Mature Adult Cat Chow
This is the truth: on the very same day I took my cat Snowball to the vet’s office for her check-up and got the news that it was time for her to start eating “Mature Adult” cat chow, my own AARP member card – plus the magazine – arrived in the mail.
The vet gave me a sample starter bag of the new cat food and sent me and Snowball on our way. Both of us were, I guess, aged cats; the food bag read, “Chat Âgé.” When my youngest sister Rhonda convinced me to take that beginner French class with her down at the adult education center, I figured I’d learn how to say some pretty words and understand a nice restaurant menu if Harvey ever took me to one on our anniversary or my birthday. But all it amounted to was me knowing how to read the small lettering on a cat food bag. “Well, Glenda, that’s life in Arrow Fork, West Virginia,” Harvey always said to me, no matter what happened.
Back home I let Snowball out of her carrier and settled into my loveseat to read some of the articles in the AARP magazine, shocked to see all this business about domestic partner benefits and gay marrieds in retirement and such. I wondered how it had got to this point and what Harvey would have thought of it. He never was one to like change or going against the Bible. Anyway, there was a coupon for Mature Adult cat chow in the magazine, so I cut it out and tried to forget that Harvey was dead, me and Snowball were both getting up in years, and the gays had just about taken over.
I remember the first time I tried to find that special cat food at the Super K-Mart after Snowball had gobbled up all the little brown squares of chicken goodies in the free bag from the vet. Took me forever to find the right kind since the bags were tucked way back and crinkled up on the very top shelf of the cat care aisle. Rhonda was with me, all decked out in her tight leggings like she was some teenager instead of a certified nursing assistant in her 40s.
“I think I can get it,” I said, standing on the edge of the bottom shelf and straining to reach.
“No, you’re going to fall and break your neck. I’ll just go down here and wait for some tall man to walk by,” Rhonda said, nodding toward the main aisle, and she grinned and strutted off.
I knew she wanted to flirt with somebody since her and Rudez had just filed those separation papers, which I disapproved of (the flirting, not the separation), but I didn’t stop her. She was right about me needing some help, though. I thought about Harvey. If he hadn’t up and died of his lungs two years ago, like a fool, he could of reached up there. Some days I missed him, especially when I needed stuff from up high. “He’s a tall drink of water,” Granny used to say. Harvey was tall and strong when we got married but the mining work and the smoking got him in the end. He wasn’t much of a husband but I guess the world took him down like it does a lot of the men up here.
“Hey, hon,” I heard Rhonda call, startling me from my thoughts of Harvey. Shortly she and this young fellow were walking toward me, him wearing a shirt that read HERITAGE NOT HATE with a big Confederate flag flying in the background. “My sister here is about to kill herself trying to get that cat food down. Can you help us girls out?” she asked in some kind of strange high-pitched voice, putting her hand on his meaty arm.
“Yeah,” he mumbled, shifting a wad of tobacco to the other side of his jaw and blushing a little. “Which one, this?” He pulled down the blue bag, original regular-age formula.
“No,” I said. “It has to be the Mature Adult. Way back in there, I can see it.”
“Red?” he asked. I nodded.
He reached the thing without a whole lot of effort, even going so far as to pull some other bags closer to the shelf edge. “Here you go,” the man said, handing me the bag. “You want more than one?” he asked.
“One’ll do for now, thanks,” I said, watching as he turned his attention to Rhonda who started acting up in a big way, bragging on this stranger’s muscles and tattoos. I just sighed and watched her walk on with him, looked like over to the automotive section. She was giggling and long gone before I realized there was a long tear in the cat food bag; I moved to put the thing in my cart and all the little brown nuggets came pouring out onto the floor. There were kibbles rolling everywhere in the cat aisle, enough to trip a body for sure, making a terrible mess. I thanked the Lord no Super K-Mart workers were around to see it was me that did it.
Snowball needed her food, though, so I faced that top shelf again. All the Mature Adult bags the man had pulled forward for me to get at had jagged openings in them, probably from when one of the stock boys cut open the shipping box and stabbed the bags by mistake. Then, don’t you know, that boy must of just shoved the bags up there on that top shelf and hoped nobody would notice! Well, I noticed all right, but I wasn’t about to give up. There was one bag left that looked like it might be ok but the man hadn’t pulled it as far forward, and the weight of it was too much toward the back of the shelf to be pulled. I thought a minute and realized finally I might could get at it somehow from the other side (now, why didn’t I think of that in the first place? Probably the AARP people would say my mind was going), so I wheeled my cart over the cat food nuggets and rattled on over there.
