“Swallowing our pride is sometimes necessary, but leaves such a bitter taste.” JSM
I was early to the meeting spot.
He was the one who arrived late.
I waited in the gas station parking lot until 10:20, before deciding to leave. I slumped my head back against the seat, sighing at the dome light above me. I knew this was a mistake. Just one mistake after another. You should have gone to family, Dumb Dumb.
This is life.
As I pulled onto the dark empty street to venture onward and alone, to places unknown, lights from a motorist shone through the glass and I slammed on the brake. The dog barked once as the stranger pulled alongside my car and rolled his window down.
He never exchanged pleasantries with me, or initiated an introduction. Bypassed all conventional standard greetings. He sat in the seat looking straight forward, both hands on the steering wheel, while waiting for me to follow suit and roll my window down. His face hidden in shadows and his voice was low.
“Follow me. We’ll be on the road for about twenty minutes.” He proceeded to roll the window back up, not bothering to wait for my reply or my intrusive questions, and the shadow man stepped on the gas and sped away from the parking lot.
OK… looks like were taking a trip.
At this point, you are so far out of your league… what the Hell are you doing? Following strangers in the dark?
Hey… what do you have to lose?
I followed close, without tailgating. We traveled side roads, taking sharp lefts and rights, wandering fire-roads, passing farms and pastures, and the last leg of the trail seemed to narrow to the width of a walking path before we reached our destination. At the end of the rocky rugged trail, the trees to either side opened and widened into a clearing, revealing a paved lot with two vehicles parked at the far corner.
He pulled into a marked off space and I parked my car beside his. Before switching the headlights off, I caught a glimpse of a shortened steeple at the peak of a white, one story roof. Is this a church?
Oh, no. I’m about to be initiated in a cult of some kind. Fire up the car and get out of here. Middle of nowhere?
Yup… you’re about to get involved in something you’ll never bounce back from.
The man walked away in a brisk stride, climbed the stairs two at a time, pulled open one of the double doors providing entrance to the structure, and left me at the car.
Instead of following the stranger, I turned my attention to the mutt. I withdrew the large, bulky, space taking items from the backseat of the car and placed them beside the wheels on the tarred pavement. Once a big enough space had been cleared, I spread a blanket across the cushions and called Shelby to the back seat. She crawled over the arm rest, spun four times in one spot and dropped into the soft material with a grunt.
“I don’t know how long this will take. I’ll be out as soon as I can.” I scratched her ears and she licked her nose.
I rolled the windows down a few inches, locked the doors with the remote, kept my stare on the building with my hands stuffed deep in my pockets, and started my climb up the stairs to the front of the church.
When I pulled open the door, the fresh scent of cooked seafood wafted past me and my mouth watered. I couldn’t distinguish what the aroma was from, but I knew it was seafood. A hint of lemon. A scent of sea salt. The interior was muggy, but not unbearable.
The space had the feel of a church; a dome-like cathedral ceiling cross-crossed with posted timbers, but the area was devoid of pews. A wide open empty room. No podium. No elevated stage. No statues or art. Nothing indicative of religion, or religious practices.
The carpet was tan and squishy under my feet and the windows surrounding the inside were covered in quotes.
On the back wall, a banner hung from two hooks. Black hand painted words spread across a white background.
“From the errors of others, a wise man corrects his own.–Publilius Syrus.”
When I brought my eyes from the wall banner, Joseph Everett was standing at the center of a long wooden table, arms crossed high over an Iron Man tee-shirt, and placed on the table under him were two settings for food. Only two chairs at the table; one for him, and directly across from the host, was mine.
Joseph was an elderly man, guessing mid seventies. He head was bald but with a few gray random patches, hair sprouting from both ears, the hands speckled with age spots, and he had a slight hunch to his back as he stood silent at the table. I approached him slow and rigid, one slow foot in front of the other and he waved me forward, “Oh, come on now. Quit being such a sissy. Get over here and have a seat, will ya. Damn, son. You’re making me nervous.”
My shaking hand reached to the padded wooden chair and I pulled it from under the table, “What is this place, if you don’t mind me asking?”
“Oh, this?” He looked around the room and over his shoulder to what I assumed was the kitchen door, “This is a place for respite.”
“Somewhere to take a breather. A refuge of sorts. What you don’t understand, Jeremy, is Officer Clark already called me. He told you he’d call in the morning. He phoned me just after he let you go. He got a hold of me, told me all about you, and I waited. I knew you’d call.”
“Really? How exactly did you know? I almost didn’t call. Everything within me told me no.”
He leaned forward and pointed a quivering finger at me squeezing one eye shut, “Ah… but you did.”
Getoutgetoutgetoutgetoutgetout. My mind raced to make sense of it all.
Nope, nothing. Nothing about this makes sense.
“You’re a lucky guy,” He removed the cloth napkin from the surface of the table, unfolded it with extended pinky finger, and draped it across his thigh. “Officer Clark doesn’t just do that for anyone. He knew though. He told me everything I needed to know about you.”
I dropped the napkin in my lap and caught his stare, “Can you please tell me what that is? I didn’t tell him much about me.”
