A GENTLEMAN LIVES HERE
by Maureen Mullis
Returning to his recliner he put his feet up and looked around at the cozy family room. The Christmas tree was decorated with decades of homemade ornaments his wife had tenderly preserved. Years of photographs with their children and grandchildren on Santa’s lap festooned the garland draped mantle. A crystal platter sporting a variety of cookies rested on the coffee table while the stereo played Bing Crosby crooning the wonders of the holiday.
Life, Roy thought, had been good to him. He’d been blessed more than he ever thought he would be. As the voices of his family drew near he settled himself into his seat ready to enjoy the Christmas Eve celebration that was a tradition for them all.
His oldest grandson Jeff came into the room carrying a large mug of hot chocolate which he handed to Roy. At 24 he was handsome and successful, and had announced that this year he would spend Christmas day with his young lady’s family. Roy expected that they would soon be hearing of an engagement.
Jeff was followed by his brother and sister and two cousins. Roy’s daughters came laden with drinks and extra platters of food for the evening, their husbands behind them discussing something about a car problem one of them was having. He watched his daughters shush them as his older one picked up an afghan and draped it over his legs.
Smiling she tucked it around him and gave him a kiss on the cheek. Roy thought that it had been a wonderful thing to have daughters. They fussed and cared for him as if he were a king. No son could have treated him with such tenderness and he felt contentment settle over him as his wife came in with a sigh and took the chair next to his.
“Hey Grandpa!” Eighteen-year-old Kyle broke into his thoughts. “Tell us the story of that Christmas when you were my age.”
Roy waved off his request with his weathered hand. “Not that old saw!” he complained good-naturedly. “You’ve all heard it more times than I can count!”
“Yes, Papa,” urged Carly, 17 and his only granddaughter. She and he both knew he would deny her nothing, even this small request. As the others, even his wife and daughters, urged him to tell his story he leaned back, closed his eyes and began.
“Well, like Kyle said I was 18 and it was during the Great Depression. Times were hard, no jobs anywhere, no money for college. I’d met a man named Mike when I was down at the railroad one time looking for work. He was what they called a Hobo back then.
“Anyway, Mike was an old timer who’d been riding the rails for awhile and agreed to take me on as a road kid, which was sort of an apprentice to learn the ways of the road.”
Shifting in his chair, Roy put his mug of chocolate on the table next to him and leaned back again.
“My mother was a new widow and was considering taking in borders to make ends meet. I was a financial drain on her and she could use my room to let if I was gone, so I went home, packed a few things and took off with Mike that night. I thought of it as an adventure and hoped I would land in some town where I would be able to find work and settle down.”
“But that didn’t happen, did it Papa?” Carly urged him on.
Smiling at her Roy shook his head. “No, sweetheart, it didn’t. At least not for awhile.”
Reaching out his wife’s hand met his and he gave it a squeeze before returning to his grandchildren’s upturned faces as they sat on the floor around him.
“Mike and I spent several months traveling from town to town. We picked up day work when we could, sometimes helping people clean their yards for fifty cents, or raking leaves for a plate of food. Other times we had to spear biscuits or go stemming.”
“What’s that again Grandpa?” his grandson Dylan asked.
“Hobo talk for looking for food in garbage cans or begging on the street,” Roy answered. “I hated that and would do anything to avoid asking for help outright. But sometimes we had no choice. Especially if we landed somewhere small where there was no soup kitchen or lumps for men like us.”
“Lumps?” his daughter Janice asked.
“It’s what we called food we could get at the back door of some homes. In some of the towns the women weren’t as generous, or they’d given too much already so by the time Mike and I got there … “ his voice trailed off and he shrugged.
“Mike first got sick late October. In the beginning it just appeared to be a bad cold that he was having trouble shaking. By mid December it was apparent that it was something more serious. His color was bad and he was having trouble breathing.
“We landed in a small town in western Nebraska. It was a pretty little town and there was a good camp just outside it. I gathered wood, made a fire and settled Mike and decided I would go into town to see if I could get him some help.”
Roy sighed and looked around at his family. It all seemed like it happened to someone else as he sat here near a fire he wasn’t dependent on for warmth, with family and not strangers he traveled with. But the memory of that Christmas would stay with him forever.
“I headed into town and could see all the decorations up for Christmas. The snow was deep and the wind was cutting through me like I wasn’t even there. It wasn’t good for Mike and it occurred to me that if I could find an old coat for him it would help.
“I made my way down the alleys behind the homes. Hobos who’d made their way before me had marked some of the houses. They would carve a symbol on the fence posts indicating if you could receive help there or not.
