The woman behind the front desk snapped her gum at Linda’s entrance, but didn’t look up from the phone in her hand. Linda didn’t bother to say hello, a habit long since abandoned. The woman behind the desk, for her part, had never even put in the effort. To be fair, Linda came like clockwork every week. Wednesday 4 PM. Her visits locked in as part of both women’s routines, but it still bothered her. The two women were close to the same age, both in their mid-fifties, so Linda held the woman to the same standards in which she held herself. Good money paid for the place, not Linda’s money, but perfectly good money nonetheless. The least they could do was greet visitors.
The decoration of the nursing home’s lobby was spartan and mostly bare, but the walls were freshly painted and the nooks and crannies were kept well-dusted. A large decorative piece of hammered brass hung on one wall, interconnecting swirls. A vase of fresh flowers sat on a shelf, daisies, bright yellow eyes fringed by white petals. Minus the less than attentive doorkeeper, it gave the sense that it was not a bad place, but also not one with too many frills.
The woman behind the desk snapped her gum again. Linda walked through the lobby and entered the maze of memorized hallways which led to Tatie Martha’s room. The hallway carpet was thin, clean, and durable. The whole place stank of chemical cleaners, medication, and a slight undertone of urine. The first two rooms she passed were the sitting room and the dining room, French doors pulled open. The decoration closely resembled that of a mid-line hotel. The head nurse, her name was Boggs, was leaning over and helping an old man with a puzzle. The old man breathed through a tube in his nostrils and he sat as a building with its top floors slowly collapsing into those below. A floating red balloon was tied to his chair. Nurse Boggs, seeing Linda walk by, rose and moved to follow.
Linda stopped and turned. The head nurse was a large woman. Not fat, just bulky. Big arms and shoulders pressing against the confines of her scrubs. Perfectly formed for lifting and carrying. Despite her bulk she was light on her feet. Gliding across the ugly carpet in her bright red Crocs.
“Mrs. Dubois. I assume you are on your way to visit your aunt.”
Linda wanted to state that there certainly wasn’t anyone else she had any interest in visiting, but did not. Nurse Boggs was a humorless woman.
“Good. I wanted to catch you before you saw her. Mr. Snuggles died last night.”
Linda bit her lower lip. Mr. Snuggles was Tatie Martha’s cat, or apparently, had been her cat. A big elderly Maine coon who had spent most of his time lying in the bathroom sink, meowing at anyone who entered until they gave in and ran the water on him. Mr. Snuggles had been the compromise when it had come time to move Tatie Martha into the nursing home. It had been an expensive compromise, but in Linda’s mind, well worth it.
“When did he die?”
The head nurse’s face betrayed no emotion.
“We found him this morning when she was at breakfast and we were cleaning the room. He was dead on the bed.”
“He was an old cat.”
“Yes, I know.”
“She doesn’t know that he’s dead yet.”
The two women stared at each other for a moment. Nurse Boggs stank of cigarettes and canned air freshener.
“Your aunt, she doesn’t know that Mr. Snuggles is dead.”
Linda squeezed at a tight spot on her shoulder.
“Why haven’t you told her?”
“Union contract says we don’t have to tell her. We already deal with enough without delivering your bad news on top of it.”
“She won’t quit asking about that cat.”
“I’ll take care of it.”
Linda turned and started down the hall. Nurse Boggs’ voice carried after her.
Linda turned back.
“What would you like us to do with it?”
“Do with what?”
Linda twisted the wedding ring on her finger. She gave herself a moment before she spoke.
“The dead cat?”
“Yes. Mr. Snuggles.”
“You want to know what to do with a dead cat?”
“It’s dead. Just throw it in the dumpster.”
“Okay. Just checking. People often do all sorts of weird things with their pets. Get them cremated, pressed into diamonds, all sorts of crazy things. I have a cousin who does that kind of work. Eighty bucks just for yours, forty if it gets done with a bunch and you’re okay with just getting an equivalent amount of ash.”
“A bunch, like a bunch of pets all at once?”
“Yes, whatever gets brought in that day.”
“Just throw it in the trash.”
“Okay, just checking, she really loved that cat.”
“Yes, I know.”
“I’ll leave you to it then.”
The head nurse turned and stalked back to helping the old man with his puzzle. Linda turned and headed further into the maze. Tatie Martha’s room was on the end of the west hall. Most of the doors were closed, names neatly written on each. The door three up from Tatie Martha’s was open. A dresser had been shoved across the opening, blocking the bottom two-thirds. A distinguished gray-haired gentleman stood behind the dresser in freshly ironed pajamas, the creases perfectly straight and razor sharp, a broom held at the ready.
“Halt, who goes there?”
Linda moved herself towards the far side of the hall and sidled past.
“Just me, Mr. Martin, Linda Dubois.”
The old man blinked his milky eyes and squinted.
“Of course, Mrs. Dubois. Be careful out there. The last patrol hasn’t reported in yet.”
“I will, Mr. Martin.”
Mr. Martin relaxed and put the broom on his shoulder, standing more erect than many younger men. Linda moved past, down to the end of the hall. Tatie Martha’s name tag was written in a flowery cursive with flowers made of tissue taped to either side. Linda knocked on the door.
The voice was gravelly and sounded similar to someone speaking with a large marshmallow in their mouth. Linda opened the door. The apartment was not large. A small sitting area with a loveseat and chair facing a TV. A tiny kitchenette with a two-burner stovetop and a mini-fridge. An open doorway leading back to the bedroom and bathroom. A large painting, dark with age and grime, hung on one wall. A telephone and a few personal knickknacks sat on two end tables. Tatie Martha sat in the chair, watching the TV. At Linda and Roger’s wedding she had been spry and thin, wine glass in hand, dancing with the younger men, laughing at their reddening faces as she whispered in their ears. That had been thirty years ago. The woman sitting in the chair was gaunt and decidedly crone-like. Skin hanging off bones. Gray half-combed hair hanging down to her shoulders. Tatie Martha wasn’t wearing a shirt.
“Linda, how good to see you.”
Linda hurriedly closed the door behind her.
“Tatie, you’re topless.”
The old woman looked down at herself and then went back to watching the TV.
“They put wires in my shirt.”
“Tatie, what are you talking about?”
“The wires. The wires in my shirt. You know, so they know when I get out of bed.”
“Tatie, that was only in the hospital.”
Tatie Martha had toppled over in the hallway a month ago, which had earned her a stay in the hospital for a of couple of days. Tatie Martha, a widow for over forty years, had never been one to ask for help. Though unsteady on her feet, she had balked at the doctor’s orders to have a nurse help her use the restroom. The result had been a gown wired with electronics to tell the doctors when she moved. Tatie Martha had not been pleased.
“Are you sure, dear?”
“Yes, Tatie, just in the hospital.”
Linda went into the bedroom and got a shirt out of the closet. She took it back into the main room and showed Tatie Martha the back and front.
“See, no wires.”
“Show me the back again.”
Tatie Martha leaned in close and studied the shirt carefully, then demanded to see the front again and studied it as well. Finally satisfied, she allowed Linda to help her put the shirt on, but insisted on buttoning it herself. Settled, Tatie Martha turned off the TV and got unsteadily to her feet.
“Damn idiot box. Suck the life out of you if you let it.”
Linda kept her mouth shut. Tatie Martha had never been much of a reader, and aside from social activities put on by the home, Linda doubted she did much but watch the TV. Tatie Martha gesticulated with her bony hand.
“Do you want some tea, dear?”
“Thank you. I can get it.”
Tatie Martha gestured for Linda to sit down and shuffled her way slowly to the counter of the kitchenette. Linda sat on the edge of the loveseat, her limbs as tense as a spooked deer, ready to spring up at a moment’s notice. The old woman put a kettle of water on one of the electric burners and pulled a box of teabags out of the cupboard.
