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The Lord Works in Mysterious Ways

A week ago I woke up to a world I hadn’t set eyes on since the day I was born.

Well, perhaps that was stretching the truth of the matter a bit. The world had been turning end over end for all eighty-two years of my life, most of it in Mill Creek Junction. Up and down, up and down. Through global wars and culture wars and recessions. Through that damn Georgia peanut farmer and Hollywood showboat gov’nor, through Slick Willy and Dubya, through ‘Bama and now the orange-hair wackadoodle.

I’d seen it all. Been there, done that. And with the beer koozie to prove it. I’d made it this far, I guess.

But still…my checkbook gave no sign of a happily ever after one week into a lockdown that was tighter than Maud’s girdle.

At least the bite of oatmeal I shoved into my mouth was still as thick and meaty as the day I popped out of Ma. Not that hippy steel-cut crap, mind you. And definitely not that newfangled instant nonsense that’s fashionable with Generation X or Z or Q or whatever the heck we’re up to nowadays. Straight old-fashioned, rolled oats for me, with a scoop of brown sugar and a dash of cinnamon. And cloves. Man’s gotta get the cloves to keep things movin’, or else they’re liable to get stuffed up. At least that’s what Maud suggested, God rest her soul.

A glint of light caught my attention bouncing off the brass urn from across the table resting against the window still draped with those pea-green curtains she stitched together for the place a week after we’d gotten hitched. Same for the tablecloth resting underneath my bowl and Maud’s ashes at the spot she’d always sat, an orange- and brown-striped thing I’ve been told is back in style.

I set down the spoon and licked my lips clean, the tick-tock of the golden wedding anniversary clock above the sink behind me echoing across my tiny one-bedroom apartment, the walls of peeling flowery wallpaper closing in on me after being holed up in this place going on a week now.

I’d stared at that urn for the past three years, a fat, fancy thing with a top that came to a point and what they call whorls sweepin’ around it this way and that. Sorta creepy, I know, keeping my dead wife’s ashes sitting across from me. But it helped knowing part of her was still close, especially alone in my darkened apartment as the world went to pot outside. Didn’t know now whether to cry tears of loneliness at enduring the latest downturn without her or tears of joy at her not having to deal with all that the latest downturn meant.

Especially for the checkbook I was trying to balance a week into a lockdown that shutdown my barbershop downstairs.

The orange-haired wackadoodle kept referring to it as a Wuhan virus, whatever the heck that was. All I knew was that a week ago our governor shut down all non-essential business. Apparently people needing their hairs trimmed was a non-essential activity. Which meant I was non-essential.

‘Cept paying the electric and gas and water bills was essential, and buying food was essential, and paying rent was essential, and feedin’ the cat was essential.

And the numbers weren’t adding up to a hill of beans.

Which reminded me of the world I hadn’t seen since childhood.

You see, I was born in the wake of the ‘37-’38 Recession. Now, it was no Great Depression, mind you. Nothin’ near as bad. The academic types would yammer their yappers on about the whys and hows on that one. Don’t got much use for such talk or tweets or whatever the heck they’re called nowadays while standing in a breadline when the food runs out. Which is where Ma had been when she right gave me birth.

So I came into the world during a recession, and it looked like I was going to leave the world in one, too.

With $67.82 to my name if things didn’t open quick.

I set my ballpoint Bic down and looked back over the chicken scratches that told me my financial fortunes, like the entrails of slaughtered chickens from the days of old.

Lord, what am I going to do? Save me, I have faith!

Didn’t get nothin’ but a coo-coo from behind.

I stood and grabbed my empty mug, then sauntered to the kitchen for some more coffee.

I’m sure he’ll come through, somehow…

Stuff tasted like burnt cardboard by now, but it was all I had. Hadn’t made it to the store yet since the quarantine. Not that I’d breathe a word of it to anybody, but truth be told I was too scared to go. Kids were on the other side of the country and kept pesterin’ for me to get stocked up, but what could I do? Didn’t have no mask or gloves. Didn’t have no hand sanitizer either. Figured it was just a temporary thing anyhow. Some snap decision by those gov’ment types who would come around to their senses. How can you shut down an economy? It’s not like pressin’ pause on no VHS. People need to work, to make things, to get their hairs cut!

Seen as how I was near out of food and on my last roll of toilet paper, I was clearly gonna have to bite the bullet, and soon, especially while the east side of the state was going up in flames.

