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'From the Halls of Montezuma'

Editor's note: Last Sunday, we published the two entries in The News' Spotlight Short Story Contest that scored highest with our judges, by Chris Cummins and Kyle A. Smith. However, it seems appropriate to also run this story, which was a runner-up, as we, along with Jacqueline Wells' characters, look forward to the new year.

Several of those who entered the contest (we received more than 200 stories) have asked about runners-up and "honorable mentions." We didn't officially have those, but here are the writers who also made our "finals" (in alphabetical order): Carol J. Alaimo, Lesta Ammons, Amy Cappelli, Edward D. Jurkiewicz, Charles Roberts and Aidan Ryan. Congratulations to them, and thank you again to all who took the time to write.


He was alone.

Last year, he might have predicted things would work out this way. Someone who had been given such a gift -- entrusted with it, really -- would never simply continue life as it had been before. He should have known.

And here it was again, this holiday time of year. The calendar told him it was 2012, and his life was different.

The change went much deeper than a season or being a year older. It went under his skin, as deep as his soul -- if he permitted himself to believe in such a thing.

Life was like that, he thought. It could strip everything away from you in the blink of an eye. And then it could restore everything you had lost -- give you even more, in fact, than you had ever had - with the same lightning speed.

He knew that now.

But then, he had a cold, not a really bad one, but just bad enough to convince the kids that he should stay home for Thanksgiving. It was 2010 -- his first Thanksgiving without Clare -- and Joe wanted to be alone. He wanted to spend the day feeling angry, sad, and sorry for himself.

He didn't turn on the TV. He needed the silence.

He sat in his recliner, put his feet up, and stared out the window at the bare trees against an angry gray sky. The tears finally came. They ran down his face, weathered and lined after 55 years of working outside in construction. The tears spilled onto his flannel shirt and soaked into the well-worn fabric.

Joe spent most of the day and evening in his chair. He felt so alone. Without Clare in his life to smile, pat his hand, and tell him everything would be OK, there was a void in his heart that no thing nor anyone could fill. His grief knew no bounds.

He woke up early Friday morning, still in his recliner. He forced himself to shower, shave and run a comb through the thin, wispy hair left on his head. Hell, he thought, who cares about hair -- he was 80 years old and could still drive his treasured 1998 Crown Victoria.

He got to Kate's Kitchen just after 8. The three other members of the Corps Crew were already there: Gus, Frankie and Matt. They were all Marine Corps vets and they always sat at the counter in the last four stools that faced the window -- where, they said, they could watch the world pass them by. For the next two hours, they sat and talked a little about the present, but mostly about the past. They never ran out of stories to tell. And they laughed a lot.

They looked forward to this morning routine six days a week. On Sundays, Gus went with his wife to church. Since the Crew didn't like to meet without all four of them together, the rest took Sunday off. They spent most of the day visiting their families. Life was good -- organized, dependable, no surprises.

Although the Crew members had worked different kinds of jobs -- Matt had been a high school English teacher (they ribbed him plenty about that); Gus had been in sales; and Frankie, well, he had been a jack-of-all-trades -- they had several things in common. They'd been friends since grammar school, had all been Marines, all lived in Buffalo all their lives, were all retired, and each had what you could call a special skill: plumbing (Frankie), electrical work (Matt), financial management (Gus) and carpentry (Joe). Over the years, they had relied on each other for help, and each was grateful for the skills of the others.

When breakfast was over, they each went their separate ways, never really knowing what the others did for the rest of the day -- they suspected not much. As for Joe, he fixed simple meals, puttered around his apartment, watched a little TV, read biographies (currently Douglas MacArthur).

He never read the newspaper or listened to the news on TV. Too much bad stuff. Sometimes he worked on a project in his dining-room-turned-wood-shop. So the days passed, each one pretty much the same. Sometimes Joe wondered if he was in a rut.

But Dec. 3, 2010, was different. Joe prepared himself for a day of mourning alone. Clare had died unexpectedly from a heart attack a year ago to the day. He wasn't home when it happened. He never had a chance to say goodbye or tell her how much he loved her one more time. He tried reading to distract himself, and when that failed, he turned out the lights and sat in the dark, waiting for the tears.

