Sunday, May 17, 2009

The Merciful

The Merciful

Blessed are the merciful for they will be shown mercy.

Tony hadn't been up this early in – well – ever, maybe. He thought there'd been a few times in college when he'd still been up at this hour, but that was different.

Nobody should ever get up at 4:00 am on a Sunday.

He tripped over something that wasn't there on the way to Shane's door, had to try twice to grab the door knob before he got it turned and the door open a crack, mumbled something into the darkness, heard a mumble back and shuffled off to the bathroom. Turned on the light and ducked his head to get away from it. What had he been thinking? Why had this seemed like a good idea?

He was aware of only seeing what was directly in front of him. His peripheral vision hadn't turned on yet. It occurred to him that if an axe murderer had to choose a good time to hide behind the shower curtain, this would be the day. He opened it just to be sure. Nobody there. Even the axe murderers were still in bed.

Everybody was still in bed. Except, apparently, fishermen. They were going fishing.

Fishing. He knew it had sounded like fun, right up to bed time last night. Just not at 4 am.

When he came out of the bathroom, he tripped again, this time over Shane, sitting on the hall floor with his eyes closed, waiting. Shane looked up and grunted, and Tony grunted back and went to get dressed.

At 5, Artie would be there to pick them up, and they'd drive down the block to get Walt and Pico. The lake was about 45 minutes away. They'd get there just in time for the sunrise, Artie said. Best time, Artie said. Don't pack a lunch, you'll have plenty of fish by then, Artie said. Campfire, real butter, and a frying pan - the only way to eat fish, Artie said.

Tony still wasn't quite sure what to make of Artie. Shane liked him, but Shane liked everybody. Walt liked him, which carried more weight. Walt liked everybody, too, but he knew enough not to trust everybody. He seemed to trust Artie.

They were a funny pair, Artie and Walt. The tattooed hipppie and the retired Anglican priest. They'd met at the animal shelter when Walt adopted Pico, and hit it off. Since then, Tony'd seen Artie's disreputable 70-something crew cab truck in front of Walt's house a couple of times. Once Walt said that he was teaching Artie to tie a bow tie, and Artie was teaching him how to be groovy. And he laughed so hard he had to sit down.

Whatever.

Regardless, Tony thought the fishing trip was a good thing. Shane was really looking forward to it. He'd been pretty shaken up by the fracas at the Shelter. Pico's former owner had shown up, angry and abusive, to take back the little dog he'd hurt and Shane and Artie had had to deal with him until the cops came. Shane probably wouldn't have to testify at the trial, but the cops had taken his statement and somewhere in a file at the station there were pictures of his knees, bruised from being pushed down. He'd been a bit scared at first, then just angry. Still was. Understandably.

He'd been talking to Walt about it. Which was good. Tony knew he was a pretty good dad, but he was smart enough to know when someone was smarter than he was. And with stuff like that, Walt was the man.

He got the coffee started and woke up enough to think that he really, really hoped Artie wouldn't pull into the driveway and honk.

---

Down the street, Walt was up and dressed (except for his tie - in case of spills) and halfway through breakfast. The older he got, the earlier he found himself awake in the morning. Besides, he'd had decades of getting up early Sunday mornings to pray and go over his sermon. Sundays were a busy day for him. Had been, anyway. He'd certainly never gone fishing on a Sunday morning before. The folks at St. Anthony's would never have stood for it. He smiled, imagining the look on Mrs. Abernethy's face if he'd told her he was taking a week off to go fishing.

He looked down at Pico, smiling back up at him, and said out loud, “I'm sorry, Mrs. Abernethy. I won't be here next week. I'm going fishing and I've invited God to come with me. So you might not want to count on him, either.”

He laughed and scratched Pico's ears. He'd laughed a lot more in the past few weeks. Maybe Pico was good for him. Maybe he was healing. He and Esther had used to laugh a lot. When he'd lost her, he'd forgotten how, for a while.

It had been good to have young Shane and his dad looking out for him. He hoped he was able to give something back to them. Even if it was just listening.

Poor Shane was trying to figure out how to forgive. Whether to forgive. He was carrying quite a grudge against the man who had mistreated little Pico. He knew that you're supposed to forgive people, but what if the person didn't deserve it? What then? Wasn't it unfair to forgive somebody who didn't deserve it? Who didn't want it? Who didn't even admit that what they'd done was wrong?

Tough question. Walt was wise enough not to try to answer it. He just told Shane stories.

Like Gladys and Tim. Gladys had been a member of St. Anthony's. A parishioner of Walt's for – 20 years? Probably. A widow, didn't have much. Just her house and the things that reminded her of what she used to have.

Tim was a kid. Good at heart, like most of us. But he got in with the wrong friends and one night they got into somebody's dad's beer and threw rocks through Gladys' windows. Tim got caught, the others got away. But Gladys had forgiven Tim. She'd worked out a deal where he'd work for her after school every day to pay her back for the windows. But more than that. She'd loved that boy. She'd made him cookies and lemonade and asked him about school. She'd got to know his mom and tried to be a good friend. Showed him her husband's civil war coin collection, dumped them out of their little tin box onto the kitchen table and told him what she knew about them. Hours and hours of love. And Tim started coming around. Some of the edge wore off and he smiled more and talked more. Gladys would come to church and tell Walt how well it as going and what a good boy he really was. So happy.

