The Following is this year’s Christmas Short Story from Hayter. His 15th thus far..
“Lone Ranger, meet Joe Friday.”
If the Christmas Spirit had already arrived, it had yet to visit Clayton Roberts. Clayton hadn’t felt a hint of good cheer for the past five years. As he climbed out of his ’98 Corolla, he was experiencing guilt, anger and fear. Oh, and desperation. He was eaten up with desperation
Clay quietly entered the Midway Vision Center right at quitting time on that warm, muggy Thursday evening. Could’ve been Tuesday. The days of the week were all jumbled in his brain. Likely the fear was doing that. “Anybody here?” he yelled in his whisper-voice. “Anybody?”
What was this all about? The facility was obviously open, but where were the people? He headed for the doorway leading to a backroom and that’s when he saw a guy sitting alone at one side of a two-seated booth.
“Oh, I didn’t see you,” Clay told the near-middle-aged gentleman. “Where is everybody?”
Jack smiled big. “Oh, I’m sorry, I was just daydreaming. Helen’s in the back, working on my glasses. I have fitting issues.”
Clay looked at the door to the backroom and wondered if he should go ahead and enter. Or should he deal with the guy at the booth. Nothing was simple. “Uh, so, what are, uh, what is, uh—“
The man stood and held out his hand across the table. “Jack Webb. And, you are…?”
Clay shook his hand. “Uh, Clayton Ro—uh, Clayton Moore.” Clay was too young to realize that he was now the Lone Ranger and was greeting Joe Friday of Dragnet. And, he was so scared and desperate he wouldn’t have cared had he known.
Jack sat back down and gestured for Clayton to do the same in the chair across from him. “Helen will be out any minute. So, what are you doing, robbing the place?”
Clay could hardly believe what’d he heard. “What? Robbing the— Why on earth would I rob a--“ Clay exhaled slowly and shook his head. “Is it that obvious?” he said.
Jack nodded. “Black hoody with the hood pulled down nearly to your eyes. A Raiders ball cap over the hood, sweatpants and mirrored-lenses. It was just a guess. Look, I could understand if you were robbing a fast-food place or a corner store, but this is an eyeglass place. They sell glasses. Nobody robs an optometrist.
Clay’s anger began to take over. “You want me to rob a drive-in grocery? This is Texas, for heaven’s sake! Everybody and his pit bull is packing heat! Everyone except an optometrist. Nobody robs an optometrist! And, considering the price of eyeglasses, they must have millions in here. And, no security. Wait a minute. Are you packing heat?”
Jack shook his head. “Oh, no. I’m one of 18 gunless Texans. And you? Are you carrying a gun?”
Clay reached around and pulled from the back of his jeans a plastic revolver with the end of the barrel broken off. He smirked. “It had one of those orange caps on the end, and when I tried to pry it off the barrel cracked. It’s been a really bad day… bad life,” Clay said.
Jack nodded. “Uh, I add to add to it, but I seriously doubt there’s much cash in here, ‘cause few people buy expensive stuff like glasses with cash.”
There was an awkward moment before Clay said, “So, how ‘bout giving me whatever cash you have?”
“No, I just don’t feel the incentive right now,” Jack said. “And, it being Christmas time and all, I really need to hang on to what little I have. Got the grandkids and all, you understand? Hey, let me show you my grandkids.”
Clay took off his cap and pulled the hood from his head. “No, no pictures. I’m not in the mood. Boy, it’s hot in here. I can’t believe this. Where’s the thermostat? It’s 75 degrees outside and they’ve got the heater on.”
He took his sunshades off and removed the hoody all together. “Look, you sure you don’t have a gun? Just shoot me, would you? I’m going to be dead outside of a week anyway. Gambling debts. Gambling cost me my wife, my kids, my job and -- I’d say that the day after Christmas -- it’ll likely cost me my life. What was it Lincoln said? ‘The world will little note, nor long remember…’ No one will remember Clayton Roberts, uh, Clayton Moore—Oh, what the %$#@, Roberts! Not even my kids will remember me.”
