Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Cold Comfort by Christina Crooks

Cold Comfort

by Christina Crooks

Tattie knocked on the raised wood door panel around the decorative stained-glass window pane, then hastily tucked her citation book in a pocket of her blue uniform. She was there to investigate a complaint, not give a citation, though she could smell the odor the neighbors had complained about. Oddly musty, with an undercurrent of some organic reek. Tattie wrinkled her nose even as she tried to place it. Four years with the animal protection service and she’d never smelled anything quite like it. Maybe the reported “elderly lady with way too many cats” was simply a poor housekeeper.

The front door swung open a few inches, afternoon sunlight crawling over colored glass. Gimlet eyes peered at her. “Yes?”

“Ma’am, my name is Tattie. I’m with Ketterton Animal Control. We’ve had complaints--”

“Are you a police officer?” the woman demanded.

Tattie sighed inwardly about her uniform as she shook her head. She wore a badge, but carried only pepper spray at her waist. It was easy to mistake her for the police, and sometimes the mistake expedited investigations. The whole fear-of-authority thing. Other times, as now, evidently, it inhibited trust.

Not everyone liked authority.

“No ma’am. Animal Control is supervised by the city Health Department and commissioned by the Police Department, but we’re a separate organization focused on animal welfare. We…oh.” Tattie stepped back as a small calico squeezed through the crack in the doorway, bolted across the porch, then streaked across the shaggy front lawn. “Yours?”

“That one’s a visitor. Do you like cats?” The door opened a little more, and Tattie could see the woman’s lined face and bright eyes fixed on her with unusual intensity. The smell that wafted out was unpleasant, but not as bad as some.

But Tattie smiled. “I love them. Have three of my own.” She tried to look inside. “They’re a handful,” she lied. If the woman was a hoarder, she might be in over her head, overrun by cats gone feral. Tattie’s three were all rescues taken from elderly women who didn’t realize that unaltered felines required more than the occasional cuddle. All three possessed easygoing temperaments. Tattie’d had to euthanize hundreds of others.

“And you’re thinking I’m a crazy-lady cat collector. Thanks to my nosy neighbors.” The scowl she turned on the nearest house - the family that had called, incidentally - made Tattie’s heart give a little leap. The fearsome expression made the woman look like the scariest kind of Halloween witch. But as quickly as the scowl appeared, it faded, replaced by sadness and fear. “You won’t take them from me, will you? They’re my only family. My babies. My comfort.”

Tattie eyed the still mostly-closed door. “I just want to talk with you, at this point. I’m sure we can get this settled without my having to get a warrant. I believe in keeping pets with their owners if at all possible. If I could just come in for a few minutes…?”

The woman’s expression struck Tattie as doubtful, but also achingly lonely. Finally the heavy door opened all the way, the woman hobbling out of the way with a shuffle and a wheeze. Her blue cotton dress wasn’t quite shapeless, clinging to wide hips more tightly than was flattering before draping in limp folds to the floor. The area of her chest above her sagging breasts seemed almost concave in comparison, giving her body a lumpy pear shape.

Her hair, however, might have been professionally set. A striking salt and pepper, it gleamed with vitality in natural, shoulder-length waves that perfectly framed an aged face that Tattie realized had once been quite beautiful.

“Ma’am, may I just say, you do have the prettiest hair.”

With a ponderous half-turn, the woman smiled for the first time. “Call me Rose. Watch your step. I’m afraid that I haven’t cleaned house as thoroughly as I should.”

You could say that again. Tattie grimaced as she neatly avoided stepping in the piles of cat doo and puddles of urine dotting the tile hallway leading to the kitchen. Chewed cat toys littered the floor. Tattie stopped counting the brightly colored yarn toys and bell-stuffed batting-balls when she reached two dozen. The toys perched atop the cat trees, the dust-sheets covering the furniture, and strewn across the adjoining living room’s carpet. The carpet served as a litter box.

The odor filled her nostrils. No wonder the neighbors had complained.

“I’ll call a cleaner,” Rose said as if she’d heard her thoughts, her matter-of-fact voice echoing in the kitchen as she turned the corner. “I’ve been putting it off. My mother-in-law would’ve had a heart attack if she could’ve seen this mess. Come through here. Why don’t you have a seat, dear, and I’ll serve tea.”

Tattie turned into the kitchen and stifled a gasp. The dominant smell changed from one of feces and ammonia to one of spoiled food. The encrusted, fly-buzzed dishes in the sink doubtless accounted for some of it. The overflowing trash, more. Tattie brought her hand up to her mouth before forcing herself to lower it again.

Tattie demurred. “Please, don’t trouble yourself. It’s not necessar--”

“Bleach for now, cleaners for later,” Rose muttered, rolling up her sleeves. “I’ll have this mess out of the way in two shakes of a cat’s tail. Sit, sit!”

Tattie sat, wondering if the woman had always been so bossy. And if it had anything to do with why she lived alone with her cats.

