GENETICALLY ENGINEERED BY THOUSANDS OF GENERATIONS of survival of the fittest, the cry was intelligently designed to soften even the most Scrooge-like temperament on this overcast Boston day made even more drismal by an early sloppy damp snowfall. All that effort was wasted on "Fink" as he slipped on the wet brightly coloured fall leaves freshly blown on the front step of his apartment building. The kitten could have growled at him and he still would have fallen in love with the shivering grey ball of fur huddling in the corner of the door jamb in an attempt to stay out of the wind driven snow.
Regaining his balance and bringing his thoughts back to the present, Fink stared at the kitten for a second before gently reaching out to it.
"I t'awt I taww a puddy tat! I did! I did taww a puddy tat!"
The kitten did not react to the joke, however, it offered no resistance when Fink picked it up. He held it gently as he examined the kitten's face. The kitten was grey except for its nose, the tips of its ears, the ends of its paws and some stray hairs around its body which were black. There was a streak of blood on its nose and another patch of blood that marked where the tip of an ear had been.
"Kitty's been fighting. I wonder what the other guy looked like."
Fink looked at the kitten's claws. Several had been broken.
"Well, Ghost, it looks like you got away with it this time. Let's see if we can clean you up."
Fink put Ghost inside his parka with the kitten's little head sticking out through the parka's neck and opened the door to the apartment building. Ghost instantly began to purr in response to the warmth of the building's interior. Any other person would have been moved by that, but Fink was already so enamoured with this tiny creature, it made little difference. He smiled as he fumbled with his key to the inside door of the apartment building.
"Well, Ghost, first you need a bath." Fink was usually meticulous with his things, but he tossed his parka on the sofa instead of hanging it up. He carried Ghost with him to the bathroom where he picked up a bottle of shampoo and then carried Ghost to the kitchen. He ran warm water into the sink as he held Ghost with one hand. When the water was warm enough, he stoppered the sink and let it fill a couple of inches before turning it off. Ghost watched the proceedings with interest, apparently not sure what all this was about. Ghost continued to purr until the moment that Fink put him in the water at which point Ghost let out a yowl.
Fink held the struggling kitten with one hand and squirted a little shampoo on its fur with the other. He gently worked the shampoo in with both hands.
"I'm bigger than you," Fink admonished the miserable scraggly looking thing in the sink as he lathered the kitten's fur. "You will thank me for this."
Ghost continued to struggle.
Fink cleaned the blood and picked the kitten up out of the water wrapping it in a dish towel.
"Feel better?" Fink asked holding the kitten nose to nose.
Ghost did not answer, but he stopped struggling.
"Good. You're probably starving, but the best I can do for you is skim milk."
Fink put a small dish on the floor and poured milk into it. Ghost sniffed it and then lapped at it greedily.
"I wish I had real food to give you, but I'll go shopping tomorrow and get you something."
Ghost finished the milk and looked up expectantly.
"You need more than that don't you?"
Ghost looked into the bowl and back at Fink.
Fink shook his head and sighed. "Maybe that girl down the hall has some real food. I don't have any. Come on. I've been wanting an excuse to meet her anyway."
Ghost purred as Fink headed down the hall. Fink's apartment was on the back of the building and his balcony looked out over the parking lot for a small industrial complex. The girl he had seen but not met lived on the front of the building. Her balcony overlooked the street and the postage stamp sized park beyond. He knew her name from the packages he had seen delivered for her and the name on her mail box. Ellen Moscowitz was her name. She got packages from a couple of online vendors which the postman left on a shelf next to the mailboxes same as he left Fink's diet food deliveries.
Holding Ghost next to his face so whoever looked out the peep hole would see both faces, Fink rang the door bell. After a few seconds, the door flung open. A girl Fink guessed to be about fourteen wearing a Celtics sweatshirt, Bruins sweat pants and pink fuzzy slippers stood and stared at the two of them for a second. The smile on her face as just a little too broad. She seemed just a little too happy to see them. There was way too much glee in her voice when she turned her head inside the apartment and shouted, "It's the diet food guy!"
Fink wondered if he had made a serious mistake picking this particular apartment to visit to borrow some cat food. He knew the look on the girl's face. Sooner or later it always ended in the principal's office with him explaining some incident of which he had been an unwilling participant, but that no one believed him. It was too late to turn back now.
A voice from inside called, "Sandy! How many times have I told you not to open the door for strangers!"
