Sophie leaned over the bed, “Ready to go home, Pete?”
The elderly man slowly raised his steady gaze, meeting Sophie’s deep blue eyes head on.
“Couldn’t be more ready,” he said without a trace of emotion.
“Well, let’s get you out of here then.” Sophie retrieved her stethoscope and listened to Pete’s rhythmic breathing.
“Wiggle your toes,” she commanded.
“You mean my once purple toes?” Pete asked as he vigorously followed Sophie’s instructions.
“Good. Now stick out your tongue.”
“You’re an awfully demanding nurse, ya know,” he said in the same dry tone.
“I’ve brought your favorite shirt.” Appearing suddenly in the open doorframe, a snowy white-haired full-figured woman held up a Chicago Bears long-sleeved t-shirt.
“Clara, are you prepared to deal with this cantankerous man?” Sophie said as she wrote on the clipboard.
“No. But I have no choice now do I?” Clara smiled as she walked to the bedside and smoothed back Pete’s thick gray hair. “Besides, I can’t leave him here. You nurses would kill me!”
“Okay, that’s enough. And ironically, you are quite wrong. They tried to kill ME!” A slow smile crept across Pete’s face.
“I think it’s the other way around, dear. They did everything in their power to save you. And, thank God, it worked.” Clara said as she smiled down at Pete.
“Well, Pete, are you ready to go home?” A tall, gangly man strode in, his white coat fluttering in time with the briskness of his walk.
“Dr. Regada, please tell these women to get off my back.”
“I promise to do just that, after I examine you.”
Dr. Regada pulled the curtain around the bed as Clara and Sophie left the room and stood outside the door.
“I’d better make my rounds.” Sophie said to Clara. “Pete will be fine now.”
She patted the older woman’s hand. “He’s a real stinker, but I am going to miss him.”
As she started to leave, Clara took her arm, “Sophie, wait.”
“I wanted to thank you—“
“I’m just doing my—“
“No. You are doing more than your job, and under such difficult circumstances. I’m so glad for you and the other medical staff that Pete is the last one.”
Clara gave Sophie a tight-lipped smile. “When Pete was so bad, well, you know how it was, all I could do was wait. And for some reason this one thought kept running through my mind.”
Sophie’s interest was piqued. “What was it Clara?”
“I kept thinking I wasn’t going to have that spumoni date ever again.”
Sophie gave her a puzzled look, “Spumoni date?”
Clara laughed, “We had a recurring date, first Friday of the month. We went to our favorite Italian restaurant and had spumoni. Oh, sometimes we had dinner, too, though not always. But we never missed our spumoni nights and most of the time we sat in the same little booth in the corner.”
“Anyway, I realize it’s just a stupid little thing, but I couldn’t keep the image out of my mind, the two of us sitting in our booth eating that wonderful dessert! I think that image was subconsciously planted in my head to keep me from thinking about all the other moments I might not get a chance to share with the old coot. Spumoni, huh? Crazy!”
Sophie tilted her head, smiled, and grasped Clara’s arm with a firm hold, “No, Clara, it’s not crazy. Crazy would be if you didn’t have more spumoni moments with him. Now, go back in there and get that man ready to go home before he starts bellowing loud enough that the noise echoes down the hallway again.”
“Okay, you take care, ya hear?”
Sophie walked to the nurse’s station. Her coworker and friend, Marnie, looked up from the computer screen as Sophie approached.
“Did you know that Pete and Clara have a spumoni date every first Friday of the month?” Sophie asked as she laid down her clipboard and stretched her neck.
“Yes, as a matter of fact, I did. Pete told me. Why?”
“Clara just told me.”
“What’s up, you two?” Another nurse, Beth, walked briskly up to the desk.
“Pete. He and his wife have a spumoni date every— “
“Yeah, Pete told me.”
“Why didn’t I know that?” Sophie asked with a slightly annoyed tone.
“I’m sure he told you. Or, he’s quite a jabberer, maybe he jabbered on about other things to you.” Beth replied.
“You’re right, he did. He told me stories from his days working at the post office and said he still attends retiree breakfasts. He relayed a story he heard there about a fellow mail lady and a cat.”
“And he mentioned that his granddaughter works in some newsroom. Oh, and his other daughter is working from home and slowly going crazy, what with family always under her thumb.”
Beth laughed. “That’s Pete. He was here a long time. I’m going to miss him. But I’m glad he is going home.”
