Fungus Among Us by Jane Hertenstein
The fact that she was a cat lady was the least of her issues
The spokes of her wheelchair were clogged with fur. The big wheels looked like they were sheathed in brown and grey shag carpeting.
Georgina was a cat lady.
Georgina lived on the first floor of a row house that required climbing steps to get to the front door. She kept about eleven cats. I say about because I never was quite sure. The black and white always hid when I came and I suspected a few belonged to the upstairs neighbor and simply hung out with Georgina because she fed them.
After graduating with a degree in English Literature, I’d come to discover there were very few opportunities to apply Romantic Poetics during a Reagan recession. So I hooked up with a social service organization that sent workers out to assist seniors and shut-ins.
I had several regular chores when visiting Georgina. One was to take her big bag of laundry down the street to the coin wash. I’d open the bag and a wave of cat and old lady urine would fill the storefront. As if someone had mixed ammonia and bleach together, customers would retreat onto the sidewalk outside to inhale fresh air.
I got into the habit of bringing disposable gloves with me. Clods of poop caked the sheets; some fell like cow pies to the ground. Not only were the cats incontinent, but so was Georgina.
I stuffed the machines. No pre-soaking or trying to get the hairballs or feces off. I’d walk in and the operator would mutter in disgust, My God! Eventually she banned me and I had to find another laundromat, a few blocks further.
I felt like a leper. I had to keep reminding myself that this was temporary. That one day what I was doing would make a great story.
Georgina also had me run errands for her. She used to make me go down to the Chicago Tribune every week to pay for her classified, more of a public announcement, and it was always the same.
Warning! There’s a fungus among us. Don’t worry about bombs, worry about the water! Some of the diseases it causes are: AIDS, crib death, leukemia, deafness, loss of speech, tightening and splitting of the skin on the front of your legs, soreness in your shoulders & elbows, blindness which causes your eyeballs to drop out of your head, continual sneezing, shortness of breath, heart trouble, headaches, loss of sight, speech & hearing, backaches & diarrhea. It also causes so much pain that teenagers are committing suicide. I could go on & on but I don’t have the money to continue. Due to lack of funds, I am unable to include all the information. If you don’t watch out, there’s going to be a different flag waving over the White House. Someone with authority write: G.M Parker, 915 Wilson Ave., Chgo, 60640
And I had to do this with a straight face. As I stood there counting out the change per word and paying the gentleman behind the counter, I wanted to say: This isn’t me, meaning, I’m not the one putting this ad in the paper. But, of course I was. I was down there so often that they began to recognize me just like the laundry operator got to know and hate me.
Georgina paid for these classifieds out of her Social Security check. She was convinced she had to alert millions of unsuspecting people, or at least the citizens of Chicago who read the Tribune. As a writer I wanted to edit, make changes consistent with proper grammar and language usage, abridge or delete sentences where she repeated herself or else rambled on. But she insisted that I write down exactly what she dictated.
I had a feeling the symptoms I was listing had more to do with Georgina’s own health than with the public at large. She had open wounds on her legs that never healed and weren’t helped by the cats licking them with their rough and sticky tongues.
I couldn’t believe that my first published work would be pure insanity.
Once we got a response. Someone more unhinged than Georgina wrote back. She handed me the letter saying somewhat sympathetically, This person seems a little crazy.
Even though she avoided tap water, Georgina was getting sicker and sicker, just as her ads predicted. She had me fill plastic jugs outside at a park drinking fountain.
Finally toward the end of her life Georgina demanded that I take her with me to the newspaper office. I couldn’t talk her out of it, just like I couldn’t change her mind about the classifieds or the fungus among us.
It was a huge deal getting her and her wheelchair clogged with cat hair down the steep steps of her building and into a cab. We were let out at the Wrigley Building down on Michigan Avenue and took an elevator up to Classifieds.
The man behind the counter who I was used to dealing with excused himself. While waiting for him to return, several people entered the room under the pretense of collecting a file or lifting the lid of the Xerox machine in a corner. I knew we were specimens of curiosity and couldn’t wait to get out of there.
We exited the building at noon just as street musicians were filling the small Wrigley courtyard with the sounds of swing and polka. Some passersby stopped for a minute or two to listen, but most of the busy pedestrians continued on their way. Georgina made me stop. She clapped her hands counter to the music and smiled through her cracked teeth. She said something and I had to bend down to hear her.
Dance with me.
I grasped the rubber handles on the back of her chair and lifting the front wheels slightly off the ground, spun her around, moving my shoulders and hips as if we were on a Conga line.
For a little while we were both able to forget the foreboding fungus among us.
© Jane Hertenstein, 2015
Jane Hertenstein is the author of numerous short stories and flash. Her work has been included in Hunger Mountain, Word Riot, Flashquake, andRosebud as well as earning an Honorable Mention in Glimmer Train. Her literary interests are eclectic, evident in the titles she has published: Beyond Paradise (YA), Orphan Girl (non-fiction), Home Is Where We Live (children’s picture book), and a recent ebook 365 Affirmations for the Writer and Freeze Frame: How to Write Flash Memoir. Jane lives in Chicago where she blogs at Memoirous (memoirouswrite.blogspot.com/)@memoirjane
Fungus Among Us was read by Kate Chadwick on 5th August 2015 for Short & Sweet Flash Fiction