by Colleen Sutherland
The cat crouched under the Victorian settee. His eyes gleamed golden in the darkness of a late night in December. The white tip of his otherwise black tail flashed back and forth, back and forth in the only light in the room, the television playing yet another version of A Christmas Carol. He was half beginning to understand the words. He stared at the human on the floor, contemplating his next move.
The old woman was flat on the floor. The stroke had thrown her backwards, almost in a perfect line, the rolls of fat sinking into the floor. She was alive, barely. Her eyes moved from side to side, but the rest of her was frozen. Even if she had one of those emergency button devices to push it would be useless. Her hands were dead. All she had left was her brain and her senses. And that damned cat. She could hear him moving around the house.
This was not the way her life was supposed to end.
Elinor never wanted a cat or any other pet. Cats were sneaky. Dogs required too much upkeep. Birds scattered seed all over the floor. She remembered all that from her childhood. Her brothers and sisters always had pets and that had meant messes that she, the oldest girl, had to clean up. Her parents brought the babies into the world. Elinor had to raise them. It was one diaper after another in that Catholic family. A pet was just another chore, nothing but that. The children were enough trouble.
“Preparation for the nunnery,” her father joked once to his friends. “She's the plainest of the lot and none of them are lookers. When she's old enough, we'll ship her to a convent. No expensive wedding there. She'd be good taking care of brats in an orphanage.”
But Elinor put her foot down. She had other plans. She saved towards that college education. It meant saving every penny including the lunch money she was given at school. Two precious quarters each week. She set them aside and didn't eat the school lunch. Her small allowance went into the bank as well. There were no malts at the dairy store. There were no movies either. She spent a childhood depriving herself so that she would have a golden future.
There were occasional dates, farm boys looking for hard workers... and breeders, her father said. But her father was right. She was plain. Her clothes were hand-me-downs from cousins, or things the nuns gave her in pity. She didn't care. She kept putting the money aside and studying as if her life depended on it, because it did. The boyfriends grew up, gave up, and found other plain women to marry.
There wasn't enough for a big university but there was a business college. That would do. She won a scholarship and worked through the two year course. Typing, shorthand, business machines, she excelled at every course. In the end, she had a degree and finally, a job. At first, no one wanted to hire a plain, chubby girl with no clothes sense, but then she interviewed with a woman trying to find the perfect secretary for her husband.
“He has roving eyes,” the wife said. “He doesn't need an attractive secretary.”
It was a cutting remark, but Elinor knew exactly what she was, and it was a job. She stayed in the company, moving from one office to another, always the perfect secretary that no wife could complain about. She never let those women know that a plain secretary meant nothing when the men had mistresses on the side. She kept the secrets and the jobs. In time she found herself in the human resources department, working for the man who hired and fired. She delivered the pink slips to the fired and called the lucky new employees. It was only a job either way.
And she saved, as she had always saved. Some day, when she retired, all her investments would pay off. She would have a pension, all she had earned in the stock market, and oh, the fun she would have traveling. Until she could do it right, she wouldn't do it at all. Her vacations were usually spent in her little house, something of an investment, her banker had told her, sure to be valuable one day. On her free days, she scraped paint, caulked tiles. It was lonely, but she saw her pension grow and rejoiced when the mortgage was paid off.
She never meant to include a mean spirited cat in her home. Yet there he was. The old cuckoo clock on the wall behind her went off again. She wondered how many hours it had been since she had been able to move. The lights on the Christmas tree were unblinking. Wouldn't they cause a fire in time? Then someone would come, or she would burn to death. Better than this.
The cat twitched his tail. The woman was late with his supper. He had been here a little more than a year and that was all the two had in common. She fed him and changed the litter. He hid in the dark until she left for some errand or other, then he found a sunny spot, often on her bed, but usually on the couch. He waited for excitement. He wanted to be outside. He was meant for adventures. In his previous life, he was a wanderer, a proud tomcat who spend his nights serenading the ladies and catching rats. He knew his place in the world. He survived cold winters in dumpsters. He found what he needed to eat behind the best restaurants....until he was captured by some stupid well meaning humans and had his private parts cut off. Then he was put into a place with similar cats. They were a scruffy lot. All ex-toms who fought whenever they were let out of their cages, so there they stayed. He hated the people who thought they were being kind by taking him off the street.
