Thursday, March 18, 2010

A Short Story

Big Cole Anderson
by Charlie Leck

The following is a draft of a short story I wrote over the last several days. I offer it to those of you who wish to read it and make comments and suggestions for me. It is somewhat lengthy (about 14 pages in a standard book size), so you may prefer not to tackle it. I will not be offended if you choose not to read it. Come back in a couple of days for my next blog.

Cole Anderson was an extraordinarily big man and he knew it. He was the biggest man the folks of Dublin had ever seen. Cole liked being big and he enjoyed towering over other people. In so many ways he was deeply insecure. He doubted himself and lacked real confidence. He wasn’t very well educated. He was pretty much withdrawn and shy. Yet, when he was up close to other people, always looking down at them, feeling as if he could encompass them and smother them in his grasp, he thought he gained something of an advantage over them. As a matter of fact, nearly everyone was afraid of Cole because of both his size and his general ignorance and slow mindedness. It was this fear that people had for him that kept Cole going in his work.

This big man -- big like a giant -- worked for the town of Dublin, in Iowa. He was the town’s only paid employee and he did just about everything. He took care of the city’s records and filings and money, though there wasn’t much of any of those things in such a small town. There were less than 500 people living in Dublin and it wasn’t on a highway that went anywhere much at all. Cole also cared for the roads and the one little city park that contained a set of swings and one rusty, old slide for very small children. There weren’t really any utilities to watch over. Everyone had his own well and septic system and they all got their electricity from the county’s rural cooperative. For fire protection services, the community just depended on the town of Rybak, 11 miles or so on down a narrow and winding county road.

Cole was also the town policeman. There wasn’t a police car or anything like that. Cole just drove his own car -- an 81’ Jeep Cherokee with a stick shift. On the few occasions when Cole needed to stop someone he just plugged a blinking red light into his cigarette lighter opening and set it up on the dashboard. Instead of a siren, he’d just blow his horn with some authority. The town was supposed to pay Cole a mileage allowance for using his own car, but there was never enough money in the treasury to make such payments, so Cole just ignored filing any reimbursement forms.

To get more specific about Cole Anderson, he was just over six feet, nine inches tall. He weighed nearly 300 pounds and he had feet and hands that were bigger than any the folks in Dublin had ever seen before. When Cole shook hands with anyone, he just enveloped that person’s entire hand in his own so there was nothing left to see -- not a finger or the tip of a finger or anything below the wrist.

Cole also had a massive head that was, even as big as his body was, way out of proportion with the rest of his anatomy. Folks had all they could do not to laugh at Cole when they saw him coming. His big, ambling body was funny enough, but then they’d see that head that was too big for his body and they would really get a jolt of the giggles. Except, of course, nobody would laugh because they were frightened that Cole might reach out and slap them with one of those massive paws of his

However, it wasn’t really Cole’s size that made nearly everyone afraid of him. It was his apparent dimwittedness that set his townsfolk to shivering in his presence. Why Cole could say some of the strangest and most unexpected things in reply to a simple statement about how it was such a nice day, that folks would wonder if this big ape was so dumb that he might inadvertently attack and crush a normal person just out of sheer lunacy and stupidity.

Ryan Polzak told some of the townsfolk that he was stopped by Cole and his flashing red light one day when he was driving along Sapp Street. So he asked Cole what he had done wrong and Cole just looked at Ryan in disbelief that he would ask such a question when it was perfectly obvious why Cole had stopped Ryan.

Now, Ryan said, he felt some sort of tremble come across Cole and he didn’t want to push things by asking any more questions, so he just sat back there in his car and waited for Cole to tell him he could go on now.

Cole finally spoke up, shaking his finger in Ryan’s face and showering him in a significant amount of spit as he spoke.

“Now you better get this mess of a car washed up, so it’s clean on Sunday when you go over to Westby to church, or I’m going to slap you in jail.”

“Why, Cole, we ain’t got no jail,” Ryan said before thinking better of it than to correct Cole to his face. Cole again shook a finger in Ryan’s face and answered him rather coldly.

“The operational word here, Mr Ryan Polzak,” Cole said with a long, drawn out emphasis on the pole part of Ryan’s last name, “is slap.”

Ryan thought about that for a few seconds: “The operational word here is slap!” Then Ryan got pretty scared when he looked up into Cole’s big face with those over-sized, protruding ears and that massive nose with a jungle of hair growing out of it, and he, thinking about how Cole could probably knock his head clear off if he slapped him upside the head, thought he might piss in his pants until Cole finally slapped the roof of his car and told him to get on his way now and get the car washed “afore Sunday anyhow!”

