- Feral Memory
The fact is, imagine.—Ali Smith
His fly is down again. He's forgotten to hoist the flag. As he has forgotten which day of the week it is, forgotten to take his heart meds, forgotten to carry the laminated card with the printed message that says he forgets.
A tall, white-haired gentleman in his mid-eighties, elegant, even with his fly down. To call attention to his state of undress, to embarrass him, would be cruel. He's already lost so many things. Certain words have fled, and memories—that time he scaled a mountain in Banff. Or was it Rainier? Scaled, or took the tram up? Some gestures are gone as well. The reach for the fly's zipper, pulling it up. Gone for good. His past has been shattered. A day, a week, a year overlaps with another or disappears altogether.
As he likes to say when he suddenly remembers that he can't find what he's looking for: "Fixity is for the young."
He recalls my name one day, doesn't the next, but always brightens when he sees my wife and me walking our big setter. As soon as our dog spots Henry he starts to buck and strain at his leash, can't wait to get to him, to sit at his slippered feet. He coos at our old dog like he's his child, cups his soft head with his big hands, massages his smooth back. Is there a like softness he recalls from that memory bank shot through with holes? A baby's soft blanket? A cashmere sweater? A horse's soft muzzle? A loved one's touch?
Most mornings, Henry holds court inside the Chit Chat Café, the coffee [End Page 139] shop on the pier. What happens at the Chit Chat? Scuttlebutt. Small talk. A "How you doin'?" "Mornin'!" "Are they biting today?" when you come in the café door, and "Have a good one" when you leave. Small talk as in "You caught me with my pants down"—what my mother said when the doorbell rang and the ladies from the "Come As You Are" party yelled, "Surprise." They always arrived at the most inopportune time.
It's an inopportune time to mention to Henry that his barn door is open.
This morning, as I near the pier, I see him barely making it across the crosswalk, his walk halting, shuffling in his worn-down slippers, empty coffee cup in his hand, wearing a faded red windbreaker. Stooped over, his face drawn, downcast.
"I don't know what I'm going to do," he says after he's had a chance to catch his breath. "The man on the corner says he's going to trap my cats."
His cats. His beloved feral cats, who come out of hiding when they hear his call, who sneak out from wherever they've found shelter overnight—a drainpipe, under an old cardboard box, huddled next to a building's dryer vent—and come running to greet him at the railing where he's put out their breakfast, kibble and scraps from last night's dinner. One thing he never forgets is to feed them every morning. Rain or shine, fog or no fog.
"Which man?" I ask. Who could be that unkind? He points to the new complex next to his apartment building that recently rose up out of what once was a vacant lot. Now that lot is home to four spanking new condos. Each went for two million apiece.
"There, at the corner." He points to the bottom condo. I've walked past it a million times, spotted the red Tesla in the driveway, noticed the square of "Heavenly Greens" in the front yard, plastic blades of eternally green grass. Nothing's permitted to disturb that heaven. Not one errant dandelion is going to mar that world. Not one errant cat.
"You mean the new guy wants to catch them and neuter them so they won't have more kittens?" I know it's a reach but maybe there's some other reason. It will kill him if they're caught...