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The Fourth Magi PDF Print E-mail
Written by Jim Willis   
Wednesday, 09 December 2009 17:50

A bitter old man, an "ugly" cat, and a Christmas miracle or three. A new story by Jim Willis, author of "How Could You?" and the book "Pieces of My Heart - Writings Inspired by Animals and Nature."

If anyone had bothered to pry, or follow Elmer around town, they might have learned more about him than anyone knew. Instead, they were comfortable with their opinion of him as the crankiest, stingiest old man around. Many were relieved that he lived on the outskirts of town and most avoided running into him during his monthly shopping trip if they saw his dented and rusty pick-up truck parked in front of any business establishment.

Elmer only entered the post office lobby during the postmaster's lunch hour and since he never put a return address on anything he mailed - his way of daring the US Postal Service to lose anything - nobody knew that the letters addressed in spindly block lettering to US military addresses were from Elmer. He wrote dozens of appreciative letters to service member strangers in far away places and always enclosed a ten-dollar bill, "for a beer or something stronger." Many a military chaplain has been surprised by Elmer's largesse and his vernacular about the Communists, the liberals, and whomever happened to be Commander-in-Chief ("and probably never did a lick of work in his whole life"). Elmer was completely non-partisan in his hatred of politicians, he hated all of them, and as for love of his country, it was about all the love that Elmer had left.

Elmer had been a coal miner until the mine had closed "thanks to those damn environmentalists." He occasionally ran into former coworkers in town and gave them a nod, never asking how they were and figuring that most, by the look of them, should qualify for some kind of public assistance if it weren't for "the state of our damn social security system." If there had been one thing he had done well, it had been to save money and he was comfortable, but with every passing year, Elmer grew more sour and intimidating. It had been years since any children had walked up the driveway to his well-kept but plain looking home that always had the curtains and window blinds shut and rung his doorbell on Halloween, or anyone had called asking for a donation. Even the postman dreaded delivering anything to him that required a signature, although Elmer had enormous respect for anyone in uniform, even if they worked for the "damn US Postal Service."

In short, nobody in the world could have been more surprised than Elmer, one cold evening in late November, when he heard a strange noise outside, set his beer bottle down hard on the kitchen table and opened the door to the back porch. Not only was the most ugly cat he'd ever seen sitting in front of the door, and Elmer hated cats as much as liberals and Communists, but the cat walked directly into the kitchen and then disappeared down the cellar stairs. Elmer turned on the porch light and looked around into the darkness, to make sure it wasn't some prank or Communist plot, and then he slammed the door shut. He decided to have another beer first, "to steady his legs," before going down to the cellar and evicting the "damn cat."

The cat was nowhere to be seen at first, and then Elmer found him curled up in a laundry basket of dirty laundry on top of the washer. He pulled the cord from the light above the laundry tubs and glared at the cat. The cat blinked and stared at Elmer with an unconcerned air. Elmer bent down a little closer to the cat, inspected him, and agreed with himself that this was indeed the ugliest cat on the face of the Earth. The cat had a fresh scar down his nose that was still pink, the tip of one ear was missing, and the edge of the other ear was notched. One eye was gray-blue and clouded. It was difficult to tell from all the scars and patches of missing gray and white fur if the cat had won or lost his fights. That may have been the first inkling that Elmer had that he and the cat had something in common, but mostly he was sure he hated cats.

"Get out of my damn laundry you damn ugly cat!" Elmer said.

The cat showed no fear and instead yawned and snuggled deeper into the pungent tangle of soiled clothes.

Elmer stood there and crossed his arms. He uncrossed his arms. He put his hands on his hips. He removed one hand from his hip and scratched his head. If this had been a liberal, a Communist, or even a postal worker, he would have known what to say to get them out of his laundry basket, his cellar, his house - but he didn't know what one did about a trespassing cat. He didn't know anything at all about cats.
Elmer leaned over the laundry tub and forced the rusted window latch open, then opened the window a few inches.

