It had been months since Oliver Kent’s neighbor, Flavia, had suffered an “episode” which led to the aid car being summoned to her house. Fortunately, it turned out to be nothing serious—no broken bones or life-threatening illness. Oliver had acquired new understanding of how it felt to be alone and suddenly quite unwell, as not too long ago he’d been stricken by what he’d feared was a heart attack.
He wasn’t likely to forget that morning. Barely awake, he’d ambled out to his kitchen and begun brewing his French-press coffee, believing it an ordinary day as his life, and the rest of the world, rolled on more or less predictably. And then the aching pain had taken over his left arm—and wouldn’t go away, no matter how much positive self-talk he employed to deny it. He hadn’t panicked, and quickly concluded it was better to be safe than sorry, i.e., he would be smart to call for help.
First he’d phoned his daughter—when she didn’t answer, he’d left a message on her voice mail. While he’d waited for the EMTs to arrive, he’d also dialed Flavia’s number. It was not that he desired any particular comfort she might offer—he never thought of himself as needing her, or any of his neighbors—and certainly he had no wish to worry her, which would be a likely consequence of his call. His reasoning was that, if his immediate circumstances turned dire and he was unable to reach his daughter, he could leave instructions for her with Flavia. Though his neighbor often seemed flighty—living in her odd little world with an invisible husband—Oliver knew her to have a surprisingly vibrant maternal streak for a woman who’d never given birth, nor mothered a child by adoption. Thus, he’d been confident she would treat his daughter with gentle consideration, even love.
Actually, Flavia had been unexpectedly calm when he’d called and told her his situation. He’d thought she might gasp or let out a moan, but she had maintained a measured tone as she asked questions to keep him talking until the aid car arrived. She’d affirmed his wisdom in calling 911—just in case—and she’d reassured him with her strong belief that he would come through the event in good shape. “It’s probably just a warning,” she’d insisted; “God’s way of saying you need to take better care of yourself.”
From time to time, as they spoke over the hedge which divided their yards, Flavia made mention of God. The two apparently had a long-term relationship and were on a casual first-name basis; and while Oliver respected anyone’s faith, he was well-satisfied with his own alternative spirituality. He didn’t feel compelled to proclaim his beliefs, but if asked, he was not averse to sharing the enlightenment he’d gained, and his unique experiences. The few times the subject had come up, Flavia had listened to him with a vapid smile—he suspected the concepts he proffered were unfamiliar and confusing to her, as though spoken in a foreign language. However, she was unfailingly polite and attentive. Vaguely, he knew that she prayed for him—though truthfully, he didn’t think he especially needed her prayers. He wasn’t virulently opposed to Christianity, or anti-God—and he viewed living next door to a Bible-believing woman in much the same way that he carried a spare tire, jack and tools in his car. They might be helpful someday—and didn’t add sufficient weight to negatively affect the vehicle’s performance.
In any case, Oliver and his neighbor now had something in common: they’d both been treated to the ministrations of trained medical techs employed by the District 1 Fire Department. As it happened, each of these occasions left an indelible mark on Oliver’s psyche. Thank God—or someone—he hadn’t had a heart attack, and as “warning” episodes go, his was unremarkable. More significantly however, it had been a pointed announcement—from whatever higher source one acknowledged—that he was not immortal after all. And that was a “bummer” he still hadn’t recovered from.
Flavia—as was revealed to him during her visit by the EMTs—lived with her own persistent condition, that of having a “perfect, but invisible husband”. “Frank”, as Oliver discovered, wasn’t merely a workaholic who was gone more than he was home—he’d never existed in the real world, only in Flavia’s imagination. But this remained a truth unspoken. Oliver had not the slimmest doubt that Flavia’s fantasy spouse was wholly corporeal to her. For reasons he saw no need to analyze, he would forevermore act as though Frank came and went, giving a neighborly wave to Oliver in passing—he just wouldn’t return the wave. To do otherwise would be inexcusably cruel—like poking a stick at an innocent wild creature—and would offend his personal sensibility.
So, although Oliver would not yet describe it as close, his friendship with Flavia had definitely changed—and not for the worse. It is the nature of things that people and relationships are always in a state of flux. And though Flavia seemed the type who greeted almost anything new with great trepidation, Oliver boasted that he “embraced change”.