"It's not a stranger. It's the diet food guy. You know, Ferdinand Finkelstein," the girl shouted back into the apartment.
Fink assumed she knew his name the same way he knew hers. He wondered if she had looked him up online. He hadn't looked her up because he felt he would be invading her privacy if he did. Still, this girl was not surprised to see him. That worried Fink.
The woman Fink recognized as the nominal resident of the apartment, Ellen, came to the door drying her hands with a small towel. Many times in the summer he had come home from work to see her sitting outside on her balcony reading. They had waved at each other, but had never talked.
"Sandy, get back inside," Ellen ordered.
"But he has a kitty," Sandy protested.
"I see that. Get back inside."
Sandy huffed and backed away.
Ellen took a moment to catch her breath. "Can I help you?"
"I hope so," Fink said. "I found this kitten on the front step, and I thought I would keep it, but the only food I have is skim milk. It drank the milk, but I don't think that's enough. Besides, I'm not real sure what kittens eat. I wondered if I could buy something from you until I get to the pet store."
Ghost gave a single perfectly genetically engineered cry and this time it did its job. Ellen's resistance broke down. She slowly shook her head and said, "Sure, come in. I have some canned tuna. All cats like canned tuna."
"Thanks," Fink said.
"You're welcome," Ellen replied.
Ghost dove into the tuna when it was placed on the floor.
"So, Ferdinand Finkelstein," Sandy asked. "Have you named the kitten."
"I think I'll call it Ghost," he offered.
"It?" Sandy asked.
"I don't know if it's a boy kitten or a girl kitten."
Sandy laughed. "It's a boy kitten."
"Thank you. I'll call him Ghost." Fink smiled weakly and nodded his head.
"What do your friends call you?" Sandy asked, apparently trying to make conversation.
"I don't really have any friends, but they used to call me 'Fink' in high school."
"That's not a very nice name," Sandy said.
Fink shrugged. "I didn't mind. At least they called me something. Better than being ignored."
"That's sad," Ellen said as she poured a whole milk into a small bowl and set on the floor.
"Why would they ignore you?" Sandy asked.
"I was a fat geeky kid who couldn't play sports and didn't get along. You know the expression about not playing well with others. That was me," he said softly.
"You don't look fat to me," Sandy observed.
"Three years of what you called diet food. I lost a lot of weight." Fink could not believe he was telling this kid he had just met things he had never told anyone.
"How much weight?" Sandy asked.
"You lost fifty pounds on diet food in three years," Ellen asked in disbelief.
"Do you ever want to go off the diet and eat something fattening?" Ellen asked.
"All the time," Fink shrugged, "but girls don't like fat guys and if I'm ever going to find a girlfriend I need to not be fat."
"So, you don't have a girl friend?" Sandy asked. That knowing, scheming, too broad smile reappeared on her face.
"Nope." Fink shook his head.
"Ever have one?" Sandy asked.
"Sandy! That's none of your business!" Ellen admonished.
"It is if I make it my business," Sandy shot back tipping her head as her sister.
"No, I've never had a girlfriend," Fink said softly.
"Why not?" Sandy pressed.
"Sandy!" Ellen admonished.
Sandy scowled at her sister. "I know what I am doing. So, you've never had a girl friend?"
"Ever been on a date?" Sandy continued.
"Sandy! Leave this poor man alone!" Ellen said firmly.
"He brought the cat. I'm making conversation," Sandy said slyly.
"Sandy, that's far enough," Ellen warned.
Ghost finished eating, climbed Sandy's leg and curled up in her lap.
"You are not keeping the cat," Ellen stated firmly.
"It's not my cat. It's his cat. I'm petting him," Sandy said with feigned innocence.
Ghost's purr was loud enough that they could all hear it.
"Did you wash him?" Sandy asked.
"Yes, how did you know?" Fink asked.
"He smells like shampoo. Cats aren't supposed to smell like shampoo," Sandy chuckled.
"I didn't know what else to wash him with. He had a lot of blood on him and he was pretty ratty looking. He wasn't happy about it, but he needed to be washed," Fink replied.
"He's missing a piece of his ear. Looks fresh," Sandy said gently touching the injured ear.
"Yeah, there was blood on his ear when I picked him up. You can see a gouge in his nose, too," Fink said.
