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Heather Fowler

A Cat for Greta

Three blinded windows reach from the floor to the ceiling of her studio apartment. These blinds, like eyelids stretched over closing eyes in sun, are fleshy colored and semi-permeable, each raised at a different level almost as if to shun organization or organized people in general. She should shut them. Time and again she hears her daughter say that she should shut them.

It's not safe to leave them open, but the light is necessary and her room becomes a cave without them. She thinks the tenements and poverty hang in the air like smoke, leaving traces and discolorations on the buildings. She hears from the staircase that someone old was robbed last week; someone old was beaten and robbed.

It could have just as easily been her or anyone in the building; luckily, it was not. On the table is a Grecian vase filled with zinnia. Such pure white is startling against the shadows that overwhelm her studio apartment, and Greta, wearing a plain black overcoat, sits facing the west wing of the Union Bank building in Charleston. She often sits just so, but today? What is today? Can it be Tuesday already?

She scratches her head absently, touching the thin texture of her hair. She thinks with satisfaction that it feels much as it did when she was younger, but it is now shorn in waves around her ears, and was once longer in the summers. Long hair is for young people. Gerald often commented on the way it fell over her shoulders, into his open hands, and through the dusty light between them on the rickety balcony of that house.

She sees him in the photo-click memory of sun-washed youth. She remembers the best of times, those mid-August late afternoons when little Pammie spent hours collecting posies from the main strip, bringing them home in her little grubby hands and smiling a smile so sweet Greta wonders if she will ever see it again.

She imagines herself thirty years ago, tanning on that deck, a fashion magazine shading her face, as she used a two finger pull to adjust the fit of her navy swimsuit cut low in the posterior and clinging conservatively to her breasts. Gerald's hair was always slicked and parted to the side, letting a few strands settle on his brow. She remembers herself younger, thinner, and is freed.

If she looks at the sky today, she can pretend to hear waves crashing into whitewash at the shore and smell coconut balm cooking on her warmed flesh—but the summer house on Long Island is a distant place from the tight reality of the old folks home and a distant place, too, from the sterile environment of Pamela's new white condo.

Still, she rubs her eyes and realizes she has blanked out with her staring—an act that becomes more frequent lately, but the room re-focuses with her renewed attention. It is Tuesday, and Tuesday is not a good day for daydreaming.

Pam will come and visit today. "I couldn't be happier," she says, but Greta is unusually fond of sarcasm. She prepares herself for the talk to come. As usual, Pam will tell her to 'stay in more'. She will tell her to 'be more sociable,' and that 'she does, after all, live in a co-operative old folks home' and 'why isn't she more sociable anyway?'

Greta would rather watch bread rot than speak to the insipid people she lives with, and Pammy should know that, but forgets what doesn’t please her. Greta remembers teaching her a German folk song one day so that she could sing it for her father. They sang it together many times before Pammy married and moved away, but since then Pammy is only Pam, a frozen one-syllable address, or occasionally Pamela for severity, and the change in name reflects the change in manner. Last March, when the movers packed up Greta's glassware to move it to the home, Pamela said she would not sing the song with her again because she was tired of nostalgia. Just like that, short and curt. "When you are old," Greta said. "Nostalgia is just memory."

Since Gerald died, Greta has felt loneliness creeping into her body like a chilled wind, but Pamela (in her current manifestation) does not help. Pamela has no time for nostalgia. Pamela has 55 minutes a week for her mother, not a minute more, and has even gone so far to forget her modest beginnings that she has deliberately cleansed her words of any trace of any accent other than the one that indicates money.

Greta is lucky enough, in fact, that she has also cleansed most traces of accent from her speech, though for different reasons. She used to be embarrassed to talk to anyone because her accent was so thick. When Gerald first brought her here from Germany, she knew two things: 'Vere is da batroom,' and 'Gut Mornink.' Now she can say anything she wants, but there is nothing important to say.

The bell rings in the lower hall and tells her that the lunch server will be up soon with her food, within the hour. She makes bets on who will arrive first. Her daughter is annoyingly punctual. Greta could set her watch on Pamela’s arrivals and departures. If the food arrives first, she can pretend to eat and thereby avoid most of the visit. If Pam arrives first, she can insinuate that her food is getting cold, offer to share it, (knowing in advance Pam will refuse) and curtail the precise fifty-five minute visit in that way.

Of course, she is on the third floor, and the food may be so late as to escape the entire ordeal, so she decides to ignore the fact that today is Tuesday and reluctantly let it happen. She returns to her seat at the window to watch the transients pick garbage out of the bin, a good view. Sometimes, she leaves treasures she doesn't need in the dumpsters and watches to see the pleased reaction if her gifts are discovered. Sometimes, when they are not, she goes down to fish them out. It is a game she enjoys.

