••• The International Writers Magazine:Life Stores in Dreamscapes
Israel ( and further adventures of Patrick)
Although New Yorkers, who loved lox and bagels, Joan and Bob were goyim, not Jewish. By going to live in Israel they did not plan to make alliya (become Israelis.) Rather, they simply wanted to see first hand what was going on in the region.
Joan and Bob knew that the Middle East had many sectarian problems, but they also realized that the newspapers and networks often times dramatized reality: More drama, more sales.
Joan and Bob tended to mistrust newspapers. Whether liberal or conservative they all had their own slants, which were not necessarily what Joan and Bob thought. Many people wondered if the couple was crazy living in certain places. When people found out that the couple were New Yorkers, the people frequently yelped, “You lived where? You survived those suicidal streets?” People were astounded that Joan and Bob escaped New York with mind and limbs intact.
In fact, the couple could barely recognize the New York they knew, with the pictures people had of the New York from the media. When foreigners found out Joan and Bob were from New York, they usually started looking for guns in pockets. Even after they explained New York is really not that dangerous, the couple sensed some still thought that the city was filled with thieves, murderers and Mafioso, perhaps with pleasant smiles, but usually with bad intentions. Once an English friend actually confessed to Joan, over a cup of afternoon tea, that she was afraid to change flights in New York because she thought she might be robbed or raped between flights.
In short, the couple jumped at the idea of living in Israel, in spite of people warning them that they would be shot as Israeli or Palestinian sympathizers as soon as they got off the plane.
Israel is a country filled with lots of wonderful things to do, historical places to see, but best of all it has many Western conveniences. In a checklist it compared favorably with Spain, and the whole family loved Spain.
No one would not have to wait until midnight to have dinner; there would be decent toilets; neighbors would not be yelling at each other during siesta; most everyone people spoke at least some English (Hebrew and Arabic were not one of the family’s communicative options—too difficult) and those who didn’t speak English, probably didn’t want to speak with anyone in the family anyhow.
Joan and Bob were open to seeing what they would find. If anything they were theologically clueless, open-minded “Christians-of-no-particular sect,” who thought social reform beneficial. They were not religious-never mind orthodox anything.
Patrick and Ebony would play an important role for Joan and Bob in their Israeli life. In Israel as with Spain, the situation revolved around the new neighborhood.
Kfar Shmaryahu looked like an upscale American suburb, with all the visual amenities and practical conveniences. The streets of the Kfar frequently tinged with the smell of flowers. It reminded one of a pleasant Californian sub –division that had its landscape grow up over the last few decades. Gardens surrounded all the houses in the Kfar, although the garden was a little shallow and narrow in the back of their house. But what the garden lacked in breadth and depth it had in “the spectacular.” Over the entrance was a trellis totally dense with big flows of bougainvillea that kissed the front door. The entryway to heaven couldn’t have been more wonderful. In general, the gardens reminded one of a combination of plush pillow and delicate tulle surrounded by an emerald rivulet of grass. As eyes blinked-by, they jumped with a little celebration.
No horticulturist, Joan didn’t recognize half of what was growing in it. What plants she did recognize had deeply fertile faces. They almost sang out from another dimension: the delphiniums with their long shafts of blue and purple played royal music for the king; marigolds organized jazz trumpet solos; brash begonias danced out tunes from “Hello Dolly,” and cattails made soft whispers. (Where on earth did the landlord get cattails and how did he grow them?) The garden was a rather mysterious region, an enceinte from the hubbub of days.
Joan and Bob thought that in Israel they would have to live in some reconstituted Quonset hut surrounded with varying degrees of sand; instead they got a rainbow in the desert. The strong Middle Eastern sun had a bright dappled affect on the grounds around the house. The shade from trees looked marvelously deep. The walls around the garden were covered in rather bleached out vines that might have passed for old tapestries, if they were in a European country house. The sky spread all over with various hues of purple-azure, in a Tanzanite delight as bright as if it were 9-11.
Contradictorily most wonderful, were those “ping-pong” rain days in the Kfar. Precipitation would start out in the Mediterranean, meander inland, hit the Jerusalem hills, and then bounce back to the sea. Rain brought a quiet of soothing pitter patter. In this part of Israel there were a surprising number of rain days. The couple most cherished weekend rain. Joan and Bob would frequently nestle inside, lazy in bed, as the rain dribbled or slashed around; they would listen to the radio, read a book or magazine. There was nothing like clouds to bring out a bright thought.
