PREPARING FOR A WEDDING

One week ago – to the day – the son of my heart took the love of his life for a bride and they were married before God, family, and friends. With majestic mountains and a deep-water lake in the background, we were blessed with sunshine when the forecast threatened thunderstorms. A most gracious gift from our loving God and a beautiful memory that will stay with me. For Forever.

How sweet. How romantic. How … ALL-CONSUMING!!!

You see, preparing for a wedding is a daunting responsibility, and not for the faint of heart. To quote The Princess Bride, “Anyone who says differently is selling something.” In fact, I would be hard-pressed to think of anything more task-driven and comprehensive in nature than wedding plans.

To be honest, the focused attention to detail of a bazillion ongoing checklists have been slightly [*cough*] overwhelming. And we won’t even talk about the laughter, tears, and countless hours of lost sleep. Just being real here.

But somehow, there is nothing to be done but power through the all-consuming pursuit to get it perfect for the BIG DAY!!

Which is why I’ve gone Ghost Protocol with my writing these last few months.

Now here’s where we get to something that has been on my heart and mind, and I hope you hear me out to the end. As much as I have looked forward to my son’s special day, there is another marriage event that fills me with immeasurably more anticipation. The thought of it makes my heart soar and swell-to-bursting with wild expectation!

Let me tell you about the Marriage Supper of the Lamb.

The Bible tells us that Jesus is the Bridegroom and the Church is his Bride. As Christ-followers, we are not bound to this world and the wrath of God that will pour out in the Last Days [a subject for another time]. Rather, we are promised to be rescued and spend eternity with Jesus. When he takes us from this temporary place that we are passing through, he has something special planned called the Marriage Supper of the Lamb. It’s a grand celebration signifying that we have finally arrived HOME!

Revelation 19:7-9 gives us this account: “Let us rejoice and exult and give him the glory, for the Marriage of the Lamb has come, and his Bride has made herself ready; it was granted her to clothe herself with fine linen, bright and pure”— for the fine linen is the righteous deeds of the saints. And the angel said to me, “Write this: Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb.” And he said to me, “These are the true words of God.”

This is a personal invitation from me to you to be a part of this Wedding Feast … and then Eternity with Jesus, the One who died on the cross to save and redeem his Bride. That means anyone who confesses their sins and turns to follow Jesus through this life and into the one to come. It’s that easy. But not everyone will accept this offer. I know this because the Bible also gives us this account through the use of a parable [a story to teach a truth]:

In Matthew 22, it says, “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding feast for his son. He sent his servants to call those who were invited to the wedding feast, but they would not come. Again he sent other servants, saying, ‘Tell those who are invited, “See, I have prepared my dinner … and everything is ready. Come to the wedding feast.”’ But they paid no attention and went off, one to his farm and another to his business … ”

Friends, time is short. Either you will die or Jesus will return in your lifetime. There is simply no other option. Jesus has gone to prepare a place for his Bride and until he comes for her, the offer is still open … there is time to choose Life. There is everything to gain and nothing to lose by putting your hope and trust in the loving Creator that made you. He is faithful and can be trusted to keep His Word!

Don’t you want to be at that Wedding Feast with the other saints that have gone before? These aren’t perfect people, just people saved and rescued by the sacrifice that Jesus made on the cross. Thankfully, as prophesied, he rose again on the Third Day, which is why I’m filled with longing and great expectation for the Big Day!

Why am I writing this? Because Jesus said, ‘Go Tell The World About Me.’

And People Must Know.

ALWAYS WINTER

Once Upon A Time in a land called Narnia there was a saying:

 “Always Winter, Never Christmas.”

Since the sentiment was penned by C.S. Lewis in 1950, the phrase has been used time and again. Even now, I still grumble it on occasion despite the fact that Christmas was only two months ago. You see, I’m a spring-summer-fall kind of girl, drawn to the sun and its warmth and the way it makes everything come … ALIVE!

Here, in the middle of a February cold snap, I find myself scooping ice out of the stock tank and precariously sliding my way down the slippery sheet that we call a driveway. To top it off, I’m homebound and hermitting with a sick cat that needs syringe-feeding like five times a day.

And I’m tempted to think that winter will never end.

I know, I know … some of you like winter. The glistening icicles, a hushed wonderland, snow angels, hot chocolate, and skiing. Yeah, some of it’s pretty great. But if I’m honest, it’s not the weather of the world that I’m talking about, though that does make me weary at times.

No, I’m talking about a much larger perspective: The Eternal Perspective.

