MYSTERIOUS WAYS: A Christmas Reawakening
- Three years later -
“Merry Christmas, Richard,” Larry called out as he headed for the door.
Richard pretended not to hear. “Same to you, but more of it,” he muttered under his breath when Larry was out of earshot. Richard glanced up at the clock. Only two more hours, and I’m out of here.
“Hey, Richard. Aren’t you leaving early?” Mike asked. He stood and put on his coat. Richard stared at him in confusion. “For the company party. Remember?”
“Shoot!” Richard said. “I forgot.”
He’d spaced it. All day long, he’d been determined to sneak out a little early, before all the well-wishers started throwing around their cheery waves and painted-on smiles. They made him sick.
Now it was almost too late. He’d totally forgotten about the early dismissal—specifically scheduled so that all the employees could gather up their wives and families and head downtown for the annual Christmas Dinner.
Those of us who have wives and families. He jumped up and logged off his computer. Scooping up his coat and briefcase, he made a beeline for the door.
“Happy holidays,” Jennifer called out as Richard passed her desk.
He mumbled something rude.
“Merry Christmas,” Kathy added. Others echoed similar sentiments.
Richard ignored them all and fixed his gaze on the door at the end of the hall.
“Richard, wait!” someone called from behind him.
Richard slowed and turned to see his supervisor rushing over with a small green and red box in his hand.
“Merry Christmas,” Glenn said, “since you won’t be here next week.” He handed over the gift.
Richard stared at it for a second and hesitated, as though it might bite him, then reluctantly took it from Glenn’s extended hand. “Thanks.” Richard turned, and headed for the exit.
“Have a good one,” Glenn called out.
“Yeah, sure,” Richard answered without turning.
Have a good what? he asked himself. The only good thing happening right now is that I don’t have to come back here until after the New Year.
Or is that a good thing? Two weeks is a long time to spend alone.
Richard knew his humbug attitude was no surprise to Glenn or the other members of the team. They’d seen him that way before—three times already. Each year they tried to console him and encourage him. Quietly and sincerely, they expressed the hope that things would get better with each new season, “as time healed the scars.”
Richard knew they meant well, but he really didn’t care. Why should he? What business was it of theirs how he felt, or how he spent his Christmas, anyway? What did they know about being alone for the holidays? They all had happy families waiting at home. He ran down the two flights of stairs.
As he pushed through the outside door, a strong gust of bitter-cold wind yanked the door out of his hands, throwing it wide open. Glenn’s small gift went flying and buried itself in the nearest snowdrift. Richard was half-tempted to leave it there, and allowed himself a wry smile at the thought of someone discovering it in the spring. But, fearing that someone might have already seen, he fished the gift out of the fresh-fallen snow and hurried on, muttering under his breath the whole time.
“Darn this wind!” he complained to no one. What is it with Montana that the wind has to be blowing all the time? No amount of winter clothing seemed capable of keeping it out, and he was nearly frozen and covered with snow by the time he climbed into his Blazer. He tossed the gift and his briefcase on the passenger seat and started the engine.
The radio instantly came to life.
“. . . ’peratures will be in the single digits again tonight,” announced the DJ, “with chill factors as low as twenty to thirty below, as this blizzard continues. More of the same in the forecast for the weekend, with no end in sight . . .”
That ought to put a damper on all this warm Christmas cheer, Richard thought as he pulled out onto the highway. Visibility was almost nothing, and the road was as slick as a hockey rink.
“. . . Four-wheel-drives or chains are strongly advised for any travel out of town,” the DJ continued, “and you’ll want to bring your furry little friends in again tonight . . .”
I’m sure not going anywhere, Richard reflected. I’m going to hibernate like a furry little bear for the next couple of weeks. He had nowhere to go anyway and nobody in the world that he particularly wanted to see. And “furry” was a fitting description, with his mustache and inch-long beard, and hair growing sloppily down over his collar.
In fact, the only reason he was taking time off at all was because the company had a “use it or lose it” vacation policy, and he had ten days of leave accumulated that he decided he would rather use than lose. The plan was to buy a handful of best-selling paperbacks, stock up on TV dinners, and wear jeans, flannel shirts, and woolen socks for the next two weeks.
Of course, he’d been procrastinating going to the store right up to the last day, knowing it would mean being slapped in the face with all the holiday cheer and merriment that abounded on all sides—not to mention the mile-long lines at the checkout and the forever-long walk to and from the farthest corner of the jam-packed, ice-covered parking lots.
