‘The Cat Lady’ by Clark Zlotchew

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The white-haired woman was inclined over four large plastic bowls of an expensive brand of cat food.  Setting down a fifth one, she stroked the black and white cat’s back with her free hand.  Several of the ten sleek, well-nourished cats of varying sizes and colors pressed their flanks against her ankles in courteous gratitude.

Sarah laboriously straightened up and stood there, watching them at their repast.  They daintily licked up the savory chunks of Evanger’s Grain Free Salmon, chewing with gusto before swallowing.  They seemed ladylike in their fastidious manner of eating. The frail woman’s eyes crinkled with pleasure; a beatific smile spread across her face as she watched.

“Yes, my darlings,” she murmured, “fill yourselves to bursting. Eat, eat! Be happy. Why not. Be good to yourselves.  Life is short, especially yours, little kitties. It’s a kindness that you don’t realize how short it is.”

Sarah broke away from this blissful contemplation and retired to her overstuffed sofa in the living room. She glanced at the mirror across from sofa just for a moment.  No, it’s not time yet.  Patience, patience.  She picked up the remote from the coffee table and turned on the television.  The woman watched what must have been the middle of a movie in which there were explosions and gunplay, resulting in spurting blood and body parts sailing through the air. She winced and immediately switched channels. A news program was in progress.  Yes, Sarah, she mused, it’s important to know what’s happening in the world, even though it’s always so depressing.  She saw the attractive anchorwoman frown as she mournfully reported the latest figures of the non-stop slaughter in Syria, or was it Iraq? Her somber tones were accompanied by amateur video of men firing assault rifles and launching shoulder to surface rockets, while their comrades lay writhing in pools of blood. Others lay perfectly still, eyes staring lifelessly at the sun.

Sarah saw brutal men who separated victims’ heads from their bodies with a dull knife. She observed a man –a living human being!– in a cage being burned alive.  The anchorwoman’s mournful tones continued, accompanied by videos of the dead and wounded in the capitals of Europe, reports of missiles fired at kindergartens and playgrounds in Israel, stabbings of civilians even in the holy city of Jerusalem…  Can this really be happening?  Again?  Or am I viewing one of those horrible motion pictures? Oh, I dearly hope it’s a film.

The eighty-four-year-old woman was overcome with a deep sense of despair. She sighed and was about to turn off the set, when suddenly she became aware of an abrupt change of focus.  The anchor woman now flashed a broad smile, showing perfectly formed, dazzlingly white teeth.  Sarah marveled at the sudden change of mood evident on the pretty anchorwoman’s face, the abrupt transformation in her voice, which practically sang with delight rather than merely spoke.  She was referring to the wondrous –epic was the term the anchor woman employed performance on “American Idol,” and seemed on the point of bursting with joy and pride for the singer, whom she classified as awesome.  After all, the performer was a candidate for worshipful admiration by the millions of screaming idolaters. How can she change from sadness to bliss so easily? Perhaps she is an aspiring actress practicing her representations of various emotions while reporting the news. Does she really feel those emotions or is she only pretending?

The elderly woman, her face etched with deep lines, closed her eyes, shook her head, and turned off the TV. She stood and walked into her bedroom, where she opened a dresser drawer containing two knitted sweaters, one grey, the other black –the familiar smell of mothballs comforted her– and a manila envelope.  She removed this last item and sat on her neatly made bed.  She opened the envelope and extracted a dozen photographs, some in black and white, others in sepia tone.  All were yellowed with age and worn around the edges with frequent handling.  The subjects of the photos were seven adults and three children, dressed in overcoats and various kinds of headgear.  Some of the women’s hats had a feather protruding from the hat band, others had a short black veil covering the wearer’s forehead and eyes.  The men all wore suits and ties and either homburgs or fedoras.  The unsmiling six-year old boy wore a sweater, short pants and long socks.  Locks of curly hair protruded from under a tweed cap with a visor.  The two wanly smiling little girls with braids wore knee-length dresses, their hands ensconced in muffs.  Yes, she thought, that is how people dressed in the 1930s.  Good times, pleasant times, in spite of the Depression. Well… Certainly better than what was to come, at any rate. 

