THE NEXT DAY WAS a Friday so I had my reports to do, and I was also preoccupied with thinking about the night before.
The clinic had been decorated with garlands and plastic holly, and the vet had poked and prodded Johnny, and he didn’t complain — he never was a complainer — but I could tell he was feeling anxious. Before we left, they recommended lots of rest, and I told them he’d been doing that already, and they said that’s good, but then I caught the vet and the nurse exchanging a glance that they didn’t think I saw.
I was also feeling bad for how short I’d been with Sherry the day before, because all she’d really wanted was my company, and all she wanted us to do was help a sick friend — a dying friend — together. I was planning on saying something nice to her when I went to deliver my reports, but she beat me to it.
She walked by on her way to lunch and stopped in front of my desk and smiled at me. “Eunice,” she said in a very sincere voice, and I knew she was going to ask me about Johnny because Sherry is the type to look to the future and let bygones be bygones. “Eunice,” she said, “how is your day going?”
“Oh, Sherry,” I said and heard my voice catch, “he’s not doing very well.” Then I realized she hadn’t asked about Johnny at all.
Sherry made a sad face where she stuck out her bottom lip and sort of folded it over her top lip, and she stared at me for a good fifteen seconds before I mustered up a smile and said, “Thanks for asking, Sherry.”
“Well,” she said with a wink, “you know me!”
I nodded and switched my gaze to the Grand Canyon. The way the edges of my computer screen framed that natural wonder, it humbled me to see it. Johnny and I are specks, I thought to myself. We are teeny-tiny specks, the two of us.
“So, about last night,” said Sherry. “Eunice, oh my God, the state of that woman’s apartment has to be seen to be believed. When I went to take her to the hospital that first time, I wasn’t paying much attention because I was all about Wendy, but last night when Twyla and I went over —”
“Wait a minute, you went with Twyla?” I said. “But she’s a temp. And you always said she had a porpoise face.”
Sherry nodded, shrugged. “You missed your chance.”
I didn’t know what to say to that, so I took the top piece of bread off my ham sandwich and contemplated the round pink slice inside. The ham was slightly shiny, with that hint of a rainbow that lunchmeat can sometimes get.
“Anyway, there wasn’t any mail and Wendy doesn’t have any plants, so we just put some food in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s bowl and —”
I looked up at her. “Wet or dry?”
“The cat food. Was it wet or dry?”
She sighed an impatient sigh. “I don’t know, Twyla fed him. But I’m telling you, Eunice, I don’t think Wendy ever used a mop or a broom once in that place. I guess there was all that time she wasn’t feeling well, but it takes years for a home to get like that.”
Sherry doesn’t have any pets and couldn’t be expected to know about these things, so I explained it to her. “Because you should really be giving him dry food most of the time, so he gets used to it.”
“Twyla and I looked around for some cleaning supplies, but we couldn’t find any in her closets, and we didn’t want to go snooping around, so we just tidied up as best we could.”
I’d been adding flaxseed oil to Johnny’s dry food (which I mashed for him until it was soft) because I’d read on a holistic pet-health website that it was good for the cells, but I don’t think it ever did anything for him. “You should only give him the wet food as a treat,” I said. “The wet food isn’t as healthy as the dry food. They’re easy to tell apart — the wet food is wet, and the dry food looks like little hearts, but brown.”
Sherry waved a hand. “That’s all well and good, Eunice, but I can’t concern myself with cat food at a time like this, with a woman’s life — our co-worker’s life — hanging in the balance.” Then she stopped talking and looked at me, waiting for me to say something.
So I said, “Sherry, you are a good person. You’re so good, to me and Wendy and everybody. And I’m not even — I’m different from you, but I wish I wasn’t. I wish I was the same as you, but I’m not.”
“Well, thank God for that!” she said, and smiled. “Thank God we’re different, Eunice, because that’s what makes us such a great team!” Then she clapped her hands together. “Now, bring that sandwich. You’re coming to the cafeteria with me!”
“I wish I could, Sherry,” I said, “but it’s Friday, and I have to finish my reports.”
