from Loree Lough
A Promise to Jake
by Loree Lough©2000
Cradling the phone between chin and shoulder, Homer O'Tuathail used one hand to tear a speaking invitation from the fax machine, deleted an e-mail message with the other. "Hold on, Bobby," he muttered into the mouthpiece, "now the damned doorbell's ringin'."
"You've got a portable…I'll talk, you walk."
Chuckling, Homer shoved back from the desk and headed for the foyer. "Better be careful, 'cause you know what they say...."
"What who says?"
"The sages, the powers that be, the wise men: 'All work and no play turns nice-guy literary agents into slave drivers.'"
"If I was a nice guy, who'd whip your lazy butt into shape?" Bobby asked, laughing. "So who's ringing your bell at the dinner hour?"
Homer opened the door in time to see the brown delivery truck pulling away from the circular drive. "UPS," he answered, retrieving a small package from the black marble bench beside the front door, “with a sticker that says 'Do Not Open 'Til Christmas', just like in the movies."
"And so the rich get richer," Bobby sing-songed. "Presents come from out of the blue to the man who already has everything."
Homer snorted good-naturedly and headed inside. "Yeah. Right. Everything…except time." He kicked the door shut read “Knoxville” on the return address label. Who did he know in Tennessee? Jake Donnelly used to live near Gatlinburg, but last Homer heard, he'd moved to Dallas.
No matter how many months passed between conversations, Jake, with his slow southern drawl and feet-on-the-ground logic, was an island of sanity in Homer's frenetic world. How long since they'd last talked? Five years? Six? Lately, it seemed his life had spun out of control. Maybe all he needed was a 'Jake fix" to get a handle on things. Homer made a mental note to give his old pal a call, soon as Bobby hung up.
"So what’s in the box?"
Homer gave it a cursory glance. Last year, the only meaningful gift he'd received had been a Christmas Eve phone call informing him Paramount wanted to option his last book. Satin panties and hotel room keys routinely delivered to his P.O. box hadn’t seemed meaningful in years. "Dunno.”
“Only one way to find out….”
“Not interested in anything but some shut-eye. I've been up thirty-six straight hours." Homer's jaw instinctively clenched in response to the lengthy pause that followed. "So what can I do for you, Bobby?"
"Well, big buy, I hate to do this to you, but I've got you booked on tonight's United red-eye flight to New York, and I reserved you a room at the Sheraton, walking distance from--"
"You're pullin' my leg...right?"
"Serious as a heart attack."
Homer drove a hand through his hair. "Awright, okay," he said on a frustrated sigh, "what's so all-fired important it can't wait 'til after the first of the year?"
"Schweetheart," came the terrible Bogart imitation, "ish Letterman important enough for ya?"
Bobby had the 'schmooze' part of agenting down pat. And the lingo part, too, Homer thought. But wait a minute; had he said...Letterman?
Ever since that first best-selling novel decades earlier, Bobby had succeeded in booking Homer on all the major late night talk shows…with the exception of Letterman.... "Whose rear will I have to kiss to make that happen?"
Bobby laughed. "Only mine, Homer m'boy, only mine. And speaking of asses, get yours the hell outta there or you'll miss your flight."
"You know how I feel about last-minute crap."
"Oh, quit whining. You sound like my kid: 'Da-ad, I don't wanna get a job to help pay my tuition....'" Then, in his own growling baritone, Bobby added, "This is the opportunity of a lifetime, kiddo. You're a last-minute replacement for Mel Gibson tomorrow. The network has been airing 'Mel is coming' commercials all week, and you know what that means...."
It meant nearly every female over thirteen would tune in tonight for a glimpse of their favorite Hollywood heart throb. "'And market studies show that women buy most of the books sold in the U.S.,'" Homer said, quoting the agent.
"Nice to know somebody listens when I talk. Now listen to this: I spared you the pre-interview bull by emailing your bio to Letterman's people."
Homer was about to ask why Mel Gibson had cancelled when Bobby added, "By the way, your flight takes off at eleven."
"Aw for the luvva Pete,” he said, glancing at his Rolex, “I have two hours to pack and get to BWI?"
"A literary genius and a math wiz to boot. Maybe I'll call you Einstein from now on. Sure beats that moniker your mama gave you."
Homer cursed under his breath. In the early days, he and Bobby went round and round on the subject, but Homer held his ground: His name was all his parents had left him; he'd go back to being a short-order cook rather than change it. “I guess if a goofy name could work for Engleburt…,” Bobby had said, and began parlaying Homer’s rugged good looks with his less-than-sexy name.
