You remember that kid who looked like John Denver and did all those TV commercials back in the day? That wasn’t me. I was the Flanders Bread Boy, the kid with the catch phrase, ‘Flanders makes peanut butter and jelly rock!’ I was also the brown haired boy with the striped shirt in the Chuck E Cheese ads.
I never knew my old man, and my mom constantly drug me from audition to audition, and job to job. It was worse between jobs. I had to grow up fast. No child should be the primary breadwinner when they’re only seven years old.
The jobs slowed as I grew older and stopped altogether when I hit puberty. Mom wouldn’t take care of me, and I was done taking care of her. I emancipated myself at sixteen, hit the road at eighteen with a guitar, a backpack and the dream of becoming the next Bob Dylan.
I had pretty good luck, for a while. Small venues, but I didn’t mind. I was making enough to live on and doing what I loved. The world seemed wide open and full of possibilities. I even fell in love, once.
It happened at 2:30 in the morning in the laundry room of the Belmont Motel in Flagstaff, Arizona. I was playing guitar in my underwear when Mary came in wearing a maid’s uniform with an armload of unfolded towels. She had the most beautiful brown eyes I’d ever seen. She dumped the towels on the folding table and tossed me one.
“I’m doing laundry.” I explained. Wrapping the towel around myself.
“I can see that.” She shook a towel loose from the pile and flattened it out. “Play somethin’ I know.”
I strummed a few notes of Me & Bobby McGee and she began to sing; I got goosebumps. Her voice was like still water. Smooth and clear, but powerful enough to carve out the Grand Canyon. I joined in on the refrain. We played and sang until all her towels were folded and my clothes were dry.
She played guitar, too and for the next week and a half we spent every minute we could singing and stealing each other’s licks. It was the best time of my life and I hoped it would never end, but it did. I had to move on.
I begged her to come, and she begged me to stay, but the road won, and we kissed goodbye at the bus station. I promised I’d write… but couldn’t make myself. She deserved more than just living in cheap motel rooms, she deserved a home.
A few months after Flagstaff the gigs dried up, it was Christmas Eve and I was stepping off the bus in front of the Fuel Stop and Convenience Store in Livingston, Idaho. I thought somebody had made a mistake. I mean Livingston, Idaho wasn’t on the way to anywhere.
I can tell you from first hand experience there’s nothing lonelier than an empty parking lot on Christmas Eve. Especially, when you’re packing everything you own, have a quarter to your name and haven’t eaten in a day and a half. I remember looking up at the cloudy sky and say’n ‘I could use a little help here.’ That’s when I noticed the old white stucco building with the red neon sign that read Crossroads Café.
A bell jingled when I opened the door and I was struck by how old-fashioned it looked. The paint was yellowing, and the linoleum and laminate had been scrubbed so often they were faded. An old man and woman sat at the counter drinking coffee watching, It’s a Wonderful Life.
“Excuse me. Do you have any dishes that need washed or other work I can trade for something to eat?”
The old man shook his head. “No son, but if you’re hungry we’d be glad to feed you. Come on over and sit down. Christmas Eve has always been a time for special visitors here at the Crossroads Café.”
They said their names were Ken and Cheryl Weld, but from that day forward I called them Mr. and Mrs. W., and they called me Joe.
“I appreciate the offer, Mr. W. but I’d feel better if I could do something to earn it.
Mrs. W. smiled. “Can you play that thing?”
I looked down at my beat up guitar case, “Yeah.”
“Good. Once you’ve finished having some supper you can play for us. Does that sound fair?”
“Sounds more than fair, but I’d be happy to do more.”
“I appreciate that honey, but that will be enough for now.”
That was almost three years ago, and I never went any further. The Welds gave me a place to live and food to eat. They even let me play and sing at the café on Saturday nights. In return, I did whatever I could to help and generally tried to be useful. I had never met more kind and caring people. I’d finally found a home and wrote a letter to Mary, but I never got a reply.
Mr. W. died two weeks before Christmas. He’d been the closest thing to a grandfather I’d ever had and losing him left me feeling empty. I was worried about Mrs. W., but I needn’t have been. I’ve never seen a woman with that much faith. It was as if she was so sure they’d be together again death didn’t really matter. Like she knew something I didn’t. She was back working at the café the afternoon of his funeral.
I wasn’t looking forward to Christmas. Without Mr. W. it wouldn’t be the same. Maybe that’s why the morning of Christmas Eve seemed so dismal. There was no snow, but it was overcast, and the cold was a damp cold. The miserable kind of cold that seeped through your clothes and crept into bones.
When I got to the café Mrs. W. wasn’t there, so I unlocked the back door and let myself in.
I turned on the lights and noticed a teenage boy in a red hoodie and faded jeans huddled against the front door. I unlocked it and let him in.
“Come in. Come in. You must be freezing. We’re not open yet but give me a few minutes and I’ll get you something hot to drink.”
“I’m good, I just need to warm up a little”
“Don’t worry there’s no charge.”
“Are you sure?”
“Positive.” I started for the kitchen. “Have a seat at the counter. Is hot chocolate, ok?”
“You’re sure, right?”
