Raffertyís Present

When he was young, Rafferty had always scorned suicide. So things didnít work out ... big deal! Take off! Go to the South Seas ! Go to Alaska ! Become a mountain man! The possibilities were endless. What a cop out suicide was.

But ... those were a young manís thoughts. In oneís twenties, with few regrets and at the peak of oneís powers, anything seemed possible. At 63, dead broke and out of gas, nothing seemed possible.

With frightened eyes he looked around the drab bungalow he had called home for the past three years. It really was little more than a shack. He looked down the barrel of the snub-nosed revolver and thought that McAllister had made a pretty good deal. Three years ago Rafferty had blown into town with severance pay in his pocket, and had taken a room at the inn. McAllister owned the place and tended bar. The two had gotten on well. When Rafferty inquired what longer term lodging arrangements existed in the area, McAllisterís ears had pricked up. He had taken Rafferty out back and showed him the shack. If Rafferty had $600 down and could come up with $600 every June 1st, then the place was his for as long as he wanted it.

Rafferty had looked around. Like himself, the place was old and worn out. But, there was a working toilet and a kitchenette. Almost no furniture, but that could be remedied. What the hell, he made the deal.

It had been slow going after that. He had to hustle and find some source of income. The best he could manage was bagging groceries. But the meager pay and occasional items he pilfered from the supermarket put food on the table.

When he turned 62 he had opted for early Social Security and "retired." It was then that the serious depression set in. With no money to spend on diversions, he had sat alone in the small living room, staring blankly at the black and white TV, and taking stock of his life. It was a daunting experience.

At first the old defense mechanisms, that had protected him from the truth when he was young, had tried to kick in. But they no longer seemed to work. Gradually, over a period of weeks and months, it became clear that he had always been a screw up ... a certifiable sociopath. Why? Why had he never really clicked --- never effectively meshed with life? It seemed he had destroyed every good thing that fate had ever served up to him.

Most painful of all were the memories of Anne and Maria. He had met Anne at a singles bar in the days when he had a good job. He forced himself on her after their third night of partying. He could tell he was her first. Marrying her was probably one of the few decent things he ever did. He doubted that even she knew she was pregnant the night he popped the question.

Maria was born seven months after their marriage. He wasnít ready for fatherhood. For that matter he wasnít ready for marriage. He never committed to Anne. And he never made his little girl feel wanted. As she grew up his coldness obviously drained her of all self-esteem, but he refused to care. And now, too late, the enormity of his sins of omission tormented him exquisitely.

Anne had taken ill when Maria was 17. It was cancer, and it was untreatable. Even then he had been indifferent ... distant ... even resentful that she had to be hospitalized. He had still been young enough to hold a job with benefits, so there was no financial strain. It was just that it seemed, in his selfish mind, that she was trying to dump everything on him.

He remembered now, as he eyed the brass-cased bullets in the pistol, the last night in the hospital. He had been especially cynical about Anneís sad eyes, having decided that she was playing for pity. Maria had been speechless. He could only smirk when Anne had beckoned to her daughter with frail, open arms. He had looked away with mild disgust when Anne wrapped her arms around Maria and stroked her hair.

And then it was his turn.

"Kiss me, Tommy," Anne had whispered, holding her arms out to him. Peevishly he had complied, bending over to kiss her on the cheek.

"Kiss me on the mouth!" she had demanded hoarsely, fixing him with stern eyes. It had caught him off guard. She had never ordered him to do anything. So he had pressed his lips against hers, dispassionately. At first she placed her hand on the back of his head, holding his mouth against her own. But then, as if sensing his lack of interest, her hand had slipped away.

He had straightened up and she turned her face away, toward the roomís wall.

"See you tomorrow," he had said, implying in tone that it was a chore, but that heíd do it anyway. She didnít answer.

"Well, come on," heíd said brusquely to Maria. He opened the roomís door to usher her out. The sound of Anneís voice stopped them.

"Goodbye, baby," she called in a frail voice. Maria had turned and looked at her mother. Only now, with the revolver heavy in his hand, did Rafferty realize how real the sadness in Anneís eyes was. For a moment Maria had hesitated, uncertain of what to do. But Rafferty had pushed her through the door.

Anne died alone in the hospital that night. When the call came, Rafferty went into total denial, stubbornly remaining cynical. He never did grieve. Somehow Anne got buried. Maria went silent from the moment Rafferty told her that her mother had died. She was gone the morning after the funeral.

Rafferty never saw her again. At first he had scoffed at the disappearance. Sheíd be back in a day or two! But the days came and went. At last, with the first hints of misgivings creeping into his mind, he had notified the authorities. But they found no trace of her. When he indignantly complained after three weeks, the desk sergeant pulled out a long list of names. They were all teens who had run away and were officially missing. So many, Rafferty had marveled ... and all of them just from this one city!