This world has been in winter for such a long time. It’s easy to think that a season of death is normal, that things were destined to wither and die. My friend, that’s a lie. Death is an enemy – an enemy that will be defeated once and for all at the end of all things. How do I know? Because I read The Book. Go ahead … skip to the end, I give my permission (for once) and gladly.

When is the end you ask? Well, I don’t know exactly. The Bible isn’t clear on the time, but I can tell you that it’s on the horizon and probably closer than we think. C.S. Lewis knew this, which is why he also penned:

 “Wrong will be right, when Aslan comes in sight,

At the sound of his roar, sorrows will be no more,

When he bares his teeth, winter meets its death,

And when he shakes his mane, we shall have spring again.”

And from that Eternal Perspective we draw hope. Not an unfounded, blind hope, but a confident HOPE in the Lord Jesus who is the Aslan figure in the land of Narnia. Because of Christ’s accomplishment (VICTORY!) on the cross, we can press on through winter standing on the promise of The One whose promises never fail:   

“But those who hope in the Lord

will renew their strength.

They will soar on wings like eagles;

they will run and not grow weary,

they will walk and not be faint.”

[Isaiah 40:31]

GHOST RIDERS

     I was fighting the second migraine in a week’s time. Leaning my forehead against the window glass, I listened to the raindrops falling outside. It was soothing … like one of those apps that mimic sounds of nature.

     The ants were scuttling about below me, frantically trying to scurry from shelter to shelter. The smart ones had umbrellas; the others would have bad hair days.

     I had tried to personalize them years ago by calling them people, but I could never see their faces. From my Chicago high-rise office, they all looked like ants to me.

     On the train ride home, I wallowed in self-pity for as long as my conscious would allow before rallying my spirits sufficiently enough to get me through the rest of the day. Scooting into the isle, my eyes fell upon a splash of color under the seat in front of me. I snatched up the piece of paper …

~   ~   ~

     I could barely contain myself when my son, Ryan, walked through the door that evening. “Come in and talk to me,” I invited from the kitchen, hoping to engage him in conversation before he retreated to his room.

     He lumbered in with fatigue, heaved a sigh, and rested his lanky frame against the wall.

     “How was your day?” I asked casually, multi-tasking dinner preparations. “Anything new happen?”

     Ryan crossed his arms; a sure sign of his indifference. “I quit my job.”

     Pausing mid-motion from taking the casserole out of the oven, I silently counted to three before standing up. Forcing a smile, I responded as cheerfully as possible. “Perfect! Dinner’s ready!”

     I swear, there’s nothing more rewarding than taking a teenager by surprise! With difficulty, I resisted the urge to close his gaping mouth; instead, I sauntered past as if I hadn’t noticed.

     Despite my best attempts, talk waned. By dessert, Ryan’s responses were little more than Neanderthal grunts of varying intensity. Wanting to share my proposal before speech left him completely, I snatched the brochure and smacked it open on the table.

     “So … what do you think?”

     “Nice,” he mumbled, skimming the contents in two seconds flat. “If you like that sort of thing.” The thing in reference was a week-long adventure at a dude ranch nestled snuggly against the rugged Sawtooth Mountains. Ryan pushed the leaflet aside as he kicked his chair back and left.

     I had nothing but a table full of dirty dishes and a quickly vanishing dream.

     “Besides,” he called back callously, “you don’t even have a horse.” That was a low blow, even for him.

     My horseless state was a wound that had never healed. Among other things. We’d had a family, once upon a time. A small homestead, two parents, a boy and another on the way. Happy times.

     And then … it all went away.

     I miscarried. He found someone new; someone happier. Someone who still smiled and laughed.

     Somehow, I landed a high-paying job in a far-off city, but lost myself along the way. And Ryan bore witness to it all. Poor kid. He deserved better.

     I sat there stewing over his words, resenting the sluggish thud of footsteps on the stairs. In a last-ditch effort to battle my growing disappointment, I latched onto a desperate plan: If I couldn’t cajole him with kindness, I’d bully him with parental authority! I ran to the stairwell and employed the most matriarchal voice I could muster. “Yeah, well neither do you, Buddy, but you’re coming with me!”

     A slamming door was my only answer.

     Right. We’ll see about that!

~ ~ ~

     Thanks to the pretty young passenger in 17C, the plane ride was as uneventful as I could have hoped for. Unfortunately, her departure coincided with the loss of my son’s newly acquired manners, and it occurred to me how I would miss that girl! 