Then one day she caught him with the box of coins, passing it out the window to another boy standing in the backyard. She surprised them and they'd both let go of the box and the coins went into the grass and the other boy ran away. She hadn't yelled, hadn't told him off, hadn't kicked him out. Just sent him outside to pick up the coins and bring them back. He'd come back in to find her sitting at the kitchen table with cookies and lemonade for two. They'd had a long talk and he'd been sorry for what he'd done. She'd forgiven him again and they'd started over. Clean slate. The little tin box went back on its shelf.

A month or so later, he'd not shown up after school for a couple of days. She'd phoned his mom, but got no explanation. “He's not here. I don't know. I got to go.”

For the next three days, Gladys had avoided looking at the little tin box. Didn't want to look inside it, didn't want to pick it up and to know that it was empty. But she did. And it was. She never saw Tim again.

She'd told Walt later that she could forgive him for breaking her windows, she could forgive him for stealing from her once, and then again. But it broke her heart that she couldn't forgive him for never coming back. She couldn't forgive him for not giving her the chance to love him. She couldn't forgive him for hurting himself. For not forgiving himself.

How can you forgive someone who won't accept it? Won't admit that they need it?

'Cause we all do.

Forgiveness and mercy are complicated things. And hard work, more often than not. Hard to give, harder to accept. Sometimes years of work, years of trying. Sometimes you can forgive somebody for a while, and then it crumbles and you're back to being bitter.

He didn't have any easy answers for Shane. But he'd always found that it helped to know you weren't the only one who was confused. If nobody else understands either, then maybe you're normal after all.

So he'd go on listening and telling his stories and watching for the light that once in a while would go on behind the eyes.

That was the gift that Walt had to give the people in his life. He'd been given so much, forgiven so much, he had a lifetime's stockpile of grace to give, and he'd keep giving it away with both hands for as long as the Lord gave him. The gift of listening without judging, of assuming the best of everyone, of allowing people to make mistakes without condemnation, of not holding grudges.

Not a bad way to live, really. Not bad for an old guy.

He picked up his tie off the kitchen table – a bright green job with a handpainted trout, nearly lifesize – tied it around his collar in a perfect Windsor knot, and attached the leash to Pico's collar just in time to hear a horn honking in the driveway.

He smiled and said to Pico, “We're going to have to ask the neighbours to forgive us, aren't we?”




Thursday, April 30, 2009

Eloise

Spring had never been Eloise's favourite season. It was too wishy-washy. Never absolute. The weather got better or worse, but was never really good or bad. The naked raspberry canes and muddy grass left her feeling like a kid in the back seat, asking “Are we there yet?” except she couldn't see who she was asking.

But every now and then there was a day like this one, warm enough to sit outside, she and Artie in their Muskoka chairs, he with his homemade root beer, she with a cup of herbal tea from last summer's garden, each with a dog or two curled up beside them, and usually a lap cat each.

Artie called it “sitting on the porch” in spite of the fact that they couldn't even see the house from here. The shrubs were just tall enough when you were sitting down to make it invisible. All they could see was the woods to the right and the garden to the left. It was too early in the year to get seriously busy, but they'd started planning. The tomatoes were just coming up in their pots in the shed. Little skinny sprouts that looked like nothing, now, but just wait.

She'd been gardening long enough not to be fooled by what looked like a wobbly start.

Nearly 30 years they'd been living here. On their 10 acres west of town. When they'd bought it the house had been sound, but boring - a woodframe farm house. Since then Artie had added a studio onto the back with huge sunny windows, and he'd painted the house Oh, had he painted it.

He'd go to the hardware store and come home with a half price gallon of some paint that wasn't quite what someone else wanted – pink, blue, yellow, black. And gradually he'd turned the house into some kind of abstract masterpiece. Over the years she'd come to think that he might actually have a plan. Sometimes she'd see him standing out in front frowning at something. Then, sure enough, he'd rattle around in the garage, come out with a bucket of paint and a couple of brushes and he'd be up on the ladder, dabbing at something that wasn't quite right until it was.

She sipped her tea and looked at him. Looked like he'd fallen asleep in his chair, his hand cradling the bottle of root beer.

They hadn't had kids, but over the years they'd adopted so many cats and dogs and rabbits and ferrets that she'd stopped counting. Some from shelters, some from neighbours, some they'd found in the ditch near home. They'd arrive skinny and sick or hurt and scared, or just unwanted and slowly they'd realize that Artie and Eloise were safe people and almost all of them would come to love them back. There had been a few heartbreaks over the years – too hurt to recover, to ever trust again, or to be trusted. Those they could only help by giving them a gentle sleep. Which was inexpressibly sad.

Shortly after they'd moved here, Artie had bought an old trailer, and parked it in a cluster of trees out of sight of the road. It was small, but he fixed it up with electric heat and ran wires from the house across the lot. He'd built an outhouse and an outdoor shower next to it and let it be known that it was available for anyone in need. And every few weeks, Eloise would look out the kitchen window and see the lights were on in the trailer. Sometimes the guests would come and go unseen, but sometimes they'd come over to say hi. Some would offer to chop wood or pull weeds to pay the rent, some would leave a gift on the front steps when they left. A few came back year after year. But nobody left a mess and nobody did any damage. She wondered sometimes where they all came from and how they'd heard about Artie's little hotel. But it was so perfectly him.

