Cat Lady

by Tamuira Reid

Sunlight slices through the window, hitting her where she sleeps. Neighborhood kids, already going hard, squeal and play happily somewhere in the distance.

I've been sitting on a cedar chest at the foot of her bed, waiting. I know better than to nudge MK to consciousness; she has a nasty right hook and isn't afraid to use it. It's the one thing her ex-husband, Frankie, a boxer turned philanthropist made sure to teach her before he left with a younger woman. Hit hard and fast. Keep the thumb outside so you don't break it. She remembered that when she slugged him on his way out the door, suitcase in hand.

The lump shifts under the heavy quilt, silver hair peeking out from the top. “Get me some water, will you love?” She doesn't look at me exactly, just gestures in my general direction.

And so our visit begins. Requests for water. For aspirin. For a foot rub. Anything to take the throttle and pain away. I can almost hear her brains sloshing against the side of her skull, eyeballs threatening to eject themselves out of socket. Fog filling the room.

Mary Kelly is no stranger to the Hangover of the Gods.

She lives most days in this fog, not, however, restricted to just her bedroom but to most areas of her life. A heavy, dense fog that moves in and around people until they eventually disappear altogether.

Rumor has it she came out of the womb thirsty.

Not for the sweet, dewy breast milk most babies cried for, that poured freely from the aching breasts of their mothers. Not for the powdery formula that dissolved quickly and easily into water. Milk – natural, manufactured, fresh from the body or out of a canister – did not interest her. MK (as her friends would come to call her) wanted something harder.

This unquenchable thirst sent her into the throes of what would be named, for convenience, or to spare her well-meaning but severely in-the-weeds mother from certain judgments, Gas. Her face all red and scrunched. Arms and legs flailing about like some demonic force had overtaken them. Gas, the doctors would confer proudly and leave the room.

Her mother wept and paced the kitchen and prayed to all the Saints she could remember by name. Help this child. She knew how to cook and sew and even talk about boys but this. She did not know what to do with this.

The local barmaids would insist that a little Guinness should do the trick. “Needs some iron pumping through the veins. Babe's damn near shriveled up.”

Beer into bottle. Bottle to mouth. MK drank. And drank. She drank with a fierceness that frightened her mother and dazzled the other, more seasoned drinkers in the room. “For the love of God, would you look at that!”

Two pints later and mother and child, huddled together on a barstool, breathed in the sudden peacefulness that had, until then, been eluding them both.

Fast forward some seventy odd years and Guinness is still MK's beverage of choice. Although vodka, bourbon and gin are close seconds.

I'm massaging her tiny foot in my hand, the old skin crinkling like tissue paper. “Rub softer, dear. Not like you want to tear flesh from bone. “

Sometimes I clean while I wait for her to wake-up. I polish silver or furniture or the wooden banister that curves and twists under my dust rag.

The brownstone she has called home for over five decades is full of books. Stacked haphazardly into towering columns, stuffed into drawers and milk crates. First editions and limited release publications taking residence in the wall-to-ceiling shelving that her son built back in the 80's. When he still loved his mother. When he thought her drinking didn't matter.

Like her, this Bedstuy brownstone was once beautiful and grand. Like her, it is beginning to come apart at the seams.

I met MK a few winters ago when I was housesitting for some friends who were vacationing in Miami. I heard a rattle at the front door and opened to a woman in bedclothes and an overstuffed parka, Jackie-O sunglasses covering her ancient face.

“I live down the block, at 510. I'm leaving for the weekend and want you to feed my cat, Charles. Everything you need is in the kitchen on the first floor. Key is under the azalea pot.”

“Um, I don't know you?”

“Your friends do. The ones that live here. What are their names again?”

“Anne and Randy?”

“Yes. Anne and Randy know me. They do it all the time.”

Later that night as I found myself in MK's kitchen feeding Charles — a ratty fucker of a cat who drew blood when I tried to pet him – I heard laughter, loud and full, coming from under the floorboards where I stood. Turns out MK's version of “going away for the weekend” meant holing herself up in the furnished basement for two days to drink beer and watch Downton Abbey.

When I was eventually invited over to MK's as a visitor, not cat-feeder, I noticed that she had the equivalent of a mini-bar in every room. Crystal tumblers and all.

“Like a drink?”

