by Hildie S. Block
For my mother 1938-2007
"I'm worried about my daughter," she says staring straight ahead, past the woman behind the desk.
"Okay, we can talk about your daughter," says the woman behind the desk.
"Her cat died."
"Oh, that's very sad. People get very attached to pets. Is she sad?" the woman behind the desk turns with the triangular desk sign that said INFORMATION so that the felt bottom faced out. The mother looks down and doesn't answer.
"Is your daughter okay?" asks the woman more softly.
The mother looks up with clouded eyes. "Her cat died, you see. Almost two years ago. His heart. She spent money on that, a veterinary cardiologist, can you imagine? And gave him three pills a day. He died anyway."
"Can we do something for her?"
"No, I don't think so. She got another pet."
"No. Well, yes. This is the problem."
"This is the problem?"
"I don't understand."
"I got her a guinea pig when it became obvious the cat would die." The mother looks strong as she says this, arches her neck, juts out her chin.
"Does your daughter have people who care about her?"
"What? Yes, she's married. Two daughters."
The woman writes something down. "And you got her a guinea pig. To replace the cat. Two years ago?"
"She was very close the cat. He came before the husband, the house, the kids, the minivan. They'd been through a lot together. She took him on road trips. They were . . . close, you see." The mother closes her eyes, looks tired. She set her jaw against pain, seems to fade away, but then fades back in.
"I see. So you got her a guinea pig."
"Yes. A small guinea pig."
"And what happened?"
"She bought him a larger cage."
"Okay. Maybe he needed a larger cage."
"He didn't. Of course he didn't. And then. . . and then . . . "
"Yes?" The woman looks into the hallway at the people walking by.
"Then she called me and told me the cat came back."
"The dead cat?"
"The dead cat. She said that she thought she was hallucinating, but there he was on the deck, and she rubbed her eyes and ignored him but then her daughter started screaming 'Our cat came back!' "
"But he was dead?"
"Yes. Dead and buried in the front yard. Six months earlier."
"So, he couldn't have . . . "
"Now you see."
"Does she have help?"
"She says she knows he's not back. That he's not really her cat. But he looks just like her cat, and she calls him her cat. She says 'oh, there's my cat.' "
"She's kidding though, of course."
"She puts out food for him. She pets him."
"Okay. This is why you worry."
"Yes, but there's more."
"So she has the guinea pig and the cat. Then she watches the school rabbit over the summer, for two weeks, now suddenly she has a rabbit."
"Yes. Wait, I have a picture."
"You carry a picture of the rabbit?"
"Wait 'til you see him," the mother hands the woman a digital print of a honey colored lop-eared rabbit.
"You are worried about your daughter?"
"Yes. You see, it's not her rabbit."
"No. It belongs to her daughter's school. But he's been in her living room, in the fireplace, since August."
"There must be a reason."
"She calls him 'her rabbit.' "
"There must be a story."
"She had rabbits as a kid. Red rabbits. Lop-eared rabbits. She loved them. Her father's doing. So's the meadow and the forest I bet, she got all that 70s stuff, all that let nature be stuff from him. Nature let him be all right. Heart attack at 45."
"Don't be. I mean for her, sure. But we were divorced all ready."
"Her children must like having the animals."
"They must." The mother looks away, at the wall, through the wall. "And her yard, you know. It was like an English garden when they bought the house. Now it's like a meadow and a forest on a postage stamp. It's wild, and parts of it are dying. Parts are beautiful."
The mother ignores the woman and looks at her hands. "My knuckles always look funny after chemo. For about three weeks. They are a funny color. I can tell when the wretched stuff is gone out of me, when they look normal again."
"Are you still worried about your daughter?"
"Have you been listening? I haven't even told you about the dog."
"It eats the chipmunks. She says it keeps the population down. They live in the hollow root of the locust tree."
"Her dog eats chipmunks?"
"It's not a dog. It's a fox. It's a grey fox. She thought it was a coyote at first, because she was used to seeing red foxes, not grey ones, but the animal control people told her it was a grey fox."
"Her dog is a fox?"
"It lives under her deck, in the meadow and the forest with the dead things and the beautiful things. It eats the chipmunks and the squirrels and she calls it 'my dog.' "
"Okay," the woman at the desk looks at the glass and brass anniversary clock on her desk. Five years of service. "I see. You are worried about your daughter."
"This is after her cat died. This is why. . . " the mother's voice breaks, her tone drops an octave. "This is why, this is why I'm not ready for" she whispers, "hospice yet."
"Because you are worried about your daughter."
"Yes." And the mother tugs on her ash blonde wig, smoothes the space where her eyebrows should be and wheels her wheelchair back into the hallway, amongst the others, amongst the living, and back to her room to call her daughter. Because she's worried about her, you see.
Hildie S. Block has a masters in writing from Johns Hopkins. She leads writing workshops and has about 50 stories published.