Let’s get this out of the way first. Kris has always had a magnificent beard. Even as a freshmen, when the rest of us were dreaming for just the hint of a stubble, Kris had a full rich beard. Yes, the girls would giggle about it behind his back, but all of us boys were jealous, because we thought it made him look rugged and a little dangerous.
I once asked about his beard. “How can you stand it, Kris?”
“What do you mean?”
“Doesn’t it drive you a little crazy? Isn’t it scratchy? Don’t you want to shave?”
He merely shrugged in response to it. “I like who I am.”
Strangely, that response made me a little jealous too.
Mountain man was the best way to explain Kris’s look in those early days with his heavy and muddy boots, black pants, and thick red coat. He always dressed as if it was winter, even during the warmest days.
Kris and I were locker buddies. This was not out of friendship at first, but because our last names were close together, my name being Stewart Kristin. Only two people in my life has ever called me Stewie though. The first was my grandmother who I loved dearly, the second was Kris. The first time Kris did it, I blinked a little surprised.
“Is it okay?” he asked. He almost sounded nervous, noticing my reaction.
“It’s fine,” I said and for some reason it sounded good coming from him.
With the approval Kris laughed. Kris always had a deep, rich laugh that came right from his belly. And Kris would laugh a lot. I mean, seriously, alot. He laughed at every bad joke, and he told many; usually ones that were far too clean for a high schooler’s taste.
The only thing he would not laugh at was another’s misfortune. He was always the first to stop a bully or a fight, being there before even a teacher or vice-principal had a whiff of it. His stern and disappointed look would immediately cool the situation. No one wanted to be on Kris’s bad side… ever.
Kris was easily the strongest person in our grade, if not the whole school. He said it was because of all of the work he had to do at home. There were always things to make, stables to clean. Coaches would dream of him being on their team, and as his locker buddy, I can verify that each of them, at least twice, has begged (begged!) him to try out. Kris would always laugh (that deep belly laugh) and say no.
Once I asked him why he didn’t go out for sports. His reasoning? He didn’t like the idea of anyone losing because of him.
Kris and I would talk often, never really about classes or important things, but about life. He seemed to always get a kick out of our conversations, and we shared a locker even after it was no longer necessary.
During our senior year, Kris and I were the only two who did not talk about college or meet with an adviser. Kris had his family business to think of, for me, I was more the dreamer. See, I wanted to see the world! Ever since I was a child and I would steal National Geographic magazines from the library, I fantasized about seeing… well… everything.
I wanted to explore the Parthenon, walk the Taj Mahal. I wanted to discover everything the world had to offer and the idea of sitting in a stuffy classroom felt like almost the opposite of that to me.
The problem is, no matter how many jobs I took, I could never save enough money. I had been working since I was a Sophomore and even though I skimped and saved, I had barely enough for a plane ride to Europe and then immediately back.
Kris noticed my frustration around this right before our Christmas break that year. Our locker was always decorated for the holiday. Actually, no one decorated their lockers like Kris. And teachers and fellow students would look forward to it, wondering what Kris would come up with that year. But when you are in a bad mood, it was unbearable; and on this day, it was, as I threw the pile of advent calendars off of my biology textbook.
“What’s wrong, Stewie?” Kris asked concerned. I didn’t even know he was there behind me.
I put my book down by me, and quickly began putting his calendars back in the locker. I knocked down a wreath and cursed a little at myself as I hung it back on a hook. I don’t know why it was always so easy for me to open up to Kris, but I did that day.
He listened and nodded at all of the right points, and when I had finally finished he stroked his black beard in almost a thoughtful way. “I might be able to find you a job.”
I interrupted him. “I can’t do another minimum wage job, Kris. They don’t work. They are barely worth the gas going to and from them. Heck, I buy a sandwich because I am hungry and I lose an hour’s pay of work! I can’t do it Kris.”
Kris smiled, you could always see his smile through his beard. “Oh, you would be paid more than that.”
I froze and even though the bell for class had gone off, I didn’t budge. “What is this work, Kris?”
