It was early April, about nine o’clock in the morning, when I first met Laura Halston. Well, I didn’t exactly meet her. It was more that I almost ran her down.
I was easing my Bronco around a curve on the single narrow lane in Fish Hawk Lagoon, a heavily wooded area on the north end of Siesta Key. Driving there is like going through a tunnel cut in a mountain. Towering oaks meet overhead to block out the sky, and one side of .gainvillea, sea grape, potato vine, and practically every known variety of palm and pine. On the other side, a .body can see rich runners sweat.
As I rounded a curve, a woman in running gear leaped into the street from the wooded side and raced .ond faster I would have hit her. I came to a jolting stop .ror in her eyes. At the curb, she swooped in a graceful arc and picked up a dark brown cat with a long lashing tail. Holding the cat firmly in her arms, she pulled iPod wires from her ears and turned toward me in fury.
“Idiot! Bitch! You nearly hit me!”
I don’t take kindly to being called an idiot or a bitch, especially by a woman who looked like she had an IQ smaller than her size zero waist. She was about my age, which is thirty-three, and I pegged her as either a runway model or a rich man’s trifle. Like the cat, she was an exquisite creature, but her beauty seemed accidental, an unplanned coming together of parts that shouldn’t have fit but did. Almost albino pale, she was fine-boned and slim, with tousled white-blond hair cut high at the back of her neck and flopping over eyebrows too thick, too dark, too crude. Her eyes were like jade stones set too far apart, her nose was a fraction too long and thin, her chin too pointed. She should not have been beautiful, but she was. She also had the snottiness of a woman accustomed to getting anything she wanted because she was beautiful.
With what I thought was remarkable restraint, I said, “Here’s a hot tip. The best way to avoid being hit by a car is to avoid jumping in front of one.”
Twin patches of pink outrage gave her pale face some color. “How could I know you were there? I couldn’t hear you! You’re sneaking around in a . . . in a stealth .vate streets!”
.buds. I was pretty sure it was Pink, so my estimation of her went up a few notches.
I said, “Maybe if you weren’t listening to music, you could hear better. That’s Pink’s latest cut, isn’t it?”
She looked surprised. Her mouth got ready to say something mean and then changed its mind.
I said, “Look, I’m sorry I startled you. I’m Dixie .borhood.”
Her face relaxed a bit, but she didn’t seem the type to apologize for being rude.
I said, “That’s a gorgeous cat. Havana Brown?”
It was the magic phrase. Pet owners melt like bubble gum on a hot sidewalk when you compliment their babies.
She said, “His name is Leo. An old boyfriend gave him to me, only he called him Cohiba, for the cigars. Dumb, huh? What cat’s gonna come when you say Here, Cohiba? I changed it right away. He hates being cooped up in the house. Well, so do I, to tell the truth. Anyway, when I opened the door to go running, he ran out with me. I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to catch him, so I guess I should thank you for scaring him so he stopped.”
.pened so fast it was like watching a cartoon. When she wasn’t angry, her eyes sparkled with energy and she spoke in a breathless rush, as if she had so much to say that she was afraid she’d never get it all said.
..duced the cat and sort of exonerated me because I’d made him stop so she could catch him, there wasn’t much else to talk about.
I said, “I’m glad you caught him,” and edged on past her.
She raised her hand in a hesitant half wave, and in the rearview mirror I could see her watching when I turned into my client’s driveway.
Like I said, I’m Dixie Hemingway, no relation to youknow-who. I’m a pet sitter on Siesta Key, which, like Casey Key, Bird Key, Lido Key, and Longboat Key, forms a narrow barrier between the Gulf of Mexico and Sarasota, Florida. Officially, Siesta Key is part of the city of Sarasota, but when you get right down to it, we’re not part of anything but ourselves. Our function is to absorb the fury of storms so they weaken a little bit before they .rect view of spectacular sunsets, and annual hikes in storm insurance rates that keep our blood circulating nicely.
Before I became a pet sitter, I was a deputy with the Sarasota County Sheriff’s Department, but I left with the department’s blessing a little over three years ago. I ..stroyed my mind. When I was able to function again, I became a professional pet sitter. It was a good move. The pay is good, the animals I take care of are mostly sweet and lovable, and I don’t have to spend a lot of time interacting with destructive people.
I get up every morning at four o’clock, brush my teeth, rubber-band my hair into a ponytail, pull on a pair of khaki cargo shorts and a sleeveless T, lace up my Keds, and begin my rounds. I mostly take care of .sional rabbit or ferret or bird. No snakes. While I firmly believe that every snake has the right to live well and prosper, I get swimmy-headed around creatures whose diet consists of things swallowed still kicking and squealing.