Perhaps those were his peripheral thoughts as he went out one morning to warm up his car. He was reaching for the door handle when he noticed something which marred the perfectly waxed surface of the Chevelle. There, on the shiny black hood were the equally perfect, quite unmistakable, paw prints of a cat. This did not make Oliver a happy man; he was, in fact, quietly incensed. Frowning, he surveyed the cul de sac. Who had acquired a cat? To his knowledge, the only animal residing in his neighborhood was a dog—and it was so well behaved that Oliver was hardly aware of it. Cat prints were not glad tidings, he thought in silent irritation. The problem with pet owners, he lectured internally, was they often transgressed the credo that their rights ended where his began. As far as he was concerned, cats should be kept on leashes just like their canine counterparts. Blowing out a curmudgeonly breath, he backed out of his driveway and drove loudly away from his neighbors.
When he returned in a couple hours, he was less agitated. He got out of his car and saw Flavia waggling her fingers in greeting. He’d intended to give her a hurried smile, and go inside to eat the teriyaki take-out he’d just purchased for lunch. But peering at her more closely, he noticed something draped over her arm—something she was stroking with her free hand. It appeared dark and furry, like the varmint pelt his great aunt used to wear for society “do’s”—holy Christmas, it was a cat!
They approached each other, meeting on opposite sides of the hedge. Oliver felt his ire rise anew as the feline lifted its lolling head, and attempted to scramble from Flavia’s arms to sniff at the bag of teriyaki.
“Hi, Oliver,” Flavia trilled.
“Hey—.” He paused, and took a breath of civility. “Is that your cat?”
She began a typically wordy explanation of how the poor little dear had evidently wandered from an unloving home, and found its way to her doorstep. She’d been feeding it the last couple of days, she said, and was trying to think of a name to call it.
“So—are you planning to keep it?” he asked.
“Well—.” She’d picked up a subtle note of displeasure in his voice, as she was now studying his face and biting her lower lip.
“What I meant was,” he started, and made sure to put on a smile, “I don’t have anything against cats in general—as long as they stay on their own property. There were cat prints on my car this morning, and that’s simply unacceptable.”
“Oh,” she replied softly. “Well, I don’t really know if I’m keeping it—I don’t honestly know what to do. I’ve never had a real pet, like this one—I’m not even good with plants.” She laughed lightly. “I suppose I should call someone to come get it—but I think maybe it likes me.”
“Well, if it’s lost, then maybe someone’s missing it. But if you decide to keep it, it either needs to stay inside—or you have to follow it around when it’s out. Seriously. That’s the way it must be, because I’m not having cat prints on my car.” He tightened his hold on the bag of teriyaki and prepared to leave her.
“Of course, Oliver—I’m sorry about the paw prints. What do you think I should do? I don’t even know who to call.”
Barely hanging onto his patience, he sighed. “The phone book, I guess. I’m gonna have my lunch now—I’ll talk to you later.” He turned away so as not to see any hurt expression she might wear.
An hour later he was writing at his computer when the phone rang. It was Flavia. She’d called the Animal Control officer for advice, and was told they didn’t come out to retrieve cats—only dogs. They suggested she get a cage to catch it in, so she could then bring it to the local animal shelter. This was vastly problematic for Flavia, as she had no car and didn’t drive, anyway. Nor did she have extra cash to purchase or rent a cat cage.
Oliver continued typing on his keyboard as he listened to her. He sincerely wished to be kind-hearted—but he failed to see how any part of what she was telling him was his problem. She was the one with the cat; ergo, it—and the cat prints sullying his Chevelle—was her problem. In a nutshell, this was the type of scenario which had nurtured his resolve to keep his neighbors at a distance. He didn’t want to be involved in the minutia which complicated their lives. Property lines were intended to mark the boundaries between one man’s kingdom and another’s. It was one thing to be responsive if a neighbor’s house was on fire, or they had a medical emergency—quite another to be required to deal with their undisciplined kids, and pet issues.
“Flavia—,” he interrupted her fretful wanderings. “Do you want to keep the cat? Because if you do—you know, if you think it might be good company for you—then go buy a litter box and some cat food, and be happy. Okay? I’m not saying you have to get rid of it, you understand? But having a pet does put demands on you—you have to feed it and take care of it, and be mindful. And there are other expenses that go along with it—shots and all that.”
She listened, uttering periodic “mm-hmm’s”. After a measured pause, she said she wasn’t at all sure Frank would approve of her keeping the cat.
“Well,” he replied, “you have to take that into consideration too.” He rolled his eyes as he heard himself say the words.
“I think he’d probably prefer a dog—if we got a pet. But I don’t really know—it’s never come up before.”
