Selections from Mr. Kringle’s Tales: Mr. Kringle Visits the President

In a variation on “From the Stacks,” I have decided to offer you, between now and Christmas, a few of Jonathan’s stories from one of his most popular books:

Mr. Kringle’s Tales: 26 Stories ‘Til Christmas


Mr. Kringle Visits the President

On December 20th, 1862, Abraham Lincoln was sitting in his office alone, deliberating the fate of young men he had sent to a war not of his making. He was interrupted by a knock on the door.

“Is that you, Mr. Hay?” he asked without budging from his chair.

“It is not Mr. Hay.” The voice said no more.

Abraham stood to his feet and creaked toward the door. Opening it, he gazed at a man with a smoky-white beard, stovepipe hat, dressed in the uniform of a colonel in the Union army. “I have two questions for you, Colonel,” said Abe. “Who are you and how did you get past my aide?”

“He became distracted by an urgent personal need which called him to the water closet,” responded the courtly colonel.

“Well, that answers one.”

“For the other answer, I think we should both sit down, sir.”

“I am always of a mind to put more pressure on my backside than my feet,” Mr. Lincoln smiled, motioning to a chair for his guest and heading for one himself.

The distinguished colonel sat, drew a breath, and began. “Mr. President, I am Kris Kringle.”

“Dutch or German?”

“Very.”

“Well, Colonel Kringle, you are honored with a fine name.”

“I am not a colonel.”

“Then you are in danger of being shot for impersonating one. Have you come to assassinate me?”

“Heavens, no. I have come to see you on behalf of the children.”

“Children? Are you a father?”

“Many children, I hope. Some are black.”

“A plantation owner?”

“No. A toyshop.”

“Mr. Kringle, I am not partial to riddles unless they are of my own making.”

“Then let me speak plainly. I am Santa Claus.”

“A little too plainly, dear sir. I must ask you to leave.”

“I know it is hard to believe. But sir, you are a man of great hope and faith. Stretch that belief for a few moments.”

“Speak on. You have until my aide returns to throw you out.”

Kris fidgeted in his chair, not sure what he had expected, but definitely discouraged by this beginning. “I have received words, letters and heard the prayers of black children across the South. They asked me for a Christmas gift — liberty.”

“That is why we are fighting this horrible war. Are you some sort of abolitionist-soothsayer?” Lincoln was perturbed.

“I am what I am, which I declared myself to be. I know you have a proclamation you are about to make law.”

“This is common knowledge.”

“I also know you are reconsidering your decision because people are putting pressure on you to keep slavery out of the issue.”

Abraham sat straighter, cleared his throat, and said, “Go on.”

“Freed children make productive men and women — the kind that build nations.”

“Maybe they would be happier back home in Africa.”

“These children are home. This is their land. They were born here. It is their dream. It is their hope. It is the land where they ask me to come and bring them presents. They are you and you are them.”

Lincoln probed the rotund stranger for a glimmer of sanity. Satisfied, he asked, “Well, Santa Claus, if you are, what should this old President do?”

“Be Santa Claus to a whole race of children. Give them what they deserve this Christmas — freedom. They’ve been good They have suffered quietly. It is time to let them run and play.”

Mr. Lincoln’s eyes welled with tears as he nodded his head. Kris Kringle stood to leave. Empty of words, he headed for the door.

“Mr. Claus,” Lincoln called, “what do I get for Christmas?” Abe’s eyes twinkled in the fading light.

“What do you want?”

“I fancy that stove-pipe hat on your head, dear sir.”

“It is yours.” Kris strolled over and handed it to the President.

“Is it magic?” Lincoln pursued.

“Everything has its moment of magic,” Kris chuckled.

Lincoln smiled. “The children will have their Christmas, Mr. Kringle.” He then turned away and stared out the window as Mr. Kringle vanished.

***

On January 1st, 1863, Abraham Lincoln declared the Emancipation Proclamation to be the law of the land, freeing the slaves.

***

In the spring of 1865, while riding a horse near enemy lines, President Lincoln was shot at by a sniper, the bullet passing cleanly through his stovepipe hat, leaving him unharmed.

Afterward

I wrote this story in 2004 as part of a collection. There are twenty-six stories (hence the title!)

If it intrigues you, go ahead and purchase a copy of the book. It’s on Amazon. Just click the title below.

Mr. Kringle’s Tales: 26 Stories ’Til Christmas

Things I Learned from R. B.

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Episode 25

Sitting in the darkness of my room, I was overwhelmed by the circumstances and terrified by my indifference.

It had been nearly six weeks since I had seen R. B.

Following the concert, he had selected a profile of long phone conversations which were more or less therapy sessions. Not therapy in the sense that I was a qualified physician who knew how to address illnesses of the mind and spirit, but rather, R. B. groping into his surroundings, trying to find someone who gave enough of a damn to listen to his ever-increasing pandemonium.

During one of those exchanges, I was able to talk him into coming over to our house for a July 4th cookout next to our pool. I wasn’t surprised when the hour arrived, and he was nowhere to be found. But about forty-five minutes into our festivities, I looked atop the long stairway that descended to our deck, and there he was, shirtless, wearing swim trunks, slowly making his way to join the party. I could see under his right arm that he had his traditional bag of Doritos to donate to the food table.

Yet, as he came closer, I was stunned. I wasn’t alone.

Gradually, everyone spying his entrance grew quiet—and only the boom of the music remained. I looked around at my family and friends and noted that they were peering at me, wondering if I had any information or knowledge on the sight before them.

For you see, R.  B. was almost unrecognizable. He was so skinny that it was difficult to look at him. The bones were protruding from his hips and chest—and his legs looked like kindling wood which would certainly break with a passing breeze.

He continued toward us, each step offering a more startling revelation. When he finally arrived, he gave little Isabella a hug (because they were great comrades from making his video). She greeted him warmly. I stood to my feet and headed his way. He held out his arms for a hug and I quickly forced myself to embrace him. I could feel every single portion of his spine. As I pulled away, I noticed that his skin had turned grey, like marble, and had a texture of soft plastic.

Somehow or another, all of us made it through the afternoon without asking questions, challenging or indicating that there was something wrong. R. B. himself seemed oblivious to the changes in his body.

He must have lost at least fifty pounds and he had never been sturdy to begin with.

Now that everyone had departed and I was alone, it was righteous that I be honest with myself and admit that my comrade was sick.

What made it difficult was that I had just rented a large house for R. B. and a lady I knew, who had three children and was constantly struggling to make rent. I had concluded that this one house could take care of both situations. R. B. could have the upstairs and the family could have the downstairs. I would pay the rent and they could take care of the utilities and food stuff.

We were in our third month of the arrangement and everything seemed to be going well. It was expensive, but it was a resolution.

Now, as I considered the ghost who had come to my house as a skeleton, I surmised that he required medical attention.

