The Gift – A Story

It’s the Christmas season. It’s a time we long for peace on earth and goodwill to all. Yet, not all days are merry and bright. My hope today is that this little story might brighten your day; that, for you, it may be today’s gift.

This and other stories of the season can be found in my book “My Best Christmas and Other Stories of the Season” by David Koning. It’s available at Amazon.

“The Gift”

    “Looks like Leon’s back,” said Marian, eyeing the large red letters in the front window of the house that, when read from the outside, said something like L-E-O-N.   “I think he’s ready for this.”  She patted the banana box between them on the seat of the old Ford pickup.  They were parked, engine running, at the end of a long driveway on a cul-de-sac called Spruce Circle.  Blue exhaust puffed from the back of the truck.  The headlights poked into the darkness, illuminating a mailbox and a newspaper tube poised to receive tomorrow’s Christmas edition.  It pleased Marian to see the house decorated again after a year of nothing, a year of darkness.  She was especially fond of the large red letters that, when read from the inside, said N-O-E-L.

    “Okay,” said Davis, “But I’m not so sure I’m ready for this.”  The couple’s breath created puffs of fog in the heaterless cab of the truck.  The old couple considered their next move.

    “So, let’s do it.  Just like we talked,” Marian said.

    “Just walk right up there?” Davis B. said.

    “Yep, just walk right up there.”

    “Knock on the door?”

    “Yessir!  You can do it.”

    “Are you sure?”

    “Yep.  Doin’ what we do every month, you just get to know people, an’ what they need.”

    “You don’t wanna come?”

    “Nope.  I’ll be waitin’ right here in the get-away truck listening to Christmas music.”  She giggled.

    “Ain’t done nothing like this since I was a kid in Iowa.”  He shook his head.

    She looked at him, then tapped the box.  “We’ve had it for a year. They need what’s in it –  to heal.  It’s time to give it back.”

    “Yeh, you’re probably right?  OK.  Here I go.”

    Davis B. quietly clicked open the door.  He slid himself and the banana box off the duct taped seat, stood up and hoisted the box with the black letters, ‘L-E-O-N,’ that Marian had printed on the top.  Davis walked in front of the truck and squinted past the headlights through the windshield at Marian.  She shooed him with a wave of her hand and whispered, “Go!  It’s our gift.  It’s how we can help…”

    It was the fourth Wednesday of December and Davis B. and Marian Bright were where they usually were on any given fourth Wednesday.  However, this time, instead of taking something away, they were giving something back…

**************

    For years the Brights benefitted from Hanson County’s monthly trash pickup day.  One day a month, people could put out rubbish not normally allowed during the weekly trash pickup.  The county would collect the trash and dump it.  Davis B.’s goal was to get to it first and pull out the good stuff.  He’d sell what he could at a flea market, yard sale or Sjaarda’s Metal Recycling.

      The Brights knew that some of the best gleaning opportunities were found on Spruce Circle, but as they did their monthly route they picked up more than trash.  Through casual observation they got to know a little about the people as well.

    It was the fourth Wednesday in April.  They were parked opposite the house they called the ‘LEON House.’  Marian would have liked to actually visit and chat a bit with the people who lived there.  “I’d like to get to know the folks we do business with,” she said.  “Can’t be much different than us.”

    “Yeh, right,” said Davis, sweeping his hand in the direction of a large two-story, looming over the only spruce tree in the neighborhood.  “Those folks in that ‘Spruce House’ over there, they ain’t much like us, Marian.”

    “Take away all the trappin’s –  the big house and fancy cars an’ all – I bet they’re like us in more ways than you think,” she said.  “They have their good times and bad, just like we do.”

    “They throw away more stuff than we do, that’s for sure,” Davis said.  “I say we get in, find what we can use, and get out. These people don’t want to get to know anyone that’s pickin’ through their trash.”

    The fourth Wednesday of May, Marian and Davis B. were poking through a trash pile in front of the ‘White House,’ as they called the large house with a pillared front porch.   “The guy living there looks like Eisenhower,” Davis once said.

    Marian opened the torn bottom of an old black recliner.  “Not bad!  she said, “Two dollars and fifty-three cents for the kids’ college fund.  Plus, three paper clips, a toy car, a set of keys and popcorn.”

    Davis B. chuckled and eyed a dark green SUV pulling into the flower lined driveway of the ‘LEON House’ across the circle.  Spring through fall, Marian admired the flower beds in front of the brick two-story.  She also admired the work that Daisy, as she called her, put in to make the display the best on the cul-de-sac.  When it came to flowers, Marian and Daisy had a lot in common.

    Davis tossed a bundle of bent curtain rods onto his load.  They got into the truck.   Marian unloaded her recliner plunder into a rusty coffee can while Davis B. observed a crowd of  kids with striped shirts, bulgy shins and knobby black shoes unloading from the vehicle.  Their chauffeur dragged behind. 

    “Daisy’s a soccer mom.”  Marian said.  “She looks tired.”

    “What’s with the babushka?”  Davis noticed the brightly colored bandana with which she had covered her head.