“No thanks. I don't drink.”

MK peered over her sunglasses at me. It freaked me out a little that she wore them in the house. At night. “Don't drink as in never did or no as in not anymore?”

“Not anymore.”

She took a slow sip from her glass, contemplating my presence. “Okay then. You can stay. But for the record, I will never, ever stop drinking. So no AA talk, love. Don't waste your breath.”

I stop by when I can. When my little boy is at school. When my grading is done. When the long haul to Brooklyn from Harlem sounds better than going to the gym. Thing is, I'm addicted to her. The rasp of her voice, how the Irish accent comes out after she throws a few back. The way her tired green eyes still twinkle and fire. How she wears a girdle everyday even though she rarely leaves her bedroom. She is my friend. And her raging alcoholism keeps me sober. It reminds me of what I could lose if I ever started again.

MK rises from the bed, stretches. Her limbs are long and lean like a dancer's despite her age. She moves to the window and cracks it to let some air in.

“What day is it, dear?”

“Sunday. The 22nd..”

“Ah yes. Sunday.” She twirls in a circle, grabbing at the hem of her white nightgown like a child would, exposing an intricate latticework of veins on both legs.

“I grabbed the paper on the way in. We could try the puzzle together and then maybe – “

“Wait! The 22nd did you say?”

“Yes, MK.”

“JesusFuckingChristAlmighty!” She scurries over to the vanity and plops herself down on the plush chair, beckoning me to join her.

“Michael. He said I could Skip with the children today. That I could see them on the computer.”

It takes me a moment to realize she means Skype. And that Michael is her son, bookshelf guy.

“I can't look like this when I see them. Quick, find me something to wear. And my hair. What shall we do with this?” She pulls at the long tangled strands cascading haphazardly about her shoulders.

“I can brush it out for you.”

“Yes, I suppose that will do.”

MK watches intently as I try not to brush too hard. My hands are shaking. Even I know this is a big deal. Estranged son about to extend the biggest olive branch of his life. Maybe it's because he knows she doesn't have much time left. Maybe it's because his wife's nagging finally got to him. Maybe it's because he recently started going to church again and thought it the right, Christian thing to do. Whatever his reasoning, she is onboard, hook line and sinker.

Once the hair is done, I pull a demure pink sheath from the closet, fresh out of the dry cleaners bag. Probably been hanging up in there like that since before Obama took office.

I watch her strip down, girdle up, dress. I help her apply a matching shade of pink lipstick that ends up smearing on her teeth more than her lips.

“How do I look?”

“Incredible,” I tell her. And she does. Really fucking incredible. I can see know how she won all those beauty pageants back in the day.

A few minutes later and three perfectly round, perfectly redheaded boys fidget and smile in front of us. MK hasn't seen them since they were babies. From the front of a Christmas card Michael's wife secretly mailed to her mother-in-law, feeling bad for the old woman.

“Hellooo!” Her voice booms. “My lord, you are so big! All three of you! How smart you all look!”

They stare at us from the playroom of their sprawling ranch house in Colorado. A deer head is mounted on the wall behind them.

“So you must be five now, if I'm doing the math correctly. How time flies. Just look at you.”

The boy in the middle yawns, picks at the mess of Legos on his lap.

“I'm your grandmother. Mary Kelly. But you can call me MK just like my friends do.”

“MK?” The one on the left giggles. “That's like a detective name. Do you like detectives, MK?”

I return to my seat on the cedar chest, watching her watch them. Hearing her heart open and break simultaneously. I don't know what MK did to alienate all the people in her life, other than drink like a fish, but I know she isn't a bad person. A shitty mom, maybe. A neglectful wife, possibly. But if anyone is deserving of a second chance, why not her?

After a series of questions and answers, prerequisite fart jokes, and failed attempts to find common ground via adolescent pop culture —Dora? No, never heard of the broad – a deep, measured man's voice booms from behind the triplets. We don't see him.

“Kids. That's enough. Time for dinner. Say goodbye to – “

“MK!” they answer in unison.

“Yes, to MK.”

“Michael? Michael is that you, son?”

And with that, the connection is dropped. Call over.

I don't know what to say and so say nothing. MK looks blankly into the computer screen, perhaps expecting them to come back. The cat comes in and wraps itself around her ankles, purring loudly. God I hate that cat.