by Steve Benson
The cold wind turned Marty Tenant’s face bright pink. Invisible hands had been slapping him in the face since he had turned the corner from Commercial Street to National Avenue. He kept his head down as much as he could but still, the occasional snowflake would rush in and hit his already stinging face. The Hotel Saint John’s was Marty’s destination. He imagined that a sign at the Hotel Saint John’s would read “A warm room and complimentary lingering death for every guest.” He meant this as a humorous thought but instead it turned an already somber day just a little darker.
Marty wore two coats. The one on the outside was a ripped and worn Carhart coat that the shelter had given him. The one underneath was a light leather jacket; it was this one that he was planning on wearing to the job interview the next morning. Slung over Marty’s shoulder was an overstuffed back pack. Inside it was a pair of dress shoes and the best outfit he owned, recently purchased for seven dollars from the Salvation Army.
The rest of Marty’s belongings were in a locker back at the shelter. Not much though, just a beat up suitcase with a few changes of clothing and a small photo album. At one time he had more belongings in a storage locker but being homeless didn’t pay well. The storage facility auctioned off those belongings months ago for nonpayment. When Marty was feeling especially down because of his current circumstances, he would take out his suitcase and thumb through the photos. He had looked at it for half an hour before leaving the shelter that cold Sunday evening.
Marty had a job interview on the south side of town at 8am Monday morning. It was rare to get an interview this close to Christmas so Marty was doing everything he could to make sure he arrived on time and looking fresh. The last thing he wanted to do was to leave the shelter at 6am and show up at the interview looking cold, tired and wet from the weather. Instead he had decided to use what he called one of his free hotels.
Marty was an expert at finding places in Springfield where he could get a good comfortable night’s sleep for free. There had been many times in the past year that these free hotels saved him from being too hot, too cold or drenched from the rain. The bus station was a tried and true option but in this case the station wouldn’t work because it was on the opposite side of town from the interview. The mall was another option. There were back hallways that connected all of the shops and one of them had an upper storage area that he could get to by climbing a row of electric meters. Since it was Christmas Marty decided not to go to the mall, more people increased his chances of being caught. Marty had actually settled on a new idea for tonight’s free hotel, The Hotel Saint John’s.
Saint John’s Hospital was about three miles away at the moment but Marty was sure it was the perfect spot. He came up with the idea several months earlier. He had been working in the shelter’s kitchen all day and was taking a break on his bunk in the open area mens’ quarters. He was again looking through his photo album, concentrating mainly on the few photos he had of his wife. Seeing them reminded him of the last week before she died. She spent that week on the eighth floor of St. Johns hospital dying of ovarian cancer. Prior to that she spent a lot of time in the oncology day ward but lack of positive results had ended those visits. Marty spent all of that last week by her side but occasionally he would retreat to one of the waiting rooms at either end of the floor to get a couple hours of uninterrupted sleep. The waiting rooms were all but abandoned after 7pm, so he was confident that his plan would work. After coming up with the idea, he tucked it away in his mind and stumbled across it again after the interview was scheduled. Marty realized the irony that a memory of one of the factors that caused him to become homeless in the first place, might actually help him get off the street.
After Mindy’s death, a combination of medical bills and a bad economy left him with no money and no job. He sold anything of value that he owned in order to make his house payments but eventually his small two bedroom house on the north side of town went back to the bank. Neither Marty nor Mindy had family in town so his only alternative was the street with occasional stretches spent at the shelter. The shelter only allowed two week stays for single men in order to make room for people with children. Marty was such a hard worker though that they usually let him stay a month or more but he would still eventually have to leave for awhile before being allowed to rotate back in.
When he lost the house, Marty almost called his sister in Topeka for help but decided against it. He had never really had a stable family life. His mother moved them from town to town when they were young. His sister Nora moved out when she was sixteen and three years later Marty joined the Army at the age of eighteen. By the time his enlistment was up, his mother had died of a drug overdose. After that, neither Marty nor Nora seemed interested in staying in touch. Holding onto bad memories can sometimes fracture a family worse than the actual events.
As bad off as he was, Marty always managed to get by on his wits. Tonight, as he walked through the three inches of freshly fallen snow, he was actually proud of his idea of sleeping in one of the hospital waiting rooms. He knew that he’d wake up refreshed and only two blocks from his interview. After a quick sink shower and changing into his good clothes, he was confident that he would look just fine. This job meant a lot to Marty, not only because it could get him back on the right path, but also because he wasn’t sure how long he could mentally take living this way. The pressure of constantly scrounging for a place to stay or a meal was turning him into someone he did not always recognize.
