Warmth and Wonder
Her sketches littered the floor, some having drifted to their resting places peacefully, some having been crumpled and thrown to express her intense frustration.
She started at a knock on her door. Her studio had been a small guest house built just steps outside the kitchen door of her cabin. She had thought it perfect for a short stay ten years ago. Ah. She opened the door to Harry.
Hi, Harry. What brings you by?
I was in town and Miz Effie had fresh bread and blueberry muffins. I brung ya some.
Thanks Harry. Come on inside.
Harry and his net bag of paper-wrapped bakery stepped aside and followed her three steps to the door. They entered the small, well-equipped kitchen. She had seen to the kitchen renovation just a year after moving in. By then she was prepared to stay. She wanted to buy the place, but Harry wouldn’t sell. The peace she found here, in the woods, by the lake, was indispensable to her work as an illustrator. She could lose herself here with few distractions. Even so days of frustration dogged her occasionally. Harry was a nice reprieve from paper crumpling. The old guy had no family and spent most days reading his beloved mysteries and visiting Miz Effie at the town diner.
The smell of Harry’s bread offering made Liza’s mouth water. Butter. She needed butter.
Harry laid his bag on the old oaken table she used for dining, pulled out a chair, and sat while Liza brought butter, knives, and plates to the table.
Tea? Harry? She asked.
That’d be right nice Miz Liza. Harry’s wrinkled face was kind. His manner polite and deferential.
Liza found glasses and ice and poured tea from the pitcher in the fridge. Sweet tea. She’d learned to love it since coming south and found that most people who visited and tried it, took home a preference for it. She set the glasses on the table and headed to the door again. Just outside, she bent to twist a couple of mint sprigs from the porch patch and returned to drop them into the tea.
Lagniappe, she said, just a little something extra.
Harry smiled. He always smiled when she used a new word. It was their game. Harry’s vocabulary exercises.
Harry, I’ve never asked, but how old are you? Liza sat, slicing two large pieces of bread and slathering them with butter while Harry contemplated his age.
Well, I reckon I’m about 87 now.
About? she asked. When were you born?
They both bit into the warm bread and sighed contentedly. They had learned to enjoy each other’s company. Harry often stopped by with something from Miz Effie’s or seasonal fruit from Johansen’s orchard or vegetables from the farmer’s market. They had shared more than one glass of tea or cup of coffee over the years.
Harry’s brow had wrinkled at her question. Odd, she had never asked.
Well, Miz Liza, I don’t rightly know.
Liza looked up from her bread, surprised.
See, I was found and raised up till I wuz about 15 by Ma and Pap. They made no bones bout my circumstances, told me they didn’t know my birthday, but figured I uz about six or seven when they run across me. I left ‘em about eight years later and went south to El Dorado and worked on the oil wells. There’s a few tales to tell. You heard some of ‘em.
Liza felt her heart thump. I knew about the wells, Harry. Didn’t know you had been found..
Yup. That’s the way of it.
I’m so sorry Harry.
No need to be, Miz Liza. I’ve had a good life. Married to my missus for 49 years. I loved that woman.
And you never had children?
Nope. We figgered one of us had faulty plumbin’. But she made me the happiest man alive for all of them years. Harry paused to have another bite of bread, take a sip of tea.
Liza waited. She loved the old man. He’d made her welcome. He’d paid for the kitchen remodel and laughed and joked with her, taken her to town for dinner on many occasions, even escorted her to the annual Zarka Barn Dance for the past 8 years, introducing her around town, encouraging her to make friends. He had tried a bit of matchmaking, much to her dismay. That hadn’t worked out well, at least not yet. As of the previous Friday, he still seemed intent on continuing the effort.
I want to be buried next to my Annie, he said. I want to hold her again.
Liza felt tears forming and turned her head.
More tea? She asked. He nodded and she rose to bring the pitcher to the table.
Miz Liza, I have me a favor to ask.
Anything, Harry. Just ask.
I want you to take care of this place for me, live here, and take care of it. It’s yours now.
Harry, what are you talking about? She asked.
I’m giving it to you Liza. I ain’t gonna need it. It’s only the cabin and guest house and 40 acres here. Annie’s house is going to the town, to use as they see fit.
Harry, that’s too much and besides you’ll outlive me.
No. Doctor says it ain’t gonna be much longer now. But the real favor is this here key.
He pulled a safety deposit box key from his pocket. I need you to hang onto this key till I’m gone. There’s instructions in that box and a few sentimental items that I want you to have. Young John Martin at the bank knows to help you. He has his instructions.