I balked. R. B. had no medical insurance, and if he was going to get a diagnosis and treatment, someone would have to pay for it.

I felt like a piece of shit to be considering what to do for this human based upon finance. So finally, I didn’t.

I called my doctor and set an appointment. R. B. reluctantly agreed to go. She tested him—but the visit was very quick.

She reported to both of us that R. B. had a disease. She said it appeared to be fourth stage rectal cancer and that immediate treatment was a necessity.

I watched R. B. as he received the news. Rather than breaking down or becoming angry, he questioned the accuracy of her determination. My doctor was not offended. She suggested that he get a second opinion.

At this point, I finally spoke up. I don’t know why it took me so long to find my voice, but it seemed appropriate. “You don’t need a second opinion, R. B.,” I said softly. “You need a second chance. Get the treatment. We’ll provide the prayers.”

My words touched his heart, and he reached over to squeeze my hand. God forgive me, but I recoiled. It was not my proudest moment.

My doctor set up an appointment for R. B. to meet with a specialist. I posed a question. I asked my doctor if the cancer could be removed through an operation.

She quietly shook her head and said, “No. We will need to see what chemotherapy can do.”

I nodded. I was a novice, but astute enough to know that when operating is not possible, it’s just not good.

We left the office together.

R. B. wanted to go out to lunch. I lied and told him I was busy. I slipped him a twenty-dollar bill, and jokingly told him to eat enough for both of us.

I don’t think he knew that I was repulsed.

At least, I hope not.

Things I Learned from R. B. (June 14th, 2020)

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Episode 19

It came in the mail.

I was very surprised.

I had never received anything postal from R. B., even though there were times we’d been separated for years. Not one letter or birthday card had ever come my way.

I didn’t expect it. He was a single guy, singularly focused on his own efforts.

So that’s why I was so bewildered by the arrival of this big, fat envelope. It was normal business-sized—but stuffed to the edges, nearly ready to burst its seal.

I opened it and pulled out what ended up being, after careful count, sixteen yellow legal-size pages, with R. B.’s scrawlings and notes.

At first, I could not identify what I was holding in my hands. Then I concluded that he had sent me a play, formatted in his own imagination.

It was entitled “The Reveal.”

A quick look-over told me there were three characters: Robbie, Papa and Len.

I found a quiet place, sat down and started to read. I don’t know whether I was preoccupied or tired, but I found it difficult to get through the entire piece. Finally, after two or three attempts throughout the evening, I finished it.

It was a rather simple story, about a young fellow who wanted to join the Boy Scouts. So he came to his father, who was a very austere man, and asked if it was okay. His brother, Len, came along, hoping that if Robbie was allowed to join, maybe he could be included.

The response from their Papa was very unusual. He began to pontificate about how difficult it was to be a young woodsman, and that if Robbie wanted to be a Scout, he would have to be tough.

At this point the piece took a bizarre turn. Papa asked Len, who was sitting and listening, to come over and punch Robbie in the stomach as hard as he could. Len was resistant and Robbie was startled. So when Robbie objected, his father scolded him on the dangers of disobedience—and how being a Boy Scout required him to always be prepared.

Even though Len did not want to punch Robbie in the stomach, at the father’s insistence, he did—once, twice—a total of four times. Robbie winced, buckled and finally cried out in pain, causing Papa to shake his head in disgust.

Then the patriarch asked Robbie to punch Len in the belly, but Robbie was unwilling to do it. Len seemed glad, but was concerned that if Robbie failed, there would be no Boy Scouts.

The father harangued them both, challenging their manhood in its boyhood form.

When I reached this point in the story, the writing stopped. Inserted were the words, “To be continued…”

Attached to the little play was a note:

“Jon, I know you put on plays for people. Would you help me put this one on?”

I had no idea what to think.

I was impressed that R. B. had found an envelope and managed to stuff the pages in. I didn’t want to say no. I also didn’t want to say yes—especially since R. B. had run out of money, was living on credit cards and certainly required a job.

The next morning the phone rang, and it was R. B. He wanted to know if I had received the package and what I thought about the play. I asked him what he wanted me to do with it.

R. B. matter-of-factly responded, “Produce it.”

My mind went haywire. I thought of a hundred things I needed to say to him about plays, productions, actors, theaters and advertising, but everything was so negative—and I just didn’t feel like throwing water on the only fire I had seen in him for months.

I agreed.

I agreed to do it.

I even agreed to fund it.

I told myself the only reason I would even consider being agreeable to it was that I knew it would never happen.

I did question why the play was incomplete. He said he would have the rest of it finished by the time it premiered.

I couldn’t help myself. I chuckled.

R. B. actually advertised for actors.

He held auditions. He picked two people to play the brothers, and he decided to play the papa himself.

He scheduled a table reading and brought about seven extra pages, continuing the story, though it was still not done. He made it through the table reading without directing the volunteer actors too much on what he expected them to do.

He even went out and found one of the old warehouses in Nashville which they had begun to transform into little theaters for productions just like “The Reveal.”

Matter of fact, R. B. got all the way to the fourth rehearsal. He hit two problems:

The actors had learned all he had written and needed more pages, which he was unable to supply.

But worse—the young man playing the part of Len started offering opinions on stage direction, and even some suggestions on the structure of the lines.

I was there, sitting in an advisory position (a name R. B. had come up with for my non-involvement involvement).

The conversation became heated. I wanted to interfere, but two parts of me refrained.

First was the promise I had made—to be solely an observer. And second—well, second was that I didn’t care enough to want to see the whole thing come to fruition.

But there, before my eyes, R. B. ran the gamut of his emotions.

First, he was calm.

Then he was offended.

Next, he was angry.

And at length, he was nasty.

The young man finally grew tired of spitting at the brick wall of R. B.’s resistance. He walked out. This scared the other actor, who explained that he was not accustomed to such conversational brutality.

R. B. made fun of his weakness—and in doing so, caused the young gentleman to quit.

Remaining in the room were R. B. and myself.

He looked over at me for comfort, support and a bolstering “attaboy” for standing his ground.

I found a chip in a nearby floorboard and stared at it silently, waiting for the moment to pass. After a while, R. B. rose, apologized and left.

I never heard another word about the event or the play. I never knew how it ended. The subject was just dropped.

About four months later, when I worked up the nerve to ask him about the experience, he stared at me as if he didn’t even know what I was talking about.

I did not pursue it.

For some reason, this little manuscript was written but would never be produced.

The importance of it lay deep in the soul of R. B., who apparently was still trying to overcome his father…and that punch in the gut.

 

Things I Learned from R. B. (May 3rd, 2020)


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Episode 13

Not every door is an opening to happiness, but instead. can be a passageway to a cave with no exit—a darkened confinement.

After three-and-a-half years of traveling with the family, we found ourselves ricocheting from one miracle to another.

Although miracles have a glorious side, they also warn of an inconsistent living pattern, which requires grace to be poured out in barrels instead of cups.