On the key, you either live on the Gulf side or the Sarasota Bay side. Fish Hawk Lagoon is on the bay side at the north end. My clients there were Hal and Gillis Richards, their three-year-old son Jeffrey, and Jeffrey’s .zure disorder, and Hal and Gillis were leaving that morning to take him to All Children’s Hospital in St. Petersburg for brain surgery. Mazie would have to stay at home. For the last couple of days, I had come there .tomed to me, and Pete Madeira, an octogenarian who .ing to move into the house with Mazie to keep her .ment when child and dog realized they were going to be separated.
Their house was like most houses on Siesta Key— pseudo-Mediterranean/Mexican stucco with barrel-tile roof, lots of curves and arches. In this case the stucco was the color of terra-cotta, and the barrel-tile roof was dark blue. It was surrounded with the same lush green foliage and flowering shrubs that most yards on the key have, the kind of extravagant natural beauty that those of us living here year-round take for granted.
When I rang the doorbell, Hal Richards opened the door. Hal probably wasn’t much older than I, but strain and worry had put lines in his face, and thinning hair and a layer of fat softening a former athletic build made him seem older than he was.
.frey breakfast, so come on in the kitchen.”
I followed him into a large sunny room with a glass wall offering a view of a dock behind the house where a small pleasure boat rocked. Siesta Key has over fifty miles of waterways, so boats are common. From Hal Richards’s pallor, though, I doubted that he went out in his very often. Gillis, a softly pretty dark-haired woman in a scoop-neck T-shirt and an ankle-length linen skirt, stood at the sink stirring something in a cereal bowl. Like Hal, Gillis wore the stunned look of people whose world has shrunk to the small arc of here and now.
Jeffrey sat in a child’s booster chair at a round table. .ing, and a new purple bruise on his upper arm. Dark shadows lay like soot under his drug-dulled eyes. Mazie, a golden retriever, sat close beside the boy’s chair. The dog’s eyes were bright and healthy, watching the boy with close attention.
Adults with seizure disorders frequently have seizure-alert dogs who sense when a seizure is coming and signal the person, then do whatever is necessary to protect them from harming themselves during the attack. Children as young as Jeffrey can’t be made responsible for that kind of warning. Instead, they have seizure-assistance dogs, who may or may not sense impending seizures, but stay close by the child’s side at all times.
Gillis smiled at me and put a bowl of something white and lumpy in front of Jeffrey.
Gillis said, “Jeffrey, say hello to Miss Hemingway.”
The kid spooned up a blob of whatever his mother had given him and grinned shyly.
I said, “Is that oatmeal you’re eating?”
Gillis said, “It’s groats, actually, with some banana mixed in.”
I managed to keep my upper lip from lifting, but the word groats sounded too much like gross to me. Besides, what the heck are groats, anyway?
Gillis smiled. “It’s whole oats, healthier than oatmeal. Jeffrey likes it. Don’t you, Jeffrey?”
The kid nodded, but he didn’t seem excited about it. Actually, he didn’t look as if much of anything excited him. I didn’t know a lot about seizure disorders, but I knew the erased look that people get when they’re on heavy medication, and Jeffrey had it.
Knowing that Mazie was a service dog currently on duty, I didn’t speak to her or touch her. But I sat down at the table so she could smell me and feel my energy. She gave me a quick glance, but her job was to be exquisitely alert to Jeffrey and to any change in him, even something as slight as a change in his body odor that would signal an impending seizure. Hal and Gillis went silent, knowing what I was doing and not wanting to interfere.
After a few minutes, I stood up. “Hal, maybe you and I should talk in the living room for a minute.”
Hal said, “Good idea.”
In the living room, I took an easy chair and Hal sat on the sofa. I got out my client notebook and prepared to take any last-minute instructions or information.
Sometimes people are surprised to learn that pet sitting is a profession like any other. I approach it the same way I approached being a deputy. I was always aware that lives could depend on my being alert, on remembering my training, on handling my job in a professional manner. I feel the same way about pet sitting. Pet owners entrust me with animals they love, and I take that trust very seriously. I’m licensed, bonded and insured, and I never commit to a pet-sitting job without first meeting both the pet and its owners. I go to their house and get the pet’s medical history, along with details of its diet and daily habits. I let the pet look me over and get to know my scent. By the time I’ve finished interviewing new clients, I know everything I need to know about their pet, and the pet feels comfortable with me. I insist on a key to their house, a number where I can reach them, and the name and number of the person they want called in case of an emergency. Just as I was when I was a deputy, I’m always aware that bad things can happen when you least expect them.
