Lou's Story by JoAnn

portrait by Linn

“You’re it!” Pig-tails flying, young Maggie turned and ran like the wind.

Louie had just been tagged and was blushing from the roots of his hair to his toes. A girl had tagged him “it”! He lumbered after her, puffing laboriously.

The other children who had been playing tag in the park peeled off to play on their own, leaving the chubby boy and the new girl running with no one chasing after them. Maggie spared a glance backward to see if they were gaining on her, and her smile gradually turned to a frown. There was only one youngster still playing with her. She broke off her headlong gallop and waited for him to catch up.

Louie couldn’t believe the girl had stopped. He’d be able to tag her easy! But just as he came within range, one arm already extended, she announced, “Game over!”

He tagged her anyway, breathlessly pronouncing, “You’re it!” Then he doubled over, hands on knees, huffing, desperately drawing air into overtaxed lungs. While he was catching his breath, he heard the girl say, “I called ‘game over.’ The others ran off. I guess they didn’t want to play with us.”

A look over his shoulder confirmed her observation. He wished he could say this was a new experience, but it had happened more times than he could count. The other kids might let him into a game sometimes, but invariably they ended up teasing him for how inept he was, or running off too fast for him to follow, laughing at him as they did so. He had hoped when this new girl had joined them today that things might turn out differently, but….

“So what?” he said, trying to sound casual even though it tore him up inside that he’d been dumped yet again.

“I thought I’d made some new friends.” The girl was pouting, arms crossed in front of her slim torso.

“You might have, if I hadn’t been here.” It hurt him to admit it, but it was the truth.

“Really? Well, then, I don’t want them as friends. Besides, I have you!”

Louie smiled uncertainly. “You…do?”

“Don’t you want to be my friend?” Bright blue eyes squinted at him in the sunlight.

Surprised at the offer, he blurted, “Sure!”

She nodded, happy again. “Okay! Let’s go play on the swings!”

Lou shook himself out of his daydream. It had been years since he’d thought of Maggie and the day they’d become friends. He grabbed the broom and, smiling at the recollection of more innocent times, indulged in reminiscence as he swept up the barbershop at the end of a long day.

His mother had sent him off to Central Park to play after school as usual, and that day he’d met Maggie. She told him she had just moved into the neighborhood and her nanny had brought her to the park to burn off some excess energy.

They had exchanged the kind of basic information that kids do. Maggie was in a private school, a place Lou had never heard of but which Maggie had told him was – the word was new to him at the time – “exclusive.” That meant rich people only, he’d assumed. He found out later it also meant no Negroes, no Puerto Ricans, no Catholics, and no Jews. In fact, if her nanny had realized little Louie was Jewish, it was likely Maggie wouldn’t have been allowed to play with him.

As it was, on those sparkling spring afternoons, Maggie and Louie had become best friends. In between riding the carousel (Maggie’s treat, as Louie rarely could afford a ticket) and playing on the swings, she’d told him about all the stuck-up girls in her class and how snooty her parents’ friends were. As they climbed trees (she climbed, he mostly watched to make sure her nanny didn’t catch her) and skipped stones in the pond, he’d told her how he worked for his allowance by sweeping up in his Dad’s barbershop and about all the interesting people he met there.

She tried to help him with his homework, but he could never unlock the mysteries held within books. He was good with his hands, not the kinds of things taught in school. Maggie was whip-smart but, to a boy raised on the streets of Manhattan, charmingly naïve. Still, Maggie and Louie had what he’d come to know as simpatico. From their first meeting, and through their childhood, they were close, completely at ease with each other despite being so dissimilar in both nature and circumstance.

As year blended into year and they grew older, they didn’t play as much, but talked more. They shared confidences; they confessed hopes and dreams. At one time in his early teens, Louie had fantasized about Maggie being his girlfriend, but the harsh reality was that their lives, their circumstances, were just too different. It was never going to happen, and so he put away those daydreams and decided what they had – a close, good friendship – was rare enough, and treasure enough, for him.

