"Giving Away Your Heart" by Pamela Painter

Pamela Painter

Pamela Painter

Pamela Painter is the award-winning author of five story collections. Her stories have appeared in Alaska Quarterly Review, Ekphrastic Review, Flash Boulevard, Harper’s, Kenyon Review, JMWW, Michigan Quarterly Review, Smokelong Quarterly, Three Penny Review, and Vestal Review among others, and in the anthologies Sudden Fiction, Flash Fiction, and recently in Flash Fiction America, Best Microfiction of 2023, and Best Small Fictions 2023. Painter’s stories have received three Pushcart Prizes and have been staged by Word Theatre in LA, London and NYC.

Giving Away Your Heart

“You do know,” the woman at the shelter says rather sternly, her frown accentuating her deep wrinkles, “You’re giving away your heart when you take this cat home with you.” The cat in my carrier on the counter is an older plump grey tabby, docile-looking, and sleepy-eyed—her cage says, ‘Juno.’ I pull the paperwork toward me and sign my name. 

Then I tell the woman, also sternly. “I do know that.” ‘Juno’ meows as if to corroborate my statement and I stick my finger through the mesh carrier to scratch her chin. She will be my fourth cat. I respectfully buried the previous three in my backyard, only the last one needing my grandson to dig the grave because of my bad knees. “I’m a cat person,” I say.

The woman separates the copies and staples one for her records. Her nose wrinkles. “That’s what they all say.” She shoves a copy at me, turns to the aisles of cages, and points. “If that’s the case, why do we get so many abandoned cats?” 

Where did they get you, I think. “You’re new here,” I say. “For sure you weren’t working here when I came with my upstairs neighbor two months ago to get a cat.  She couldn’t make up her mind, so we came back three times.”  

“Third time’s a real charm,” the woman says, stowing the paperwork in a file. Her slightly pissy attitude is surely bad for the shelter’s cats. Pissy attitudes got me rid of two husbands, and I didn’t even have to bury them. “Maybe you’re a dog person,” I say. “Maybe you should be working at a shelter for dogs.”

Startled, she finally sees me, gets my drift. “I love these cats,” she says. “They’re all different. For example, Sweeny plays catch. Bix sleeps on his back. "Your 'Juno” shakes" her right paw just before she begins eating.” She considers me as if debating whether I’m worth talking to. Then she goes on to say she had to give up her part Maine Coon when she moved into subsidized housing. “So I brought her here and two days later I signed on as a volunteer.” She tells me, “Go look at the cat at the end of the row.”  

The woman follows me to the cage that says “Mittens.” She pokes her finger through the mesh cage, which sets a fluffy Mittens to purring. The woman says, “I tell everyone she bites. But she wouldn’t bite a soul. At the end of my shifts I feed her and hold her on my lap. I know about giving away your heart.”  

The woman, Lizzy, comes for dinner once or twice a week. Juno and Mittens get along well. Lizzy and I are a bit more prickly. Who can say what someone else’s life is like, what’s done them wrong, what’s in a heart.