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Sunday, November 24, 2013

(“I finally decided my future lies beyond the yellow brick road.")...Elton John

For Tuyet, Katrina, KaSandra, and Luc
my inspiration

Chapter Nineteen

Boston, Massachusetts, 19 February 1973

    The smell of pancakes cooking nearly overpowered me! The warm fresh aroma of the batter as it bubbled and tanned on the hot griddle wafted from the kitchen and across to the counter that I was perched on. I watched as the waitress, Patty her name tag read, paraded them by me in a steady stream around the diner, covering all points of the compass. There were buttermilk, blueberry, banana, strawberry, buckwheat, and every now and then a golden brown waffle. Oh Lord not the waffles, each of them with a gooey pile of sumptuous strawberries and a healthy dollop of home made whipped cream crowning the heavenly concoction! The smells were driving me mad, I had to force myself not to leap onto the next plate that passed me and lick the pat of melting butter right off of a warm stack of hotcakes!
    Picking up the thick ceramic mug in front of me I took a big gulp of freshly brewed coffee and washed down the saliva before it drooled onto my shirt. Eggs and home fries to the left of me, French toast and sausage to the right, it was almost too much to bear. Just as I was about to surrender to temptation and spear a sausage link dowsed in maple syrup from the plate nearest me, Paulie’s booming voice rescued me from my shameful moment of weakness.
   “Ah, Ah, Ah, Ethan buddy, you want to start your new job doing penance for Oscar Meyer?”
Startled, I stealthily retracted my wandering fork and laid it next to its brother and sister, the knife and spoon.
   “Oh man, this is a heck of a way to start the day. First, I’m last in the pancake queue, and now I’m totally waylaid by a tip toeing grizzly bear!” 
    Paul laughed and sat at the counter next to me, patting me on the shoulder as he did so. He tossed his P-coat over the two seats next to him and signaled to Patty that he would like some coffee. I looked at him with a furrowed brow turning my face into a question mark. That was of course, as everyone knows, the universal facial expression for what, why, who, when? Paul nodded in acknowledgement that my silent message was received and shot me the equally well known just a sec signal, the single index finger wave, as he thanked Patty for bringing his coffee and asked for two more as well. He took a quick sip and set his mug down, giving Patty the okey-doke gesture making an “O” with his thumb and index finger, thanking her for the mighty fine cup of joe she had brought him. Then he turned to me and said, “Kenny, Carolyn and Shannon are right behind me. I saw them as I walked in; they were parking the car in the lot.”
   “Oh,” I replied, nodding my head.
   “Well buddy, are you ready for your trip to sunny California? As for me, I’m just a little nervous about the new job in Chi-town,” Paul said.
   As fate would have it, today he and I would be flying as far as Chicago together. He had just been hired as an air traffic controller at O’Hare International Airport, and was on his way to a new life of his own. The Navy had been good enough to teach him this trade during his service on board the USS Constellation, while on station in the South China Sea. We had been within a few hundred miles of each other the entire time I was in country with the Marine Corps, and never even knew it.
   I grunted and nodded an affirmative reply, then pointed to my cup as Patty breezed by, indicating that I wanted a refill. She blew the hair from her eyes and gave me a look that made me wish that I had been more polite with my request. I mouthed an apology and she smiled weakly, making me feel even more like an ass. I made a mental note to make sure that I absolved myself by leaving an obscenely large tip when we left. I also made yet another mental entry onto the list, volume three now (major backsliding during finals week in 1972). The tinkling chimes on the front door rattled and rang, turning the heads of a few restless children as they looked to see what the cat dragged in.