Our journey became irresponsible.

Even though we tried to remain pure in heart, it was becoming difficult to see God. We were truly poor in spirit but bewildered by our insolvency.

We certainly set our goals to be merciful to others, but we were overly dependent on obtaining mercy for our lackings.

We were broke most of the time, and the rest of the time, nervous about how soon it would be before we had nothing again.

The fellowship, the family time and the intimacy was so enriching that we were nearly unable to make solid human decisions about our daily responsibilities.

Coming upon an opportunity to settle into a motel room in Santa Clara, California, where we would work our rent off by assisting on the premises and filling in front desk duties—was just too alluring.

I legitimately wanted my children to be confident. Although they were growing in their faith, their personal sense of talent and capability was diminished by persistent trial and tribulation.

At first the motel situation seemed ideal. My wife was even able to get a job, which for the first time in a long time, gave us money without having to wonder whether it would soon trickle away.

But to remain in the situation and do it righteously required that we abandon our music, our mission and that closeness that can only be achieved by pilgrims on a journey to the same holy place.

We drifted apart.

My sons became too familiar with HBO at young ages and had too much time on their hands. (We were uncomfortable placing them in a local school, lest the teachers or authorities ask too many questions.)

For a little over two years, we experienced an unhealthy prosperity.

One day, a traveler passed through and talked to me about my situation. He remarked, “If the owner here has been charging you tax for your room, he owes you that money. Because after the first month, no one has to pay tax on a motel room.”

I laughed. I didn’t know it was true. So I joked with the boss about it when he came into work that day.

I left, went out to lunch, and when I came back, he was standing in front of my door with a check for three thousand dollars in his hands—apparently frightened that I would make more out of the tax situation than I ever would have. He decided to cover his butt by paying back the money, so he wouldn’t have to worry about being accosted in court.

After he left me alone, I stared at the check.  I realized it was three thousand good reasons to leave “the cave” and start looking for a door again. I didn’t waste any time because I didn’t want to waste any of the money.

We packed up that night and the next morning we rolled off to Sacramento, California. Within two days, we rented a duplex with three bedrooms, a sunken living room, a fireplace, and a huge dining room—a heavenly haven to call our own.

We decided to try to start scheduling concerts again and live off our talent. The first three months were tremendously successful. Wanting to celebrate that Thanksgiving with friends, we invited two from San Diego, and I called R. B., who was living in Tacoma, Washington, to come and join us.

For the first time in his life, R. B. jumped at an opportunity. I was shocked. I was anticipating a rejection, or at least a request for three days of fasting and prayer to decide.

He arrived—and he looked terrible. After a few conversations I discovered that he had lost his job four months earlier and was living off of unemployment insurance. He was drinking, smoking more and was quickly running out of money. It was the most vulnerable I had ever seen him.

As the tenderness of Thanksgiving swept over him, he was in tears several times, grateful for the opportunity to escape his Washington surroundings and be with those who accepted him in the form he arrived.

On Monday, the San Diego couple left. R. B. decided to stay on a few more days.

During that time, we played music, sang songs and even devised a plan so he could come and live with us, join the band and be part of the tour.

Even though my sons were not particularly favorable to R. B., they still thought it would be inspirational to have another band mate.

We laughed and cried our way to a local department store, where we purchased a matching vest for him, to go with the ones my sons wore.

He seemed to belong. More importantly, he felt needed.

Yet, two days later, as we were about to rehearse, he became very still. Something was amiss. After allowing him a space of time to come clean with his feelings, I finally confronted him.

He cried again—and these were not the tears of a grateful traveler. This weeping was coming from a place of fear.

He explained to the whole family that he wanted to travel with us and be a part of the band, but he was scared. All of his life, he had counted on a job to take care of his financial needs, and even though he wasn’t working now, he felt more comfortable occupation than he did launching out by faith, to see how far his abilities would take him.

I wanted to argue with him. But one thing I knew was that each human being sets his own time and place. If we try to find a place and establish a time, he will only rebel.

Two days later, he quietly packed his bag.

He silently ate a breakfast with us, and he walked out our door without saying another word.

I really did believe this would be the last time I ever saw him.

I felt mercy, because I, myself, just a few years earlier, had gone into a dark cave—because I was afraid of my circumstances.

“Be safe,” I spoke aloud.

The family looked at me. They didn’t know what I was thinking.

But they certainly understood what I felt.

Things I Learned from R. B. (April 19th, 2020)


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Episode 11

The dust never settled.

Although our family spent three inspirational and life-changing years in Shreveport, Louisiana, we were never able to make it the home of our hearts.

It is no disrespect to the town itself. The problem was a combination of inadequacies. The community had pretty well determined by mutual decree to remain the same, and I was out to change the world.

So we bought an old, green van and took off to see America. (That particular journey I will relate at another time, when I am not placing my soul’s attention on R. B.)

The initial stop was Dallas, Texas. Actually, it was the first large city west of Shreveport. While Dollie and the kids worked on our plans for the week, I set out to find the telephone number of an old friend—or at least, I believed he was still an old friend.

This was well before the days of the Internet, so procuring the personal information or location of another human being was not so easy. But after four or five calls, I finally reached Maddie, who had been in the cast of our musical which had traveled across the country.

She told me she had run into R. B. in Dallas and had even shared a dinner with him. She generously gave me his number. When I asked her what he was like now, she offered a one-word pronouncement: “Different.”

So I dialed up the number and immediately the phone was answered by a voice I still recognized.

I told R. B. who I was. He acted as if he was trying to recall and place my name. I was offended—but said nothing.

After a few moments he warmed up and asked to take me out to dinner at a supper club the following evening. Just me—not the entire family, since the establishment served liquor and had scantily clothed female dancers.

I agreed. I showed up the next night in my green van, dressed casually but passable for a Sunday morning church service.

R. B. was late, and when he came in, seemed flustered. He was wearing a navy-blue polyester suit and a checked shirt, with his huge hairdo trimmed about two inches into the fairway.

We procured a table and sat down.

(At this point I wish to change over to a theatrical format so as to make it easier for the reader to follow the story without too many cumbersome clauses. I will add author’s clarifications when necessary.)

R. B.: Have any trouble finding the place?

Me: No. The directions were good.

R. B.: Do you want a cocktail?

Me: No, thanks.

R. B.: Oh, that’s right—you’re against drinking.

Me: No, I’m not against it. I’m just basically a kid and don’t like the taste.

R. B.: Not me. I love a screwdriver. You should try a screwdriver.

Me: What’s it have in it?

R. B.: (looking up to the ceiling as if searching for the answer, then back down) Hell if I know. I never asked. My boss always orders them. I thought it would look good to order what he ordered. Eventually I decided I liked them.

(I nodded my head with little desire to continue this particular conversation.)