“One gets used to the smell,” Rose said apologetically a few minutes later as the sharp scent of bleach filled the air. “I suppose it seems strange to a young lady like you, the things a body can get used to.” She ran a sponge over the breakfast bar separating the kitchen from the square eating area where Tattie sat at a round table. The smell did seem to be improving, though an odor stubbornly remained, mingling with disinfectant and the raspberry tea Rose served despite Tattie’s protestations.

Tattie surreptitiously examined the mug, then took a polite sip. “Where are the cats?”

“Don’t waste any time, do you?” Rose observed, turning a critical gaze on Tattie, spreading her dress to sit in the white-lacquered wooden chair. She sipped from her own mug before answering. “They’re around. They’re shy with strangers. Look, there’s Rascal inside the tall cat condo. Over there in the den, past the scratching post. See him watching us? My mother-in-law used to kick him, hard, when she thought I wasn’t looking.”

Tattie started, spilling her tea. It still amazed her, how cruel people could be. “That’s horrible.”

Rose giggled, an unpleasant sound emitted around the mug she lifted to thin lips. Rose swallowed, her eyes narrowed with a cat-like enjoyment. “I couldn’t agree more. That woman was insincere, petty, cruel, and vain. Through you know, she couldn’t run a comb through her dyed-blond hair without it looking like a disaster. Her son - my ex-husband - worshiped the ground under her feet. He’d have held the cats for her to kick for his mommy’s pleasure. But my babies outwitted that man. He never could catch them.” Rose looked fondly at Rascal.

Tattie realized Rose was right. She couldn’t smell the odor any longer, unless she concentrated on it. “So, I have to ask. How many cats do you have?”

“No you don’t. You don’t have to ask.” Rose set her mug down with a thump. Tattie felt herself tense.

“People think they have to say things, have to do things. In my day it was even worse. Going through the motions, doing what’s expected: ‘Be a nice girl. Respect your elders. Respect authority. Get married. Know your place.’” Rose snorted. “Kiss your mother-in-law’s patootie no matter how badly she treats you. And then you die and I’m the one who does your hair. Fourteen.”

“Excuse me?”

“Did I mumble? Fourteen, I said. I have fourteen cats.”

“’The one who does your hair.’” Tattie gazed at Rose’s beautifully styled tresses. “You’re a hairdresser. Of course you are.” Tattie suddenly felt foolish for thinking out loud, and reached for her citation book to try to feel more official. Fourteen cats living in unhygienic conditions were certainly an animal-cruelty violation. But maybe Rose would be open to giving most of them up.

Rose was responding, though, her eyes blazing with righteousness. “She said being a hairdresser for corpses was all I’d ever be good for, since I couldn’t have kids. As if there couldn’t possibly be anything wrong with her precious Bob’s plumbing. My clothes were wrong, my cooking was inadequate, my background was questionable, and if you listened to her catty comments, you’d believe I was the queen of all rottenness. And did Bob stand up for me? Of course not. She queened it over both of us. I had to just take it. I looked forward to getting those phone calls from the funeral home. I preferred the company of dead people to hers.”

“Corpses. You did their hair.” Tattie shook herself. “About the cats…”

“Look. Pippin and Rambo came out of hiding.” A fluffy Persian mix and a large steel-gray cat lolled in front of a thick leather-covered scratching post, playfully batting at each other. The steel-gray cat tired of the game first, crouching on the ground, tail lashing. Suddenly he attacked the post with claws out. The sound of ripping made the hairs on Tattie’s arm stand up.

Rose’s gaze went faraway. “The funeral director would clean and embalm the body, sealing its orifices with wax. He’d wash the hair for me before I arrived too. The body would lie waiting for me on a steel rod that holds the head higher than the feet. That’s necessary to drain a body of fluids when you embalm, you know. They were all cold and stiff and sometimes in real bad-looking shape. My job was to help make them look good, for the viewing. That last, peaceful image of them is what comforted the bereaved.”

Rose glanced at Tattie, and seemed satisfied with the expression on her face. Tattie made an effort to close her mouth. But before she could interject, Rose continued speaking.

“I did murder victims, disease victims, accident victims. I did little children that were taken out of this world by electricity, or a golf club. One young man had been stabbed to death at a parking lot in a bar - he wouldn’t buy beer for some younger guys so they killed him - and that same night I had a young redhead woman in a green bathing suit that had drowned. The funeral director was an artist at getting the person back to as near-normal looking as possible when no warm blood was pulsing through their veins. I learned so much by watching him work.

“When he was done, I’d do my part. Twenty-five dollars per body, makeup extra. Down in the cold, bright, formaldehyde-smelling bowels of the funeral home, not up in the showing room with the pretty pink lights reflected off the ceiling, giving a softer look to the dearly departed. First I’d view the photo of the deceased. Often the photo was more than twenty years old and the only one the bereaved family could find in a hurry, and I was expected to make the deceased look just like that photo.

