Panic Button

Uncategorized, Winter 2015-16
 Assunta Del Buono / John Birdsall MR / John Birdsall Social Issues Photo Library / Press Association Images / Universal Images Group

 Assunta Del Buono / John Birdsall MR / John Birdsall Social Issues Photo Library / Press Association Images / Universal Images Group

by A.J. Andrews


Mom fell off the bed today and fractured her distal humerus, commonly known as the elbow. A knock at the door in the early morning caused her to startle and jump. Doc says she’ll wear a ring fixator on her upper arm for the next couple months, or until the bone and soft tissue heal. Nothing major.

Mom’s at Brookdale Oceanside Senior Living Center near San Luis Obispo, where grassy knolls tempt drought and panic buttons rest around the wrists and necks and in the hands and bed stands of the aged and infirm. She should have moved to Brookdale eight years ago, when she had two back-to-back massive heart attacks. But she was too proud. It wasn’t until her cardiologist told her she was at high risk for another heart attack due to her 86 years and declining health that she conceded.

Upon reluctantly moving into Brookdale, she acceded to the reception of a panic button only if she could place it on her bed stand instead of around her neck or wrist.

The ergonomic panic button fit comfortably in her wrinkled and vascular right hand, the same hand that held mine and dissipated my insecurities as a child. I’ve imagined her last seconds in my mind more than once since I was a child, but I never imagined the panic button. Or the cat.

One morning at the door of her apartment, unit E7, she found a caring couple inquiring if the Siamese cat seen wandering about the Whispering Oaks section of Brookdale was hers. Apparently the cat had a fondness for E7, and had been seen loitering around the unit for several weeks. Perhaps a former owner had lived and died there.

Mom has an unfavorable history with cats, specifically the Siamese that belonged to her first husband, whom she married at the age of 15. Her husband hated women. He was a trainman, a stiff-haired miser, set in his ways. This was in Appalachia in the 1940’s, home to the good old C&O railroad, hauling coal with enough swingin’ dicks to shovel it.

His savings accrued compounded interest, and he amassed a moderate fortune. The Siamese cat, he felt, was his lucky charm.  He was a drinker and a fighter and an abuser. He was superstitious at home and a Christian when he went to jail. He and that cat were kindred souls in meanness, perhaps brothers in a former life. He told Mom he found it on the train. She liked neither of them. Mom considered cats feral animals who take and do not give.

One night back in Appalachia, alone, with waddling baby girls 11 months apart in age drifting off to sleep, and her stress slowly ebbing, Mom took a seat in the living room to spend an hour before the children’s father returned from work.

Sitting in her chair with an opened King James in her lap, she saw the curtains covering the closed transom window—which was about eight feet from where she sat—swaying. I can only explain what happened next as an acute stress response. On the babies’ father’s liquor shelf sat an antique crysta,l Irish-cut brandy decanter. She grasped it by its neck and swung and thrashed at the curtains until a couple or several or many resounding thunks and piercing shrieks prompted her to stop. With heart racing and mind following suit, she thought, “I got ‘im,” and the curtains ceased to sway

From the ledge of the window fell the cat, making a final thunk on the trampled-thin nylon carpeting below.

When the cat woke up it didn’t walk right. Pondering an explanation and dreading retribution, she remembered it was her husband’s night to go to the The Depot, a hole-in-the-wall for trainmen to congregate and drink and get a woman or two before they went home to the wife and kids. So she had a few hours to spare and some laudanum to calm her down and help her feign sleep before the creak of the door and stumble of work boots on the kitchen floor signaled his arrival. But in the drunken man’s stupor he wouldn’t notice anything different about the cat.




Back at Unit E7 in the Whispering Oaks section of Brookdale Oceanside, there was movement at the transom window was open a few inches. No breeze to note, but the curtain swayed. A Siamese cat put his svelte head in through the curtains first, and, not sensing danger, contorted herself in such a way that she slipped through the opening and proceeded to plant herself on the polyester-upholstered chair that sat beside the bed stand that held the panic button. Mom’s anxiety set in at the sight of the cat, her heart rate increased and the dreadful pain she at first attributed to her broken elbow spread to her chest and neck. The cat watched, licked its forequarters. The panic button beckoned, but was not pressed.

She looked at the cat tenderly, smiled, and went to sleep.


A.J. Andrews escaped Los Angeles to live in relative obscurity in Eastern Europe, where he milks goats, makes cheese and writes about challenges of human condition. This is his first piece of fiction.

Photo credit: Older People. Photography. Encyclopædia Britannica ImageQuest. Web. 14 Dec 2015.