Maggie matured into a lovely teenager, while Louie, while he would never be svelte, gained the grace that big men often develop. They began to meet only weekly, usually on Sunday afternoons, sitting in the shade of the magnificent old trees surrounding the park’s Belvedere Castle. Maggie would bring some treat to share with Louie that she’d appropriated while the family cook wasn’t looking, and he would bring soda pop nicked from the barbershop icebox. Their conversation moved easily from Maggie’s latest cotillion to the progress of Louie’s apprenticeship in the barbershop. Poles apart, their lives on divergent paths, nonetheless they continued to find sustenance in their unique friendship.

One afternoon near the end of their sophomore year, the shape of their future was set more distinctly. “Louie, Daddy says I’m going to France on holiday this summer.” Maggie stretched her legs out in front of her to admire her new shoes, then tucked her feet under her. “So I won’t be able to see you for a while.”

“When are you leaving?” Louie was disappointed, but he was used to Maggie going off on trips – Florida during the winter school holidays, the mountain compound her family owned in upstate New York in the summers … Her daddy was rich and she was the apple of his eye.

“The day after school is out. We’ll sail on the S.S. Normandie, a French ocean liner. Daddy said from now on we’ll be visiting different European countries in the summers. I get to pick! I chose France first because I’ve always wanted to see Paris.”

Louie nodded. He hadn’t been out of Manhattan in his whole life. It all sounded so exotic and unreal, but he knew when she came home, Maggie would share her stories and experiences with him.

* * *

“Louieeee!!!” Maggie squealed when she saw him, still fifty yards from the bench at which they usually met. She was carrying a box that looked almost bigger than she was. He started toward her to relieve her of her burden, when suddenly she tripped on the uneven ground and went sprawling, the box’s contents spilling out in a wide arc in front of her. He ran to her and, as he helped her pick up the odds and ends the box had held, he inquired in an anxious whisper, “You OK?”

She grumbled in reply, “Oh, Louie, how clumsy I am! This was my box of memories from my trip. I was bringing it to show you, and now it’s wrecked!”

Louie realized Maggie wasn’t hurt, just embarrassed. So he tried to make her laugh by lifting the crushed box high and announcing, “The S.S. Wreck of My Memories is now departing Central Park! All aboard!”

Maggie clapped her hands in delight, her aggravation forgotten. “Perfect! Now, come on, let me show you what I have in here….”

Since that day, whenever something went wrong in her life, when Maggie spoke of it to Louie she tried to make light of it by referring to it as another sailing of the Wreck of My Memories.

* * *

Louie became affable, dependable Lou as he got older, and Maggie became the elegant, matchless Margaret. They met even less often after they graduated from high school. Lou finished his apprenticeship and got his own chair at his dad’s shop. Margaret plunged into her social circle full force, as much because she enjoyed the endless round of fashion shows, galas and fundraisers as to escape her father’s attempts to marry her off. Several years passed as they took on the roles that were seemingly destined for them. Phone calls replaced meetings, and in the barbershop Lou tacked up a growing collection of postcards from all over the world, all signed by Margaret.

* * *

One afternoon Margaret dropped by the barbershop with a dapper, dark-haired young man in tow. “Louie, it’s been ages!”

Lou set aside the newspaper he’d been reading and got up from his chair. It had been a busy morning, but the afternoon had been slow and his father had gone home early. “Maggie! Let me look at you!”

They clasped hands and grinned at each other, then Margaret introduced her beau. “Lou, this is Dr. Jacob Wells. Jacob, darling, this is my oldest friend in the world.”

After Lou and Jacob had shaken hands, Margaret waved her left hand under Lou’s nose. Lou took in the modest diamond on a simple band. He could tell a lot about Jacob by the ring; Lou surmised that Jacob must have insisted he purchase it with his own funds, undoubtedly having resisted pressure from his soon-to-be father-in-law to accept a larger stone, a fancier setting. Lou smiled to himself as he gave an internal nod of approval to the man who had captured Maggie’s heart.

