A reluctant young Daddy grows up.
Jeffrey Mathews, cub reporter for one of New England's largest newspapers, scooped up his pocket tape recorder and camera and headed for the apartment door. It was Sunday morning and supposedly his day off. But, if nothing else, Jeffrey was a hustler. He was convinced that the way to beat his peers was to bring in a human interest story that would catch the eye of the editor-in-chief.
"I don't know when I'll be back," he announced brusquely to his young wife, Peggy. "If I get onto something good, I could be gone all day."
Peggy smiled sadly at him and nodded that she understood. She knew it was futile to argue that it was Father's Day … to beg him to spend a little time with Richie just this once. He would only blow up in her face, accusing her of not wanting him to get ahead. She had tried every way she could think of to please Jeff, but nothing had worked. He remained cold and aloof, even when they made love (if one could call it that).
Had Peggy known what was in her young husband's heart, she'd have been devastated. For when she'd become pregnant with Richie, Jeffrey had secretly decided that the whole marriage was a mistake. The more he thought about it, the more convinced he became that he'd have to shed her and the kid. He needed to be free of encumbrances … free to follow the stories around the world, wherever they led him. Only that way did he stand a chance of gaining national fame.
Jeffrey's eyes scanned the apartment as his hand turned the doorknob. He was at least decent enough, when he nodded back at Peg, to mask the hatred he felt in his heart. On the floor little Richie played with a toy truck, oblivious to his Daddy's departure and to the fact that it was Father's Day. A card, barely glanced at by Jeff, lay on the counter. Peggy had guided Richie's hand to scrawl out "Love, Richie."
"Stupid," Jeffrey had thought when he'd read the card. But again the decent part of him had concealed the truth.
"Thanks, Richie!" he'd smiled. Little Richie had smiled back, uncertain of why his father was talking to him. He had already accepted the fact that the man called 'Daddy' didn't like him very much.
Jeffrey pulled the door shut behind himself, and with an angry sigh headed down the hall. How could he have gotten into this mess? He was indeed on the horns of a dilemma. He had to be free! Yet he knew that Peg would be crushed if and when he told her that he wanted a divorce.
Since before Richie's birth he'd been secretly building a case for why they should go their separate ways. He'd even toyed with the idea of claiming that Richie wasn't his. But the kid already favored him strongly. Ironically enough, he resented it.
He tossed his recorder into the front seat and headed north, out of the city. It was a lovely June day, and he decided to stop in Gloucester. There were pictures aplenty to be had in that venerable fishing port, and perhaps he'd get the human interest story that he was looking for.
By the time he'd entered Gloucester's city limits, Peggy and Richie had vanished from his thoughts. He was already thinking ahead to a seafood lunch in one of Gloucester's Mom and Pop restaurants. Who could say … maybe he'd find his story there, over a beer with an old salt.
Jeffrey found a parking spot down on the waterfront, and strolled out along a fishing pier. Fishing boats, large and small, nuzzled the pilings with their matted rope and discarded tire bumpers. The water made pleasant slapping sounds beneath him, and the air was redolent with the smell of the ocean. Barnacles and other crustacea festooned the pilings below waterline, and here and there a small crab held fast to them. Little needle-like fish plied the water.
This was the life for him! Free to chase the next story, wherever it waited to be found! Down the pier a young man and woman approached. They were talking and laughing, but Jeffrey couldn't yet make out their words. The man pushed a stroller, occupied by a little boy about Richie's age. The kid was having a conversation with himself, looking all around with new eyes filled with wonder.
"Boat!" Jeffrey heard him exclaim, pointing a chubby finger at one of the moored vessels. And then, "Bir'," as one of the countless seagulls sailed by. For an instant a pang of guilt tugged at Jeffrey's heart. This was how kids learned about the world … by getting introduced to it by their parents. He knew that Richie's world would be the apartment walls all day. Peg might make a quick run to the supermarket, but that would be it. There'd be no boats … no seagulls for Richie. But … although the family life might work for some guys, Jeffrey reminded himself that it wasn't for him.