R. B.: I know you don’t smoke, either, do you? We just might not have anything to do or talk about. (laughs)

Me: Oh, I think we can come up with something.

R. B.: Let me order for us—I know the menu.

Me: Cool.

(R. B. ordered off the menu, making specific requests which the waiter did not understand, leaving them both confused and in disarray. I eventually determined it was going to be some sort of red meat with potatoes and vegetables.)

R. B.: It’s been a long time.

Me: Well, you know—not really. You’ve been gone from Shreveport about eight months.

R. B.: Well, what brings you to Dallas?

(I proceeded to explain that I had decided to take the family on the road, going from town-to-town, holding meetings and concerts at churches as we journeyed. I also shared that we did not have anything already scheduled but were planning to do it spontaneously when we arrived in each town. The more I talked the more he rolled his eyes, even giggling a couple of times. At length, he interrupted to share his opinion.)

R. B.: Well, if you ask me, it sounds irresponsible. Of course, you’ve never had a problem with that, have you?r

(R. B. looked me squarely in the eyes, and when I stared back, he averted his gaze. At that point, I understood the nature of our evening and the purpose of his invitation. He was determined to establish his success, and my ongoing neediness.)

R. B.: Well, if you’re looking for donations, I’m sorry. I don’t have any money for that. Honestly, I don’t consider it a good investment. Sounds foolhardy.

(I remained silent. If there was going to be an argument, he would have to handle both sides of the conflict. His screwdriver arrived and he drank it down in less than a minute and ordered another. He watched me carefully to see if I would comment on his alcohol consumption. I didn’t. I think he might have been disappointed. Feeling the need to change the subject, I brought up Maddie.)

Me: I got hold of you by talking to Maddie. She said she had dinner with you several months back.

R. B.: I did. And it was pleasant. It’s always nice to see an old-time acquaintance. She’s just so…you know. So small-town. I think she might have been interested in seeing me again while she was in Dallas, but I was all tied up in business.

(I knew he wanted me to ask him about his business, but I also knew that if I did, he would act annoyed over me interfering in his affairs. So I waited.)

R. B.: Business is good. I have finally put my mind to the power of making a dollar. You know, we always sit around and talk about our dreams, but we sometimes fail to understand that wishing for them only makes them run away. All they need is funding. Do the work, make the money and then, address the dreams.

Me: I suppose that’s true.

R. B.: Don’t suppose. It is true. I used to sit around and pray for success. Can I tell you something? Success is not religious. Matter of fact, it makes fun of religious people. I don’t mean any insult to you…

Me: I don’t feel insulted. I don’t feel religious.

R. B.: But you are. You hang around with those people who count how many screwdrivers someone drinks, and probably would not approve of my lifestyle in any way.

Me: Are you making friends?

R. B.: I have a woman. Well, had.

Me: Tell me more.

R. B.: You wouldn’t approve.

Me: Listen, I’m not going to disapprove of anything you say for two reasons. Number one, I have no room to judge, and secondly, when I leave this restaurant, I may never see you again.

(R. B. was a little surprised, and thought about being insulted, but realized there was no intent of being harmful on my part. He lowered his voice to a whisper.)

R. B.: I hired an escort.

Me: An escort?

R. B.: Well, that’s one name for them. A call girl. A prostitute. Do you get the picture?

(I nodded my head, careful not to allow any part of my facial features to flinch with reaction. He continued.)

R. B.: Let me tell you, I just got tired of being a virgin. I had never been with a woman. I kissed for kind of a long period of time when I was in high school—one night on a hayride. But that was it. I don’t like masturbating. It feels nasty to me. I suppose that’s the last part of my Bible training. I got tired of waiting. I got tired of wondering. So I hired an escort.

Me: Do you want to tell me about it?

R. B.: (laughing) It was fucking great! And speaking of that, she—by the way, her name was Krystall. Isn’t that beautiful? She’s from Florence, in Italy. Anyway, she said I was good. I took that as a compliment, since she’s been with a few other men.

(I sat very still. This was R. B.’s story. This was R. B.’s night. He had paid for it. He had probably planned it out in his mind. It was my job to sit, watch and listen, like a ten-year-old the first time he sees an R-rated film. R. B. wanted me shocked—but he did not want me to offer advice.)

R. B.: I was surprised at how quick it was. Krystall told me that was normal. When I watched in movies, it seemed to go on for a while, but…well, anyway. It was so good that I paid to see her again. It’s pretty expensive. After the second time we were together, she explained that she was short on cash and needed some financial assistance. I felt, what the hell? So I gave her an extra five hundred dollars.

Me: That was generous of you.

R. B.: (shaking his head) It felt so good. Not just the sex, but she allowed me to kiss her. She said she doesn’t normally do that. And she lay next to me in the bed for an extra fifteen minutes, even though she was late for an appointment. Dammit, if I didn’t feel like a husband. Or maybe that’s not the word. I’ll tell you one thing—I felt like a man. More like a man than I had ever felt before.

(R. B. paused to order his third screwdriver. I wasn’t counting, but the waiter was reminding him, since the supper club had a policy of limiting the alcohol and prompting the patrons. After a long pause, R. B. spoke again.)

R. B.: I don’t hate God. But I sure the hell hate what He represents. When I was with Krystall, I felt more spiritual than I ever did sitting in church. I know that probably shocks you…

(I decided to change the subject.)

Me: Do you ever think about us?

R. B.: (surprised) Us? What do you mean?

Me: What we’ve been through together. The nights we prayed so we wouldn’t feel like we were the only person screwed up. The songs. The music. The sense of wonder whenever something worked out that shouldn’t have. The silences that left a chill down the spine. Just knowing that something you said or something you gave made someone’s life a little more sensible.

R. B.: Nope. I don’t think about that. Because I don’t know how it happened, and I don’t know why. I’ve just reached a point in my life where I want to earn, and I want to possess. I’m not selfish. I’m just tired of being ignorant in the name of God.

(The meal arrived. It gave us the chance to chew on something other than our feelings. There were passing thoughts—brief memories of times on the road. Then R. B. finally continued.)

R. B.: I almost decided not to come tonight. I thought you might try to talk me out of my choices or criticize my relationships. I don’t want to go without having a woman. I can’t find one who wants to be my wife. Hell, I haven’t met any who wanted to go further than “how do you do?” I don’t want to screw every night, but when I want it, I want it. Just for a while, I’d like to make the decisions instead of trying to find them in a big, black book. Do you condemn me for that?

Me: I wouldn’t even if I could.

(Things went slower after that. Both of us knew we had exhausted what each of us came to do. It was concise, eventually became awkward, and soon was over. After dinner, we went to the lobby, through the door and out into the parking lot. There was a moment when we both knew we should have hugged, but instead, exchanged a clumsy handshake.)

R. B.: Listen, good luck. Don’t bother with my joking about what you’re doing. I hope you’ll be safe.

Me: And to you, too. I wish you well with Krystall.