"Scrappy little guy aren't you?" Sandy baby talked the kitten. They sat in the tiny kitchen as Sandy gently stroked the purring kitten.
"You know," Sandy said pensively as she looked at Fink. "You don't deserve to be called by that awful name."
"But it's what people call me," he asserted.
"I think we should call you 'Buddy' from now on," Sandy declared.
Ellen sighed. "Sandy, don't be getting into other people's business. You know it gets you into trouble."
Sandy scowled at her sister. "If I see you in the hall or when I'm sitting on the balcony, I'm going to call you 'Buddy' from now on. You okay with that?"
"Sure, whatever. Although I doubt you'll see much of me. I work long hours," Fink said.
"I noticed," Sandy said wryly.
"Where do you work?" Ellen asked.
"I work at the Radio Supply store on Comm Ave in Brighton," Fink offered.
Sandy laughed. It was not a nice laugh. "Okay, you're busted!" Sandy said gleefully. "That's the first thing you said that wasn't true. You don't work at the Radio Supply, you own it."
"Sandy! Don't be rude! Besides, how did you know that?" Ellen charged.
"I looked him up. I looked up everyone in this building. He's the only one at all interesting," Sandy boasted.
"Sandy, that's not very nice," Ellen admonished.
"It's public information. I found his yearbook picture and he was a real tubbo with big geeky glasses." Without pausing for breath, Sandy turned back to Fink. "What's it like to own a Radio Supply?"
"It's a franchise, so I don't really own it. It's more like I rent it," Fink said, not at all comfortable with Sandy's forwardness.
"But you get to keep the money," Sandy said.
"What's left after expenses," Fink said ruefully.
"And you hire and fire people," Sandy continued.
"I like the hiring part. I don't do the firing part very well," Fink admitted.
"And you have all these really cool toys to play with," Sandy said with envy.
"Yeah, we sell some neat stuff," Fink acknowledged.
"Wait a second," Ellen interrupted. "You can't be much older than me. How do you afford to own a Radio Supply."
"He's one year and six days older than you," Sandy crowed.
Fink was a little taken aback by the outburst. Sandy knew the answers to her questions before she asked them. He liked Ellen's sense of propriety, but he was not sure how to deal with Sandy. "My grandfather left me enough money to buy the franchise, but I had to convince my father to co-sign on the loan for the first couple of years of operating expenses. If I have a good day tomorrow, I may actually be able to pay off the last of that loan. January first will be five years from the day I walked into the store as the owner instead of an employee."
"You bought the store where you worked?" Ellen asked.
"I knew its potential and the guy I bought it from didn't. I got it for a lot less than I should have paid," Fink said proudly.
"What did you do about the people that were working there from before?" Ellen asked.
"I had to fire a couple," Fink said with a sigh. "It hurt me to do it, but they needed to go. They weren't pulling their weight."
"How did you go looking for new people?" Ellen asked.
Fink was more comfortable talking to Ellen, but he noticed Sandy's watchful gaze. On one hand he wanted to know what was going on in Sandy's head, but on the other he was sure he would not like the answer. "That was easy. I went to the work study office at Northeastern University and told them I was looking for engineering students that needed to work to afford their school and that could speak more than one language. In fact, I told them that the more languages they could speak, the better."
"And what happened?" Ellen asked.
Fink smiled with the memory. "That Monday I had three applicants. I hired all of them. Cedric Chung was the best of that group. He could speak three or four different dialects of Chinese. He grew up in Boston's Chinatown and knew everyone. He sold cell phones, radios and computers like crazy. I think Cedric sold every cell phone and computer that anyone in Chinatown bought while he was working for me. The funniest part was that every week some old woman or other would show up with her grand daughter or niece or cousin to buy something they really didn't need to try to fix them up."
"Did any of them succeed?" Ellen asked with a laugh.
Fink smiled wistfully. "Yeah, one did. But I think he knew her from high school and needed to make it look like it was the grandmother's idea. Their wedding was wonderful."
"Is he still there?" Sandy asked, although she knew the answer.
Fink glanced at her. His discomfort with her had returned. "No, he graduated and got a job at a software company in Burlington. They come by from time to time. Their kids are so cute."
"Do you have other success stories?" Ellen asked.
"Oh, yeah. I have a couple dozen former employees scattered all over the Boston area working in one high-tech company or another," Fink said proudly.
"And you helped them," Ellen said with admiration.