“I tried a couple of the places that had been marked as belonging to doctors or women who would help and had been turned away over and over. I was getting discouraged and cold and hungry. I didn’t have two cents to rub together, and I knew Mike was too weak to hop on and make it to another bigger town. I had to find something.”
Roy shivered remembering the cold of that day. “It was so bitter, and I was getting tired as it got later in the day. I prayed as I walked that I would find someone, anyone who would help me, help Mike.
“About three o’clock that afternoon I came to this house that had a nice look to it. It was well kept, and I could see a light in the kitchen window. On that grey day it looked like a beacon of hope to me.”
“And the fence post Grandpa?” Kyle said his voice hopeful.
“There was a top hat carved on it,” Roy answered, “which meant …”
“A gentleman lives here!” they chorused, so familiar were they with the story.
“That’s right,” Roy nodded. “So I approached the back door and knocked. A woman answered. She was soft and round looking, with black hair and kind eyes that looked at me with sympathy. When I told her about Mike she invited me in to have some soup. I tried to decline telling her I had to get help for my buddy, but then her husband came to the door and told me it would do no good to argue and to come in and he would help me.
“I tell you that was the best soup I’ve ever had in my entire life, either before or sense. I felt warm and hopeful from the tips of my frozen toes all the way up to my eyeballs.”
Smiling at their laughter he continued. “That kind woman gave me some paper and envelope and a pen and told me to write my mother.
“’Let her know where you are and that you’re alright,’ she told me. ‘I’ll mail it for you.’ So I did. I wrote two pages to my mother and was happy to have the chance she offered me. Riding the rails doesn’t give you a lot of extra for sending letters home. While I was doing that, she’d packed some extra soup into a lunch tin and her husband returned with a thick, warm winter coat for me to take to Mike.
“I started to thank them and was heading for the back door when the man cut me off. Said we were going out front and get in his car and he was going to see about getting me some medicine. And he did. We went to a pharmacy where he knew the owner. Had me explain Mike’s symptoms to the man who said it sounded like pneumonia. He gave me a couple of things and told me what to do to help him.
“Then that kind man, that gentleman, drove me back to the camp and helped me carry everything in to where I’d left Mike. The fire was dead and I was rebuilding it while he checked on my buddy, helped him put on the coat, and set the soup on the flames to warm.
“When he stood back up he held his hand out for me to shake. I told him I didn’t know how to thank him and he told me the best way to thank him was to do the same for someone else when I could.”
Roy had to clear his throat as emotion overtook him in remembering the man’s kindness.
“By Christmas it was clear that Mike was on the mend. We’d washed out the lunch tin and decided to walk back into town to return it and so Mike could properly thank that couple for their help. We got to the spot where the house was. The mark was still on the fence post, but the house …”
He looked up at his family. The family that he always felt saved his life. His beautiful wife, lovely daughters and sons-in-law, his joyful grandchildren meant absolutely everything to him. They were still, watching and listening to him.
“The house was barely standing. The paint was long gone, parts of the roof were missing and the windows were all shattered. Every single one, even the one I’d seen glowing that dark afternoon. It was obvious no one had lived in that house for a very long time.
“Mike thought I was crazy, but I swear I had been there and had received help when I’d needed it most.”
“Who were those people Papa?” Carly whispered.
“I’m not sure who they were honey,” Roy answered. “But I believe they were an answer to my prayers.”
“Angels?” one of his grandsons asked.
“Christmas angels,” his wife interjected.
Roy nodded. “Probably.”
He was silent for a moment, then sighed and straightened his shoulders.
“Anyway, I decided to stay in that town. Found a permanent job at the creamery and about a year later met a beautiful girl who is now sitting here as your grandmother.”
His wife smiled at him reminding him of that day he’d first seen her and fallen in love.
“And then what’d you do?” Jeff urged.
“Why, your grandma and I bought the lot and built this very house on it. Raised your mother’s here and have celebrated more happy Christmases than you can imagine.”
“What about Mike and the fence post Dad?” his daughter asked.
“Mike went on his way,” he said. “Never saw him again. But I do know that when he left here he was healthy and in good spirits.”
Roy shook his head. “All these years I’ve tried to do what that gentleman asked me to do, to help whenever I could.
“As for the fence post … well, I’ve kept that top hat marked on it. Replaced that post a couple of times in the years since, but that symbol will always be there. I want everyone to know that you can come to our door if you need help and that just like then, a gentleman lives here!”