by B. Chefsky
(Plain Press, January 2018) Marti’s bar was a few doors down from where Ralphie Parker and his family experienced A Christmas Story. Marta Jankowski lived in a colonial-style home across the street from the famous backdrop and vividly remembers when a Hollywood film crew swept in to setup lights back in 1983. Even though the story takes place in a fictional place called Homan, Indiana, Tremont is the backdrop for the drama/comedy. Marti’s was a hangout for the production crew. Cameramen and gaffers alike trampled through her yard late at the end of the night to get to their cars and vans, leaving behind broken tree branches and scuffed earth. Nothing unusual about this other than it had been going on ever since Marti opened his doors back in 1971.
Even then, men too drunk to tie their shoes passed through her yard at all hours of the day and night, stopping to pick tomatoes from her garden in the summer or pee in the crusty icy snow piles left by winter street clearing. The yellow snow annoyed the hell out of Marta who couldn’t understand why the men didn’t wait until they got home to their own back yards to relieve themselves. She stopped eating her tomatoes years ago.
Her husband Karl died from smoking nonfilter cigarettes for more than fifty years, combined with a taste for cheap whiskey. It was probably him that started the tradition of peeing in her yard. The feral cat, affectionately named Blue Eyes for his unusual eyes that were as blue as a sunny day in Cleveland and equally as rare, missed Karl’s nightly visits. He almost always remembered to bring Blue Eyes something back from the bar – a pickled egg or pepperoni stick, half eaten bag of salted potato chips, or an occasional cigarette butt which Karl mistook for a pretzel.
Marta missed him, too, but for different reasons. Karl could be funny when sober and when he wanted to be funny. But, he was a mean man when he drank too much, which happened more than Marta cared to talk about. She certainly didn’t miss his mean drunkenness. On more than a few occasions, she locked him out of the house until his drunkenness had waned, which took most of the night. She never let him into their bed when he was drunk which meant she slept by herself very often.
One night in particular, a few months before he was diagnosed with lung cancer and given less than a year to live, Marta found Karl sitting on the grass in the backyard leaning against the wood shed. He kept his tools there, like a rake, shovel, and lawnmower, locked behind the door to keep anyone from stealing them. He rarely used the yard tools. The garden was overgrown with hardy weeds and poison ivy. The weather was warmer than it is now, late July, and a slight breeze came down from the north to cool off the night. Still, the temperature didn’t leave the low 90’s. Marta heard Karl talking to someone. When she looked at the clock, it was 2:30AM.
“What’s that damn fool talking about,” she murmured while slipping a robe over her summer night cloths.
By the time she got outside Karl was fast asleep. Blue Eyes lay flat on his back with his paws projectile into the air, purring like a two-cycle engine. She poked Karl in his better shoulder. “Wake up,” she said.
She grabbed hold of his elbow and helped him to stand up. His knees were wobbly and the stench of sour whiskey on his breath was overwhelming. Blue Eyes didn’t budge an inch.
“Get in the house,” she said.
She led him into the house where he flopped onto the couch. She covered him with a green quilt that her grandmother knitted for her while living in a nursing home in Pennsylvania.
She went back to bed while he slept it off. This was their usual routine.
Next morning, she asked Karl about the conversation with the cat. He didn’t recall talking to Blue Eyes.
“I heard your voice from the bedroom window last night and went outside to check on you,” she said. “I thought maybe you had been mugged or something. You were both asleep by the time I got there.”
Karl scratched his head in wonderment. He poured himself another coffee and went give Marta more but she placed her hand over the cup.
“I don’t recall the conversation,” he said. “Blue Eyes must have asked me a question.”
Marta was visually perplexed and annoyed with his response. “You know that damn cat can’t talk, don’t you?” she said with sarcasm.
Karl rubbed his eyes in slow circles. He stood there for another minute or two, then drank the last of his coffee before putting the empty cup into the sink.
“I know you’re going to think I’m crazy,” he said, “but, Blue Eyes was asking me a question and I was doing my best to answer him.”
Marta was not impressed. She did, however, concede. She decided to ask a follow up question just as Karl might expect her to do.
“I’ll take the bait,” she said. “What did he want?”
Karl rolled his bloodshot eyes in quiet objection. He leaned his back against the ceramic sink and crossed his arms
“He asked me about the pickled eggs,” he said. “Blue Eyes wanted to know how to make them.”
Marta choked with laughter. She took a paper napkin from the table to wipe saliva from the corner of her mouth.
“Purple pickled eggs,” added Karl. “You know, the ones made with red beet juice.”
“Why in God’s name would a cat want to know about pickled eggs?”
“He likes them, I guess” Karl replied. “I told Blue Eyes that I would ask Marti for the recipe next time I was at the bar.”
“Which is probably tonight,” she sniped.
He didn’t respond to the question about whether he had plans for Marti’s later that night but tried to redirect the conversation back to the eggs. For her part, Marta relinquished a hold on the image of him drunk.
“And?” she asked. “What did Blue Eyes say in response?”
“He wanted to talk to Marti so I gave him his phone number,” he said, then quietly slipped out the back door.