I dropped off the bus in a fair-sized town in one of the states on the east coast at seven in the morning --Georgia, I think. I did not really know or care. I had been riding it for six and a half hours. I could catch the next bus or the one a week from now. I stood on the sidewalk with a duffel bag and a satchel. This was all I owned in the world. What was I doing here? Was I running away from the sadness and despair that had settled on me? I was.
The station itself was not much more than a waiting room with a man behind the desk. There was a diner three doors down from there. I headed for that. When I entered, I could see that it was almost empty. I headed for the back wall where there were four booths lined up. I picked the one second from the end on the right.
Swinging the duffel bag up on the seat, and taking my satchel in my hand, I sat across from the bag, keeping the satchel next to me. There was a menu standing between the sugar and the ketchup bottle. I glanced at it. The lone waitress came over and stood waiting. I guess she had been on duty all night, for she looked tired.
I glanced up and mumbled, "Coffee, black." She went away, making her way behind the counter. She came back with a single cup.
"End of pot. Fresh will be done in five."
"That's okay, I'll drink it. Bring me a cheese omelet. Onions and something green in it. Three eggs, two toast, twelve grain if possible."
"Is broccoli okay?"
"Good." I sat with my hands around my cup, letting my mind go blank. Someone put money in the jukebox. Charlie Louvin came on and "I Think I'll Go Somewhere and Cry Myself to Sleep," blared. I did not sleep, but I could not keep the tears back. Willie was on next with his "Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain." The music went silent and I dried my tears before my breakfast was set before me.
Patrons were coming and going, but I wasn't disturbed. The short order cook worked on automatic, never saying a word, just making up the orders and sliding them out, hitting a bell as he did so.
I ate slowly. My coffee cup was replenished. I paid my tab, but kept my cup. I gave the waitress a thirty percent tip, which must have made her day for I received a smile. I dozed in the corner of the booth. It was eight-thirty when a woman came in with two children, a girl and a boy, and I guessed not yet of teen age. She took change out of the register and admonished them to buy something nutritious for lunch at school.
I surmised she was the owner and these were her kids. You could tell they were family as they all had auburn hair. Her hair was a little lighter and the boy's was the darkest. I figured she was in her thirties somewhere. I didn't think on it, just cataloging a few facts. I was not interested and returned to staring into my half-empty coffee cup.
Just then, a man shuffled in, going into the kitchen. He was definitely drunk and immediately dropped and broke two dishes. "Pete, I warned you that the next time you came in drunk I was going to fire you. It is costing more to have you here than you are worth."
"I know, Ms. Campbell. Sorry." He asked hopefully, "Can you spot me enough for a bottle?"
"I guess so. You were once a good man and I'll miss having you around."
I could see she handed him a five. That would be enough for cheap wine. He shuffled out and she stood looking after him. I swear there were tears in her eyes. She turned and went in and started scraping the night's dishes.
Making a decision, I stuck my head into the kitchen. "Do you need a dish washer?"
She turned around slowly. "I do." She looked me up and down. My clothes were rumpled from riding the bus, but I was clean, although I needed a shave. I had on jeans and a knit sweater. I towered over her, as I was six feet. "Do you drink?"
"Social sometimes, that's all."
"You get minimum and two meals unless you wash after the evening meals, then you get three. If you are here for all three, you have to take off during our slow hours. I cannot pay overtime. What's your name?"
"It is Ed Rawlings. I guess you will want to know my social security number. It is 009 --. Also, I don't have an address, I have no record, and I'm honest."
She took me at my word. "Okay, you're hired. When can you start?"
"Twenty minutes ago. I think you are doing my dishes and it's my job." Twenty-five years ago, I had worked in a diner much like this one to earn money while in school. I knew the drill and it all came back. I could even handle the grill if need be. I found an apron and put that on. I did not have many clothes and I wanted to keep looking decent. The short order cook left at nine. Ms. Campbell waited table now and cooked when anyone came in which was seldom.
It was ten-thirty when a man in a suit came in with a briefcase. I heard her say to herself, "Oh crap! Here comes Landgrove." My boss put on a brave face and led him to the corner booth next to where I had been sitting and where my stuff still reclined. I soon gathered this was the person who leased the diner to her. He wanted his rent. It became apparent she had some of it, but not all.
