Last updated  :  | By Terry Shepherd

Flash Fiction – The Gift

I picked him up next to the cemetery on Christmas Eve. I can smell trouble. You call it profiling. I call it survival instinct. This guy radiated calm. I rolled down my window as he stood by the gates. A pair of mercury vapor lights painted the carpet of freshly falling snow at his feet with twin pools of white. He stood, muffins of a down filled winter vest circling his chest. Leather gloved hands connected to a pair of powerful arms encased in flannel. He didn’t wear a hat. The flakes landed like fireflies on what could have been a military haircut. His curly beard spoke civilian.

“Need a ride?”

The smile was gratitude personified. “That would be great. Heading back to town?”

“Yup. Covering a shift for an hour and it’s about time to point this horse to the barn.”

Normally I put all passengers in back. Go ahead and judge, but my sixth sense told me this guy was ok to ride shotgun. I trust that sense.

He held out his gloved hand. I took it. “Jay with a J,” he said, a smile widening into dapples that rippled his facial hair.

I flashed my best holiday smile. “Jess with a J. What brings you out this far tonight?”

He nodded toward the graveyard. “Two Js in the same place at the same moment in history. How weird is that?” He paused to receive my appropriately appreciative chuckle. “Visiting family and friends,” Jay said. “It’s been a long time since we caught up.”

I placed my own mitts at the ten and two positions on the steering wheel. “Where to, Jay?”

“I think Rasmussen’s is still open. Tonight, is the last dance for the holiday trade at a Christmas shop.”

He was right. Bert Rasmussen kept his store open until eight for the eleventh-hour shoppers who needed an appropriate stocking stuffer. Since his wife died, it was just Bert and Dave, a well-seasoned friend everyone knew would take over the business when Bert’s time came. The guy would never retire.

“Next stop, Bert’s place,” I said, slowly pressing the accelerator so the Tahoe’s four wheels could grab the slippery pavement without spinning. “Where’s home, Jay.”

The guy produced a passport from an inner pocket of the fleece. It was a lighter shade of blue than the American variety, a Menorah, and some Hebrew I assumed mirrored the English text that said, “State of Israel Passport.”

“Jerusalem. But I’ve been a bit of a wanderer lately. Focused on work and wanted to see a bit of the world for a while. Want to check me out?”

My detective instincts whispered to dig deeper. But something told me Jay was one of the good guys. Recent Israeli army? Perhaps even Mossad. His eyes reflected a lifetime of trial and travail. A hint of fatigue hid behind an immense sense of strength.

“Nah. What hoodlum hangs out at a cemetery on Christmas Eve?”

He fanned the inside of his passport. Almost every page was filled with visa stamps. “I’m an open book. ‘A traveling boy, only passing through…”

I finished the verse, “One who’ll always think of you. Art Garfunkel, Angel Claire. Vinyl from 1973. One of my fathers faves. Paul Williams co-wrote it.”

“With Roger Nichols,” Jay added. “The duo also gave The Carpenters ‘We’ve Only Just Begun.’” He shivered. “How many weddings played that tune in the 70s.”

I was impressed. “We’re old souls, Jay with a J. I’m inclined to believe anybody who knows Art’s first solo LP has to be a good guy.”

He nodded. “I appreciate it, Jessica. Tell me about you. Heading to family?”

“Yes sir. Sister, mother, grandmother, best friend. You?”

“I’m one of those lucky people with family everywhere. Some don’t know about our relationship yet. Those discoveries are the best parts of the trip.”

“Strangers are simply friends we haven’t yet met,” I said, pulling another chestnut roasting in my quotation fireplace.

Jay stared wistfully ahead into the increasing snowfall. “Jim Potchen. Michigan. Lost him this year. Good man.

“I never knew him, Jay, but I’m pretty sure he didn’t originate that classic.”

Jay held up a finger. “For most, wise words are just a page on a calendar not an actions.” He seemed to go to a different place and time to conjure a memory. “My friend Matt should have added that one to his attitude list when he wrote em. He was always forgetting things.”

