THE MAN IN THE IRONED SUIT
By Joshua Truxton
The young man in dark blue stepped gingerly around the soft piles left by stray dogs and approached the two shabbily dressed men who stood twenty-feet away, stamping their feet and warming their hands over a fire they’d built in an old, oil drum. “I’m looking for Nick Martin. Are either of you men, Nick?”
“No Sir! He live up yonder in that big packing box that’s wedged back under the bridge,” said the younger man. “I don’t think he be there now.”
“Are you friends of his? Do you know where I can find him?”
“No, officer; he ain’t got no friends I know of, and I got no idea of where he be. Do you Charlie?”
Charlie rubbed his arthritic, black hands together over the barrel and shrugged. “That son-of-a-gun? Hard to say. Maybe down by the warehouses. Don’t tell I said, but sometime he work over that-a-way.”
The young officer nodded and pulled a paper from his tunic. “Well, I’m going to put this notice on his crib. It’s an official notice to vacate. The city council wants to clean up this area. Don’t you men take it down!”
”No sir,” said Charlie, his eyes wide. “Mr. Nick don’t let nobody mess with his home no how. Besides, ain’t no use putting it up d’ere. That crazy coyote is just as likely to take it for toilet paper as anything.”
The two men huddled near the barrel and watched the officer trudge up the hill and place the eviction notice on the door of the large crate.
Charlie looked at his companion. “I’m getting my butt outa here.” Turning he added, “Don’t want to be nowhere round here when Mr. Nick get back.”
“I wouldn’t mind seeing what happens when that big ox reads that notice, if he can read.
Hold on a minute, Charlie; on second thought, I be a-goin’ with you.”
Charlie stopped and waited. “That Nick—he’s nasty-mean—unsociable too. I bet he sold his watch just so he don’t have to give nobody the time a day.”
The younger man nodded. “You’re not wrong, he is nasty-mean. I hear tell, when he was born, he slapped the doctor.”
They walked up the leaf-strewn embankment and crossed the twelfth-street bridge. On the other side of the broad Ossinee River, they turned left and headed toward the big church on the hill where they often got a hot meal, and sometimes, a warm place to sleep. It was a steep incline, and they trudged along uneven sidewalks with heads down, bucking the cold wind. They had just passed the tailor’s shop and the Dollar Store when Charlie nudged his companion who stopped.
They watched as the big man with a hefty mid-section stood next to the rotating red and white barber’s pole, studying his reflection in the window—watched him run a large hand over his neatly trimmed, white mustache and beard—watched him use the back of his fingers to fluff the beard, which protruded a good four inches below his chin. Not wanting to be caught staring, they hurried across the street, and continued on their way.
Nick stood looking at his image, and that of the men scurrying away. Dag-nab-it, he thought. He seldom cursed, even to himself. They’ll probably blab their heads off. Ain’t none of their dad-blasted business if I get my beard trimmed and my haircut now and then. That loose lipped pair will tell everybody I’m rich.
He caught a movement inside the shop and realized the barber was waving at him. Nodding his head, Nick turned away, not wanting a smile to give him away. That barber thinks he got the best of the deal—free haircuts in exchange for a stamp collection that I liberated two months ago.
Patting the curly white hair at the back of his head, he felt the clean-shaven skin at the base of his neck where the barber had trimmed his bushy hair and shaved his neck. The cold wind blew dirt and leaves into little whirlwinds as he turned up the collar of his thin jacket and headed toward his home in the park.
Heavy Traffic clogged the bridge. He watched the cars, and waited for the light to change. Not that he could distinguish the colors—he was color-blind. Both the red and green lights looked gray to him, but he knew the top light was always the red.
Arriving at the shipping crate, he found the Mayor’s notice, read it twice, crumpled and spit on it before throwing it on the ground. He stamped on the paper, vainly trying to drive it into the frozen earth. Once inside his box, he sat on the burlap bags and newspapers that served as a bed, and considered his situation. This was not the first notice they had posted. Soon a crew would cart his entire world away. A world he’d gravitated to after his partner ran off with his wife and his dough, leaving him to face the creditors. “Well, Nick,” he said in a subdued tone, “you’ve been thinking about it long enough. Now’s the time to move on? Get away from this place and these nasty people. Leave the mountains—head south. It’s too cold here. It’s time to winter in Florida or maybe California?”
