By Cheryl Sola
I have this neighbor, Pearl, who’s a good Christian woman and all that. I see her at her kitchen window scouting for stray cats. They hit the dumpster across the street in the evening and that’s when she does her stalking. For the life of me, I don’t know how she catches them because she’s practically blind. If I don’t help her, she can’t get her hair color applied right, missing spots here and there. Her eyes are large behind wing-tipped glasses, which are usually misplaced when she needs them. But it doesn’t really matter because they’re useless anyway. You think I’m kidding? Look at the bruises on her arms and legs from their frequent encounters with inanimate objects. That she hasn’t broken her neck yet is a miracle because she forgets about the extra step down from her porch. But she always catches her cat.
How do I know? Both our apartments are in the front of the apartment complex so I’m in a position to see when she’s on a mission. Case in point, here she comes now wearing that tacky old brown coat with the torn fox collar flapping in the breeze. And she always buttons up to her chin no matter the season. She’s crossing the street, not watching where she’s going; just smiling in complete oblivion while brakes squeal, car horns blare, and drivers curse – cooing and gurgling at her latest catch.
Perhaps God guides her. Or perhaps “divine guidance” is nothing more than baiting her victims with catnip. Well, the end always justifies the means, does it not? After all, another lost soul will soon be in a better place. But just where that better place is, I’m not so sure.
Anyway, that’s her sad story. So, what’s mine? I’m her Jewish neighbor she’s trying so hard to get baptized. Well, to be honest, I was born Jewish, but no more. I don’t even know why I said I’m her Jewish neighbor. Old identities die hard, I guess. Well, she’s barking up the wrong tree, I’m here to tell you. I’m allergic to the idea of God and I have no problem being a bona fide heathen. It’s not like I prance around huge bonfires with my boobs exposed, you know? But good was just never good enough and I walked away from that life. That’s why I live here in hedonistic Tinseltown circa 1973. Anyway, I’m ready for her. Here she comes, searching her purse for her house key and, of course, can’t find it. She always locks herself out. I’m heading for the door, reaching for my copy and opening my door.
She looks up, peering at me, with a struggling cat under one arm. “Oh, Mitzvah, I can’t find my key.”
“That’s okay,” I say, “I have one right here.”
“Oh, bless you,” she says, as I go over and unlock her door. And, no, she doesn’t get my copy of her key. I know better than that.
“Mitzvah, come in for some ice cream.”
“Yeah, I’ll come in, the day you stop calling me Mitzvah!” I chide her when she calls me that because ever since the day I told her about the coming-of-age ceremony for Jewish girls, called a bat mitzvah, she started calling me Mitzvah. Close, but no cigarro. Some wires must have crossed in her brain that day. But wait. Maybe it’s not her usual forgetfulness. Maybe, just maybe, my Jewish mother reincarnated as a Christian devil, hell bent on not letting me forget my Jewishness!
“Why? That’s your name, isn’t it?”
“Uh, no. My name is Mitzi, remember?”
“Yes, of course, Mitzvah, I remember. It’s such a lovely name. So unusual. Come in, I have Rocky Road ice cream today. It’s been such a long time since you visited.” She toddles off to the kitchen.
Alright already, I’m Mitzvah! What can I do against this force of nature? She traps cats with catnip and humans with ice cream and guilt. Okay, I admit it, she’s probably not a reincarnation of my mother, okay? But a Jewish mother she should have been!
I go in and sit on her davenport, these things the rest of the world calls sofa beds. I know, I know. She’s got me talking Ancient American. What can I do? At her age, she’s incapable of changing.
I watch as she wrestles the stray into a pet carrier. The door shuts and a feline face presses against the plastic screen, emitting a low, mournful yowl. There’s an instant thud in the bedroom. I have a vision of a large, outraged, orange-striped cat leaping from the bed, then crawling alongside the wall, ears back, sneaking up to the door and . . .
The vision is interrupted when Pearl stumbles over a chair and the bowl goes flying one way and the ice cream another. “Oh, Mitzvah!” She grabs the table to keep from falling. “That was the end of the carton. I’m so sorry! Oh, dear, I invited you for ice cream and that was the last of it.” Looking like she’s going to cry, I try to head it off.
“Pearl!” You worry too much. I don’t need ice cream to come to visit. Here, let me clean the carpet. You got some paper towels?”
“Yes! That, I’m not out of.”
Yeah, I speak Ancient American and she sometimes slips into Yiddish syntax. There isn’t anywhere in the world like Tinseltown, USA. I watch as she bumps into the same chair heading back into the kitchen. I pick up the scoop of ice cream and drop it in the bowl. Pearl manages to return without colliding with anything and hands me a roll. “Here,” I say, handing the bowl to her, “go wash this down the drain.”
After wiping my sticky hand, I scrub the residual off the carpet. “At least the ice cream was hard,” I say. “It didn’t leave much of a mess.”
“That’s good,” Pearl says, standing there looking lost.