The streets of Paloma were almost empty. Everyone who had someplace to be was already there. Most of the stores on Boyd Avenue were dark. A single vehicle loaded up on fuel at the gas station. A car idled in front of Peking Dragon. Probably grabbing take out. Rasmussen’s Christmas Emporium still glowed. A tapestry of red and green LEDs floated above a long window display filled with the icons of the season. Bert was ecumenical. His inventory accommodated every faith. I always loved how the mechanical Santa Claus gyrating in between the decorations was black.

Jay nodded in recognition. “Bert’s had it rough since Dinah died. Glad Dave will be there to carry on. Every city needs a Christmas store. I hope it will continue to thrive across the generations.”

My passenger knew a lot about the place. He began to hum “Happy Holidays” softly.

“Know what you’re going to get?” I asked.

“Give,” Jay said, breaking in mid verse. “I have a gift for a good man. It’s something Bert has wanted for a long time.”

“You seem to know a lot about him.”

“And he knows a lot about me. We’re family.”

Here’s what I know about Bert Rasmussen. He was born in Berlin on Christmas Eve, 1937. He was seven years old when his family was sent to a concentration camp. In a rare moment of candor, he showed me the numbers tattooed on a forearm. He survived. His parents didn’t. Dinah’s family took him in. As kids sometimes do, they became inseparable.

When I asked Bert how a German Jew came to own a Christmas store in an Illinois college town, he chuckled. “Christmas is my favorite celebration. We are all descended from the same energy. Look deep enough into any of the sacred books and the message is the same. Love one another. There’s lots of love at Christmas.”

Bert also knew about the darker side of the holidays. It was a time when depression and loneliness became tsunamis that sent us out to talk people off bridges, calm domestic discord and find warm places for the homeless.

“We are all put here to ease suffering, Detective,” he once told me, sensing my cop skepticism about humanity’s gloomier alleys. This is one place where I can remind people about the joys of the season in every season.”

I realized Jay was watching my darting eyes play back the memory. I had the uncomfortable feeling he was reading my mind. “Quite a guy… Trying to reconcile good and evil on this night of nights, Jessica?”

“Every day, my friend. Seeing a strange man outside of a cemetery on Christmas Eve is something that sets off alarm bells. I should probably have inspected that passport and run your ID to see if someone else had an interest in you.”

“Why didn’t you?”

“I trust my gut, Jay. It’s a bad habit.”

“To one who has faith,” Jay said, “no explanation is necessary. To one without faith, no explanation is possible.”

I knew the quotation. “Thomas Aquinas. He was never a police officer.”

“A troublemaker,” Jay added. “He loved throwing Aristotle into his bosses faces. Closed minds abhor anyone who challenges their paradigms.”

I laughed. “You’ve just described my life and career.”

Jay scratched his temple with a gloved finger. “Having eyes, they refuse to see.”

That one also rang a bell. “I think Mark 8:18 says, ‘They have eyes to see but do not see, and ears to hear but do not hear,’”

“Lost in translation,” Jay said. “Every time a story is shared, somebody adds their own spin. Even a few who were there got it wrong. And they heard it from the horse’s mouth.”

“I believe it,” I said. “Ever interviewed witnesses to a traffic accident? You get a different story from each one.”

“They see what they want to see, Jesica. All we can do is show them the way. How they decide to integrate the lesson is up to them.”

“Teach a man to fish,” I said, “And he’ll be first in line for a fast-food fish sandwich.”

Jay laughed. It was a bouncing baritone with authenticity behind it. “The book of Jessica. Chapter 1. Verse 1.”

I slid the Tahoe into a parking space in front of Bert’s establishment. “Sounds like we’ve both seen our share of distress, Jay. I live for the days when I can lift a little of that burden from someone’s shoulders. Sadly, it doesn’t happen often enough.”

Jay removed a glove and offered his hand.

“Whoa,” I said. “How did that happen?”

My passenger extended his fingers so I could see the wound. No plastic surgeon could hide the dark circle in the middle of his palm where some blunt instrument had pierced it.

“Just a battle scar, Jess. I’m sure you have yours.”

I had many. Jay considered his damaged palm for a moment and shrugged.

“Second lives can be much more interesting,” he mused. “We get another lap with a more enlightened point of view.”

We shook hands again. His grip was at once strong and sensitive. I felt his energy flow through me. For an instant he looked different, familiar, the elements of acceptance and empathy swirling around him like the essential atoms of a meaningful life.