The job itself was nothing to brag about. Before his wife’s death, Marty worked as phone tech support. While he was on medical leave for Mindy’s illness, his employer shipped his job off to India. Years before that, he had been a printer at a small shop on the north side of town. Monday’s interview was for a job as a printer’s assistant. It had been while since he’d done this kind of work but he was hopeful that his experience would get him the job. It did not pay much but Marty figured that after a couple months he would be able to afford a small studio apartment. From there, he would start saving until he could afford a car. Marty remembered doing all of these things fifteen years ago, after he’d left the Army. He wasn’t happy about having to do it all over again in his late thirties, but at this point was glad to have a working plan.
Twenty minutes later, Marty had worked his way up to Missouri State University. By then the snow was floating down in huge flakes. The smell of burning wood floated through the air as some of the houses in the surrounding neighborhood lit their fireplaces not so much for the warmth but for the nostalgia. The campus itself looked like a post card; untouched snow blanketed usually busy walkways and parking lots. As Marty passed the row of rental houses that lined National Street, he saw young college kids packing their cars; the last few stragglers on their way home for the Christmas break. They looked happy and excited. A girl who looked like she was maybe eighteen or nineteen was busy making a snow angel in the front yard of one of the houses while several of her girlfriends laughed from the covered porch. Next door a group of young men were having a snowball fight. Marty enjoyed watching them but at the same time it put the spotlight on his loneliness. He hadn’t known joy or friendship for a long time now. Friends from his previous life had disappeared since he’d fallen on hard times and the few acquaintances he’d made at the shelter were just that, acquaintances. It seemed to Marty that he had just been going through the motions. Taking care of his basic needs but not really living a life.
By the time Marty made it to Sunshine Street, the snow was another inch deeper and the gray sky was darkening. He waited at the crosswalk for the traffic light to turn green while the remainder of the light slowly faded from the sky. As he waited there, the Christmas decorations that lined Sunshine Street flickered on. The decorations reminded Marty of his childhood Christmases. Most of Marty’s childhood was rough, but his mother always managed to pull off a halfway decent Christmas. The best memories he had of the holidays were when his mother’s half brother, Uncle Rusty would visit.
Uncle Rusty showed up every year or two while Marty was growing up. He would mostly visit around Christmas or Thanksgiving. Rusty was a little on the short side, had wavy red hair (hence the nickname Rusty) and always had a smile on his face and a quarter in his pocket for Marty and Nora. Marty still remembered the year he showed up with a giant toy fire truck for him. The truck was eventually left behind during one of his families late night moves to avoid paying past due rent. Marty’s mother hastily planned and executed these moves which meant they left a lot of things behind.
As Marty starred at the candy cane and Christmas bulb shaped decorations that hung from each street light, he remembered how Uncle Rusty would load everyone up in his car and drive to the nicer area of whatever town they were living in to look at the Christmas lights. Uncle Rusty was like a child in an adult’s body; he seemed to be seeing everything for the first time. That excitement for life was what made Marty like him so much. Unfortunately Uncle Rusty, much like Marty’s mother, was never able to settle down. The last time Marty saw him was when he came to visit for Marty’s 16th birthday. He didn’t even come to the funeral when Marty’s mother died. Marty thought of the relationship he had with his own sister and knew that they had inherited this same distance.
The light turned green and Marty crossed as quickly as he could, considering the depth of the snow. He was now walking alongside the employee parking lot of Saint John’s; he noticed that the hospital had undergone a lot of construction since he’d been here with Mindy. Old parking lots were now new wings of the hospital and square blocks of housing were now new parking lots.
Marty walked another half block before finding himself standing at the main entrance to Saint John’s Hospital. The tall lights that lined each side of the entrance joined forces with the blowing snow to create the illusion of a white swirling tunnel that ended at the front doors of the hospital. Marty walked forward into this passageway and placed his hands on the cold brass handle.