"You finish your nap, then you go back where you came from," he said to the cat in the laundry basket and then he made his way unsteadily back up the cellar stairs, grabbed another bottle of beer from the refrigerator, and sat back down at the kitchen table. He swished the first swig of beer around in his mouth and thought for a while. He rubbed his unshaven chin. He drummed his fingers on the tabletop. He thought about eating something, maybe a can of soup, and then decided he wasn't hungry. He was too upset to eat. The whole order of his day and his comfortable existence had been upset by a trespassing, most likely Communist cat asleep in his cellar. He finished his beer, turned out the kitchen light and headed toward his bedroom. He looked in the direction of the cellar door and yelled, "Don't think I'm giving you anything to eat, 'cause I ain't!"

The cat was still there in the morning and he announced that he was hungry by high-tailing it up the cellar stairs into the middle of the kitchen and yowling - which caused Elmer to drop his English muffin on the floor, because he had forgotten all about the cat. The cat licked the butter off the muffin and then howled some more. Elmer stood there with his mouth open while the radio announcer finished both the traffic and weather reports. The cat licked his muzzle, saw that nothing more was being offered, and went back down the cellar stairs. Elmer grabbed his truck keys off the hook next to the kitchen door and slammed the door on his way out.

As Elmer's truck pulled in at Fields Farm Supply, Fred Fields looked up from loading a fresh roll of paper into the cash register and thought "Oh no! It's Elmer and it isn't even December yet."

Elmer nodded curtly and headed toward the back of the store. Fred thought that was odd, because Elmer normally walked directly up to the front counter with a complaint and receipt in hand for some previous purchase. The last had been about a galvanized bucket that rusted after putting water in it, "because it says 'Made in Mexico,' and maybe next time you'll think twice about selling buckets that ain't made in the good ol' US of A!" Instead, Elmer marched past the hardware and plumbing section, past the cattle and equine supplies, and all the way back to the pet section. He stood there with his arms crossed, not moving, until Fred finally went back to see what he needed.

"This a good cat food?" Elmer asked and pointed to the top shelf.

"Well, yeah, I guess - we sell a lot of it," Fred replied.

"Ain't made in Mexico is it?" Elmer asked, picking up a can and turning it over to read the label.

"Nope, made in America," Fred said. "And that's all Miss Bridgewater buys."

"Who the hell is Miss Bridgewater?" Fred asked with suspicion.

"That's the retired schoolteacher over by Shadygrove, who rescues all the cats and finds them homes. Got dozens of them. Had a write-up in the paper recently. Nice lady - probably spends her whole pension on those animals. Anyway, that's all she buys, the canned and the dry chow, too."

"Cats need two kinds of food?" Elmer asked, even more suspiciously, anticipating some sort of a sales ploy.
"Well, most cats like both. The dry is good for their teeth. What kind of a cat do you have, Elmer?"
"Ain't got a cat," Elmer said emphatically. "Was just asking. You can go back to whatever you was doing, I'm just lookin' around."

Fred shrugged his shoulders and returned to the front of the store. Elmer showed up a few minutes later with two five-pound bags of dry cat chow, two different flavors, and a dozen cans of cat food.

"Put 'em on my account," he said, not even waiting for the goods to be bagged, and Fred hurriedly jotted down the total. Elmer might never find out that that was probably how the rumor got started, that he, the ornery old cuss who was too proud to ask anyone for help, was now so dirt poor that he'd taken to eating cat food.

Elmer slammed in through his kitchen door, took one look, and subconsciously decided to drop some of the cans of cat food rather than the six-pack of beer he was also carrying. The damn cat was sitting in the middle of his kitchen table!

"Get your mangy, dirty butt off my table, you damn cat!" he yelled.

The cat didn't flinch. Typical Communist behavior, Elmer decided, and he plunked down his armload on the kitchen counter. One of the cans of cat food rolled across the kitchen floor and down the cellar stairs. The cat chased it.

"Good!" Elmer yelled again. "'Cause that's where you're eating. I ain't having that stinky stuff in my kitchen."

Elmer opened a drawer next to the sink and grabbed a plastic fork, he opened the cabinet above the sink and withdrew a paper plate from an enormous stack of them, and then he turned and went down the cellar stairs. The cat waited on top of the washer as Elmer popped the lid off the can of cat food and then pounded the can's contents onto the plate. The cat sniffed the food and began to eat ravenously. Elmer glared at the cat first, then at the fork in his hand and shoved it into his shirt pocket.
Elmer was halfway up the cellar stairs when he turned around and addressed the cat.

