I don’t know exactly how I got to meet McEwen. I suppose it was over some of my advertising of my country properties. In any case, we formed quite a relationship over time as we traveled around the country side looking at properties to meet his needs. I discovered he was quite a storyteller in his own right over the time we went around the different properties (as you’ll see).
We finally found him an unlikely place in a little town east of Winnipeg that was little more than a siding, but it suited his purposes. It was a rustic looking place that turns out to have largely been a cover up job by someone who was definitely not a carpenter. But the location and the yard was ideal for McEwen and there was nothing I could do to dissuade him from it.
Well, as if to reinforce the logic of his choice, he told me the following story which I’ve paraphrased into a story for this book. It’s as follows:
McEWEN vs. McMUFFIN
He thought the thing was dead. Well, before that he thought it was just a piece of somebody's garbage that had been dropped by one of the long line of trespassers who used his yard as a shortcut to the convenience store. He was going to kick it into the snow at the edge of his walk but thought better of it, opting instead to pick it up in his gloved hand. If he'd told those kids once, he'd told them a hundred times to not throw garbage in his yard.
He reached down to grab it by a tattered end, still muttering under his breath. The thing suddenly moved and squeaked.
"Jesus!" he exploded and dropped it, crossing himself to atone for the utterance. Not that he was still a practicing Catholic, but it was a reflex from boyhood. Besides, it allowed him to cuss with a relatively clear conscience whenever the mood struck him. Well, you never knew about these things and McEwen wasn't one to take a chance with the powers that be, just in case.
The thing was alive! Was it one of those giant sewer rats that had come out of the big complex? He knelt down for a closer look. It was a cat, for God's sake - a mostly dead, mostly frozen alley cat barely hanging on to life by the slenderest of threads! Its fur wasn't really fur anymore, just clumps of matted hair sticking out in spiked tufts here and there. The face was battered and bloodied. Even as he was thinking it would be kinder to leave the wretched creature there to die in peace. McEwen headed for the house; quickly returning with the oversized cushion from his couch and the blanket he loved to lie under while he watched television.
Kneeling down again, he gently laid the cat on the pillow not knowing whether it had already expired, and covered it with the blanket. His eyes were seeing double again as he rose. 'Damned pills,' he thought, crossing himself again. They sure played havoc with him. Ignoring the inconvenience, McEwen headed back to the house. If the cat was going to die anyway, it might as well be comfortable. He'd want the same courtesy for himself. That thought had crossed his mind more than once since he had contracted an aggressive form of diabetes in the lab where he worked.
Inside, McEwen busied himself spreading out enough old newspapers on the floor beside the massive desk that pretty well contained his whole material world. Tea kettle, tea bags, giant ashtray, remote control, computer, all those things necessary to a man's existence were there. It was his command center, so to speak. From here he could do just about anything that needed doing, including communicate with his ex-wife who had left him partly because of his odd habits such as this. Gently he laid his packet down on the newspaper, making sure there was enough space under the blanket for the cat to breathe. He placed two little bowls; one with milk and the other with water at the edge of the cushion where he remembered the head was and put the kettle on.
There was little else to do now but wait. McEwen opened a new pack of smokes, sat back in his chair and puffed away until the kettle boiled. His eye fell on the blanket when it began to whistle. There was neither sound nor movement. He poured the steaming water over the used tea bag already in the mug. 'Should have washed it first,' he thought. “Nah, next time.” Then he settled back and puffed away at another cigarette. It was strange, McEwen thought. He was feeling as wretched as ever he did after taking those blasted pills - nauseous, crampy, and his head ached. None of that seemed to bother him just now. It wasn't important. He just sat there beside the cat, sipping his tea and sucking on his smoke.
Almost trance-like he found himself humming softly, crooning a lullaby from somewhere in the distant past. It surprised him, just coming out like that. Not bad voice either, he thought. All the whiskey and cigarettes hadn't quite killed it yet. McEwen could see himself sitting there, keeping vigil over the pathetic creature he had dragged in. It was almost an out of body experience. Everything was as it should be, he thought.
