He peered into the large hole containing my husband and the septic tank.
Securing his black beret to his head with his left hand, he gestured with his right, pointing out a detail obvious to him but invisible to everyone else. Mateusz was a retired architect, a native of Poland fluent in four languages, but none of them English. He was able to just manage in English, but since he was quite deaf and felt his hearing aid cumbersome, two way communication with him was a challenge.
Mateusz was 80, with a body that would be envied by many a younger man. Lean, not tall, with chest muscles defined, “cut” as they say today, he moved with a lithe grace that belied his years. He had a full head of pure white hair, swept back from a prominent and, yes, noble, brow. Clean shaven, piercing blue eyes still not requiring glasses, immaculately groomed, he was neat, compact, and every inch the continental gentleman. Even in his sleeveless t-shirt and faded jeans, his leather sandals cracked and well worn, he was class.
Mateusz’s joy in life was to meander about the neighborhood, collecting discarded objects for use in his unique art projects, He enjoyed his neighbors and frequently stopped here and there to chat and offer advice about whatever project was being undertaken. He was delighted about our septic tank project, and felt confident that his background in architectural engineering would be helpful. He pointed to a pipe protruding from the partially uncovered tank and made a comment which, although indecipherable, obviously required a thoughtful response. My husband was fond of Mateusz but not fond of digging in a mound of sewage, and was somewhat less than receptive. He mumbled something vaguely polite, at which Mateusz disappeared, only to return with a set of faded and creased blue architectural drawings, at the center of which was something rectangular which might be a tank.
The septic tank work was postponed until another day.
The next day, on another of his neighborhood wanderings, Mateusz came upon a cat that had been hit by a car and killed. He pried the stiffened remains from the street, placed them in his wheelbarrow and returned home. Always eager to be helpful and to maintain order in the neighborhood, he found a secluded spot in his yard and buried what was left of a long haired black and white cat.
Mateusz later related his adventure in Polish to his wife. Dorota was an energetic 55, a brilliant woman with a cap of glossy brown hair and luminous green eyes that missed nothing. Her English was fluent though heavily accented, and she still struggled with colloquial American. She was the only person who could truly communicate with Mateusz because she was able to employ the essential combination of the Polish language and loudness.
When he described the cat’s markings and its long black fur, his wife rejoined in horror “Moj Bose! Is Boris! Is Bess’s cat!” Dorota was correct.
Boris was my much loved cat, still mobile and independent at nearly 20, but stone deaf. He had generally been able to feel the vibrations of approaching traffic on our lightly traveled road, but not this time. One lapse was all it took.
Dorota was horrified, only partly because she knew how attached I was to Boris. Boris was not just any cat, not just a road kill candidate for Mateusz’s neighborhood upkeep activities. She suggested to him, permitting no possibility of refusal, that he go dig him up. He promptly did so .
Less than a day had passed, but the weather was warm, and the ground moist. Boris’s form had begun to inflate, and his long fur was matted with mud. Now aware of the cat’s identity and knowing our family would want to pay their respects at Boris’s passing, Mateusz took Boris’s bloated and partially rigid form to the bathroom and placed it in the bathtub. He ran warm water and thoroughly shampooed his long, tangled and disheveled fur. He picked up the sodden and suddenly much reduced corpse, dried it with his daughter’s blow drier, then placed it on the bathroom rug. Looking for something in which to transport Boris’s remains home, he reached for the closest thing at hand, one of Dorota’s fluffy pink bath towels. Wrapping Boris in his downy shroud, Mateusz tenderly brought him home.
My husband was in the kitchen when the doorbell rang, and he saw Mateusz standing at the door with a pink bundle in his arms. His appearance at the door was a bit of a puzzle. Interactions with Mateusz customarily took place outdoors; between the language problem and his hearing, conversations were not of the type easily sustainable over a cup of coffee at the kitchen table. Still, he was always welcome, and wondering if he had brought some additional ideas for the septic tank project, my husband gestured for him to come in and sit down.
Smiling and shaking his head in denial or bemusement, Mateusz placed his burden in our kitchen sink and gently turned back the towel. Reacting to my husband’s stunned expression, Mateusz pointed to the road and made a flattening motion with his hands as he made a noise approximating an accelerating engine. My husband thanked Mateusz, who declined a cup a coffee and turned to leave.
I was returning from a walk and greeted Mateusz warmly as we passed at the end of our driveway.
“Septic tank?” I asked while drawing a rectangle in the air to help him understand. He smiled and bobbed his head, and made a digging motion as he turned into the street to go home.
Inside the kitchen, my husband was nonchalantly leaning against the counter , his hands in the pockets of his jeans as he maneuvered to block my view of the sink .To my questioning look, he replied only, “Boris.”
Since Boris had uncharacteristically not come home the night before, I knew. Knowing Mateusz’s proclivities in the neighborhood, I knew. But it was only days later, when my husband handed me a freshly laundered pink towel to return to Dorota, that I knew it all. And it was only when the forget-me-nots that Dorota had given me bloomed in brilliant profusion over the septic tank that I finally forgave him for his hasty choice of Boris’s final resting place.