Digging under the pile of newspapers, he pulled out a brand new pair of black, hiking boots taken from the warehouse where he had worked until last week when the boss laid him off. It was the first time the man had spoken softly to him. He said he was sorry to do it, especially so close to Christmas. Nick knew he lied. Most of the time, the little toad just hollered, “Hey you! Do this! Go there! Fetch that! Hurry it up, fatso!
Before discarding his worn out shoes, the elderly man removed the hundred dollar bills hidden under each insole, folded them, and slipped them into his pants pocket. He scooped up his wire cutter and the spare set of keys taken from the warehouse office, and put them in his jacket pocket. Pulling on a new pair of leather gloves, another secret gift from the toad, Nick headed out. “I oughta burn this dump,” he muttered. He stroked his beard, and then sneered. “Why make it easy for that rotten Mayor and his cronies? Let ‘em wonder if I’m still hanging around.”
Following the winding path along the river, it took a while to get to the warehouse. He didn’t need a watch. It was already dark. What else did he needed to know? Nick severed the thin chain binding the gate. Stepping inside, he dove into a pile of dead leaves that littered the cold earth.
There were no lights showing from inside the warehouse. The single bulb over the loading dock cast a cone of light. Beyond the lighted area, it was blacker than the Mayor’s heart.
Three trucks were lined up about forty feet from the loading ramp and thirty feet from where he lay listening for sounds of danger. Using his teeth, he pulled off a glove, and felt in his pocket for the familiar key ring. His fingers identified the key. Satisfied that he hadn’t been undetected, he crouched and trotted toward the trucks.
The Ford pick-up was in the center. He unlocked it and opened the door. The overhead light came on, startling him. “Sweet gee-hoss-i-fat!” he muttered, and grabbed the door. “I forgot about that.” Despite the near freezing temperature, he was dripping with perspiration. Inserting the key in the ignition, he forced himself to wait. It took three tries before the cold engine sputtered and came to life. “Just like a darn Ford,” he muttered.
Putting the truck in gear, he fought off a panic attack, and slowly approached the entrance. Within yards of the gate, he floored the accelerator and burst through. A quick twist of the wheel put him on the main road. Flipping on the headlights, Nick glanced at the speedometer. The needle was on fifty and climbing. Separating himself from the bad-luck town he had come to detest emerged as a singular goal.
The Ford quickly passed two slow moving vehicles and then made a sharp right at the traffic signal. He was pondering if the gray traffic light was at the top or bottom when flashing lights appeared behind him. Nick felt sure the gray light was in the bottom position. Was the cop after him because of the light? Did he know the truck was stolen? Nick swerved left, floored the gas-pedal, and took the next corner on two wheels.
Surprisingly, he was sweating more profusely than ever, as he raced along the highway a hundred yards above and parallel to the fast moving Ossinee. Lowering his window, he let the night-air cool him.
The two-lane highway was full of twists and turns but he dared not slow down. Every time the pick-up rounded a curve, he gained ground on the flashing lights. He loved the curves; they were manna from Heaven. The road curved left, and then right as it climbed higher up the mountain. A long, straight stretch allowed his pursuer to gain. Somewhere below, the dark, unseen river rushed past the curvature of the rocky ground, propelling all kinds of debris along.
In full acceleration, the Ford rounded two more curves, outracing its headlights. He strained to make a sharp right turn. Suddenly, there they were, just standing stiff-legged in the roadway, their beautiful almond-shaped eyes staring at him. The distance narrowed. The big one had a large set of antlers. Why don’t they move? They stood frozen in the headlights.