Marty shut the door behind him and turned to see an empty welcome desk. He quickly walked past the desk on the outside chance someone would return and get suspicious. The layout of the front entrance had changed a lot since he’d last been there. What was once faded linoleum floor tile was now shiny marble with oak and brushed steel accents. Marty thought times must be good at The Hotel Saint John’s. He imagined the hospital as a living being that took in death and suffering, turning them into stone sconce lighting and etched glass walls. He bounced around the maze of an entrance for a few minutes before he was able to find a restroom in an older narrow hallway.
Once inside he removed his Carhart coat and unbuttoned his leather jacket revealing a fairly nice looking black button up shirt underneath. He ran the faucet until warm water came out and then splashed it on his numb face before running his dripping hands through his hair and shaping it into a less windblown look. He then cupped his red ears with his warm hands to try to bring them back to life. Marty backed up and looked at himself in the mirror. Since becoming homeless he’d checked himself out like this many times. It was a test he had developed to see if he actually looked homeless. He decided that he looked fine and left the restroom.
Marty continued down the narrow hallway that he knew ended at the elevators. Once there, he pushed the up button and as he waited for the doors to open, he wondered to which floor he should go. He had no idea what was on each floor other than eight which was Mindy’s old floor. When the doors finally opened, he walked into the empty elevator and arbitrarily pressed seven. As the elevator rose, he glanced down at button number eight and decided that no matter what happened, he wouldn’t go to that floor. He’d spent enough time there to last a lifetime.
The seventh floor turned out to be exactly what he was looking for. It was quiet but there was still enough activity for him to blend in. There were two parallel hallways on the floor connected at the center by a large nurse’s station and again at each end where the waiting rooms were. He took a right turn as he left the elevator and as he walked, he used his peripheral vision to look at the patient rooms on his right. The first few rooms were vacant, staring back at him with closed doors and empty Plexiglas chart holders. The next one had several family members standing in front looking solemn while the next four rooms were too close to the nurse’s station. He continued walking until he found an open door devoid of people. He glanced inside and saw an old man lying in the bed with an oxygen mask over his mouth and nose. He made note of the room number and the patient’s name on the chart hanging on the door. Room number 739 and the patients name was Stanley Burke.
Marty continued on to the end of the hallway and turned left. Halfway between each of the two hallways was a waiting room. He entered the darkened room and turned the light on. There were no people in the room but evidence of them was everywhere. Magazines and empty soda cans littered the coffee table. On the floor in front of a small plastic bin was an assortment of toys that a sticky fingered child had been playing with earlier in the day. Padded chairs lined the walls of the room but in one corner sat a green recliner. Marty recognized it as the same type they had often wheeled into his wife’s room when he would spend the night with her. He sat his backpack and extra coat on the floor and sat in the recliner, it was as comfortable as he remembered. Marty stood back up, walked to the doorway where he turned out the light and then returned to the recliner, this time he pulled the stainless steel handle on the side of the recliner and stretched out. It was still rather early but he figured there would be less questions asked of a man who appeared to be sleeping so he just laid there with his extra coat covering himself like a blanket. The long walk he’d just made and the hum from the heater vent relaxed him and before long he drifted off to sleep.
In his dream, Marty was still lying in the green recliner. This time though, it was back in his wife’s room on the eighth floor.
“Honey, wake up. I need you.”
Marty instantly recognized the voice and jumped out of the recliner. He rushed to her side and pushed strands of brown hair from her sweaty forehead. “I’m here Mindy. What do you need?”
“I just need you,” she replied. “I’m afraid.”
“What are you afraid of?” asked Marty.
“Of death. I don’t want to die. I want to stay here with you.”
Marty’s heart broke at her words. He knew she couldn’t live. He knew she didn’t live, but how did he know. Was she already dead? He knew this had all happened before but was unable to grasp that it was a dream.
“You will always be with me Mindy.” She nodded her head in agreement and gave him a frightened smile. The lights in the room began to brighten. Marty looked up and saw the room begin to fade in an intense white glow.
“I love you Marty,” said Mindy as the world turned blank.
When the light to the waiting room turned on, Marty startled awake and saw a nurse standing in the doorway.
“I’m so sorry,” she said. “I didn’t know anyone was in here.” She reached down toward the coffee table and picked up a Red Book magazine.
“It’s going to be a long slow shift so I thought I’d grab something to read.”
“Not a problem,” replied Marty. “I was just trying to get a little sleep. I’m here to see my…” Marty hesitated for a moment, covering the awkward pause with a fake yawn. He hadn’t worked out who this patient was supposed to be to him and the dream he had just awoken from wasn’t helping. “My uncle,” Marty said finally. ‘I’m here to see my uncle but he’s asleep.”
