Sometimes, something we see or hear sticks with us. Who can say why? Sometimes it tantalizes us with possibilities, or teases us with hidden agendas, or torments us because we have no clue as to the answers to the Six Primary Questions: Who? What? When? Why? Where? How? More often than not, it opens a Pandora’s Box of images, more questions, and, if you’re lucky, flights of fancy.
Once upon a time, a middle-aged man was standing in a checkout line at one of California’s major supermarkets. The man in front of him was having trouble swiping his ATM card to pay for his groceries. The middle-aged man’s attention wandered to the aisle next to him, where an older woman was buying a small number of groceries. The bagboy was doing an exceptional job keeping up with bagging the items. The middle-aged man was about to look elsewhere when the older woman sharply said “No! That should be bagged separately.”
And there it was, encased in hard plastic: an absolutely sinful looking chocolate cake, small and rich and decadent – from the bakery, no doubt. It was very much in contrast with her previous items. The older woman then, on her own, her attention focused completely on the cake, opened a paper bag, and furtively placed the cake inside, saying under her breath, “My husband mustn’t see it.”
She paid the checkout woman and left, holding the paper bag in one hand, and the plastic bags in the other. Finally the man with the troublesome ATM card gave up, and wrote a check. And the middle-aged man paid for his own groceries and left, his mind fascinated with the older woman and the chocolate cake. Because, you see, he burned to know “Why?”
Why must the cake be kept hidden from her husband? Was the cake for a secret lover? Was her husband a diabetic? Was she? Did she want to eat it all by herself, not sharing a single, delicious mouthful?
And so, many months later, the middle-aged man tried to answer that question. Finally he came to the realization that the answer was ethereal and forever out of reach; it was the question itself that mattered, that held for him a special magic. It was one of those very rare questions that held the magic of dreams.
I hope these stories give you half as much pleasure as I had in writing them, and gift you with some dreams of your own.
A Father’s Gift
Mrs. Jensen looked at the calendar, and was surprised to discover that tomorrow would be her son’s 26th birthday. It seemed like only yesterday Michael had left to serve his country. Well, she thought, time flies. The war had ended 5 years ago.
So many lives lost forever. And it wasn’t even a real war – not officially, that is. Not like World War II. Men, thought Mrs. Jensen, have no common sense. No common sense at all. But thank God, she mused, that her son did.
Michael had a family of his own now. He’d taken a job overseas. Very secretive about it, he was. Mrs. Jensen was certain it had to be important work, or else why would he not answer her questions about it, instead of simply smiling? And it was strange that, no matter what his job entailed, he’d always be home for his birthday. Strange, but sweet. And so like Michael. She’d tease him that he really only came for the cake.
He loved chocolate cake! As a boy, after he had tasted it on the first time she’d made it (from a Betty Crocker mix) he only wanted chocolate cake for his birthday. No other kind of cake would do. These past few years, her arthritis had prevented her from making it herself, so she bought one from the supermarket: the special one, with the rich frosting and sinfully moist layers.
She couldn’t understand why Michael insisted that his father not be at his birthday celebrations. It made no sense at all. Michael had always been strong-willed, so she let him have his way. He did tell her that he met with Henry regularly. Once, she had asked Henry about that. Henry thought she was kidding, and when she told him to stop teasing, he had gotten quite angry and began shouting. He then left the room in tears!
The next day, he took her to a doctor, who performed many tests and asked her too many questions, most of them personal and some of them insulting. He’d prescribed some dreadful tasting pills that made her dizzy. She stopped taking them, and never spoke to Henry about Michael or his visits again. But she worried about his state of mind. Men, thought Mrs. Jensen – I’ll never understand them! She sighed, left Michael’s old room, and went to bed.
Henry Jensen kissed his wife as she passed him, just as she had every day since they had first bought this house back in 1952. He watched as she turned the corner, towards their bedroom. From a closet, he pulled a cardboard box. Tonight, he would put Michael to rest.