Three cups of tea, half a pack of smokes and four trips to the bathroom, McEwen was sitting in his chair, quite content. Then out of the corner of his eye he caught a slight movement of the blanket. He kept on humming, eyes locked on to the cover. Another movement, then another, then a small nose poked out from under it, inching toward the milk. Slowly the nose moved along until it found its mark. The wee beastie must have been starved as much as beaten, McEwen thought as the entire bowl of milk vanished.
He glanced up at the clock on the wall. Two-twenty it said. Two-twenty a.m. it must be. Uh-oh, McEwen thought. He'd been sitting there for nearly eleven hours with no supper. If he didn't get something into himself right quick, he might go into insulin shock. There was nobody here except him and this pathetic creature. Mrs. Martens the cleaning lady wouldn't show up until ten in the morning. By that time, well -.
Wearily he dragged himself to the kitchen and picked up a banana on the way to the fridge. He changed his mind. The banana would have to do. He was just too tired to make supper. It seemed a supreme effort to get himself to the couch where he collapsed and promptly fell asleep.
Oh Lord, the doorbell was ringing. That must mean Mrs. Martens would soon be showing her face. She always did that. She'd ring the doorbell and wait thirty minutes before entering the house. Doing housework, well that was one thing. She was very good and took great pride in her work. She didn't take any nonsense from McEwen either. If she put something where she thought it ought to go and he moved it to his liking, she darn soon set him straight. About being dressed proper when she arrived, that was another thing she was particular about. There was to be no lolling about in his underwear when she arrived, and no strange women in the house either. No point in having a clean house and a dirty old man in it, she reasoned.
Before he could raise himself, McEwen became aware that the little cat had crawled out from under the blanket sometime during the night and had climbed up on to his chest. It lay there sound asleep. Gently, he placed it back on the pillow and got himself together. By the time Mrs. Martens returned he had changed his clothes and fixed a neater corner for his new friend. She wouldn't like it but McEwen wasn't in any mood to argue. She'd just have to remember who was the employee and who was the employer.
She burst in the door just as McEwen was sitting down to his breakfast. Well at least he was decent, if nothing else. Mrs. Martens said nothing about the cat. In fact, once she laid eyes on it, she said nothing at all. But her cleaning activities went on at an accelerated pace - noisier too. That was McEwen's punishment - the silent treatment.
'Disapproval noted and acknowledged', he chuckled under his breath. No use in doing anything until she left.
"So its come down to this," he shook his head at the site of the two of them in the bathroom mirror, he in his shirt and trousers that had once fit him about forty pounds ago and the bedraggled furry creature in his arms. "Two half dead, used up orphans left alone to sail the stormy seas of life. It's a pretty sorry state of affairs, but at least you won't be alone." As an afterthought he added, "I guess now neither will I, come to think of it."
Cleaning the cat up proved to be more of a challenge than McEwen had counted on. She tolerated her bath surprisingly well until it came to her shoulder and her face. The left shoulder was visibly bruised and obviously sore. The face was another matter. What he had assumed to be cuts could now be seen as split skin from a series of blows.
There wasn't much to be done with those now except to soften the scabs with ointment. It was too late to do any stitching. In the end he settled for a bandage he suspected would be torn off as soon as the cat had a free paw. Done now and dried, the cat looked like a casualty from a refugee camp. In fact, what with McEwen's emaciated clothes rack of a body carrying his water soaked shirt and trousers, they were a matching pair.
Both were exhausted and McEwen had to eat. It was well past lunchtime. He had been so preoccupied with cleaning up the cat that he had forgotten again. That was happening a lot lately with this new, powerful cocktail of medicine he was being given. The side effects would just begin to wear off when it was time to take them and start the cycle all over again. Well, what could a person do? The alternative was not something he was prepared for yet. He would share a bran muffin with the cat and then go to the store for some real cat food. When he got home, they would dine together in style.
The cat literally attacked the bran muffin, wolfing it down in great chunks and leaving none for McEwen.
"You'd not care to wait and have a bit of butter on it," he smiled. Of course the cat must be starved. He would go right away and bring back some proper food. On his way out he grabbed another muffin.
