Outside, the rain had taken league with the cold to ensure that only the very brave or the very foolish would venture into the night. The wind banged furiously on the windows, while the rain hammered on the roof, trying to gain access to the small, lonely cottage.
But inside, a cozy, warm fire blazed out of control in the kitchen. Mr. Whitehead, a wizened old man, sat engrossed in a game of chess with his presumptuous, wisecracking son, Hubert. Deep within Mr. Whitehead, where very little else stirred, lived a small yet ridiculous dream of becoming head lifeguard at the town swimming hole that summer. He would never see that day, and it was just as well, since he couldn’t swim in anything over three inches deep. Especially water. Mrs. Whitehead sat in the corner working hard, squeezing the last few drops of blood from a turnip for a lovely blood pudding.
“Check,” announced Mr. Whitehead for all to hear.
The old woman stopped her work and looked up in surprise. Hubert grinned impishly and then with a nasty little chuckle made his move.
“Checkmate.” Mrs. Whitehead returned to her blood pudding. “Well,” said Hubert, “I beat you again, you senile old stooge.”
“Well, Alexander Bromide Whitehead,” the old woman cackled, “there’s no denying our little king has a way about him.”
“No,” replied her husband sternly. “I would never deny anything about our little king. Especially if the law were present.”
Suddenly there came a loud knock at the door, and a voice: “Come quick and let me in — I’m freezing!”
“Sorry, nobody’s home,” cracked Hubert.
“Oh, my!” exclaimed Mr. Whitehead. “That must be Sergeant Major Morton. Last week I invited him to visit us tonight, but who would think that anyone would brave this weather?”
He lifted the bolt on the door and flung it open. A man staggered in almost falling, and then caught his balance with the help of Mr. Whitehead’s arm.
His eyes were fearsomely large and wild. Clumps of flaming red beard clung perilously to his face. Having lost most of his beard in the war (just which war is uncertain — he claims to have been in a dozen or more), he had been advised by the doctors to amputate the rest. He had bravely refused, and now got along on slightly less than half a beard. He was middle-aged, yet appeared to be quite strong, not with the strength of youth, but rather with the strength of old, beaten leather. His hair stood straight up, and from time to time a spark would leap from his head to the ceiling and disappear. Also sticking to his head, as if glued, were some antique forks and knives, a couple of large paper clips, and some snips of loose wire. These were easily explained by the metal plate in his head, which he had acquired during “the war” (again, just which war he probably could not say). Rumor had it that the forks and knives were attracted to his head by the need to feel part of a complete dinner set. Actually, though, he had been struck in the head by lightning several times, which electrically magnetized the plate.
Aside from these details, there was a large red question mark tattooed on his forehead. Smooth, dark hair grew on his palms, and rotten teeth fell from his mouth like candy from a broken piñata. In short, he was a cab driver, and had seen everything in the world there was to see — maybe more.
Mrs. Whitehead, who sat staring in awe at the strange creature her husband had befriended, now believed that she, too, had seen everything.
The sergeant major sat smoking a pipe and consuming a comfortable amount of whiskey without saying much until dinner was served. At dinner he was alive and glowing with stories about India, Africa, wars of all sorts, and the many queer experiences he’d had with those who had ridden in his cab. Hubert dared to laugh once, and the sergeant major shot him a glance with twisted lip and squinted eyes so fierce and forbidding that Hubert had to leave the table for a change of pants.
It was late in the evening when the Whitehead’s guest finally broached the subject of a strange, magical garment known as the Cat’s Pajamas.
“How did they get their name?” inquired Mrs. Whitehead. “I mean, were they really the pajamas of someone’s cat?”
“Of a cat,” he explained. “A royal cat in ancient Egypt who was the direct descendant of the Great Sphinx.”
“You mean that statue?” asked Mrs. Whitehead.
“No, I mean the original Sphinx, not that silly carving. She was very upset by that, you know. She felt it was an extremely poor likeness, and was greatly angered that the artist had not bothered to consult her. She often asked those who crossed her path, ‘Who’s responsible for this thing? It doesn’t even look like me! Where are my whiskers?’ When they could not answer, she gobbled them up. Once, however, being too tired to ask the whole question, she said simply, ‘Where are my whiskers?’ To which the young man quaking in front of her replied, ‘You’re wearing them.’ This, of course, was not the answer the Sphinx desired, but being fair and not very hungry at the moment, she let the young man pass with just a fractured skull.
“Anyway, to continue. These pajamas are unique both because anyone in possession of them may be granted three wishes, and because they are reversible and may double as a beautiful smoking jacket, which, it seems to me, is an idea remarkably ahead of its time. But then, some people are still baffled by the pyramids.”
“Then this cat did have its vices?” inquired Mrs. Whitehead, in connection with the smoking jacket.
“Oh, yes indeed. And it was smoking that was directly responsible for the spell cast on the pajamas, or curse if you will.”
“I will not!” declared the old woman. “I’m a Christian.”
“He means the spell was a curse,” explained her husband.
“Come off it,” challenged Hubert. “How could three little wishes hurt anyone?”
“Your mother wished for you, didn’t she?” laughed Mr. Whitehead, delighted at having got the jump on Hubert.
Sergeant Major Morton coughed to break up the argument and continued with his story.