Oliver truly did not desire to embark on a discussion which included the non-existent Frank. It made his stomach clench, because he feared the unknown repercussions which might come of actively playing along with her fantasy. Privately, though, he did wonder if she set a place for Frank at the dinner table every evening. And, was half her closet space reserved for “Frank’s” wardrobe?
“I guess you’ll just have to think about it some more, then decide,” he offered.
She agreed, promising to corral the kitty lest it traipse over to his place. Oliver thanked her and hung up.
For three days he didn’t see her, as he was hunkered down, determinedly churning out articles full of vitriol about the worsening political landscape. He couldn’t figure out what, exactly, would wake up the American people. Their apparent lethargy and lackadaisical attitude regarding leadership and policies—across the board—confounded him. It was his mission to continue passionately striking at the same points to get their attention.
Eventually he exhausted himself. He slept round the clock, took an invigorating shower, and walked out to the mailbox. It was filled with unsolicited junk which—had he not been mentally worn down—would have started him on yet another rant about wasted natural resources. He realized it had rained while he was ensconced in his back room—the grass was a brilliant jade, and inches longer than he remembered. Flavia’s looked freshly cut—he made a note to call the kid who lived on the other side of her house. “Eddie Somebody” had the most competitive price in the local lawn maintenance racket.
He glanced up at Flavia’s voice, smiled and stopped sorting his mail.
“I guess you’ve been busy—haven’t seen you lately. You’ve been alright, I hope,” she chattered.
“Yeah, I’m fine—just busy writing,” he replied. “I see it rained—hey, do you have Eddie’s number? The grass kind of snuck up on me.”
“Sure—I can run get it, won’t take me a minute,” she said.
He would have told her to call him, but she was almost inside her door. He stood there, looking for signs of the cat. When she came back out, she had a file card and a Styrofoam plate with a square of dessert.
“I baked peanut butter brownies with chocolate chips in them,” she said, handing him the plate.
“Thanks—smells good. So, how’s the cat?”
“Oh—it’s gone,” she said.
“Gone—as in took a powder, or what?”
She became briefly perplexed, then composed her thoughts. “Oh, no. When Eddie cut my lawn, I asked him if he could take it somewhere. So he did—he’s such a sweet boy.”
“Well, that’s good, I guess. You decided it wasn’t for you?”
Her slight shoulders lifted as she took a deep breath. “Frank thinks maybe a little black spaniel would be better. I don’t know—seems like a dog would be more work, mostly for me. You know Frank—he’s never around to walk it.”
Oliver nodded casually. He recalled a much earlier time when he’d observed her struggling to haul her trash can out to the street. She’d seen him watching and, as though reading his mind, had said, “Frank’s a wonderful man—perfect for me—but he’s useless when it comes to household chores.” And she’d laughed delightedly. It had been obvious to Oliver that she completely adored her husband—but that was long before he knew the truth behind Frank’s MIA status.
“Well,” he said thoughtfully, “you’d have the same responsibilities with a dog—they’re even more dependent than cats, needing to be walked and all.”
“I know. Maybe I’ve got enough to do, fussing over a husband. Not that he’s very demanding, you understand—but he pretty much expects me to run the house, which I don’t mind. All I ever wanted to be was a housewife—just old-fashioned, I s’pose.”
“Nothin’ wrong with that,” Oliver opined. “You know that saying—‘behind every great man, stands a woman’.” The words were already out of his mouth before he remembered he’d pledged himself not to entertain such conversation.
“What do you think about a bird?” she asked.
It took him a moment to register her question, so intent was he on staying grounded in reality—his own, that is.
“A bird would be easier,” she pondered aloud. “I had parakeets for a short time when I was a girl. All I had to do was keep the cage clean, and make sure there was fresh water and seed for them. And one of those cuttle bones for them to peck at—although they seemed to ignore it, practically shredded mom’s dining room curtains. You know those sheer curtains?”
As this was surely a safer topic, Oliver rewarded her by not escaping into his house. “Yeah, I guess birds would be okay. Unless they got out of the cage and flew around—might be hard to capture ‘em.”
“I don’t recall that happening, back then,” she said, reflecting. “Anyway, I’d only get one bird—whatever kind doesn’t die without a companion.” She gazed into the distance, smiling wanly. “A bird would be more affordable, too,” she added.
“Yeah,” he replied agreeably, before saying he had work to do. “See you later.”
“See you later, Oliver.”
Eddie mowed Oliver’s lawn on Friday afternoon. Oliver had forgotten how much he charged, and when Eddie said “twenty bucks”, he gave him twenty-five. The kid was elated, and asked if he had any more chores which needed doing. Before he could get back to his computer, he heard Flavia calling to him.