“Really? Which patient is he?”
Again, the dream kept Marty’s brain from functioning and for a split second he couldn’t remember the name on the door that he’d seen when he came in. Just as he was about to give up, Marty found the name and blurted it out. “Stanley Burke.”
“Oh, he’s so sweet. I’m glad he has someone here with him. He’s been so sick and no one has come to see him yet. Why don’t you get back to sleep, you look like you could use it.”
Marty smiled and shook his head as the nurse turned the light back out and left the room. Now that he knew how sick the old man was, he felt terrible for using him. Not so terrible to leave though. He’d committed himself to getting the job and wasn’t about to do anything to mess it up now. He laid back down in the recliner but didn’t fall asleep nearly as fast as the first time. Images from the dream kept sleep away for nearly an hour but eventually he drifted off again.
The Old Man
Marty awoke to the sound of the nurse’s voice. This time she’d left the light out to save him the eye strain. She was patting him on the shoulder and sounded pretty insistent.
“Sir, it’s your uncle. I need you to wake up.”
“I’m sorry!” Marty said automatically as he stood and began picking up his things.
“No no, it’s ok. Your uncle is asking for you. We told him you were here and he wants to see you now.”
Marty could see a smile on the nurse’s face from the light filtering in from the hallway. He wasn’t completely awake yet but he understood what she was saying. Unfortunately he couldn’t think of a good response. Before he could dig one up, the nurse placed her hand on his shoulder and guided him to the old man’s room. “Just come with me. He seems to be doing much better. He hasn’t been this active since he arrived,” said the nurse.
Marty walked around the corner with the nurse but hesitated at the open door. Inside was a man Marty didn’t know who was excited to see him. He thought about the alternatives. He could run but he didn’t know where the stairs were and didn’t want to run away only to have to wait for the elevator. As Marty thought out his options, another nurse was exiting the room with a chart in her hand.
“You must be the nephew,” she said. This nurse didn’t smile but instead looked Marty up and down, examining him. “Come on in, he’s waiting.”
Marty felt a nudge from the nurse behind him and he stepped forward. He wondered what the hell he was doing as he walked into the room and saw the old man now sitting up in bed with his oxygen mask off. His hair was almost completely white and was standing straight up on top. The smiling nurse led him to a chair sitting next to Stanley Burke’s bed and motioned for him to sit.
“Mr. Burke, your nephew is here.” The nurse spoke with the loud care givers voice reserved for older patients. Mr. Burke looked in Marty’s direction. Marty saw milky blue eyes staring back at him.
“Oh my God, it is you,” said Mr. Burke in a barely audible and raspy voice. “How long has it been?”
Marty was frantic on the inside but somehow managed to keep calm on the outside. He simply shrugged his response.
“Probably almost twenty years,” said Mr. Burke, answering his own question. “Please, sit down.
Marty sat. He felt slightly more at ease knowing that the old man still thought he recognized him but felt terrible for fooling him. The nurse with the clip board had already left but the smiling nurse was checking Mr. Burke’s IV tube. Marty told himself that as soon as she left he would excuse himself, calmly walk down the hall, go down to the first floor and leave the hospital. He was already thinking of a good place to spend the next several hours before the interview.
“How have you been?” asked the old man. “The last I heard you were married.”
Marty thought again of Mindy and the dream he’d had earlier. Mr. Burke’s room looked exactly like hers.
“My wife passed away last year,” replied Marty. He didn’t know why he said this but it felt good to say it to someone who seemed to care. Mr. Burke furrowed his brow, looking devastated at Marty’s news.
“Oh I’m so sorry to hear that Marty. How did she die?”
“It was cancer,” replied Marty but as soon as he answered, he wondered if he’d heard the old man correctly. Did he just say my name?
“It’s a terrible thing when someone so young dies.” Mr. Burke hesitated for a moment as if he was struggling to find the right words. “And speaking of that, I wanted to apologize for not coming to your mother’s funeral all those years ago. I guess I’ve never handled death very well. I spoke with Nora not long ago and apologized to her too. It must have been so hard on both of you.”