“Come on then, chop chop!” she said, as if she hadn’t heard what I’d told her.
“I can’t, Sherry.”
And she gave me this sudden, sad look, and said, “Oh, all right, then.” Before heading off, she glanced around and seemed confused for a second, as if she’d forgotten where she was going.
AFTER THAT, THE WEEKS went by and the days got colder and Christmas came and went, and the whole time Johnny and Wendy got sicker.
Ruth P. had the idea to prop up a big framed photo of Wendy on Wendy’s empty desk. She made sure there was a fresh card next to it every Monday for people to write their up-to-theminute get-well wishes, and at the end of each week, the cards were delivered to Wendy’s hospital room.
The only pre-cancer photo of Wendy they could find was from an old staff potluck, which had been up on the Staff Fun bulletin board. It was a crowd shot, and Ruth P. had had it enlarged, so it was kind of grainy. It showed Wendy holding a plate of food, her mouth open to receive a cocktail shrimp, tail-first.
“That’s Wendy,” I overheard someone say when I passed by with my reports one day. “She was always doing things backwards.” They were starting to talk about her as if she were already dead.
I had a standing invitation to the cafeteria from Sherry by this time, but I only took her up on it for a few lunches early on. Then I started going home at noon to feed Johnny, because he was at the point where all he would take was liquid vitamins out of an eyedropper.
I don’t think Sherry missed me anyway. She’d become pretty busy with her charity fundraising (she convinced Mr. Vanderhoeven to shave his head for cancer!) and her new job responsibilities (she’d volunteered to do Wendy’s score sheets for her same pay, but she said Mr. Vanderhoeven said that kind of initiative deserved a raise).
Then one Friday, the whole big group of them — Sherry, Val, Ruth P., Ruth C., Kevin, and Twyla — came by my desk on their way to the cafeteria.
I was closing down my computer because I wasn’t coming back after lunch. That morning Johnny had been quieter than usual, and I had a bad feeling, so I finished my reports early and asked Mr. Vanderhoeven if I could have the afternoon off, and he said yes. So I was ready to leave, but then the six of them were hovering over my desk, looking down at me.
“Hi, Eunice,” said Sherry.
“Hi, Sherry,” I said. “Hi, everybody.”
“We haven’t seen you in the cafeteria in a while,” said Val.
“Oh, you know.” I shrugged. “I’ve been going home to Johnny lately.”
“Did you sign Wendy’s card this week?” asked Ruth P.
“Hmm, I don’t think I have,” I said.
“Well,” said Ruth C., “it’s there. I put a new pen out today.”
“How’s she doing?” I asked them.
Kevin sighed. “I printed out the photo of her and Andrew Lloyd Webber, and I brought it to her last week, but she was sleeping again so I taped it up on the wall by her bed. She didn’t look good.”
“I saw her this morning,” said Sherry, “and I brought her some crossword puzzles, because I know she loves her crossword puzzles, and she looked positively gaunt.” She frowned at me. “When’s the last time you saw her, Eunice?”
I looked up at all of them there waiting for my answer, and I didn’t say anything.
“Have you even been to visit her once?”
“I have to get going.” I stood up. “I have to get home to Johnny. I finished my reports already, and Mr. Vanderhoeven knows I’m going home.”
“We don’t care about your reports,” said Sherry. “We care about Wendy. We are all about people around here, Eunice, in case you didn’t notice.”
“That’s fine for you,” I said to her, “but I’ve got Johnny.”
And Sherry looked at me, and I couldn’t believe it, but there wasn’t a trace of sympathy in her eyes. “Eunice,” she said, “he’s just a cat.”
And I thought I was going to start crying right there in front of everybody, but the tears didn’t come. I just faced them all across my desk, and I didn’t say a word.
Sherry’s nostrils flared — I could see them, she was that close. “I don’t think you should come to the cafeteria with us today, Eunice.”
I didn’t say anything to that, either.
“Let’s go, gang,” she said, and they went off down the hall together in a tight little clump.
To be continued…