Kibo’s CatsSharon Hashimoto
All the way home from Tuck’s Auto Repair, Alice pointed out the new buildings. Seattle was getting bigger. High rise apartments and condos were springing up all along the light rail line. Restaurants like Ichiban were gone. So was the old variety store with cheap fishing supplies, cheap tennis shoes, cheap everything.
Yaeko was gone, too. How long now? Kibo, sitting in the passenger seat, had to count forward from 2005, the year she’d died, to figure it out. It was the same year he’d lost his best friend to a car accident on the floating bridge—he’d gotten a lot of use out of his one good suit that year.
As his sister pulled into the driveway, Kibo felt a jolt in his tail bone—he was glad for his seat belt. Alice wrestled with the steering wheel. “Stupid potholes!”
That was just like Alice to blame the road for her own bad driving. If he mentioned that she had been tailgating or had missed a turn, her lips would mash together in a straight seam and she’d give him a withering look. Never mind that it had been Kibo who taught her parallel parking way back in the fifties. He was the responsible firstborn; she, the spoiled baby sister. It was hard not to think of her as the girl with two pigtails sticking out from the sides of her head. When he looked at Alice now, he saw the same things he saw in his own mirror every morning: crow’s feet, age spots, a flabby double chin. They were both old.
At least he could count on her. Family was family, after all. She’d left George at home in front of the television, watching the PGA Tournament. George was all hot air, and he ended his sentences with a fake high laugh. When George was around, everything was about George. If Kibo was sitting in that living room, he’d be listening to his brother-in-law brag about a 25-foot-long putt made eight years ago.
Kibo bit the inside of his lip. It was hard to be nice to George. Alice must have been pretty hard up to marry him.
Alice stomped the brake and the car lurched to a halt.
“Thank you,” Kibo said loudly and carefully. Alice was the real reason things got done. But something about his expression of gratitude hadn’t sounded right—awkward somehow, forced. He stared straight ahead. His green house with the peeling white trim felt lonely without his car. There was no getting around it: he was going to need his sister’s help with transportation for a little while. How could he take a chance with a new-fangled loaner? Who else could he turn to? He and Yaeko hadn’t had any kids. Just the cat, Yuki.
He wondered if Alice had heard what he said or if he needed to repeat himself. She could hold a grudge for a long time.
“Your lawn needs mowing,” she said, her gaze sweeping from the holly tree to the borders of the cyclone fence.
Kibo winced. Her own yard was neatly mowed and trimmed, a Japanese maple shading the porch. But Alice paid someone to do it. She was the type who worried about appearances. He never bothered. The camellia bush was overgrown because Yaeko and Yuki had always looked forward to the spring when robins nested inside.
A black and white cat slid from a warm patch of sun to duck under the side gate, a puff of dust in its wake.
Some cats, Kibo knew, had a sixth sense about people. This one was smart enough to get out of the way. But not the patchy brown cat with the tattered ear on the fence, or the short-haired calico, pregnant again, staring from under the shadow of the stoop.
Clearing his throat, he answered, “Yeah, maybe I’ll do some yard work tomorrow.” He knew it was the answer she wanted to hear. Instead, he’d be in the kitchen, drinking black coffee and flipping through the newspaper. Yaeko and he used to read the daily advice column out loud.
If he really needed to, Kibo told himself, he could get around by bus, but the stop was a half-mile walk all uphill. He didn’t have a bus schedule. And how many quarters was he supposed to drop into the fare box? It had been a long time since he’d caught the bus—back when he was working at the watch repair store, living in an apartment attached to Yaeko’s parents’ house.
He decided he could put up with Alice if he could keep her outside of the house. He didn’t need anyone telling him what to do.
After fumbling with his seat belt, Kibo couldn’t find the door lock.
Alice spoke in her no-nonsense tone. “You pay Kenny. I’ll send him over.”
Kibo had no interest in paying his sister’s grandson to mow his lawn, but he nodded anyway. Kenny was the kind of boy, she thought, who needed a job, not a handout. Kibo could remember his own teenage days when he’d work in the strawberry fields with his father, the old man saying not to take a lunch break or else the boss man would think they weren’t good workers.
There was no use arguing. Only then did Alice pop the trunk, where the two fifty-pound bags of dry cat food lay crowded between her emergency lantern, blankets, and water. Those cats were going to eat him out of his Social Security check. At least he’d found a coupon in the newspaper. For my neighbor, he’d told Alice.
Some things never changed. Kibo slung one bag to his shoulder, thinking that Alice still saw him as her big brother—but the bags were heavier than he expected and he had to lock his hands together, awkwardly kneeing it forward one step at a time.
Alice wasn’t laughing. Her eyebrows pinched together. She’d stopped dying her hair jet black, and now it was a cap of white with bangs too short on her forehead.
