Willow Branch, with its eleven hundred citizens, was normally a quiet place. Calls to the Sheriff’s department were routine–cars with loud mufflers, stray dogs, wild animals scattering trash. The phone rang a little after seven, one summer evening. Mrs. McNary, the caller, was frantic. In the Sheriff’s department she was known as a “frequent flyer.” “Now, Mrs. McNary calm down.” “I’m sending someone out right away.” Mrs. Gertrude McNary was eighty-seven, lived alone with “Winston Jeremiah Puffington,” her white Persian cat. The frisky tom cat, “Mr. Puffy,” had somehow gotten himself tangled in the wires of her television set. Deputy Jim Bell was on duty. He grumbled on the way out the door. “So, now I’m rescuing cats?” The dispatcher couldn’t resist, “Call if you need back up.” The squad room roared with laughter. Jim wasn’t amused–left without saying another word.
Jim arrived at the familiar white, neatly kept, Victorian home with its wrap-around front porch. Mrs. McNary met him on the porch, grabbed his arm and pulled him inside. “I’m glad to see you.” She sobbed. “It’s Mr. Puffy.” “Please hurry, before it’s too late–he could strangle or electrocute himself.” “I’ll do everything I can,” Said the slightly confused deputy. “I was watching the “Huntley-Brinkley” report like I do every night.” “I went to the kitchen for a cup of tea.” “When I got back Mr. Puffy was gone.” “I heard scratching and growling from inside my TV set,” “There he was, trapped, and there was nothing I could do.” She sobbed frantically.
Do you have any long-cuffed leather gloves?” Asked the deputy. I’ve got to stay away from those sharp claws and teeth. “No, I don’t,” She answered. “Eldon, next door, might?” She quickly dialed the black rotary hallway phone. Eldon brought leather welders gloves–which proved invaluable. Mr. Puffy fought his would-be captors valiantly. Eldon took the front end and Jim took the back-end, shielded by a towel wrapped around his arm. After a few tense moments, the frisky feline was finally freed. “Oh, thank God!” “My poor scared baby.” Mrs. McNary attempted to console the frightened kitty. Mr. Puffy wasn’t the least bit grateful. With ears laid back, tail twitching in disgust, he growled, hissed, ran under the nearest bed.
Gertrude Frances McNary survived her husband Oliver by nine years. She’d taught three generations of music students. While a student at the Cleveland Institute of Music she fell in love with, Dr. Oliver Langston McNary, senior professor of music. Rather than suffer disgrace from the conservative board of regents, Oliver resigned his position. They married and settled in Willow Branch. Oliver accepted a position as high school band and chorus director. Oliver’s crowning achievement was an annual presentation of Handel’s “Messiah.” The tradition lived on. His sudden passing left her lonely and unprepared. There had been no children. She sang arias while hanging laundry. Her voice had not aged well. It didn’t matter–most villagers couldn’t distinguish between vibrato and violets, anyway.
A Steinway baby grand piano sat prominently in the parlor. Busts of the master composers surrounded it in a semi-circle. Schubert and Mozart held positions of prominence. Lace curtains rustled gently in the large bay window. Music students not only mastered the piano, but also learned the names of composers and their works. Only the most skilled students were allowed to play the baby grand. Others plunked away on the spinet. For their final recital, graduates played selections from their favorite composer.
From the large two-story house on the bluff, Gertrude McNary kept a wary eye on the community. Her neighbor, Eldon Price, left his attic light on one night. Some people in the neighborhood put their rubbish bins out too early. Mrs. McNary abhorred most popular music and television shows. She did, however, have a strange affinity for Victor Borge. His antics at the piano reminded her of Oliver during their courtship. Popular music, according to her, contributed to cultural decadence. In a town of mostly blue-collar and farm workers, she was quite a contrast–Willow Branch’s self-appointed guardian of culture. Nothing escaped scrutiny–not even hymns at local churches.
Mrs. McNary met the new Baptist minister, Rev. Lawrence Turner, at the post office. She accepted his invitation to attend Sunday services despite reservations. Sunday broke bright and beautiful. Gertrude dressed appropriately in a dark blue dress with a black hat. Her seldom-driven dark blue ’54 Desoto sedan faithfully carried her to church. A warm welcome awaited her. Rev. Turner acknowledged her presence during the service. Most of the congregation already knew her. Margaret, the pianist, had been one of her students. Why didn’t she play music as it was written by the original composers? That certainly wasn’t how she was taught.
The service ran long. There were too many interruptions for spontaneous amens and hallelujahs. Jill, the pastor’s wife, sang a solo. She had a beautiful voice–in spite of being of the Baptist persuasion. Rev. Turner’s sermon concluded with the warning, “The fires of Hell and eternal damnation awaited unrepentant sinners.” The invitation was given for individuals to come forward and pray for forgiveness of sins. After the benediction, Rev. and Mrs. Turner shook hands with departing parishioners. “I’m so glad you could join us today, Mrs. McNary.” Said the good reverend. “It’s nice to finally meet you.” “I’ve heard so much about you.” Said Mrs. Turner.
Mrs. McNary put away the dishes after lunch. She sat quietly on the front porch swing reading. Afternoon changed to evening. Like most evenings, Mr. Puffy joined her on the parlor couch. Mr. Puffy groomed himself with a front paw. He closed his eyes as Gertrude McNary stroked his long white fur. “Mr. Puffy, sometimes I think you’re my only friend.” “Those Baptists were nice, but I didn’t feel comfortable.” Mr. Puffy purred contentedly–as if he understood. “They shouted and clapped during the service.” …And that banging on the piano…That was the worst of all…Fire and brimstone preaching was too much like the Damoclesian sword in Greek mythology. I think God would want us to be more dignified. I feel much more comfortable around my fellow Episcopalians.
Gertrude read quietly, oblivious to the setting sun. Mr. Puffy twitched the end of his tail–watched the mantel clock pendulum. Soon Gertrude slumped over sound asleep. The house was dark, the clock chimed nine, she promptly awakened. “Are you a hungry boy?” She asked Mr. Puffy. Mr. Puffy jumped down–followed her to the kitchen. Mr. Puffy gobbled down his “Little Friskies” cat food. Gertrude Frances McNary got ready for bed. She glanced reverently at their wedding portrait. Ollie, if there is a heaven, I know you’re looking out for me. You were the only one I ever loved. We understood each other. She pulled up the blanket, reached over, and turned off the light.