The Cat Lady
The sharp metallic tear of a tuna can brought the quiet pitter-patter of paws from all directions. Furry faces with big watchful eyes appeared in the doorways one next to the other. The boldest leapt onto the counter, waving his tail slowly to and fro. He meowed, demanding a taste. The old lady chuckled and rubbed him on the top of his head with her wrinkled and spotted hand. She shooed him off the counter and partitioned the tuna into 6 small bowls, each a different color. Then she mixed in canned cat food and placed them one by one on the floor, her bones cracking and popping with each bend. The cats assembled in a line, eating as the old lady filled the sink with hot water and suds and began scrubbing the day's dishes.
One of the smallest cats finished eating first, jumped up onto the counter, and sat on its haunches watching the old lady scrub the last plate. The plate wobbled and shook in her grip as she set it aside to dry. She pulled the stopper from the sink, watching as the soap and water cycloned down the drain and steam rose lazily. As she set the stopper aside, her wedding ring slipped from her thin finger and dropped down the sinkhole. The cat stood up as she stretched her hand into the drain, its tail flipping the garbage disposal switch. The old lady started at the grinding noise, pulling her hand out just before the blades turned her fingers to pulp. She wagged her unmarred pointer finger at the little cat and clucked her tongue. With the disposal switched off, she smiled and reached back in, pulling the ring out and sliding it back onto her finger.
That night, the old lady slipped into her night gown and climbed into bed. She burrowed under the covers, shivering, and turned to look at the weathered photo resting on her nightstand. She reached over and picked it up, bringing it to her lips. She rubbed the smudge from the picture frame with her sleeve and set it back down.
The six cats were in their various stages of bedtime routine. Two on the bed, one under the bed, one by the window, and two nowhere to be seen. Licking their paws, yawning, stretching, rolling, sniffing, reclining, wagging their tails slowly to and fro. The lady opened a creaking book, and read, licking her finger to turn every page, leaving a dark print in every corner. Finally, when sleep would wait no longer, she closed the book and switched off the lamp.
She awoke in the night suddenly, panicked. She tried to breathe in and couldn't. Something was blocking her mouth and nose. Something heavy, and warm. And furry. She tried to sit up too quickly and a muscle in her seized up. With both hands she clutched the cat and pushed with all her might. He flew off her head, onto the floor, screeching the whole way. The woman gasped for air, still laying on her back, unable to sit up for the pain she felt. "I know that was you Herbie!" She croaked "That was a mean trick!" She heard the cat meow from down the hall. Slowly her breathing returned to normal, and without sitting up, she switched on the lamp, picked up her book, and began reading. She would not be able to go right back to sleep.
Morning arrived as sun streaming through her window. Thick particles of dust lazily rode the sunbeams. The woman's back throbbed, but she was able to roll over and get to her feet. She limped to her closet and put on a robe and some slippers with cats yawning and stretching around her. One rubbed its warm furry body against her shins and purred. In the kitchen she put fire to a kettle of water and popped a slice of bread in the toaster. Her feet shuffled to the fridge and she pulled it open, searching for her favorite strawberry jam. It dawned on her that she finished a jar the day before and needed to retrieve a new one from the cellar.
All six cats were in the kitchen attentively watching her morning routine. Their eyes followed her every move and she smiled at each of them individually, until she came to Herbie, and she narrowed her eyes and stuck out her purple tongue. The cat meowed back and the old lady chuckled.
She stood at the top of the stairs to the cellar and pulled a drawstring attached to a bare lightbulb and it kicked on, lighting only to the bottom and no further. She took the stairs gingerly, her back sore and her knees popping at every step. Her right hand clutched the railing so hard her knuckles looked like bone. Halfway down, a cat shot by her, bumping her weight-bearing leg. She tried to place her foot down on the next step and only found air. As she fell she lost her grip on the railing. The first thing to strike the stairs was her right shin, which snapped like a dry branch, and then her right shoulder, which popped out of its socket without a sound. Time seemed to speed up, and she tumbled the rest of the way down, grunting and popping and striking until she came to a rest on the cold, dark concrete of the cellar floor. Upstairs, the kettle began screaming.
She came to laying in a hard bed in a brightly lit room. As her surroundings swam into view, she saw a curtain, saw a TV mounted near the ceiling in the corner of the room. The air smelled strongly of antiseptic. An IV snaked from her arm to a bag of fluids standing next to her. She looked down at her leg, wrapped in big white bandages and suspended with straps. She wriggled her body a bit and felt shooting pain in her shoulder, chest, head. A nurse strolled in and sat down, picking at her nails for a few minutes before noticing that the old woman was awake. She smiled nervously, startled, and came to the old woman's side,
"How are you feeling ma'am?"
