Fluffy knew in his bones that Flo would soon be a goner. It wasn't so much the stiffness in her hands and feet, or the way her shoulders arched further downward as she shuffled around, or even her skin, which resembled a threadbare sheet. It was the smell that predicted her demise.
A mouse's nose is never wrong. Fluffy's could pick up the subtle difference between Fontina and Provalone and detect the odor of a fallen brother inside the trailer's walls. He figured the stench would get so bad that eventually the angels in Heaven would pinch their noses and put an end to Flo's suffering.
They had been together for over a year and Fluffy could not imagine life without her. He often recalled the day she had dragged her walker up to his cage at the pet shop, where, just hours old, he lay with his siblings in a nest of wood shavings. Though he was no bigger than the tip of her finger, he could already sense the creature-love that flowed from every pore. "Hello, little fellers," she had whispered in a voice that matched the kindness radiating from her faded blue eyes. "Now don't you all look like pink petals on a flower? Que Bella!"
Every day she came to visit, and as the family grew, began to focus more closely on him. He made sure she would by doing back-flips, climbing the bars on the cage, and squealing happily--anything to hold her attention.
Affection for the old girl aside, he had to get out of that pet shop. After the store was closed, from a far corner, hisses and rattles emerged with such eerie frequency his little body shook. His brothers and sisters might be oblivious, but he'd noticed members of his clan disappearing at a steady rate. Deep in his heart he knew they'd been taken to that horrid corner. No mouse could afford to reject a savior, even one bent over a walker, and Fluffy had made it his goal to leave the pet shop in a cage, not in the belly of a serpent and so he courted the old gal with his shenanigans sending the same silent message over and over: "Choose me! Choose me!" And lo and behold, she had.
What would become of him without Flo Tabaldi? Yes, it was cold to think only of himself at a time like this, but he was just a mouse, after all, and helpless.
Flo's only relatives, her daughter Freida and her grandson, Freddie, were terrible people, surfacing only around the first of the month when Flo's Social Security check came. They were disgraziata and he wanted nothing to do with them. Once, Freddie had opened the cage and reached inside forcing Fluffy to back into a corner, his little heart pumping on all cylinders. If Flo hadn't come up from behind and stopped Freddie from grabbing him, Fluffy was sure he would have dropped dead. Fluffy couldn't imagine Flo would consciously bequeath him to Freida and Freddie. But what if the Grim Reaper gave no warning? What if he came in the middle of the night to claim his benefactor?
Such was the predicament Fluffy faced with hardly an interval to ease his worry. And so he found himself spending more time on his exercise wheel in hopes that physical activity would render him too exhausted to care.
One night, as Fluffy lay panting after a marathon run, he heard the patter of paws clip across the linoleum. A damned wall-dweller, no doubt, living in over-crowded conditions, foraging for food, jockeying for political position. What an existence!
Fluffy dismissed the sound and allowed his eyes to close, but before sleep could claim him, he was startled by a heavy thump against his cage.
"Damn! Thought I'd return the favor," said the biggest, grungiest mouse Fluffy had ever imagined.
"Favor?" he stammered.
"Yeah," sneered the mouse, "make enough racket to keep you up all night."
Fluffy was bewildered. He hadn't meant to antagonize anyone, especially anyone as rough looking as this guy. He opened his mouth to explain, but the mouse held up his paw. "Save it, pal. I get the picture."
The mouse snorted. "For the past year you've stayed pretty much in the same spot. There ain't a whole lot about your body language I can't read."
Fluffy's first instinct was to ask this upstart just who in the hell he thought he was, spying on him, knowing his every move, but he had to face facts. He was living in a cage, exposed on every side. Still, it was disconcerting to know he'd been scrutinized, and by such a scary looking creature.
The big mouse puffed out his fur and reared back on his hind legs. "Boo!" he yelled. Fluffy trembled and the mouse laughed so hard he lost his footing and toppled onto his side. "Oy...I couldn't resist," he said, slapping his paw against the tabletop. "It's the size that gets 'em every time. But I'm--you'll pardon the expression--a real pussy cat."
Such a jovial fellow, his visitor. A real joker. Fluffy did a quick memory search. What had made him laugh? Apart from reruns of Seinfeld and those Infomercials Flo was so fond of, he couldn't recall one instance.
"Yo, dude," whispered the big mouse, wedged nose between the bars of Fluffy's cage. "I know what you're up against and believe me, I feel for you."
How could this beast who stank of poverty and uncollected refuse, know what he was going through?
The mouse eyed him steadily, as if reading his mind. "You doubt our kinship?" he asked, but did not wait for Fluffy's answer. "I am a mouse," he said. "I have eyes. I have paws, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, and passions. I digest food. I'm imprisoned by traps, I am subject to disease, healed. Warmed in winter and cooled in summer--just like you, pal!"
If it weren't for his dilemma, Fluffy might have turned his back on his unwelcome visitor. But given life's ironies and a sudden crushing weariness, he bowed his head and let his emotions fly. "Flo's all I've got," he sobbed. "She's my whole life."
