Summary: After the death of his wife, Joe is no mood for Christmas.
Word Count: 3672
The front door slammed with enough force to shake the chandelier over the dining table.
Ben opened his mouth to protest but stopped short when it was Jamie—not Joe—who stomped around the corner and dropped heavily into his chair. A quick glance at Candy’s face yielded no clue as to the root cause.
“Is Joe coming in for lunch?” Ben inquired with as light a tone as he could muster.
“No! And if he does, I’m leaving,” Jamie grumbled while dishing stew into his bowl. “Pass the biscuits.”
“Pass the biscuits what?”
“Pass the biscuits, please.”
“That’s better. Now, to whom do we owe this display of temper?”
“Who do you think? Ol’ bossy boots, that’s who.”
Ben hid a smile behind his napkin. It wasn’t so very long ago that that epithet applied to Adam. Now that ranch operations had fallen to Joe, it appeared he had inherited the nickname as well as the responsibilities. “What’s he done to earn your displeasure this time?”
“He said I could go to Carson City with him when he paid the property taxes tomorrow. Now he says I can’t.”
“I don’t know.”
“You don’t know, or you don’t want to say?”
“It doesn’t matter. Would you—”
“—oh, no,” Ben raised both hands in protest. “I long ago gave up the mediation business. Whatever’s wrong is between you and your brother.”
“Just ‘cause Joe doesn’t have a life, doesn’t mean I don’t. I had plans, you know.”
“I’m sure you’ll work it out. Since you aren’t going to Carson tomorrow, you can help me with the books.”
“Joe’ll probably come up with somethin’ else for me to do outta pure cussedness.” Jamie caught his father’s raised eyebrow and quickly added, “but even if he does, I’ll find the time to check those figures for ya.”
“Thank you. Now, if you’re finished eating you’d better get back to work before Bossy Boots finds your work ethic lacking.”
“Whaa? Oh, funny. Ha ha. See ya later Pa, Candy.”
After Jamie left, Candy retrieved a fresh pot of coffee from the kitchen and filled their cups.
“He’s not wrong, you know. Joe’s been in a piss-poor mood for weeks now.”
“I know,” Ben sighed. “I expected last December to be hard as it was the first Christmas without Hoss. Instead, telling stories and recalling past holidays healed our open wounds. Tears where shed, of course, but we laughed, too. I think this first year without Alice is going to be far more difficult than I imagined. Has he mentioned her at all?”
“Not once. It’s like he’s shut the door on that part of his life forever.”
“I would talk to him but—”
“—you’re worried about how he’ll react?”
“Yes,” Ben whispered. “I didn’t stop him from leaving after her funeral for fear I’d do irreparable harm to our relationship if I tried. I don’t know what I’d say to him now.”
“I’ll talk to him,” Candy said.
Monday, December 15 dawned clear and cold. Too cold to snow, thankfully. Since there was a good two feet of hard-packed snow on Kings Canyon Road down to Carson City, Candy and Joe took the sleigh. Despite fur robes, hats, heavy coats, gloves, and wool mufflers, the two were near frozen when they arrived.
“How about we stop at Jack’s Bar for a hot toddy before we walk over to the Capitol?” suggested Candy.
“Sounds good to me. I need my brain to thaw a bit before I have to deal with bureaucrats.”
The saloon was crowded with businessmen, ranchers, and government employees. Joe put in their order while Candy grabbed a table in the rear, close to the pot belly stove. It wasn’t long before Joe joined him holding two mugs in each hand.
“I figured we’d need ‘em both just to stop our teeth from chattering. You can get the next round.”
“Oh yeah, you’ll do real fine at the tax office.”
They were into their second mug when Candy got up to use the privy. On his way back to the table he tapped the bartender for another round and ordered two plates of knockwurst and sauerkraut. When they were finished eating, Candy sat back and started on his third mug.
“I got something to say you’re not going to like, but hear me out, okay?”
“Helluva way to start a conversation,” Joe mumbled, mopping up the last of the juice on his plate with a crust of sourdough. “Let’s have it.”
“Why don’t you ever talk about Alice?”
Joe’s hand hung above the plate crushing the bread with his fingers until it dripped.
“Jamie put you up to this?”
“No.” Candy watched his friend’s jaw work and knew he was treading on dangerous ground. “Your pa’s worried. You got through the holidays last year by sharing memories of Hoss, and it was tough, but you all made it. Jamie brings up Alice and you bite his head off.”
Joe dropped the bread onto his plate and slowly wiped his hands with his napkin. “I got nothin’ to say.”