    “Hmmm… I don’t know…,” said Marian quietly as they drove away.

    It was the fourth Wednesday in July, and as the summer wore on, it was business as usual on Spruce Circle for Davis B. and Marian.  A steady stream of useable refuse flowed monthly from the residences.  It provided them with materials to sell and gave Marian clues about the people living behind the fancy doors.

    “Baby’s getting a new bed at the ‘Spruce House’,” Marian said, while Davis tossed battered crib parts into the truck.

    Davis said, “Looks like the Eisenhower’s are moving,” stating the obvious as he maneuvered around the immense truck from Carlson Van Lines parked in front of the ‘White House.’  “Maybe the next guy will look like Nixon.”  Davis laughed.

    He pulled up to the ‘LEON House.’  The couple got out of the truck to check out the modest stack of stuff by the curb.  Davis worked the junk pile while Marian took notice of the flowers by the mailbox.

    “Daisy’s slipping,” she said.  “There’s way too many weeds here.  She’s not picking off the dead flowers, either.”  Marian hesitated then walked over to the nearest row of flowers and gently pulled out a handful of tall weeds growing by the edge.

    Davis interrupted his inspection of boxes from Vos Medical Supply.  “What’re ya doin’, Marian?”  “Remember – get in and get out. Don’t get involved.”

    “I think Daisy could use a little help, is all,” she said as they got in the truck and drove off.

    The fourth Wednesdays of August and September came and went.  October arrived and so did the Brights.  This time of the year most of their gleaning was done in the dark.  Marian didn’t mind working in the dark, especially if people left their curtains open.

    “Look, Davis.  The Nixons have a grand piano in their front room,” Marian said, nodding towards the ‘White House’.

    They slowly drove around the circle letting the lights of the old truck land on heaps of October’s throw-aways.  Davis slowed the truck to inspect the trash at the ‘LEON House.’  Marian was more interested in the scene in the living room in the house up the hill.  Her curiosity was born out of growing compassion for Daisy and her family.

    “Doesn’t look good for Daisy.”  Marian said.

    “Nope,” he said.  “She’s been in that bed for a few months now.”

    “I wonder how the family’s holdin’ up?”  Marian said.  “I’d sure like to help if I could.”

    Davis sighed, put the old truck in gear, and drove out of the circle.

    Even though the fourth Wednesday of November was the day before Thanksgiving, Davis B. and Marian performed their monthly duties as usual in Spruce Circle.  An inch of frozen slush on the road crunched under the smooth tires of the truck as they rolled around the circle in the darkness.

    “Wind’s sure sharp tonight.”  Marian said.  They made their stops as quickly as possible to avoid the stinging air.  They picked up a few two-by-four scraps at the ‘Spruce House’.  Davis rescued a  rusty old gate sitting in a puddle in front of the ‘White House’.  They continued around the circle until they reached the ‘LEON’s.’

    “Nothin’ here, Davis.  Nothin’,” said Marian.  “Strange.”

    “Yeh, they usually have somethin’,” said Davis.

    “Look up there, Davis, up in the house.”

    “Quit y’er snooping, now,” he said and then glanced up hill toward the house.  There was nothing.  Nothing on the curb.  Nothing in the living room behind the window.

    “Bed’s gone,” he said.

    It was all too clear to Marian.  “Daisy’s gone,” she said.  She looked down.  “I wish I coulda – maybe helped some – with the kids or the flowers or something.”

    Davis said nothing as he nudged the truck forward over the crunchy road heading out of the circle.

    Marian turned for one last look at the ‘LEON House.’  “I wish I coulda got to know her somehow, maybe even her real name…”  She wiped moisture from the foggy windows and from her eyes.

    “There’s nothin’ the likes of us could do for them,” Davis said.

    Then Marian screeched, “Stop!”  Davis crammed on the brakes, the wheels locked up and slid a few feet on the ice.

    “What in the world – !?” Davis said.

    “Look, it’s Leon!” Marian rasped. “He’s putting out some trash.  Turn off the lights.  Let’s wait.”  They sat a minute, just out of reach of the street light, watching the scene unfold.

    He watched Leon slip and fall on the ice, losing the box he was carrying.  It slid a few feet away from him down the icy driveway.  Leon got up, yelled something profane and gave the box a kick, then fell again. “Ouch,”  Davis chuckled.  

    “Oooo, ouch!” he said when Marian smacked him in the chest.  “What’s that for?!”

    “Davis!” Marian scolded.  “Can’cha see?  He’s mad.  Mad about falling.  Mad at the box.  Mad at… ,” she paused and looked at Davis.  “His wife died, ya’ know.”   He don’t need more pain…  He needs us.”

    After Leon was safely back inside, Davis pulled the truck around the circle once more to investigate a single item perched on the curb.  Marian hopped out first.  She walked up to a banana box, lifted the cover and surveyed the contents.  “Daisy’s stuff,” she thought as she fingered through old letters, journals… memories.  “He can’t throw this away.”  She stood, looked up the slope at the house, then said out loud to Davis who had emerged from the truck, “I can’t let him get rid of this just ‘cuz he’s mad.”

