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••• The International Writers Magazine: Life Moments

• Allen Cook
Joan first met Patrick in a dumpster.  This altercation had a lot to do with the neighborhood in which she lived.

Joan and her husband, Bob, freshly from New York, rented a house in quaint part of Zaragoza, Spain. Joan was going to medical school at the University and her husband would teach at an international academy, where the kids would go to school.   They were all delighted with their little casita, even though it was in the traditional Fascist section of town that was inhabited by working class and poor people, who were probably a little anti-American. The hamlet consisted of about a dozen or two attached, cement townhouses, two stories high, each with seven (rather small) rooms, side balconies and lovely enclosed gardens.  It was about a two block square, right in the midst of new high rises around Plaza de San Francisco - one of the most prestigious neighborhoods in the city.

While they loved it, everyone else in Zaragoza thought it was a dump, and for good reason. The whole place needed a coat of Benjamin Moore Exterior White with Super Covering. Although most of her neighbors could probably recall the Napoleonic siege of the city, many of them couldn’t probably remember the faces of their children, grand children and great grandchildren.  Almost everyone living there was an octogenarian or nonagenarian, who most people thought were already dead. There is a certain beauty in the snowstorm of age and in the hebetude of bones.

Joan and Bob were probably the newest events to hit the area in decades.

For Joan, her casita was perfect. Though the place was not central to any good bars and restaurants, she never went to a bar and ate out rarely.  Besides, you had to wait until at least 10PM before anyone would even serve you a peanut!  No matter how Spanish she tried to become, her stomach would never get a new passport. She and her husband also hated apartments (most everyone in the city lived in a high rise). A little house was their step into paradise: oblivious, but happy, foreigners.

The place was poetically dilapidated. When they moved in, the streets were lined with great trees.  A few weeks later the city cut down many of them into matchsticks with puffs on their ends. Nevertheless, even after the hair cut, which made their once lush greenery look like coleslaw, there were always the beautiful street names.  The major streets were name after classical Spanish writers: San Juan del la Cruz, Cervantes, Santa Theresa de Jesus and the poet Ram de Viu.  True, neither Bob nor Joan had never heard of Ram de Viu before they lived on his street but no matter.  The place had kulcha.

Joan often said the neighborhood reminded her of Greenwich Village “early in the twentieth century.”  Although a New Yorker, she never lived anywhere near the Village.  She was born in Maspeth, Queens long after all literary allusions about the Village were deader than doornails: Maspeth was a lower middle class, immigrant neighbor in New York City whose sole claim to culture was kielbasa.  Though there was neither artist nor art in this part of Zaragoza, she made believe the place was most cool—a real arty find; all the better to live with thrills of illusions.

In spite of the tree catastrophe, there were still many trees left uncut. Joan particularly loved to walk under their shade in the early morning, when she would go to the local bodega.   Leaves would drop off branches and smash the sidewalk with green transparencies.   Birds chirped high up, and then their lilt fell between branches right onto the pavement.  The melody of such crashed songs wound the mind up into the web of quiet.  As she walked, her life liberated itself, though paradoxically nothing was actually liberated. She imagined for a moment that she was the Dalai Lama.

Joan penetrated into a special kind of happiness, an ease of heart, like good dessert and cup of coffee.  It was a brand of freedom in which the hassles of the days disappeared down a wormhole.  As she walked, she was free of her damned will; forces of natural confusion slipped out of their cloths, and even her tiny pores could breathe unhindered, with supple grace.

Morning shadows sharpened the walls of the row houses and made a series of fingerprints that reverberated, ever so subtle, with the name of the street and the house address, “ Calle Santa Theresa de Jesus 10, 12, 14…” St. Theresa took a moment from out of her eternity of perfection to warble down Joan’s ears.   Joan thought that sometimes she even glimpsed the saint as she walked. 

The Boys

As she went to the bodega, Joan always passed by the entrance to the Jesuit Escuela, Santo Carlos Borromeo. In general Joan loved the Spaniards, who were basically kind people, but two things really pissed her off about the Borremeo boys (who were undoubtedly also good boys).   They would actually sit, lumps on a log, on her stoop--so devoted to their own asses that they wouldn’t even get up to help her, or even to get out of her way, when she had an arm of groceries.  The boys also stood with their feet leaning on the front walls of the house, right under the living room window and smoked smelly cigarettes. They considered whatever part of the casita faced the street as public property. 