Marty sat in the chair; he didn’t move or blink and barely breathed. He told himself that there was no way that this could be happening. The chances were too high. But the old man knew his name, he knew his sister’s name and he knew about his mother. Marty slowly turned and looked at the name on the door again. Stanley Burke. He wondered if he’d ever really known his real name. He turned back to the old man, looking for the face he remembered. Under the pale and wrinkled skin, under the age spots and under that bush of white hair Marty could finally see him. “Uncle Rusty?”
The old man smiled and nodded his head. “I haven’t been called Rusty for years. At least not since all of this turned from red to white,” he said as he patted the hair on his head. “Remember how your mother used to rub my head for good luck?”
Tears began to form in Marty’s eyes as any doubt who was lying in front of him was lost. He reached out and took his Uncle Rusty’s hand as the wells beneath his eyes began to drip down his face. The nurse picked up a box of tissues and handed them to Marty as she left the room.
“So you’ve spoken to Nora?” asked Marty as he dried his eyes with a tissue.
“Yes, just a few weeks ago. I tracked her down in Topeka; she lives there with her son Danny. I asked her about you and she said she thought you were living in Springfield, that’s why I’m here. I was looking for you when my emphysema got the best of me. The only address I could track down for you was an empty house. It was like you dropped off the planet.”
“Well I’ve been kind of hard to find. After Mindy died I lost my job and the house. I’ve been living at a shelter on and off for awhile now.”
“Marty why didn’t you call your sister? She would have helped.”
“We haven’t spoken in years and I didn’t want to bother her. We shared some pretty bad memories growing up and I think we both kept our distance on purpose.”
“Yes, it seems to be our family’s way doesn’t it,” replied Uncle Rusty. “We think it’s easier to not depend on each other. Let me tell you from a lifetime of experience, it’s not true. You should be with Nora right now.
“Maybe I’ll go see her after the first of the year. I have a job interview in the morning. If I get the job I’ll save up some money for a visit.”
“Let’s try to make it a little sooner than that,” replied Uncle Rusty. He pointed to a closet on the other side of the room. “Go over there and look on the top shelf. My wallet is there. Bring it to me.”
“Uncle Rusty, I don’t need any money.”
“Just get it for me,” he insisted.
Marty walked to the closet, removed the wallet from the shelf and handed it to Rusty who fumbled through it with arthritic hands. He pulled something out of the wallet and handed it to Marty. It was a photo of Marty and Nora as children. They were standing in front of a Christmas tree and Uncle Rusty was kneeling between them.
“Turn it over and look on the back. That’s Nora’s information.” Marty turned it over and saw the names Nora and Danny scribbled on the back. Six years old was in parentheses under Danny’s name and at the bottom was a phone number.
“Call her as soon as you can and reconnect with her. There is no reason to wait. Right now more than ever you need to know that your family is there for you. Go to the job interview, but don’t use it as an excuse to wait a single moment longer.”
Marty looked at the photo again. He remembered exactly when and where his mother took the photo. At the time he and his family lived in a drafty house in Lebanon Missouri and Uncle Rusty’s visit was the only time it really felt like a home. He looked back to Uncle Rusty and saw him holding out a folded stack of bills to him.
“Take this too. It’s not much but it will help.”
“Uncle Rusty I can’t do that.”
“You can and will,” he insisted. Marty took the money and put it in his pocket.
“Thank you,” he said feeling ashamed for being glad Rusty had offered it to him.
“Now, sit back down and let’s catch up on the past twenty years.”
The two of them talked for another hour. They reminisced about the visits Uncle Rusty used to make. Marty reminded him about the fire truck Rusty had brought him for Christmas. Rusty managed to bring up some fond memories of Marty’s mother too; memories that Marty had long forgotten. Marty also spent a lot of time telling Uncle Rusty about Mindy. He hadn’t talked about her for months and it felt good. Eventually Uncle Rusty began to look tired.
“Maybe you could come back tomorrow after I’m rested up a little?”
“Of course,” Marty replied.
“And when you leave, could you ask the nurse to come in for me?”
“Sure thing Uncle Rusty.” Marty thought about hugging his uncle goodbye but decided against it. Uncle Rusty looked so frail lying there that he was afraid he would break him. Instead he said good night, asked the nurse to check in on his uncle and then he returned to the waiting room. He again drifted off to sleep feeling better than he’d felt since long before Mindy’s death.