    “Marian,”  he said quietly.  He tugged at her elbow, coaxed her toward the truck.  “Let’s just mind our own business.  Let’s go.”

    “OK,” she said.  Marian returned the cover, picked up the box and gently placed it on the seat between them as they drove home.

**************

    A year of fourth Wednesdays had come and gone.  A year since the Brights rescued Daisy’s banana box from Leon’s trash pile.  Now, on the fourth Wednesday of December, Davis B. and Marian Bright were where they usually were on any fourth Wednesday: sitting in their pickup truck on Spruce Circle.  This time, instead of taking away, they were giving back.

    Banana box in hand, Davis walked slowly past the mailbox up the driveway, thinking, “Get in, get out.  Don’t get involved.”

    Marian shooed him with a wave of her hand.  She whispered, “Go!  It’s our gift.  It’s what they need…”  Then, impulsively she pulled on the door handle, opened the door and followed after Davis.  Words from the radio “… may your days be merry and….” spilled out of the truck into the winter air.  Davis paused and turned.

    “I figured you couldn’t just sit there,” he said.  He continued on with Marian holding onto his left arm and the box cradled in the other.

    When they reached the front door, Davis reached out a gloved hand and pounded.  Marian stood behind him and peaked around his shoulder.  She held her breath.  He knocked a second time.  Lights in the foyer flashed on and glowed through the window.  Davis jumped when the porch light came on.  They heard a patter of footsteps, voices, then a click.  The door knob turned.  The door opened and revealed a young man.  Two girls appeared, peeking through the window by the door.

    “Leon!” Marian put her hand over her mouth.

    The man said, “Hello…?  Can I help you?”

    Davis cleared his throat.  “I’m Davis B. – 

    “I’m Marian Bright,” Marian quickly slid up next to her husband.  “We have a gift.”  She patted the box then blurted.  “It’s yours actually, in the first place.  See, we come around here on the fourth Wednesday of the …”  Davis cleared his throat again and gave her the ‘don’t get involved’ look.  Marian stopped talking.

    Davis continued.  “This here box is what we rescued from your trash – about a year ago.  We, uh – thought you’d should have it back.”  The puzzled young man stood in the doorway.   Davis politely handed the box marked ‘LEON’ to the man.

    “Memories,” said Marian.  “Of Daisy…”

    “Daisy?” said the man.

    “You don’t need to open it now.  Maybe later,” Marian said.  “It’s for you and the girls – for Christmas.”

    “Leon?” the man said, rubbing his chin and looking over at his daughters.

    “It’s a long story.” Davis B. shook his head and chuckled sheepishly.

    The man said, “My name is Mark.”  He opened the door and motioned for the odd pair to come out of the cold.

    Marian said, “Hi, Mark,” then started again to explain in earnest.  “You see –  we come around here on the fourth Wednesday of the month and we …,” and on and on she went, telling the whole story, as Mark and the girls listened in amazement to the stranger standing in their foyer.

Davis looked at his wife, and this time, he let her talk. He glanced at the banana box. It was her gift after all. She was helping like she wanted to all along.

Still Available!

Here it comes again, the 2nd annual shameless self-promotion…  I humbly offer my apologies before I even start.

Here’s some history. Over the last 30 years I’ve written more than a few short stories, a lot of them about Christmas. I wrote them mainly for my students back then. Some of them were even good enough to be published in a few educator’s magazines.

So with that little bit of fleeting success, I decided long ago that I’d like to see them published, put into a book. However the stories remained in my file, on my computer and in my mind … until recently.

After hearing about the whole concept of self-publishing a while back, the idea of putting my stories together in a book started percolating again.  Self-publishing… hmmm … The cool thing about self-publishing a book is that, really, only one person needs to like it.

So about a year ago, I took the plunge and published the stories with Kindle Direct Publishing. Here it is.

Now available at Amazon.com

I want to make it clear that I’m not in this for the money or to make someone’s best seller list.  Although, with this blog readership of about six, who knows what might happen. Things might just take off.

I wrote most of the stories mainly for my students and the people closest to me.  And, I had fun doing it.  Besides, even after all these years, I still think these stories, in their quirky little ways, still belt out a pretty strong message about Christmas and it’s true meaning, which, of course, is that Jesus was born, Immanuel, God with us.  That, my friends, and NOT some flashy book … is today’s Gift.

 *****

If you want to see the blurb and read a sample at Amazon.com, click on this link.  If not, that’s fine, too.

Wanderers – 12

Note:  “Wanderers” can also be found in my book “My Best Christmas and other stories of  the season” at Amazon.com.

******

Betty arched her arm up over her head toward the top of the mural.  Ruby looked.  She took a step forward.  She noticed the three lights in the sky.  They seemed to explode with energy that drew her attention.  Each one unique.  Each one leading Ruby’s eyes somewhere. Leading her somewhere in the mural to something that she needed, something she couldn’t yet grasp. 

 “What do you see?” said Betty.

