The Orange Cat

October 16, 2008
By David Hernon, Cohasset, MA

As the front double doors opened up Jedi style, the first thing I noticed was the smell. It smelled of sterile death. This was one inescapable fact of coming to the nursing home but that didn’t mean that you ever got used to it. The second thing I noticed was the temperature. I had often surmised that the building never reached seventy degrees while I was there, and I had only been there in the summer. And the third thing I noticed was that everyone there had that same grim expressionless look upon their pallid faces. Even the lady behind the front desk displayed it; she looked about as close to death as anyone there. My mother euphemistically referred to this woman as the “concierge,” but I was old enough to know the difference. This was a nursing home not a hotel; we were getting the room number of an aged relative, not inquiring about diving lessons.

The resident we were visiting was my great-grandmother. I can’t say I remember her at all apart from these visits. What I didn’t know then was that she was of German and African descent, had lived through two world wars, and was a semi-professional artist. Besides photographs, the latter is all that remains of her tangible life.

Her room was the one closest to the cafeteria and I was glad that she had managed to get it. I’m positive she did not care, but at that stage four years into my life I was primarily concerned with entertaining myself and eating so to me that room was the best in the complex.

When we entered her room she was propped up on her pillows, IV drip connected at the wrist. Her eyes squinted and were almost fully eclipsed by grey caterpillar eyebrows. This was the typical way we found her there and I had begun to wonder if she always sat like that, if she ever walked around at all. Maybe she had her food brought to her, or maybe they even wheeled her bed and IV to the food.

We approached her and the usual series of event followed: She would sit and stare at the wall ahead of her; my mom would break the terrible silence with a “how are you Mimi?” and I would huddle behind someone’s legs. I was not terrified of her really, but she was always so terribly serious and wore such a scowl upon her leather face that radiated feelings of contempt.

“Hello Susan,” she gasped. Nodded at my father. Her voice croaked like frogs calling for a mate, breaking the silence of the dead of night. She said nothing to me. I tugged on my father’s pant leg and pointed to a shelf hanging on the wall, on it rested nine large cats.

“Go along,” he whispered.

I could see the look of protest in Mimi’s eyes and her neck began to crane forward and her face muscles strained as if before a burst; but she remained silent. I grabbed the orange one. It was one of nine stuffed tabby cats Mimi had that were supposedly antique but my parents always contested they were worthless. I never understood why they let me play with it. After all, the only thing I could do was hurt it and it seemed pretty important to Mimi. Maybe the fact that she had nine and I only ever took the orange one made it all right. Nevertheless, I walked out of her room with it and left the grownups to talk.

Though time has unfortunately blurred many memories of my childhood, the orange cat remains vivid in my mind. I walked into the hall clutching its orange fur, set it on the hallway floor, and straddled it with my short scrawny legs. I grabbed onto its velvet ears for support, and began to push myself around on the cat, riding it up and down the hallway. All the while absorbing my surroundings.

A young man walked briskly past. He never broke his stride but he gave me a quick glance and continued, his long greasy black hair bobbing and flowing behind him. I turned my gaze down the hall towards the cafeteria. Old men with no teeth were eating applesauce from bowls and arguing in hoarse voices. Across the lunch room young nurses carefully nibbled their sandwiches and discusses their weekends. I still sat and watched. The silent observer, as I always did, as I always have.

Eventually, my parents called me back in the room. I returned the cat to the shelf and caught Mimi’s eyes. She studied me and a small grin tugged at the corners of her lips. Wrinkles pulled across all the surfaces of the dark chestnut skin on her face and her brown and cloudy eyes gave away the smile that her mouth hid.

“I don’t like it when you touch the cats,” she said.

I don’t remember saying anything back or any sort of goodbye. I shuffled out of the room and followed my parents back into the fresh air. To where creatures live without audible heart rate beeps. To where my adolescent mind would almost completely forget Mimi save for nursing home memories, her artwork that litters my house, and a large orange tabby cat that constantly eyes me, sitting on my shelf.

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This article has 1 comment.

Paigelane said...
on Oct. 22 2008 at 2:27 am
whoever wrote this must be super talented, so talented that they are too busy to go to any type of halloween attraction with their favorite person ever.


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