Dinner was delightful to say the least. You'd think McEwen had a new lady friend over for a romantic dinner. He set a fine table with good dishes and cutlery for himself, brand new stainless steel bowls for the cat, tablecloth and candles too. Now he sat at one end and the cat at the other with the best cat food he could find.
McEwen watched curiously as the cat ate the food gingerly, looking up from time to time with what seemed to be disdain. Still she ate it all while giving the impression that such fare was beneath her. When she was done, she lay down in front of the bowl as if waiting for McEwen to finish. Well, it was nice to see she had manners, he thought. He had an idea. He sliced another bran muffin in two, slathered butter on both pieces and presented half on a saucer to his new friend. Instantly she attacked it with gusto. It was gone in a few seconds. A few laps of fresh water from the other bowl and she retired to her cushion.
What an unusual creature this cat was. She displayed an almost human behavior. Well then, she must have a name. Indeed, a name - what should it be? Of course, it should be Muffin since that seemed to be a passion for her. No, wait - that sounded all too common. McMuffin - that was better. McEwen and McMuffin - of course! McEwen set out his tray of five pills and began swallowing. He was well pleased all around. McEwen and McMuffin he mused, it had a ring to it.
He never used his first name anyway. It always embarrassed him. That's how unlikely it was. Mario was the name his mother had given him. A hopeless romantic, she had been enamored with that American tenor Mario Lanza at the time. She bestowed the unfortunate legacy upon her unsuspecting son. By the time he left the family nest to seek his fame and fortune, he'd had had enough of that name, so he left it behind too. Whenever anyone asked his name, he'd give out McEwen. When they asked for his given name, all he would admit to was that it was the same. As far as anyone in this country knew, he was McEwen McEwen. At least the ribbing he took over that was in better humor.
Ah, the tragedy of women was such an enigma. It wasn't that he disliked women. He loved them - every last one of them. Often that posed a problem. But they confused him with their strange ways. The few stabs he had made at getting to know them always ended in disaster. In the end he decided to regard them as an amusement - an entertainment. That way he could keep his feelings out of it and stop being emotionally steam rolled every time a relationship ended.
This new friendship though was comfortable, so natural as if it was meant to be. The two of them would talk for hours, well into the night on many occasions. They would discuss anything from the pyramids of Egypt to Stone Henge to the 'Bloody Government' to use McEwen's terminology. The fact that McMuffin spoke only Cat didn't seem to hinder these dialogues at all. In fact her thick dialect suited McEwen just fine. He himself held on to his Scottish brogue and the colloquialisms that were so much a part of it. Not that he was putting on airs; he just liked the descriptive vividness of them. Words and expressions were things of beauty to him. What a dull, gray world it would be if it couldn't be painted in precise, eloquent words.
And McMuffin shared his views and his interests. She quickly familiarized herself with the place, with McEwen's comings and goings, and with his habits. She created her own time space as well as her physical space to be in step with his. It appeared she could be as happy pursuing her own interests as she was listening to a reading of Longfellow's 'Song of Hiawatha'. She had preferences too. She particularly liked Robert Service and Robbie Burns. Maybe, thought McEwen, she had a thing about anyone named Robert. One night, wanting to be sure that McMuffin had a grasp of his people language, he pulled out a copy of 'Mein Kampf' and began reading in a great loud German accent. McMuffin listened thoughtfully for a few minutes before becoming visibly annoyed. She put a paw up on the book and meowed thickly. McEwen could have sworn it was a Germanic growl. When he continued on, she unceremoniously hopped from the command center and stomped off to the kitchen. Amusing as the incident was, McEwen vowed not to intentionally annoy her again.
Up to now McEwen had plodded through the last few years like an automaton, putting one foot in front of the other without a great deal of enthusiasm. When his diabetes turned on him and became severely aggressive, he was philosophical about it. What could he complain about anyway? In his younger days he'd traveled the world, met people in high and low places, was still connected to them via the Internet. What else could anyone expect? He knew that immortality was not an option and was long ago tired of chasing rainbows. Still, his habit forced him to amuse himself with little things no one else would think of. It was certainly better than holing up in some sterile hospital room, waiting for the grim reaper.