 Ruby said, “I don’t know.  They all look the same.”  She stared.  “Except that one, the one in the center. It looks like a bird. An eagle. Like on Grampa’s jacket and it looks like it’s stomping out a fire.”

“And…” said Betty.

“Oh, that one.” Ruby pointed to the one on the right.  “That one looks like it has, has…” She giggled. “A coffee pot? Yes, a pot like in the diner’s sign in the window… and, in the picture of that guy over there.”

“And…” said Betty.  “What about that one, my favorite one?”  She winked at Thomas.

“That one…?” Ruby paused and studied the radiant blob. “Spots! Spots of rainbow colors poked in the light.  Blended together, but I can still see each one!”

“Yessiree, hon.  You are getting closer,” Betty said.  “What else?”

Ruby’s eyes ranged over Betty’s art work, oblivious to the handful of customers now watching as Ruby continued unwrapping the gift in front of her. Then, there it was.  Ruby squinted, then looked away, then looked again at the lights in the sky.  She stepped back. Looked. “Oh!” she said. Her lips went from circle to upward curve, a smile.  She bounced back to the mural immersed in the growing crescendo of discovery.  She reached for the stars.  Her fingers traced the radiance from each one, separate, coming from different directions, converging into one, subtle, yet definite beam of light.  Her hands followed it, journeying down the mural to something, something she had seen but really hadn’t noticed before.

Thomas and Betty watched.  They knew Ruby was almost there.  They watched as Ruby’s eyes, led by the light, gazed at the baby, wrapped in an old work jacket with the name ‘Harry’ sewn on it.

“What’s that?” Ruby said, startled by her own voice.  On the mural, with one hand, she touched the baby’s face and then traced the baseball cap covering the baby’s feet.  “A Red Sox hat,” she whispered.  With the other hand she reached up and felt the smooth red splotch on her own hat. “Just like mine,” she whispered, awe in her voice.  

 As dawn’s morning light filtered through the low gray clouds and crept through the diner’s windows one more source of light in the mural manifested itself.  Now Ruby saw it.  Light coming from the baby in the manger, mingling with the other streams of light, yet now being the dominant light, drew Ruby’s eye once again to the baby, wrapped in Harry’s coat, with a Red Sox hat just like hers and … “Just like mine!” Ruby said. “The baby has red hair just like mine!’

The morning drizzle turned into pelting raindrops crashing into the front window.  The sidewalk puddles reflected the neon glow of “Harry’s Diner” outside.  The jingle bells on the front door announced the morning’s next visitor.

”Meira!” said Thomas, grinning ear to ear.  

Meira smiled, squeezed Ruby like she would hang on to her always and forever.  Then she leaned back, looked at her daughter and said, “You’re wearing my favorite hat!”  She laughed and knew that her story had been told.

“Mom!” Ruby rushed across the room and threw herself at her mom. Meira flipped down her rain soaked hood exposing a cascade of red.  “Mom!  Red hair! That’s you in the picture!  That’s you, isn’t it?!

As they headed to the door, granddaughter, daughter and father, Thomas turned back to Betty with a look that said everything. A tear escaped from the corner of his eye as he touched his hand to his heart and silently said, “Thank you,” to his best friend.

***

 Monday, once again in science class, Ruby leaned forward, her chin resting on her hands. Since the weekend with her grandfather, Ruby’s outlook on life had taken a turn for the better.  Even her interest in astronomy increased in spite of her misgivings about her teacher.  With her vocabulary quiz behind her, she now  tried to squeeze everything she could from Mr. King’s astronomy lecture.

He droned on, “… which is what some scholars believe to be the best explanation for the ‘star’ the magi followed.” He peeked over the half-glasses perched on the end of his nose at a now-interested Ruby Jensen. “Planets,  or wanderers if you will, joining together, leading magi to the Messiah….”

“Yep,” Ruby thought. “That’s right. That’s right.” And then for perhaps the first time ever, in that class, Ruby smiled.

Wanderers – 11

Note:  “Wanderers” can also be found in my book “My Best Christmas and other stories of  the season” at Amazon.com.

*****

Later, when they got together and talked they would wonder.  Not so much wonder about how the little one found its way to that lonely nativity.  That they would never know.  Not even to wonder about what kind of desperate person would abandon such a precious child on such a wicked night.  They would realize the futility of trying to answer questions that, for them, were unanswerable.  So they would set aside their speculations and judgements, never to know the whole story.

For them, the wonder and the wondering came when they considered how they, the wanderers, all desperately needing something that night, came together at that place and that time.  All helpless in their own way.  All giving to each other a glimmer of hope that dark, dark night and for the days to come.

Ruby felt a warm presence, as if a flood of warmth was being released to thaw the frozen scene in front of her, to unlock its meaning. 

“Ruby,” She heard the storyteller call her name. “Ruby, this is your story. And my story and your grandfather’s, and Harry’s… and your mother’s.” The voice, the storyteller, was Betty…

“Do you see it, Ruby?” said Betty, quietly.  She wrapped her arm around the child. “Do you get it?”  Betty walked Ruby back away from the mural.  “Look again.” The swirls of color that played around the edges of the mural and danced with each other as if one could not exist without the other.  Once again Ruby was being drawn in for another look. The coldness of the scene warmed as they took a step forward, as a glimmer of understanding dawned in the twelve year old’s mind. 

