Mildred had just settled into a good chair in the waiting room with a Southern Living when a woman with white-blond hair and orangish skin called her name. The woman’s odd coloring reminded Mildred of the cat she’d accidentally run over on the way here, a tabby she guessed you would call it. It darted out from under a parked car and when she looked in the rearview mirror it was flattened except for its tail, which slowly thumped the pavement. There was no one around when it happened and she hoped someone would see it and take care of it, maybe just put it in a garbage can so people would think a coyote ate it. Now this white and orange woman with her deep voice and her scrubs with dancing toothbrushes and toothpaste tubes brought the cat back, in all its glory.
“Hey, there, Mildred, I’m Brandy, your dental hygienist. You ready to go back?” The woman’s voice was toasty, like it came from a furnace somewhere deep inside her. Mildred followed her back to the exam room and noticed her shoes were like boats, at least a size twelve. Where does a person find a shoe that big? Internet, she guessed. People like Brandy weren’t worried about giving some stranger on the other end of a computer their credit card number.
Why can’t people keep cats in their houses, where they belong?
Brandy helped Mildred into the exam chair then leaned over her with a large plastic shield on her face. Mildred asked why she wasn’t wearing a paper mask like Ann always wore, and by the way, where was Ann? Ann, who’d teared up when Mildred told her how she’d woken up one morning to find her husband staring at the ceiling, his skin cold and pebbly. The doctor said his heart had just stopped working, and that it had been quick. Ann, who understood how hard this was for Mildred, even though it had happened over thirty years ago. Ann, who would know why someone Mildred’s age couldn’t be expected to stop and scoop up a dead cat.
“This is a hygiene mask, and it’s as much for my protection as it is yours,” Brandy said, her voice muffled by the shield. She ignored the question about Ann and told Mildred to open wide.
“… so, my mother-in-law told my daughter, Jessica, she looked like a tramp when she wore a crop top out of the house,” Brandy said, as she scraped. “Jessica texted me all mad and I had to agree with her, because how much does a person my mother-in-law’s age really know about how teenagers should dress these days?”
A lot, Mildred wanted to say.
“… and I think my husband just needs to tell his mother to butt out of Jessica’s business but noooo, she puts him on a pedestal, even though he hasn’t held a job, a real job, in like, I don’t know, four years? Thank God I got this gig, or we would be, like, so hosed …”
It used to be the men who brought home the bacon and now it was the Brandys of the world, Mildred thought. Brandy was pushing Mildred’s lower jaw down to get at her molars, and Mildred pushed right back.
“… and you know, sometimes I just want to say to my mother-in-law, you didn’t really do such a bang-up job with your own son, now, did you? He cracks open those Budweisers around four o’clock every day and after that he isn’t worth a lick.”
Mildred thought about her own son, Joey, who was no better, truth be told. Jaws aching, she reached up and pushed away the scraper, telling Brandy she was overdue for a spit break.
“Gritty, are we?” Brandy raised a sculpted maroon eyebrow and Mildred noticed she was wearing purple latex gloves. She couldn’t remember Ann wearing gloves and wondered if this was because of AIDs or something like that, yet another thing to worry about .
As Mildred bent over the bowl to spit out the grit, she remembered the crunch under her tire and thought about the tiny bones flexing and breaking. Her stomach quivered and she decided then and there that she’d had it with this woman.
“Mildred, we aren’t done here…I haven’t even X-rayed you. Where are you going?”
“I never asked to hear all of that about your mother-in-law, who is right about Jessica, by the way,” Mildred muttered as she stood and tore off the paper bib.
Brandy stared at her for a few seconds. “Ann warned me you were difficult,” Brandy said, her voice low. Mildred flushed and looked across the hall at the dentist, who acted like he was very interested in an x-ray he was holding. So, it was true, Ann did say that, and they all knew.
Difficult. Mildred thought about everything she’d shared with Ann over the years, how her friends, one by one, made up excuses to avoid going out with her. How her son was impatient with her over little things, like when she asked him to help her put up her Christmas tree.
When she got to the car her hands were shaking. She checked her face in the rearview mirror and smoothed the dark hair above her lip – she used to bleach it when her husband was still alive. Well, sure, there was the time she’d blamed her gingivitis on Ann – who’d talked more than she cleaned – but difficult? She pulled her flip phone out of her purse to call Joey.
“Hey, Mom, what’s up?” She could hear Bob Barker in the background, inviting someone to Come on Down!
“Joey, did you get my message the other day? I’d hoped you could come by and help me readjust the automatic timer on my air conditioning. I had a big bill last week, and I think…”
“Yeah, I got your message, but I’ve got to clean our gutters and I just can’t do everything at once.”
Mildred knew he was sitting in sweats on the sofa with his cereal dish on the floor, the dog lapping up the leftover milk. She hoped there wasn’t a beer bottle next to the bowl.
“Well, what are you doing right now? I’m leaving the dentist’s office – he has a new hygienist who was unbelievably rude to me, so I walked out.”
He paused to inhale a cigarette. “Walked out? Bold move for you, Mom. Yeah, I can’t come over today – I’m pretty busy.”