Margaret was grinning as she announced the now obvious. “I’m going to be Mrs. Wells soon!” Lou opened his arms to congratulate her and she threw herself into them, hugging him tightly. Lou noted that one of Jacob’s eyebrows lifted in surprise, but he said nothing. When Margaret broke their embrace, she informed him, “Jacob is off work for the weekend. I took one look at his mop and told him I knew just the barber for him!” She smiled adoringly at the man who still had not uttered a word. “I need to run over to Gimbel’s to pick up a few things. I’ll be back for you in an hour. All right, darling?”

Jacob nodded, looking a bit overwhelmed. As Margaret swept from the shop, Jacob turned to Lou and blurted, “I had a haircut just yesterday!”

Lou chuckled. “Well, we’ll trim a bit here and there, just so we can say it was done. No charge.”

“Oh, I insist, I …” Jacob fumbled for his wallet.

Lou put out a restraining hand. “Honestly, Doc, it’s the least I can do for the man who has made our Maggie so happy. Besides, I have an idea how much that ring cost you … and I don’t mean in cash.”

Jacob’s eyes narrowed briefly as he assessed Lou’s comment. Then a sly grin spread across his face as he replied, “You have met the illustrious Mr. Chase, I take it?”

“Nope.” Lou shook his head. “I know him pretty well, though, through Maggie.” His expression grew serious. “Forget Chase, though. You treat her right or you’ll have to answer to me, Doc.”

With a deep sincerity, Jacob responded, “I intend to, with all my heart. If I lose her, I’ll have only myself to blame.”

Lou smiled and clapped his new friend on the back. Guiding him into the barber chair, he tucked an apron around his client’s neck, picked up his scissors and comb, and asked, “Now, how did you two meet?”

Jacob chuckled, “Do you mean how did I meet Margaret, or how did I meet her father?!”

“Ahhh … so there’s a story for both?” Lou was intrigued. As a barber, he often heard people’s life stories, but most of them were dull and uninspiring. Because of their connection to Maggie, Jacob’s stories promised to be neither.

And they were not.

The story of Jacob’s meeting with Maggie was magical, like something out of a fairy tale. Lou’s eyes had misted at his friend’s description of the lovely young woman who stepped out of a cab and into his life. But it was his second story that told him so much about Jacob.

Lou had stretched the touch-up haircut as long as possible, but when the story about meeting Maggie was over, Lou had put the “Closed” sign out and invited Jacob to sit in the back room where they could both relax without interruption.

Jacob had accepted a chipped mug filled with coffee and tried it, wincing slightly at the taste. “I’m trying to develop a taste for it, but I fear tea will always be my favorite brew.”

“Haven’t got that, but …” Lou rummaged in the ice chest. “How about a Nehi?” They smiled at each other as Jacob took the bottle and settled into his chair.

“Well, now … Mr. Chase... I’ve been working at a university laboratory doing post-doctoral research. Margaret would meet me after I was finished for the day. I took her to the clubs and restaurants I could afford and she enjoyed them. She never mentioned anything about her circumstances; I knew she had lost her mother and lived with her father, but nothing else. So when we became engaged and she invited me home to meet her father, I was astonished when she brought me to a building on Park Avenue and told me it was home – the entire building!”

Lou nodded. “I got to go inside once, when her father was on a business trip. It’s like a museum.”

“Then you understand my surprise.” Jacob leaned forward as he acknowledged wryly, “I was as much of a surprise to her father. Apparently Margaret had neglected to inform him that she had a young man.”

Both of them chuckled at the shock it must have been to the older man.

“There he was, drinking his port after dinner, and I was deposited into the midst of his library. He glared at me, enough to shrink my insides.” Jacob shuddered at the memory. “‘Who are you?’ he said with a real growl. Well, you can imagine. At that moment I could happily have wrung Margaret’s pretty neck for not preparing me and then leaving me all alone to deal with him!” He smiled to show he would have done no such thing. “But I suppose she believed throwing me into the deep end was the only thing to do. So, I thrust out my hand, which he refused to shake. Undaunted, I said, ‘May I?’ and without waiting for permission, I poured myself a glass of his port, sat myself down in the chair opposite him, and said, ‘I am Jacob Wells of the Suffolk Wells’s, who are nothing much in England but good people. I happen to be in love with your daughter, sir, and she with me.’ Well, he spluttered more than a bit, I’ll tell you that!”