“Do you see it?” Thomas said as he walked up to the pair. He took Betty’s hand and gave it a squeeze.  He sensed that the fog of the early morning was clearing from Ruby’s brain.  They took one step closer to the mural, then another.  Ruby’s eyes raked the painting, examining every square inch again, looking for the clue to the mystery that, it seemed to her, everyone else knew. Yet, she was still in the dark.

She probed the dark corners of the stable.  She was hooked and wanted to know what Betty and Grampa already knew. She wondered about the blurred images of the shepherds, animals and the parents of the child in the manger.  What was that about?  She looked again at the light hanging from the pole standing over the nativity scene.  Its light was dispersed shining on an old wreck of a minivan hung up on a pile of snow.  

What was artist Betty trying to show? There was something being said, but something Ruby was not seeing.  And, probably for the first time she would admit that she wanted to know more.

Wanderers – 9

Note:  “Wanderers” can also be found in my book “My Best Christmas and other stories of  the season” at Amazon.com.

******

Harry slowly opened his eyes.  In the dimly lit stable he glimpsed his fellow guests standing motionless, gazing at something in the middle of the small, cold room.  As he gathered his flagging courage, he gathered his feet up under him and stood.  He kept his eyes on the others, watching for any signs of trouble, any signs that they might be aware of his presence. 

His eyes focused ahead, he stopped, frozen in his tracks.  Something big was next to him.  His addled mind envisioned what couldn’t be. Or could it?  Out of the corner of his eye he saw  a four-legged creature with a curved neck, it’s back grotesquely mounded into a tall hump.  Harry inched away from the silent beast, hoping not to disturb it.  He continued forward.

As quietly as he could he made his way to the circle of strangers.  He didn’t want to disturb them and put himself in danger. Yet curiosity won out.  Who were these people?  Why so silent? What were they looking at?  

Nervously, he stood on tiptoes outside the circle trying to see what was so interesting.  Harry leaned in to look.  “Oh!  Excuse me,” he said to a short, round guy dressed in a robe, holding a long hooked stick. He readjusted the bill of his hat which had poked the solid, silent stranger.  He leaned to look around him.  He saw it, saw him.

The box was filled with straw and something else.  Now ignoring the silent crowd, Harry slinked forward and saw the baby lying motionless in the manger.  His whisper broke through the silence in the stable.  “Jesus?  Baby Jesus?”

Then the light broke through.  A different kind of light than what was seeping into the nativity structure outside of the First Presbyterian Church of Ripley. Gradually, he realized where he was.  But, why was he there?  What led him to this place?  He knew that he locked up the diner.  He knew he needed to get home, to a warm place.  He knew he was cold.  And then he heard what sounded like a distant siren piercing the sound of the wind outside.  He turned to look.  And that’s when he saw it, saw her.

The tattered box was filled with clothes, a hodge-podge of strips of this and that and something else.  It wasn’t a distant siren, but the keening of a baby, a different baby that froze his heart.  Harry inched forward and saw her crying in a cardboard box, a thin halo of red hair showing from the bonnet covering her tiny head.  Her feet had kicked away the clothes stuffed around her sock-covered feet.  Once again his whisper broke through the silence in the stable.  “Oh, my.  What am I going to do with you?”

Harry bent over, peered down at the child and scratched his head.  “What am I going to do with you?” he said again. The cold wind, blunted by the thin walls of the stable crept in.  Harry shivered.  Deliberately, he removed his hat and placed it over the baby’s uncovered feet.  Then he reached around the box hooking his icy fingers under it and lifted.  Brought face to face with the little one, he carefully made his way past the shepherds, past the magi, past Mary and Joseph and the baby who was lying in the manger, to the back corner of the stable.  He set the box down.  He took off his coat, sacrificing his only means of warmth and wrapped her up.  Sitting down, arms around the box and rocking the child, he closed his eyes, perhaps for the last time.

Wanderers – 8

Note:  “Wanderers” can also be found in my book “My Best Christmas and other stories of  the season” at Amazon.com.

******

Her car wasn’t great.  A minivan, actually. Not the latest model.  Actually quite old.  Dark brown originally. Mostly rust covered now. The driver’s door hardly stayed shut anymore without  anchoring it to the concrete block on the passenger side floor.  But it was all she had and home was home.  And to make it worse, Betty had just skated off the slippery street up onto a snow bank. It was after midnight. She pounded on the steering wheel and cried.

How did she get here, she wondered.  When did the downward spiral begin?  When did she go from employed artist to struggling artist to artist-without-a-job?  Was it when the city downsized to save taxpayer money and eliminated her position?  Was it when she no longer had been able to pick up enough part time jobs to keep food on the table and pay the rent?  Perhaps it was her decision to pursue an art major at Ripley College, rather than following in the family business?  How did she get here?  Alone.  All her worldly possessions packed in her junker of a van, piled into a snowbank. And why?  So close to Christmas no less.

