You can touch Shax, but only by “appointment.” First you have to establish eye contact with the old tom and at the same time make a “scratchies” gesture with your index finger. If you correctly spy permission in his imperious gold eyes, then, and only then, may you apply a “scratchie” to the surprisingly short distance between his ears. Any failure to comply with this procedure will result in a personal math system based on the number nine.
“You’re only the second person I’ve seen touch him without getting mangled,” Jim said after he returned from setting up a “manger” for Amy (in this case a fleece-lined cardboard box in the hall closet; Jim is convinced that cats give birth only in cardboard boxes in closets). As always, Jim gave Shax plenty of room.
“Poor old Shax,” I said, still applying the scratchie, not averting my eyes from those that had witnessed the birth of the Universe, “everybody’s so scared of him.”
“And for good cause,” Jim said. He’s one of Shax’s niners.
“What does Amy think about the set up?” I asked.
“Oh, she hates it, of course–But it will be perfect when it’s her idea. I’ve installed six spy cams in there, to record the blessed event,” Jim said.
“Her idea,” I echoed. Truer words never spoke. Cats are like the boss–they blow off your suggestions just to steal them later on. I concluded scratchies with Shax. He yawned and prepared for another nap atop the desk I had to share with him.
The phone rang. Even though Jim is telephone challenged, I let him answer it, if only for the entertainment value. “Merry Christmas, Charleston CLAWS,” he said. “Or should that be, ‘Charleston CLAWS, Merry Christmas’? My girlfr–co-volunteer–Alice–thinks it ought to be the second way. But according to how I see it, unless this is a wrong number, you already know who you’re calling, and that my acknowledging such is secondary to my sincerest wish that you have a Merry Christmas, which you knew nothing about, my wish that is, until I picked up. But Alice says that it sounds like I’m wishing Charleston CLAWS a Merry Christmas, and that maybe I should just go ‘happy holidays’ instead of ‘Merry Christmas’ in the unlikely case that you are a Grinch-bozo–but, I figure that anybody who isn’t a wrong number and who calls the CLAWS cat shelter on Christmas Eve is probably a Merry Christmas sort of person and not a Grinch-bozo–that’s Alice’s term, ‘Grinch-bozo’–not mine, but I see the merit in it. Besides, it’s not like I’m telling you to go get run over by a reindeer, right? …Hello, hello?” Uncharacteristically glum, Jim reseated the receiver. “Hung up,” he said with a puzzled shrug.
“How rude,” I said. Then I noticed that the twins, Furfur and Murmur (tuxedos), along with football-shaped Amy (long-haired calico), closely followed by Jikininki (or just “Ninki,” a black short hair) and Boots the Impaler (a white-footed, chocolate point Siamese), had all entered the main office. Sure enough, within a few seconds there came Toonces (brindle tabby) and Rhubarb (marmalade). Including the omnipresent resident beast, Shax (Maine Coon-chupacabra mix), all eight demons were at liberty at the same time. The Charleston CLAWS cat shelter is designed to hold twenty-five incorrigibles, thirty in a pinch, and pinches happen plenty, especially during kitten season. But a flurry of happy holiday adoptions had temporarily reduced the population. The temporary reduction, however, wouldn’t last long. Amy’s extremely rare winter pregnancy would almost certainly drive the population back into double digits before long.
“Um, Jim, darling, methinks you accidentally left the kennels unlatched,” I said (“again” followed the same in my thoughts). Since the shelter was closed, and since it was a gruesome mix of sideways snow and rain outside, there was no danger of any of the villains getting or wanting to go out. Although each of the thugs has his and her own spacious enclosure (save for Furfur and Murmur–they bunk together, for both cry when separated), we pretty much allow them to roam free in the house–but not all at the same time. You see, not all the inmates play well together. I had to rush from behind the desk to get between Toonces and Rhubarb, who have a long-standing beef in regard to the second perch of the carpeted cat tower. Since he’s the more reasonable of the two, I scooped Rhubarb up from behind and held him close.