My colleagues chide those traits. Police officers are trained to observe. Distrust is inevitably learned on the streets. We vector to the worst possible conclusions about human beings. The fact that I often didn’t was a lightning rod for criticism.

I remembered my Field Training Officer’s voice on day-one. “Trust gets you killed, Ramirez. A suspicious mind is almost always right.”

Jay broke the grasp and gave my shoulder a gentle punch. “You’re a good cop. See ya in church, Jessica Ramirez.” He pulled the glove over his fingers and flipped open the passenger door. Light brown combat boots carved footfalls in the snow.

I watched him enter Bert’s store. The recognition was instantaneous. Tears filled the old man’s eyes. He ambled out from behind the sales counter. The two embraced, sobs wracking the octogenarian’s body. Dave must have heard the commotion from the back. He appeared at the entrance to the storage room. Bert Rasmussen’s partner, leaned against the door, arms crossed, a knowing smile softening his wrinkled face. He gave me a nod of affirmation that all was well.

I suddenly felt like an intruder. I shifted the SUV into gear, pulling onto the street. I wondered how Jay knew my last name. I was in plain clothes tonight, the golden detective’s badge on my belt the only visible identification.

* * *

Less than an hour later, I was enjoying family time, watching “A Christmas Story,” for the zillionth time on our flat screen through a rose-colored glass of sangria. It was the part where Ralphie decodes the message, “Be sure to drink your Ovaltine? A crummy commercial?” The four of us said the next four words in unison. Yeah, the cursing part. Even my ninety-something grandmother. That’s how unrefined we are.

I felt my pocket vibrate. The Caller ID was Dave’s.

“What’s up, my friend?” I asked.

“It’s Bert.”

I knew. “Did you call 911, Dave?”

“No. Jay said to call you. Can you come?”

Interrupted holidays were a family tradition at my place. Mama tried to read my expression. I had no data, scrunching my right cheek into a dimple of mild irritation. “Bert Rasmussen,” was all I said.

My partner, Alexandra Clark started to stand. “Need backup?”

I waved her off.

The white precipitation fell thicker and more slowly, perfect for snowballs and snowmen but dangerous for drivers. Something about Dave’s tone told me not to risk lights and siren.

The celling florescents were off at Rasmussen’s Christmas Emporium. The hundreds of colorful LEDs strung across trees, wreaths and displays shed prisms of soft color and shadow throughout the store, casting its two inhabitants into silhouette. The welcoming “Yes, we’re open,” sign now read “Have a blessed evening,” Bert’s version of “Sorry, we’re closed.” The proprietor sat where he always sat, on the big stool behind the counter. But now his head rested sideways, atop crossed arms on the display case, eyes closed. Dave’s dark figure stood exactly where I had last seen him. Now his hands were in his pockets as if any movement might waken his slumbering friend.

He beckoned to me. As I twisted the brass doorknob, I could already tell that Bert Rasmussen was dead.

Dave’s voice was soft, a mixture of reverence and wonder that reflected his expression. “He got the gift he’s been praying for, Jessica.”

I felt Bert’s carotid for a pulse, knowing I wouldn’t find one. He had no telltale marks of violence on his body. If anything, the man looked more at peace than I had ever seen hm.  “What happened?”

Dave’s head was somewhere else. “Bert and Dinah had a child. Did you know that?”

I didn’t.

“Dinah found this 9-year-old orphan at a deli in New York City. He was playing Torah Trivial Pursuit with a group of the local rabbis at their favorite lunch spot. Nobody at the orphanage knew his past and it took some effort to get the court to declare the kid adoptable.”

Dave gazed out the front window where the snow had already erased Jay’s footfalls, as if he had never been here. “They lost him in his early thirties before Bert and Dinah settled in Paloma. Disappeared while climbing some mountain out west. McKinley, I think. High enough where they don’t risk looking for a body. When Dinah died, Bert carved the boy’s name between theirs on the family headstone.”

Dave took a breath, shaking his head as if still trying to process what he witnessed.