Joan had complained numerous times to her landlord and to even the school administration about infringement of her privacy, but all to no avail. Though the kids appeared well mannered, they were undoubtedly budding male chauvinist pigs, oblivious her needs.

She imagined the insides of their talking heads - whispering, “Why pay attention to this grouchy middle-aged lady who could hardly speak Spanish.  So she was yelling at them about her arms falling off with heavy groceries? She had two arms and legs and all her parts were working.  Besides, she wasn’t their mother.”

Foreigners were enigmatic and unintelligible.

One day on returning home from the bodega, after her morning of poetic fantasies on the beauty of Spain, she went totally ballistic. She had had a bad night sleep and was not in any mood for nonsense. By God, these little twerps would suffer; they would be forced to move their forms divine away from the house. She wasn’t a native New Yorker because of her once svelte body! She knew how to get at the meat of a problem and chew it up.

Previously, when they gathered in front of the casita like flies around cake, she had planned a surprise.  She went into her backyard and wove her garden hose through the house, careful to hug the woodwork.  She then stuck the nozzle under the front door, which fortunately was not flush to the top cement stair. She then decided to stop: this plan was too childish even for her quick temper.  She would not play the Ugly American.

Today, it was different.  She had been pushed one step too far. After slogging through the crowd of teenage brats, she opened the door, almost fell down from exhaustion, plopped groceries on the kitchen table went into the backyard patio. She saw the bright hose connection and smiled.  She then turned on the cold water as hard as she could.  The water swished through the strategically placed hose, and suddenly blasted out ice cold H2O onto the stoop.

The boys started screaming. Their asses were soaked; their uniforms were wet; they looked as if they peed in their pants.  In a burst, everyone started laughing at the pee-pants. 

The hose torture was not sufficient. Joan was still fit to be tied.   She then descried a line-up of these Jesuit-trained hooligans leaning on the front of the house.  She muttered darkly, “ Those god-damned brats don’t know “vicious” until they felt some real nastiness from out Brooklyn!”

She rushed up the lovely marble stairs that twisted in a gentle curve from the foyer to the second floor.  She darted into an upstairs bathroom, took her bathroom watering can and filled it.  She then went into the front bedrooms and poured the cold water out the window onto the unsuspecting heads of the boys leaning against the house.  The crowd went crazy with laughter. Within seconds the scene cleared.

Maspeth mama makes madness!

Joan had one immediate multicultural thought: “ Glad this did not happen in Queens. Not only would the kids’ parents probably sue me, but all my windows would likely be broken! The ACLU would have picketed my house.  I would have cops dragging me off to the precinct as a crazy lady.”

But no problem!  She wasn’t in Queens.  She was in sunny Spain, where young men simply laughed it all off.

Most of the time, Joan loved her neighborhood streets, trees, houses and even the high school boys who were her bane.   She especially admired the Spaniards’ respect for old people.  If she watered kids like flowers, what was the sweat?


While today’s incident was the exception, it really set her temper off.  She hated to lose her cool, but the boys had pushed her off the mountain of disinterested observation right into the waiting arms of Patrick.  Joan’s altercation with Patrick revealed yet another side of the neighborhood.   

On the street opposite her house was a new dumpster. It was half filled with construction refuse.  The school was repairing classrooms. The site was a little ugly, but the Jesuits had to keep up school repairs to maintain school appearances. 

Exhausted from her morning turmoil, Joan made a cup of tea.  She sat down “for a spot” in the easy chair by the front window, which she opened for some fresh air. All the boys were in class.  The street was quiet.

Suddenly, she heard an intensity coming from around the dumpster.  It was like a piece of dynamite exploding mixed with the groan of a banshee.  She looked out the front living room window and saw an old lady with a cane.  The metal stick had the rhythm of an oilrig you might see in a Texas oil field trying to soak the earth of its natural riches.

The “black bomb shell” pummeled the cane over and over again, up and down.  A skeleton of an arm flew around and a black whisk of veil followed. Bam, bam, “Mal suerte”—Joan wondered what was bad luck?  Was the old lady now shouting and jumping up and down, pissed off that the garbage company still hadn’t picked up the container trash? 

