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Authors: Zilpha Keatley Snyder

Cat Running

BOOK: Cat Running
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Zilpha Keatley Snyder

For Larry






























A Biography of Zilpha Keatley Snyder


and smelled of cabbage and bacon grease and Mama was taking forever to finish washing the meat platter. The smell, along with the knot in her stomach, made Cat feel slightly sick. She swallowed hard and wiped her forehead with the damp coolness of the dish towel, before she leaned closer and whispered, “Mama. He’s almost done. Ask him now. Hurry!”

Lunch had been over for half an hour. Or “dinner,” as Father still insisted on calling it, even though nowadays, in the nineteen thirties, most people called it “lunch.” Cliff and Ellen had walked back to the store ages ago, Mama and Cat had almost finished the dishes, and Father was on the last page of his newspaper. Within a very few minutes he would be leaving too. Going back to Kinsey’s Hardware where he would stay, as always on Saturdays, until past Cat’s bedtime. “Mama. You promised.” Cat nudged her mother’s arm.

“Be careful, Cathy,” her mother said. “You almost made me drop this platter.” Holding the heavy china plate with both hands, she arranged it very slowly and carefully in the rinsing rack while Cat watched, quivering with impatience. “It’s almost an heirloom, you know. Belonged to your great-grandmother Kinsey.”

Cat Kinsey (Cathy or even Catherine to some, but Cat to her friends and in her secret soul) dismissed great-grandmothers and family heirlooms with an angry shrug, and nudged her mother again. Tensing her whisper into an almost silent scream, she said, “Mama! Hurry. He’s leaving.”

With maddening slowness Mama dried her hands on her apron, and started toward Father. But then, noticing the milk pitcher was still on the table, she picked it up instead. It wasn’t until the pitcher was carefully covered with oilpaper, and put away in the icebox, that she again turned toward the center of the room.

Twisting her hands in her apron, she took an uncertain step toward where Cat’s father, Charles Kinsey, was carefully folding the newspaper and then arranging his knife and fork neatly across the top of his plate. Cat’s heart sank. Mama wouldn’t ask him. And even if she did, she wouldn’t really argue on Cat’s side—even though she’d more or less promised she would.

Father pushed back his chair, straightened his tie, slicked down his bristly gray hair, took his hat from the peg by the door, and settled it firmly on his head. It wasn’t until the last possible moment, just as he was reaching for the doorknob, that Mama finally spoke. “Charles. Could I—could Catherine talk to you a moment? She wants to ask you something.”

No, no.
Cat wanted to shout,
No! You want to talk to him. You promised you’d do it.
But she didn’t, of course. Didn’t even dare risk a glance that would come close to saying the words that pushed against her clenched teeth.
Mama, you liar. You awful scaredy-cat liar!

Instead she forced a smile and turned toward her father. “It’s about Play Day. Everybody’s talking about it at school already and practicing and everything, and I’m going to be in the sixth-grade girls’ race and if I win that one I might even win the Winners’ Grand Finale, too, like last year.” She paused—and avoided the issue for a moment by saying, “Everybody says I’ll probably win. I’m a lot faster than anybody at Brownwood, even Hank Belton, and—and everybody says I
to win or Brownwood won’t stand a chance for the prize money this year.” She paused again. Her father’s dark eyes were narrowing, his spidery gray eyebrows almost meeting above his nose.

“Yesss?” he said, stretching the word out in a way that made it threaten like a cat’s hiss. “Go on, daughter. I know about the fall sports meet. We were discussing it just last week at the school-board meeting. What is it that you want to ask about it?”

Despair tightened her throat. He was going to say no. She knew he was. But she hurried on, the words erupting, tumbling, trying to get out before it was too late. “And everyone, all the girls, everyone but me, they’re all going to wear slacks. And I know that Reverend Hopkins preaches against them but Janet says that Reverend Booker says he doesn’t think God cares one way or another.”
That was a mistake. How could she have been so dumb as to mention Reverend Booker when she knew how Father felt about him? Quick. Change the subject. Tell about

tell about what the teacher said.
“And Miss Albright says that slacks are ever so much more modest when you’re doing sports and—”

Her father spoke then, and of course he said no. Well, not the actual word
—and not to Cat. Nothing to Cat herself. When he finally interrupted her frantic babbling, he only said to Mama, “Lydia, why do we have to go over this again? I thought we’d covered the subject quite thoroughly last year. I’ve told you, and Catherine, too, I might add, that I quite agree with Reverend Hopkins when he says that women in men’s clothing are an abomination.”

It wasn’t until then that he turned to Cat. “And over and above the issue of women in men’s clothing, Catherine, I thought you solemnly agreed that if you got that green dress you wanted so much you’d not ask for anything more until Christmas.”

“But, Father, this is—this is different. This is because of the race and—and winning for Brownwood—and not being the only girl there, or at least the only girl who’s racing who’s not wearing slacks, and ...

Father turned away. Without even waiting to hear the rest of what she had to say he settled his hat more firmly on his head and went out the back door.

Cat whirled to glare at her mother. “It’s because of the money, isn’t it? He just said that about Reverend Hopkins because he doesn’t want to admit it, but it’s mostly because of the money. He just won’t spend a penny he doesn’t have to. At least he won’t if it’s for ... Cat threw down her dish towel and ran.

