Old Street Woman by Sidra M.S. Vitale
Every day she occupied the same spot on the street: grey, grimy. She, too, was grey and grimy. Not the kind of panhandler who cracks wise with passers by, the kind who flirts with the public. She was too tired for that. A broom that looked her age leaned against the wall behind her.
After the lunch rush, one of the baristas from the ubiquitous mermaid-encrusted corner coffee shop brought her a small bag with food in it. She ate it slowly, carefully, then sprinkled the crumbs out where the birds, and the three o'clock dog, could get it.
At three o'clock, a dog trotted purposefully down the sidewalk toward her, its owner inattentively dragging along at the end of a long leash behind it. Finding its offering of crumbs, it stopped briefly to accept them, made a brisk acknowledgement of the gift, then moved on, owner none the wiser.
Time ground past. Day after grey day, perpetually shortening, so that the people who might stop and give began wrapping up in scarves and hustling past to their next warm destination.
Occasionally, do-gooders would stop and ask her what she needed, shaking their head when she told them her cat was missing. “How long have you been on the streets, sister?” “Many years.” They'd exchange kind looks and not say the obvious: any cat of hers was long gone. A product of dementia, even, never existed.
On the coldest days of winter, she slept under the vent behind a hotel, broom propped up against the wall. A little circle of thaw, drawn out by man's machines, as an afterthought. Thrown-away heat.
But always she returned to her spot on the street, grey and grimy, with her broom propped behind her.
Year after year slowly eroded to smooth concrete dust, covering the old woman, until there was only fall, never autumn, in her hair, in her eyes, in her hands. Only the grey season and the three o'clock dog's daily walk remained.
But. One day, there was a sound of squabbling. Children, perhaps.
A squad of baristas from the mermaid's coffee shop were moving very quickly down the sidewalk, one of them carrying a cardboard box. Exclamations of “I can't believe it!” “Just left them there!” “Cruelty!” peppered the air around them.
“Here,” said the one who gave the old woman food sometimes, when they drew even with her. “Do you want to see? It's kittens.”
The old woman drew forward. A little litter of five peered back from their box, its holder suddenly proprietary. “How cute!” she told them. But did not touch. (Old street women don't touch.)
“We're taking them to the animal shelter.” “It's a disgrace.” “Who could do such a thing!”
“Yes,” said the old woman, to none of them in particular. “It's a disgrace to abandon kittens. You're doing the right thing.”
No one saw the black one disappear from its place in the box, masterfully, as all cats can.
It did not emerge again until escape was certain, and the box bound for a no-kill shelter was well away.
A small, all black, kitten. Blue eyes.
Slowly, as if re-learning the route, it climbed up the old woman and touched her cheek with its paw, looking intently at her face.
She looked back, concrete and dust and age falling away. “I have been waiting for you.” she said. And placed the kitten gently on her broom, pulling herself astride in one smooth, practiced motion. “Please don't fall off again. We have a lot of time to make up.”
High up above the clouds, the sky is not grey.