Hal said, “I know I explained this before, but the only reason we’re doing this is that Jeffrey has temporal lobe seizures—two or three a week—and they’re severe. Of all seizure disorders, temporal lobe seizures are most responsive to surgery and least responsive to medication.
He’s been on several meds, but none of them have done much good, and they cause so much dizziness that he has problems with balance.” As if he felt guilty saying it, he added, “They also cause behavior problems. Temper tantrums, that kind of thing. That’s why we have Mazie. She calms him down, and she walks close beside him so he can lean on her.”
He had already told me about the medication and why they had decided on surgery, but he obviously needed to tell it again.
He closed his eyes and took a deep breath. “As you might imagine, Gillis and I live with the fear of a terrible fall—into fire, water, whatever—or of his cognitive development being . . . well, you know. Do you have children?”
I didn’t want to answer him, because a parent numbed by fear over a child’s illness doesn’t want to hear how another child died. But I also didn’t want to disrespect my own child by denying her.
I said, “I had a little girl. She was killed in an accident when she was three. I understand how you feel about Jeffrey.”
He looked stricken. “I’m sorry.”
For both our sakes, I needed to get the conversation back to why I was there.
I said, “Please don’t worry about Mazie while you’re gone. Pete Madeira will be here twenty-four/seven, and I’ll come twice a day and walk her.”
Pete’s a former professional clown I’d met through some circus people I know—Sarasota has a long circus history—and he sometimes helped me out when a client needed a full-time pet sitter.
Hal leaned forward and clasped his hands with desperate urgency. “There’s a risk to surgery, but there may be a larger risk if we do nothing.”
The doorbell interrupted Hal’s compulsive explanation. As he opened the door, Gillis and Jeffrey came into the living room, Jeffrey with his arm over Mazie’s back and leaning against her as he walked.
Pete Madeira stood at the door, suitcase in hand and a clown nose stuck on his face. He also had a case with him that looked as if it might hold some kind of musical instrument. Pete had visited several times before, so he was as familiar to the family as I was. Hal and Gillis looked relieved to see him, and Mazie wagged her tail as if she were giving Pete her approval. Jeffrey gave him a tired smile, but I doubted that he understood Pete’s presence meant he was soon going to be separated from his best friend.
Pete is tall, slim, silver-haired, and handsome in the way men who are bright and curious remain all their lives. He retired a few years ago, but he still does gigs in hospices and children’s hospitals. He has woolly caterpillar eyebrows that he waggles for emphasis, and the softest heart in the western hemisphere.
Three suitcases already stood in the foyer, lined up by size like Papa Bear, Mama Bear, and Baby Bear luggage. Pete set his on the opposite side of the foyer.
He said, “I brought my saxophone. I hope that’s okay.”
Hal said, “I didn’t know you played saxophone.”
“Sure. That’s how I started in the circus. I was in the band, but clowning paid better and was more fun. I just play for my own pleasure now.”
“Pete, you’re a man of many talents.”
Pete grinned and did that thing with his eyebrows.
Gillis knelt beside Jeffrey. “Honey, you remember Pete? He’s going to stay here with Mazie and keep her company until we come home.”
Pete said, “Hi, pal.”
Jeffrey smiled but looked confused.
Pete said, “Want a clown nose like mine?”
Jeffrey shook his head and covered his nose with his hand.
Hal said, “We have to go now.”
Gillis knelt beside Jeffrey while Hal picked up their luggage.
Too hesitantly, Gillis said, “It’s time for the trip I told you about. Remember I told you?”
Jeffrey stiffened and reached for Mazie, already resisting what was to come.
Gillis said, “Mazie’s staying here. Remember?”
Jeffrey burst into hysterical shrieks and flung himself flat against the floor. “I want Mazie to come too!”
Gillis was pale with tension. As Jeffrey’s fists churned, Mazie got to her feet and nuzzled his neck. It took me a moment to realize she did it intentionally to forestall a tantrum. Or a seizure. Jeffrey’s rigid body relaxed and his cries reduced to a low droning.
Like a man inspired, Pete knelt beside his cases and in seconds held a gleaming saxophone to his lips. Soft sweet music rose above Jeffrey’s cries, and in a minute or two Jeffrey stopped crying and looked toward Pete. Even Mazie took her eyes off Jeffrey for a moment to look at him. I remembered Pete telling me once that circus bands had always played to distract audiences when something unpleasant happened, like an aerialist or ropewalker falling.
Excerpted from Cat Sitter on a Hot Tin Roof by Blaize Clement.
Copyright © 2008 by Blaize Clement.
Published in January 2009 by St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and
reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in
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