“So, what are you out of, Pearl?”
“Huh? Oh. Nothing much.”
“Okay, like what?”
“Well, I ran out of milk yesterday . . . and butter a few days ago.”
“So, why didn’t you tell me? You know I can always pick some up for you when I go shopping.”
“Well, I don’t want to bother you.”
“Pearl, I keep telling you, you’re not bothering me. Are you sure you’re just not forgetting to tell me?”
Pearl looks at me blankly.
“Do you forget to tell me, Pearl?”
“Well, sometimes. Maybe.”
“Okay. You want me to start asking you?”
“Oh, no, no, no! I don’t want to bother you.”
“Okay, I’ll start asking you then.”
A large, orange-striped cat appears in the bedroom doorway, sniffing the scent of the invader and looking quite displeased at what she’s smelling.
“Well, I see Miss Penelope’s in fine form,” I say, carrying the used paper towel to the trash. I open the broom closet door and toss the towel, noticing the cat food bag is almost empty and knowing her pension check’s a week away. I make a mental memo to get milk, butter, and cat food on my next trip to the store. Without Miss Penelope, Pearl would have no one to talk to, except God. No wonder she’s so batty. And what does she do with all those strays she rescues anyway? They’re never seen again.
A horrible thought suddenly struck. What if she’s eating them, God forbid! No, that can’t be. Cattabilism couldn’t be Christian. I discreetly open the freezer and peek in. Okay, she has meat so, no, she probably isn’t desperate enough to be eating the cats she’s catching. But what is she doing with them?
I head back to the davenport and sit down. The sun is beginning to set. Pearl falls silent as she stares out the kitchen window. I know she’s watching the dumpster. After a while I ask, “Pearl, have you forgotten you have company?”
Pearl looks over at me, her eyes large and strange. “No, I know you’re here, Mitzvah, but God commands me to watch for the strays so I can ease their suffering and help them get to a better place. We must help the poor. Jesus says whatever we do for the least of these we do for him.”
“And . . . what better place is that?” I ask.
“Why, heaven, of course!”
“Do you, Mitzvah? Do you see? Do you see that you need Jesus as your savior?”
“Uh, no. That’s not what I see. But, you know Pearl, it’s starting to rain and I see the need to go check on the roast I have in the oven.”
“Well, here, take my bumbershoot so you don’t get wet.”
“I don’t need an umbrella, Pearl. I live all of five steps away.”
Pearl opened the door. “So lovely visiting with you, Mitzvah. Do come back again. Don’t be a stranger.”
“Enough, already!” I say. “I’m no stranger. We’ve been neighbors for how many years?”
It was going to happen sooner or later. I’d seen her near misses too many times. I won’t forget the day her luck finally ran out. I was passing by the window when she missed her front step and hit the ground. I ran out there expecting frenzy, but she was calm, almost like she’d been expecting it, too.
“Pearl,” I asked, “what happened?”
“I can see that. What I meant was, are you hurt, Pearl?”
“No, I don’t think so.”
She just lay there quiet like, staring at the sky.
I called an ambulance since I knew she would never admit to something that might be construed as burdening another soul with her problems. They came and asked questions, looked her over, and then took her away. She’d broken her hip. Well, I know when the elderly break a hip it usually starts the death clock ticking. Six months, max, was my guess.
Anyway, enough with the prognosticating. I was glad Pearl couldn’t fool anyone into believing that she was able to go home after the surgery. She was a danger to herself. Having no other family, she was placed in a nursing home, and I’m here to tell you that she was not happy about that. Not at all.
Since Miss Penelope couldn’t live at the nursing home, I’d been taking care of her. But one day, Pearl called and begged me to take her. She had to give up her apartment and so did Miss Penelope. I didn’t really want a pet but I went ahead and took her. I mean, where else would an old cat with a bad attitude go except to her death via the pound? Besides, she had become kind of like family to me.
I found her vet papers where Pearl told me and I called to see when Miss Penelope’s next visit might be. That’s when I learned what had been happening to the strays. Pearl had been having them euthanized. My mind wanted to quip “in the name of Jesus” but I cut it short. I may be a heathen, but I’m not rude.
When I didn’t hear from Pearl for a while, I went to visit her, but it reminded me too much of what had happened to my bubbie. That’s when I stopped talking to God. I told Pearl that. She said that wasn’t good. She said we all need someone who is older and wiser to talk to. She tried to push a Gideon’s Bible on me. I begged off, telling her I had a bible at home. That seemed to satisfy her.
“So, Mitzvah, you’ll read?”
“Yeah, Pearl, I’ll read.”
It’s been a month now since Pearl passed on to that better place. Miss Penelope has settled in but doesn’t feel like listening any more, so she just stalked off to the bedroom. I’m sitting here on the davenport I inherited, holding a copy of the Jewish version of the Gideon Bible in my hands. Right about now I’m needing someone older and wiser to talk to. God, are you listening?
Category: Short Story