The Old Man’s Christmas Tree
A Short Story by James Strauss
The time passed slowly since he’d lost the ability to drive. His daughters had come a month earlier to take the keys and the old car. It had been a classic automobile his eldest daughter said was ‘just a car, dad,’ but it wasn’t. It had been his freedom, his ability to move unnoticed wherever and whenever he wanted. Now, he sat, or laid down without moving more than a few yards, and almost everyone in the world was happier. The lake was only four doors down. He could see it if he got up the stairs to the attic and peered out the single small window allowing him to see the blue lapping water of its rippled surface. Right after he’d lost the car he’d laboriously climbed up there several times a day, but he’d decided to give that practice up. Life had changed and he had to change with it. The tremble in his hands wouldn’t let him hold the side rails to the attic very well anymore, anyway, and he’d be damned if he was going to fall and have to push the button on the emergency pendant his daughters made him wear around his neck.
He watched MSNBC in the morning, Fox in the afternoon for contrast, and then a sports program when some game or other was on a channel appearing on his screen when he pressed the remote control. His three daughters visited once a week on either a Saturday or Sunday. They didn’t have to call ahead because he wasn’t going anywhere, and they knew it. One daughter came each weekend so she could take him to the store or shopping, or whatever. They only came all together for Christmas. They were good kids, but they had their own lives in Chicago. His lake house was an hour and a half away from them, and he wasn’t going to move anywhere else again.
The doorbell rang. The old man sat where he was in front of the television and waited. He knew who it was. He’d told the kid next door to just come on in if he didn’t answer the bell, but the kid would have none of that. Finally, he gave in and got up to answer the door. The kid would stand out there for hours pushing the button over and over again.
He opened the door and a nine-year-old boy walked through the narrow crack, and then right past him. The boy was followed by an overly large tawny cat. The cat had never come through the door before, which surprised the old man. Usually, the cat sat out on the small porch and waited for the kid to return. The old man shrugged and closed the door before returning to his cracked and creased leather chair. The boy sat on the couch nearby, like he always did. The cat, strangely, sat next to him. The cat seemed almost as tall as the kid.
The old man swept what little hair he had back on his head. If he kept his hands moving the tremors weren’t so visible. He looked at Rachel Maddow on the television. She was a picture of clear, bright and radiant beauty as she talked about some new outrage some politician had committed. The outrage was unknown because the old man kept the television muted unless he wasn’t in front of it. From a distance, the sound of constant patter from the machine comforted him, but not if he was in front of it. He watched Rachel without looking at the boy and his cat. He knew what the kid was there for. He came to visit every day after his mother left for work. Some other woman came in a white car to look after the kid when the mother was gone. The old man often wondered if the mother knew the kid came to visit, or whether the sitter allowed it simply to get rid of the kid’s incessant questions.
“Why do your hands shake, again?” the kid asked, innocently, like he always did. His questions were all innocent but they were also almost all painful to answer.
“I’ve got a disease that makes them shake,” the old man told him again, for about the fortieth time. “They can’t fix it.”
“That’s too bad,” the kid said, “my mom says that I’m not fixable either.”
The old man didn’t know what to make of the answer. He’d heard it before. There was no point in explaining cancer or the terminal nature of it, and he’d decided some time ago that the boy’s mother telling the kid he was unfixable wasn’t exactly something he wanted to deal with either.
“You never say good morning,” the old man countered, like he usually did. Changing the subject with children was something some psychologist on television had said was really easy to do.
“It’s okay if your hands shake,” the kid said, like he hadn’t heard the clever subject changing attempt.
“The cat’s never come in the house before,” the old man said, making a second attempt. “And he’s too big to be a regular cat.”
The second attempt was successful.
“He’s a forest cat,” the boy replied, moving to stroke the animal next to him.
The cat moved adroitly to avoid the touch, but without leaving the couch.
“He’s only six months old so he’s a kitten,” the kid went on. “He’s too big for his age so he doesn’t know how to be a proper cat yet.”
“What’s a proper cat?” the old man asked, glad to be able to talk about something other than his own decrepit physical state.
“I don’t know,” the kid replied. “I’m only nine. My mom says that.”
“What’s his name?” the old man asked, realizing he’d never asked before. When the thing had remained outside it hadn’t seemed so real, like most of the other things that had faded away to the outside.
“Bentley, although I call him Benny and my mom calls him Benjamin. He’s not much on people yet, but Mom says that the breeder she got him from told her he would always be loyal to his family.
“Breeder?” the old man asked, in surprise. “He must be an expensive cat.”
“Nah,” the kid said. “He’s a reject. Too big, and his mix isn’t right. Mom got him for ten bucks. Milly, the sitter, says he isn’t worth ten cents. Bentley doesn’t like Milly.”