Richard shivered at the mere thought. I should have gone while the weather was bearable. Better yet, I should have moved to southern California instead of “Siberia” Montana. What was I thinking?
“. . . here’s another update on the breakout earlier this afternoon from the State Prison,” droned the radio announcer. “The two inmates have now been identified as Lawrence Slade, of Green Bay, Wisconsin and Duke Davis, from Great Falls . . .”
Duke and Slade, Richard thought with a grunt. Sound like a couple of real winners.
“. . . Both escapees should be considered armed and dangerous. Authorities are divided over whether the two have found shelter and gone to ground somewhere in the area, or whether they may already be fleeing the state and heading for the Canadian border. If you see either of these men, or have any information as to their whereabouts, you are urged to call 9-1-1 immediately . . .”
Just what we need, Richard mused. A couple of ax murderers running around in the shopping centers disguising themselves as Santa Claus or something.
“. . . and this just in. The corrections officer who was airlifted to the hospital in critical condition following the breakout has since died of his injuries, meaning the fugitives are now both wanted on murder charges. The officer’s identity is being withheld, pending the notification of next of kin. One of the escapees is also believed to have been injured in that confrontation. We’ll bring you more at the top of the hour, along with other news. Now stay tuned for another thirty minutes of your Christmas favori—”
Richard punched the on/off switch. “There’s what I think of your Christmas favorites,” he told the silenced dashboard.
Just then a green Mustang came spinning out of a nearby parking lot, not twenty feet in front of him, fishtailing and sliding all over the road. Richard slammed on his brakes, which did nothing more than send the Blazer into an uncontrolled spin. He held his breath and missed the rear bumper of the offending car by mere inches before coming to an abrupt stop against the opposite curb facing backwards.
“Where’d you learn to drive?” Richard yelled over his shoulder, shaking his fist at the disappearing Mustang. “Disneyland?”
After he’d calmed down a bit, he shifted into four-wheel drive and maneuvered back out onto the highway. About two miles later, on a much less-traveled side road, he spotted the same green Mustang off to the side, half buried in a snow bank. The driver was standing by his car, frantically waving his arms in an effort to stop someone.
“Forget it, creep!” Richard yelled, speeding past. What nerve! He deserves it!
Looking in the mirror, Richard expected to see the man swearing and gesturing back, but he just dropped his arms and stared. Looking closer, Richard realized that the Mustang’s driver was probably a woman. She was wearing a too-thin-for-Montana jacket and no gloves against the bitter cold.
A person could freeze to death in minutes dressed like that, especially with these temperatures and wind chill, he thought. He let up slightly on the gas pedal, knowing full well that with his four-wheel-drive vehicle, he could pull her out in no time. He always carried a towrope in the back, and could even put the chains on the tires, if necessary.
For a moment his conscience bit.
But stubborn pride kept him from turning back. There’ll be someone else along soon, he rationalized. It’s not that desolate out here. By that time, he’d lost sight of her in the blizzard.Besides, she can sit in her car and keep warm while she waits. Maybe that’ll teach her not to drive like a maniac.
Richard couldn’t help thinking about how things had changed over the past few years. When he’d first bought his Blazer in North Dakota four years earlier, he would go out of his way to find people that he could pull out of snowdrifts. He kept his CB radio tuned constantly to channel nine and jumped at the chance to rescue anybody—especially unfortunate, defenseless females.
Well, I’ve grown out of that, he told himself stubbornly. My Good Samaritan days are over.
He arrived home twenty minutes later and wasted no time shedding the office attire and changing into his favorite jeans and blue flannel shirt. Another fifteen minutes and he was ready to sit down to a microwaved lasagna dinner. With fork in hand and the first bite halfway to his open mouth, the phone rang.
“Darn it all!” he grumbled, pushing himself back from the table and reaching for the phone. “Hello?”
“Richard? Is that you?” The voice sounded suspiciously familiar. “Hey, it’s Doug! Your brother, man!”
Alarms went off in Richard’s head. He hadn’t heard from his little brother in over a year, and it didn’t take much of a genius to figure out that he wasn’t calling to wish anybody Merry Christmas and Happy New Year.
“Where are you?” Richard asked nervously. Please, please, don’t let him be here, he prayed.
“I’m in Boise. You know . . . ‘Way to go, Idaho’?”
