipe, he looked at my father as if he had not heard him, raising an eyebrow as if he were surprised that my father hadn’t figured out what he was talking about. He pointed at me with his pipestem.
“Remember this scene,” he said. “Here we see Peter’s life, in miniature: this pursuing now one notion (or kitten), now another, this inability to concentrate entirely on one thing (or kitten) for fear that the others will get away, though really he might just as well pursue any one of them as all of them, for the kittens, as you and I can see at a glance, are so like one another as to be indistinguishable, each just a variation on the theme ‘Black Kitten.’” He chuckled and jotted something in a little leather-covered notebook. “Do you follow me?” he asked.
My father turned toward me again. I dropped a kitten into the wagon, clapped my hands and giggled. The kitten hopped out, and my father frowned.
I looked at Eliza, and she looked at me. Then she walked across the front walk onto my side of the lawn and began snatching up kittens. She caught five, and I caught one, and we plopped them all into the wagon at once. Then she picked me up and held me on her hip. The sun was still weak, and it was late in the afternoon now and a little chilly, so she may have hugged me so tightly only for warmth.
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Little Follies is a work of fiction. The characters, incidents, dialogues, settings, and businesses portrayed in it are products of the author’s imagination and are not to be construed as real. Any resemblance to actual events or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the author.
“My Mother Takes a Tumble,” “Do Clams Bite?,” “Life on the Bolotomy,” “The Static of the Spheres,” “The Fox and the Clam,” “The Girl with the White Fur Muff,” “Take the Long Way Home,” and “Call Me Larry” were originally published in paperback by Apple-Wood Books.
Little Follies was first published in hardcover by Crown Publishers, Inc., 201 East 50th Street, New York, New York 10022. Member of the Crown Publishing Group.
For information about publication rights outside the U. S. A., audio rights, serial rights, screen rights, and so on, e-mail the author’s imaginary agent, Alec “Nick” Rafter.
The illustration at the top of the page is an adaptation of an illustration by Stewart Rouse that first appeared on the cover of the August 1931 issue of Modern Mechanics and Inventions. The boy at the controls of the aerocycle doesn’t particularly resemble Peter Leroy—except, perhaps, for the smile.