The mouse shook his head. "Yeah. My pad's behind her bed. Death rattle's getting deeper. It won't be long now."
"You gotta face facts, kiddo. It's not like you don't have options."
Fluffy's ears twitched. "Options?"
"Sure. You could freelance, you know."
Oh, it wasn't as if he didn't know what the mouse was getting at. Freelance. That meant being on his own, living from paw to mouth, taking a chance on success. No sir. "It's easy for you to say. You were born to it."
"To freedom, you mean? You're damn right! And I wouldn't give it up for all the cheese in Wisconsin." The mouse slapped his tail against the cage. "You're the one behind bars, pal."
Fluffy's lips went dry. Instinctively, he turned to drink from his sipper. The water surged onto his tongue. Fresh, clear water that had been brought to him. Next to his sipper, a bowl of food, always there when he needed it. Supplies supplied. Which didn't mean he was a prisoner. It simply meant he was a creature who had been given certain assurances. That's what separated his kind from the organism that stood before him. He was a pet, damn it! Did dogs and cats that were cared for have to apologize to members of their species who were not? He didn't think so!
"Look," said the big guy. "I'm no poster child for alternative lifestyles. I just thought you might benefit from my experience."
Fluffy didn't want to give his visitor carte blanche to spew forth further philosophies in which he held no interest, but he did face an uncertain future and could not afford to discount any suggestion, even from one so obviously in love with his own opinions.
"My experience is this," said the mouse. "I had it easy--once. I didn't live in a bronze cage, true, but I might as well have. From where you sit, can you see out the window to that first trailer?"
Fluffy strained his neck. "The blue one? Yes. What about it?"
"I was born in that trailer," said the mouse, his voice cracking. "Occupied by one Herman Shapiro, a regular couch potato latke. Ate all the time and never cleaned up. It was a perpetual smorgasbord, I tell you. All I had to do was...dine."
"And Herman died?"
"Worse. He's one of those guys always looking for love, you know? Even placed ads in the Bay Shore Personals. But I wasn't worried. I figured, who besides me, would want fat, sloppy Herman with his terrible habits?"
"Well, I was wrong! Herman's Applesauce answered his ad and soon moved in-- lock stock and Tabby. And that was the end of La Dolce Vita."
"So you've been--"
"Bumming it ever since." The mouse sighed. "Lived in practically every wall in this damn trailer park. Have you any idea how many people here own cats? Of course, life has its high points."
"Such as?" said Fluffy, in his most sarcastic voice.
"Such as..." And then the big guy moved his body in what Fluffy imagined was some sort of dance. A moment later, a small, soft cloud of gray turned the corner of the wall and padded over on the pinkest, most delicate paws he had ever seen. The little mouse gazed up at Fluffy, then quickly pulled her large, round eyes away, but not before batting long, thick lashes at him. He was reminded of his mother and sisters. They had been dainty, too, with tender pick ears, just like this lovely creature's.
"This here's my babe," said the big mouse. "She has a bunch of sisters...if you get my drift."
Fluffy got the big guy's drift so completely that all he could manage was an embarrassed nod.
"Yeah, all in all, life is good." He nuzzled his ladyfriend's nose and told her to run along. They both watched as the little mouse turned and slowly made her way around the wall, tail wiggling behind her. Fluffy had to concede that freedom did have its advantages.
The clock on the mantle chimed. five o'clock. Fluffy would have liked to learn more about the fascinating creature with the cute button nose, but Flo's alarm would be going off in just five minutes.
"Damn," said the mouse. "There's something I just gotta ask. What the hell kind of name is 'Fluffy'? Guinea pigs are fluffy, not the likes of you and me."
Before Fluffy could defend his name, even before Flo's alarm announced the morning, Fluffy heard her walker bang against the nightstand as she grunted her way out of bed.
"I think you'd better go," said Fluffy. "My mistress will be coming in soon to replenish my supplies."
"Yeah, guess I should vamoose...maybe have a little tete-a-tete with my mistress, too." The mouse gripped the bars on the cage. "Think about what I said, though, will you, bud?"
Fluffy nodded, concentrating on Flo's long, laboring trek from her room to the kitchen.
"Tsk, tsk. Just listen to the drag on that walker. Poor old girl."
"Please. She mustn't see you. Please go."
The big guy lingered long enough to see Flo meander her way around the living room wall, and as soon as she did, he was gone.
Fluffy sighed. As he watched Flo carry food and water to his cage (while propelling her walker forward with her knees), his loneliness, premature as it was, sliced into him like the blade of a Ginzu.
"Buon giorno, my Fluffy-wuffy," Flo said, her voice weaker than usual. "Mommy is very, very tired."
Fluffy squealed up at her, silently cursing the biology that kept them apart. He could only hope his squeaks conveyed his gratitude.
That week, Flo made it into the living room just three times, each of those times to check on his welfare. The rest of the time, she spent in bed. The phone at her bed stand rang often, but he could not make out the words of Flo's mumbled conversations. Did all those calls have to do with him? Habits die hard, and he could not stop thinking about himself. Had Flo exhausted every possibility in trying to find him a home? Would she have to settle for Freida and Freddie after all? Oh, the misery! Better to share his mistress' fate, better to contemplate his own demise, for surely without her love and protection, he would die.