People couldn't believe it when she'd married Artie, the hippie. She'd always been a good girl, obeying her parents, respecting her teachers, loving Jesus. But then it was the 70s, and she started thinking. Thinking that maybe there was more to loving Jesus and loving people than just being good.

She'd been 18 when she'd heard about a protest being organized. A poor neighbourhood was being bulldozed for a new shopping mall. People were turned out, with only a month's notice to find new homes and some just said no. The sheriff would be going in to serve eviction notices and some people around town had decided that they had to at least do something. So Eloise was one of about 30 people who met in a church basement to make signs, to get some training in non-violent protest, to pile into cars and pick up trucks and head over there.

It was her first sit-in. Arm in arm with strangers, saying no to something that was shouldn't be.

Of course they'd been arrested. She and Artie had met in the paddy wagon.

She'd called her parents and they came to bail her out. Eloise was confident that Jesus wouldn't mind her getting arrested, but her parents were not impressed.

In the end the organizers had to pay a fine, so the group took up a collection to help them out.

She and Artie had met up again a few times at meetings and protests and the soup kitchen, then he started picking her up at home. Her parents weren't entirely thrilled with the long hair, the John Lennon shades and the tattoos, but at least he always came to the door and knocked, and he was polite and (for them) surprisingly intelligent.

He was ridiculously creative, and he had a hard time sitting still for long which meant they didn't go to church very often. Eloise had been raised in church and it was important to her, so he tried.

Church, for Eloise, was part of the fabric of her childhood. She'd been happy there.

She knew how lucky she was to have been raised by good parents, to have gotten to know Jesus young, to have had a few really good friends. She'd been given a rare gift – to have always known that she was loved. She'd seen enough to know that most people weren't that blessed.

Artie hadn't grown up with that. His road to being loved was hard and rough. When they'd met, he'd had a deep vein of cynicism, of mistrust. He suspected everyone, trusted no one. People were only nice to you if they wanted something. But he'd gotten there eventually. In time, it had sunk in for him that Eloise loved him. And, even better, that Jesus loved him.

And sharing that love, they'd got married. At sunrise on the beach. Barefoot. And instead of rings, they'd got matching heart shaped tattoos on the third finger of their left hands. Artie said that rings were symbolic of chains and he wasn't having that. Besides, he said, you can always take off a ring. Tattoos are for life. Eloise liked that. And, after they'd had time to think about it, so did her parents.

35 years ago. It hadn't all been easy. Not all daisies and peace. Neither of them were perfect. They both had flaws and weaknesses and fears. They'd hurt each other, disappointed each other, disagreed. But together, they'd worked on it and made it work.

It was tough sometimes. There was never much money. Artie worked at odd jobs, sometimes at odd hours. Eloise worked breakfast and lunch cooking at a diner. Sometimes Artie would get fired, or he'd quit because it was too stupid or the boss was too stupid. Or because he was bored. But he always found something else quickly, and he'd sell his art on Sunday afternoons at the farmers' market. Every Saturday they volunteered together at the animal shelter, and every other Sunday they went to church.

Little by little they'd built a life together. Little by little they'd become better people. Little by little they'd learned what Jesus wanted from them. Who he'd made them to be.

Artie said once that it was like gardening. It took a lot of work to turn a field into a garden, and even more to make it a good garden. Stuff had to be added, stuff had to be taken away. And that was what Jesus did for them. He didn't just let them be. He made them better. Each, and together.

Eloise worried sometimes about the future. Neither of them was young anymore. Not old, yet, but getting there. They had no kids and no savings and she didn't think they could count on the cats to look after them in their old age. The idea of selling the 10 acres and the customized house made her tremble. Waking up somewhere else everyday, with no garden and no woods and no studio. Or with no Artie.

They never talked about it, but she worried.

But it wasn't going to happen for a while. And there wasn't much she could do about it.

She looked over at her snoozing husband again and smiled. Such a good life they'd had so far, and had right now. And she was terribly terribly thankful.

Thankful for having been loved, for sun, and tomato sprouts, raspberry canes and fiddleheads, for a lapful of cat, and a waiting dog, for someone to fall asleep beside, for home made root beer and herbal tea from last year's garden and a heart shaped tattoo.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

The Meek

Blessed Are The Meek For They Shall Inherit the Earth

Shane was going to be a vet. He'd never wanted anything else and he never would. His marks were good enough, even for a scholarship at Western. Which Tony was actively praying for.

For now he was working at the animal shelter where he'd volunteered as a kid and he was learning a lot. He was younger than he should officially be for some jobs, but everybody knew him and knew that if he didn't think he could handle something, he'd say so.

The shelter staff was just the director, the vet and himself. Everything else was done by volunteers, especially on the weekend.

His favourites were Artie and Eloise. Hippies now for nearly 50 years, they had matching long grey braids, and matching heart tattoos on their left hands.

They looked after adoptions on the weekend. Busy days, but they were kind and warm and absolutely impossible with paperwork. One time, Artie had actually filled in a form upside down. Shane thought it must have been on purpose.

But they put people at ease and they could tell at 30 paces a cat person from a dog person. They had some instinct for introducing the right people to the right animals.

There was one other unofficial staff member. Haffa. She'd been one of a litter of abandoned pups 6 years ago. The others had been adopted, but the sad truth was that Haffa was ugly. She'd never, ever been cute. Not even ugly cute. Just ugly.