~   ~   ~

     “You got to be kidding!” Ryan repeated, bouncing out of his seat when I failed to avoid yet another crater-sized pothole.        

     “The best places to vacation are found in the most remote locations!” I cheerfully informed him, praying for a measure of truth in that made-up-on-the-spot statement.

     Grunt. Somewhere between the airport and this lonely stretch of gravel road, Ryan’s vocabulary had regressed from eloquent orator to borderline mute.

     Towards evening, we pulled up the driveway of the ranch and into a bowl-shaped valley surrounded by gently sloping foothills. Golden cottonwoods filtered the sunlight; the dappled radiance caused the quaint settlement to glow with a warm welcome.

     Several joints crackled in protest as I unfolded my bones and exited the vehicle. I smiled ruefully as Ryan bounded out and slam-dunked an imaginary basketball into an equally imaginary hoop. A crimson flush promptly blended the colors of his hair and skin as a burst of applause broke out from an approaching foursome.

     All wore cowboy hats, two sported ankle-length dusters, one had a suede vest, and the other a loosely tied red bandana. The jingle of spurs beat a synchronized staccato as their boots fell in quick time. Minus the firearms and the fact that one was a woman, it could have been a scene straight out of Silverado.

     “Well done! I guess you’ll be wantin’ to see our court before the night’s out.” A middle-aged woman detoured from the group, grinning broadly.

     “Howdy, my name’s Evelyn!” she greeted, removing a dusty, rawhide glove before extending her hand. Her kind eyes crinkled slightly at the corners. By the deep honey glow of her skin, it was apparent that the majority of her days were not spent idly within the comforts of the lodge.

     Ryan reached out to grasp her hand in return, and I watched in good humor as he fought to regain some semblance of dignity.

     “You have a court here?” he asked, scanning the rustic premises with blatant disbelief.

     “Lighted at that, son” Evelyn replied with a knowing wink.

     The smile beaming on my son’s face was a rare display of unguarded pleasure, and the teenager before me was suddenly transformed into the boy I once knew. How I missed that kid.

     By some stroke of luck – or more likely the graciousness of our hostess – our quarters were last in the row of tidy guest cabins. Literally a hop, skip, and a jump from the court. I fell asleep to the mournful cry of coyotes and the muted thump, thump . . . swish of a ball in constant motion.     

~   ~   ~

     I awoke in the gray, pre-dawn of morning. The window had been left open a crack so I could listen to Ryan. Like a compass to north, the aroma of strongly brewed coffee drifted in on the morning breeze and found me. Not the pitch black, bitter bark cowboy coffee you see them strain through a dirty sock and drink in the movies. No, this was an enticing blend of fresh grounds imported from exotic, faraway lands.

     I dressed quickly, pausing to cover my son’s protruding foot. A hint of lipstick and a tousle to my coppery ringlets was good enough for me. Noiselessly, I tiptoed out the door.

     There were a few guests huddled around the fire pit; more than I had expected at this early hour. I made eye contact with a few and nodded before finding a seat on one of the surrounding logs. A tall, bowlegged old-timer leisurely made his way over. He had a handlebar mustache to make Sam Elliott proud and I ducked my head to hide a grin. I was typecasting, but I couldn’t help it.

     He had just fetched a skillet fresh off the coals; my mouth instantly salivated. Touching the brim of his hat in greeting, he drawled out a slow, “Mornin’ Ma’am,” before offering me a piping hot buttermilk biscuit drizzled with butter.

     I hesitated before reminding myself that carbs don’t count on vacation. Besides, they were small … so I took two. With an ear-splitting grin, he made a jab with his thumb, directing my gaze towards an oversized, rustic bench arrayed with coffee, cocoa, and tea.

     A basket of lumpy, homemade marshmallows sat next to the cocoa. I popped one in my mouth, trying to be discreet. Now this is roughing it! Once my mug was filled, I rejoined the others in a cloud of steam and foggy breath.

     It was the first breakfast I could remember savoring in years.

~   ~   ~

     After grub, Ryan and I dutifully returned to our cabin to pack. Apparently, the tried and true way to break in new cowpokes was to get them out on the trail and accrue a few saddle miles. Our goal was to ride all day, camp overnight, and ride back. Unless, of course, you preferred to be hauled around in the chuck wagon . . . the equivalent of sitting on the bench during a game.

     After a quick appraisal of our skills, I was assigned a stocky, roman-nosed buckskin named Wyatt. Though I’d gone years without sitting a horse, the familiar rhythms gradually came back to me. I looked to see how matters sat with Ryan.