"Different strokes for different folks," he muttered.
He candidly studied the other man and his family as they approached.
"Probably an engineer," he thought to himself. It was the kind of job that accommodated a family life. The guy probably made a good living. His kid would go to college. But … engineers never became famous.
"Nothing is free. Everything has its price," Jeffrey rationalized, nobly thinking that it was the price he'd have to pay for his climb to the top. Somehow the idea that Peg and Richie would be the ones who really paid the price got lost in his feelings of grandiosity.
The happy family of three passed by, and Jeffrey continued on down the wharf. At its end an old man sat fishing, his back to Jeffrey and his legs dangling above the water, ten or more feet below. As Jeffrey approached, the old man spoke without even glancing over his shoulder.
"Sit down," he invited. "You look like you could use a story."
Jeffrey was startled. Was it that obvious that he was a reporter? The tape recorder lay hidden in his jacket pocket. And practically everybody carried a camera slung around their neck.
"As a matter of fact, I could," he smiled uneasily, carefully seating himself next to the gnarled old fisherman.
"Caught anything?" he asked, trying to gain the initiative.
"Not yet," the old man answered without giving him a glance.
"How did you know I was a reporter?" Jeffrey pressed. The old man didn't answer. His pale blue eyes looked out across the harbor.
Jeffrey studied the old boy's countenance. It seemed almost biblical with its long, flowing beard. The old man wasn't wearing a hat, and his white hair, unshorn for longer than Jeffrey could guess, cascaded down over his shoulders.
Again the old fisherman took Jeffrey by surprise.
"You must want a story pretty bad, to leave your family on Father's Day."
Wariness seized Jeffrey. The words smacked of a scolding. And again, how could this old geezer know …
"Well, here she is, then," the old man continued, pulling a folded paper from his vest pocket. Jeffrey mutely accepted the small wad. It had been folded on itself several times, and was reduced to a small, stained and yellowed packet. He began to unfold it carefully, lest he tear the fragile paper.
"Not here! Don't read it here!" the old man growled. "I'm done fishin' for the day."
Jeffrey nodded submissively at the wizened head and rose to his feet.
"Thanks," he mumbled. "I'll take a look."
"You do that, young fella," the old man answered with the trace of a chuckle in his voice. "You take a real good look!"
Jeffrey glanced back up the pier. Not far from the end was an empty bench, its back nailed to the pier's side rail. He shuffled over to it and took a seat, carefully unfolding the ancient sheet of paper. It was crisp, almost like parchment. The title puzzled him.
"To God's Young Earthly Surrogates," it read. What could that mean?
Jeffrey glanced back at the old fisherman. With a start he beheld only the empty pier's end!
"What the …" he exploded out loud. The old salt couldn't have slipped by him. Jeffrey sprang to his feet and raced back to the pier's end, fully expecting to see the old boy floating in the water. But there were only the pilings and barnacles and crabs. Light headed and confused, he retraced his steps to the bench. He spied a middle aged couple approaching from far down the pier, and delayed re-opening the folded paper until they approached.
"Excuse me," he said sheepishly as they drew nigh. "Did you notice an elderly gentleman pass on your walk out here?"
"Nope," the middle aged man answered amiably. "You're the only person out here. We saw you sittin' alone on the end yonder when we started the walk out."
Jeffrey blinked and nodded mutely. Had he been half the reporter he thought he was, he'd have instantly realized that this was the story of a lifetime. but all he could think was that someone was playing a trick on him. Was this couple in cahoots with the old fisherman? Would they enjoy a good laugh, in some waterfront bar, at his expense?
Jeffrey remembered the piece of paper, and again unfolded it carefully. Beneath the title appeared to be a story written in verse. Slowly the look of skepticism in his eyes changed to one of interest as he read the words:
To God's Young Earthly Surrogates
Sallow of face, fallen from grace,
Bankrupt of hope lay he,
Under the moon, hard by a dune,
Next to a lifeless sea.
