Bumping down Rosemary's quarter-mile drive, clumps of earth pelt the underside of my Dodge Neon, actual color called Nitro Yellow Green, as if the ground has just been plowed, though there are no other signs that actual farming has been done in, well, decades. I can feel eyes on me, and I wonder if the lady I'm about to meet has binoculars trained on me. Maybe she wants to see what a social worker looks like through one of those Victorian glazier's panes. Getting out of my car, I shut the door on the seatbelt that no longer retracts due to years of driving all over Monterey County—Steinbeck Country—seeing people with their problems.
Rosemary, the new patient, has been hoarding cats at a fallow farm in Salinas. The place looks suspicious, but she's not a squatter. She's inherited the ramshackle clapboard and its acreage from her father who passed away in the 1970s. Since then, she's let it go to seed, literally. I mean, once, it was a farm for produce. Now, it's a farm of cats.
Something half-dead or almost-dead creeps alongside me. It could be the ghost of some old farmer who's stuck to wander these barren fields through all eternity—or it could be my imagination. Either way, it's creepy.
Rosemary greets me at the door before I knock. She's holding a long skinny orange cat under one arm. "This is Glamour Girl," she says. Glamour Girl's head hangs to one side, and a thin line of green saliva slips onto the dull marble-patterned Formica floor.
The other thing that greets me is a stench. I don't show that I notice.
At Rosemary's behest, I enter the drawing room that is lit by the dark yellow glow of sunlight through pulled-down window shades with thread-covered rings that hang from yellowed silk cording. She asks me to have a seat anywhere. There are chairs of all types. Wicker high-backs, like Morticia's from the Addams Family; heavy, carved chairs from the Spanish Inquisition era; and, of course, floral chintz-covered chairs from the plantation. The one thing they have in common is that each is vibrating with fleas. On closer look, every last one holds at least three cats.
Rosemary shuffles a dementia-related step, in filthy house slippers, over to a vinyl-covered burgundy wingback chair, and exclaims, "Miffy! Where are your manners? Move off of there and let the nice lady sit down!" She shoves the balding cat and her companions to the floor, then pats the chair for me to sit. I hesitate, recalling the last time I was flea-bitten, but she has just called me a lady—and nice. She's given me the benefit of the doubt, so I give it back to her. I accept her offer and take a load off—fleas, fuzz, and who-knows-what be damned.
She offers me a glass of water, which I turn down, though I'm touched. It's hot and dry, and no one hardly ever offers me water. Anyhow, I can only accept it when it's in a bottle and the top hasn't been opened. Years ago I learned the hard way—but that's another story.
Rosemary shoos some cats off a rickety recliner and sits with her feet up. "They say that's good for the circulation," she says. "But I don't know. It seems like walking would be better." Her legs are exceedingly thick, and walking doesn't seem like something she could do.
Rosemary tells me that she's an only child who was doted upon by her parents, but throughout our afternoon together, I learn that her story isn't real. Who the hell's ever is? There'd been a brother who didn't return from Vietnam. She also had a sister who drowned in vomit in the back of a Vanagon when she was a freshman at Alisal High School. These were the narratives she'd rehearsed over a lifetime. I know how to spot those kinds. I have mine too.
She uses her sleeve to wipe a bit of sweat from her forehead then pulls another cat onto her lap. "This is Jessebelle. Or wait, maybe you're Adorabelle! Came from the same litter, so it's hard to tell," she says, shaking her head as if she's ashamed of her faux pas. "No one wants these cats," she adds. "I rescue them, and I take care of them like my own children."
I don't tell her that someone has called the humane society, which informed the public health nurse, who contacted my agency. I don't tell her that I have any authority in her isolated life, nor do I tell her that she is listed in my clinical notes as a seventy-five-year-old woman who is hoarding and neglecting animals, or that her house will be inspected and her cats removed. I don't tell her that I'm there to perform a psychosocial assessment and refer her for guardianship.
"Do you still drive?" I ask.
"I never learned! But Juny—he's the son of Daddy's farmhand—brings me groceries and things I need, hair dye and such, once a week." After a bit of prodding, she confesses that it's more like once a month.