Daydreams during rains storms resembled that time in the early morning when one first opened his/her eyes but lay so relaxed that a body failed to move a muscle. A parade of old, and not-yet born actions walked into one ear, and out the other in a silent sarabande, which left a trail of shine much like the sparkle of water in moonlight. During a cloud covering, feelings of connubial affection also tended to turn golf course lush. With the wet, everyday turmoil momentarily vanished.
Grey rain was particularly appreciated because the media frequently broadcasted nothing but explosions.
What was most refreshing about percipatation in Israel came from feeling that you lived in a rhododendron forest when you were, geographically, only fifty or so miles from a desert.
Joan and Bob had put a rental deposit on a house that belonged to a botanist at the University of Tel Aviv where Joan had a visiting position teaching medical English. The landlords, Shoshanna and Sholmo, were academics with whom Joan and Bob had a lot in common. Conversation between landlords and tenants was easy. From out of the lighthouse of their professions they talked over country boundaries, beyond political oceans.
One thing was clear from the moment they all met: Shoshanna was expectant about allowing anyone other than people in her family to live in her house. (Joan found out later that the Sholmo paid cash when he bought the place!) She was very proud of her place and wanted nothing changed when people moved in. When they moved out, she wanted it to look like it did when they moved in.
Shoshanna was lovely but direct, “ You can’t move the living room couch or easy chairs. The furniture was high quality so you can’t eat ice cream or chocolate when you sit on it. The bathroom and kitchen must be mopped down every day. You need to clean the kitchen sink with a toothbrush. Although the floors are terrazzo you will have to wipe your feet on the welcome mat before you come into the house. You can’t go into the big upstairs bedroom. It will hold all of our most precious items. We will lock it and take the key with us. You need to buy your own bedding. Windows and French doors need to be washed at least bi-weekly. None of the art on the walls can be touched.”
After her litany and recitation of the Israeli Code of Household Law, she smiled, gently. “Most importantly, you need to be comfortable and love the house the way we love it.”
After Joan Bob had finally passed muster (producing proof of employment, passports, back accounts, ad infinitum), they commenced to sign the contract. There was only one unexpected glitch, as they put pen to paper. The couple thought it was a minor point, so they forgot to mention it in any of their previous conversations. “Besayda (Hebrew for all’s well, don’t worry), you are Americans coming from abroad and we want to be friendly.” As Joan and Bob put pen to paper Shoshanna flatly declared,“No cats, no dogs.”
The couple had a darling little princess daughter, who was allergic to animal hair. If we ever had an animal, when the princess came back she would go into apoplexy. Shoshanna was particularly clear,” If you ever bring an animal into the house, you will be evicted.”
Joan and Bob nervously laughed, “What kind of idiots would we have to be, to bring pet animals from New York into Israel? Besides there were Kosher Laws, did you think that we know from nothing?” They all laughed. Shoshanna replied, “Yes we knew it was stupid to bring it up—please pardon us, but you never know what mashuginas some people can be. We don’t mean to be offensive.” Joan thought silent as the ocean depths, “Offensive? You gumbas we don’t have one animal, but two cats. They are flying out of Amsterdam right now after being groomed and refreshed at the KLM animal hotel for in-transit animals.”
The Cleaning Lady
There was another follow-up clause, but it was not put into writing. The house would come with a cleaning lady who was very good at her job and appreciated all the little quirks of the place.
Joan secretly blanched, “How are we going to get rid of this Olympic Putz-Frau? We can’t let her uncover the cats!”
In a few days later, the cats moved in--undercover. As the entire family pulled up to the house Bob skitted their new tax-free Suzuki into the car port/garage, and carried Patrick and Ebony into the house wrapped up in bathroom towels like two big tacos. All now found themselves, quite innocently, in the middle of the fierce legalities of the Middle East: cats, no cats.
Joan could not take Patrick and Ebony to the Israeli/Palestinian animal shelter even if there were one: they could barely explain their situation in English never mind Hebrew. Besides they had a moral duty to the cats. The cats knew from nothing that they were coming to Israel. Was it their fault that they were persona non grata? As they trundled into the basement Bob broke the immediate tension of this current mess. “You know Joan I once knew a Russian immigrant now living in Brooklyn; He smiled and hoped to shine the bright side of things.
The immigrant spoke about living in the former Soviet Union. An official was pushed out of ten-story building during a KGB interrogation. As he fell past the fifth floor window he saw one of his friends who asked, ‘How are things going?’ His friend answered, ‘For the moment everything is fine!’ ”
Joan was not amused. She pushed her finger into Bobs face. “ Don’t joke. If we deal with the situation logically and do not lose our cool, we will find some solution!” So they created a checklist. The first item on the list was the cleaning lady.