Homer had made a wise choice in signing with Bobby Barnes, but like everything else about his fast-lane life, certain negatives couldn't be avoided. "You know how I feel about last-minute trips," he repeated.
"But Homer…picture it: Letterman, hawking your latest book-turned-screenplay. It'll be the next box office hit, I tell you!"
Homer got the picture, and he had to admit, he liked what he saw. "Still—“
"Don't worry, hot shot, you'll go first class all the way. Just don't let the pomp and circumstance bloat your brain."
"What’re the chances I’ll get a fat head,” Homer said, chuckling, “with you running around, pin in hand?"
Bobby's laughter crackled through the line.
"Hang up, you schmuck. I have a lot to do to get ready for—“
"Oh, cry me a river why don't you...or at least cry enough to make me a whiskey and water. Besides, if I know you, your suitcase hasn't been opened since you got back from L.A. last week."
Homer grinned, knowing that 'packing' would require little more than replacing the dirty underclothes in his overnight bag with clean ones. "You know me too well, pal."
"That's why you pay me the big bucks, schweetheart."
Homer exhaled. "I have a good mind to cancel this red-eye, book a flight in the—“
Bobby resumed his Bogart imitation: "You don't get on that plane, you'll regret it. Maybe not now, maybe not tomorrow, but shoon, and for the resht of your life."
Homer chuckled. "You can be such a jerk."
"Yeah, but thanks to you, I'm a rich jerk. Now go pack…so I can sharpen my pin."
Homer hung up and radioed the garage, and while waiting for his driver to fire up the Jaguar, he turned off lights, shut down the computer, and locked up. He could have done it all in one-tenth the time if he'd trade this McMansion for his puny cabin in Buckley, West Virginia. The area reminded him of Ireland, and much as he loved the place, getting into and out of the Yew Mountains wasn't quick or convenient….
The Jaguar's horn blared, and Homer hurried into the front hall. He’d just finished keying in the alarm code when he noticed the package from Tennessee. Tucking it under his arm, he booted the suitcase onto the porch and slammed the front door.
"'Evenin', Homer," his driver said.
"'Evenin', Sam. Sorry to bother you at this hour."
Grinning, Sam shrugged. "That's what you pay me the big bucks for."
Word-for-word what Bobby had said, moments earlier. Homer could only shake his head. After this gig, he intended to see exactly how many on his payroll were getting 'the big bucks'....
As the sleek sedan purred down I-95 between Homer's estate and Baltimore/Washington International, he fielded half a dozen calls on his cell phone: Bobby, informing Homer that Letterman would send a car to meet him at Kennedy International; a Letterman staffer, fact-checking the emailed bio; Homer's editor:
"Congratulations, ladies' man," she complained. "You made the cover of The Enquirer. Again. I'm beginning to think you like being known as—wait, let me quote the headline—“The Silver Fox of the Literary World'."
He'd long suspected the young woman had a crush on him, so Homer soft-pedaled his response. "Of course I don't," he admitted. "You think I like being reminded I'm sixty-four years old, in a decade when—“
"Then why," she interrupted, "do you insist on hanging around with all those...with all those floozies!"
"Floozies?" He chuckled good-naturedly. "You're not old enough to use language like that."
"Very funny, big shot."
He ignored her sarcasm. "It's publicity, Lorna. Shameless self-promotion, and nothing more." Not the whole truth, but not exactly a lie, either. "Those tabloid stories are great for book sales. Just ask my agent."
"Oh, give me a break. Like I'd get a straight answer from a man who's been cheating on his wife since his wedding night. No wonder you guys get along so well...you're two of a kind."
Frowning, Homer pressed the phone's End button. The publisher wasn't paying him nearly enough to put up with guff from a girl young enough to be his granddaughter.
Fifteen minutes later, slouching in a bucket-shaped black chair at Gate C-19, his phone chirped again. Scowling, Homer turned it off and dropped it into his shirt pocket. "Thank God for voice mail," he muttered, grabbing the box from Tennessee.
The plain brown wrapper slid unnoticed to the floor. How long since he'd seen a box like this? "It can't be," he whispered, gaping at the faded Buster Brown logo. What had it been, thirty-nine, forty years? He'd worked hard to keep everything about Dexter buried deep in his memory. Now, as if thumbing through a deck of cards, pictures of the orphanage and the children who’d called it 'home' flashed in his mind. Of the dozens who promised to stay in touch after leaving Dexter, only one had...