That's when it happened. Clare spoke to him. She whispered in his ear. He knew it was her voice -- how could he not after more than 50 years of marriage? He knew he was awake. It was a miracle. He sat very still, then turned on his reading lamp, peering around the living room, half expecting to see Clare standing there. Nothing.

The whisper had startled him, but what startled him even more was what she whispered. One word. Joplin. Joplin! Joplin? He knew it was a city in Missouri -- he had never been there, never wanted to go there, didn't know anybody who lived there. It made no sense. What could Joplin have to do with him?

He never told anyone about Clare's whisper, not even the Crew. But he kept the whisper in his heart. Christmas passed. He put up a new calendar -- 2011. For a few months he could not stop thinking about "Joplin." But gradually, it faded. He began to believe it had just been a dream after all. The months seem to fly by and before he knew it, Thanksgiving arrived.

He spent it with the family. He knew it would make them happy, and they would believe he was "getting better."

Joe arrived earlier than usual at Kate's on "Black Friday." While waiting for the Crew, he glanced down at a Parade magazine left over from Sunday's Buffalo News. He looked into the big brown eyes of a little boy holding a can of food, pictured on the cover, and for no explicable reason, he suddenly felt his life was about to change. In big letters he read, "Can You Help?" and "From rebuilding Joplin, Mo.,..." Joplin. His heart raced as he asked Kate if he could have the Parade.

She nodded and he quickly rolled it up and stuffed it in his coat pocket just as the rest of the Crew came noisily in and sat in their usual spots. Then it was two hours of "business as usual."

For the first time since the Crew had been meeting at Kate's, Joe couldn't wait to get home. Once he was there and in his favorite chair, he opened the magazine and read the article about Joplin: "Build Safe Rooms in Joplin Schools." Joe read it and waited.

No whisper. No second miracle.

He put the Parade with the stack of books and magazines next to his chair. He had no idea what he was supposed to do. And so, he did nothing.

He put on what he hoped was a normal face and got through Christmas and Crew "meetings." No one suspected the turmoil he felt down to his soul, the soul in which he now believed. What did a tornado destroying much of Joplin have to do with him, living far away in Western New York?

The calendar told him it was 2012. New Year's Day. For the last week, all the Crew seemed to want to talk about were New Year's resolutions. He didn't have any and didn't need to have any. He sat in his chair staring out the window at the trees, with every branch covered in snow that sparkled from the sunlight shining down from a clear blue sky. He closed his eyes and drifted into a deep sleep.

He had a dream: He and the Crew were on the road in the Crown Vic headed toward some unknown adventure. They were happy and singing the "Marines' Hymn."

He awoke with a start. He clapped once and slapped his legs in joy and understanding. He did have a New Year's resolution after all -- he was going to Joplin!

In less than two weeks, he convinced the Crew that, with their special skills, they were needed in Joplin to repair schools so the kids there could return to getting an education. Gus figured out how much money they would need to get started and what to do about getting more when that ran out. (Gus' wife told him to go, but to come back soon and organize a fundraiser for Joplin and the Crew so they could stay and help.)

Frankie, Matt and Joe crammed the Crown Vic with a maximum of tools and a minimum of clothes! Gus got a road map from AAA, and they were on their way. They talked about a lot of things as they drove. They talked about the whisper, Joe's dream, and how they would make a difference -- and how the world wouldn't be passing them by anymore.

As for Joe, he felt the empty place in his heart already filling up. He thanked Clare for the gift of a whisper and God for giving him even more. Then he joined in the singing as they journeyed under the stars:

"From the Halls of Montezuma to Joplin, Miss-our-i, we will fight our country's battles..."

Jacqueline Wells is a retired Buffalo English teacher and lives in Glenwood. She used to write often, she says, and came up with her short story idea after seeing the Parade magazine from Nov. 20. "I wanted [Joe] to be inspired and look to the future, to know the empty part of him didn't have to be that way," she said. "And that picture of the little boy, it really got to me."

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