Like a Broken Clock

upside down

I haven’t reported about Bertilda for a while. That’s because she’s like a headache: only considered if causing pain. Most of us don’t notice when the headache eases. It took us a couple of months to realize how quiet the old woman has been.

Bertilda is the diminutive, demented neighbor no one wants. She’s a long-time member of the three-owner HOA next door to my house and two away from Carol’s. Bertilda is 80 but looks and acts like an agile centenarian. She’s thin and crooked and gnarled, and her habitual facial expression is a snarl. She’s been an evolving neighborhood problem for at least the last ten years. Liable to yell at passing pedestrians and parking tradesmen, known to slap a stranger with whatever is in her hand or to toss excrement-like substances at nearby cars, she’s made the little HOA notorious in the neighborhood and infamous among the police. In the last year the county has been dragged in; after a series of interviews, hearings, and probationary periods, Bertilda is now a ward of Adult Protective Services. She has a conservator. She doesn’t manage her own money.

Now it appears that the improbable has occurred. We all predicted that Bertilda wouldn’t take to any of the county-provided healthcare workers (that’s a euphemism for “would verbally and perhaps physically abuse any county worker until the employee refused to try any more”). But Olga has managed to crack her Bavarian shell. Olga is a woman of Eastern European background, a legal immigrant to this country who makes a living as a home care assistant. She isn’t employed by the county. She has worked for neighbor Carol for a few years, assisting with Carol’s autistic pyromaniac adolescent son. Carol is the only individual who keeps trying to be kind to Bertilda.

Anyway, after Carol reached out to Bertilda’s niece in Germany, arrangements were made for Olga to spend three afternoons a week with the old woman. Olga must have more patience than a saint, but we’re no longer hearing rants from Bertilda’s apartment. No one’s been yelled at in weeks. We catch glimpses of Bertilda and Olga pulling weeds in the yard or returning from a shopping trip in Olga’s car. We have reason to believe Olga’s managing to get meds into Bertilda – some sort of lobotomy pill – because to the extent we interact with Bertilda she’s now insipid and quiet and unfocused.

We neighbors were all predicting we’d be done with her soon. It was obvious that she couldn’t live alone and wouldn’t accept assistance, and we suspected she was existing without heat or phone and with little food or electricity. We all figured it was just a matter of months before the county placed her in an assisted-living home, and we knew moving her out of her apartment would be the end of her.

Now we don’t know. Her fellow HOA members still don’t dare try to improve the common area garden – there’s a remnant of her customary nastiness in her and messing with her weeds will awaken it – but we haven’t had a police report in the last two months, and there have been visits by plumbers and electricians. There’s no reason to change her address right now.

So we co-exist. It’s much better than it was. Most days the only sign of life from her are the cat calls.

For Bertilda has a cat companion. She had two when I joined the neighborhood, and it’s true that they were elderly, but the way they disappeared was odd. One after another, in the same month. Maybe each cat went off to die somewhere – they and their successors are outdoor cats with a narrow plywood plank to get from Bertilda’s upstairs apartment to the yard – but we neighbors are accustomed to having pets die in their beds or at the vet’s office. And as my neighbor Anne pointed out, there was never a kibble or kitty litter container spotted in the HOA recycling bin. We all wondered now and then about feline quality-of-life issues.

After that cat death, Bertilda adopted a beautiful Russian blue named Louie. And she started feeding a local stray. Soon she had two cats bunking with her again. But Louie didn’t thrive. When I saw him outside he looked thin. When I saw him shit, he looked straight at me. When he finished he’d walk away without a sniff, let alone interment. I wondered if he had bad attitude or illness. He disappeared a few weeks later. Bertilda made the rounds of us immediate neighbors; for about three weeks we were regularly asked if we took her cat or if we ate her cat. She accused her enemies of stealing her cat.

That left her with the former stray. If the animal has a name I don’t know it. I see the cat in the garden between my place and the HOA, and she seems to have developed the same dog-like way of shitting that Louie had. This cat is striped, alternating the colors of soot and sand. She’s of medium size and has a kink in her tail that looks like an old break. She won’t come to me or Anne or Jerry or Carol, but she likes hunting songbirds in our yards.

Bertilda calls her cat regularly. Her speaking voice is grating or monotonous or strident, depending upon her mood, but when she trills out “Kitty kitty kitty k-i-i-i-i-ty,” it sounds almost like an aria. Her voice lifts into a lilting range. It’s enough to make a stranger think she’s sweet.

Several times a day she calls from her balcony near the cat plank: “Kitty kitty kitty k-i-i-i-i-ty.” Sometimes I pause to appreciate it. I notice it occurs most often when the weather is nice, as if the cat were out more then, but maybe sunshine brings Bertilda to the trill. I say that because of what I witnessed the other day.

The weather was fine. Particularly so given all the rain we’ve had. It was a day of sunshine between storms. I came out to the garden myself, coffee mug in hand, to gauge the development of leaves on the persimmon tree and buds on the wisteria. My neighbor Anne was in her private garden area, raking out the oxalis by cool handfuls. There were bees in the ivy and the striped cat lurked under a dwarf Meyer lemon tree.

We heard Bertilda then. “Kitty kitty kitty k-i-i-i-i-ty.” And again. The cat didn’t dart across the yard but she sauntered toward the plank. She leap-climbed the lower four feet of the jacaranda tree and then mounted the plank to the balcony.

I felt a momentary satisfaction. All those times I’d heard the call without seeing the cat or seen the cat without hearing any call. Finally it was like the question got asked and answered.

But half a minute later Bertilda trilled again. I knew the cat had reached her. Yet twice more she sang out “Kitty kitty kitty k-i-i-i-i-ty.” I was forced to conclude that I had just witnessed coincidence instead of any causal situation.

I heard once that even a broken clock is right twice a day. I think the episode of Bertilda cat-calling and her cat arriving on her balcony must be another example of separate but synchronous actions appearing to have connection.

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