That Friday, a week before Christmas, found Thomas in a similar world of despair.   The place was empty at that time of night.  He looked around. Then decided. Something told him to stop.  He was close to the edge. He knew it.  His despair drove him to this point.  He struggled with that voice in the back of his head, yet he felt that what he was about to do was the right thing.

It was the self-loathing that drove Thomas Start to walk from home to the neighborhood Corner Bar that night.  It pushed him to try to erase his pain in whatever way he could.  Time to end it?  He argued with the voice, back and forth, one drink after the other.

 Sure. Sure. There was nothing he could have done.  The house was fully engaged, engulfed in flames.  Nobody could go back in there.  He couldn’t go back, at least that’s what they all said.  But wasn’t it his own selfishness that held him back?  Thomas was so, so sorry that the little three year old boy had died in the fire.  He was so, so sorry he couldn’t save him.  When Thomas had heard the awful report about the child it had crushed him again. Another child lost. A child he couldn’t take in his arms and save. Like the ones he and Ruth had so desperately begged God to save for them during her pregnancies, this one too was now lost. 

The voice was winning.  Somewhere from the depths of his being, he was being pushed.  Pushed to put one foot in front of the other and go.  Pushed to go somewhere unknown.  Pushed, but led to do the right thing, whatever it was.   So,  it was time to go, before… well, just before.  Thomas stumbled to the door, opened it to the clanging of the hanging metal beer mugs wishing him a dismal ‘merry Christmas.’  He shrugged on his Ripley Fire Department coat, tugged at his Cubs hat and staggered out into the wintry blast, soon to find his way.

Wanderers – 7

Note:  “Wanderers” can also be found in my book “My Best Christmas and other stories of  the season” at Amazon.com.

******

And what a story that mural told about that night a lifetime ago; a week before Christmas.  The night was bitterly cold.  The north wind howled through the canyons of downtown Ripley.  The snow rode the brisk wind like a plague of thousands of tiny frozen stinging insects looking for any bare skin, intent on biting whomever they met.  No one was out on a night like this.  No one, unless you were confused, homeless, in despair, or abandoned.  Our wanderers, Harry, Betty, Thomas and the one other were in place.  Unknown to them they had been readied to play their roles in this unfolding plan, this necessary convergence that would make all the difference.   

Harry Spaulding. His workday was completed. The last pan washed. Everything was set out and ready for the next morning’s Saturday regulars.  His end-of-the-day routine planted firmly in his brain left no doubt that all would be as it should be at the diner, his diner.  The diner he owned and had run for many years.

He grabbed his coat, adjusted his baseball cap, stepped out of the door and clicked the lock. With the click, Harry’s brain wandered off into another unknown world.  Unknown, yet becoming more and more familiar as the disease in his brain gradually, stealthily advanced.

He knew where he needed to go. Home. However, tired from the day’s work, confusion set in.  He was unsure of exactly which way to go and by what means to get there. Then he saw the rusty, snow covered old bike leaning up against the dumpster. That must be it. He recalled riding his bike from his home to, well, everywhere. So just like years ago, when he was 8, he walked past his parked Chevy Impala and hopped on the bike and headed home, ignoring the bite of the December night.

The winter wind pushed him along, down the alley towards the street. Fortunately, Hays Park was empty of traffic at that late hour, because he shot across its lanes and continued down the alley on the other side. At the next street he turned right and a block later made a left. Several blocks later he was pedaling into the teeth of the biting gale. The wind tore at him. Harry reached up to save his precious Red Sox hat which caused him to lean left, then to the right. The wobble caused the fat bike tires to lose their purchase on the icy street. Harry jerked and turned the handlebars in the direction of the skid, then hit the curb and flew biscuits over gravy landing facedown in a pile of snow shoveled next to the nativity scene in front of the First Presbyterian Church of Ripley. 

Panicked, Harry imagined icy daggers sent by some malevolent being to do him harm.  Harry desperately looked around for a safe place to ride out the storm. He pawed through the snow pile, lifted his head and saw it.  Filtered by the driving snow, the street light hanging from the pole bathed the structure.  The structure that would be his salvation.  The light led the way. Harry followed.

Breathlessly, Harry scrambled to the shed.  He scrunched himself into a straw-filled corner of the small building. Shaking with fear he wrapped his arms around himself and waited for his pursuers … waited… waited…  He squeezed his eyes tightly shut, hoping that it would make them all disappear;  for Harry was not alone. Oh, no, he was not alone.

Wanderers – 6

Note: There are 12 sections to this story that will be posted starting December 26, ending on January 6, the day of Epiphany. “Wanderers” can also be found in my book “My Best Christmas and other stories of the season” at Amazon.com.

******

Among the dozen or so portraits, Ruby’s eyes lighted on a picture of a guy. He was older, she could tell by the gray hair sticking out beneath the back of his blue baseball hat turned backwards on his head.  At that Ruby perked up a bit. Her lips almost broke into her first smile of the morning as she thought of this old guy with the backwards hat being a member of some gang of young thugs. 

