by Erin Renee Hune Glover
-Strange – 2 Pages –
The room smells of poverty, rot, and old age. A heap of yellowed, tattered blankets begins to stir on a yellowed, tattered couch. The blankets are thrown back, and a wave of body odor and old-person smell invades the room. A woman, more wrinkled than an English Bulldog, appears. She stands, her lime-green polyester pants stained and torn in places. Shuffling through the layers of newspaper on the floor, she disappears into the kitchen.
A cabinet door creaks, and then a can opener grinds unwillingly into service. The woman returns to the couch, settling herself on top of the blankets. An open can is in one hand, a dirty fork resting on top. The other hand reaches to stroke what appears to be dirty pile of moldy cloth. To an onlooker, the woman would appear insane, talking to herself and petting inanimate objects. But the pile of moldy cloth stirs at her touch, and its shape resolves itself into that of an ancient, scarred feline.
Weakly meowing, the cat sits up and stretches. Its back legs no longer work due to an accident with a moving van a year ago. Now it is reduced to lying on the couch, hand-fed and set gently on the floor for precisely half an hour each day for a bathroom break. Yesterday the old woman got distracted by something she could see out the window, and did not place the cat back in its position on the couch for several hours. Its feces cling to its back legs because of this.
“Morning, Mr. Whiskers.” The woman rumbles, her voice roughened by age and nicotine. “Breakfast.”
She holds the fork out to the cat delicately. It stretches its neck and takes the bit of food she offers. Chewing in small, energetic bites, it swallows. The fork returns to the metal can, scoops out an even larger portion. The fork moves toward the cat, hesitates, and turns. The woman chews once, swallows. A coughing fit overcomes her, and at the end of the fit, she wipes white goo from her mouth with the edge of the blanket.
“One should always chew precisely twenty times before swallowing, Mr. Whiskers.” She adds, sticking the fork back into the can. “One must not get anxious.”
A bite for the cat, a bite for the woman. Back and forth it goes until the can is empty. Looking down in surprise, the woman studies the empty can and withdraws the fork. Placing both fork and can into a pile of rusted, mildewed metal on the floor, she stumbles to the front door. Opening it a crack, she bends her creaking, dirt encrusted knees and picks up yesterday’s paper, which a neighbor leaves every morning.
“News, Mr. Whiskers.” She stays where she is standing and methodically tears the front page into strips about an inch across and three inches long. The rest goes on the floor for kitty litter.
Rolling the strips into cylinders, she stuffs leaves from a plastic plant into the makeshift cigarettes. Soon this plant, like all the others, will be bare. She tips a cup of water over the pot the plant lives its false existence in, and the water runs down the wall to puddle tiredly on the floor. Another puddle joins the first, running down the leg of the woman.
“Oopsie, Mr. Whiskers. Forgot my potty time. Good thing we put down papers.” She drops the toxic plastic cigarettes into the yellow puddle. Luckily there are no lighters in the house and the gas for the stove was cut off months ago.
“Potty time for the kitty.” She sets him on the floor and turns toward the window, leaving the front door open a few inches. Lifting a paper towel roll, she peers through it at the house next door. Nothing exciting is happening, but she stares for few minutes anyway, then goes about her daily routine as the cat goes about his.
Sweeping half-heartedly at the filth-covered floor in the kitchen, she hums to herself, an old Waylon Jennings song. Her song is interrupted by a tentative knocking at the front door. She drops the broom to the floor and works her way through the kitchen and living room in a lurching shamble. She does nothing to fix her appearance.
At the door is a well-dressed, neatly groomed young man in khakis and a sports coat. He stands, uncertain as to whether or not he should open the door the rest of the way, but settles for adjusting the large paper bag he holds in one arm. The rustling of the bag and the rustling of the newspapers on the floor are the only sound.
Remembering the cat, she pauses, bends gingerly, replaces him in his spot on the couch. Then, moving on to less important things, she approaches the rather handsome young man at the door.
“Here to try and steal my money, are you? Think those kids in Africa are more important that an American? Well, you won’t take anything of mine.” She begins to shut the door in his face and is foiled by stacks of newspaper getting caught in the doorframe.
“No ma’am, I’m Pastor Bill, from the Baptist Church? I heard you had stopped your grocery deliveries, and I thought. . .well. . .I have some food here. . . .” He trails off, intimidated by her glare.
“I am just fine, thank you.” She snaps angrily, and spins away from the door, giving up on slamming it. “I do not accept charity.”
Later, she looks up from stroking the cat to see that the man had gone. Little surprise to her, as he clearly had no time to waste on an old woman. “Probably out with some young hussy,” she tells the cat.
Unimpressed, Mr. Whiskers stretches his neck out so she can scratch his ears. Her face, normally twisted in a mask of anger and disgust, smooths. She smiles and obliges him, making sure she rubs his chin as well.
“Mr. Whiskers,” She whispers confidentially, “You’re the only one who really cares about me. You’re. . .” She pauses. “You’re my only friend.”
A car pulls noisily into the drive next door, and she gives the cat a last scratching before resuming her post by the window, paper towel roll pressed to her eye. She remains there for several hours, never noticing the water seeping through her slippers. Occasionally she mutters to herself about the depravity of the neighbors, the wastefulness of their teenager daughters. Mostly she stays silent.
Later in the evening, she puts down her makeshift binoculars and goes to move the papers and shut the door. Seeing the bag of food still on the porch, she shakes her head angrily. The bag continues to sit where it is as she wanders back to the kitchen for dinner. There is a rustling in the cabinets, and then some banging.
The old woman returns to the living room empty-handed. There is no more cat food on the shelf. She sits for a while, contemplating, stroking the cat. There is no sound but their breathing. She looks at the closed front door, her hand begins to rise, and then settles back into her pudgy lap. Finally she nods firmly, having come to a conclusion.
“I’m sorry, Mr. Whiskers” She says quietly as she roots in the trash at her feet for a can with a sharp edge. “But you see, I simply cannot accept charity.” Mr. Whiskers says nothing, and she begins to speak again, this time in a very different voice, almost sing-song “One must always chew precisely twenty times. . . .”