     Despite the low-brimmed baseball cap, it was not hard to miss his disapproving scowl; he was the only rider wearing one. Matched with a short, overweight, dapple gray mare, Ryan regarded himself as the laughing stock of the group.

     “So, how does Annie ride?” I asked curiously as the two of them drew alongside.

     He shrugged. “Like a barrel.” Under hooded brows he was covertly appraising my gelding.

     Wyatt, undoubtedly, was the ultimate cowboy horse. Annie, on the other hand, resembled a child’s pony whose over-indulgent diet consisted primarily of sweet corn and sugar cubes.

     “It’s kinda cool that she’s named after Annie Oakley though, right?”

     “Mom, that is so lame.”

     “Well, best make the most of it. As they say out here, we’re burnin’ daylight!” I cantered off feeling a twinge of guilt. And then … it was gone.

~   ~   ~

     Whether it was the settling weight of an over-sized T-bone and baked potato, or the novelty of tenting out under the stars, sleep eluded me. Tossing and turning got me nowhere, so I unzipped the flap and turned my bag around. At least that way I could contemplate the night sky.

     I had little enough time for reflection before an iron-like grip seized my leg.

     “Ryan!” I hissed, glancing around to make sure nobody had heard my stifled scream. “I thought you were sleeping!”

     “Sorry,” he whispered sheepishly. From his tone, I could tell he was nervous. “I saw something, that’s all.”

    “What? A spider or something?” I chafed my arms and gave my pillow a frantic shake.

     “No! Up there.”

     “Where? I don’t see anything.”

     “A rider, on that ridge . . . see him?” Ryan leaned a hand over my shoulder to point out his discovery. I smiled at the boyish excitement in his voice and the casual, affectionate gesture.

     “Oh yeah, now I do. He and his horse are so perfectly stock still – like some kind of … I don’t know … twilight sentinel.”

     The panorama before us was tranquil. Too tranquil for Ryan’s overactive imagination. Instead, he opted to let loose the reins and explore the dramatic.

     Shaking his head, he speculated. “No. More like a bandit on the run. Or a ranger, looking for a bandit . . . or . . . ”

     “ . . . or a Ghost Rider?” I speculated, whistling the first line of the tune for effect.

     He responded with a blank stare and double blink. “Huh?”

     “You know, the song . . . Ghost Riders in the Sky?” I prompted.

     Ryan ventured a guess. “Is it from one of your old black and white westerns?” He was trying to be helpful, but coming off as something other than.

     It was annoying to be reminded of the years under my belt and my reply was a bit testier than intended. “How should I know? Westerns in my day were in color!” A screen shot of a young, handsome, and very-much-in-color Kevin Costner flashed through my brain. Black and white indeed!

     “It’s just a famous old cowboy song that everyone has heard.”

      “Don’t know it.”

     “Never mind.”

     “Sing it to me.”

     “Uh, yeah … no.”

     “Come on, Mom! Sing it!”

     My inability to carry a tune remains uncontested – and the subject of amusement. Pitchy and off-key at best. Still, I had Ryan’s undivided attention …                  

     “Ok,” I conceded, clearing my throat theatrically. My start was hesitant; I was self-conscious and fumbling to gain momentum. But it didn’t take me long to slip into a cowboy twang and belt the words – in a hushed whisper, of course. No need to wake the others with my cacophony.     

     I glanced at Ryan with a lop-sided smile and a shrug after I finished. I was feeling a little silly, yet immensely pleased with myself that I’d remembered all the verses. He was rolling his eyes and shaking his head in disbelief, making us both laugh out loud.

     “You did insist!”

     “Yeah, I know,” he agreed, quick to shoulder his part of the blame. Who was this guy?

     Just then, a distant low rumble escalated to a thunderous pounding, drawing closer and closer with every hoofbeat. We watched in amazement as a band of riders crested the ridge at a full gallop, engulfing our lone rider. Within seconds, they were all gone without a trace. Before the dust had even cleared, the ridge was standing strangely empty.

     We lay quiet in the stillness that followed, each lost to our own thoughts. Ryan was the first to break the silence. “Um, Mom . . .”

     The mystery of what we had witnessed left me spellbound. “Um … yeah?” I answered absently.

     “It’s just – I mean . . . ”  I turned to Ryan, but he was slow to meet my gaze. Finally, he blurted the words in a rush. “I’m sorry about Mirage.”                                                          

     “Oh,” I replied, taken back at the mention of my horse I had lost to colic. “I didn’t think you remembered him.” I couldn’t manage more past the lump settled snuggly in my throat.