It was a full length picture of the guy.  What drew Ruby’s eye wasn’t the fact that he was wearing a white, grease stained apron.  It was his face and especially his eyes that caught her.  He was holding a pot of coffee, like the one that Betty was using to dose her customers.  There was a twinkle in his eyes, yet at the same time Betty captured with her brush a vacant distant look. Ruby glanced from his face to the coffee pot and back to his face.  His kind face said something like, “This is all I have to offer, but it’s yours if you want it.” 

“That’s Harry,” a gravelly voice said. Ruby jumped.  Arnie poked his head through the serving window and said, “That’s Harry Spaulding.  He used to own this place.  You know, before Betty.  Before he, uh, well you know.” He tossed an order of scrambled eggs, wheat toast and a side of bacon on the shelf and went back to his griddle. 

“Oh,” Ruby sighed, rubbing her eyes, she pulled up her nose at the breakfast on the counter.  She let her gaze wander from the portrait over to the mural covering the wall across the room.  From where she stood there was no discernable single image that she could say, “Oh, that’s a this or this is a that.“   It was as if Betty had tossed every color imaginable from her artist’s palette onto the wall, converging them into an undistinguishable maelstrom of color. 

Yet there was something there. Like the other paintings there was more to it than just the dizzying swirls of color punctuated by dots of, what, light? She couldn’t tell.  Ruby shivered and scrunched her coat around her.

What she saw in the scene caused her to feel a coldness that penetrated to her core.  It was a feeling that drew her in even more, enticing her to explore more of the confusing conjunction of color that captured her eye.  It distracted her from her young memories of Grandma Start, the yucky breakfast and the old guy with the backwards hat. 

Ruby found herself so absorbed by the painting she forgot all about Arnie, Betty and Thomas.  All of its color and texture played in Ruby’s mind making her wonder.  Then, as if by magic, the hint of an image emerged from the abstractness on the wall.  People emerged.  It was as if they were walking out of the fog, and Ruby could dimly begin to see them. She found them with her fingers, then traced the streaks of shimmering light and the sparkles of what appeared to be a stable, animals and people sharing a cold, starry winter night. 

As she gazed it was as if she were being drawn into the painting even more. Some part of her was being nudged. She was coaxed into the story of the mural by an unknown storyteller. It crept into her mind. For a brief moment she grasped at it, but couldn’t yet gather it in that the story the mural told, in part, was her story. A story not easily discovered except by those meant to discover it.

Wanderers – 5

Note: There are 12 sections to this story that will be posted starting December 26, ending on January 6, the day of Epiphany. “Wanderers” can also be found in my book “My Best Christmas and other stories of the season” at Amazon.com.

******

Betty did a lap around the small dining room meeting the needs of the customers before landing back at Ruby and Tom’s table.  She circled their table, coffee pot in hand. As she poured some of the black brew into Tom’s cup she leaned in, put her hand on his shoulder  and whispered, “Thinking of you, Tom, with your anniversary and all.” 

Tom’s usual ever-present Saturday-morning-breakfast-at-Betty’s smile faded a bit. He looked at Betty and said, “Thanks for remembering. You are the best.  It’s been five years now, you know.” His voice faded into silence. Thomas thought back to the tough times when Betty stuck with him, no matter what.  And even now, she still…  He turned momentarily towards the artwork on the wall to hide the telltale moisture in his eyes.  Then he turned back to Betty.  The look on his face said, “You’re a good friend.”  Ruby glanced at the pair.  With a quiet growl, she said, “I miss Grandma…”  Weary already of Thomas and Betty’s conversation, she got up from the table and shuffled off to explore the artwork on the walls.

Changing the course of the chat, Betty said, “Did you hear about Harry?” Her bushy eyebrows arched into hairy question marks.

“Yeh, I heard.” Tom said,“That’s too bad.” He remembered how Betty befriended her former boss when he was going through his dark days. She hung with him no matter what he was going through, right up to the end.  Tom rubbed his chin, took off his hat and ran his fingers through his hair, thinking. “Or maybe it was a blessing, too.”

Harry Spaulding had owned the diner since forever ago.  After meeting Betty one awful but wonderful night, somewhat after forever-ago, he offered her a job. Some time after that he offered to sell the diner to Betty, making a too-generous offer considering Betty’s circumstances at the time.  Over time Betty had become the closest person Harry had to family.   So, considering Harry’s situation and suspecting what they did about Harry’s condition, the two of them worked out a deal.  It was a deal that not only led her to taking care of the diner; she’d also take care of Harry.

Over the years, Harry went from business owner to coffee pourer to Saturday morning patron.  And now he was no longer a Saturday morning regular at the diner.  At some point in the past he stopped driving. He stopped coming to the diner.

