Clara Baker didn't trust her voice and would have waited a few moments to respond, but the voice on the other end of the line prompted anxiously.
“Mom? Are you going to be all right? I'm sorry we can't make it down for Thanksgiving this year. It's just been a bad year for us financially. First Paul getting laid off, and then the car breaking down...but he's back at work now, so maybe we can make it down for Christmas.”
“I'm just fine, Marie” Clara managed in a controlled voice as she lowered her plump frame into John's favorite chair, “and don't you worry about scratching up the money at Christmas, either. I've lived here in Safford for forty years - ever since I married your Dad. It isn't like I don't have anybody to spend the holidays with.”
“I know,” Kathy responded with a sigh, “but they're all Dads’ family.” A slight pause, and then, “Uncle Tom says you've been keeping to yourself a lot lately. I know you must miss Dad terribly, but I hate to see you become a hermit. I wish you'd move up here where we could visit you more often.”
Clara absently worked the coils of the telephone cord around her finger. So Tom had called Marie to unload his worries about his sister-in-law. Why did all of John's family think she was the one who was depressed? She shook her head and answered Marie with measured nonchalance.
“I'm not becoming a hermit, I simply enjoy my privacy. Anyway, the weather down here in southern Arizona is a lot better than up there in Washington. Stop fussing over me. I'm fine.”
“And you're not upset?”
“I'm disappointed, of course. I was looking forward to cooking a big Thanksgiving feast, but I'll just cook myself a little Cornish game hen or something.”
“Now Mom, I want you to promise me that you won't spend Thanksgiving Day alone. I know how you like to cook for everyone, so why don't you invite Uncle Tom and Aunt Lieva to your house for Thanksgiving?” The voice was comically stern.
“All right,” Clara conceded before the conversation got old. There wasn't much point in arguing the matter. “If it will make you feel better, I promise I won't spend Thanksgiving Day alone. Now are you happy?”
“I'll be happier Thanksgiving Day when I call and make sure you're not alone,” came the stiff answer, “but what's more important is that you'll be happier, too.”
Clara barely suppressed a snort. At 65, she wasn't likely to find much happiness in her remaining years - not without John. “Happiness is for the young,” she answered, and was surprised at the bitterness in her voice.
“And the young at heart,” Marie responded instantly. “Remember, you promised.”
There wasn't going to be any getting out of this one. She sighed. “I remember.”
They talked a few more minutes and then said their goodbyes. Clara replaced the receiver and leaned back in the chair, staring at the ceiling. Marie was barely forty. How could she possibly understand? She still had her husband, and her children were too young to consider leaving home. At Marie's age, a few days alone probably sounded like a vacation.
Still, Marie was on the right track. It wasn't strictly a desire for privacy or solitude that had kept John's family at bay lately. Conversation with them was painful at best. Every time John's name came up in a discussion, someone would change the subject - or worse yet, start crying. Why couldn't they understand that she didn't want to push those memories away? John was a good man - a man with a crazy sense of humor. Sure, he was loved and missed deeply by his entire family, but he wouldn't want everyone to grieve this way. Hadn't he made his position clear that last day at the hospital? Gasping for every breath, he was still cracking jokes.
“Clara, when you get me planted, don't waste any time getting yourself another young stud to travel around the country with. Don't wait till you get old and loose all your beauty.”
In his own way, he was telling her not to drag out the rocking chair and wither away in bitterness. He knew her well on both counts. Finding something to occupy her time and mind hadn't been too difficult, but fending off bitterness had become an uphill battle recently. Who could blame her? All those retirement plans, all the scrimping and saving for a motor home, the savings account - all their plans to travel after he retired had been crushed two weeks before their dream could be realized. John had put in 40 years at the plant - 40 hard years. Two weeks before retirement he had gone to the doctor with what he thought was pneumonia. It was emphysema. After that, his health had gone into a tail spin. A little over a year later - two weeks before Christmas, he had died. The money for the motor home as well as their savings account had been gobbled up by the medical bills. It wasn't fair. He hadn't smoked a day in his life. He ate healthy and exercised regularly.