I ask to use the restroom. I wouldn't use it, of course, but I have to snoop. It's my job. Like most Victorians, built when people still used outhouses, there is only one bathroom. The claw-foot tub is dry and full of clothing. Not a bather, I guess. Maybe she takes bird baths—under the wings and under the tail—like Gramma used to say.
I come down the long switchback staircase, drying my hands on my jacket. "How do you make sure that your muscles are strong enough, so you don't fall on those stairs?" I ask.
She scoffs. "I don't have to worry." She waves a dimpled palm. "I was a toe dancer!"
Now, so far, Rosemary's thought processes have mostly been direct and complete. She doesn't speak in the word salad of someone with advanced or even middle-stage dementia, but it's time to start evaluating her cognitive status. "Do you mean that your muscles haven't forgotten? That you're still in good shape? Is that what you're saying?"
"Mm-hmm. That's right! I was a toe dancer. Sure was!" She takes the paws of the cat that's in her lap and makes them dance across her enormous thigh. "See! Pizzazz! It don't mean anything to some," she says with a sigh. "I'm sorry." Her face falls.
"Don't be," I say. "I'm partial to pizzazz too."
"Really? You know, I'm actually kind of another Doris Day, if you know what I mean."
I don't know what she means, but I play along. "You were a singer?"
"No!" she says, with a curious look. "Doris Day saved dogs, and I save cats!"
"Oh. I see."
"Isn't that why you came here? Didn't you know about that?"
"I guess not," I say, pondering the subjectivity of it all.
"These cats would die without me! They need to live! We all do, right?"
"Of course. I suppose. But what about when there's suffering?" I say.
Rosemary laughs with this huge belly roar, and three cats jump to the floor; then she slaps her leg, where one of them has left a scratch of dots and dashes.
"Suffering! Nobody's suffering here!" She pauses to stare me down. "Unless it's you—I mean, I'm not alone, and neither are my cats," she says, wagging her finger at me. "We eat, we cuddle. That's all anyone needs." She sits back, satisfied with her short dramatic speech. "Am I right or am I right?" she says.
"There are other basic needs—for people and animals," I say. But I've been doing this job for so long that I know this isn't going to get us anywhere, so I give up almost immediately. "You're right," I say. "Sounds good. I like your thinking!"
I can see that I've made Rosemary happy, and that, in some weird way, makes me happy too. After a quick moment, I remind myself that I'm here to do a job—not to feel things.
"Hey, I'm going to name three things, and I want you to try your best to remember them. Can you repeat them after me? Here they are. Hat, tree, car."
"Hat, tree, car," Rosemary says, giddily, like she's just won a midway prize.
"Remember them, okay."
"Okay, I'll remember!"
"What did you have for breakfast?" I ask.
She scrunches her forehead. "You know, it was coffee, for sure, because I always have coffee, unless I run out, and then I call Juny and tell him it's time to come over and help me. He's been busy plowing. He says he's going to make this place a real farm again. Oh, it makes me so happy I could burst! Two generations—my daddy and his daddy—and now me and him! We'll make this farm the pride of Salinas!
"I don't really know how he's gonna do it, though," she whispers, confidentially. "I can't really afford to hire anyone else."
"That sounds like a big challenge."
"Juny does dream big, but this time I think he's gonna do it. I've seen him really working."
"That's awesome," I say, without a trace of awe. "Now, do you remember those three words I asked you to recall?" Her eyes get big as a doe's, and she shakes her head.
"I... I... Well, yes, of course, I..." she stammers but says none of the words.
"Huh," I say. "Huh. The first one starts with huh."
Rosemary drops her head in shame and begins to cry—full tilt.
"Aw, it's okay," I say, quickly comforting. "I'm sorry I've upset you so. You don't need to remember those darn words! It's just a dumb game. Forget about it." She keeps crying. "Hat, tree, car!" I say. "See. Nobody needs to remember those words. They're stupid!" She stops and looks at me with the shining eyes of a child.
"I don't have no hat, this farm ain't got no trees, and I never had a car 'cause I never learned to drive." She smiles through her tears.
I thank her for allowing me into her home, and for spending her afternoon with me; then I leave to perform my professional betrayal. They say that it's best for everyone.