Since a too-early-age Harry’s once organized mind had slowly become a tangle of confused thoughts competing with his reality.  His memories of actual recent events would evaporate into the unusable recesses of his Alzheimered mind. They would be replaced with fictions.  Images and scenarios not unlike those dreams one has that make no sense.  Dreams that leave a person chuckling or maybe prickly with unease. And, sadly, during the course of his last days at the Starbright Nursing Home, his brain was no longer able to keep up with the demands of his basic life necessities.  Now Harry was gone.  The memory of Harry and who he was and what he did remained firmly planted in the hearts and minds of Thomas and Betty … and soon, that grouchy twelve-year-old, Ruby.

Betty gave Thomas a knowing look. “I know what you mean, what with him fading so at the end.” She looked away.  “It’s sad, but at his funeral, I realized that it’s for the better.”  She looked back into Thomas’ eyes, “If you know what I mean.”

“I hate funerals,” Ruby wandered back to the table for a bite of a cinnamon roll, forgetting her mother’s admonition to be polite.  “They’re awful!” Ruby remembered her grandmother’s funeral five years ago, after she died of a sudden heart attack. “They’re so sad,” she said. “I miss Gramma.” Her voice trailed off. She picked at her cinnamon roll, then took a bigger bite. “What’s all that over there?” She said.

From their table, Ruby’s sleep deprived eyes began to waken a bit.  Gazing at the various paintings that decorated Betty’s establishment she slipped out of the booth once again and made her way to the nearest one, letting the adults continue their conversation.  She scanned the walls, amazed at how many paintings there were, mostly pictures of people.  

What intrigued her twelve year old mind was that these pictures weren’t like typical photographs from a camera. There seemed to be much more to them. They showed more. Her grumpy, sleepy brain couldn’t articulate what. There was just more. What she did see as she examined each one, was a small rainbow and the name ‘Betty Williston’ scrawled somewhere in the corner of each one. Surprise, fueled by her twelve year old curiosity, pushed her to continue to explore.

Wanderers – 4

Note: There are 12 sections to this story that will be posted starting December 26, ending on January 6, the day of Epiphany. “Wanderers” can also be found in my book “My Best Christmas and other stories of the season” at Amazon.com.

******

The jingle bells hanging on the restaurant’s front door announced the arrival of Ruby and her grandpa.  Thomas yanked open the door of the diner.  He shrugged off his jacket, adorned with the eagle emblem depicting the Ripley Village Fire Department where he had spent most of his working days.  Ruby, cold, sleepy and grumpy, and didn’t care who knew it, wrapped her jacket around her tighter than ever.

 “Good morning, Sunshine!” said Betty to the two damp customers splashing into her diner.  She had everything ready for the day.  She was especially ready to greet her best friend Tom, an early Saturday morning regular.

“Good morning,” said Ruby.  Raindrops hung from the bill of her hat.  She didn’t really know, or care, for that matter, which of the two of them Betty was referring to as Sunshine.  It was too early for her, plain and simple.  But her mom said to be polite.

“Mornin’ yourself,” said Thomas.

“Coffee?” said Betty.  Thomas looked sideways at Ruby, relaying the question with a look and a smirk.  Ruby rolled her eyes and tugged the bill of the cap down.  “Just one, Betty. You know how I like it.”

“How about some OJ for you, Hon?” Betty’s offer was met with a look and a nod.  

Betty hustled across the dining room to get Thomas’ coffee and pour a glass of juice.  She efficiently took care of the handful of early customers as she went.  Betty raised her eyebrows, looked back over her shoulder and said, “So, Tom, who do you have with you there?”  Knowing full well who her young, sleepy, unhappy-to-be-here customer was, she ambled back to Tom and Ruby with a tray loaded with  orange juice, steaming coffee, a small pitcher of cream and a couple of cinnamon rolls. 

“You know Ruby,” he said, “my favorite granddaughter.” Ruby rolled her eyes, which were getting quite a workout that early Saturday.

“I’m your only granddaughter, Grampa!” she said.  Tom and Betty chuckled.

Betty squinted at Ruby’s hat.  Her glance took in the red dot of paint on the bill.  She gave Tom an ah-ha kind of look and said, “Ooo, you got one of the old ones.  Vintage, as they say. Red Sox, eh?”  Betty put a grimace on her face, then pointed at her own Yankees cap.  “Think we can still be friends?”  She grinned and gave Ruby a hug that removed any hint of ill will on her part.

Ruby rolled her eyes. She had no clue what vintage meant or what the Yankees had to do with anything.  She wasn’t sure if she wanted to be friends with this perky lady in the diner.  It was too early.

“I got it from my grandpa.” Ruby wasn’t about to admit that she loved that old hat.  She remembered Grampa covering his face with it playing peek-a-boo.  Then he would cover her feet with it and make them ‘disappear.’  She’d giggle.  She was four, or maybe three.  She didn’t remember.  She loved the hat, red splotch and all, simply because it came from him. And she wasn’t going to say it out loud here to this strange lady, but deep down beneath her damp hat, hair and morning grouch there was no doubt she loved her grandpa. 

Ruby fingered the red paint splotch and pulled the bill of her hat down even more. She wasn’t sure she was going to enjoy this early Saturday morning breakfast routine, even if it was with her favorite grandfather.