     “I don’t remember much. I just remember you crying a lot. You – you really liked him . . . didn’t you?”

     Lost for words, I reached over to squeeze Ryan’s hand, daring to hold it for a few precious moments. As I made to pull away, the gentle pressure of his fingers surrounded my own.

     It was an enormous gesture.

     For me, the mystery of the Ghost Riders paled in comparison to the expression of my son’s love. No matter what life gave or took away, I would strive to keep things like this between us. Without a shadow of a doubt, I knew what we had to do.

     “Son?”

     “Yeah, Ma?”

     “How’d you like to get the heck out of Dodge?”

A MID-WINTER’S DAWN

     The sun hadn’t completed its ascent over the neatly tiled roofs yet, and here I was, faithful as ever, waiting in the pre-dawn gray of a February morning. I was powerlessly bound to my ritual these past few weeks, this greeting the light of a new day. I pressed my forehead to the windowpane, seeking cool comfort from the thickly frosted glass. Sighing at the instant numbing to my brow, I desperately wished that for once my heart could be remedied as easily. It was a wish that never came true. The aroma of strong coffee lured me away from my post at the window seat; a place that had inadvertently become more familiar to me than my own bed.       

     It was not the first time I found myself replacing the second mug back onto the cupboard shelf; old habits die slow. Die. Hard as I may try to avoid thinking or speaking that word, the more it pops in and out of phrases. A haunting reminder – as if I needed reminding.

     Coffee in hand, I shuffled past the silent rocker, sending it into a creaking rhythm as I snatched the heavy woolen plaid from its intricately carved arm. Fumbling one-handedly with the dead bolt, I yanked open the front door and muttered an oath as the scalding liquid sloshed over the brim and onto my tender flesh. I paused at the doorway as the icy blast hit me full in the face, taking a moment to reconsider. I was preparing to make a hasty retreat when a single word hit me with more force than the biting wind: COWARD!

    “No!” I countered harshly, screaming at the wind . . . the ice . . . the quickly retreating shadows of night. Anything that would pretend to listen.

     “No,” I repeated again softly, wiping the steady flow of tears away with an open palm. “You can’t stop me, not today. I’m coming out, like it or not.” It would be the first time in nearly a month since I had crossed the threshold, and I lifted my chin in defiance. Well, nobody said it would be easy, and to pretend otherwise would be ludicrous.             

     I eased myself precariously into the porch swing, taking great pains to secure the plaid around my body in cocoon fashion before taking a sip of the intoxicating brew. Ahh … coffee with Scottish Heather Cream. I closed my eyes, sighing as the heat slowly warmed its way to my center, leaving me feeling cozy despite my artic surroundings. Lazily, I allowed my mind to wander back to the first time I tasted of the creamy liqueur, undiluted and deliciously addicting.

~ ~ ~

     Kevin had brought a bottle back from Scotland after being stationed on temporary duty in Great Britain. From the look on his face, one would have thought he had discovered pure gold, not a commonplace mildly inebriating beverage. The humor in the situation was the simple fact that Kevin did not drink. Ever. Not alone, not socially, not in times of sadness or celebration.

     Never. Period.

     Oddly enough, he happened by an establishment on the streets of Fort William while samples were being freely dispensed and, on a whim, accepted the proffered drink.

     A trace of a smile curved my lips as I recalled his sputtering attempt at an explanation for this most uncharacteristic compulsory act. After a few poor excuses and much shuffling of feet, he suddenly changed horses in mid-stream and opted for an entirely new tactic. Straightening to his full height – an impressive six feet two – and deepening his voice an octave or two, he winked conspiratorially before beginning again.

     “Weel, there I was breathin’ the fine Scottish air in the shadow of Ben Nevis himself, when a comely lass with flowers in her hair and a bosom that would melt yer heart came upon me oot of the blue. I thought to m’self, surely one as fine as she must be of the faery folk, and t’would be a shame to refuse that which she is offerin’ me. So, may the good Lord hae mercy, I took a wee drink.”

     I had gawked for a second or two before bursting into a fit of laughter at the poorly attempted brogue he was obviously so proud of. All the while, he stared indignantly down his nose at me with a frown firmly in place.

     I snorted at his pinched expression.

     Unable to maintain the façade any longer, Kevin succumbed to my infectious laughter, and we soon had tears of mirth streaming down our faces. It was then that he had swept me into his arms and onto his plaid, laughter fading with each breath. We made the sweetest love that my eyes filled with tears of an entirely different nature.

     And that had been the last time.