After a few laughs about their last critical patient in C-Ward, the nurses quieted down as they worked separately, reviewing new patient information, and gathering more supplies. As a welcome change, these new patients arrived with familiar issues of old routine illnesses and injuries such as flu, bronchitis issues, or mending of bones.
The silence allowed the sound of the waiting room TV news. Newscasters announcing the latest catastrophes, crime, and a few random acts of kindness.
“Too bad we don’t know each other’s spumoni stories.”
“Well… if we did, maybe we’d realize we’re all a part of the same story and maybe this world wouldn’t seem so cold.”
Marnie laughed. “Like spumoni?”
Sophie’s name came over the loudspeaker with instructions to visit Room 221.
“That’s Emily Bellows. She’s in with some kind of blockage that no one can figure out. Better get going. As my mom would say, making hay while the sun shines or something along that line.”
Marnie laughed, “Ellie would have said that and more. The doctor in her, ya know.”
As Sophie walked to Room 221 she met Clara and Pete coming down the hallway.
“Goodbye, you two. I hope you don’t take this the wrong way, but I’m glad to see our last C -Ward patient leave.” “You and me, both, Sophie!” Pete hollered. “You and me both!” As he passed, he threw his arm up in a salute. She heard his laughter until the elevator doors shut.
I used to think there was something inherently wrong with cats. My argument involved the fact that they creep up on you, or slowly slink by as they rub their sides across your legs. And when they sit and stare up at you, I believed it was a sure sign that they would like to pounce on you, much like their Tigris species descendants.
I’m a mail carrier. I drive one of those white box trucks with the red, white and blue insignia on the sides. Nowadays, I have a mail route that Alexander the Great would have been proud to call his own. Yeah, it’s that big. Consequently, I work pretty long hours. With everyone on the home delivery band wagon nowadays, my route can take me past sunset. That can get pretty annoying. But most particularly it can get annoying when a stray animal darts in front of the truck.
You know where this is going. I had a crazy, suicidal cat on my mail route. This feline is what they call a a tabby cat. Its color is striking, but perhaps because of its agility (for lack of a better word) this cat resembles a smallish Bengal tiger. Orange and black stripes run parallel down the sides. But its best feature is its eyes. They’re copper. I know this because the damn thing stares at me after racing across the street in front of my truck. Its look is brutal. It’s as if it’s beaming a challenge —next time, lady—next time.
A large portion of my route is within a tree lined, older but generally kept up neighborhood. This area holds multi-aged, multi-incomed, and generally friendly residents. The streets are urban-community narrow and perpetually crowded with cars that are parked along the sides. To navigate the streets takes Mario-Cart prowess. The only added frustration would be an object darting in front of your vehicle. Hence, the cat.
And for that matter, isn’t it dogs that chase vehicles?
There was no question in my mind that this cat wasn’t constantly on the lookout for me and my mail truck. I could sense its gearing up for attack as I began my drive through its territory. Most of the time, I was ready. I would drive very slowly down the street, my eyes darting right and left. If I was lucky that day I could breathe a sigh of relief as I turned and headed at a right angle down a more mail-friendly road. Those are the good delivery days.
But on this particular evening I was done in. I yawned as I tried to focus. Suddenly, a dark shape careened in front of the truck, a pair of iridescent eyes staring straight at me. As I slammed my foot down on the brake, the cat calmly lowered its feline shaped body down on the asphalt directly in front of my truck. Then it began licking its fur.
I forced myself out of the truck and onto the hard pavement. As I rounded the corner of the truck to the front I began yelling. Not expletives. As a mail person I maintain a distinct dignified decorum. But I yelled nevertheless. It didn’t matter. The cat was gone. I’m sure I posed a solid Instagram worthy picture as I knelt down in the middle of the street looking for the cat underneath my vehicle. It was of no use. I got back in and finished my route.
Due to a lighter load the next day I was able to deliver on the challenging cat road at midday. Because of the time of day and cooler weather, there were several masked residents outside; sitting in lawn chairs, watering their flowers, or simply waiting for their mail. I took this opportunity to ask if anyone knew anything about an orange and black striped cat in the neighborhood. I asked from the respectable distance, of course. No one knew anything of the demon cat. Of course, there were people that had cats; they had tabby cats, calico cats, Persian, but not MY cat.
