Zygmunt Frankel

SHORT STORIES


THE MAN WHO LOVED CATS

Our courtyard is square in shape, enclosed by the back walls of four tall, almost identical houses joined at the corners.
The windows overlooking the courtyard are mostly those of bedrooms and kitchens, and there are also the small kitchen balconies with their rows of washing lines. The houses were built over twenty years ago, and some of us who had moved in then still live here today. The windows and the balconies offer a glimpse into the lives of the occupants, sometimes more intimate than they would like. It starts with the underwear on the washing lines. You can see which women wear scant and flimsy black or brightly coloured panties and brassieres, and which don't wear any brassieres at all. Some of the men stay with the old-fashioned baggy white underpants while others go for bright jockey shorts, almost indistinguishable from bathing trunks. After the Yom Kippur war which lasted three weeks and cost three thousand Israeli dead, the washing lines provided yet another sort of information: if two sets of field uniforms and and a lot of woolen socks appeared there all at once, it meant that the husband or the son was safely back.

But the washing lines were only a part of the story. In summer, especially before the prosperity and the air- conditioners, the windows, including the bedroom ones, would be open day and night because of the heat, and not every young married couple realised that flimsy, half transparent curtains were not all that effective against curious eyes if you left the light on while making love. Little did a demure, modestly dressed young woman exchanging a polite greeting with a neighbour she hardly knew at the grocer's in the morning suspect that he had watched her in the abandon of the marital bed only a few hours before. (There would be added spice to the secret knowledge if the husband happened to be away on the yearly one-month reserve duty and the man in the marital bed was someone else, especially one of the neighbours.)

Though visually entertaining, the open windows could be acoustically difficult. Some people were in the habit of turning their radios on too loud. Whenever someone took up the piano, a wind instrument, or, worst of all, the violin, the first weeks could be very trying. (Afterwards they either improved or gave up.) The occasional loud quarrels were less musical but more entertaining. The shouts of the children playing in the courtyard completed the repertoire.

There were two trees in the courtyard, half a dozen bushes, and grass that got yellow and sparse in summer. Each house had an iron-grille door with a water tap next to it; inside were the large dustbins emptied each morning by the municipal team. Another iron-grille door led to the air-raid shelter. During the two wars in the courtyard's memory - the Six-Day and the Yom Kippur ones - the children had used their coloured chalks and oil pastels to decorate the walls with tanks, planes, soldiers, and guns, and with intentional caricatures of Nasser and Sadat and unintentional ones of Moshe Dayan, Eshkol, and Golda Meir. The drawings are still there, in the semi-darkness of the once again abandoned shelter, like updated versions of the bison, mammoth, and hunters of prehistoric caves.

Anyone so inclined could also follow the natural history of the courtyard: the cats who lived there, the pigeons and sparrows looking for crumbs, and the slugs which crawled out of the drains under the water taps at night. There was even an occasional kestrel nesting on the edge of the roof. The wild and semi-wild creatures must have seen the town as a convenient habitat of rectangular hills, valleys, caves, ledges, and nooks to live, shelter, nest, and litter in.
The cats, about a dozen of them, have always been a permanent feature of the courtyard, a tribe living in its own territory like their big cousins the lions in Africa. Most of the time they would be sunning themselves on the grass or looking for scraps in the dustbins if someone left the door open. Now and then one of them would go through the motions of stalking a pigeon or a sparrow, but they did so without confidence and training and rarely caught anything.
All of them had fleas, and many suffered from sores or infected eyes. One female was completely blind, which did not prevent her from regularly bearing and raising litters of kittens. Together with the seeing cats, she would wistfully prick her ears and raise her head whenever the canary from the third floor opened up with a few tentative trills, got into its stride, and finally burst at full throat into its marvellous song.

There must have been a lot of incest going on in the cat community, because the large, strong, and sleek dominant males could put to flight or worse any intruder that showed up. Sorties from our courtyard onto greener pastures often ended in the adventurer returning with a torn ear, a gashed throat, a missing eye, a shortened tail, or not returning at all. Mortality among the kittens was high because no matter how many were born, the number of adults remained the same. Most of the kittens who did not die of starvation or disease would be run over by cars or killed by dogs when they ventured into the street. Malthus and Darwin were alive and well and running things in our courtyard.