"I didn't say you was staying, just remember that."

Elmer learned later that day that the logical conclusion for a well-fed cat is a litterbox. He swore all the way to the Wal-Mart on the other side of Shadygrove, because he wasn't going to give Fred Fields any more reason to gossip than he already had.

It had been many years since any living being had dared to test Elmer's patience. The cat made up for those years in the first week. When Elmer pulled out his chair from the kitchen table to sit down, the cat was sitting on it. When Elmer took his paper-plated dinner and plastic utensils into the living room, to sit in his recliner and watch the evening news, the cat was nestled in it and only grudgingly moved to the end table. When Elmer twisted the top off a beer bottle, the cat stole the cap and batted it around the kitchen floor until it eventually rolled under the refrigerator. When Elmer wasn't busy writing letters to soldiers, or paying his utility bills while cursing the oil barons, he spent most of his free time hating the cat. When the cat tired of toying with Elmer's patience, he retreated to his laundry basket in the cellar. One week dragged into two, until the cat's greatest impudence.

Elmer awoke in the middle of the night and felt pressure on his chest and had difficulty in breathing. Not even the aspirin per day he'd been taking after that liberal Peter Jennings had recommended it on a TV "healthcast" could save him now. He slowly raised his right hand to place it on his heart and instead of feeling the pounding in his chest, he felt a warm, purring cat! Elmer nearly choked on his own tongue in an apoplectic, sputtering rage, before he managed to turn on the bedside reading lamp.
"Get off me, you damn ugly cat!" he screeched.

The cat blinked a few times, stepped down from his perch on Elmer's chest, and moved to the foot of the bed. Elmer sat up in bed for a long time, arms crossed and glowering, before he let out a disgusted sigh and turned out the light. He angrily rolled over and pounded his fist into the mattress.

"I know one thing," he addressed the cat in the dark, "if I do start to die, you just get your ugly butt back to the cellar 'cause I sure as hell don't want anyone finding me with you in my bed!"

Part 2: An uneasy truce...

By the third week of their coexistence, Elmer and the cat had reached an uneasy peace, the sort of truce that might exist between two inmates forced to share a cell together. Even prisoners have names, although the cat was free to leave and the sooner the better, and one evening, after several bottles of beer, Elmer held a "christening" ceremony. From here on out, in the presence of God and man, the cat would be called "Ugly." It was difficult to judge the cat's opinion of his official moniker because he had, with great dignity, retired to his laundry basket in the cellar during the middle of the ceremony.

Elmer had taken to reading the weekly pet column in the newspaper, but he usually did so when Ugly was not around. One column on the benefits of "neutering" put a satisfied grin on Elmer's face. He did most of his cat food shopping at the Wal-Mart, watching to see what other customers put into their carts and then reaching for the same products and reading the labels after he made sure nobody was around. As long as it wasn't made in Mexico, it was probably good enough for Ugly, who began to fill out and his fur grew back and had sheen to it. Elmer credited the improvement to American animal husbandry.

His trips to town became more frequent and Elmer sometimes stopped by Fields Farm Supply, pretending to browse, but most often to compare pet food prices. He was inspecting a tube of something called "Hairball Remedy," when the bell over the store's front door jingled and he heard Fred say, "'Morning, Miz Bridgewater."

Elmer looked up with interest and then scurried around the other side of the pet food display and absorbed himself with an aluminum dryer exhaust vent. It was stamped "Made in Mexico," and he set it down in disgust. He watched her as she walked up the pet food aisle and she smiled sweetly at him. Elmer began to color and mumbled "'Morning," and turned back around toward the plumbing fixtures. He thought she looked like a former schoolteacher, tastefully dressed, tall and thin - elegant - and he detected a hint of some feminine fragrance. He watched her out of the corner of his eye as she selected a couple of products, including "Hairball Remedy," and then made her way back to the front counter. Fred promised to have her order delivered the next morning and she wished him a Merry Christmas as she went out the door. Elmer noted her street address on the invoice next to the cash register as he slammed down a tube of "Hairball Remedy" and averted his eyes as Fred rang it up without a word. Elmer also noted the total on the invoice for her supply of cat food and litter. He shook his head and muttered to himself as he got into his truck.

