When I lived in San Francisco, I rented a room from a woman I’ll call Dorothy. Dorothy was a cliché, a white-haired elderly widow who lived alone (except for me and another tenant, a pilot, whom I heard about but never met). Dorothy had arthritis, a three-bedroom house near the airport, and a wobbly cat named Cinders. He was 22 years old, which is about a thousand in cat years. Even Cinders knew he was old, he was careful with every feeble step he took, sensing that it might be his last.
Most mornings, I would walk into the pink and gray tiled bathroom and Cinders would be up against the radiator behind the door, like a stray fabric softener sheet that got caught in your shirt, just clinging there. “Hello Cinders,” I would greet him. Even though he had patchy gray fur, jagged Dracula teeth, and had hissed at me before, I wasn’t scared of him. He was harmless. Being scared of skinny little Cinders would be like being scared of a jelly bean.
Which brings me to my next topic: Dorothy’s only son, whom she talked about non-stop, was a top executive with Jelly Belly. The way she spoke, I assumed he was the inventor of jelly beans or at the very least, the president of the company. She was constantly receiving Fed-Ex care packages from him with experimental Jelly Belly flavors—tomato, chocolate marshmallow, mandarin orange, chocolate with lavender, popcorn, summer love (summer love tasted like birthday cake and Pepsi).
Dorothy had long ago tired of eating jelly beans (her son had worked for the company for over three decades), yet she could not bring herself to tell him to stop sending them to her. She liked receiving these miniature purple and yellow and orange pieces of love in the mail, she just didn't want them stuck in her dentures every day. Instead, Dorothy and I would perform a subconscious dance, a sugar-filled dance with me politely rejecting the jelly beans. The dance would go like this:
Dorothy: (knocking loudly on my door and then gasping when noticing two dozen “fun size” KitKat wrappers on the floor) MOV, I know you have a sweet tooth. Do you want this 10-pound bag of the new Spring Flavor Launch of Jelly Belly candies that President just sent me?
Me: No, no. That’s okay. Thank you anyway.
Dorothy: (brief pause while searching for non-offensive words) Well, uh, you can give them to your other stewardess friends who—
Cinders would wander into the room about this time. He would act like he might jump up on my bed (cock head to side, calculate distance, shuffle back paws), but ultimately he would wither down where he stood, as if to say, “This is good enough. The KitKat wrappers don’t bother me that much. Maybe we could make a blanket out of them.”
As a hobby, I liked to paint ceramics. One day, I had the idea to paint a food bowl for Cinders. I thought about what to paint (fish, mice, a portrait of Cinders) and then came up with the perfect theme: Jelly Bellys. It was cute, it was thoughtful, and let’s face it: painting little globs of paint to look like multi-colored jelly beans does not require the artistic talent of Matisse or Renoir.
I gave the finished bowl to Dorothy, who made a big production of giving the bowl to Cinders in front of me. “Lookie what MOVee painted for you, Cinders! Oh, I see, those are Jelly Belly candies! Aren’t you a lucky kitty? Do you just love MOV so much?”
My heart smiled to think I made an old lady and an old cat happy for a few minutes. But at this point in Dorothy’s speech, it occurred to me that she might expect me to demonstrate my love and affection for her sickly cat by petting him or worse: picking him up. If I picked up Cinders, he would break.
I leaned down to pet him (there was no way out of it, and hadn’t I brought this on myself by painting the bowl in the first place?) and I petted a skeleton of a cat. Not even a skeleton, a line drawing of a skeleton of a cat. In faded pencil.
I could feel something shaking under my hand. The cat was purring for the first time. But it wasn’t so much a purr as a sputter.
Please don’t die, I thought, please live long enough to eat one or two meals out of your new Jelly Belly bowl.
It was not to be. Cinders died the next week, having gone on a hunger strike shortly after the new Jelly Belly bowl replaced the blue plastic one from Wal-Mart.
The vet told Dorothy that sometimes cats of a “certain age” will starve themselves because they know the end is near. I blame myself, though, for painting that damn bowl. Cinders was a simple cat who took comfort in the familiar, the predictable, and the routine; the abrupt change of food bowl must have been too much for his delicate system.
I haven’t thought about this story in years, until today. The Husband (who knows nothing about my days with Dorothy and Cinders in San Francisco) gave me a small bag of cinnamon candy hearts. From Jelly Belly.
("Mandarin Orange Variation")