Pray for Hercules
The old woman hears the rattle of my garden tools and rushes outside in her bathrobe. She skids to a stop at the edge of her porch, surprising me with her agility. She lunges forward, severe but graceful, as if for all of her life she’s been catching herself just before falling. Her robe is powder blue. There is an archipelago of dripped coffee on one sleeve. She is small and has a very fragile and springy neck. As always, her white hair is gathered into a disorderly bun. “Oh, Hemingway,” she says. “I’m so glad you’re here. Something terrible has happened!”
I know her only as Miss Orlando. I’ve been cutting her grass and taking care of her roses for about two months now. I was assigned to her through a charity that directs volunteers to the homes of seniors who don’t have the money or strength to keep their yards maintained. The organization solicited local landscaping businesses for help. For reasons unknown to me, I signed up.
I climb the steps to her porch.
“So what is it?” I say.
She takes hold of my elbow.
“There’s a mean-looking man who’s moved in down the street and I’m quite certain he’s trapping cats,” she says. “And Hercules is missing!”
I’d been warned about Miss Orlando’s nascent dementia, and the accompanying paranoia. For the most part, up to now, she has seemed reasonably competent, and her fearful fantasies have been easy to dismiss, though I’ve noticed they’ve been getting more serious of late. They have gone from the comically benign–like a neighbor stealing her newspaper and removing her PETCO coupons–to the more severe and dangerous, the last being the presence of a naked man with erotic tattoos on his chest appearing at her window whenever there’s a full moon.
“Oh, I’m sure Hercules will come back, Miss Orlando,” I say.
“Well, he’s never been gone this long before,” she says, her voice trembling with worry. She’d once told me she’d gotten her companion as a kitten almost twenty years ago. It was frail, sickly. So she named it Hercules.
“And how long is that?” I ask.
“At least three days,” she says.
I jerk my eyebrows. She looks at me as if I’m an insect that as just stung her. Then she stares off as she struggles to gather her thoughts. Her eyes dart about like a wild animal eating in the open. Besides wondering what in the world is going through her mind, I try to guess what she looked like when she was young. My image is as vague as the life she’s led, though once–on a warm morning when she’d invited me to her porch for ice water–she’d revealed some things:
She’d told me she’d worked for almost 40 years as a registered nurse at the veteran’s hospital. She’d never married, but had been engaged. Her fiancé was a Marine. He was killed in the Korean War. He died at the battle for the Chosin Reservoir, in 1950. “Korea!” I remember her saying. “Some frozen wasteland. That’s where the man I was going to marry died...in a war no one remembers…”
She’d wept when she’d told me this. After sixty years her grief hadn’t diminished. Then she’d asked me if I had a lover. I remember how her use of that word had taken me aback; it was so direct and barren. I told Miss Orlando that, no, I didn’t have a lover. I’d said something timid and oblique, like “Well, not really,” and she didn’t press me for details. For a few moments I’d considered telling her about some of my sad adventures with internet dating: I’d gone out with at least ten women in the last year, and was rewarded with only a deeper bewilderment about females and what they really want from a man. I’d dated a belly dancer, a devote Quaker, a dressage champion, an acupuncturist, a carpet layer, and a librarian. But none would actually qualify as a “lover” in Miss Orlando’s world, and I remember how embarrassed I was about the emptiness of my answer to her. It was during those humbling moments, I believe, when I’d abandoned all my mockery of Miss Orlando’s conspiracies. I’d thought how it was that she was alone, and what would happen to her, and how bad would her dementia and paranoia have to get before she’d be rescued by someone, a relative, a charity, social services? Did she have no family at all? How long would it be before she went wandering the streets thinking everyone was out to get her, not knowing her own name or where she lived or what the hell she was doing? But I didn’t hold onto my concern, my empathy; I let it go as if it were a praying mantis that’d lit on the back of my gardening glove. The closest I’d get to her was to tell her of my dream to be a novelist and short story writer, and how my yard-work business was simply the “day job” supporting that aspiration. From then on she has called me “Hemingway.”
“I don’t know how I know about the cats, Hemingway,” she says finally. “I just know.”
There’s a long silence. Miss Orlando sits in a chair on the porch and begins to pluck at blotches on the back of her hand. They look like rotten fruit.
“I thought I’d fertilize your roses today,” I say. “They need a good shot of phosphorous this time of year.”
She nods and sits up straight when a truck slows in front of the house. It’s an old Chevy pickup with chrome rims. A middle-aged man with very short hair and a goatee is driving. He cranes his head out the window and stares at me, and then strangely lifts his eyes to the roof and runs his gaze over it as if he’s searching for a lost Frisbee.
“That’s him!” says Miss Orlando.
“Who?” I say.
“The man who’s trapping cats,” she says.
