A short story by Award Winning author Stan Lerner:
I was a person of means and considerable talent, when I left the city of my birth. To some this may sound like the words of a man lacking for humility, but suffice it to say that my many character flaws are more humbling to my soul than the wearing of rags and walking with my head bowed low. And although there are many nuances to humility it can generally be said that humility at its very core is simply the understanding that all comes from God. A man of means could have worked every hour of every day and accumulated nothing if for it not being God’s will, that he wax rich. And conversely it is true that a man may have done little to upset his restive state and yet still have been blessed by great wealth. Of course I could go on with numerous examples, but a short story is often more appreciated. I declare now that everything that I have is from God and everything that I do not have I am not deserving of because I am a sinner…And there is this one thing that I have, that for the life of me I cannot know what I have done to deserve, that would be the girl that I met down by the mill.
Some journeys take the adventurous at heart to the ends of the earth. And other journeys take the adventures of the heart much past the point of death. You see it is safer to climb the highest mountain than to know one’s own heart, in fact it was coming to know my own heart that drove me to the brink of an angry existence, which is tantamount to death. The poor are dead for they have no choices, but the angry have chosen death because anger is simply the purest form of idolatry. How often I can recount seeing the faces of idolatrous worshipers on fire with some misplaced passion. All of this being recounted, I should explain more completely that I was to walk both paths before leaving the place of my birth to find a place to call home.
As a young man my pursuit of wealth knew no bounds, so voracious was my appetite for money, even to this very day, I am not able to conceive of an amount that would have satisfied my lust. Upon concluding that material wealth alone would not satiate the beast within, I turned to fame, but not the despicable fame of those who are famous for being famous, which is an existence lower than that of the shellfish, which exist on the consumption of the fesses of other fish. No, only the fame derived from great accomplishment would do. Physical accomplishment of the aforementioned adventurer was of little interest; I had climbed high peaks and won many a worthless trophy and medal. What peak hadn’t already been climbed—a question this is not. And while no man could ever obtain the knowledge of all things, as King Solomon had, Albert Einstein had made it relatively clear that the final frontier, that which is the genius of imagination, is infinite. Never ending genius, therefore the never-ending titillation of a greedy man such as I. So to this endeavor I put myself—the honor achieved by presenting that, which is imagined into the written word.
And yes, like wealth before it, I did also gain honorable fame, an oxymoron if ever there was…I will say this, that like death I wish no man discomfort, but for those who despised me for my wealth, my fame as a wordsmith was all too much. And I did chuckle at the expense of these fools, so disquieted by another’s success they were, when all know that my success was only possible by the miserable failure of succumbing to vanity. I did indeed almost fail my way to the top, yet the Lord found mercy on my soul and spared me this final tragedy. “Can a man such as I really start over somewhere?” I asked, as I drove down the road with no particular destination in mind. “Or will I just roam the wilderness of life?”
Having traveled this great country of ours, far and wide, I came to the conclusion that much of it was in a state of decay. Not to say that the California Coast is not still one of the great wonders of the world or the buildings of New York still not scraping the sky, but like limbs removed from the body, they rot from being far from the values of the heartland—the values, which the country was built upon. When the next great San Francisco earthquake levels the beautiful city by the bay, can one not think of a society that approves of men marrying men, unborn babies being murdered in their mother’s wombs, yet disapproves of circumcision, the covenant with God signed into men’s flesh. I wish for no man’s death, but will I be surprised to see this city’s end, of course not, no honest man could say otherwise. And to the East, where great fortunes are made by gambling on markets, which are not fair, banks lend money that they do not have and one man stole fifty billion dollars while the people who benefited from his larceny averted their eyes from his crimes to their profits—the generation of Noah behaved such.
So after seeing much of our land I decided that only Winfield, Kansas would do. I know that this brings smiles to many a face, on the coast many scoffed, however a scoff of cognitive dissidence it was, because they know that I have been right more often than wrong. And when a sinner such as I declares, “That the sins of the new are even too much for I to bear,” it is a source of much consternation. It is easier to smile and dismiss, than to contemplate and repent. Yes, there is sin in Winfield, but like King David it is not denied. And God loved David.
I bought a proper home built by one of the great men of the nineteenth century. I bought a building to establish a successful business on Main Street. Mind you, I needed neither. I could reside in a tent quite content and the need for accumulating wealth passed by more than a billion dollars ago. However, these are the physical necessities of a normal family—a home and a business, and should I not practice what I advise. I pity the young fool of today, who desires a woman before having obtained a structure to shelter her, or a trade with which to put food on the table—woe to this future recipient of charity. True, family myself I had not, although upon reflection there were some women that would have made for a satisfactory wife, thus a satisfactory life—an appalling existence, the middle of the road is. Why did I not marry, one might inquire? I have in all my years not learned to live with those who lie, as easily as they lay next to me. Children, I wanted many—my one son of my youth, murdered, lies cold in the grave.