The sheepish expression in Jim’s face told me that the unlatching hadn’t been an accident. I was about to scold him for possibly starting a “Cattica” (a patently elderly jest that has been told at the CLAWS cat shelter since the Big Bang), but the phone rang again. I answered it and at the same time handed Rhubarb to Jim.
“Charleston CLAWS, Merry Christmas.”
“I’m sorry, but it seems I can’t love anything anymore,” said a woman’s voice.
“Excuse me, how’s that?”
“I’m sorry, but Is Jimmy drunk? My late husband used to spike the eggnog at Christmastime.”
Great, I thought, a holiday nutlog. Then it dawned on me what she might have meant. “Did you just call?”
“Uh, yes, I’m sorry, yes I did.“
“I apologize. We are still trying to get our greeting right,” I said. And out of the corner of my eye I saw Jim lay Rhubarb on the third perch of the cat tower, well within scowling distance of Toonces, who had, of course, claimed the second perch. Jim sat in the office chair, which he first had carefully rolled away from the Shax infested desk. I began to count off the seconds, confident that Boots the Impaler wouldn’t be able to resist such an easy target.
A delicate little sigh drifted across the phone line.
“Are you all right?” I asked the woman on the phone. “If you don’t mind me saying so, you sound a little sad.” (…three…four…five…wait for it…wait for it…). As sure as a stupid celebrity Tweet, at the count of seven, Jim went “Oomph, oh, not again,” when Boots impaled him. Boots has an unerring knack of leaping directly onto Jim’s private regions and just standing there until moved. Boots, not quite fully grown, is a boy who came to CLAWS already neutered. We think that a guy (who may have resembled Jim) must have taken him in for that, and that the impaling is most likely an act of vengeance concocted by an otherwise very sweet mind, which, frankly, as it seems to hold true for the Siamese, isn’t much brighter than that of your average doorknob.
“Oh, I’m sorry, yes, I’m fine,” she said with another delicate sigh. “It’s that Joyce and I have a Christmas tradition that I guess we won’t be having this year.”
“Joyce? Oh, Mrs. Ellenroy,” I said, referring to the owner of the small house that she has converted to the CLAWS cat shelter. She also owns and operates (along with registered volunteers) the ‘Dog House’ and even a barn for homeless livestock. “She’ll be here tomorrow. We’re spending the night while she visits her grandchildren.”
“Oh, I’m sorry, I know,” the woman said. “I spoke to her yesterday. It’s really a Christmas Eve tradition we have. But the weather has been so foul. And this senior center is too far away. For fifty years we lived just across the road.”
Something that Mrs. Ellenroy (who loves animals; humans not so much) had told us then connected to the now in my head. “Are you Mrs. Vance?”
“Yes, yes, I’m sorry, I should’ve said so earlier, yes, I am.”
Before she left Jim (who has been a CLAWS volunteer since the age of nine) and I in charge of the small house with its large kennels and cat towers and a Christmas tree sporting flat ornaments which had pictures of the adopted and was also heavy with fake birds and mice, Mrs. Ellenroy had said something about Mrs. Vance: “She’s a dotty old neighbor broad who knits Christmas scarves for the ‘lil’ orphans.’ Ever see a cat in a Christmas scarf, Alice? Me neither. Jim says he has, but not me…Guess it’s what she likes to do to be nice…”
As I attempted to make small talk with Mrs. Vance, I grabbed a post-it note pad (which was one of the few things on the desk that corpulent Shax hadn’t claimed as his own) and with a Sharpie wrote: 1-2-10, HOW CRAZYPANTS IS MRS. VANCE? I tossed the pad to Jim. He thought about it for a second, shrugged and held up four fingers. Although it hadn’t been asked for he pointed at me and held up two fingers; motioned five fingers at himself, and all ten with a nod at Shax (who, about five years back, became Mrs. Ellenroy’s cat by default).
All this time Mrs. Vance had spoken apologetically about not being able to visit the lil’ orphans this year on account of the terrible weather and the location of her new residence. I asked her where she lived, and she gave me the name of the senior assisted living complex (which I was familiar with because my great grandmother had lived there until her death two years ago) that stood a half mile mile or so down the street.
