I was ten years old, and we were living in a run-down apartment building on River Street in Lewiston, Maine. The place was crawling with roaches. It stunk of piss and old beer and cigarettes, but for the first time in my life – I had my own apartment. Technically, it belonged to my mom – but for some reason, we had a deal on the two apartments on the top floor and my brother Gary and I slept in one all by ourselves, while my mom had the other one with my sister Monika, and our youngest brother, Chad. It was an odd arrangement, and sometimes we took advantage of the privacy and brought back things we stole from convenience stores. We were street urchins, though we didn’t know it. We reveled in stolen pudding, candy, and other treats we could stick under our clothing on the sly.
Despite living life mostly in alleys littered with dirty needles and dead cats under muddy boards, or on the streets where roving bands of child gangs fought each other with rusty pipes and easy-to-find rocks and bricks, I was a pretty sensitive kid. I kept mostly to myself, and I always had my nose in a comic book. Regular books occupied my mind, too, and because I didn’t always have access to video games – books and the home life called to me at even that young age. Often, when I would read in my room, occasionally spying a roach on the wall in my peripherals, our cat Chelsea would come and lay next to me, purring and wanting to be touched. I would stop reading, talk softly to her, and pet her until she had nuzzled against me and the two of us would fall asleep in that dirty place we called home. I had owned a cat earlier in life who we named “Blackie” – and Blackie had left a huge hole in my heart when we had to give her away when I was just four years old. Since then, I hadn’t really allowed myself to get too close to Chelsea, but she slowly wore me down. Eventually, Chelsea became pregnant, and soon my siblings and I were overjoyed to be living with lots of playful, cute, rambunctious kittens.
Then came the day my mother asked me to kill them.
To be more specific, she asked me to abandon them – the whole lot of them – in a nearby park. I was to put them all in a box, ignore their confused mewling, and leave them out in the open air to wander and possibly get run over or starve or succumb to the elements or to even be eaten by larger animals or birds. Being ten years old, I was no stranger to the often harsh realities of my life, but this seemed an unnecessary and cruel addition to the long, long list of terrible events I’d endured up to that point already. To me, leaving them outside without anyone to care for them was essentially the same thing as killing them. And I’d be the one metaphorically pulling the trigger.
“Mum, please,” I begged of her, “Don’t do this. Why do we hafta’ get rid of them?” The tears had already started. I could barely see her standing there in front of me, steeling herself. I wiped at my eyes with a shaking hand, my heart pounding, a desperate sob building up in my throat.
My mother stood there and puffed on her cigarette. With long draws and long exhales, she stood there for what seemed like forever. Then, like a mob boss in a movie ordering a hit, she snuffed her cigarette out in a nearby ash tray for emphasis. The tray was already blackened from her chain-smoking habits. She took a swig of Budweiser from an open can and swung her hair back.
“They’re fucking pissing all over the goddamned couch,” she said, her mouth in a grimace. She was drunk again. “I’m sick of it, Joey. Get rid of them. The living room smells like piss. The apartment smells like piss. I just can’t do it anymore.”
I cringed at each use of the word “piss” from her mouth. I still wet the bed at that age, and still did from there all the way up until high school. I took it as sort of a jab at me, not just a jab at the kittens. Maybe she was just trying to teach me a lesson, to make me somehow stop wetting the bed. After all, I was contributing to the smell of piss in the apartments, wasn’t I? I tried to reason with her, to ask her if there was anything we could do. I told her I would clean the couch. She was having none of it.
My brother Gary and I finally went about reluctantly coaxing the kittens out from under the couch, from under our beds. Some were playing together with strips of yellowed newspaper, and I sobbed openly as they scratched at my hands, thinking I was playing with them as I placed them in the box – which was to my young mind their collective coffin. I noticed Gary was crying, too.
We made the long walk with the cardboard box full of mewling kittens to the nearby park. The day was sunny but it was already fall and the weather wasn’t as warm as I would’ve liked. Maybe in the summer, they might have a chance to grow up, to be a little more independent, to be a little more able. But there was a crisp chill on the wind, and these kittens had been born inside and had never been outdoors. My younger brother and I didn’t say much of anything to each other as we walked. We each just softly cried, partners in what I saw was a great crime, and one I could never forgive myself for.
When we reached the park, I gently set the box down on the ground and pet the baby cats. They were curious but unaware that we’d be leaving them to their own devices. They were unaware that we were leaving them to slow death from exposure or starvation. They playfully pawed at the ground, oblivious to their danger, and began to wander from the box little by little. I grabbed each one to my tear-soaked and snot-streaked face, apologized, and kissed each one of their foreheads goodbye.
The walk home from that park still haunts me to this day. How I felt at just ten years old, how complicit I felt in an act that – thinking back – wasn’t my fault. If I think about those kittens, to this day I will still get teary-eyed. I wonder how many of them made it. I wonder why I never thought to just bring them somewhere safe. Mostly, it was because we were afraid of my mother. Of her fists, her drunken anger, and her uncompromising ways.
When we returned to the apartment, my mother didn’t acknowledge us. She sat and drank slowly from her can of Budweiser and smoked while she read the paper and listened to the local rock station. My brother and I sobbed uncontrollably at this point, bleating like sheep. He and I went into our room and isolated ourselves, each softly crying and withdrawn. I had so many terrible thoughts going through my head about the kittens.
That’s when I heard Chelsea meow. She deftly leaped up onto my piss-stained bed and nuzzled my hand. She rubbed her face on my hand, purring. I allowed myself a brief moment of comfort before guilt and anger washed over me. I felt rage explode outward from my chest, anger at myself, at my brother, and especially at my mother. But also at Chelsea. I screamed at the cat, and she recoiled in surprise and fear.
“GET AWAY FROM ME!” I yelled, choking on tears.
Chelsea didn’t run. She looked unsure, as she had never seen this side of the ten year old boy who had been so gentle so often to her and pet her for hours. My brother’s head whipped around in fear at the change in my demeanor.
Chelsea meowed and tried to advance into my lap. “I SAID,” I began, grabbing her around the stomach and lifting her up. “GET AWAY FROM ME!” I picked her up and flung her from the bed. She landed on all fours and scurried away, frightened and confused. I broke down crying. Gary tried to comfort me, too, and I screamed at him just as I had done the cat. He left the room much as Chelsea had done before him. And with Chelsea and my brother went the last of my true innocence. I became in that moment an ugly version of myself, and one that would persist and return for years to come whenever someone moved closer than arm’s length.