This living veil of black decrepitude had surfaced a few times on the block before this morning.  She lived next door in a house that was totally sealed up most all of the time. She would come out for air only every few days for a few minutes, then in a half hour or so go right back into her casita of Calaban. (Was she related in some ancient way to the fascist guns that had fired on the Republican forces from these streets during the Spanish Civil War?)

She looked like the Bride of Frankenstein only about seventy years older and balding.

Joan had to see what was happening.  She ran out to the dumpster as the old lady was yelling; Joan wanted to see what was receiving the slams.  She went right up to the dumpster and looked inside.  It was a little back kitten with a small white spot between its eyes.  Her nerves, frazzled because of the boys, now broke down. Joan started to yell in English, “ What are you doing, you dreadful old bag?  How can you try to kill a kitten? Are you crazy?”

The old lady was stunned. Like a good Spaniard, Joan should respect, not threaten old ladies, but suddenly this Maspeth Mama left her love of Spain and its customs in the dust.  She grabbed the old lady’s cane and threw it on the sidewalk.  She started gesticulating,  “ You stupid witch!  You should go to hell.  You, not the kitten, are the biggest bag of bad luck around here.” The crumpled-up, old woman stuck her head up for air, and hissed something in Spanish, but Joan couldn’t process the threats. 

As she jumped into the dumpster, Joan’s dress flew above her undies and the black bullet yelled even louder about indecency.   Joan went over to the corner of the dumpster when the kitten lay apparently dead.  She picked it up and climbed out. The old lay continued shouting. 

Joan slowly walked to the front door of her casita, opened the door, went in, and tightly closed the door behind her.  Outside, the hag continued yelling.  Joan laid the kitten on a towel in the kitchen. 

The miraculous suddenly erupted.  As Joan held the small black body in the dishtowel, the eyes slowly opened. A moment of resurrection glowed on Calle Santa Theresa de Jesus: a new spark of firmament.   Both Joan and the kitten knew life had been given another chance to flow through the universe.  It wasn’t Niagara; it was only a delicate drop of water, but fierce as a leopard. 

Joan took a deep breath.  It had been a morning from hell. 

Later that afternoon girlfriends from the university came over for a visit.  One was Irish.  Joan told her about the monster next door.  The two ladies agreed that, if it weren’t for Joan, the kitten would be dead: the critter had the luck of the Irish, so Joan called him Patrick.

Patrick became part of the family. He didn’t relate to well to anyone else but Joan, but that didn’t much matter. He remained a rather wild creature, an animal removed from the world in many ways, with a sort of feline resignation he kept closed off to surrounding life.  He only responded to Joan. Another person would call him and he would not come or even acknowledge the voice. He had no affection for most people and harbored an imaginary scorn in his eyes for all people.  He had little desire for contact with the world around him, except when he wanted food and water. 

Patrick used a litter box faithfully, but with no sense of obedience.  He decided when and where to go potty; he was not following anyone else’s desire that he use the box.  He especially did not like children and skirted out of room quickly when a child would visit, cry or make a harsh sound.  Joan always would have to warn visiting kids that he was a shy and somewhat timid cat who might be fierce, and they should be careful not to spook him. Other than with kids, Patrick appeared not to be surprised about anything; he was simply always prepared for the worse.

Preciosa, nooses and shiny pants

The first time that Bob, actually tried to pet Patrick, he wasn’t too successful.  The kitten looked at Bob with a slightly arrogant scorn as if he were a lion and Bob were some minion put on the earth to scratch his back.  He would put up with Bob, but “the man” better watch his step.  Bob might have had ambitions to be Patrick’s friend but the understanding between the two was that things would have to go slowly, if at all.  Patrick was Joan’s cat, bastante.  He roamed with impunity the house and garden.

Joan grew to love Patrick. One evening as Joan and Bob were lying in bed Joan spoke about how animals provided a window into a culture. After all Patrick proved that all Spaniards were not particularly kind to animals; in fact, they could be quite cruel to them. Bob yawned and replied that she was ridiculous, “Take me.  I didn’t like animals with their piss and poop, but I don’t wish them harm. My particular values do not necessarily represent general American social values. ” Joan paid Bob no attention.

Periodically, Joan began to look at Spain through “Patrick glasses.”  One day a few weeks later, she noted a mom and dad on Sunday afternoon in the local municipal park--one of the glories of Zaragoza-- filled with flowers, shrubs and trees.  In front of a big fountain, their little girl (about three) pranced around. Joan mentioned that the little darling looked like a puffed poodle dressed to kill- complete with pink bows in her hair. Clearly, she was the apple of her parents’ eyes. Little Miss Wonder dripped in finery. As she walked, she spewed out fairy dust.   

