General Fiction posted December 16, 2016


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The most careful plans don't always work out.

Christmas Lost and Found

by Marykelly

Tonight was John's last night in his house on Maple Avenue. It was Christmas night, but unlike Christmas nights of the past, tonight offered no merriment, no celebration. The Highway Commission chose Maple Avenue as part of the route for the new beltway that would circle the city and join the interstate highway. Through the process of Eminent Domain all of the houses on Maple Avenue were bought by the city and were scheduled for demolition.
For over a year, John fought the decision with old friends, uncollected favors, political pressure, and finally the courts, but all of his resources failed him.

John stood in front of the fireplace watching the flames. He picked up the poker with his right hand but arthritic fingers refused to grasp it tightly. He moved it to his left hand and poked awkwardly at the logs. Using the poker as a cane he shuffled backwards toward the couch. At this point it did not matter if its sooty end stained the carpet. When the sofa pressed against his calves he lowered himself heavily onto its cushions. Resting his head against the back of the couch he stared through thick lenses at the animated flames, the closest thing to life in the house.

Now, John was calm. The indignation, anger, panic of the past year had exhausted him. Nostalgia took over the room. The bittersweet drama of his past played out in his memory. The people in his life that he loved and lost were as real to him as if they were looking back at him from in front of the fireplace.

Margaret McPartland, John's mother, was the formative person in his life. She was as formidable in his memory as she had been in his life. Her presence dominated any room she was in. She insisted on proper manners and formality and even her friends called her Mrs. McPartland. Efficiency was her strength along with superb organizational skills and she dedicated her life to organizing her son's life. From early childhood, John's life had been as meticulously planned as an eighteenth century English garden. His future was laid out for him in a neat, precise pattern with all unnecessary entanglements snipped and pruned and cast aside.

Across the dining room table he and his mother planned his education and career. "Don't be a doctor, John," she said over and over. " Your father worked himself into an early grave delivering midnight babies and traipsing through the city at all hours in wretched weather."

John could not say with certainty whether he suggested law or whether it was suggested to him. He moved steadily through school with his mother reading his law books as diligently as he did. When John sat for the bar exams he laughingly suggested that his mother take them too. Neither doubted that she could. John never resented her interference or extraordinary interest. He accepted her need to see him succeed. His childhood was satisfying because he had the talent, intelligence, and interest to reach the goals that had been set for him.

As John drifted along in his dreamy state, Mary Murphy, took over his thoughts. John was a junior partner in a well established law firm when he met Mary. She was standing at the bus stop on Lincoln Street and John could vaguely see the blue suit she was wearing. That day was the first sunny day after a week of gray, driving rain and the gutters still bubbled with rain water not yet swallowed up by the sewers. John swerved his black Plymouth close to the curb to avoid a taxi coming towards him across the center of the road. Through his open car window he heard Mary's angry, startled cry and in his rear view mirror saw he had splashed her with the muddy water from the gutter. He pulled to the curb and began his apologies before he was close enough for her to hear him. When Mary looked up from her ineffectual dabbing at the stained suit, she was utterly surprised by his distress. A blush she could not control crept maddeningly up her neck and spotted her cheeks.

"Please, let me take you wherever you are going," John offered.
"I need to go home and change my clothes," she replied.
John could not remember much of their conversation during that first ride, but the hint of a brogue gave a pleasant lilt to her words, and it was the sound of her voice he remembered most. Her blue eyes surprised him. With hair as black and shiny as hers he expected her eyes to be brown or perhaps hazel. None of these observations was conscious on his part. Afterwards, when he thought of her, he surprised himself with all the details he remembered. Her family fascinated him in much the same way she did.

After parking the Plymouth in front of a three decker house on Hooper Street, John came around the car to open Mary's door. He saw three little girls with skinned knees and unblinking eyes jump up from the porch steps and run inside the house.

"Mamie's come home with a man," they shouted loudly enough to be heard outside.

Mrs. Murphy came to the door. Her short plump frame was swaddled in an apron that sent out puffs of flour when she moved.

"Bring the young man in for tea," she invited.

John followed Mary into the house where Mrs. Murphy sat him at the kitchen table. She pushed several loaves of fresh bread to one end of the table, clearing a small spot for his tea cup at the other end. The three little girls stared at him from an open doorway. A boy of thirteen or fourteen pushed a baby carriage full of newspapers from another room.

"Gotta start me route," he said with a wave.

Through the window John saw two older boys checking out his car.

"Tell Pa to come in and meet Mary's friend," Mrs. Murphy told the little girls.

"How many of you are there?" John asked Mary.

"I'm the oldest of nine," she said, " and Aunt Nellie and Uncle Denney live with us too."


Children of all sizes ran in to take a quick look at John and then they ran out as fast as they came in. The three little girls stationed themselves outside the kitchen window, and unabashedly stared in. An older woman, with a cracked china cup, wandered in the back door. She filled the cup with sugar from the tin above the stove and with a little wave of her hand wandered back out. Mary's father came in from working in his garden and sat at the table across from John.

