I am on our porch, which is lit up with little Christmas lights. My two dogs are asleep on my feet, creating smells powerful enough to bring a tear to a glass eye.
Across the road there is a family who is gathered on their porch too. They have even more lights than we do. Someone on their porch plays a guitar using the musical finesse of a tablesaw. And there is singing.
It’s hard not to sing along because they’re playing Christmas music.
This is Florida, and it never truly feels like Christmas in this mild weather. We live in the woods. One mile from the bay. Two miles from the Gulf of Mexico. I am sandwiched between two large bodies of humidity.
Where my house sits was once a swamp. We have longleaf pines, lots of hanging moss, mosquitoes the size of Chevy Impalas, scorpions, spiders, gators, water moccasins, coral snakes, rattlesnakes, pythons, vipers, and real estate developers.
Our scenery is not exactly fit for a Christmas postcard. But the music coming from the porch makes it almost feel like it.
I eavesdrop on my neighbors.
A young boy says, “Granddaddy, can we play that one song about Grandma getting killed by reindeer?”
Granddaddy launches into “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer.” A real classic.
I hear a teenage girl say, “I love that song.”
An old woman’s voice says, “Well your grandmother doesn’t.”
Granddaddy takes a break. He sets the guitar down and he starts talking to the kids. He’s not saying anything important, just jawing the way that old men do.
He has a gentle tenor voice that’s perfect for telling stories about life before technology. Back when people still listened to the radio. When Tommy Dorsey, Guy Lombardo, and the immortal Louis Armstrong still played real music.
Sometimes I wonder what happened to music like that.
I hear the teenage girl say, “Can you teach me to play the guitar, Granddaddy?”
So Granddaddy explains the finer points. How to strum, how to hold her hands correctly, how to use a flatpick.
After this, I hear the unmistakable sound of a guitar pick, scraping across steel strings. PLINK! Followed by three seconds of silence. Then another PLINK! PLINK!
“Keep practicing,” says Granddaddy.
Two feral cats are looking at me right now. They are on my porch steps, listening to the scraping guitar noise. They are named Linus and Lula Bell. We don’t know where they came from, but we started feeding them years ago and they’ve been around ever since.
Linus jumps on my lap. He loves it whenever I sit on the porch because this means I will rub his cold little ears. And he loves to have his cold ears rubbed.
Ever since these two cats showed up, more cats from all over the United States began appearing at our house. One after another. We have lots of cats now.
I haven’t gotten too creative with their names. There’s Kitty Gray, Kitty Black, Kitty Khaki, and Kitty Off-White. And as of yesterday, I saw a new cat prancing through our yard. I call him Kitty All-Kinds-of-Crazy-Colors because he looks like a cross between a raccoon and a Hawiian shirt. He was carrying a dead lizard in his mouth as a housewarming gift.
So we have seven or eight cats who use our house as a kind of feline headquarters. They visit every day just to let us know that things are okay in Cat World. But mostly, they spend their hours sleeping on my truck hood, on my boat, my charcoal grill, my shed roof, or on anything else I own.
But I don’t mind. Because the cats and I have an unspoken agreement between us. I agree to give them food and shelter; they have agreed to constantly patrol our yard and hunt for new places to poop.
The cats are listening to the guitar music coming from the porch across the street. They sit side-by-side, whipping their tails. They look sort of comical. I almost use my phone to snap a picture, but the scene is already perfect without involving technology.
I hear the neighbor girl give up struggling with the guitar. She says, “I can’t do it, Granddaddy.”
Then I hear the old man say, “Whoa, sweetie! You’re getting a little heavy for Granddaddy’s lap. You’re gonna break my legs.”
“Granddaddy, will you play the one you always sing for me?”
The next sound I hear is a guitar being tuned. Then, a few gentle strums. Followed by an old voice. He sings to her slowly:
“I see skies of blue,
“Clouds of white,
“The bright blessed day,
“And the dark sacred night,
“And I think to myself,
“What a wonderful world…”
The old man’s voice is not smooth. It’s raspy and it sounds like it’s been around the world a few times. Like this voice has experienced life for what it is. Heartaches and triumphs. Scrapes and bruises. Ups, downs, losing streaks, strokes of luck, good football teams, cold ice cream, sunshine in June, wayward cats, loyal dogs, broken radiators, chocolate, kisses from loved ones, and the loss of friends who died too young.
“I hear babies cry,
“I watch them grow,
“They’re gonna learn,
“More than I’ll ever know,
“And I think to myself,
“What a wonderful world.”
When the old man finishes, there is heartfelt applause. A standing ovation, actually. But all this clapping is not coming from the porch across the road. It’s coming from mine.
Because even my cats agree, no matter how bad things might look sometimes, it is a wonderful world.