The old man sat and reflected, watching Rachel get more and more animated until her perfect but silent hair started to flop around. He turned his head marginally to take in the sitting animal. The cat looked back at him directly, when he looked into its eyes. Animals were always supposed to look away, he’d read, and had previously experienced during his long life, but Bentley didn’t do that. The old man looked away instead, wondering if it was that characteristic of the cat that bothered Milly.
“You don’t have your tree up and decorated,” the kid said, pointing at the open space next to the television.
The old man’s eyes followed the boy’s extended finger. The space wasn’t for a Christmas tree. It was just a space he’d cleared because a Christmas tree might end up there. The old man didn’t want to have any more Christmases after his wife died, but if he didn’t get a tree then one of his daughters would bring some tiny fake thing with lights already on it. The daughter, it didn’t matter which one, would berate him for not getting a tree until she remembered he had no way to get out. Then the apologies would start.
“I don’t have any way to go out to get a tree since they took my car,” the old man blurted, sorry to have said the words as soon as they were out.”
“I’ll get one,” the kid said.
The old man was surprised. The kid wasn’t old enough to have any money, much less the possibility of transportation for himself and a tree.
The kid got up and walked over to the empty space. He turned around and put his back against the wooden wall and stuck his hand up as far as it would go.
“Like this,” he said, before putting his hand down and slowly circling, like he was a tree himself. The kid started laughing.
The old man laughed too. He couldn’t help it. The kid looked ridiculous. Even Rachel was silently laughing on the television.
“Okay,” the old man said, wondering if he’d just made a mistake. The kid couldn’t get a tree which meant that his mother might have to come and say there would be no tree, or maybe Milly. The old man had never met either and didn’t relish such an experience.
The old man didn’t see the cat coming because of his attention was on the dancing boy. Bentley or Benny, or whatever, jumped into his lap and laid down before the old man could react in any way. The old man sat frozen in place. He’d never had a pet and didn’t much care for animals of any kind. He felt the car purr.
“What’s he doing?” the old man asked, unable to move.
The boy stopped his antics and approached the old man’s chair.
“You have to pet him,” the boy said. “It’s what he expects,” my mom says. “Then he’ll calm down and go away.”
The old man brought up his right hand and stroked it slowly and gently across the cat’s exposed back. The fur was softer than it looked. The cat ignored him and continued to purr. The old man realized that the cat was heavy. He wanted it to move so he brought up his other hand and petted the thing with both hands, one after another.
“That’s strange,” the boy said, kneeling in front of him and going eyeball to eyeball with the cat. Bentley stared at the kid like he’s stared at the old man until the boy looked up. “That’s really strange,” he repeated.
“What’s so strange?” the old man said, stroking the cat’s back with gently timed regularity.
“Your hands aren’t shaking,” the kid said, pointing.
“My hands always shake now,” the old man countered, not sure he’d understood the boy correctly. “It’s called Parkinson’s Disease and there’s no way to stop it.”
“Your hands aren’t shaking,” the boy pointed out again.
The old man looked down. He saw it. When he petted the cat, his hands didn’t shake. He couldn’t help but smile. The shaking of his hands, when it began, bothered him almost as much as losing his wife. The way the old man saw it, the shaking proved he was old and that he didn’t have long to live. And he could not, for the life of him, figure out why that was important to him, that he keeps on living, that is.
“You need a tree,” the boy said, leaving his side and walking to the front door.
“C’mon, Bentley,” the boy said.
Instantly, the cat jumped out of the old man’s lap and ran to sit by the boy at the door.
“Does he always do what you ask him?” the old man said, irritated that the cat was gone and that his hands were once more shaking.
“Mostly,” the boy said. “We’ll be back.”
“Don’t you have school or something?” the old man said, but the door closed and his words never made it to the kid’s ears.
The next day at the same time, his doorbell rang. The old man had gotten used to not having the cat to comfort him, but his irritation with the kid, and all the upset in the old man’s life it caused continued.
He went to the front door and opened it. The kid stood there. He held the cut stump of a pine tree in his hands. Without comment, he dragged the tree through the open door right past the old man. He pulled it through the house to the open space by the television in front of the old man’s chair.
“We need a stand,” the kid said. Bentley the cat scrambled under the edge of the horizontal tree and disappeared into its needles.
“I’ve got a stand in the basement,” the old man said. He felt his irritation unwillingly departing because of the trouble the boy was making on his behalf.
Bentley scrambled about inside the tree, making the thing seemed alive or haunted.
“I’ll get it,” the kid said, running for the basement door near the kitchen.
“You’ll never find it,” the old man sighed out.
To the old man’s surprise, the boy was back in ten minutes with the stand. During that time Bentley had come out of the tree and jumped up on the old man’s lap, like the day before. The cat’s soft warmth was enhanced by the aroma of fresh pine that radiated out from his fur. The old man’s hands no longer trembled.