But with the tap of customers to the barbershop shut off and my fixed expenses mounting with no credit line, I didn’t know how I was going to make it. No way, no how…

I dumped the remaining sludge and decided to brew a new pot. Reused the same grounds as yesterday. Figured they still had some juice left in ‘em. Filled Mr. Coffee with water, turned it on, and soon he was huffing a resigned complaint, steam coming out the top, water coming out the bottom.

Waiting for the brew, I stared out back from my second-floor apartment perch. Clear blue sky, high-noon sun. The Rev’s white steeple poking up above the treeline, leaves starting to make their appearance. My faithful Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme—black over red Velour, powered by a 260ci V8 paired with a five-speed manual transmission—looked as good as untouched on the gravel lot. Sure didn’t make ‘em like they used to.

Then there was the hunk of Plymouth junk parked a spot away. And Max Blade fiddling around in the trunk of that Breeze of his.

I twisted my face up into a snicker and carefully, quietly began opening the window, the April air a blessed relief from my stifling apartment.

Couldn’t tell what he was rootin’ around for but figured he needed to get the blood movin’.

So I let ‘er rip, letting out a snort that was sure to send his hide sailing high in the air.

And boy did it sail!

“Sonofa—”

Max bonked his head on the trunk lid and dropped whatever it was he was rootin’ around for, a can of it rolling past out of view.

The man scrambled after it and stuffed it in a brown paper bag, then glanced my way and threw me a scowl that did my heart right.

“Good afternoon, Old Man Nugent,” Max said, raising a red white and blue Budweiser hat to me, which I found borderline sacrilegious. Had gotten a bum leg serving my country in ‘Nam, and no corporate overlord should dare co-opt America’s colors for marketing tchotchkes, even for a decent bartender like Max.

I shouted down to him, “What the heck you got down there? That bucket of bolts giving you trouble?”

He stood and closed the trunk, ruffling the bag closed and holding it close to his side.

“Nothin’ you need to worry your pretty little head over. How’s it hanging up top? You got yourself enough food and TP to weather this pandemic?”

“Uhh…yeah, I think so…” I stammered, my face falling at the fact of the matter and not at all accustomed to opening the kimono for the neighbors.

A man’s gotta rely on his own two hands and the goodness of the Lord, I say. Neither the gov’ment nor handouts from bartender neighbors should fill a man’s storehouse.

“I’ll be fine!” I snapped before yankin’ down the window.

I spun around and cursed myself for my antics. Man didn’t deserve that, especially Max Blade. Guess my pride wouldn’t let me tell the man the truth of it all. I closed my eyes and took a breath.

I’ll be fine…

I went to pray some more when I recalled a bit of Scripture that had guided me through the same tough times before—through four wars, three major recessions, two cantankerous children, and my one wife’s battle with ALS.

‘Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?’

Matthew chapter six, from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. Had read that passage so many times my Bible was ragged with underlines and highlights and penciled notes in the margin.

Are you not more valuable than the birds?

I felt something warm and heavy rubbing against my leg. I looked down and smiled.

Or cats…

I bent down and scratched the top of Brownie’s head, the dark-brown furball purring with approval.

Had never been much of a cat person. Mostly because I couldn’t stand their attitude. What’s the saying? Dogs think they’re people, cats think they’re gods?

Mr. Coffee gave a tired huff, like one of the old locomotives Daddy had worked on as a child, signaling it was finished. I stood, poured a cup, and took a sip, grimacing at the watery mess but thankful just the same for the warm caffeine, Maud’s tabby cat carrying on as he always did.

I had bought him the day she got the diagnosis. She’d always wanted a cat, but I’d insisted on dogs. Never were much good anyhow, and I’d regretted my stubbornness and short-changing Maud all those years. She’d never asked for much, and so we drove down to the Mill Creek Junction animal shelter to let her pick one for herself. Brownie it was. The cat had been alright, as far as cats go. And now he was begging for food.

‘Cept food was scarce, and I’d been waiting on that stimulus check the orange-haired wackadoodle and his gov’ment had been promising the past week. So far, nothing yet. And my social security check was another week away. Without my regulars and my imbalanced checkbook, I was waiting it out as long as I could before going out for more.

Memory hadn’t served me right in a few years, so I wasn’t sure what I’d find in the pantry. But I got to it, stepping across creaking floorboards older than I was for the furball’s food cupboard. Grasping the knob, I pulled open the door to find nothing but stale air smelling of old, stained wood.