When I heard figures, I sauntered out and got my satchel. Coming back and out of sight, I took some money from it and put it under the change drawer in the register. This was out of sight of the two in corner arguing. He was swearing at her. Reluctantly she came, got her handbag, and headed back to face him. I guessed she was about $600 short.
She stopped when I spoke. "Ms. Campbell, you had a lot of customers last night, give him what is in the till. It will help." Not thinking she went over and opened the register. I had stacked $1500 in $50 bills in one corner. She grabbed the bundle and headed back. She started counting the money as she went. Suddenly she whirled and faced me. I stated, "The money is good. I told you I was honest. I overheard he was going to shut you down if you didn't pay. I just love doing dishes. I'm just protecting my job." I grinned, which is something I had not been doing much of in the recent past.
Just then, we heard, "Come on Campbell, my time is valuable. Do you have the rent money or not?" There was no respect there at all. I was taking a distinct dislike to this person. Ms. Campbell counted out his money, and he barked she had better have it on time next month. My boss had to remind him that she needed a receipt. The receipt was made out and he handed it to her reluctantly. He then stomped out of the diner.
"We have to talk."
"Can't now. We have to get lunch ready. Mostly soup and sandwiches, right?"
"Yes. Some salads of course, and the usual burgers and fries."
"Okay, show me how I can help."
"My cook and his helper will be here in a few minutes. I have another waitress to help me serve." She asked, "Who are you anyway?"
"I could be a distant cousin."
"You could be, but you aren't."
"Your husband's cousin then."
Suddenly there were tears in her eyes. "Me and the kids were all the family he had. He was an orphan and has been dead a year." This brought tears to my eyes as well.
"I feel for you. My wife and kids died nine months ago." I whirled and went into the kitchen. Just then, an older man came in the back door and there was a short fat woman with him. I took it was the cook and his helper. He walked by me and said to my boss, "Hi Thea, I see you must have finally got rid of Pete. I was hoping you would or we would not have enough dishes left to serve dinner."
"I had to, he broke two dishes before he did anything at all this morning. Oh, I hired my husband's cousin to help. He just found out Tim had died and came to tell me what he remembered of him while they were growing up. His name is Ed and so he tells me, he stays sober."
"I should hope so."
Thea did have a good team to do lunch. I signaled her for a private minute before it was time to start dinner. "I have to go find some place to stay."
"I have an extra room. You can meet my children tonight and we do have to talk. The room is in the back part of the house. We sleep upstairs."
"You're very trusting."
"I can trust anyone who saves my business the way you have."
"Okay, I promise I won't abuse your trust. I heard your cook call you Thea, is that your name?"
"It is actually Theadora, but I don't use it much."
"I like it. It is Greek and means God's gift."
"I didn't know that."
"It is a fact." Just then, Thea's two children came in.
"Hi Mom." This was the girl speaking.
The boy just said. "Hi."
"Kids, I want you to meet Ed. He is a distant cousin of your father's. Ed this Nancy. She is twelve and this is Matt, he is almost eleven. Ed is washing dishes for me. I had to let Pete go. He came in drunk again." Both said hi to me. I had to turn away as Nancy reminded me of my own daughter I had lost. "Ed will be staying with us for awhile."
Thea turned to me, saying, "I'll take the kids home and I have to be back to wait table. I work until eight. You can leave with me. That is if you want to wash the dinner dishes."
"I do. Who does them during the night?"
"The cook loads the dishwasher and leaves the heavy stuff for you in the morning."
"That sounds good." As she left, she told the cook to feed me anything I wanted for dinner.
I kept to myself, never initiating a conversation. The heavyset cook's helper tried to flirt with me, but I paid no attention. I ate dinner before Thea returned. The diner was very busy and I wondered why Thea had trouble paying her rent. I probably would find out later this evening. My boss was well liked, made jokes and spoke to many of her patrons by their first names. As the dinner hour wound down, I was caught up, so I went out and wrecked the tables for the waitresses.
