Gifts from Daniel Bronn…and Jerry: Part Two

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Jerry’s mind was still caught up with these feelings of not deserving the praise being heaped on him and of scheming a way to get out of his job when an opportunity seemed to present itself to him. Two weeks into delivering Daniel Bronn’s charity parcels, Jerry had returned for the next package and had instead been asked to take a seat.

“Jerry Blakeney,” Daniel Bronn smiled at him, as though his very soul was warmed simply by seeing Jerry. “I’m so glad you’ve been helping us out with our business here. I must say you are very efficient. It seems each of your deliveries takes less time than the one before.”

Jerry nodded. “I try to not loiter about.”

Daniel shrugged. “Well I wouldn’t want you to overwork yourself, of course.”

Jerry merely grunted. Sitting in a cab all day wasn’t exactly his idea of overworking himself.

“But it’s not enough for me to be pleased with your work, Jerry,” Daniel continued, suddenly looking very serious.

Here it is, Jerry thought to himself, his heart skipping with excitement. He’s received a complaint and he’ll finally give me the boot. Now I’ll get to see him shout! I wonder what he looks like when he shouts.

But Daniel did not shout. “More important is the question of whether you are pleased with your work here. Are you?”

Jerry stared blankly, struggling to find words to express the conflicted feelings he had held of late. “Does it make any difference?” he finally asked, and a flash of concern wrinkled Daniel’s brow. “I’m a delivery man. If I didn’t like it you could replace me in an instant. Anyone could do this job.”

“Hmmm,” Daniel’s brow furrowed even deeper and he shook his head ponderously. “I don’t think so, Jerry. I could send anyone to just deliver a package, it is true. But I’m not sending just anyone. I’m sending Jerry Blakeney.” Jerry wasn’t sure why Daniel Bronn was saying his name like it meant something. “I send you because it is Jerry Blakeney I want to send, not just the package. Do you understand?”

“Well…that’s very kind of you. But I don’t know that anyone else cares to receive Jerry Blakeney. I think they just want the package.”

“Perhaps they haven’t been receiving the real Jerry Blakeney, then.”

Jerry wasn’t sure why, but a weight pressed on his heart at that. “Maybe,” he said slowly, “maybe I’m not cut out for this work.”

“Your work here doesn’t make you happy?”

Jerry shrugged. “I know it should, I suppose. It’s regular and dependable.”

“But is that happy?”

“Maybe it’s as close as anything can be.”

Daniel cocked his head inquisitively, inviting further clarification.

“It makes my life comfortable,” Jerry proceeded. “There’s three things that make me uncomfortable. My landlord coming for rent, my ex-wife coming for alimony, and the grim reaper coming for my life. Each of them is either appeased or delayed by money, though. You pay me well for this work, frankly more than you probably should. So whatever my feelings of the work itself, it does at least make the rest of my life more comfortable.”

Daniel put his fingertips together and then rested his lips against them, his brow furrowed in deep thought. “A man must survive first of all, I suppose.”

Jerry nodded. “I’d agree with that.” It was probably the first time he had agreed with Daniel Bronn on anything.

Daniel continued thinking deeply, going so far as to close his eyes and shut out Jerry and his office entirely. He remained so for such a long while that Jerry leaned forward, checking whether any snoring was coming from his employer. Just then Daniel’s eyes snapped open and startled Jerry so badly that he fell out of his seat and into the one next to it. Daniel pretended not to notice.

“Jerry, I want to make you an offer,” Daniel Bronn said with a gleam in his eyes. “You say the wages here are enough to keep you comfortable, though maybe not all the way to happy. Fair enough. Well I’m going to add this on top of your regular wages for today,” reaching into his waistcoat Daniel fished out a number of bills and from withdrew from their midst a crisp ten dollars. “But this comes with an injunction. You cannot spend it on anything that makes you more comfortable, only on something that makes you truly happy.”

Jerry’s eyes narrowed. He really didn’t see what this had to do with his not wanting to deliver packages anymore.