"Are you Irish?" he asked. John gulped his tea and nodded.

"Then you're a fine young man," Mr. Murphy said as he got up from the table and went back outside to his garden.

John had never felt so relaxed and amused in his life. He thought about the constant activity, the comings and goings, the casualness of the Murphy kitchen as he drove home, but most of all he thought of Mary.

Mrs. McPartland was not pleased with Mary. She had always planned that on the remote day her son married it would be to the daughter of a fashionable Boston family. But, from the day John's car splashed Mary's suit the courtship began. John was determined to prove himself successful in his law practice before proposing to Mary. Mary recognizing his need, was content to wait. Two years passed.

On a soft summer evening John held Mary's hand. They sat on her front porch and music from the girls' record player scratched its way outside to hang in the humid night air.

"I have something to show you," John announced solemnly. He gave her a crisp, official-looking document. "It's the deed to a piece of property on Maple Avenue, Mary. I'm going to build a house for us and when it is finished we can get married and fill it with as many children as your parents filled this house."

Mary agreed and for the next year the house was everyone's obsession. Mrs. McPartland secured the contractors. She accepted Mary at first because she made John so happy and eventually she accepted Mary because she learned to respect her. Mary watched the gleaming white lumber take on the shape of a skeleton and longed for the day the flesh and blood of shingles, siding, plaster, and paint would fill it out. This would have occurred much sooner than it did if John were not a compulsive perfectionist where the house was concerned. The masons rebuilt the fireplace and chimney three times before he was satisfied. John spent all his non-working hours supervising the contractors and workmen. No margin of error was permitted and nothing was wasted. Mary's brothers and sisters spent Saturday afternoons picking up fallen nails and putting them in coffee cans. John hammered the bent nails back into straight lines and returned them to the contractor. Mr. Murphy walked the eight miles to Maple Avenue every Saturday afternoon and began laying out plans for the garden. When the house was completed it was the sturdiest, most pampered architectural accomplishment in the city.

John and Mary were married. They moved into 167 Maple Avenue to begin living all the plans he had so carefully make for them. It was a pleasant house, but not a fulfilled house. The horde of rowdy children John had added three extra rooms to accommodate never materialized. At ninety years old, Mrs. McPartland agreed to abandon her velvet draped home and antique furniture to move to 167 Maple Avenue. She clung to life for two more years before dying peacefully with John holding one of her hands and Mary holding the other. She had been the initial driving force in John's life and even though her death saddened him he did not feel the loss as abandonment. She had given John much of her inner strength and that helped him accept her loss.

However, his grief when Mary died a few years later was crippling. He could not accept the fact that she was dead and he was still alive. He prowled the house late at night asking himself how this could have happened. His friends suggested he sell the house and make a new life for himself. He looked at them uncomprehendingly. He never buried his grief but he consoled himself with memories and the house was full of memories. When he wound the grandfather clock he could hear Mary say, "Don't wind it too tightly, John. The springs are old," and he didn't.

As the years passed he stopped asking himself how plans made with such diligence and forethought could have gone so far astray. The house comforted him. Everything in it was familiar, reassuring. His habits and daily routine became as methodical and precise as a train schedule. Then a year and a half ago, the order he had restored to his life was upset by the Highway Commission.

John stirred on the couch. The fire was dead in the fireplace with only a stray ember competing with the sunlight that fought its way in through tightly closed blinds. His suitcase, with the last of his clothes from the house, stood by the door.

With help from the poker, John struggled to his feet. He picked up his suitcase and left by the front door. He took the key from his pocket and started to lock the front door, but he turned away, throwing the key in the grass instead. Bent and sore from his night's vigil, John climbed painfully into his car.

John had bought a condo and he pointed the car in its direction. The radio was still playing Christmas music and the song, "I'll be Home for Christmas," almost made him stop the car. The words had his full attention. He hummed along with the lyrics, "I'll be home for Christmas if only in my dreams." The irony of the words and his last night alone on the couch mesmerized by the fire in the fireplace struck him hard.

Christmas night was lonely because he was focused on loss. He lost his mother, he lost his wife, he lost his house, and he almost lost himself. Now he realized all was not lost. His mother and Mary were the fabric of his life and as he thought of last night he thought of them. They did come home for Christmas. They filled his heart and they filled his dreams. John felt the bitterness that had gripped his heart release its hold. The lighter his heart became the more he thought of his mother and Mary. As he drove toward his new condo he remembered their presence near him last night and he felt their presence now, as if they were passengers in his car, as if they were going to his new home with him.

John was amazed at the impact the Christmas song had on him. He just happened to turn on the radio, "I'll be Home for Christmas," just happened to be playing. He was at his lowest point and the lyrics lifted up his spirit. The right music with the right lyrics can be mood changing, but for John it was mind changing as well.


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