Later in afternoon, Shoshana, phoned and wanted to talk about the cleaning lady, Hanna. She told Joan, that Hanna was very proud. She felt part of the “upper class” of Israeli society and was a little awkward at being a cleaning lady. Hanna really wanted the job and she wanted things to work out, but under the circumstances things had to be made clear.
It was not a question of prejudice, but Hanna made it clear that in Israel, Jewish women, and well-off foreign women had Palestinian maids. Hanna did not mind working for Jewish owners of the house since they were Israelis who understood her predicament—she needed money. Nevertheless, Hanna was not happy about working for a Christian family. Jewish woman should not be employed as a goy’s cleaning lady, yet Hanna was practical. Though awkward, this situation could work if certain realities were firm.
Shoshanna continued the litany. The house should basically be clean before Hanna arrived. Hanna would wash down all the floors, but she was no slave. She would NOT pick up kids cloths or straighten up messy food. She particularly did not “do” boys’ underpants. She needed a 10 AM tea or coffee break, with a small snack –just some nuts and fruits would do. She had low blood sugar.
Most importantly, she would never touch bugs, crawling creatures, or any other critter from the garden that managed to get into the house. She was particularly petrified of snakes. If she saw any snake in the house, she might run out the front door screaming and probably faint. It wasn’t a phobia, but an allergy. She was deathly allergic to snakes.
Joan asked Shoshanna if there were there a lot of snakes in the house? Shoshanna said there had never been one in the house since they bought the place, but there are garter snakes and maybe scorpions in the garden. After all it was the Middle East. They just needed to keep their eyes open and get rid of anything like a snake or scorpion before Hanna started cleaning. “Don’t touch the little white or clear scorpions--they are extremely poisonous; the back ones are OK, they just make you feel you want to cut off a limb.”
Shoshanna continued. Hanna was a bit of a tempermental princess, yet a total diamond. Her husband had not been good to her over the years so she was a little damaged. Joan just needed to be a bit gentler with her than she might be with the usual household helper.
Hanna could never stay longer than 2 PM since she had her own kids to pick up from school. Although she could speak some English, we would have to speak with her in Hebrew. If that was not possible, they should get someone to write notes in Hebrew so Hanna could communicate. Under no circumstances could she ever come on Friday, Saturday or Sunday. She was not observant, but she was sensitive to religious imperatives.
Joan did not want to throw any gasoline. She smiled vacuously and wondered bemusedly, “Jesus Christ, we are not a Freudian couch; we just want a cleaning lady because you want us to have a cleaning lady, otherwise no contract. What should I do already? Analyze Hanna’s palms and tell her that every one loves her? Tell her that she shouldn’t be afraid of money since she will be winning Publisher’s Clearing House??”
In short, there was zero probability there would be any problem.
The day before the cleaning day, Joan picked up all kids clothes, washed down the kitchen floor and most carefully cleaned the kitchen faucet with a toothbrush. She wanted to make a good impression on Hanna. After all Joan was Christian! She tried to look on the positive side of things. Maybe if Hanna might be happy with her new job, she would say nothing about the cats, even if she had her suspicions.
Joan also looked everywhere for any trace of a snake or spiders, and found none.
The day the cleaning lady was supposed to arrive, Joan took off work and packed the Patrick and Ebony into the back seat of their new little Suzi Suzuki, and drove around town for a few hours. She finally found a cool spot in the shade, close to the house, locked the cats in the car with the windows slightly ajar, and came home to meet with nemesis-woman, to thank her and to pay her.
After Hanna left, Joan, with budding tears, went to their next door neighbor, Zila. She just wanted someone to talk with, someone to help lessen her tension. In short, Joan was biting nails. What were they ever going to do in the future with Patrick and Ebony, the secret stowaways, when the cleaning lady came? Joan couldn’t take off of work every time the cleaning lady rang the doorbell! But of course she couldn’t let Zila know that.
Zila had been friendly when they first arrived. She had come out to greet Joan and Bob with a sturdy handshake. She had lived in the States for two years; her husband was a colonel in the Israeli military and spent a tour of duty in Washington, DC. Zila remembered how friendly Americans were when she first came to the States and was eager to “repay” the courtesy. She wanted to be a good neighbor.
Zila came to Israel at a young age with her parents who were Ashkenazi Jews from Poland and had suffered under Nazi oppression. She loved Israel, yet could be frank about it shortcomings—a rare characteristic in such a homogenous society. She was a garrulous, smiling woman, who was now in the upper echelon of Israeli social structure, being Polish in heritage and her husband a colonel, but she was not particularly observant. She had a sophisticated, down to earth, attitude toward life.