Daniel Bronn continued. “You find what truly makes you happy and I think you’ll also find out that you really are the right man to make my deliveries. Say we give it a week? If at the end of that week you would still rather not work for me, then I’ll write a glowing letter of recommendation to any employment opportunity you’d prefer.”

Jerry still didn’t seem to see the connection that Daniel Bronn envisioned, but he decided not to quibble over it. At the very least he had his path out of the company, and it had been far more painless than he had imagined. So he nodded, thanked his boss for his understanding, and took the ten dollar bill.

A few minutes later Jerry emerged from Daniel Bronn’s office with his hands full. In one he carried yet another package, and in the other he still clasped the ten dollars. He was staring so intently at it that he didn’t realize he had stopped in front of the receptionist’s desk. When at last he did glance up he found her staring at him inquisitively, a slight smile of amusement on her lips.

He merely shook his head in confusion. “I just don’t understand it, Miss–” for the first time he surveyed her name plate. “Miss Greensborough.”

“Most people struggle to understand our employer’s generosity.”

“Hmmm. Do you ever wonder if it’s a cover-up?”

“A what?”

“A front. A way to deflect suspicion while he embezzles money and makes deals with the mob.”

Miss Greensborough laughed. “Certainly not! Daniel Bronn is the only true philanthropist I’ve ever known. His only objective with his charity, is charity.”

Jerry sniffed. “Charity? I’d almost prefer embezzlement.”

“You don’t hold with the notion?”

Jerry looked thoroughly sour and shook his head. “Charity, by definition, means people getting things that they don’t deserve.”

“Oh!” Miss Greensborough exclaimed as if offended.

“I don’t expect you to see it my way. But I grew up in a gutter without anyone showing me any ‘charity.’ Everything I am I earned by grit, and I have no time for anyone who isn’t willing to do the same.” He glanced down at the bill in his hand. “And I have no time to be shown it, either.” He felt duty-bound to hold onto the bill until his employment was officially terminated with Daniel Bronn, but then he wouldn’t lose any time in tossing it into that same, cold gutter.

*

The next few days weighed on Jerry Blakeney in a way he didn’t understand. He tried to convince himself that he was thrilled to be changing jobs. Daniel Bronn’s recommendation would carry real weight and he wouldn’t have any trouble getting a job at somewhere he truly belonged. And yet, at the thought of finding some more menial labor he couldn’t help sensing that he was giving up on an important opportunity. What that opportunity was, exactly, he couldn’t say. But he was sure it had nothing to do with the excellent pay and comfort of his current station.

He even went so far as to wonder whether there was anything to Daniel Bronn’s challenge. Could he spend the ten dollars on something that would bring him actual happiness? He could enjoy a week of the finest dinners the city had to offer, he could buy a mattress fit for a king, he could get himself a nice suit for special occasions. But no, each of these would still be a gift he didn’t deserve. He would hate them even as he enjoyed them. Beyond that he had an idea that Daniel Bronn would be disappointed in such a use of the money, though he wasn’t sure why that particularly mattered to him.

Added to all of these complications was the fact that this last week of charitable deliveries was the most difficult yet for Jerry. He had started being recognized as Daniel Bronn’s personal emissary, which meant even when walking down the street he was barraged by all manner of friendly salutations and hopeful smiles. No one seemed upset when he passed them by on his way to someone else, if anything they might even follow him to share in the happiness of whomever fortune had smiled upon today.

It was not right for him to be the bearer of such goodwill in the world. He had done nothing to earn that role. It was simply another one of those charities Daniel Bronn was trying to inflict on him.

And so it was that Jerry finally came to the last day of his deliveries. Daniel Bronn did not mention the significance of the day when Jerry came into his office for the first morning package. He merely smiled at him as ever, beckoned him close, and withdrew the parcel from his drawer.

“It is going to a Miss Rose Dally right on the Southern border. She does laundry for a friend of mine, and that friend is worried about her. Thought she could use some positivity.”

Jerry nodded, took the package in hand, and stowed it in an inner pocket of his coat. By now he had a well-established routine for his deliveries, and he soon found himself in the back of his favorite cab, on his way to 344 Sycamore Lane.

