“I need to save these people from themselves.”—Petey, your not-so-average cat.
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The Cat That God Sent
By Jim Kraus
Abingdon PressCopyright © 2013 Jim Kraus
All rights reserved.
Jake pulled to the side of the road, stopped the truck, then slid out into the chill of the dawn. He flexed his back, left and right, hearing the bones pop. He slowly rotated his right arm, in a windmill fashion, like a relief pitcher warming up. The muscles hurt most at the top of the arc, when it was closest to heaven.
"Think I'll get a sign today? That would be nice. Some sort of sign that this is the right move. That I'm doing the right thing. How about it? Even a little, bitty sign would be okay, too. A sign that doesn't look like a sign—okay as well."
He waited and heard nothing. He held his forced smile for a long moment. If God really were listening, he would know that Jake was only kidding—or at least mostly kidding.
"Well, the proverbial doors were open, right? That was a sign, right? An open door—or rather, an open road to Coudersport?"
The road between Kane and Coudersport remained empty with only sounds of the few birds that made north central Pennsylvania a stop on their early spring migration. To the east, the sun lit the top of a tree-covered ridge, illuminating the still-bare trees with a golden backlit glow.
"Now, here's the thing, though. Those preachers on TV get signs all the time. You talk to them. Why not me?" Jake knew he was being snarky and he was pretty sure God did not like, nor quickly answer, snarky prayers.
He took a deep breath, massaging his right shoulder with his left hand.
"Well, at least my shoulder feels better today."
He tugged on the ropes covering the tarp that held down all his earthly possessions. He checked every rope. By nature and temperament, Jake was a most careful person.
He felt a twinge.
He started the engine, looked both ways twice, and pulled out onto the road. He had one more hour until he reached Coudersport.
"And that's where I'll start over. That's where I'll show everyone that I can do this. Right? Where I'll find my faith again."
He hoped the words would become his reality.
He reached into the glove compartment of the truck and pulled out one of a couple dozen eight-track tapes.
One of these days I'll get a new truck or put a CD player in this one.
He did not bother to look at the title. None were current.
Do they still sell eight-track tapes?
He popped the tape into the slot and turned up the volume. It was a compilation of Christian camp favorites. The first selection was "Onward Christian Soldiers." Jake could not help smiling and began to sing along. Loudly and off-key. Then his shoulder twinged again, sharply, as if giving him an omen of what was to come. However, the troubling thing about omens is they are open to interpretation.
* * *
The dried seed husks at the top of the tall field grass rustled together, stirred by the spring breeze with its hint of warmth. Green tendrils poked about at paw level. The cat stopped, sat down slowly, carefully, and sniffed.
A fecundity in the air.
He sniffed, his nose twitching.
I heard that word on that radio station that talks all the time and is always asking for money.
The cat would have smiled if he could have smiled. If he had the correct muscle structure.
Fecundity. That's a weird word, isn't it? Fecundity. Funny sounding. I know, I know ... I can be a bit pedantic at times. That's where I heard that word, too. On that radio station that never plays music. They just talk. About needing money, mostly.
The feline snapped back to his task at hand and breathed in again, deeply. Not large by cat standards, perhaps the size of a football, with a thick silvery coat and black markings like a striped lynx. Gold-green eyes, wide set and deeply penetrating, a white chin and nose, and a thick feathering of white fur covering his ears. A thickly furred tail. The dark perpendicular lines scoring his forehead made it appear he was in perpetual deep thought.
I really am, most of the time.
He watched as a white truck pulled into the gravel lot. He tried not to put pressure on his right paw. He tried to ignore the agonizing tightness that raced up his forelimb when the paw scraped hard against the ground. He smoothed his whiskers with his other paw. He watched, showing no outward indication of pain. That is what cats do.
A truck. An old truck. And not very clean.
Then he crouched lower, protecting his right front paw, hidden, perfectly camouflaged in the grass, still as a rock, only his eyes, now slits in the bright sun, moving. The cat slowly tilted his head and looked up, into the pellucid sky, his vision staying on the thin clouds for a long moment. He tilted an ear toward the heavens, as if listening intently.
That looks like the man I heard God talking about. I think that's what I heard. It is hard to identify people. Most of them smell the same. A lot of them look the same. This human looks like he needs company. People need company. That's in the Bible, isn't it? A man without a cat. That's not right. He must be lonely.
The cat's eyes moved back and forth, just a little.
Well, I can say this much for sure: he needs a cat. A good cat. A smart cat. Like me. I am a good cat. I am a smart cat.
He flicked an ear, almost distracted by a soft, leafy rustle nearby. Soft and tender and whispery.
You know what? Maybe he needs a mouse. Everybody could use a fat mouse now and again. People get so excited when I bring them a mouse. They shout. They dance. People must like mice. They shoosh me away and in an instant, the mouse is gone. I guess people are always hungry. However, they are not very good at sharing their mice.