“You were married to Alice. Surely you have something to talk about.”
“I hate this season! Auld Lang Syne and all that crap. Don’t you get it? Alice and I never had Thanksgiving or Christmas or birthdays or New Year’s. I met and married her in the spring and she was dead before the snow fell. I got nothing to say because there’s . . . nothing. No holiday memories. No stories to tell.” Joe stood to put on his hat and coat. “Everyone had better back off or, I swear to God, I’ll—”
“—what? Run away?”
“Don’t push me.”
With that, Joe drained his mug and said, “I’ll be back in an hour. Be here or I’m leaving without you.”
Candy thought over what Joe had said. However brief his own marriage to Ann had been, there were moments that, when woven together, made a life worth remembering. He was sure Joe had similar memories, but wouldn’t bring them to mind.
Auld lang syne.
An idea flickered. He threw some bills on the table to cover the food and drinks, donned his coat, and walked down the street to the dry goods store across from the Capitol. A clerk greeted him as soon as the bell jingled.
“Can I help you, sir?”
“Is Hy in today? Tell him Candy needs a word.”
Hyman Olcovich came through a curtain at the back of the store as soon as he heard he was wanted.
“Hanukkah Sameach! Come, come, my friend.” He waved his hand in circles beckoning Candy into the backroom, where a mug of strong black coffee was thrust into one hand and a plate of latkes with applesauce into the other. Despite Candy’s protest that he had just eaten, the aroma overcame his reluctance and he devoured the fried potato pancakes.
As Candy was more apt to visit Virginia City than Carson City, it had been a couple of months since he had seen his friend. They finished exchanging family news and local gossip when Hy commented on Alice Cartwright’s passing.
“Such a tragedy. A life hardly begun. How is your Joseph coping?”
“Not well. Christmas came too soon on the heels of her death. That’s why I’m here. I need to ask you something.”
“Of course. How can I help?”
“When I was in the Army, one of the men in my unit was Jewish. I recall him saying a man doesn’t really die until his name is no longer spoken.”
“Yes. I believe that who we are lives on in those that remember us, as long as we are remembered.”
“Joe and Alice didn’t have much time together. There are things he never knew about her and that’s weighing heavy on him this season when so much stock is put in memories.”
“And you want to help, of course. Let me tell you what I would do.” As Hy talked, Candy began plotting. Before long, it was time to return to Jack’s Bar to meet Joe. On the way out the door, Hy thrust a box of sufganiyot into Candy’s hands.
“Donuts stuffed with jam. It’s tradition!” Hy laughed. “May you be blessed with gifts of love, peace, and happiness this Hanukkah season and well into the New Year! And may Joseph be reminded of the importance of faith, which is the light that guides us through tough times.”
“Thank you, my friend. Happy Hanukkah to you and your family!”
There were 10 days left until Christmas. Candy brought the family, including Hop Sing, into the plan hatched with Hyman’s help. Part One involved everyone agreeing that there would be no more talk about Alice or Christmas preparations in order to give Joe respite from the relentless holiday cheer he found so oppressive. Even so, each day was a whirlwind of activity. Hop Sing baked, decorations found, presents wrapped—all out of sight of Joe, or so they thought.
Part Two would not be a problem as Joe had not attended church since Alice’s death.
At the end of the service, on Sunday, December 21, the Reverend said, “Before I deliver the Benediction, would those friends of Joe and Alice Cartwright who are here today please remain in your seats after the service for a special announcement. And now, may the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope. Amen.”
The family was surprised, but pleased, at how many people stayed. Candy, Ben, and Jamie rose from the front pew and stood before the congregation.
“Folks, I’ll be brief,” Candy began. “Alice died a few months ago after a very short-lived marriage to Joe. What we’re asking is for those of you who were her friends, worked with her, or knew her and Joe as a couple, to please share a memory of her in this journal.” Candy raised a leather-bound book over his head. “Maybe you encountered her in passing or had only a brief acquaintance, but if there is some impression of her or a moment you shared, please write it in here. Your message doesn’t have to be long, or eloquent—just heartfelt.”
A young woman raised her hand. “Why?”
“What’s your name, dear?” asked Ben.
“Missy . . . Melissa Bergen. I worked with Alice at the dress shop.”
“Thank you for asking, Miss Bergen.”
“You can call me Missy, Mr. Cartwright.”
“All right, Missy. I’m happy to explain. Joseph’s mother died when he was very young, too young to remember her as time passed. What has kept his mother’s memory alive for him are the stories his brothers and I related repeatedly as he was growing up. I would bet that today he would be hard pressed to distinguish between a real memory and one that had been told so many times that it became a part of him.”
