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