Thea took off her apron and said we were done. I followed her out to her car, which was a small Ford Escort. I had no idea what year it was, but it was not new. We went about a mile and turned into a side street, New Hope Avenue. We did not go far when she wheeled into a driveway on the right. "This is home. In daylight, you can see some fields behind the house. When Tim and I bought here, we were supposed to be part of a larger housing development. Then the farmer got stubborn when the developer would not pay what he asked. The farmer sold it with a clause barring development to a group that promised to keep it open."
"How do you feel about that?"
"Okay, I guess. We are allowed to walk and bike on the land, but it is growing up to brush in much of the field. They just mow it over when the brush gets too high. That will have to happen this summer or it will be too big. No residences can be built, though. It was nice when there used to be cattle on it. That is progress, I guess. It makes a person wonder if it is, though."
The house we pulled into was not large. I could see room for three bedrooms upstairs, but they had to be small. There was a two-car garage at the end of the drive and a covered walk from that to the house. Thea drove right into the garage and we went from there to the kitchen. I lugged in my duffel bag and Thea carried my satchel. There was what looked like a safe in the corner. She went over and opened it to put in what she had removed from the cash register at the diner. This was the day's take.
She kept out the remainder of my $1,500 laying it on the table. I asked, "Can you lock the safe?"
"Yes. Tim bought it from a business that was going broke."
"Would you put what is in the satchel in there if there is room?"
"Okay." Thea set it down on the table and opened it. She jumped back, throwing it from her when she looked into it. "Oh, my God! It is full of money."
It made me laugh. I think she thought I was a crook, bank robber, or dealer or something. "I told you before that I am honest. That is from the sale of my home. I took it in cash. Sometime I will tell you why. Please put it away."
"No, I won't touch it. You do it."
"Okay, if you insist. The fifties on the table, you keep to pay for my room here. Tell me when it runs out. That is if I am here that long. If I'm not, keep it anyway."
"We have to talk. I said that before and I mean it this time."
"Probably we should. What about Nancy and Matt, where are they?"
"They will be here in a few minutes. My sister sends them over when she sees me come home. She lives diagonally across the street and feeds them their dinner. Hurry and put your money away." There was room for the stacks of banded bills. I removed her till box that had a few bills and some rolls of change in it. I sat this on top of my money. Thea closed the door with a clunk and turned the knob. She went and wrote down the combination and handed it to me.
"You better have this. I trust you not to steal the little I have from me." Then she looked at me and giggled. Suddenly tears came from my eyes and I was sobbing.
"Ed, what is the matter? What did I do?"
"Nothing. It is just that my wife used to look at me like that. Sorry, I'll be okay in a minute." I heard the kids coming, so I walked into the next room to compose myself. She must think I was crazy and a basket case. Maybe I was crazy, but didn't I have the right to be?
I heard Nancy ask, "Is Ed here?"
"Yes he is. He is in the living room. Give him a few minutes. Have you kids done your lessons yet?"
"Most of them, Mom."
"Get your books out and do them. You know the rules."
Matt said, "But Mom there is no school tomorrow. It's Saturday."
"I know, but you always wait until Sunday. This way they will all be done and you can do something else."
"Okay, if I have to." I smiled, as this was typical behavior for a ten-year-old.
I stood in the doorway while Matt opened his book. I could see it was a math lesson. I came up behind him and looked over his shoulder. He did the first problem correctly, but the second one had him stumped. "Mom, help me?
I took over, and read the lesson. "A car is traveling forty miles an hour and he is on the road for two hours and twenty minutes. How far does it go? You can figure it out Matt. Think."
"I have no idea."
I laughed. "That is why I said, think. You have to multiply and divide with this problem. Add too. Okay, pull it apart and look at it to find the facts you know. One hour equals forty miles. Two hours you double it and get another forty miles. We are now up to eighty miles. Now we have to find out how far the car goes in twenty minutes. Can you figure it out?"
"Do you know what apples and oranges mean?"
"Yes, it means different and you can't add them together."
"Right. So find something you can add or is the same."
"But that is where I got the three miles." I cocked my head indicating he was not on the right track. "But twenty minutes go into one hour three times. It has to be right."
"How far does the car go in one hour?"
