Christmas in Iverhill: Merry Christmas, Steve Kaplan

NOTE: To read Chuck Miller’s book “The Robins of Iverhill: A Minor League Fairy Tale,” as well as the short stories in the “Christmas in Iverhill” series, visit this link.

Friday, December 21, 1973.

He could smell the perfume-scented Christmas card the moment he opened his mailbox.  And he smiled.  He knew it was from Cathy, and that knowledge alone made his heart skip a beat.

Everything seemed to be in place.  He picked up the engagement ring from the jewelers last week.  A quarter-carat single solitaire diamond in a gold-pronged setting, a 14-karat symbol of happiness that cost him nearly six months of savings and thriftiness from his accounting job at Magedoma Lumber.  But he knew that all those nights he spent with Cathy, all the dates and all the dinners and the drive-ins and the dances he spent with her, was worth every karat and carat.

He had everything planned out.  He told Cathy he would pick her up for a date, a walk through the shops on North Main Avenue, and maybe a stop at the park bench at the intersection of North Main Avenue and Red Pine Street.  He would get down on one knee, show her the ring box, open the ring box and watch for her to mouth the words yes I’ll marry you.

One more sniff of the envelope.  Yes, it’s the perfume he bought her.  The one she asked for, the perfume with the big 5 on the label bottle.  Slowly opening the envelope, so that he wouldn’t tear the card inside.

Merry Christmas, the card read.  He wondered if she bought the card at ShopCo or went to the local stationery store on North Main Avenue.  He smiled.  And then he opened the card.

And in Cathy’s flowing, pen-perfect handwriting, he saw a handwritten note inside the Christmas card.

My darling Steve.  Every night I think about you, I dream about your arms holding me, your lips kissing me, your body close to mine.  And every morning, I fall more and more in love with you.

His heart skipped a beat.  He could feel the nerves tingle in his body as he read the letter.  He continued to read.

From the first day I saw you, from the first day you said hello to me, all I could think about was being Mrs. Steve Kaplan.  I’ve practiced writing it on pieces of paper.  Cathy Kaplan.  It’s gotten easier to write, and it’s a lot easier than writing Cathy Kopczynski.

He didn’t know what to think.  The words he read were heartfelt and poignant.  Every word he read blended through his essence and pressed against his soul.

From the first day I met you, it felt like I won the sweepstakes.  I fell in love with you that day and I’ve been in love with you ever since.  Merry Christmas, my love.  I hope you and I will be Mr. and Mrs. Steve Kaplan very soon.  Maybe there might be something under the mistletoe for you on Christmas?  Hugs and kisses and all my love, Cathy.

He read the letter over and over.  It was more than he expected.  And every emotion in his heart bubbled to the surface.

There was only one thing he could do at that point.  He had to call Cathy and make sure that what he read was true.

He dialed Cathy’s number.  The phone rang.  Rang and rang.  He knew that Cathy didn’t have an answering machine, so he gave her plenty of time to reach the phone.  Eight rings.  Nine.  Ten.

And then he hung up, the tears streaming down his face in streams of salty, wet pain.

The ringbox – with the engagement ring – was still in his pocket.  He opened the box one more time, and glimpsed at the glittering diamond engagement band inside.  He then closed the box, muttered an obscenity, and put the ring box in a drawer.

And at that moment, David Wilkerson sat in a chair and cried, wondering to himself if anybody knew that Cathy Kopcynski’s love letter to someone named Steve Kaplan was mixed up with the Christmas card David was supposed to have received.  I wonder if this Steve Kaplan guy got a break-up letter from Cathy that was meant to be sent to me, David thought, as the tears continued to trickle from his joy-deprived eyes.

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Christmas in Iverhill: Santa Claus is Cool

NOTE: To read Chuck Miller’s book “The Robins of Iverhill: A Minor League Fairy Tale,” as well as the short stories in the “Christmas in Iverhill” series, visit this link.

Saturday, December 15, 1973.

“I can’t find them, Ann, I can’t find them!”

“They have to be where you last left them last,” Ann called out. “Did you check your dresser drawers?”

“No, they’re not there,” replied Gordon, frantically searching throughout the bedroom. “I can’t find them. This is terrible, and I need to get downtown before I’m completely late!”

Life in the Mitchell household – a childless elderly couple living in a small mobile home in the Pines of Iverhill Trailer Park – was normally quiet and sedate. But between Thanksgiving and Christmas, Gordon Mitchell – a robust millworker at Magedoma Lumber – became Iverhill’s unofficial Santa Claus. He arranged his vacation time to fall between Thanksgiving and Christmas, so that he could play Santa Claus at the ShopCo Shopping Center all month. And two weeks before Christmas, he would ride in the ShopCo Christmas Parade, and from the perch of a sleigh-shaped parade float, he would toss candies to the parade-watching kids along North Main Avenue.

For the past fifteen years, Gordon Mitchell enjoyed every moment of his holiday role. He and his wife Ann had no children of their own, so for Gordon, playing Father Christmas was his chance to share the joys of the holiday season with the younger generation of Otswego County.

And for that month between Thanksgiving and Christmas, these were the happiest moments of Gordon Mitchell’s life.   He sat on the big chair at ShopCo’s makeshift Santa’s Workshop every day from 10:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m., with two coffee breaks and a half-hour lunch break – or, as the little sign alongside Santa’s Workshop would say, “Santa has to feed his reindeer, and will be back soon.”

Three high school students from Iverhill High School would dress up in Christmas finery – mostly red and green sweaters and elfen hats – and would guide kids toward Santa’s chair.  George would ask how old each kid was, ask what they wanted for Christmas, ask if they’ve been good all year, and then sit while one of Santa’s helpers took the kid’s picture with Santa.

At the end of the day, one of the store managers would ask Gordon what the kids most wanted for Christmas that year.  Gordon would reply that the boys wanted toy racecars or metal soldiers; the girls often chose fashion dolls or dollhouses.  The manager would smile.  So long as the families bought everything from ShopCo and not from the nearby Jamesway store, it would be a happy Christmas.

Gordon wore the same Santa Claus suit for the past fifteen years.  His wife Ann tailored it every year – letting out some fabric when Gordon gained extra weight, tightened up the waist when Gordon felt it was getting too loose.  Gordon always grew the white beard himself – he had heard the story of a kid who once tried to yank on Santa’s beard, only to actually pull Santa’s fake whiskers off.  Gordon’s beard wasn’t as white as he would have liked, but it was neatly trimmed and made his “Santa” appearance friendly and welcoming.

But for some reason, the granny glasses that were part of the Santa costume were missing.  At first, Gordon tried to play Santa at ShopCo with his prescription glasses – which were wire-rimmed and looked almost like granny-glasses – and everything seemed fine.  But he wanted to wear the original granny glasses for the ShopCo Christmas Parade, as they looked more authentic.

“I can’t find them, Ann, where could they be?”

“I don’t know, Gordon, but we have to get downtown before they close the streets off for the parade.  Can’t you wear your new prescription glasses?  You’ve worn them all week at the store.”

“Oh well,” Gordon said.  “I guess I have no choice.  I’ll wear them.”

And with that, Iverhill’s Santa Claus – Gordon Mitchell dressed in a Santa suit – put on his prescription eyewear.  Hopefully nobody would notice the difference.

“You want me to drive you downtown, honey?” Ann asked.

“That would be great,” Gordon said.  “It’s hard to maneuver behind the steering wheel in this costume.”

Ann knew that Gordon’s ability to squeeze into the driver’s seat of their car wasn’t the real reason.  She knew that this was the second pair of prescription glasses Gordon had purchased this year, and she also knew it would only be a short time before Gordon’s health conditions – obesity, diabetes, hypertension – would steal his sight forever.  But she said nothing, knowing how much the holiday season meant to Gordon.

“Let’s go, honey,” she said.  “The parade can’t start without Santa Claus.”

===

It was an unseasonably warm day in Iverhill – the temperature on the lightbulb-illuminated sign next to Iverhill Savings and Loan announced the temperature at 55 degrees.  Too warm for a Christmas parade, Gordon thought.  And too sunny.  And too breezy.  It’s almost like a summer parade.

But it didn’t matter.  Gordon checked the parade float.  Each satchel held dozens of wrapped candybags and ShopCo coupons.  Good.  More than enough sweets to feed the kids all along the North Main Avenue parade route.

“Are you ready, Santa Claus?” a man asked.

“Ho, ho, ho, yes I’m ready, let’s start this parade!” Gordon shouted, already in character as the jolly St. Nicholas.  “On Dasher, On Dancer, on – what’s your name?”

“Fred, sir.  I work at the loading dock at Magedoma Lumber.”

“Okay, Fred.  Let’s start this parade.  Ho ho ho!!”

With that, Fred climbed into the front seat of a Magedoma Lumber Peterbilt truck  – the kind that would normally haul log-filled trailers from the timber sites to the mill – and slowly drove forward as the rest of the parade went down North Main Avenue.

“Santa, Santa!!” kids shouted from the sidewalks.  Gordon tossed fistfuls of candy to the kids, and shouted “Merry Christmas, kids!  Merry Christmas, Ho Ho Ho!!!”

The parade continued.  It was still warmer than normal in Iverhill, and the Santa suit, which normally kept Gordon nice and toasty warm on chilly parade days, was like a sauna on this festive day.  But this was the Christmas holiday, and Santa Claus was not going to disappoint anybody.  Not today.  Not ever.

Gordon waved at everyone as the Santa Claus float inched down North Main Avenue.  “Happy Christmas, everybody!  Happy Christmas!!”

“Are you going back to the North Pole?” one boy shouted.

Gordon looked toward where he heard the shout.  “Yes, little boy, I’ll be in Iverhill for one more week, and then I’ll be back at the North Pole to bring all the gifts my elves have made back here to you and to all your friends!”

“Thank you, Santa!”  the boy called out.

The rest of the parade continued on.

“Hey Santa, you look real cool!” one teenager called.

“Ho ho ho,” George replied.  “It’s a hot day, but here’s some cool candy!”

“Thanks Santa,” the teenager replied, as some bags of wrapped candy landed in his outstretched hands.  “I never knew Santa was so cool!  I dig the look!!”

“I wish it was cool,” George called back.  “Mrs. Claus should get me some ice when we get to the end of the parade!”

“You okay up there Santa?” Fred called back from the cab of his truck.

“Keep driving,” shouted Santa.  “I’ve done this through three blizzards and that Nor’easter in 1970.  A little heat wave won’t keep St. Nicholas from bringing holiday cheer to the kids.  Ho ho ho!!!!”

Other than the warm weather, it was a perfect parade day.  While Gordon traveled down North Main Avenue on the parade float, Ann Mitchell took a short cut through the back streets of Iverhill to meet up with Gordon at the end of the parade route.

“How was the parade, honey?” Ann asked.

“As fun as always,” Gordon smiled as he climbed down from the parade float.  “But I need to get home and take a shower.  Next year we have to get a Santa suit that allows me to breathe on hot days.  Ho ho ho!”

