THE OLD MAN’S CHRISTMAS TREE
The damned kitten was more than a handful. It was up at all hours, would not sleep in its bed, would not get used to using the cat little box and would only eat one kind of Fancy Feast cat food, that cost almost a dollar each. Oly ate two cans a day. The old man sat in his chair with the cat doing the only thing he seemed to do well. He sat there and got petted, which stopped the trembling.
“Why do I wait for this so many times a day?” the old man said out into the thin warm air. It was three below zero outside but inside, next to the fire and with Oly being a natural heat generator, it was quite comfy. The old man knew why he waited patiently and with enjoyment to spend those times with the animal. When the trembling stop his hope was renewed. Since it was against scientific principles that the cat somehow stopped the trembling, then the conclusion that he had the dreaded Parkinson’s Disease might be wrong, as well.
“Not a terminal thing, but it might as well be,” the old man whispered. Parkinson’s wouldn’t kill him but it would turn him into little more than an immobile vegetable over time, he knew.
And then there was the kid. The boy had looked on his Mom’s Apple laptop and found articles about Parkinson’s. His conclusion was that, since the trembling stopped when the old man stroked a cat, that the old man didn’t have the disease.
“You’re just old, and getting older,” the boy had gone on, emotionlessly. “You’re getting older and everything’s falling apart, like on a car. You’ve got a lot of miles on you, but you should be good for a few more.”
“I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry at that one,” the old man said to the kitten, remembering how the boy reported the results of his discovery as if it was great news to be celebrated.
Oly looked up with an expression that seemed to say he understood, and he didn’t leave. As long as the old man petted him he stayed.
“That’s not a normal cat,” the old man told the kid right after Christmas.
“Nah,” the kid replied, “I said it was a reject. His color is all wrong and the woman didn’t like him.”
“Why didn’t the woman like him,” the old man asked. “He seems really pretty great except about getting me up too early to feed him.”
“He looked at her weird,” the boy replied. “She said he looked right inside her and she didn’t want some stupid little animal to know her secrets.”
The old man thought about that for some time before asking the boy another question.
“Do you have any secrets?”
“I don't think so,” the kid said. “My mom says I lie about most everything and steal whatever isn’t nailed down, but those aren’t really very secret. Only Target hasn’t caught me.”
“They better not catch you or you’re going to the home for bad kids,” the old man warned him.
“Would you come and get me, if that happens?” the kid asked, after picking off some junk from the side of one of his flip flops.
The old man hadn’t known what to say so he’d simply looked into the warm fire and hoped that the boy wouldn’t talk anymore.
That conversation had occurred the day before. Now, the old man waited for the incessant knocking on his door to begin. He wondered if the kid had any real shoes. The boy’s wearing of flip flops during the intense cold spell bothered him. Upstairs he had an iMac of his own. It was years old but still worked. The kid could show him how to order real shoes. He could pay with the single USAA credit card he had left. Amazon could have whatever they ordered delivered to the door. He’d never bought anything online but he’d read all about it. It had to be easy to do, and the kid would know how to do it.
It was time for the Christmas Tree to come down. It was the 3rd of January. New Year’s had come and gone. Guy Lombardo was long dead, so the New York ball descending into a heated crowd at Times Square, into a heated crowd of weirdos singing rap and stupid country songs, hadn’t kept him up. Some things had not changed for the better and there was no sugar coating it, even with the addition of the boy and Oly into his life.
The old man had never taken the boxes back down to the basement. The one special box was used to pack away the Peanuts ornaments. That box that had a picture of his wife inside it, wearing some awful yellow robe and standing in front of one of the giant trees they used to pick out together every year. No Hollywood starlet had ever looked better. The kid had asked to see a picture of her but somehow the old man couldn’t share that one. It was a private Christmas thing between him and his wife, and if someone else was to see it out of the box then something would be ruined, although the old man couldn’t figure out what that might be. He reached down and pulled up the box to the arm of his leather chair. Oly jumped, and then leaped to the fireplace before setting down to warm his extravagant back and tail fur. The old man looked over at him. Oly was a kitten but looked bigger than a regular cat full grown. Most of his size was fur but there was little question the rejected rescue cat was going to be really big one day.
He looked at the sides of the box. Three of the sides and the top were written on. Each year since 1996 was written up with the same information. The day the Christmas tree was purchased and set up. The place where Christmas was celebrated. The people attending, and then the date when the tree was taken down. A small grouping was dedicated to each and every year. The old man struggled with his shaking hands to get the Mont Blanc UNICEF pen out of his right hip pocket. He carried it there because he knew he’d lose it if he put it in his shirt pocket. And to lose a Mont Blanc pen and suffer through the never-ending searching and tearing of hair was horrid. The pen rested upside down in his pocket, with the rounded end down. That way the point could not penetrate the material at the bottom of the pocket and escape.
A small space was left on the third side of the box. The tree had gone up on December 21st, right after the boy dragged the stolen thing in.