Kibo stood with one hand leaning against the carport post, the bags of cat food at his feet. “I’ll call you when my car is ready.” He bent over, stopping to take a breath. When he spoke, the words came out one at a time. “You. Can. Go. Now.”
Alice held out her hand, palm up. “Give me your house key.”
Kibo didn’t like the way she was looking at him. Something was wrong. All morning, Alice had nagged at him like he was a little kid. Even though he had set the alarm clock for eight o’clock, he’d still overslept. He was used to taking his time shaving and brushing his teeth after feeding the cats. At least he had set out a golf shirt and a better pair of jeans, not the comfortable old khakis with his beat-up belt that he wore every day. After Yaeko had died, he’d found the bag of old underwear she meant to give to Goodwill and decided nobody could see what he wore under his clothes. The worn-out cotton was good enough for him. It was so soft, so comfortable. But there hadn’t been time to wash the dishes still lying in the kitchen sink or wipe off the dining room table. “Nah,” he said, straightening up, one hand still on a cat food bag. “No need. George is probably missing you.”
Alice opened and closed her extended hand. “C’mon,” she said, “I don’t like the way you’re all out of breath.”
Kibo shook his head and walked slowly to his front door. Sometimes, it was just easier to do what he was told. He reached into his jacket pocket, handed over the key, and followed his sister into the foyer. Glancing over his shoulder, he saw two tomcats sniffing the bags of cat food still propped up against the carport post.
Kibo’s favorite part of the house was a place in the living room where he could see the birch framed by picture windows in the living room. Yaeko used to sit there on the sofa, an afghan tucked around her as she read her crime novels; Yuki, the white cat, nestled on her lap. He sat down hard in the brown recliner and shrugged off his jacket. The upholstery had holes, but it was comfortable; the cushions molded to his body. Alice had gone straight to the kitchen and brought him a tepid glass of water. He sat, counting his breaths until he reached one hundred. Gradually, his heart stopped pounding and he felt a little better as the late afternoon sun flooded the living room.
Water ran from the faucet. His sister was in the kitchen, cleaning up. The refrigerator door opened and closed. Kibo frowned. He didn’t want Alice to throw anything out—the milk (which was past its due date but not tasting bad yet) or the hoisin sauce Yaeko had bought so long ago. The sun felt good on his face. If his sister wasn’t around, he could lie down and take a nap. Alice was such a gasa gasa girl, like their parents used to say, constantly moving. But it was pleasant to hear someone else in the house.
“You have ants in your sink,” Alice yelled at him.
Opening his eyes, he imagined his sister would use a paper towel, trapping the insects against the stained porcelain and squishing their bodies before rinsing them down the drain. He leaned his head on the recliner and looked out the window into the yard.
In the long grass, little trails led downhill to three weakened parts of the fence where the cats slipped under to his neighbor’s back yard. Kibo checked the crook of the birch to see a half-grown kitten, all short black fur with long white whiskers, watching a bird higher up in the branches. Only the tip of the tail flicked back and forth. It was the same kitten with the rheumy eyes he had tried to clean, the one who wove around his ankles in the early morning when he put the cat food out. Kibo didn’t know how long the kitten had to live. It was the last of the litter and looked sick with its big belly, but it had been the biggest, the smartest. He’d buried two others of the litter, victims of the increasingly belligerent raccoons. The carcasses had been gutted open, the strings of their intestines hanging out under a cloud of flies. Just last night, he’d seen the hulking mound of a mother raccoon with her four cubs, their sharp eyes reflecting the light over the back door. The drinking water he put out in a large stainless steel bowl had been muddy again.
Alice came out of the kitchen carrying a sandwich on a plate. “Peanut butter and banana,” she said. “That banana was starting to go bad.”
Kibo cleared away newspapers and old Reader’s Digests from a spot on the coffee table where she could put the plate down. He didn’t think the sandwich would taste very good, but she’d even gone to the trouble of cutting the crusts off. The banana surprised him. He hadn’t expected how it would keep the peanut butter from sticking to the roof of his mouth. “Good,” he said with his mouth full.
Alice sat down across from him, one hand patting his knee.
Kibo took another bite, chewing thoughtfully. The long held note of a cat’s meow broke the silence.
“Come live with us,” Alice finally said. “The kids are all grown up. The house is too big without them, but I don’t want to move away.” She paused, then added, “George has always liked you.”
That’s what you get, Kibo thought. Being married to George. Alice could only shake her head at her husband as he bragged about the free chicken wings he took home from the all-you-can eat buffet. Alice must be lonely, he figured—even with her church activities, the grandchildren, her friends. Kibo knew he was. He wondered where they’d put him. There was the kid’s room in the basement with its own bathroom. It was the farthest away from George. For a moment, he considered that he wouldn’t have to worry about cooking or cleaning.
He must have made a face because Alice was getting up. Kibo turned his attention back to his peanut butter and banana sandwich, afraid his sister was going to hug him. He choked on a mouthful. Gently, Alice patted his back. “Just think about it. Will you do that?”