“Horse hockey,” he screamed. Stomping on the brake, Nick wrenched the steering wheel. The nose of the pick-up swung around in slow motion, slamming through the low guardrail, and flying over boulder strewn, scrubby ground to the forbidding emptiness that hung above the black water. His head hammered the top of the cab as the truck turned upside down. Gradually, the nose pointed down and he found himself squeezed against the steering wheel. The black night evaporated for an instant, revealing churning, white-water below. Cold water rushed into the cab. His head snapped back, and some unseen force turned out the lights.
He came to, hanging upside down, immersed in icy water. Somehow, he unsnapped his seatbelt and launched himself out the open window. The door-handle snagged his pants, ripping the seam from his side pocket to his ankle. Moments later, he surfaced and gulped fresh air, as the swiftly moving current spun him around and propelled him downstream. Branches of a small tree raced by. He reached for them, and then the lights went out again as the trunk of a large tree rammed him.
When he opened his eyes, it was daylight. He was lying across a smooth boulder with only his feet in the water. Blood oozed from a long gash on his leg, and there were open cuts on his elbow and left cheek. He rolled onto his back and pulled his feet from the water. Slowly, he sat up and took stock of his situation. He still had both shoes on, but his jacket was in shreds, as were his shirt and pants. He checked himself over carefully. Miraculously, nothing was broken.
He knew he should get up and go. “Go?” he mumbled. “Go where? Where in blazes am I?” His head ached, and there was a large lump over his right ear. Unsteadily, he got to his feet, and sticking a hand in his pants, discovered that there was no longer a pocket there. His money was somewhere in the river. “Well,” he sighed, “ain’t that the pits?” He expected no reply.
Deliberately tearing off the one jacket sleeve the river hadn’t claimed, he used it to wash off the blood. The cuts did not appear serious.
There was a steep path leading from the river to a ridge above, and he clawed his way up it. The morning sun was warm on his skin and the air was still. He needed to find food and something warm to wear before nightfall or risk freezing to death, but somehow that didn’t worry him. Gaining the ridge, the white haired man quickened his pace, warmed by the undeniable knowledge that he was lucky to be alive.
Keeping the river, which ambled off to the southeast, in sight, Nick hiked up a series of hills that seemed to be getting higher with each passing hour. Despite the gathering of ominous clouds, the sun remained visible. When it reached its zenith, he assumed it was afternoon.
Gradually, a growling in his stomach replaced the throbbing in his head. From atop a richly forested hill, he viewed the Ossinee as it joined an even larger waterway. A well-worn trail led off to the west. He hadn’t come across any dwellings during the morning, so he decided to follow this new path in hope of finding a town, or at least an unsuspecting pigeon.
Two hours later, about to take a short rest, he spotted smoke rising from a clearing at the bottom of the mountain. The possibility of finding food and shelter overruled his body’s need of rest.
It took nearly an hour to reach the edge of the clearing. With a knee on the ground, Nick surveyed the scene ahead. The old, wooden house with its stone chimney was small, a two bedroom bungalow, he judged. It was too far away to hear any sound. There were no vehicles in sight, but the thing that really captured his attention was the dirt road leading into the woods.
Where there was a road, there had to be cars, and people, and no doubt, a town.
Despite the growls from his stomach, he opted to wait until dark before venturing across the open terrain. With a deep sigh, he stretched out on the ground and closed his eyes. The sun was setting when he awoke.
Circling the house, Nick crept up to an unlit window in a back room. Peeking inside, he detected no movement. Not surprisingly for this remote area, the window was unlocked. With a gentle push, he raised it and hoisted his bulk over the sill. Not bad for a fat, old man, he thought as he eased the window shut and crawled across the carpeted floor. As his eyes adjusted to the dim light, he surmised that he had entered a woman’s sewing room.
Getting to his feet, he cautiously opened a door. It was a closet, filled with skirts and women’s dresses. He was about to pull the string on the overhead light when he heard footsteps approaching. There was nowhere to hide, and no time to get out of the room. He scooted into the closet, closed the door, and squatted in a corner behind some long garments.