R. B.: (interrupting) She’s moved away. But it’s a big world.

(I nodded my head. Something we could agree on.)

It is a big world.

Not Long Tales … January 28th, 2020

Jonathots Daily Blog

(4303)

25.

Did I Keep You Waiting?

by Jonathan Richard Cring

It’s not really the tears. Privacy can be found for them.

It’s more the sense of vacancy—the emptiness, like a deep, dark cave, where the growl of agony echoes against the walls.

Eleanor counted the days. Forty-three. It had been forty-three days since the death of her soul, Jack.

Although she tried to remember, all that came to her was a wave of hopelessness which drenched her, leaving behind nothing but angry frustration.

She could barely remember the circumstances. An accident. A sleepy truck driver.

Instantly dead.

That’s what they told her. It was supposed to comfort her—that at least, her Jack did not suffer. No, all the suffering was left for her.

Somehow or another, she’d expected more empathy. It had been little more than a month and people were already moving on—perhaps wondering when she would be able to “compartmentalize” her grief.

To push on.

Somehow, she survived the funeral. But continuing life after Jack was not something she had planned for nor could any preparation have left her understanding the sense of incompletion that swept over her entire being.

She spent her days staring at his last razor, rubbing her hands across the top of his deodorant, using his washcloth and never rinsing it out, peering at the six-pack of beer in the corner of the kitchen he hadn’t finished.

And mostly—yes, mostly—indulging herself in smelling everything he had touched and everything that had been his.

Everybody had called them “Jack and Eleanor—the perfect couple.”

But if a coupling is perfect, what does it become minus one of its links? Especially if that joining has been ripped away, leaving the devastation on the other.

There was no relief for her grief. She didn’t want any. Not only was she unwilling to move on but found the whole idea blasphemous to a divine union which had been squelched by the demon of chance.

At first, Eleanor feared sleep. For it was peppered with flashes of Jack—some distorted and many violent. But gradually, the dreams tempered. They became an aching journey through images—almost like a photo album.

They were visions of firsts: first meeting, first kiss, first lovemaking, first child.

Ah, yes. The children. There were two—much too young to be talking about their dad in the past tense. Eleanor needed to tend to them, like a shepherd to sheep, but she was frighteningly put off by their presence. They were the evidence of Jack and Eleanor’s love—and now that their love was gone, only the needy evidence remained.

She was ashamed. She wanted to criticize the kids for not caring enough about their father—simply because they no longer broke down at the sound of his name or the sight of his picture.

Then, in her dream life the photo album of memories changed. She was given sights she couldn’t remember. She recognized herself—the children, old friends, and even Jack—but she held no recollection of the event or the scene or the time.

And then, on Tuesday night, October 25th, she met a visitor. Yes, a new image appeared in her dreams—a man. Part American Indian, athletic, eyes like her mother’s and a tender voice, deep and basal, like warm maple syrup.

She had never been visited in a dream before. But the apparition spoke to her. “What if you’re wrong?” he asked.

It was a simple question. She was surprised that her dream self was offended, and immediately spat back, “I’m not wrong.”

“My name is Saralis,” he said, pointing to himself.

Eleanor didn’t care. It was a dream. She wasn’t really interested in carrying on a conversation with something that was not going to last. She had already committed to eternally being in love with Jack, only to have it snatched away after fifteen short years.

But Saralis continued. “Why are you so upset?”

“He is gone!” Eleanor screamed, feeling it completely unnecessary to explain who the “he” was. He was the only he she was interested in or would ever consider.

Saralis smiled. “Jack is not gone,” he said. “You are gone.”

Eleanor became immediately angry. Maybe it was the tone of voice, or the flippancy of the comment. It was rude. Meaningless statements uttered in dreams were not going to fill the hole in her soul.

Saralis, seeing her rage, continued, “If you can be calm, I will explain to you that Jack is alive and waiting.”

Eleanor laughed. She now understood. All her religious training, heavenly schooling and church foolishness was trying to take over and replace her vacuum.

Her laughter quickly turned to scorn. “I am not going to wait for heaven!” she snarled at Saralis. “I am not going to believe in something that isn’t nearly as promising as what I possessed with Jack.”

Saralis interrupted. “Nor would I ask you to. I would merely suggest that your ignorance keeps you from the truth that would free you of your obsession.”

“Jack is not my obsession,” Eleanor said. “He is my love. He and I shared a breath. We shared a purpose. We conformed to each other’s needs. We became gloriously ecstatic when we were able to meet them.”

Saralis walked across the dreamscape and sat down on what appeared to be a glowing pile of logs, prepared for him and his perch. “My dear,” he said, “you just don’t know where you are, so how could you be expected to know where to go? You are in the middle of a mortalation. And before you ask me what that is, let me tell you. A mortalation is when our dreams mercifully evolve into our reality, as God, in his grace and wisdom, grants us the blessing without us having to consciously struggle with the transformation.”

Eleanor was unimpressed. Saralis asked, “Did you understand anything I said?”

“Not a word,” snapped Eleanor, “because there was no sense in it. It’s the jumbled language people use to pretend they’re spiritual when they really have nothing to say.”

Saralis chuckled. “Yes,” he retorted. “It would be impossible to comprehend what I’m saying. But what I would like you to do is just listen to my voice. What I’m about to speak will be very familiar to you. Remain still. Don’t allow yourself to attack or be insulted. Just listen.”

As Saralis stopped, Eleanor took a breath to speak. Then Saralis began sharing again—louder. Maybe not louder, but it filled the space surrounding her.

“The first time I met her, I did not fall in love with her. But I liked her so much that I hoped I would have the good fortune to love her someday. I didn’t think my prospects were good, for she was much more lovely than I was handsome. Much smarter than I was intelligent. And so much better than my simple good.”

Eleanor held her breath, frozen, shocked. These were the exact words Jack had spoken at the altar so many years ago when they exchanged vows. Saralis continued.

“And then, one night, or one moment—just some speckle in time—she looked at me with a gleam in her eye that communicated that I had a chance. That’s all I needed—just an opportunity to try to convince her that her time would not be wasted on us blending our lives together.”

As Eleanor listened, the basal tones of Saralis melted away. It was an amazing evolution—like bitter salt turning into the sweetest sugar. Emerging through the voice of the apparition of her dream came the familiar, gentle and less assured sound of her beloved Jack.

“So,” he went on, “when she decided to let me touch her, kiss her—to unite with her, I was so fumbling bad. I thought she would surely think better of giving me another chance. But she not only gave me another chance, she told me I did well. That I made her happy, and that she, too, wanted to do it again and again and again, with only me.”

The voice began to lose its dreamy quality, sounding more normal. More human. More present.

“So that’s why I read this to you each and every day, with the hopes that one day you will remember when I said it the first time, at the church we chose because it was so pretty on the outside.”