"Forty miles." He stared at the figures. Then he grinned. "Divide the forty miles by three just like you did the hour." Matt scribbled just as fast as he could. "It is thirteen and one third miles. The car goes a total of ninety three and one third miles."
"You figured it out. Good job." Nancy was finishing her lesson. Matt went on to the last eight of his problems and breezed right through them.
"Okay kids, showers and then bed."
Matt looked up at me and said, "You're better than Mom and she was a school teacher, or she used to be before Daddy died."
"We just have different ways of teaching that is all. I taught math in school a while back."
"Anyway, thanks Ed. Are you going to live here?"
"I don't know. I'm going to talk to your Mom later."
"I hope you do. I have to go take a shower. I don't know why, I took one last night. See you."
"See you, son." Thea had her eyes on me all evening. She should. I would have done the same if I had invited a stranger into my home. A weird acting stranger I might add.
"Would you like a beer?"
"No, I don't think so. You wanted to question me about my actions?"
"Yes. You said you had lost your wife and children. Tell me about it."
"Okay, but if I break up, forgive me for I'm still not handling it very well." I paused for this was going to be painful for me. "I married a girl I met in college. Her name was Amaya. She was of Japanese descent. She became a school teacher, as did I. We taught three years and then we started a family. We first had a daughter, Chieko. We called her Chicky. Two years later a boy was born, Ichirou, and we called him Itchy. Amaya stayed home and took care of us all until Itchy went into first grade, then she went back to teaching."
"Where did you live?"
"California, just outside of San Francisco. A year ago, this coming March, my in-laws went on a trip to Japan. Amaya had never been to the country of her ancestors. Her parents were always talking about them, where they lived, and where they died. They wanted to take us all and at first, I agreed. Then I was being hassled by the school administration about wanting time off during the school year.
"Amaya said she and the family would go now and later on in the summer, she and I would both go and follow the same path. I would see the same things she and the kids had seen and learned. They boarded a plane March 1, which was a Tuesday. Before the plane had risen and disappeared from sight, I felt I should have been with them. I wished I had been." Tears started now, but I still had myself somewhat under control.
"I don't understand. Did the plane crash?"
"No, they reached Japan and had a fine time. The kids were excited and they called and talked to me on the first weekend, telling about all of the things they were seeing and doing. They called again on Wednesday and were going to go to Tokyo on Saturday and were to leave for home on Monday."
By this time, I had to pause, but I shook it off. I continued, "I was watching the news Friday night, sitting down enjoying a beer. The first pictures of the Tsunami came on. I knew at that moment that I would never see my family again. They had toured the nuclear plant on Tuesday, as this was near the village where their ancestors lived and they were staying. The nuclear plant was one of the sites they were so excited about when we spoke on Wednesday."
Thea was sitting across the room crying with me at this point. It took several minutes for us to regain our composure. She asked, "What did you do?"
"Nothing, absolutely nothing. I did not even go back to work to finish last year. Many people in my position would have drunk himself into oblivion. I did not and I don't know why. My friends would come everyday and force me to eat. Some even got me into the shower when I got too rank.
"When school let out last spring, I started to come around enough to take care of myself. I even went to a psychiatrist for three months through the summer. It helped. The first day of school this year, I thought I was ready to face students. I would have had my daughter in my class and I planned to imagine her and would be teaching her, bringing the other students along with her." Again, I broke up.
Thea waited patiently. Finally, I could finish, "Some of her friends were in the class and they missed her too. They made sure there was an empty seat in front center and pasted a large snapshot of her on the front of the desk. I lasted fifteen minutes, turned, and walked out. I haven't faced another student since then."
"You have, Ed. You faced Matt tonight."
I thought about that. "I guess I did didn't I?" I was calmer now.
"Ed, did you lose it again like the first time when you just heard?"
"Not to the extent when I first learned of my family's deaths. I can function, but I know I am going to break up at odd times. I have learned to live with it. Some other people haven't and others think I'm just crazy."
"Ed, I'm curious. What about all of the money you put in my safe."
"This is where the crazy part comes in. I sold my home. The money is what I got for it and what savings Amaya and I had."
"Why did you take cash?"