===

Sunday morning.  The newspaper delivery boy brought the Sunday edition of the Iverhill paper through the Pines of Iverhill trailer park, leaving copies at every subscriber’s door.

Ann Mitchell picked up her Sunday edition of the newspaper, and brought it to the kitchen table.

“So did I make the front page again this year?” Gordon laughed.  “It’d be a slow news day in Iverhill if I did.”

Ann unfolded the paper.  “You’re on the front page, Gordon – oh my.”

Gordon knew what that “oh my” meant.  He heard it several times in his marriage, and those two words – along with the concern in Ann’s voice – was seldom positive.  “You need to see your picture in the newspaper.”  She handed him the front section.

And when Gordon saw the image of Santa Claus – his heart skipped a beat.

“Oh, what will they say at ShopCo when they see this?”

“Maybe they won’t notice,” Ann mused.

“ShopCo?  Not notice?  This?”

Gordon pointed at the picture in the photograph.   In his haste to complete his costume for Saturday morning, he grabbed his prescription eyeglasses instead of the clear-lensed “granny glasses” of the Santa costume. And rather than buy a separate pair of prescription sunglasses, Gordon asked his ophthalmologist to give him one of the new-fangled “photo-chromic” glasses, in that exposure to sunshine or wind caused the lenses to darken. So while Gordon Mitchell clearly saw the happy kids along the parade route for the first time in ages, a photographer from the newspaper saw Santa Claus wearing a pair of shades – and photographed Santa for the Sunday edition.

“Mr. Terreault at ShopCo is going to be so angry… Santa Claus shouldn’t be wearing sunglasses, oh my God he’ll think he hired one of those hippies to be Santa!”

“Oh George, don’t worry – ”

“Worry?  I can’t help but worry.  Christmas is a time for tradition and memory.  Santa Claus wears a costume.  He wears a beard.  And a stocking cap.  And a black belt and black boots.  He does not wear sunglasses.  What’s next, should I show up next year with my sleeves rolled up and anchor-tattoos on my arms like I’m Santa Popeye?”

“George, your blood pressure… please don’t worry about this.  It’s all a simple mistake, nobody will notice.”

But George kept staring at the newspaper.  All through breakfast.  He had been so careful, so reverent with the Santa Claus costume.  What if Mr. Terreault saw what had happened?  There was no guarantee that George would be re-hired as Santa for next year… they could bring in a younger man for 1974.

The emotional weight hung over George’s head like the Sword of Damocles.  And he knew that he would have to go to ShopCo later that day, and it could be his last shift ever as Santa – his last opportunity of happiness.

===

Gordon Mitchell arrived early at ShopCo for his Santa Claus Sunday stint.  He finally found his granny-glasses; they were tucked in the left top dresser drawer, not the right top dresser drawer where they were usually kept.  He took his place at the faux Santa’s Workshop in ShopCo, and waited for the kids to arrive.

But before his shift could start, he heard his name on the ShopCo loudspeaker.  “Gordon Mitchell, please report to the main office.”

Gordon worried.  He hoped that the manager had not seen the Sunday newspaper.  But if Gordon was being called to the main office, he knew the manager had not only seen the Sunday newspaper, but probably went over the reasons why that picture – and its contents – ended up in print.

“It’s okay, Santa,” said one of the ShopCo employees, as the children lined up to wait for their turn to tell Santa what they wanted for Christmas.  “Take your time and feed the reindeer.  We’ll take care of things until you get back.”

Gordon slowly walked to the ShopCo front offices.  They were on the second floor of the store, a walled enclosure for secretaries and accountants and the store manager.

“Sit down, Gordon.”

“Yes, sir.”

Across the desk from Gordon Mitchell was the manager of ShopCo, a small, thin man named Samuel Terreault.  Despite his small stature, Terreault had a piercing gaze that could make innocent men confess to criminal acts.

“Gordon, you’ve been our Santa Claus at ShopCo for how long now?”

“Fifteen years.”

“Well, I was wondering that, because – well, I need you to take a look at this.”

Terreault pushed a copy of Sunday’s local newspaper in front of Gordon. Gordon pulled out his prescription glasses, placed them on his nose, and read the article. “ShopCo Christmas Parade a huge success. Looks like we did a great job.”

“Take a look at the picture.”

Gordon squinted. “Yes sir, that’s me all right, Santa Claus on the sleigh, tossing candy wrapped with ShopCo coupons to everyone.”

“You’re not wearing the official Santa Claus suit.”

“Yes I am,” Gordon said, pointing at the picture. “Red furry suit, stocking cap, maybe my whiskers are a bit shorter this year and I have lost some weight lately, but a couple of pillows and I’m just as big a Santa as I ever was.”

“So why is the Santa Claus that represents ShopCo wearing sunglasses?”

“Mr. Terreault, I’m sorry, I lost my glasses for this suit and I needed to wear my prescription glasses, and they’re that new type of glasses that turn into sunglasses in bright sunlight.  I had no idea it would be so warm and suny in the parade, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to embarrass ShopCo, I just love playing Santa Claus and I didn’t want to disappoint all the kids who came to the parade, don’t fire me, please – ”

“George, relax.  I’m not going to fire you.”

“You’re not?”

Terreault smiled.  It may have been the first smile George Mitchell – or, in fact, anyone at ShopCo – ever saw from the diminutive store manager.  “No, I’m not going to fire you.  In fact, I want you to wear those sunglasses for the rest of the week, including today.”

“They’re prescription glasses, sir, they won’t become sunglasses when I’m indoors.”

“Don’t worry about that,” said Terreault.  “We’ll get you a pair of Foster Grants from our sunglasses rack.  Do you know how many people called the store yesterday?  Most of them were younger people – teenagers – who want to bring their little brothers and sisters to ShopCo and meet the cool Santa Claus, the one with the big belly and the shades.  ‘Santa Claus is Cool,’ a couple of them said.  ‘It’s cool to believe in Santa Claus.'”

George smiled.  “I had no idea, sir.”

“Just as long as you’re not going to grow your hair long or get a tattoo like one of those long-haired hippie freaks, I’m okay with Santa Claus wearing sunglasses.  In fact, tomorrow we’re going to take some pictures of you with these sunglasses on.  We’ll need them for the newspapers.  And next week, when we have our last-minute Christmas sale at ShopCo, we’re have our own very cool Santa Claus – not some stodgy old guy in a Santa Claus suit – sharing our Christmas spirit with the Otswego County community.  I’d sure like to see Jamesway compete with us for that.  Did you know their Santa Claus got mad at some kid in line?”

“He did?”

“Yeah.  Something about the kid pulling on Santa’s fake beard and pulling it off his chin… and their Santa getting angry and pushing the kid off his lap.  No.  Our Santa Claus is cool.  That’s fine by me.”

And with that, Samuel Terreault walked around the wooden desk to where George Mitchell was sitting.  The two men shook hands.

“George,” he said, “this may be our best Christmas ever.”

George smiled.  In his heart, he realized that even if his health issues forced him to retire the Santa Claus suit after this holiday season… at least this would be his most memorable year with the costume.

Father’s Day in Iverhill: 1:35 a.m.

Terry Wallis didn’t want to come back.  Not now.  Not for this.

But the nightmares of what happened nearly forty years ago were still haunting him.  Haunting him over and over, the whispers and the screams and the fists and the traumas.  He thought it was all done.  He thought he was gone.  He thought he could sleep through the entire night.

Then came the phone call.

Forty years after he barely survived childhood… and the insomnia started again.  Twenty-five minutes to two in the morning.  No one should wake up this early unless the house is on fire or they’re expecting Santa Claus on the roof.

Forty years later, an adult Terry Wallis was driving back up the Northway.  Back to the Adirondack logging town of Iverhill.  Back home.

He swore he would never come back.  Not since the 1970’s, not since the horrible, vicious childhood he lived through at the Pines of Iverhill Mobile Home Park.  His father Robert might have stayed all night at the 9N Bar and Grille had it not been for last call.  And when Robert finally got home…

Terry could hear him pulling into the pebble-encrusted parking space next to the mobile home.  How he drove home without getting into an accident or spending the night in the drunk tank, Terry never knew.  Terry could hear him enter the house.  At seven years of age, Terry feared for his life.  He covered his head with a pillow and hoped he could muffle all the noise away.  But Terry heard his father arguing with his mother over something Terry did or didn’t do.  That he didn’t put his toys away.  That he left a dirty dish in the sink.  That he came home late from watching an Iverhill Robins baseball game.

If Terry was lucky, that was all he would hear.  And if he head a door slam, that meant that his father had trudged all the way to the back of the trailer and went to sleep.

If that was all that happened, those days were few.

More often, Terry’s bedroom door would fly open, the light would go on, and suddenly the little boy would yanked out of his bed – either by the arm or by the hair – and physically beaten.  Slapped.  Punched.  Made to go out to the kitchen and wash a dirty dish.  Made to go to the living room and pick up his toys.  Made to explain why he wasn’t home twenty minutes after school ended.

Terry tried to find shelter.  The only place he felt safe was at Wilson Field, the home of Iverhill’s minor league baseball team, the Robins.  He befriended some of the players there – his favorite player was center fielder and home run hitter Eugene Raveler – but no matter how many times he tried to stay away from the hurt in his household, his absence only made things worse.

That summer of 1973 was a summer Terry tried to forget – tried to force out of his mind – but it wouldn’t leave.  It was burned into his skull with every drunken punch he absorbed from his father.  Every curse word he heard.  Every alcohol-fueled taunt and torment.

Terry knew what time his father came home.  No matter whether or not his father “visited” him at night, Terry could see the tiny wind-up alarm clock next to my bed.  More often than not, the time read twenty-five minutes to two.  1:35 a.m.

Northway exit 13N.  Saratoga Springs.  I can turn my car around if I want to, Terry thought.  Turn back.  I don’t have to do this.  I can go visit the harness track and bet some money on the pacers and the trotters.  There goes Exit 13N.

He never took the exit.

Terry kept driving.  He kept thinking about the alarm clock.  Of all the things he could have kept from his childhood – he kept the broken alarm clock.  He reached over to his car’s passenger seat.  Yep.  The brown bag was still sitting there, and inside was the clock.

It was August of 1973.  That night, something happened.  Robert came home late from the tavern.  A fight broke out, this time Terry’s father and mother started screaming at each other.  This was different.  Usually the pattern was his father would scream, his mother would cower, and then at some point Terry would get spanked or paddled or beaten.

This night was different.  Maybe it was because his mother finally said she was done.  And that she was leaving and taking Terry with her.

Bedroom door burst open.  The bedroom light snapped on like an angry sun.

Terry tried to get under the covers and hide.  Suddenly he felt a grip on his left arm.  And then a hard yank.  Out of bed he fell with a thunk.

Begging.  Pleading.  Don’t hurt me.  Please Dad, don’t hurt me.

Robert’s fists weren’t listening.  After a few solid punches, the last of which knocked Terry to the floor, Terry tried to climb back in bed.  Tried to hide.

Please turn the light out, Terry whispered.  Please.  Please go.  I’ll be good.  I promise.  I’ll be up for school in a few hours, I won’t make you mad at me –

Terry looked.  The alarm clock was gone.