Once she had questioned, why him? John's answer was philosophical. Life was a daily gamble, and some people were bound to lose. It had nothing to do with who was good or bad, rich or poor, young or old.
He was right, and hanging on to that philosophy had carried her through one of the roughest years of her life. He was gone now, but she could still hear his cheerful voice. It was there in every room of the house they had shared since their wedding night. His warm memories occupied her dreams at night and kept her humming in the kitchen during the day. As long as she stayed in their house, he wasn't really gone - he was simply away for a while. Yet once she left the house, she was constantly reminded how alone she was - how thoroughly lost.
She mentally shook herself out of the darkness. Where was she? Oh yes, who could she invite to the house on Thanksgiving? Mentally she sorted through all the relatives, tossing out each name at the end of the examination. It was ridiculous. Here she was screening out family for no good reason, when there were homeless people out there with no one who cared. And then it hit her. She had only promised that she wouldn't spend Thanksgiving alone. She hadn't promised she would spend it with family members. Why not invite someone who didn't have a place to go?
On closer examination, the idea had its flaws. Not the least of which was the danger of inviting strangers into her home. And then there were the town gossips, Julie and Hazel. By the time the story left their lips, her home would be a house of ill repute.
She picked up her knitting and leaned back in the recliner. So who could she invite? Knit one, purl two. Of course, if she invited a really old man - one that could barely get around. Not that she knew anybody like that, anyway. The only person who came close to that was the old widower, Clyde Johnson.
She snickered to herself. Even Julie and Hazel didn't have enough imagination to consider him a romantic possibility. Talk about a hermit - an eccentric one at that. How desperate could a person get?
With a heavy sigh, she put down the knitting needles and picked up her address book. There must be someone. A thorough search of her address book revealed that John's family was very fortunate. Of course, what was left of her family lived in South Carolina, so there was no point even considering them.
Again she thought of Clyde Johnson. Was the idea so crazy? He was the grumpiest man in town, and he didn't like anybody or anything. Years would go by without anybody seeing him, and when word spread around that he had died, he would put in a brief appearance at one of the stores. He probably did it more to let everyone know how wrong they were than to do any shopping. It was rumored that he owned the first dollar he earned - a wealthy man, so the gossip went - an old man living in a big white house that looked like a funeral home. Wealthy? Probably not, but it made for good gossip. Nobody called him Clyde or even Mr. Johnson. People simply referred to him as the old geezer, and everyone knew who they were talking about.
But he was only human. He had to be lonely sometimes - especially during the holidays. Maybe that was what made him so grumpy. Maybe a good home cooked meal would improve his disposition. If not, she could take him back home. After all, he only needed to be there long enough for Marie to call.
Clara chuckled. What would Marie say? What would John's relatives say? Who cared? Her chuckle grew to a hearty laugh. She was going to do it - or at least ask him. He'd probably say no, but it was worth the effort – if only to see the look on Tom and Lieva's faces.
Two weeks later she drove up to the old house and knocked on the door. Two days was short notice, but how many invitations could he have received? She glanced around, noticing that everything was in perfect order, from the freshly painted picket fence to the pansies in the flower bed next to the porch. He must hire someone to take care of the place. Julie said he was practically bedridden.
Minutes ticked by with no answer, so she lifted her hand and knocked harder. Maybe he wasn't home. That was when she noticed the doorbell. Kind of hidden in a little brass holder. She pressed on the button and heard a voice rumble from inside the house.
“All right, I'm coming. Hold your horses.”
He was still grumbling under his breath when he opened the door. His tall thin frame was held perfectly erect as he glared down his nose at her.
“What do you want this time?”
This time? She frowned. “I've never been here before,” she answered in a puzzled tone. Clyde Johnson was as grouchy as he was rumored to be, but the description of his health was plainly erroneous. He peered through the screen at her with blue eyes that had retained their brilliant color.