"Is anyone taking care of my cats?"
"I wouldn't worry about that quite yet." The nurse paused, her eyes running along the woman's broken body. "You took a terrible spill."
"Oh dear," the old lady whispered, closing her eyes, feeling a painful rush of blood to the back of her head. "But, my cats, they have nobody…"
"Everything is being taken care of." The nurse patted the old woman's hand gently. A doctor strolled into the room, his face buried in a clipboard. Without looking up he stepped deftly around the nurse and came to the old woman's side.
"Hello Mrs. Robbins. How are you feeling?"
"I just want to know my cats are ok."
"Yes, of course, your neighbor told us to tell you that they were being cared for. Look, you’re lucky to be alive. You’ll be here for a while. Do you have any family?”
The nurse frowned.
Weeks later, the old lady limped through her front door with the assistance of a walker as tiny paws padded the floor to greet her. There was a note on the counter from the neighbors. The cats have been fed daily and seem quite happy. We made you some meals while you recover. Feel better. She smiled and pushed her walker into the kitchen. She glanced around at her surroundings – her stove, her table and chairs, the books collecting dust on the shelves, her cats, some standing and staring at her, some licking their paws and bodies.
“Well,” she said out loud, “I missed you all.” She looked from one to the next as she wheeled herself to the fridge, opening it with a grunt. Eggs, milk, fresh vegetables, several containers of pre-made meals. Her stomach grumbled as she pulled one out, unlatched the clamped top, and placed it in the microwave, setting it to three minutes. Two of the cats leapt onto the counter, purring, and her frail arm reached for them, stroking their fur as they arched their backs and leaned into her touch.
“Did you miss me too, Jonesy? How about you Alberta?” Flicking her hand, a cloud of fur puffed into the still air, floating gently to the ground to join others.
She glanced at the grime around the kitchen sink, at the dust on the books in the shelves. The microwave beeped that her food was finished. Seated at the table, her walker standing guard next to her, she spooned a mouthful of steaming chicken and dumplings into her mouth. The salty and savory homemade meal was heavenly compared to the weeks of flavorless hospital food – canned vegetables, fruit swimming in syrup, ambiguous meats. She closed her eyes and chewed, basking.
Cats wandered, purred, rubbed against her legs as she ate. Her bowl was halfway empty when, mid-bite, a cat leapt into her lap from under the table. She inhaled, surprised, pulling a chunk of chicken into her windpipe. It took almost no time for her to turn blue as all cats sat on their haunches and watched. As her vision began to fade to black, she fell forward into the table, the edge hitting her stomach, forcing air out of her esophagus. The piece of chicken flew across the table and fell, landing on the floor in front of Maddy, a solid gray cat. It sniffed the chicken casually as the old woman gasped and choked for air, clutching the side of the table to steady herself. Maddy licked at the piece and several other cats sauntered over to join in. The old lady glared at the cat that leapt into her lap. Jacob. When he wouldn’t meet her eye and walked out of the room under her glare, she returned to her bowl and finished eating. She put the bowl in the sink to clean the next day, and she pushed her walker into the living room.
She stood in front of the book shelf for a time, glancing from cover to cover. She had read them all. Her eyes landed on Pride and Prejudice and she smiled as she pulled it off the shelf. She blew on the spine and rubbed it with her sleeve as she sat back into her love seat with a sigh. She stayed there all afternoon, getting up once to brew herself a pot of tea. Her arms wobbled and the water threatened to slosh out and scald her as she brought it back to her love seat. As the room darkened, she sipped and read, dozing over and over, until finally falling asleep for the night.
She woke the next morning with a deep aching in most of her body and an unshakable fatigue. Sleeping on the love seat was not a habit of hers but it was certainly better than a hospital bed, with the plastic mattress and constant noise. It was the meows that woke her, as the sun was just beginning to paint the horizon a soft orange. Tiny calls pulling her from dreamless sleep.
“You’re hungry aren’t you?” she asked them, as her stomach growled. “Sounds like I am too, I believe we forgot to eat dinner last night.” The cats meowed in agreement and the old lady, seated, grabbed her walker with both hands. The nurses at the hospital helped her learn how to get up safely, but it took her three tries to lift herself from the deep, soft love seat, and she nearly threw her back doing it. To the cupboard she labored, and the tear of metal brought the pitter patter of tiny paws. Spoon in her hand, she tried to lean over to portion the food out to the cats, but her back screamed at her and she stood upright sharply.