“How is Roger, dear?”
Tatie Martha always asked about Roger. Tatie Martha adored Roger, or at least she adored the younger version of him that had gotten stuck into her head. Roger used to come by to visit every now and again, sometimes with Linda, and sometimes by himself, but then had stopped nine months ago. He had come alone and found himself talking to a woman, who though she answered every question, was obviously very confused. When he had gone to use the toilet Tatie Martha had called the nurse to report that there was a strange man in her bathroom. Roger had quit coming after that. When Linda bothered him about it, he had said he really didn’t see the point. Tatie Martha never forgot Linda, though to be fair, it might have been more of a function of repetitiveness rather than any kind of special bond.
“Roger is fine, Tatie, he sends his love. He’s quite busy.”
“That boy, always up to something. If I was him, I wouldn’t work so hard if I had a wife like you at home.”
Linda didn’t answer, she just sat, twisting her wedding ring on her finger. The ring felt too big. Linda found herself repeatedly checking to make sure it didn’t fall off. Tatie Martha hummed to herself as the kettle began to boil. She steeped the tea and poured it into two cups she pulled from the cupboard.
“That idiot box. I’ll tell you, the things I see on it, and to think that Philip Foss once called me uncouth. There’s nothing I ever did half of what you see on that thing.”
Linda smiled politely. She had no idea who Philip Foss was.
Tatie Martha shuffled back over with a tea saucer firmly clenched in each hand. With each step hot tea slopped out onto the saucers. Linda rose and took the saucers, and then handed one back when the old woman had gotten herself settled. Tatie Martha had left the burner on, but Linda ignored it. They were made to automatically shut off after fifteen minutes. A prudent safety precaution given the number of meals burnt to a crisp in the waning days of Tatie Martha living in her own house. The two sat quietly and sipped their tea.
“So how are things going, Tatie?”
“Oh, as fine as can be expected. I’m very old, you know.”
“Yes, Tatie, nearly ninety.”
“The nurses tell me they’ll have a big party. Quite a milestone. You’ll have to come of course.”
“Of course I’ll be there.”
“Probably the usual. You know, cake, ice cream. You have to give people here something to look forward to, something to live for, otherwise they’ll just up and die you know. Of course we’ll have to get a party hat for Mr. Snuggles.”
Linda looked down at her tea. Tatie Martha did not seem to notice.
“He’ll look so handsome, a big cat like him in a party hat. We’ll have to get lots of pictures.”
Tatie Martha finished her tea and put the saucer on the side table.
“I’m not sure where the big brute is right now. He was still asleep on my bed when I went to breakfast, but he was gone by the time I got back.”
The old woman gave a lecherous wink.
“Probably out carousing. He’s still fairly roguish for such an old cat.”
Linda took a deep breath and let it out. Her hands were shaking so she balled them into fists and willed them unsuccessfully to stop.
“I have to tell you something.”
“What is it, dear?”
“Mr. Snuggles is dead. He passed away last night.”
“The nurses found him dead on your bed this morning when they came in to clean the room.”
The old woman turned away and stared at the blank TV screen. Her jaw worked back and forth and a muscle in her cheek twitched. A couple of tears fell, and then the old woman bawled like a child. She curled over herself as best as her arthritic joints would let her, held her knees, and bawled. Wet eyes. Snotty nose. The works. Linda had never seen anything like it before.
“Mr. Snuggles…my dear little kitty…Mr. Snuggles.”
Linda laid her hand on Tatie Martha’s back. She got Kleenexes so the old woman could blow her nose. The old woman didn’t stop crying. Not for a moment. Not even when the nurses came to take her for dinner at 5:30 PM. Tatie Martha tried to compose herself, but she just kept sobbing. The nurses were insistent that she go eat. Nurse Boggs had Tatie Martha in her strong grip.
“There, there, dear. We’ll get a little food in you. It will help you feel better.”
Linda thought about trying to stop them, but after watching Tatie Martha cry for an hour, she was out of ideas. Linda had never seen Tatie Martha show so much emotion about anything. The door shut and the room fell into silence. Linda washed and dried the teacups in the small sink, put them away, and drove home. Roger wasn’t home. A message on her phone told her that he had to work late. Linda had two glasses of wine at dinner instead of the usual one.
The flowers in the lobby needed water. When Linda came into the nursing home she tried to mention as much to the woman at the front desk. The woman at least had the grace to take her eyes off her phone for a minute, but it was only to look at the vase and then stare at Linda until she walked away. The old man in the sitting area was still working on his puzzle, wheezing through the hissing hose in his nose. Linda took a step far enough in to try and see what the puzzle was. Most of the outside was complete and about a third of the interior. Something with hot air balloons. Every movement by the old man was sure and careful. He eyed the pieces until he saw what he wanted, then picked one up and put it in its place. He never lifted a piece unless he knew where it was supposed to go.
The hallway down to Tatie Martha’s room was quiet. Mr. Martin’s door was open as it always was. The dresser was gone. Farther in a barricade had been built using various chairs and end tables. The center of the barricade was an old overstuffed flower print couch with the seats facing inward. Mr. Martin was crouched on the cushions, his broom pointed over the top of the back of the couch. His normally immaculate pajamas were badly out of order, and Linda could see the whites all around his pupils. Linda glanced in the room, hesitated, and started to go by.
“Get down, you damn fool!”
The yell made Linda jump. She scurried down the hall, her heart racing, to get herself out of the way. At Tatie Martha’s door she paused to compose and prepare herself. It had been a week. Surely things were okay by now. Linda knocked.
Linda opened the door. The old woman was sitting in her chair watching television.
“Linda, how good to see you.”
“How are you doing, Tatie?”
“Very good, thank you for asking. Please, sit down.”
Tatie Martha motioned for Linda to sit down on the loveseat. Linda did so gratefully, pulling her skirt to keep it from getting rumpled. Tatie Martha turned off the TV.
“This idiot box. What a waste of time. You wouldn’t believe the things you see on it. Some of the things would turn even old Philip Foss’s face red, I’ll tell you that much.”
“How is Roger, dear?”
Linda’s fists involuntarily clenched her skirt. When she noticed she nervously smoothed it with her hands. Tatie Martha didn’t seem to notice.
“He’s fine. He wanted to be here, but he had to work.”
“Oh that scamp. He’s always working too hard. What’s the point of working if one isn’t going to enjoy life.”
“Would you like some tea, dear?”
“I can get it.”
“Nonsense, you stay right there.”
They chatted about the weather while Tatie Martha made the tea. Linda tried not to watch her too closely. If Tatie Martha noticed Linda watching her too closely, waiting for her to burn herself, she got very cranky. Linda mostly watched from the corner of her eye and occasionally looked out the window. There was a nice middle-aged elm in view. The leaf-covered branches swayed in the breeze. Tatie Martha shuffled back with the cups and saucers. Linda got up to help her. The two women sat down to enjoy their tea.
“Well, Tatie, you seem better this week.”
“Thank you, dear. Better than what?”
“Than how I left you last week. You know, when I told you about Mr. Snuggles.”
Tatie Martha put her cup and saucer down on the end table and pulled a blanket onto her waist. At the mention of Mr. Snuggles her attention, normally scattered, coalesced onto Linda.
“What about Mr. Snuggles?”
Linda felt a pit deep in her stomach. Her mouth moved of its own volition.
“When we talked about how Mr. Snuggles had died.”
“Mr. Snuggles is dead?”
The voice sounded small, almost childlike. Someone speaking from a much farther distance away. Linda reached forward and put her hand on the old woman’s blanket-covered knee.
“Tatie, he died last week.”
“Why didn’t anyone tell me?”
“I did tell you.”