After a few weeks of my new surroundings, I found a peace, the likes of which I had not previously known. I came across old writings with respect to my predecessor, the builder of the grand home—he was indeed a great man, and rather than the new owner of his property, I came to think of myself much more as its steward, for I had not built it, I have built nothing. There I sat in a rocking chair on the porch jotting down a poem, not to indulge myself, rather I wished to add something to the legacy of the great man’s home, the least I could do, I thought, as my mind once again roamed. Not for greed and not for gain, I cogitated on the notion of acquiring all that had once been the property of this man who had built the porch where I stooped over a poem.
I searched my heart for any wrong in this endeavor and I concluded that it was a worthy pursuit as long as I forbade myself from treating said properties as a collection—they would need to work as they once had, this was to be a philosophical protest against the lessening of the generations or more accurately, the ready acceptance of such. One need not scratch too deep to see that my very blood cries out against the culture of mediocrity that the men and women of today revel in. There were many properties to be seen, but none more important than the mill…
Winfield is a beautiful spot on God’s Earth, rolling hills thick with trees. Oaks and maples dwell larger than they had a century ago, because unlike the human, trees get better with age. And although many have lost friends to farmland, they welcome their new and most transient neighbor, which so readily interacts with man to feed his physicality—the trees that surround the tilled soil could have stopped at the point of peaceful coexistence with the sunflower, but rather than that, they choose to be its protector, imagine if man could emulate this most admirable trait.
Two rivers converge at this wonderful place and it is to the larger one to the West, which I drove my fancy, city car and parked on the dirt road nearest the old, stone mill. My eyes beheld the canopy of leaves, which engulfed my presence for some time before I allowed them to gaze upon the vast structures from another time—frozen in time. Across the narrow road I noticed a house, more a shack than a house, situated twenty or so feet up an incline more than an embankment. I contemplated this monument to Walden for a few moments, it was boarded up and padlocked, yet I sensed that it was inhabited due to the padlock not being of the same era as the rotting wood it secured. Only an occupant could be so delusional as to think that a barely painted gray shack would have need of such banal protection. The wind rustled the leaves of the trees and I felt the danger, which emanated from this place—not a physical danger and not the danger of beholding decay, a different type of danger altogether. What a strange juxtaposition it was to the beauty of the mill sitting so magically majestic on the riverbank, impervious to the affects of time.
A haphazard attempt had been made to rope off the staircase, which zigged and zagged its way down to the mill—I simply stepped over the rope and journeyed, although I did not know it as I took those steps, to a new life…
As I crossed the bridge that traversed the waterway into the mill the voice, heavily laden with a country and something I could not identify as an accent, rang out, like a bell.
I turned and I’m sure a smile crossed my face as my eyes fixed on the young girl. And because I am closer to fifty than forty, young to me is a teenager of some undistinguishable number. “We’re all trespassers in one way or another,” I answered.
“You’re the man from the city that’s buying up the town,” she said, so plainly that I did not know if her words necessitated a response.
“I’m not buying up the town, just a few places…”
“Not this place.”
I walked back over the small bridge to where she stood. She had struck me as attractive from afar, but with every step her beauty increased. The girl was petit and yet her figure was womanly beneath a wisp of what appeared to be a homemade dress. Her face needs not much description, her teeth were perfect and blindingly white, her eyes large and green, a few freckles dotted her nose, all framed by short, blond hair—a face that hurts a man like I, because it is too young and too beautiful to be possessed as I wished it could be.
“Since we’ve skipped the civilized formalities girl, who are you?”
“I’m the owner of all that you see. My grandfather has given it all to me.”
“Not what are you? Who are you?”
“I think you know who I am, but my name is Jess, not Jessica, Jess. I prefer that to girl, boy.” And then grabbing my hand in her own, she began to lead me away from the bridge down the riverbank, continuing, “I’ve seen pictures of every state and each one has a beauty, but there’s nothing as beautiful as this. You’ve been everywhere, do you agree?”
“I haven’t been everywhere, I’ve been to a lot of places, but yes, I agree.” Her hand tightened on mine, her approval unspoken and I the powerful man helpless in the grasp of a little girl.
“I’m not a little girl,” she stated, as if in my head hearing my thoughts.
“I’m not a little girl, I was born after you were, but that’s the way it is, so that’s the way it’s supposed to be.”
“How old are you?”
“Old enough for us to get married and have children, in the state of Kansas.”
I stopped dead in our tracks and looked into her beautiful face. “That’s crazy talk Jess and I’m too…”
“Too much a coward to just say the truth,” she said, both interrupting and finishing my sentence, then looking down at my hand in hers. “Let go of my hand and leave if you want. Go finish your life alone in your big, empty house.”