The boy propped the tree up and somehow got it into the old stand. He stepped back when he was done.
“We need some water for the stand. My mom says we have to put sugar in it to make it last until Christmas.”
The old man sighed. He didn’t want to get up to get sugar or anything else. That would mean moving the cat. The cat was somehow giving him something he didn’t understand, aside from the stopping of his shaking.
The boy went into the kitchen and clattered about. The old man assumed he was finding a glass and sugar, but he didn’t want to get up and displace the cat by getting up to go help. The kid seemed totally resourceful all on his own. Minutes later he reappeared with a pitcher the old man didn’t even remember he had. The boy knelt on the floor, slowly decanting the water and sugar mix into the old stand. The old man looked down at his small curved back.
“Where did you find the tree?” he finally asked, not having wanted to ask the question at all, but not being able to stop himself.
“From the neighbor,” the boy said, continuing his slow work.
“The ones across the fence?” the old man asked. “They spend the whole winter in Florida.”
“They’ve got a lot of trees,” the boy said. “They won’t miss it.”
The old man couldn’t even sigh over that reply. Somehow, he’d have to make things right with the neighbor when they came back for the summer. There was no way they’d miss one of their trees being cut down.
“You can’t just go cutting down other people’s trees,” the old man said, stroking the cat to keep from getting too emotional.
“You can if you have a saw,” the kid said, finishing the filling of the stand and heading back to the kitchen. The boy’s ability to jump up and run off so quickly and effortlessly never failed to surprise the old man.
“Sit down,” the old man said, in as severe a tone as he could dredge up.
The boy came back and sat cross-legged on the floor in front of him. He crossed his arms and looked up at the old man.
“We’ve got to talk,” the old man started out, but the boy interrupted him.
“That’s what my mom always says when she’s going to yell at me.”
The old man looked at the kid. Was there any point in yelling at him? He couldn’t find one. “What have you got to say for yourself?” was all he could come up with.
“Your first gift for Christmas,” the boy said, dragging something out of his back pocket.
The old man was shocked. Christmas gift? The first? He didn’t know what to say.
The boy pushed a small can toward the chair. When the old man didn’t take his hands from the cat to accept it, the kid jammed the can between the seat’s cushion and the arm.
“It’s Fancy Feast, Ocean fish and something like tuna.” It’s his favorite.
“Why are you giving it to me for Christmas?” the old man asked, looking down at the blue and white can stuck in his chair.
“You can keep Bentley for the night,” the kid said. “Maybe your hands won’t shake at all anymore if we keep Bentley on the job.”
“The night?” the old man replied. “What if he doesn’t want to stay?”
“Oh, he does what I want him to, and he likes you a lot,” the kid said.
“How do you know?”
“That’s why your hands don’t shake when you pet him,” the kid said, in a tone that indicated that anybody would have figured that out. “Besides, it’s Christmas.”
The boy jumped up from the floor and headed for the door.
“Really, don’t you have school?” the old man asked, this time not trying to get rid of the kid but worried about what he was doing home at such an early hour.
“I’m homeschooled, by Milly, when she’s not cleaning or sleeping,” the kid said.
“How do you learn anything at home without going to school?” the old man asked, shaking his head.
“That’s a Norwegian Forest Cat on your lap,” the boy said. “Know what that is?”
“That’s the largest domestic feline in the world,” the kid said as if reading from a book. “He’ll grow to twenty-five or thirty pounds. Very social and loyal. Likes snow and water. Eats tons. We’re gonna need a lot of that Fancy Feast mom says. Anyway, that’s homeschooling. You went to regular school, so you wouldn’t know stuff like that, or at least that’s what Milly says,” and then left.
The old man sat for a long time, sitting in the chair stroking the cat and wondering how the boy could be so penetrating and droll at his young age.
“Homeschooling,” he said to himself and Bentley.
The next day the boy came back at the usual hour. He came through the door by himself for the first time, so he wouldn’t disturb the old man sitting in his chair. He noticed that the tree was lit and decorated with some shiny ornaments. Some were pretty old Peanuts ornaments. The boy toyed with them, making sure not to knock them down or break them. A fire burned in the fireplace, radiating out great warmth. He noticed quiet Christmas music coming from somewhere, but he couldn’t place where.
He turned and smiled at the old man, but he was asleep. Bentley looked at the boy, and then gently slipped out from under the man’s unshaking hands. The boy and Bentley went over to the door, but the kid turned to take in the scene once more before they left. A great smile played across his face.
Another song started playing in the background. It was his favorite. O Holy Night.
The boy and the cat stayed to listen for a moment to the lyrics: “A thrill of hope, the weary world rejoices, for yonder breaks a new and glorious morn…”
The boy let himself out. He knew he would be back with the old man’s real Christmas present soon. The cat breeder had another reject to get rid of. All the boy needed to do was to slip ten bucks out of his mom’s purse.