And in the span of a few seconds, Terry saw the alarm clock.  Saw and felt it – as it bounced off his temple.

The next couple of days were a blur – he woke up the next day at Otswego County Medical Center, his head wrapped in bandages.  A few days later, Otswego County Social Services came to the trailer and took him and some of his belongings away from his parents.  He later heard that his favorite baseball player, Eugene Raveler, confronted Robert Wallis at the 9N Bar and… that’s probably why Social Services actually TOOK Terry out of the house, instead of just coming for a visit and leaving, as they had done in the past.

Terry spent the next few years with a foster family in Iverhill – Christopher and Theresa McCarling, who although they had already raised one foster child, treated Terry with love and support and affection.  He stayed with them, went to college in New York City, graduated with honors and became a successful architect.

But the alarm clock was still in the bag.  And Terry was now driving past Glens Falls.

In fact, it was his foster father, Christopher McCarling, who called Terry and told him the news.

Robert Wallis was at Otswego County Medical Center.  His alcohol-scoured kidneys were failing.  If he lived for another few days, it would be a miracle.

“You don’t have to do this,” Christopher McCarling said to his foster son.  “But if you have anything you want to say… or do… this may be your only chance.”

And the insomnia would kick in again.  1:35 a.m.  He woke up that night, a cold sweat pouring over his body.  His heart was pounding faster than a hummingbird’s wings.

In the car, Terry rehearsed everything he wanted to say. “Hey Dad, thanks for beating the crap out of me when I was a kid and completely screwing up my adult life because of it. Thanks a lot. And I’m sure when you go to Heaven, God’s going to forgive you for everything you ever did to me. Yeah, Dad, you got away with it.”

He thought some more. Every mile on the Northway reminded Terry of another sleepless night. And even in the safety of the McCarling home – away from the trailer parks and the alcohol – Terry couldn’t make the hurt disappear.

There’s the exit. Iverhill, Iverhill Valley, Route 9N. I could keep driving, Terry thought. Plattsburgh is nice this time of year. Maybe I could drive all the way to Canada.

He touched the turn signal. The right arrow flashed on his dashboard.  Can’t back out now.

Another half hour of driving. He hadn’t visited Iverhill in decades, but he still remembered every bend and twist in Route 9N. And there were the signs. Welcome to Iverhill. DiGi’s Diner. 9N Bar and Grille. The Church of Most Precious Blood. The Iverhill Arena. Why is there a ShopCo where Wilson Field used to be, shouldn’t ShopCo be on Red Pine Road?

And then a turn down Blue Spruce Street. Otswego County Medical Center.  Looks twice as big as I remembered, Terry thought.

Terry could feel his heart pounding like a kettledrum. Every step – from parking the car to turning off the ignition; his trip from the parking lot to the visitors station – seemed thick and cloudy.

“Can I help you?” asked the nurse at the visitors station.

“I’m looking for a Robert Wallis – I understand he’s here. I’m his son Terry, I’m here to see him.”

The nurse looked at her computer. “Wallis. Wallis. Room 25, third floor. Ask for Dr. Olson.”

A short elevator ride.  The door opened up.  Third floor.  Terry’s feet felt like they were made of tree stumps.  He took a few steps.

Room 25.  And there he was.  Robert Wallis.  Asleep on whatever medication the intravenous drip fed into his arm.  A white-coated elderly doctor was in the room, examining the medical chart.

“Excuse me… I’m looking for Doctor Olson?”

“That’s me,” the elderly physician replied.  “How can I help you?”

“I’m Terry Wallis.  Robert’s son.  What can you tell me?”

“Thank you for coming,” Olson replied.  “He’s stable.  His kidneys have failed.  He maybe has a couple of days left to live.  I can’t sugarcoat it.  I can leave you for a few moments if you want to spend some time with him.”

“No,” Terry interrupted.  “I can’t.  I’m sorry.  My father did a lot of damage to me when I was growing up. And I still don’t know how to feel about all of this.”

“I understand. This is never easy for anyone. There is a grief counselor on call here, I can give you his number if you want.”

“Thanks. I may need that. Olson. Doctor Olson – I used to know an Olson back when I was a kid. We had a baseball team back in the 70’s, when I was growing up. The Robins. They won the championship back in 1973, and then the team folded. They had a relief pitcher, a Clete Olson. But Olson’s a common name, you probably aren’t related to him. Sorry.”

“Clete Olson?” the doctor replied.  “Hit a home run to get the Robins in the playoffs and then pitched scoreless innings to win the championship?”

“You know him?”

“I should. He’s me.”

“You’re Clete Olson?” Terry exclaimed.

“Well, today it’s C. Jordan Olson, M.D., but yes that was me.”

“Oh my God, I used to go to all the Robins games 40 years ago, I remember all the players, Zach Phillipstern and Smokey Dulieau and Gene Raveler – Gene Raveler was my favorite player.”

“I remember him. Center fielder. He played for the Robins for years.”

“Yeah. He got me out of a very bad situation. My father used to beat the crap out of me, and he helped get me out of there and into foster care.”

“Wait – you’re little Terry Wallis?”

“Well, not so little any more,” Terry replied.

“Okay, you lived over at the Pines of Iverhill trailer park?”

“Trailer number 8.”

“Yes, I remember it now. You used to hang around the ballpark, and Gene Raveler kept an eye on you, made sure you didn’t get into any trouble. And then one day something happened to you, and – hold on, I’ve got to remember this, it’s been 40 years – yes, Gene and your father had a fight at the old 9N Bar, and for the rest of the season Gene and the team made sure you’d be safe.”

“Yes. My father abused me. That may have been the day when he threw the alarm clock at me. I still have a scar,” Terry replied, pointing to his head.

Dr. Olson looked at the scar. “Yes. It’s healed over, but I can still see the indention.”

“After the season ended, the team went away and I never saw Gene Raveler again. He saved my life. He gave me hope, he let me know that the world isn’t a complete mess just because I was born. When I got out of that house, it was like I entered a new life. Do you know what happened to Gene?”

“Um… yes, I remember. I think he went to a team in Georgia and played there for a year or two, and he may have also played a season in Japan. We used to keep in touch, but I was on my way to the major leagues, and one day we just stopped writing to each other.”

“Wow.”

“Yes. After my playing career ended, I went back to something I always wanted to do – study medicine – and once I got my medical license, I returned here. I really enjoy this little town. I do.”

“But what about Gene?” Terry asked.

“Oh yes, Gene. I had lost contact with him, but someone gave me his address in Ohio. I wrote there, and his daughter wrote me back. I’m sorry. Gene passed away years ago. He had diabetes – never told anyone, never kept it in check – and one day, he had a heart attack.”

“Gene – he’s gone?”

“I’m sorry. I wanted to tell him that I had finally passed my medical boards – I wanted to invite him to my White Coat ceremony – and I never got the chance.”

“But – that’s not supposed to happen. He saved me. He saved my life. And I never got to thank him – forty years later, I never got to thank him.”

“Terry, I’m sorry.”

“It’s not fair. It’s just not fair. He got me out of that house of horrors. He saved my life. He’s gone. And the bastard that says he’s my father is still alive today.”

“You can’t think like that.”

“Why can’t I? Do you know what it’s like to go into that hospital room and see him laying there without any repentance for what he did? I’m sorry, Dr. Olson. I want my father to die – I want him to die today, how horrible is that for me to even say out loud? What kind of a miserable son am I, I want my father to die – and I want Gene Raveler to come back?”

“Terry, this is part of the grieving process. There’s no outline, there’s no manual, each of us deal with this in our own separate way. But that doesn’t mean that anything you say right now is bad or evil or hurtful or painful. It’s just your emotions that are pouring out right now.”

“But I just can’t forgive him for what he did. I can’t.”

“It has nothing to do with forgiveness. You have a lot of anger inside you. A lot of resentment and hatred and hurt. If you don’t detach those things from your heart and your mind and your soul, you’ll never escape your pain. There’s no way that Robert Wallis can do anything to you now. You have to stop thinking that he can.”

“But what can I do? How can I change this?”

Dr. Olson picked up Robert Wallis’ clipboard and looked at the medical notes. “You have many options. You’re a good kid, Terry. And it looks like, despite everything you went through, you’re a good man now. And you need to continue the healing. Don’t let anything your father did to you ever hold you prisoner any more. Sometimes we think that the bullies and the abusers won’t ever get their justice. That they’ll escape scott-free. But you and I both know that if you’re going to seek any sort of justice on your own… the best justice is to never give your tormentors any posthumous victories.”

“Posthumous victories?”

“It’s something my father taught me. And I’m going to pass it on to you. Don’t let those baggage you’ve been carrying for the past 40 years continue to shackle you. Listen, Terry, it’s been great seeing you. If you speak to the McCarlings, please pass my love and support.”

With that, Dr. Olson put the patient chart down on a counter, and walked down the hall to continue his rounds.

Terry walked back over to the bed. His father was unresponsive. Quiet. Peaceful. Laying on the bed.

The paper bag, still containing the broken alarm clock, was still in Terry’s hand. How easy it would have been, Terry thought. How many times did I lay there, unprepared, only to get grabbed out of bed and beaten within an inch of my life. What a big man, Terry thought. Big man who can beat a 7-year-old boy. Yeah. That’s a fair fight.

Terry opened the bag and pulled out the alarm clock. It still said 1:35, the hands permanently fused into the fractured faceplate. Terry gripped the alarm clock. He looked around. If he threw this alarm clock at his father, nobody could stop him in time.

“Dad, it’s Terry,” he whispered. “I know I haven’t come around to visit, and you know why. There’s no one in this hospital room except you and me. No one. I don’t know if you can hear me, I don’t know if you’re even alive. Dad, what you did to me was something no father should ever do to his son. But if you ever loved me, if you ever felt anything in your heart about my existence, then please do me a favor. If there is an afterlife, and if God Himself does exist, then once you get there I want you to find a man named Eugene Raveler. He was my favorite ballplayer, he played center field for the Robins. And if you find him, I want you to tell him, ‘Terry Wallis from the Pines of Iverhill trailer park sends you a message, “Thank you.”‘ And if you can do that, Dad, just that one thing, when the day comes and I discover the afterlife, then the first thing I will do is look for you – and forgive you. Do this for me. Please. If you ever loved me – ever – grant me this one request.”

Terry looked at the alarm clock one more time.

And as he left the hospital room, he dropped the clock into a trash can.

The NYADP Journal: An “Iverhill” story finds a new home!

For those of you who are fans of my Iverhill fiction series – either the baseball fantasy novel The Robins of Iverhill: A Minor League Fairytale or my holiday-themed Christmas in Iverhill series, I have some good news for you.

One of my Christmas in Iverhill stories from last year, “The Note,” has found a new home.

The organization New Yorkers for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, of which Times Union blogger David Kaczynski is the Executive Director, publishes a quarterly magazine that, according to its website, strives for diversity of thought, opinion and expression in line with its central goals of abolishing the death penalty and reducing violence. NYADP Journal is neither left nor right, religious or nonreligious, exclusively academic nor nonacademic, and welcomes submissions which encompass a spectrum of views.

