The family were coming for Christmas Day: Catherine’s brood from Vermont, Rowan’s nieces and nephews from Wisconsin, and a few stray folks we’d call “honorary” family. With the turkey stuffed, pies latticed, cranberries boiled and laced with Grand Marnier, all was staged and ready for tomorrow. Then the unthinkable: the whipping cream had expired! Howard volunteered an emergency run to whatever store hinted at life six o’clock on Christmas Eve.
The Loaf & Jug on Highway #7 was probably still open, but their heavy cream had to be older than Louis Pasteur. So Howard prayed Cermak’s on South Broad — the wrong direction — might have compassion for the slow-witted, clumsy, forgetful and yet still be open. No such luck, so it was about face and northbound to the Strip.
It was indeed a silent night, except for the lone car stuck in a drift, rocking back and forth, gripped by an icy and ever-deepening rut. Howard paused to help.
“Give you a hand?” He knocked on the driver’s-side window. “I’ve got sandbags in the trunk.” A muffled “Sure!” came as the frosted window dropped a sliver.
Everyone north of the forty-second parallel knows what to do in these situations: straighten the wheels; rock gently forward and back; don’t gun the engine. Howard popped the trunk and poured sand into the well, both fore and aft, until the car got traction and was freed from the drift. “The name is Dean. I appreciate your help, Howard.”
“How is it you know me?”
“It’s your writing; your column. I’m a regular reader.” Dean confessed he’d enjoyed the sesquicentennial series in 2007 but had been out of touch for several months. It was work that brought him to Agincourt, this of all weeks, and tonight, in the eye of a winter storm.
“What could possibly bring you out on Christmas Eve?” Howard wondered, aloud and quietly, deeply within himself.
“Counseling. I’m a life coach of sorts, and the job respects no bounds: when the need is there, so am I.”
To Howard, who just turned sixty-nine, Dean seemed an indeterminate age. Not that you couldn’t place his age; it seemed to fluctuate—now about the same as yours, then younger, then a score of years would wash across his face. The voice varied, as well, though Dean’s patterns of speech were of Howard’s own generation and earlier. He, too, is a man of words, so the subjunctive, for example, was a welcome sound to ears numbed by today’s twitter and tweet. “Did you go to school here?”
“Oh, no, not here. But I did know Miss Kavana. You wrote about her once, I recollect, and were spot on, if memory serves.” He went on, encouragingly. “Though there is so much more than six or seven hundred words can explore. Have you thought of fleshing out those sketches and adding a few more?” Dean suggested a handful of familiar names—Sheriff Pyne during the Great Depression; the unlikely trinity of Circe Beddowes, Maud Adams and Belle Miller; even Howard’s great-grandmother Martha Tennant.
“Have you been snooping in my notes?” Howard asked, half laughing, feeling suddenly transparent.
Dean smiled. “They just seem so logical, representative; typical in the sense of types.” Dean knew a lot—as much as Hal Holt, even—for someone not from these parts. “If not you, who?”
Indeed, Howard wondered, who?
“There’s a lot of Hal Holt in what you do. How you go about it, I mean.”
“You knew Hal?”
“Didn’t everyone?” meaning, of course, didn’t those of us with the sense to come in from the storm and be happily harbored in Hal’s tendentious friendship. Soon, they were lobbing Hal stories back and forth—”I’ll see yours and raise you one”—until Howard realized the time. “Jeez! I’m going to be in dutch. Rowan thinks I ran to the store for heavy cream.” The battery (which had been charging) was done, so they disconnected the cables, and Howard bade farewell to this strangely familiar stranger.
“Are you staying in town?” Would Dean like to stay for dinner?
“No, my work’s done here, I think. Got to be in Council Bluffs before midnight. But I couldn’t have done it without you.” Hands shaken, Howard watched the tail lights fade up Broad Street toward Highway 7.
Back in his warm car, he thought, Screw the whipped cream. We’ll make meringue or something, when he noticed a Cermak’s bag on the passenger seat beside him. Inside, a pint of heavy cream (unexpired) and a stylish business card:
life skills for the hesitant and harried / house calls / fees negotiable
and an email with a domain he didn’t recognize and a phone number that wasn’t local. He put it in his wallet, just in case, and hurried home.
“That was fast!” Rowan looked genuinely surprised. “I didn’t think you’d left yet.” Howard glanced at the clock: it was just 6:15.