There was one problem.  Mom and dad wanted to take her picture in front of the fountain but the little darling did NOT want them to take her picture in front of the fountain.  It became a show down.  Dad and mom would carry “Preciosa” to the fountain and tell her to stand still so they could take a picture.  As soon as they walked away to snap a shot the dolled-up little princess would follow them.  They would then take her back to the fountain and again ask her to stay for a few seconds, so they could take the picture.  She would follow her parents as soon as they left the fountain.  This scene repeated at least ten times.

Joan, sitting on the park bench watching the scene unfold, was ready to scream. How could these Spaniards be so patient with this brat?   She wanted to take that little girl, paddle her behind, and make her stand by the fountain so her parents could take her goddamned picture. In contrast, Patrick was much better behaved! Why did Spaniards put up with so much from kids and so little from animals? The parents never even raised their voices with their sugar plum fairy.

In contrast, Joan wanted to stick the little doll with voodoo needles.   She imagined an invisible conveyor belt in the sky dropping pails of water over the parents’ heads to knock some sense into them.  Nevertheless, the girl was never admonished, and the picture was never taken.

On another lovely afternoon, Joan went out into the back garden and saw something strange.  Little nooses were hanging from the branches of the beautiful fruit tree next door.  She took down the ones on the branches that hovered over her garden.  A few days later the landlord’s son then came to collect the rent.

This young man, around eighteen, was extremely friendly and very good looking: he reminded Joan of a sexy flamenco dancer.  Joan always enjoyed when Jose visited her.  She would make him a cup of coffee and some cake or sweet; the two of them would chat about this and that.  He had a natural ease. This time Joan mentioned the nooses in the trees.  Jose broke out in a laugh.  He remembered them from the days when he lived in the house as he was growing up. 

The nooses were meant for cats, squirrels and other creatures that would frequently jump around the trees and destroy the garden.  Rodents particularly loved the cherries and apples that would deluge the tree during the spring and summer. On good days, the guy next door would find a small animal body hanging from the tree. Jose giggled.  Joan blanched.

After that altercation, Patrick was not allowed in the garden.

Bullfights were another scene colored with hues of Patrick. The first time Joan and Bob went to the bullfights they were pretty excited. The stadium was totally full--the crowds energetic, and the family took seats not far from the actual ring.   The place had electricity, which made the cement soaked with hot sun, even hotter. The sky was solid blue and triumphant.  The amphitheater took on the memory of a Roman coliseum.  People wanted red blood, they wanted action now, precisely because they honored the almost mystic strength of the bull.

Those who enjoy a bullfight view it as a pre-Christian sacrament not a modern spectator sport like soccer.  The animal is a symbol of all those primitive forces that post-modernity had turned into statistics. It is an ancient bit of Iberia.  The ASPCA is the last thing on aficionados’ minds.

The picadors, toreadors and whatever else a-dors came in – right out of Bezet’s Carmen.  The pageant was opulent. The spangles and glitter fit the men like an expensive pair of gloves from out of the thirties when woman knew how to show off their sexy arms. 

Joan drooled at the men’s form divines; curves and bulges were all in the right places.  Her imagination could run wild with the thought of what was under the tight fitting suits… After prancing their young bodies around waving to the crowds, the bullfighters disappeared behind the protective fencing.  Then the bull came out; a thousand eyes centered on the bull.

As if it were a magic TV screen, memories of Patrick suddenly entered the scene. They hovered over the stands and settled onto the bull’s face.

Bob looked at Joan.  They read each other as clear as a Power Point. This bullfight was a playback of Patrick and the scene at the dumpster. The poor bull had that same look of confusion, as Patrick had when the old lady next store intended on beating him to death with her cane.  Total disorientation was plastered all over the animal from head to tail.  You could almost hear the bull cry out, “What gives?  I thought I was going out into a field of luscious grass? How did I get into the middle of umpteen crazy people yelling and throwing things.  Mommy, help: I want to go home!”

