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Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Short Story: "Everything Is Useful"

Everything Is Useful©

Nothing is garbage, nothing is junk! There is nothing on earth that deserves to be wasted!” She was screaming as if he stood a block away from her instead of mere feet. “Everything that exists is part of this earth and deserves respect, just like the earth deserves respect!” Her tone was belligerent, as if they were in the middle of a long, drawn-out argument, but his feeling was that she had started arguing years before, maybe with the world rather than any particular individual.
So far he had only said hello, in order to start the conversation his professor had assigned. Now he blinked and consulted the scrap of paper in his hand. Talk to a homeless person. How old does this person look? Find out how the he or she lives. What kind of life events led the person to street life? What color are his or her eyes?
As he glanced down at his notes, the tiny old woman paused to catch her breath, hacking her lungs out and leaning on the grocery cart holding her little mountain of assorted belongings. None of it junk, according to her, he reminded himself, mentally rolling his eyes. Yeah, right. Precious filthy blankets and innumerable plastic bags of priceless treasures! Her chest was sunken, shoulders rounded, and thin, wispy grey hair peeked out from under the knitted cap she wore. Her fingernails were cracked and black with dirt. A beautiful long-haired white cat, crouching in a carrier on the shelf underneath the cart’s heaped-to-overflowing basket, a cat so immaculate and perfectly groomed it could have been entered in a show, added an incongruous note.
“So, is that your cat?” the young man asked to divert her from her tirade.
She peered up at him and countered his idle question with a sharp rhetorical query of her own. “Who else’s cat would it be?” Then she smiled, slyness replacing suspicion in a surprising instant. “Or maybe he belongs to himself, eh? Cats have lives of their own, you know.” She narrowed her eyes and grinned, quite the Cheshire cat herself.
“Yeah, well, that one’s in a cage, isn’t it?” He couldn’t keep the note of sarcasm out of his voice. He wouldn’t have taken this class at all except that it was required, and he couldn’t see for the life of him what the point was, and whenever he was confused or unsure of himself, his go-to position was sarcasm.
“Do you want to let him out?” she asked in a strange, wheedling tone.
“What?” He almost jumped, startled by the surprising question.
The old woman began to nod vigorously, then to shake her head from side to side. “Yeah, you know all about cats, don’t you? You’re a bright boy. Go ahead – open the crate and let him out! What’s your name, anyway?”
“Pete!” he answered nervously. “My name is Pete.” What did she care what his name was? Maybe he should have given a false name?
He started to back away, but she grabbed his arm. “Peter, you want to give this cat its freedom? Let it live its own life? I’m telling you, go ahead and let it out!”
Traffic streamed by at highway speeds. When he had first spotted the woman, he thought she couldn’t be safe that close of the road, but there was no sidewalk out here. Nor were there stop signs or lights at the closest intersection. A cat running loose on this road wouldn’t have a prayer! What kind of crazy game was the old woman playing?
He straightened his shoulders and shot her an angry, supercilious look, turned away and stalked back to his car. The hell with her!
That evening he called a girl in his class, using the encounter with the street woman as his excuse for the call but hoping the conversation would move on quickly to more interesting ground. He told the girl about the old woman, her cart, and the cat.
“What color were her eyes?” the girl asked.
“The cat’s eyes?”
“No, Peter. You were supposed to note the eye color of the person you talked to, remember?” There was a short silence before she asked, “What color are my eyes, Peter?”
He had no idea. But he did suddenly have a glimmer of possible lessons he might pick up in college, things he hadn’t known he didn’t know until that moment.

 - P. J. Grath


Northport muse said...

Love the resumption of PJ Grath stories! I'm especially intrigued by the immaculate white cat. Do we all have one of those in our character somewhere?

P. J. Grath said...

I think if I were a cat, I'd be an ordinary striped tiger cat, with maybe one torn ear.

Marilyn Zimmerman said...

How intriguing! My impression was that the homeless woman's statements to the man were a bit preachy, something I'd see as out of character for a person (however defensive she is)that he just greeted with a hello. Maybe that's the lesson we're supposed to get from the story but I'd like the woman to be a bit more mysterious. I want to have to figure out her reason for being in the story for myself. (Or am I missing the point entirely?) I think this piece has a wonderful premise that I'd like to see developed so I'd understand the man's motivations. Is he as shallow as he seems? Is there a reason for that? It appears he wanted to save the white cat but didn't care about the woman. That was very powerful and I think I'd like to know how he came to feel that way. Looking forward to more--

Dorene said...

I love the incongruities here: the dirty fingernails and the stark white cat, the keen-eyed woman and the blinded boy, the college student who thinks he's in control and the savvy homeless person who knows she is. Clever that he learns a larger lesson that the one assigned.

P. J. Grath said...

Marilyn, I saw the young man's shallowness as youth, inexperience, and ignorance. He was out of his depth, not having (as yet) much depth to draw on. The woman, for me, was one of those borderline people with all the answers, as far as she was concerned. As for the reason for her being in the story, she was the first character who came to my mind, the seed of the story, and to me she's pretty mysterious. Is she crazy? Wise? Mean? And where the hell did that cat come from? I think the young man was distracted by the cat and jumped on it as a subject for conversation because he didn't know what else to say. How much he worries about cat or homeless woman, I don't know. Will this encounter remain in his memory years later? And actually, Dorene, did he learn a "larger" lesson or a "smaller" one or just a different one?

These characters and their encounter were only in my mind, but I feel as if I were simply observing and reporting on them and have no deep insight into their minds or souls. To me, they are both somewhat mysterious, though the woman is more so because she's older and so has more in her and to her.

Kathie S. said...

Hmm. A cat story, I'm already intrigued. Or, indirectly a cat story. A curious triangle.
I thought the assignment question about color of eyes was a good one. You set the situation up nicely. All three had their strangenesses balanced nicely. Great color, action and unique conclusion.
Now how can someone catch her breath and be at the same time hacking her lungs out--? That doesn't quite work for me! Then--"how the he or she lives"? --not sure about the "the". You might have the cat "entered in an exhibit" rather than "show", just more colorful. And I didn't understand exactly where she was positioned, "safe, that close of the road"--? I'm visual, and I couldn't quite picture that. Wording confused me.
Small issues! ---I loved it, and you accomplished a lot in a short space. I think that the guy had a glimmer; even "just" a glimmer, shows some hope here.
Thanks again. It was great.

P. J. Grath said...

I don't even like the phrase "hacking her lungs out." Why did I use it? The young man's voice? Will rethink that line, Kathie, and look at the rest again, too. Again, thank YOU for reading and commenting.