Then he was brought to this place to be company for the old lady.
Once, just once, there was a romance for her, though it was unrequited. She noticed the young man in the elevator, and he noticed her. “Have a pleasant day,” he said to her when she saw him in the morning and “Have a pleasant evening” as they rode the elevator down. As the weeks went on, he added a smile and once when she was preoccupied, a little hug. “I'm Ronnie,” he said. “And who is this stranger who passes me by?” So it began, a bit of flirtation in the hallways, a handsome man charming a much older woman. He seemed to be everywhere. Sometimes, he would stop at the door of her office and give her a wave. At the yearly Christmas party, he made sure she had a good plate of food and a bit tipsy, flirted with her.
Curious, she checked his file in the human resource department. He was married, of course, but that meant nothing in the corporate world. Wives came and went.
When it came time for Ronnie's file to be reviewed by the head of human resources, she doubled checked it, threw in some good comments she gleaned from other files and took out any adverse comments. Over the course of five years, she steered his career, floor by floor, until he managed pensions in the finance department. He expressed his gratitude, telling her it was the best place for him. He would stay there for a while.
The cat was hungry. She fed him cheap kibbles and the only treat he got was an occasional dose of hairball remedy, and she didn't even know enough to get the salmon flavor. He pawed at the cupboards. The lower ones only had clankypots. He pulled open another. Things in cans. He jumped up on the top of the cupboard and nosed at the can opener. He stared down at the old lady. She was watching him, but doing nothing about it. Yes, her eyes moved from side to side. But she wasn't screaming at him and she screamed at him all the time. She didn't like him, but more than that she feared him. He considered that. Yes, she was afraid.
That damned cat. She could hear him prowling around. He had been neutered, but he was still a tomcat, like all the men she had worked for, each one worse than the last.
Ronnie was different, or so she thought. “My angel,” he said whenever they were alone together on the elevator. He told her about his family. His wife had never understood him, he told her, but he was a Catholic, so he would not get a divorce. That would mean leaving his religion and he would never do that. He crossed himself often whenever they were alone. He didn't seem to have mistresses like the rest of the officers. He never took his ring off. He had photos of his wife and children on his desk and always touched them gently. She loved him more each year, each month, each day.
She would soon retire, she was too old for him, she knew that, but he was her first and only love, this gentle young man. She changed her will. Her family had never paid any attention to her, except to send her a Christmas card and occasionally visit to double check on her money. They would be surprised to find out it would all go to Ronnie. He could use it to send his children to college.
But that was years in the future. She was going to travel first, enjoy the world. She had been saving brochures for years. Every wall in her house had carefully framed photos of every place she had dreamed of. An outdoor bistro near Sacre Coeur in Paris. The statue of David in Florence, carefully posed so his genitals weren't exposed. Cancun, the Great Wall of China, the Grand Canyon. They were all there. She looked at them fondly, dusted them daily.
As her retirement approached, she called a travel agent and began to discuss plans. Which place would be the first? Money would be no object. A lifetime of saving for a few years of total pleasure. She would be someone in the neighborhood, the woman who traveled, an interesting soul. She would buy fine objects to put around the house. When guests came over, she would show them off and talk about her travels.
But who would those guests be? She had no friends outside of her work. She began to plan that part of her retirement, too. She started paying more attention to her clothing, finding flowing styles that hid her belly fat. She even tried makeup.
For the first time since she left her family, she joined a church and soon, the women's group. Fran was the leader of the older women in the congregation by dint of arguing the loudest and longest. Elinor was used to bosses and was able to tolerate her. She went to church meetings and began to make friends. She went on planning.
She daydreamed sometimes that Ronnie would leave his wife and would come to live in her little house.
She had a spare bedroom with its own bath. He could have that rent free. She would cook his meals, do his laundry. Oh, to have him by her side forever. She would make him happy, she knew she could do it.
