Palo Alto Weekly 35th Annual Short Story Contest
Second Place Adult

No Place Like Home

by Sylvia E. Halloran

Author Bio

Sylvia E. Halloran lives with two cats and a musician husband in the Sunnyvale home her folks purchased in 1961. She holds BA and MA degrees in Piano Performance from San Jose State University and a Certificate of Copyediting from UC Berkeley Extension. For many years she directed and accompanied choirs in area churches, and she first began working for Mountain View/Los Altos Adult Education by directing their chorus. When the school discovered she had won a car in a writing contest, they asked her to teach their memoirs and creative writing classes. Her newly published Gold Rush novel, The Ballad of Billy Shay, is available on Amazon.


While leading Zoom meetings for my adult education classes, I found a virtual background that I absolutely loved. The more I used it, the more at home I felt. Zooming had already become a way to play make-believe; how about really escaping into a world of peace and safety? Obviously, the ideal room for me would have a cat. I based Vivaldi on a dear old stray who climbed onto my lap as I sat watching the Perseids one year. The nonstop unreality of 2020 only needed a little push to become the story of a lonely heart seeking solutions.

Judge Comments

Judy, the self-deprecating, wry and witty narrator of this imaginative pandemic story, finds satisfaction and much-needed income teaching gardening classes via Zoom from her rented room after her husband dumps her and her beloved cat dies. Judy also manages to find comfort—plus a cat she calls Vivaldi—in a cozy Zoom background. Who among us hasn’t fantasized sometime in the past year about escaping into virtual reality? Vivaldi and Judy show us just how it’s done. Bravo!

— Debbie Duncan

T hanksgiving is a helluva time to walk out on a wife of forty years. Instead of sitting down to turkey and football, he flies off to Maui with his beautiful new office partner and never returns. His plan has been careful and cruel. The message from the bank reveals emptied joint accounts and over-limit charges. The house is ripe for foreclosure. The car lease is expired. His lawyer is efficient, thorough, and heartless.

After the garage sale, Judy’s beautiful Bellini dashes in front of the rented van and is squashed. She discovers the room she’s rented won’t allow cats, anyway. Can it be worse? Ah yes, it’s 2020. The global pandemic requires a societal lockdown, and the adult school cancels spring term.

Judy teaches older adults. Her students have been her lifeline through the mayhem of what winter dumped on her. As the spread of COVID-19 threatens, one of her students suggests moving the class online. Judy sets up PayPal and Zoom accounts and contacts all her students. Most of them foresee a lonely spring ahead, so to dodge total isolation, they sign up, and she’s in business before the end of March. She deposits their tuition in the silly little bank account she opened at Halloween. An account for emergencies, she had told herself at the time. Trick or treat.

Judy sets up her computer on a table between the little fridge with the microwave on top and the assortment of moving boxes that hold what she couldn’t bear to dump. Behind her, a narrow bed is jammed under the only window.

To battle being backlit from the window’s glare, she digs through the boxes and finds a table lamp to shine on her face from beside her monitor. In the corner of her Zoom field, she discovers the generic choices for virtual backgrounds. She plays with the video filter that wipes away her wrinkles.

Her first really good day since November’s trauma happens when she finds out she can add any image as a background. She starts with flowery landscapes from the Internet and proceeds to interior views of rooms—swanky offices and living rooms with bookcases. Every class meeting, she shows up in a new virtual location. Her students have no idea what her place really looks like.

In the late evening, after watching a series of cat videos on YouTube and missing Bellini bigtime, she types, "image cozy sitting room," and hundreds of photos appear on the screen. Tucked into the third row is an image so perfect, she copies it and closes the page.

She opens the Zoom app and adds her new place, surveying how it looks behind her on the screen. The wood-paneled craftsman interior features big corner windows that frame treetops and a body of blue water in the distance. Made homey with slouched pillows and a woolly plaid blanket, a snug window seat fits into the alcove. A side table with a lamp and a clutter of books stands by the velvety rocking chair that faces the fireplace. Judy loves that her new room even has a plastic light switch on the wall. Just the right tacky touch of home.

She rolls her office chair right and left so she can see every detail, fastening her gaze on the screen that shows her image with the room behind her. Perfect for daytime, but what about her evening classes? Could she ever find a similar background that looks like night?