A couple of months ago, while the second Christmas in Iverhill series was being published, I was contacted by the Journal’s editor, Chris Honeycutt, who loved the stories and asked if one of them could be published in the upcoming Journal.  I agreed – you know, the whole bloggers support bloggers thing and all…

And last week, I received the word that quarterly Journal has been published and is available at the NYADP website for free download.  You might remember “The Note” from last year, it features Father Aloysius from the Church of Most Precious Blood – Father Al, as you might remember, was based on Brother Aloysius from Christian Brothers Academy, as I noted in a blog post from last year.

Oh, and I should mention that the NYADP Journal contains a submission from Times Union blogger Roger Green, as his piece on “murderabilia” – items associated with or once owned by infamous people, that are now changing hands on the collectibles market – is featured in the magazine.

Much thanks and support to the NYADP and its goals and missions.  And it’s nice to see that the Iverhill stories are now reaching a new audience.

Christmas in Iverhill: The Last Shot of the Iverhill Feltons

NOTE: To read Chuck Miller’s book “The Robins of Iverhill: A Minor League Fairy Tale,” as well as the short stories in the “Christmas in Iverhill” series, visit this link.

Monday, December 17, 1973.

Jean Paul Harpiet laced up his skates one more time – left skate first, as tradition and superstition commanded. Then the right skate. He knew that in three periods, the game – and the season – would be over far too soon.

“Gerry?”

The locker room trainer was handing tape to another player when he heard his name.

“Yeah?”

“You’ve got it in my locker bag like I asked, right?”

Gerry walked over to Harpiet. “Yeah, but you’re not supposed to tell anybody. I could get fired for letting you have this.”

Harpiet smiled and continued to lace his skates. A well-worn road jersey, still containing the sweat from the last five games, would be his souvenir, his memento from a sour season. The reporters asked him all week about the rumors, and he told them nothing – but someone in the front office with loose lips and a reason for feeling important told one the sports director at radio station WIVR-AM that the Iverhill Feltons, a hockey team few people wanted and whose games even fewer saw, would fold at the end of the week – three days after Christmas.

The franchise was on life-support for years, a combination of the dwindling population in Iverhill and Otswego County, a decade of poorly-funded owners, and a string of losing seasons. Gone were the days of the Iverhill Magedomas dominating the Northeastern Hockey Association, winning the Elwell Cup like it was their birthright. But that last victory was 20 years ago, and nearly every other franchise in the NHA took turns hoisting the Elwell Cup and raising banners in their own hockey barns.

And when Max Horn, a financier who bought a house in Iverhill so that his wife could be closer to her family, invested in the Magedomas, hockey fans thought a change in ownership would equate to a change in victories – finally, somebody who actually knew where Iverhill was on a map could claim ownership of the storied Magedomas. Even when Horn secured a sponsorship deal with Felton’s Used Cars and changed the name of the franchise from the Magedomas to the Iverhill Feltons, the fans were upset at first, but were willing to give Horn a chance if the hockey team would stay in Iverhill for generations to come.

What Horn didn’t tell the town was that the team was stockpiled with leftovers and has beens and never weres, the cheapest players he could get. He received some skaters from the farm systems of the National Hockey League, but those were usually the 15th best goaltender or winger and would have been warming the bench elsewhere. He also picked up some guys who wanted one more year to shine, clinging to a dream of skating on the ice in Madison Square Garden before the fragile knees ruined the fantasy.

For Jean Paul Harpiet, a 37 year old journeyman, his resume read like the contents page to a North American atlas. His Junior “A” hockey years were spent in Red Deer and Trois Riveres and Granby. He grinded his way through the minor leagues, climbing the ladder in Johnstown and Springfield, skating on a tiny college rink in Fredericton and on the slushy ice in Baltimore. During one season in Cornwall, he acquired a wife – a girl with piercing blue eyes and a smile that could light up the evening. And the day he got his call up to the NHL, he thought all the worries would be over. He still remembers that night in the NHL the smell of a freshly washed uniform, neatly stitched with HARPIET 29 on the back, a New York Rangers logo on the front. He took practice with the rest of his new team, whacked a few shots into the goal net to prove he was ready to play, then skated back to the locker room only to find that he had been scratched from the game. He received a couple of handshakes from the rest of the players, some telling him to be ready for the game tomorrow. Unfortunately, that next day Harpiet was optioned back to Cornwall, his NHL dream deferred.

He never received another call from the NHL, and bounced around the minor leagues – even won a Southern Hockey League championship in Georgia, where he skated for the Macon Whoopees – he always snickered when he thought about the name of the team – but he was proud of the championship he earned, when he deked out a goaltender in the final minutes to help his team take home a milkcan shaped trophy, before that league collapsed and folded.

Now he was in his final year. His shoulders hurt every night from the 15 years of checks into the boards, he still heard ringing in his ears from two weeks ago when an opponent whacked him with a stick, and his right leg was still aching after a knee-to-knee collision with Thunder Bay’s Andre Carpentier last month.  Harpiet knew it was time to retire, time to hang up the blades, call it a career, and finish out his years as a coach or scout or rink owner. Maybe even take a job with Magedoma Lumber – if the lumber company didn’t sponsor the team any more, maybe it could sponsor him with a legitimate job, Harpiet smiled to himself.

He thought about where his career had taken him. All the way to the Iverhill Feltons of the Northeastern Hockey Association. Even though the hockey league was considered four levels below the NHL – and barely one level above a no-checking beer league – Harpiet signed with the team as a coach, and thought he could recapture his prior glories.

But as a player-coach in the NHA, Harpiet had more to deal with than just shift changes and power play drills. Before Horn bought the team, what was the Iverhill Magedomas changed ownership twice in five seasons, and each successive owner took away every Magedomas hockey tradition.

One owner had the Iverhill Arena organ removed and the organist fired, arguing that 20 more seats could be added and the music could be provided from phonograph records. Another owner thought the ticket prices were too low, so he raised them to the level of unaffordability. Then, when fans stopped coming to games, he jacked the prices up higher, balancing the budget on the few diehard fans willing to pay extra. Then Horn bought the team, lowered the prices, renamed the franchise and hoped for the best.

The 1973-74 season was rough for Iverhill hockey fans.  The Feltons’ Saturday night home games were a favorite weekend diversion for lumber workers and the surrounding communities. But the rest of the NHA expanded, as teams moved to bigger cities and bigger buildings. Horn spent the entire season trying to raise money for the Feltons any way he could – an abortive attempt to build luxury boxes, single-use jerseys that could be signed and auctioned off after games, even begging the City Council to reduce the rent on the Iverhill Arena.

Still, the Feltons were on the ice every night, fighting for a playoff berth in the 7-team league. Hovering at fifth place in the standings, and knowing that the top four teams play into the spring, Harpiet held out hope that the Feltons could find an investor – or that Horn could loosen his bankbook and keep the team afloat for the rest of the season.

And this would be the last game before Christmas – with the possibility of a nice win as a Christmas present for the fans, Harpiet stepped on the Iverhill Arena ice, skating onto the frozen playing surface and thinking about the Feltons’ opponent that night, the Utica Comets. With Horn promising a huge post-Christmas promotion that night, Harpiet hoped that the last crowd to see a Feltons game would at least be a big crowd.

A pile of loose practice pucks dotted the ice. Harpiet skated toward the pucks, warming up his slapshot.

“Scuse me,” another player called from the locker room entrance.

Harpiet fired the puck into the net, then looked up.

“I need to find Coach Harpiet,” the player said. “Do you know where he is?”

“That would be me,” Harpiet replied, tapping another puck with his stick blade.

“Sorry I’m late.”

“Late? Who are you?”

“Colin Venditto. I’m here to play left wing.”

Harpiet fired another puck towards the goal. The puck ricocheted off the right goal pipe, bouncing into the back twine. “You were supposed to be here last night.”

“Sorry, it took a while to find this town. Drove past it on the Northway. ”

“Why didn’t you take Route 9N into Iverhill,” grumbled Harpiet. “Get on the ice and warm up.”

Venditto, a 6’2” left winger with large arms and strong skating legs, grabbed a stick from the bench, took the ice, skating over to the pile of practice pucks.

As Venditto warmed up, Harpiet looked over the new player’s skills.  He heard that Trucheri had a good slapshot and good puck control, but during the warm-ups it looked as if the new winger had never touched a stick before.

“What’s wrong with your stick?”

“I’m okay,” Venditto replied.  “I just have a strong touch on the ice and I don’t think my stick is used to this ice pattern.”

“Okay,” Harpiet nodded, knowing full well that Venditto’s response was a cover-up for something wrong with his sticks.  “Keep warming up,” Harpiet shouted.  “I need to fix something on my skate.”

Venditto continued his warm-ups, skating around the ice and slapping pucks into the empty net.

“Gerry!” Harpiet shouted as he entered the locker room.

The equipment manager walked in.  “Yes Coach?”

“That new guy we just got – Venditto – something’s wrong with his sticks.  Where are they?”

“Venditto?”

“Yeah, the new guy we just got.  Where’s his sticks?”

“He’s got one or two over there by the locker.”

Harpiet looked at the locker.  There were a pair of hockey sticks in the previously unused locker, but the sticks didn’t match.  One of them had a soft, left-handed curve on the blade, while the other stick – of a different manufacturer – had a sharp curve, almost like a shepherd’s crook.

“Gerry?”

“Yes, Coach?”

“I’m going to take the new guy over to get some food at DiGi’s.  Fix those sticks of his for me, would you?  I don’t know where he got them, but he can’t be on the ice with what looks like leftover equipment.”

“I understand, Coach.”

“And if you can’t do it, then we’re going to have to do what we did with Tony Hayden.”

Gerry nodded.  “You really want to do that?”

“No choice.  We’ve got Utica coming in here tonight and we can’t waste the chance for the win.  Either get those sticks fixed or it’s Tony Hayden all over again.”

–=–

“Don’t know who gave you those directions,” Harpiet said, “you should have taken exit 25.”

“I didn’t see an Exit 25,” Venditto said, as he watched Harpiet swallow the last strands of spaghetti.

“April, could you please give me another order of spaghetti?”

“Sure, coach,” said the waitress at DiGi’s Diner, as she scribbled down the order on a small green pad.

“How much spaghetti are you going to eat?” asked Venditto.

“I usually eat two helpings on game night. Besides the extra carbohydrates boost, I scored my first hat trick after I ate two bowls of spaghetti.  Gotta keep the good luck going.”

“You really believe in good luck?”

“Yep,” said Harpiet.  “If you don’t believe in good luck, then what is there left to believe in?”

–=–

Game night.  The Feltons would face the Utica Comets, the top team in the NHA.  If the Feltons could keep winning – just a few wins here and there – perhaps Max Horn would keep the team alive for another season.  Maybe he would even keep the team alive for the remainder of this season.