Elmer drove the long way to Shadygrove, past the hospital and a new subdivision of exclusive homes, probably all owned by doctors and cut-throat hospital administrators. He wondered if the homes were more substantial than the "cardboard" duplexes his late brother-in-law had built in Florida and then sold to retired Canadians "with more money than sense." He hadn't talked to his sister in years, had never forgiven her for marrying that fool in the first place. At least she lived in a warm climate, he thought, and shivered as he reached for the heater control knob and cranked it up to "high." Probably spends all her days gabbing and playing cards with the other widows and going to church.

Miss Bridgewater lived past the fancy homes, past a few family-owned farms that hadn't been subdivided yet. Elmer drove slowly past the house and wondered if it was the right place and then he saw the hand-painted sign in her front yard: "Cats for adoption to qualified, indoor homes," followed by her phone number. He slowed almost to a stop and noted the cracks and ruts in her driveway, several window shutters attached by only one hinge, and a gutter and downspout hanging down precariously and ready to fall in the next strong wind.

He shook his head as he stepped on the gas pedal and drove on. Probably does spend her whole pension on them cats! 'Indoor' cats. Wonder how many of them are damn ugly cats that just moved in on her and took over?

The cat was nowhere to be seen when Elmer came in his kitchen door. Good! Maybe he left, Elmer thought. He peeked down the stairwell to the cellar and saw a gray and white lump in his laundry basket. He hung his jacket over the back of a kitchen chair and quietly tiptoed upstairs, intending to take a short nap alone. Elmer rarely napped, but he was still recovering from having his bed invaded by a cat who took liberties. Having to sneak around my own house and all because of a damn trespassing cat!

The light filtered in through the window at the end of the upstairs hallway and illuminated only the door to the other bedroom, the boy's room. Elmer hadn't opened that door for at least a year, but the illuminated door seemed to beckon to him. He stood in front of the door for a full minute before putting a hand on the doorknob. He took a deep breath and turned the key. The door opened easily, to a time long gone. The room was filled with personality, unlike any other room in the house. A few trophies gleamed on a shelf, paint-by-number paintings were framed and hung on the walls, a collection of handmade objects was carefully arranged on the dresser, including a popsicle-stick birdhouse, and a row of Hardy Boys mystery books lined the shelf above the bed's headboard. Elmer looked around the room, avoiding the photos displayed in frames, and bit his bottom lip. He backed quietly out of the room and shut the door.

It was partly due to his visit to the room and partly the fault of Peter Jennings that Elmer drank more than his customary six-pack of beer that evening. His reaction to the room was forgivable. Jennings' special report on a proposed new trade agreement between Mexico and the United States was not.

Elmer switched off the television in disgust and went into the kitchen. The cat followed. Elmer was reaching into the refrigerator for another bottle of beer, too upset to eat anything, and was about to tell the damn ugly cat that he wasn't getting another damn thing to eat for the rest of the damn day, when the front doorbell rang. Elmer straightened up in surprise. Nobody ever came to his front door and even the rare delivery person or meter reader knew to come to the kitchen door. He suspected Jehovah Witnesses, or Boy Scouts selling Christmas trees. By the time Elmer got the front door deadbolt unlocked and opened the door, all he saw were taillights turning onto the road and speeding away. Then he saw the box sitting on his front porch. What in the hell...?

The cardboard box was open at the top and wrapped in Christmas paper, and it was crammed full, with a frozen turkey perched on top of the pile of contents. Elmer glared at it. He walked around the box looking for a tag or any sort of written explanation. He nudged the box with his foot in case it contained a bomb. Then he stooped and grunted as he picked up the box and wrestled it through the front hallway and onto the kitchen table. He stepped back and regarded it suspiciously again. It was clearly a box meant for "poor people" and Elmer was livid. He twisted the cap off another bottle of beer and began to unpack the box, hoping to find some identifying clue hidden in the contents. Ugly sat on a kitchen chair and supervised the process.

"Yams! Hate 'em. Asparagus spears - who in the hell, other than liberals, eats asparagus?! Croutons? What's that - some Frenchie word for stale bread?" Elmer continued rummaging to the bottom of the box where he found a smashed pumpkin pie and wondered what "mental midget" had packed the damn box. Ugly climbed into the unpacked, empty box and peered at Elmer over the edge. Elmer opened another beer and sat down hard on the kitchen chair after first checking from force of new habit to see if there was a cat on it.