“So? This time it's someone else. There's always someone knocking at my door asking for some kind of handout. You'd think money grew on trees around here. Even my own kids don't show up unless they want money.” He started to close the door.
Her face flaming, Clara turned away. “Small wonder,” she said dryly under her breath. Why had she even considered asking him? Temporary insanity?
Johnson jerked the door back open. “I heard that. I may be old, but I'm not deaf.” He eyed her with open distaste. “So what do you want?”
She was tempted to leave, but his sharp gaze riveted her feet to the porch. If she couldn't run, she might as well give him what-for. She gave him a level look. “Actually, I came to invite you to Thanksgiving dinner at my house.” She took in his thin frame with a cool glance. “But I can see that you'd rather sit here and starve.”
“Why would you ask me to dinner?” he snapped.
Was the extra color in his face caused by anger or embarrassment? Something in his expression made her think it was the latter. She shrugged.
“Because I promised my daughter I wouldn't eat Thanksgiving dinner alone.”
Let him chew on that one for a while. Soon enough he'd realized he bit off more than he could chew when he started grouching at her.
Johnson eyed her suspiciously for a moment and then the tiniest suggestion of a smile tugged at one corner of his mouth. He stepped back and opened the door for her.
“Not too flattering, but honest,” he grumbled. “Come on in, and we'll discuss the matter over a cup of coffee.”
She stared at him for a moment. Was he actually inviting her into his house - the old geezer?
“Well, come on. You're letting the cold in,” he snapped.
She stepped into the house. “You don't exactly make a person feel welcome,” she answered conversationally.
“Wipe your feet on the rug,” he said roughly and gently pulled the coat from her shoulders. “I'm not used to company.”
“No doubt,” she commented dryly as she wiped her feet on the rug. He hung her coat on a rack and lifted a hand in invitation for her to precede him into the family room. She stepped into the room and paused inside the door.
“Oh my, this is absolutely beautiful!”
A glossy hardwood floor met equally rich pine paneled walls. The room was decorated in a nautical theme with a strong masculine style. She glanced up at him.
“Did you do this?”
The eyes softened a little, and he nodded. “I made it look like the house where I grew up in South Carolina. Kind of nostalgic, don't you think?”
She nodded. “You grew up in South Carolina? Where?”
“Me too. Did you ever hear of the Carltons?”
“Jim Carton, the master woodworker?”
She nodded again. “Yes. He was my father.”
He rubbed his jaw. “Well, I'll be darned. I worked in his shop one summer. He was a hard-nosed old man, but fair. I bet I learned more that summer than in the next year of college. He was quite a guy.” He looked uncomfortable. “I guess he's passed on by now.”
“Yes. Almost twenty years ago.”
Johnson took her elbow and led her to the kitchen, where a pot of fresh coffee wafted a scent of welcome. He pulled out a chair for her.
“Do you ever get back that way anymore?”
She allowed him to push her chair in and glanced up at his face. “Once in a while. I'm the youngest, and all my sisters are gone now. I see my nieces and nephews now and then. They've all got families of their own, though.”
He snorted. “I know how that goes. My kids have moved off and started families of their own. It wasn't so bad until they started having grandkids. Now I hardly ever see them.” He shrugged. “I guess they're all wrapped up with their families now. Don't have time for an old geezer.”
Clara felt warmth crawling up her neck. Did he know that was what the townspeople called him? “You're not old,” she soothed.
His mouth twisted into a lopsided smile, and his eyes flashed a light of humor.
“Yeah, I'm just a young whippersnapper.”
She grinned. “You and me both.”
He poured her a cup of coffee and one for himself. Replacing the pot, he sat in the chair opposite her. For a few minutes they sat in comfortable silence, sipping their coffee. Strange how a person could feel content simply knowing someone else was in the room - someone who shared at least part of her memories.
Johnson cleared his throat. “You look familiar to me. Aren’t you John Baker's wife?”
How would he know that? Apparently he knew more about what was going on in town than anyone suspected.
“Yes,” she answered.