And as the cat thought about it, his stomach growled. It had been a few days since he had eaten. He stiffened, imperceptibly, hearing again the soft, furtive rustling in the grass a few body lengths to his left. He knew what small rodent made the rustle.
He would wait.
And maybe later, he would have something to give the man that would make him happy.
It's why I'm here. I need to give that lonely man a mouse. I need to help him. I am good at that. I can be a good, intelligent, helpful cat. God only uses good cats, and I am a very good cat.
The cat blinked and smiled to himself with a certain light in his eyes that gave evidence of his good humor.
The mouse dance. I really like it when humans dance the mouse dance.
* * *
Jake Wilkerson pulled into the driveway of the church, an old church that was his new church, his new assignment, his new job—only his second real, adult job. Jake was nearing thirty, tall, thin, with a narrow face, an easy, gentle-to-arrive smile, and wide blue eyes. Some people called him striking. He did not call himself that. His unruly thatch of thick brown hair made striking the wrong adjective to use to describe him.
The church's exterior, weathered to a faded, chalky white, featured a scalloping of brown water stains, the residue from lawn sprinklers squirting iron-rich well water on the bottom rows of its clapboards. The building was perfectly centered in the middle of a large grassy and partially graveled two-acre lot at the southwest corner of Route 44 and Dry Run Road—a short ride south of Coudersport, Pennsylvania.
Loose gravel crunched and growled beneath the worn tires of his pickup, a slow, welcoming, rural sound, loud in the quiet of the most pleasant spring morning.
The church sign, ninety degrees to the highway, leaned a few degrees off perpendicular.
CHURCH OF THE OPEN DOOR 11:00 SUNDAY SERVICE , PASTOR
The space before the word Pastor must have been recently painted over, with only a faint ghosting of the former pastor's name remaining.
Jake relaxed, stepped out of his truck, and stretched, breathing deep, twisting at the waist and rolling his shoulders. The right shoulder popped, almost audibly this time, and he felt a ripple of small creaks in his back. He tried to smooth his hair and realized that he needed to find a barber before Sunday.
This isn't so bad, is it? This is good. Really. It is.
He breathed in, filling his lungs, feeling his ribs complain. The ominous twitch in his shoulder still spoke, a hesitant pulsing.
I'm too young to feel this many aches. I need a new mattress.
He squared his shoulders.
I can do this. I can. I can make this work. I know how to do this.
He took a few small steps toward the church, stopped, then stared up at the steeple at the rear of the church roof.
Is that my imagination ... or is the steeple tilted?
The cat remained still, hidden in the grass, only the very tip of his tail twitching. His ears pivoted and moved, following the sounds of the man's steps on the gravel lot.
He has firm footsteps. Solid. Like he knows where he is going. Some people take little, halting steps, which mean they seldom get where they are going. Not this human.
The cat sniffed, his small nostrils flaring almost undetectably.
And I like the way he smells. Safe.
He heard the rustle again.
I have time. I will wait. Never pounce before the prey is within the space of a leap. My mother taught me that.
* * *
Within moments of his arrival at his new job and residence, Jake watched as a pickup truck, even older than his and of an ill-defined paint color, bounced into the parking area and all but slid to a stop. The engine plinked and coughed and continued to sputter even as the driver hopped out, slammed the door, and made his way closer to Jake, his right hand extended.
"T. James Bennett," he declared, shaking Jake's hand enthusiastically. T. James Bennett looked like an inexact, off-center, tattered copy of Willard Scott—the morning weatherman who wished people happy birthday, but shorter and wider, with a genial smile. "We met back when you preached here, but you met a lot of folks that weekend, so I bet not many stand out. Am I right?"
"You are, Mr. Bennett, but I do remember you," Jake said. "I remember wondering about the 'T' in your name."
Mr. Bennett almost frowned, but didn't. "It's been T. James since I learned how to write. I hated the 'T' name, even as a little kid, and I told myself that when I grew up, I would never use it again. That's one promise that I kept to myself. Good to keep promises, you know. The problem with a bad name is all the stuff your name gets put on these days. I figured it was too much trouble to change it. People learned. And besides, they all call me Jimbo. Everyone does, including the Missus. Jimbo. Says it's a proper name for a fellow like me. Been called Jimbo since grade school."
"Well, then, Jimbo, I'm happy that you took time out of your day to meet me here. I appreciate it."
Jimbo drew a step closer. "You know why I'm the elder in charge of meeting you today?"
Jake hoped he looked puzzled. "Seniority?"
Jimbo cackled and replied, "Nope. It's 'cause I don't have a job. At least not one at the moment. Got time to burn, as they say. And I had a spare set of keys for the church. Two good reasons."
