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The Fourth Magi
Guest Article by Jim Willis Copyright Jim Willis 2002

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!"

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