This line of questioning did allow me the opportunity to converse with the neighbors. As a mail carrier I don’t get that chance very often. Many of us are captives of our trucks, delivering to the boxes waiting for us at the side of the roads, and we are on a very tight schedule. And that doesn’t include the time we spend delivering packages to residents’ front doors.
Up until a few months ago, my mail recipients weren’t home to receive packages. But now, with so many people working from home or sadly, unemployed, my residents are home. It’s still the same. I’m usually not able to converse with the package recipients. Leaving their parcels at their front door is safer. And actually this isn’t a change—with carriers long routes now, we can’t indulge in much chit-chat. If we did, we’d be delivering mail all night long. I do have to say that for the most part, I’m fortunate in that I don’t have a large constituency of packages to deliver. Some of my carrier friends are inundated with packages. Guess it depends on the neighborhood.
But there’s this one older guy, Felix Halton at 814 that receives packages all… the… time. Most of the time, Felix waits at the door for his parcel. I believe he sees me as I approach in my truck. His most distinguishing feature has to be his beautiful shoulder length white hair. Sometimes his hair is up in a ponytail trailing down the back of his neck. Felix is a tall guy, about six-three, and wiry thin. He looks like he’s been through the ringer, his features rugged and dark from too much sun.
It just so happens that the same day the damn cat decided to lounge in front of my mail truck I had a 25 pound, five foot long package for Felix. As usual, approaching his door I see Felix in the door frame, leaning against the door, a red bandanna across his lower face. He resembled a forlorn aged bandit. One of those sneering outcast characters you might see in an old spaghetti western.
“Looks like you have a situation on your hands,” Felix said from the doorway.
“You must mean the cat that likes to play chicken with my truck?” I laughed as I placed the package on the porch.
Now, Felix doesn’t like small talk. I know this as a course of the way things go. Most of the time I gently lay down his package and he waits for me to walk away before he picks it up.
So, I was a bit surprised at his remark. but he was done. He just smiled at my question, not bothering to answer, and walked back in his house shutting the door behind him.
My route takes on a film-feed not unlike a shady neighborhood version of Rear Window . The family in the two story creamy yellow house has five children. The mom perpetually looks haggard.
The bungalow on the end of my first block is home to four “Generation S’rs” (per up-to-date social media). The occupants run out to cars day and night, doesn’t matter the time, headed to jobs or a happy hour. A quiet elderly couple occupies the brick federal style house at 810. No matter the time of day that I load mail into their box, their little yippy dog waits outside to greet me.
Out of all of my residents, it’s Felix that puzzles me the most. His packages vary in shape and size, coming from all over the world. And he receives tons of mail. Not only ads or promotional stuff like a lot of mail nowadays, but envelopes with actual handwriting on them. Don’t see a lot of that these days. Especially now, everyone is Skyping or Zooming or Facetiming. Old fashioned letter writing has become obsolete. Kind of like me.
I just left a twenty-two year-old marriage. Harry, my ex decided the grass was greener on the other side of the cul-de-sac. Seriously. He literally told me that he was in love with our neighbor, at the end of our circle block.
So, most days I run solo. Harry and I have a fantastic daughter but she moved into her own apartment a year ago. Running around with a group of good friends helped me pass time, that and this job. But now my time with friends and even my daughter are limited. We might get together the social distance way—outside on patios or under trees in park settings—but there are a lot more nights at home now, with a bowl of popcorn and subscription channels as I binge watch the newest British detective series or follow house flippers.
That’s after I get off work though. There can be a lot of long work days, stretching way into the later evening hours.
On one such day the sun started disappearing over the horizon as I began the final part of my route. I had a lot of package deliveries and a not anticipated break in my schedule earlier, making the day even longer.
As I inched down ‘cat street’ my combat companion made a beeline for the truck. Slamming on the brakes, once again, tires screeching, the dominant smell of rubber permeating the air, I clinched the steering wheel in wary anticipation. I must have hit him, I was sure of it. But there he was, his copper eyes staring at me from the side of the road. Before I could get out of the truck to throttle his sneering, sleek composure, he had vanished.
Still shaken, I got back into the vehicle and, in an attempt to collect myself, I grabbed a package: Felix Halton. The name cascaded across the label. I grabbed the parcel and headed for Felix’s front porch. As I rounded the corner of his sidewalk a voice called, “I’m around back.”
I decided to follow the voice and walked around to the back of Felix’s house. There he sat on an old orange and white webbed lawn chair, his long legs crossed at the ankles. For quite some time, I hadn’t seen him without the bandana face mask. He was drinking a bottle of beer, his face relaxed. A smile, hidden for all this time, stamped on his face.