Tatie Martha collapsed into sobs, her head as close to her knees as she could get it, her back wracked by heavy phlegmy blubbering. The crying was every bit as bad as last time. The old woman drowning in a sea of escaping emotion. Tatie Martha wouldn’t stop crying. Linda did her best to comfort her, but it did little and soon collapsed into handing over Kleenexes and studying the large painting hanging on the wall. It was of a shepherd trying to force his flock into a small shed in the middle of a severe snowstorm. One hand held his hat, the other a crook outstretched to force the last of the sheep in. It looked warm inside the shed. The frame was finely made, dark and polished, with swirls and sweeps.
Tatie Martha cried until the nurses came to take her for dinner at 5:30 PM. The nurses insisted she go eat. She was still weeping when Nurse Boggs lifted her with her big hands, cooing as they moved her along while the shepherd with his crook watched.
“There, there, dear. We’ll get a little food in you. It will help you feel better.”
Linda gave the head nurse a dirty look for not warning her. Nurse Boggs ignored it. The door closed and the room fell into silence. Linda washed and dried the teacups in the small sink, put them away, and drove home. Roger wasn’t home again. There was another message that he would have to work late. Linda ate dinner, drank two glasses of wine, thought about a third, and compromised with a half. She then had a quick frustrated cry and went to bed.
The flowers in the lobby were visibly drooping. Nurse Boggs was waiting for Linda when she came inside. The head nurse’s big arms were crossed in front of her. Slabs of flesh, tense and obviously agitated. She was holding a piece of paper in her hand which she held out the moment Linda walked in the door.
“Mrs. Dubois, we need to talk.”
Linda took the piece of paper. It appeared to be a flyer with handwritten flowery cursive letters. A photograph of a large old gray Maine coon had been pasted in the center beneath the words, Missing Cat. Linda heard a slight snort behind her. She turned her head and looked at the woman behind the front desk. The woman didn’t look up from her phone, but Linda could almost swear that she saw a ghost of a smile on her lips.
Linda returned her focus to the bulky woman before her.
“This is something we need to take care of.”
“It’s just a poster.”
“She’s put several up throughout the center.”
Linda looked at the poster again. It was kind of funny. Almost like something a child would make. She smiled to herself. Nurse Boggs wasn’t smiling.
“Mrs. Dubois, things like this can upset the patients. This is a situation we need you take care of.”
“I don’t know what you want me to do. I’ve already told her twice.”
“She is your aunt. We need you to take care of this. If we try and take them down she gets very upset.”
Mr. Martin marched by the lobby door. His pajamas were parade ground pressed and his broomstick was placed perfectly on his shoulder. The old man’s slippers flopped with every step. Seeing Nurse Boggs, Mr. Martin did an about-face, came to attention, and shot the head nurse a perfunctory salute.
“Still no sign of the missing cat, ma’am, but we’ll keep up the search.”
Nurse Boggs glowered. Another quiet snort came from the woman behind the front desk. Mr. Martin stayed at attention, waiting for his salute, but after a few heartbeats gave up, made a quarter-turn, and marched off down the hallway. Nurse Boggs leaned in close to Linda, her jaw clenched, her breath reeking of menthols.
“Just take care of it.”
Nurse Boggs turned and stalked after Mr. Martin. Linda carefully folded the flyer and put it in her purse. There were more. One in the sitting room where the old man with the hoses in his nose did his puzzle, one in the dining room, and one on Tatie Martha’s door. Tatie Martha must have run out of good pictures of Mr. Snuggles. The flyer on her door did not include a photograph, but rather a rough sketch of the big cat, which Linda had to admit didn’t look half-bad. In the lobby it had been a little funny. Outside Tatie Martha’s door it wasn’t funny at all. Linda took a deep breath and let it out. She took a second. No time like the present. Linda knocked on the door.
Linda opened the door. Tatie Martha was sitting in her chair, scribbling on a piece of paper on top of a hardback book on her lap. The television was turned off. Linda closed the door and the old woman looked up.
“Linda, how nice to see you.”
“How’s Roger, dear?”
“He’s good, Tatie.”
Linda sat down on the loveseat. The old woman went back to working on her poster. It was another flyer with a hand-drawn picture of a large Maine coon. Linda’s hands wouldn’t quit shaking, so she latched them onto her knees. It couldn’t wait. Tatie Martha had to know.
“Tatie, the nurse wanted me to talk to you about the posters.”
Tatie Martha’s face went cross.
“Does that witch still want me to take them down? Mr. Snuggles is missing. I’m quite worried.”
“That woman is colder than Philip Foss’s wife.”
“Tatie. Mr. Snuggles is dead.”
“Two weeks ago?”
Linda would have probably been better off waiting. The implosion was every bit as impressive as the two times before, only now it had the added impressiveness of longevity to its magnificence. The clock read 4:15 PM when Linda broke the news. Over the next hour and fifteen minutes the storm failed to subside even a little. Linda couldn’t fathom where Tatie Martha got the energy. She was a perpetual motion machine of anguish and despair. Linda sat through it as best she could. The shepherd in the painting stared down at her from his perch on the wall. His hand clenching his hat to his head to keep it from blowing off in the gale, the other guiding his frightened flock. Linda held onto the edge of the loveseat with one hand, and with the other held out Kleenexes.
Tatie Martha’s blubbering rose and fell, bringing and dashing hopes of it subsiding with deft swell swoops. The pile of dirty Kleenexes grew into a mountain. At 5:30 relief finally came. Nurse Boggs and another nurse entered and carried the still-weeping old woman out to dinner. Linda sat for about fifteen minutes, basking in the silence, and then left. The flyers were all gone. Linda caught sight of Tatie Martha in the dining hall, sitting at the end of one table, silently sobbing into her soup. Mr. Martin sat next to her, chattering away and happily slurping up the contents of his own bowl.
There was no message that night, but Linda knew Roger wasn’t going to be home at a reasonable hour. She made herself dinner and ate it alone in front of the TV. The three glasses of wine felt like a necessity.
The flowers were in desperate need of water. Several of them were noticeably hanging over the side of the vase, their bright yellow faces staring at the ground. Many of the white petals were curling back. The woman behind the front desk didn’t give them any notice. Linda went into the dining room and came back with a glass of water. She stared at the woman as she poured the water into the vase. The woman behind the front desk looked up for a moment, slipped a lock of hair behind her ear, and went back to staring at her phone. Linda took the glass back to the dining room. Her throat hurt, so she drank some water and then stood with her hands clenching white-knuckled to the edge of the sink. Stupid bitch. Why the hell was a woman like that allowed to work in a place like this?
Nurse Boggs came into the dining room. The scuffle of her bright red Crocs on the ugly carpet the only thing giving her away.
“Afternoon, Mrs. Dubois.”
Linda’s entire body tensed up. She slowly willed all of her muscles to release, and then turned towards the hulking form of the head nurse.
“Afternoon, Nurse Boggs.”
“Mrs. Dubois, I just thought I’d better tell you that we are still experiencing our little problem with your aunt.”
“The cat still.”
“Yes, Mrs. Dubois. Mr. Snuggles.”
Linda stared down at the head nurse’s Crocs, the woman’s white socks shining brightly from the holes in the foam resin. Linda took a deep breath and let it out.
“Thank you for letting me know.”
Nurse Boggs turned and walked out of the dining room. Linda’s jaw tightened and she shook her fists with frustration. Stupid bitch. Stupid good for nothing bitch. She couldn’t do it anymore. She couldn’t keep telling Tatie Martha about the damn dead cat. She just couldn’t. Not today. Not this week. If the old woman didn’t want to remember, then so be it. Linda could just play along. Linda took a few more deep breaths to calm herself down, and then headed down the hall.
Mr. Martin’s door was closed. It was the first time Linda could ever remember the door being closed. As she moved past a shadow flickered on the carpet, almost as if someone were lying on the floor, trying to stare through the crack underneath the door. Crazy ass old man. Linda stood in front of Tatie Martha’s door, clenched and unclenched her hands, put a smile on her face, and knocked.
