There were millions of diners, but Grandma Dee only cared for three. They were the breakfast buffet at the Country Village Senior Center, a small commissary, and an old Mom & Pop’s which after a lengthy annulment was now just Pop’s. Dee would assemble an exact dish of eggs and sausage and toast, order a side of bacon, then fold the bacon into her napkin for the cats.
It was usually up to me to navigate the conversation unless she had a newspaper, in which she found the poor guy at 7/11 who slit his throat or the latest development in privatizing the lake. Dee blended superstition with the rituals of life. A day without the eggs, without sausage and bacon, without newspapers, was a day that would go poorly.
So we were drinking coffee and sitting by the dusty windows at Pop’s, a lot greasier and sadder now that Mom was gone, on the verge of delivering three cats to an animal shelter to be put down at $25 a piece. Neither of us liked the idea of a cat ceasing to exist on our own initiative, but Dee’s backyard had become a breeding ground for gingery longhairs and they were marking and leaving litters. If they got in, they’d chew through bread bags and piss in discrete places. This hadn’t stopped Dee from tossing them cat feed and giving them the garage and, as mentioned, bringing them leftovers, but now that a county retirement was becoming a reality and Grandpa was gone…
“Grandma, you have any superstitions?” I asked while we paid the check.
“A black cat is another mouth to feed. And a broken mirror’s a trip to Walmart.”
She thought some more. “My parents were superstitious. An owl landed on Nana’s head, and she thought it was an omen that someone was going to die. Next day my cousin Cameron had a blood clot.”
“Never heard of owls being bad luck,” I said.
Dee smiled nicely. “We named her Hootles. She was a good owl.”
“You kept the owl?”
* * *
There’d been a time before when I didn’t think she looked old at all. But a few strokes later, and Dee wore the misery of her age, time having applied its lumps and corns. Her mind, though. Her mind was as sharp as ever, but death doesn’t care for minds, does it?
My dog, spritely once, now bent and smiling wisely, would chew up her tomato plants and scatter peppery soil across the yard. This I think was the first omen.
The second came the summer before she died, when Dee presented me a coffee-colored blur of paws. It was a kitten convulsing to the rhythm of its tiny heart. We’d been finding these degenerate things in laundry baskets and beneath bed sheets. We never found any on the patio. Born out there, they were swiftly eaten by uncles and aunts.
Dee wrapped the kitten in a sock and administered milk with an eye dropper. It was clearly too deformed to live, but she persisted with wet eyes and soft thoughts. I wanted to drop it in the trash bin. Forget this chaos, this suffering with no purpose.
There was a squawk in the backyard. A cat snuck through the kitchen window carrying a baby chick in its mouth.
“Oh, get it!” yelled Dee, still warming her familiar.
The cat avoided capture by running beneath the dining table, then out to the front rooms. It hadn’t released the chick. My broom finally contained the feral thing beneath the wall cabinet – an old display case Dee found at a yard sale, now packed with porcelain pilgrims from France, glass bowls and portraits of her father in his police uniform.
I hit the cat and she spat the chick then struck off. I used the broom’s fibers to sweep the bird out, and lifted the yellow body with paper towels to place it on the coffee table.
The chick was yellow-chested with a cape of brown patchy feathers. It’d been scruffy before. Now its head rested at a wrong angle and tubes of red grime poked out of its eyes. Dee put the dying kitten beside the bird, and there they sat, the odd couple.
“You’d be surprised what they can survive,” said Dee tenderly. “El Polo was grabbed by cats and she looked worse.”
I wanted to get in my car and leave the husk of misery that had become my grandma’s house. A home to chopped tree branches and rusty brown fences and and piles of browning leaves and dog poop, where the only green was the dead tomato plants on the lawn, past the chairs where Grandpa once burnt his lungs in an endless cycle of cigarettes.
I wanted the house to flutter away like a burning photograph, because, I think, I had sensed the violating presence.
The chicks were still. Grandma held her mouth and wept.