The voice finished. Eleanor slowly opened her eyes, and with cloudy vision, saw the form of her lover and friend, Jack. She tried to move toward him—to put her arms around him, but she was much too weak. Apparently, the dream had drained her of all power.

Jack, looking into her open eyes and realizing she was moving, squeezed her hand and she weakly squeezed his. Without saying another word, Jack ran out of the room, and quickly returned with a man in a white coat, wearing a stethoscope.

Eleanor looked around the room and realized she was in a hospital. Her face was filled with distress, so the doctor firmly laid his hand on her shoulder, holding her down.

“Don’t move,” he said, with a convincing tone. “You’re fine. But I need to check you over.”

That he did, reviewing all her vital signs while Eleanor desperately looked past him at Jack, who was darting right and then left, attempting to maintain visual contact.

Eleanor opened her mouth to speak, but no words came forth. The doctor patted her on the head, took a washcloth lying nearby and soothed her brow.

“I need you to relax and be quiet,” he instructed. “I will explain everything to you soon.”

Eleanor looked at Jack. She hadn’t really taken in his entire appearance. He was much thinner than she remembered. His clothes looked cheap, like they had been purchased at Goodwill. And though she would never tell him and hurt his feelings, he had aged.

But obedient, and too exhausted to say a thing, she lay her head back and closed her eyes. The doctor slipped out of the room, motioning for Jack to follow him.

In the hallway, the doctor looked for a private area and finally ducked into an examination room. Jack was gleeful, grabbing the doctor and pulling him in close for a bullish embrace.

The doctor held up a hand. “We’re not out of the woods,” he said.

Jack interrupted. “I know, doc—but it’s been five years. I never thought I would even see her eyes light up again, or… I don’t know. I gave up on any progress. I spent all my money. The kids and I are back living with my parents. I finally found a job that would accept that I needed to be at the hospital four hours a day. But the money’s terrible!”

The doctor broke in. “I understand all of that, Jack. What I am telling you is, she has come from someplace we don’t understand, so her grasp of the place we’re in may be twisted…”

Jack frowned. “What do you mean by twisted?”

“I don’t know,” said the doctor. “We think we’re so smart, but the human brain is so much smarter. She’s back. But her story may be much different than yours.”

“You mean she may not know she was struck by an eighteen-wheeler and suffered a severe brain injury?” Jack asked.

The doctor chuckled. “No. She won’t know any of that, more than likely. But don’t be afraid of her story. Don’t be afraid of her telling.”

He put his hand on Jack’s shoulder. “The universe is so much larger than we are that her version may be the accurate one. We may be the ones having an illusion.”

Jack stared at him like he had sprouted a second head. The doctor smiled. “Don’t worry about it, Jack. It doesn’t matter who’s been waiting for who. All that matters is, somewhere in that darkness, you found each other.”

THE END

 

Not Long Tales … January 21st, 2020

Jonathots Daily Blog

(4289)

24.

Turn Left on Oak Meadows

by Jonathan Richard Cring

Eddie Sparrow committed adultery, if that’s what they still call it.

An affair. A slip-up. A bungle in the jungle. A close encounter of the lustful kind.

Perhaps the strangest part of the whole experience was that he had this tryst with a young lady he was competing with for a promotion. In the process of trying to gain the new position, they were thrown together by the corporation—with tests and projects—so they could prove themselves worthy and literally “win” the position. Eddie became obsessed with her.

Her name was Lorraine.

Eddie already had a beautiful wife. He often heard unfaithful husbands explain that they “still loved their wife”—they just couldn’t help themselves with their new partner. He used to scoff at such a notion, insisting that self-control could win the day.

But when he ran across Lorraine, and she was just as willing as he was to break some rules, his body lit up with fire and he had no desire except to melt over her like hot wax.

A torrid affair it was. Sneaking, lying, not willing to trust anyone, because if the wife found out there would be trouble. But if the company found out there would be equally dire straits, since there was a non-fraternization policy written into the rules.

Right in the middle of this crazy-ass experience, it was decided that Lorraine would get the bump-up. She became his boss.

Eddie didn’t care—he wanted to continue. So intense was his drive to stay with Lorraine that he informed his wife, Cheryl, that he was greatly saddened, but he had lost his enduring love for her and wanted a divorce.

Then insanity gained the room.

Lorraine, who had been so involved in their social experiment, lost interest. Once she acquired the job and realized she was his boss, the thrill of the pursuit, the danger of the escapade and the excitement over Eddie disappeared.

She broke off connection with him. When she did, he begged and he pleaded, knowing that he had no wife to go back to and that his life was meaningless without her devotion.

Lorraine didn’t care. When Eddie persisted, she filed a sexual harassment suit against him with the company.

When the two of them gave their depositions—hers being his unwanted attention and constant haranguing through email (she provided evidence)—and his being that the two of them had been involved in a far-reaching romance for weeks—well, when both stories were shared, the board decided to accept hers.

Realizing he was on probation with the company, rejected by his lover and unwanted by his wife, a crazed Eddie stole the keys to a company car (one of those with a German name, a Japanese engine, a French paint job and a California interior) and took off.

Eddie figured he had about twenty-four hours until the authorities would be called. He decided to make the best of his time.

He drove south for about three hours, listening to music and opening the windows to let in fresh air to keep him awake. He mused over his plight.

Hungry, Eddie pulled over at a diner called “Our First Stand.” Walking in the door and seeing all the empty chairs and booths, he felt sorry for the place, wondering if this was also going to be their last stand. He was greeted by a waitress named Nesla and he sat down, making a crack about George Armstrong Custer being beaten by the Indians, and how he felt much like the old general himself. Nesla stared at him with that look young people often give when they don’t understand a word of what an older person has said—and therefore assume they’re crazy.

But privately, Eddie had decided to order, in honor of the Little Big Horn, a cheeseburger and a big piece of custard pie. He laughed to himself, surprised he was still able to find humor in anything.

Waiting for his meal to arrive, he went back to considering his dilemma.

Certainly he couldn’t continue to run in a stolen car. Eventually he would have to go back, just to have the ability to go forward. He tried to tap his feelings, only to discover that he wasn’t sure whether he loved any woman, or if he ever wanted to work a job again in his entire life.

Somewhere between the cheeseburger and the custard pie, fatigue set in. It had been quite a day. Rejected by two women and dishonored by his company, he was ready for sleep—or at least to roll around in a bed until insomnia subsided. He asked Nesla to give him directions to the nearest motel.

“Well, that would have to be Wycliffe,” she answered. “Thirty miles down that road. They got four motels. Most of them are pretty ratty, but I haven’t heard of anybody gettin’ killed.”

With this, she turned on her heel and headed back to retrieve food (not needed, because nobody was there).

Then all at once, somebody was there. Eddie turned, looked up, and standing next to him was a dude in his late twenties or so—pretty down on his luck, by the cheapness of his clothing and the smell emanating from his body. He was standing so close that Eddie was a bit unnerved.