Sucker punch to the gut. Couldn’t even provide for my dead wife’s cat!

Lord, what am I going to do? Save me, I have faith!

I went to pull open the door to my own stash when the backdoor bell rang.

A nearly let my bladder loose at the sound, standing with a startle. I bolted to the window but found no one out back.

Who on earth could it be?

Figured I should check, so I creaked downstairs as old as those creaky floorboards upstairs to find the shop just as I’d left it. Lights off, smelling of aftershave and soap, my lone chair standing sentry over a room I’d commanded for half a century. Walls filled with customers looked back at me with eyes I feared I’d never see again.

Over the years, I liked to take pictures of the regulars and not so regulars with their new cuts, tacking ‘em up for inspiration. Started in the early days when I opened up the shop. Sort of like Max with his first dollar bill framed next door, and just sorta grew from there. Hundreds of children and women and men, all of their mugs smiling back, pleased and proud of my apparently non-essential service.

“To heck with it,” I muttered, throwing a dismissive hand at the room on my way to the back.

I opened the door and found no one there.

‘Cept a rumpled brown paper bag.

I picked it up. It was heavy.

I twisted up my face at the thing and stepped outside, my eyes blinded by the mid-day sun as I searched the gravel lot. No one there. Even Max had left.

“What in the world…”

Confused, I went back inside and shut the door, plunging me back into darkness. I flipped on a light and opened the back.

Then gasped.

It was filled with small golden cans, wrapped in a familiar pink label.

Fancy Feast cat food! Brownie’s favorite.

Torn ruled paper with a penciled note inside: To Brownie Nugent.

I dropped the bag and threw the door back open, crunching across the gravel in search of the perp. Who the heck would do such a thing?

Ken and Barbara? Maybe, but they were the rule-following type, and couldn’t imagine them jumping in a car to deliver cat food. Same for the Rev. Max? No, he hated me. Maybe Gideon O’Donnell, a lawyer who was his most frequent customer, getting a trim a week.

I lumbered back inside and back upstairs. Made not a lick of sense, but his heart warmed at the fact someone had fed his cat. Brownie seemed to sense it too. Because once inside, he started squawkin’ up a storm and leapin’ and jumpin’ all over me.

“Alright, alright. Simmer, child.” I plopped the brown paper bag down, quickly fished out a can, popped its top, then set on the floor. Couldn’t even dump the food into his bowl, he was so hungry.

I stood and reached for my coffee mug, then took sips watching the boy eat, thankful the little fella had what he needed.

But who could have done such a thing?

When I glanced back at my dining room table, the checkbook caught my eye. And snagged my mind with another question.

Lord, what am I going to do? Save me, I have faith!

Time to do what I always did when anxiety got the best of me.

I walked over to the table and set down the mug. Then I fished out my walking shoes and slipped them on. Grabbing my walking cane, I threw on a light jacket and lumbered back downstairs and out the back door, then crunched along the back lot for a few laps around Main Street.

The sun was high and hot against my face, but the air was chilled and smelling of cotton candy. Brought me back to my childhood down south, when we’d drive through sugar cane fields while visiting grandpa and grandma in Florida. Those were the days. When life was simpler, less threatened.

Across the way the Rev passed by on the opposite side, all doodied up in his black suit heading back into town. Gave a friendly wave before scurrying along. I eyed him, wondering whether the man had dropped off the cat food and feeling not a small measure of gratefulness for the gesture. Whoever it was…

I rounded the block the first time and ambled toward the front of my home-sweet-home barbershop, when I spotted someone in black crouched down in front, at the door. First thought: they were tryin’ to break in. Stopped me dead in my tracks, paralyzed with dumbfounded disbelief.

Always the first thing to go when the gov’ment goes runnin’ its mouth and flexes its muscles: the rule of law. Civil society runs amok, thinkin’ it can bust into Old Man Nugent’s barbershop, maybe there’ll be some petty change to steal. No way was I going to stand for some lily-livered, chicken-hearted lickspittle breaking and entering.

“Over my dead body…”

I took a step, then another, and raised my cane and pointed it toward the perp.

“Hey, you!”

The figure stood but didn’t turn. Probably too stunned for words.

I turned around in the street, expecting someone to help and come to my aide. None came.

“What the heck do you think you’re doing!”

Then he took off, a black coat flapping behind him like a frightened buzzard as he tore down Main Street.