Lou was laughing so hard, tears were tracing down his plump cheeks. “I can just see it!”

Jacob shrugged his shoulders. “It’s humorous in the telling, no doubt, but it wasn’t so funny in reality. My heart was in my throat, expecting that at any minute he’d call his butler to toss me out on my ear. But I felt I needed to stand up to him straightaway, to show him I’m a man just like him, even if I don’t have inherited wealth or a place in society. Besides, one must not back down from bullies, and I am afraid Mr. Chase is a bit of one.”

Lou considered the description. “Never thought of him that way, but…you’re right. He’s always telling Maggie what she should do, who she should socialize with… She jokes about it, but it’s pretty clear he likes to run her life.”

“So I’m not the only one who has that impression.” Jacob nodded, adding with conviction, “The best way to deal with someone like that is just to continue to say and do what you believe is right. One must be true to oneself, or one is lost before he begins.”

“True enough.” Lou remembered the ring, and decided to see if Jacob would confirm his suspicions. “I think you must have stood your ground about the engagement ring, am I right?”

Jacob closed his eyes for a moment, as if recalling the confrontation, before admitting, “Yes, that was a battle. It’s my mother’s ring, and it has great sentimental value to me, which Margaret understands. Mr. Chase…did not understand. Or perhaps I should say, he did not care to understand. He thundered at me about it. I let him have his say, but I merely replied that Margaret was happy with it, which is all that matters to me.”

“Good for you!” Lou was unaccountably proud of Jacob. He knew he never would have had the nerve to say any such thing, had he ever met the man.

“After his face returned to a normal color, I believe Mr. Chase came to respect my position. In any case, he changed the subject and began to ask me about my education, my work, my ambitions. I told him that my ambition, besides to be the best husband I could be to Margaret, was to be of some use in the world. He wanted to know in what way, and I mentioned research into new technologies as one way of making a difference for humanity.”

Lou wasn’t quite sure what Jacob was talking about, but then, he never had much of a head for science. “Technologies?”

Jacob sat back in his chair, ready to discourse on his favorite subject. “Yes. For instance, atomic energy. The possibilities are enormous, world-changing …”

* * *

Throughout the summer, on weekends Jacob dropped by the barbershop to visit with Lou. Most often he came by early in the morning, just as Lou was opening the shop. It was quiet then, and they had some time to chat before customers started to arrive. However, one night, quite late, Jacob ran into the shop just as Lou was closing up, so excited he was waving his hat in his exuberance. “The job is mine, Lou!”

“The one at that research place you were hoping to get?” Lou tried to recall its name, but failed.

Jacob nodded. “The Chittenden Institute, yes! I’m quite chuffed. It was highly competitive, and I feared my relative inexperience would count against me.”

“Well, this deserves a fancy new haircut to go along with the fancy new job!” Lou waved one big hand in a grand gesture, sweeping Jacob into his chair. Jacob sat, a broad smile seemingly now a permanent fixture on his face as Lou regarded him in the mirror.

Lou kept quiet about what he knew – that Maggie’s father had pulled strings to get his daughter’s future husband the job of his dreams. The way Lou figured it, the place was lucky to get such an intelligent and dedicated researcher. He was happy that his friend would get to do work he loved, however he had gotten the job. As he snapped the apron to fall across Jacob’s shoulders, Lou added, “You know, a haircut isn’t enough. This calls for a congratulatory sip! I don’t have any tea, but I think I’ve got a couple of cold Nehi sodas in the cooler. Want one?”

Jacob laughed. “That would hit the spot!”