Liza knew that half the town would grieve for Harry. His generosity was legend. She didn’t think he had much other than the two properties, but he always had something to share.
Harry finished his tea and rose to leave. Liza smiled at him and thanked him and asked him again why he would do such a thing.
You bin here a good while now Liza. I’ve grown right fond of you and I don’t want you worryin’ about where you’ll go, don’t think you need to worry about packing and moving. I’m still hoping to find you a feller.
Liza laughed. You never give up do you Harry?
Not iffen I can help it. He grinned, took her hand, executed a gentlemanly bow, and kissed it.
Harry, I really don’t know what to say. I’m speechless. It’s too much. Liza said and she hugged him.
No, he said. It’s just enough.
Days and weeks passed and Harry fell into a routine. He would drop in on Liza on Monday mornings for coffee and Miz Effie’s pastries or breads and he would collect her on Friday evenings for dinner and some local event or a movie. Occasionally he surprised her at other times with a visit and a friend for her to meet. He finally succeeded in making an introduction that intrigued her and a new friendship began to blossom.
But by Christmas time, Harry’s health began to wane. Liza began to go to Annie’s house, take meals to him, read to him. She drove him to appointments and eventually at his request, she accompanied him on his last trip around the town.
It was the morning of January 14th that Harry didn’t answer the door for her. The cups of coffee and bag of pastries felt far too heavy in her arms as she returned to her car, pulled her phone out, and made the call to the sheriff’s office.
She grieved. She attended the funeral and stood, awestruck, as people flooded the chapel and told her their Harry stories. She cried. She was grateful and convinced that Harry had found his Annie.
It was difficult to work. Her mind wandered and tears started at the slightest reminder. She missed him so. Even with her new-found friendship, thanks to Harry, there was a hole in her heart.
Eventually she accepted the responsibility of the key. Heart heavy, Liza found her way to the bank to meet with young John Martin.
She greeted him, gave her name. Young John had been expecting her.
She was taken to the vault of the small town bank.
I’m to stay with you, John said.
She smiled. That would be lovely, she said. Perhaps you can explain his generosity.
He felt very deeply for you Liza. It sounds rather cliché but he really did think of you as a daughter.
They opened the deposit box and John began removing items, one by one.
This is Miss Annie’s cameo. He bought it for her when they were first married. It wasn’t very expensive, but she loved it and wore it every day from that day till the day she died. He had one made for her, just like this one for their 25th wedding anniversary. It was beautiful, expensive, a real treasure. She actually preferred the old one, tarnish and all. He pinned the new one on her burial dress and said now she would wear this one and take it with her and know that he would long for the day when he would join her.
Liza took the cameo and pinned it to her sweater.
John reached in and pulled out a sheaf of papers.
This is the deed to the cabin and the acreage it sits on Liza. It’s all in order. It’s all yours.
She nodded and placed them in her bag.
John pulled a second set of papers from the box and paused.
This may come as a surprise, Liza. Harry left about half his estate to the town for fixin’ things up and taking care of the soup kitchen and such as that. He was responsible for building the shelter in the first place. We’ve had many folks over the years that ended up down on their luck and in need of a hot meal and a warm place to sleep for themselves and their kids. Harry couldn’t stand to see a young ‘un hungry or cold. But the other half, he left to you. He wanted you to build something for the soul, something for your art and our history perhaps. He said he never knew how to do it, but you would.
John handed her the papers he held. She looked at him rather quizzically.
That would take millions of dollars, she said.
Yes, it would. And you are holding millions of dollars in your hand.
She sank into a waiting chair. I can’t do this by myself.
And I am here to help in any way I can, John said. Harry told me to be your right hand guy and left a small trust to compensate for the time. And you are to keep enough back so that your children will never worry. It’s all arranged.
I don’t have children John. What was Harry thinking?
John winked. He said you didn’t yet but he was holding out hope that Tim would be the one.
Liza laughed and laughed until tears streamed down her face.
Leave it to Harry.
Liza rose from her seat. They locked up and left the vault, saying goodbye in the lobby and promising to meet again the following week to begin planning.
Still laughing, she retrieved her phone from her pocket and dialed Tim’s number.
He answered with a brisk, Tim here.
Hey, she said, I hear you’re going to be a father.
She laughed that much harder when she hear his phone hit the floor.
Awww. Harry. You were such a gem of a fella. I’ll miss you always.
Please forgive the errors. There isn’t always enough time for proofing and editing…