Now, in the privacy of the rear bench Jerry allowed himself to palm his forehead and massage his brow. He did not care to return to the Southern border of the city. It was the region he had been raised in, and he did not care much for the memories he had from there. The ride to that portion of town started with streets steeped in poverty and only went down from there. No one chose to live on the Southern border, no one stayed here that had an opportunity to leave.

As the cab continued he felt the familiar shift from paved roads to gravelly paths, he saw streets through which the shadow of his child self still seemed to linger. The place was unchanging, what buildings had been erected here were left here until they collapsed or burned down. Old factories were repurposed into housing units, grocery stores into community markets.

It was in front of one of these repurposed buildings, an office space turned into an apartment complex, that the cab finally reached its destination. Most of the windows were shattered and boarded up and the wood was splintering underneath the peeling paint.

With a sigh Jerry stepped out onto the curb and considered the package he was to deliver. He noticed he was smelling a fragrance from it, so he raised it to his nose and inhaled deeply. Bath salts. When Daniel Bronn knew the recipient well enough he always tried to send personalized and meaningful gifts, otherwise he might just send them generic luxuries that could be sold for essentials.

As Jerry made his way into the building interior he spied an old lady seated at a makeshift counter near the off-balance staircase. She would be the landlord.

“Looking for a Miss Rose Dally?” he gruffed.

She sniffed unpleasantly. “Well she don’t live here no more. Couldn’t keep up with rent.”

His brow furrowed as he stared around at the walls of peeling wallpaper. The place was incredibly dark, due to the lack of any electric lights or oil lamps, in combination with the boarded windows.

“Is rent here much, then?” he asked.

“Only $4.50 a week.”

He did not try to hide the incredulity on his face at the exorbitant rate, which elicited a scowl from the old woman.

“If that was all you needed…” she said testily.

“Does she have a husband?”

“Died in the war. Has two children.”

“Do you know where she went?”

“No. I do not.”

He sighed after a moment of reflection. “I do.” There was a catholic mission nearby that accepted women and children. Surely that was where she would have gone.

Jerry stepped back out onto the street and began walking in the way of the mission. The cab that had brought him was only a block down, and the driver stuck his head out the window to see if Jerry needed another ride. Jerry merely waved him off, somehow the walk felt more appropriate.

It wasn’t far to the mission, and soon he was ringing its bell. The door cracked open and an old nun peered up at him.

“Yes?” she asked.

“Is Miss Rose Dally here?” he asked. “I have this parcel for her.”

The nun squinted at the package, decided it seemed harmless, and promised to go and fetch the woman. The door was closed and Jerry looked back at the package somberly. Bath salts…

A minute later the door cracked open again, and he met the face of a woman artificially aged. She couldn’t have been more than thirty-three, and yet stress and sleepless nights etched lines across her face, giving it a desperate look. He had seen that same look on his own mother.

“Miss Dally?” he said.

“Missus.”

“Sorry, Missus. I was sent to give these to you.” He handed over his offerings. She took the parcel, sniffed it, and tucked it under her arm somewhat bewildered. The crisp ten dollar bill, though, she held in grateful shock, pools of tears welling in her eyes.

“It’s none of my business, Missus,” Jerry said softly, “but in the middle of Patterson’s Street there’s an old lady by the name of Martha Hulce. She puts up women and children at a fraction of the cost what you were paying for rent. It’s better maintained, too, and a safer part of town.”

The door opened wider and the poor mother wrapped her arms around Jerry’s neck. She sobbed deeply. Tears that had needed to come out for some time now and finally felt that they could. This time he did not try to run from the tenderness, but instead patted her back soothingly until her breathing returned to normal. She stepped back and there was an awkward moment as each tried to think of what to say to the other, but no words came to either. So after a moment they both just smiled and nodded, then Jerry turned and began walking down the street, looking for a cab to take him back.

For the first time in years Jerry was smiling. It was small, it was subtle, but it seemed to let a warmth into him he had long been without. He was happy. “Well,” he sighed with an amused shake of the head. “I guess I’ll stay on with Daniel, then.”