“Well,” she said. She looked at the cats, glanced at the ceiling in disbelief at what she was about to do, and dumped the cat food on the floor. Several of them pounced, three sitting in a circle eating while the others stalked in the outskirts, trying to nudge their way in. Soon, hissing, swatting, frantic meows. She opened another can, and another, and poured those out as well. The fighting all but ceased. After a few minutes, nothing but three wet spots were on the floor. The old woman threw away the cans and carted herself slowly to the closet. Inside was an old wooden broom, dustpan, a mop, some rags, and several musty coats. Her bony fingers wrapped around the broom handle.
She worked slowly, starting in the living room, pushing her walker and using the broom at the same time. Herbie swatted at the dust bunnies and the old lady chuckled. She stopped for lunch, reheating another prepared meal. When she finished eating, she cleaned the dishes that accumulated in the sink and opened the window in the kitchen to let in some fresh air. Two cats leapt out.
“Have a nice time,” she said, smiling.
It took her all day to finish the living room. Sweaty, dirty, and out of breath, she turned on the faucet in the bathroom to draw a bath. The water steamed as it flowed and she nudged the cold water up just a touch. Next to the tub, she flipped on the radio to a station that played big band. Humming along, she dragged her fingertips along the water as it climbed the walls of the tub. After turning off the water, she disrobed and gingerly stepped over the edge, holding on to the sink. Four cats watched from the doorway as she lowered herself into the water, letting out an ahhhhh at the delightful temperature. She closed her eyes and let the music wash over her. When she was younger, her favorite thing to do was run a shower as hot as she could stand it, and let the water spray onto the back of her head while she thought about life and listen to music on the radio. She sank deeper into the tub, feeling relief in her aching body.
Something made her eyes spring open. A suspicious silence. And there he was, Herbie, strutting into the bathroom, the muscles beneath his pelt bulging and sliding. He looked right into the old woman’s eyes and meowed.
“Well hello Herbie. Looking for trouble?” He meowed back. “Not tonight, alright? I’m relaxing.” Herbie turned and began walking out, tail lifted, and stopped in the doorway. The old woman’s eyes closed again, and she hummed along to a group of horns. The cat crept back in, leapt onto the counter, and kicked the radio into the tub. A great flash as the plug shot from the wall, and all the lights in the house went off at once as the old lady seized against the voltage. The ripples she caused in the bathtub ricocheted off the porcelain sides in the darkness once, twice, three times, before diminishing in size. Soon the water was still.
She came to laying in a hard bed in a brightly lit room. As her surroundings swam into view, she saw a curtain, saw a TV mounted near the ceiling in the corner of the room. The air smelled strongly of antiseptic. An IV snaked from her arm to a bag of fluids standing next to her. She licked her dry, chapped lips and groaned. Her head felt like it had been drained of blood and brains and replaced with tacks and tinfoil. She lay there a while, taking in her surroundings. A game show was on TV, people guessing the prices of household items and jumping around waving their arms when they got it right. Outside, black birds flew from tree to tree to power line. The noise of voices could be heard in the halls and in the nearby rooms, men and women, and beeping machines. A nurse strolled in and saw the old woman’s eyes open.
“Well hello! Glad to have you with us. How are you feeling?”
“Thirsty,” the woman said, licking her lips again.
“Well let’s get you some water then, shall we?” The nurse went to the sink, filled a small paper cup up with some tap water, and brought it back, bringing it to the old woman lips and tilting her head back. The old woman sipped at first, then gulped the rest greedily.
“Thank you. I must be getting home. My cats, they have nobody to take care of them.”
“Let’s not rush now, ok, we want to make sure you’re alright.” The nurse looked into the old woman’s eyes and held her gaze for a long time, trying to see something. The woman held her gaze. “Right,” she said finally. “The doctor will be in shortly. You just sit tight.” The nurse left the room, glancing over her shoulder on the way out. The sudden solitude in this strange bed in this strange place made her feel as though she was floating in a boat, out in the middle of the ocean. Untethered, alone. She gripped the bed railings tightly until the doctor arrived.
“Hello there. Fancy seeing you again.” It was the doctor from before, when she fell down the stairs.
“But…you’re an orthopedist, what are you doing here?”
“I wanted to have a chat with you. Is that alright?”
“As before your cats are being taken care of by your neighbors. Thought you’d want to know. They told me to assure you that they are being fed. They know how much you care for them. Your neighbors are the ones that found you again, do you know that?” The woman shook her head, silent. “You took out a transformer with your little stunt. The whole neighborhood went out.” The doctor stared at the woman, waiting for her to reply. She didn’t for a long time.
“You think I did this to myself.”