It took a long time for me to answer. "Thea, there are over 3,700 bodies still missing in Japan. Most likely, none of my family will be found and identified. After I left the school that day, I decided to commit suicide. I just did not have the courage at that time. Then I sold my home. My family is gone and my home is gone.
"I put the money in a satchel and started traveling the country by bus. I do not deny myself anything. If I meet someone that needs a little money, they get it just as you did when you needed it for rent. You are the third person I have helped. I am $6,000 closer to my goal. You cannot pay it back. That is my only requirement for giving it to you."
"What are you going to do when your money is all gone?"
"By that time I'll have courage enough to go hunt for Amaya, Chieko and Ichirou."
"What do you mean? How are you going to do that?"
I stared at Thea until she got my meaning. "I'm sorry you lost your family, Ed. I disagree with what your plan is, but I know there isn't anything I can say to change your mind." I did not say anything, knowing she was right. "Come on Ed, I'll show you where you are sleeping."
I borrowed some coat hangers and shook the wrinkles out of my spare jeans and the three shirts I had dug from my duffel bag. I hung them in the bathroom while I took my shower. The steam would take care of the remaining wrinkles.
I was up early in the morning. I could not hear anything from upstairs. I saw where Thea had the coffee pot ready to start. I did that, and sat at the kitchen table just waiting for the coffee. I felt a presence. I looked up. Thea was staring at me. "How are you this morning?"
"Fine. I slept well."
"Have your coffee and I'll run you to the diner. I'm not working until lunch today."
"Don't bother, I'll walk. I used to walk a lot and did run some. I ran in half marathons a few times just for the fun of it."
"Okay, I'll have coffee with you and get dressed later."
I looked at Thea. She had on a dressing gown with a robe over it. Her red hair was tousled from sleep and her blue eyes sparkled this morning. My glance took in her figure from habit I suppose, going back to a happier time. I noted it was much fuller than Amaya's had been. Amaya had been petite with a very slim figure. Tears sprang to my eyes when that thought came to mind. Luckily, Thea was getting cups for the coffee and did not notice.
It was cold out. December in Georgia could get that way. I was not dressed that warmly. Thea noticed, "I have a heavier jacket than your sweater that was Tim's. I think it will fit you. Wear that please." I nodded my head that I would.
I would guess Friday night was busy at the diner. There were dirty dishes all over the kitchen this morning. It did not take long to right things up and then I went about helping the one waitress do the tables and make sure they were ready for the next customer. "My God, Ed where have you been all of my life? No one has ever helped me like this before."
"I just like to keep busy. I have thoughts and they are not happy ones. If I am busy, I don't have to think."
At eight forty-five, I saw the short order cook on the phone. He slammed it down, saying, "Thea wants me to stay until eleven when she comes in. I wanted to get my haircut, but I hated to refuse her. Damn!"
"Oh, I said I would when she asked me last week, but I forgot."
"How many customers do you have on a Saturday morning in that time?"
"Two and possibly as many as a dozen."
"Take off, I can handle it. I'll make it right with Thea."
"You are sure?"
"Okay, I'm gone." I was actually busier than he said, but I handled it.
Thea was pissed that he had left me alone. "Thea, think about it, with the customers I had and the profit that was brought in, you just about broke even. If you had to pay the cook, you would have had the same customers and been $20 in the hole from paying the higher wages."
"You get paid the $20 then."
"Nope, don't upset my agenda. Besides I have a whole safe full of money."
"We are going to have to talk again if you keep doing things like this. You worked your butt off, I can tell."
"How can you tell?"
"Look around the diner. It is gleaming. I know the night waitress did not do it. She is adequate, but doesn't exert herself." At lunch time, the cook came in and the rest of the lunch crew were right behind him. Thea shook her head and went to work.
Thea sent me home at two-thirty telling me to rest, as it would be nine before she closed the diner tonight, it being Saturday. I would need to be back a little before six. I drove her car.
I didn't get a chance to rest as Nancy and Matt saw me drive in and came running over from their aunt's house. "Ed, Aunt Mary wants to meet you. Can you come over to see her?"
"Sure I can."
I went across the street and met a woman that was definitely a sister of Thea's. They had the same eyes and the same color of hair. She was about the same size as well. Acting protective of her sister, she immediately started to question me. She asked where I was from. She danced around asking what my intentions were toward her sister. Well not directly, but her less than subtle questions were easy to read.