Marty woke up to the beeping of the alarm on his Casio watch and quickly grabbed his things and went into the restroom next to the waiting room to get cleaned up and changed for the :interview. By the time he was ready, it was 7:15 which left more than enough time to get to his interview by 8. Marty packed his dirty clothing into his backpack and left the restroom. He decided to check on Uncle Rusty before he left.
As Marty walked into Uncle Rusty’s room, he saw two new nurses and a doctor surrounding his uncle’s bed. They all three looked up at Marty.
“Do you know the patient?” asked one of the nurses.
“Yes, he’s my uncle.”
“I’m sorry sir but your uncle passed away a few minutes ago.” Marty stared back at the nurse as if he didn’t understand what she’d said. For the first time in over a year Marty felt happy about his life. That happiness was because of Uncle Rusty. And now, just a few hours after reuniting with him, the nurse was telling him that he was dead. The doctor approached Marty and said something about Uncle Rusty having a stroke in his sleep but Marty had a hard time concentrating on what he said.
“We’ll give you a few minutes alone with your uncle,” said the doctor as he and the nurses left the room. Marty sat down in the chair he had sat in the night before and looked at his uncle’s body. Memories of the visits Rusty made during his childhood returned. The excitement that he and Nora felt and the way his mother seemed to change and become, well, a mother.
When the nurse returned, she advised Marty that his Uncle Rusty had already provided them with instructions in case of his death. After the autopsy, a funeral home would pick up the body, and then schedule the burial at the VA cemetery on the outskirts of Springfield. The word burial seemed to echo in Marty’s head, bouncing through his synapses and creating images of cold hard earth and a gravesite with no mourners.
“How will I know when he will be buried?” asked Marty in a voice so shaky it surprised himself.
“Just leave me your phone number and we’ll pass it along to the funeral home,” replied the nurse.
Marty had no phone. He had no real address either. He had known this for almost a year but now, standing in front of a nurse and his dead uncle’s body, the fact cut through his heart making his soul bleed. His eyes, which had been simply damp before, suddenly began to flow with tears. Marty tried to hold back the sobs building in his throat but this only made them sound sadder when they finally escaped. Later, Marty would wonder if this crying fit was for Uncle Rusty or for himself. After a few minutes of recovery and nose blowing, Marty gave the nurse the number to the shelter and then left the hospital.
The cold morning air was a shock after spending the last thirteen hours in the warmth of the hospital. Marty walked east on Sunshine toward his interview. He would much rather have been somewhere else grieving, but missing the interview was not an option. When he arrived at the print shop, a smiling secretary advised him to have a seat while she let Mr. Black know he was there. Marty stared at the small Christmas tree on her desk while he waited. Along the front of her desk under the Christmas tree, hung a banner that read Merry Christmas. He watched the lights on the tree blink on and off, wondering if he would ever have a merry Christmas again.
The secretary returned and led Marty to an office where a man with a very disingenuous smile was sitting behind a desk. Marty had been looking forward to his interview all week but after it finally started he couldn’t wait for it to end. Immediately after shaking his hand, Mr. Black asked Marty how long he’d been living at the shelter. Marty knew that the print shop had called him at the shelter to set up the interview but had hoped they would not mention his current circumstances. He was uncomfortable with the question but answered it anyway.
“I’ve been at the shelter on and off for almost a year now,” he replied. “I do have a job there though; I work in the kitchen helping to prepare the meals.”
Mr. Black busied himself reading Marty’s application, seemingly ignoring his answer. The next thing the man said convinced Marty that he would not get the job. “I must confess that I have some apprehensions about hiring someone who doesn’t have a permanent home Mr. Tenant.”
Marty ended up spending the rest of the interview assuring Mr. Black that it wouldn’t be an issue. They spent very little time discussing his qualifications and later as Marty left the office, he saw a group of young men waiting to be interviewed for the same position. He was sure that all of the competition had homes.
Marty walked three more terribly cold blocks to a diner on Glenstone Avenue and sat alone in a booth. The snow that was caked to his dress shoes melted, leaving his feet wet and cold. A waitress brought him a hot cup of coffee and as he sat there trying to warm up, he pulled out the photo that Uncle Rusty had given him. Marty looked at the back of the photo and saw Nora’s number. He also looked at his sister’s son’s name, Danny. It occurred to him that even though Uncle Rusty had died, he still had two relatives.
