“Lady, hey, lady!”
I hurried to wrangle the 25 pound tub of cat litter into my car before he could get closer. The parking lot was packed with Christmas Eve shoppers, and behind me, a white Toyota, traffic blinker on, waited for me to get in the car and pull out so he could take the parking space
I could feel the owner of the voice getting closer and the familiar unspoken litany went through my mind… get a job I work for a living, why should I give you a hand out, why can’t I just do my shopping in peace…
The kitty litter landed hard in the backseat as I caught the words he was saying, his last pitch as the buyer was walking out the door.
“It’s not for me. Can you help her? Please?”
I turned on reflex, out of simple human curiosity and need to identify the “her.” The driver of the Toyota honked, impatient.
“You look like you could take good care of her,” he added. “Her name is Iris.”
“Hello, Iris,” I said softly, leaning down to stroke the long-haired calico cat who lay nestled in a dirty backpack slung over the man’s shoulder. I fingered the pink Christmas ribbon lightly tied around her neck.
“She hates when I put a collar on her,” he said, apologetic. “But she don’t seem to mind the ribbon so much and that way people know she belongs to someone.”
I looked at Iris’ companion. Shaggy hair, dirty face, a T-shirt with MR WRONG emblazoned on the front in big red letters, truth in advertising. His hands shook as he tried to clean himself up by making minor, irrelevant adjustments to his appearance.
“I saw you bought kitty litter. Figured maybe you’d want her.”
“Are you homeless?” I asked, though I already knew the answer.
He nodded. “We are now. I had a candle going, she knocked it over, the place burnt down. I snuck her into the shelter last night, but she didn’t like it much, so we left.”
“Your house burned down?”
He nodded again. “Me and Iris, we had a little place, you know, between the Rite-Aid and the fitness center. Had it fixed up nice till it burnt down. I guess we’re homeless now.”
My interior monologue had started in earnest. You don’t need another cat. But it’s Christmas. How could I say no? And he’s in no condition to care for himself, much less a cat.
I asked the requisite questions, doctor to patient. Cop to suspect.
“Is she spayed?”
“Where’d you get her?”
“Friend of mine, back when I had a place to stay.”
I’d been stroking Iris the whole time, and she lay still beneath my touch, regal and aloof as her future was being negotiated. Behind us, the Toyota driver yelled an obscenity out his window and pealed off in search of another space.
“All right,” I finally said. “I’ve got to go back into the store and get a few things for her. Wait for me, okay?” A new cat meant that I did need a few things and the store was about to close. Most of all, though, I needed time to think, maybe to talk myself out of what I’d already committed to.
He nodded. “We’ll be here.”
“What’s your name?” I asked, embarrassed that I hadn’t asked before.
He wiped his hand self-consciously on his dirty jeans and stuck it out 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…by aisle 6, she was mine, at least in my heart. I could pretend otherwise, but I knew better.
On the way out, I noticed David and Iris at the door. He’d filled a tiny jar with water from the drinking fountain and offered it to her before carefully replacing the lid. Iris watched, trusting and silent, her blue eyes unconcerned.
I tapped David on the shoulder and we went back out into the parking lot. He was stroking her more urgently, his voice now strained. “She was sick before. She got better.”
“What would you do if she got sick again?”
“We’d have to find a way. We always find a way.”
“What will you do if I don’t take her?”
“I don’t know.”
I looked up to see his eyes filling with tears he tried to suppress, and then back down at Iris. “It was just going to be her and me for the holidays,” he said. “Just her and me.”
“Do you have food for her?”
Trembling, he lifted a small plastic bag. I could see a single can of can food inside. “I can’t carry around more, but we get by. I take care of her as good as I can.”
As good as he could looked to be pretty good. Iris was long haired, her fur impeccably groomed, her eyes clear and serene. She looked like the Queen of Sheba in that dirty backpack.
“You know, David,” I said, “I think it would be a shame if Iris missed out on your Christmas together. Families should be together for the holidays.”
He screwed up his fists and wiped his tears like a little boy, but when the words came, they were those of a man who’d found something inside himself that he’d temporarily misplaced. He swallowed and nodded. “Let me walk to your car, ma’am,” he said, his shoulders relaxing just a little. “Iris and I have some holiday’ing to do.”
When we arrived back at the car, I contemplated Iris one more time. “Be good,” I said to her solemnly. “Stay away from candles.”
I looked up at David. “Have you eaten?”
“Sure have,” he said, “Me and Iris, we’ve done everything today.” He reached over and grabbed my hand and squeezed it. “Thank you” he whispered.
Impulsively, I leaned over and kissed him on the cheek. “Merry Christmas, David.” For the first time, he took his hand off Iris and held it briefly against his cheek.
I stood at my car and watched them go, fighting the urge to follow them, to force my help on them, to somehow make things better for that curious little family that had in the end, needed nothing from me except a benediction of sorts Maybe all he’d needed was to know he had an option. Or maybe he 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. Or maybe he just needed someone to remind him of what he already knew, that in the end, Christmas is about being with the ones you love, no matter where that happens to be.