They couldn't tell whether she was a cross of Poodle and Mastiff. Mastiff and Newfie. Somebody'd said Radioactive Newfie and Doberman. She had a squashed face, and jowls. She was mostly black with patches of brown and her hair was thick and kinky. Her hind legs were longer than her front and she snored. And she was huge. Her shoulder was waist high on Shane. Half a horse. Half a something and half a something else.

But she was sweet and helpful. Shane loved taking her with him to walk the other dogs because he'd hand her the leash, and she'd take the other dog around the track and back again. Of course then the handle was all slobbery, but it was worth it.

Haffa would drag the big food bags down the kennel hallway when they fed the dogs, or carry a pail of cat food around the cat room while they did that. She'd trot around after the kittens when they were out to play, bat the ball for them to chase or lie down so they could crawl all over her and through her thick curly mat. She drew the line at litter boxes.

Any animal who came in hurt was her baby. They had a good clinic and a full time vet. Sometimes people would bring in an animal hit by a car, or starved or attacked by a coyote. They might only be able to give the little critter a peaceful goodbye, but always did what they could.

Like Pico. She'd been brought in late on Thursday by a cop, wrapped in a blanket. Starved, dehydrated, bruised, a broken leg, one eye swollen shut. When the vet unwrapped her on the table, Shane was surprised at how angry it made him. His hands shook and his breath came fast and he just wanted to punch something. How could you do this to an animal? Just because you're bigger and stronger, you think you can beat up someone smaller? What a.... What kind of …..

Dr. Lozano looked at him and said, "You okay?"

He said, "Yeah. It's just..."

She said, "I know. Just focus on making her better. Right?"

"Right."

They'd worked together on the little dog, with Haffa hovering. Set the broken leg, rehydrate the little body, patch the eye, gently, patiently. They tucked her carefully into a cubby and latched the door. Haffa laid down in front of it like a lion protecting her cub. Shane washed up and went to the lobby. Meg was waiting and he apologized for being late. She just gave him a hug. Eloise had explained.

He didn't work Friday, but he was in all day Saturday. The first thing he did was check on Pico in the recovery room. Haffa was there - still, or again. Pico was still weak, but she looked at him when opened the cubby door. Watched him while he checked her cast and her eyepatch and stroked her head until she went to sleep.

He told Haffa, "Come on, you. Stretch your legs and help me feed the others."

She snuffled and stood up a bit stiff, looked at Pico, and followed him down the hall to the kennel.

The rest of the day was the usual flow of jobs to do, dogs to walk, visitors to look after, though that was mostly Artie and Eloise.

An hour before closing, things quieted down, Artie and Eloise were in the break room and Shane and Haffa were tidying up in the kennels.

The beeper sounded. Someone had come in. Shane told Haffa, "Be right back." She sat down to wait. Passing the breakroom he said, "I got it." Artie was giving Eloise a foot massage and she said, "Thanks, starshine."

The man in the lobby was angry. He looked at Shane and snapped "You're not in charge here. I want to talk to someone in charge!"

Shane said, "The director's not here right now. Maybe I can help you."

The man sneered, stalked up to Shane, poked his finger in his chest and said, "You want to help me, fine. You've got my property and I want it back."

Shane took a step back and said, "I don't think so, sir, but if you come back on Monday..."

"I'm not waiting 'til Monday. I want it now. You've got my dog and I'm taking it. Now!"

Artie came in behind Shane and said, "Hey, man, be cool. Dogs aren't property, man."

"I paid for it, it's mine! The cops brought it here, I'm taking it back."

Shane stepped to the inner doorway and stood there. He kept his voice from shaking long enough to say, "Sir, if you don't leave now, we'll call the police."

Artie went to the desk and picked up the phone.

The man grabbed Shane by the front of his shirt, yanked and tripped him. He fell away from the door. The man went through toward the kennel.

Shane looked at Artie who had already dialed. "Don't be a hero, starshine. Wait for the cops."

Shane hesitated for a second and then ran through.

He found the man in the kennel storming down the hall, looking in every cage, banging on the doors.

He reached the end of the row and turned. He saw Shane in the doorway and stormed back at him, shoving him out of the way again. Shane grabbed his sleeve and the man swung at him.

Shane ducked and just caught the edge of it on the back of his head. And the man was off again.

"The police are coming. Stop this!"

The man ignored him and kept looking until he found the recovery room.

He stepped in and looked at the cubbies, all empty except one. The one Haffa was lying in front of.

"What the hell is that thing?" He laughed. "Move, mutt. Or I'll move you."

Haffa looked up at him and snuffled. He picked up a chair and moved closer. "I said move!"

She kept her eyes on his while she thought about it for a second. Then she slowly stood up. Lowered her head. Bared her teeth. And for the first time in her gentle life, growled. A growl that sounded like it came from somewhere underground. Deep, resonant, solid. A primeval sound born in the origins of love itself that said simply, "No."

The man froze. Took half a step forward. Haffa matched him, still growling.

He froze again. "Nice dog. Good dog." He took half a step back. So did Haffa.

They stayed frozen like that until finally Haffa's ears twitched.

The growling stopped.

They heard sirens.

Shane whispered, "Thank you, God."

++++

Much later, after he'd had time to think about it, Shane sat in Walt's kitchen and told him the whole story. How scary it was to see Haffa like that.