   “Over here Kenny,” Paulie shouted at our friend as he entered the diner with his family and my sister in tow. Ken waived at us and I flagged down Patty to ask about a larger table. She leaned across the counter holding a half-full coffeepot and motioned for me to do likewise.
   “A big group just left, I’ll have the table bused ASAP, it’ll just be a minute Father,” she said sweetly.
   “Thanks,” I said awkwardly. I had forgotten about the collar and was embarrassed by my assumption that she might be interested in me. For a millisecond I thought that I was still just a regular guy, I could see that my new status was going to take some getting used to. Ken and company reached the counter and the hugs and greetings got started.
   “Well if it isn’t the great Father Kelly, top of the mornin to ye Father, top o’ the mornin,” Kenny said in his best Irish accent. It wasn’t bad for a first generation Chinese American, actually he did a much better German accent, but then he had been practicing that one on Carolyn’s parents for a while now. I hugged my buddy and we did the standard guy back slap, just to make sure nobody got the impression that we were enjoying the embrace more than we should be. Carolyn nudged in and broke up our hug-fest and kissed me on the cheek. She was holding Sophie as well, so I got a double smooch as the child landed a wet kiss on the other side of my face.
   “Hello Ethan, I’m so proud of you,” she said, beaming at me.
   “Me too, Uncle Ethan, me too,” Sophie added, reaching out with both arms for me to take hold of her. Carolyn released her into my arms and Sophie hugged my neck as hard as she could, making her little growling sound, pretending to be the Incredible Hulk. It was a little skill she acquired from her Uncle Paulie, much to her parent’s dismay.
   “If I had a nickel for every picture that was ruined by that awful face that Paul taught her,” Carolyn lamented, swatting Paulie on the shoulder as she said so.
   “OK, break it up you two, take the donnybrook outside, let me in there to hug my big brother,” Shannon said playfully. Sophie fussed a little as I gently handed her over to her mother, and I stood to embrace my sister. Shannon and I held onto each other for a moment and then she leaned back just enough to look up into my eyes. She held my gaze for a second, her eyes clear and sparkling, and then she pushed away from me, retreating a step or two. She stamped her foot just like she did when she was a child and gruffly folded her arms in front of her.
   “Oh, I am so mad at you Ethan Kelly,” she said startling the others and me as well.
   “I’m sick and tired of always saying goodbye to you!”
   “I want you to promise me that this will be the last time,” she said feigning anger, and then smiling to set everyone at ease again. She laughed and poked at me, looked around the room, and made sure that everyone heard her when she added, “I’m kidding, I swear, I’m only kidding.”
   I watched her and she saw that I was watching. I knew she wasn’t kidding, and she knew that I knew. Shannon went over to Paulie and hugged the big man like he was a six-foot version of Buster, the rag tag teddy bear we shared as kids. Paulie hugged her back, a bewildered look on his gob. He made eye contact with me, an odd if not somewhat guilty expression on his face that said, “where did that coming from, she hates me!” Before I could think of what to say to either of them, Patty arrived to brake up our small reunion, and lead us to our freshly cleaned table in the corner of the diner.
   “This way folks,” she said with a smile. And we all followed her to take our seats like the dutiful and hungry young Americans that we were!