“Yup.” I poured some chocolate milk in a mug and nuked it. When the microwave beeped I brought it out and set it in front of him.
“Hey thanks.” He wrapped his hands around the mug and took a sip.
I eyeballed him. “I haven’t seen you around here before.”
“Yeah, I’m not from here.”
“You’re not a runaway, are you?”
“No.” He took another sip. His brown eyes seemed to look right through me. “I came to see you.”
“Yeah. it’s time you knew.”
“About the Crossroads Café. I’ve been watching you. I want to offer you a job.”
“Yeah. A father doesn’t always wait for His children to ask for help. Sometimes they’re too proud or confused.” He paused. “Sometimes they’re just lost. That’s why I made places like this.”
“Places like this?”
“Uhh huh.” Way stations of kindness. Oasis’s of hope for those in need. Like I said, a father doesn’t always wait for His children to ask for help.”
“You’re not…?” The boy held his hand up palm out and finished the rest of the chocolate.
“You don’t have to decide right now. Take your time. You shouldn’t rush into something like this. Talk to Mrs. W., she and Ken made a life here helping others. Maybe you can, too.” He smiled. “Thank’s for the hot chocolate, it was delicious.”
I heard the backdoor open and close, a few seconds later Mrs. W. appeared in the hallway.
“Merry Christmas, honey. I’m running a little behind this morning.”
I looked away from the boy. When I turned back there was just an empty mug. “Merry Christmas. You just missed an interesting visitor.”
She looked like she had no idea what I was talking about. But I knew she did. “Really?”
I picked up the mug and started back to the kitchen. “Yeah, it was a boy in a red hoodie and worn blue jeans. He told me about the café and offered me a job.”
Mrs. W. smiled. “He never looks the same. Sometimes He’s a young girl or even an old man.” She reached out and grabbed my arm. “Are you going to do it, honey?”
“How come you never told me?”
“We couldn’t, it’s against the rules.”
The bell above the door jingled and two of the regulars walked in.
Mrs.W. put a finger to her lips. “We can talk more later. Now we need to get ready for the day.”
I thought a lot about what the boy had said. I knew it was true. I’d been witness to the old couple’s selflessness since the day I arrived. The only doubt I had was if I could live up to their standards. I needed to talk to Mrs. W., but didn’t get the chance until early that evening. Eventually, she poured a cup of coffee and sat down next to me at the counter.
“Have you decided what you’re going to do?”
I glanced up at the TV. In the movie It’s a Wonderful Life, George Bailey was about to jump off the bridge.
“Mrs.W., I knew there was something special about this place. I’d love to help, but I’m not sure. You’re not getting any younger, and I think it’s too big a job for one person.”
“It is too much work for one person.” Her eyeglasses magnified her blue eyes. “But, remember I’m still here, and these things have a way of working themselves out. Perhaps what you need to do is take a leap of faith?”
I looked at the faded paint and worn linoleum. The Crossroads Café wasn’t much, but it was home and it was needed. “You’re right. I’ll do the best I can and let God handle the rest.”
“Honey, that’s how Ken and I lived our whole lives. It’ll work out,” she patted my hand. “You’ll see.”
The bell jingled and a woman in her early thirties with long black hair carrying a backpack and a guitar case stepped inside. “I hope you can help me,” she said. “I think I’m lost.”
I hurried over and took her in my arms. “I thought I’d never see you again.”
“I didn’t think I’d see you again either.” She looked at me with her beautiful brown eyes. “Why didn’t you ever call or write?”
I looked away. “I thought you deserved a more than just a life on the road. I wanted you to have a home. When I realized I’d finally found one, I wrote for you to come but I never got a reply.”
“I never got your letter.” She kissed me on the cheek. “This is like a miracle; I’ve been looking for you for months.”
“Yeah. I was ready to give up. I used all the money I had left to buy a ticket back to Flagstaff. She looked around the café. “Somehow I ended up here.”
I gave Mrs. W. a look. She smiled. “Would you play for me, Mary? Would you indulge an old woman’s wish on Christmas Eve?”
Mary looked at me. “I will if you’ll join me.”
I didn’t know if it was the magic of Christmas, or a miracle from God, but the woman I thought I’d lost forever was once again in my arms. I wasn’t about to let her go. I kissed her on the lips, gazed into those beautiful brown eyes and replied. “I’ll join you for the rest of my life, if you’ll have me?”
She kissed me back and answered in a whisper. “Thats all I ever wanted, Joe.”
From that day forward our lives were full of love, music and service to others. We married in January and were expecting our first child a few months later.
Mrs. W. beamed when she found out and started knitting a pair of booties. I asked her what color, but she said I’d just have to wait and see.
Mary and I played every Saturday night and the café’s business boomed. It was packed, but we never forgot why we were there, and we never turned anyone away. Time seemed to fly and just like that it was Christmas Eve again.
This Christmas Eve brought another miracle, the birth of our daughter Cheryl Marie. As I gazed down at my exhausted wife and sleeping child, I unwrapped the tissue covered package Mrs. W. had given me. It was the booties she’d knitted. They were pink. I smiled and remembered what Mr. W.’ had said the day I arrived. “Christmas Eve has always been a time for special visitors here at the Crossroads Café.”