Richard let his breath out slowly. “Yeah? So what do you want?”
“Nice to hear you, too, Richard,” Doug said. Richard remained quiet, and Doug cleared his throat. “I just need a teeny-weeny little favor. Won’t cost you only a couple a hundred, tops. You know I’m good for it, Richie. I’ll pay you back, soon as I start my new job.”
Richard breathed heavily into the phone.
“Come on, Richard,” Doug begged, his voice sounding desperate. “You’re my only hope, man. Can you do it?”
“Why should I give you the time of day, Doug? What about the five hundred you still owe me? And what about the car you drove off and stole from me?”
“Oh, come on, man. That old beater wasn’t worth five bucks. Lucky it even started. Besides, you were buying a new one anyhow.”
Richard could hear some voices in the background as Doug covered his mouthpiece.
“I gotta hurry, Richard,” he said after a few seconds. “I’m in the county slammer, and this here’s my only phone call. I need you to wire me the bail money, Ricky Boy. A hundred and fifty lousy bucks. Come on, please?”
Richard felt his temperature rising. “You have the nerve to ask me for bail money?” he shouted into the phone. “Again?”
“I don’t have anyplace—”
“Forget it!” Richard yelled back. “Whatever you did, you probably deserve it. A couple of nights in jail will do you good.”
“It’s not like that. I didn’t do—!”
Richard slammed down the phone. “And don’t call me Ricky Boy!”
It took him a couple of minutes of fist clenching and deep breathing to get himself back to normal.
No sooner had he sat back down at the kitchen table, than the doorbell rang.
“Now who in tarnation is that?” Richard stormed through the living room and yanked open the front door, thinking to chase off a bunch of unsuspecting carolers.
“Hi, neighbor!” said a tall man he’d never seen before. He was bundled up like an Eskimo. “I’m the scoutmaster of troop one-eighty-one,” the man said, smiling from ear to ear. “We’re collecting canned goods for the homeless.” He motioned over his shoulder at a tired and cold-looking bunch of boys gathered in the front yard pulling a big sleigh. “You think you could spare some?” he asked. “For Christmas?”
“No,” Richard answered gruffly, as he started to shut the door.
“Please?” the scoutmaster pleaded, stopping the door with his gloved hand. “We only need a few. Every little bit helps.” His smile was starting to fade. “Lots of folks out there not having much to eat this year.”
Richard opened the door again. “Okay, okay, hang on.” He headed for the kitchen. “I’ll be right back,” he called over his shoulder.
Pulling open the pantry doors, Richard did a quick scan of the shelves. What makes people think I have food to spare? he thought to himself. I work hard for my groceries. His eyes landed on a couple of cans of corn beef hash that had been sitting there forever—might even have had them in North Dakota—before Mary died. He picked them up. Okay, I don’t like this slop anyway. He found a couple of other non-essentials and carried them back to the front door.
The scoutmaster spied the four cans in Richard’s hands and gave him a funny look.
“That’s all I can spare right now,” Richard said, interpreting the look as one of dissatisfaction. “I haven’t been shopping in a while.”
“No, that’s fine,” the man responded. He took the cans and turned to leave. “Like I said, every little bit helps.”
Richard wasn’t sure, but it sounded like there’d been a bit of a sarcastic emphasis on the word “little.” Yeah, well you can take your little cans and—
He stopped himself in mid-thought and quickly shut the door. There had been a whole string of expletives ready to roll on through, but in spite of his sour mood, swearing was something he still avoided, even in his head.
Thanks to Mary, he reflected.
Prior to their courtship days, Richard’s vocabulary had been more colorful. Mary had insisted that he clean it up before she would become his wife.
“It’s very low class,” she had said. “It doesn’t become you.”
“I don’t use really bad words,” he’d argued. “I mostly just use bible words, like ‘God’ and ‘Jesus’ and ‘Damn’ and ‘Hell.’ What’s so bad about that?”
“There are two types of swearing,” she said, with that stern, scholarly look of hers. “There’s profanity and there’s vulgarity.”
“What’s the difference?”
“The ‘bad words,’ as you call them, are vulgarity,” she explained. “They make light of physical things, mainly our bodies and bodily functions. They demean the greatest gifts God has given us—life, and the power to create life. It’s a direct insult against God. And it’s against the Ten Commandments, in case you didn’t know.”
“Okay. And . . . ?”
