By Jon Krampner
On the second floor of the old Doria Apartments at the corner of Pico and Union, Ed Fernandez was having trouble sleeping again. This had been happening since his wife Delia had died last year. As he padded through the living room on his way to the kitchen for a 2 am snack, he heard a light scratching sound at his front door.
Putting on the chain lock and cautiously peering out, he saw Snowball, the midnight-black cat owned by Monica Messina across the hall. He removed the chain lock and, out of habit, reached down to pet Snowball. But instead of her usual rising to his touch, she emitted several high-pitched meows, turned away and headed back across the hall, re-entering Monica’s apartment.
Ed and Delia knew Monica as the most indulgent and affectionate of cat owners. She played with Snowball, took her to the vet at the drop of a hat, bought her toys, and fed her the best cat food, which couldn’t have been easy on her social worker’s salary, especially since she had to take care of her own diabetes as well. An indigenous Guatemalan, she had been brought to the US by her parents as an infant in the late ’80’s after they wearied of the US-sponsored government’s endless assaults against their community.
Ed blinked confusedly – the cat’s edges seemed oddly indistinct, but of course he hadn’t bothered to put on his glasses for a midnight infusion of junk food.
Monica’s door didn’t appear to be ajar, but must have been to allow Snowball back in.
Ed stumbled across the hall to shut it.
But it was locked.
Ed was now awake enough to remember that Snowball had died three weeks ago of feline leukemia and that her ashes rested on the mantelpiece over the fireplace in Monica’s living room. But he had seen Snowball! He wondered if this was a dream, but he was just standing there in the hallway getting hungry for a Twinkie. If this was a dream, something would have happened by now.
He knocked on Monica’s door and rang the bell several times, but was only met by the enveloping silence of the night. He went downstairs onto the Pico Avenue side of the building. Looking up, he could see the light of the TV flickering from Monica’s bedroom window.
“Miss Messina, Miss Messina, are you okay?” he called out. “It’s me, Ed Fernandez from across the hall. Are you okay, Miss Messina?”
A window opened, but it was Josefina Vasquez, the young woman who lived a flight up from Monica. She worked for one of those new taxi companies – was it Flyte? Ed couldn’t keep up with all the new businesses that grew out of the electronic things people carried around with them.
“Keep it down, viejecito,” Josefina cried out. “Some of us still have to work for a living!”
And there was Ed on the sidewalk, getting goosebumps from the chill night air.
He went back upstairs. Although he didn’t like to raise a fuss, he called 911.
“What is your emergency, please?”
“It’s my neighbor,” he said. “Something’s wrong.”
“Could you speak up a little, sir? I can barely hear you.”
“There’s something wrong with my neighbor.”
“And what might that be?”
He could say that her cat, which had run out of all its nine lives, had just knocked at his door, but was afraid the dispatcher might think it was a prank call.
“I heard a scream,” he said. “Please have the police come by to check on her.”
“Will do, sir.”
The patrol car arrived 15 minutes later. Two officers, a stocky young black woman and a slender middle-aged Latino, knocked on his door. Ed explained the situation, minus the business with Snowball.
“What apartment is the manager in?” the black woman asked. Ed told her, and she returned with him a few minutes later. Ed followed them into Monica’s apartment. She was lying face-down on the floor next to her bed. CNN was on the TV.
The Latino officer turned her over.
“She still has a pulse,” he said, and then, into his radio, “Get an ambulance over to 1602 West Pico on the double. We may be able to pull this one out.” Ed stayed until the ambulance arrived and took her to County/USC, then made short work of two Twinkies and went back to bed.
Early the next morning his phone rang. It was a nurse at County/USC. Monica had been skimping on her insulin and gone into insulin shock, but was going to be okay. He had saved her life.
When Monica got home a few days later, she rang Ed’s bell and gave him a gift certificate to the Numero Uno Market. He tried to graciously refuse, but she wouldn’t hear of it.
“How did you know to call for help?” she asked. “I was trying to get to the phone when the room just started spinning…”
“It was just kind of instinct,” he said.
“Instinct based on what?”
“Well…you see…Snowball came to my door…”
Monica glared at him. “What kind of joke is this?”
“She scratched at the door, just like she always did – “ he paused, trying to figure out which words would make sense.
“I’ll always be in your debt, Mr. Fernandez,” she said angrily. “But this is a cruel joke. And the police or EMTs knocked over her urn and scattered the ashes. Now I have to sweep them up and put them back in the urn.”
She seemed more upset by what had happened to Snowball’s ashes than to herself – typical, Ed thought. Oddly, he remembered, when Snowball was still alive, she loved to jump up on the mantelpiece, sometimes knocking over the souvenirs Monica had up there.
Back in her apartment, Monica thought about what good neighbors Ed and Delia had been – looking after Snowball when she had to travel for work or was in the hospital with complications from diabetes. During her first year in the building she had watched Delia go from a cheerful, welcoming woman full of tips about life in this country to a gaunt, hollow shell as her body increasingly betrayed her.
Monica called the precinct and spoke with the Latino officer who had come that night. He defensively said they hadn’t gone anywhere near the mantelpiece and suggested she call the EMT’s.
When she spoke to the crew leader, she asked if they might have knocked over the urn on the living room mantelpiece as they wheeled her out.
“No, ma’am,” the EMT said with a nasal Upper Midwestern twang. “The first thing I saw when we entered was that the urn had been knocked over and its contents spilled. I noticed because the rest of the apartment was so neat. Could you have knocked it over when you fell?”
“I fell in the bedroom.”
“Could you have wandered into the bedroom from the living room?”
“I wasn’t in the living room all evening. I was watching the news in my – “
“Ma’am, I don’t know what to tell you. But none of my people knocked it over. We’re sorry it happened, but we’re glad you’re okay.”
“I see,” Monica said, not sure that she did. “Well, thanks again. I can’t tell you how grateful I am.”
“Sure thing, ma’am.”
As Monica got off the phone, she looked at the food, both wet and dry, which she had left out the day Snowball died, and which she still hadn’t thrown out. Maybe the light was playing tricks on her, but the dishes had been full and no longer were.
Could she have done more to save Snowball? Monica did the best she could on her social worker’s salary. The Americans supported the dictator in her country, forcing out indigenous people like herself. So now she was here, helping to take care of people whose burdens were more than they could bear, and was paid so little for it. Americans didn’t value her people, and, it seemed, they didn’t value their own, either.
Monica squinted interrogatively at the cat food, then shrugged her shoulders and decided she had put out less than she remembered.
Just before 5 pm, her boss called.
“I’m glad you’re okay,” he said. Then, clearing his throat anxiously, he added, “Is there any chance you can come in tomorrow? We’re really short staffed.”
“It’s no problem, Mr. Gonzalez.”
“Great,” he said. “It’ll be good to have you back.”
She went back to the living room, swept up as much of Snowball’s ashes as she could get into the urn and placed it back on the mantelpiece. It was time to throw out Snowball’s food. Then Monica set out her work clothes for tomorrow. It was going to be a long day, and she’d have to get up early.
* * *
Jon Krampner’s short stories and flash fiction have appeared (or soon will) in Across the Margin, Eunoia Review, Between These Shores, and No Bars And a Dead Battery (Owl Canyon Press). He lives in Los Angeles and is sarcastic in three languages.