The cat put out a paw and batted her arm. The old lady didn't move. Her eyes stared up at the ceiling. He pushed in closer and tried out a purr, but it came out more like a growl. She lay on her back. He climbed up on her chest and stared into her eyes that stared back. Her eyes never moved. How did she do that? He stared. She stared. She never turned away. He finally backed off slowly and slipped off her body.
The cat watched. She still lay on the floor, her eyes staring at the ceiling. He admired the stare. She wasn't blinking much at all. That was a stare a cat could admire. He twitched his tail. He considered her again. It was long past his supper time.
Her last day of work finally came. She had mentioned it to several of her new friends. She thought there would be a cake, and mementos from her years at the company. She took a morning coffee break, unusual for her, but no one was in the break room. She heard giggles down the hallway and waited for the cries of “Surprise,” but none came. Lunch came and went. She ate her sandwich as she always had. No one stopped by her desk. She didn't bother with the afternoon break, and spent the time packing up her belongings. She had been taking things home all month, so there was very little to pack. She called a temporary agency and ordered someone to take her place on Monday. Then she said to her boss, “Well, that will be all then.”
“See you on Monday,” he grunted.
“No, you won't. I retired today.”
He looked at her in surprise. “Today?”
“Yes, I gave you a memo to remind you.”
“I must have misplaced it.” He looked around the room. “Here,” he said, “ and handed her a vase of fake gardenias. “I'll have to contact the pension people and get that in order. Sorry about that.”
Forty-five years, and Elinor was going home with her only farewell gift, fake flowers from the Pottery Barn his wife had brought in to decorate the office. As she went past a large bin, she dropped them in. No tears, she was far too strong a woman for that. There would never be any tears for this damned company. But at least her dedication would give her enough to live on for the rest of her life. When she came down the elevator, she saw Ronnie, her dearest friend and secret love. He was talking quietly to a young man.
“Ronnie,” she called out to him.
He ignored her.
“Ronnie,” she repeated.
He turned to her frowning, then smiled a little.
“I wanted to talk to you before I left.”
“Can it wait until Monday, dear?”
Dear. He always called her dear. The darling man.
“I won't be here on Monday. This is my last day.”
Ronnie glanced at his companion and then looked back at Elinor.
“Your last day?”
“Yes, I've retired. I thought you knew but you know Ogilvie, he messed up. He forgot to get the paperwork up to you. You'll get it on Monday if I have to come back and take care of it myself.”
“The paperwork,” he looked at her doubtfully.
“Yes, for the pension.”
“Yes, the money you've been investing for me for over ten years now. I've been looking forward to it. I have plans...”
She stopped as he took a step backwards into his friend, who steadied him.
"Not a good time to retire. The economy is bad, you know that.”
“But the stocks you bought for me have done well in spite of that. I read the last report you sent me.”
"Oh, yes, yes....I'll see to it. But how about Wednesday, or even better Thursday.....”
“Thursday will be fine.” She smiled. “And Ronnie, I still want to see you from time to time.”
So she went home, cleaned, organized her files, talked to her lawyer, talked to a travel agent, picking Italy as her first destination. The days sped by, and then it was Thursday and she found herself once more taking the elevator to the 14th floor to the finance department. Odd, people who had ignored her for years were now staring at her, whispering. Had they missed her after all?
Mr. Ogilvie was standing at Ronnie's desk, talking to a man she didn't know.
“God, Elinor, I'm so sorry.”
“What? Did something happen to Ronnie?”
“Gone? Where to?”
“No one seems to know. He didn't come to work on Monday, never a call to say where he was.
We thought he might be sick or something so we finally had someone in personnel go to his apartment to see what was wrong.”
“Apartment, he lives in a house.”
“No, a two bedroom condominium in Glen Oaks. A very expensive place, I gather.”
“Two bedrooms? That wouldn't be enough for his family. He has two girls and a boy.”
Mr. Olgivie coughed. “He's not married. You didn't know?”