She closed her eyes and took a deep breath, which she held for a few seconds before forcefully expelling it. They look so healthy and content with their lot, even though they do not seem well fed.  She looked at all twelve photos once more, lovingly lingering over each one. The photos now seemed blurry, indistinct, clouded.  She reached for a tissue and dabbed her eyes.  The photos were clearer.  She thought, Yet, when I look closely, I think I can see in their eyes some far-off gaze.  Did that gaze evince some hazy glimpse of what was to come, the terrible, horrifying future.  Their non-future.  Could they sense what was going to happen? Could they somehow penetrate the mists of time and peer, however dimly, into the Abyss opening its maw before them?

Suddenly she felt a chill and shivered. Tears welled up in her eyes. She briskly rubbed her left forearm with her right hand to settle down the gooseflesh. She stopped for a moment and stared at the blue serial numbers indelibly tattooed on her forearm. A red haze misted over her vision as she again studied the photos.  “All ten of them, every last one of them…” she murmured aloud.  Realizing she was talking to herself, she stopped.  Through her mind ran the unspoken words:  They tell me I was lucky.  Yes, I suppose I was. Of course. But why? Why me?  This feeling of guilt, like a boulder on my chest, like a parasite draining my substance, for not being with them, for having escaped…   Suddenly, anger contorted her features.  She again spoke, this time with impotent rage roughening her voice, “What right did they have…?!” She pounded her delicate fist on the dresser top.  “How could they imagine they had the right…?!”

The aged woman clapped her hand over her mouth.  I really must stop talking to myself! Out loud! Such a bad habit.  What would people think?

She lifted her gaze to the dresser top and smiled.  She looked at the full-color framed photographs of smiling young men and women, some of them with little ones.  Happy, filled with vigor.  Similar photos adorned the walls.  Thank God, she thought, I was allowed to make use of my freedom.  I’ve given birth to six boys and four girls.  All healthy.  It had to be ten. No less.   Now I have twenty-five grandchildren.  Her smile broadened when she mentally added, So far.

She gazed at the photograph of a handsome, dark-bearded man of about sixty years of age.  How lucky I was!  God gave me David, my dearest David.  He too was a survivor.

Sarah stood, inhaled deeply, held her breath for a moment, then exhaled sharply.  She dabbed a tissue to her eyes, then waved her hand in front of her in a backhanded sweeping motion as though wiping away the unpleasant memories. She strode to the plum-colored couch where she sat and waited. She did not have to wait long.  Her ten sleek, well-nourished charges came bounding from the kitchen into the living room, leapt on to the couch and affectionately sidled up to the old woman.  They rubbed against her and purred contentedly.  Sarah’s deeply-lined face broke into a warm smile and seemed to glow. Her eyes crinkled with contentment as she welcomed her feline companions into her embrace, all ten of them.

“All right, now, my dears, it’s time to peer into the looking glass again.”  She relaxed and gazed into the mirror on the opposite wall.  No lamps were on that side of the room.  As she stared at the shadowy reflection of herself with her charges, she saw a five-year -old girl with dark hair in braids, wearing a knee-length plaid skirt and a starched white blouse.  She liked the way she looked in the mirror.  Three other children, as well as two adults dressed in overcoats and various kinds of headgear shared the couch with her.  Their warmth pressing against her was comforting.  Five other adults stood behind the sofa, their hands placed on the shoulders of the children.  Sarah felt the comforting warmth of a pair of those hands.