"I'm traveling around the United States by bus seeing the country. I do not intend to get close to your sister. She appears to be a nice woman and I stopped long enough to give her a hand. For now, I am renting a room she generously offered. I was a schoolteacher at one time. That's it, I guess."
"You don't have a family?"
"No." I had said all I was going to and Mary sensed it. "I'm going back to my room and lay down for awhile. I am washing dishes tonight. I'm pleased to meet you." I turned and went out. Matt followed me for a few steps.
"Ed can we toss a ball tomorrow if it isn't too cold?"
"Sure. Why not right now? I have a few minutes."
"Cool." He went running on ahead of me to get his ball and glove. I missed Itchy more right now than I had since he and my family boarded the plane for Japan.
"Do you play little league?"
"I was hoping to next summer, but Dad was always pretty busy so I don't know much about baseball."
"We'll have to get you going this winter. Maybe I can teach you how to throw hard and accurately."
"That would be great if you could, Ed." We were still tossing the ball when it was time for me to return to the diner.
Thea had the cook give me my dinner before I started on the dishes. The dinnerware was no problem for the dishes went into the washer. It was the pots, pans, kettles and utensils that had to be washed by hand. The jukebox had a speaker in the kitchen and that helped me concentrate on what I was doing. Moe Bandy had several songs on the box. Cal Smith had a couple. It was being continually being played, as the diner was busy. Hank Williams was on often, as he was still a favorite after so many years.
"The Hills of Roan County," sang by the Stanley Brothers was one of my recent favorites. It was a long song and never seemed to finish. I broke up when George Jones sang, "The Wreck on the Highway."
If I had a minute, I helped Thea and the other waitress out in the dining room. If the jukebox was not on, I fed it myself. Finally, Thea had a respite, came into the kitchen, and sat down on a chair in the corner. I knew she was watching me.
She spoke, "Do you do everything so well?"
"No, not always, but I find that it is easier to do a good job first and not have to do it over again."
"How does a person do that?"
"I trained how to do it in a motion study one time. I take just a minute to observe what has to be done, see what the result is that I want, and think about how to do it. It doesn't take long, but it does take some practice."
Thea changed the subject. "Mary called and talked to me. She said you played ball with Matt."
"I did. He asked me to."
"That was good of you. Matt is neglected. Tim ran the diner here and didn't always have time for him."
"Your husband had the diner for how long?"
"Ever since we were married. When he died, I took over. I had helped him some when necessary, but I had to learn to do it and fast. It pays more than I was making teaching school. One salary is not enough, though. The hours are longer and I am in the same boat as Tim was, not being able to be with my kids as much as I would like. I don't know what I would do without my sister."
"Do you like it?"
"I wish you hadn't asked that. No, I do not really, but I have to keep at it, to keep my head above water. The house is mortgaged and the lease on the business comes due every month."
"What would you do if you sold it?"
"I've thought about selling, but honestly there isn't that much. The man who I lease from has made me an offer, but he wants me along with the business. He harasses me, then he sweet-talks me. I don't trust him at all."
"Smart move." The cook cleaned his grill and left. Soon it was just Thea and I. Anything left to do tonight?"
"I should clean the grease trap, but I guess I'll put it off until tomorrow sometime. Maybe after church."
"You go to church?"
"Yes,. I'm a good Catholic and I want Nancy and Matt to be too. How about you?"
"I used to go to church but haven't for awhile. Guess I have lost faith. I feel God dumped me when he took my family."
Thea was quiet for a moment and did not say anything. Then, "You know I look at things differently than you. God took my husband and I felt like you. Then I remembered that I am just a human. Tim dying was our agenda. God is over us all, so it had to be it was His agenda and not ours. It is taught that God has a plan. My family and I may have been just collateral damage in God's plan. I do not know, but I do have faith that he will make it right. Maybe not in this life, but at some later time."
"You have a stronger faith than I do. Where is the grease trap you were talking about that needs cleaning? I will do it now. Why don't you go along home? I will do it and walk home. The kids will want to see you before they go to bed."
"Aren't you too tired?"