I sat his package down on the patio, smiled, and started to leave. It was then that I glanced into his back window. Aided by several lit lamps inside I could make out the interior of his house. It looked warm and inviting. But what caught my eye was a drum set situated in the middle of the room. Inscribed on the bass drum were the words: The Basic Essence.
Back in the 1970’s and 80’s The Basic Essence rock band was the epitome of the music world. They won Grammies, performed in capacity filled arenas, and sold millions of records. But the 1990’s weren’t kind. Because of grunge, alternative, and country’s explosion, there wasn’t room for their brand of music. Their lead singer tried to make a solo go of it, but he tanked. The other members slowly advanced into obscurity.
Felix Halston’s stage name was Hal and that basically was the only name he was known by. There was no question that the man sitting in the frayed lawn chair was Hal.
I turned around. “You’re Hal.” My brilliant skills honed through dozens of hours of British detective shows did not go unmerited.
“That’s right. I was Hal.” He shrugged and smiled. “And now I am Felix Halston once again.”
Felix took a swig of his beer, then said, “I’m that stereotypical person that haunts all those news stories, books, and movies. The person that dropped out of society, never to be heard from again. The guy that leaves his billion-dollar CEO wrecking ball of a job to repair old boats on some seashore. The woman that makes a bundle on Hampton Place Housewives that chucks it all for a server job in New Mexico. That’s me. Only I play drums.” He nodded toward the drum set on the other side of the window.
I shrugged and tried to comment in a wise sage kind of way, “Sometimes that’s what it takes. Dropping out of society.”
“I suppose you’re right, my dear. I dropped out a lot of years ago, but now, it’s pretty easy to hide. Isolation is the new ‘under the radar.’ Not crazy about the times we’re living in, but for a fella like me, it’s not that hard to get used to.”
I gave a half-smile, “I get it. I’m not one to complain either. Right now I don’t mind the alone time. It’s curative. Well, it’s been nice. This conversation.”
As I waved a goodbye a sudden movement against my legs caused me to jump.
“C’m here, Gilda.” Felix said as he slapped his hands on his lap.
The orange and black striped cat sprang into his lap, meowing a soft purr in contentment as he or I guess she settled down, then stared at me with sleepy content copper eyes.
“You know this animal?” I asked.
“You mean Gilda? Yeah, she’s been coming around for about four months now. I’m not sure if her owner had to move or what.” The ‘what’ stayed unexplained. “She looked through this window at me one morning so I started feeding her and leaving cream outside. At night she’ll wander over, sit in my lap for a spell, then leave. I’m not sure where she goes. It’s her business, I guess.”
That was a year ago today. I’m still delivering mail. Most of my customers are still on the same route. The cars are still parked all over the street and the two story house with the bunch of kids is still a creamy yellow color. And Felix is still at 814.
Gilda still comes to visit. And so do I. After that night, Felix left a note in the mailbox that said he enjoyed our visit and anytime I felt like having a beer on the patio, six feet apart, he would welcome my company. About two nights after that note, as I was considering which detective series to start watching, I changed into my jeans and a t-shirt, and drove to Felix’s house.
We now have a routine. I’ll text, if he doesn’t answer I know he just doesn’t want company that night, and some nights he will text and I will do the same. But most times after a green light, I find myself on Felix’s patio, drinking a beer, celebrating life, and exchanging cat stories while we both sit with cats in our laps.
You see, the surprise was not only that Gilda was a female, but that she was a pregnant female. Her litter is a part of the neighborhood now. The five kids in the two story have a golden brown kitty, the elderly couple—a brown and white male named Alexander that actually does get along well with yippy dog. Three of Gilda’s kittens went to the Gen S kids. But I got the best of the litter—Cleo.
Gilda no longer runs in front of my mail truck. She wouldn’t dream of stirring up the guardian of her precious baby. And for now, Felix and I are kindred spirits in a world full of kindred spirits.
We’re all just now coming back out of our houses and into a new world. We’re finding that people we love and know have been there all along, maybe with a beer and a chat—perhaps leaving us with a sense of relief, a flicker of a thought that we are a little less vulnerable.
All kinds of threatening situations stare us down, exposing our frailties. But we can stare back. And refuse to run; realizing that these situations can oftentimes become a source for something good.