"I gave them a quiet place to study and an income. They did the real work," Fink said modestly.
"Tomorrow is Black Friday," Ellen observed. "Is that why you said what you did about tomorrow and paying off your loan?"
"Yes," he replied.
"How early are you opening the store?" Ellen asked.
"Five. Look, I really need to collect Ghost and get some sleep," Fink said.
A moment of panic flashed across Sandy's face. "Buddy! You can't go!"
"Why not?" Ellen asked with an expression that showed she did not trust her sister's motives, knowing her sister well enough to know that things were rarely what they seemed.
Sandy backpedalled. "Um, it wouldn't be right. I mean we're just getting to know each other and I like you and we might not see Ghost again."
Fink smiled. "It's not like we live so far apart. I'm only two doors down the hall. You can watch out your balcony and when I come home, you can come over and play with Ghost."
Sandy looked back and forth between Fink and Ellen. "No, it's, I mean, hey, if you go home now, you'll probably toss and turn all night kinda, you know, like, um-m, nervous about tomorrow. Or you could stay here and we could stay up all night and play games and we can all go to work with you and I can help you in the store. I know all the games and cute girls can sell games to guys easier than guys can. How about that? We can party all night and work all day."
Sandy's words came out in a rush. "Besides I'll bet you haven't eaten yet. We have lots of leftover turkey. There's only the two of us here and it's a lot of turkey. You can skip your diet food for one night."
"It's a tempting offer, especially after the Thanksgiving I had today," Fink said.
"What happened?" Ellen asked noticing the relief in Sandy's expression. She had figured out Sandy's game and was not sure she liked it, but for now she would play along.
Fink paused before answering. "My aunt died this summer. She was the one who always made Thanksgiving for the rest of the family. She had a knack for it. We'd go over to her house early in the morning and everyone helped make something whether it was cutting the potatoes for the potato salad or chopping vegetables for the side dishes. It was great fun. My cousin is not the cook her mother was, but she insisted on trying to put out the spread her mother did. We tried to talk her out of it, but she wouldn't hear of it. It was a disaster. Nothing came out on time. The turkey was overcooked. We all felt sorry for her. I mean, she tried and I have to give her credit for that, but it was so sad. I was the last one who stayed to help clean up after. My cousin was in tears at the end. There wasn't much I could say. Her husband and her kids tried to make her feel better, but everything they said made it worse." Fink sighed. "I wish I could have made it right for her. She wanted it so bad."
"My sister's a great cook," Sandy said brightly. "How about I'll make us some turkey salad sandwiches and I'll get a board game and we can sit up and chat."
Ellen laughed. "You do that."
After Sandy left with Ghost perched on her shoulder, Fink looked at Ellen. "She's something else, isn't she?"
"Conniving little monster!" Ellen snarled.
"Don't be hard on her. She's looking out for you," Fink said with a smile.
"She's pretty obvious," Ellen said in disdain.
"That's what sisters are for. They take care of each other. My cousins are like that."
"Since Sandy knows everything there is to know about me and I know nothing about you, why don't you start by telling me where you work?"
"You didn't look me up?".
Fink shook his head. "No, I considered it like invading your privacy. If the time came, you would tell me what you wanted me to know and that would be right."
"You amaze me.".
"Is that good or bad?"
"Good, I mean you have all these high tech gizmos to search for anyone you wanted and you chose not to do it. I admire your restraint."
"Not my place," Fink shrugged.
Ellen smiled. "I work in a plastics manufacturing plant in Brookline. We make little plastic parts for everyday kinds of things. You know the plastic cups on the bottom of metal furniture legs? We make those and send them to other people who put them on the furniture. We make handles for brooms and mops. We make little things that you put on your desk and stand your letters in. We make lots and lots of little parts for bigger things."
"Like that plastic knob on the cupboard handle?"
"Well, not that one, but yes."
"What is your job there?"
"I receive the orders and schedule the work. I figure out how many machines we need to assign to a project to meet the order date and my boss assigns the jobs to the operators. He supervises the work and sees that it gets shipped on time. We have three accountants that handle the money, a receptionist, a couple of product designers and two sales people to chase new business. Fifty people work the shop floor and that's our little company."
"I'll bet you know them all and their kids, too."
"Yeah. It's been kind of hard lately. We shipped out our last order yesterday. There's nothing pending. The sales people are working their hearts out, but there's nothing out there. I've got nothing in the pipeline. There's no work on Monday. I don't know what we're going to do. It'll take half the day to clean the shop and then what? I can't bear the thought of putting all those people out of work before Christmas."