“Oh, it will be hard, Stewie, don’t get me wrong. And there are some smells that will stick with you.” He then leaned forward and I swear there was a twinkling in his eye. “How do you feel about reindeer?”
I almost didn’t go to my high school’s tenth reunion.
There are some good reasons, the main being I didn’t feel I had anything special to share. Oh, I did explore the world. Did it for almost a year! But when I returned from my adventures, reality hit me hard and the idea of going to school suddenly turned into an unattainable dream, even more expensive than my trip had been.
When I began working in the auto factory in town I promised myself it was only until I saved enough to go to school. But life would always get in the way of that, with bills and rent always chewing away at it. I could have done the whole student loan thing, but I didn’t like the idea of carrying that burden. It felt like it would lock me down and I wanted to be free, just like I was when I was exploring when I was young.
Now, I knew what others from my class were doing. It was hard to avoid it with social media being what it is. And while I never updated my status or shared insights into my doings (which were scant and nothing noteworthy) I saw their families grow, as well as their homes. Doctors, lawyers, teachers, my classmates ran the gambit, and I couldn’t help but feel like I was on the bottom. Were those the conversations I was looking forward to? Listening to people talk about their successes? Nodding and hoping that they don’t ask about me.
When the day of the reunion arrived, I decided to go mainly because not going felt worse in my imagination. I snuck into the ballroom that night, sticking mainly to the back, hoping no one would notice me (but secretly hoping everyone would). I choose a table in the dark, only once getting up to go to the bar. I chose an imported German beer, dreaming a little that someone would ask me about it. Which I would then follow up with my own tales of exploring Germany. That would at least give me something, right?
Kris’s arrival at the party was the exact opposite of mine. His beard was now white, and he had a little more of a belly hiding behind his red coat, but the laugh had not changed at all. He immediately began to let it roar as soon as he entered and the entire room erupted into applause at the sight of him. In a matter of seconds he was the star of the party, and even his date was the most gorgeous woman there.
I thought she looked like a model, with her pixie haircut and beautiful green gown. She followed at his side, as he greeted everyone around. I watched in awe as he not only remembered everyone’s names but also knew the names and ages of their children.
After an hour of this observing, I felt worse than when I had arrived. I was about to sneak out the same way I had arrived, when a firm hand clasped my shoulders, holding me down. “Stewie!” He said in that loud only-Kris way. “I’ve been looking for you!” He sat quickly by me.
His date took the seat opposite. She was even more beautiful closer up and I had trouble even making eye contact with her. She was the first to speak. “Oh, I didn’t know they had that beer here.” She looked to me. “I once had that when I was in Europe.”
“Stewie, has been around the world, too,” Kris said and smiled. “Not as many times as me, but still impressive.”
“Oh, where have you been?” she asked me, and with that simple question began two hours of the most blissful conversation I had ever had. She found me fascinating, she was witty, I could have talked to her all night.
When she finally had to rise to visit the lady’s room, I turned to Kris in awe. “You are a lucky man, Kris.”
“What do you mean, Stewie?” He replied and sipped from his hot chocolate (he was the only one drinking it there, the waitress was surprised when he ordered it).
“Your date,” I replied as if it was most obvious thing in the world. “She is amazing.”
“She is not my date,” he said and put his mug down. “I brought her to meet you.”
My mouth almost fell open as I looked to Kris and then over at the beautiful, smart, witty, and amazing woman who was disappearing behind the door.
My expression made Kris laugh (again with the booming laugh that filled the room). “You know Stewie, we do have some things in common.”
“What do you mean,” I asked turning back to him, still feeling at a loss by everything going on.
“Well, we both love to travel, and,” he paused here to lean dramatically forward, “neither of us seem to mind pointy ears.”
My wife and I would have two children, twins, a boy and a girl. And while both kids had my green eyes, they both had my wife’s pointy ears.
Actually, they in many ways were like mirror reflections of my wife and they also had much in common. One of the most prevalent being their obsession with Christmas. In many ways, I felt like I was the only advocate for other holidays. There they would be counting down the days to Christmas and I would be lighting fireworks on the driveway.