He said, "I've never been afraid of her before but I was for a minute there. She's always been so gentle."

Walt nodded and said, "It's easy to mistake gentle for harmless. But Haffa knows the difference. Anybody who doesn't know her and sees her toddling around behind you with a bucket of cat kibble might think she's soft. But they'd be fools. She knows what she's capable of and she uses her strength for others, not against them. That's what meekness is. That's what Jesus meant by "Blessed are the meek for they shall inherit the earth." People who know when to be gentle and when to be ferocious. I'd vote for someone like that. Wouldn't you, girl?"

He reached down beside him and petted Pico, who was curled up in her favourite place, at his feet.

Shane smiled and asked, "How's she doing?"

Walt's smiled back and said, "We are doing quite nicely, thanks."





Happy New Year

Happy New Year

At 10 minutes to midnight, Meg was sitting in the safest place she could find. On the couch in front of the TV, wedged between the armrest and an extremely affectionate young couple. She figured she was inaccessible. She'd spent the evening dodging the optimistic Ed. A friend of Joyce's from work who Meg had heard quite enough about over the last while. "You'd really like him!"

Ug.

Joyce had invited them both to her New Year's Eve party, and Ed had decided, after a few martinis, that he did, indeed like Meg. And with midnight looming, she wasn't going to be in kissing range. Not that there was anything wrong with Ed, she just didn't appreciate being set up and wasn't going to play. As long as the affectionate couple stayed affectionate, she figured she was safe.

She balanced her drink on the armrest, laid her head back on the cushion and relaxed a bit. And yawned. She realized how tired she was.

The TV was set to Times Square. It looked like so much fun. She'd love to go, just once. But it was still on the to do list. Like a lot of things.

Like a most of last year's resolutions. She was going to exercise and eat right (including more chocolate) and call her mother more often and go to church more often and read more books and fewer magazines and and and. Most of which were on this year's list of resolutions as well.

Next year was looking hopeful. Like a new job, maybe. Steadier hours, better money and more interesting, too. She had a good shot. She and Tony had achieved some kind of detente, which took the edge off a lot of things. Shane was doing well in school and wanted to be a vet. And, if she did say so herself, he was a nice kid. A likeable young man.

And, Ed notwithstanding, she might be ready for a social life again. If Ed was interested, maybe there was hope for somebody out there she actually wanted to be. She'd see. No rush.

'Cause for now here she was standing in Times Square with thousands of cheering people wearing her favourite sombrero. She looked beside her and there was Mahatma Ghandi, and he smiled at her and said something she couldn't make out. She said, "What?" and the affectionate couple jumped and she woke up.

She smiled a bit, said "Sorry", and saw Ed out of the corner of her eye carrying two glasses of champagne

One minute to midnight, people were gathering aound the TV. She fixed her eyes on the screen as the ball started to drop. 10 – 9 – 8 – 7...

+++

At 10 minutes to midnight, Tony had surrendered. Shane had won. He'd just eaten his second scoop of the most painfully hot, the most searing, sinus mining salsa his son had ever made and just couldn't manage a third. His cheeks were burning, there was sweat on his forehead and chin and nose and his tongue was on fire. He coughed and sniffed and waved across the table at Shane who laughed and downed another scoop. It was almost not funny. Almost

They'd just turned the TV to Dick Clark in Times Square. They'd watched movies all afternoon. A Matrix marathon. Shane had them memorized., this was Tony's first time. They were pretty good. They'd invited Walt to join them, but he'd had other plans. Just as well, Tony figured. He probably wouldn't have enjoyed it. Too much fighting.

Tony liked the idea about red pills and blue pills. You take a red pill and wake up in a reality you didn't know existed, but it was more alive, more true than the one you kept living in if you took the blue pill. Blue pill – same old. Red pill – who knew?

Shane asked his dad which he'd take. Tony thought about it. The red pill had it's appeal – adventure, a fresh start, the chance to be a hero. But -

He asked, "If I take the red pill, will you still be there?"

Shane frowned, "I don't know. Maybe if I took one too?"

Hm. Tony thought for a second and then said, "Nah. Too risky. Blue."

Shane told him he was boring, but he smiled. Tony thought he'd given the right answer.

One minute to midnight Tony poured them each a glass of champagne. The ball was starting to drop. They toasted each other and shouted "10 – 9 – 8 – 7..."

+++

At 10 minutes to midnight, Walt was in bed with a cup of cocoa, the new James Bond novel and a plate of shortbread cookies Meg had given him Christmas Eve, baked by herself and Shane. Made with real butter. Perfect.

The TV was on. Times square looked crowded and noisy and glaring. He'd rather be where he was, with warm toes and his thoughts.

The boys had invited him to come watch movies, but he'd said no thanks. He'd already seen the Matrix 3 times. Loved it, but not tonight. Plus, he knew what Shane put in that salsa and there was just no way.

But mostly, he needed to face this one alone.

Last New Year's Eve, he'd fallen asleep with the TV on and Esther beside him. She woke him up for the ball drop and kissed him and said "Here we go again." He said, "Here we go again."

They'd had over half a century of new years together. It was so strange for her to not be here. So wrong.

He put away the book and reached for her picture on the bedside table. His favourite picture. Those blue eyes and silver hair and the wrinkles at the corner of her eyes. She really should have been a grandma.

