Small Things, Incorporated: Cat Whiskers

Cleaning his whiskers contentedly with one paw, a huge orange tomcat sat on the bench outside, beneath the new sign: Small Things, Incorporated, the lettering done in gold script on a sky blue background. A bit flashy for a century old brick building in a one horse town like Limpid, but the locals didn’t seem to mind. There was room for a dozen or more vehicles in front of the long, thigh high, vintage hitch rail, and half of them were in use, even at this slow midafternoon hour.

One of those vehicles was an actual horse, a black blaze-faced gelding with the saddle cinch loosened and one hind leg lazily cocked as the animal snoozed on its feet, ignoring the Toyota Tundra as it eased into place a bit farther down the rail. Mac Johnson was still chuckling when he stepped through the door into cozy warmth, shutting out the chilly wind that promised snow by supper time. Twenty-three years he’d been selling real estate in western Montana, yet he still found real old school cowboys amusing. Not that he’d ever let his professional face slip at the wrong time. Wouldn’t be good for business.

“Mac!” Bridget Terrio flashed a smile at him, her dark eyes nearly as birdlike as the little flyer she was currently painting, a brown species with fierce golden eyes and a rather wicked looking beak. “Long time no see!”

“My apologies, Bridge.” He smiled back. It was a tool of his trade, that smile, but everybody smiled at the new business owner in town. Short and stocky, practically bursting with good cheer, the little wood carver had that effect on people. “Should have stopped by sooner. What is that species? It’s not native around here, is it?”

“No.” She stuck one small paint brush into a pot of solvent, picked up another, and selected a miniscule dab of paint from her mostly drab palette to streak carefully along one wing of the fierce-eyed bird. Just like that, a feather sprang to life, then another and another. “It’s a curved bill thrasher, from the southwest desert country. A friend sent me photographs.”

Johnson pulled off his driving gloves and stuffed them into a side pocket of his overcoat. He really should have changed into jeans after the closing in Rock Rapids. Would have fit in better with the locals. Not that they didn’t know a nonresident when they saw one. “You did that from photos? I don’t know which is more remarkable, your ability to reproduce wildlife in such exquisite detail or your ability to keep on working and hold up your end of a conversation at the same time.”

“Comes with being a Gemini, I guess.”

“Are those…whiskers?”

“Wha–oh. On the bird. Yes, these thrashers have them. Some birds do, you know.”

“Yes, of course, but–how do you put whiskers on a wood carving?” He bent over to peer more closely, only vaguely aware of his proximity to the female artist. “They look like they’re actually growing right out of the bird’s face!”

“That’s because they are.” She was clearly enjoying herself. She always did, when people had trouble figuring out how she produced some of her true-to-life effects. “Originally, they were cat whiskers.”

The big real estate agent looked nonplussed. “You shaved a cat to get them?”

Her eyes crinkled, a laugh lurking at the corners. “Not a live one. I have an arrangement with a veterinarian friend. When customers of his bring in kitties that need to be euthanized, old age or terminally ill or run over on the highway, he asks them if they’d mind donating their poor baby’s whiskers for the sake of art.”

“You’re kidding.” Mac straightened, suddenly realizing he’d been hovering way too close to an attractive woman whose husband was cooking in the Small Things Café not eighty feet away. Had Marvin come out of the kitchen to serve anyone in the diner…best to be a bit more circumspect, thank you very much.

“Not kidding.” Bridget changed brushes again, going to work on the bird’s legs. Those thin things couldn’t be wood, either, come to think of it. “See the certification plate?”

Another excuse to hover, reading the script.

Small Things, Curved Bill Thrasher
Whiskers Donated By Thomas and Sonia Wick’s
Beloved Feline, Quick Paws

“You turn the donated whiskers into a pet memorial. That’s really nice, Bridge.” And one of the most brilliant marketing ploys I’ve ever seen, he thought but did not say.

“We feature all of the sculptures on our website, and also send a Thank You card to the owners of the departed pet. The people seem to appreciate it.”

“I’m sure they do.” Time to quit spending time with the lady of the business, though, even if she was the prime mover and shaker who’d initiated the purchase of the ancient Limpid Hotel. Two stories of massive brick structure erected in the early 1900’s, standing vacant for years, the Limpid had long been considered a white elephant by real estate professionals. Though she’d purchased it for a relative song, especially compared to the sales price of the family’s former Manhattan condo, it was little short of astounding what she’d managed to do with the place in six short months.

Being an architect had obviously helped. She’d known immediately which walls could be eliminated and which would require massive columnar arches to support the upper story. Now the feel was open, airy, light, where before it had been dark, dreary, even confining.

What the Terrios had done with the second floor, where the bordello used to be, he had no idea. And didn’t dare ask. The Small Things Café should be a safer topic. “Marvin’s cooking?”

“You can’t smell it?”

He could definitely smell it. “Your little piece of Heaven,” he observed.

“Marvin’s little piece. Mine is out here, letting myself be seen, having every person who walks in for a cup of coffee have to meander past some of my work.”

“And what an outstanding bit of work it is.”

“Flatterer.”

“Extreme marketer.”

They understood each other, as they had from the moment they’d met. Her throaty chuckle followed him through the wide archway and into her husband’s domain.