“This is your fourth accident this year. You came in weeks ago after a dreadful fall down the stairs, and then days after you got home, you’re electrocuted in your bathtub. I’ve been at this a long time, it’s clear to me when things aren’t an accident anymore.”
“I didn’t do this to myself…” Again, he stared at her, like the nurse, searching her face, her eyes. Seeing wrinkles, age spots, a sadness.
“Ok. Here’s what I’m going to do. I’m going to write you a prescription. You just told me you’re still in a great deal of pain from your fall. The prescription is for the pain you continue to have. It’s very strong, so only take one, okay?” he scribbled notes on a prescription pad, ripped it off, and held it in his hand. He looked into her eyes as he sad, “Do not take any more than one at a time, do you understand me? Or it will kill you.” She nodded. “Very strong.” He repeated. He held the paper out in front of her.
“I understand,” she told him. The nurse strode back into the room, bringing her cheerful mood and a cup of pudding.
“Hungry?” she said, handing the old woman the cup. The doctor passed the nurse the prescription.
“Can you fill this out for this young lady here and discharge her please? She’s ready to go home.”
“Sure thing,” the nurse replied, glancing from the doctor to the old woman.
“You be well,” the doctor told the woman, before standing up, patting her foot, and walking out of the room.
The front door swung open with the keys stuck in the lock and the woman limped into her house pushing her walker. The house smelled musty and feral. Two cats ran into the house behind her. She limped to the kitchen and stood there, holding her white paper bag. She shook it, and pills rattled inside an orange plastic jar. There was a note on the counter again. “Bad luck for you lately – let me know if there is anything I can do. More food in the fridge.” The old woman set the bag down and leaned heavily on her walker. Her cats all about her, rubbing their bodies against her legs, hopping onto the counter for a scratch, stretching, meowing, purring, licking, grooming, rolling around, playing. She smiled and rubbed a white one’s pink belly after it rolled over. It purred and purred and suddenly swatted at her hands, drawing blood. It dripped down her arm and she continued to rub, the red blood staining its white fur. The cat rolled over and jumped off the counter, sitting and cleaning itself. The woman moved on to the next, petting it as it arched its back and purred. She pushed her face into its body, feeling its warmth, its movement of muscle. The cat meowed.
The daylight was fading and long shadows were cast into her rooms, down the halls. With an effort, she opened the window in the kitchen to let some fresh air in. Humming, she reached for the white bag and opened it. Her hand went in, came back with the orange bottle. She shook it gently, and then strained against the lid, shuddering before popping it off. She dumped the pills on the counter with a small clatter and began to count them with her bony index finger. Three cats watched her carefully. She counted 21 pills. It would be enough. She grunted as she reached for her mixing bowl, and set it on the counter. Reached into a cabinet for her mortar and pestle. She dropped the off-white pills into it one by one, slow bringing the mortar down on it and twisting, grinding, powdering. When she got to 15 she poured the powder into the mixing bowl. Next she found the can opener and at the sharp metallic tear of a chunk light tuna can, all the cats in the house stood at attention. The six bowls sat on the floor, empty, and the cats lined up, waiting. She opened two more cans of tuna and poured them all into the mixing bowl with the white powder. She stirred it all with a long wooden spoon. When it was properly mixed, she stepped away from her walker, holding the large bowl, and crouched down, her knees popping gruesomely as she did. She winced but stayed put, spooning the mixture into each bowl. The cats sniffed, glanced at the woman, and ate.
The woman, grimacing from the pain in her knees, sat back onto her butt and reached for the cabinets to pull herself up. Popping, creaking, her bones protested every movement. Finally she stood, bracing herself, and oriented with her walker. She inched her way to the sink, grabbed a clean glass from the cupboard, and filled it with tap water. Glass in hand, she made her way to her loveseat. One foot in front of the other. Collapsed into it. She sat there, breathing hard, until letting out a great, satisfied sigh. From the kitchen she heard a thump. Then another. Then another. Herbie wobbled into the living room, meowed weakly, and slumped onto his face. He looked up at her and she smiled. He opened his mouth to meow and nothing came out. His eyes closed.
The old lady opened her hand and in her palm was six pills. Without hesitation, she put them into her mouth, brought the glass of water up, and drank deeply. Her throat moved as the pills made their way to her stomach. She sat back and watched the last of the daylight fade from the room. Thump. Thump. Everything wobbled. Everything disappeared.
She came to laying in a hard bed in a brightly lit room. As her surroundings swam into view, she saw a curtain, saw a TV mounted near the ceiling in the corner of the room. The air smelled strongly of antiseptic. An IV snaked from her arm to a bag of fluids standing next to her.