The old man’s daughters and families had come for a bit on Christmas Day, but the boy had not, and neither had his cat, Bentley. The old man wrote in the date the tree had gone up. Under that, he carefully printed in “The Kid,” and then Bentley. He leaned back and looked over at the fire. His family meant well and loved and cared about him, so he printed his daughter’s names under those of the boy and the cat. He was going to print on the date he was taking the tree down but looked into Oly’s eyes.
“All right, all right, you’re here,” he said across to the cat. “You’re here, although you came late.” He wrote in Oly’s name. The old man sat back and viewed his work before putting screwing the Mont Blanc closed and returning it to his pocket. He hadn’t put up a Christmas tree in three years. He just hadn’t been able to generate enough care. But the boy, his cat and now Oly had somehow changed all that.
He put the box down and went to work on the tree. It took just over an hour to take it down and repack all the ornaments. It took another ten minutes to drag the tree out through the front door and plop it out onto the snow-covered lawn. It was too windy and cold to haul the thing all the way out to the road for pickup. In years passed, he’d burned the tree out in the forest part of his lot, but he’d only done it because it so disturbed his wife. She was gone. There was nobody to notice or care anymore, much less complain.
The old man was about to close the door when he saw the cat. For a brief second, he thought it was Bentley, but the thing wasn’t large enough. It was Oly. Somehow the overly large kitten had gotten past him at the door.
Oly sat on the end of the porch. The old man made a move toward him but the cat backed up, even though it was already shivering. The old man stopped. Going after Oly wasn’t going to work, the old man realized. He moved slowly back towards the open door. He stepped through, no longer able to see Oly and upset by that knowledge. But, there was only one thing he could think of to do. He reached back towards his chair and grabbed hold of a piece of discarded ribbon from one of the shirt boxes. He dangled it around the edge of the door and then waited. Nothing. The old man sighed deeply. The kitten was new to him but for some reason already endeared. He dangled the ribbon some more, hoping that the kitten had not run off to his certain death somewhere out in the yard where the old man couldn’t go to save him. The ribbon stiffened. The old man saw one reaching paw and grabbed down to grip it powerfully with his left hand. Oly squealed and cried but to no avail. The old man dragged the paw through the door and slammed it behind them when the rest of the kitten’s body was through. He let the paw loose and made for his chair.
“Thank God, for that small favor,” he breathed out, wondering if he’d hurt the cat’s paw. But no sooner than he had the thought the kitten was in his lap again, looking up and giving him that strange look he couldn’t understand any better than the breeder had. The old man stopped thinking about it, and then stopped shaking as he began petting the cat’s cold fur.
He thought about the boxes that had to be taken one by one down the stairs into the basement. The only one he would tape was the box he’d written on for over twenty years. He moved to tape that one up for fear of losing the picture he could never afford to lose.
Before he could tape the box the knocking on the door began. The old man didn’t have to wait to see if it was the kid. Nobody else knocked on his door, and he knew the boy would never stop. Carefully, the old man moved Oly and left him on the warm seat. The boy scurried in, Bentley running between his legs to take the lead. Both headed immediately toward the fire, the boy’s flip-flops clopping on the wooden floor, the cat totally silent. The kid wore his signature cotton pants and an awful “T” shirt. It finally dawned on the old man that the kid might not have real winter clothes or appropriate boots or shoes for cold weather wear. There was ordering to be done on the upstairs computer.
“Thanks for the knife,” the kid said. “I hid it under my mattress. Mom will never find it there because I make my own bed. I looked it up on the Internet and it’s worth more than Oly.”
The old man was silently surprised. He hadn’t thought about the knife’s real value in monetary terms. That the kid knew what it was worth was amazing and a bit discomforting. He didn’t have anything to say about it so he picked up the cat, sat down and returned to stroking it in silence.
“You want me to carry the boxes back downstairs?” the kid asked, moving to grab the special box next to the chair.
The old man lurched forward, grabbing the box and dumping Oly onto the floor. The kitten moved slowly over to the fire, keeping to the side away from where the bigger cat sat. The boy backed up to stand between both creatures. All three stared at the old man across the open space between them with surprised eyes.
“Is there something special in the box?” the kid asked, needlessly pointing at it.
“No,” the old man said, quickly and tersely. “Ah, yes, actually,” he modified, “but not to you, not probably at all.”
The old man looked at the boy, knowing the kid probably didn’t understand what he was trying to say, and not sure that he himself knew what he was trying to say. He leaned forward, his hands shaking again without the curative powers of the cat to quiet them. He reached into the box and took the picture of his wife out and stared down at it. He didn’t want to share the picture with anyone but he couldn’t stop himself.
“This is my wife,” he said, his voice breaking too slightly for anyone to notice. “She was my wife, back when there was a real Christmas time.” He lowered the photo down closer to the floor in front of him and turned it slightly to show the boy the image. Both of the cats and the boy moved forward slowly together as if they’d long rehearsed the move.
The boy took the photo from the old man’s shaking hand and brought it up closer to his eyes. Both cats looked up at the boy who was staring at the picture.
“I think she’d like us,” the kid said, carefully replacing the photo back inside the box. Oly took the opportunity to jump back into the old man’s lap before turning and settling down to be petted.
“I reckon so,” was all the old man could get out, blinking rapidly and looking away toward the fire.