They could be pretty sneaky around their love of December 25th. For example, I was pretty sure that they all listened to Christmas music when I was out of the house, and when they had to pick costumes out for Halloween they would lean towards Christmas characters. Yes, the Ghost of Christmas Future can work for Halloween, I would argue, but Rudolph was pushing it (of course, my daughter would still be him for two years in a row; on the second year, my wife even found a way for her nose to glow).
We lived in a little house, about as much as my job at the factory could afford. My wife never sought employment, instead enjoying working for charities and assisting in any event she could find to help. If there was a bake sale, she would make the best cookies; if there was a can drive she would collect the most. And on every Thursday afternoon you could find her at the local nursing home reading to the senior citizens.
I never considered asking her to find a job to help out with the bills. It would have taken something away from her, a bit of her spirit would have been lost. So I did my best to support our little family, dreaming of days when things would get better.
But they didn’t…
It began slowly at the factory but all of us workers could feel it approaching.
First, they froze our pay. That happened for a few years.
Then they cut our pay… when that didn’t help, people began to lose their jobs. I was happy not to be one of the first to be cut, but my time came soon enough.
I never realized what a great actor I was until I had to begin to pretend to my family that everything was okay. I would spend my days at the local library, using their computer to try and track down a job. My dream in the early months was to find a job before I would have to tell my family. Then I could present it as me moving onto something as compared to being saved. But the fact I never got a college education haunted me, and the few times I was able to get interviews my lack of education never led to a second.
By the time we reached December that year, I was the odd man out in my family, like a light not working in a strand of Christmas lights. But it was more than a light out, I had gone dark, and I even began to review my different life insurance policies.
Most evenings I didn’t sleep. I told my wife I was reading a really good book and didn’t want to disturb her and that is why I would stay in the living room, but mainly it was to think. Sometimes I would stare and think without a drink, but soon a drink was always at my side.
That is how Kris found me on Christmas Eve.
I knew who it was just by the touch of his hand on my shoulder, much like he did at the reunion, but this time not playful, but caring. “Stewie?” He asked, and I slowly rose my head. My hands knocking some of the empty bottles over in the movement.
I wiped my face with the back of my hand and pretended like things were all normal. “Oh, hi, Kris. I thought I would wait up for you.”
Kris grabbed the chair at the table next to me, pulled it out and sat down, obviously not buying my story for a second. “Stewie, what is going on?”
We talked for over an hour, me and Kris. I told him about my job, my regret around not going to school, worrying that I was hurting my family (that was the big one for me). And through all of it, Kris simply listened, and occasionally nodded. I don’t know why it was so much easier to open up to him than to my family, but it just was. It always was.
“I’m sorry,” Kris said quietly. It was the first time I had ever heard Kris speak in something akin to a whisper. I don’t know why it meant so much to me, but it did.
He let out a sigh. “I would stay longer Stewie, I really would. But I have a lot to still do tonight.”
Kris rose from the seat and walked to our Christmas tree, which the kids left on for him. He grabbed a cookie from a tray near it and nibbled on it as he thought.
Suddenly, he turned back to me and there was that old twinkle in his eye. “How quickly can your family be dressed and ready to go?”
“Excuse me,” I asked, confused and struggling to get up.
“I still have half the world to visit and there is much to talk about. So much to plan, and this will not be a short trip, not at all. And it will be cold, we’ll need to dress warm. Trust me on this, blankets to wrap around your legs might be a good idea.”
“I still don’t understand,” I said and took a step towards him.
“Well,” he said and smiled, “As you know I have a factory of sorts myself and I could use a manager with experience. But this is a one-time offer, Stewie. If you want the job, we’ve got to go now.”
I almost collapsed in tears at the thought of it. Kris seemed surprised by my reaction, and ran over to grab me. “Why? Why, Kris, why are you always so nice to me?”
He smiled, and for the first time ever, I think he had a tear too. “Because, Stewie, you are the only person who has ever not asked me for something. You just were my friend. You have no idea what a great gift that has always been to me.”
Scott D. Southard is the author of A Jane Austen Daydream and the upcoming novel Permanent Spring Showers. He can be found online via his blog “The Musings & Artful Blunders of Scott D. Southard” at sdsouthard.com