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In the end, it was a good thing Mr. Mustard didn’t like coffee any more than he liked baths.
"I'm sorry, Mister," Dottie Peters told the large, orange tabby. "But you were stinky."
The elderly woman wrapped a thick towel around her wet, struggling cat and lifted him to the rim of the bathtub. She rested a moment, then hugged the bundle to her chest and rose. Steadying her body against the wall, she finally stood erect, more or less, while the cat fussed in her arms.
"Oof, hold still."
Dottie put her nose to the towel and inhaled the warm, primal scent of feline, mixed with baby shampoo. She moved the morning's newspaper from the old leather recliner and sat down, still gripping her entrapped cat. After fumbling with the remote until the TV clicked to life, she leaned back into the overstuffed chair and began massaging her furry hostage. The morning news show burbled with happy tones, but Dottie didn't smile.
"Bob used to sit here," she said as she rubbed. It had been two weeks and a day since her husband's heart attack, and in his absence, the cat had become her confidant. "He used to have his coffee here in the morning and watch The Price Is Right, remember?"
Mr. Mustard howled.
"I know, Sweetie." Dottie rubbed at the tears stinging her eyes. "If coffee didn't give me heartburn, I'd turn the channel, but I can't watch The Price Is Right without a cup of coffee. It just wouldn't be the same."
Mr. Mustard gave one last growl and disentangled himself from his terrycloth prison, leaping from his mistress's lap. He marched out of the room without glancing back, his tail twitching.
"Fine, Grumpy." She turned back to the TV and watched a young woman point out the latest traffic snarl, happy she didn't have to navigate southern California freeways. Everything she needed was less than six blocks away from her small bungalow. Bob usually drove their little beige sedan anywhere she needed to go.
"Suppose I'll have to do all the driving now," she said to no one, tears pooling again before they tumbled to her cheeks.
She and Bob were no spring chickens - she knew that. Still, the sight of him slipping from his chair like a bag of potatoes from a shelf, kept replaying in her mind. Death was inevitable, but did it have to be such a damned surprise?
She rose and shuffled into the kitchen. "I think I'll have a little coffee anyway – for Bob. I can always take some Tums later."
The yellow paint on the walls of the small kitchen had faded, and there were grease spots over the stove that could have been wiped away, if Dottie's eyesight was better. An oak table stood in the corner with two matching chairs. Only one of them had a cushion, for Bob. Dottie always joked she brought her own padding to any chair she sat in.
She stretched up to the cabinet above the sink and retrieved a small tin of coffee, decorated in a gay autumnal theme, an orange bow still on the lid. After filling the coffee pot, she made sure it gurgled and sputtered before she walked back into her bedroom.
While the coffee brewed, she changed into a housedress, a shapeless swath of blue cotton with small pink roses decorating the collar. She returned to the kitchen and filled a green mug halfway with dark, aromatic liquid, then went back to the recliner.
A cooking show blared on the TV, the celebrity hostess showing the viewer how to make grilled shrimp escabeche for a family of four.
"Whose child would eat that?" Dottie switched the channel to watch the game show. She sipped her coffee, and puckered.
"This tastes different than I remember." She took another drink and watched Drew Carey invite a screeching young woman on stage. Dottie sighed. Different host, different coffee, nothing stayed the same.
She picked up the paper from the table next to the chair and read it while she drank. "Damned vultures. Think just because Bob is gone, I'll sell out."
Her pale brow wrinkled as she pushed her glasses back up on her nose.
An adhesive note was stuck to the paper. She pulled it off and looked at the message scribbled in bold black. DECIDE NOW, with a phone number, screamed at her.
"Pushy SOB." She wadded the note in her gnarled fingers.
A feline voice trilled from the hallway and Mr. Mustard trotted into the room, his tail high and vibrating. Dottie smiled and tossed the note across the floor. The cat ran to the paper and batted it with his forepaws, before picking it up in his mouth and carrying it back to his mistress. He leapt to the recliner's arm in one graceful bound and dropped his toy on Dottie's lap.
She threw it again, and, once again, the tabby gave chase. Retrieving scraps of paper was the cat's favorite activity. Bob often joked they couldn't teach the cat to use the scratching post, but he could fetch like a damned dog.
Dottie looked up at the TV. Drew Carey appeared fuzzy, so she took off her glasses and cleaned them on her dress. It didn't help.
A moment later, she clasped her right hand over her breast, just as Bob had done two weeks ago. As she reached out for the telephone, she lost her balance and fell to her knees. She managed to dial '9' before losing consciousness.
Mr. Mustard returned to the recliner and sniffed the coffee, splashed across the carpet. Sneezing, he walked out to find a warm spot for a nap, taking the crumpled paper with him.
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