I’ve come to recognize that Hank, Robert, Reverend Jack, Buck and Arthur rarely, if ever, enter Wulff’s without the company of each other. Just as their various histories dictate, neither of them leaves his buddies alone in the fox hole.

But on the off chance that one of the members of The Hemingway Society do enter my shop without the others, I try to savor that moment for all that it is worth. This next story is one such instance.

The sun was yet to rise on a breezy August morning. I was tending to my shop the way I always did on summer weekends, busily brewing stiff coffee and pulling steaming scones and muffins from the oven like Fords off the beltline. As much as I enjoy the company of my patrons, I love the early morning preparation that much more. I’m a solitary man, as all fly fishermen are by nature, and the mornings provide me with a solace as comforting as my Oma’s living room. The aroma of coffee, cloves, cinnamon, and that creamy icing Wulff’s is famous for drizzling on its pastries fills the shop like noxious gas, seeping into the pine walls and leaving their tastes for future generations.

But I heard a sharp rap on the door that morning, promptly at half passed five. I peered through the window and saw the knocker was none other than Mr. Robert, the quiet and reserved piece of The Hemingway Society. I quickly returned the pot of coffee to its place on the stove and ushered the gentleman into the shop.

“Sorry to trouble you so early, Andrew,” Robert said. He had a habit of calling me by my Christian name despite my instruction to just call me Andy. “I couldn’t sleep last night and I figured I could wait in here for the others to arrive.”

“No trouble at all, Mr. Robert.” I replied. “Can I get you something?”

“An Earl Grey’d be terrific.”

While I prepared Robert’s tea, I asked, “Where you gentlemen heading to this morning?”

“Prolly Antero, I suppose. It’s always packed this time a year, but we got our pontoons so we can usually avoid the crowds.”

“Unlike the canyon and the Dream Stream, right?” I asked with a chuckle as I placed the cup of Earl Grey on the table before him.

He laughed lightly, “You’re not kidding there. ‘Course, it’s a riot watching Hank try to clamber into his boat.”

“I can only imagine,” I replied. “Rev. Jack probably eats Hank alive during that process.”

Robert chuckled harder, “You know it! Although, when does Jack not give Hank a hard time?”

“Never from what I observe.”

“Ha! Never indeed.” Mr. Robert sipped his tea and said, “Don’t let me keep you from your work, Andrew. I got the Post to keep me company.”

“Good company,” I said smartly over my shoulder.

“Bad company’s better than no company…” he replied.

“Amen, Mr. Robert.”

I returned to the kitchen knowing full-well that Mr. Robert was everything but okay. Of course, a man of his nature would never admit to such a condition – none of the society would I reckon. It’s interesting though because old dogs, no matter how stubborn they are, always open up eventually. And Mr. Robert was certainly no different.

“You know my wife passed away three years ago this weekend,” Robert said to me as I placed a fresh pan of scones into the oven. Immediately after he said this, though, I removed the pan and flipped the oven off. I grabbed a blueberry scone for him and a stiff cup of coffee for myself and sat down at the table with him.

“That’s Arthur’s spot, you know?” he replied smartly to me.

“Think he’ll mind much?”

Robert took a healthy bit of the scone and said, “Nah, I don’t suppose he will. At least until he comes that is.”

I smiled and remained silent, hoping he’d regain the story he was surely going to dictate.

Right as rain on a cloudy day, Robert began:

“Myocardial infarction it was. She was healthy as a horse too, the darndest thing really. Isn’t it strange how those things work? The woman never smoked, ate right, exercised regularly, went to church every week, treated everybody as sweet as apple pie, and yet her heart still wasn’t strong enough to keep her alive. The darndest thing…” He paused momentarily to regain his mental traction. A smile soon came over his face though, and when he spoke, he spoke with a happiness I can only dream of experiencing. “I met her on the railway actually. She was a boxcar maintenance technician and I was a young, brash sailor with the United States Navy. I remember the day I met her like it was yesterday, Andrew. We’d just pulled into a small town outside of San Diego – Jasper, California. Gorgeous day it was. I stepped out of that railcar, my whites pressed perfectly and my hat cropped on top of a thick mat of black hair. Some girls thought I looked like the King, you know? Well, when I laid eyes on her for the first time, my legs nearly gave out from under me. She was standing between to railcars to the rear of the locomotive, banging away heartily at the coupling. She had grease smears on her face and sweat dripping from her brow, but even those weren’t enough to hide her rosy cheeks and bright green eyes. Her hair was black as coal, bundled loosely beneath a cap so that it was just barely peeking from beneath the rim. She had a remarkable figure as well…” at this, Robert chuckled healthily.