“And profanity is taking the name of God in vain,” Mary continued. “It shows disrespect for divine and heavenly things. Another direct insult. In my opinion, the one is as bad as the other.”
She was right, of course.
In the end, Richard had made the monumental commitment to quit—for Mary’s sake. It hadn’t been easy, but it had been worth it.
Or had it? he asked himself. What do I have to show for it now? Mary’s not here anymore. So what’s the use?
A short time later, with supper finally over, Richard settled into his easy chair to finish a Tom Clancy novel. Half a page later the phone rang again.
“What do you want?” he barked into the mouthpiece.
“Richard? It’s your mother. Are you all right, dear?”
Oh great! he thought. Just what I need. “I’m sorry, Mom. I’ve had a rough day.”
“I’m sorry to hear that, Richard. Things aren’t the best around here, either, I’m afraid.”
“Oh? What’s wrong?” he asked as politely as he could muster.
“Well . . . it’s your father. He’s pretty sick, Richard, and he’d really like it if you could come and spend some time here with us during the holidays.”
You mean you would really like it, he thought. Dad would just as soon I jumped off a cliff. “I don’t know, Mom,” he said aloud. “From what I remember, Dad’s never been all that excited to see me.”
“Now, Richard, you know that’s not true. He’s just not very good at expressing his feelings, that’s all. You could make the drive over in only eight or nine hours.”
“I really can’t, Mom. Anyway, I’ve already got plans.”
He hated lying to his mother, but the last thing on earth that he wanted to do was to be yelled at by his father all day every day for two solid weeks. “Besides, there’s a blizzard blowing through here like nobody’s business, and it’s not very likely to let up any time soon. It’d be suicide trying to drive anywhere.”
There was a moment of silence. “Well, okay,” she finally said. “You have a Merry Christmas, then.”
“You, too, Mom.”
Since he’d lost all interest in reading, Richard decided it was as good a time as any to go out and get his supplies. Donning his western style fur-lined coat, he was out the door in a flash, determined that he was going to brave the stores and the crowds and get it over with—once and for all.
As Richard backed out of the garage, he was startled by a loud tapping sound, and turned to find a man standing by the passenger side motioning for him to roll down his window. It was his neighbor from a couple of doors down. Richard stopped and lowered the window an inch.
“Hi, Todd,” he answered evenly. Todd was just about the only person Richard had ever talked to in the whole neighborhood—and then only because Todd kept coming around all the time and making a constant pest of himself. “What’s up?” Richard asked.
Todd looked nervous. “Well, Richard, you see, some of the folks in the neighborhood are trying to help out the Bartles family. You know the Bartles? Around the corner and down a block?”
Richard half nodded and half shook his head. He wasn’t sure who anyone was.
“Well, their house burned down a couple of days ago and left them out in the cold . . . with nothing at all.”
“Oh, them,” Richard said, nodding. He’d heard about the fire and seen the charred remains of the house. “Yeah. Sorry to hear that. Tough break.” He took a deep breath before asking, “So what are the neighbors doing about it?” He sure hoped they weren’t planning on doing some big clean-up project. Richard hated the thoughts of getting all dirty and cold doing something messy like that. Besides, he didn’t even know the Bartles.
“Well, we’re collecting a few donations—”
Oh, great. Here we go again.
“—and I recall you saying once that you still had all your wife’s and kids’ clothes in boxes from when you moved here from Dakota. We were hoping you might see fit to share some of their things with the Bartles. They’d be mighty grateful.”
The color rose in Richard’s face. “Wait a minute. Are you saying you want me to hand over my dead wife’s clothes? My little girls’ clothes? Come on, Todd. Where do you come off asking a thing like that?”
“I’m sorry, Richard,” Todd stammered, backing up a step. “I just thought that since they were . . . well, you know—”
“I don’t believe it,” Richard said, trying to control his temper. “What do I look like? The Salvation Army or something?”
“I’m sorry,” Todd said again, as he took another step back. “Mighty sorry.” He turned and hurried off without a backward glance.
Richard rolled up the window and backed out of his driveway. He knew he was being a jerk.What good are those clothes to me, anyway? Mary and the girls have been gone for over three years. What’s the point? But he was just so mad already; what with Doug trying to pry open his wallet and the Scouts cleaning out his pantry. Besides, he just couldn’t bring himself to throw out their things.
Not yet. Maybe someday, but not yet.