It was the same as it was every week. Tatie Martha sitting in her chair, flicking off the TV as soon as Linda entered. The same complaints about the stupid idiot box. The same niceties in the exact same tone. A frozen world of déjà vu.
“How is Roger doing?”
“He’s still amongst the living.”
“Are you coming down with something. You sound a little hoarse.”
“No, I’m fine. Just strained my voice.”
Tatie Martha made the tea. Her slow unsteady movements raising the hairs on the back of Linda’s neck with every shuffling step. The two sat and chatted, Linda letting the older woman direct the conversation.
“It will be my ninetieth birthday soon. They tell me I’m going to have a big party.”
“I know, Tatie. I’m looking forward to it.”
“They’ll have cake and ice cream. Everyone will be there, even Mr. Snuggles. We’ll have to put him in a party hat. He’ll look so handsome.”
“Yes, Tatie. We’ll have to make sure to get some pictures.”
“That old scamp is somewhere carousing. I haven’t seen him all day. The nurses tell me he’s off entertaining some of the other residents. Isn’t that sweet of him?”
Linda kept her smile plastered on her face. She took the teacups and washed and dried them while Tatie Martha waxed about her favorite subject.
“That Mr. Snuggles, such a strange cat. Did I ever tell you, Linda, how I never had a cat before, but when he showed up begging for scraps, I just couldn’t turn him away.”
“Such a strange cat. He used to always hop in the shower with me. Can you believe it? Have you ever heard of a cat who likes water, Linda? Of course, I shut the bathroom door so he can’t do it now. The last thing a woman at my age needs is a fall in the tub, but sometimes I run the shower just for him. Can you believe it?”
“Do you remember when he got that piece of tape on his side? I swear, he was walking around just like Mr. Philip Foss at the company Christmas party.”
On and on it went. Linda found it difficult to look at Tatie Martha. She looked up at the painting on the wall. The shepherd seemed to be staring down at her with disapproval. She could almost see him shaking his head. Linda kept her eyes on her knees, or the arm of Tatie Martha’s chair.
“Dear, are you alright?”
“Yes, just tired.”
“Are you sure you’re not coming down with something? You sound so hoarse.”
“Yes, Tatie. I’m sure.”
The clock ticked over towards 5:30. Tatie Martha looked up at it and smiled.
“Look at the time. It’s almost time for dinner. This has been such a lovely visit.”
“Yes, Tatie, I better leave you to your dinner.”
“It was so good to see you.”
“I’ll see you next week.”
“Of course, hopefully you’ll be able to see Mr. Snuggles then.”
Linda rose. The shepherd glowered down at her. She moved to the door, paused, took a deep breath, and turned around.
“Tatie, there’s something I need to tell you.”
“What is it, dear?”
“It’s about Mr. Snuggles.”
“What about Mr. Snuggles?”
The jagged words caught in Linda’s already roughened throat. She swallowed them back down, and tried again.
“Well, you see…”
“Mr. Snuggles is dead. He died a couple of weeks ago.”
It was like a bomb going off. Tatie Martha’s eyes grew wide, the tears began to fall, and then the inevitable collapse. The nurses opened the door right as it began, a youngish nurse followed by Nurse Boggs. The youngish nurse froze in horror at the spectacle before her. Nurse Boggs tried to push the youngish nurse forward, but was thrown back by an anguished sob. The pair retreated into the hall and Linda hastily followed. Nurse Boggs had the youngish nurse by the arm and was hissing orders into her ear.
“Get the sedatives.”
Nurse Boggs gave the youngish nurse a healthy shove down the hallway and then turned towards Linda, her features ablaze with irritation. Linda, her face crimson and tears pouring down her face, rushed past in full flight. As she rushed past the sitting room the old man with the hose in his nose raised his head and watched her go by. The woman behind the front desk didn’t even look up. Out the door. To the car. Linda drove as if possessed. The car came to a halt ten blocks away and Linda laid her head onto the steering wheel and cried until a friendly policeman knocked on the window to make sure she was okay.
When Linda got home Roger was sitting on the couch watching television. He watched her come in with hangdog eyes. Linda went into the kitchen without a word and ate leftovers by herself.
The bright yellow centers had faded and the white petals were streaked with brown. Linda marched through the lobby without looking left or right. She had made her decision in the car. She wasn’t going to tell Tatie Martha about Mr. Snuggles. What was the point? If she was constantly going to forget, why did Linda have to keep putting her through the pain week after week? It wasn’t fair to either of them. She strode past the sitting room where the head nurse was helping the old man with the hose in his nose with his puzzle. It was a new one now. It looked like a Monet painting. Nurse Boggs straightened her back as Linda strode past.
Linda didn’t stop.
The head nurse hung back, a look of surprise on her face. The old man with the hose in his nose watched Linda stride past the open French doors, and then went back to his puzzle. Mr. Martin’s door was open, but there was no sign of the old man. Linda stopped and listened, wary of an unexpected surprise. One heartbeat. Two. Silence. Linda walked past and knocked on Tatie Martha’s door.
Tatie Martha in her chair. Comments about the idiot box. Offhand reference about Philip Foss, this one involving how no one on TV was ever dressed up and how Philip Foss was always immaculately dressed in a fine suit and vest with a perfectly knotted bow tie.
“Still working hard?”
“Oh, that nephew of mine. All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.”
An offer for tea which Linda of course accepted. The old woman performing her usual shuffle, each step choreographed perfectly to the week before. Linda watched from the loveseat. The shepherd in the painting seemed to be glaring down at her. Linda glared back. When Tatie Martha returned with the tea Linda smiled at her. The old woman smiled back, showing the slowly wearing away teeth of the elderly.
“I’m going to have my ninetieth birthday soon.”
“It will be so exciting. I’m going to try to get Mr. Snuggles in a birthday hat.”
“Do you think he’ll wear one?”
“He’s such a funny cat.”
The conversation drifted gently down the stream of thoughts. Linda could feel the shepherd in the painting staring lightning bolts down on her. Linda ignored him. She smiled. She laughed demurely. She did everything she was supposed to do.
“Linda dear, do you remember when Roger got me that laser pointer?”
“Oh what fun we had using it to play with Mr. Snuggles. The little scamp just couldn’t figure it out. Darting from one end of the room to the other. I don’t think I’ve laughed that hard in years.”
It had been years since Roger had brought the laser pointer. The clock made its way around with a beat that seemed to slow the farther along it went. 5:00. 5:15. 5:25. Tatie Martha noted the position of the hands and gave a smile.
“Oh look at the time. This has been such a wonderful visit. I hardly want it to end.”
“It will be dinner soon, Tatie.”
“Oh yes, of course. Even an old bag of bones like me needs to eat.”
The two women rose. Tatie Martha in a slow and shaky ascent. Linda easier, but with a weight on her shoulders. She could almost hear the shepherd in the painting screaming at her.
“Give me a hug, dear, before you leave.”
Linda embraced the old woman. She smelled of dust and Bengay. They released and Tatie Martha walked Linda to the door.
“Yes, such a nice visit. I look forward to next week.”
Linda opened the door. Mr. Martin was outside. He was partway through a pirouette to march back up the hall when he saw the two women. He came to attention and gave a smart salute. When his hand fell his mouth opened.
“Good to see you out and about, ma’am. I was very sorry to hear about the death of your cat a couple weeks ago.”
Collapse. Screams. Tears. The nurses came rushing down the hall. Linda didn’t even try to stay and comfort the old woman. She couldn’t do it anymore. She just couldn’t. That son of a bitch. Fucking Mr. Martin. That big mouth son of a bitch. She had been so close. It had been such a nice visit. Linda moved down the hall at a rapid pace. She kept her eyes pointed at her feet. She refused to look anyone in the eyes. Past the nurses and past the sitting room. The old man with the hose in his nose watched her go, shaking his head with disapproval. Through the lobby and out the door. To her car. Driving home. Straight home. Escaping. Running away. That stupid senile son of a bitch.
