"Why do you call him Mouse? He's not a mouse! He'd like to eat a mouse!"
Sunlight lazed through the picture window, glinting off cut glassware, glaring on a coffee-table top, creating a square of warmth that Mouse dozed in, one paw stretched out, his tail twitching occasionally.
The TV was on, a Western in progress, two cowboy pals on their horses, running down outlaws. An old woman and a little curly-haired boy sat on her sofa, watching. He liked it now, just them. At first his older sister came along. When she chose the program, it bored him. At eight she yearned toward a sophistication of sorts: Art Linkletter, Virginia Graham, The Edge of Night.
Then she lost interest in visiting. Now it was just Mouse, Miss Gardner and her "gentleman caller." He didn't understand that phrase, it was over his five-year-old head, but he enjoyed being called that. And he enjoyed being doted on. Without Wendy, he got all the oatmeal cookies and his choice of the TV fare, Westerns: The Cisco Kid at the top of the list.
Mouse was mouse gray with white paws and a white belly and a white vee on his face. He rose from his patch of sun, arched his back, sauntered over for pets, trundled to his food bowl in the kitchen, stopping half-way there to shake a rear leg.
Miss Gardner wore print dresses and smelled of lilac, her was hair salt and pepper. She lived alone, just Mouse and her. Whatever the boy said she weighed as if it was of great gravity. He liked that. He told her, "When I grow up I want to be the Cisco Kid. And you can be Pancho!" She nodded while looking into his eyes and said, "We'll have six-shooters. You'll ride a golden palomino, and I'll ride a spotted roan. When we see banditos, we'll shoot 'em dead!" She held up her hand like a pistol, index finger pointed, thumb cocked, and said, "Pow! Pow!" His feet kicked a little.
No one else ever had time to listen closely to much of what he said, grown-ups were too busy, and Wendy told him he was a pest. When his parents said mm-hmm he knew they weren't really listening. But Miss Gardner cared. She listened.
He came over almost every day. Until one day he didn't.
There was no formal break or good-bye. He was just a little older, too old to spend afternoons with an old woman, even if she offered cookies. Now he had friends his own age, new kids on the block. They chased after Indians or Germans, then cars and girls. From her living room window, as Mouse slept, she watched them.
He grew taller, his soft features hardened a little, crept to adulthood. His curls got very long, hippyish. They'd see each other once in a blue moon at the market or around the corner. One summer she hired him to mow her lawn. But they didn't talk very much, their era was in a box on a shelf. Then early one morning, getting the paper from her porch, she saw the moving van.
By evening it was packed and the family, the boy, gone.
He swiped the plastic card through the metal slot, opened the door. Another Marriott room, he was sick of them. Pushing 60 he'd hoped to be done with this. But the best laid plans of mice and early-retirement and a forever-marriage went up in a poof in the crater that was 2008. That meant more conferences, more years. So be it. At least I have some money, my health.
With time the bounce of youth was, bit by bit, replaced with gray and sag and stout and wrinkle and ache. His long curls were long gone, what remained was clipped in a business cut. He told himself, "I need to start exercising." But he knew he wouldn't.
Before mixing a scotch and soda at the mini-bar, he stripped out of his suit, down to a comfy T-shirt, boxers and slippers, set the AC to a gentle cool, thinking, "I'd prefer the option of opening a window."
On the bed, remote in hand, drink in the other, clicking through the myriad channels, he happened on something that rang a distant bell, an old B&W TV Western featuring a heroic Mexican and his silly sidekick. "Huh," he thought, "I remember this show! I haven't seen it in a million years..."
It triggered memories: lilac, oatmeal cookies, a cat purring in the sunlight.
Like a vivid dream it came back, those afternoons with Miss Gardner. She'd seemed so ancient back then, older (even) than his parents. In retrospect she may've only been 50. "Younger than me today," he murmured.
What could've happened to her? She can't be alive. How did she die? I hope it wasn't painful. Was she alone? God, I hope it wasn't painful.
The program played on. Lost in thought he didn't hear horses galloping in a desert, barroom brawls, breaking glass, bullets ricocheting off boulders.
Without realizing he'd been drinking, his glass was empty. He got up to make another, but on the way, stopped. Slumping, his face contorted as he thought of days that were green with promise, afternoons that stretched to a far-flung horizon, when he was the center of someone's universe.
The show was coming to its close.
"Good-bye, amigos!" said Cisco.
"See you, soon! Ha!" said Pancho.