Professor Phillips Comes For A Christmas Visit: A Short Story

It was the first Saturday of December in the mountain hamlet of Temperance. Thanksgiving was past and preparations for Christmas were well underway from the mountaintop of the wealthy Ballards to the small river cottage of Elsie and Roscoe Smith.

Over on Cumberland Lane Vesta Thompson was giving a piano lesson to Gary Marlow as her daughter Thelma Sue sat on the mazarine French tufted sofa crocheting a shawl. Thelma Sue was becoming an expert at crocheting.

Aunt Sally had given Thelma about one-fourth of the garnet Peruvian Highland yarn, a wedding present from Betsy Tarrwater when Sally married Bob Young. From Thelma’s vantage point she could toss a surreptitious glance at Mr. Marlow from time to time. She had changed her mind about him being a pie thief and chief troublemaker, but she still sensed that he was trouble.

There came a knock at the front door. Vesta told Gary to continue practicing as she went to answer the door.

Opening the door, she saw Jamie Piper standing there looking official as the Western Union message boy. Jamie handed the telegram to Vesta. She took the telegram and ushered the young man into the hallway.

After reading the telegram, she asked, “Jamie, have you read this?”

“No, Ma’am. However, I was standing by Mr. Young as he received the message this morning, and he told me what it said.”

“I would appreciate it if you did not mention the contents of this message to Thomas. I want it to be a surprise.”

“As President Newcomb Carlton always says, our purpose is ‘Connecting families around the world’. I won’t spoil his surprise.”

Vesta smiled. She reached into her apron pocket and pulled out two quarters and gave them to Jamie. He said, “thank you.”

After Jamie was gone, she checked in the parlor and saw that Thelma Sue was showing Gary some piano finger exercises. He is in good hands, she surmised, and went to the kitchen.

Picking up the phone, she asked Agnes Sorensen to connect her to Betsy Tarrwater. She wanted to share the good news that her oldest brother, William Isaiah Phillips was coming for a Christmas visit. He had been in Europe for the last several years and was way overdue for a family visit, especially a Christmas visit.

The next ten days saw the hamlet of Temperance transformed into a Bavarian Christmas village. The Ballew Savings & Loan had a grand display of trees from the Daniels’ Christmas Tree Farm.

The school children had made paper decorations for the hamlet’s store windows. The mountain snows gave the landscape a beautiful niveous dusting each morning.

Hall’s Five & Dime had alluring smells of hot apple cider and nutmeg eggnog made by the happily married couple of Sally Smyth and Bob Young; even though Bob now worked as the main telegraph operator for the Jonathan Putnam and Harold Williams’ Communication Company (newspaper, telegraph and telephone) his bosses allowed him to take half days in December to spend with his old boss and new bride.

Back in those days bosses embraced Christmas with zest and zeal. A young married couple was always the apple of their eye.

However, as the hamlet engaged in its festive preparations, the Ballards’ businesses remain as bare of Christmas as a leafless oak in snowless winter. George Ballard’s sons Alasdair and Marley refused to spend their funds for decorations on their hamlet businesses. Instead they made their mountain fortress ablaze during the season with their display which was so ostentatious it caused dogs to howl nightly, breaking the tranquility of Temperance’s silent December nights.

Poor Agnes Farr, chief teller at the Ballard City Bank, brought some bows and ribbons to decorate the teller windows. When Marley Ballard emerged from his posh office on the third floor and looked down upon the unauthorized display on the teller windows, he knew who the culprit was.

Going down the hall to Harrison Marlow’s small bookkeeping cubicle, he said, “Give me Agnes Farr’s Christmas Bonus envelope, Harrison.”

Harrison flipped through the box on his desk and handed him the envelope. Ballard placed it in his coat pocket and turned and walked away.

Harrison knew what that meant. Anytime that an employee displeased Ballard on the most miniscule matter he would take their Christmas bonus and returned it in an hour with half of it gone. Harrison, even though he was related, detested the Ballards and how they treated their employees.

However, he was paid very well for his services, and no one else could match his salary and benefits. Sometimes, one’s ethics are suppressed for the material comforts of life.

However, he did feel some remorse for Agnes since her son was an invalid caused by his service in the Great War. He knew Ballard knew her situation very well.

At the train depot George Thompson waited for the 2 pm train. His brother-in-law, William, was arriving. It had been 6 years since William had made a brief visit only one day long, but this time he was going to be here for Christmas, and, George hoped, for New Years.

Taking out his grandfather’s gold pocket watch, he flipped open the lid. “1:58. Where is that blasted train?” He muttered under his breathe.

He heard the whistle around Evans’ Bend. He placed his watch back in his pocket and began pacing with his hands folded behind his back.

At the Thompsons Vesta and Thelma Sue were busy getting the boarding house spotless. Her brother was used to the finery of European living, and she did not him to be disappointed.

Currently, she had no boarders. They tended to be scarce in the winter months.