...and that ‘one’ kept his most cherished belonging in a box just like this one.
Homer read the hand-written note taped to the lid. "You always seemed to know what was important. That's why I'm counting on you to take care of this for me." And it was signed, simply, "Jake."
His mouth went dry and his ears grew hot when he lifted the cover. "Oh, God," he prayed, closing his eyes. "Don't let it…let it be anything but—“
When he opened his eyes, Homer saw a golden wing tip, partially hidden beneath a layer of wrinkled white tissue. Hands trembling and heart knocking against his ribs, Homer admitted what it meant:
Jake was dead. He never would have parted with the angel for any other reason.
Tears pooled in the corners of Homer's eyes as an announcement warbled from the overhead speaker: "Ladies and gentlemen, we at United would like to welcome our passengers to flight number 2537. We’ll board in just a few minutes and--"
Homer inhaled a shaky breath as a whirl of questions swam in his head. Had accident or illness ended the life of his old friend? Had Jake suffered, or had a merciful God taken him quickly? Had he been alone, or with friends when—?
The word no sooner formed in Homer's mind than a condemning thought followed: If you'd been a real friend to Jake, you'd know the answers.
Well, his intentions had been good. Every year, like clockwork, he'd written reminders on the pages of his daily planner: "Call Jake," on a January page. "Drop note to Jake" in June. "Jake's b-day," every August, and "Send Jake card" in December.
But a deadline or a book signing or an invitation to speak at a writers' conference always got in the way. He could excuse work-related business, but it wasn't so easy admitting that more often than not, monkey business had kept him from staying in touch.
He'd figured there'd always be time to connect with Jake, tomorrow, next week, in a month or two…. Because what man in his right mind would pass up an opportunity to bed beautiful and willing young groupies and nubile writer wanna-bees? Not the Silver Fox! he thought, grimacing. "Yeah, Homer," he said, disgusted with himself, "you're all man, all right...."
The lilting voice interrupted his thoughts again: "We are now ready to begin boarding our first class passengers....
But Homer barely heard it. He was too busy thinking about how foolishly he'd spent his time…and lived his life. And if the truth be told, he'd always known it. Slump-shouldered, he hung his head. Throat aching from trying to choke back his shame, he looked at Jake's angel, whose satin dress was now more yellow than white. The gold that once gleamed from her halo and wingtips had all but disappeared. The tiny pink mouth still curved up in a gentle smile, and painted-on black lashes still framed blue eyes.
The image of Jake, telling the story of how the angel had come to be his, flared in Homer's memory. He'd seemed so scrawny, such an easy mark, sitting cross-legged in the middle of his lumpy mattress that Christmas Eve so many years ago. But Homer and the other boys in Donaldson's Dormitory learned soon enough that although Jake was smaller than other kids his age, he was anything but defenseless....
Driving a hand through his hair, Homer took a gulp of air and ignored the reservations clerk: "Passengers seated in rows 30 through 25 may now begin boarding...."
For some reason, he thought of the brand-new, hand-blown bowl in his living room. He'd shelled out several thousand bucks for it because his decorator had said it would match the bookends on his mantle. Days ago, when he'd plopped his feet onto the coffee table, he'd chipped that one-of-a-kind vessel. Jake’s angel probably hadn't cost a dollar, brand new, yet he’d lovingly cared for it for half a century. The contrasts were obvious...and shamed Homer further.
Gently, he covered the angel with wrinkly tissue, replaced the lid, and eased the box into his carry-on as a scheme took shape in his head:
Homer sure as hell wasn't going to New York. He had more important things to do....
He left a voice mail message for Bobby; the agent deserved as much lead time as possible to line up another client for the Letterman show. Too impatient to wait for Sam to make the return trip to BWI, he flagged a taxi and rattled off his address. "Know any place that sells Christmas trees between here and there?"
The cabbie met Homer's eyes in the rearview mirror. "I guess."
“Stop there first, then.” He noticed a corner of the Buster Brown box, poking from his unzipped carry-on. "You always seemed to know what's important," Jake had written. Back at Dexter, that might have been true, but somewhere along the way....
"Pickin's are liable to be slim, though,” the driver said, “'cause it's kinda late to be buyin' a tree...."
He knuckled his eyes, shook his head. "Kinda late for a lot of things," he said, mostly to himself.
But maybe, Homer thought, ignoring the driver's indifferent shrug, with Jake's angel to remind him what 'worthwhile' really meant, it wasn't too late to salvage a shred, at least, of the man he used to be.