Joan came clear with the details that Shoshanna revealed about Hanna and her demands. With regard to the immediate problem of Hanna, Zila was clear,” That low class woman is probably the most ridiculous cleaning lady in all Israel. What does she think: you are her slave! My advice: get rid of her! Who knows from nothing? Her fetish about snakes could result in having you call an ambulance, which might petrify the whole neighborhood. Besides, she might try to take you to court if God forbid, a snake might get into the house.”
“Someone like that might be so unbalanced that she could shoot you in your sleep. I’ll write Shoshana and tell her that Hanna is out of control and that you have no choice but to fire her. I’ll also write a note for Hanna and diplomatically tell her that her services are not needed.”
Patrick and Ebony, all snakes and possible garden riff-raff, along with the whole family, were now all freed from the Wicked-Witch-of-the-Middle-East House Cleaner. Besides being a bit of a bitch, strange things still happened between Joan and Hanna. Even after the knot had been cut, Joan serendipitously found out that Hanna had terrible verb problems.
Hanna had been let go and Zila had spoken with her on the phone about her job being terminated. Zila explained the language barrier was just too much for the situation to be a success. In spite of that, a few days later after this altercation, Hanna rang the front doorbell and handed Joan a note, which read in barely intelligible English, “I tried to came yesterday; I sick; I plan to came tomorrow.” Thank God they never saw that nightmare again.
All personality problems aside there would be nothing worse than having a housekeeper who mixed up the present, future and past; she was probably some kind of mystic. If she stayed nothing might ever have been done: Lord Almighty, she might have thought that it was already done or it would need to be done next week.
Diamonds, daimonds who has the diamonds?
An incident occurred a few months later, after Joan got to know Zila much better. It defined Zila for everyone in the family. It gave insights into her dependable no frills character. Joan’s cousin, Erica, had come to visit and wanted to buy a diamond. After all wouldn’t she get a better bargain in Israel, home of the diamond trade, than in New York? Zila had the whole family over for dinner for a Shabbat feast to welcome Erica. During dinner Erica spoke with Zila over a portion of Zila’s Fantastic Onion Pie, all about diamonds.
“So, you want a diamond? Don’ t even raise a finger. I have a connection with a big Tel Aviv diamond dealer. He’s so happens to be my cousin and I can get you the very best diamond, at the very best cost, in all Israel, and Israel is where you get the best diamonds! Come over with Joan tomorrow afternoon. I will take you to see him. Listen. The deal will be finished in a half of an hour and you will be more than happy. You will be very very happy! Let me tell you.”
“Tomorrow afternoon” came round quicker that a chipmunk crossing a road. Next day Zila rang the doorbell and suggested that she take Joan and Erica out for a little spin, not far from the Kfar, to a very lush split level in a more than plush neighborhood. She drove up to a large midcentury modern house. She walked up the front path, and rang the bell on a beautifully carved door. A smiling, loquacious middle-aged woman kissed Zila on the check and welcomed the entire group in for coffee and a piece of crumb cake.
The woman made the requisite small talk to Joan and her cousin,” So how do you like Israel? The weather has been a little cloudy, but it is usually just beautiful. Like the cake? It’s my mother’s recipe and comes straight out of her kitchen. She might have had a big mouth, but she could surely cook well. God bless her soul. I still miss her.”
She then continued, “Diamonds ? We have lots of them. My family got into the diamond exchange in Amsterdam. My grandfather was Orthodox and well respected. He’s been dead for decades, but I still remember him with love. When he visited us, he always gave us kids chocolate and marzipan. My brother now takes over the business. God be thanked, he is very successful. Excuse me for a moment. The garbage man will be coming in a few minutes.” The woman then got up and grabbed a plastic bag filled with garbage, went out into the street and came back with what looked like the same garbage sack. Joan and Erica gasped as Zila’s cousin emptied the sack onto the table. Instead of garbage, it was filled with diamonds. A hill of diamonds garnished the table! From then on, Joan and Bob privately called Zila the, “Diamond Bag.”
Erica bought a beautiful one-carat diamond over a cup of tea and a piece of coffee cake. Zila’s big smile over the successful transaction proved her dependability. But Patrick and Ebony were still on the scene.
Because Joan had to “ lie” to Zila about Patrick and Ebony the cats actually brought the neighbors together. Oddly enough the secret created a bond between them. Reality drew the women together into an ever more intense relationship. Zila’s kindness actually made Joan like her “new girlfriend” more than ever.
Nevertheless, Joan could never let her guard down. While Patrick played a positive force bringing Joan and Zila together, he also played a dark role. Lying about animals is one thing but hurting people in the community with such lies is something else.