I'd like to say that I never saw Rosemary again, but that's not how her story ends. I see her in one of those places that take in a lot of people who have no one to make better choices for them. She is parked in a wheelchair down what I call a hallway of the forgotten. I nearly trip over her as I'm trying to chase down a nurse's aide who's skipped giving my client's sponge bath for the past twenty-one days. "He didn't want no bath," she says.
"But he tells me he does," I say. I see that, to her, it's my word against hers, and no one is going to fire a nurse's aide in a place like this.
"Hey, look, people die of bedsores," I say. "So don't be committing murder on my watch!" That may work for a while, until she gets busy, or forgets, or forgets to get busy.
"Hey, social worker lady!" I hear my name called. I don't want to recognize Rosemary's voice, but I do. I turn to see the woman in the chair, whose hair is half white now. I guess there's no one to bring her Miss Clairol in a place where you can't even get a sponge bath. Maybe that part's not so different from before. I notice that she's shrunk. Most people lose weight in these places, but she's lost a lot of weight, quickly. I wonder if she's been diagnosed with some sort of wasting disease, but I figure it's just the grossness of the food.
"Rosemary!" I say. "It's nice to see you again," I lie.
"Are my cats okay, Miss Berengaria?" she asks, with a hint of desperation.
She remembers my name. That's a good short-term recall.
"I can't take care of them in here, and they won't let me go home. Can you please check on them for me? I'll be sick if anything happens to them." Her voice carries its panic to my heart. She grabs me by the arm with more strength in her now-bony hand than I imagine possible. "Promise me you'll check on them! They'll die without you!" I'm worn down by the facts of her life, as I know them. "Come back and let me know. Please, pretty lady?"
Sometime during the next week, I remember to stuff a can of tuna and an opener into my purse before I head out for the day. The food bank always puts tuna in the boxes that they give away, and I fish them out. Pun intended. I've learned, from the Internet, that tuna is full of mercury. Most of my clients are close to dementia, if not already married to it. I don't want them to be ingesting brain-killer—if there's a chance that's what it is—so I trade them out for canned chicken that I buy at The Grocery Outlet. But then I can't bring myself to throw the tuna away, so it's there at home, stacked in my cupboard.
Driving down Blanco Road, the closer to the old white Victorian clapboard house that I get, the more dread I feel. The horizon doesn't look right. I turn onto the dirt-clod driveway, and all that is left of Rosemary's Victorian farmhouse is a pile of planks and debris to be hauled away by a wrecking company. I look at the heap and remember that a few months ago, I was sitting somewhere inside of all that plaster, wood, wire, and junk, being in a person's life. I feel responsible—and horrible. I get out of the Neon and slump to the ground. I take out my cell phone. When I get through to Animal Control, they tell me what I already know—that every one of the ninety-two cats found on Rosemary's farm has been euthanized.
In front of the remains of Rosemary's old cat farm, there's a huge sign that lists the new owner as someone named Junior McCarthy. I guess Juny bought the place, probably for a song. Worse than that, it looks like he's making a real killing—selling it to one of those agro-conglomerates. Soon to be a part of AMD Organics, the sign says. Of course! This soil probably hasn't had a pesticide on it in over forty years. In the heart of the Salinas Valley, that has to be worth a lot of cake. Juny bided his time at this claim-stake until it was all but abandoned—then he struck the gold that he knew was there all along. Gee, Rosemary could be in the best elder-care facility in the county with that kind of dough, instead of that understaffed dirty excuse for a nursing home. Am I too cynical? Maybe, but I make a mental note that I no longer care whether I buy organic lettuce.
I get an uneasy feeling, aware that I'm trespassing by sitting here next to this heap of remains, but there's no other sign of life, except for the semitrucks, loaded with fresh produce, that barrel on by. Crouching in the dirt, I feel so very tired. I don't care that my white lab coat is getting dirty. My last patient had something contagious anyhow, so I figure that I'll burn it when I get home (or at least toss it into the garbage).
Out of the corner of my eye, I glimpse movement. Something orange is approaching. "Glamour Girl?" I say, though it could be any bony orange cat. "Did you really survive?" The cat presses her lank body against the side of my leg. I offer her tuna out of the can, but then I realize that she could cut her tongue on the sharp edge, so I dump it out into the palm of my hand, which she licks with her sandpaper tongue. It tickles, but I keep my hand still.
Title image "Survivor" Copyright © The Summerset Review 2021.