I don’t know what others will make of these words, but there was no struggle in my mind or heart. “I don’t want to spend my life alone…”
She shook her head. “No, that won’t due. When you gazed upon me that very first moment, did you, or did you not want me to be your wife and the mother of your children?”
I stared into her face and tried to imagine what I could have done to gain the merit to have been chosen by this completely perfect woman. “Jess, I dreamed of meeting you every night of my youth and ten years past that, but the day came when the dream of you turned from the sweet nectar of hope to the bitter taste of reality, my reality, a soul with no counterpart.”
She laughed and taking me quite by surprise, kissed me lightly on the cheek. “I’m sorry to have made you wait. But of course it wasn’t up to me. The Lord divides our soul and unites our soul as the Lord sees fit. And apparently the boy half of our soul needed more work. Anyway, we’ll have plenty of time to catch up on all of that. I should share with you some of the particulars. What, why do you look sad?”
My eyes were moist. “Are you real. Because I have in all truth, yearned for my other half as Adam had yearned for Eve.”
She raised my hand to her lips and kissed it. “Now I have kissed you twice, which will have to be proof enough that I exist, until our wedding night. Although I do like kissing you, so I might kiss you again before our wedding, but if I don’t you’ve had proof enough. So, as for the practical things that you must know I will continue: I live in the grey house that you eyed before trespassing. I never knew my parents, my grandfather raised me—he’s very old, more than ninety. I have no brothers or sisters that I know of or want to know of. However, there was a time when I wished for someone to play with. My grandfather taught me to read and write, I’m home schooled, but he just agreed to that to make the government lady happy. My grandfather doesn’t care for the government much. He says that there was a time when great men served the people because it is Godly to sacrifice, but they’re all gone now. He says that the great men cared about the plight of the weak too much and that the weak multiplied and that the weak have come to rule the earth. He says that the great men had hoped for this, but that they may have been wrong and that humanity may just collapse onto itself.”
A compelling description of the world’s state of affairs this was. I nodded, but did not speak.
“I think you could have been a great man if you had been born two hundred years ago,” she giggled. “Don’t you worry, I’ll make you into a great man, you’ll see.” She pointed at a retaining wall. “That’s my favorite spot, let’s sit for a while.”
We sat on the old limestone retaining wall at the bank of the slow moving river, still holding hands.
“It truly doesn’t bother you that my physical state is weathered with age,” I asked, not because I am insecure in nature, but rather out of true love and concern for the young Jess. It is perplexing to want something better for yourself than yourself…
She rested her head against my shoulder. “No, not at all. I could not be attracted to a boy, who looks in the mirror and finds himself more attractive than he does I. The cracks in your skin and the scars tell me that you have lived your life and now you have the time and patience to take care of me and our children to come.”
I smiled. “Your words are kind, non-the-less I wish that I could offer a more youthful appearance, though I will make a much better husband and father now, than I would have when passion still ruled my thoughts.”
Her face rubbed across my shoulder. “Boys are greasy and gross my love, let’s talk of them no more. I am content to be in firm hands, not that any molding need be done, but I have had seventeen years of fearful days and nights. My poor grandfather was worn out long ago from his toils here on the river, but he lived on to see that I be no ward of the state. Grandfather will be able to rest now and the mill will once again produce and people will know that there will be a new generation of those who know that manna comes from heaven and bread comes from not just the grace of God, but also the sweat of man’s brow.”
The thought of meeting the grandfather of Jess, was not an agreeable one, as a man of his age would undoubtedly doubt a relationship such as ours. “I would like to meet your grandfather Jess.”
She looked up from my arm. “Will I spend all of my days speaking the truth of your heart? You do not want to meet my grandfather. You came seeking property, not to engage in social niceties.”
“I came for property, not for my own sake, but for the sake of another man’s legacy. And then as if gazing into a mirror I saw the better half of my soul in you.”
“So you will come for dinner tomorrow and you will ask for that which is rightfully yours, that which is in this living being known as I and you will return to I that which you took when you came to this earth and we will be one again—you and I.” Jess looked up at the sky. “The sun has progressed considerably my love, we should go now, grandfather must eat early.”
I prayed to God that night for matters to go well for me, for the sake of Jess. And I thought back to that time in the field all of those years ago, late at night, when I came out to meet the Lord and then ran terrified from his presence because unlike my great ancestors I had not the purity to stand in the presence of my maker. And I continued to run and sin, the Lord does indeed help us in our way. True repentance, I had desired more often than there are stars in the sky and I do believe that there is no depth a man can sink to that God cannot and will not reach down to—a rescuer so infinite is his mercy on the penitent. So while my being, from that time forward, never again attempted to stand on holy ground, my prayers for others remained welcome on high, the mysterious Red Heifer this is akin to—there is no holy act as holy as that done by the unholy, counter intuitive as it may be.