A friendly New Jersey couple with three kids, the Membans, just started working at the same international school as Bob did. They were Jewish, but very eclectic reformed, heritage Jews: Christmas, Halloween, Thanksgiving, Easter were all in their vocabulary. It was a delight for Joan, Bob and the kids to have them as neighbors—they lived close up the street about five houses. It was soul refreshing to have fellow New Yorkers around, with whom they could laugh and whine.
Joan told the Membans about Patrick and Ebony under the code name Ann and Frank since Joan hid both cats in what she discovered to be an ideal place. By law it appeared that every private house in Israel needed a bomb shelter. Joan would place the cats in the bomb shelter during the day—no windows, big thick doors, cement walls and let them out at night. Joan always fed them at dusk; they then started their routine again. Cat problem fixed. Well, almost.
Zila decided to have a neighborhood party for both families. Many people on the block showed, probably to eat Zilla’s Onion Pie, which Joan discovered was quite famous in this part of the Kfar. Nina, the New Jersey mom, was always very straight forward and talkative, particularly at parties in which everyone spoke (more or less) English. During the party, she was perfectly free in telling our neighbors that she thought El Al, the Israeli national airline, was simply dreadful. It allowed the craziest things to take place on flights.
At one point during her trip from NY to Tel Aviv, a large number of full-grown men dressed up in shawls and put something around their heads that looked like miners lights—right out of West Virginia. Suddenly, after filling the aisles with these costumes they swayed back and forth, mumbling. Nina was shocked. The whole scene frightened her kids.
Before too much harm was done, Joan took Nina aside and told them that the “miners lights,” were phylacteries, and in them prayers written on small piece of paper. The shawls were the correct dress Jewish men used to prayer. The men were observing ancient religious customs, not playing dress-up. Nina then became very indignant.
“I never heard of anything like that in New Jersey. The plane is a public place. People should not be allowed to do what they want if it makes others uncomfortable. Besides if she couldn’t yell out, “Fire, fire! ” why should she put up with others infringing on her space? She then concluded quietly, “ Hebrew is a tiny language, almost no one speaks it. Why doesn’t everyone just learn English; it would cut out a lot of these cultural mis-understandings.”
Our neighbors didn’t mind if us goyim didn’t understand Jewish customs. Goyim weren’t Jewish. But for a Jewish mother not to understand Jewish customs was intolerable. Of course, Nina didn’t help the issue by babbling, but the damage from her frankness had been done. The party was the beginning of the end of the Membans, who were disliked from then on, by all our neighbors, for their cultural insensitivity. But the party incident was not the end point. Yom Kippur was.
Yom Kippur, the holiest day in the entire Jewish year, is a time when people were supposed to reflect on their lives. It is the day of repentance. Joan mentioned that she loved Yom Kippur since everything turned totally quiet and you had time for self-reflection, even if you weren’t Jewish. The Membans knew something about the holiday because in New Jersey, depending on the school district, kids would get off. But they didn’t know a lot.
Shortly before Yom Kippur, Nina bought her youngest son, Mark, a sleek racing bike. Mark was around ten. Yom Kippur then came around. The streets and sidewalks were totally empty. Mark decided, with the blessing of his mom, to ride around the Kfar on his brand new bike. The Membans were hated from that moment on. There were social consequences of this dislike. Nina frequently complained to Joan about neighbors being so unfriendly, and that their garbage cans were turned over every few weeks. Even though the Membans were secular, their situation was not kosher.
A few months after the Yom Kippur catastrophe, Zila came around to visit Joan for a cup of tea. She started to tell Joan that all the neighbors were complaining about the two new cats on the block. They would only come out at night. One cat was black with a white spot on its forehead; the other cat was totally black. Everyone knew that the two animals belonged to the much-hated Membans. There was even talk among the most outraged neighbors, of leaving out poison, mixed with meat to kill them.
Joan was a coward. She protested heartily to Zila that she never saw any trace of cats when she visited Nina; the animals must be coming from another neighborhood. Zila did not look too convinced.
From then on Patrick and Ebony were kept in the bomb shelter during the day, and let out to roam in the house at night. They were kept indoors day and night, the blinds were closed and the TV and radio left on. The family loved to watch the murder mysteries broadcasted in English from Cypress. Ann and Frank were only allowed in the basement/family room during the murder mysteries.
Joan and Bob loved the country. Every weekend was another trip to some incredible place—Jerusalem, the Jordan, Jericho, Masada, Haifa , ad infinitum. It was really a social playground for them, even though they were traditionally quite a private couple. They made lots of friends. In spite of all the things to do and their active social calendar, the scene began to wear thin. After a year, things started going south.
