Merry Christmas friends. As last Epiphany I gave you Two Guys and a Gal, I give you this short story for Christmas this year. It all began with grief over a lost Tilley hat……
Justin was at that uncomfortable age. That is, that age where he was so uncomfortable in his own skin that he was very adept at making everyone else in the room just a uncomfortable. That is, any age after 12. Since summer vacation he had been distant, reclusive, sarcastic, and prone to outbursts of anger easily deflected from himself to others. Especially his dad. It did not escape Justin’s attention that his parents seemed to tag team with each other as to which got to be the bad cop this time.
Jon was beginning to long for long nights holding the baby through colic and ear aches. Summer vacation had been a disaster, ruined by Justin’s unwillingness to do anything he had once loved doing with his family on the island.
School started and everyone began to relax a bit in the familiar routine. There was, however, nothing familiar about 7th grade for Justin. Sometimes he just wanted to be a kid again. The scolding lectures on every front kept repeating the word ‘RESPONSIBILE” in bold print. One night he bolted into the computer room with a measuring tape. He wrapped the tape around Jon’s wrists and head, neck, then stretched it down the length of his back, and then asked his dad,’What’s an inseam?”
“I’ll do that.” Jon replied firmly. “What is this all about?”
“School project. We’re trying to predict how big we will be when we stop growing.”
Sounded well enough, so Jon went back to clicking at the keys and Justin disappeared as quickly as he barged in.
Weeks passed, during which Justin seemed to make himself more scarce than ever. There was always a reason–studying with a friend, going to a school social, hanging out with the guys, going to the library.His father marveled at his sudden studiousness and teased Justin about having a secret girlfriend. Justin was not amused. His mother shot Jon a withering look. Jon shrugged his shoulders.
Christmas made it all worse, not better. It was as though Justin could not bear to be with his family and participated in the family’s holiday traditions only under scowling duress. Jon missed his son, who had once been so cheerful and funny, and hoped that he would come back someday when this stage was over. Every night Jon tapped on Justin’s locked bedroom door and softly spoke into the door frame, “Good night. Thank you for another day.” Sometimes he wondered if it were really true, but he figured if he said it enough it would be. It was hard to get into a spirit of generosity as he and his wife hovered over the computer screen Christmas shopping. Yet he did not stop talking to the door frame each night.
Sallie’s parents, grandmother, and sister, with her three kids, gathered Christmas afternoon to exchange presents. All the kids were past the Santa Clause years, so time around the tree was more flexible now: “A Moveable Feast” Sallie called it. On the way to Aunt Charlie’s house, Justin picked the first fight.
“So why don’t we open packages on Christmas Eve, like we used to?” Sallie knew a storm was brewing, and the tension in her voice rose. “This just makes it easier for everyone, especially for Oma. You want her to be there, don’t you?”
“I don’t see why. She hardly knows that I’m there anymore.”
“Justin Adam Charles!” his father bellowed. “You owe your mother an apology!”
Sullen silence wafted from the back seat. No apology came.
The rest of the half hour drive was silent. His anger getting the best of him, Jonathan shut Justin’s open door before Justin could step out.
“You can come in when you are ready to apologize to your mother.”
“What? What did I do? I don’t know what I am supposed to apologize about!” Jonathan slammed his own door and stalked away. Justin slouched into the seat, put in his earbuds, and retreated to the safety of his own world.
Jonathan kept peeking out from the curtains in the front room to check on Justin, hoping he would come in. He did not. ‘Why don’t you go out to him? Sallie tried to cajole Jonathan. ” I can’t back down this time. This is getting way out of hand. My father would have smacked me to kingdom come if I talked that way to my mother.”
Quietly, Sallie stood on tip toe to whisper in his ear, “But you are not your father.” She paused before elevating on tip toe again. ” And your son is not you.”
Jonathan joined the Christmas festivities, but the gladness rang hollow as he came out to look between the curtains again and again.
Jonathan and Justin retreated to their bedrooms immediately upon arriving home, without exchanging gifts. Jonathan could see that Justin had been crying. Justin could not see that his mother had also been crying, escaping the party repeatedly to stand alone on the back porch. Tonight, Jonathan could not do it. He could not talk to the door frame. He remembered Sallie’s words, churning them over and over again as he lie awake in bed. Sallie had still not come to bed, when he heard a soft voice outside the door.
‘Merry Christmas, Dad. Thank you for another day.”
Jonathan lie in bed, tears running into his ears for a good three minutes before he could come to the door. Justin was still there, a package in his hands. Awkwardly, he thrust it toward his father. Sallie stood behind him, hands on his shoulders. Soon, those shoulders would be above her reach.