Roger wasn’t home when she got there. Linda didn’t bother with dinner. She sat in the kitchen and drank glass after glass until the wine bottle was empty. At midnight she heard his car in the drive. The sound of his key in the front door. She tipped the last of her glass down her gullet, and thus focused, headed forward to intercept his entrance.
The petals were falling. Half were already gone. Stiffened and curled they lay in a sickly white halo around the vase. Linda was late coming in. She had waited in her car around the corner until she saw Nurse Boggs come out the side door for her smoke. The big woman held the cigarette with a surprising daintiness for her size. A bear with a baby bird in its paw. The woman behind the front desk ignored her as she always did, though Linda could have sworn that she felt the woman’s eyes following her once her back was turned. They all watched her. The man with the hose in his nose. The nurses going about their business. Even Mr. Martin, sitting sedately on his couch, watching a fly buzz around his room. Linda ignored them all. She just couldn’t take it anymore. She just couldn’t handle it. If nobody liked how she was handling the situation, then they could deal with it. The hell with them. Linda knocked on Tatie Martha’s door.
It was a perfect copy of the day before. The scene unchanged. Everything in its place. Tatie Martha knew her lines by heart. Idiot box. Some random comment about Philip Foss. Who the hell was Philip Foss? The polite offer for tea. An offer to help declined. The same moments in the same order.
“He’s okay, I guess.”
The shepherd glared from his perch up on the wall. Linda ignored him, same as all the others. Tatie Martha brought back the tea and they sat and talked. For a moment, Linda held out the hope that the news had finally stuck, that Tatie Martha’s memory, wearing away with every cycle, like an overplayed cassette tape, had finally managed to retain this single kernel of knowledge. The hope was in vain. The old woman started in with her birthday. Her ninetieth birthday. It was a natural progression from there. Linda knew every part by heart. Mr. Snuggles would look good in a birthday hat. They would have to get some pictures. Where was Mr. Snuggles now? Probably just out carousing. You know how he is. Such a lively cat. He’ll probably be pawing at the door any moment now, wanting to get let back in. Linda’s hands began to shake so badly that she had to put her cup and saucer down on the end table and clutch her knees. She was tired. She was just so fucking tired.
“Such a funny cat. You know dear, he was always hopping in the shower with me. Mr. Snuggles just loves the water. I of course had to put a stop to it though. The nurses were worried that he’d trip me up and I’d fall. Plus, you know, my modesty.”
The old woman gave an exaggerated wink.
The image of Mr. Snuggles lying in the sink drifted up before Linda’s eyes. The cat’s giant gray body filling the space completely, meowing for her to turn the water on when she went to wash her hands. How many times had she lifted the bulk from the sink? How many times had she acquiesced? Mr. Snuggles would roll his eyes and head back and purr with ecstasy as the cold flow touched down, his entire body buzzing with purrs of contentment. If you lifted him out he would yowl loudly in complaint, sometimes even bat a hand with his paw, claws closed, just to show that he could. It had just been easier to give in. Easier to go along with the demands of the feline who commanded Tatie Martha’s heart. What was the right thing to do? What was the right thing to say? Tatie Martha wouldn’t shut up about the damn cat. Mr. Snuggles was the center of her tiny world. Linda settled her hands and changed the subject.
“Mr. Martin seemed subdued today. Is he on leave?”
“Mr. Martin? Oh yes. I think they sedated him. They had quite a brawl today. The nurses pushed past his barricade and he hit a couple with his broom. They felt the need to disarm him, so I guess the war is over.”
Tatie Martha leaned close conspiratorially.
“You know, dear, just between you and me, I don’t think he was ever even in the military. Some people’s minds are just cracked.”
The discussion floated from topic to topic. With every lull Linda filled the void. The weather. The news. The foibles of various relatives both alive and dead. Anything to keep Tatie Martha from her favorite subject. The time ticked by and the clock said 5:30. They made their goodbyes, Tatie Martha insisting on rising up to give her a bony hug. Linda cradled the back of the old woman’s head the way one would cradle a child’s. They broke away. Linda waited by the door for a second, listening to make sure nobody was there, and then left. She walked proudly down the hall. Any eyes that dared raise up to look at her, she stared down until they looked away. Mr. Martin, the nurses, the man with the hose in his nose, and even a cross-looking Nurse Boggs. Only the woman behind the desk avoided Linda’s challenging gaze, never once lifting her eyes from her phone as Linda strode past and out the door.
Roger was home when she got there. The two did not speak. He ate his dinner out in front of the TV and Linda ate hers in the kitchen. She didn’t drink any wine that night. She didn’t need it. Water was just fine. Cold and clear. She could see Mr. Snuggles in the sink when she filled the glass. Linda left her dirty dishes in the sink. If it bothered Roger, then he could wash them himself. She went upstairs and went to bed. She listened to the sounds of Roger making himself comfortable on the couch. It would be difficult, his back wasn’t as good as it used to be. Linda didn’t care. She drifted off to sleep with a deep sense of satisfaction.
The phone rang. The jangling bells echoed across the house. The first ring woke her up. The second snapped her towards reality. She lunged for the receiver, throwing herself across the covers. The bedroom phone was on Roger’s side of the bed.
“Hello, Mrs. Dubois?”
“Who is this?”
“I’m calling about your aunt, Mrs. Dubois.”
Linda’s heart rate spiked. Nurse Boggs.
“Is she all right? Has something happened?”
“Her health is fine, Mrs. Dubois.”
The head nurse’s voice was a throaty growl. Linda glanced at the digital clock on the nightstand. 3:35 AM.
“What is it then?”
“It’s about the cat, Mrs. Dubois. She won’t quit asking about it. She’s convinced that he’s missing and she’s worked herself up into a frenzy about it.”
“Then tell her the damn cat is dead.”
“We are not here to do your dirty work for you, Mrs. Dubois. It’s in our contract.”
“God damn it.”
“Mrs. Dubois, if she doesn’t calm down we’re going to have to sedate her. She’s disturbing all the other residents.”
Linda took a deep breath in and let it out. She curled her knees to her chest and massaged her temples with her free hand.
“Let me talk to her.”
“I’ll transfer you to her room.”
The phone clicked and then clicked again. A beeping tone indicated that it was ringing. Someone picked up the phone and said something that Linda couldn’t hear. Tatie Martha’s cranky voice sounded on the other end.
“Who is it? Hello?”
“Oh Linda, thank goodness you called. These damn nurses. Mr. Snuggles is missing and these damn nurses won’t do a thing about it.”
“I keep trying to tell them that he never stays out this late, but they just won’t do anything about it.”
“How am I supposed to sleep without him curled up next to me? How am I supposed to sleep knowing he’s out there scared?”
“What is it, dear?”
“Mr. Snuggles is dead. He died six weeks ago.”
Linda hung up the phone and unplugged it from the wall. If it rang downstairs it would be Roger’s problem. Linda lay back down, her body curled up in the fetal position. The couch squeaked downstairs. She could hear the steady nasally rasp of Roger’s gentle snoring, each blast blowing away the last of the self-satisfaction that she had felt earlier. Linda waited for sleep to come. When it failed to, she settled on a good cry instead.
