Hattie Mae Spenser stood in front of the kitchen sink, clutching the counter’s edge with one hand as she drained the jelly jar of cheap bourbon. It was two in the afternoon, but only straight alcohol could lessen the fiery pincers’ grip on her bowels. She knew her time was near: the symptoms were the same as Gram’s. She was at peace with that. But who would look after her babies, her angels, once she was gone?
She shuffled unevenly down the hall, her palm trailing a worn path on the peeling and yellowed wall paper. When she opened the door to the garage, she surveyed the countless sacks of dried cat food. They could chew on that for months, she thought—and breathed a labored sigh of relief. Tomorrow she would take the door off its hinges, just in case. Tomorrow, she would put all the faucets on drip. She felt dizzy and weak. It would all be in the Lord’s hands, soon enough.
Truth be told, the Lord’s hands had been exceedingly careless with Hattie Mae for most of her sixty years. Her maternal grandmother had raised her since she could remember, her parents having been “swept up in the loving arms of angels,” according to Gram’s consolatory mantra. To Hattie Mae, there wasn’t much all that celestial about a seventeen-car pileup on the interstate. She did, however, concede that angels were a far more esthetic choice. She imagined them, glowing serenely in the fog, amid the screams and fire and gasoline and sheared metal. They descended—then, like incorporeal jaws of life—opened the accordioned vehicle and lifted the mangled, limp bodies. Neither crimson nor ash stained their white robes, and their golden wings beat steadily toward the light.
Gram had been widowed a number of years before the angelic abduction. She coped with the new loss as best she could, alternately denying it and succumbing to its overwhelming sorrows. Even with a small child to care for, Gram couldn’t pull herself out of the pit of depression the Lord’s hands had dug for her. She lived an ascetic life, sustained exclusively by jelly donuts, menthol cigarettes, and vast quantities of pink chablis. Once Hattie Mae was judged old enough to feed, clothe, and otherwise fend for herself—around seven—Gram abandoned any vestigial pretexts of normalcy and became a complete recluse, a nocturnal one, to boot. Hattie Mae would sit up watching Johnny Carson in the dark, refilling the little green wine glasses that Gram considered “genteel.” For some reason, Gram had also determined that the television rays were injurious to her eyes and wore sunglasses with large, forest-green lenses as protection.
“Hattie Mae, adjust the color, would you, please? There—that’s a good girl,” The child turned the orange up until it looked as if Johnny and Ed were radiation victims in a particularly incandescent hell. It pained her to watch them and their guests. But she did. Every night. In the dark. With Gram.
Between keeping little glasses filled, enhancing television personalities’ complexions, and emptying ever-burgeoning ashtrays, it was a lonely existence for Hattie Mae. When at last she broached the subject of a pet, Gram snorted a few thimblefuls of pink chablis and began to choke.
“Laws, Hattie Mae! As if I didn’t have enough to worry about with just the two of us. Do you have any idea of the responsibility? And expense? Good heavens, child. No. Absolutely not. Now, would you mind fetching your old Gram another jelly donut? There–that’s a good girl.”
Hattie Mae stopped at the little pet store every day after school. She would stand, face pressed against the glass, and marvel at the fat little puppies wrestling in the sawdust. At the kittens snuggled in soft, furry knots. She yearned for something to love unconditionally. Something of her very own. She knew that, even with the dark glasses and somewhat reduced acuity, Gram would probably catch on to even the most tiny and surreptitiously introduced puppy or kitten. So Hattie Mae steeled herself and, having saved her milk money for the better part of a month, one day strode through the ringing door of Friends Furever.
“I want a pet,” she announced, hoping to sound decisive and responsible.
“Where’s your mother, dear?”
“She works days. All days. My parents are divorced.”
“I’m sorry to hear that. What did you have in mind?”
Hattie Mae glanced longingly at the puppy pen, then wheeled. The first thing to catch her eye was a beautiful, snow-white rat. It had eyes like sparkling garnets and translucent rose-petal ears.
“How much for that?”
“Well, our feeder rats are only a dollar, but you said you wanted a pet. You’ll probably need a cage and bedding and food. That’ll bring your costs closer to twelve dollars.”
Hattie Mae gulped. She had only managed to save five. Immediately, the rat leapt onto its wheel and began to run. Hattie Mae felt as if her dream of companionship was running just as frantically, as hopelessly bereft of a destination.
“Thank you, ma’am. I’ll have to ask my mother.”
That night, Hattie Mae initiated her revised savings plan and began to water down Gram’s wine. Not the first glass, and not the second, but by the third a substantial dilution was possible.
She remembered the thrill of returning the first unopened gallon to the delivery man: “Gram is trying to cut back. We appreciate your understanding. Certainly, cash is fine. Doctor bills and all.”
One month later, an exultant Hattie Mae returned with Sebastian, her new best friend. She would cradle him lovingly as she lounged on the sofa watching The Tonight Show in flames. He was so quiet, so sweet. His whiskers on her neck gave her goosebumps of pleasure. And he rode about contentedly on her shoulders as she padded back and forth to the kitchen fetching little green glasses of newly potent pink chablis.
The second week of fourth grade culminated in a show-and-tell activity. Hattie Mae couldn’t wait to share Sebastian with her classmates, convinced her splendid companion would be the highlight. But when she pulled him carefully from her backpack, Miss Nelson recoiled, the little girls shrieked and huddled, and the boys made brutal, menacing gestures toward the rodent Hattie Mae clutched protectively to her chest.
“Rattie Mae!” they taunted, shouting. “Rattie Mae! Rattie Mae!”
The name pretty much followed her the next eight years; school was just a big wheel. She could run as fast as she could. She could run forever. Nothing changed.