Irritation swept over her. “You know, I’ve been thinking about something. Since Bonnie is at the bank all day, maybe you could get to the store to pick up some food, so she doesn’t have to do that on her way home.”
“Well, that’s a good one, Mom! Do you think I never go to the grocery? I go all the time, for milk and stuff. What is this about, anyway? From you, of all people!The Bonnie-basher.”
“I don’t think it’s fair to say I always bash Bonnie, Joey. I admit that I didn’t like it when she, well, both of you, put the kids in daycare … “
“They’re teenagers now, for Chrissake! Let go of that, why can’t you?”
“All I’m trying to say is you can pitch in, son. Just, you know, until your next job.” She wanted to tell him about the cat, wanted to tell someone about the cat, how it ran out and there wasn’t anything she could’ve done to avoid hitting it.
“Yeah, well, whatever, Mom.”
“Will you just let me know when you can get by to help with the timer?”
“Yep, I’ll give you a ring.” Click. She thought about taking a different way home then decided no, she’d take her usual route and when she got to the place where she’d hit the cat all that was left was a wet spot on the pavement. Thank goodness. She nosed her car toward home and saw a ring of people in a yard holding hands and singing, and her heart began fluttering. Through the legs of the adults she saw a little red-faced girl flop down on the grass.
She wanted to go home but she also wanted to know what kind of person would let their cat wander around the neighborhood, so she parked and made her way across the yard. When she got to the edge of the circle, she could see a mound of fresh dirt and the sniffling little girl. A couple standing next to her explained in low voices how someone had hit a cat and then kept going. Can you believe it, the woman asked? Just kept going.
And then everything hit Mildred at once – Brandy, Ann, Joey – and she put her face in her hands. The man patted her on the back and said, I know, I know, and to her embarrassment his patting unleashed a hot roar that rushed up and out, something between a cry and a bellow. It was surprisingly loud, and everyone in the circle stopped singing and turned to look at her. She coughed, and someone asked if she was okay. She croaked out that yes, she was okay, and when they seemed relieved about this, she decided to confess it was her who had run over the cat.
“Did you know you hit her?” the mother asked, shocked, and Mildred said she’d heard the thump.
“OK then, are you telling me you couldn’t take the time to get out of the car and check to see if it was okay?” the mother said, working to keep her voice under control. Mildred explained if she’d stopped, she’d have been late to her dentist appointment, which she knew now was a terrible excuse. A few yards over a blade screeched when someone’s lawnmower hit a root.
And then Mildred started talking very quickly, saying the cat darted out from under a car and was under her tire before she could even brake, that her husband had died of a heart attack and when she woke up, he was already stiff as a board. That her son probably wouldn’t even hold a proper funeral for her, would cremate her against her wishes and spend his inheritance on beer.
A few people backed away from her, but the mother drew close and asked in a low voice if Mildred’s husband had just died that morning. Mildred said no, that it had been a while ago, and the woman told her the little girl’s father left without a word a few weeks ago, that the cat was a stray that showed up the day after he left. It would come in their house to eat then always meowed to go back out.
These people weren’t irresponsible cat owners after all, Mildred realized. She herself had never allowed pets in her house due to all the fur, but she knew they were important to some people, so she asked if she could buy them a new cat. The girl’s eyes lit up, and the mother said not just yet, let’s give this some time. Then the woman reached out to hug Mildred and her shirt smelled like Tide, the detergent she’d used to get the stains out of Joey’s jeans when he was a little boy. She would get so mad when he came home covered in dirt and now, all these years later, the clean, crisp smell of the woman’s shirt made her wonder why she’d let that upset her so much. It was just dirt, for Pete’s sake.
The crowd thinned and Mildred suddenly felt very tired, telling the woman she needed to go home and fix some lunch. The little girl whispered something, and the mother said to Mildred why don’t you come in and have lunch with us. At first Mildred said no, but the thought of her condo with the ticking of the grandfather clock and the smell of vitamins changed her mind, and she said well, maybe she could.
They ushered her into their duplex and the mother made turkey sandwiches, which they ate at a kitchen table cluttered with nude Barbie dolls. Mildred knew toys didn’t belong on the table, especially these dolls with their stiff bosoms and ridiculously thin hips, but best not to say anything. The little girl stared dolefully at a dish of cat food on the floor, then looked up at Mildred and asked her why she had a mustache. The mother shushed her, telling her it wasn’t a polite question, and Mildred said it was okay, that she used to bleach it and now she didn’t because it didn’t really matter. The girl and her mother nodded and if Mildred were the type, she might have reached over and hugged them. Instead, she quietly chewed the turkey sandwich, thinking they should use wheat bread instead of white, and hoping that maybe one day she’d know them well enough to tell them.
K. J. Bundy earned a Master of Liberal Arts and Science (MLAS) at Vanderbilt University, with most of her course study centering around creative writing and literature. Her capstone project was a close reading and interpretation of Eudora Welty’s “June Recital.” She enjoys writing quirky short stories and is currently working on a fictional novel exploring the freedom enjoyed by children raised in the 1970s.
© 2020, K. J. Bundy