“Open it.” She ordered Jonathan. Together, the three collapsed on Jonathan and Sallie’s king-sized bed.
“Go ahead, Dad. Please open it.” Justin’s voice cracked. Jonathon carefully pulled on each corner of the box when Justin reached over and grabbed it.
“Don’t you know how to open presents Dad?”
There in has hands it was. The hat Jonathan had admired for two summer vacations down on the island. It was too expensive to lavish upon himself, so he refused to buy it when Sallie urged. He looked at Sallie in amazement.
“I didn’t do it. Your son did. I bought it, and he has paid me back in his lawn mowing money and extra chores since then. Even Steven.”
Without hesitation he pulled his son into his arms.
“I am so sorry. Just so sorry.”
Awkward with the unfamiliar intimacy, Justin pulled back.
“Dad, I don’t know what gets into me sometimes. It’s not what I want. I wish I could say it won’t happen again, but I know that may not be true. I’m sorry. I’m sorry I can’t be the son you want me to be.”
Jonathan grabbed Justin’s face and looked at him straight on–a look Justin had been dodging for months now. “Justin, I don’t know what gets into me sometimes. Sometimes I open my mouth and my father’s words come out. I am not my father. You are a fine son. A better son than I knew how to be. I am thankful for every day I get to be your father.”
Jonathan wore the hat in summer and in winter, and treasured it every day. Sometimes his colleagues teased him about doing “walkabout” when he spent his lunch hours walking in his hat. The hat had some kind of magic that made him not mind. The hat had some kind of magic to repair the scars of the past and knit his son ever more tightly into his grateful heart.
Slowly, Justin left the stormy weather of early adolescence and began to emerge as a young man, ready to leave for college. The hat sheltered Jonathan’s face from winter’s cold, spring rains, and summer heat. One rainy day, Jonathan slipped into the bus shelter and slipped off his hat to shake the rain off the brim. He could never remember what distracted him so much that he put the hat down, then climbed into the bus several minutes later.
Henry ducked into the bus shelter for some relief from the cold rain. The weather was getting harder for him to bear as he got older. It never used to bother him so much. He preferred being free and outside, no matter how cold or wet it was. He used to avoid going inside the shelters at all costs. Bad things happen there. They would steal an honest man blind. Eat. Leave. Talk to no one and get into no trouble. He may not have looked like much, but he prided himself in being an honest man. He could have done like so many others and run away to Canada. He didn’t have the money rich boys had to run away and go to college. When his number came up, he took it like a man even though he was still mostly boy. He’d seen so many come and go, and hardly even knew where they went. Maybe to the pokey. Maybe they just moved on. He doubted that any of them ever went home, wherever that was. Sometimes he would hear of one freezing to death because he was too stupid to go into the shelter. He could have been that stupid, he admitted to himself. Now I’m just old and can’t do that nonsense anymore.
The bus was coming when he ducked into the shelter, and everyone jostled into position to get onto it. People would get pushy at going home time, when the bus would pull away when it got full whether everyone was on or not. The rain made everyone more pushy than usual, so a seat on the bench quickly became available and Henry slipped into it. The bus was pulling away when he saw it. There was a hat on the bench next to him. A nice hat. He admired it while running the brim through his fingers. A person could snap up one side and look like a regular Crocodile Dundee. He held it out in the rain to discover that the rain ran off the brim in rivlets. A hat like this could really protect a person. Especially a person so often exposed to the elements, like himself. Henry prided himself for being an honest man, and decided he could not just take the hat without seeing if someone returned for it. Dry enough, he stayed at the bus bench into the night. After the last bus ran, a police officer got out of his car and offered to take him to a shelter. Henry waved him on, saying he was waiting for a friend. When the police officer drove around the neighborhood a few more times, no friend had come. He told Henry he would have to leave and could not spend the night on the bench. He was reluctant, but stood up stiffly and put the hat on his head. He walked and walked until the next police shift took over, then went back to the bus shelter and waited, holding the hat between his folded hands. People got off the express buses and bustled on to work, but no one saw the hat and said, “There’s my hat! Thank you so much! Here, here, let me give you $20 for keeping it safe.” By mid-afternoon, he was hungry. He put the hat on his head and walked to the Front Street Shelter, where he could wait on the steps until dinner was served.
When the doors opened, he was happy to see the young college girl at the table in the entry. She always asked how you were doing and even remembered his name. She tried to get him to stay in the shelter after every dinner, but he refused every time. Sometimes she told him to sit next to her for a while and play cards. No gambling though. Never. “What is the worse thing that could happen if you stayed?” she pleaded with him.