The interior of the gray shack of a home was impeccably clean, not surprising given Jess’s completely unpolluted composition. The furniture was simple and antique, there was a laptop computer closed atop a roll top desk. Jess, noticed my interest in this detail.
“We don’t have television, but we have Internet, some of my classes are online and I like reading about you.”
“Which is how you knew that I was here buying up the town?” I said this in a somewhat jest full tone.
“Yes. But surely you don’t think that you stumbled upon our beautiful little town and I discovered your arrival as described in the local paper? I’ve followed your life for most of my own and I prayed for you to come to me.”
“She did, three times a day she prayed,” said the bent over old man, whom I presumed to be Grandfather, as he walked into the modest living room area and sat himself in a chair akimbo from the couch to which he gestured for me to sit.
I sat and Jess went to the kitchen. “Thank you for having me as a guest in your home, sir.”
“I’m sure it’s not as fancy as you city folk are accustomed to, but it suits us fine. Not to say that many a time I thought it would be better for Jess to be raised in a more refined environment, but we are both men of experience so we need not pretend that many of those flowers have been pollinated by more than a few bees and have been educated mostly as to the means of concealing their impurity.”
“Jess is better than all of them sir, you’ve done a commendable job raising her.”
“Truth be told, she raised herself and was probably more help to me than I have been to her, God bless that child…She warned me that you have trouble asking for things, but as I could expire at anytime, you’d better ask now.”
“Sir, I’d like to marry Jess, I’d like her to be the mother of my children, I’m here to ask you for your permission and blessing.”
Grandfather thought for a moment. “You’re on in years to be marrying such a young girl, but I like that you feel shame in this. Nothing worse than a man who is proud of a young bride. And let me be frank in the matter, at least you’re not a nigger or some other breed of color, which comforts me in that I have done nothing to compel my granddaughter to abhor all who have come before her. And I will go to my grave knowing that my line will continue on into the future as it has in the past. You are a man of great wealth, yes?”
Many would think that a man born in a big city such as I, would protest the word nigger or object to Grandfather’s objection to Jess marrying a man of color. But to what end would this lead? Today, it is common to disrespect a man in his own home or business as if they are common property, but this is not from the time of the man whose permission and blessing I sought. And more than this, there are only so many words one will speak in the course of a lifetime; it is best to not waste even a single utterance on deaf ears. So I answered, “I find money, and talk of it base. I appreciate the beauty of objects, but I despise the worship of things.”
“Then you will be prone to lavish Jess and your children with things, because you care for them not and I must warn you against such an egregious error in judgment.”
I smiled. “I would give her absolutely anything.”
“Well, she knows better and I reckon it’s good that at least one of you is not a fool for romance.” Grandfather sighed. “Old and rich, a romantic fool, can I assume that you are a violent man?”
“I was a violent man and I would be again if I thought harm crept near to my family. I am not of a passive nature in this respect.”
“Jess doesn’t care for violence. But I cannot tell you to do as I have not done. I fought in two wars, men’s lives I have taken, don’t think much about it given they were intent on taking mine.”
Jess emerged from the kitchen and approached. “Sirs, supper is ready.”
Grandfather waived her closer. “Come sit with us Jess.” She moved with haste to my side. “Your hand in marriage has been asked for. And while I don’t subscribe to matters of the soul, as you do, I see no practical reason to withhold my consent. I will warn you, that for a second time in your life, should he live to be old, you will take care of an old man.”
Jess looked at I and smiled, before turning to her grandfather. “As you had taken care of me before I could take care of myself, I am your comfort. My husband will take care of me now and when the time comes, I will his comfort be and our children will be mine—as it all should be.”
“Since you have explained it so well to my consent I will add my blessing. May the Lord bless your union and may you be blessed to have many children.”
Dinner lasted well into the night. Having anticipated her grandfather’s approval Jess had already selected a date for our marriage and informed the two of us of her quite comprehensive plan.
One month later we were married. Grandfather, did live to give Jess away at the alter constructed on the lawn of our fine home and three months past that, more than long enough to know that Jess was with child.
Upon the birth of our first child, a son, I prayed that this child would achieve his own merit in the world, with the hope that it would be from something other than the temptations, I so often succumbed to in my own youth. And then I prayed for a better world for all of those yet to be born.
Perhaps, there are those who believe that Jess married me for my wealth and I her, for her youth and her beauty, but do not the words I have shared offer proof to the contrary. Jess was an inherited young woman and I reticent to know her. Only her awakening of my heart, did cause me to once again remember that I longed to be complete. And this I wish for all men and women who have come together as we have—an awakening of the heart and the completion of a soul.