“Can I help you, my dear friend?” Eddie asked at length.

In rapid fire, the man responded, as if the material had been memorized for a high school play. “If you go down three miles and turn left on Oak Meadows, there’s a place you can stay.”

The monotone and speed of his voice was almost comical, but Eddie, resisting laughter, inquired, “Is it a motel?”

“No,” said the young man, “just a place you can stay.”

With this, he turned away, walked toward the front door, opened it and disappeared. Eddie took a moment to look around for Nesla, to see if she was aware of this other location. She was nowhere to be found. He called out for service. No response. She didn’t even come out when he was standing at the checkout, ready to pay for his bill.

Giving up on waiting, Eddie left the price of the meal and a nice tip sitting next to the register, headed out to his over-stated sedan, climbed in and drove the three miles south.

Apparently, the first time he missed it. So at the six-mile mark on the odometer, he turned around and drove back. This time, off to the right (which would have been to the left) he saw the road sign. “Oak Meadows.”

He turned right and immediately found himself driving on a gravel road. He smiled. He loved gravel roads. As a boy, whenever their family car turned onto the gravel road that went to his grandparents’, he would giggle. To him it sounded like the tires were chomping on peanut brittle.

This one was narrow and covered on both sides with trees, with a deep ditch in between. About a mile-and-a-half up, Eddie saw a man standing, staring off into the distance. He pulled over, rolled down his window and said, “Excuse me, fine sir. I was wondering if you could tell me…well, I was told there was a place down this road where you could rent a room for the night. Like a motel?”

The man slowly turned around, held out his hand and said, “My name is Clancy Johns, and I have such a place, about two miles ahead. Now, I must tell you, it is not a motel but a room in my house that I let out to strangers who don’t want to drive all the way to Wycliffe.”

Eddie listened very carefully. The man had a presence to him—maybe it was his aged face. Or his simple demeanor. But Eddie immediately was drawn to him. It was a visceral connection he didn’t really understand, but the man seemed solid. Truthful. Reliable.

He shook his head. Foolish to draw such a quick conclusion about a total stranger. While he was still parsing his thoughts, Clancy spoke again. “Now, I also must warn you, it is a very simple home. But for fifty dollars for the night—no more and no tips—you get a room, a bathroom, it includes supper and breakfast.”

Eddie searched his mind for something clever to say, or even profound. “My needs are simple,” he said quietly.

Clancy laughed. “Then you would be the only one, my brother. Yes—you and you, alone.”

Clancy started walking in the direction of his house. Eddie shouted after him, “Mr.—Johns, is it? Clancy?” But the old man did not turn. Eddie pulled up next to him. “Would you like to ride in the car with me?”

Clancy bent down to look into the car, then right into the eyeballs of Eddie Sparrow. “Then I would miss my nightly walk, now, wouldn’t I?”

With this he stood upright and began walking again.

“I’ll meet you there, then,” said Eddie. He drove on ahead, and in less than a minute-and-a-half he was at an old farmhouse. He parked his car, got out and turned around like a little kid’s top, to see what he could see.

It was rustic, mostly gray and much in need of a coat of paint. But Eddie liked it. He wondered how long it would take the man to make it up the path. Suddenly, Clancy appeared at the front door of his home and called to him. “What’s keepin’ you, traveler? I already got supper goin’.”

Eddie stared. How was it possible for the old man to have made the journey quicker than his speedy car? But shrugging his shoulders, he grabbed his overnight case, headed up the path, opened the door and entered.

The interior looked like it had been decorated in the 1930’s by a family more intent on saving money than impressing guests. Still, it had all the elements one would need to survive, and even included a well-kept, dark-brown horsehair couch.

Clancy walked into the room behind him. “I warned you,” he said. “We aren’t the Holiday Inn.” He glanced around and laughed. “I guess we ain’t even an inn.”

Eddie smiled, scooted into the living room and plopped down on the horsehair couch. “It looks like home to me,” he said.

“Speaking of that,” said Clancy, “where would be your home?”

“Now, there’s a good question,” said Eddie. “If you’d have asked me yesterday, I would have said my home was in Hartford, Connecticut, and I was married to a beautiful woman and had one teenage son.”

“And if I was to ask you today…?” inquired Clancy.

Eddie took a deep breath. “Well, I’d tell you that the home still exists. It’s just not mine anymore.”

“Trouble with a woman?” Clancy asked, walking toward the kitchen.

“How did you know, my brother?” questioned Eddie.

Clancy stepped back into the room to make his point. “Well, it’s not that women are a problem, but when they get with us men, they don’t always show their best side.”

“I don’t know, Clancy,” Eddie said, lifting his eyebrows. “This girl showed a lot of good sides.”

Eddie went on to explain his situation in great detail as Clancy ducked in and out of the kitchen to make sure all the “eatin’s” were being prepared. Eddie told him about the affair, his decision to leave his wife, and ended up ‘fessing up to being reprimanded and how he illegally “borrowed” a car from the company.

He stopped, waiting for Clancy to comment. Instead, he stepped back into the kitchen, then returned with a big smile on his face. “Well, here we go! We’re gonna have fried chicken. We’re gonna have corn on the cob—and I’m talkin’ about those long cobs with a little sugar sprinkled. And we’re gonna have butter potatoes. I call ’em butter potatoes because I put so much butter in them that they’re about as yellow as a lemon meringue pie.”

Eddie was astounded. Clancy had just described the meal Eddie had asked his mother to prepare for his sixteenth birthday—complete with the butter potatoes and the sweetener on the cobs.

“That happens to be my favorite meal,” said Eddie.

Clancy laughed. “I’m glad to hear that, but honestly, I can’t imagine anybody being disfavorable to it. It’ll just be a few more minutes. Just keep doin’ what you’re doin’.”

Eddie sat still, breathing in the air of contentment. Looking over at the coffee table, he saw a large book with a leather cover on it—cowhide.

He reached over, picked it up and held it on his lap. He opened it, turned a page, then another page. On page three, there was a very small Polaroid—with a picture of his wife, Cheryl, when she was about twelve years old. She was with two other girls he couldn’t identify. He leaned over and peered closely at the picture. He was startled when Clancy spoke.

“Do you like my photo album?”

Eddie looked up. “Yes. I hope you don’t mind. It’s beautiful. Where did you get the cover?”

Clancy smiled and sat down next to him. “Well, let me just say that was a gift from a friend.”

Eddie paused, allowing time for a story to follow. Clancy eyeballed him carefully as if wondering whether to continue. “Yes…” shared Clancy, “she was a friend. I had her for fifteen years. She listened to me grumble about problems on the farm. And the only time she ever complained was when I spent too much time on her teats.”

Eddie smiled. He really enjoyed this old man. Clancy continued, completing his joke. “Oh, you do know I’m talking about a cow, don’t you?”