"Image cozy sitting room evening" produces a series of dramatically lit interiors, and on page two, amazingly, is a nighttime version of the same room. Cheery flames light the fireplace, and the lamp on the table glows. The daytime view of trees and water has become a spread of scattered lights in a field of black.

Judy is so pleased with how the room looks that she rummages in her boxes to find different clothes to wear for class, warm sweaters and a forgotten tweed jacket that will look more authentic to her new "surroundings." Sometimes after the students leave, she holds the Zoom meeting open and just watches herself, with the lovely room behind her. The ambiance of the night view, especially, fills her evenings with comfort. It is pleasant to sit beside the inviting fire.

During an afternoon class, Judy is describing how to add water to a compost pile when the scene behind her catches her attention. On the window seat by the blanket, a gray cat is curled up like a round pillow. Judy doesn’t understand how she missed it before, but she is delighted that her cozy room contains a cozy kitty. Exactly what it needed.

Her first impulse is to point out the cat to her students, but she thinks better of it. What is more important to gardeners, after all—how worms work or some batty teacher’s virtual background?

Nobody mentions seeing the kitty, and of course, the kitty is the only thing Judy can see. She has a little trouble paying attention to the discussion of rose pests. Relieved when class is finished and the room view is all hers, she gazes for quite a while at the image of the cat. Bellini was white and black, and Donizetti before him was an orange tabby. She has never owned a gray cat.

Ah, what a fine animal, still sleeping like a lump by the blanket. Judy wishes the evening view included him as well. Maybe she just didn’t notice him, like she missed him at first in the daytime view. As she admits students from the waiting room to the later class, she combs the scene behind her. No, no cat in the nighttime version.

Her evening students have all submitted garden reports. It’s a great time of year to share tips and tribulations, and the pandemic has allowed for new devotees to dedicate loads of time to their outdoor projects. Hearing about all this digging makes Judy miss her yard terribly, but she finds satisfaction in the guidance she can give.

Class runs overtime again tonight, but Judy doesn’t mind. What else is she going to do? It finally ends, and the students’ Zoom frames wink out, one by one. She wants to check on the cat in the daytime scene again, but she has work to do and the fireplace is quite welcoming. She wishes it would radiate actual warmth; she keeps her apartment fairly nippy, to save on the utility bill. She covers her lap with a blanket from the bed, and with a sigh, sets to work reviewing the plans her students submitted.

After a few pieces, between a rather nice rhododendron-gazebo idea and an inspired cherry orchard throwback, Judy imagines that her cat is climbing onto her lap. A broad, furry head pushes gently under her elbow, then the cat inches onto the blanket over Judy’s legs and settles its full weight on her. In seconds, he starts purring.

Judy shakes her head and laughs. Talk about a nutty professor! She takes a look, but of course, there is no cat on her lap. Still, the fantasy increases the warmth of the blanket. She smiles at the screen and tells the Judy looking back at her, "I think you’ve done enough for tonight. You’d better go to bed before you go completely loony." She imagines the cat kneading her lap with prickly but benign paws. She wants his name to be Vivaldi.

Thursday’s class contains students that are mostly at retirement age, like Judy. They bring a lot of gardening experience and know what they’re talking about. Judy enjoys their common kinship. They are eager to meet together, and the screen fills up quickly. Judy is excited to show them Vivaldi.

"Look at the window seat, everyone. I have a cat!"

"Where?" asks one of the students.

"I don’t see any cat," says another.

Always so pragmatic, Judy thought. "Under the window, by the plaid blank—"

Judy is dumbstruck. The plaid blanket is gone. The cat is gone. The window seat looks oddly tidy.

Judy scoots all the way to the side of her screen so she doesn’t block the middle of the view, and she scours the picture to find the cat. She wants to burst into tears. Vivaldi is such an important addition to her life—how cruel to lose him after only one day!

The students are impatient to start, and Judy pulls her concentration back to the class. She avoids looking at her own little box with its fake room photo.

But it doesn’t take long before Judy’s attention snaps away from the discussion and back into her lap. Here comes Vivaldi, as before. The weight of him begins to warm her. She reaches to pet his soft, deep fur, and her hand touches nothing.