When Bob found out that the black market rate of the shekel was published every day in the Jerusalem Post he almost fell off his seat. Actually this surprise caused a bit of a problem. When they arrived the couple were paid in dollars, which had a black market exchange rate that was very favorable to the shekel. For Joan and Bob the Black Market had been extremely profitable. Things then changed with as the currency changed. The government tied the currency to the dollar. The shekel stabilized and things turned financially a little dicey for people paid in dollars. There was no more lucrative black market. In addition the raise, which was promised Bob when he started his job, evaporated.
Joan also loved Israel but found that the place was too filled with tensions, both political and social. Opinions were taken too seriously for her taste. The problem of the Membans being unjustly tied up with Patrick and Ebony weighed heavily on her. She felt some responsibility for the Membans being so disliked. The truth about Patrick and Ebony locked up in the bomb shelter also hung like a giant black umbrella, hiding the unfettered joy of sunlight.
In May at the end of the school year they decided to leave and go back to the States. Luckily jobs for both of them had come up in San Francisco. People at work and in the neighborhood were great. They had a great going away celebration for the couple and gave them all kinds of mementos of their last year, in particular a photo album, which Joan and Bob treasured. As she looked at the pictures, Joan particularly grew nostalgic; she had nothing but smiles of affection for the place that had been home. On the morning of her departure she looked bedazzled into the bathroom mirror as she was brushing her teeth and whispered, “How could such a wonderful country be filled with such anxieties?”
The night before Joan and Bob were leaving, Zila and her family visited and were entertained in the first floor living room. By this time such visits were commonplace. The cats were safely hidden in the bomb shelter and the house was spotless (Joan did all the cleaning). As everyone was talking and reminiscing about events of the last year, Zila took Joan aside.
With her arm around Joan’s shoulder and tears in her eyes she spilled the beans, “Please forgive me. I knew from just about the first day you moved in, that the cats were yours. I couldn’t say anything since Shoshanna told me I was to report to her, what you were doing in the house, at least once a month. If I didn’t ‘know’ I couldn’t report anything. It was nonsense about their daughter and her allergies; they treated her like the Empress of the Middle East. I felt bad about all the worry I caused you but you see I must stay here when you go, and I couldn’t afford to make an enemy of Shoshanna. If Shoshanna would ever find out that I never told her about the cats, she would never trust me again.”
“I love you--like that sister whom I didn’t ever have. I will miss you terribly.”
Lightness of air hit Joan as she got off the flight and walked into the airport. She noticed that even in the buzz of the airport things were inwardly still. She felt that she had come off a cocktail of rush and tension, into a glass of Poland Springs water. The invisible whirled around her head with a lovely embrace.
She had never been to San Fransisco. She thought that the Bay Area would be basically tropical – like Florida: bugs, storms, bad traffic, but only with earthquakes. Instead, she found a refreshing temperate zone in which her burdens grew bright. Joan could see the skyscrapers of the city in the distance and for a moment thought of the exact translation of the word “skyscrapers” in German: die Wolkenkratzer—the cloud scrapers. She sensed she was in a cloud, part of a local aurora borealis.
Birds squawked a musical quarrel. The atmosphere came in and out of the lungs with a pleasant cool as late afternoon crocheted a cover made of mitigated sunshine and placed it around her eyes. Everything soaked in a slight bit of shadow. The entire landscape appeared closer than it did in bright sun. It started to hug her with darkly arms, first one-then two–then innumerable.
Cars swished by as she drove. The sound of the tires buzzing over the tarmac caused the pavement a slight perturbation. The front window revealed a small picture frame of the actual day. As she drove Joan looked ever more intensely to either side of the road to get a better perspective. Her ears were clogged with the air conditioner.
The sky bubbled by in a balloon of big blues. Invisible sounds left her breathless. Thought rose up ready to burst: “How did I not know anything about the treasures of the Bay Area?” She opened and closed her mind in a bit of staccato of the eyes. She took in the entire scene—a washerwoman loading up her laundry basket with bundles of beauty. Winds waved around. Beyond the airport, San Francisco reigned not as a spectacle, but commodious habitation.
The flight from Israel was a bit much. Animals of exhaustion hung around her body ready to ambush and kill the emotions of relief that ran into her. She concentrated on one thought, any bagatelle would do, and for a minute pierced through the cloud of unknowing in spite of all the drops of water vapor that fell all over her. When a person is exhausted at maximum, then some of us can concentrate most effectively, if one can concentrate.
Joan daydreamed as the taxi speed towards the city. She thought of a meeting she once had with a Buddhist Master, in a wooded temple she had visited in the Adirondacks. The Master dressed in formal robes but sported a sense of humor; he told Joan that his best insight into the “nature of being,” happened after he sat on a boil on his ass for around 24 hours: no—sleep. The boil eventually burst, but not before his mind was opened. For Joan, coming into the Bay Area after an exhausting flight, resembled sitting on a boil on her ass. Unfortunately, Joan did not feel any more enlightened after her ordeal than before it.