Now suddenly, McMuffin had put a different slant on things for him. Oh, his health wasn't improving any and if this latest concoction didn't work, it would be curtains anyway. That wasn't the issue. Now at least he had companionship - intelligent, non-demanding, unconditional companionship. Whatever time lay ahead was at the very least going to be fulfilling in some measure.
For the first time ever McEwen allowed himself to open the door on something that had been a dream for years. A wee cottage in the country would be nice for him and McMuffin. The very thought surprised him since he didn't know where it came from. It had nothing to do with anything, yet it had everything to do with everything. When all was said and done, McEwen's real worry here in the heart of the city was that McMuffin might get out of the house and meet with a disaster worse than before. Even now she was still limping and disfigured. At least in the country the two of them would be able to enjoy a breath of fresh air without fear of traffic.
Brushing aside the other risks such as getting lost, foxes and coyotes, him succumbing to his illness alone in the country, McEwen and McMuffin proceeded with newfound enthusiasm. It wasn't long before the deed was done over the protests of Mrs. Martens, bless her straight-laced heart. Bossy as she was, she did have a genuine concern for McEwen's welfare.
It was a glorious time of discovery for both of them in their little Garden of Eden. They walked every inch of the grounds, inspected every tree, every bush, every flower. They sat side by side on the porch watching the sun set. McEwen even started feeling a little better though he tired very easily. Was it the change of scenery or was his medicine really starting to work? Time would tell.
McMuffin took full ownership of the place within hours of their arrival. On days when McEwen had either been up too late or wasn't feeling well enough for their morning constitutional, she would put her one paw on his nose from her now permanent perch on his chest to let him know she was off for about an hour. Anticipating her independence, he had installed one of those flaps in the screen door so that she could come and go at will. She appreciated it too and said so while she watched him put it in. She knew exactly what it was for. It worked just fine too as long as the inside door was open.
As one is wont to do, McMuffin started exploring the things that were natural for cats to explore. She wanted to savor everything and the tops of trees were no exception. It never occurred to her that there might be squatters up there who didn't appreciate her presence. That's a problem city folk run in to. Its not that they're rude or anything, they just don't know any better. Well, this particular morning McMuffin had decided it might be nice to climb one of the big oak trees up towards the front of the property. Her one shoulder was giving her trouble, but she figured it might help to give it a work out. What she didn't count on was that a big, fat, gray squirrel had its cache of food up there. Not only that, but the squirrel himself just happened to be in the tree at the time.
About half way up the thick rough trunk the squirrel noticed the advancing intruder. The question of 'Fight or Flight' came up briefly as the screaming squirrel started its barrage of threats and insults. It was quickly resolved though as he came barreling down the trunk and straight at McMuffin. She had the presence of mind to swing wide around the garden so as to give her a straight run in to her little private entrance. The squirrel wouldn't dare trespass there. Once her plan was in place she ran at lightning speed, making a screeching left turn at the wheelbarrow and headed straight for the door flap at top speed.
The other thing McMuffin hadn't counted on was that on this particular morning McEwen would rise soon after she left on her constitutional. His command center was now in the long converted verandah overlooking the front yard. From there he could not only conduct all his business and amusement, but at the same time, see all there was to see in this lovely place. That would all have been fine too except that there was a stiff breeze blowing that morning, wrapping itself around his bare legs. He had absently shut the inside door and put on the tea kettle. McMuffin hit the door like a battering ram and collapsed in a heap, out colder than a wet mackerel. Startled by the loud thump, McEwen jumped up to see what had smashed in to his door. Seeing McMuffin lying there all crumpled up and limp, he had a sinking feeling. He looked up just in time to see the angry squirrel making his way back to the oak tree.
McMuffin wasn't herself for a good week. For one thing she had a big lump on the part of her head that had hit the door. Sensing a colossal headache, McEwen cared for her gently and gingerly. He played a lot of very soft Mozart and started singing lullabies again. It seemed to work. Hopefully she hadn't received too great a concussion, well maybe just enough so she wouldn't remember it was McEwen who had closed the inside door on her. Perhaps she wouldn't even remember the accident. That happened sometimes.