I tried running after him, wasn’t gonna let him get away with near-well ripping me off, but it was no use. Legs weren’t near what they once were, nor were they ever much since ‘Nam. Then the perp had disappeared around the block.

At least I had the satisfaction of—

Wait a minute…

I noticed a few sacks propped up against my glass front door.

“What the heck…”

I inched closer, wondering if they were bombs ready to explode. Didn’t know why in the slightest somebody would want to bomb Old Man Nugent, but there they were.

But not sacks. Three crisp brown paper bags.

Like before.

I approached on unsteady feet, my cane hitting the sidewalk now with an echoey clack as I neared the mystery.

There they were. Four large grocery bags from Meyer’s General. Stuffed to the gills with bright red tomatoes and green peppers, seven or eight good ol’ brown russets and a pack of bright yellow bananas. The other bag had a sack of oatmeal and a can of Maxwell House, some crackers and cans of soup and loaves of bread, even some Hershey’s Special Dark candy bars to satisfy my sweet tooth. And blessedly, three packs of toilet paper were stuffed in the third!

Resting on top was another note. Looked like the same torn ruled paper. Scrawled across it in pencil was a similar note: For Old Man Nugent.

Tears sprang to my eyes, and my lower lip started quivering. Was never one to show emotion, ‘specially out in the open, and ‘specially at the threshold of my barbershop!

But who could have done this? For a second time?

I gave a parting glance over my shoulders, then fumbled with my keys. One by one, I brought them inside and promptly shut the door. Then I dragged them across the polished wood floor to the door leading up to my apartment, too weak to carry them all at once. Eventually, I dragged them all up top, my leg burning and back aching. But I made it. And my cupboards and fridge were stocked, actually mostly full now. A sight to behold!

The ache in my leg was really getting to me now, I slumped into my chair back at the table. Gulping down a few sips of the crappy coffee gone cold, the checkbook caught my attention.

What good is a fridge of food if you can’t make the rent it’s sitting in?

Lord, what am I going to do? Save me, I have faith!

The coo-coo clock chimed three. Exhausted, I crawled onto the living room couch for a little snooze, throwing on a red and white crochet blanket Maud had knitted for me one Christmas. Just an hour nap is all. That should do.

I awoke to a sound in the early evening, the sun sinking behind my Main Street shop now and heading toward twilight. Could hardly put my finger on it. Was probably subconscious anyhow, but—

Wait, no.

The sound of crunching gravel.

The perp!

With a surge of pluck that caught even me by surprise, I sprang from the couch and hobbled downstairs, just as I heard a creak and something rustling against metal.

At the back, the screen door.

Or the lock to my shop.

They were back!

“Not in your life, pal!”

I stepped toward the door, suddenly aware of the pain. I pushed through it. Had to solve the mystery of who had been leaving behind all the goods. Which I was half appreciative for, half irritated about. To think someone would take away my manhood by passing out charity like it were Halloween.

Only a few feet now, the screen door suddenly slapped closed and the crunch of gravel returned.

“Now I’ve gotcha!”

I threw open the door and pushed through.

Scurrying away was a man, black trench coat flappin’ away again, head covered by a cap.

“Hands up! Show yourself!”

He ignored me, kept right on hustlin’ away.

So I did the only thing I could think of.

“Thief!” I shouted. “Thief!”

Then again, even louder: “Thief! Thief! Thief!”

Stopped him dead in his tracks. He huffed and threw his arms into the air.

“Would you shut up, Old Man Nugent, ya big windbag!”

Wait a minute…was it…could it be…

He turned around, hands on his head.

“Max Blade? What in tarnation…”

“Just had to ruin it, didn’t ya!”

“Ruin what?”

“Could’ve had a clean getaway, you’da had your goods without the awkward knowledge of where it all came from…”

“I’ll say it again! What in tarna—”

“Open your peepers and take a gander.” He motioned with his finger toward my door.

Furrowing my brow, I took a step back, still keepin’ him in my line of sight, ‘cause I didn’t trust him not to pull no funny business.

And then I saw it. A thick white envelope.

I bent down and picked it up. Real thick and hefty, the flap tucked in nice and secure.

Pulling it out, the scent of cash floated by before I caught the head of Andrew Jackson giving me a hidey ho.

It was filled with money. Hundreds of dollars, by my reckon.

Jaw dropped open all dopey, I fumbled for words. “I…I…don’t understand. You’re handin’ out charity?”

He shook his head. “Not charity. Gift certificates.”

“Huh?”