“Oliver—do you have a minute?”
He nodded. “Sure.”
“I wonder if I could ask a favor of you—could I pay you to drive me to the pet shop in the mall? It’s between the grocery story and the auto repair place—do you think you’d have some time later? I promise it wouldn’t take long—I’ve already called them and found out what kind of bird to get, and everything I need. So it would really be a quick trip,” she rattled on.
Sometimes Oliver watched her talk, more than he actually listened. She had a childlike quality he found endearing. It brought out his protective nature—he didn’t want anyone to mistreat her. For he’d begun to speculate that that was part of the reason she lived alone—in an imaginary “perfect” marriage.
But, taking her to buy a pet was not even at the bottom of the list of things he wanted to do. He had better ways to use his time, regardless of how quickly she vowed to complete the venture. And he didn’t want to listen to the creature chirp hysterically on the ride home—the bird, not Flavia. Worst of all, he visualized a hundred or more tiny feathers wafting about and becoming embedded in the Chevelle’s upholstery. He doubted Flavia could comprehend the connection a man had with his car—especially a vintage one. It was inviolable, sacred even. Keeping it pristine was a labor of love—but not when it involved cleaning someone else’s mess from it. Feathers? You must be kidding! Even his young grandson knew better than to open snacks or fast food meals in the Chevelle, no matter how hungry he was.
And then there was the other, less tidy reason niggling in the back of his brain. From the summer he’d first moved in, he’d let Flavia know he only drove his car when necessity warranted. Vehicles were expensive to maintain, and he wanted to keep his in excellent condition as an investment he could cash out in the future. He read the collectors’ want ads religiously, and walked and biked as often as was practical—applauding himself for taking the added benefit of healthy exercise.
There were times he’d driven Flavia to her doctor appointments, in exchange for gas money. Initially, he’d thought she couldn’t afford the more prohibitive taxi fare—but when she’d offered him the same dollar amount (which he refused), he’d assumed she was uncomfortable with unsavory cabbie types. She used the bus for library and shopping trips, although Oliver had taken her to get groceries once or twice during inclement weather—but he drew the line at meandering down the aisles with her. Oh, no—he dropped her in front of the store, and returned to fetch her when she called to say she was ready. But generally, she didn’t ask him—she respected that he had deadlines to keep.
It wasn’t merely a question of money, or time, however. Something in him resisted the idea of becoming too cozy with her. He’d been married once, and his memories were bittersweet—mostly bitter toward the end. Even if Flavia had still been the “stunner” she hinted she once was, Oliver didn’t relish the thought of carving a nook in his currently well-ordered life for a woman. She was intelligent, articulate, and claimed writing as one of her avocations—and she often displayed a wry humor he appreciated. He gathered she was an avid reader, as well—when she wasn’t cooking and baking for the neighborhood.
She made a fine next door neighbor, Oliver thought, but he didn’t want to encourage anything more. He’d surmised their life experiences were on opposite ends of the spectrum—he was a worldly man who’d been almost everywhere and done most of the things he’d dreamed about. By contrast, Flavia had led a shuttered existence—Oliver would have bet his house on it.
Probably the bottom line was that Flavia seemed afflicted with a hungry heart (and Oliver had all he could do to take care of himself). No one creates a fantasy spouse who’s abusive or neglectful; she’d written Frank’s script to suit her deepest needs. A mortal man couldn’t fill the shoes of a celluloid hero who’d sprung from the pen of a TV playwright. Oliver didn’t conceive of ever wanting to try.
He knew his concerns weren’t implausible or exaggerated—he’d lived long enough to know that some folks might knit an innocuous habit of sharing errands into an illusion of grand romance. So it was best for all concerned to limit the favors he granted.
These were some of the boundaries he’d set in place years before he moved into the cul de sac. They served him well, allowing him to maneuver with relative ease and success through the vagaries of life on a planet populated by humans. It was always his intention to regard every person compassionately, and preserve congenial associations to the best of his strength. He’d discovered that life required the agile ability to maintain one’s delicate balance. And he’d learned you cannot respect others, if you do not first respect yourself.
His silent ruminations had persisted so long that Flavia’s face now showed embarrassed regret for having made her latest request. He looked into her bespectacled hazel eyes—and stifled the urge to pat her on the head. What the hell, he thought. At least she’d gotten rid of the cat—before it became an inflamed thorn in his side, tempting him to let the hedge grow roof-tall.
“Alright—when did you want to go pick up this bird?”