He took a long gulp of beer and stared at the cat in the box. He looked intently at the Christmas wrapping paper of the box, with a scene of the Three Wise Men on camels following the Star of Bethlehem. It reminded him of her, of Christmases past, of how much she loved the holidays, the cookies she baked, and her staying up into the wee hours of the morning, knitting presents for him and the boy. He remembered the look on the boy's face on Christmas mornings. He rubbed his eyes hard with his hand. Ugly hung one paw over the edge of the box.

Elmer removed his hand from his face and looked fiercely at the cat.

"Don't think I'm letting you stay 'cause I need you...because I don't! I don't need nobody, especially an ugly cat. I do just fine by myself. You hear me?"

Then he recalled his visit to the room.

"I had a boy once," Elmer addressed the cat in the box. "His name was John. He was a good kid...quiet. We didn't get along that well. We was just too different. He took after his mother...kind and sensitive. He used to go out and sit in the woods for hours by himself. He loved animals. He always wanted a cat or a dog and I wouldn't let him. I could barely keep food on the table and a roof over our heads as it was. His mother would've given him the world if she could of. He was her life. He went off to war and came back in a box. He should never have joined up in the first place - think he did it to spite me, or get away from me. Should have gone to college and made something of himself...not like me. He won awards for schoolwork. He was bright - like his mother. She never got over it. Broke her heart. After he died, she went to her sister's and never came back. Couldn't live with me no more. Can't say I blame her. I wasn't easy to live with. She's gone now, too.

"I miss 'em...you damn ugly cat! I miss 'em so bad it hurts. But you can't bring them back after they're gone and you can't take back the things you said, or did...or make up for the things you didn't do, or even tell them you're sorry! You just have to go on and hope they forgave you, and hope that maybe you'll see them again after you die so you can tell them you loved them."

And then Elmer began to cry. He began to sob so hard that the canned goods on the table jiggled, and the beer in the bottle began to slosh, and the cat jumped out of the box. Elmer's shoulders heaved with the sobs and his thin chest pounded against the table's edge, and the cobwebs and dust in his soul began to shake loose, and the iron latches of his heart began to strain and rattle free. When the flood was spent, Elmer angrily wiped the flannel sleeve of his shirt across his tear-stained face and he stared at the frozen turkey and canned asparagus spears on his table, and it was a long time before he noticed the cat on his lap.

The next day dawned with blinding sunlight reflected off fresh snow against a crystal blue backdrop of sky and a cat asleep on the pillow next to Elmer's head. Elmer opened most of the curtains and window blinds in the house, and Ugly was thrilled to have countless patches of sunlight to nap in and new reasons to chase reflections and shadows across the floor. Elmer even opened the door to the boy's room, which caused the cat to permanently forsake the laundry basket in the cellar and he slept instead on the boy's bed all afternoon. Elmer walked past the open bedroom doorway and nodded in approval. The boy would have liked that. That evening, the cat beat the daylights out of a brown paper grocery sack in the kitchen until he and his paper cocoon rolled down the cellar stairs. Elmer first laughed so hard that he snorted beer out of his nose and then he went down to make sure Ugly wasn't injured. The cat marched back up the stairs and pretended the incident never happened.

If anyone had ever bothered to pry, or follow Elmer around town, they might have noticed the subtle changes in Elmer, but of course nobody did. Elmer started using return address labels on his letters. One morning, the postman picked up Elmer's outgoing mail and found an envelope on top of the stack addressed to "Mr. Rural Mail Carrier." Inside was a Christmas card signed "Your customer, Elmer" and a ten-dollar bill "for a beer or something stronger." He nearly drove into a ditch.

Elmer's sister retrieved her mail from her mailbox one balmy afternoon and didn't recognize the spindly block lettering on the envelope at first. The card was signed, "Love, Your Brother Elmer. P.S. I'll call you New Year's Day." She had several small glasses of creme de menthe, called a couple of lady friends to tell them about "the miracle," and that afternoon the entire Silver & Gold Book Club and Prayer Circle at her church prayed for Elmer.