Kibo reached for his glass, taking a long sip instead of answering. He kept drinking until the water was gone. He could hear four or five other cat voices joining in. Their chirps started off soft but ended louder, more demanding.
Alice drifted away and began pulling off the dead leaves of Yaeko’s spider plant that hung in the corner. Sometimes, when Kibo couldn’t finish a bottle of water, he’d dump the remainder in. Only because Alice was here did he notice that the plastic pot had split its seam and a new sprout was pushing its way out. She tested the soil between her thumb and middle finger; Kibo knew it would be dry. Then he frowned as she noticed the cats waiting outside. He could feel their eight or twelve faces turned up towards the window.
“Where did you get all these cats?”
Kibo could see his sister’s eyes flicking back and forth, growing bigger. “They come, they go,” he said, brushing crumbs off his shirt. “Not all the same ones.”
It was the way each cat looked up at him, their heads cocked, their meows calling for food. Coming home one night, the reflection of his headlights in a cat’s eyes made him stomp the brakes, and the car had slid. Had he hit the animal? Was it bleeding, maybe dying out in the dark, in the thicket of blackberries by the road? He had put out a cardboard box with a beach towel by the back door, just under the eaves of the house and out of the rain. The next morning, the cat was in the box with two kittens.
He should have called the Animal Control people. But he knew what would probably happen to them if he did. Didn’t they deserve to live? He should have found them homes but the babies were already too quick for him. And there was that look they all gave him, half begging, half crouching as if afraid they’d be struck, ready to run, but still frozen with hope.
A can of tuna fish, a small bowl of milk. Feeding the cats leftover food he had around the house hadn’t been too much trouble at first and he’d told himself the cats would eventually wander away or that he could always stop. From the window, he had watched how many litters of kittens pounce and tumble over each other? Their tiny puffed-up backs and tails always made him smile.
Alice tapped the window with the back of her knuckles. “Hey,” she yelled, rapping harder. “Go away!”
“Why did you do that?” He couldn’t imagine the cats doing any harm.
“Look there,” Alice said, pointing. “At the edge of the patio, under your juniper. Raccoon. A really big one.”
Kibo swiveled his chair like a little kid, holding one sticky hand up so it wouldn’t dirty the cushion. For a moment, he felt a flicker of fear like he’d been caught. What he saw out the window wasn’t anything unusual. The cats were keeping their distance from the raccoon as it clawed the dirt in the garden, searching through old cast-off peanut shells from when Yaeko used to put out seeds and nuts for the birds and squirrels. But it was really the cat food he put out every day that the raccoon was after.
What was he supposed to do? Kibo couldn’t sit outside with a shovel to club the raccoons. He didn’t like cleaning up after the masked pests or rinsing out the muddy water dish. Somehow, being nice had become too much trouble. The cats and raccoons had worked things out—the raccoons ate first and the cats got leftovers.
Alice sighed. “Our neighbor had raccoons in her chimney! They pulled off roof shingles and left their mess everywhere. Her whole backyard smelled.” Alice picked up the folded paper towel she’d brought with the sandwich and nudged Kibo’s arm, handing it to him. “This could grow into a bigger problem for you.”
Kibo felt a sudden chill down his spine. He pushed himself up out of the chair for a better look, imagining holes dug around the window siding. Pest control people would put traps and poison in his yard. Looking out the window, a young raccoon was grooming its tail next to the fence. Only the black kitten showed any sign of worry, backing away towards the door. The other cats sat dozing around the base of the birch tree or plumped up with their paws tucked under like brooding hens. Kibo didn’t see anything to worry about. “That’s nothing,” he said.
Alice rested both hands on her hips.
He thought of how the raccoons raised themselves onto their hind legs, making themselves bigger. Kibo knew what his sister was thinking. Alice was trying to help. For a moment, he remembered her little girl fingers swabbing a gash on his hand. She was trying to be kind, but her know-it-all attitude annoyed him.
Kibo wasn’t worried. How long had he taken care of himself? To make his sister feel better, he’d let Alice invite him over for dinner on special occasions—like birthdays and holidays. In November, maybe they’d go to her church’s bazaar. He might even let her clean out Yaeko’s old clothes, still hanging in the spare bedroom closet.
“You’d better go,” he said. “George will be waiting.”
Alice began to pick up the plate and glass, then decided to leave them. She gave a snort of exasperation.
His sister’s body was still half-turned toward him. From the shadowed side of her face, he could see light reflecting from her pupils.
He’d caught her in a rare moment when she was between actions, with her hands hanging at her sides. There was pity in his sister’s eyes.
The sun broke through the shade of the birch tree in bright golden coins. When Kibo closed his eyes, he could still see the sunlight, like red splotches against his lids.
Originally published in Moss: Volume Three.