Country western music filtered in from a cheap radio playing in the diner’s kitchen. Marty did not recognize the song but noted that it sounded sad. The waitress returned and took Marty’s order. It felt good to splurge like this. Marty could not remember the last time he had ordered food in a restaurant.
“I need some change for the pay phone,” Marty said to the waitress as she started to leave with his order.
“Cashier,” replied the waitress as she pointed with her thumb. Marty walked to the cashier who was wearing a Santa Claus hat and purchased a roll of quarters from her. He then made his way to the pay phone in the diner’s vestibule to make a call. A chilling wind whistled through the space between the front doors as Marty pressed the numbers on the phone. Nora answered on the second ring. Her voice sounded harried as dishes clanked in the background.
Marty hesitated for a moment and then spoke. “Nora it’s me, Marty.” There was a noticeable silence as the dishes stopped clanking. Marty assumed that Nora was trying to figure out what to say.
“Oh my God Marty. I can’t believe it’s you.”
“Yeah, it’s me,” Marty replied. “I’m calling about Uncle Rusty. I wanted to tell you that he’s died. I just came from Saint John’s here in Springfield.” The phone went silent again for several seconds followed by the sounds of sniffling. Marty waited for his sister to speak when she was ready.
“I spoke with him about a month ago,” she said. “He tracked me down and we talked for over an hour. He asked about you. I told him that I thought you were in Springfield but wasn’t sure. I guess he found you?”
“Well, we kind of found each other.” Marty waited a moment while Nora blew her nose.
“I talked to Uncle Rusty for awhile before he died,” said Marty. “He told me that I’m an uncle.”
“Yes you are,” replied Nora. “His name is Danny and he’s in the first grade. He’s right here finishing up his breakfast.”
“That’s fantastic. I’d love to meet him sometime.”
“Sure,” said Nora in a noncommittal tone. “I’m sure Danny would like that.”
There was no real invitation from Nora for getting together with them so Marty took that as a sign that the uncomfortable relationship he shared with her would continue. They spoke for another ten minutes. Marty learned that Nora was divorced and that Danny’s father lived in Iowa. He paid her a small monthly amount for child support but other than that he was out of the picture. Nora worked as a receptionist at a dentist’s office and lived in a two bedroom house on the east side of Topeka. Marty told Nora about the death of his wife but he left out the events of the past ten months, he wasn’t sure why. Nora said that she wished she and Danny could come to Springfield for Uncle Rusty’s funeral but money was too tight and the weather was too bad. He replied that it was OK and that he would bring flowers for both of them. Nora asked for Marty’s phone number and he explained that he was in between cell companies at the moment and would call her with his new number next week. They ended the conversation with both of them agreeing that they had to keep in touch.
Marty hung up and then returned to his booth to find his breakfast waiting on him and only slightly cold. After finishing it, he sat in the booth thinking about the conversations with both Nora and Uncle Rusty. In the past several hours he had reunited with two long lost family members but now each conversation left him feeling sad and guilty. He began to think that maybe the distance he had with them was justified. Marty looked at the photo one last time before paying his bill and walking back into the snow covered streets of Springfield.
By Tuesday morning Marty still had not heard from the printing company so he used the phone in the director’s office to call them. He recognized the voice of the same cheery secretary when she asked him to please hold and have a Merry Christmas. A minute later Mr. Black picked up his line and told Marty that the job had gone to a more experienced applicant. Marty thanked him and hung up the phone. It was exactly what he expected but it still stung.
After the breakfast service, Marty started going through his clothes to find something nice to wear to the funeral the next day. He settled on the pants he wore to the interview and a black button up shirt. He took his things to the laundry room where he carefully ironed and then hung them from a plastic hanger. Clothing left out in the men’s bay usually disappeared so he took them to the director’s office. Carolyn, the director of the shelter sat at her desk typing on the computer.
“Carolyn, is it OK if I hang these in here?” asked Marty as he held up his clothes.
“Sure Marty, and have a seat. I need to speak with you.” Marty hung his freshly ironed outfit from the coat rack and then sat at Carolyn’s desk.
“Marty, we just received a call from the police station about a family of six who needs a place to stay for the holidays. We’re over capacity as it is and will have to ask some of the single male residents to leave so we will have enough bedding for the family. I’m sorry to do this so close to Christmas Marty but it looks like you’ll have to leave for at least a couple weeks. I know you have a funeral in the morning so please stay tonight and then tomorrow after the funeral you can leave.”