***

In my Core Needs post I discussed character motivations, and how they are driven by their subconscious needs. Clearly Jerry succeeded in finding his core need, a need to be charitable himself. He felt conflicted for all these blessings he had not earned, but in the end he found a way to deserve them. More than being able to receive kindness, he needed to be able to give it.

Also, on Monday I wrote about contrasts in stories. In this half of the story we are able to see how the contrasts between Daniel and Jerry were able to shift from opposition to complementing one another. Daniel’s wealth and lofty background allow him to provide the vehicle for charity, but it is Jerry’s poverty and humble background that better facilitate the empathy and understanding.

Some of my favorite stories have been Christmas tales such as It’s a Wonderful Life and A Christmas Carol, tales of goodwill and reclamation. This was my own little effort to write such a tale, and I hope it finds you filled with a spirit of kindness and peace, no matter what your religious or cultural affiliation.

This will conclude our series, and next Monday we’ll start on something entirely new. I look forward to that post and to the entire coming year! I’ll see you then.

A Minute at a Time

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Christopher slowly cracked the door open, taking a peek into his son’s bedroom. Heavy curtains shaded the room in a perpetual dusk, and it took his eyes a moment to adjust to the darkness. His hopes of finding the child fast asleep quickly faded as he instead made out the silhouette of the little two-year-old sitting upright on his bed, clawing at the tube running into his nose.

“I don’t like it!” Teddy squawked in frustration as he caught sight of his father.

“I know, Ted, I know,” Christopher muttered, quickly closing the distance to his son and gently pulling his chubby hands down from his face. “I don’t like it either.” He tutted sympathetically at the red marks on the cheek where Teddy has successfully pried the tape loose. “Here, let me fix this.”

“No! Take it off!” the child squirmed, trying to fight Christopher off as he realigned the tube and taped it back into place.

“Don’t you remember what we said about this?” Christopher asked, his voice strained by the ongoing struggle. “We know it’s really, really hard. But this is so important because this is how you get your medicine. If you don’t get your medicine you’re going to be really sick like before. Understand?”

Teddy did not understand. He only became more agitated and began to lunge for the side of the bed, trying to get away from his father. “Let me go!” he whined.

“If you can’t sleep you don’t have to,” Christopher conceded.

Naps with Teddy were hit or miss these days. When he was able to sleep things were so much better. Sleep was the one time that he was free from the otherwise constant aches and pains, even if only for a short time. On the other hand, not being able to sleep meant that those aches and pains would now be compounded with general crankiness. The little boy might escalate in frustration for hours until sheer exhaustion would finally force him to lose consciousness. It looked like this afternoon was going to be one of the hard ones.

“Let’s try and eat some food, then,” Christopher suggested. Teddy had refused to eat any lunch before his nap.

“No,” Teddy shook his head as Christopher scooped him into his arms. “It’s ouchie.” By way of explanation he wrapped his hands around his throat.

“We’ll get some formula, then, something that isn’t too rough on you.”

Teddy didn’t protest, but he gave a small whimper of dissatisfaction. They made their way to the kitchen, and once there Christopher put his son down in a chair and began preparing the bottle. The child whimpered louder and rubbed his eyes slowly, but he was too tired to try and move from the spot.

“I want Mommy,” Teddy finally moaned.

“I know, buddy, I know,” Christopher sighed. “Mommy pulled the midday shift for today, though,” he explained before realizing his son wouldn’t understand. “Mommy had to do some extra work.”

“No,” Teddy shook his head.

“It’s important. So we can pay for your medicine.”

“No more medicine,” the toddler started clawing at his tube again.

“Hey, hey, don’t do that!” Christopher chided in exasperation. He spun the lid onto the bottle and rushed over to stop Teddy. “Kiddo, c’mon…”

Another brief struggle ensued as Christopher resettled the tube again. He tried to think of how to explain these things to his son, not for the first time. After a moment he shook his head in defeat, not for the first time. How was a toddler to understand having to hurt for his own greater good? A toddler shouldn’t have to understand those sorts of things. “Teddy I know you don’t want to have your medicine. But Mommy and Daddy need you to have it.”