“Dinah’s last words in Hospice were, ‘I see our son. He’s waiting for us.’ That was just over two years ago. Losing her took the wind out of Bert’s sails. He put on the act, but I could see the change. He sold me his half of the business last summer. We agreed not to tell anybody and to keep the name as a monument to the three of them. ‘Don’t want you to have to wait for probate to carry on,’ he said. I protested. But I knew it was just a matter of time. His time came tonight, with the visitor you brought us.”

I ran my fingers through Bert’s hair. I could feel the head beneath it, cool and dry without the warmth of a heartbeat pumping life through his body.

“Jay was that visitor?”

“That was his son’s name. Jay. But not Jay like Jason or J-a-y. Just the letter ‘J.’ It was Dinah’s idea.”

I replayed my encounter with the young man. “J showed me an Israeli passport.”

Dave nodded. “After the war, lots of German Jews emigrated to what became Israel. Turns out J was born there. Bert and Dinah adopted him, gave him a college education, citizenship and family. J was about thirty-two when the accident happened.”

My sensibilities overrode the moment. “J has been gone a long time, Dave. The man we saw tonight is about the age he would have been when he died.”

Bert’s partner shook his head, pondering the irony. “That was perfect. Father recognized son instantly. Bert knew exactly what was about to happen.”

I couldn’t keep the skepticism out of my voice. “The person I picked up was real, Dave. A living breathing human being. I touched him.”

Dave ignored me. “It was J, alright. All he had to do was smile, and Bert knew it. ‘It’s ok, dad,’ J said. ‘I’ve just seen mom. We’ll spend every Christmas from now on together.’”

The picture of the lone figure at the gates of a cemetery flickered in my memory. Out of place? Or exactly where he was supposed to be?

Dave went on. “J looked at me, Jessica. His face changed. Different but familiar. ‘Take fifteen, Dave,’ he said. ‘Peking Dragon can use the business and you haven’t eaten anything since breakfast.’ How would he know a personal thing like that? So, I left them alone. But not before J held out that hand.” Dave mimicked the move. “Did you see it?”

I remembered the ugly injury as clearly as if I were seeing it for the first time. But all I said was, “Yes.”

Dave pressed a finger into the center of his own palm. “Perhaps you know?”

I didn’t, something Dave found amusing. “We shook hands. I went. I had some sweet and sour with the Lees and when I came back,” he patted his departed friend on the back. “J was gone. And Bert’s dream had come true.”

We called 911. I knew the dispatcher and advised that there would be no need for speed. The paramedics, lowered Bert Rasmussen onto their gurney, crossing his arms over his chest, leaving the white sheet just below his chin so we could all make a memory of the contented smile marking Bert’s final conscious thought on this earth. A doc I knew from Paloma General came by to confirm the probable cause and time of death. CVI: Cardiovascular Incident. A heart attack. We all waited for the Medical Examiner to retrieve the body.

“I’ll handle the paperwork, Jess,” the doc said as the van pulled away. “Go on home. It’s Christmas.”

The medical team left Dave and me to our thoughts. The sole owner of Rasmussen’s Christmas Emporium settled onto the same stool where his partner once sat, resting his chin on threaded thumbs while index fingers tickled his mustache. Perhaps ten minutes passed before I spoke.

“Downtown is a real estate goldmine, Dave. Going to keep the place open or reap your profits and spend them someplace warmer?”

Dave looked up at me from Bert’s former perch. “No ma’am. I’ll be here until J comes for me. We’re put on earth to ease suffering. Bert and I always liked the smiles we saw when grumpy people walked by our window and realized where they were.”

“They don’t all smile,” I reminded him.

“Not everyone believes in Santa Claus either. But J told me, eventually they see the light. Everyone blooms in their own time.”

My cop senses bubbled up a question. “Where do you think J went?”

“He’s still around. I can feel him nearby.”

I never saw J again.

* * *

I probably should have mentioned the incident to somebody at the station. A stranger in town when a death takes place compels investigation. But something unspoken kept me from recounting what happened that Christmas eve, when I encountered a man from Jerusalem with holes in his hands and love in his heart.

I can’t explain what I saw. Life’s most important lessons are rarely rationally delivered.

I think about J often. He seems like the kind of guy who always tries to leave the world better than he found it, even when doing something good might hurt. That feels familiar.

I think Jay and I are both in the same business, even though most people who encounter us would never know it.