He sat down in his oversized chair – Emily teasingly called it his ‘Archie Bunker’ chair – and looked around the living room. The walls were a photo gallery of their life together. There was the picture of their first date, and of their snowy wedding day; Michael as a newborn, looking right at his camera; Michael on the baseball team, the debate team, the math club, the science club; Michael on the football team, Michael’s college graduation. Henry fought back tears.
It was now six years since Michael had been declared M.I.A. and the Veteran’s Office had told him that, in all likelihood, Michael was dead. Emily still hoped, and each year she prepared a small celebration for his birthday. It was too much to bear. Their friends were worried that she might be going senile, or worse yet, that she had gone crazy with grief. Worst case of denial he’d ever seen, the psychologist had said.
As he reached for the first picture, and began to put it into the box, he stopped. Just for a moment, he felt the eyes of his son staring at him, from every photo in the room. Henry Jensen was not a superstitious man.
As he stood there, holding the picture of Michael in his uniform, he reminded himself that, just maybe, he was crazy as well. He had never told Emily about his dreams. Last week, an image came to him so clearly that, the next morning, he’d immediately drawn it and brought it to the Veterans office. As he was waiting, a General entered the office, and Henry felt compelled to thank him for his service. He told the general why he was there, and showed him the drawing.
“Have you ever studied maps of Vietnam? No? You saw this in a dream?” asked the man.
“Yes, and my son’s hand rested right there!” Henry answered.
The General told him that there had once been a small village there, unknown to any except the natives and the military, but it had been destroyed by air strikes. No one had been found alive. But he promised Henry that he’d have it looked into.
Henry placed the photo back onto the mantelpiece. I will do this, he thought…some other night.
It was his last visit. Mrs. Emily Jensen listened carefully as he explained why – helping her to understand – and Henry, too, reuniting his family, and of course, the cake. His birthday cake gave him something to hold onto, a memory that gave him the strength he needed. That, and her strong maternal bond. And today, on his very last birthday, he was giving her a gift.
“Goodbye,” said his mother. And the doorbell rang.
Henry opened the door to three strangers. One was a soldier in uniform, one was a woman, and the third was a child. He tried to speak, but the words stuck in his mouth.
“Mr. Jensen, My name is Private Amanda Perez; I’m a friend of General Hightower. He sent a team to investigate the area you drew in your map, in hopes of finding information regarding your son.”
“Please, come in and sit down.” When they had settled, the soldier continued. “It seems that some refugees from a neighboring village, that was also destroyed in the same air strike, found Michael alive, but barely. They took him with them and saw to his wounds. I am sad to say that, several months later, Michael died.”
At that moment, Emily came into the room, and saw their guests. She smiled broadly, and said, “< Quan-Li, welcome to our home, daughter! And you, little butterfly, must be Ni-Tsao! >”
Private Perez’ jaw dropped. Henry himself was dumbfounded! He watched in disbelief as his wife and the strangers embraced, laughing and crying simultaneously.
“Mr. Jensen, did our office tell your wife any of this? And why didn’t you say your wife spoke Vietnamese?”
“No, and she doesn’t speak it! Would someone please tell me exactly what is going on here? Who are they?”
“The woman is Quan-Li, your son’s wife. And the little girl is…”
“Our granddaughter, dear,” continued Emily. “Michael’s daughter, Ni-Tsao. < Ni-Tsao, go and give your grandfather a big hug. >”
When she had stopped hugging the breath out of him, Henry held her at arm’s length. And saw Michael’s blue eyes in his granddaughter’s face. Around her neck were Michael’s dog tags.
He watched as his families united. The light beckoned him: it was time to go. But as he turned away, he saw the luscious piece of chocolate cake on a plate, and thought he could be forgiven for this last act. The last word he thought of, as he licked the frosting off of his plate, was (appropriately enough) ‘heavenly.”