by FAITH CURRANT
“Ma’am? Excuse me, ma’am?”
I tried to pretend I hadn’t heard him as I wrangled the twenty-five pound tub of cat litter into my car. The parking lot was full of Christmas Eve shoppers picking up last minute gifts. Behind me, a white Toyota waited, blinker on, so he could nab my parking space.
I opened the car door, avoiding eye contact with the man and his shaggy hair and dirty clothes. But then I caught the words he was saying.
“It’s not for me. Could you help her, please?”
I turned towards him before I realized I had. Simple human curiosity, an instinct to identify the ‘her.’ And something in the way he said “please.”
“You look like you could take good care of her.,” He nodded towards the cat litter and pulled aside his jacket to reveal a long-haired calico cat nestled in a dirty backpack, a pink ribbon tied in a careful bow around her neck.
“Her name is Iris.”
“Hello, Iris.” I extended a finger to stroke the cat under her chin, brushing the pink ribbon as I did so.
“She hated when I put a collar on her,” the man said, apologetic. “But she don’t seem to mind the ribbon so much.”
Behind me, the Toyota honked, annoyed.
“I saw you buyin’ the kitty litter,” the man added. “Figured maybe you’d want… that you could take care of her better… better than me.”
“Are you homeless?” I asked, though like a good prosecutor I already knew the answer.
“Yes, ma’am. We are now.” His hands shook as he tried to clean himself up by making minor, irrelevant adjustments to his appearance. “Me and Iris, we had a little place, you know, between two buildings. I had a candle going, she knocked it over. The police tried to keep me from going in to save her, but I did it anyway. I snuck her into the shelter last night, but she didn’t like it much.”
My interior monologue had started in earnest. You don’t need another cat. But it’s Christmas. How could you say no? He’s in no condition to care for himself, much less a cat...
The Toyota honked one more time as the driver gave up and peeled away in search of another spot.
“Is she spayed?”
“Where’d you get her?”
“Friend of mine. Back when I had a regular place to stay.”
“How long ago was that?”
“About a year.”
“You’ve been on the streets with her for a year?”
“Yes, ma’am.” He’d been stroking Iris the whole time. She lay beneath his touch, serene and regal, as her future was being negotiated.
“I’ve got to go back into the store and get a few things. Will you wait for me?” It was true. If I was going to take her, I did need a few things. Most of all, though, I needed time to think, to talk myself out of — or perhaps into — what I already suspected was inevitable.
He nodded. “We’ll be here.”
“What’s your name?”
He wiped his hand self-consciously on his dirty jeans and offered it, formally. “David.”
I clasped his hand. “Well, David, I’ll be right back, okay?”
On my way into the store, I was already calculating… gotta keep her in the bathroom till I can get her to the vet. Sunday, Christmas Eve. Tomorrow’s Christmas. Tuesday before I can do anything about that. Need some extra food, a new bowl, some toys in case she likes to play… by aisle 6, the basket was full and she was mine.
As I checked out, I saw David and Iris at the door. He’d filled a baby jar with water from the drinking fountain and was carefully replacing the lid. Iris watched him, her china blue eyes trusting and unconcerned.
David followed me back to the parking lot, still stroking Iris. His voice was strained now, nervous. “She was sick before. She got better. I helped her get better.”
“What will you do if she gets sick again?”
“I don’t know. Find a way.”
“What will you do if I don’t take her?”
“I don’t know. We’d manage, I guess.” His eyes filled with tears, and I looked down at Iris for a moment to give him the chance to compose himself.
“I know you’d take real good care of her,” he managed.
“Yes, I would.” It wasn’t an attempt to persuade. Just a fact.
“It was just going to be her and me for the holidays, just her and me,” he continued. “I take care of her as good as I can.” And that was just a fact, too. Impeccably groomed beneath his protective hand, she looked for all the world like the Queen of Sheba in that dirty backpack.
All at once, I realized my arrogance in assuming that money meant love, that because I could better afford to care for her, I was by default a better guardian. I held the bag of cat supplies out to David. “Family should be together for the holidays, don’t you think?”
He blinked back the tears, then took the bag. I wasn’t sure because of the noise of the passing traffic, but I thought I heard him whisper, “Thank you.”
He walked me to my car in silence. When we arrived, I stroked Iris one last time. “Be good,” I said solemnly. “Stay away from candles.”
Then I looked back to David. “Have you eaten?”
“Sure have. Me and Iris, we’ve done everything today.” He offered his hand. I took it, then impulsively leaned in and kissed him on the cheek. “Merry Christmas, David.”
For the first time since we’d met, he lifted his hand from Iris and held it against his cheek. And smiled.
I stood at my car and watched David and Iris go, a curious little family that had, in the end, asked nothing from me but a benediction, Maybe he’d just needed to know someone else believed he could do it, that he was still enough of a man to provide for his family at Christmas.
I wondered where they’d sleep that Christmas Eve, but wherever it was, I knew one thing was sure — it would be with David’s hand resting protectively on Iris’ fur.
ABOUT THE WRITER: Faith Currant is a writer & MP/TV script doctor who wishes she’d pursued a career as a spy, but admits she probably wouldn’t be very good at it because she’s not quite sneaky enough. She’s a serious long-time Buffy the Vampire Slayer scholar, once got married by accident, and is fairly certain Elvis faked his death (though he’s probably really dead by now). Faith lives in Topanga Canyon with her magical dog River and Moe, the coolest cat in the universe.
Photo © 2013 Bianca