But even Harpiet knew that request was a long-shot at best.  As far as Harpiet was concerned, he wanted the Feltons to play every game like it was the deciding game of the finals.  Because Harpiet knew that each game could indeed be the last game the Feltons would ever play.

Harpiet looked up into the stands. He remembered some of the faces from booster club meetings, where he would be the guest of honor and talk about how the Feltons were doing against their next opponents. But he knew that even the diehard Iverhill hockey loyalists weren’t going to keep this team afloat.

The puck dropped.  The game began.  An ebb and flow between Utica and Iverhill, as both teams pounded each other with the force of two grizzly bears fighting over the last salmon in the stream.

Utica would score the first goal at about 9:00 of the period.  Iverhill would score three minutes later on the power play.  The period ended.  1-1 tie.

The second period began.  And Harpiet knew that if his powerful right winger, Bryan Lomo, mixed it up with Utica’s Claude Bartell, things would get rough.  And sure enough… as the puck ended up in the corner, Lomow and Bartell poked at it – and then seconds later, poked at each other.  Other players from both teams swarmed toward the puck in the hopes of jostling it free. But while the skaters looked for
the puck … no one could find it.

An exhausted Harpiet looked up to the stands, thinking the puck may have flipped over the glass. Then he saw his young left winger, Fran Baxter, dancing up and down near the goal net, screaming “Goal! Goal! Goal!”

The ref skated over looked in the net – but found no puck inside. And at that point, Harpiet knew what had happened. “Time!! Time out, ref!” he shouted.

“Baxter what the hell were you doing dancing around instead of playing the puck?”

“Coach, I told you I was going to try my flapjack shot.”

“Your what?”

“Flapjack shot. When the puck got free, I skated up to it, pressed my stick on the puck so that it would freeze to the tape on my stick, then carried it lacrosse style around the back to the net and dumped it in.”

“Wait a minute,” Harpiet responded. “I didn’t see the puck go in.”

“It went in.”

“Lomow did you see the puck go in?”

“No, coach. I was too busy beating up Bartell.”

“Reynolds did you see it go in?”

“No, coach,” said the left winger. “I though the puck was still on the ice.”

And then, the official skated over to Harpiet.

“Coach, I’m sorry, but I never saw the puck go in. And neither did the goal judge.”

“But where did the puck go?”

The ref looked at Harpiet.  And Harpiet knew what was going to happen, and that the point on the scoreboard wasn’t going to stay there for long.

“Coach, I just thought I would tell you the goaltender told me he saw the puck on Baxter’s stick, and Baxter did try to dump the puck in. But the puck never left his stick – it must have been frozen on there – and when he pulled his stick out of the goal mouth, the goaltender saw the puck and whacked it away with his glove. So there’s no goal there.”

Crap.  Another wasted opportunity.

As the second period ended, Iverhill remained behind 3-2 on the scoreboard, and Harpiet gathered his players back into the locker room.

Meanwhile, team owner Max Horn, a microphone in hand, began his Christmas promotion.

“Ladies in gentleman, it is my pleasure as the owner of your Iverhill Feltons” – a cacophony of boos cascaded from the stands – “it is my pleasure to present this year’s Christmas cash promotion. We’ve selected five people from the audience, who are now a taking the ice.”

The players watched as arena attendants assisted the five local people from the audience to the ice. Meanwhile, a Feltons intern began sprinkling a bag of of quarters onto the ice blue line.

“I’ve always lived my life around hockey,” said Horn. “It’s always been a part of my life and it’s been a part of every players life on this team.”

Horn continued to extol his commitment to the Feltons for another five minutes, while the contestants stood carefully on the ice surface, lest their street shoes slide out from underneath them.

“Okay contestants,” shouted Horn, “go get your Christmas cash! Everything you pick up on the blue line is yours to keep!”

Within an instant, the fans carefully but quickly walked to the blueline, ready to snap up that Christmas cash. Within seconds, the fans had reached the blueline, and started to scoop up the coins.

Harpiet and his men came out for the start of the third period, expecting the promotion to be over and the third period to commence. But the fans were still on the blueline trying to get at the cash – and, surprisingly, having a difficult time in doing so.

“What’s going on here, Mr. Horn? We’ve got a game to finish!”

“I can’t understand it,” said Horn. “We put $50 on the ice, they should be filling their pockets with all the money.”

Harpiet suddenly realized why there was a problem. “You used paper money, right?” he asked cautiously. “That’s $50 in bills out there, isn’t it?”

“Well,” Horn replied, “Not exactly bills. I did get 50 of those new Eisenhower dollar coins, I figured those wouldn’t get wet on the ice.”

Harpiet’s neck muscles almost burst out of his skin. “You used dollar coins?!?”

“Yes,” Horn replied, suddenly realizing the promotion may have an unforeseen side effect.

Once the hot quarters hit the blueline, they slowly sank into the ice, which eventually froze over the quarters, suspending them in the frozen rink.

“We can’t play on this ice if there are coins in it!” screamed Harpiet.  “The first time a player skates near that and his blades get caught in the ice, he’s going to trip over them and break his face!”

“It’s no problem,” replied Horn.  “All I have to do is get the Zamboni driver to drive over the blue line and scoop up the coins!”

“You can’t do that,” said Harpiet.  “Those coins will get caught in the Zamboni’s ice scrapers and wreck the machine.”

Eventually, the game was held up for 30 minutes while the maintenance crew – with shovels and ice picks – chiseled the frozen coins out of the ice.

Then the third period began.  The Feltons started out with a quick goal to tie the contest – and then both teams traded power play goals.  3-3 tie at the end of regulation.  And with the NHA becoming one of the first leagues to use a penalty-shot “shootout” format to end ties, Harpiet knew it was time to gather his best skaters and best shooters.  Five men.  Not Harpiet.   It’s one thing to skate around on bad knees during a regular game, but not when it comes to a shootout.

And he looked down the Feltons bench. He knew that the new player, Colin Venditto, had to take the ice at some point in the shootout.

The shootout began.  Two of Utica’s five penalty shooters scored; so did two of the Feltons.  The next player to score would win the game for his team.

Harpiet looked down the bench. “Dale,” he said to Dale Henri, the third-shift right winger, “you’re up.”

“I can’t go, coach.”

“Dale, don’t worry about it. We’ve had five guys miss before. So do your best.”

“I can’t do it, coach.”

“Why not?”

“I broke my last stick in the third period. I have no more sticks.”

Quickly Harpiet looked for another skater. “Lomow, you’re up.”

“Sorry Coach, I don’t have any sticks either.  My last one broke at the end of the third period.”

After looking at two more players, and realizing that they either had broken sticks or couldn’t hit a penalty shot unless the goaltender was in the bathroom during the shootout, Harpiet shouted, “Do any of you have a good stick?”

At the end of the bench, without a stitch of playing time during the game, was Colin Venditto. He stood up. “I have a good stick.”

“Get out there.”

Venditto took the ice. The puck was placed on the face off circle. Skating towards Utica goaltender Fred Mancuso, Venditto faked a shot towards the goalie’s right side. The goaltender reacted to the expected puck only to watch Iverhill right winger backhand the puck toward the left side, into the net. Game over, Feltons win.

“If it wasn’t for the end boards, he’d still be going down North Main Avenue,” the coach would later tell the reporters. “Colin Venditto won that game and the only reason he won it was because he had a good stick. It was basically the only good stick we had.”

What nobody knew was that Venditto didn’t have a stick left in his arsenal, either. If somebody had taken a closer look at Venditto’s hockey stick, they might have noticed a white piece of athletic tape covering the stamped name HARPIET on the shaft.

That win was the last time the Feltons would play hockey in Iverhill.  The new owner promised to relocate the team to another city, finish out the regular schedule and negotiate with the league to keep the team in business for the future.

Nobody heard from Max Horn after that game, except for a note that he was getting out of the hockey business and leaving Iverhill for good.

And as far as Harpiet was concerned, his hockey days were over.

“Hey, good luck up north,” Harpiet told Venditto after the game.

“Thanks,” said Venditto. “Here’s your stick back.”

Harpiet took the goal winning stick, then went over to his locker. Pulling out a black magic marker from his locker, he wrote something on the stick, then handed the stick back to Venditto. “You keep it. 20 years from now, you’ll remember your first professional goal, and nobody will believe how you got it.  I did this for a kid when I started out – Tony Hayden, I think he was from Kitchner or Brampton or some place in Ontario.  But he broke his last stick, and his stick pattern was similar to mine.  I gave him my stick, he scored two goals, and next thing you know he’s in the NHL.  Still there, I think.”

The rookie took the stick into his hands, reading the note Harpiet wrote upon the shaft. “Congrats on your first pro goal. Glad my stick could help. Jean-Paul Harpiet 29.

Venditto looked up to thank Harpiet for his generosity, but the veteran was gone.  Harpiet and his equipment back would not make the trip north with the Feltons.  Already in his car, Harpiet drove away from the Iverhill Arena for the last time, heading back home to spend Christmas weekend with his wife.

As he stopped at DiGi’s Diner for a quick cup of coffee for the journey home, Harpiet looked inside the equipment bag. He smiled, knowing Gerry the equipment manager followed through with Jean Paul Harpiet’s request. Harpiet’s game worn home jersey, his last ever professional sweater, was in the bag, also on its way to join Harpiet’s other sweaters in a closet.

Christmas in Iverhill: Sleeping with Gretchen Peters

NOTE: To read Chuck Miller’s book “The Robins of Iverhill: A Minor League Fairy Tale,” as well as the short stories in the “Christmas in Iverhill” series, visit this link.

Thursday, December 20th, 1973.

If Frank Osterman hadn’t arrived at Iverhill’s only late-night tavern, the 9N Bar and Grille, he might not have even volunteered for this delivery.  Or was conscripted for the delivery.  He wasn’t sure if there was a true delineation.

“You gotta do me a favor,” the bartender said as Frank approached the counter.

“What?”

“See that girl over there?” the bartender said, pointing to Gretchen.  “She needs to go home.”

“Thanks, man, but I’m not interested in a date tonight.”

“No,” said the bartender.  “She came her with a friend of hers, the friend left with some guy and she’s been drinking here for the past couple of hours.  She needs a ride home.”

“Oh, come on, I just got here.  I had a hard day at Magedoma Lumber and I need to take the edge off.  Can’t we call her a cab or something?”

“Look,” the bartender replied.  “You know her dad?  Peters, the foreman over at Magedoma?”

“I know him.  I work in another department at Magedoma, but I know who he is.”

“She’s old enough to  be in this bar, but to her dad she’s still his little angel.  And he’s a good friend of mine.  And I’d like to keep that friendship, if you know what I mean.”

“Volunteered” was a weak word for this situation – the tavern owner had lost track of how many shots the sandy-haired blonde had consumed.  Or at least the number of drinks she purchased, as opposed to how many beverages were purchased for her by guys who hoped that one extra shot would mean a night of magic.

Frank sat at the bar stool, knowing in his heart he’d only be resting on the stool for a short moment.  “I guess it’s always like this.  Okay, I’m listening.”