* * *

Lou looked forward to Jacob’s visits, feeling he had found a true friend in him. They shared their life stories and commiserated about Margaret’s capacity for shopping. As summer melted into fall, Jacob began to speak of some puzzling findings in his research, but once he realized that science wasn’t a subject that interested Lou, he ceased to mention his work, for which Lou was grateful. Instead, they concentrated on discussing baseball, jazz and politics, which they did with equal enthusiasm.

Lou appreciated that Jacob made an effort to keep up their friendship. Just as Maggie did, Jacob existed in another world from the one Lou knew. Yet despite being a doctor and about to marry into the upper echelon of New York society, Jacob was a down-to-earth guy who really listened to and valued Lou’s opinions. Lou wondered if one day the young man might not enter politics – he seemed to be a natural, with his ability to speak so well, and an enthusiasm that really was contagious, no matter what he was discussing.

By the time of the wedding, Lou was a proud groomsman who suffered through wearing a morning suit for the privilege of an up-close view of the ceremony that bound his two favorite people for a lifetime. When Maggie said, “I do,” her face was blazing with light and love for the man by her side. Lou had a passing pang of regret for an old dream that could never have been. He knew he never could have made his Maggie as happy as she was at this moment.

* * *

Life settled into a dull sameness for Lou after the wedding. His best friends rarely had time for him anymore. First the couple went on an extended honeymoon, which caused a rain of postcards to arrive. Then Jacob began to work longer days at the institute at which he had been so thrilled to secure a research position, leaving him little time for his once clockwork Saturday visits. Still, Lou was happy for them both, especially for Jacob.

Because his friends’ lives were going along separate paths from his, Lou kept up with them primarily through the society page. Maggie’s picture often appeared in the weekend editions. She was attending event after event, mostly on the arm of her father, as Jacob was too busy with his research to break away for society functions. But on occasion Lou would see photos of the couple smiling as they entered a theater or emerging from the poshest of restaurants. They beamed with happiness and contentment. And that was good enough for Lou.

Then everything changed.

First he read in the papers that Dr. Wells had testified before the House Un-american Activities Committee, revealing damning details about radiation from testing the A-bomb. Lou recalled how Jacob had tried to explain his concerns to him months before, but the concepts were beyond his own capacity to understand. He had forgotten about Jacob’s research problems in the interim, and so was shocked at what the articles said about his friend. But he knew Jacob had a good moral compass and strong principles, so standing up and saying what needed to be said was nothing unusual. Shortly after, however, Wells was in disgrace - stripped of his job, stripped of his medical license…and only escaping imprisonment through the auspices of Eugene Chase, Margaret’s father apparently having determined that his daughter should not have to go through life with the taint of having been romantically linked with a felon.

Margaret’s next postcard, from Paris, said little, and yet it told him all he really needed to know: Jacob ... Oh, Lou, it’s the wreck of my memories. She’d signed it Margaret Chase.

* * *

Lou finished sweeping and began to wipe down the mirrors which covered one wall of his shop. As he buffed out fingerprints and specks of shaving cream, his mind kept returning to that postcard. How disappointed he had been in his oldest friend. He had expected more of her, but she hadn’t really taken her vows to heart: in good times, she was his old Maggie…but in bad times…she was like those boys in the park on the day they met, running away, thinking only of themselves, leaving those who somehow didn’t measure up behind. He also remembered the confrontation they’d had about it – the last time he’d seen her. She had expected sympathy from her oldest friend, but instead of taking her side as usual, he had expressed his disappointment in her, telling her she wasn’t the person he thought he knew. She’d been offended by his words and had begun to cry. She left the shop that day…and he never saw or heard from her again. It had been the wreck of his own memories.

Jacob … Jacob had just disappeared.

Lou tidied the bulletin board that was overrun with postcards, straightening them, re-pinning some…and his fingers brushed against the very postcard he had been thinking of. It nudged another memory to the fore, one from months later, in the deep of winter – the first time he had heard Jacob mention those words.