The University had arranged to have a condo for the couple and their family not far from school. Joan was at UC Berkeley in the Medical School, while Bob had a job at one of the many educational institutes in the area. The hills in Berkeley were deep green sprinkled with as old Arts and Crafts homes and buildings. Their house was small, but lovely condo; bushes and a lawn area connected everyone in the complex. Best of all they finally lived in place that was totally animal friendly.
Joan bought a parakeet soon after they arrived. Every time there was a big burst of tension in the family, Joan bought another parakeet. That was just the start. She continued to buy an assortment of animals in order, “to relieve the tension of work”, which was a high-powered research facility. After a few months the she had around eight beautiful birds, in a rather big gun-metal cage, two puppies, a bunny, gold fish and ever more piss and shit from everybody.
Patrick’s whilom companion in the bomb shelter, Ebony, had been hit by a car a day before the family left Israel. She got out in the confusion of moving and was instantly killed. It was a hard time for Joan, who loved Ebony, but as long as Patrick was around, the bad luck with Ebony was bearable. The cat was buried in the Holy Land.
In California, Patrick stood at the head of the class. He had the run of the house and gardens, a pleasant change from his rather restricted roles in Spain and Israel. He was growing older, but the drag of age did not mellow him. He was still very standoffish, friendly to Joan, but with his usual mock attitude of superiority and cool distance to everybody else. Patrick was king; the other pets were inconsequential.
Although surrounded by freedom, wonderful Bay Area weather and all the food he would like, Patrick had a nemesis: Breznekov, The Rabbit.
Brez, as she called him, hopped into her backyard one afternoon. He was a French lop-eared, who would suddenly jump his rather substantive form into the air, do a few kicks in his legs and come back to earth as graceful as any ballet dancer. Joan and Bob were never sure from where he originated, but conjectured that some kid or adult had received him as an Easter present and grown tired of his mess: as a full grown lop, Brez was cute, but not baby-bunny cute. Someone probably let him get away. Joan put up signs everywhere in the neighborhood advertising that she had found a cute lop-eared rabbit, but no one ever made an inquiry.
The problem between Brez and Patrick had to do with sex. Patrick was getting up in his years, had no balls, and was content with wandering around the house or taking a short walk in the neighborhood. He always returned to his home-sweet-home after an hour or so. He may have been getting grey and arthritic, but he was happy. He graciously took on the role of being the participant observer in our quasi zoo –cool, detached, superior to all the other animals, and pampered by Joyce.
Brez loved trying to hump Patrick.
There were all kinds of unfriendly altercations between the two boys, usually involving sex and food, which sometimes resulted in growling/hissing stand-offs. (Yes, rabbits growl!) Joan would always try to defend Patrick but Brez would never really get the scene straight. Brez was a big guy. He would continue, at a better time and place, to try to have sex with Patrick, even after he had been lifted off the cat’s back.
Brez was relatively young and a bit rambunctious -- getting to feel his oats as he dabbled in maturity. He was a bit of a football player of a rabbit who apparently had sex on his mind. Joan didn’t help the situation too much. Rather than keeping Brez in a cage, Joan believed that animals should be let out to roam a little. When Brez did roam, he would poop little pellets and sometimes piss. He was litter-box trained, so these accidents or “bathroom bagatelles” were not really too troublesome. On his escapades, Brez would also meet up with his “love boat”—Patrick, who did not reciprocate affection.
More to the point, Brez tried to eat the legs of the chairs and tables in the condo. It was a real problem, so they had to take him to the bunny dentist (local vet) and have his front teeth pulled out. In spite of being a bit toothless, he still loved to try to have sex with Patrick, who found this bunny boy with no front teeth ever so unattractive. Over time, Brez wore Patrick somewhat down. Patrick grew ever older by the month and more standoffish; he kept clearer than ever of people and other animals.
Patrick was the main reason Joan met her best friend in California, Madeline. Madeline was a brilliant researcher in the Medical School who disliked almost everyone. She was a bit of a postcard from another planet. She had long, frizzy black hair, and wore anything that didn’t match with anything that she was already wearing. Her office was a cave of research articles, books, papers, journals and electronic devices, which she excelled getting to do everything she wanted electricity to do, except pro-create. She was probably also developing a scheme for that.
The most striking feature of Madeline was her rubber goulashes—or as she called the “her Wellies” (short for Wellingtons). No matter what the weather, it might be hot as the tropics, or cold as the artic, she always wore her Wellies. She had picked them up in her favorite palace to get cloths, books, etc. --the university dumpsters.