The crowd went totally wild with jeers and boos.  No one had come to see a bullfight with a perplexed bull that was afraid to be in the ring, afraid of the crowds, afraid of flying trash. Whose fault was it to get such a stupid wimp?  Bulls are not Albert Einsteins trying to figure out the mysteries of the universe.  An imaginary chant went up into the sky, “ We all wants blood and guts, we wants blood and guts...!”

The bullfighters quickly realized the bull was going to give them a bad name, if they allowed the situation to linger.  How could they make a name for themselves if what they were going to kill was as disoriented as a Black Friday Shopper who realized they went to the wrong store.  Since the bull was not going to play the death game according to classical rules, he had to be chucked.  To let him to go out of the ring the way he got into the ring was impossible.  He had to be killed, immediately. 

The kill was not even worth the energy of a matador.  Some lesser luminary all dolled-up in fancy dress came up to the animal and stabbed it with a dagger, decorated with bright ribbons.  It was a clean stab.  The bull immediately collapsed.  It was summarily dragged out of the ring.  The crowd grew ever hotter and heavier  with its boos.

The scene was too much for Joan and her family. It was simply a stupid murder.  As enthusiastically as the foursome arrived in the bullring, they left it. They had been through the toilet of cultural bullshit.

The Shoe on the Other Foot

But not all Spaniards were hostile towards animals. A few friends had pets of their own and were quite sensitive to their pets’ needs. In fact, some thought Joan cruel. Rather than thinking that Joan was a modern day St. Francis, some people thought her Cruella de Ville, out of 1001 Dalmatians.  She wanted Patrick’s balls off.

As a responsible pet owner, Joan was adamant: they had to come off.   Some of her friends were quietly confused.  A cat from a wealthy family needed to be cut, while all the wild cats around, who had nothing but the street for a home could reproduce like rabbits?  Why not have the under- privileged cats sterilized and the well off ones reproduce?

Consider public health.  Cats served an important medical function. Feral cats were perfectly suited to the alleys and streams running through town where they could blithely reproduce. They caught mice and rats: the more cats, the fewer rodents. There was no need for a knife.  Beside, if all else failed, and the population got out of control, people could try to run over cats with their cars. (At least our landlord’s son, Jose’, thought so.)

Some people were more direct: Patrick was a male and males had a biological right to reproduce.  Otherwise, the good Lord would not have given him a penis and testicles.

The problem for Joan was not to snip, or not to snip, but how to find a good vet.  An animal doctor in Spain was not like being an American vet—a fancy office filled with lots of people frantically holding onto their leashes or cooing at well-groomed balls of fur, with closets filled with drugs, a high level of community respect, potential TV contracts, and the ability to charge whatever you want for a procedure.  There were simply not lots of Vets in Zaragoza and the vets there did not specialize in pets.  Vets worked with big animals: cows, bulls, sheep, and goats, not cats!

A friend of a friend (a wonderful friendly lieutenant in the US Air Force, which had a big base outside town) helped out.  Oddly (from our American perspective) in Zaragoza one needed to be an MD before you could be a licensed dentist.  Our friend had a good friend who was a dentist, not only a doctor and dentist, but also a bit of a vet who did certain procedures on small animals.  He was super medical doctor: gall stones, teeth, cats and dogs. In short, Patrick had his balls cut off by a practicing dentist with a physician’s diploma hanging on his office wall.  
Patrick was now a bona fide citizen of globalization- a cat caught in the “slash of cultures.”

Although Joa and Bob loved Spain, Joan’s time in the medical school was running out.  She did not want Zaragoza as a permanent home.  A relatively small item was the game breaker for her.  The fact that people smoked in the hospital smelly cigarettes was just too much.  She learned to endure smoking in restaurants, but not in hospitals! She couldn’t stand working in a smoke-filled hospital. 

No one in the family wanted to go back to the States.  They liked living abroad: the travel bug had even bitten the kids.  They loved sightseeing, frequenting locales, enjoying the people, loving the food, and besides, to Joan and Bob’s puritanical chagrin, the couple found out that they were actually growing very fond of the Zaragoza bar scene.  It was time to go. 

After some looking around, Joan eventually got a new job in the Middle East—Israel. Bob followed suit by getting a job in an American International School. The “family,” including Patrick and Ebony (Patrick’s new Platonic girlfriend whom Joan rescued from the canal and also had fixed the last week that they were in Zaragoza) were off to live in another country.

Part Two Israel here

© Allen Cook is the soon to retire Dean of School of Education,University of Bridgeport

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.

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