Just Plain Cat
Nancy K. Robinson
Chris woke up. Today was the first day of school. He was starting the third grade. And he was in a terrible mood.
When he went to get dressed, he remembered that he had nothing new to wear-- not even a new T-shirt.
"You don't need a thing this year," his mother had said cheerfully. "Everything still fits."
That made Chris miserable. If everything still fit, even his pants, he hadn't grown much over the summer. That meant that every girl in the class would still be taller than Chris. He saw himself surrounded by giant girls. It was like a nightmare. "Maybe some of them got a little shorter over the summer." he thought. No, that never happened. That was too much to hope for.
His feet hadn't even grown. He could still wear the same worn-out sneakers. That had really made his mother happy.
"Thank goodness they fit," his mother had said. "We're a little short of money right now."
Chris's father was a photographer. He worked very hard, but he didn't always get paid on time. Chris often heard his father complain about all the rich people who owed him money for photographs. It made Chris angry to think that some big-shot businessman owed his father a bunch of money and Chris was the one who had to suffer. It was so unfair!
But sometimes Chris got angry at his father, too. Why couldn't his father have an ordinary job in an office-- the kind where you brought home money every week. Then they would be able to go away on a summer vacation like everyone else. Then his parents would stop having those boring discussions about rent, food prices, and electric bills.
Chris didn't even get a new book bag this year. He would have to carry the same old beat-up blue bag with his last year's notebook in it. And he would have to use an old chewed-up pencil thhat his mother had found. The eraser on it was OK and, "it writes just the same" his mother had said, but Chris decided he would do his best to lose it the first day.
"It's not fair," Chris whispered over and over. "It's just not fair." He looked in the mirror to see how sad and miserable he looked, but he just looked sulky. That was no good. Chris spent the next few minutes in front of the mirror. He could hear his mother in the kitchen.
Finally he was satisfied with the expression on his face. A little sad, but not angry. Helpless. A pitiful short kid. That would make his mother feel bad. Now he just had to hold that expression until he got to the kitchen.
When Chris passed the living room, he heard snoring. He peeked in the door. There was his father fast asleep on the couch. His father was wearing the same clothes he had worn the day before. Chris felt bad. He knew his father had been working late into the night, printing photographs. His father had his own darkroom for printing photographs right behind the kitchen. He never had to send rolls of film to the camera store; he did it all at home. But all weekend he had been so busy in that darkroom, he had no time for Chris.
Chris suddenly realized he might be late for school. He didn't have time to go back to the mirror and get that pitiful expression back on his face, so he tiptoed past the living room, down the hall, and into the kitchen.
The kitchen was a mess. There were brown bottles of chemicals all over the place. His father's print dryer was sitting on the breakfast table, and Chris could hear the water running in the darkroom. That meant there were more photographs being washed. The job wasn't finished yet.
His mother looked tired. Chris was sure she had been up all night, helping his father dry photographs. She looked at Chris as if she were surprised to see him.
"Hi, dear." she said. Then she tried to clear a little space on the table. She put down a bowl and began pouring cereal into it.
"Isn't there something else?" Chris asked. "I don't like that cereal."
His mother stopped pouring the cereal. For a moment she looked as if she were going to cry. "Well, you certainly woke up on the wrong side of the bed."
Chris sat down and quickly ate his least favorite cereal. His mother poured herself a cup of coffee and sat down across from Chris. But it did matter. Wasn't there anything special about today? Shouldn't he be treated differently? After all, he was as third grader for the first time in his whole life.
His mother looked at the clock and jumped up. She opened the print dryer and carefully took out a photograph. It was a photograph of the inside of a factory. There were bottles lined up as far as the eye can see. It was a beautiful photograph, Chris thought.
His mother went into the darkroom and came back carrying another wet photograph. She put it on a shiny metal sheet, like a cookie sheet.
"Mom." Chris knew this wasn't the right time to ask, but he couldn't help it. His mother was trying to get the extra water off the photo with a rubber tool called a squeegie.
"Mom," he said again. "When Orpex pays Daddy, could we get a kitten?"
"Oh, Christopher." His mother turned the photo over and began wiping the water off the other side. "You know it's not just the money. There are fifty different reasons why we can't have a cat."
"Fifty?" Chris was shocked. Yesterday there had only been four reasons, and he was ready with the answers to all four. Today there were fifty! Chris had subtracted in his head. How could he come up with answers to forty-six more?
His mother laid the damp photo on the dryer and pulled a cloth tightly over it She looked at the clock. Chris waited. He wanted her full attention. When she sat down and sipped her coffee, Chris began:
"Look Mommy, I've got it all figured out. You see, it won't cost you hardly anything. We'll get the kitten at the Bide-a-Wee home. That's seven dollars and a little more for shots. I'll pay my whole allowance for cat food plus the money I get from Mrs. Hawkins for errands. We can have its claws taken out like Veronica's cat so it won't scratch the furniture." (Veronica lived across the hall; she had a dog and a cat. It was so unfair!)
Chris took a deep breath and went on, "I'll feed it and change the litter so there won't be any work for you and . . ."
Chris stopped. His mind went blank. He had the feeling he had answered three of the four reasons. He counted quickly to himself: "One--too expensive. Two--scratching the furniture. Three--too much work." What was that fourth reason? He knew he had an answer to that one too.
"The main thing," his mother said slowly, "is your father's darkroom. We can't have cat hairs around. It would ruin his negatives."
"I'll keep him out!" Chris shouted. "I'll make a gate-- a special gate so he can't get through. Oh, please mommy, please . . ."
His mother stood up. She came over to hug Chris. Chris pulled away from her-- even though he didn't mean to.
"We'll talk about it later," his mother whispered. "Hurry now, you'll be late." She handed him his lunch box.
Chris forgot everything when he saw that lunch box. It was his second-grade lunch box and it had a picture of some rabbits dressed in bathing suits having a picnic. In second grade, Chris thought it was a pretty nice lunch box, but he couldn't bring a lunch box like that to third grade.
"Oh, Mom, couldn't I bring my lunch in a paper bag?" (Fifth graders always brought their lunches in paper bags.)
"Don't be silly," his mother said. "That gets too expensive."