He wondered what she was doing now. Not watching Dick Clark, anyway. Too bad. She'd liked Dick Clark. He used to tease her about it having a crush on him. She'd say, "Don't be stupid." but Walt knew it was true. For a while, anyway.

He looked at the TV and raised his mug. "But she loved me, Mr. Clark. She loved me."

Oh, God, he missed her. Just knowing she was there. That she was who she was.

He envied her. He'd always hoped he'd go first. Selfish, yeah.

He'd never dreaded the new year before. This was the first one. But he really did.. Another year of worrying about what the doctor said, of taking that stupid cane everywhere, of trying not to be a burden to people who weren't even family. Good people, but they didn't owe him anything. Another year of being old and tired and alone and, if he was honest, angry. At the world that he was stuck in and the God who left him there.

One minute to midnight. He took a deep breath, squeezed his eyes shut and with his throat tight and his voice shaking, he said, "Jesus, you know I love you, you know I don't complain much. But I don't know if I want to be sitting here a year from now just the same, only worse. I'm not doing anybody any good. I'm not accomplishing anything like this. I don't want... Blast, I don't know what I want. You'd better know what you're doing."

The ball was dropping. 7 – 6 – 5 – 4 – 3 – 2 – 1

He raised his cup again. And took a solemn sip.

On the screen Dick Clark gave his wife a kiss. Walt sighed, whispered. "Here we go again."

He turned off the TV and the light and settled down to sleep.

And the phone rang.

"Hello?"

He heard a horn blow in his ear and Shane shouted, "HAPPY NEW YEAAAAR! Happy New Year, Walt!"

He had to laugh, "Happy New Year, Shane. And to your Dad, too."

Tony shouted "Happy New Year, Walt!" and blew his horn again.

Walt laughed again in the dark and said, "Go to bed, already."

Shane said, "'Night Walt. Hey..."

"Yes?"

"I love you, you know."

It took Walt an extra second or two to say, "I love you too. Good night, my boy."

He set down the phone, lay silent for a moment and said to the darkness, "You think you're so smart."

A Merry Little Christmas

A Merry Little Christmas

This was Tony's first Christmas on his own for, well, ever, really. He'd been with his parents for the first 25 or so, then with Meg. Last year Shane had been here, then off to Meg's for New Year's.

So this was his first real bachelor Christmas and he was determined that it wouldn't suck. He was going to decorate, and play some tunes, and eat Nanaimo bars and gingerbread.

Christmas Eve was taken care of. He'd found a sign-up sheet on the bulletin board at work for a charity hockey game. One of those 24 hour things to raise money for the hospital. A few guys had already signed on, and Tony thought it sounded fun. He hadn't played in a few years but he'd been pretty good in his day.

Then, he'd been having coffee with Walt and telling him about the game and Walt asked, "What are you doing Christmas Day?"

"Don't know yet."

"Neither do I. We should do something together!"

"Sounds great! I didn't know you could cook."

"I can't. I was hoping you could."

Having determined that neither of them knew one end of a turkey from another, Walt did some research and found out about a church downtown that was having a turkey dinner on Christmas day that was open to anybody.

Tony wondered what to wear. Seemed like you should dress up for Christmas dinner, but it was in the basement of a downtown church and he figured most of the people coming would be homeless or slightly better off.

Walt would wear the same thing he always wore. Shiny black shoes, neatly pressed trousers with a matching suit jacket, a snappy matching fedora and, of couse, a tie. Walt had the most amazing tie collection. Dozens of them. Some spectacularly vintage. He told Tony once that he'd accumulated them over his years of wearing the priestly black with dog collar. He'd just kept buying ties, telling Esther that someday, he'd wear them. Every single one. She'd just laugh.

Aside from the occasional hideous tie, Walt was sharp, neat, respectable. Not a wrinkle, not a speck of lint. Tony had never known such a tidy person. He was kind of looking forward to seeing Walt surrounded by rumpled street dwellers.

A couple of weeks into December, Tony made his foray into the crawlspace under the basement stairs. It was amazing how much stuff you could cram in there and even more amazing how all the stuff you wanted was behind and under all the stuff you didn't want.

He plowed through the foothills of albums and old clothes only to get lost in the forest of yearbooks and hockey equipment (he'd been looking for that.). He waded knee deep through Shane's toys, ages 1 through 9 - no mean feat, bent over at the waist - to get to the Christmas decorations in the far back corner. Sitting in the dust, looking back across the great landscape he'd just traversed, imagining the return journey with each of 4 boxes, his enthusiasm faded a bit. But, he thought, I've come this far...

Once it was all out and he'd had a few minutes to make his spine the right shape again, he decided it would be tree first, lights second, and finally the creche. Start with the worst, end with the easiest. He hated putting up the tree.

It was the one he and Meg had bought when they got married and it was ugly as dirt. Kind of green, but not exactly. An army tank kind of colour. There were some nice ones now that almost looked real. This one had no such pretentions. It was wire and plastic, both of which got bent in strange directions sitting in the box for 11 ½ months. All assorted length bits that had to be laid out on the floor for comparison so you knew which ones went on the bottom and which on the top.

But it was his and he loved it. Either that, or there was no way he was going to shell out for a new one. Or a bit of both. Sentiment is not a pure thing.