“Why?” Teddy croaked.

“Just because we need you to.” Christopher stroked his son’s hair. “And we also need you to trust us. We need you to do this just because we love you.”

Teddy grimaced, and squirmed to get away from his father’s affection, too grumpy to accept that kindness right now. So Christopher grabbed the bottle instead. “Here, try this,” Christopher placed the nipple into his son’s mouth, where it hung loosely as Teddy just gave his father a withering look. “Don’t you want to try to drink some?”

“It’s ouchie,” Teddy merely repeated, tapping his throat lightly.

Christopher hung his head in defeat. The child didn’t go into a tantrum, he didn’t scream, and he didn’t throw anything. His eyes just started welling up with tears until he blinked and they gushed down his cheeks, a whimpering cry quivering from his lips.

Christopher felt the tension in him break and he started to cry as well. He knelt down on the floor and wrapped his hands around Teddy’s legs, clasping them behind his bottom, holding him ever so gently yet with such fervent intent.

“I’m—I’m sorry, Teddy,” Christopher gulped out. “I’m just so sorry.”

For a sweet, bitter moment they just rested there, breaking the silence only with the soft sound of their mutual sobs. Every now and then Christopher would look in his son’s eye and briefly reaffirm the difficulty of the situation.

“It’s really hard. Isn’t it, Teddy?” he’d say and Teddy would nod sadly and say “Yeah.”

“You don’t like doing this, do you?” he’d say and Teddy would shake his head and say “No.”

“You just want to be all better right now, huh?” he’d say and Teddy would nod again and say “Yes, daddy.”

As the tears started to slow down one last thing broke in Christopher and behind a fresh curtain of tears he muttered. “I wanted to never let something like this happen to you, Ted. I’m sorry.”

Teddy didn’t say anything, but he looked at his father intently, and as he did so his eyes stopped watering. Finally he raised the bottle back to his lips and took a few deep gulps from its contents.

“Good boy,” Christopher smiled, wiping away both of their tears. “You want to read a book?”

Teddy nodded and Christopher scooped him back up. Together they moved over to the living room bookcase, and selected a favorite story, one about an anthropomorphic boat. Christopher sat down on the nearby couch, Teddy on his lap, opened the book and began to read.

At five pages in Christopher noticed that Teddy had stopped sucking from the bottle and when he glanced down he found that the child was asleep. Christopher sighed contentedly, closed the book, and reclined more fully into the couch.

He began gently stroking his son’s back and he looked upwards, mouthing a silent prayer of thanks. Things were still hard and in only an hour the struggle would start all over again. But for now, this was enough.

*

As I mentioned on Monday, our nature is such that we give and take influence to and from those we are closest with. We are defined at least in part by where others’ shadows intersect with our own. In this story I tried to present a father and son that are hurting together. Though their specific roles in their shared challenge are different, they still do share that challenge. When one of them hurts, both of them feel it.

Also note how this story is presented in contrast to the short piece from last week. In both cases we began with a father trying to connect with a son. In this one, as in Cursed, the father is trying to give something to the child. Ekal was trying to give his son moral strength and Christopher was trying to give his son understanding. In both cases the son was not able to receive it. The difference here is that then Christopher transitions into taking, allowing himself to empathize for a moment with his son’s pain instead. Many relationships struggle when both parties are trying to actively push their influence on one another, never stopping to receive back in turn. We know that to converse is to exchange words in a back-and-forth discourse, but sometimes we forget to do the same with our emotions and empathy.

If there was a single word I would use to describe this short piece it would be “need.” Both Christopher and Teddy are coming into the situation with their own needs. At first they don’t even know what those needs are, and have to dig a little deeper to find what truly resonates. Character needs are obviously a huge consideration when sitting down to author a story, and I’m going to take some time next week to delve further into it. We’ll look more closely at the needs presented in this short story, and then consider ways other classic stories have incorporated their characters’ needs in a nuanced and meaningful manner. I’ll see you on Monday for that post!