Native Prose – Cadillac Catera
Every morning on my way to the train I walked past the little house on the corner of Perry Street and Park Avenue. Its frame leaned a bit to the left, and its wooden shingles were weather-beaten, but the concrete walkway out front was always lined with wild arrangements of plastic hydrangeas, even in the dead of winter. The hardware store letters stuck to the side of the mailbox spelled, “K. & K. Slifkas.”
Some mornings I would see them in the yard. Mrs. Slifkas was most often stooped over her containers of petunias. She pinched off the dead blossoms and tossed them into a Folgers can. A tiny woman, she wore her thin, gray hair pulled back into a neat bun, her flowered house dress flagging in the breeze.
Hunched in the shoulders and nearly as small as his wife, Mr. Slifkas was usually in the driveway, tending to their Cadillac. He’d polish the car’s gleaming hood with an old bath towel, removing any trace of pollen or dust that had settled during the night. Taking off his wool cap, he’d lean down and buff the chrome wheels, and then step back to admire his work.
One morning when I came by, Mrs. Slifkas was standing near the edge of the lawn, pulling weeds by the sidewalk. When she saw me she stood up straight and smoothed the front of her dress. “Hello,” she said. “Are you Russian?”
“No, I’m American,” I said. “I live right at the end of Park.” I pointed in the direction of my house.
Mrs. Slifkas was silent for a moment. “I’ll bet you’re Russian and just don’t know it. You are just like Nadia.”
“I don’t think I know her,” I said, looking at my watch. My train was scheduled to leave in 15 minutes.
“Kazé, she looks like Nadia,” Mrs. Slifkas hollered to her husband who stood beside the garage, unwinding a yellow electrical cord. He nodded and waved.
“Nadia was my nanny,” Mrs. Slifkas said, not looking at me anymore, “back in Lithuania.”
“She took care of your children?” I asked.
“She took care of me and my brothers.”
“Oh, how nice,” I said. “Maybe sometime you can show me her picture. But right now I have to go. I’m going to be late for my train.”
One evening on my way home, I found Mr. Slifkas forcing an electric mower around their miniature lawn. The machine wheezed as it chewed up clumps of dry sod and filled the air with clouds of fine, brown dust. Mr. Slifkas stopped and pulled a folded handkerchief from the rear pocket of his pants. He wiped the dust from his shoes, and continued on his way.
In the driveway, the Cadillac was covered with a peach-colored bed sheet.
The screen door to the porch opened and out poked Mrs. Slifkas’ head. Her black eyes crinkled like raisins. Raising her voice over the noise of the mower, she said, “Nadia? How nice that you’ve come to visit.”
Standing at the foot of the driveway, I waved hello, not sure if I should correct her. “Hello, Mrs. Slifkas,” I said.
“You should call me Katrina,” she said, “just like always. Please, come in and have something to drink. I have so many things to tell you.”