"Why do you call him Mouse? He's not a mouse! He'd like to eat a mouse!"
Sunlight poured through the picture window, glinted off cut glassware, glazed a coffee-table top, created a square of warmth that Mouse dozed in, one paw stretched, his tail twitching occasionally.
The television was on, a Western in progress, two cowboy pals riding horses, chasing after outlaws. An old woman and a little curly-haired boy sat on her sofa, watching. He liked it now, just them.
Initially, his older sister came along. Wendy's choice of programs bored him. At eight-years-of-age, she yearned for a sophistication of sorts: Art Linkletter, Virginia Graham, "The Edge of Night."
But her interest in these afternoons waned. Now it was just Mouse, Miss Gardner and her "gentleman caller." The phrase sailed 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 television 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 a patch of sun, arched his back, lazed over for attention, then trotted to the kitchen, stopping half-way to shake a rear leg.
Miss Gardner wore flower print dresses and carried a scent of lilac; her was hair salt and pepper. She lived alone, just Mouse and her. Whatever the boy said, she weighed as if it bore great import. He liked that. He told her, "When I grow up I'll 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 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!" Seated on the couch, his feet kicked a little.
No one else ever had time to listen to much of what he to say. Wendy dismissed him as a pest. When his parents said mm-hm, he knew they weren't really listening. But Miss Gardner heard.
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, suddenly too old to spend afternoons with an old woman, even if she offered cookies. Now he had friends his own age, new kids, right across the street. They chased after Indians or Germans, then cars and girls. From her living room window, as Mouse slept, she could see them.
He grew taller. His once-soft features defined a little, crept to adulthood. His curls lengthened. They'd see each other once in a blue moon at the market or the post office. One summer she hired him to mow the lawn. But they didn't talk very much; their era was of its time. Then 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. At 61 he was sick of them; he'd hoped to be done with this. But the best laid plans of mice and early retirement went up in the poof that was 2008. That meant more conferences, more years. So be it. At least they had some money, and their health.
With time, his vitality was replaced with gray and sag, crease and ache. The curls displaced by a thinning 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 socks, set the AC at a gentle cool, thinking, "I'd prefer the option of opening a goddamn window."
Sitting on the edge of the bed, remote in one hand, drink in the other, randomly clicking through the 500 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 napping in sunlight.
The distant bell's chime grew louder, those afternoons with Miss Gardner. She'd seemed so ancient back then, older than his parents. But in retrospect she was only been 50 or so. "Younger than I am today," he thought.
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 wasn't conscious of horses galloping in a desert, saloon slugfests, breaking glass, bullets ricocheting off boulders...
Without realizing he'd been drinking, his glass was empty. He got up to mix another, but part way there, stopped. His shoulders sagged, his face contorted, mourning days that were leafy with promise, afternoons that stretched to a far horizon, a lost time when he was the center of someone's universe.
The show came to its close.
"Good-bye, amigos!" said Cisco.
"See you, soon! Ha!" said Pancho.