The Diary of St. Nicholas, part three
The stores were quite busy for a small city like New Town, and Will spent more time than he had expected standing in line. With a new suit in hand, he had just stepped out of the store, when he ran into a woman coming in. It was the young lady that he had encountered the day before. “My fault,” he apologized, and was walking away when the woman grabbed him by the arm. “I’m sorry,” Will exclaimed, “what more do you want?”
“No, I’m the one that needs to apologize,” the lady said humbly. “It wasn’t until I got home and began to read the paper, that I realized who you are. You’re Will Freely with the New Town Press.”
“Yes, I am,” Will replied, “and at the moment I’m in a bit of a rush.”
“I don’t want to detain you,” she said, “but I just wanted to thank you. I know that it was you.”
Somewhat bewildered by the comment, Will had to ask, “thank me, for what?”
“I know that it was you,” the young lady replied. “Yesterday I was upset because I didn’t have enough money to buy medicine for my child. Then, when I got home I found the six hundred dollars in my purse. I know that you put it there.” Then though she tried to hold it back, tears began to break free from the corners of her eyes. “I’m sorry,” she sobbed, but things have been so hard since my husband passed away. It has been four years now, and it’s a struggle to make ends meet.”
“I’m so sorry to hear that,” Will consoled, “but I have to confess, it wasn’t me that gave you the money.” That’s when it occurred to him, it must have been the homeless man. He had seen the old man’s hand go into the young lady’s purse, but hadn’t actually seen him take anything out. “It was the old man that bumped into you yesterday. He’s the one that deserves to be thanked.”
“Do you have any idea where I might find him?” the woman asked, while holding out her hand, “by the way, my name is Peggy Porter.”
Will gently shook hands with her, “nice to meet you Peggy, but I’m afraid that I haven’t a clue as to where you might find the old man.” He nervously looked at his watch, and then reached into his coat pocket producing a business card. “Here’s my card, and if I do manage to locate him, I'll….” Suddenly he stopped short. From the crowded sidewalk Will recognized the face of the man that gave the money to the homeless man. “However,” he continued, “this man might be able to help. Hey you!” Will called out, and the man stopped.
“Yes,” the fellow replied, “can I help you?”
“My name is Will Freely,” he said offering his hand.
“Fred Knowles,” the young man replied, firmly grasping his hand.
“The old man that you gave the money to yesterday,” Will said, “do you know where he can be found?”
“I didn’t give the money to him,” Fred corrected, “I owed the money to him. Until a few days ago, I had never seen him before.”
“Just to be clear, did I hear you say that you owed him the money?” Will asked.
Fred nodded his head affirmatively. “You see, I’m a chimney sweep, and few weeks ago I slipped and fell from a ladder. The fall fractured one of the vertebrae in my back, and I had to be hospitalized. Not having any immediate family, and being self-employed meant no income. I had no idea how I would pay my bills, and feared that I would lose all of my customers. Then when I got home, I found checks that had come in while I was in the hospital, all from jobs that I had never got to. When I called to let my customers know that I would honor their payment, one by one they all told me the same thing, that the work had been done by my employee. Well, I have no employee. It turned out to be the old bearded man. At first he didn’t want to be paid for his kindness, but then suddenly decided to accept the money that I wanted to give him.”
“Was the amount six hundred dollars?” Will asked.
“It was,” Fred confirmed, “but how could you know that?
“Never mind,” Will answered, noticing the chimney sweep had not taken his eyes off of the pretty young lady next to them. “Forgive me Fred, this is Peggy Porter, and she is in need of a chimney sweep.”
“Hi,” Peggy said shyly, extending a dainty right hand. “I actually do need to have the chimney cleaned, but I never told you,” she said casting a perplexed look in Will’s direction.
Will smiled then, “I just had a feeling is all.”
“It’s nice to meet you,” Fred replied, gently taking her hand. “I would be glad to take care of it for you, and since it’s so close to Christmas, it will be on the house.”
As Will watched the two walk away, a warmth came over him that he hadn’t experienced in a long time. They were both lonely, struggling with their own burdens. Perhaps those loads could now be shared he thought wistfully. Then once again looking at his watch, he headed off to get ready to meet with Jenny.
After getting dressed in his new suit, Will wasted no time in getting to the diner. He still had a little time, but this engagement meant more to him than he cared to admit. Arriving twenty minutes early, he reserved a table at the small diner and took a seat. As he sat there waiting, he found time to reflect on the last five years of his life, and for the most part, it had been a meaningless two dimensional waste of time. The articles that he had produced for the paper had been just as empty. It was partly due to the crutch that he had come to depend upon, that being a bottle of liquor, but that was only a side effect of the real cause, which was the loss of a close friend. Improper as it was, the alcohol had simply been a means of escape, but in the end, reality was always there waiting for him. Today was somehow different. The thought of having a drink had not once crossed his mind, and he was finally ready to put the past behind him.