"Something will turn up.".
"So, you're not working tomorrow?"
"You know, you can come to the store with me if you want. I've already arranged for a taxi to pick me up at four. Sandy's right about the games. If she's as good as she thinks she is, I'll pay her commission."
"Really?" Sandy burst out of the kitchen. She had obviously been listening at the door.
"If your sister approves," Fink said.
"Sure, it might be fun," Ellen smiled.
"Kosher Mayo," Sandy said as she put the food on the table.
"How did you know?" Fink asked.
"Kosher diet food. That must have been hard to find," Sandy said in admiration.
"You have no idea.".
"If I hadn't cheated and looked at the shipping label, I never would have found it, either. How did you?" .
"My doctor heard about it at a conference and picked up some literature."
"Good old fashioned hard research! It's the best kind."
"As opposed to what other kind?" .
"The online stuff I usually do.".
"Isn't everything online these days?" Ellen asked.
"Not everything," Sandy said. "In fact, there are some serious holes that you don't know exist until you fall into one, like Kosher diet food. I mean, how would you search for Kosher diet food?"
Fink said, "I can't say I thought about it until my doctor handed me the brochure. I mean I knew I had to lose weight, but Kosher diet food, come on."
"What did he say to convince you?" Sandy asked.
"What did she say?" Sandy repeated.
"She kind of laid it on the line for me, life expectancy, quality of life, the probability of a bunch of different diseases. She ran the numbers for me. That did it.".
Sandy smiled knowingly.
"She ran the numbers?" Ellen asked perplexed..
"Yeah, it was all about numbers for me in the beginning. That's the way it started, but I noticed I felt better. I had more energy and I think I got smarter or something, because things got easier for me. But, yeah, it started with the numbers.".
"And now?" Ellen asked.
"I still listen to the numbers, but they aren't the whole answer any more."
"And what is the rest of the answer?".
"But you said you don't have any friends."
"Not real ones, but I have lots of people I know from work. It's not the same, but for now it's better than nothing," Fink said glancing at Sandy knowing that she was thinking very hard about the conversation.
"But you are looking for something? Something more?" Ellen asked.
"I have five more pounds to lose and then I will step out into the world in search of romance and relationships."
That strange smile returned to Sandy's face. It made Fink uncomfortable.
"Is five pounds that important?" Ellen asked.
"It's a goal. The number isn't as important as having a goal. Used to be that the number was everything, but now it's something I promised myself I would do and the promise is more important than the number."
"What if something gets in the way of your goal, like a girlfriend or something?" Sandy asked.
"If she loves me, she will understand that my goal is important to me and help me achieve it." Ellen grabbed one of the games Sandy had brought when she brought the sandwiches. "Enough of this! It is the night after Thanksgiving. Fink..."
"Buddy. His name is Buddy," Sandy asserted.
"Buddy," Ellen glared at her sister, "has a long day tomorrow and we should not be stressing him out with intrusive questions. Let's play a game and then we'll take a nap and go to the store tomorrow. If that meets with your approval Miss Butt-in-ski."
"So, Sandy, what do you want to be when you grow up?" Fink asked in attempt to diffuse the tension he saw building between the sisters.
"A cyber sleuth. I want to work for the FBI or somebody using computers to catch bad guys." .
"That's a pretty popular idea these days. Lots of people want to do that. It beats getting shot at in Iraq. What makes you think you will be able to do that?"
"Because I am good," Sandy stated with assurance. "I am very good,"
"Sandy, don't brag," Ellen admonished. "You brag too much,"
"Look at it as a goal. Buddy understands the value of a goal. Do you understand the value of a goal?" Sandy asked her sister with a sneer.
"I understand," Ellen shot back. "And I do not appreciate your meddling."
"You will," Sandy said smugly.
"Maybe I better leave," Fink said as he stood from the table.
"Ghost stays!" Sandy shrieked as she clutched the kitten suddenly frightened out of its nap.
"Ghost can stay, if Ellen approves.".
"He can stay," Ellen said tensely.
Fink headed for the door.
"Please call us in time to meet you and the taxi."
Fink smiled. "Sure thing."
Fink could hear shouting as soon as he closed the door. He really, really did not want to know what they were saying to each other.