Today, she notices three small kittens, two tabbies and a grey, scrounge for scraps on the concrete around the bins. If they have a mother, she cannot see it. She cinches her coat closer, looks away, and walks to the door. Someone knocks insistently. Pam, or the food? Who knows? Isn’t it about forty minutes early for Pam?

She unlatches the lock, and Dwayne bounds in. "We got your stuff Greta, we got it." He is all excitement, but his sister Cherice comes shyly around the door.

"Yeah Greta, but they only had black hair dye," she peeps. "Is that okay?"

"Of course," Greta says, thinking the color of her hair doesn't matter much, might as well be pink rather than disappoint Cherice. Cherice and Dwayne are her new friends; she met them last fall when their mother was her night-nurse. "Why aren't you in school with the other children," Greta asks, but Dwayne looks down at his feet, and Cherice plays with the weave in her hair.

"Mom is taking us to the park for my birthday," Dwayne says. "But first, we wanted come see you to thank you for the bicycle."

"You should both have a new bicycle," Greta says, "when I get the next check—" She is prepared to say more, but they do not listen; they bound about her room, whisper secrets of what they will do at the park, and press sloppy kisses on her face. "Can we dye your hair now," Cherice asks, "then color with crayons like we do on Wednesdays?"

"This is Tuesday," Greta says, shaking her head, "so we can’t color. My daughter will visit, but we must hurry with the dye. "The idea fills her with glee: black hair.

"A daughter?" Cherice whispers to Dwayne.

"A daughter," Dwayne replies. "Nah unh!"

Greta pretends not to hear them, thinking how shocked Pam will be when she sees Greta’s new hair, how disappointed. "No matter," she says. "It is my goddamn hair." There is rebellion in her now; no child of hers will tell her what to do just because she is old—as if that’s a fine excuse for bossing..."Get the dye ready," she tells Cherice, and a moment later, Cherice looks cute with those plastic gloves on, tips hanging over her fingers, the dye making sluicing noises from the bottle in that small, clenching fist, and probably, since her face feels damp, Greta now has purple-brown stains on much of her forehead, but she can’t see them. Even if she did see them, she wouldn’t care.

When Pam arrives Dwayne plays in the corner with her scissors, and Cherice braids Greta's newly rinsed do. The little hands on her head feel so good pulling out tangles.

"Hello, Pam," Greta says.

"Look at Greta's hair," Cherice says, "Isn't it pretty. The same color as mine!"

Pam's dour look takes away some of their enjoyment.

Here is my daughter, Greta thinks: Her marriage is bad, her face is pinched, she doesn't find pleasure in children. Why does she come here? Ice never finds comfort from heat. Greta glares, and the children rise to leave. "We should go now, Miss Greta," Dwayne says, so Greta takes a five dollar bill out of her pocket and gives it to Cherice—shamed, wishing to forget that her daughter has been so unforgivably rude, wishing Pammy's plastic surgeon husband had not given her that pointy nose because she looks like a witch now (so brittle, if she smiled her face would break), and saying, "Come back later, children. But go buy milk for your mother now. She told me she was out this morning. And keep the change."

Cherice gives Pam a strange look, and their good-byes to Greta echo back from the hallway. "Really, mother," Pam says, "those children. "She pushes her glasses up and tidies the room as she inspects it. Pammy was never tidy as a child.

"You know how I feel," Greta says, her voice low with feeling, but Pam does not listen. She evens out the blinds, speaks in sharp tones.

"Dye spots on the carpet. On the sink. On your face. It's not my place to say whether you let those little hoodlums in, but you know they are not to be trusted." They could be trusted with my life Greta thinks; they are here more often than your weekly fifty-five minute visit.

Pam sits on the sofa, legs crossed primly, and waits for a response. Hearing none, she tries again, "So Mom, what are you going to do this week?" This is said in Pam's new 'I could be a social worker voice.'

"There are some stray kittens by the dumpsters downstairs," Greta says. "I’m sure I could give one a good home."

"Mother," Pam says. "I don’t—"

"I realize you don’t like the idea, Pammy," Greta says. "But, lucky for me, I still control my own executive decisions."

"Mother? What will happen to the cat when you die? Cats can live a long time, you know."

Greta’s eyes burn but she does not betray this. "Isn’t it better, Pammy," she asks, "than let it live down by the dumpster?"

"A cat is too much trouble," Pam says, horrified. "Why not get a plant?"

"Yes, well," Greta says, turning toward the window to observe again the view. "It will be my trouble." She doesn't know why she said it, but she is beginning to warm to the idea. She likes, also, that Pam is horrified. Ha, ha, ha, Pammy, Ha, ha, ha, what can you say to that? For the first time in a long time, she is like a child again in her head, chanting neiner-neiner like the kids down the street. She does not know when this opposition sprang up between them.

"Really mother," Pam says again, "Why are you being so stubborn? How are you going to get it?"

She will send Cherice out for it. Then she can have it to pet when Pam comes for her visits. Yes, that is a good plan! "It’s only downstairs, Pammy. I hardly think it will take a Spanish Armada to retrieve."