Nick heard the door to the room open. A bright sliver of light showed beneath the closet door. He held his breath and waited for the person to leave. There were sounds of activity, but he was unable to fathom their meaning. Minutes past. He waited, and then waited some more, not daring to move. What in tarnation, he wondered, is he doing, and what the heck am I gonna say if he opens this door and finds me?
Without warning, the doorknob turned, and the door of the closet opened a few inches. Nick put a hand over his nose and mouth, lest his heavy breathing give him away. He willed his rebellious stomach to remain quiet. That’s odd; it’s barely open. He waited, expecting dire consequences. When nothing happened, he tilted his head to one side and peered out from behind the long dresses. Whoever had opened the door had done so to hang something on it—he saw the thick tip of a heavy hanger.
Squinting through the crack at the doorframe, he realized that the intruder was a woman.
She had her back to him and was busy doing something. She’s ironing, by gosh; that’s what she’s doing. Wonder if she’s alone. Hope she doesn’t plan to hang those clothes in here. The closet was already full. He needed something warm to wear, but it was obvious that, unless he wanted to wear a dress, he wasn’t going to find it here.
His legs were killing him, yet he dared not move. He didn’t think he could stand up. If she opens the door now, I’ll have to crawl out. He tried to put his mind on other things, but his aching muscles commanded his full attention.
Finally, when he felt sure he’d become permanently disabled, the woman hung the last of her garments over the top of the door and left the room. It was surprising how much effort it took to straighten his legs. He massaged his limbs and slowly got to his feet. Flexing his legs, he wondered if she was coming back. He decided not to find out. Striding to the window, he slid it up. It had started to snow. Large flakes, as white as his beard floated before his eyes and melted as they touched the ground. With one leg out the window, he glanced back toward his hiding place and did a double take. There, hanging on the closet door was a large, man’s gray suit. He could hardly believe his good fortune. Hurriedly, he took the few steps to the closet, grabbed the wooden hanger with its neatly ironed, fleece-lined suit, and rushed back to the window.
The wool suit was heavy—just the thing to keep him warm. His heart pounded as he forced his legs to carry him deep into the woods. Looking back, he was relieved to see no sign of pursuit, and as far as he could tell, there wasn’t enough snow yet for tracking. “Give me a five minute head-start and it won’t matter if I leave a footprint,” he mumbled, as he discarded his rags in favor of the warm pants and jacket. He tightened the wide belt around his waist and began moving toward the dirt road he had observed earlier. In minutes, he abandoned the woods in favor of the road. Another thirty minutes of fast walking and there were city lights ahead. His spirits were high, in spite of the rumbling of revolt in his stomach. “Sure wish I still had my dough. Oh well, if there’s a blood bank in this burg, I’ll sell a pint of blood. If not, I’ll swipe something easy and visit the local pawn shop.”
Leaving the road at the edge of town, for the first time all day, Nick strolled on cement sidewalks. Some of the stores he passed were closed, but most were open for the holiday shoppers, and despite the steady snowfall, there were lots of cars driving about, but too many pedestrians to permit a break-in. He passed a sporting goods store. Its window was filled with sleds, skates, and hockey sticks. Not worth taking, he thought, and turned his attention to a hardware store’s display of skill-saws and expensive drill sets. Brushing a hand over his beard, he wondered how difficult it was going to be to disable the alarm and jimmy the back door. It was still too early. He’d come back later. A young couple passed him and the woman looked at him, smiled and said, “Merry Christmas!” He nodded and crossed the street. He passed more people and they too greeted him. People here sure are friendly. I guess it’s the time of year.
Turning the corner, he bumped into an elderly woman, nearly knocking her down as she was coming out of a restaurant. The aroma of cooked cabbage followed her out the half-closed door, making him hungrier than before. He grabbed the woman’s elbow, steadying her.
She looked into his eyes; a broad smile of recognition lit her oval face. “Oh, it’s you, Santa,” she said. “Merry Christmas!” She laughed, and turned away.
“Merry Christmas,” he heard himself mumble. Confused, Nick looked at his reflection in the restaurant’s plate glass window. Running a hand under the edge of his long mustache, he looked again at the fleece-lined gray suit he was wearing. Could this darn suit I’m wearing be red? If so, I guess I do look a little like Santa Claus. “Hmm,” he murmured, “what’ll that get me?”