There were no more winking yellow faces. The stems were turning brown. Only a few petals still hung on to life, white just on the tips. Linda arrived at 4:00, but she sat in the car until 4:30 when she finally gathered enough energy to rise and walk through the doors of the center. The woman behind the front desk didn’t watch her as she walked by. Nurse Boggs did not appear. Even the old man with hose in his nose was missing, his latest puzzle, a group of ducks on a pond, left unfinished. Mr. Martin’s door was still closed. All was quiet. Just the hum of air through the vents and Linda’s footsteps on the carpet. She felt small standing before Tatie Martha’s door. The viewpoint of an unwilling child, forced to go forward by the prodding hand of an unseen adult. Linda was tired. It felt like she hadn’t slept in days. Her eyes were puffy. Linda nervously twisted the ring on her finger. Circle after circle. Never ending. Sisyphus and his stone. A part of her hoped, but deep inside she knew she hoped in vain. She raised up her hand and knocked.
Tatie Martha sat in her chair watching television. She smiled as Linda entered, for a moment forgetting to keep her lips tight to hide her worn-out teeth. The old woman flipped off the TV.
“Linda dear, how good to see you. You wouldn’t believe some of the things on this idiot box today.”
Linda forced a smile back.
“How’s Roger, dear.”
“Busy, Tatie. Always busy.”
“Silly boy. Even Philip Foss knew how to relax.”
Linda released her hand from the wheel and let the ruts in the road take her where they would. Tatie Martha rose unsteadily and made the tea. Linda watched her while she worked. Tatie Martha had once had the most beautiful hands that Linda had ever seen. White and unmarked. Long supple fingers. They had fluttered about her, twin butterflies, when she spoke, highlighting and emphasizing every nuance and turn of phrase. Tatie Martha’s hands were old now. Swollen knuckles and creased joints. Dry skin, almost translucent. They didn’t flutter anymore when Tatie Martha spoke. She held them tight, unwilling to let them take wing. Unwilling to show the added wobble and tremble. It was only in the making of tea that they were unleashed. The flight was no longer smooth, no quick flitting about as before, but they were still beautiful. One could still see the old life buried beneath the ruined exterior, dancing to the melody of her voice.
Linda could see those hands as they were. She could see those hands giving her an envelope stuffed with five hundred dollars. Tatie Martha had given Roger and Linda two hundred for their wedding, but had given the five hundred just to Linda, in secret. The hands had held out the envelope and the eyes had given a sly wink as the painted red lips whispered in her ear. Things are always better when they aren’t an obligation. A woman has to watch out for herself in this world, even with a good one. It was a lot of money back then. Tatie Martha had always taken care of herself. Even when her husband was still alive.
Linda could see the hands opening the front door and wrapping her and Roger in a warm embrace before crimson lips kissed both of Linda’s cheeks and laughter filled her ear. Tatie Martha’s Christmas parties were still talked about within certain circles. A congregation of family, friends, acquaintances, business associates, and a few who had wandered in on their own, attracted by the joy permeating from the house. Tatie Martha would walk amongst her guests as though a goddess, a drink in one hand, dressed in fashions more out of style every year, but never seeming quite out of place. Tatie Martha sitting on the davenport that had been her mother’s under the painting of the shepherd that had been her father’s, laughing gaily through wine-stained teeth, playing Indian poker with her cousin, her garbageman, a local accountant of some note, and a stranger named Ron. The hands had danced as they gestured for Linda to join the fun.
Linda could see through tear-filled eyes the hands slicing the air with sharp authoritative cuts as Tatie Martha called Roger’s mother a shit-filled cunt after the latter dared to publicly call Linda a bitch in front of Roger’s entire family. Roger’s mother had never been warm to Linda. She had never believed that the woman who had married her son was ever good enough for him. Learning that the couple had absolutely no plans to ever have children had been the last straw in a long battle of a thousand cuts. Of course Roger had no interest in children, but his mother only saw it as further proof of the vile influence that his bride had over him. Roger’s family had shrunk back in awe of the monster that had been unleashed. Shocked into terrified silence by the assault of vocabulary that would have been called scandalous if it had not been so magnificent in its breadth and scope. Linda could still feel one of the hands resting protectively on her shoulder as Tatie Martha spit and snarled with the other. The outburst split the family, and things were not smoothed over until Tatie Martha agreed to give up her mother’s davenport. They had been beautiful hands.
Tatie Martha smiled and brought over the tea. Linda rose and helped her as she always did. The old woman resisted, but gladly gave up one of the saucers. They sat and talked as they always did. Linda letting Tatie Martha control the conversation. It went as Linda knew it would, down the well-carved stream bed. Mention of the upcoming ninetieth birthday party. Tatie Martha wanted red balloons. Her favorite color was red. Tales of the exploits of Mr. Snuggles. Questions of where the big cat might be. Linda felt tears in her eyes. The shepherd in the painting stared down at her. She knew her role in this macabre play. She knew her lines.
“Tatie, I have to tell you something.”
“What is it, dear?”
The explosion was just as bad as it always was. Linda braced herself, leaned into the wind, and stayed. She stayed through the howls, the blubbering chokes, and the snot and tears. She held the old woman and cried with her. Salty tears flowing down their faces and intermixing in puddles of anguish. She brought Kleenexes and water for them both. She stayed when the nurses came to take Tatie Martha to dinner, and though Nurse Boggs insisted that the old woman needed to eat, needed to stick to her routine, Linda refused to let them take her. Linda stayed until they were both wrung out and there were no more tears left in either.
It was 7:35. Tatie Martha was tired. Linda helped the old woman change into her nightgown and helped her into bed. Tatie Martha fell asleep almost immediately. Linda used the bathroom and blew her nose. She stared at herself in the bathroom mirror, puffy-eyed with gray hair around her temples. Linda took a deep breath and walked out of the bathroom. Tatie Martha slept peacefully. The portrait of her late husband sat on the nightstand. Linda had never met the man. He had been long dead when she married Roger, and was rarely spoken of. Roger had described him as quiet and prone to nervous spells. The man in the black and white portrait was lightly boned, but sharply dressed with perfectly parted hair and a thin moustache gracing his upper lip which was curled partway in a bemused smile. He did not look nervous. The eyes were kind, and the portrait was set so they could lovingly watch the old woman sleep. Linda bit her lip and twisted the ring on her finger in circles. She could feel tears welling up in her eyes again. Linda turned out the lights and left.
Nobody was about in the nursing home. The halls were all quiet. The woman at the front desk was still in her place, but noticed Linda no more than the dying flowers as she headed out the door. Linda got into her car. 7:50. She had promised that she would give him until 9:00. Linda drove to a hotel bar, and though she had never done it before in her life, had a drink alone.
The flowers were dead. Completely and irrevocably dead. No color of life remained. No bright yellow, no white, and no green. Just brown. Nothing left but a fragile husk of what once had been. Linda strode in and passed the woman at the front desk as quickly as she could. Linda had been crying in the car. It had started the moment she had turned off the ignition. She knew she looked a mess. Nurse Boggs was helping the man with the hose in his nose with his puzzle. The head nurse looked up as Linda strode by the sitting room’s doorway. The head nurse made no move to intercept her. She just watched Linda move by. Mr. Martin’s door was open. The old man sat sideways on his couch, staring at the birds flitting through the branches of the elm. His shoulders were slumped and only the slow movement of his eyes gave any clue of the man still sitting within. Linda stopped and watched him for a second. Mr. Martin didn’t notice. What attention he had was reserved for the birds. Linda moved past and knocked on Tatie Martha’s door.
It was as it always was, a moment frozen in time, no longer a part of the world of the living.
“Linda, how good to see you. Please sit down. Just let me flip off this idiot box.”
Linda did as she was told. Her knees felt weak.
“How is Roger, dear?”
Linda felt her shoulders involuntarily rise. The diamond ring on her finger twinkled in the sunlight from the window.
“Okay, I guess.”
“That’s good. Tea, dear?”
Tatie Martha rose to make the tea. The shepherd on the wall stared down at her, still battling the storm to save his flock from freezing. The old woman hummed some forgotten tune as she worked. Linda grasped for things to say, but found nothing in her cluttered mind. Searching. Seeking. Her eyes trailed across Tatie Martha’s tiny world until they fell upon the elm tree outside the window.