Ben looked out over the congregation and saw nods and smiles as people recalled similar experiences in their own family. “Alice died in a fire that consumed their home. All their possessions, the mementos of their short life together were destroyed. As you can imagine, this first Christmas is very difficult for Joseph. Our hope is that your shared memories of his wife in this journal will give him something tangible to hold and cherish.”
Candy moved forward. “There is a sheet of paper in the vestibule for you to list your name and address so that we can circulate the book as quickly as possible. As you know, Christmas is close upon us and we would like to give it to Joe on Christmas Day.”
“May I suggest,” said Reverend Thompson, “that folks go home and think through what they want to say, and then come to the church any time between now and Christmas Eve services to enter their remembrance into the journal. Will that work, Mr. Cartwright?”
“That’s a wonderful idea, Reverend. Is that acceptable?” asked Ben of the congregation, who readily agreed.
“Just a reminder, this is a secret project,” Candy added. “Please don’t mention it to Joe if you see him.”
After dinner Sunday night, Joe dropped a bombshell.
“I appreciate what you’ve all done this last week.”
Jamie, Candy, and Ben’s eyes shifted from one to the other.
“What do you mean?” they asked.
Joe looked pointedly at Candy. “Leaving me be, not pushing.” The corner of his mouth quirked upward, and he mouthed “Thanks.”
“But it’s not fair to you, all of you, to forego your holiday because of me. So, unpack the decorations, break out the eggnog, and string the popcorn.”
“That’s wonderful, son! I’m so happy you are ready to share Christmas with us.”
Joe held up his hand. “No. I’m going away for a few days so you can enjoy the holiday as you’re meant to.”
“But, Joe, it wouldn’t be Christmas without you here,” protested Jamie.
“I’ll be back in the new year. You’ll have a much happier holiday without ol’ Scrooge around.”
Ben’s thoughts were conflicted about how to respond. At last he said simply, “Whatever you need, Joseph.”
The depth of anguish in his father’s voice tore at Joe, but he said only, “I’ll be seeing you then. Good night.”
Joe didn’t wait for morning. When everyone had turned in, he exited his room quietly carrying only his saddlebags packed with toiletries, a change of clothes and extra socks. He stopped by the kitchen to fill an empty flour sack with a pound of Arbuckle’s, a slab of bacon, beans, and hard tack before heading to the barn. Cochise received a rub down and an extra measure of grain, but it was a newly-broke mare that Joe rode out of the yard while leading a pack horse loaded with gear and provisions.
It was the first time in months he didn’t feel like he had to put on a false face.
On Monday, gloom settled over the ranch house when the inhabitants realized Joe had indeed left. Aside from chores and half-hearted efforts at busy work, the morning was a bust as everyone moped about lost in their own thoughts.
At lunch, a debate ensued over the ambiguity of number 3 son’s words. What did he mean by “see you soon”? Was “then” in “a few days” or in “the new year”? And did “New Year” mean next week? Or some future date next year?
Eventually Ben put a stop to the discussion. “Enough!” he slapped his palms on the table. “Joseph will return when he’s ready, not before. Meanwhile, we have work to do. Hop Sing, start your cooking. Jamie and I will decorate the house. Candy, go find us a tree. Tomorrow is Christmas Eve.”
There was an ache in their hearts for their missing family member, but they all had experiend love and loss, and learned that life went on.
Joe’s original intention had been to ride up to the “happy place” he shared with Hoss, but when the mountain trails proved impassable and the danger of an avalanche evident, he kept to lower elevations, meandering with no set purpose in mind, content to let the availability of game dictate his path.
One day he shot the biggest jack rabbit he’d ever seen and shared his meal with a trapper he’d met when harvesting ice for fresh water. The old man contributed a bottle of whiskey to their feast and Joe spent a pleasant evening listening to his companion’s reminiscences of happier days in distant places. Jed claimed to have known Daniel Boone and Kit Carson, and to have trapped the Rocky Mountains with Jim Bridger. Thanks to Adam’s history lessons, these and other personages peppered throughout Jed’s tales were familiar.
Advancing age and crippling arthritis had curtailed the old man’s activities, but he swore he’d never leave the Sierra Nevadas. Joe didn’t know about the rest of it, but that much was true. At dawn he discovered Jed had died in his sleep. Digging a grave in frozen ground was not an option. It took Joe all morning to move enough rock for a cairn to cover the body.