Marty sighed but shook his head to show he understood. He tried to hide his disappointment from Carolyn but wasn’t sure he had succeeded. “No problem, my uncle left me a small amount of money so I should be able to stay at one of the weekly hotels on Kearney Street until things free up here.”
“Marty, again I’m sorry. Come and see me tomorrow after the funeral. I’ll give you a ride to the hotel.” Marty left the office and went back to the kitchen to prepare for his last lunch service.
Wednesday morning Marty used a small part of the few hundred dollars that Rusty gave him and took a taxi to the south side of town to go to his graveside funeral. Other than the Chaplin and the honor guard, Marty was the only one in attendance. The snow that blanketed the city so beautifully a few days before was now stacked in piles along each side of the roads that wound through the graveyard. Soot and mud had turned these piles of snow a dirty gray color, intensifying Marty’s already despondent mood.
After the Chaplin read a few kind words and a description of Uncle Rusty’s service to the military, all seven members of the honor guard fired three simultaneous rounds into the overcast sky, sending Rusty off with a twenty one gun salute. Two members of the honor guard removed the flag from the coffin and began folding it while four other members lowered the casket into the ground among the hundreds of other snow covered white crosses. Marty was proud of his uncle and being a soldier himself, he was moved by the ceremony.
The Chaplin read the Lord’s Prayer. Marty withdrew into himself, thinking again about the chance reunion he had with his uncle. When it first happened, the phrase Christmas miracle had entered his thoughts but that idea quickly faded when Rusty died. There had been no real miracles since then either. He had had an uncomfortable conversation with his sister, failed to get the printing job and was told that he would have to leave the shelter soon. Not a miracle in the bunch. Marty tried to concentrate on the funeral but found it difficult as the weight of his problems bore down on him.
As he stood there waiting to receive the flag, a hand touched his shoulder. He turned to see a face that was familiar yet different considering how many years since he had last seen it. The face had a few new wrinkles and a little extra weight but there was no doubt who it was.
“Hi Marty,” she said as she leaned in and hugged her brother firmly. Marty returned her embrace, breaking a fifteen year dry spell of family hugs. Danny stood at Nora’s side holding her hand and silently looking up at his uncle.
“What are you doing here?” asked Marty.
“I had to come,” replied Nora. “I couldn’t miss Uncle Rusty’s funeral. And besides, I knew you needed me.”
“Why would you think that?”
“I got a letter in the mail yesterday, it was from a nurse at Saint John’s Hospital. She said that she was writing it on Uncle Rusty’s behalf. It looked like she wrote it the night he died. She said that Uncle Rusty wanted me to know about you, she told me all about the shelter.”
“Nora, I’m so sorry. I….”
“No, I’m sorry,” Nora replied. “I’m sorry for not staying in touch with you. I’m sorry if it seemed like I didn’t care, because I do. I shouldn’t have let the past get in the way of our relationship.” Tears streaked down Nora’s face as she spoke.
“I’m just as guilty,” replied Marty. “I could have done a lot of things different.”
“It’s OK Marty. We’ll talk about it later, on the ride back to Topeka. Right now let’s say goodbye to Uncle Rusty.”
Marty embraced his sister again while a member of the honor guard played taps on a bugle. As Marty hugged his sister, he looked over her shoulder and saw Danny looking up at him with wide eyes and a bright red stocking cap on his head. Marty smiled down at him and wondered if he liked fire trucks.
Steve Benson is currently writing this bio in third person. Prior to this, he spent a fun six weeks filming a short movie with his wife Jill and many of their friends. The end result will hopefully be finished before Christmas. Steve would also like to apologize to everyone he was snippy with during the shoot. He inherited his mother’s temperament and his father’s hindsight. Steve has recently finished a novel named Venganza. An early version of the first chapter of Venganza was published in In Other Words: Merida a year and a half ago. Steve lives in Merida Mexico with his wife Jill and their dogs Molly, Vince, Chata and Ruby. Steve would like to stop writing in third person now and I would like to encourage everyone to stop buying dogs. There are millions of great dogs in the shelters or on the street who would make a loving addition to your family. If you can’t adopt, please support the shelters. We spent tens of thousands of years making dogs dependent on us so let’s not turn our backs on them now. Thanks for reading my story and or my bio!
Artist Samuel Barrera