He put on a few really good Christmas albums - Cockburn, Guaraldi, Motown, Cash – and a couple of hours, half a pound of shortbread cookies and most of one beer later he had an honest to goodness Christmas tree.

By then it was dark, no time to be putting up lights, so he dug out the creche. A little stable kind of thing, a ceramic donkey, a couple of sheep. Three wisemen, two shepherds, an angel. A little manger and a baby that fit in it. Mary, dressed in light blue. Joseph. A carpenter. Like Tony. He held Joseph in his hand for a minute. Picked up his drink. Took a sip. Sat down.

He'd never noticed the look on Joseph's face before. He looked a little stunned. Tony smiled. Yeah, well, you probably were, mate. Stunned. Thought you were going to marry a pretty girl, settle down, build things, have a family. Probably had a nice workshop at home, full of tools, a few unfinished projects waiting until you got back. Back from a trip to someplace you didn't want to be. A trip that wasn't nearly over yet.

Doing the right thing. What you were told to do. Being faithful. Being brave. Protecting and providing. Looking after a kid that wasn't even yours. Because it was the right thing.

Such an ordinary man doing an ordinary thing. But it was what God had told him to do. God had gone to a lot of trouble to tell this ordinary man to just keep doing the ordinary right thing. Don't be afraid, be true, look after your family. God had told him to do that. Such a small thing, but it mattered. A lot. Just a little family. That changed the world.

________________

Christmas Eve.

The game was about half over. They'd started at 8 that morning. They'd finish at 8 tomorrow. The stands were surprisingly full. Tony had old skates, and new sticks, and he was having fun. This was a good day.

He was sitting in the box when he heard a voice behind him. "Hey, dad! Dad!"

Tony looked over his shoulder. It was Shane, about halfway up the stands. He was standng between Walt and Meg.

Shane and Walt were wearing big foam hats with 'TONY' painted on them. They both had big foam fingers that they waggled at him, and red rubber noses, smiling like idiots, each wearing three of the ugliest ties ever to see daylight, two straight and one bowtie. Meg looked bored.

He grinned and waved. Shane and Walt waved back. Meg made a gesture that was half wave, half checking her watch. Tony thought she must have practiced that in front of a mirror.

Shane shouted, "Score a goal?" Tony nodded, took off a glove and held up 3 fingers. He'd got lucky.

Then he was back on the ice.

While they waited for the puck to drop, one of the guys asked him, "That your family?"

Tony glanced back at his son, the old man he was just getting to know, and his ex-wife. He silently thanked God for them and said, "Yeah, that's my family." And he laughed and wondered whether he looked stunned.

He'd take time to ask for help later, help to do the right, ordinary thing. He was kind of busy right now.


Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Those Who Mourn

To listen to this story, click here.


It was in July 1963 that Walt met Allen. And November when he’d lost him. Five months.

Walt had just started as pastor of St. Anthony’s Anglican. He and Esther had spent nearly 13 years at St. Stephen’s. Their first home. Their first church. Where they’d left little Faith.

It had been hard to leave, especially knowing the tiny grave would be an hour’s drive away now. They promised each other they’d come and visit, but he wondered. Esther would be teaching all week, and Walt worked Sundays, and he knew from experience that Saturdays had a way of filling up. He worried that the little plaque on the ground would get lost in the grass and stepped on and cracked or something. He’d lie awake worrying about that.

One of the things he’d inherited from his predecessor at St. Anthony’s was a soup kitchen. St. Stephen’s hadn’t had one. It was in a small town and it didn’t seem to be necessary, but this was an actual city, and here, it was needed.

So once a week, the basement doors were open for a couple of hours. Cement floor, walls that used to be white, probably, fluorescent lights. Stacking tables and chairs that made that scrunching noise when anybody got up or sat down. A hint of bleach and floor wax.

And at one end a pass-through where the ladies of the kitchen cabal ladeled out bowls of something steamy and wonderful, alongside a homebaked biscuit and a small styro plate of whatever salad they’d made this week. Coleslaw, Ceasar, waldorf. Well, waldorf–ish.

Soup was served Tuesdays at 12:00 sharp, but the doors were open an hour before. In the summer, it was cooler than the sidewalk and in the winter it was warmer and the men would be waiting either way, so it might as well be inside.

The ladies of the kitchen cabal exercised a fierce brand of grace - that peculiar kind of love that would rap your knuckles before it would give you a hug, but it was for your own good and only because they love you. If they didn’t care, they’d let you act any old how, but you were capable of better than that and you were going to live up to your potential, even if it killed you first.

So the line formed neatly to the right and moved tidily past the window. No teasing, no swearing, no sass. A nod and a thank you very much, ma’am.

Walt’s job in all this was to show up wearing his collar and say the prayer.

He noticed Allan on his first visit. A man in his 60s, clean and rumpled. He had the same scruffy uniqueness that marked so many in the neighbourhood.

But he didn’t arrive early like everybody else, and stand in line. He arrived at 11:59:59 and walked straight to the counter, head down, eyes down. The captain of the kitchen cabal gave him an efficient “Good morning, Allan.” “Good morning, ma’am.” She handed him a paper bag over the counter. He said, “Thank you, ma’am.” “You’re welcome, Allan. We’ll see you next week.”

And he left.

The same thing happened the next week. And the next. So Walt asked Mrs. Abernethy what it was all about. She said, she didn’t know, for sure, but about 6 months ago, Allan had come in and asked for a bowl of soup and a biscuit to go.