It was a gloomy week indeed. He could hardly eat or sleep. Were these to be their last hours together? She, confined to her bedroom, too frail to sit with him, to watch television? And he, stuck in his cage, impotent? They might as well have been separated by an ocean, a continent, a planet. He was so consumed by his frustration, so wrapped up in the nuts and bolts of his condition, that when Flo did lumber to his cage again, tears running down cheeks as wrinkled as old lampshades, he imagined he were viewing an apparition. She looked worse than ever, but she smiled at him, causing the pain in his heart to echo like a fist against an empty barrel.
"Just as I suspected," Flo said, eyeing the uneaten pellets. "You've been worried, haven't you?" Fluffy acknowledged her query with a squeak. Flo nodded. "How well I know my Fluffy. But not to worry, mi amicio. Your patrona has made sure you'll be cared for." And then she whispered Jenny LoPicolo's name.
Of course! Flo's friend since junior high! He'd been introduced to her through a running correspondence. Flo had read many of Jenny's letters aloud, as if the information contained therein was something he was dying to know. Tales of dogs and tropical fish, hamsters, lizards and what Flo had referred to as "exotics." "Such an animal lover that Jenny," Flo had exclaimed. "Except for cats--poor Jenny's always been allergic." During his time with Flo, Jenny had even sent pictures of some of her pets. Not to be outdone, Flo had made him pose for pictures, too: standing, stretching, walking the wheel, full face and profile.
Flo opened the cage and ran a crippled finger along his back. In a voice no stronger than ashes, Flo explained that Jenny would soon come. "Packed up and is on her way to us. I've left her the trailer. And you, my baby. She'll love you the way I do."
Buoyed by Flo's news, he jumped, nearly hitting his head on the ceiling of the cage. Immediately, he was ashamed. Was there no end to his self-indulgence?
But Flo didn't seem to notice. "Think I'll just rest a bit," she said, easing into her chair. "Right here, where I have a great view of my favorite sight."
Flo closed her eyes just as the doorbell chimed.
With each press of the bell, Fluffy's heart sank. There, on the other side of the door, stood Flo's best friend, a kind-hearted lady who had come all the way from Orlando, Florida to Bay Shore, Long Island just to help out. Someone who was willing to hold her compare's hand when her time came, someone who would take over the care of her earthly possessions. But Jenny was too late, as Fluffy sadly observed. His mistress, slack in her wing-backed chair, eyes fixed on his face, confirmed it.
"Flo, it's me...Jenny."
Fluffy pulled his eyes from his toppled mistress and tried to eke out a welcome, but the sound got caught on the lump in his throat. Jenny rang the bell again, then banged on the door. Finally, Fluffy heard the lock tumble. Good old Flo had sent a key.
And in walked the woman who would see him through the rest of his life.
"Oh!" Jenny cried, when she had gotten far enough into the room to sum up the situation. "Oh, cara mia!"
Fluffy blinked away tears as he watched Jenny kneel before her late comrade. He finally managed a peep and she swiveled toward him. Selfishness or not, he could not shake his relief. One door closes, another opens. Ah, Dio!
Jenny stood and walked toward him, her face alive and glowing, a vision in a flowered dress, complemented by a colorful lei around her neck. Plumeria? Hibiscus? And then Fluffy felt the panic of answered prayers as Jenny's necklace began to ripple. Cold liquid filtered from his belly out to the tips of each limb. Jenny's lips moved as she stroked the snake, but all he could hear was the pounding of his heart. He wondered if Flo had seen her life flash before her as her spirit ebbed away. He was seeing his wink past, and wasn't it a burn that what he had feared most had come back to haunt him?
Jenny's voice sieved into his arctic brain. "We're sad now, but after we put our grief to rest, we'll all settle down to a nice life together. Rex and Paloma are still in the car, but I'll fetch them presently. Say hello to Slick."
Fluffy knew he would never be able to trust anyone named Slick.
Jenny unlatched the cage and reached inside. Her touch was gentle, almost hypnotic. Past her shoulder, Fluffy saw the big mouse, working on an itch behind his ear. They stared at each other.
What had he done to deserve this Kismet, this Karma? What came back to him now, in a rush, was his mother's voice the day Flo was to take him home. "My son," she had said, "you have been chosen. You are the lucky one." If she could only see him now. He closed his eyes and for a moment luxuriated in the feel of Jenny's hand across his fur. Was there anything sweeter than the touch of a gentle lady?
Fluffy took a deep breath, hoping to screw courage into his lungs. Was valor a mouse full of air? Was bravery simply fear, holding on a moment longer? He was about to find out. He lunged out of the cage, ran past a startled Jenny and her exotic neck ornament, past his dead benefactor, over surfaces he had never experienced--mahogany, linoleum, the loops of a hooked rug. Each texture left its imprint as he closed the gap between himself, the wall, and the future.