Some of the women’s hats had a feather protruding from the hat band, others had a short black veil covering the wearer’s forehead and eyes.  The men all wore suits and ties and either homburgs or fedoras.  The unsmiling six-year old boy next to her wore a sweater, short pants and long socks.  Locks of curly black hair protruded from under a tweed cap with a visor.  The two wanly-smiling little girls with braids, one blond, the other reddish, wore knee-length dresses, their hands ensconced in muffs.  Why were they all wearing outdoor clothing? wondered Sarah. Oh, of course: they had just arrived, and it was cold outside.

“Take off your coats and stay a while,” she wheedled, “Please. There’s plenty of time, and my Mommy’s making a big pot of chicken soup.”

‘Cuba on the Brink: 1957-1958’ by Clark Zlotchew

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Clark Zlotchew playing guitar in Havana, 1958

After years of guerrilla warfare, with their base in the rugged Sierra Maestra mountain range of Oriente Province, Castro’s victorious troops triumphantly marched into Havana on January 8, 1959.  On the eve of this historical event –during 1957 and 1958– I had been in Cuba on four different occasions, twice as a civilian on vacation and on two other visits as a crewman on a destroyer-escort for training with the U.S. Naval Reserves.  The experiences as a civilian were not the same as those with the Navy.

I had joined the Reserves in my senior year of high school. A friend and I had joined at the age of seventeen purely to experience adventure and to see something of the world outside Hudson County, New Jersey and the City of New York.  As a member of the U.S. Naval Reserves, I was obliged, and privileged, to take part in one two-week training cruise annually, as well as to attend weekly meetings at the Naval Reserves Station in Jersey City for instruction. I loved the training cruises because it was exciting to be on board a naval vessel on the high seas. Even better, I had the opportunity to visit places I had no possibility of seeing through my own financial resources in my youth.

Every training cruise brought me out of what was then a humdrum existence.  Learning more and more of seamanship aboard a naval vessel provided a side of the work world I never would have experienced otherwise.  Participating in the daily routine on board a naval vessel was a combination of drudgery (for example, chipping paint from the decks) and exciting activities. In the early years of my training, I was given the lookout duty as my watch.  Whether day or night, this involved scanning the horizon with binoculars from an outdoor position on the bridge. We needed to report anything we saw and report our findings to the Officer of the Deck.  In addition, we had General Quarters drills, practice for battle, at any time of the day or night, in which each man rushed to the specific position assigned to him.  My first training cruise, in 1950, was to a naval base on the fogbound coast of Newfoundland and to St. John, a city in the Canadian Province of New Brunswick, on the Bay of Fundy. On that voyage, my General Quarters station was in the handling room of one of the six-inch guns.

Detectives, Ten-Cent Rum and the Den of Sin:

One of my experiences ashore was entirely outside of my comfort zone. It also provided me with excitement, with the risk of danger, the possibility of violent action, as well as a series of learning episodes.  Our port of call was Havana, Capital of Cuba. For one hot day in January of 1958, I was assigned duty as Shore Patrol, which is Naval Police duty, in a combination bar/brothel. That day is memorable.  Four pairs of sailors with SP duty were under the supervision of one Chief Petty Officer.  We used local taxis, at the expense of the U.S. Navy, to arrive at our first destination:  Havana Central Police Headquarters, where the American Navy had been assigned a desk. The U.S. Government had an agreement with the Cuban Government in which the U.S. Navy would police our own men. This arrangement freed the Cuban police from attending to any unlawful behavior on the part of our sailors and avoided having our men arrested and placed in local jails or being subjected to appearances before Cuban judges. Some of our men could become involved in mayhem, especially when under the influence of alcohol.  It was at our desk within the Havana Police Headquarters that we received our orders and instructions for the day.

Seeing the mustached Cuban detectives in their double-breasted suits reminded me of movies I had seen that took place in Latin America.  Especially the film, We Were Strangers (1949), in which Pedro Armendáriz played the Havana police chief.  In those days just about all American men, especially in the military, were clean-shaven, so that these Cubans with dark moustaches seemed somewhat sinister to me.  This gave me a real charge, and provided me with the feeling of truly being in an “exotic” locale.  This was adventure, something I had craved since high school!

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