“Wow, you know the Gettysburg address? I’m impressed.” Jack said.
“Sure I know it. I know a lot of stuff. Just ‘cause I’m a lousy gambler and thief and bad husband and crummy father, doesn’t mean I don’t know stuff.” Clay put his elbow on the table and bowed and rested his forehead in the cup of his hand. “Look, if it’s okay with you, I think I’ll just go out and face the music. Do you think if I begged him, Earl would agree not to break my knees? That he’d agree to just go ahead and shoot me?”
Jack nodded. “Oh, yeah, Earl Jones is a reasonable man. He’ll be glad to shoot you, if you prefer it.”
“Oh, &%@! I should’ve known it. You’re one of Earl’s goons. How on earth did he know I was going to be here? I didn’t even know I was going to be here until about 30 minutes ago. Ah, forget it. Tell you what, let’s walk over there to IHOP, I’ve got $20 in my sock and I’ll buy us some eggs and pancakes. After that you take me out by the motel dumpster across the street and do the deed… Wait a minute! You big storyteller. You said you didn’t have a gun.”
Jack told him that he not only didn’t have a gun, but he wasn’t one of Earl’s goons. Sure he had some business to discuss with Earl in the past, but Earl was too stubborn to listen to anyone but Earl. Jack told Clay that the IHOP idea was a jewel, though, and that he was a big fan of cinnamon pancakes. So they exited the Midway eyeglass place and walked to IHOP.
As they sat drinking the second carafe of coffee, Jack handed Clay an envelope containing a bus ticket clear to Alexandria, Virginia. Jack told him that he had visited Alexandria back in ’53 and he really liked the place. Clay knew that there was no way Jack was old enough to be in Virginia during Eisenhower’s Administration, but he said nothing. He was too shocked about the bus ticket. Shocked more when Jack told him that Earl was going to forget about the debt. -- No way was that happening. Earl was gifted at retaining exact figures of money-owed.
When they returned to the parking lot at the Midway Optometry place, they both got into Clay’s car and drove to the bus stop over by the bowling alley. Jack handed Clay a few bills and told him that he knew someone who could sure use a ’98 Corolla, and would he mind selling it. “I don’t mind selling it, if you don’t mind that I don’t have the title with me.” Jack told him that he’d take care of it.
As the bus arrived at the bowling alley, Jack told Clay that he should call his mother, that she had been worried about him. Clay said, “You know my mother? You are one spook, Jack Web!” Then he informed him that his mother would not care to speak to him. That the last time he had spoken to her was 10 years ago, after saying some horrible things to her.
Jack said, “Well, regardless, she’s been asking about you. Praying for you, actually. A gracious woman, Edna Roberts. She deserves to hear from you. She’s your mother, Clayton. But, it’s up to you. Call her, or don’t. Ride the full distance to Alexandria, or don’t. It’s up to you. I promise you, though, there’s a purpose for you being there. And, for calling your mother.”
Clay promised that he’d call his mom, but said nothing about making it all the way to Virginia. Before getting on the bus, he started to hug Jack, but in an awkward moment decided to just shake his hand. “You, uh… Thank you, Jack Webb,” he said. Said it with a tear cascading down his cheek.
As the bus, pulled out onto the town’s main drag, Clay looked from his window seat at where he had last seen Jack, but he couldn’t find him. Nor could he see the lady standing next to Jack.
“Well, what do you think?” Ellen said.
Jack, put his arm around his friend. “Well, Benjamin said he would appear at one of the stops along the way and encourage Clay a bit. Whether or not the Lone Ranger heeds the words of hope and grace… well, only God knows. As for me, I’ve got to go see Earl Jones. Try to get him to forget about a debt. “
Ellen spoke right up. “Tell you what, let me go visit Earl. I’d like to be a part of this. It’ll be my Christmas gift to you… and to Clay.”
Jack smiled and said, “Ellen, you’re an angel.”
He could hear her voice just above him, as she whispered, “I know.”
Merry Christmas to you and your family, from the Hayters. May you each get and give many hugs during the holidays. It’s such good medicine.