Opening the restaurant door, Nick approached a short, balding man standing at the cash register near the front door. The man picked up a menu, fingered his red bow tie, and smiled broadly. “Merry Christmas, Santa! Come right in.”
“No, no. I just need some information. Is there a blood bank in this town?”
The little man patted the few hairs left on top of his head. “Yes, right across from the hospital. Isn’t that wonderful? With everything you’ve got to do, you’re taking time to bring cheer to blood donors. I’d like to shake your hand.” Wiping a hand across his short, white apron, he extended it. “My name is Tony, and if you’ll permit me, it will be my great pleasure to serve you—”
Grasping the small hand tightly in his large grip, and rolling his eyes, he grinned. “Nick. Just call me Nick.”
The little man smiled, and without withdrawing his hand turned to the crowded room.
“Look everybody! Saint Nick has arrived.”
“Merry Christmas!” called the smiling customers as Tony escorted Nick to a table in the center of the crowed room.
Pulling out a chair, he gazed at Nick’s smiling countenance. “What can I serve you tonight?” He put a forefinger to his chin. “No, never mind—leave that to me—I think the roast leg of lamb with mint jelly. It’s the specialty of the house. And I’ll set aside a big slice of our fresh baked pie for desert.”
Nick smiled and nodded to his fellow dinners and thought about the surprise in store for the gullible restaurant owner when he found out he wasn’t going to be paid.
Within minutes, Tony returned with a bowl of cabbage soup. “Try this; my wife makes it herself.” He set the bowl on the table and stepped back.
Picking up a large linen napkin, Nick tucked it into the top of his new suit. It was time to quell his rebellious belly. The soup was warm and its aroma almost intoxicated him. Dipping a spoon in the mixture, he took a large swallow, closed his eyes, and smacked his lips. Lowering the utensil, he opened one eye, and said, “Wonderful!”
Tony rushed to the kitchen to give his wife the news that Saint Nick loved her soup, leaving the costumed customer to his gastronomical pleasure, and a new perspective.
For Nick, this was a unique experience. He hadn’t smiled so often, or spoken to so many people in years. He realized that they took him for someone playing Santa, but now that he was involved in the role, he had to admit that it was fun. After years of an unsmiling existence, it was nice, for a change, to have people speak to him in friendly tones.
Just as he was finishing the main course, Tony returned with a double portion of apple pie. Bending down, he whispered, “If you’ll permit, the meal is on the house. Have a very Merry Christmas!”
As he left the restaurant, Nick felt a hand on his shoulder. He turned, half expecting that the owner of the suit had caught up with him, but it was one of the restaurant’s patrons. The tall slender man, bundled up in a heavy overcoat and scarf smiled at him. “Excuse me, Santa, but did I hear you say you were going to the Blood Bank?”
“Why yes,” Nick sighed, relieved that he wasn’t in trouble.
“I’m Sam Carter. I’m going to the hospital. It’s across the street from the Blood Bank. Can I give you a lift?”
As the two men drove over the snow-covered streets in Carter’s ancient Chevy, Nick asked, “What takes you to the hospital on a cold night like this?”
“I have a young son who is waiting for an operation. His mother stays with him all day while I watch our one-year old. I visit him every evening.”
“What kind of operation?”
“Heart. He needs a heart transplant. He’s been waiting a long time for a matching donor. I don’t know what we’re going to do if he doesn’t get one soon. It’s painful to see him grow weaker every day. I don’t think he can hold out much longer.”
“Boy, that’s rough!” The white-haired man fell silent, unable to think of anything to say.
Carter sighed. “It sure takes the joy out of the season.”
Nick swallowed hard. “You hang in there!”
Carter turned the steering wheel and stopped the Chevy in the hospital parking lot. “I’m trying, but it looks like we need a miracle.”