Ugly benefited from Elmer's new benevolence, too. Elmer renamed him - "Mister Ugly," as a sign of respect, with perhaps a dash of appreciation thrown in that dangerously approached love.

It was a few days before Christmas when Don Carstens of Carstens Construction & Home Remodeling showed up unexpectedly at Miss Bridgewater's home, wearing a bewildered expression that rivaled her own after he told her why he was there. An "anonymous benefactor" had ordered him to repair anything and everything she needed fixed, including a new professionally painted sign for her lawn, up to a generous dollar amount that caused her to gasp. She pleaded with Mr. Carstens to reveal who had made such a gift, but he just shook his head and said he couldn't. He remembered all too well the conversation with Elmer of the day before in which that old coot had described in excruciating detail what he would do to Carstens and his anatomy if he ever betrayed the secret. Carstens had never before been threatened with "neutering."

Fred Fields had his own revelation when Elmer selected a ten-dollar cat toy from his inventory, made in China, and then asked to have it gift wrapped "please."

Elmer sat in his recliner on Christmas Eve, nursing a beer, with Mister Ugly on his lap. Both did their best to ignore Peter Jennings. Elmer had reduced his beer consumption to one bottle with dinner, maybe two, depending on the state of the Mexican trade agreement. Mister Ugly was allowed to finish whatever Elmer left on his plate. Elmer imagined that Miss Bridgewater probably had to eat her dinner out on her porch, away from all those "indoor cats." He chuckled at the thought.

Maybe he'd call her up after the New Year and invite her to stop by and meet Mister Ugly, and to ask what veterinarian she recommended for "fixing" a trespassing cat, and to ask what else a cat needed beside "Hairball Remedy." Maybe she even had a nice fixed girl cat that would be good company for a damn ugly trespassing tomcat who had taken over a "qualified" home. Maybe nobody should be alone unless they wanted to be.

Maybe he'd invite her over for dinner - she looked too thin anyway - and serve asparagus spears on china plates with silverware. Maybe he'd put a tablecloth on the kitchen table. Maybe he'd unpack some of the decorative things from boxes in the attic and make the place look a bit more like it did before, when the boy and his mother lived there. He also figured Miss Bridgewater probably didn't drink beer...maybe she drank one of those herbal teas that smelled like old socks. He'd have to get some of that.
Maybe he'd take advantage of some of the after-Christmas sales and buy himself some new clothes, instead of the jeans and flannel shirts he usually bought at Fields - most likely assembled in Mexico from fabric manufactured in Guatemala, or some such place.

"Miss Bridgewater of Shadygrove." It had a pretty ring to it, like a film title. Elmer thought that Miss Bridgewater looked like the sort of woman who liked to dance. He bet she did. He bet her laugh was probably musical. There was a good chance that she might be a liberal, but that was okay. He bet she wouldn't blabber on about things the way that Peter Jennings did. He could tolerate liberal tendencies...hell, he'd already survived over a month with a darn Communist cat.

Maybe he start saying "darn" instead of "damn" all the time. Maybe he'd stop cussing all together, especially in the presence of Miss Bridgewater. Maybe he'd quit drinking beer and learn to like herbal teas that smelled like old socks. Maybe he'd cook that mysterious free turkey tomorrow and give Mister Ugly a leg, although he wouldn't be surprised if the cat demanded white meat, with gravy.

Elmer finished his beer and set the empty bottle on the end table. He switched off the TV and leaned back in his recliner. He scratched Mister Ugly behind the ears and smiled slightly when the cat started to purr. He closed his eyes and nodded to himself in satisfaction. For Elmer and Mister Ugly the possibilities were endless.

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About the Author

Jim Willis has been a frequent contributor of articles to About Cats Guest Forum. "The Fourth Magi" is his first story about cats since the publishing of his first book, "Pieces of my Heart." If you enjoyed this story, you'll love the book. "Pieces of my Heart" is a wondrous celebration of our planet, and a tribute to the creatures we share it with. In my opinion, it is the one book which must be owned by every animal lover. "Pieces of my Heart" can be found at book stores online, or ask for it at your local book dealer.

Guest Article by Jim Willis Copyright Jim Willis 2002

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