"Having a cat is expensive," Pam says, shaking her head.

Greta doesn't care; it’s her goddamn money. Yes, she will have a cat here. If only to annoy her daughter and her neighbors. She hopes it will meow all night. Perhaps she needs the company, a soft furry body next to her skin, like the coat Gerald always wore home from late nights at the factory. She pictures the Moore St. house, with its warm musty odor and yellow light. She remembers the bedroom, dominated by the king-size bed, and that enormous walnut headboard detailed with immaculate carving—the nights when he, tired and heavy, fell into bed with a small groan, sleeping almost immediately, with his coat on. She remembers the way one arm always draped around her, proprietary and hers alone.

A cat will be good for her. She considers blowing smoke on its coat so it will smell like him too, but there are too many problems with that: first, Greta doesn't smoke, second, the cat would be displeased to be smoked on and undoubtedly lick itself clean, and third, she thinks it would be inhumane, but tick tock, happily, Pam is showing signs of leaving, so the whole cat idea was a blessing. Greta runs her hand down the leg of her slacks as if petting an animal. She smiles.

For once, the time has passed quickly and Pamela is rising to leave. Her arms circle Greta like giant pincers. She seems pleased with the visit. Greta is glad someone was. She sighs and returns to her seat at the window, looking out onto the street, wondering when the children will be back. If she dies, she can give it to them. They would take care of it for her.

Downstairs, Pam opens her car door and arranges her mirrors. "Pammy," Greta says, in German, "Who are you now?" She sings softly to herself until her vision blurs, and the light coming in assumes an odd quality. Hours pass like moments.

The light is rosy with the smoggy sunset and soon will be the black and indigo of evening. Greta stands and paces restlessly, listening to the people around her making noises through the thin walls of the building. On her left, she hears her neighbor taking out her teeth, and irrigating her gums. On her right, the two old geezers are arguing about cards. Perhaps she will venture downstairs to check the mail.

They will laugh at her black hair, but then they laugh at the Perry Mason re-runs on AMC. When she goes, she hears a sound behind her in the hall. It is the one called "asshole" in the card game. He nearly always loses and swears quite colorfully.

She's listened to his life for so long that it’s strange to actually both see and hear him at the same time. "Hello, Greta," he says.

She is embarrassed not to remember his name, but doesn't want to call him "asshole" for fear he might take it the wrong way, so simply says, "Hello. Did you win your game tonight?"

"No, Sh—." He pauses, flustered. "I mean Herbert, had a straight flush in the last hand."

He looks nice and proper, Greta thinks. Perhaps, he is going out with family later. "Oh," Greta says, "did you hear about the robbery?" This is her version of small talk.

"Yep. The robbery and the beating," he says. "No one from here."

"Oh, good." She is new at socializing, but feels she has made the effort all the same, so turns to leave.

"Greta," he says again. "Your hair looks very nice."

Her skin feels flushed. She wants to say thank you, but she does not want to say 'thank you asshole' because she still can't remember his name so nods. In reply, she says,"Are you going out? You look dressed up."

"No," he says ."I was going to sift through the mail and—well actually, I lied. I heard your door open, and I wanted to talk to you."

Greta blushes again. He reminds her of Gerald with his blunt speech and shy air. "Oh," Greta says, wishing she could picture herself as mysterious or alluring.

"Your daughter is very annoying," he says. 'Annoying' is a tactful understatement, she decides. How about 'cold', 'separate', 'alien'?

But he thinks perhaps he has said something wrong because her mouth is contorting in many little spasms--and then she starts to laugh. She has not laughed that rich bold laugh for so long it sounds deep and rusty at first then changes to a chuckle of pure delight. Joseph! That’s his name.

"Yes, well, good night, Joseph," she says. "You are more than right."

"A plant for a cat," he says, "hrmmph," and walks back towards his room, then turns toward her again, shouting, "Will you have dinner with me tomorrow night?"

"Yes," she says, "at seven prompt," but realizes the servers are never prompt so adds, "well, whenever they arrive."

Back in her room, she shuts the door behind her, and smiles. As darkness seeps heavily through her window, she lies in bed staring at the brass cross on her wall. Tomorrow, will be a good day. Cherice will visit after school, Pam will not, and in the evening she will have dinner with Joseph. If he does not eat like a pig, she will consider seeing him again. She hopes he is not allergic to cats.

Then, next week she will tell Pamela that she has had dinner with someone in the building. It will be looked upon as progress. Pamela will re-adjust the blinds, scowling, posturing, holding her hands primly, and Greta, spending her golden years with other sources of solace, will quietly pass another week without her.

Heather Fowler has published poetry and stories in print and online journals
in the U.S. and Canada.  She currently seeks representation for her new
literary love story, magical realism novel entitled Gravity--a story about a
woman who can literally hold anything down meeting and falling in love with
a man who, given half a chance, would up and float away.  She can be reached

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