"Tired, yes, but not enough to sleep yet. Go along."
The next morning, Thea and the kids got ready for church while I got my own breakfast. They were going to the 8 o'clock mass. Aunt Mary went with them. I had learned that Mary was divorced and the settlement had been such she did not have to work and lived okay if she was careful. She had put herself in charge of Thea's kids for the time being until her sister's life changed, if ever. I thought Mary might be a couple of years older than Thea.
I sat over my coffee. My thoughts turned to my missing wife and children. Somehow, I did not feel like crying this morning. I had the feeling all were together even in death. This was something that had bothered me almost as much as the loss of them. What if they saw the rushing wave of water coming down on them and they were torn apart from each other? I could not bear the thought. Of course, I would never know, but the thought that they could be together was something to hold in my mind.
It was sunny and cold. I might just walk around the empty field this afternoon. Maybe I should do my laundry while Thea was at church. The washer was in the cellar. I picked up my clothes. When I got to the washing machine, I saw Thea had sorted the clothes, and the heavy things were in the washer ready to do. I threw mine in and started it. My underwear went on the pile of whites.
I had time to start a dinner before church let out. On my way to work, I had passed a grocery store. I bought a roasting chicken and some vegetables. Thinking pie, I bought five boxes of frozen strawberries and a couple boxes of crusts. I got the chicken ready, but it would not take this long to cook, so I set it aside.
I mixed and rolled out the two boxes of crust and split it into two pieces. I put it on a sheet pan. I then thawed two boxes of the strawberries. I sweetened, thickened them with cornstarch, cooked it, and spread it over the bottom crust about three eights of an inch thick. I used the rest of the crust to cover it and slid it into the oven. Twenty-three minutes later, I had a golden, flaky pan of fruit squares ready to cut. The other three boxes of berries I left out on the counter. I went in and watched the news on television.
I heard Thea come in. She came charging into the living room. "I see you have chicken ready for the oven."
"Yes. It can go in anytime now. The wash needs switching over. Would you like to have me do that?"
"Underwear and whites. My skivvies are with it."
"I'll do it. I see you have been baking. How come there are more strawberries thawing?"
"The strawberries are for smoothies. I thought we would have a strawberry day."
"I don't have a blender. I'll call Mary."
"Fine. Where are the kids?"
"At Mary's. I will have Nancy bring it over. The chicken is big enough so I can invite Mary if it is okay with you.'"
"Okay with me." She turned to go back to the kitchen. "Thea, why did you ask me if Mary could come for dinner?"
"No reason really I guess, but I would have asked Tim." She looked at me. Maybe she was herself puzzled by doing something that put her back into the past. This time when she turned away, she did go to the kitchen.
I followed her. "Thea, I'm following a plan I set for myself you know. Please don't do anything that will bring heartbreak to you."
"I know, but give me the latitude to change your plan if I can." I shrugged feeling I hated the thought of her being unhappy. Should I leave now? No, maybe I would stay another week.
The dinner came out as well as I hoped it would. The smoothie was a big hit. I put the strawberries into the blender, some vanilla instant pudding, sugar, and filled it up with whole milk The berries were only partially thawed. I blended it and poured it into cereal bowls and we ate it with a spoon. When our throat froze from the cold, we nibbled on a strawberry square. It was quite the dessert.
After dinner, I wanted to walk in the field. Matt took his bicycle and Nancy walked with me. The paths were wide enough so we could walk side by side. We were almost to the far side, when I heard some sobs from Nancy. She explained. "My Dad and I came here sometimes. Not often because he was so busy, when he did, he would hold my hand and walk with me. Ed, would you do that for me?" Nancy calmed down and we resumed.
Matt would ride ahead and then come speeding back. When he came up to us as we neared the far side, he asked me if I could sing. I said I did sometimes.
"A long time ago Daddy didn't have any money for presents for Nancy and me. He brought us out here and sang us a song. It was called "If We Make It Through December." He sang it to stop us begging Mom for toys. That was the only year we did not have any presents, but he would always sing it to us in December. Do you know it?"
"If it is the one by Merle Haggard, I do. Would you like for me to sing it?"