“Mr. Martin seems unusually quiet.”
Tatie Martha stopped humming.
“What’s that, dear?”
“I said Mr. Martin seems unusually quiet.”
Tatie Martha glanced at Linda for a moment, then went back to making the tea.
“Oh. They’ve got him doped to the gills with sedatives, poor man, he was making too much of a nuisance of himself.”
“It seems strange not seeing him marching around.”
The branches of the elm tree swayed lightly in the breeze, knocking a few leaves off to go twirling to the ground. The tree was a mismatch of green, red, and gold. The sunlight from the window felt warm on her hand. The kettle whistled and Tatie Martha poured the tea. The old woman was shuffling her way over when Linda began to cry. At first it was only a couple of tears, but a few drops quickly turned into a torrent, and the full force of the storm unleashed with wracking sobs.
“Linda dear, what’s the matter?”
Linda couldn’t answer. Her entire being vibrated with the release. Guilt and shame swirling with all the rest. Tatie Martha put the two cups of tea on the end table, sat down on the loveseat next to Linda, and put a skinny frail arm over the younger woman’s shoulder.
“There, there, dear. There, there.”
Linda’s words fell back with gulps of air moistened by snot and sinus drip. Tatie Martha held on, making comforting sounds in a quiet voice.
“It’s okay. It’s okay.”
“Oh Tatie, he’s leaving me.”
“Who’s leaving you, dear?”
“Roger…Roger’s been having an affair with a woman half my age. He’s moved out. We’re getting a divorce.”
“That stupid son of a bitch.”
The sharp declaration rang through the room, shocking all else into silence. Linda sucked back the snot in her nose and wiped her still-flowing eyes.
“Roger, dear. Stupid son of a bitch.”
“Look at you, my dear. Look at who you are. Half your age, bah, any man who leaves you is an idiot. A damn fool.”
“But Tatie, he’s your nephew.”
“So what? I can’t think my nephew is a fool? Listen to me, dear. This has nothing to do with you. It has everything to do with him.”
Linda began to tear up again, but Tatie Martha grabbed her face and kept it from falling down.
“None of that now, dear.”
“But why, Tatie? Why?”
“Because he’s getting older. Because he’s scared. Because he thinks he’ll find the fountain of youth between that hussy’s legs. He’s weak, Linda. We all have our weaknesses. Me, you, Mr. Philip Foss, everyone. Hell, my husband, God bless his soul, loved to drink, he never raised his hand or his voice a day in his life, but the man didn’t care about anything he couldn’t pour inside him, including me. Mr. Martin wishes he had lived his life as someone else, a war hero instead of some boring old plumber. We all have our weaknesses.”
“What’s my weakness?”
“You’re a lovely woman, Linda, just such a lovely woman.”
Linda curled herself into Tatie Martha’s embrace. The old woman’s shoulder smelled of Bengay and cat hair. One old arm rubbed Linda’s back, while the other cradled the back of her head. Tatie Martha affectionately whispered in her ear.
“He’s just a stupid son of a bitch, dear. It’s all going to be all right. You’re a lovely woman. Such a lovely woman to visit an old woman like me every week in heaven’s waiting room. He’s just a stupid son of a bitch.”
Tatie Martha stroked Linda’s hair until she cried herself out. Linda leaned back from the embrace and turned away to wipe her eyes.
“Would a nip of brandy help, dear? I have a bit hidden away where the nurses can’t find it.”
Linda smiled a bit despite herself.
“No, thank you. I’m sorry about all this.”
“Sorry for what, dear, for not being Superwoman?”
Linda smiled again and blew her nose in a Kleenex from her pocket. She had brought extra. Tatie Martha gave an encouraging smile and put a gnarled hand on Linda’s knee.
“I’m just sorry that Mr. Snuggles isn’t here. Giving him a good stroke always helps me feel better.”
Linda blew her nose again. The tissue ripped between her nervous fingers.
“Oh Tatie, there’s something I have to tell you.”
“What is it, dear?”
“It’s Mr. Snuggles, Tatie. He died.”
The old woman looked past Linda and out the window at the tree swaying in the breeze. Her eyes teared up and Linda braced herself. A few tears rolled down the old woman’s cheeks, but nothing else came.
“Tatie, are you okay?”
Tatie Martha’s eyes refocused. She brushed a tear from her cheek. Her hand gave Linda’s a gentle shake.
“I’ll be all right, dear. Let’s just worry about you right now.”
The tea had gone cold. While Linda cleaned herself up in the bathroom, Tatie Martha made more. The two women drank and talked about nothing. At times both seemed to drift away, but they always found their way back to each other. When 5:30 rolled around Tatie Martha went to dinner and Linda went home. The house was quiet. Linda cried a little when she climbed into bed, but Tatie Martha’s voice floated in her head. Stupid son of a bitch. Such a lovely woman.
The flowers were gone. The vase, the fallen petals, everything. No evidence remained that they had ever existed. Linda walked through the front door, resigned to her fate. It had been a hectic week. The divorce was proceeding as well as could be expected. Roger wasn’t putting up a fight. Maybe he felt guilty, or maybe he just wanted to move on with his life. He was living with his younger woman. What would be the right word? Mistress? That didn’t feel right. If Roger was no longer married, then it was no longer an affair. Girlfriend? Bitch felt like the best choice, though to be fair, Linda had never met the woman. It didn’t really matter. Nothing could turn back the clock. Nothing could make the world the way it once was.
Linda had been dreading coming to visit all week. She knew what was going to happen. It had been the next morning when Nurse Boggs had called.
“This is Nurse Boggs, Mrs. Dubois, I’m calling concerning your aunt.”
“Is she okay?”
“She had a breakdown last night, Mrs. Dubois, during dinner.”
“Yes, Mrs. Dubois, Mr. Snuggles.”
“She seemed all right when I left.”
“I don’t know what to tell you, Mrs. Dubois, but she became quite upset at dinner. The other residents were quite disturbed. We had to sedate her.”
“You had to sedate her?”
“Mrs. Dubois, this is starting to become quite the problem. It’s possible that maybe this center isn’t the right place for your aunt.”
Linda hadn’t known how to answer. It wasn’t really her problem. It was Roger and his sisters who handled Tatie Martha’s finances, not her. She was a nobody now, not even family. Just the last of the faithful, keeping vigil as the old woman floated towards the edge of her sanity. Linda didn’t know what to do. The ghost of Mr. Snuggles refused to leave. Like the divorce, there was nothing that could be done. Some things were just the way they were going to be.
One of the overhead lights in the lobby was close to burning out. The fluorescent bulb buzzed and flickered. The woman behind the front desk sat as she always did, head down, eyes locked on her phone. Bitch. How was a person like that allowed to work in such a place? The queen of a crumbling world, without a care in the world. Linda walked over to the desk and put her closed fists down on its dusty top.
The woman glanced up, then went back to her phone.
The words were louder and more drawn out. The woman behind the front desk took a deep breath, let it out, and put her phone down.
“There’re no flowers.”
The woman behind the front desk shifted to look behind Linda at the empty spot where the flowers had been. She studied the spot for a few seconds and then refocused back on Linda.
“Don’t you see that as a problem?”
The woman behind the front desk chewed on a thumbnail and spit a chunk onto the floor.
“No one’s mentioned it but you.”
The woman behind the front desk, with her eyebrows raised, waited. Linda, with her best attempt at piercing eyes, stared back, but broke first. With a huff, she shifted her gaze to the ground and took a step back.
“I’m sorry. I’ve had a tough week, but that’s no reason to take it out on you.”
The woman behind the front desk bit off another chunk of fingernail and spit it on the floor. Linda felt uncomfortable. She started to turn to head down the hall.