I look back at the man in the truck. He waves. The gesture is friendly and nonthreatening.
“I want you to go talk to him, Hemingway?” she says. “And ask him about Hercules.”
I take a deep breath. “I’d rather not.”
There is some ferocity in her voice, and worst still, disgust. She has never insulted me like this, or taken such a tone.
She puts her hand on my arm. “I’m sorry,” she says. “I shouldn’t have said that.”
I stare at my feet until I hear the pickup pull away.
“Well,” I say. “I better get to your roses.”
I leave her and get the bag of fertilizer and a trowel out of my truck.
“Don’t forget your kneepads!” she shouts.
“Right,” I shout back.
I strap the pads to my knees. This is the closest I’ve ever come to donning a football uniform. Then I begin to crawl along the edge of Miss Orlando’s lawn, dragging the bag of fertilizer behind.
I stop at each rose. I toss in a fist full of granules and then blend them into the soil. The plants line the back edge of Miss Orlando’s lawn. They are ancient, but are able to bloom prodigiously every spring. At one point along their border there is a large white oleander next to a cedar fence protecting Miss Orlando’s back yard. Here I rise to adjust my kneepads before continuing. Then I see a gray mass lying in the shade and debris of the shrub.
I know it’s Hercules. I know the old cat is dead.
He lies motionless, but pristine, having done, I believe, what animals do when they somehow know death is imminent, retreating into a kind of self-burial. I look back at Miss Orlando. She’s still in her chair on the porch, still plucking at the rotten fruit blotches on the back of her hand.
I’m close enough to Hercules to see the dried blood at the corner of his mouth. I begin to reach for him, but withdraw. First, I must break the news to Miss Orlando.
She’s gotten out of her chair and stands at the top of the steps. She perches her hands at her waist. “Did you find Hercules?” she says.
How could she know?
“Well, yes, Miss Orlando, I’m afraid I did.”
“And he’s dead?”
“Yes, he is.”
She covers her eyes with the hand she’d been plucking at. She cries, but for only a few moments. Then she lifts her hand and seems alert, indifferent, as if she’d just been awakened from hypnosis.
“All right,” she says. “So will you please bury him for me?”
“Certainly, Miss Orlando. Where would you like me to do that?”
She doesn’t answer. She walks down the steps and onto the lawn where I stand. She moves past me and goes down on all fours in front of the oleander and cranes her neck to search beneath it.
“It’s all right, my precious one,” she says. “You’re in heaven now.”
She stays like this for a long time and begins to whisper things I can’t hear.
“Miss Orlando,” I say. “So where would you like me to bury Hercules?”
She tries to rise, but her knees lock and she lunges forward and falls.
I run to her and put a hand under her arm and lift her. She swipes it away.
“I’m all right,” she says. “I don’t need any help from anybody!”
She stands up straight and takes a deep breath. Then she goes through the gate and leads me to a Liquid Amber. She points to the ground beneath it. “Here,” she says. “And just come get me when you’re done. I don’t want to watch.”
“Sure,” I say.
I wait until Miss Orlando goes back out the gate. After a few moments, I hear the slap of her screen door.
I return to my truck to get a shovel. I turn to the sound of footsteps behind me. It’s the alleged cat trapper.
“Good morning,” he says.
He offers me his hand. I don’t shake it, but he doesn’t seem to care.
“My name is Bill Palamountain,” he says. “I’ve moved in a couple doors down and I’ve just started up a roofing business.”
He turns to look at Miss Orlando’s roof, just as before. “I’ve noticed this one could use some work. Are you the owner?”
“No,” I say. “That would be Miss Orlando.”
“Is she here?”
“Yes. But she wouldn’t want to talk right now. I just found her cat lying dead under that oleander.”
“Oh my goodness,” he says. “I’m really sorry. I’ll just swing by some other time then.”
He reaches into his back pocket and pulls out a business card and hands it to me:
“WE’RE UP TO ANY JOB”
“Sure,” I say. “I’ll give this to Miss Orlando.”
“Have a great day and sorry again about the cat.”
He turns and walks away. I slide the shovel out of my truck, mount it on my shoulder, and return to the tree.
The ground is soft, but there are roots to work around, and some I must sever. Still, in only a few minutes, I’ve created a deep grave for Hercules.
I return to the oleander, put on some gardening gloves, and then pull the cat from beneath the shrub, all the while checking the house to make sure Miss Orlando isn’t watching. The cat is stiff, and yet I contemplate whether it’s actually dead, or if it might spring to life and start clawing at me in a frenzied attack. I lift Hercules and hold him like a tray of champagne glasses, and then go back to the hole I’ve dug.