“Didn’t hurt her case I’m sure,” I replied with a smile.

“Ha ha, no it didn’t. She was a babe, Andrew.” Robert laughed healthily at this and continued. “I told my buddy, Samuel, ‘Sam, take a good look at that young lady over there because I’m going to marry her someday.’ Of course Samuel laughed at me because I was the complete opposite of a lady’s man. I was a helpless romantic at best!

“You know when the woman is the right woman though, Andrew, because she makes you do things you’d never even think of doing. If it was any other woman, I wouldn’t have approached her. I would’ve just left the train station and not thought a second about it. But she was different and God knew it. I walked right up to her, stuck my hand out and introduced myself. ‘Hi, miss,’ I said. ‘My name’s Bob Lowet.’ I was Bob back in those days, Andrew. Robert is my refined name. Well, she seemed just as struck as I was ‘cause she stood there for several moments just gawking like a child who’d just met John Lennon. ‘Ma’am,’ I asked, ‘Are you alright?’ She fluttered her eyes beautifully and replied in the voice of an angel, ‘My name’s Maria – Maria Struppel.’

“And that was it. We stared into each other’s eyes for what seemed like an eternity. But I was roused out of my stupor by a heavy clap on my back. I turned and saw the glowing face of Samuel. ‘Who’s your handsome friend?’ he asked me. Before I could reply, Maria replied, ‘This, sir, is Bob Lowet.’ I tell you what, son, old Sam’s jaw nearly crashed through the station deck when she said that! Hell, mine nearly crashed through the deck. Never had a woman admitted her attraction to me and certainly not in that direct of a way. She held her hand up to me and asked, ‘Well, sailor, are you gonna help a lady up or not?’ I quickly grabbed her hand – a hand as soft as silk to my surprise. You know that kind of work doesn’t play kindly with one’s exterior. I pulled her up onto the deck and she says, ‘Thank you very much, sailor. I really must be going, but I do hope to see you again soon.’ Her eye lashes fluttered like a hummingbird’s wings when she said that, and my heart and soul nearly blew away in the breeze when she did it. She walked away confidently, certainly knowing that I’d look her up the moment I returned from sea to find her and marry her.”

“Well, what’d you do?” I asked excitedly.

“I did as I said I would do, Andrew. Slightly delayed of course, but a man of his word sticks to that word, you understand? Thirteen months I spent touring about the Pacific fighting Japs and trying to stay alive so that I could kiss that beautiful Maria for the first time. When my time was finally over, I returned to that little train station in Jasper, California. Sadly, she was nowhere to be found.”

“What’d you do then?” I interrupted.

Robert chuckled, “I did what any young, halfwit would do. I asked around and found out she’d gone back east to Texas to work on the rail line there. I got me a train pass that very day and headed right back into the rising sun. I eventually found her at a station in Midland, Texas, hacking away at a boxcar coupling the same exact way I’d met her. Her hair was a bit longer but she was even prettier than I remembered. Lotta times I revisited that image of her in my head, lotta times when I either couldn’t sleep or was too scared to move to my post. Her memory kept me sane, Andrew, gave me something to fight for, you know?

“I went right up to her and said, ‘Excuse me, ma’am. Do you know when the next train is leaving?’ She turned and her jaw fell to the ground. She leaped up onto the deck and wrapped her arms around me so quickly I thought she’d hold me forever. I was quite alright with that too! There isn’t a single straight man on this earth that wouldn’t want that. But I tore her away from me for a moment. She looked up into my eyes and I down into hers and I said, ‘I’ve been thinking about this for over a year now.’ And that’s when I did it, Andrew! I laid the biggest, fattest kiss you could imagine on her gorgeous, red lips. I’m not a scientific man really, but the electricity that coursed from her mouth to mine was as intense as a bolt of lightning. My heart melted, son. My heart absolutely melted in my chest.

“It wasn’t long after that that I left the Navy, made Maria my wife, and used the G.I. Bill to buy us a modest home and go back to school. I’ve been through a whole lot in my life, Andrew, but that day that I first met Maria, that day at the train station in Jasper, California was by far the scariest day of my life. The scariest and the best day of my life for sure. There hasn’t been a day in my life where I haven’t thought about that day at the train station. And although it saddens me to think of it now, I know I’ll relive that day for eternity in Paradise.”

Robert swiped the smallest tear from the corner of his eye and tilted his tea cup to his lips.

People wouldn’t believe the romantic that rested within Robert’s soul. And if they did believe it, they’d envy him for it because love, even if only for a fleeting moment, is God’s greatest gift to man.

Advertisements