He made a slashing motion across his throat.
“Why, I’ve never known such a thing to happen here.”
He just shook his head. Being inside felt dangerous. The bad dreams would come, and he would wake up hollering and everyone would stare at him like he was some kind of crazy.
Tonight she admired his hat. “Where’d you get such a fine hat Henry?” ‘I didn’t steal it, if that’s what you mean.”
Well, no. Not really. I was just worried someone might try to steal it from you.
“That’s why i don’t spend the night.”
He told her about finding the hat, waiting until the police ran him off, then coming back until the morning express buses had all run.
“I figure I’m just babysitting it until someone misses it and comes back for it.”
“We could take it to the lost and found at the bus office. I’ll go over with you.”
“What? And let some other bum steal it?”
She couldn’t argue with that.
Henry walked casually around that bus bench every day except Sunday when the buses didn’t run. No one ever claimed that the hat was his. Maybe if that guy recognized his hat on the old man’s dirty head he would change his mind about wanting it back.
One sunny day he stretched out with his legs in front of him, the hat covering his face, and settled comfortably into a nap. After a time he could not have guessed, he felt the bench give at the other end as a thin young man plopped down. His hair had been dyed a brilliant red no human was ever born to, but now the dark brown roots were growing out more than two inches. This boy had been away from his hair stylist for a while. His shoes were free of laces, and slipped shabbily on his feet.
‘Where you stayin'” Henry ventured in a friendy way. The boy did not respond. He was talking, just not responding to Henry’s presence. Henry watched the boy for a moment, then stretched out again and put the hat over his face. Protected by the hat, he could watch the boy more closely. He studied the boy’s arms and saw no track marks or scars. Then he saw the bands of scars on his wrists, and realized the boy had been cutting. His skin seemed too smooth to be much of a man. His eyes darted for a few minutes, then fixed on a point, unblinking, for several more minutes. He was so still that Henry had to check carefully to see his chest rise and fall, rise and fall.
“Do you need some drugs?” Henry tested him.
“NO! NO DRUGS!” The young man became agitated and jumped up.
“Now calm down, sit back down here. I was just trying to be helpful, not accuse you of anything. What’s your name?”
The boy was silent and stared at Henry as though he were growing another head and horns.
“You hear voices in your head don’t you?”
The boy was shaking now, mumbling something under his breath.
“You hear voices and think one of them is going to hurt you if you go to sleep, don’t you?”
The boy shook his head.
Ah, I guessed his number, Henry said softly to himself. He felt sad to see someone so young like this, like some war-worn bomb weary veteran half poisoned to death and doped up. He seemed too young to have seen any action, except in his head.
The boy jumped up as if to run. In a stern voice, Henry gruffly commanded him, ‘Sit Down Young’un!” To his astonishment, the boy obeyed. Henry worried about the boy, too new to the streets to know any better, surely not experienced enough to know how to help himself. Too sick inside.
‘You have no business out on the streets like this, Young’un. Don’t you have no one to go to?”
The boy shook his head fiercely. ‘No.”
“Look, you need a safe place to stay. I’ll take you somewhere they are real nice.”
The boy panicked and started to run. Henry jumped faster than he knew he could anymore and grabbed the boy by the shoulders. “Now I said, Sit Down!” He pushed the boy down on the bench again. He had seen this kind many times and knew how hard it was to help them. He wished he had a magic wand to take the sickness away.
Magic wand. His hat. He loved his hat, but he would have to part with it to help this boy. He took it off his head, and pushed it down on the boy’s ahead. Before the boy could push it off, he put his hands down heavily on the crown.
“Now boy, I want you to know this is a magic hat. I’ve worn it and know how powerful it is. You wear this and no one can hurt you. You can tell those voices to shut up. You will be stronger than you know you are. Just leave it on.”
The boy tried to shove it off again, but Henry clasped his head even more firmly. Now I’m going to name you, name you …Henry thought rapidly for a proper name….Sir Dundee. ”
That was a stupid name, Henry thought. But before he could recant it, the boy repeated it , his voice calm and firm. Sir Dundee. yessir. Reporting for duty.
Henry wasn’t sure if the boy was getting all the metaphors straight, but he saluted him nonetheless. “Henry you’re gonna get caught this time.” he told himself. “You be making promises you can’t keep. This boy is in a heap of trouble, and can’t punch his way out of a paper bag. Soon enough he’ll know you be lying, man, he’ll know you be lying before he be dead.”