When Joan told Madeline her story about Patrick , the old witch, and the dumpster in Spain, Madeline was hooked: cats and dumpsters were her favorites. From then on Madeline and Joan were BGFs. Within a few months after Joan and her family arrived, Madeline toured Joan around her lab, explained her research projects, and even asked Joan’s assistance on projects. The two eventually wrote some articles, applied for grants and received a few million.
But garbage and medicine were not their only source of bonding between the “ two sisters.” The ladies decided to found a “ cat club,” with the purpose of getting all the stray cats roaming the campus fixed and making sure that food centers were created around campus. Campus cats may go without being a mommy or daddy, but none of them would go hungry!
Madeline was so moved by the story of Patrick that she turned the misery and misunderstandings he had faced in Israel and Spain into a cause celeb. Soon there were at least ten men and women. Staff and Faculty, were all involved in the campus Cat Network—Madeline was voted president of the organization and Joan vice president. They took their work very seriously.
Ironically, the Cat Network, the group that wanted to save cats from hunger and cruelty, brought about the final demise of Patrick. Well, almost.
One weekend Joan and Madeline, had to take some of the feral cats to the vets to be fixed. She couldn’t find a Cat Network cage in which to place them so Joan used Patrick’s cage. She and Madeline rounded up the usual feline suspects, captured them in cat traps, and put them in Patrick’s cage. She then gave them water, food and some blankets as a comfort for their disruptive trip to the operation.
She came back to campus and freed the lot after the operation was over. Unfortunately, she forgot to clean Patrick’s cage, into which he simply retreated as soon as he could, in order to escape all the action in the house. Within a few weeks after this incident, Patrick began to look sick. Of course, he might have caught something in his explorations of campus, but Joan was convinced his malady had to do with the towels, rags and water to which he was exposed from the feral cats that had been in his cage.
The vet took some blood tests and diagnosed feline leukemia, fatal. Joan was inconsolable; Madeline felt she was also to blame for asking Joan to take that load of cats to the vet. Neither could shake the gloom that Patrick didn’t have a lot of time left.
Joan did everything imaginable to make Patrick comfortable. She was particularly clever in the way she had him eat. Joan would smear his face with whipped cream cheese. He hated messy fur and would always clean himself; ergo, get some nutrition. In spite of all the soft blankets, little squeaky toys and loads of love, Joan knew her initiatives were basically worthless. It would be best to put him down, but just couldn’t. All those years together as companions created a wall of caring, which no vet could shoot down with a hypodermic needle.
Patrick started to get ever more disoriented. He would go into the garden and then just disappear; he would wander aimlessly around the neighborhood. Joan was frantic with worry when he would be gone and she couldn’t find him, but couldn’t get herself to end it all for him. She tried to get him to stay around the house but with every day he would get increasingly “lost.” His once robust superiority turned into emaciation; his body turned slowly into skin and bones–muscles atrophied, his cheeks collapsed. He looked terrible. Whether it’s a person or an animal, the monster of death eats a body without mercy.
One afternoon he wandered out of the house, but he didn’t come back to the house.
After a day or two, Joan found him in a neighbors yard. The woman had put out a soft blanket for him the sleep on and a small bowl of milk. Joan was a little pissed off since the neighbor must have known she was desperately looking for Patrick and had “kidnapped” him from Joan. Could she not read all the signs posted all over town? Was she blind?
The clincher was that, as Joan lovingly went to pick him up to take him home, he bit her. He jumped out of her arms and ran into the bushes. Joan couldn’t catch him. An hour or two later, Joan went back to her neighbor’s garden and found Patrick lying on the bedding. This time Joan wore plush gloves, and when he went to bite her again she didn’t feel a thing. He was mad, but she was madder. After all the food, lodging, plane rides, affections and total love, he was rejecting her.
She summarily took him back home, called the vet, put Patrick in a box, and took him to be put down. When she received his lifeless body, she cried. She then had him cremated.
In a few days, she bought an urn, placed the ashes in it, dug a hole in the garden under a commodious tree and buried the dearly loved animal. As she filled the hole in the dirt she whispered quietly,” Patrick I loved you. You rejected me for a total stranger, and her damned plush bedding and her bowl of milk. It was just too much. I will not be rejected for another woman by a cat!”
© Allen Cook is the former Dean of School of Education, University of Bridgeport
PART ONE - Patrick
Can of Tuna
Allen P Cook
Her head travelled horizontally back and forth trying to get its bearings--restless wheat in a breeze. The Basilica of Nuestra Senora del Pillar lay in front of her, big as a football field.