“I will come get you,” I said. I looked at Jim for approval or dissent, but that was when normally level-headed (for a cat) Ninki made a charge at the Christmas tree. We should have known that was coming. For the past week or so Ninki had been casing the thing, muttering little growls beneath her breath. Sometimes she’d chatter at the fake birds; sometimes she’d swat the phony mice. She had finally abandoned restraint and leapt into the green branches like a black torpedo. Jim got there in time to keep the tree from falling over, but he hadn’t counted on the twins Furfur and Murmur jumping in after Miss Jikininki. Being not all that far removed from kittenhood, Boots the Impaler wanted to do the same, but Jim had him contained with the hand that wasn’t holding up the tree. I prevented Toonces from becoming the fourth torpedo by catching her in midair as he leapt off the second perch. Rhubarb then slipped onto that constantly fought over turf and the light of victory shone in his gray eyes. Toonces saw that and took a swing at him, but I had foreseen that and backed up just in time.
I hurriedly finalized arrangements with Mrs. Vance, at the same time trying to contain swinging Toonces, with the receiver crooked between my shoulder and chin. She (Mrs. Vance, not Toonces) gave me the old “if it’s not too much” routine, but I assured her that it would be just fine.
After I hung up, I set Toonces on the third perch and helped Jim pry the monsters out of the tree. We then unabashedly (and lavishly) administered catnip and the industrial-sized pheromone diffuser to settle the horde. Think what you will, drugging an unruly mob has its advantages. This “cattitude adjustment” (another elder jest that predates the invention of spacetime) even managed to cause a Christmas Eve truce in the Great Toonces-Rhubarb War.
Jim blasted (from a wary distance, mind you) Shax with an extra-large dose. The old boy just lay motionless even more so than usual. For a moment I thought he was dead. But when he rolled onto his back and pawed a CLAWS pen out of the Catbert cup on the desk and began to chew on it, I thought I could see the kitten Shax had once been under all the battle scars and snarls. “How’s Mrs. Vance?”
“Extremely sorrowful,” I said. “But I’m going to fetch her anyway.”
“It’s the Christmas thing to do,” Jim said. “Have you ever seen a cat wearing a Christmas scarf before?”
“Only on YouTube.”
“Mrs. Vance somehow wrapped one on Shax from behind, last year,” Jim said. “He was so stunned by the impertinence that she was able to get clear before he could react. Got me twice on the arm later to make up for it. How I wish I had taken a picture. Not of my mangling, but of Shax looking like Bob Cratchit.”
All the while I had been layering up for my plunge into the Northwest tundra. My eye caught sight of Amy pushing open the closet door that Jim had left ajar. Before going in, she glanced around, and I saw a smug little expression on her tiny face (even when pregnant Amy is about ninety-percent fur), which told me that heading into the closet was most definitely her idea.
Jim had seen this too. And he scooped up both Furfur and Murmur (born followers) before they ventured in after Amy.
“It won’t be long, maybe a few hours, likely sooner,” Jim said dreamily.
If I hadn’t known that Jim had been on hand for dozens of animal births in the past (ranging from calves to budgie hatchlings), I would have been hesitant to depart. Instead I bent down and fetched Boots the Impaler up over my head because he’s the only cat in the shelter who allowed me to attach a fake piece of mistletoe to his collar. When it comes to kissing this fool, Jim needs no further invitation.
Alone in my car, thus temporarily clear of the hectic scrum inside the shelter, those odd initial first words Mrs. Vance had spoken came back to me: “I’m sorry, but I can’t love anything anymore.” They caught me during a change of moods, in the same way your ankle might protest a slight misstep on the stair. Those sighing and awkward little words were a perfect match with the fat, amorphous snowflakes, which I knew had no chance of surviving their long fall onto thirty-seven degree ground. And I sentimentally conjured an imaginary child (who looked alot like me) gazing out the window at the false promise of a white Christmas, because, I guess, there wasn’t enough real disappointment in the world to suit me.