Had the cats had to rely on dustbins and the birds and mice they caught, the picture would have been even grimmer; but they were also being given scraps by kind neighbours, especially by Mr Gurevich from the second floor who had practically adopted them. Mr Gurevich, though well looked after by his wife, seemed to have grown a bit lonely since their two children had grown up, married, left home, and were now having children of their own. He would have dearly loved a dog but, as he told me one evening by the entrance to the garbage room, each of us with a bucket and a torch, a dog should be of a decent size and impressive, say an Alsatian or a golden retriever. (Mr Gurevich himself was short, skinny, and unimpressive, the type one often sees walking large dogs.) But such a dog would be unhappy in a small city flat, he said; they needed space to run and play in, and what's more, his wife wouldn't hear of it.
"Look at that," he changed the subject, shining his torch on a large repulsive slug crawling out of the drain. "Hundreds of them down there, crawling out at night, and if you're not careful you can step on one. You know those starry-eyed romantics who say there is no real death because nothing in our bodies goes to waste but changes into something new like for example coral and pearls if you happen to drown in the sea. But what if you change into something like this, for God's sake? What if this one is Ben-Gurion, and the one over there Weizmann? Reverence for life, for God's sake; you never see them shedding a tear over a dead mosquito or a squashed louse; it's only pretty things that don't bite or sting that they want to protect; big deal."

I came to know Mr Gurevich better when I volunteered for the Civil Guard and found him already there. The Israeli Civil Guard (not to be confused with the tough, full-time, professional Spanish organisation of the same name) was created to help the police against Arab terrorists and consisted of volunteers patrolling the streets with M-1 carbines slung over their shoulders. They wore civilian clothes with, if they felt like it, plastic armbands and black berets with the Civil Guard insignia. Most of the Civil Guards were elderly and not expected to engage terrorists in hand-to-hand combat, but rather to display presence and vigilance, and to report anything suspicious to the police from the nearest phone booth. Following a particularly nasty wave of terrorist attacks, an effort had been made to swell the ranks of the Civil Guard and to lower its average age, and that was when I had been persuaded to join.

Until then, my infrequent and short courtyard conversations with Mr Gurevich had been limited mainly to cats and the weather. Now it transpired that he was right-wing and opposed to the return of the territories occupied - he called them liberated - during the Six-Day war. He also had an unbound admiration for the Israeli army in all its aspects, which marked him as someone who had never served in it; and indeed it transpired that through an accumulation of minor disabilities such as underweight, short stature, flat feet, varicose veins, hemorrhoids, and a duodenal ulcer, Mr Gurevich had never been drafted into the army, which made him all the keener to volunteer for the Civil Guard, to carry at long last a weapon in the defence of the homeland. He never shirked a night patrol, and gradually rose to a position of some administrative responsibility in our local unit. At the meetings he advocated unflagging vigilance, and suggested that each morning each of us check the dustbins in his house for time bombs; he did not trust the Arab workers who emptied them. He also suggested night raids on the smaller, shabbier hotels in the vicinity in search of Palestinian workers staying the night without permit. He said that while there was little security risk in a young Arab spending the night with a Jewish girl (although I could almost hear him grind his teeth when he said that) it could turn into the thin end of a terrorist wedge if allowed to spread. On this, however, he was overruled. We did not have the manpower, the raids would be embarrassing to everyone, and above all it was common knowledge that most of the Palestinian workers illegally staying the night (they were supposed to return to their towns and villages at nightfall and come back the next morning) were doing so with the full assistance of their Jewish Israeli bosses - building contractors, and owners of restaurants, hotels, and garages -who wanted them on the job in the morning on time and fresh, instead of sleepy and tired out by the long trip and the police checks on the way.

Mr Gurevich seemed to be growing more bitter and aggressive of late in spite of his obvious satisfaction with his Civil Guard career. It may have been his approaching retirement (he was an accountant at some government office), or the fact that his wife, never particularly attractive or peaceful, has grown even less attractive and more quarrelsome with age, or because their children did not visit them often enough. His ulcer, flat feet, and hemorrhoids must have occasionally made the long night patrols painful, but he never shirked his duty. I think the opportunity of suffering in silence with carbine over his shoulder, scanning the dark streets of the sleeping town for terrorists, compensated him for the fact that Israel had managed without him in the past, and he patrolled on with grim determination.

He also bought an automatic pistol of his own, a small and light .22 Beretta, for which he got a permit on the strength of his Civil Guard connection. and he cherished the little weapon and carried it in his pocket at all times. (I had long had a heavier, long-barrelled revolver, which I kept in a locked drawer in my desk at home.)
"Why do you need it on patrols when you have the carbine?" I asked him once.
"We only get the carbines at the police station and return them before going home," he said, "while you never know what's going to happen on your way there or back, or at any other time for that matter. Those terrorists are just wild animals; they land on a kibbutz beach, meet a girl with a camera, talk to her and then kill her, stop a bus with a lot of women and children, take them hostage, and half of them get killed in the shoot-out afterwards. (He was referring to a particularly bloody raid near Cesarea.) "They should be shot on sight like mad dogs."

He was hardly more complimentary about the Israelis who did not volunteer for the Civil Guard and spent their evenings at home cracking sunflower seeds in front of the TV while we patrolled below.
"Leeches, parasites, and hyenas," he would say. "Taking it easy while others guard them with their lives. In every great period of History" (you could hear the capital "H" the way he said it) there was always a handful like us between the likes of them and annihilation. Take the Battle of Britain for example." It was obvious that he saw little difference between our Civil Guard and the RAF Fighter Command of those days.