The bartender reached for a napkin.  “This is her address,” he said, scribbling on the napkin with a barely sharpened pencil.  “Down in the Valley.  Make sure she gets home safely.  She gets home safely – without any problems – next time you come in here, your drinks are on the house.”

“Even the good stuff?” Frank asked, pointing to the row of leaden-glass bottles against the mirrored bar wall.

“Yeah.  Even those.  Just get her home right now.”

Frank looked over to the inebriated patron.  And of all the people in Iverhill, of all the people in Otswego County, the person he had to chauffeur home – was Gretchen Peters.

As the bartender motioned to Gretchen, letting her know that it was “last call” for her, Frank thought about what this meant.  And indeed it meant everything to him – but for all the wrong reasons.

A few years ago, back when Frank was in high school, Gretchen Peters was his high-school crush.  He dreamed of the many dates he thought they would have, he dreamed of the starlit nights and the burnt-orange sunrises they spent together in his imagination.  All the wonderful moments – watching baseball games at Wilson Field, maybe a hockey game or two at the Iverhill Arena, ice cream and cheeseburgers at DiGi’s Diner, while the jukebox at DiGi’s played romantic song after romantic song.

But Gretchen had eyes for other people in school.  Mostly football running back Joey Hennessey, and how Gretchen wanted Joey to break up with that softball pitcher student-athlete Jenny McCarling.  Frank tried to talk to Gretchen, offered to help her with her homework, even offered to DO her homework, if that was what it took for her to notice him.  Nope.  It was all for  Joey Hennessey.  Frank never understood why – since Joey Hennessey could barely count to ten, let alone run for ten yards.  It was almost as if Gretchen wanted what she couldn’t have – just like Frank wanted what he couldn’t acquire.

Frank went to the 9N Bar and Grille parking lot, and started cleaning out his car.  Normally he didn’t have guests in the old Plymouth rustbucket, and as he tossed away some Lucky Strike wrappers from the passenger seat, he thought about whether this would be the opportunity he had always fantasized about.  Whether Gretchen would, after all these years, finally acknowledge that he was the one person that could have made her happy.  At least better than Joey Hennessey, who she later married right out of high school.  It’s not like he thought about her every day, but he never turned down any information that came his way.

He walked back into the bar.  “Gretchen?” he asked.  “I’m here to take you home.”

The sandy-haired blonde looked at the empty glass at the bar.  It might have been her second shot of hard liquor.  Maybe it was her third.  The bartender motioned to her with a “it’s time to go home now” gesture.

Gretchen slowly nodded.  Then she pointed at the glass.  The bartender shook his head.  No more for you.

Frank walked over to the bar rail and took Gretchen’s coat and purse in his hands.  Placing the purse on the bar, he draped Gretchen’s coat over her shoulders, and then gathered her – and her purse – and walked toward the bar door.  Gretchen said nothing.

Passenger side door first.  He guided his passenger into the car, taking care to not bump her head against the door frame, or to close the door on her delicate fingers.  As he walked around the car to the driver’s side, the snow was falling wet and fast.  Frank knew what that meant in Iverhill.  Drive only if you have to.  If you don’t have to, then stay home.

Frank started his car.  All he had to do was drive five miles to the Otswego Valley, and Gretchen would be home safe.

“So how have you been, Gretchen?” he asked as the car pulled out of the 9N Bar and Grille parking lot.

No response.  Frank glimpsed over at his passenger.  Gretchen was staring out the passenger window, her gaze transfixed on the streetlights along the state route.

Okay, Frank thought, if you don’t want to talk, you don’t have to.  He turned on the radio.  It was dialed to WIVR-AM, and disc jockey Shauna Moire’s mixture of Christmas records with Top 40 music pulsed through the car speakers.

“Last time I saw you, we were graduating from Iverhill High School.  You and me and Joey Hennessey and Jenny McCarling and …”

Frank waited for an answer.  Nothing.  He thought that he would get a response from mentioning Gretchen’s boyfriend.  Or at least a wince from uttering the name of Gretchen’s nemesis.  Not even a blink – even though everybody in high school remembered about how Gretchen Peters and Jenny McCarling got into an epic fight.  Maybe it had to do with Gretchen stealing Jenny’s boyfriend on Prom Night, or two days later when Jenny poured a couple of bottles of ginger ale in Gretchen’s bookbag in retaliation.

The snow made travel along the Valley road treacherous and slippery, but Frank always took care of his car.  He had to keep his eye on the road sign for the Otswego Valley – if he missed the turn, there was no other way to reach the Valley without driving two more miles and turning the car around at the municipal center parking lot.

There it is.  The sign for the Otswego Valley, access road a quarter of a mile on the right.  “Boy,” he replied, “you sure live a long ways away from 9N Bar and Grille.  Good thing you didn’t drive here in this weather.”

And then Frank realized – if Gretchen didn’t drive to 9N, how did she get there?  The bartender mentioned something about her arriving with a friend, but that the friend left with someone else, leaving Gretchen stranded at the tavern.  Some friend, Frank thought to himself.  And now I have to be the courier because Gretchen’s friend abandoned her.

No time to think about that now.  The road to the Otswego Valley was winding and slippery; not exactly the most favorable road in Otswego County.  And the snowstorm two days ago that closed the roads and the schools meant that the few plowed roads in Iverhill were already treacherous.  Frank kept both hands on the steering wheel and both eyes on the road.  Landing in a ditch along this road could mean big trouble.

Ten minutes of careful driving later, Frank arrived at a small mobile home at the bottom of the road.  He checked the house number, which was carefully printed on the sidewalk mailbox.  37 Green Douglas Fir Road.  HENNESSEY covered up in black electrical tape.  Another strip of electrical tape held up a tattered piece of paper, the word “Peters,” in longhand, as the new surname identifier.  The address was correct.

“Okay, Gretchen, time to go home.  Good night.”

Gretchen didn’t move.  She was asleep.

Frank nudged her.  She softly purred, moved her hand as if to brush him away, and then snuggled back to sleep.

“Come on, Gretchen, I gotta be at work tomorrow and it’s late.”

He got out of the car, walked around to the passenger’s side, and unlocked the door.  If I have to be a gentleman, he thought, at least this is a good reason for it.  He opened the car door.  Gretchen was asleep.

He tried to lift her out of the car.   But for some reason, he couldn’t budge her.  She may have weighed what, 90, 100 pounds – but that night, he couldn’t raise her out of the car if he had a forklift.

He rubbed her shoulders, tapped her hands, tried to rustle her.  He listened to make sure she wasn’t dead.  She was still breathing.  Great, Frank thought to himself.  She’s sleeping it off.  And I can’t even get her to the front door of her place.

He carefully closed the passenger door, and went back to the driver’s side of the car.  Before he climbed back in, Frank looked at the sky.  The glittery swirl of snowflakes cascading from the inky heavens.  The chilly ice whispers that landed on his cheeks and eyelashes.

And as he climbed back in the car, Frank looked over at Gretchen.  She was still asleep.  Frank could see movement in her eyelids, as if her eyes were darting around, looking for something in her dream state.

The car was getting cold.  Frank took his overcoat off and draped it over Gretchen’s sleepy shoulders.  If one of them had to remain warm, Frank figured, let it be her.  After covering Gretchen with the coat, Frank turned so that his body was facing the driver’s side door.  A quick flip of the side handle on the car seat, and the seat back reclined.

Oh well, Frank mused.  If she won’t get out of the car, then I’m not going to let her freeze inside the car.  He started the engine.  Warm air wafted through the car vents.  Five minutes idling the car should provide twenty, twenty-five minutes of heat inside the car, Frank calculated.  At least until she wakes up.

“I guess it’s always like this,” he mumbled wistfully.

Five minutes later, he turned the car off.  He looked over at Gretchen.  Somehow, in her sleep, Gretchen had wrapped Frank’s overcoat around her, snuggling in its warmth.  Good, Frank mused.  At least she’ll stay warm.  I’ll take the cold if it means she stays warm.

He stared through the windshield.  Is this some sort of punishment, he thought to himself.  Some tantalizing, unobtainable moment.  It’s as if everything he had ever dreamed about was right there, ripe for the taking – and his conscience wouldn’t even let him come close.

And then he glanced at Gretchen.  Still sleeping.

“I hope you’re happy,” Frank whispered.  “I have no idea why I’m doing this.  Why I’m even bothering.”

Gretchen snored softly.

“Everything I ever did for you in high school, everything I ever wanted… and you never even responded.  Just like now.  And all that matters is that you get home safe.  And of all the people who could have done it for you, it was me.  Me.  Frank Osterman…”

Frank’s voice drifted for a moment.  “And you never appreciated anything I did.  Do you know how that made me feel?  Useless.  Helpless, hopeless and useless.  And now, the one time you need someone, you need a person to help you be safe… and it’s my chance to prove I was the right guy for you all along.  Me.  Not Joey Hennessey or anybody else.  And you have absolutely no idea it’s me.  You’re going to wake up tomorrow and the only thing you’re  going to remember is that you drank too much.  And as long as you’re in your bed, safe and sound, you don’t care how you got there, just that you DID get there.”

Instinctively, Frank reached toward the glove compartment, where he kept a pack of cigarettes.  But in trying to make herself more comfortable, Gretchen turned her body so that her knee was pressed up against the glove box.  Frank couldn’t get at the cigarettes without bumping Gretchen’s leg out of the way.  Frank grimaced.  Appeasing the nicotine fit would have to wait.

“It doesn’t matter anyway,” he grumbled.  “I guess I’ll always be the nice guy when stuff like this happens.”

The car was warm enough.  Frank closed his eyes and took a short nap.

Ten minutes went by.

Another ten.

Frank woke up.  He looked over.  Gretchen was still sleeping.

“You know what?” he said softly.  “I don’t even know why I’m doing this.  Maybe I’m just ‘Mister Nice Guy,’ that I would do this out of the kindness of my heart.  I thought that maybe there was a reward – I could be your shining knight when you were in danger, I could be the one that protects you when things go wrong.  But you don’t need a shining knight.  You don’t need a savior.”

Frank looked down at the steering wheel.  “And you sure as hell don’t need me.”

He turned the car on.  The Plymouth roared to life.  The heating vents filled the car with warm air.

“I suppose I can’t go back to high school and change anything.  Maybe it was just never meant to be.  Maybe I never deserved you and I should never have entered your life.  And even today, there’s no reason for me to think that doing something like this would ever make your life any better or worse.  All I am is just a pilot, delivering passengers to a destination.  Nobody ever thanks the pilot for safe travels.”

Gretchen slowly stirred.

“Gretchen?”

She rolled over, turning her back to Frank.

Frank turned off the car.

He thought about writing a note to Gretchen – maybe scribbling it on the wrapper of one of his Lucky Strike packs.  Once she sobers up, and actually puts her hand in her coat pocket, she might see the note and realize who drove her home from the tavern.

But he had no idea what to say, or how to say it.  Or even if such a message was appropriate.

Frank got out of the car again, and walked over to Gretchen’s passenger door.  Opening the door, he decided to try one more time to get his sleepy passenger out of the car.  Sliding his arms under her back and legs, Frank slowly lifted Gretchen from her seat.  He carried her to the front porch, and then propped her up on her feet.