     I clung tightly to the black, purple, and green hues of the Black Watch tartan; my dear Kevin, ever the gentle rogue. He had been recalled that very night to perform the mission of heroes. The kind that many dream of, but seldom get the chance.

     The difference is, in dreams, the hero always comes back.    

     I watched in stony silence as the uniformed man strode purposely through the gated entry and up the steps, an emotionless mask set firmly in place. In the way of a disciplined soldier, his eyes veered neither left nor right until he stopped directly in front of me, and then they looked down and pierced my very soul.

     I recognized the man, of course; from parties, barbeques, weddings, and . . . funerals. Abruptly the mask shifted, then shattered to pieces, and I found myself being pulled against the cold metal of a decorated chest. I pounded relentlessly for all I was worth until, exhausted, I could do nothing but sob uncontrollably.

     God bless him, he never let go.

     When all was said and done, I was left holding a meticulously folded flag and a trace of echoes resounding in my ears: Top secret. Line of duty. With Honors. Always remembered. Sorry. So Sorry.

~ ~ ~

     I blinked and looked down at the flag. It was gone. Of course it was; that was over a month ago. It was a well-worn path that I had traveled down, the destination as familiar to me as the journey itself. A bitter trail of tears that leaves the soul empty and despondent.

     Through my watery veil, I marveled as the rays of sun lit the frosty snow on fire, consuming the shadows in a warm embrace. I was suddenly reminded of a scripture my mother used to quote, although I could only paraphrase the sentiment in simplest form: God will never put more on a person than they can endure. I thought of her, and then of my father; at least he had lived long enough for them to raise a family together.

     Before he died.

     That verse had been my mom’s stronghold ever since. And now, on a mid-winter’s dawn, I adopted it for my own as well.

     It started as a low hum, undistinguishable in words, but as familiar a rhythm as my own breath. The strong steady cadence of a soldier’s morning routine; the backbone of military training, the uniting of a core. I watched in silence as the undulating mass of bodies circled the parade grounds, rounded the bend, and row by row, drifted out of sight.

     It was time for me to leave as well.

     I stayed a moment more, knowing this would be the last time I did so, taking in the progressive motions of a military base awakening to a new day. Personnel had been gracious enough, giving me ample time to recuperate from my loss, pack up, and move out. But it was time. I looked around the officer’s quarters and the nondescript structures that had been home during recent years.

     Home. My mom still lived in the same home we grew up in, nestled snugly against the Bitterroot Mountains of western Montana; a place I hadn’t been back to in a very long time.

     I stared down at my cup, now cold from neglect, and rose to dispose of the contents over the porch rail. It was just as well; I shouldn’t be indulging anyway, not in my condition. I had found out this morning on a whim, a mere chance . . . a prayer, really: Pink is positive, simple as that.

     Simple and yet profoundly powerful.

     A reason to go on.

     Once inside, I walked directly to the phone and stared at it for countless minutes before punching in the familiar sequence of numbers. The voice on the other end sounded like an angel, and I trembled at the tender rush of emotion that filled my heart. I pressed a hand to my stomach and whispered the first words to my un-born child.

     “We’ll make it together, my little one,” and then louder into the receiver.

     “Mom . . . we’re coming home.”

The End

A CUP OF JOE … TO GO

     “Check out the geezer in the high waters and orthopedics. I bet he breaks a hip before  the night’s out! Better yet, ten bucks says he makes a play for one of the hotties at the punch table.”

     Muffled laughter rumbled across the table as several soldiers fought to keep their drinks from spewing out of their mouths. Most succeeded.

     One failed.

     “Ewww!! That’s disgusting!” squealed a voluptuous blonde wearing a thick slab of Electric Pink lipstick. “Private Hayes, look what you’ve gone and done – this is a brand-new dress!” Holding the silk bodice away from her skin, she threw him a baleful glare before tiptoeing from the table in search of a place to wash.

     “Not anymore,” whispered the leggy redhead still seated at the table. With a saucy grin, she tossed her long, thick hair over her shoulder. “Now how’s she going to return it?”

     “Man, wouldn’t want to be you, pal.” The highest-ranking G.I. at the table only had two mosquito wings on his collar, but it gave him immense satisfaction to lord it over the other buck privates. Driving his point home, he delivered the crushing blow. “No chance of scoring tonight.”

     “Shut up, Phillips.” The spewer kicked the table leg and crossed his arms. His eyes wandered towards the latrine, calculating the possibility of his date actually returning.