Now in that circle of townsfolk where Ryan told that story about Cole, you might have expected a decent amount of laughter or howling or, at least, a fair amount of giggling, but those folks who listened to the story fell open-mouthed and silent as church mice. There had been genuine fear in Ryan’s face as he told the story and that sign of anxiousness was transferred to all those who listened to him.

The entire idea of getting slapped up the side of the head by Cole Anderson was about as frightening as anything any one of them could picture.

Yet, with all of this established as fact, there is one thing you ought to understand clearly. There was one of the townsfolk in Dublin who indeed had no fear of Cole Anderson and who rather liked the man and found him kind and helpful; and that was Rebecca Stonehold.

Rebecca was the mother of little, 4 year old Robert Stonehold whose father had died in one of America’s silly and undeclared wars and left Robby without a father and Rebecca alone to raise Robby up.

Cole had stopped by the town park one day when Robby and his mother were there and the little boy recognized just right away who Cole was and what his most important job was, too. He went running up to the big man while Rebecca held back in a corner of the park.

“This here slide ain’t no good,” the little boy shouted up to the big man.

Rebecca took a picture in her mind of the boy who came up to about the knee cap of the giant fellow and talked up to him as if he might whoop him if Cole didn’t do something right away about his complaint.

Rebecca thought it was “a picture of total incongruity, if that’s the right word,” the woman told her grandmother on the telephone that night.

“My, there was Robby with his short, blonde hair and those bright blue eyes, with that little pug nose of his, and his tiny ears, talking to this giant of a man, who might have come right out of the Jack and the Giant Beanstalk story, and I just had to lean back and laugh out loud.”

“Well, what did the big hulk do?” Rebecca’s Grandma Laura asked from her easy chair in Nora Springs, Iowa.

“Why, grandma, he said to little Robby that he would certainly take a look at the slide and then, if he could, go get the tools he needed to fix it.”

Robby and the big giant of a man walked together across the playground to where the little slide stood.

“See here?”

Robby called up to Cole and showed the big man how the slide wouldn’t stay put and nearly tipped over everytime a child climbed up on it to enjoy the ride down.

“Well, that won’t do at all,” Cole smiled widely and said to the boy who was way down below him. “I think what I better do is go back to the city garage and get a bag of cement and then I’ll come back here and we’ll try to fix those front legs and back legs of this slide so they won’t move around no more.”

Robby shook his head in affirmation, indicating that the idea sounded workable to him.

“But, I’m gonna need some real help to do the job, now little man. Could you hang around here while I get what we need in the way of tools and stuff, so you can help me when I get back?”

Robby looked over at his mother for leadership on that difficult question and Rebecca nodded to him with a smile on her face.

“I sure can,” Robby said, turning back to Cole. “I’ll be right here when you return.”

So on that summer afternoon, the little slide got planted in a big wad of cement and every little kid recognized the improvement and always gave Robby credit for getting that big, crazy guy to get the job done; however, the boy always took such remarks without humor and expressed his dissatisfaction that anyone would talk that way about his and his mom’s good friend, Cole.

The local police car, an orange-brown Jeep Cherokee, was often seen parked at Rebecca Stonehold’s home during the supper hour after that day when the slide was repaired in the town park. There was plenty of scandalous talk about that fact around town, but most of it lost steam because the car was gone from the Stonehold home shortly after the dinner hour and was always seen either patrolling around town or back over at Cole’s own miserable, unkempt house.

Cole Anderson’s home is another whole part of this intriguing story about Dublin’s town employee. Though Cole was often seen at the Stonehold house, making repairs of every sort, whether to the roof or a tattered screen or a porch step, no work, it seems, had been done on Cole’s home in many, many years.

“Not since his old pa died, anyhow,” is how the word went around town when it came to talking about how run-down and shameful was Cole’s own house.

After his pa died, all repairs ceased on what was then viewed as Cole’s house. It didn’t matter what it was. If a window broke, Cole either boarded it up, if it faced north or northeast, or stretched some plastic across the opening if it faced south or southwest. Roof repairs weren’t made and, instead, buckets were used, and often emptied several times in big rainstorms, to handle any leaks. When the back stairs fell apart and were no longer usable, the front door became the only point of access and egress in the home. The old garage in the back of the house simply wobbled one day and came crashing down. Fortunately, the Jeep Cherokee was not parked inside it at the time and Cole decided that the automobile, from that day on, could do just as well parked outside as in.

Within only a few weeks of the day Cole’s mother died, just about all of the old house except the kitchen, Cole’s bedroom and an old bathroom off the kitchen were closed up and never used again. No single person ever got to see the inside of Cole’s home and it was left to the imagination of each and every soul who lived in Dublin to picture what it may have been like in there. Those, of course, were not pretty pictures at all.