We sat down on the stone wall that was near and I sang the song. These two kids started crying. They clung to each other and walked back home ahead of me toward the house when I finished. They were hand in hand and I pushed the bike. I knew they were missing their father. I had a family I was missing too. There is sadness in everyone's life for young and old alike.
As we approached the house, the kids stopped and faced me. "Daddy didn't make it through December last year. He died two days before New Years." They whirled and ran into the house. Thea was down cellar washing and Mary had gone home. What would either one have said if they saw Nancy and Matt come home crying like this?
When Thea came upstairs, she said, "I put some of the clothes that I still had of Tim's in your closet. That reminds me. The kids are in the school Christmas exercises next week. They want you to attend. Will you?"
I studied Thea to see if this was all she had in mind or was she still trying to change my agenda. "Thea don't try so hard to change me. Yes. I will go with the kids. I will explain a little more about what my plans are. I figured I had enough money to last seven years. One year is almost gone. My family has not been declared dead yet, so I will be around for a while. I didn't intend to stay very long in one place at a time, but I do like Matt and Nancy."
"Fair enough. You seem to be too good a person to follow your plan, but I will back off for now." She smiled at me and headed back down cellar. I went down to my room. The closet had three garment bags holding men's wear. The drawer in the bureau held shirts and work clothes. I guess it was time I bought underwear for myself. I might just stay awhile. These clothes were not mine. I could walk away if the situation dictated, but for now I would be well dressed.
Matt and Nancy were both in the Christmas exercises. Matt was in a chorus group. He would do okay with that. I asked Nancy what she was doing. There was a scared look on her face. Matt laughed. "Sis volunteered to sing a song all by her- self. She is horrible."
"What is the song?"
"It is Ave Maria and I love it. I guess I wasn't thinking when I said I wanted to sing it. I'll just have to get sick that day."
"I used to sing that. Maybe I can help."
Nancy looked up, filling in another fact that I did not know. "I promised to sing it a cappella."
"Okay, we had better get started on this. I promise I won't let you bomb." It was going to take a lot of work. Over the next few days, Matt would come into where we were practicing and cover his ears or stick his finger down his throat, pretending to barf. That was the first week. We had four more days to go. Nancy was trying and Matt knew it. Now when she sang he would pump his fist. Every minute that we were home together, she would want me to direct her.
It was the night before the last day of school and classes. We worked hard on the song, polishing it. "Hey kid, that was fabulous. One more time through and you are ready for tomorrow."
There were chairs in the gym for the parents to sit on. All were full. Mary, Thea, and I sat fairly close to the raised stage on the left. There were bleachers on the right for the choral group singing. Each class had their own exercises. When Matt's group sang, there was the usual pushing and shoving, typical of children of his age.
Nancy's class sang three Christmas songs and then they went to the back of the stage, leaving Nancy alone. She found the pitch and then she sang! All movement in the gym ceased. Nancy's voice soared and rose to the ceiling. It was youthful and a little thin, but she nailed it. When she finished, no one moved. She looked scared. Then she smiled looking directly at us.
"Thanks Ed, we did it." I guess you can say I was as proud of Nancy as I had ever been of anyone. When the next class came onto the stage, Nancy was able to find a seat between Thea and me. She grabbed my arm and hugged it to her. Mary looked a little jealous, and maybe Thea did as well but they were smiling.
I whispered, "Nancy the next break I have to go to work. Before I go, I want you to know I am so proud of you. I have never had a student work as hard for something as you have. Hard work pays off and you are a perfect example of it." Suddenly she reached up and pulled my face down to kiss me on the cheek. "Thank you. Nancy, I appreciate that more than I can say." I made my way down the row and left before I broke up.
Thea came into the diner and right up to me. "Why did you leave so early?"
"Thea, what would your friends and the other parents say if you were sitting next to a man who had tears streaming down his face? I thought it best I get out of there. You know my situation. Cut me some slack, please."
"Okay, but don't you dare break my kids' hearts. If you do, I'll pray that you go straight to hell." She whirled away and then came back. "Ed, I didn't mean that. I know what you are going through. Thank you so much for taking the time to teach Nancy, Ave Maria."
"I had a lot to work with. She really did work hard. I was just there to guide her."
"I think you are one hell of a teacher anyway."