Editor’s Note: Longtime Chronicle columnist Bill Moeller authored this short, fiction story. The Chronicle will publish it in chapters through Christmas.
Becky, the bookstore cat, is living a long and happy life, but there was a time when Mr. Bartholomew was the only person in the world who thought that would happen.
When he retired after working for 30 years as a letter carrier, he not only wanted to be able to relax and read his favorite books; he wanted to make it easier for other people to do the same thing.
He had been planning this for years: buying nice books at yard sales and thrift stores with the idea of opening his own book store. He was alone since Mrs. Bartholemew died two years ago, and he spent his time at home in his workshop, building wonderful-looking bookshelves, small tables on which to show the nicer books and small stools for customers to sit on so they didn't have to bend way over to see the books on the bottom shelves.
He built a corner sofa that he thought would be just right for friends and customers to sit on and visit. When he was ready, he found a vacant store on Centerville's main street and moved everything into it.
He decided where the shelves and stools should go, and where all the different categories of books should be placed on the shelves, but one day he sat on the sofa and looked around.
"It's almost ready," he thought, "but there's something missing, and I think I know what it is."
Other bookstores he had visited almost always had a large old cat sleeping in a corner or on a bookcase. There is a reason for this. Mice can damage books by chewing paper, and mice don't like to stay around a place when there is a cat nearby.
So he locked the front door and drove to the local animal shelter to find a big old cat for himself. He recognized the lady behind the counter as one of the people he used to deliver mail to, and after she said that she almost didn't recognize him without his uniform she took him to a room where there were rows of wire cages lined up against the walls.
A few of them were empty, but the rest had one or maybe two cats, or maybe a litter of kittens of all kinds and sizes. There were big ones and little ones, black cats, white cats, striped cats, some with long hair, some with short hair. It was hard to choose.
He was looking for a large, almost fat, cat such as he had seen in other stores, but couldn't decide which one he liked best. They were all appealing.
Then his eye fell on a small, mostly white kitten curled up in a back corner of her cage. She opened her eyes and Mr. Bartholomew looked into the bluest eyes he had ever seen.
"Oh, that's the one I want," he said immediately.
The lady said, "I'm so sorry, but that's about the only one you can't have. We only let healthy cats leave here for new homes, and that one is too sick to move right now." She added, quietly, “We don't think she's going to make it.”
"Why? What's the matter with her?"
"She was brought in two days ago. Someone found her in a ditch beside the road out of town. Somebody who didn't want her probably threw her out of the car as they drove by. Can you imagine anyone who would do something as bad as that?”
"No. No, I can't. Whoever did it is not nobody I would ever want to know, and I'll tell you that that only makes me want her more. What if I promise to take her to the vet right away? What if I promise that I won't blame you if she doesn't make it?”
The lady thought for a while, and then said, "For anyone else, I'd say 'no,' but since we've known each other for years, I know that you're a good man. Let me see if I can find a nice fuzzy towel to keep her warm.”
And that's how Mr. Bartholemew first picked her up and held her in his arms.
The veterinarian was another friend of his, Dr. Worthy, and he gently examined the kitten for a long time. After giving her a shot he handed her back to Mr. Bartholemew and said, "She has fleas and worms, a bad cold and an eye infection, and probably other problems as well. I'll give you some medicine to treat her with, but it will be touch and go.”
Mr. Bartholemew asked, "Is there anything else you can tell me?"
Dr. Worthy carefully thought about the fact that he didn't have any hope for the kitten before he said, as gently as he could, "I just wouldn't go naming her for a couple of weeks."
On the way back to the bookstore Mr. Bartholemew stopped by his home to pick up a heating pad, a cardboard box, a bowl and some cat food for young cats. At the store he put the pad in the bottom of the box, plugged it in and covered it with part of the towel. He put the kitten into the box and covered her body, but not her head, with the rest of the towel.
He quietly said, “Well, kitty, it's up to the two of us now."
The kitten only responded by curling up into a ball of fur in the warm box.
That evening Mr. Bartholemew didn't want to move the kitten, and didn't want to leave her alone, either, so he stayed in the store all night, trying to sleep on the sofa he had built.
The next morning he felt stiff and a little sore, so he went home, picked up some extra clothes and brought back a folding cot which he took into the store's back storage room.
He placed a chair beside the box, sat down on it and said, “All right, kitty, I'm going to stay here until you get better." He did stay, working each day to get the store ready for its grand opening. He found himself talking to her. She didn't answer, of course, but that didn't stop him.
One day, after he had swept up some sawdust, he sat down in the chair beside the box and said, "You know, one of my favorite writers is Mark Twain, and he wrote a book about a boy named Tom Sawyer who had a girlfriend named Becky Thatcher. I don't care what Dr. Worthy said, about not giving you a name too soon, I'm going to call you Becky Thatcher.”
The kitten moved a little and then lowered her head and curled up into a ball again.
That evening he was sitting in the chair next to her, and he fell asleep. He didn't know how long he slept, but when he woke up he looked down and saw that some of the food he had left for Becky had been eaten. Then he noticed something else that made him feel warm inside. Becky was curled up in his lap. And she was purring!
Mr. Bartholemew stroked her gently and said, "Well, Becky, it looks like everything is going to be alright."
And it was. It most certainly was.
Bill Moeller is a former entertainer, mayor, bookstore owner, city council member, paratrooper and pilot living in Centralia. He can be reached at email@example.com.