"Hell, mister," the cabbie had said, grimacing when Homer returned from the Christmas tree lot, "the stump my dog pees on looks better than that."
Thanks for sharin’, Homer thought. The tree was admittedly scraggly, but so what? He’d wanted to give Jake's angel a place to perch for the holidays; tight as he could be with a dollar, it surprised him how easily he’d plunked down ten bucks for the ugly little thing, for no reason other than it reminded him of the one Jake dragged into the dorm that Christmas Eve, decades ago.
The man's frown deepened as Homer lay the scraggly pine atop the spare tire. "You didn't pay good money for it, I hope."
Was there such a thing as 'good money'? At the moment, Homer didn't think so.
Two hours later, the poor lop-sided pine stood beside Homer's desk, leaning under the weight of gold ornaments and white lights. The haunting voice of James Taylor crooned from the stereo: "...but I always thought I'd see you one more time again….”
The lyrics echoed in his head. How many chances had he blown? Dozens. Hundreds. And for what? To sell a few more books? For sack-time with women whose IQs wouldn't add up to his age, even on their best days?
Homer caught a glimpse of himself in the chromed finish of his reading lamp. Looks like you caught that red-eye after all, he told himself, swiping at the silvery tears tracking down his cheeks.
"Got the tree decorated the way you always liked it, buddy," he told Jake, sniffing as he straightened the angel. "You wouldn't believe how much it looks like the one we snuck into Dexter the night when--"
The telephone jangled. Again. Frustrated by its constant intrusion, Homer yanked the cord from the wall. "Thank God for voice mail," he repeated, dropping heavily onto the seat of his squeaking desk chair. Cracking his knuckles and working the kinks from his neck, he hunched over his computer’s keyboard. There had to be a way to give meaning to Jake's death, to his life. Homer didn't know any other way, except with words.
He'd wanted to tell this story since his first book hit the stands twenty-five years ago. It probably wouldn't make the best-seller list, as his private eye series had. Likely wouldn't earn movie options, the way his cop books did. He didn't believe in throwing his weight around, but this time, he’d do whatever it took to get the story into print. He owed Jake that much.
He stared at the blinking cursor. "I've let you down big time, Jake," he said, eyes on the blank white screen. Maybe telling his friend’s story would ease his conscience. Squaring his shoulders, Homer pulled out the keyboard drawer and gave his knuckles one last crack, and typed:
by Homer O'Tuathail
It was me who dubbed the new arrivals 'Rookies', because Lord, they had a lot to learn! Didn't matter if they came to Dexter Domicile for Displaced Juveniles wearing store-bought shoes or no shoes at all, if they carried their belongings in a valise or a flour sack, they all climbed those red-brick stairs in one of two ways: Crying out loud, or silent and stiff as a totem. Usually, they were handed over by guilty-faced relatives who said things like. "If only there was another way...", and "When things get better, we'll be back for you...."
A rooky showed up one Christmas Eve, a tattered name tag hanging around his neck and a beat-up Buster Brown shoebox under one arm. He didn't seem to notice that the sole of his left shoe flapped when he walked. If he knew there was a hole in the right knee of his threadbare trousers, or that the frayed sleeves of his jacket ended inches above his wrists, he hid it well. And if it bothered him that Miss Germane half-led, half-shoved him up the walk, well, you couldn't tell by looking at him. The most memorable thing about him, though, was that way he had of smiling with his whole body. It started with blue eyes that crinkled at the corners, and ended with a hop-step on those time-worn shoes.
Half-way up the flagstone path, he stopped dead in his tracks and whipped the old gray cap from his head. Using it as a visor, he glanced up at Dexter's windows. I watched his lips move as he counted to himself: One, two, three...eighteen, nineteen, twenty.... "Wow," he whispered, "who's in charge of polishin' all that glass?" Then he blinked a few times and did a neat about-face that would have put any soldier to shame. "Ma'am," he said to Miss Germane, "my Aunt Cassie, she said I'd be sleepin' in a dorm’tory with other boys. Is that true?"
Nodding, she gave her best thin-lipped smile.
"How many young'uns you got in this place?"
"Three hundred and five,” she said, like she was proud of the number.
"Shoo-eee. That's a lot of orphans." He shook his head. "I don't spoze new kids get top digs." Looking from Miss Germane's puzzled face to mine and back again, he explained: "Way I see it, the high floors is fu'thest from the wood stove in winter, an’ even a simpleton knows heat rises in summer." Bobbing his head, he added, "Reckon a boy would hafta be some kinda big shot to get top digs in a place this big...."
