EVERYBODY SAID I'D have to lie to get the two kittens.

Everybody said that the SPCA or the animal shelters around Washington wouldn't give me kittens for my children unless I perjured myself in writing and promised never, ever to let them out of the house, where they could get killed by cars or chased by dogs or who knows what all.

"Lie," everybody said. "Those people are ridiculous."

But no, I wouldn't do it. I've been cranky and perverse all my life -- the sort of person who once racked up almost $300 in legal fees to get back a $200 rent deposit. I don't mean I'm some kind paragon of integrity -- I leave my garbage cans on the sidewalk, sometimes, and as a citizen of Takoma Park, I brood constantly, trying to figure out some way to violate its law declaring it a "nuclear-free zone."

But I wasn't going to lie to get kittens.

Not that I didn't sympathize with the animal people.

One of the reasons we wanted kittens was that we had recently scraped my daughter Hannah's cat Chester off Philadelphia Avenue. There had been much crying and grief, and I won't go into a big thing about how Chester and my dog Jack used to play together for hours, or any of that cute stuff, except to say that I liked Chester a lot.

Then again, I was cranky enough to believe that Chester's death by the tire of a cold, impersonal car was somehow better than death at the hands, however loving, of animal shelter technicians, especially seeing that Chester had lived a nice chunk of life before the car hit him -- a lot more than he would have gotten at an animal shelter.

This attitude toward cat raising had gotten two of my cats to old age, but it proceeded to get me nowhere when I called the SPCA. I told the truth about the indoors/outdoors business, and they told me I couldn't have their kittens. I even got the feeling they wanted me to lie, but I wouldn't.

So last Saturday morning I called the Montgomery County Animal Shelter.

They told me that there were "lots of kittens who could go home today." All I had to do was fill out an application, make a down payment on the neutering of the kittens and provide a suitable cat carrier. Anything else? No? Terrific.

Ah, and when we got to the shelter -- whole rooms full of caged kittens waiting to go home! Calico kittens waiting to go home, kittens with little pink mouths that gaped in huge meows waiting to go home, white puffs of fur with wild green eyes . . . . There was one astonishment of cuteness and love after another. My kids went crazy.

I filled out the application, which featured a lot of questions that a cranky guy like me can get worked up about. Was it any of Montgomery County's business whether I lived in a house or an apartment? Did it matter whether my house was owned or rented?

But even the crankiest of guys can behave when two kittens are waiting in the next room, and two kids are waiting by your side. Besides, there's something about getting kittens for your kids that makes you believe in the nobility of humanity.

I felt great. I even decided to trust the shelter folks when I hit the question about whether I'd keep my kittens ( )indoors ( )outdoors ( )indoors and outdoors.

You know the rest.

The silence of children who have seen the cutest kittens in the world slip through their fingers is one which fills nicely with angry thoughts while you're fighting your way back down Viers Mill Road from Rockville.

When I got home, I went straight to the phone. I soon found myself talking to a woman we'll call Mrs. X.

I asked Mrs. X why I hadn't been told about the indoors/outdoors question before I drove all the way out Viers Mill Road with two kids who'd been told they were getting kittens today.

Said Mrs. X: "We don't want to encourage people to lie."

"But that's exactly what you're doing when you don't tell the whole truth yourselves," I said. "I've been through this already with the SPCA, and now I know why it's conventional wisdom in this city that you have to lie to get kittens from the animal shelter."

Said Mrs. X, in a voice startled, even saddened, by my cynicism: "We believe that most people are honest when they sign the agreement."

I disagreed, adding that I had a nice home to offer two kittens, a home that was a lot nicer than the decompression chamber that was their next address.

"We do not put them in a decompression chamber," said Mrs. X with some heat. "We use phenobarbitol."

"Well, you kill them in any case."

Was there no coarseness that could try Mrs. X's patience? With infinite tolerance, the kind no doubt extended even to sinners like animal-sacrifice cultists and fiends who want to sell the government's kittens to vivisectionists, she asked me if I wanted a "home interview."

Home interview? Like when you adopt a baby? That's what it takes to get kittens if you check the "indoors and outdoors" choice at the Montgomery County Animal Shelter.

Said Mrs. X: "What if the interviewer decides that it's not safe for a cat to go outdoors in your neighborhood? What if the interviewer says you have to agree to keep the cat indoors?"

"I won't sign," I said. "And I think that almost anybody who did would be lying."

"We don't think so," said Mrs. X. "You'd have to be a fool to violate a contractual agreement you have signed with Montgomery County. That agreement is legally enforceable."

"Wait a second, this city may be lawyer-infested, but I don't think we've started hauling people into court for letting the cat out."

The problem was, I didn't have a moral leg to stand on. Not only was I bragging about my own honesty, but I was damning the rest of the world as liars, ninnies and criminals.

Still, Mrs. X persevered in reaching out for the soul of a sinner.

"We don't think people lie," she said. "We think people tell the truth when they say they'll keep the cat indoors."

"I can't believe it."

"We think they do -- especially after we show them our pictures of road-killed animals."

Pictures of road-killed animals?

I'd started the day with all of the foolish pride of a daddy convinced he was about to get kittens for his kids, and now Mrs. X was telling me she wanted to sit in my living room and flash photographs of animals crushed by cars. It made me feel lousy.

Then again, I comforted myself by reasoning that Mrs. X had no doubt started the day feeling terrible, thinking about all those kittens facing an overdose of phenobarbitol. Now, of course, she could go home knowing that, if nothing else, she'd given a crank and sinner like me a chance to see the light.

And a week or two down the line, if nobody else had come along to claim a black-and-white eight-week- old female kitten who likes to play with your finger, and a gray-and- white eight-week-old male with a way of doing gymnastics on the cage door, she'd know they hadn't died in vain.