Presently she came around though. She soon resumed sleeping on McEwen's chest at night and waking him with her paw for their morning stroll. She again took up her post at the command center inspecting the computer monitor for new information and listening to his idle ramblings. Everything was back to normal.
McEwen got to thinking that McMuffin was just one of those accident-prone creatures who could make a disaster out of pretty well any situation. That was the second time he'd nursed her back to health. He had better start taking more care of himself too if for no other reason than to take care of McMuffin. Independent as she was, she would never manage this place alone if he kicked the bucket. Who would even know she was there? Funny - just a few short months ago, he didn't really care one way or another, and now he felt a responsibility. Well, so be it.
The place in the autumn was spectacular to say the very least. The colors of the leaves on a variety of trees were akin to giant fireworks, frozen in space. McMuffin's apple tree was the favorite. She had selected it after the oak tree incident. There was nothing on it to interest a squirrel. McEwen kind of liked it too. The apples shone in the sunlight like Christmas tree decorations.
Unfortunately there was also a great female black bear who liked the apple tree as much as McEwen and McMuffin, but for a different reason. One morning the two were just returning from their stroll, chatting away unmindfully when a great roar brought them up short. There, between them and the house stood the bear munching on the ripe fruit. She was not pleased with the intrusion. What to do? McEwen's hundred and twenty pounds didn't even stack up against her one front paw. She could certainly out run him in the shape he was in. McMuffin on the other hand, had her own game plan. She headed straight for the oak tree. McEwen remembered thinking that it wasn't much of a good idea, given past experience. Nonetheless, she scampered noisily up the tree, howling and growling. Predictably, the squirrel started down angrily after her. That was what McMuffin was counting on. Waiting just long enough so the squirrel was committed to the chase, she headed straight for the bear that was already in the act of rearing up on her hind legs. Up her leg, her belly, her face went McMuffin, claws out as far as she could stretch them. The squirrel that couldn't care less about anything but the annoying cat was in hot pursuit. The bear on the other hand had just lost all focus on McEwen given the sharp-clawed furry fury that dug in to her nose and eyes not to mention the soft spot on her belly. McEwen was completely mesmerized. This was definitely a David and Goliath story. The bear thought so too. The painful pinpricks in her skin coming from places she couldn't even see plus the chattering of the angry squirrel were just too much. She thumped down on all fours and with one last roar, took off into the bush where she'd come from.
McMuffin now returned to McEwen and turned on her tail to face down the squirrel. He in his wisdom went blustering back to his oak tree. McEwen was still standing there with his mouth open in disbelief. McMuffin coolly wanted to know where they were before this untimely interruption. So they carried on as though nothing had happened.
Lying in bed that night, McEwen was reflective on their situation. McMuffin knew a long discussion was in the works. It was always that way when he stretched out like that with his hands folded behind his head. She settled herself in the hollow between his sparse ribs and waited in the dark.
"You know," he began, "that was either the bravest thing you did today or the dumbest. Where did you ever get the idea for that squirrel to chase you?"
McEwen was startled. In her cat reply, he was sure he heard the human word, 'idiot'. It struck him funny. What - was she learning to speak human now?
"The point is," he continued, "Here we are in our dream cottage in the country which pleases us no end. We are way out of our league here. If something happens to either one of us the other won't survive more than a few days." He was exaggerating of course, but it seemed reasonable at the time.
"We have to turn this in to a challenge just to make it interesting. If neither of us cares that much about our own welfare, that's one thing. But we do care about each other, right?"
What was his point?
"Simple," McEwen continued after a moment. How should he put this? "You need to try to keep me alive so that you can survive. I need to keep you alive for the sake of my own survival."
"It would be McEwen vs. McMuffin - kind of a grudge match to see who can keep the other alive the longest."
Well, I wrote the story down and showed it to him after I’d done it. He agreed with the content and didn’t dispute any of it, so I imagine, given McEwen’s integrity, that it’s all pretty well true and so I pass it on.