A Christmas Novella by Marshall McCart
~My column (and my first published work of fiction) from the Christmas issue of About Covington to Madison Magazine including an online-only epilogue~
Walter was a helluva guy. An old-timer, no doubt, he was pushing eighty and looked and got around about as one would expect. He lived in a little shotgun house just down the way. From about late September until April or so, he would have a fire going in his fireplace just about everyday. And every time you would see him out and about, he'd have a cigarette dangling from his mouth. He'd been smoking a good sixty years and he'd always say with pride - “No breathin' or ticker troubles at all...Ha!!! Shows what them quacks know!”
For years you wouldn't see Walter out in the neighborhood unless you also saw Trigger, his little mutt-of-a-dog that he would walk at least twice a day pretty much year round. Trigger was a darn, good dog--loyal, attentive, and eager to please. He was a fine watchdog as well and was solely responsible for foiling a robbery attempt once a few years back. My God, I tell you, it was a sad day in the neighborhood when good ole Trigger broke his earthly chains and took his reward up in doggie Heaven. Walter was devastated. He told more than once that he “was definitely ready to die now.”
“That's just crazy talk”, I'd tell him. “What about your son...your grand kids? I know you don't mean that Walter.”
“Hell...you know how many times I've seen 'em in the last couple years?”
It started to dawn on me that I hadn't seen their minivan come down the road in quite a while.
“Once! One time dammit! Seems like the prodigal son thinks I ruined his life, that I didn't do a good job raisin' him. Well, I could say the same thing about him and the job he's doin' with his kids, but I don't, you know...I don't do it! It's so easy to judge...”
I really felt for him during that time. I was fond of the old man, you see. I never got a chance to know either of my grandfathers and I kinda adopted him so to speak. We had some great, great times. A few years back, when things we're still good, me and Walter had a few too many one night out by my tool shed...we were basically just getting silly and out of control! When it was all said and done, the cops had gotten called! As my wife said at the time—it wasn't one of my finer moments...but yeah, we had some good times.
After Trigger died, I really kept a keen eye on the old man...I was worried about him, you know? At that age and with that type of loss...you just don't know. So I usually talked to him almost daily there for awhile. But then, and you know how this is, days turn to into weeks and then into months and then you just don't stay in steady touch like you'd originally planned. Things start to revert back to how they were.
“I'd like to have Walter over for Christmas dinner,” I told my wife one night in early December of last year. “I feel like I haven't spent enough time with him lately.” My wife totally understood and thought it to be a fine idea. In fact, she insisted that we do it even though we were having most of her family over and even though Walter, in her words, was “rough around the edges.” She was really great about it. You might say that my wife is a darn, good woman!
At first, Walter absolutely refused, then he came around, then refused again, and this went on for about a week or so. Finally, I threatened to send some volunteers from one of the local churches to “elderly-sit” for him and he broke.
“Nah...I can't handle that.”, he said. “I'll come to your [expletive deleted] dinner.”
So it was my wife, her folks, a couple of her cousins, my sister, a few friends...and Walter. You know, it's funny how a group of folks can come together and you just know that on that particular day, with those particular people, there just isn't another place on Earth that would be better. Football on the T.V., board games, playing old vinyl records, drinking, great conversation, great food, and more drinking! We all had such a fine time! In particular, everybody would get so entranced every time we could get Walter talking about his many interesting life stories especially his service in the Korean conflict.
Towards the end of the evening, my wife and I gave Walter his present. It was a framed picture of him and Trigger that I had taken a few years back. Walter thanked us profusely and I could see his eyes tearing up a bit as he took a sip of his scotch. You could have called it a “moment.”
Around eleven that night, Walter decided it was time to go home. Despite his objections, I insisted on walking him home. When we got to his front door he turned around and before I knew it, the old fella had given me a big hug. I was honestly taken aback. After the embrace, I realized that he had tears streaming down his his face.
“You know Lev, I sure as hell don't know if I'd made it the last few years without you and that wonderful woman of yours.” He was really starting to bawl now.
“Walter...hey man, it was truly our pleasure, you're like family to us.”
“I know, I know...I feel the same way about y'all.”
We just stood there awhile until Walter, in pure Walter fashion, finally blurted out - “Well Alright! Get the hell outta here! You're startin' to wear on my nerves kid!”
I just laughed and started strolling on back to the house, but then I yelled back at him - “Oh yeah! At least I'm not old!”
Walter just kind of chuckled and said, “Hey, you're getting' older every day, buddy boy!”
“Yeah...I'll give you that. So, hey! It was a pretty good Christmas , huh?”
For the first time in the almost ten years I'd known him, Walter looked completely content.
“Yessir”, he said, “it was a good Christmas indeed.”
Yes...it was a good Christmas indeed. It was a very special time and it's a Christmas that I'll never forget.
It was about 3 months later, in March of this year, that we learned that Walter had advanced colon cancer and was terminal. He had known for almost a year and while the doctors had only given him 6 months back in June of last year, he actually made it to August of this year. I'm happy to report that Walter and his son reconciled. He and his family were with Walter for the last several months. Of course, my wife and I were there as were several of the other neighbors. And while things got pretty bad the last couple of weeks, Walter was well cared for with Hospice and didn't really have to deal with any pain. In the end, it was really a blessing for him to pass on. I'd like to believe in Heaven...I really would. And if that is so the case, I'd like to believe that the first thing Walter experienced when he got there was Trigger running up to him and jumping in his arms. That thought always puts a smile on my face. I tell you—I really loved that old man. I think of him often and miss him terribly, but I'll always have the memories of that Christmas evening.
You can email Marshall at firstname.lastname@example.org