Ravaged and spent, beaten and rent,
Blood seeping into the ground.
Cries of despair, piercing the air,
They were the only sound.
"Father in heaven, savior of men,
Pity this wretch, I pray!
Lift up the weight, for it's too great!
Tell me I need not pay
For the foul deeds… for the bad seeds
Carelessly sown in my life.
For the sweet child, spurned and reviled,
For the love kept from my wife!"
High in the sky, deaf to his cry,
Ominous storm clouds sped
Out to the west, o'er the sea's breast,
Straight to the isle of the dead.
Fully aware, dourly they stare
Down at the foolhardy lout.
Too late he sees, despite his pleas,
What final judgment's about:
As a man sows punishing blows,
So in the end shall he reap.
Hear me, young mate, before it's too late:
Love those God puts in your keep.
Only this way, come judgment day,
Will it descend from above,
Lifting you high, into the sky:
Your Father's fathomless love!
After reading the poem, Jeffrey gazed back at where the old man had sat. His eyes drifted out beyond the breakwater where the Atlantic stretched away to the horizon. Just as the thought occurred to him to fold the tattered piece of paper and tuck it into his pocket, a gust of wind pulled it from his fingers. Like an autumn leaf it fluttered away and settled on the harbor's surface. For an instant Jeffrey thought about plunging in to retrieve it. But one of the skinny little fishes rose and tugged at it. Jeffrey could see the sheet disintegrate into a hundred pieces, and these were eagerly snapped up by other little fish.
In a mild case of shock Jeffrey retreated from the pier, back to his car. Somehow he knew that he'd never return to this place. Once in the car he sat in a stupor, going over the events again and again in his mind. Any thoughts of a seafood lunch had vanished. Numbly he stabbed at the car's ignition and, without really thinking about where he was headed, steered the vehicle back toward the city.
As Gloucester faded behind him and the signs of a metropolitan area picked up, feelings of having been saved from some terrible mistake pervaded Jeffrey's soul. They crept in slowly at first, but then with greater and greater conviction. Although he couldn't know it at the time, he would never become the celebrated roving reporter he had dreamed about. But half a century later, after a lifetime of living and reflection, he would accept the Nobel Prize for literature in Sweden.
But … that all lay in the future. Early that afternoon Jeffrey pulled back into the apartment house parking lot. He hoped that Peg wouldn't be out shopping. When he opened the apartment door he felt a surge of gratitude that she was there.
"Hi!" she greeted with a puzzled smile, coming out of the bedroom with a hairbrush in her hand. "What a nice surprise!"
Without answering, Jeffrey laid his gear on the counter, crossed the room and took her in his arms. He kissed her tenderly on the mouth. At first she was stiff, but then her body melted in his embrace. When he pulled his face back, her eyes opened full of questions.
"What …" she began. Jeffrey put his finger on her lips, stopping the question before it was asked.
"I love you, Peg," he murmured, pressing his cheek against her fragrant hair and hugging her tightly.
"R-r-r-oom!" little Richie exclaimed, pushing his toy truck along on the living room carpet. Jeffrey broke free of Peggy's arms and lifted his son off the floor. He sat down on the couch with little Richie in his lap.
"How about a story for my favorite little boy?" he said.
"Who, me?" Richie asked, his eyes full of amazement.
"Sure, you. Don't you know you're my favorite boy in all the world?"
"I am?" Richie answered in a little voice that seemed to say it was news to him.
Peggy sat down beside them and linked her arm into Jeffrey's
"You must have gotten quite a story," she murmured. "Do you think they'll print it?"
Jeffrey smiled at her. "They'll never see it," he answered softly. "They'd never believe it."
Richie wiggled in Jeff's lap, his eyes still filled with wonder at this rush of attention from his Daddy. Jeffrey settled more deeply into the couch's cushions and pulled his son against his chest.
"Once upon a time there was a boy who loved to fish," he began. "He was a wonderful little boy, just like you …"