Nick raised one eyebrow. “It’s the season for miracles.” He ran a hand over his beard. “Maybe your boy would like a visit from old Nick?” The words were past his lips, and assaulting his ears before he knew it. Pulling at his beard, he thought, this darn suit is scrambling my brain. Why didn’t I keep still?
“He’d love it, if you can spare the time, but please don’t give him any false hope, and try not to promise him too much. His illness has taken about every penny we have. It’s going to be a mighty slim holiday.”
“Leave it to me. What’s you boy’s name?”
They walked through the lobby and took the elevator to the third floor. Along the way, they were greeted with messages of holiday cheer from patients, visitors, and members of the staff. At the room, Sam turned. “We can’t stay too long. It tires him out.”
Sam went in, leaving the Santa in the hall collecting his thoughts and trying to decide how he was going to get his size twelve boot out of his big mouth. Minutes passed. The door to room 312 opened. He still had no clue.
He heard Sam exclaim, “Look who came—just to see you.”
Nick swallowed hard, and then strode into the room. “Ho, ho, ho!” he exclaimed in a hearty voice, “Merry Christmas!”
Huge brown eyes stared in amazement from a small colorless face. A tiny smile flickered across the child’s lips as he inhaled oxygen from the plastic prongs strapped to his head. The monitor on the wall registered an increased heart rate. “Is it Christmas yet?”
Nick’s mouth was dry and there was perspiration on the back of his neck as he took the little boy’s hand in his huge grip. “Not yet, Chris, but soon.”
“Day after tomorrow,” his father said. “It’ll be here before you know it.
“I—I was kinda hoping,” Chris paused, and then added, “Just gotta make it to Christmas.”
Scratching at his whiskers, Nick said, “It’s only a couple of days away. You’re gonna see a terrific Christmas. Don’t you worry about that.”
Nick looked at all the equipment surrounding the bed and became engrossed in the strange, almost musical noises they emitted. The circumstances of his own life faded to triviality when compared to what this boy faced. He saw the boys questioning look. “Chris, tell old Nick what you want for Christmas.”
“I know,” Chris said with unblinking eyes, “that my mom and dad have been praying that I’d get a new heart. For their sake, I sure hope I get one for Christmas.”
Nick felt tears welling up in his eyes, and tried unsuccessfully to blink them away. Then putting a hand on top of Chris’s dark hair, he looked down at the boy and smiled. “What else?” Well, if I make it to Christmas and get that, would it be okay to ask for a new pair of ice-skates so I can play hockey with the guys?”
Nick nodded. “You’re as good as on the ice right now.” He felt Sam tugging at his sleeve.
“You rest now, Chris, and think about how good it’s going to be when you’re out scoring goals.”
Hearing footsteps behind him, Nick turned to see a young Doctor entering.
Sam grinned at the white-coated physician. “Nick, this is Doctor Carr.”
The Doctor smiled. “Saint Nick!” he exclaimed. “I heard you were in the building. We must have you to thank for this good news.” Turning to his patient he said, “Chris, we have a match. How would you like to get a new heart in the morning?”
“Gee!” Chris exclaimed. “Just in time for Christmas!”
The snowdrifts in front of the hospital were almost two feet deep as the two men left.
Sam turned to shake Nick’s hand. “You really are a miracle worker. Wait ‘til my wife hears about this! Hey! Do you need a place to stay? Why don’t you come out to the farm with me?
With Chris in the hospital, we have an extra room.”
Nick stopped in his tracks. He scratched at his beard and shuffled his feet. “That’s kind of you,” he said, “but I’ll be fine; really I will. Maybe next time I come to town. I still have some things to do. I’ve got to visit the blood bank, and then there’s a certain sporting goods store that is running a sale on ice skates.”
Josh Truxton spend the bulk of his time writing (He is a third of the way into his 13th novel) re-writing, editing and searching for a Literary Agent for several novels, “The Unvarnished Truth,” for the general adult market and a 3- volume Y.A. & New Adult novel, written against the background of the Revolutionary War. His latest novel, “Alex, Peanut Butter and Me” was released in April of 2015. To learn more, please visit http://www.joshswritingroom.com