Which threw the cabal for a loop, but they found a container with a lid and a bag and away he went.

He’d never sat down, never stayed, never made eye contact, never talked to anyone but Mrs. Abernethy.

The next week, Walt stationed himself by the door. As Allen was leaving with his paper bag, Walt said, “Hi.”

Allen stopped. “Uh, Hi. Reverend.”

"Call me Walt.”

"Uh, Allen.”

"Good to meet you Allen.”

"Uh –huh.”

"See you next week.”

"Sure, Reverend.”

For the next few weeks, Walt did the same thing. Just saying hi. Allen would say hi back, head down, nodding and then leave.

Things went on like that until one week, Walt worked up the nerve to ask Allen if he’d stay for lunch. They could sit together.

“Uh, no. No. No.”

Allen took a step toward the door, stopped and said, "I eat at home.”

"Oh.”

“Uh, ya got soup, Reverend?”

Walt realized this was an invitation. “I’ll get some. Wait for me right here.”

"OK.”

Walt asked Mrs. Abernethy for another take-out and followed Allen out the door.

The two men walked a couple of blocks without talking, climbed an iron staircase at the end of an alley and Walt waited a few steps down while Allan set down his bag, pulled out a key and unlocked the door at the top. Walt ducked through after his host, wondering what on earth he’d been thinking.

Allen’s place was one room, cracked plaster and water stains. No two things that matched – except for the poppies. He set down his soup beside the toaster and cleared some socks off the couch so Walt could sit there. Allan took the kitchen chair. He reached behind himself and took a couple of spoons from the window ledge. He looked carefully at them both, breathed on one, polished it on his knee, checked it in the sunlight and handed it to Walt.

"There ya go, Reverend.”

Walt decided what the heck, said thanks and dug in.

He looked around the room for something, anything, to talk about. No books, no newspapers, no magazines. A small TV. A radio.

On the wall above the toaster was a picture of a young girl with blonde pigtails and a gappy smile. It looked at least 20 years old.

"Hey, Allen, who’s the little girl in the picture?”

Allen turned and looked. “My daughter.”

"Really?” Allen nodded.

"What’s her name?”

“Lorna. For my mom. She’s 34 now. Lives out west. Nice house. Gonna go see her one day. She said. She’s gonna send for me.”

"That’ll be nice.”

“Yeah. She’s gonna send for me. She said.”

"When did you see her last?”

“1952.” And he went back to eating his soup.

Eleven years. Walt looked at the picture. He couldn’t imagine it. Imagine having a daughter and not seeing her for 11 years and hoping that maybe she’d send for him.

He realized Allen had said something.

"Pardon?”

"You got kids, Reverend?”

“Uh, no. Not… We had a little girl.”

“Sorry, Reverend. Not my business.”

“No, no. It’s just… Nobody ever asks, so I never talk about it. About her. Faith. Her name was Faith.”

"I am sorry, Reverend.”

"Thanks.”

Silence. Walt had nothing left to ask about except for the poppies. The little ones they hand out for Remembrance Day. Allen had a piece of cardboard, 6’ by 2’, tacked to the wall, covered in poppies. Hundreds of them.

"That’s quite a collection.”

Allen glanced up at it and back down, “Uh-huh.”

"How many are there?”

"527.”

"Where did you get them all?”

“Found ‘em. People just drop ‘em on the ground. They shouldn’t do that. It just means they don’t get it. If you don’t get it you shouldn’t wear them in the first place. They mean something. They’re sad and hopeful.”

"Are you a veteran, Allan?”

“Yeah. WW1. Amiens. I was there.”

Walt said, “WW2. Rimini. I was there.”

Allen looked up and for the first time Walt saw that his eyes were blue.

"Yeah?”

"Yeah.”

For the next half hour, they talked about battles and commanders and places. Learning about each others’ wars.

The next week they did it again. And the next week.

Allen would come to get his soup and they’d walk out together, silent until Allen was home. Then they’d talk and talk and talk about being a soldier and being a father.

Walt started looking forward to it.

They ate their soup together, understanding each other.

When November rolled around, Walt found himself picking up poppies off the ground and putting them in his pocket. Because they were sad and hopeful.

He and Esther took a week off and went back to St. Stephens’ to install a proper gravestone for Faith. One with a poppy carved on it. Because it was sad and hopeful.

The next week he waited at the soup kitchen for Allen, but he didn’t show. So Walt walked to the staircase at the end of the alley and knocked on the door.

A woman answered.

She was the manager, getting the place ready for the next tenant. Allen was gone. No, not to the hospital. No, no forwarding address. He didn’t owe her any money, so she didn’t care. Didn’t leave any messages or notes. He couldn’t write.

Walt turned to go.

“Wait a minute, though.” She went inside and came back.

“He left this stuck to the wall. I don’t know, maybe it’s for you.”

She handed him a folded paper bag.

At the bottom of the stairs, Walt opened it. Inside was a poppy.

Walt stood looking at it, twirling the pin between his fingers.

The only thing Walt could hope was that Allen’s daughter had sent for him after all. Which made him sad. That it had taken so long. And hopeful. That it would work out alright.

He smiled, stuck the poppy on the front of his jacket, thanked God for Allen and for sadness and hope, and walked back to the church.


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