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Saturday, September 4, 2010

Jack of Hearts by Joyce Ackley

Ellie Kerns once read somewhere that 83% of senior citizens living alone talked to their pets and treated them like their children. Ellie was a statistic. She talked to her cat, Jack, and brushed him and let him sleep on her bed. She loved to nuzzle his neck, where the thick fur captured his special outdoorsy scent. Jack smelled of damp earth and sunshine, of freshly cut grass, of the jasmine in the back garden.

Recently, the brown tabby had begun to disappear for long hours during the day. Ellie fretted over him like a parent worries about a child missing curfew. She had given up on trying to keep a collar and tag on Jack. He somehow managed to break free of every kind she tried, and she feared he would hurt himself in his attempts.

On Tuesday morning, Jack vanished. Just after noon, he sauntered in through the cat flap in the back door.

“Come here, you,” Ellie called. “Where’ve you been?”

Jack sprang lightly onto her lap and meowed a greeting. She drew him close and buried her nose in his soft ruff. Ellie frowned and sniffed again. Her cat smelled unquestionably different. The scent she detected was crisp, spicy and very masculine. She had no doubt. Jack smelled like a man’s cologne.

The mystery still baffled Ellie when her daughter phoned that afternoon. She related the story to Anne. “Mom,” the young woman teased, “you need to stop obsessing over that cat. Cats are cats. They roam around. They get into stuff.” Anne added, “I worry about you. What do you do besides sit there and watch television?”

Ellie winced. “Lots of things. There’s church, and my ladies’ circle group. I’m thinking about volunteering at the thrift store a couple of days a week. And Gayle Sims and I went to lunch last Saturday.”

“Good. Dad’s been gone over a year now. It’s time for you to get out and about. You need to stay busy.”

“My garden keeps me busy,” Ellie said. “Speaking of which, I need to get off the phone and finish weeding the front bed.” She was glad to end the conversation. She didn’t want to talk about her social life If she were honest with Anne, she would have to admit she was lonely. She’d begun to yearn for companionship.

The next morning, the Olney boy from next door pounded up her walkway. “Miss Ellie!” he shouted through the screen door. “I just saw Jack at that yellow house on the corner.”

“The yellow house, eh? Thanks, Ben.”

She ran a brush through her short brown bob and headed out. She knew the cheery, corner house had just sold a few weeks ago but didn’t know who’d bought it.

Clearly visible at the shady side of the yellow house was a tidy brick patio. A slender, gray-haired man reclined on a chaise lounge. He slept soundly. Tucked against his side, also fast asleep, was Jack.

Ellie tiptoed to the edge of the patio. “Jack, Jack,” she whispered. The cat yawned and stretched. He peeked at her through half-closed lids. Jack didn’t budge.

She tried again in a louder whisper. “Jack, wake up! Come here. Jack!”

Without opening his eyes the man said, “It’s Paul, but I’ll answer to Jack.”

Looking at her, he added, “Especially when a lady’s doin’ the calling.” His warm, friendly smile pleased Ellie. She liked his easy, Southern drawl.

Ellie flushed. “Jack’s my cat. He went missing, and I tracked him down here.”

The man rose. “Glad you found him. I knew he wasn’t a stray. I’m Paul Ghent.”

“Ellie Kerns, from down the street.” They shook hands. She couldn’t help but notice the firmness of his handshake and the way his big hand dwarfed hers. She enjoyed a familiar whiff of spicy cologne.

“I’m sorry if Jack’s been a bother.”

“Not at all. He’s good company. The little rascal seems to know when I’m having tuna fish for lunch. I save the juice for him.” He stroked the cat. “He’s smart.”

“He’s spoiled!” she said.

Paul chuckled. “Won’t you sit down, Ellie?” He drew up a lawn chair.

“I don’t want to take up your time.”

“Not a problem. I’m by myself now and semi-retired. I thought I’d give small town living a shot, and it’s agreeing with me.”

“It’s not bad at all,” Ellie said. “My daughter lives in Chicago. Every minute of her life is hectic. It’s such a fast pace, day and night. She wanted me to move up there when my husband died, but big city life is not for me.”

“Nor for me. I have a feeling I’m going to like it here.” He smiled into her eyes, and Ellie’s heart danced.

“Say,” Paul said, “I make a pretty decent tuna salad sandwich. Will you and Jack join me for lunch?”

“I suppose we could,” Ellie said.

Purring loudly, Jack wove in and out of their ankles like thick, silky floss.

“Looks like he’s trying to tell us something,” Paul said. “I think he approves. I told you he’s a smart cat!”

Ellie thought so too.

About the Author: Joyce H. Ackley is a writer who lives in Florida. Her three cats keep her company as she works. Their hope is that she makes enough profit from her writing to keep them in tuna treats and catnip. Joyce draws her inspiration for fiction from ordinary people and everyday events.

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