Miss Germane's mouth dropped open, and I'd never seen her cheeks any redder than that, not even when Jimmy Stoker described for her entire science class exactly how babies were made, right down to pictures on the chalkboard. "I'm not sure which dormitory floor you'll be assigned to, Mr. Donnelly," she said, nose in the air.
With his thumb, the Rookie pointed at me. "Will this boy, here, be in my dormitory?"
One dark brow rose on her forehead when she met my eyes. "Yes, I imagine he will."
"Well, good, 'cause he looks like a right nice young feller to me."
Just then, a teacher walked up to Miss Germane and whispered something into her ear. The Rookie chose that moment to take a step closer to me and stick out his right hand. "Name's John," he told me, eyes shining like new blue marbles. "John Jacob Donnelly, to be exact, but mostly, folks just call me Jake for short."
I was a good six inches taller and had at least thirty pounds on him, yet I couldn't help but admire the strength of his handshake. But I couldn't let him see that, not yet, anyway. So I pumped his arm up and down and said in my deepest voice, "Homer O'Tuathail." For good measure, I added, "I'm twelve years old" like it mattered...because at a place like Dexter, things like age and size mattered…a lot.
He leaned closer. "Miss Germane, there," he said under his breath, "she tol' me even afore both my feet was offa the bus, that I'm to have a one-on-one with the head master, first thing." He glanced right and left, then narrowed his eyes. "Did you have a one-on-one with him the day you got here?"
"I did." I was only four when my Uncle Joe brought me to Dexter, but I’d never forget a minute of that first day.
"So…got any pointers?"
Life in the orphanage had taught me many lessons, among them, think on a question before answering it. So no one was more surprised than me when I blurted, "Well, you might try callin' him 'sir', for starters. And if you interrupt him when he's talkin', he gets so red-faced, you'll think his head is gonna explode, so—“
"Mr. Donnelly," Miss Germane said, "will you follow me, please?" She raised the other brow and aimed a hard stare at me. "Mr. O'Tuathail, you may return the broom to the janitor's closet now." I'd always suspected she knew sweeping was just a way for me to get first glance at the Rookies....
"Thanks for the advice, Homer," Jake said, slapping the old hat onto his head.
I nodded, uncertain how I felt about him.
Then he poked out his elbow and offered it to Miss Germane, and when she took it, I knew I was gonna like him.
Donaldson's Dormitory was all manner of commotion before Miss Germane flung open the door and pierced our eardrums with her high-pitched "Lights out, gentlemen!" Until then, boys hopped from cot to cot like frogs on lilypads, making the bedsprings squeal like the brakes on bus. Whistles and whoops of laughter bounced off the dorm's stone walls and wood-planked floors.
It was especially noisy that Christmas Eve, because we knew every priest and pastor in Jersey City had 'sermoned' until their parishioners knew the difference between our lives and their own. We pretended not to mind that they saw us as riff-raff; if that's what it took to get them to dig deep, blow the lint off a coin or two, so be it. Because that money was what made trucks and rubber balls appear for the boys, baby dolls and stuffed animals for the girls. And if we were real lucky, maybe even be a slice of turkey on our plates at dinner time.
That night, I couldn't help noticing that the Rookie didn't get involved in the rough-housing. He just sat there, cross-legged in the middle of his cot, holding a battered shoebox in his lap. Just being careful, I figured, since it was his first day and all.
So feeling a little sorry for him, I walked over, leaned both forearms on the cold steel footboard of his cot. "What you got there, Jake for Short?"
He aimed those piercing blue eyes of his at me and stared hard, harder than I’d ever stared at the arithmetic problems Miss Germane scribbled on the board. I couldn’t decide if Jake was trying to figure out if I could be trusted…or if my question roused a sad memory. Too many of those at Dexter, and sure I didn't want to be responsible for waking one, especially on Christmas Eve. "It ain't alive, is it?" I teased, grinning as I pointed at the box. "'Cause if it is, Miss Germane will beat your ass for sure."
A little smile lifted one corner of his mouth. "Y'all oughtn't say cuss words, Homer. Cussin' is a sin, y'know."
"'Y'all?'" I echoed. "Where you from?"
"Geez. How'd you get all the way from there to here?"