He had just finished wedging a rough-hewn wooden cross into a crevice between stones when his mare snorted, ears faced forward, and her flanks quivered. Joe pulled his Winchester from its scabbard and removed the safety. He had no intention of becoming some cougar’s dinner.
Jed’s death and a jittery horse affected him more than he wanted to admit. After searching the terrain at length for movement and seeing nothing untoward, Joe mounted and grabbed the pack horse’s lead hoping to reach the valley before nightfall.
Joe felt a sense of relief when lantern light from farms near Genoa became visible in the growing twilight, but when the trail evened out, his mare was again on high alert. Joe tensed until he heard what she had. Whinnying. She whinnied back. In the sagebrush up ahead, he saw a small herd of wild horses. Out front was a black stallion who faced them head on.
“Well, well. A stud’s come to claim you, has he.”
The mare tossed her head and nickered.
The standoff lasted perhaps five minutes before Joe relented. He dismounted and removed his saddle and tack, placing them on the ground. “Go on, girl. Go back to your family,” he said as he slapped her rump.
Whatever you need, Joseph.
He thought he needed to be alone. Envying the mare’s joy in returning to the herd, Joe reckoned it was time for him to rejoin his own family.
Joe walked into the ranch house and stared in wonder. From the red chair, Candy looked up from his book, his father rounded the corner from the study, Jamie galloped down the stairs, and Hop Sing padded in from the kitchen.
“Hey partner, about time you showed up.”
“Welcome home, son.”
“Merry Christmas, Little Joe.”
Bewildered, Joe walked over to the fireplace and ran his hand along the mantle from which hung filled stockings. He crossed over to the tree and fingered the unlit candles fastened to each branch. He glanced down at the piles of unopened presents on top of the tree skirt his mother had made.
“What day is it?”
“February 20,” answered Jamie.
“You didn’t have Christmas?”
“Nope. We decided to wait for you, partner.”
“What if I hadn’t returned until summer?”
Shuddering at the thought, Ben said, “We would have waited no matter how long it took, Joseph.”
“But the tree would have died!”
“We’d have replaced it. In fact, we did . . . twice already,” said Jamie.
“We live in a forest, you know,” Candy added, bemused at his friend’s confusion.
Somehow, Hop Sing created a feast with no advance notice and they all insisted he eat in the dining room with them.
The conversation was lively, and although Joe did not contribute often, he didn’t walk away either. Ben gazed across the table at him sitting in Adam’s chair listening and observing, and marveled again how like his first born Joe had become, not only in regard to his role in the family, but his temperament also. He raised his glass.
“To my sons, those here in body and those in spirit, and to those who have become family and are worth more than all the silver in the Comstock.”
“Hear, hear!” everyone chimed in.
Before they adjourned to the great room to open presents, Candy pulled a small package from his vest and handed it to Joe.
“From all of us, and many others.”
Joe’s brow furrowed. He looked to his father who nodded. Jamie and Hop Sing were smiling as well.
“Okaaay.” He pulled the ribbon and the wrapping paper fell away. Inside was a gold-leafed leather-bound journal. The front cover was embossed with one word: Alice.
Joe’s heart raced. He took a deep breath and blew it out slowly hoping to steady his trembling hands. As he thumbed through the pages, stopping here and there just long enough to read a sentence or two, he understood the precious gift he’d been given. At the end, there was a poem and Joe read it carefully.
We Remember Them
At the rising sun and at its going down; We remember them.
At the blowing of the wind and in the chill of winter; We remember them.
At the opening of the buds and in the rebirth of spring; We remember them.
At the blueness of the skies and in the warmth of summer; We remember them.
At the rustling of the leaves and in the beauty of the autumn; We remember them.
At the beginning of the year and when it ends; We remember them.
As long as we live, they too will live, for they are now a part of us as We remember them.
When we are weary and in need of strength; We remember them.
When we are lost and sick at heart; We remember them.
When we have decisions that are difficult to make; We remember them.
When we have joy we crave to share; We remember them.
When we have achievements that are based on theirs; We remember them.
For as long as we live, they too will live, for they are now a part of us as We remember them.
The family held their collective breath, unable to interpret Joe’s reaction. Had they crossed a line?
Joe wiped his cheeks with the pad of his thumb, then closed the book and placed his hand over the embossing. For as long as we live, they too will live, for they are now a part of us.
“I’ll read this in private if you don’t mind. But first . . . I’d like to tell you about a man named Jed.”
A/N: Poem by Sylvan Kamens & Rabbi Jack Riemer