She sat at the dining room table, furious. Her daughter knew tomorrow was a school day, so she promised she’d be home by 10. Pauline looked at her watch again. It still said 10:45. As each minute slowly and painfully ticked by, she let herself get more angry. Almost half an hour ago she started getting scared, but then realized anger was a less-terrifying feeling. Her daughter was always a good child growing up, but even the best children caused a few grey hairs and late nights as teenagers. She couldn’t believe Mark wasn’t down here, too. Her anger seemed to double as she thought about her husband sleeping peacefully upstairs and her daughter out there doing - doing - doing whatever teenagers do that cause their parents to worry.
When the phone rang, she expected it to be her daughter with some flimsy excuse for not being home yet. Pauline grabbed the phone from the table and snarled “What?” into the receiver. Her face went from scarlet to ghastly pale when she heard a timid voice on the other end. It was the type of voice that was bearing bad news.
“Is this Mrs. Thomas?” Pauline held her breath and struggled to hold back her imagination as she tried to answer in a more calm voice.
“Yes. What may I do for you?”
“Mrs. Thomas, this is Gerald Willis calling from the Bedford Retirement and Hospice Center.” Pauline recognized Tiny’s voice an instant before she heard another sound - the furtive turning of a key in a door. She struggled to stand under the dizziness of the relief that her daughter was home, and then she slowly walked through the dining room so she could stand in the entryway.
“Hi, Gerald. I’m sorry for snapping at you, but I was expecting somebody else.” When Tiny heard the more approachable tone she’d adopted, the timidity faded from his voice. He began explaining that Juan had asked him to call, but Pauline was focused on the girl coming in the door. Milagrita was hoping to sneak into the house, but as she opened the door she could hear her mom’s end of the conversation. She timidly walked in and looked down at her mom’s waist. As Milagrita slowly raised her head to look her mom in the eye, Pauline stood silently, pointing upstairs. When Milagrita saw the outstretched arm, she slowly finished closing the door and began walking upstairs. Finally, Pauline turned her attention back to the phone. “I’m sorry, Gerald, what were you saying? I had a teenager to deal with.”
“I’m very sorry to have to tell you that your father probably doesn’t have much time left. Mr. Garcia asked that I call you and let you know he thinks there’s only a few days before he passes away.”
Pauline was still glaring up the stairs toward her daughter’s room. As the caller’s message began to sink in, she grabbed the bannister and eased herself down to sitting on the steps. “Pardon, did I hear you correctly? My dad’s predicting his own death? I’m sorry, Gerald, but it’s been a really rough night. I know my dad’s health has been a little down lately, but I’m sure he’ll bounce back. He’s going to be fine so long as he’s got-”
“Meph died about a half hour ago, Mrs. Thomas.” There was silence on the phone. He heard deep breathing become a little shallow and punctuated by occasional sniffles. Almost a full minute later, he said, “Ma’am, I am very sorry to bear such bad news this late at night.”
“My dad told you about his cat? You know the story about how he got it?”
“Yes Ma’am, I’ve heard Meph’s story. Your dad used to make up stories to entertain a few friends, but slowly the circle of listeners got smaller and smaller. When the last one passed away, your dad seemed really sad without somebody to listen to his stories. So one day I asked him to tell me a story or two. One story led to another, and finally late one night he said there was one story that he kept to himself because nobody’d believe it. Just then Meph hopped up into his lap, and Mr. Garcia said ‘What do you think, Meph? Should I tell him?’ Ma’am, I don’t know if I’d believe it coming from anybody else, but I can see how much Meph meant to Mr. Garcia and how much Mr. Garcia meant to Meph.”
Pauline sat quietly for about a minute. Tiny could still hear an occasional sniff, so he just sat at the attendants’ station and waited patiently. He knew the cat was a deeply cherished family pet, so he didn’t want to explain that he’d put Meph and the cat bed into a large box and put the box in the trunk of his car. He finally realized, though, that she would probably want to know what would become of the animal. “Mrs. Thomas, I know how deeply your entire family loved that cat. He was such a wonderful character and was so friendly and loving with anybody who approached him and treated him well. Petting him was the first thing I did before punching in and the last thing I did before punching out every day. Your dad and his cat have always been my favorite residents. I would like your permission to bury Meph in my back yard.”
“Yeah, I guess I’m ok with it. Dad has told me a few times about your visits. I know how much your company has meant to him, so thanks for being there for him. Could you tell my dad we’ll be there as soon as we can?”
“Yes ma’am, I’ll tell him first thing in the morning.” Pauline thanked Tiny again for visiting with her dad and the cat, and then they got off the phone. She made flight reservations for the next day. On such short notice, she couldn’t find four seats on one plane. She and Milagrita would fly out early in the afternoon and Mark and their younger daughter would follow a couple hours later. Having finished that business, she sat at the dining room table with a box of tissues. Two tissues were drenched with tears before she decided to go to bed. She had one stop to make first, because she knew only one other person in the house was still up. She walked to Milagrita’s room and gently knocked on the door.
“Mom, I’m really sorry. We were studying, and time got away. There were about four of us, and we started debating...” Milagrita had a speech prepared detailing the arguments that she was having with her boyfriend and their classmates about whether Kennedy was a good president, but she stopped when she saw the dropped shoulders, tear-streaked cheeks, and bloodshot eyes. Pauline walked into her daughter’s room and hugged her, crying softly on her shoulder.
To be continued in The Cat part 4
- I once got paid to spend the summer telling lies to little kids. I ran a mountain man program at a district Boy Scout camp. I told my guests I was born in my log cabin and I traded for everything I had. Late evenings I shot muzzleloader rifles with campers and then told ghost stories around the fire. Oh, how I wish that would pay enough to be my career instead of just a one-time summer job.