Eddie nodded. Clancy went on, “Because of her complaints I called her Bossy, but she really wasn’t. She was the best kind of friend you could ever have. She listened carefully, never judged, didn’t offer too much advice, and then, at the end of the experience, she offered you the milk of human kindness.”

Eddie chuckled. “What happened to Bossy?”

Clancy rubbed his knee. “Oh, she died. All things do, you know. But I didn’t want her to just be gone. So I took her hide, cleaned it, tanned it and put it on the cover of that photo album I love so dearly, knowing I would look at it frequently, and whenever I did, I would run my hands over the cover—just like I used to pet her in the barn.”

Some tears stood in Clancy’s eyes. Eddie was moved, too—not so much at the thought of the cow, but because a man could be so devoted. Changing the subject, Eddie asked, “I saw a picture of my wife in your photo album.”

“N-a-w-w-w,” drawled Clancy. “How could that be?”

Eddie opened to the Polaroid and pointed it out. “Is that your wife?” asked Clancy, incredulously.

“Yes,” said Eddie. “Cheryl.”

Clancy shook his head. “Her daddy was an old war buddy. We called that little dear Cee-Cee. She was such a beautiful little girl. So full of joy. And if you ever got discouraged, she’d whip up a quick batch of hope.”

Eddie paused, lost in thought. He could remember Cheryl that way, but it had been many years since he had seen the brightness in her eyes.

“Then,” said Clancy, “there must be a picture of her brother, Thomas.”

Eddie sat up and blurted, “Where? Where? Show me where.”

Clancy reached over, turned a couple of pages and pointed. “There he is. My goodness gracious. Such a small world, huh?”

Eddie stared at the picture of Cheryl’s brother, Thomas, as tears came to his eyes. Thomas was two years older, and Eddie’s hero. He had drowned in a boating accident. Eddie had been traumatized—never able to replace the deep hole left behind from Thomas’s absence.

Clancy excused himself, explaining that he was going to finish up dinner, and that it would be on the table in about five minutes.

Eddie sat, turning pages. There was a photo of his Uncle Barney, the jokester of the family. There was even an old shot of his grandfather. Eddie had only seen the man twice in his life.

Clancy called him to dinner, and they sat down at the table. Clancy looked up to heaven and said, “Not many thoughts on my mind, sir. Just glad to have the company. Amen.”

The chicken was the best Eddie had ever eaten. The butter in the mashed potatoes dominated—dribbling down his chin—and the corn was sweeter than molasses.

He would have eaten more, but the cheeseburger and custard pie weighed down underneath, threatening to rebel. After dinner, Clancy told him to just leave the dishes on the table, that he’d take care of them later.

They took cups of coffee into the other room and sat down as Eddie continued to look through the photo album with Bossy’s cover.

About ten pages in, Eddie saw a picture of his lover. Lorraine. At least it looked like her. She was a young girl in the photo, and she was with her family.

Eddie turned to Clancy. “Who’s the girl in this picture?”

Clancy squinted and said, “Another war buddy’s daughter. I believe…” He paused. “Yes. We called her Lori, but her name was Lorraine. And that’s her mom. I can’t remember her name. And her Dad, Michael.”

Eddie asked, “Who is the girl with her—in the wheelchair?”

Clancy grew quiet. “Well, that’s her crippled sister. She fell off her horse, severely damaged her body and never walked again.”

A breath of silence. Clancy broke it by standing up and saying, “Well, if you don’t mind, I’m gonna do me some dishes—my form of therapy. Then I’ll be headin’ off to bed. Breakfast will be promptly served at seven. Or who knows? Maybe eight.”

Eddie laughed. He reached up to shake hands, but it suddenly seemed inadequate, so he stood up and hugged the old man.

Clancy grinned. “Well, thank you for that. Everybody needs to feel one of those wrapped around him every once in a while.”

An hour passed. Then two.

Eddie was so engrossed in the photo album that he didn’t even hear Clancy finish the dishes or slip up the stairs. The deeper and deeper he went into the album, the more people he saw that he thought he knew—mostly in their younger days, in older times.

He looked across a room that had more memories than future. He cried. It was the last thing he remembered.

With the morning light coming in through the window and into his eyes, he realized he’d never made it up the stairs to his room. He had just laid down and cuddled up on the horsehair couch.

He felt good.

Matter of fact, he couldn’t remember a time he had ever felt better. He looked at his watch. It was 8:15 A. M.

He called out, “Clancy! I’m so sorry to have overslept!”

There was no answer.

Eddie took a deep breath and could swear he smelled homemade maple syrup. He stood up, walked through the house and up the stairs. Clancy was nowhere to be found.

He stepped out the door into the morning chill. The old man had disappeared.

Eddie came back in and walked over to the breakfast table. It was all set—for one. French toast, corn beef hash and maple syrup. All of his favorites. He ate his fill, thinking that at any moment, Clancy would come walking in.

He never did.

Soon it became obvious that he needed to go, so he wrote a note expressing his appreciation. In the note, he told Clancy that he was taking that picture of his wife as a young girl and would return it as soon as he could get a copy made.

He left a hundred-dollar bill on the table for services rendered, walked out, got into his car, drove down the gravel road to the highway—content.

He turned left, drove about three or four miles and suddenly realized he’d forgotten his phone. He found a wide space in the road, turned around and drove back. At about the four-mile mark, he began looking for the sign to Oak Meadows. He’d done that the first time, too. So he turned around and drove back. Missed it again.

The third go-around, he inched his way to make sure he didn’t miss the sign. He still didn’t see it.

He drove the few miles back to the “Our First Stand Diner,” and saw Nesla, who was there for another shift. He asked her if she knew about the Oak Meadows “bed and breakfast,” as he called it.

She didn’t. He explained to her that a gentleman had told him about it when he was there, eating, the night before. She looked at him confused, because there hadn’t been an additional customer when he was there.

He thanked her, climbed into the car, and made the decision to make his way home.

There was nothing positive waiting there. When he arrived, he was rebuked for taking the car and fired.

He went to see his wife, but she was too hurt—and rejected any possibility of reconciliation.

He did not call Lorraine. He was afraid of “three strikes and you’re out.”

He drove about thirty miles down the road to an exit for a little town called “Oak Meadows.” Reading the exit sign, he laughed, but still pulled off. He found an Oak Meadows Inn, and made arrangements with the manager, a fellow named Garrett, for a weekly rate. He paid for a month.

Eddie’s plan was to make no plans until plans came his way.

Trying to make conversation, Eddie said to Garrett, “This is really interesting, because just last night I stayed at an old man’s house on Oak Meadows Road.”

Garrett, a little aged himself, deadpanned, “Well…there are a lot of oaks and a good number of meadows.”

Eddie parked his car and found his room—104—and opened his door. He turned on the lights and looked over at the bed. Pinned to one of the pillows was a fifty-dollar bill.

The note read, “Your change.”

 

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