     The redhead seemed to find his sense of humor amusing, so Phillips thought he’d give it another go.  “Watch this,” he whispered to Red. “Hey, Noah! Where’s the flood?” he called out, waving away her half-hearted protests. “Don’t worry, he can’t hear me … can you, Gramps?”

     When the elderly man in the cardigan failed to respond, Phillips widened his grin. “See, I told you.” Taking another swig from his glass, he pulled his fleshy lips up and over his teeth, smacking them in a ridiculous effort to mimic a toothless set of gums.

     Bored with the one-man show, several troops left the table in search of better amusement. But the redhead stayed, and that was enough to keep Phillips.

     “Deaf as a stump,” Hayes agreed, trying his hand at the sport.

     Phillips rolled his eyes. “It’s deaf as a post, you idiot! Don’t you know anything?” he goaded, flexing his jaw and giving Red a wink. They didn’t arrive together, but he was trying his best to make sure they left that way. “Hey, here’s an idea – let’s ask our silent pal, dummkopf, what he thinks.”

     Three pairs of eyes turned to stare at the quiet, broad-shouldered private on the far side of the table. His honey-brown hair was buzzed close to the scalp, accentuating the solid, angular planes of his face. “I wouldn’t know,” he muttered, swallowing self-consciously.

     “He talks!” Phillips patronized with a sweeping motion of his arm. Casually, he let it drop over Red’s shoulder. When she didn’t pull away, he knew he had her; hook, line, and sinker.

     Rising to his comrade’s defense, Hayes spoke up. “Cut it out, Phillips. You don’t want to mess with him. His people are like Vikings, or something. Aren’t they, Jansson?”

     “A Viking … how romantic.” Red’s overlong eyelash extensions fluttered provocatively against her cheek as she leaned towards the blushing soldier.      

     Tactfully avoiding the overt flirtation, Jansson frowned. “Born and raised in Minnesota. Apple pie, baseball … and the red, white and blue,” he said, smacking the flag on his right arm. “And proud of it.”

     Phillips let out a low whistle. “Dang … that’s quite the speech, son. You got it down pat!” When that failed to produce a response, Phillips let his eyes wander around the room restlessly. “When’s this thing supposed to start anyway?”

     This was his first USO show and, so far, he wasn’t impressed. The brass got all the front tables, basking in the glow of the halogen bulbs and drawing more attention than they deserved.

     “I suppose we’ll have to listen to the lot of them pat themselves on the back before the entertainment starts,” Phillips grumbled, momentarily forgetting he was trying to impress Red. “In the meantime, they could at least give us something besides watered-down punch to whet our whistle.”  

     As if on cue, an elderly waitress appeared by his side. Her dress green skirt suit was bulging at the seams, and more than one button was left undone in compensation. A matching garrison hat was pinned tightly to her head, allowing one strategically placed curl to loop onto her forehead, just shy of center.

     “What can I get you boys and … miss?”

     Back in the day, they had other words for young women dressed and painted in such a colorful manner. But this was a different era. There had been a number of revolutionary coups in the world of fashion since her time, all chanting the same mantra: Out with the old, in with the new.    

     Phillips gave a nudge under the table, raising his brows significantly at the woman’s nylons, wrinkled and pooling slightly at the ankles. Red put her hand to her mouth, concealing a sly grin.

     “Two of whatever beer you got on tap. Please,” he added, remembering Red.

     The waitress held her tray up a little higher and tilted her head towards the coffee pot in her hand. “No brew tonight, but can I interest you in a donut and Cup of Joe?”

     Phillips shook his head. “Uh, yeah … we’ll pass. Donuts to the hip and dishwater drip is the last thing we want,” he said, giving Red’s hips an appreciative glance.

     The waitress followed his eyes blandly. “Kind of missing the point, aren’t you?”

     “I would like a cup, please, ma’am.”

     The woman turned towards the lone soldier, giving him a radiant smile. “Well, at least someone gets the theme of the night. “Donut?” she offered, never breaking stride as she poured the coffee and balanced her tray.

     “So, what’s the theme all about, anyway?” Red asked, commandeering the soldiers’ attention. She had mentally eliminated Hayes as a buffoon, but the silent Viking held a certain appeal and Phillips had a quick, if not callous, wit.  If she engaged in conversation with the woman, it just might buy her time enough to decide which of the two she would pursue. Red chewed her lip and tried not to squirm as the woman gave her a critical appraisal.

     “And why not? My feet could use a rest!” Pulling up a chair, she joined the table, pretending not to hear Phillips’ groan. “Where to start?”