“To the barbershop. A bunch of us from the Junction went in and bought up all your gift certificates to get our hairs trimmed once this whole lockdown nonsense is lifted.”

“But…but…I don’t have any gift certificates.”

“You do now.” Max grinned, bright and cheery in a way I hadn’t seen him before.

None of this was registering. My head was swimming, and I was feeling faint at the scent and sight of all that cash.

He stepped toward me and eased the envelope out of my hands, then pulled out a piece of paper. “Now, see, the names are all written out here with each of their amounts. Amounts to a cut a person for most folk. Some more than others, like Gideon O’Donnell.”

“Was it you?” I asked. “Food for Brownie, for me?”

He bowed his head, not answering but saying all he needed to say.

“I’ve been prayin’ all mornin’ for the Lord to help. For cat food, food for me, money to pay the bill…” I chuckled. “And here you are, pagan as can be, answering my prayers!”

Max chuckled as well. “The Lord works in mysterious ways. Reminds me of the Parable of the Drowning Man. Feel like Jesus said something about that somewhere.”

I folded my arms and frowned. “That ain’t Scripture.”

He shrugged. “Don’t reckon it has to be to be relevant. Anywho, I remember my grandpa sitting me down a time or two to tell me about this feller. Rain had been poundin’ the poor guy’s house for days, and the waters rose. He scrambled up to his roof where he found himself stuck. So he did what any feller would do, I suppose. He prayed to God for help.”

“What’s your point?”

“Cool your jets, man. I’m gettin’ to it. Anywho, soon a man in a rowboat came by, and the feller in the boat shouted to the feller on the roof. ‘Jump in,’ he says, ‘I can save you.’ But the stranded feller on the roof shook his head: ‘Naw, it’s OK,’ he says, ‘I’m praying to God, he’ll save me. I have faith!’ Was no skin off the rowboat feller’s back, so he went on.

“Then a feller in a motorboat came by. He spotted the poor feller on the roof as well. ‘Jump in,’ he says, ‘I can save you.’ Again, the feller on the roof shook his head. ‘No thanks,’ he says, ‘I’m praying to God, he’s going to save me. I have faith!’”

I huffed. I was growing irritated with the man’s sermonizing. “Maximillian Blade, what’s the—”

“The third,” he interrupted.

I rolled my eyes and frowned. “The third, then. What’s the point of this!”

“Cool your jets, man. I’m almost there. So after the rowboat and the motorboat, another feller came by—this time in a helicopter.”

“Let me guess. ‘Jump in,’ he says, ‘I can save you.’ Is that right?”

Max snapped his fingers and pointed at me. “Bingo! And you can probably guess what the stranded feller said again.”

There was a long pause, with Max just looking at me. Which I took as him waiting for me to reply.

“I would assume the man on the roof rebuffed his advances, insisting God would save him, that he had faith?”

“Bingo again! So the feller in the helicopter flew away, and soon after that, the water rose above the rooftop and the feller drowned. Then soon after that, the feller was standing at Saint Pete’s pearly gates and finally got his chance to discuss the whole affair with the Almighty himself. As you can imagine, the feller was right ticked! ‘I had faith in you,’ he says, ‘but you didn’t save me, never lifted a finger or offered a helping hand. Why did you let me drown? I don’t understand!’”

Then one end of Max’s mouth curled upward, and he leaned in, as if letting me in on a secret. “‘I sent you a rowboat,’ the Almighty replied, ‘right before a motorboat and then, to top it off, a freakin’ helicopter! What else did you want me to do to save your ass?’”

I frowned.

“I might have ad-libbed that last part. But you get my drift.”

In that moment, I did.

I’d been prayin’ all day for the Lord to balance out the checkbook. And he worked a mighty miracle wonder! Providing food for my sweet bride’s Brownie, food for me for a week, maybe two, and more money than I could count. Surely enough to pay rent two or three months over.

And all through Max Blade.

The Lord works in mysterious ways, indeed.

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The Lord Works in Myserious Ways

Mill Creek Junction • Short Story

Old Man Nugent is down to his last sixty dollars thanks to a nationwide lockdown that’s shuttered his Mill Creek Junction barbershop.

To make matters worse, his cupboards and fridge are nearly empty, and he’s got a cat to feed.

How will he eat, let alone pay rent and utilities and feed his fine furry friend? Read to find out. Because sometimes the Lord works in mysterious ways…leading to a happily ever after ending that will warm the heart.

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