It took the police investigators hours to convince her that Ronnie had been embezzling, getting signatures from older female employees that allowed him to take their pension money and gamble with high risk stocks. They all called him Ronnie and thought of him as a son, just the way Elinor had. For a while, the police had questioned HER, wondering who had doctored his employment records. But she was so obviously a victim, they left her alone. My God, his name wasn't even Ronnie, he was a con artist who had assumed an entire different persona to get the job.
He was gone. So was her pension. She couldn't sue the company because her signature was everywhere and then the company would find out she had forged his recommendations. She could have gone to prison. All she had left to live on was social security, her house, and a few savings. Her dreams of foreign travel evaporated.
A few weeks later, she had her first stroke. The women from the church took charge of her, took her to doctor's appointments, found her a walker, brought her food. She put on weight from all the food. With nothing to do, she ballooned up and took to wearing long mumus. Then Fran brought her the cat. That damned cat.
The cat walked across the living room, crossing her by hopping on her breasts, stopping to stare at her and smell her lips. He suddenly leaped off and tore around the room, jumping up on furniture that he didn't belong on. He was testing her in every way and he was having fun doing it, too. He skidded to a stop in front of the little Christmas tree.
Elinor could hear the ornaments smashing on the floor. She didn't care. The Salvation Army had dropped the tree off, something from a store display, she thought, a store that took down Christmas a week before the holiday and donated the remains to charities for the tax discount. It was an ugly blue tree The cat batted at the pink ornaments and in the end toppled the little tree. If she were capable of laughing she would have. She didn't give a damn and would have laughed at the cat's panic stricken flight away from it. She hated the tree. She hated the cat. Let them have at each other.
After that first stroke, she had to put up with Fran. Fran was a loud mouthed, ignorant woman but Elinor knew there was no point in disagreeing with her because she only got louder and angrier. If Fran stopped visiting, there would be no one else.
Fran would be at midnight services tonight. Would she stop by tomorrow? Probably not. Fran only played Lady Bountiful when it fit into her schedule. And what about the Salvation Army? Would they bring her Christmas dinner or was she supposed to go down to the center? She couldn't remember. She had written it down and put it on the refrigerator. She thought about that for a while.
Fran had brought her the cat.
“You need company, dear.”
Dear, Ronnie called her “dear”. She hated being called dear.
“I don't want a cat.”
“You need company. It's no good living alone and obsessing. It will give you something to love. Look, I've brought you everything you need. A litter pan, litter, kibbles. Give it a try. If it doesn't work out, we'll take him back to the pound.”
But the cat had stayed. When she called the pound to take him back, she found out that she would have to pay a fine for his return. She found out that the litter, litter pan and kibbles had come from the pound. Fran had paid nothing out of pocket. But she said nothing because no one else visited her except for annoying Christians who felt sorry for her. Forty five years working and people felt sorry for her. It was awful, yet worse were the days when no one stopped by.
She warred with the cat who wanted to leave the house. She changed his litter and thought about all the diapers she changed when she was young. Forty five years. Forty five years and she was back where she began, taking care of something else, having nothing for herself.
She could smell the cat feces. The litter box needed changing. Another day and the place would reek.
The cat pawed at his litter box, throwing his turds in the air in abandon. No one could yell at him, he would do what he chose. He hovered close to the door. If anyone came through, he would be out of there in a flash of black and white fur. Once out, he would go back to his old life.
He crawled around the counter tops, prying open doors, searching. Glasses smashed to the floor. Nothing. The old bitch had hidden the kibbles where he couldn't get at them, in a metal canister with a latch. Nothing to eat. He looked down at the old lady. He jumped down and walked over to her. Food, he wanted food. He pawed at her. She watched him, her eyes moving slowly as he walked over her body. Pay attention, he meowed. He gave her a nip. Nothing. No screaming, no swatting. He bit her arm hard. Nothing but the salty taste of blood. He had forgotten how he liked the taste of blood, but now he remembered his days of catching rats and the joy of chewing their heads off and disemboweling them.
He backed off . He would give her another six or seven hours.
By morning, he would begin his Christmas feast.