She pulls on the top of her monitor to tip it down and scoots her chair back, so the camera aims lower than usual. She sees the room behind her and in her lap, exquisite Vivaldi: pointed ears trimmed with feathery fur, kind green eyes and long white whiskers, a mane of longer gray to frame his almost-Persian face.

She checks her lap and sees nothing, but when she looks again at the screen, she sees the luxurious cat curled up on her. Judy’s head bobs up and down with increasing confusion.

The class has noticed and become silent. "What’s going on?" one of them asks, truly concerned. "You’re acting like a crazy woman."

"I am a crazy woman," Judy says. "On my screen, I see a fuzzy gray cat on my lap. Can you see him?"

The students peer where she points but shake their heads.

"I can see him on the screen, and I can feel him. But there’s nothing in my lap!" She stands up abruptly, and the weight that had settled on her lap slides with a thump to the floor. In her virtual background, she sees the big gray cat make his way toward the windows, swishing his tail in annoyance at being displaced. Judy watches as the cat jumps up and turns around to find his spot by the slumping pillow. "Do you see him now?" she asks them in a trembling voice. "There, on the window seat?"

"How much sleep did you get last night?" a different student asks. The class laughs nervously.

"Never mind," says Judy.

The students make a point of saying their farewells, lingering slightly longer than usual to wish Judy good health and a happy week. Judy shuts down her computer as soon as class is over. She fights hard with herself not to check for cat hair on her sweatpants. She is not a drinking woman, but she rifles through a couple of the boxes, looking for that airplane-sized bottle of rum she’d been given on a long-ago trip to Hawaii. She sits on the edge of her bed and downs the contents of the tiny flask. Her thoughts fasten on what insanity may feel like. She wonders if this is it.

Friday morning’s class comes much too early after such bad sleep. She hurries to open the app and checks for Vivaldi in the virtual background. She doesn’t see him, but the blanket is back and draped as carelessly as before.

Like the previous day, the students of this class crowd into the waiting room, too, and she admits them as fast as she can. Spirits are high, and these hours of sharing will be the week’s high point for many of these chattering seniors. She allows the conversations to flower until they wilt of their own accord. Then on to the gladiolas!

The first hour flies by, buoyed by everyone’s enthusiastic plans for future adventures with growing things. But as one hour stretches into the next, Judy’s concentration is jostled by Vivaldi’s return. As before, he insinuates himself onto her lap. Without thinking, she reaches to scritch his back, and to her surprise, touches the soft, sturdy creature. Points of his ears show in her Zoom frame. Again, she tips the monitor down and sees him in her lap. His eyes meet hers, and he blinks slowly. He pushes the side of his whiskery face into her hand. She strokes him under his chin. His returned affection washes over her. She feasts on his image on screen and ignores the reality of her empty lap. No reason not to enjoy the moment.

After class, she keeps the room open. She runs her fingers over Vivaldi’s silky coat, watching him on screen as he reaches from time to time to nuzzle her fingers. She watches herself, too, sitting in her cozy craftsman on a Friday afternoon with her beloved cat. The woman she sees has no wrinkles. She is wise and lovely, and her cheeks look bright in the soft, cheery focus that Judy has so carefully manipulated in the video controls.

When Vivaldi jumps down, Judy takes a break, but she doesn’t close the Zoom room. She glances at the traffic outside her small window and finishes off a slice of leftover pizza before returning to the monitor. She has not switched backgrounds to the evening version, but she sees that the fire is lit. The lamp is glowing. The sun’s bright rays slant low, throwing a new beam on the window seat.

Vivaldi is nesting in the plaid blanket. With a deep-voiced meow, he calls to her. "Come to me," he says. He hops off the seat and stands, to meow again: "Come to me, you know how."

Judy takes a deep breath. The cat walks toward her until she can feel him brush against her legs.

She stands and pushes her chair to one side. Eyes front, she backs into the room. Vivaldi stays by her feet, weaving a path for her as they go deeper and deeper, past the rocking chair and toward the broad windows.

Judy inhales the rich scent of the room, a perfume of old leather and decades of candlelight. How good it is to be home. She bends to scoop up Vivaldi, hugs him close, and then she disappears.