One bitter December night as he was closing up the barbershop, Lou heard a voice whisper his name. He looked up in alarm to see a strangely familiar man shivering before him, hatless, in clothes too light for the weather. When his eyes had adjusted to the darkness, he had peered into the man’s face. Recognition dawned. “Jacob! Come in!”

Lou unlocked the door, but the disheveled man hesitated as if unsure of the invitation. Lou beckoned to him and he finally slipped inside. As Lou studied him, he was shocked at the changes a few months had wrought in his friend: his face was gaunt, unshaven, and his eyes were dulled with a hopelessness that struck Lou to the core.

“I’m sorry, Lou, but … I just don’t know where to turn.” Jacob’s voice was distraught, his shoulders hunched. “Everyone I worked with, men I went to medical school with, have turned against me. Margaret left…” He added, almost to himself, “It’s the wreck of my memories ...”

Lou’s eyebrows shot up at the well-remembered phrase. He realized that Maggie had shared its meaning with Jacob, and in a very real way those five words no longer were a joke once shared, nor a private pain of his own, but were reflective of the personal tragedy of the couple he knew best and loved most dearly. Aloud he said, “Come on, I’ll make a pot of coffee. Sorry, I still don’t have tea, and a Nehi won’t warm you up on a night like this. I think I still have a half a pastrami sandwich from lunch in the ice box. You’re welcome to it.”

Lou steered his visitor into the storage area of the shop and offered him the usual chair by the small desk that sat against the wall. Jacob nearly collapsed onto it. They didn’t speak while Lou set the percolator on the hot plate, but once a mug of the steaming brew was placed in his hands, Jacob broke into sobs.

Lou knelt beside him and gently took the mug from him, placing it on the desk. He patted Jacob on the shoulder, unsure exactly what kind of comfort he could offer a man who had lost everything.

Jacob wept into his hands for a long time, then looked up at Lou. “I don’t know why you’re being so kind.”

Lou replied gently, “You’re my friend, Jacob. That’ll never change.”

Jacob studied him for a moment with something akin to surprise, then he mumbled a heartfelt, “Thank you.” He reached for the mug and blew on the bitter liquid before drinking it down in small, grateful sips. The half sandwich Lou placed beside him disappeared quickly, then a refill of the coffee. When he’d finished his impromptu meal, Jacob sighed heavily.

Lou stood before his friend, hands on hips, considering the needs he might have, and realizing there must be any number of things he required, from a place to sleep to a job, none of which Lou could provide. The business provided a bare living for him and his father, nothing much for extras. And the apartment they shared was too small for a third person to live there. Briefly he thought of Maggie, of how she had abandoned this man. It was something he could never forgive her for, no matter how much he loved her. He would do what he could for Jacob, for he knew if he were in the same boat, Jacob would be there for him. “What can I do to help?”

“Help?” Jacob seemed surprised at the question. He shook his head as if refusing to believe he’d heard the word. Instead, he said, “I’ve found a place to live. Someplace…safe. There are a few others there, too, and we try to work together to make the place comfortable.”

“Where?” Lou leaned against the wall, and when Jacob didn’t reply immediately, patiently awaited the explanation.

“Well …” Jacob’s hesitance was remarkable, as if he wanted to keep the place a secret. But Lou could see the shift in his eyes when he decided to reveal it. “It’s…below the city. There are tunnels, chambers…. It’s rough living, but it’s protection from the weather. We live communally and share what we glean from the city above us.”

“Sounds … unusual,” was all Lou could think to say at the startling revelation.

Jacob sighed heavily. “Yes, that it is. I’ve been there a few months now, and as unusual as it is … it works. But in winter, food is … difficult to forage. We’ve got a couple of kids with us, and …” His eyes filled with tears once again, but he cast his gaze downward, as if ashamed by what he had to say next. “They’re all hungry. I feel so guilty eating tonight when I know they don’t have anything.” Jacob ran a hand through his hair. “I have no money, no way to get food. I’m … desperate, Lou.” His eyes beseeched his old friend; in those eyes Lou saw the shame he had suspected before. It made Lou angry that this intelligent, skilled, capable man had been reduced to such a state.