He knew the boy needed to be somewhere safe, somewhere inside. He couldn’t stay up all day and night making sure the boy didn’t run into the street or hurt himself, or worse yet, attack someone he thought was a devil or about to attack him. He knew that young college girl at the Front Street Shelter who was always trying to help him might actually enjoy helping this boy.
‘Come. Come with me boy. Come with me Dundee.” The boy stood by Henry’s side and followed him to the steps of the shelter. At the steps, the magic broke. Dundee realized he was about to be taken inside and began to fight Henry and the other guys standing on the steps. The college girl came outside, shouting with a stern voice and her hands mounted on her hips, ‘Eh! What’s going on here!” A big muscular guy Henry recognized as a resident walked up behind College Girl and stood at the top of the steps. Henry rushed to her, only to be intercepted by Muscles. Hissing through his teeth, he quickly told her about the boy and looked at her with pleading eyes. Grabbing Dundee by the arm, he dragged him to College Girl.
“Now Dundee, I’ve told College Girl here all about the magic hat. She’s been real helpful to me, and she wants you to come inside and tell her more about the magic hat. That’s an order, Sir.”
Calm returned to Dundee as he regained composure and manners.
‘Miss, I am Sir Dundee and I’m here to serve.”
She was nonplussed at the sudden change in the boy’s demeanor.
‘Do you want to stay here in, in the barracks tonight?”
Henry tensed, waiting for another explosion. It didn’t come.
‘Yes ma’m, if he stays I have to stay. ”
Henry wondered where that rule came from. College Girl looked at him with questions in her eyes. He had never spent the night in the shelter.
“okay, Dundee, but you keep that hat with you every minute, here? I don’t want to find it somewhere you ain’t.’
Dundee kept his word, and Henry kept his. Soon they were inseparable and busy doing chores around the shelter. The boy was actually pretty handy fixing things.
Paul leaned on the suitcase as he zipped it up and set it upright on its wheels. He went through his mental checklists: one for what he would need if he succeeded in his mission, another for what he would need if he did not. He checked his jacket pocket for the tickets, picked up his suitcase and his laptop, and headed downstairs just as the doorbell rang to announce that his neighbor was standing on the other side ready to take him to the airport.
‘That’s it? That’s all you are taking for a month?” Joe eyed Paul and his luggage.
“Not going to pay the airlines a fortune, and if I’m lucky it won’t take me a month. If not, there’s such a thing as a laundromat. Thanks for your concern Joe, and I can’t thank you enough for taking me to the airport at the buttcrack of dawn like this.”
“What’s a neighbor good for?” Joe grinned and picked up the luggage. “I’ve got coffee waiting in the car. Cream, no sugar, right?”
Paul pulled out a postcard from his jacket pocket as Joe pulled out of the subdivision.
“That’s all you have to go on?”
“Yep. But it’s enough. A postmark and a note that he’s alive.”
“Paul, I don’t know whether I should admire you or pity you. That boy has put you and Melanie through hell.”
“Maybe. But he hasn’t put us through anything he hasn’t suffered ten fold. I can’t stop trying.”
Melanie left first. She said she couldn’t take the stress anymore, and no matter how much she loved her husband and son she needed a break. Tim left then, leaving blood all over the bathroom and not even a note. He didn’t understand the demons that seemed to overcome Tim as he struggled into young adulthood. He had to drop out of college because the voices were telling him to hurt himself, or hurt someone else who was plotting a terrorist attack. He tried to understand, but it seemed as though Tim couldn’t do anything to help himself or snap out of it. He and Melanie took turns sitting at his bedroom door, searching the house for anything he might hurt himself with, emptying medicine cabinets, and of course the guns were the first thing to leave the house. He didn’t blame Melanie at all. In fact, he thought at times she had just beaten him to it.
He checked into the hotel he had reserved for a week. Looking in the mirror, he saw less a face he recognized as much as he saw a faded apparition of a man he once was. Life had been a nightmare for three years, but his face showed ten years of wear in that time. He splashed water on his face and combed his thinning hair. The uninvited thought occurred to him that he might not recognize Tim or that Tim might not recognize him and refuse to come with him. He carefully laid out the pictures of Tim in happier days. ‘Who am I kidding?” he said outloud. “Who is going to recognize Tim from these pictures?” The kid in the pictures had normal hair, no bleached or neon colors. The kid in the pictures was smiling, confident and friendly. Since Tim had bolted from the house that night, Paul had not stopped praying that God would send Tim a guardian, or that God would forgive Paul for whatever he did or didn’t do that made Tim like this. Maybe it was too little, too late. For a while, he was afraid Tim had died or was in prison somewhere. Then the postcard came. The picture was of Wrigley Field. Chicago. Of course, that didn’t mean Tim was there, but it was the best thing he had to go on. He read the words over and over.
