Back in the old days, when families were having trouble making ends meet, they might take in boarders who would rent a bedroom, share the bathroom and take meals with the family. I remember when I was a real little girl we had two borders who lived with us. Both of them were Italian, of course, had steady jobs at the local steel mill, were middle-aged bachelors, and didn’t drink, smoke or gamble to excess.
The first was named Rocco. He was a short, boxy, silent man with fair skin, light reddish hair and a huge handlebar moustache. His room was the small one at the top of the stairs; the same room that I would occupy many years later after my divorce. The room was seven feet wide and ten feet long so you felt like you were living in a railroad car. You almost had to walk sideways to get from the door at one end of the room to the closet at the other.
Rocco was a curious sort of guy; he had a retiring disposition and had no inclination towards society. While he slept upstairs in the bedroom, the rest of the time he occupied the cellar. I remember going down those treacherous cellar stairs, past the old coal furnace that sat there like some demon from a Buddha hell, and peeking into the back part of the cellar where Rocco would sit in a wooden rocking chair beside a scarred wooden table illuminated by the light of a metal floor lamp with a stained yellow silk shade.
I don’t remember him ever eating with the family, preferring to use the old gas stove that my mother had in the cellar to use during the Pennsylvania summers when it was too hot to cook upstairs. I seem to remember him frying liver and onions frequently but maybe I am making this up and just think I am remembering. Anyway, when Rocco cooked he always shared his meals with his cat, a big orange tiger that looked very much like him. Except for the fact that the cat was shorter, they could have been brothers.
Rocco revealed an interesting sidelight to his own character by naming the cat Garibaldi who was leader of the nationalist party in the struggle for Italian unification. Why did the short, silent, red-haired laborer name his equally taciturn cat after a firebrand revolutionary, I speculated in later years. What was there about Rocco’s temperament, perhaps his past that was unrevealed? I never found out.
I loved Garibaldi with the passion that little girls reserve for large, orange, furry cats with long whiskers and difficult-to-pronounce names. In fact, I could not call him by his proper name, Garibaldi, and had to resort to calling him Kittybald. He shared his master’s infinite disdain for society, particularly of the feminine kind, but this did not deter me. It lit my fires and I longed to make Kittybald my own.
Since I didn’t have any brothers or sisters and was born in between generations in my family, and because I was too little to leave the block or cross the street, Kittybald, by default, became my best, indeed, my only friend. In those days, my favorite game was playing dress up the dolls. I had my own little baby buggy with the fold down convertible top and after dressing my dolls up in their most beautiful clothes I would take them for rides in the buggy up and down Ridge Avenue. But dolls are boring; they never talk back, they never hug you and they never meow.
So my most favorite game became playing dolls with Kittybald. I would capture that old cat when he was sleeping, dress him up in doll clothes and after tucking him under the covers, take him for rides in my baby buggy. It was quite disappointing to me that he never seemed to share my enthusiasm for this most entertaining pastime. In fact, when he saw me driving up with my buggy, he would often bolt across the yard, dive into the garden, zig through the forest of staked tomatoes, zag between the peppers and zucchini, then wiggle out under the privet hedge.
I remember one day in particular that he zigged when he should have zagged and I caught him by his rear legs just as he was slipping through the hedge. I reeled him back in like a tuna on a line while his claws made furrows in the dirt. But no matter what I did to him, Kittybald never scratched me.
He loved to sleep on the banister of the back porch, particularly on a sunny day. One day I was watching him nap when during one of his cattish dreams he must have been leaping after a bird because his feet wiggled and his whiskers twitched and before you knew it, he had rolled over and fallen off the banister into the bushes four feet below. As I peered over the banister to see if he was all right, he gave me a most indignant stare, apparently blaming me for his fall from grace. How I loved that cat.
When I was about four years old, I was big enough to have my own bedroom and by that time Dad was making more money working as a bartender down at the Sunrise Inn – dining and dancing seven nights a week – and we didn’t need two borders any more. One would do. So it was decided that Rocco would move over to Mrs. Baggiocci’s place. It didn’t take long to pack his two suitcases and I don’t remember saying good-bye to him.
But the same day that Rocco left, Kittybald disappeared. He didn’t go with Rocco because Mrs. Baggocci didn’t like cats. Later on, I saw Kittybald a couples times down the alley but he never came when I called him. I cried so much that mom even phoned Rocco to come over to see if he could coax the cat home. He came and Kittybald let himself be fed that one time but he disappeared again and I never saw him after that. For that matter, I never saw Rocco again either.