   Nearly ninety minutes later and following the feast of the decade, we sat chatting idly while we waited for Patty to bring our check. Kenny was skillfully working over his teeth with a toothpick, which by the way, was fascinating Sophie to no end. And Carolyn was keeping Paul and Shannon in stitches telling the story of the time Ken and Sophie tried to give, Wilson, Sophie’s black Labrador puppy, his first bath. Sophie had named the puppy Wilson after the mait’re de at Ken’s folk’s swanky restaurant. Wilson the dog had a white diamond shaped birthmark on his neck that looked very much like a bow tie, so he appeared as though he were wearing a tuxedo round the clock. Not being in on the joke, poor Wilson the person never quite understood why the boss’s grandchild would always giggle and point his way whenever the family visited the restaurant.
   Meanwhile, back at the ranch, Sophie, who had lost interest in her Dad’s amateur dentistry as well as the dull banter of the other chitchatting adults, had fallen asleep while we weren’t looking. She was now napping comfortably curled up in my lap. I looked down at her and watched her breathing softly and smiled to myself. To be honest, I was a little envious of Kenny right at this moment; he just seemed to have it all going for him. Father Mac had warned me that these sorts of doubts and heartaches would come and go throughout the life of a priest. It was normal to envy he said, but it was quite another thing indeed to covet.
      This was one of the reasons that it took so long to become a priest. It was why novices were given an opportunity to serve before taking their vows. Because giving up the secular life was a difficult decision for everyone, it was meant to be difficult. The call to service was deeply personal, and could be misread in many ways. In order to truly understand whether or not the calling was for you, it was important to count the costs, to understand the sacrifices, as they were to last your entire earthly life.
   I looked over at Ken. He had joined in the retelling of the dog-bathing incident and was correcting Carolyn on a couple of key details, bringing even more laughter to the table. I then looked around the diner, it was still pretty busy and I could see that our waitress had her hands full. I decided that the last thing she needed was another me first gesture from across the room.  I looked out the window and watched the traffic move slowly.
      It was fairly light as opposed to nonexistent like yesterday in the wake of the blizzard. During the night the snowplows had piled drifts four feet tall on either side of the street, but there were still more pedestrians than autos. Sophie stirred in my lap and nudged her way into a more comfortable position continuing with her nap. As she pushed against my coat I felt the papers inside my breast pocket. Reaching in, I removed them, and unfolded the two-page letter. It was the letter that I had received three years earlier from Mitchell Rojas’ wife, Elena. I stared at the letter a moment without reading the words.
   I remembered the day it arrived in the mail, re-routed to me from Albany by my Mother. It had come more than a year after I had written to Mitchell’s family about his death. To be honest it had been long enough that I had successfully put it all, put them all, totally out of my short-term memory. By then I had launched myself into school and the pursuit of this very moment with all of my heart and soul. It was a kind of a defense mechanism, I knew that, but it was a really effective one. And up until the day that this letter had arrived, I had managed to put all of that part of my life behind me, securely locked away in a place where it could no longer hurt me. Now, I had already read this letter at least a dozen times, but I couldn’t resist the urge to read it once more. You know, I had actually tried to reach Elena and her son once or twice, but the letters that I had sent kept coming back stamped in red, return to sender, or, not at this address. I stroked Sophie’s soft black hair and read silently to myself:

Dear Father Ethan,

      I wanted to write and tell you how grateful I am for the nice letter that you sent. My Mitchell, he had written to me several times about you and said that one day he would bring you to our home and introduce us all to the gringo Padre that he met in Hell. He told us about the way that you would share your letters with everyone when they were all homesick and blue. He said that you were teaching him to read better, and fix his English so that he could get a good job and not sweat in the fields anymore.
      Whenever he wrote about you I could see his face and I knew that he was smiling. When I got the letter from the Marines, the one about him dying, it was cold, only two lines, and it made me feel cold, it made me shudder, like I was standing on a grave. It didn’t even sound like they were talking about a person; it was more like they had lost a jeep or something. It made me very sad, it made me very angry, it made me want to hurt them back. Forgive me Father, I know that these are bad thoughts, but you are a priest and who can I confess these things to if not you?
      When you’re letter came a few weeks later, I was afraid to open it. I didn’t open it for many days. But one afternoon, after Miguel, my son, came home from school, I watched him sitting at the table, eating a jelly sandwich. He looked so much like his papa, and I thought of his letters and I went to read them all again. Sitting on top of the stack was your unopened letter and I picked it up and held it for a moment. I decided that it wasn’t from the Marines or the Government because the address was hand written, so I opened it. Your words were so sweet, so beautiful; they made my Mitchell, my husband, come to life again. You gave me back my life in the few minutes that it took to read your letter.
      For this I will never forget you, my prayers will always be with you Father. Please remember me and Miguel to the Lord and the Blessed Virgin when you pray each day and each night. I know that Mitchell is waiting for me in Heaven; I know that I will see him again in his glory.
      Peace be with you Father Ethan, forever your sister in Christ,
   I set the letter down and saw that everyone was looking at me. Feeling the wetness on my cheeks I realized that I had been crying. Shannon scooted closer to me and put her arms around me, pulling my head close to hers. She reached up and wiped the tears away from my face with a tissue and took the letter from my hands. I didn’t protest, I just held onto Sophie and looked across the table and past Carolyn, out at the snowdrifts in the street. The sun had begun to peek out from behind the heavy cloud cover, and for a moment it seemed like the forecasted storm might not materialize.
      My face felt warm as the light shined through the big window and I came out of my little trance. By now the letter had made its way around the table and everyone was quiet. Only Paul knew what I was feeling and he respectfully held his tongue, he knew that words only brought the ghosts. I decided to take the advise that I had given to Junior Martinez those many years ago, to leave the war behind me, where it belonged, it had no place here, not now. Our cute but exhausted waitress interrupted the awkward silence thankfully.
   “Sorry for the wait folks, here’s your check, hope everything was OK,” Patty said cheerfully, tearing the slip of paper from her book and putting it on the table in front of me. I started to reach for hit, but Paulie swatted my hand and grabbed it.
   “What do you think you’re doing, this is all on me,” he said reaching past Shannon and pinching my cheek. Paul set the check on the table and leaned forward to free his thick wallet from its snug housing in his pants pocket. While he was digging for it Kenny reached over and grabbed the check.
   “Not so fast ya big ape, this is on the Wong family today, Happy Belated Valentine’s Day one and all,” Ken said with a big grin. 
   “Thanks Kenny, that’s sweet,” Shannon said, reaching across the table and squeezing his hand.
   “You know, I’ve been doing pretty well since Pop turned the family business over to my management company. I’m showing him that he didn’t waste his money on all that higher education. Me and my Harvard MBA are gonna open high-class Asian restaurants from coast to coast my friends,” Kenny said, tugging at the lapels of his Brooks Brothers jacket with pride. 
   “Show off,” Carolyn said teasing her husband lovingly. He reached into his jacket and retrieved a slender, posh, alligator skin billfold and pulled out his Diner’s Club Card.
   “Plastic man, it’s the future dudes, mark my words, in thirty years cash will be passé!”
Ken set the card on top of the check and signaled for our waitress to come over. Paul relaxed and settled back into his seat.
   “You’re the man Kenny-san,” he said.
   “You’re the man!”
   “Dude, I’m Chinese, not Japanese! Jeez, you’ve known me your whole life! You’ve sat at my mother’s table and scarfed down gallons of hot and sour soup. My Pop even gave you a Chinese name at your sixth birthday party at his restaurant when the staff sang you the birthday song in Mandarin ya goofball,” Ken said exasperated!
   “Honey, leave him alone, he didn’t mean anything by it,” Carolyn said rubbing Paul’s shoulder sympathetically. Suddenly a little voice broke through all the huffing and puffing and announced to the table.
