I was the last one out of the office on Christmas Eve, and the holiday was pissing me off.
I don’t really celebrate Christmas anymore, but I have a soft spot for it — the wish for peace, the kindness to each other, the fresh kindled hope for a better future, blah, blah, blah. It’s sweet, you know? But of course we have done our best to ruin it. The buildup is so huge I am always let down by the reality, once it arrives. And I find that I don’t believe anyone’s holiday wishes. I think they’re just platitudes. I was sick of peoples’ hollow Xmas greetings, and feeling grouchy about the whole thing.
So it’s around sunset, it would be totally dark in fifteen minutes and a chilly wind was starting up. I was leaving the office, not smiling, grousing my way out the back door because the front was locked, and I get half way down the outdoor steps when I see her standing in the parking lot. She’s old now, and none of us knows how long she’s been living in and around our parking lot, but she’s been here longer than I have. Her grey and white coat is filthy and her body is impossibly scrawny. As I go down the steps, the heavy security door bangs shut behind me. She hears it and steps warily over to where she can sort of lean on the side of the building, her head cocked my way.
“Hey there, old girl,” I say. She is blind, or nearly so, and she turns toward the sound of my voice. We have seen each other around for years, but she has shown me recognition only in the past month or so, and even now some days she doesn’t. She hesitates, then takes a shaky step toward me. She recognizes me, and even though the office door has closed and I won’t be able to get back in to wash my hands, I know that I will have to pet her, and that her fur will leave a greasy residue that I will have to wear all the way home. I put my briefcase down and sit on the bottom step.
“C’mon, sweetheart,” I coax, and she walks very slowly toward me, until I can just reach out and touch her bony neck. I scratch for a moment, as she tries to make sure that I mean no harm. When she is satisfied that I am safe she comes all the way over to where I am sitting. I scratch her and amazingly, she purrs. She is so decrepit I am surprised that she can purr. My gentle petting rocks her whole body, and I can see that it is only with effort and concentration that she is able to remain standing.
“Poor old baby. It’s a tough life, isn’t it?” I ask in my gentlest cat-calming voice. She lifts her head and stares into my face with her blank, milky eyes.
Yes, it’s tough, she says, but look at me. I’ve survived. Her voice is a high-pitched croak.
Her frailty is so obvious I don’t want to discuss survival with her. “Well, that’s great,” I say, stroking her cheek. “Uh, where are you sleeping tonight?”
I’ll be here as usual, she says, and a shudder runs through her. Maybe under that pickup truck over there. Delicately, she places one skinny paw on my thigh. Do you mind? she asks.
My pants will have to be cleaned. “No, of course not. Come on up.” She needs my help to get into my lap, and more assistance to get comfortable, but at last she is lying there, more at less at ease. The effort has exhausted her, and she just lies there for a minute.
You know, she says at last, I’ve been such a fool.
“What do you mean?” I ask, surprised.
She sighs. For all these years I feared and hated you people. I hid from you, and I looked upon all of you with distrust and suspicion. She looked sheepish. I bit one of you once, a long time ago.
“Well, that’s not so foolish,” I say. “You’re feral, and we don’t have such a good reputation among your kind. It’s totally understandable.”
No, it was wrong. If I had known all along, that all you wanted to do was pet me and feed me… She trailed off. I mean, where did I think those bowls of food and water were coming from, right outside that back door? I was so blind — she smiled — I mean before I was blind, you know? I shifted a little, and we had to get rearranged. She spoke again.
My heart was closed. I couldn’t see the kindness that was offered to me. I had to do everything for myself. I thought everyone who approached meant to hurt me, or take something from me. I’m ashamed to say that I taught my kids to be the same way. All of them are gone now, bless ’em, except for my youngest. I hope it’s not too late for her. She’s a pretty little thing, you know. Takes after her father. She coughed. You might not believe it, but I was pretty once, too.
The old gal in my lap — and this turn of conversation — was making me uncomfortable. “Well, I think you’re still pretty…”
She coughed again, and it went on for several seconds this time. Don’t kid me, sonny. I’m a foolish old hag, and I’m almost blind, but a girl knows.
I could think of no comeback for that. She wasn’t allowing any flattery, any platitudes. Overhead, the wind whistled through the wires.
“Look,” I say, “would you like to come over to my place tonight? It’s warm, and I’ve got plenty of food. You could take a warm bath, if you want.”
She stood up in my lap, and crept slowly back onto the asphalt at the base of the steps, stretching her arthritic limbs as she walked. That’s a sweet offer, sonny. A few years ago I would have jumped at it. But now I’m afraid I’m too set in my ways. I couldn’t sleep in a house. I’d be too nervous knowing I couldn’t run if I had to. Besides, I’ve got my Little One to look out for. She’s around here somewhere, and she won’t come out while you’re around. She still needs me, more than she knows. She doesn’t pay much attention to her old mom these days — you know how they get. She still has a chance, though. I hope I can show her that she doesn’t have to make my mistakes. I have to show her… she coughed some more, and I thought there was a catch in her voice. …I have to show her how to open her heart to the beauty and pain and love that is all around, instead of hiding in fear and suspicion. She gazed nowhere in particular and was silent for a moment. Before I go, you know?
I stood and picked up my briefcase. There would be no use inviting both of them — we lived in different worlds, and this parking lot was nothing more than the place those worlds touched. But I was glad we had met, and touched, this night.
Thanks for listening, sonny, and for petting me. It’s really what I’ve always wanted, if only I’d known. Crazy, isn’t it? After running and hiding all those years, now I can’t get enough of it. And thank you all for the food — the Little One and I, we appreciate it.
She turned and started to make her way along the side of the building, toward the alley. “Merry Christmas!” I called, and for the first time that year, I really meant it.
She stopped and turned. Merry Christmas to you, sonny. Now scoot. Go home and be with your wife. She’ll be waiting for you. Then she walked stiffly on, and around the corner of the building.
I could feel the dirt on my hands. I looked at my pants, and they were covered with her dirty fur. A perfect half-moon had risen and floated low over the buildings in the twilight. Traffic rushed by on the boulevard. I turned and walked to my car.