“Oh, sure, of course. You were born in 1975, around Thanksgiving. You’re an organ donor. You have children and they’re the most important thing in this world to you, and you have boxes of their stuff on the floor of your car. You’re employed with a company that works in a helper capacity. You obviously have a dog and the animal is in your possession during the separation and your impending divorce. You’re looking for a place to live and have no idea what to do next. You’re lost. Confused. Emotional. Half crazy. Am I close?”
I laughed out loud and my outburst bounced off the walls around us. “Crazy, yeah, you can say that.”
“See, I know more about you than you think. It’s what I don’t know, that’s lead you here tonight.”
I leaned back, dropped my shoulders, and cocked my head to the side. I didn’t have a reply. Only a deep unblinking stare into his twitching glossy eyes. I snapped away from his face and looked around the room again. He cleared his throat and coughed once into the crook of his elbow.
“You like lobster, son?”
“It’s OK, I guess.”
“There. There’s one more thing I now know about you. Jeremy guesses he likes lobster. Now… before she comes out and gives us more food than we can possibly eat, I want you to tell me ten more things I don’t know about you. I don’t care how insignificant, tiny, pathetic or life altering, ten more things. Go.” He held up both hands and I pondered my response.
“I like pizza.” He dropped a finger. “I grew up near a farm.” Another digit fell. “I like snowboarding at Sugarloaf, but haven’t been there for many years. I enjoy winter, and suffer through summer. I was raised in a religious home. I was bullied in school. I didn’t have many friends, but the ones I had, are the ones I still have. I enjoy amusement parks. I don’t drink alcohol anymore, but love a strong cup of coffee. I can work from home…”
“That’s ten,” He lowered both hands to the table. “In actuality, it was fourteen.”
“I didn’t know you suffer through summer. Or that you hadn’t been to Sugarloaf in many years. That you’re still connected to friends from your youth. Your love for coffee. You told me more than I asked for. And for that I want to thank you.”
“You’re welcome?” I scrunched up my face and tried not to smile.
I’m the crazy one?
“You told me fourteen things about yourself, and guessing you like lobster, makes fifteen. I will only tell you one thing about myself. Just one. But it’s a little long,” He looked to his calculator watch and raised his eyes to mine.
“When I was a kid, my father bought lobster every Sunday after church. When the lobster was brought home, it was alive and well, tail twitching, antennae shifting around, it’s rubber banded claws flapping about and out of nowhere, my father would place the creature on the cutting board and drive a steak knife down through the top of it’s head; killing it instantly. His justification; it was more ethical that way, than being slowly boiled to death. Once the lobsters lay dead on the kitchen counter, he’d then stuff them into the boiling water to cook. As a youngster, I was appalled, and developed empathy for the creature. I’d find myself staring into it’s eyes, trying to think on what it was thinking, wondering if it could find it’s way home to the sea on it’s own.
“As a result, over the years, I’d try to save the lobster and sneak them outside when he wasn’t looking. I was able to get away with it, sometimes, and never revealed their location around the property, but when I got caught trying to save the living from death, or if I refused to tell dad where they were, I was punished for wasting money by releasing perfectly good food into nature. Discarding the lobster into the woods, where it could escape, was grounds for punishment. Some of my worst whoopings came from trying to do, what I believed, was the right thing to do. What I didn’t really know though, what I couldn’t understand, is I wasn’t doing the animal any good. I’d set them free to die anyway. Nature, exposure, predators. They were out of their element. He tried to drive that into my head for quite a number of years. Something inside me refused to listen.
“I’d just take the beatings and keep trying to do the right thing.”
I crossed my arms and he cleared his throat again. He continued. “My father taught me the lesson the hard way. I had the sore ass to prove it. Yet, I remained so defiant. I’d hear the words, ‘this is what the lobster is for. It’s made for us to eat, to provide us with some nutrients, it’s purpose is to die, or to crawl across the ocean floor until it’s natural death or it succumbs to an underwater attacker. This is the animal’s destiny.’
“I never listened to him… Of course, as I got older, I developed a thick skin about it and eventually came to enjoy the taste of lobster and I now have it quite often. Yet so many years wasted in complete defiance. Fighting the rules. Ignoring the truth. I wanted my thoughts to be my own. I made it my mission in those days to be a hero and set them free.
“My heart was in the right place, but everything else was elsewhere. My mind said don’t do it. My gut said go for it, despite all the punishment and knowing what was to come. I didn’t care. I ran on instinct. It wasn’t until I thought it through, did I realize I was making a mistake.”
“But was it a mistake? Don’t we try to do, what we believe is the right thing, regardless of the outcome? Regardless of the punishment?”
“Yes, but should we also consider all the variables and then make the decision based on all the factors? Should we run on instinct only? Or should we think it through? Lobster is a delicacy. It’s a feast. It’s some of the most sought after food. Folks pay high prices for it. I never considered it to be anything other than alive. I never contemplated any other variable. I allowed my heart to lead the way.”
The kitchen door swung open and the fresh scent breezed across the table. Joseph Everett folded his hands on the tabletop and smiled, “It’s almost done. We’re in for a feast.”
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