At 2:07 the train pulled into the depot. Charles Piper, the conductor, stepped down and greeted George. He sensed George was a bit miffed.

“Charlie, you should report that engineer to Betsy. Those seven minutes can never be recaptured in this life.” Charles smiled and nodded his head.

“Some things never change in Temperance,” a rich baritone voice said as William stepped off the train. He gave Charles a wink and shook George’s hand.

“It’s good to see you, Bill. Hope you plan to stay for a while this time.”

“We shall see, George. There’s a lot going on in Europe.”

“I want to hear all about it over tea.”

“Earl Grey, I hope.”

George laughed. “What else is there?”

William turned toward Charles. “Thank you Charles for the update on what has happened in the last several years. I am thankful you are out of those coal pits of misery.”

“So am I, William. So I am.”

“Charlie, Roscoe will be by shortly for the Bill’s luggage.”

“Roscoe Smith,” William stated. “How is the old fellow doing.”

“He is doing the best that he can with his handicap,” George replied sadly.

“The Ballards never gave him a settlement for the steel accident?”

George gave William a look which conveyed a thousand words. “Not in this lifetime. We all find odd jobs for him to do because he is an excellent laborer. He is always cheerful and never complains. Elsie is the best seamstress this community has. Good church-going people.”

Glancing toward the Ballard Mountain, William sadly stated, “Some things never change in Temperance.”

Later that night around the supper table, Vesta asked her brother what his plans were. William knew from the tone of her question, she expected a certain answer.

“Well, V, I will be here for a while this time.”

Thomas and Thelma Sue smiled as big as Lewis Carroll’s Cheshire cat. They loved to hear their uncle’s stories.

Later in the parlor William asked Thomas,

“Have you been keeping up with your German lessons?”

“Yes, Sir.”

“Good. Time for a short quiz, young man.”

Thelma Sue smiled and pondered, “We shall see if TJ deserves a Christmas present. I have never seen him practice his lessons.”

“Now, five months ago I sent you a letter with two German words which I picked up at the University of Kiel. Do you remember those two words, Thomas?”

Thomas glanced at the hearth with its burning maple logs. A few moments later he turned his gaze toward his uncle.

Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft. These two words reflect Professor Ferdinand Tönnies’ sociological concepts of community and society.”

Thelma Sue dropped her crocheting in disbelief. Uncle William smiled since he had not mentioned in his letter what these two words meant or they derived from a conversation he had with Professor Tönnies.

“Thomas, how do you know so much about these two sociological categories?”

“Bobby Owenby.” Thomas explained to his uncle about Bobby.

Of course, Thelma Sue said to herself. Bobby Owenby, that scamp! He would be my constant pain if I was teaching….

The next morning after breakfast William took a walk to the hamlet’s main cemetery. There was only a dusting of snow as he entered into the gates.

Heading toward the giant oak tree, he found the grave of his childhood friend Henry Blake Hunt. The tombstone read

Henry Blake Hunt
Born September 29, 1897; Died December 24, 1918
Beloved Friend and Son
Corporal, AEF World War I

William knelt down and said a prayer for his friend. As he stood, he saw the rose brushes on each side of the grave; there was a fresh red rose with a dusting of snow on its petals which must have been placed there the night before.

“Betsy,” he said softly.

After leaving the hallowed grounds, he wandered to the town square where the reindeer were housed until Christmas Day. There were a dozen standing there in the corral.

Going up to the fence, there was a pouch of oats. Taking some out, he tossed a couple of handfuls out on the snow dusty ground.

“I see you have not lost your touch,” a voice said behind him.

Turning, he saw the reindeer herder, someone that he remembered from childhood.

The aging gentleman walked up and stood beside William. “I remember when you, Henry, and Betsy would come to visit these magical creatures when you were children.”

“Yes,” William replied. “Also, I remember the stories that you use to tell us about these creatures. Many pleasant memories…”

“As you know, William, tomorrow is Christmas Eve. Christmas Eve is always a magical time in Temperance.”

“There was one Christmas Eve which held no magic for anyone in this community,” William replied.

“Oh, yes! 1918 was a tragic year, and Christmas was very sad. Many good people died from that virulent malady which swept the globe without mercy.”

“Yes,” William replied sadly.

“Henry was a good boy. You two survived the Great War and came home to face another enemy more vicious that the Germans.”

“I still don’t understand why I survived the infection, but Henry did not.”

“William, there are mysteries of life and death which have no answers on this planet traversing the cosmos. The veil which separates realities is truly like seeing through a glass darkly.”

The aging reindeer herder and William continued talking for an hour. The reindeer herder bid William a good-bye and as he turned to leave, he turned and asked William a favor.

“I wonder, William, if you could drop by after supper tomorrow night. I have a surprise for you.”

“I remember one year you gave us the most delicious candy canes which you said had frost on them from the North Pole. I have not found any like to those in my travels.”