The thoughts of the cat’s sudden resurrection leave me when I lay it in the ground. I start to fill the grave, and use the back of my shovel to tap it down every few inches. When I am finished, I lean the shovel against the tree and begin to return to the house to get Miss Orlando. But she is standing at the gate.
“You’re done then?” she says.
“Yes,” I say.
“Well good. So now we need to pray,” she says.
“I said we need to pray for Hercules.”
She walks toward me.
“Take my hand,” she says.
“I said take my hand.”
Her palm is soft, and she closes it around mine with surprising strength. We stand next to Hercules’ grave and form a crescent on one side of it with our arms. For what seems a long time, Miss Orlando doesn’t speak, and only bows her head. I stand with the old woman in the presence of self-sacrifice, of compromise, of giving. I have never believed in God. I am a belligerent atheist.
Finally, Miss Orlando begins:
“Dear God. Please receive the soul of my dear Hercules. Please let him find the peace in the same measure he has given to me for all of these years. Please hold him in your comforting, loving arms, forever. And remember, God, keep my dear Paul close to you in heaven. Tell him I am coming to be with him, whenever You decide I am ready.”
This was his name. Her fiancé. The Marine killed in some frozen wasteland in a war no one remembers.
She jerks her head toward me and nods demandingly.
I close my eyes. “Yes, God,” I say obediently. “And, well, Amen.”
I open my eyes to the grave I’ve dug for Hercules. Miss Orlando lets go of my hand and begins to walk back to the porch.
“Miss Orlando?” I say.
“What?” she says, sharply.
“So a man came by who’s interested in fixing your roof.”
She looks up at it.
“He lives just down the street and he gave me his card,” I say.
“Ok,” she says. “Fine.”
She puts out her hand and I give her the card. She reads it. “Palamountain. What the hell sort of name is that?” she says.
She looks at the roof again. “Well, he’s right. It does need some work. I’ll call him.”
“Good,” I say.
She turns back to the porch, and then stops and examines the grass around her feet.
“You’re going to mow today, aren’t you, Hemingway? It really needs it.”
“Yes, Ma’am,” I say. “I’m on it.”
I return to my truck and get my mower and push it onto a corner of the lawn. I look toward the porch and see Miss Orlando sitting in her chair and gazing up at her roof again, as if she is trying to remember what it was I told her about it. I wonder if she’ll ever realize the man who might fix it is the same man she’d accused of trapping her beloved Hercules. I know she will not.
I begin to cut the lawn in the same pattern as always, back and forth in straight lines. The morning is warm now. Like me, Miss Orlando feels the heat. I see her wipe at her forehead. Then she gets up and goes to the edge of her porch and leans forward. Somehow I’m able to hear her above the roar of my mower. “How about something to drink, Hemingway?” she shouts.
“Sure,” I yell.
The lawn is only half finished, but I stop my mower and climb the porch to be with Miss Orlando. By the time I get there she has put a tall glass of what looks like limeade on the arm of the chair where I’m to sit. In the past she has always given me ice water.
I sit in the chair and take the limeade. The glass is ice cold.
“It’s just like you like it,” she says. “Very tart. I know how you like things very tart, my dear.”
She reaches out and puts her hand on my knee. It is a sensual touch. She begins to gently rake her fingers along my thigh. I look out at the half-mowed lawn, and want to flee.
“Do you remember that time on the beach on Valentine’s Day?” she says.
“I said do you remember our time on the beach on Valentine’s Day? It was just before you left.”
I am silent. “Oh, please. You know what I’m talking about. You were just finishing your basic training at Camp Pendleton. You had a full day of liberty. We went deep-sea fishing. You caught a big bonito and gave it to an old man who hadn’t caught anything. Then we drove into Mexico and—remember, you bought that little bottle of tequila and then we stopped at the grocery and got some limes and we went out to Mission Beach, and then…”
I stop her.
“Wait, Miss Orlando.”
“Wait?” she says. “Wait for what?”
We sit in silence. It is an honorable quiet. A tribute to that question, Wait for what? Her face retreats into a composed struggle to retrieve the present. She gets up and starts out across the lawn and stops at my mower and stares at it as if it’s something strange that has fallen from space. “I’m going to check on Hercules,” she says, looking back at me, and then towards Hercules’ grave, and then back to me again. She does this for a long time, reminding me of a weather vane in a crazy wind. Finally she goes through the gate to her back yard. I can hear her through the fence. It is the murmur of another prayer. A cry for love. A storm of very human sounds that lift my heart and comfort my soul.
John Thomson's novel for young readers, A SMALL BOAT AT THE BOTTOM OF THE SEA, was published by Milkweed Editions. His short stories have appeared in The University of Portland Review, Pacific Coast Journal, and Spitball, a baseball literary magazine. He works as a Land Steward for a nonprofit Land Trust in Northern California.