One afternoon, from the balcony of our kitchen, I watched him feeding the cats in the courtyard. A strange cat strolled in and stood there, a dozen paces away, watching hungrily. In such situations, Mr Gurevich usually made a sudden lunge accompanied by an imitation dog growl to scare the intruder away. This time, he slowly and casually bent down as if to rearrange the scraps on the newspaper or tie a shoelace, and picked up a stone. A dog would have recognised the situation at once but the cat didn't. The stone caught him square in the ribs and he took off with an agonised screech. Mr Gurevich looked furtively around and saw me watching.
"Er... this is not the first time the bastard sneaks in here," he said lamely," to rob our cats of their daily bread. I've tried scaring him away by more civilised means but it's no go. I hope he's learned his lesson and won't show up again."

A few days later, around noon, I was sitting in our kitchen sipping a glass of beer while my wife busied herself with the lunch. Our younger boy was due from school in about half an hour. Suddenly there was a shot in the courtyard.
I grabbed my wife and pushed her out of the kitchen and into the sitting room where there were no windows giving out on the courtyard. Then I unlocked the drawer of my desk, took out my revolver, cocked it, and, crouching, ran through the kitchen and onto the balcony. As far as it lay in my power, whatever was going on down there would be over before the children started coming back from school. Slowly and carefully, using a potted plant for camouflage, I raised my head and peered into the courtyard.
Mr Gurevich was standing there over the dead body of the stray cat of a few days before, calmly removing the magazine from his Beretta.
"What on earth do you think you're doing?" I asked him, keeping my own pistol out of sight and lowering the hammer.
"The bastard stuck his lousy mug into this courtyard once too often," he said defiantly. "Got him through the heart at ten paces, with a single shot," he added proudly.
"The bullet might have ricochetted," I said.
"No fear," he answered. "There was soft earth behind him; I made quite sure before I fired. But if you're scared, all right, I won't do it again. It was only him that's been asking for it, anyway."

He did not do it again because, in less than an hour, the police came and confiscated his pistol. He told me the next night, on patrol, that the confiscation was only a formality, and that with his past record, his standing with the Civil Guard, and, if necessary, a word from highly-placed friends, his Beretta would be returned to him within a few days. (I did not bother to tell him that I was one of the several neighbours who telephoned the police right after the shooting.) But he was wrong. His permit was cancelled, and no amount of pleas, promises, and name-dropping helped him to regain it.

The evening after his last application failed, I was at our local Civil Guard station getting ready for a night patrol when the door opened and Mr Gurevich, wearing his black Civil Guard beret and armband walked stiffly in. His face was very pale. He stood to attention in front of our local commander's desk, took off his beret and his armband, folded them neatly, and laid them on the desk.
"Shmulik, what on earth is the matter?" the commander asked.
"If I am not fit to carry a pistol then I am not fit to carry a carbine either," Mr Gurevich said in a choking voice, turned on his heel, and marched out.

The commander looked helplessly around, and his eyes lighted on me.
"You're neighbours, aren't you?" he said. "Do follow him and try to talk to him."
"I don't think it's any use," I said. "He won't rejoin, at least not tonight; he seemed to have made up his mind and rehearsed the whole thing."
"I don't mean his resignation. It's just that he hasn't been himself since they took away his bloody pistol."

I followed Mr Gurevich at a distance. It did not seem likely to me that a recent proud owner of an automatic pistol would stoop to jumping under a bus or hanging himself while an easier and more soldierly way would be to go on patrol as if nothing happened and then avail oneself of one's carbine in some dark corner.

Mr Gurevich reached the house and climbed the stairs to his flat. I went into the courtyard, saw the light go on in his kitchen, and, through the open window, heard him talk in a fairly normal voice to his wife. A little later the light in the corridor went on, and Mr Gurevich descended the stairs with a bucket in one hand and a torch in another. I hid behind a tree and waited.
Coming out of the garbage room he slipped on a slug and swore. For a while he stood there in silence, the beam of his torch moving over several other slugs slowly making their way from the drain to the garbage room. Then he lunged forward and squashed the nearest one underfoot, and then another and another, stomping wildly and cursing in Hebrew, Yiddish, and Arabic, spittle flying. After a dozen slugs he calmed down, washed his bucket under the tap, shuffled his feet on the grass to clean the soles, and went home.

He made no suicide attempt that evening or since, but has not returned to the Civil Guard either. Instead, he has taken up fishing, and can be seen of an evening on the pier near the old port, a lone uncommunicative figure on a folding stool, stooped over his rod, and often brings quite decent catches of mullet and sea-bream home to his wife.

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1997 Zygmunt Frankel - All Rights Reserved.
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