Jimbo stepped off toward the rear door of the church. "We did show you the living quarters here, didn't we? When you came and visited? The parsonage part of the church, right? Plenty of room for a single fellow like yourself."
Now a few months past, the day of his candidating had been more than a bit hectic. The drive from Butler should have taken only three hours, but Jake had been on the road for five, his sense of direction not strong. There was no direct route that led door-to-door. The trip involved multiple turns and changes in route numbers and Jake's nervous and constant referring to the map. And, being that he "auditioned" in the early winter, snow had begun to fall while he spoke that cold morning, amping up Jake's nervousness about the return trip.
"I did see it, but I didn't spend much time looking. I guess I was a tad nervous that day."
"Have to say, Pastor Jake, that I didn't think you were nervous at all. You preached good."
Jimbo pulled a fist-sized ring of keys from his coat pocket, jangling like a jailer, and thumbed through it until he found the correct one. He slipped it into the lock on the six-panel door, pulled at the handle while he turned the key, and shouldered the door open.
"Weather makes this stick sometimes," he said, then eyed his new pastor. "You handy around the house? Fixing stuck doors and all that?"
"Not bad. I don't have as many tools as I would like, but I guess I'm handy enough."
The truth is, besides a hammer and a screwdriver, I don't have any tools. And if it can't be fixed with either of those tools—then it's broken.
Jimbo grinned, satisfied. "Not that this place needs much of anything ... but the whole building is getting up there in years. Sometimes it takes a hammer to get things going."
Jake wasn't sure he knew what Jimbo meant, but nodded in earnest agreement. "Sure thing."
Jimbo slapped at the wall and switched on the light—a bright overhead lamp ensconced in a white, imitation carnival glass globe. Jake squinted for a moment. The light was much too bright for the room, but the interior was more pleasant than Jake had remembered, especially now that the soft light of spring had begun to arrive. The furnishings might have been from IKEA, even though the nearest IKEA was probably in Philadelphia: matching upholstered chairs in a gray corduroy fabric, a comfy-looking sofa, a stand for a TV. The walls were off-white, maybe a light classic gray, even. The kitchen, visible from the entry, had newer stainless steel appliances, a square wooden table by a large window, and more cabinets than Jake could possibly fill. Wide wood flooring planks. Shiny. Probably original but refinished.
"Bedroom's back there, of course. Bathroom too. That's new as of last year. New shower and tub and ... all the other facilities as well," Jimbo said, with a guilty smirk, like saying "toilet" in front of a pastor was somewhere midway up on the list of almost-sins. "And the office is over there," he added, pointing, as if he were a lazy real estate agent.
That office Jake remembered. It was a large room, much bigger than he had been used to. Big wooden desk, well used, with great character and patina, wall of bookcases, a large wooden table (looked handcrafted) with a half-dozen chairs—for elders' meetings, no doubt. Three large windows, almost floor to ceiling, matching the Gothic style windows of the church. A smallish door led toward the church itself, buffered by a small office/anteroom that may have once held a secretary, but not in the last few years.
"You need help unloading?" Jimbo asked. "My back ain't quite up to snuff these days, but I could make a call or two."
Jake demurred. "No. I don't have much. Clothes. Books. Towels. Sheets. A few pots and pans. Mr. Coffee. Easy stuff. I'm just so glad that the parsonage is furnished. A great help for someone like me."
Jimbo fiddled three keys off his ring and handed them to Jake. One was marked FRONT DOOR, one BASEMENT DOOR, and one PARSONAGE.
"Pastor Wilkerson," Jimbo said, his words a little softer, "I gotta tell you ... thanks for taking over here as pastor. Really, thanks a bundle. We don't have much in a small church, I know, and we're on the smallish side of small ... but ... well, it is what we got. Ever since Pastor Mokley quit the God business and left to sell insurance in Kane—well, we all have been without. We need a man of God, all right. An honest man. Like you."
He had to say an honest man. He had to go there. Like I'm going to be reminded of that forever. Honesty is not always the best policy. Just ask Barbara Ann. But that's water under the bridge, right?
Jimbo offered a happy grin, hoping to put the new man at ease.
"Well, it is an honor to be called," Jake replied, being totally truthful.
"So, I'll leave you be, if that's okay with you. And you remember that we got an all-church potluck this Wednesday. In the basement. Fellowship Hall, if you'd like. Folks want to meet you, see what you eat. Stuff like that. And you and the elders will meet later on. Talk things over. Answer any questions you might have."
"Should I bring anything to the potluck?" Jake asked. Maybe pastors in small churches cook things for these occasions. Or bring the rolls or something.
Excerpted from The Cat That God Sent by Jim Kraus. Copyright © 2013 Jim Kraus. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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