He was still buried in thought, staring at the floor when two brightly colored shoes suddenly appeared before him. Looking up, his eyes met with Jenny’s, and he quickly got to his feet. Feeling uncertain, Will clumsily held out a trembling hand.
Jenny sighed, “you silly man,” then wrapped her arms around Will in a tight embrace. At that moment, for the first time in years, Will felt as though he had a reason for existing. “I never stopped loving you," he whispered in her ear, "and there’s something I need to tell you.”
It was eight-thirty at night when Will Freely showed up at the New Town Book Store for the paper’s Christmas party. Melvin Days had accepted his suggestion after all. At the door he was met by a jubilant Thomas Pots. “Will,” Thomas greeted, “I will never be able to thank you enough for what you have done. The antique book dealer that you sent over has sold a dozen first edition books, for more money than I have made in the last two years, and we’re talking about forming a partnership. I will not be closing the book store after all Will, and I owe it all to you.”
Will smiled, “I’m happy for you Thomas, but I don’t think that I can take all of the credit,” he said modestly.
“Well, that’s how I see it,” Thomas said stubbornly, “just so you know, Jenny is in the back helping my wife dole out refreshments, and over there in the corner is Frank and Peggy, the young couple you invited."
"Couple," Will said smiling, then noticed that Frank and Peggy were holding hands. He nodded his head in approval, then turned to go looking for Jenny, when he was approached by the owner of the New Town Press, Jim Needles.
“A great idea that you had Will," Jim acknowledged. “This party is the best we have ever had. It’s so cozy here, it creates a family atmosphere. If possible, I intend on having it here from now on. Oh, by the way, are you sure that you want to retire.”
“I am,” Will replied. “Perkins deserves a chance to move ahead, but I plan on doing some free-lance work if the paper’s interested. Suddenly he felt a firm grip upon his shoulder. It was Melvin Days.
“Of course we will be interested,” Melvin assured.
Then from the corner of his eye, Will saw Jenny headed his way, and she was truly a vision of beauty. Stepping up next to him, she wrapped her arm around his, then stretching upward, kissed him upon the cheek, and he felt tingles running down his spine. “Will, all that you ever had to do was call me,” Jenny whispered. “There was no need for this elaborate hoax of yours, pretending that you needed someone to translate Latin. Still, it was sweet that you went to all the trouble.”
“Hoax?” Will said, somewhat confused.
Jenny removed the old book from her purse that he had given her then. “You know what I’m talking about,” she said impishly, “this book full of blank pages.”
Will took the book from her then, and thumbed through it, and sure enough the pages were all blank now.
Suddenly Jenny wrapped her arms around him, and Will felt the warmth of her lips upon his. “Well, I have to get back to work,” she said after pulling away, but when the food has been served, you’re all mine.”
“Back to work?” Will asked.
“Don’t you know,” she replied, “I have a catering business now, and Jim Needles hired me for the party.”
“I wasn’t aware of that,” Will admitted. “Perhaps I can help you.”
"After you have had some time to mingle," Jenny replied, then walked away.
It was only after Jenny had left his field of vision, that Will turned to see a lone figure standing outside in the falling snow. Curious, he stepped out the front door, and meandered over to the stranger. As he got close, the man turned around, revealing snowy white hair, and a long fluffy white beard. At first Will didn’t recognize the elderly gentleman before him, but then his eyes opened wide. It was the homeless man that had given the money to Peggy Porter. “Your hair and beard were dark gray before.”
The old man smiled. He was now dressed in a long magnificent coat, elaborately detailed with embroidery, as was the brimless cap upon his head. Around his neck, a red scarf was wrapped. There was also a certain poise about the man, something that Will had overlooked before. After a brief silence, he finally replied. “A man gets dirty cleaning out chimneys.”
Will smiled, “and I’m sure that you must know a thing or two about chimneys. I also believe that I owe you a great deal.” He extended his hand then, my name is Will Freely,” The stranger gladly shook his hand, but offered no name in exchange. “Is there anything that I can do to repay you?” Will asked.
“I believe that you have something of mine,” the stranger replied.
At first, Will was at a loss, and then it finally came to him. Reaching into his coat pocket, he removed the diary, and handed it over.
“Thank you,” the stranger said graciously, taking the book and putting it into his own pocket. He turned then, and walked away.
Will stood by, silently watching, until the stranger’s image became lost in the falling snow.