MISTER AND JACK
By Tom Fulton
The old man sat weakly on the edge of his bed breathing in and out, sucking air in, holding it and blowing it out through pursed lips. The wind made a slight "whoo" as it came out. His cat mewed. That's how they talked.
The old man did his breathing exercises until the sky turned from dusk to blue. The sun's sudden appearance over the distant trees spread a harsh light on the old man's face. He was old. Old as his cat in man years. The old cat was old too. They had been old together for a long time. They held on to each other in the morning light. Cat purred, man breathed - both lit by the sun.
Breath came grudgingly these days. Breath was dear. He sucked it in through his nose and blew it out through his pursed mouth. "Mew" said the cat with a purr. The old man's long fingers snuggled up under his cat's chin and scratched and stroked. The old cat lifted its neck to encourage the action. A little breeze nestled among them, parting the curtains and settling over the old man's face. It felt good. Summer had come. The icy winter had finally been gently swept aside with a cool spring. And now the smell of mowed grass was in the air. The air was green.
"What a beating", said the old man to his skipping heart. He rubbed his chest in a circle, pulling on old gray hairs. A little ripple of pain sprang across his back and up into his neck. He breathed in. He "whooed" out. The cat was asleep.
"What a heart", he whispered, "what a life." They just sat there, the cat in his lap, the old man in his slippers, their old house in the morning sun.
He awoke a few moments later. He was lying down. His old cat sat by his arm, looking playful. The covers were messy, all clumped up around his legs. One pillow was on the floor, the other next to his head. He lay still without a pillow under him. He looked around his old room with his watery old eyes. His cat looked right at him, a bit bemused.
"I think I'm a little sick, Mister." Mister was his cat's name. It started out as Mister Cat and finally got shortened to Mister. Mister nodded. "Crazy. But I still know you."
"We know each other", purred the cat.
The old man smiled and ruffled Mister's neck. "Do we?"
"Yes", the cat said, stretching.
"You're my cat!" The old man laughed and then coughed.
The old man closed his eyes. It was dark. A tiny thumbnail moon sailed overhead. A night breeze blew a watery kiss, which sailed up his body to his face. A while later, on his bed was a man.
The man was young and dapper. He had a thin mustache and a finely groomed goatee. Mister sat in his lap. The dapper man stroked Mister. And Mister seemed so young. Mister batted at the dapper man's bow tie and then rolled his body across the man's chest. His purr was loud in the old man's ears.
"I'm sorry", said the old man, rubbing his face with those long, expressive fingers, "Do I know you? I don't remember.."
Yes", the man said, "we've worked together."
"Really?" The old man tried to sit up, and peer. "When?"
"Only recently." He had such a kind and respectful voice; the kind of voice you could just drift into.
"It wasn't much, just a silly play about a teacher and a student."
"Who was I?", the old man asked.
"The teacher." The dapper man lowered his head respectfully.
The old man shook his head no. "And you?"
Mister leaped onto the Teacher's chest. He rolled onto his back and slipped down between his old arm and chest. Mister loved it there. The Teacher touched his cheek to Mister's face. "How were we?"
"Great", said the student. "They loved us and they hated us.
"Ah, that's good. We mustn't be all things to all people."
"No", smiled the student.
The teacher suddenly looked earnest. He lifted his head to the dapper student and asked intently: "Did they cry at the end? Were they moved?"
"No", said the man, smiling.
The old man sank back, "Too bad," he said, shoving the pillow under his head. Mister endured the shuffling about.
The student brightened and corrected himself. "But they will be."
"Yes. It's that kind of play. You never know how good it is until itís over."
The morning sun spread a new glow over the student's face. He seemed younger. There was a sparkle and a glint in his eye. His goatee was gone. And his hair was suddenly darker.
"You're getting younger.", said the old man approvingly. "It becomes you." The student smiled and slid his hand through his black hair. It was another sunny day. The old man drew a breath and held it for what seemed eternity. "Who wrote this play?"
The student got up and walked to the window, opening it wider and spreading the curtains until the room was blindingly bright. "Somebody you know. A man."
"His name?", squinted the old teacher.
The old man laughed explosively. "Jack!"
"What's funny", asked the student, pulling an apple out of his suit pocket.
"That's my name!", said the teacher proudly, pointing his old wrinkled finger at his chest. Mister mewed. "This is Mister. Did you meet Mister Cat? I'm Jack." The old man extended his hand, which the student took gently. "Mew again," said Mister
"This Jack, did he know his craft?"
The student though a moment and then spoke earnestly back. "Yes. Completely. Better than anyone I've met."
"I'd like to meet him someday", said the old man longingly, "I love to talk to people who know their craft." There was a kind of wistful falling in his voice, which Mister noticed.
"Oh, you'll meet him. I'm sure."
The old man stroked his old cat for a long time. Mister cat cooed and purred with pleasure. Moonlight Sunlight Moonlight Sunlight Moonlight.
"They tell me I'm dying."
The student nodded.
"Well, that's alright." said the old man with his old cat. "My only regret. . ."
"Yes?" asked the student.
"I'll never know if I ever made a difference; if my work really mattered." The old man thought of plays. They whisked about inside his brain. Characters, playwrights, a thousand students, questions, answers, beautiful women, beautiful men, magnificent spirits. So many years in flick of time.
"I'll never know if I ever made a difference."
"You did", said a voice. The young man had gone. In his place was a young woman sitting on a stool near his bed. She was lovely. Her eyes pierced his soul with their strength. She covered him up. New pillows were under his head. The sheets smelled of soap. He felt as if he'd been bathed. His body tingled with cleanliness. There was a full moon through the window.
"How do you know?" He held her hand. Being with her he felt young and full of possibility.
"I have a letter here. From a group who came to see you closing night." She reached into her bag and brought out a card in an envelope. The envelope said "Jack".
"Really?" The old man loved a letter. He pushed himself up to listen.
- "Dear Jack,
- It is impossible for us to say how your performance has affected
- us. Not one of us was left unmoved. You have taught us to
- respect ourselves and to respect our art. And for that we shall
- be eternally grateful.
- We Love You.
- Your Friends."
The old man smiled. "They love me?"
The woman placed the card on his chest. "Like their own father." The old man breathed in and whooshed out. "That's nice. I never had any children."
A hundred thousand seconds passed in silence. Trees fell and there was no sound. The young woman brought the covers over the old man's face.
"You do now", she said.
Mister purred and cooed.
copyright (c) 1995 by Tom Fulton
I read this story at the Funeral for Jack Lee, a delightful man and fine actor. He was company member of the Cleveland Play House in the 1970's and 80's.
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