My mood, however, lightened after I had turned the radio on in time to catch the Singing Dogs bark out Jingle Bells. The immense, falling snowflakes began to tighten and get smaller about halfway to the assisted living complex–at which my maternal great grandmother had lived until she passed two summers back–but the street remained wet and clear. Jim called just before I got to the complex that I hadn’t set foot in since Nana’s Perkin’s death, for it had been nearly five minutes since we had last spoke. I would have been disappointed if he hadn’t called. I put him on Bluetooth.
“I’ve got the Amy-Cam up, and I’ll send you the link” Jim said. “She’s in the box,” he added with a triumphant tone. (In all, there were six spy-cams in the Amy-Cam net.)
“Is she in labor?”
“Um, no,” Jim said. “She’s eating a spider.”
Although the inmates are well fed at the shelter, and Amy’s condition allows her double rations, she remains big on eating bugs. Amy’s one girl who isn’t picky about protein sources.
“Keep me posted, Jim, darling,” I said. “I’m at the center—by the way, what does Mrs. Vance look like?”
“Oh, she’s about seventy-five or eighty, gray-haired and maybe four feet tall.”
“I don’t think that’ll narrow it down much, Jim,” I said as I pulled into a guest parking space.
I found a lady who fit Jim’s description of Mrs. Vance out front, but she was a wrong number. Still, she did compliment my hair, which I’d dyed in horizontal candy cane stripes for the season and was (still is) quite long and hung well below my matching candy-striped beret. The lady thought she had seen Mrs. Vance in the common room, where the residents often gather to pass the hours and/or receive visitors (mostly, they pass the hours). This was followed by a sour experience with “Security” — a gasping corndog of a man who halted me between the parking lot and the common room. He eyed me with great suspicion. Here, I think we were both guilty of allowing our personal prejudices to affect our sensibilities. I saw a gasping corndog of a man at the time of life when young women can see gasping corndogs of men fairly often and easily, and he saw a young, stripe-headed “character” when he was not in the mood to deal with a young, stripe-headed character.
Gasping Corndog Man: “And what do you want?”
Me: “World peace and a one-horse open sleigh. If I can’t have either of those, I’ll take Mrs. Vance.”
GCM: “And what do you want with Mrs. Vance?”
Me: “You’ll just have to wait for the ransom note.”
If Jim hadn’t then interrupted this less than productive Q&A yelling “BREAKING NEWS! BREAKING NEWS!” into my earbuds, I believe that I might still be standing there doing everything I could to get myself tazed (if rent-a-cops may do such a thing). Jim’s feed from Amy-Cam leapt onto my screen. She was making an oddly reassuring purr-yip kind of noise as she licked something that had just come out of her. Dr. Riquelme, who’s one of the volunteer veterinarians, figures that little Miss Amy is probably about four years old and has most likely given birth at least once or even twice a year since she arrived at sexual maturity. This litter, however, will be Amy’s last. As soon as her personal posse is weaned, she will be spayed.
Forgetting the tone of our conversation, I showed my phone to the security guard. I was caught up in the moment that was happening a mile or so down the street and needed to share it with, well, anyone. Two more purr-yips (in all, Amy delivered five healthy little menaces) resulted in two more squirming objects for Amy to lick clean. And I glanced at the security guard fully expecting him to say something mean, but he was smiling.
Sigh, he went on got human on me.
“Is this happening right now?” he asked.
I told him that it was and about the CLAWS shelter.
“Oh, I know Mrs. Ellenroy,” he said. And he seemed to want to say more but chose not to. “Mrs. Vance is inside,” he said with a nod toward the common room door. “She seems a little down. We get a lot of that here at Christmastime.”
“Merry Christmas,” I said as I walked toward the common room.
“And to all a goodnight,” he said as he turned his back and walked away.