Just my luck: three women were talking up a storm in the next aisle. Looked like a grandmother, mother, and daughter. Three generations there at the Clorox wipes, right where I needed to be. I said, “I hate to do this, ladies, but I’ve just got to get that cat food up there.” Surprised, they moved to the side as I tried to shimmy my way to the bag by stepping on the shelf near the floor and grabbing on to one of the middle shelves. The women all looked up, mouths wide open, like they were following the star of Bethlehem.
“Well, Glenda?” one of them, the mother-looking one, said. She did seem kind of familiar. “Is that you?”
I looked closer at the woman’s lined, tired face. “Kathy? I haven’t seen you since y’all left the church!”
“We’re going to the Free Will down by Hammond’s Creek now,” said Kathy. “Our preacher is a gift from heaven. He talked last Sunday about how marriage is between one man and one woman, and it should stay that way. We all said, Amen!” I started to lose my grip on the shelf and Kathy moved toward me to help, her daughter coming up behind to see if she could reach the bag. “Glenda, you’re liable to break a hip doing that. What in the world?” Kathy said. “Let’s see if we can’t get some tall man over here.”
“Done tried it,” I said. “Rhonda ran off with him. You know how she is.” The grandmother (Miss Esther, I remembered now) chuckled and then inspiration struck. “Hey, I know, I bet I can get something to sort of shove it with. Where’s the brooms at?” I asked.
“Two aisles down, I think,” Kathy’s daughter said. She was tall like her daddy. I remembered him from church. But blast if she wasn’t quite tall enough to get at the bag. “I’ll be right back,” she said, and took off.
“I’m proud of that one, Katie,” Kathy beamed. “Unlike my others, bless ‘em, who can’t do nothing right to save their life.”
“Mm,” Miss Esther said, shaking her head in frustration and agreement.
When Katie got back, she said to me, “If you can poke at the bag from here, I’ll go to the other side and catch it.”
We had a plan and it felt so nice, all us women working together. Kathy directed the angle of my broom handle; Miss Esther squinted her eyes and hooted, “It’s going!”; Katie called, “Yes!” as she caught the food bag when the broom pushed it over. Victory! Lord, we laughed and laughed like we’d saved the world. Rhonda came back around and I told her the story, laughing again. I felt happy. Young, even, in spite of what AARP said.
“You get a date?” I asked Rhonda once we’d caught our breath.
“Naw,” she said. “Would you believe that man’s married? Tried to pretend he wasn’t but I could tell because – ”
“What in hell?” a man’s voice suddenly boomed, interrupting us. “What have you women done?”
We turned to see a Super K-Mart employee charging our way, an older man carrying rolls of that awful no-name toilet paper they stock the bathrooms with. All of us had got quiet for the moment, taking in the sight: the man was so upset with us that he’d lost control of the toilet paper rolls and they started to topple. Of a sudden, though, I thought it was funny that the man was so mad and serious but juggling and dropping no-name toilet paper at our feet. Once I got to laughing I couldn’t quit, and then Kathy and them started up too.
“Who made this cat food mess?” the man demanded.
Between fits of laughter Rhonda snapped, “You need to settle down. You’re probably the one that put those tore-up cat food bags up there to begin with. Where were you when these ladies needed you, anyway?”
He scowled and kept grabbing after the toilet paper rolls. He didn’t say anything but I thought about that question, thought real hard. It was a question I wished Harvey could answer. Where were you when I needed you?
“Y’all could at least sweep up and then put the broom back!” the man finally shouted, red-faced.
I felt so good after that I went for a walk by myself near Hammond’s Creek. The leaves were starting to turn, and I sat at a picnic table to rest and watch them fall, red and gold. Not too far off a young couple was having their wedding pictures took near the church. The boy was clowning, about like Harvey did at first before he shut down and closed himself off to everybody, even our kids who don’t come home much anymore.
The bride’s face said it all, though. She was probably 19 or 20. I watched as she smiled real big and bright for the camera, but then her face changed when the photographer left; she stared off toward the mountains like she was looking for something while her new husband showed out, threw rocks in the creek, anything to get her attention. But she was already gone. Maybe she was thinking about her sisters, her mama, her girlfriends, the ones who would help her knock the last good bag of cat food off a shelf and then tell the story again and again. The young wife was, in an instant, as old as me and Snowball. Some days I wish I was gay.
An English instructor in North Carolina, Ellen Perry’s academic interests include 17th- and 18th-century British life and literature, Restoration drama, and Southern/ Appalachian culture. She has served as lead advisor of her school’s LGBTQ student group, Bridging the Gap. Ellen enjoys dancing, traveling, and playing with her stylish cat, Ms. Coco Chanel.