Inspiration hit Lou as he was puzzling over Jacob’s situation. “I’ll tell you what, Jacob. I have a little money on me, but what I’ve got you might find more useful is some preserves my Aunt Sadie put up. I hate to say it, but neither me nor Poppa really likes beets and green beans, and the jars just sit in the cupboard gathering dust. What about I bring those … down, is it? To you and yours?”

Jacob’s face lit up. “Really? Are you sure?”

Lou nodded. “Be my pleasure, and I’d be glad to know others would enjoy them.”

“It would help so much. Thank you. Thank you, Lou!” Jacob rose and shook Lou’s hand, gripping it firmly, just like the old Jacob Lou had known.

Jacob drew a map for Lou, showing him where to find an entrance to the place he lived, and they set a time to meet. As Jacob rose to leave, he uncharacteristically grasped his friend in a bear hug. Lou could feel hot tears on his shoulder through his clothes. “You are kind, Lou. A true friend. I will remember this always. You are a big help, a very big help.”

Lou was embarrassed that his small gesture was so appreciated. It seemed a measure of Jacob’s desperation that a few jars of preserves would make him this happy. Lou tilted his head as he thought. There was that large platter of Christmas cookies the LoStoccos had brought by that he and his dad would never finish, and the Coldrens had that unused furniture sitting in their storage space under a thick coat of dust…. Windows were opening in his mind regarding other customers and neighbors who complained of unwanted gifts and unneeded household items that were difficult to store in their small apartments. Resolve filled him. He had never had anyone really depend on him before, but this man, this friend and the people he knew…well, for him, for them, Lou could make a huge difference. His heart swelled with the pride of being needed. “I’ll check around with some other folks. Could be they’ve got some stuff I could spring lose from them. I’ll see you soon, Jacob.”

Before Jacob left, Lou silently handed him the gloves a customer had forgotten weeks ago and never returned to claim and received a firm handshake in return. He noticed Jacob’s posture as he exited the shop – shoulders straight, eyes focused straight ahead.

The man Jacob was inside was showing again.

* * *

Lou finished tying the garbage bag closed and set it near the door to take out in the morning. He got his coat off its hook and slipped it on. As he was wrapping his muffler around his neck, he contemplated his time as a Helper. It had allowed him a first-hand look at just what a special man the one now called Father was. Just as he’d hoped, although in a different way than he’d imagined, his friend Jacob had helped change the world … one special one, Below.

His Maggie was gone now, but it warmed him to know that she and Jacob had found each other again, even if briefly. For whatever small part he’d played in bringing them back together, he was glad. The old S. S. Wreck of My Memories would sail no more, but that was all right. It had come into a safe harbor at last.

The bell on the door jingled, alerting Lou to a late arrival. “Just caught me closing up!” Lou exclaimed, ready for the cold outside, keys in his hand. He turned to see a petite, smiling girl in Tunnel garb looking up at him.

“Samantha! To what do I owe the honor? Everything OK Below?”

“Please come to Winterfest, Mr. Lou!” she exclaimed, reaching into a basket and pulling out a candle.

Lou grinned as he accepted the traditional invitation.

“It’s Friday at 7:00.”

Chuckling, he replied, “Wouldn’t miss it! You know me, always up for a party.” To himself he thought: Especially if it’s the only one you get invited to all year.

Samantha giggled, then twirled to head back out into the wintery evening. “Vincent’s Catherine will be coming this year!” she shouted as the door swung shut behind her.

Lou nodded to himself as he locked up. He was looking forward to meeting this woman he had heard so much about. He hunched inside his coat against a cold blast of wind and began the walk home, catching sight, far ahead of him, of Samantha running down the sidewalk, seemingly oblivious to the snow that had begun to fall. As she moved further away from him, he remembered a brilliant spring day, running in the park, chasing his beautiful, happy Maggie, forever out of reach...


Return to the Secret-Keeper Index Page