“Cathy!” her mother’s faint pleading call drifted after her. “Cathy. Come back.” Cat kept going.


at Brownwood School. And almost as good on the high bar and at dodgeball. And when necessary very good at dodging through cluttered rooms as well. Full speed through the dining room, around chairs, bird cages, and plant stands, and on around tea tables and over footstools in the dim, dusty living room. And on to the front door, to burst out into the sunshine—and down the veranda steps in three daring leaps.

Down the steps and across the semicircle of straggly lawn to where the huge fronds of the old palm tree drooped clear to the ground, making a tentlike shelter. A hiding place where, if you stood very still, you were quite invisible to anyone watching from the house. Or even from the veranda steps where Lydia Kinsey was soon standing, still wiping her hands on her apron and calling in her wispy voice. Calling and smiling now, a pitiful pretend smile. “Where are you, Cathy? All I can see is your toes and your hair.”

Quoting poetry again, the way she always did. When she was younger Cat had liked to listen to all the poems Mama knew by heart. But lately it only made her angrier when Mama tried to use some silly little kids’ poem to make up with Cat after they had an argument. Silly poems like that one that started,
“I’m hiding, I’m hiding, and no one knows where. For all they can see is my toes and my hair.”
Trying to make a joke of something that wasn’t the least bit funny. She couldn’t really see Cat’s toes and hair, of course, and what Cat was doing wasn’t a joke, or a game either. Or the least bit funny.

Shutting out the calling voice, Cat sat down in the dusty debris near the trunk of the tree. Shutting out, too, the fact that her skirt was getting dirty—or trying to ignore it, at least. After a moment she reluctantly lifted the skirt, brushed it off, and tucked it up into her lap out of harm’s way—and while she was at it, the end of her braid. Pulling the long, thick braid of almost red hair—brown, really, but with just a hint of red—forward over her shoulder, she shook shreds of palm fronds out of its curly end. Then, as she often did when she was thinking, she wrapped and unwrapped the curl around her fingers—and concentrated on shutting out the sound of Mama’s voice.

Actually, Lydia Shoemaker Kinsey’s voice was easy to ignore. Nobody, not Ellen or Cliff or Cat herself, and certainly not Father—particularly not Father—ever paid much attention to what Mama had to say. It was likely, in fact, that no one had ever paid much attention to her, even before she became Mrs. Charles Kinsey. In fact, according to Ellen, that was the reason why she had lost her job at Brownwood School and decided to get married instead.

Cat had heard many stories about how Mama had happened to marry Father, most of them from Ellen. “Skinny little bit of a thing,” Ellen had begun just the other night, “right out of teachers college—and with that freckly baby face and carroty red hair, she looked about twelve years old. Should have known better than to take on an upper-grade class like the one here at Brownwood. Fifth through eighth grade it was then, before the seventh and eighth grades went to Orangedale.”

“I know,” Cat interrupted. “You’ve told me about it before. Lots of times.” She knew all about the year Mama had tried to teach at Brownwood. And how both Cliff and Ellen had been in her class, Cliff in the fifth grade and Ellen in eighth. And how the girls gossiped and giggled all day, and the boys spattered ink and threw spit wads. And nobody bothered to do their lessons or learn anything at all.

“And I’ll bet you threw more spit wads than anybody,” Cat had said to Cliff. It was easy to imagine what kind of a ten-year-old Cliff had been. Cat was certain, in fact, that neither Cliff nor Ellen had been any help to Lydia. Not that Ellen would ever have been rowdy or giggly, but she wouldn’t have been friendly either. At least not after she found out that her own father, Charles Kinsey, head of the “well-known” Kinsey family, owner of Kinsey’s Hardware Emporium as well as president of the school board, had asked Lydia Shoemaker to marry him. Had asked the scrawny, nervous little schoolteacher to marry him even though he was almost twenty years older, and had lost his first wife less than a year before.

“She told him no at first,” Ellen had gone on to say. Cat had been surprised because Ellen usually tried to make it sound like Mama had schemed and connived to get Father to marry her.

“Hmm,” Cat had said in a tone of voice she’d tried to keep from sounding too triumphant. “I guess it
all her idea, then, after all.”

“Well, not right off maybe,” Ellen said.

After Cat considered for a moment she asked, “How do
know she said no at first?”

“Father told me so.” Ellen had been sewing at the time and for a moment her face disappeared as she lifted the shirt she was mending to bite off a thread. When it appeared again her lips looked thin, and hard enough to snip off thread all by themselves. “She told him she said no because she was worried about how Cliff and I would feel about her taking our mother’s place. You know Cliff was only nine when Mama died.”

“I know,” Cat said. Ellen had told her many long, sad stories about how their mother, the beautiful and elegant Eleanor, had died of pneumonia when Ellen and Cliff were so young.

“That’s what she told him,” Ellen went on, “but I think it was just that she really didn’t want to be a housewife at all. At least, not until she found out what a failure she was as a schoolteacher. So then”—Ellen’s lips curled in a spitefully sweet smile—“when she lost the teaching position she decided to try her hand at being a housewife, after all.”

BOOK: Cat Running
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