“This cat tried for years to give up smoking, with little success. Finally, in desperation he turned to an old wizard and said, ‘What the hell are you doing in my house?’
“‘I’ve come to help you stop smoking,’ said the old necromancer.
“‘How much will that cost me?’
“‘Fifteen cartons of cigarettes,’ said the wizard, who enjoyed smoking and was not about to give it up.
“‘Fair enough,’ came the reply. And with that a spell was cast which made the cat extremely nauseated any time he even thought about cigarettes. ‘Here,’ the cat gulped, pushing 40 cartons of cigarettes at the wizard. ‘Take them all, they make me sick.’
“Several days later the cat was approached by Nile Cigarettes, Inc., the largest manufacturer and distributor of cigarettes in Egypt. They wanted him to pose for an advertisement that read, ‘I buy Niles by the mile!’ It would’ve made him one of the richest cats in Egypt, but the very idea of it made him sick. A week later he saw the advertisement on a billboard with the old wizard posing in his place. Needless to say, he puked his guts out. The cat now realized it was fate that ruled everyone’s life, and that to tamper with it only brought grief and the heartbreak of psoriasis. So, being one who didn’t like to suffer alone, he had the wizard put a spell on the pajamas to ensure that future generations would continue to make the same foolish mistakes.”
“Why pajamas?” probed Mr. Whitehead with intense interest.
“Probably for the sake of humiliation, since one must wear the silly-looking things upsidedown, covering the head completely, before making a wish.”
“Do they still exist?” inquired Mrs. Whitehead anxiously.
“They do,” said the sergeant major, as he reached into his breast pocket and revealed a peculiar cloth. All eyes were on the drunken cabbie and the room was perfectly hushed as even the act of breathing was forgotten momentarily. Bringing the cloth to his face, he blew his nose, then stuffed the hanky back in his pocket.
“But how do you know they exist?” insisted Mr. Whitehead impatiently.
“Because I have them here,” said Sergeant Major Morton. And reaching into another pocket, he pulled out the pajamas and quickly blew his nose on them.
“Good heavens!” screamed Mrs. Whitehead. “Where did you get them, and why do you treat them so lightly?”
“I bought them on sale for five dollars at Carson Pirie Scott.”
“At Carson Pirie Scott?” repeated Mrs. Whitehead, dumbfounded.
“Yes, but it’s no use going back for more. These were the only ones ever made, and finding them was a rare bit of luck, I suppose.”
“How do you happen to know so much about them?” Hubert questioned suspiciously.
“Everything I’ve told you is there on the label, right below where it says ‘100% Cotton.’ I didn’t notice it until I got home, but I’m returning them tomorrow.”
“Are you crazy?” screamed Mr. Whitehead. “What about the three wishes?”
“Do you take me for a fool? I read the label, you know. These things are cursed and I’m taking them back.”
“You’re insane. I’ll give you 25 dollars for them, five times what you paid.”
“Don’t be such a moron, pop,” yelled Hubert. “Can’t you see he’s trying to cheat you?” Again the angered cabbie shot a glance at Hubert so terrifying that Hubert left the table to change into his last clean pair of pants.
“I agree with Hubert,” said Mrs. Whitehead.
“I’m not trying to cheat anyone!” bellowed the sergeant major, throwing the pajamas at the floor. “You can keep the bloody things, and you can burn in Hell, and don’t ever say I didn’t warn you!” He stomped over to the door, then turned around and said politely, “By the way, in case you haven’t noticed, your kitchen’s on fire.” With that, he slammed the door behind him.
It took them several hours to put the fire out using a garden hose and wetted blankets from Mr. Whitehead’s bed, which, according to Hubert, “choked the fire because they smelled so bad.”
All were exhausted afterwards, and Mr. Whitehead slumped down into the easy chair to rest. Suddenly his eyes grew bright and he sat up straight.
“Oh, what a fool I am!” he exclaimed. “Why didn’t I think of it? I should’ve used the Cat’s Pajamas and wished the fire away.”
“You’re a fool, all right,” agreed his wife. “You were going to pay 25 dollars for those useless rags. If they were worth any wishing, I’d wish you had never met that walking liquor cabinet of a man.”
“No, mother! Don’t forget you must wear them on your head,” joked Hubert.
“Oh, yes.” She laughed, and snatched them up quickly from the floor. Her husband stepped towards her, but it was too late. They were on her head. “How do I look?” she giggled, doing a dance around the world and blindly knocking over furniture.
“Please don’t!” pleaded Mr. Whitehead.
“Wish, Mother!” screamed Hubert, hysterical with laughter. “Wish!”
“I wish — cha cha cha — that my poor, foolish husband — cha cha cha — had never met the highly distinguished and very flammable Sergeant Major Morton!” The pajamas instantly tightened around her neck like a hangman’s noose, and jerked her feet off the ground. She let out a blood-curdling shriek and made a repugnant sort of gurgle.
Then, in the wink of an eye, they were all transported to a time earlier in the evening. Father and Son were at chess, Mother sat in the corner with her blood pudding, and a cozy, warm fire blazed out of control in the kitchen.
The next day’s paper reported sadly that the entire Whitehead family had perished in a fire which completely destroyed their small home.