"Well, when my maw died, there weren't no other blood kin to take me in, so I was sent to live with her sister here in Jersey. And when Aunt Cassie passed...." Jake shrugged. "An' to answer your other question…iffin the thing in this here box was alive…well, there'd be holes in the top, so's it could breathe, now wouldn't there?"
He'd made a good point, but I wasn't about to admit it. "So if it ain’t nothin’ alive, what is in the box?"
Jake inhaled, said on the exhale, "This here's, it’s a angel."
He said it with the awe and respect folks said God and Jesus. "A...angel?" I said.
"You one of them young’uns who’s got trouble with his ears, Homer?"
Ignoring the insult, I lobbed one of my own. "You ain't of those sissy boys, are ya?"
"If keepin' a Christmas angel in a box makes a feller a sissy boy," he hissed through clenched teeth, "then I reckon I must be a sissy boy."
Well, when he put it that way, it didn't make any sense to me, either. "So what you gonna do with a Christmas angel in a crummy place like this?"
Jake looked at the bouncing boys and the gray walls and the bare wood floor. "I seen worse places."
Worse than Dexter, where it was so noisy a boy couldn't fall asleep unless he was dog-tired? Where it was so crowded, a guy thanked God if he got a minute to pee in private? If there was a worse place, I sure didn't want to see it!
"This is 'zactly the place for an angel," Jake said, "'specially a Christmas angel." He removed the boxtop. "It makes folks smile, see, reminds ‘em what Christmas is really all about. It first belonged to my granmaw, became my maw's when Gran passed on." He sucked in such a big breath that it lifted his shoulders and chin at the same time. "And when my maw passed," he continued, "well, that’s how it become mine." He brightened slightly when he added, "Didja notice...her face is made of porcelain."
He said 'porcelain' like it was something fine, so I nodded, like I knew something about the stuff. Everything about Jake's angel was shiny, from its thick canary-yellow hair to the pale blue shoes poking from under her puffy white dress. The halo on her head and wings on her back, I could tell, had once been the color of the ring Miss Germane's wore. Whether the angel’s gold had worn or faded, I couldn't say, but I knew this: she was the prettiest thing I’d ever laid eyes on.
"I saw one of those once," I said, “'bout four years ago, when some church people picked us up in a bus. They took us to see the Nativity play, and there was a big tree beside the stage. It had an angel on top of it."
I stared at its face. Some artist, I supposed, had painted on a tiny, barely-smiling red mouth, black-lashed blue eyes, comma-shaped eyebrows, and pink blushing cheeks. I wondered if her hair felt as soft as it looked. "That angel I saw in town," I began, touching the yellow curls, "wasn't half as pretty as yours."
"We need to get us a Christmas tree."
He said it so matter-of-factly that I laughed out loud, and that brought the others over. "He wants us to get a Christmas tree," I explained as they gathered round, "so he can put his angel on top of it."
In place of the teasing I'd expected, the boys pressed closer still. "A Christmas angel?" said one. "Lemme see it," said another.
Jake tilted the box. "'Twas my grandmaw's," he repeated. "When she passed, it became my own maw's."
"And now that your maw is dead," Tommy asked, mimicking Jake's drawl, "the angel is yours."
"Yep," he said. Then, "So what-say we get busy, gettin’ us a Christmas tree!"
"B-b-but how?" Stuttering William demanded. "Any m-m-minute now, it'll be l-l-ights out, and--"
Wiggling his eyebrows, Jake winked. "Get back to makin' noise," he instructed, smirking. "If Miss Germane comes in here and we're all behavin' like li'l angels ourselves, she'll know there's a fox in the hen house, an' we'll never get away with it."
"'A fox in the hen house?'" I echoed. "What in the--"
Jake waved us nearer. "After lights out, me'n Homer, here, will climb out the winder and cut us down a tree."
Tommy crossed both arms over his chest. "How you gonna do that?"
"Y-y-yeah," Stuttering William put in. "W-w-we ain't got no--"
Jake lifted the white paper surrounding his angel...and exposed a pearl-handled pocket knife. He slid the knife into his trousers' pocket, gave it a light pat-pat-pat. "This here blade ain't goin' to cut down no giant redwood, but then, there ain't room at Dexter for a tree that size, anyway." He pointed. "All's we need is a tree 'bout the size of him."
All eyes went to Tommy, who stood no more than three feet tall. "Ain't gonna be much of a tree," he said, grinning, "if it ain't no bigger than me."
As Jake put the shoebox into his bureau drawer, he said, "Ever seen them fancy ladies in town?"