“I heard he died a while back. Sorry to hear it, too. He was a good man.”
“You knew him?”
He shrugged. “Well, I can't say I actually knew him, but we knew each other by sight. He gave me some deer ribs one time. Best ribs I ever ate.”
So that was where John unloaded those ribs. She smiled. “Yeah, well we didn't have enough room in the freezer for all that deer. John said that was the biggest mule deer he'd ever seen.”
“Did he like to hunt?”
“He loved to hunt. He headed out to the mountains every chance he got. He was always bringing something home, too. I guess he was a pretty good shot.”
They fell into silence again, each sipping away at the hot coffee. Each wrapped up in their own thoughts. Johnson wasn't such a bad sort. How had he gained such a reputation? And then she thought of the way he answered the door. That was how.
“So,” Johnson interrupted her thoughts, “What about Thanksgiving Dinner? What time do you want me to drop by?”
“I should have everything ready about one o'clock - unless you want to eat earlier.”
He shook his head. “That's fine.”
She rose from the table. “Well, I'd better be getting back to the house. I'll see you then.”
The two days before Thanksgiving passed fast because she was busy baking pies and making plans. On Thanksgiving Day, Tom and Lieva stopped by to invite her to their house for the fifth time. Tom frowned when he saw the food she was preparing.
“I didn't know you were expecting company.” He eyed her suspiciously. “Have you got a boyfriend?”
“Tom!” Leiva gasped.
“No,” Clara answered casually. “I just invited someone to eat with me.”
“But you could have eaten at our place,” Lieva responded. “Don't you feel welcome now that John…” she paused, glancing nervously at Tom. “Isn't with us anymore,” she concluded softly.
Clara glanced at Tom, but he had obviously clammed up at the mention of John. She shrugged. “Sure, I just wanted to fix the meal myself.”
There, that should satisfy them.
“Who did you invite?” Lieva asked.
Through the window Clara saw a gray Oldsmobile pull up to the curb, and Johnson got out. He lifted a sack and some flowers from the car and started up the walkway to her door.
“Him,” she answered, pointing at the thin figure.
Both Tom and Lieva swung their heads and stared at Johnson. Their mouths dropped open and they stared at each other. Finally Tom found his voice.
“The old geezer? What would John think?”
Clara smiled up at him as she moved toward the door. “He'd say good for you.”
“But why him?” Lieva finally spoke.
Clara paused at the door and shrugged. “Because he's interesting to talk to, I suppose.”
Lieva stared at her. “The Old Geezer?”
“Mr. Johnson,” Clara corrected, and was surprised at the irritation she felt about the nickname. She opened the door and Johnson stepped in, offering her the flowers.
“Thank you,” she said, accepting the flowers. And then in a crisp voice she ordered him. “And wipe your feet.”
Johnson looked taken aback for a moment, and then he smiled. It wasn't that lopsided half-smile he used before, either. It was a genuine 100 proof amused smile.
The look on Tom's face brought a smile to Clara's lips as well. Tom didn't know what to think, and seeing Johnson smile like that must have given him a lot to consider. No doubt Lieva would be talking to Julie and Hazel tomorrow.
Let them all do their talking.
The telephone rang and Clara excused herself, picking up the receiver.
“Mom? It's Marie. Are you going to eat at Uncle Tom and Aunt Leiva's?
“No, I fixed a meal here at the house.”
Clara glanced around her tiny living room at the people. She smiled. “No, I have a living room full of people as we speak.” It didn't take much to fill her living room.
“Great.” The voice sounded relieved. “Are Uncle Tom and Aunt Lieva there?”
“They sure are. Do you want to talk to them?”
“No, I'll talk to them later. I'll let you get back to your company. Happy Thanksgiving!”
“The same to you. I'll talk to you later.”
There, the farce was complete. No need for Johnson to stay for dinner - none except that she wanted him to. Today she would have her chance to talk - and John's name wouldn't be taboo. Today she was going to set down at her table and have an interesting conversation. Maybe there would be other evenings and conversations as well.