“Your aunt’s the one with the cat, right? Mr. Noodles?”
“Mr. Snuggles. He’s dead though.”
The two women stared at each other for a moment. The woman behind the front desk reached down to open a drawer.
“I’ve got something for you.”
The woman opened the drawer and pulled out a wooden box, stained the color of cherry wood, with a brass clasp and hinges. She held it out and gestured for Linda to take it. Linda stepped forward and took the box in her hands. She could feel a weight inside. Engraved black letters adorned the lid. Mr. Snuggles.
“What is this?”
“What does it look like?”
Linda popped open the latch. Inside sat a Ziploc bag full of ash.
“We had a similar problem with my Dad when my Mom died. Had a hell of a time getting it to stick in his head.”
“Where did you get the ash?”
The woman behind the front desk gave a hint of a smile.
“Fireplace. Don’t worry, I picked all the burnt wood chunks out.”
Linda ran her finger across the plastic of the bag and closed the lid. The woman behind the front desk was already back on her phone.
“Will this work?”
The woman didn’t even bother to glance up.
“You got any other ideas?”
Linda turned and walked down the hall. The man with the hose in his nose was in the sitting room, still working on the duck puzzle. The old man stared at the pieces before him, found the one he wanted, and put it in its place. He felt Linda watching him, and turned his head and watched her back as she strode past.
Mr. Martin’s door was open, but there was no Mr. Martin to be seen. A younger nurse and Nurse Boggs were packing things in boxes. The couch was already gone.
“Where’s Mr. Martin?”
Nurse Boggs looked up, but gave the second nurse the eye when she stopped working as well. The second nurse bent back to the task.
“He died three days ago. Nobody bothered to get his stuff, so we’re packing it up so we can move a new resident in. Damn wait list must be half a mile long.”
“He seemed to be in such good shape.”
The head nurse shrugged.
“That’s the way it goes.”
Nurse Boggs went back to work. Linda moved on down the hall to Tatie Martha’s door. She held the box so tightly that the edges bit creases into her hands. She took a breath in, let it out, and knocked.
The old woman reacted as she always did. She screamed. She howled. She doubled herself over as best she could, clutching the cherry-wood-colored box in her once beautiful hands. Linda did the best she could, bringing Kleenexes, rubbing the old woman’s back, and saying the expected empathic words. The shepherd stared down from his painting, and Linda stared back for a while. The shepherd did not seem to mind. His attention was too focused on getting his flock in, out of the storm. The nurses came to take Tatie Martha to dinner, but Linda wouldn’t let them. Nurse Boggs let it go without a fight.
Linda stayed with Tatie Martha, waiting for the tempest to subside. Linda thought of Roger on their wedding day. How safe she had felt in his arms. How handsome he had looked in his tuxedo, smiling down at her as though she were the only woman in the world. She thought of Tatie Martha at the reception, lithe and vibrant, a glass of wine in her hand, insisting that all the young men dance with her, and laughing at their reddening faces as she whispered lewd comments into their ears. Tears spilled down Linda’s cheeks. The two women wept together, both mourning the lives that they could never get back, a world that could never be inhabited again.
Linda stayed with Tatie Martha until she cried herself out. Exhausted, the old woman let Linda help her get ready for bed, and fell asleep before her head even hit the pillow. Linda covered the aged form with a blanket, placed the cherry-wood-coloured box full of fireplace ashes on the end table next to Tatie Martha’s chair, and let herself out. Everything was dark and empty. When Linda got home, she poured herself a glass of wine, drank half, but dumped the remainder down the drain. Linda put on a jacket, went out to the backyard, sat in a lawn chair, and stared up at the stars for half the night.
Linda walked into the lobby with a vase of tulips and a package wrapped in tissue paper. With a smile on her lips she deposited the vase on the empty shelf and turned towards the woman sitting behind the front desk.
The woman gave a neutral grunt in response.
“I brought some fresh flowers.”
The woman glanced up for a moment, and then returned her attention to her phone.
“What do you want, a medal or something?”
Linda nervously twisted the spot on her finger where her ring had once been.
“I didn’t get a chance to say thank you last week.”
The woman behind the front desk looked up again, gave a half-smile and a nod, and went back to ignoring the world around her. Linda smiled again, turned, and walked down the hall. The man with the hose in his nose was in his usual place. He was still working on the ducks which were proving more difficult than normal. Nurse Boggs’ bulk leaned on the table next to him. The head nurse reached out, picked up a piece, and put it in its correct place. The old man smiled and gave the head nurse’s hand a congratulatory squeeze. Nurse Boggs smiled back. What had once been Mr. Martins’ door was closed. A new name was already written on it. Janice Boyer. Linda moved past without a second glance. She did not hesitate to knock on Tatie Martha’s door.
The room looked as it always looked. Tatie Martha sat in her chair watching the TV, which she switched off the moment Linda entered.
“Linda, how good to see you.”
“It’s good to see you too, Tatie. I’ve brought something for you?”
“For me? My birthday isn’t for a few more weeks.”
“Just an early present.”
“Oh, you shouldn’t have.”
Linda pressed the package into Tatie Martha’s arthritic hands and sat down on the loveseat. The old woman smiling, gave the gift a gentle shake near her ear, licked her lips, and gently pulled open the tissue paper to reveal the framed picture hidden underneath. Tatie Martha let out a small squeal of delight.
“Oh, Mr. Snuggles. It’s wonderful. Simply wonderful.”
“I thought you’d like it, Tatie.”
The old woman held the picture close to get a good look at it, and then put it back on her lap. The two women’s eyes tracked across the room to the cherry-wood-colored box on the end table.
“He was such a funny cat, Linda. Just such a funny cat.”
“Yes, Tatie, he was a good cat.”
A few tears fell down Tatie Martha’s cheeks, but were quickly wiped away.
“Would you like some tea, dear?”
“Yes, thank you, but I can get it.”
Linda made to rise, but Tatie Martha waved her back.
“Nonsense. I might be old, but I can still make a cup of tea.”
The old woman shuffled over to the counter. Linda picked up the framed picture from where Tatie Martha had left it on her chair. It was a fine picture. The last photograph taken of Mr. Snuggles. The big gray Maine coon with a red party hat on his head. Linda stood and started looking around for a good place to put it. An idea popped in her head and she moved into the bedroom.
“Tatie, would you like me to put it on the nightstand?”
“What’s that, dear?”
“Would you like me to put the photo of Mr. Snuggles next to the portrait of your husband?”
“That’s not my husband, dear.”
Linda returned to the doorway. The kettle was starting to whistle. Tatie Martha pulled it off. The old woman was smiling to herself.
“You know, most people would say it isn’t proper, but when you get as old as me, worrying about such things just doesn’t seem as important.”
Tatie Martha poured the tea into the cups and shuffled her way back towards her chair.
“Who is it, Tatie?”
The old woman put the teacups down on the end table, settled herself into her chair, picked up her cup, took a drink, and gave out a sound of satisfaction. Linda walked over, sat down on the loveseat, and took a sip from her own cup of tea. The old woman studied the painting on the wall, her eyes tracing across the shepherd in the storm. For a moment she seemed cast adrift, floating between one time and another with no anchor to hold her back. Tatie Martha smiled and looked back at Linda.
“How is Roger, dear?”
Linda paused, unsure.
“Roger is fine, Tatie, he sends his love. He’s quite busy.”
Tatie Martha took another drink of tea.
“That boy, always up to something. If I were him, I wouldn’t work so hard if I had a wife like you at home.”
S. W. Campbell was born in Eastern Oregon. He currently resides in Portland, where he works as an economist and lives with a house plant named Morton. He has had numerous short stories published in various literary reviews. If you’d like to read more of his writing, check out his website: https://www.shawnwcampbell.com.