Searching in her purse, he found her house keys.  Unlocking the front door, Frank walked Gretchen over to her living room couch.  He helped Gretchen to the couch, carefully letting her sit down – and then slowly guiding her so that her body lay flat, as if the couch was a guest bed.  He then placed Gretchen’s purse and house keys on an end table.

“Well, good night, Gretchen,” Frank whispered.  “I’m sorry I couldn’t be your hero.  Or maybe you just don’t need one any more.”

With that, Frank left Gretchen’s home, making sure the front door locked behind him.  A few moments later, the Plymouth was in motion, as Frank navigated the twisting Otswego Valley access road back to Iverhill.

The sun streamed through the gauzy draperies in Gretchen’s apartment.  Tingly sunrays splashed against Gretchen’s sleepy face, as she slowly woke up.

She looked around.  Her head hurt.  Must have been the last drink at 9N Bar and Grille, she thought to herself.  Or maybe the one before that.  Although she couldn’t remember what happened, or how it happened, she got home safely.  Maybe the bartender called a cab for her.  Good.  Better than riding home with a complete stranger.  Who knows what could have happened then.

Her telephone rang.  She clumsily gripped the phone receiver.

“Hello?” she mumbled.  “Joey, is that you? – Oh… hi Mom.  Yeah, I’m okay.  I went out last night with Sharon, and I can’t remember much, but I think she drove me home.  So I’ve got a headache today.  No, no, I do want to talk to you.  No Mom, the phone rang and I thought you were Joey.  What a great piece of timing, right Mom?  The son of a bitch left me two weeks ago, and he still hasn’t called me.  Yeah, that’s the word I would use to describe him, too.  Well, thanks for calling, Mom.  Tell Daddy I said hi.  Love you both.  Merry Christmas.  I’ll see you in a few days.  Goodbye.”

She hung up the phone and walked over to the curtains, opening up the draperies and filling her living room with December sunshine.  “Frank Osterman would have never treated me the way Joey did … I guess it’s always like this,” she mumbled wistfully.

Christmas in Iverhill: The Picture and the Wallet

NOTE: To read Chuck Miller’s book “The Robins of Iverhill: A Minor League Fairy Tale,” as well as the short stories in the “Christmas in Iverhill” series, visit this link.

Monday, December 24, 1973.

“Mom, you have to trust me. This is so easy.”

“But I don’t understand what you’re doing,” Louise Martin complained, as she watched her son Lloyd hook up the coaxial cable to the television.  “Why can’t I just use the rabbit ears?”

“Because mom, this will allow you to watch more television shows – and with better reception,” Lloyd replied.  “I want to watch more than two television stations when I come to visit you, and this new cable antenna system means we won’t have to worry about the crummy television reception in the Adirondacks.”

Lloyd waited for the next argument his mother might suggest – that there wasn’t anything worth watching on television anyway, that he only visited from California during the holidays, that as long as she could watch Table of the Lord on Sunday mornings, she was happy – but Louise remained silent.  Besides, he didn’t want to spend the holiday weekend arguing over television reception and what to watch.

“Was that the doorbell?” Louise asked.

“I didn’t hear anything.”

“I’m sure I heard the doorbell. Honey, why don’t you take a break from working behind the television, and go see who’s at the door.”

“Mom, I’m almost done – ” Lloyd tried to finish his sentence, but it was no use. He didn’t get the ten seconds of silence from his mother, so he decided to take his own personal time-out.

As Lloyd walked from the living room to the front hallway, he finally heard the doorbell – a faint buzzing noise, a different tone from the strong chimes he remembered from childhood. Mom must have had the doorbell replaced, Lloyd thought, as he tried to recall the sound of the old chimes.

Lloyd opened the front door.

Standing on the stoop was postman Fred Kalmacky, who still delivered mail throughout Iverhill’s North Main Avenue neighborhood, as he did when Lloyd was old enough to answer the front door for the first time.

“Merry Christmas – Lloyd Martin, as I live and breathe. It’s so good to see you again.”

“Hi Mr. Kalmacky. Merry Christmas to you. How have you been?”

“Doing great. Just a couple years toward retirement, and then me and Mrs. Kalmacky are retiring to Arizona. Your mother tells me you’re living in California now?”

“Yes, just outside of Los Angeles.”

Kalmacky’s hand picked through his mail pouch, looking for something special.

“You know, Lloyd, remember when I used to give you these stamps on Christmas Eve?”

Lloyd smiled. “You still carry Christmas Seals stamps in your bag?”

“Oh yes,” Kalmacky replied, pulling out a sheet of perforated stamps from his sack. “I still give them to the neighborhood kids, God knows I buy plenty of them to help support charity. I don’t know if you still collect them or not…”

Lloyd smiled. “Actually, I still have the ones you gave me since I was a kid.”

“Is that a fact? Well, here’s another sheet of stamps for your collection.  Look, they’ve got the Twelve Days of Christmas on this set.  Merry Christmas.”

“Well, Merry Christmas to you too, Mr. Kalmacky,” Lloyd replied, taking the stamps. “How did you know I still collect these? And for that matter, how did you know I would be here this weekend?”

Kalmacky smiled. “Oh, Louise told me you were coming in for Christmas, so I purchased an extra set just for you.”

“Well thank you, Mr. Kalmacky – that was very nice of you.”

“Not a problem. Well, back to my route. Merry Christmas – oh, wait. I knew I forgot something.”

Kalmacky opened his pouch again, this time pulling out a medium sized padded envelope. “I knew I rang the doorbell for something. This is for Louise. And I need to have her sign for it, it’s got a delivery confirmation slip.”

“She’s kind of busy now – can I sign for it?”

Kalmacky looked at the package, then checked the specific regulations. “She’s busy, right?”

“Yeah. I’m trying to hook up a new antenna system to her TV set.”

“Oh, new television stations.  That’ll keep her busy for weeks. Go ahead and sign for the package.”

“Thanks,” Lloyd said, scribbling his name on the printed form.

Lloyd and Kalmacky exchanged Christmas greetings one more time, then the letter carrier walked away from the front stoop, still carrying his sack of greeting cards, magazines and bill payment notices.

As Lloyd walked back into the house and closed the door, he noticed the small package had no return address. And the mailing address listed on the package was not Louise Martin, but to Mrs. Jonathan Martin.

This made Lloyd nervous. The last thing his mother needed on Christmas Eve was another reminder of her late husband – Lloyd’s late father. Christmas was always a rough time of year for Louise Martin. Lloyd knew that no matter how many times he came from California to spend December with his mother, he knew the holiday never brought good memories.

It was ten years ago on Christmas Day, Lloyd remembered, when he nearly lost his entire family.  Christmas, 1963.  That was the year he received for Christmas the one thing he always wanted – a Lionel train set. Just what every 13-year-old boy wants for Christmas.  And he was excited.

After thanking his parents and running upstairs with the train and track, he put together an entire circular layout in his bedroom and ran his new locomotive around the track. Oblivious to the thought of any other presents Santa Claus might have brought, Lloyd played all day with his new train set – rearranging the track so that the train traveled under his bed; drawing a big NYC on the boxcar so that it would resemble the New York Central trains that rode past Red Pine Road on their way to Magedoma Lumber.  He remembered using his sister Margaret’s dollhouse for a passenger station.  All day he played with that train set.

He was still playing with the trains when his mother asked him to come down so they could get in the car and visit Grandma. Although he did love visiting his Grandma (and receiving a shiny quarter from her if he was a good boy and caused no trouble during the visit), this time he wanted to play with his new trains. After much pleading, he got his wish. His parents and Margaret would go to Grandma’s; he could stay home and play with his new trains.

Lloyd was still playing with his trains when someone rang the doorbell. Even though he was so engrossed in his new toy, the loud doorbell chimes distracted him long enough to go downstairs. At the door was his Aunt Janice, who told him to immediately get dressed and bundle up for a trip.

He did as was told, taking off his full-body pajamas and putting on some play clothes. As he put on his coat and mittens, he thought Aunt Janice had arrived to take him to Grandma’s house, where the rest of his family were waiting for him with more Christmas presents.

Instead, Aunt Janice and Lloyd drove to Otswego County Medical Center. Lloyd didn’t understand. Why were they going there?

Inside the lobby, he heard two police officers talking to his mother about what had happened. Something about a drunk driver causing a three-car accident. Many of the injured were taken to Otswego County Medical Center, the hospital closest to the accident scene.

He heard the doctors talking about the little girl in the white coat who died in the car crash. She was barely seven years old, and so small and quiet that the rescue workers almost didn’t know she was in her car seat. Lloyd found out later that the impact of the car crash ejected Margaret from her improperly-buckled child carrier in the back seat, flinging her face-first into the dashboard. She never even had a chance to cry out.

Lloyd’s father was also gravely injured in the car wreck. Jonathan Martin was already sick and wheezing from the three packs of cigarettes he smoked every day; the tar and nicotine coating the sawdust that was already trapped in his lungs from his years at Magedoma Lumber. Louise visited her husband every night for the next two months, staying with him until visiting hours ended, and then asking the nurse or orderly to let her stay a few minutes longer. Two months later, Jonathan Martin died in his sleep, the first time in two months that the pain of his life could no longer hurt him.

Eventually Lloyd and his mother learned how to cope with the holidays when they arrived. On Christmas Eve, Lloyd was allowed to open one present. The next day, December 25th, was set aside as a day of remembrance in the Martin household – both for the birth of Christ and for the death of Margaret. On Christmas evening, Lloyd could open the rest of his presents if he wanted.

Lloyd looked at the package. It was addressed to his mother… but maybe she wouldn’t mind if he actually took a look inside – to make sure it wasn’t a package of junk mail.   He sat down on the couch and started picking away at the package’s brown paper wrapping. The wrapping fell to the floor as Lloyd peeled it apart.

Inside the package was a brown leather wallet, well-worn and creased. Lloyd could see paper money inside, mostly tens and twenties.  He immediately looked for some identification – and found a driver’s license inside.

Jonathan Martin, 23 North Main Avenue, Iverhill, New York.

“Mom!!”

Louise walked in from the kitchen. “What’s wrong, dear? Who was at the door?”

Lloyd hid the wallet under a couch pillow before his mother could enter the room. “That was the mailman. I had to sign for a package for you.”

Louise looked at the floor, noticing the pile of wrappings. “Where is it?”

“Sit down, Mom. You’re not going to believe this.”

Louise sat on the white chair next to the couch. “What’s wrong?”

“Mom,” Lloyd said, pulling the wallet from under the couch pillow, “have you seen this before?”

Louise’s fingers took the wallet from Lloyd’s grasp. “Oh my God. This can’t be.”

“Mom, is this Dad’s wallet?”

She opened the billfold and saw the driver’s license. Within ten seconds, the wallet began to shake in Louise’s hands. Lloyd could see her mother start to cry, and got up to get her a tissue.

“Oh my God…” Louise put the wallet down on the coffee table and began to cry, taking a tissue from Lloyd and dabbing her eyes.