   “Uncle Ethan, I have to tinkle!” Sophie sat up, stretched her little arms in a big girl yawn, and then began rubbing her eyes with tiny fists.
   “I’ll take her,” Shannon said, reaching over to take the child from my lap.
   “Come on baby, your Auntie Shannon will take you to the loo dear,” my sister cooed.
   “Hey, wait for me,” Carolyn said, “I’ve had four cups of coffee and it’s a long drive back to Albany!”
   “We’re really going to have to make tracks after we drop Ethan and Paul at Logan if we’re going to stay ahead of this storm!”
   She elbowed Kenny in the stomach, “Scoot over Ken, I really need to pee,” she pleaded, pushing at her husband with her two hands and her head.
   We all rolled left out of the cramped corner booth so that she could catch up with Shannon and Sophie. I got up right after Shannon and Ken followed me as we started the exit daisy chain. Paul was last to get out and the three of us males gathered up all of the coats while we waited for the women to return. Patty came back with Ken’s receipt and waited to retrieve his signature. While he signed the slip I pulled out a twenty-dollar bill from my pocket and set it under an empty juice glass. I didn’t want to forget to take care of Patty and make up for my shameful lack of compassion earlier. Shannon waived at us from near the front door and we made our way over to her and then out of the diner. We spilled out onto the sidewalk just as the clouds rolled back in, covering up the sun that had peeked out only moments before. The wind began to blow a little harder and I turned my collar up against the sudden chill. Ken pointed over to the parking lot while I shouldered my duffel bag and followed the crowd to the station wagon.
   “You sure you’ve got room for this bunch, I mean with the storm coming and all,” I asked?
   “We could just take a cab you know,” I said, pointing at Paul and myself.
   “Yeah, we could just take a cab,” Paul chimed in.
   “Don’t be silly you two,” Carolyn said.
   “Yeah, don’t be silly Uncle Ethan, noodle head,” Sophie added.
   “Noodle head, that’s a new one,” I said chuckling.
   “Well at least we know she didn’t learn it from Shannon, there are more than four letters,” Paul teased.
   “SHUT IT,” Shannon quipped at Paul, socking him hard in the arm.
   “Owww! Why are the Irish so gosh-darned hot headed!”
   “If it’s a donnybrook ya want, I’m just the girl that can give it to ya,” Shannon said harshly but playfully, as she walked quickly to catch up with the Wong family.
  She turned back after a few strides and stuck her tongue out at Paul before she climbed into the car. And if I’m not mistaken, I believe I saw a wicked little smile on her face as she did so. I made another mental note; Shannon and I were going have a talk soon that was for sure. I looked over at Paul to study his reaction. He had none, which wasn’t unusual, so he was safe for the moment. Ken opened the tailgate of the station wagon and I tossed in my duffel bag, as did Paulie. We had been raised together as boy scouts and had been trained by the same branch of the service. So we had similar notions about traveling, light and lean, and the less you carry the less you ferry, that was our creed. I squeezed in next to Shannon who sat between Paul and me. Ken and Carolyn were up front and Sophie was strapped into a car seat between them.
   “OK, everybody comfy,” Ken asked?
   “Guess we’re off to Logan to watch Paul and Ethan take to the friendly skies.”
   I suddenly detected a familiar odor and immediately looked over at Paul. Shannon was already pinching her nose and looking his way as well.
   “Oh man, Paulie,” Kenny said from the driver’s seat, looking at Paul in the rear view mirror.
   “You couldn’t cut us a break and let that bad boy go outside!”
   “Hey, it wasn’t me, I swear,” Paul exclaimed, raising both hands in the air as if he were surrendering.
   A tiny, evil giggle came from the front of the car and I looked that way in time to see Carolyn pinching her nose and pointing at the small bundle of joy sitting next to her. Four doors opened simultaneously and all of the people over three feet tall exited the vehicle holding their breath and gasping for fresh air as soon as their feet touched the snow covered ground.
   “Darn it Ken, I told you not to feed her any of your chili and cheese omelet, you know what that stuff does to her,” Carolyn whined at her husband. Kenny blushed and looked to the rest of us for support.
   “It was just a bite, I swear, one bite,” he said, pleading his case.
   We could hear Sophie giggling loudly from inside the car while we stood around with the doors open and waited for the chill breeze to whip through the vehicle and work its magic. One by one we began to laugh hysterically until finally we had become quite the spectacle.
   People began to point at us from inside diner and from the passing cars. Its funny how God works I thought. A little bit ago my heart was aching because I was sad and sorrowful. Now my stomach was aching because I was happy and feeling pretty good about things, standing in the snow, freezing my testicles off alongside of my family and my friends.
   So it’s true, God never gives us more than we can handle. I guess that means that the answers are always in the love.

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