When Gram was diagnosed with stage-four colon cancer, Hattie Mae had unenthusiastically enrolled in a few classes at a local community college, hoping the Lord might envision a less inward and circumscribed existence for her. Yet her instructors were distant, her textbooks impenetrable, her classmates disdainful. Sometimes, as she walked the halls, she thought she heard echoes whispering, “Rattie Mae, Rattie Mae.”
When Gram died, Hattie Mae didn’t leave the house for months. The Lord seemed fine with that, too.
Then, one day on the news, she heard about a Pet Expo in Montgomery. She determined to make the trek by bus, a day’s grand adventure. When she arrived, the exhibition halls were lined with vendors, humane agencies, and rescue groups. The crowds were so dense she could scarcely breathe, and then, as if she were a tiny seashell deposited by a massive wave, she found herself in front of a booth with a dazzling placard announcing, “SNAZZY RATS RESCUE RATTERY.” All of the people inside sported red, white, and blue satin outfits, top hats and tails, bespangled with sequins. But best of all, each of the volunteers was acrawl with rodents. They perched on shoulders, they rode on hats, they climbed on arms, they nestled in pockets. Hattie Mae had never seen anything so wonderful in her life. So, it was no wonder that she soon joined forces with them, traveling all over the South to promote the interests of homeless or neglected rodents. Doing the Lord’s work, if you will.
Volunteering at the local farmer’s market one early fall afternoon, Hattie Mae, resplendent in her Snazzy Rats uniform, was absently juggling a number of foster rats available for adoption. Her reverie was broken when an elderly, somewhat bedraggled woman charged up to the table.
“I’ve got a rat problem,” she began. “This rat—the biggest rat I’ve ever seen—comes in every night and eats my cat’s food. I don’t mind the food, the mess, the crunching, but my cat’s scared of it. And the dang thing wants to sleep under the covers with me. My cat won’t even come into the bedroom anymore. Can you help me?”
Hattie Mae placed a lovely piebald rat onto her sparkling shoulder, looked the woman in the eyes, and with divinely inspired grace and strength assured her that she could, that indeed she would help with the lady’s “rat problem”—that very evening.
The little encounter changed the course of her life. She and Mrs. Arnold waited, almost silent, until well past ten. Then, through the open screen door, a pink nose, extravagant whiskers, an impossibly extended snout, bright black eyes, onyx ears, little pink hands, and an enormous grey body, trailing a scabrous, mottled tail. Hattie Mae had never seen anything quite so impressive.
“That’s not a rat,” she cried out, as the creature waddled inexorably toward the cat food. “It’s–an opossum. You have an opossum coming into your house.”
“So you won’t help me.” Mrs. Arnold wilted.
“No. Of course. I will help. I just. I don’t have anything to carry it in.”
Mrs. Arnold was resolute, fearing that any hesitation at this juncture might involve spending the rest of her life with an indignant cat and an acrid, irritable bedmate: “I’ve got a pillowcase you can have. Take it. You don’t need to return it.”
Hattie Mae approached the oblivious guest, scooped a handful of cat food into the sack, deftly grabbed the opossum by the tail–and then before it could even hiss, dropped the startled creature in and knotted it. She could scarcely hear Mrs. Arnold’s sobs of gratitude over the snarls and sneezing, but Hattie Mae smiled broadly as she backed toward the door, the writhing pillowcase thumping against her back.
She was in love.
The folks with Snazzy Rats were not. True to their mission statement, they pronounced opossums unqualified as recipients of their dedication and largesse, so Hattie Mae bitterly returned her sparkling uniform and all twelve of her foster rats to Lois Goodkind, who ran the local branch. Lois did not take the defection well, and had scarcely a word for Hattie Mae. “I hope you know what you are doing,” she sniffed.
Thus, Hattie Mae began a life devoted to opossum rescue. She would take in any animal, regardless of its condition or sociability. She quickly used up the money left from Gram’s estate on vet bills at the local teaching hospital, where they regarded her with open incredulity. Still, she had learned quite a bit about husbandry from her stint with Snazzy Rats as well as in the exam rooms of most of the county’s veterinary clinics. If the Lord required Hattie Mae to be more resourceful at wildlife medicine, so be it.
One of the attendant obstacles of opossum rescue is that, while the animals arrive in droves, particularly in the spring, in varying states of injury and incapacity, correspondingly few people are drawn to them as adoptive parents. Which meant that as time passed, Hattie Mae’s household became quite populous—over one hundred and fifty roamed the halls, unchecked.
Despite this unconventional living arrangement, the myopic, scuttling creatures gave her a sense of calling. Some grew to be genuine favorites: Martha Rae, Prunella Scales, Joe E. Brown, Thomas Stearns, Stew Boy, Jocelyn, Egg Buddy. She also loved them collectively. She loved their scaly prehensile tails, their glinting black eyes, their precious, fingerless gloves. She admired their singular focus regarding survival. She adored the rasping sounds they made as they wandered about on the buckling linoleum, the swishing as they traversed the newspaper covering the floor where the carpets had been ripped up. She was entranced by the grunting sounds of happiness that flooded them as they crunched on cat food with noisy gusto.
Each and every rescue constituted, in Hattie Mae’s eyes, a pure and individual blessing. Her blessings. Her babies. Her angels.
So when Hattie Mae sank, exhausted, into her armchair, with the music of opossum mealtime in her ears and the warmth of scrabbling love filling her heart, she could ignore the fierce pains mounting in her gut. The food, the faucets. The Lord’s hands. Peace. She winced, closed her eyes, and took a sustained breath of farewell.
Only then, the distant soft whooshing of opalescent feathered wings approaching, and the toothy, resplendent smiles of beatific marsupials who scooped her into their gentle pink hands, as together they arced their way upward, upward into the light.
Carolyn A. Waggoner, 2012