“Dad, I am sorry I am so much trouble. Don’t worry about me. Henry said so and gave me a magic hat. Bye.”
Paul wondered what delusion Tim was living now. Henry. Magic Hat. Not even his own name.
Emma was getting ready to open the doors for the first shift of clients to come in when she heard a knock.
“You know I can’t let anyone in until the St. Joseph bells!” she yelled back, without opening the doors.
The knock became more insistent, unrelenting.
“you can knock until your knuckles fall off, I’m not allowed and you know it!” she yelled again.
This time a man yelled back. “I’m not here to eat! I’m not one of them!”
As her grandmother used to say, that “Got my I’rsh up.” She cracked the door open and addressed the man who stood there.
“What do you mean you aren’t one of “THEM.” Just who do you think “THEY” are? People who don’t matter? People you hope won’t ask you for anything, or follow you on your way to your highrise office building? Why are you so afraid I might think you are one of THEM? God forbid. God forbid that I get caught with the likes of you!”
She was ready to slam the door when the man pushed his arm into the closing door, holding a picture.
‘Please, I’m begging. I’m sorry. Please, have you seen this boy?”
She stopped the door.
“Are you a cop? Has he done something?”
“No. I’m his father.”
Relaxing, she invited him in after reminding the eavesdropping clients that the doors would not open for dinner until the St. Joseph bells rang.
Taking the picture, she studied it until she called a man from the kitchen.
What do you think, Henry? Could this be Dundee? Henry took the picture, sucked on his teeth while he studied it.
“What do you want with him?”
“I’m his father.”
“So, what do you want to do with him?”
“Take him home….if he’ll have me, that is.”
“He’s one messed up kid. But he’s a good kid.”
“I know.” Paul was meek. “The doctors said he’s a paranoid schizophrenic. Very hard case.”
“No.” Henry was forceful. “He is not.”
Paul began to feel defensive. What did this old guy off the streets know about his son that he and a dozen doctors didn’t know?
Henry continued firmly, jamming his finger into the picture.
“This. This is YOUR SON. He’s got a whole lotta stuff going on in his head and the doctor’s might have all kinds of names for it, but first-he’s your son. Not in spite of all the mess in his head. You can’t have him and not have all of him.”
Not wanting to be patient any longer, Paul demanded now. “Where is my son? Do you know? I got this postcard from him.”
Paul pulled out the very worn postcard from his pants pocket. Look here, it says he has a magic hat, and something about a guy named Henry.
Henry’s face brightened and he called to Emily. ‘Emmy, come here. Remember that postcard you made Dundee write to tell his family he is ok? Here it is!”
She grabbed the card. “Praise God. I wondered if that would ever do anybody any good. ”
Looking now to Paul with friendlier demeanor, she introduced Henry as the man who brought Dundee–the only name the boy would allow himself to be called–and stayed with him.
Seeing Paul’s crestfallen face, Henry hurried to reassure him. “He’s just gone walkabout a bit. Does that sometimes when the voices won’t let him alone. Just takes his Magic Hat for a walk until they settle down.”
‘Magic Hat?” Paul was puzzled.
“Yeah, that’s what I called it so he would start settling down. Old trick I learned in the army when some kid flipped. Give him something he can borrow strength from. i don’t know why it works, but that Magic Hat really worked for him. Hell, I guess it worked some kind of magic on me too. Found the thing forgotten on a bus bench. Great at keeping off the rain, covering up my face so I can sleep in the day. Used it to get him to come inside here. I couldn’t get him to stay unless i stayed…and here I am. Under roof. And working in the kitchen.
‘But he’s gone now? I’ve looked everywhere for him, and I’ve just about drained my bank account and have to go home. ”
“Just take yourself for a little walkabout around here. Look for this Australian Cowboy hat–you know, Crocodile Dundee type. That’s why i named him Dundee when he wouldn’t tell me no name. It’s like he didn’t remember who he was. Look for the hat. you’ll find it. I told not to ever take it off.”
The St. Joseph bells started to toll the hour, and Emily pushed the heavy doors open for dinner. About an hour later, just before the second shift was about to come in, she saw the hat first. Paul stood next to it.
“Can I eat here tonight too? You see….here’s my son.I’m with him.”