by Leonore Hart Feinstein
Illustration by Barbara Pollak
Herman Epstein squirms his bony bottom on the hard slats of the bus bench. He waves on the buses, which slow to let him board. It's good to be noticed, he thinks-if only by bus drivers. Though one driver who knows his game drives right past without waiting for the old man's signal. In a way this irks Epstein, in a way not. Somewhere in the back of his mind the idea has been forming that he could end his wretched state by toppling in front of this swooshing bus.
He lives not far away in a boarding house managed by Mrs. Kozlowski, a fellow survivor of the Holocaust. Her rules are simple and strict: No overnight guests, no pets, keep your room tidy, be on time for breakfast and dinner. She does the laundry and the cleaning; he endorses his Social Security check to her, and each day she gives him $5 for lunch. He uses bits of his slender savings for miscellaneous expenses. The three other boarders are genial fellows who stroll in the neighborhood, practice Tai Chi in the backyard, play friendly games of pinochle, and schmooze constantly about politics and world affairs. One is a lifelong bachelor, one has been divorced for 20 years, and the other seldom mentions his wife, who was gassed in the Kulmhof concentration camp. Epstein is the newcomer. His wife has been dead for only three months, and the trio respects his mourning.
When Epstein's wife-the copper-haired, full-lipped woman he had adored until her last breath-was alive, life was a glorious treasure stolen from Hitler. Now it is a lonely monotony to be endured.
His main occupation is sitting on the bus bench, playing his waving game. At noon he moistens his turkey sandwich with swallows from a cardboard cup of tea, purchased at a deli up the block that gives a 10 percent discount to senior citizens. If addressed, he chats politely with temporary benchmates.
Until one day he senses a presence at the end of the bench. It is a skinny, dirty calico cat, older than a kitten but not full grown, unless her growth had been stunted by malnutrition. Even after all these years, visions of the concentration camp and hungry human beings flash through Epstein's mind. He holds out a piece of turkey. The cat creeps a little closer and snaps it up. Before long she has eaten not only the meat but some of the skin and the rye bread as well, licking Epstein's fingers and the palm of his hand with her rough little pink tongue.
"Nice kitty." He tries to rub behind her ears, but she backs away and jumps from the bench into the wilderness of the city streets.
He hopes the cat will come again. She does-every day-and he shares his sandwich with her. Her orange, black, and white spots become increasingly distinct, now that she grooms herself everyday after lunch. Epstein brings (purloined from his landlady's kitchen) a small saucer of milk in a covered container. The cat lets him pet her now and purrs but refuses to sit in his lap. She answers to Ketzl, the name he has given her. That was his pet name for his wife.
Then, tragedy-one day, two days, three days, no Ketzl.
Epstein fears she is dead and feels abandoned yet again.
On the fourth day he has no appetite. He slumps on the bench, crumpled. Buses stop for him. He ignores them. The bus that won't stop or even slow down is due soon. This is the time, he thinks. I'll get it over with. As the bus hurtles toward him, he begins to stand, intending to leap straight ahead under its massive wheels.
A furry weight lands on his rising lap, pushing him back to a sitting position by climbing his threadbare vest. It's Ketzl. She's back! He scoops her to his bosom. She seems scrawnier than before he started feeding her. She must have been locked up somewhere. He buttons his jacket around her.
Adrenaline-fueled, he rushes to the deli and orders two turkey sandwiches. Man and cat return to the bench, where Epstein serves lunch without beverage. For the first time Ketzl settles like an anchor across his thighs as she eats, spilling tidbits on his trousers, but he doesn't mind.
After the repast Epstein decides to save Ketzl from the city dangers that might take her from him for good the next time. He walks home with her against his chest, exhilarated by her continuous purr and occasional contented burp.
But what about Mrs. Kozlowski? She has made it clear that her boarders are not permitted to have pets. Nevertheless, having been given a new lease on life by the return of his feline love, Epstein strides into the house and announces with Ketzl peering from his partly buttoned jacket, "This is my cat." Taken off guard by the change in demeanor, Mrs. K. accepts the assertion.
With a nod she saves face by conceding, "You know, Epstein, I've been wondering if there's a mouse in the basement..."
About the author: A retired librarian, Leonore Feinstein lives in Oakland, California, with her husband. Her work has been published by Chronicle Features Syndicate, and has appeared in Psychology Today, Parade, American Health, and other publications.