“It was a special recipe that my wife inherited from her grandmother. I promise you, the surprise will be more delicious than those magical candy canes.” He replied with a twinkle in his eyes.

“I will come after supper.”

After the reindeer herder was gone. William thought, once again I forgot to ask his name. Tomorrow night I will remember.

Christmas Eve came to Temperance with four inches of mountain snow. Because in Temperance it had always snowed on Christmas Eve, except for that Christmas Eve in 1918 when the ground remained bare and the joy of the season was drowned by the cries of families and friends as they said their final goodbyes to loved ones, as the plague of influenza raged without mercy like the mountain winds of January.

Coming down the stairs, William carried two packages. Entering the parlor, Thelma Sue and Thomas waited in eager anticipation.

“Ladies first,” William handed Thelma Sue a small box with gold and silver ribbons.

Controlling her excitement, she carefully removed the ribbons and opened the box. “Ah!” She exclaimed.

Removing the cordate pendant, she opened it to find clear topaz.

“Encased in the topaz are blue diamond shavings and gold specks. My friend Marcel Tolkowsky of Belgium made this especially for you, Thelma.”

“Thank you, Uncle William.” She gave him a hug, and he placed the pendant around her neck.

Thomas’s turn came next as William handed over a large box. Thomas was not as patient as his sister as he torn off the ribbons and paper.

It was a picture frame made from mango wood. Thomas’ eyes grew as big as saucers as he looked at the image in the frame.

“It’s a sheepskin from Svaneti. The locals use sheepskin in the River Quani to trap the gold flowing down from the mountains. The gold flakes become entrapped in the skin.”

“The Golden Fleece!” Thomas exclaimed.

William was amused by Thomas’ obvious connection. “I assume Bobby Owenby has shared with you the myth of Jason and the Argonauts and the quest for the Golden Fleece.”

“Oh! Yes! Thank you, Uncle William.” He gave his uncle a hug.

After the children had gone to bed, William left for the town square. The snow clouds were heavy, and the falling flakes reflected the amber light of the gas street lamps.

A late December wind caressed the traveller as he made his way to the square. It was later than he had anticipated, but the joy on the faces of his niece and nephew had made his departure late.

Unfortunately, when he reached the square, the reindeer were gone and a sign was on the post: Closed For The Season. William sighed with disappointment.

“I wonder what the old Reindeer Herder had in mind?”

In the distance he heard sleigh bells. The sound reawakened a memory from when he was ten.

In his mind’s eye he saw Henry, Betsy and himself at the reindeer corral feeding the reindeer. The old Reindeer Herder asked them, “What do you three want for Christmas?”

Henry and William looked at Betsy. Betsy replied, “For us to always be friends and to remember all our wonderful times.”

“Child, what you wish for is a noble wish. You all will always be friends even when one is absent from the other. The love of friendship will bind all of you forever in this life.”

William’s mind returned to the present. “Friends and wonderful times.”

Another memory came back to his mind. He and Henry were in a blood-soaked trench in France.

“Bill, do we think we will get back in time for Christmas?”

“Of course, Henry. I keep hearing the war is almost over.”

“Good, because I have an important question to ask Betsy when we are back home.”

“Oh? What may that be, Henry?”

“If she will marry me.”

“I’m sure she will.”

“Best man, Bill?”

“Of course, who else would there be but me.”

Henry laughed. “You know I thought that you and Betsy would tie the knot, but…”

William looked at his friend in his muddy uniform. “Betsy is a remarkable woman, but she is just a very good friend. You two will make a perfect couple.”

“Well, I think so,” Henry replied joyfully.

William laughed, but inwardly he knew he had kept his true feelings for Betsy in abeyance because of his friendship for Henry. Isn’t that what true friends do?

Returning to the present, William rubbed the top rail and said, “ Henry, I wish you were here. So much has happened since Christmas Eve 1918. So much!”

Turning, he saw a figure under the corner lamp. Then the full moon broke through the snow clouds and shone upon the figure under the lamp.

“Betsy,” William softly uttered.

“Bill,” she responded with tears of joy. They walked toward each other and embraced.

Above them they did not hear the singing of the reindeer bells. Their moon light enrapturement tuned everything out except for that moment of reality when two old friends were reunited on Christmas Eve under the full moon.

“Well, my children, it has been a tortuous road for both of you. May the moonlight of Christmas Eve be as magical as snow,” the old Reindeer Herder stated. “May the love that you both harbor in your hearts be realized on Christmas morn. I am sure Henry would have been pleased with my present to you two…”

As we leave Temperance for now, I am sure the inhabitants, with the exception of a few, would say

Merry Christmas! God bless you everyone!

May this Christmas Eve and Christmas day find you blessed with generosity of spirit. May you live Christmas well by sharing your gold and myrrh and frankincense.

May your Christmas gift come when your time is right. May you have a joyful Christmas! Live Christmas well.

G. D. Williams © 2014

POST 588

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The Christmas Gift—A Short Story

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