Giggling and shoving, the boys nodded.
"Well, a Christmas tree is kind like them. It’s the doo-dads what make the difference."
If a mirror had been handy just then, I would have bet that my face was as wide-eyed and slack-jawed as everybody else's. Still, as the oldest boy in Donaldson's Dorm I believed I had an obligation to see to it we all kept our feet on the ground. "Doo-dads?" I echoed. "Where we gonna get doo-dads when we don’t even know what they are."
Jake's brow crinkled, as if he couldn't believe how dense the lot of us were. Then he looked me in the eye: "Whilst you an' me is out makin' like lumberjacks, these here boys'll come up with somethin' to trim the tree with," he said. "Jus' wait an' see." Then he shoved his bed against the wall, and like a zoo monkey, leaped from headboard to window ledge. "Get back to makin' a racket,@ he said, Aor Miss Germane's gonna come on in here to find out what all the quiet is about!"
Sure enough, when we returned at midnight with a squat, scraggly tree, the boys presented a collection of bent spoons and two-tined forks, the handle from a broken mug, and an assorted string and twine. When they'd finished hanging the stuff on the tree, Jake handed me his angel. "You're the tallest, Homer. Put 'er up top."
"What you got there?" Jake asked.
I shoved the blue-lined tablet under my pillow. "Nothin'," I said, feeling the heat of a blush on my cheeks.
"Looked like some kind of school book. You doin' homework?"
Jake opened the drawer where he kept his angel. "Writin' another story?"
I couldn't very well admit it, not with Stuttering William and Tommy standing within earshot. Writing was for girls...and girlie-boys....
His hand shot out and pulled the tablet from under my pillow.
"Hey, give it back!" I hollered, grabbing for it.
But quick as an eyeblink, Jake took off down the hall and locked himself into the janitor's closet. He knew as well as I did that if I kicked up too big a fuss, every boy in Donaldson's Dorm would want to know why. I had no choice but to sit quietly...and plan the way I'd tear him apart once he opened that door.
Nearly an hour passed before he called through the keyhole. "Homer?"
"These stories of yours…wow."
Did that mean he liked them? I licked my lips. "Gimme my tablet back," I snarled.
"Y’all are special, Homer. You know that, right?"
They called Fat Freddie "special"; it was grown-up talk for retarded. I felt my hands ball into fists. Oh, he was going to get an ass-kickin= when he came out of there, for sure!
"Iffin y'wanna clobber me for swipin' your book, go right ahead. Readin' your stories was worth a good beatin'." Slowly, he opened the door and handed me the tablet. Head down and hands pocketed, he headed toward the dorm.
"Hey, where do you think you're going?"
"To get my angel."
I ran to catch up with him. "But...but it ain't even close to Christmas...."
He stopped so fast, I nearly crashed into him.
"Save that surprised look for somebody who'll fall for it. I know you seen me talkin’ to her when I need to puzzle out a problem...."
Kids did all sorts of goofy things to get by at Dexter. Talking to Christmas tree angels didn't seem all that strange, compared to some of the stuff I’d seen. "What're you gonna ask her?"
"You'll see," he said. Back in the dorm, he sat on the edge of his cot and held the angel in his hands. "So what do you think?" he asked her. "Is it ‘sissy’ for a boy to be writin' stories down in a notebook?" He held her small face to his ear and, nodding, he smiled.
What could it hurt to play along? I thought. Nobody else was listening.... I moved closer. "So…?"
Gently, he tucked her back into the shoebox, and met my eyes. "She said there ain't nothin' ‘girlie’ 'bout a boy tellin' stories that make other people feel good. She says that's just what Jesus did, an' nobody ever called him a sissy."
I sat on my own cot, swallowing and staring, until Jake got up. He was almost in the hallway when he turned and said, "I'll just bet if you sent those stories to a magazine, they'd pay you for 'em."
Two years later, when I was fourteen and Jake was twelve, I packed my cardboard suitcase with the stories Jake read that day...and dozens more I'd written since...and prepared to leave Dexter. He walked me to the big iron gates. "You'll do fine out there, Homer."
"Did your angel tell you that?"
Smiling, Jake said, "You always seem to know what's important, and that'll stand you in good stead, no matter where you go or what you do."
"That's good to hear," I said, meaning it.
"Promise me something?"
"If I can...."
"Don't quit writin' them stories of yours. One day, they're gonna make you rich and famous."
I laughed. "Yeah, and you're gonna be a comedian."
"One more promise?"