Lloyd picked up the wallet. “Is this Dad’s?” he asked.

Louise sobbed, but nodded her head slowly.

He opened the wallet, staring at the contents in the wallet’s leather pockets. “Look at all this.  A laundry ticket from a dry cleaner’s on North Main Avenue – didn’t that place close down a couple of years ago?  And a card from – when did Iverhill ever have an Elks Club?” Lloyd remarked, pulling each card out of the wallet and examining it as if it were a curiosity from another time.

Louise smiled. “I can’t believe it. I never thought I’d see him again,” she said as she patted the wallet, her fingers gently touching the worn frayed leather edges.

“Him?”

“Oh, I mean – I mean the wallet. Where did it come from?”

Lloyd fumbled through the pile of packaging on the floor. “There’s no return address – just this envelope from – give me a second to read this – it’s from a church in New York City.”

“Maybe they have a thrift store down there,” Louise mused, “and somebody found the wallet in a pair of pants, and send it to me.”

“There’s money in the wallet, too.”

“Money?”

“Yes,” Lloyd said, pulling out some of the green currency, “and it looks like a lot of it.”

With that, Lloyd removed the bills from the wallet, and began counting them.

“How much money is there?”

“Hold on, Mom, I’m still counting,” Lloyd said, calculating every $10 and $20 as he counted each bill.

“There’s at least $200 in this wallet – 220 – 230 – 235 – 240 – 245 – 6 – 7 – 8 – 9 – two hundred fifty dollars,” he said, placing the pile of money on the table.

Louise picked up the wallet, looking again at the driver’s license photo contained inside.

“Mom, this is a lot of money for Dad to have in his wallet.”

Lloyd looked at his mother for a response, but there was none. Louise was holding the wallet tightly in her fingers, and tears welled in her eyes.

“Mom?”

Silence.

“Are you all right?”

“Yes, honey, I’m all right,” she said, her attention still focused on the leather billfold.

“Mom – this is a lot of money,” Lloyd repeated.

“What – oh yes, the money,” Louise replied. “I think this may have been your father’s bonus money from Magedoma Lumber. I can’t remember, but I think he had just been promoted that year, and this was part of a bonus and a raise. The night before, he went to the toy store and bought you that train set you always wanted. Remember?”

“Yes,” Lloyd recalled. “Is that train set still in the attic?”

“It might be.”

“I almost forgot about that old train set. I may want to bring it home this year, if it’s still in the attic.”

Louise stared at the wallet again. “What’s the earliest memory you have of your father?”

Lloyd thought for a moment. “I can remember the day he took me to the circus.  Back when the circus came to Iverhill.  We went into one of the tents, and we ate popcorn and watched the clowns and the trapeze artists.”

“He loved the circus.  He used to tell me about how much fun you had when you went there, and that he was going to take Margaret to the circus when she was old enough.”

Lloyd picked up some of the currency. “I miss Dad and Margaret,” he said.

“I do too, honey,” his mother said.

“Mom – I just noticed something,” Lloyd said.

“What, dear?”

“Well, the car crash was ten years ago, right?”

Louise nodded.

“And everything in the wallet – the laundry ticket, that driver’s license – those are all at least ten years old, right?”

Louise nodded again.

Lloyd held up a $20 from the pile. “Then why isn’t this money ten years old?”

“What – I don’t understand.”

“Look at this $20, Mom – it looks like it just came out of the bank yesterday.  In fact,” Lloyd said as he fished through the pile of money – “here’s a $10 and two $5 bills – and they look fresh, too.”

Louise took some of the money from Lloyd’s hand. “He loved you very much,” she whispered softly. “Did you know we first met at Magedoma Lumber?”

Lloyd, who was picking through the wallet at that moment, looked up at his mother. “No,” he said, “I didn’t know that. You never told me how you two met.”

“It’s rather funny – I had been in the secretarial pool at the lumber yard since 1940, and he worked in the processing areas. We probably worked together for two years before we ever met face to face. It was at the Magedoma Lumber picnic in 1942, and he was sitting at a picnic table all by himself – he looked so lonely, I thought I’d at least join him at the table and say hi. Well, that company picnic led to some dates, and about a year later, we were married. And then you were born. He was so proud that day, and he was even prouder when Margaret was born. Everything was so wonderful back then.”

Lloyd sat, transfixed by his mother’s words. She rarely spoke of her husband or daughter, and certainly not without crying. But today, with Jonathan Martin’s wallet in clear view, Lloyd noticed a confidence in his mother’s voice.

“But Mom, this doesn’t explain why there’s new money in this old wallet.”

Lloyd and his mother spent the next twenty minutes speculating on the wallet’s journey and its mysterious contents – perhaps the wallet ended up in a thrift store, and somebody purchased it for a pittance – but that didn’t explain why Jonathan Martin’s old receipts and driver’s license were still in the wallet. Or perhaps somebody found the wallet ten years ago, packed it away for safekeeping and only found it recently – but that didn’t explain the new money inside. Lloyd asked if his mother knew how the wallet might have disappeared, but Louise thought it had been buried with her husband after he died.

“Lloyd, did you say there was a note that came with the wallet?”

“Yeah mom, it’s on the table – right over here,” Lloyd said, moving the sheet of Christmas Seal stamps that he had absent-mindedly placed over the envelope when he had unwrapped the package. After a few silent moments of anticipation, Lloyd opened the envelope and removed a single typewritten sheet of paper from inside.

“What does it say?”

Lloyd, who was reading the letter silently, looked up at his mother – then began to read the letter aloud.

.
. Dear Mrs. Martin:

I hope this letter, the wallet and its contents all arrive to you safely. I’ve held on to this wallet for too long and it belongs to its rightful owners.

Ten years ago, I had a job and a family.  I worked at Felton’s Used Cars on Evergreen Road, and took care of my wife and my daughter. Unfortunately, alcohol took over my life and it destroyed my employment, my family and my life. That Christmas day, I was driving on Evergreen Road and wondering how I could tell my wife that I had gotten fired from Felton’s the day before for stealing from the accountant’s office. I couldn’t tell her the truth.  I didn’t really know what truth was.

There was a car accident that day. I couldn’t figure out at first what had happened, but when I pulled up to the accident site, I overheard some of the policemen and ambulance workers talking about a drunk driver who plowed into an intersection and hit two other cars, including one car with a child inside.

In all the commotion and confusion, I saw an old leather wallet on the ground. I picked it up and, when nobody was looking, drove away with it. There was $200 in the wallet; I figured I had just won the lottery without even buying a ticket.

I should have called the police.  I should have gone to the store and bought something for my daughter, who ran away earlier that year, maybe that $200 would have brought her back and had her forgive her old man for everything I don’t remember that I did.

But as soon as I had a chance, I stopped at 9N Bar and Grille and drank till I couldn’t see straight.  And I didn’t stop for a couple of weeks. Eventually the wallet ran out of money; leaving me with a wallet that was not my property, and a hangover that was. And when my wife found out, she left me.  She thought I had been working at Felton’s the whole time.  I never worked in Iverhill again. But I didn’t care because all I wanted was another beer.

Eventually I moved downstate, and tried to find work in New York City. After five years of various jobs, I found steady work as a car salesman in Manhattan, but I couldn’t stop drinking. I used to hide my alcohol wherever I could but eventually it almost took my new job and my life.

And I realized at that moment I wasn’t driving drunk that day when the accident happened, but if I was, that could have been me behind the wheel, killing people in an alcoholic haze.

One day it became too much for me to handle. It was rough at the dealership; I couldn’t sell a single car. All I wanted to do was buy a bottle of cheap wine and make all the hurt go away. But I was out of money.

At the time, the only place I could think of that had alcohol and wasn’t a liquor store was a church. St. Timothy’s Church was right down the street, and I thought all I needed to do was go inside, find the wine they use for the Sunday services, and get drunk.

I actually found a bottle of red wine in the church, and was about to drink it when somebody tapped me on the shoulder. I didn’t dare turn around, because all I could think of was here I am, in a church after hours, drinking wine for the Sunday services.

The person tapping me on the shoulder was somebody who worked in the nearby rectory, Father Bernard. I guess he came to investigate.

I thought I was done for sure.

But Father Bernard sat down with me and explained where I was in life and that I could find a new life by going to Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. He even agreed to be my sponsor said he was honoring a promise somebody made to him years ago.

Well, I went to those AA meetings. And it did turn my life around. And Father Bernard was there in case I ever needed his help somebody to talk to, someone who could help when things got too tough. I’ve been clean and sober for five years now, thanks to Father Bernard. For him saving my life and turning my world around, I gave Father Bernard a Volkswagen off the used car lot said he was sending a parish kid to college upstate to Otswego County Community College and knew that a car would make a great graduation present.

I told him I came from Iverhill, and I told him for the first time about the wallet. He then sat down with me and explained that I needed to repay the harm I had caused. And part of the harm I caused was taking your money. I am truly sorry for my actions, and hope you can forgive me. To this effort, I have enclosed the $200 that was originally in the wallet, plus some extra cash as interest.

There’s another reason why I’m sending you this.  I honestly don’t have much time left on this earth.  The doctors say that all the damage I did to my liver is finally catching up with me, and I don’t have more than a few weeks.  If I do nothing else in my life, I need to make this right.  My family will never forgive me for what I did to them.  I may never see my wife or daughter again. Please do not contact me or try to locate me. Once again, I am truly sorry for holding on to your wallet and money for so long; and that this gift arrives back in your home before Christmas.

Yours,
Thomas G.

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Louise looked at Lloyd. Tears started to well up in her eyes, and Lloyd could tell Louise was devastated by the letter’s news.

“Mom – I’m sorry. I had no idea this had happened.”

“It’s okay,” Louise sobbed, trying to make Lloyd believe that everything would be all right just because she said it would be. She then gathered all the money off the table.

“What are you going to do with the money?”

“I don’t know… but maybe I’ll know tomorrow.”

“Mom – the letter specifically said not to contact him.”

“I’m not going to contact him,” Louise said, walking into the kitchen. “I just have to…”

She stopped. “I have to repay the debt I caused.”

December 26, 1973.

The day after Christmas, a silver-haired woman entered room 102 of the Otswego County Community Center. The patrons already in the room took little notice – they were used to seeing new faces at the biweekly meetings, and only noticed her when she asked if the group’s treasurer was in attendance that night. A few conversations later, she gave the treasurer an envelope filled with money. She then asked if she could stay and watch the meeting. The treasurer agreed, and offered her a folding chair.

Ten minutes into the meeting, she stood up and turned to the crowd. The language seemed to stick in her throat, but after a few hesitant words escaped her lips, she spoke from the heart.

“My name is Louise…”

“Hi Louise,” the audience responded.

“Ten years ago, I made a major mistake in my life. I got behind the wheel after having too much to drink, and I caused a three-car accident that killed my husband and my daughter. On Christmas Day, my actions also caused two other people in another car to die. And even though it’s been ten years since I’ve had a drink,” she paused, waiting for the inner strength to say the next few words. “I am an alcoholic. And I need help.”