Uno Cohen is coming over to my house today, which is unusual. His living spaces are more gracious than mine; we both prefer the accoutrements of his home over this one. I’m a squatter, and the house reflects that. All the previous occupants’ belongings are still here, though I’ve pushed them aside to make room for my own.
I’m sorry you are in Upper Dharamsala, dear son, because at fourteen, you’re reaching the age where you’d be useful in moving heavy objects. If you still lived with me, we could move a lot of this heavy furniture I don’t like down to the basement. Males have a window of about a decade and a half—from age fifteen to age thirty—when they are unbelievably helpful at lifting bureaus and heaving mattresses and installing window air conditioners. Before that, they’re too puny. After that, they complain of back pain. What’s more, during this golden period, they’re generally cheerful about saying yes to such requests, especially for young women their own age, but also for mothers. And even better, they pal around with guys in the same age bracket, so if you can convince one to help you out, often you end up with an entire posse.
“What’s the difference between a cougar and a mountain lion?” I ask Dr. Cohen. I put him to work as soon as he arrives. He’s chopping carrots that are going into an unattractive but healthy dish I call Lentil Mash.
“I love how you assume I know the answers to every organism that’s carbon-based, just because I studied biology in college.”
“You’re a scientist.” I stick a bay leaf in the pot where the lentils are starting to come to a boil. “So science me already. Bowl me over. What’s the distinction?”
“They’re two names for the same animal, Felis concolor, a large cat with a long tail. It lives in North America, and has nothing to do with mountains.”
I lean over and give him a peck on the cheek for this outpouring. He really does amaze me. “Do we have any around here?”
“In 2008, a large cat somehow managed to find its way into Chicago, where it was gunned down by police. DNA showed it was, in fact, a wild cougar that had managed to come here all the way from the Black Hills of South Dakota.”
“Okay, now that’s just scary.”
“Wildlife isn’t interested in messing with you in, Jane. Mostly even the big predators would prefer to take down small prey rather than risk attacking another large predator.”
“No, I meant the way you remembered the date and DNA and all that.”
“Ah, that.” Uno shrugged. “Sometimes I long for the onset of dementia just to be able to forget a few things. And then, a young neighbor comes along and asks me a question about wildcats, and I realize I’m not quite there.”
Jill Riddell is a writer in Chicago. She teaches at the School of the Art Institute and has a weakness for nature, magic, and pennies abandoned in sidewalk cracks.