     Red took charge of fielding the questions. “You’re wearing a uniform, were you in the Army?”

     “Wearing a uniform?” The woman let out a laugh. “That’s one way of putting it.” Chuckling, she added, “Squeezing the stuffing out of me is more like it and to answer your question, no – it’s part of the theme. Unfortunately, this was made for someone like you.”

     The observation could have been a compliment. Or not. Red forced a patently false smile. “I’m not sure I’m built for soldiering.”

     “No, you most certainly are not,” Phillips murmured, letting his eyes roam at will. It was meant to flatter, but somehow, he had managed to invoke the disapproval of everyone at the table except Hayes, and he didn’t count.

     “I, myself,” the woman continued as if Phillips hadn’t opened his mouth, “am … was,” she amended, “a farm girl from a little town in Nebraska called North Platte. Don’t suppose you’ve ever heard of it?”

     Red shook her head, but the lone soldier answered with enthusiasm. “I come from a family of farmers as well. Four generations of corn farmers!” That earned him an eye roll from Phillips, but the waitress beamed with approval.

     “Corn-fed boys have the strongest hearts,” she praised, causing him to blush for the second time. “My daddy and uncle grew sugar beets. I had never seen mountains up close, but when I was younger, I naturally assumed they were made out of sugar beets. Just piled higher.

     “Oh, good grief!

     The woman’s casual honesty put Red at ease, and this time her protests were genuine. “Knock it off, Phillips! No one’s forcing you to stay.”

     The table went silent. For an awkward moment, Phillips considered choking down humble pie, but Red had raised a brow in challenge, and that was the last straw. With a derisive   snort, he pushed away from the table. “Let’s go, Hayes, we’re outta here.”

     Hayes shrugged apologetically before scrambling after Phillips.

     “Good riddance, I say! Now, where was I?” the woman questioned the remaining two. “Oh yes … North Platte. An insignificant town altogether in every way possible – except,” she emphasized, holding up a finger, “when Christmas of forty-one rolled around. That’s nineteen forty-one. World War Two, in case you’re wondering,” she said with a wink. “Let that sink in for a moment!”

     The soldier nodded significantly with undivided attention.

     Self-conscious that she hadn’t actually known it was World War Two, Red ducked her head.

     The waitress continued with her story to spare her further embarrassment. “Anyway, some of our home boys were scheduled to pass through by train on their way to the front. Those of us left behind – practical farmers that we were – did what we did best. We cooked.

     “You … cooked?” Red asked, perplexed at such a notion. “Why?”

     For a moment, the woman paused, her eyes brimming with tears. Then, with practiced determination, she gave the most logical and concise reason she could come up with. “Because we knew our boys were going to go hungry for a long, long time and right then – in that moment in time – the one thing we could do was feed them. So we did!”

     “What did you feed them?” the soldier and Red asked in unison. They turned towards each other as sheepish grins spread across their faces.

     Pleased that she had intervened on Red’s behalf, the waitress became animated. “Anything and everything we had stashed away in our larders! Fried chicken, ham, pickles, eggs – you name it. Bread, popcorn balls … even a birthday cake that never made it to the party!”

     Red’s eyes grew round. “Let me guess … you also served donuts and coffee?”

     The waitress chuckled. “Every time. Now you’re catching on! A Cup of Joe … To Go, we called it. And here’s the kicker – as it turned out, they weren’t even our boys!”

     “Whose boys were they … Janie?” Red asked, leaning closer to read the name tag.

     “Some other mama’s boys. Somebody’s brother, daddy, nephew. They all had a story, and an appetite! We fed them, gave them magazines and even …” here Janie lowered her voice to a whisper, “cigarettes. Then we sent them off with a smile to take with them.”

     “Those were well-stocked larders,” the soldier noted pragmatically.

     “Well, we didn’t have all that the first time,” Janie admitted, slapping his arm lightly. “But they kept passing through our grassroots canteen throughout the war, so we kept meeting them at the trains. Most, we never saw again.” Her eyes grew soft as she glanced across the room. “But some we did. Like my Joe.”  

     Following the trajectory of her gaze, Red’s eyes came to rest on the man that had been the object of their ridicule earlier. Abashed, she put a hand to her chest. “He’s … your Joe?”

     “My one and only,” Janie replied proudly. Reaching for her tray and coffee, she stood.

     The private jumped to his feet and saluted smartly. “Thank you, ma’am, for your service!”

     Janie’s smile widened. “You’re most welcome, soldier. Miss. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got to go and pour a Cup of Joe.”

The End