This time I didn't hesitate. "Sure." I liked the kid. Fact was, Jake was the closest thing to a brother I’d ever have.
"If anything happens to me, will you take care of my angel? She means a lot, bein' she's all I have to remember my maw by, so...."
The idea of a world without Jake, well, it wasn’t a place I cared to live. "That’s just crazy talk. You’re gonna live—“
"We hafta stay in touch, and not like them others who leave here sayin' they's gonna." Winking, he socked my shoulder. "It'll be like we're brothers."
"Sure," I repeated.
And then I left Dexter for good.
I hitched a ride from Jersey to New York City, and got a job as a short order cook in a diner near the theater district. Every night, alone in my room above the kitchen, I scribbled on blue-lined tablets....
I saw Jake just twice after that, but every now and then, when I yearning for that feet-on-the-ground, Jake Donnelly brand of common sense, I'd pick up a phone, knowing even before hearing his slow southern drawl that I'd feel better about my life, about myself, when we said goodbye. Because Jake meant to make a difference in people's lives. Fat girls felt thin, ugly girls felt pretty in his presence; dumb boys felt smart, and scared boys felt brave. And boys who didn't believe they had the talent or the courage to show their stories to publishers, tried.
I was still fourteen when I got up the nerve to mail one of my stories to a magazine. By nineteen, I'd been published dozens of times. And since then, I've enjoyed material success like most men only dream about.
Couple of years back, I got an invitation to Christmas at the White House. They had one helluva tree, but it couldn't compare to my first one at Dexter Domicile for Displace Juveniles.
I owe you a big one, Jake, and that's never more clear to me than at Christmastime.
FIVE YEARS LATER:
"Homer, schweetheart," Bobby said, "so what's up with your answering machine? I've been trying to get hold of you for days."
"Don't have one up here." Don't want one, don't need one, he added.
"Letterman's people have been hounding me all week. They want you, baby, want you bad."
"Once upon a time, I would have jumped at an invitation to hawk a book-turned-movie on Dave's show. But things are different now. I'm different now."
"Well, that sure as hell is true.” Bobby snickered. “Hell, remember the time you stood Letterman up? Lucky for you he doesn’t hold a grudge."
Homer had gained his fame with gritty detective novels, but the story of Jake's angel had come straight from his heart, and touched a national nerve.
"Homer, baby...we're talking big bucks here."
"Y'know, not so long ago, a statement like that would have dilated my pupils. Now, it means next to nothing." If big bucks hadn’t been the center of his world, maybe he’d have a rich life, a loving wife, couple of kids and grandkids.... "I like the way I live,” he lied. “Things are simple, uncomplicated."
"But Homer, the publicity...."
He'd said the same thing five years ago, when Tri-Adon made the offer to turn Jake's Angel into a major motion picture. Homer had agreed to sign...on one condition:
Profits from the book and the movie would create a national organization to provide loving homes for parentless kids. Nobody, not even Homer, had expected Jake's Angel to set box office records, earning enough to build a Paradise House in dozens of cities, each staffed by child-care specialists known as "Jake's Angels".
Jake would have loved the irony.
Homer laughed quietly. "Sure. Why not. Dave can write a check to Paradise House instead of Homer O'Tuathail...on the air. Talk about publicity!"
Bobby sighed. "So what are you working on?"
"Down, boy," Homer said. "You'll have the manuscript before it’s due on my editor’s desk."
"I wasn't worried."
Chuckling, Bobby said, "What do you do up there in that tiny cabin all by yourself?"
West Virginia's Yew Mountains provided some of the most satisfying vistas Homer had ever seen...and thanks to his success, he'd seen most of the world. "This and that," he said, knowing full well that if he admitted how much he enjoyed stacking wood, tending vegetables, writing his stories, Bobby wouldn’t believe him anyway.
"Mind if I ask you a serious question?" Bobby asked.
Homer chuckled. "Long as you don't mind hearing 'it's none of your business'…."
"What's with you lately? I mean, seriously. You used to love livin’ in the fast lane, seeing your face on supermarket tabloids, throwing wild parties…a pretty girl on each arm. You were the envy of every red-blooded American male...."
It had taken a lifetime, but Homer had finally found his place in the world. Looking up at the Buster Brown shoebox on the shelf above his desk, he smiled. Material things? Parties? Women? These past two years, he’d lived well, better than ever, without them. He took a deep breath of clean mountain air, let it out slowly. "Let's just say…I'm keeping a promise to Jake."