“I worked from the top of the head, since, you know, I had a bit of a hard time looking at the face until I was done. Usually the person was someone I knew, you see. This is a small area and I’ve been here since 1953. Sometimes I cut the hair, and dye it too. I blow dried the hair and then used a curling iron, but some of the elderly required those tight roller curls, so I placed rollers in their hair and left them under a hair dryer for awhile. Doing their makeup was a little like painting the life back into them. I made them look alive, just asleep. It helped the bereaved families so much to see the deceased that way. I often got thank-you letters from family members, and people would come up to me in stores and in restaurants to tell me how grateful they were for making Mom look so beautiful, or Dad look so peaceful. I provided a valuable service that gave the living much-needed comfort. Did my mother-in-law ever once acknowledge that? Of course not. And if I dared respond to defend myself, Bob would just raise his eyebrows at me with that stupid, infuriating grin and say, ‘Cat fight! Meow!’”

Tattie pushed out her chair in preparation for standing. “Speaking of cats, maybe we could--”

Rose hissed, “Sh! The rest of them have come out of hiding. Look. They never came out when my mother-in-law was yammering at me.”

Sure enough, all fourteen cats and kittens were in the den, lounging on cat trees, slinking along the floor, batting toys about, and two more had joined the steel-gray cat in attacking the tall scratching post. The post looked the worse for their clawed onslaught. A dust-cover the size of a small tablecloth trembled at the very top, swaying with the tiny impacts of claws slicing furrows in the thick leathery material covering the post.

Tattie paused, then against her better judgment asked the question. “So, what happened with the corpse hairdresser job? Do you still do that?”

Rose cackled, wheezing for a moment before she could answer. “Oh, dear heavens no. As you’ve no doubt observed, I can’t even keep my own house properly. It’s painful, due to my arthritis and joint problems. How on earth would I be able to style hair and apply mascara?

“But I did it for thirty-five years. I tell you, I can no longer abide the smell of flowers. Reminds me of death. But I learned so much about the trappings of dying. And about the management of bodies. For example, did you know that when someone has died at home and found face down, the blood pools on the face and they’ll look as if someone has beaten them? And, when someone is injured in the head area the feet will sometimes club down, indicating trauma to the brain? My mother-in-law was found just that way a few years back. The funeral director thought maybe she tripped at the top of her stairs. Or perhaps that she was fighting with someone, though they never found a suspect. I’m thinking it was a fight. That woman loved a good cat fight.

“Through my art and the funeral director’s skill, we made her look alive. However, I told Bob she wouldn’t have wanted to be viewed that way. Remembering how vain she was, he had to agree. He ordered a cremation.”

Tattie looked at the small smile that curved Rose’s thin lips. “And did she get a cremation?”

Rose continued as if Tattie hadn’t spoken. “So many options exist these days for the deceased. Cremation. Burial. Cryogenics. There’s even a company willing to compress remains into a sparkling diamond. Wear them as jewelry, now that would be a kind of solace, don’t you agree? But my favorite, I think, is the company willing to freeze-dry a body. The deceased is placed in a stainless steel tube that looks like a cross between an aquarium and a glass-front fridge and then frozen solid. The ice is turned directly into a gas, bypassing the liquid stage, and whoosh! Freeze dried human. All the museums are using the method now for animal displays, instead of traditional taxidermy. A body retains lifelike appearance down to the last eyelash.”

Tattie tried not to envision it, but her skin crawled nonetheless. “I see. Very interesting. Thank you for sharing such… such vivid details of your work background. We really should discuss the disposition of your cats now.”

“All I want is for my darlings to be happy. Have you ever seen happier babies?” Rose asked. “Look at them!”

Tattie looked. Two more cats had joined the bunch at the scratching post. They all attacked it with a zeal Tattie associated with catnip. She almost smiled. “I want what’s in their best interest and the best interest of the neighbors. They’ve complained about the smell. Don’t you think your cats might be better off if some of them were placed in other loving homes?”

“I’ll call in a cleaner. Once a week. And get new carpets in the rooms. I’ve wanted to, it’s just…” Rose trailed off as she saw Tattie shaking her head. “How many do I have to give up?” she asked flatly.

“Half. And you call in a professional cleaner.”

“And in return?”

“In return I’ll personally supervise the cats and see they get the best chance at placement with loving families.”

Rose glared at her, then, surprisingly, smiled. “Well, I don’t have to like your having me over a barrel. But at least you don’t spit and scratch at me while I’m down, like some people used to do.” She stared meaningfully at the cats, as if they shared her sentiments.

“Okay then.” Tattie approached the bunch of cats at the scratching post. “Since you agree, I’ll bring these playful ones with me.” They seemed the most aggressive, the way they attacked the scratching post with their sharp claws. Maybe the most dangerous. Rose was getting up in years. Her safety had to be considered, whether she realized it or not. The covering was shredded. Tattie approached the dark, leathery post.

“No!” Rose’s shout set Tattie back on her heels. “Not them! Take some of the others.”

At her first shout, the cats bolted.

Tattie stared, concerned with their high energy – they might be difficult to catch – until something else drew her gaze.

Two cats collided, and one crashed against the post itself, knocking it sideways. The dust cloth at the top slipped.

Gleaming curls of elegantly styled, dyed-blond hair caught the light.

“Take some of the others,” Rose repeated. “Not them.”

Tattie watched with dawning horror as the more energetic cats reemerged from hiding.

She could hear the indulgent smile in Rose’s voice. “They’re my comfort.”


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