Raffertyís professional career went down the tubes after that. He had always been a job jumper --- no long-term commitments for him! But somehow there had always been a better paying position. Now the trend reversed. In time he had to sell the house and move into an apartment. It was only dumb luck that he was laid off with hundreds of others, and received a modest severance check.

Three years after Mariaís disappearance, Rafferty had convinced himself that she was dead. So he had left town and traveled halfway across the state to this place. And this, he now realized, was the end of the line.

He had been raised in a moderately religious family. But Maria had never received like treatment. By the time she was born, organized religion had joined the long list of institutions which he held suspect. And so, for Maria, there had been no Sunday schools. On the few occasions that Anne had wondered aloud if they should join a church, he had silenced her with looks of hate and derision.

But now, after a year of sitting alone in this seedy shack --- when the awful truth about himself began to actually sink in --- he had unabashedly turned to God, beseeching His help.

"Tell me why I shouldnít put a bullet through my head," he had begged. "Show me one reason why I should go on living!"

But there was no answer. There was only the sound of a fresh snowfall sifting against the windowpane. Twenty years ago heíd have exulted that God was a myth invented by cowards. Of course there was no answer! God didnít exist! But now ... now he felt that it was he who had failed God, like he had failed every earthly supervisor heíd ever worked under.

"Life is a job," he ruefully concluded. "And like every job youíve ever had, you blew it."

And so he decided to end it. It seemed like the decent thing to do. This would be the final job jump, straight out of life and into Hell. The Boss wasnít answering his calls. No one was stopping him from walking out the door.

Again Rafferty stared down the gun barrel. He carefully pulled the trigger. The cylinder began to turn. He studied the round slug that would rotate into the chamber next. That was the one with his name on it. Would McAllister hear the shot? Or would he lie here on the floor until his rotting carcass alerted someone?

Carefully he relaxed the trigger.

"A lifetime of bad calls ... of wrong turns," he thought. "A totally fucked up mess. Letís do it, asshole."

And he placed the gun barrel against his temple and again pulled on the trigger. But before the flash of light there was a knock on the door. What the hell was this? No one had ever once knocked on this rat holeís door!

"Who is it?" he barked angrily.

"Itís me, Maria," a timid feminine voice answered.

Maria! Maria alive? For an instant he was paralyzed.

"Just a minute!" Rafferty cried, jumping up and hiding his pistol in a kitchen drawer.

He crossed the living room and opened the door. At first he barely recognized her. Her hair was dyed and she looked like twenty years or more had passed. Under her ragged jacket a worn maternity dress couldnít disguise her pregnancy.

"Iím sorry to bother you," she said in a dead voice, "but Iím broke and I need some help."

She had been out in the falling snow long enough for it to begin piling up in her hair. She was wet and obviously cold. For an instant Rafferty thought about admonishing her for leaving without a word, so long ago, and now showing up on his doorstep knocked up. He couldnít believe the thought had even occurred to him.

"Come in, come in," he said softly, holding his hand out to her.

Maria stepped into the shack. She was ill at ease ... even a little defiant.

"If I could just stay until after ..." she said in a tired voice, placing her hand over her swollen tummy.

Rafferty nodded, at a loss for words. He led her to his easy chair and helped her out of her wet jacket.

"You can stay as long as you like," he finally stammered, reaching to turn the TV off.

"Could you leave it on?" Maria asked. "Itís a Christmas show ... I love Christmas shows."

Rafferty pulled a kitchen chair over next to her and sat on it backward.

"Yes, itís Christmas Eve, isnít it?" he murmured. "I havenít celebrated Christmas since ... since your Mom died."

Maria looked at his face in disbelief. The warmth of the room was clearly sinking in and her own face was beginning to relax. It seemed that she felt safe for the first time in a very long while.

"You didnít know it was Christmas?" she asked, her voice filled with wonder.

Rafferty shook his head, smiling wanly, guilt tugging at the corners of his eyes.

"But Dad, Christmas is when prayers get answered," she added, laying a hand on his forearm.

Tears stung Raffertyís eyes. And then, like a storm surge, sadness exploded in his chest and his body was wracked with sobs.

Maria was stunned.

"What is it, Dad?" she cried in alarm.

"I love you, baby," he sobbed. "Iím so sorry ... Iím just so happy to see you again."

Mariaís face took on the radiance that only a full term motherís can.

"I donít have a present for you ... for the two of you," Rafferty laughed through his tears, nodding at Mariaís tummy.

Mariaís own eyes brimmed.

"Thatís not true, Dad," she answered. "Thatís not true at all."


The End