I felt a pang of guilt when I went inside the common room and saw the people. Until Mrs. Vance had called there had been no reason for me to visit the center after Nana’s passing. Although Jim I have become big on volunteering, we usually confine our largess to animals and not human beings. That, of course, fuels the number one argument animal haters use against organizations like CLAWS. However, why should one defend her acts of kindness? Must I remind the haters (who, it seems, never do anything for down and out persons, either) that organizations like CLAWS would not exist if human beings took greater responsibility about the domesticated creatures that so many of our numbers consider disposable? Regardless, I knew keeping a stiff upper-lip when I saw it. And within that special loneliness accessible only by the aged and the infirm, a good humored yet poignant attempt at having a Merry Christmas struck me hard when I entered the room. Far be it from me to have done anything that might’ve humbugged the festivities.
The common room was rectangular and large–maybe a third of the size of a basic school gymnasium. There were clusters of chairs and tables and, of course. plenty of television monitors. Only one was on, it had been muted but I recognized Fox News Channel, with its perpetual bottom crawl listing “important doings,” of which eighty-percent wouldn’t survive to see the next news cycle. There were residents and a few visitors scattered around the room, and there were Christmas decorations and lights and a sizable tree that dwarfed the put upon and oft-attacked little thing we had at CLAWS. The Nat King Cole version of The Christmas Song (my father is a fan of the version that goes “Chipmunks roasting on an open fire…”) was playing over the PA system. And in an area where the chairs and tables had been pushed aside, three and a half couples were dancing the foxtrot. I say “and a half” because a man I had gotten to know from my former job as a waitress at a small cafe was out there dancing with an invisible partner. I went over and tapped the invisible partner on the shoulder and asked if I could cut in.
The man (whose name was McDougald, not Mr., but always “just McDougald”) had obviously been goofing the other dancers. A lady with red-see through dyed hair and incomprehensibly thick eye glasses smiled when she saw me. “Looks like your dance card’s filling out, Raymond,” she said.
“I thought it was ‘just McDougald,’” I said as I took his hands and picked up the foxtrot. “I bet all the dames know you by one phony moniker or another, you two-timing lug, you.” McDougald almost tripped over the remarks that the lady and I had passed at his expense, but his initial puzzlement gave over to the glint of recognition in his eyes.
“My God, if it’s not ‘I can get whatever I want at Alice’s Restaurant,’” he said. “I didn’t know you could do the trot.”
“My great grandmother used to live here. Before her marriage she was an instructor at an Arthur Murray studio,” I said. “She taught me all the steps, the lingo, and how to handle fresh-mouth wisenheimers who make ‘Alice’s Restaurant’ cracks.”
“Did she teach you how to dye your hair like a barber shop pole too, as well,” he said.
I stepped softly on his toe when he said that.
“Do you know Mrs. Vance? I need to find her,” I asked when the song ended.
He didn’t know, but the lady with the bright red hair did. “That’s her sitting alone by the aquarium,” she said. “Elsie’s fairly new and is having a hard time wanting to fit in. First, she lost her husband, then her dog had to be put down. Everybody’s got a story but knowing that is no help when it’s you.”
“Yeah,” McDougald added. “Misery might love company, but it’s got a rotten way of showing it.”
I thanked them, wished both a merry Christmas and went over to Mrs. Vance. Jim hadn’t been far off in his description of her, but just before she saw me coming, I saw something in her eyes that I knew nobody could describe. It was something sad and possibly resigned and yet not completely without hope. I then realized that my spur-of-the-moment promise to come get her was probably the only thing Mrs. Vance had going for Christmas. Just think, me, this goofy twenty-four-year-old, still more girl than woman, and a complete stranger, may have been that final little hurt, that one disappointment too many, if I had called and wheedled my way out of my promise (which, to be honest, had crossed my mind). Right there, I think, I received a great gift: From here on out, I thought, I will never underestimate the evil in thoughtlessness.
She saw me and, of course the hair; and before her eyes could question their own the hopeful expectation that seeing me had put into them, I smiled, sat down beside her, pulled out my phone and showed her what was then happening on Amy-Cam. “Merry Christmas, Mrs. Vance. Sure, hope you’ve got some extra small scarves in your knitting bag.”
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