It was only a month or so after Cole’s mother’s death that the repairs were made to the slide in the community park. After that, Cole was often seen at the town’s grocery store, if one could call it that, purchasing groceries that seemed bound for the Whitehold residence; that is, those purchases often included some items that it was known well enough were favorites of little Robby Whitehold -- especially those little, chewable wax bottles that were filled with colored sugar-water.

While Rebecca cooked up a relatively handsome dinner of stews, or hashes, noodles, dumplings, meatloaf, maccaroni caserole or something of the sort, Robby and Cole would play outside in the fine weather, throwing a ball back and forth to each other or flying a kite out there on Leffler Road. It was quite a sight watching Cole trying to get a kite to rise up on a gust of wind. The man was so unnaturally clumsy that it took him the longest time to learn how to release the kite on the breeze; but, because it was vital to Robby, Cole recognized the importance of learning these skills and he worked at them until they were accomplished. Throwing a ball had been something he had tried to do from childhood and always gave up the effort because it had been concluded by himself and others that it was a skill he would never master; however, for Robby, after several weeks of diligent practice with the town baseball coach over at Grassly Township, Cole learned how to make the throw and catch with a decent amount of both grace and skill.

After several months of such mutal attention, Robby and Cole became very deep and close friends. Robby, to Cole, became the most important thing or person in the whole world. Though Cole did not understand the concept, he loved little Robby with his whole heart and his entire being. And for that, in return, Rebecca Whitehold loved Cole very much.

When the three of them, Rebecca, Robby and Cole, on Saturday, August 11th of last year, showed up at the ice cream social at the First Methodist Church of Dublin, Iowa, well, I can’t explain properly enough, what a storm of interest and gossip the coming out caused. The three of them climbed out of Cole’s Jeep Cherokee together and, as they came across the parking lot, Robby took up a position between them and held his mother’s hand while Cole’s hand enveloped nearly all of Robby’s other hand and lower arm.

Now it should be told that Rebecca Stonehold is a mighty pretty woman. Just before she went off to Iowa State, she lived with her grandmother just east of Mason City, in the little town of Nora Springs. Her parents had died in an automobible accident when they were returning home from a weekend trip to Minneapolis. Rebecca was but 14 yeas old when the accident happened. Rebecca’s daddy ran a pharmacy right there on West Congress Street and was the most popular man in town. He umpired at little league games and was head of the Rotarians and a deacon in the United Methodist Chruch on North Hawkeye Street. It was a sad, sad day in Nora Springs when the town learned they lost one of their best.

Rebecca’s grandpa, Lamont Ferguson, who adored his only child, his beloved daughter, Rachael May, died within a year of that auto accident of a broken heart, they say. Fortunately, her parents had left behind some life insurance funds that were able to sustain both Rebecca and her grandmother, and then send the girl off to college. From what’s told around these parts, Grandma Laura Ferguson was heroic the way she kept life and a semblance of happiness going for a teenage Rebecca.

She and Rob met at Iowa State and dated their entire four years of school. Just after their graduation, those two beautiful young people got married right up there in Nora Springs, with Grandma Laura giving the bride away. When they moved down here so that Rob could begin his coaching and teaching career, the two of them were considered about the handsomest couple that had ever exsisted in the community of Dublin, or within the entire county for that matter. Rob’s dad had farmed nearly half of Lobley County, just 7 or 8 miles outside of Dublin, and Rob was a big basketball star during his years at Grassly Regional High School. He was so good that he earned himself a full-ride basketball scholarship to Iowa State University. He came home from the University, with Rebecca, to take the basketball coaching job at Grassly and to teach civics and American history at the school as well. He also joined the National Guard in order to earn a little extra money and to avoid having to farm with his dad during the summer. None of us thought much about it when Rob and the rest of his unit were called up and sent into the desert, in some nation half way around the world, to fight for some ill-explained cause or other. It wasn’t even three months after Rob left town, for parts of the world we didn’t understand or couldn’t place on a map, that a uniformed soldier showed up on Lefler Road looking for the home of Rob Stonehold. Upon finding the correct house, and after introducing himself, he presented Rebecca with a letter from Rob’s commanding officer who explained how brave her husband had been and how he had sacrificed his life so that we, in Dublin, might be free. He also presented her with a folded flag and explained that Rob’s body would be coming home sometime soon, but there were complications in transportation arrangements and it might be sometime before the coffin actually arrived in Iowa.

The first thing Rebecca did was to call Pastor Hardin and, sobbing, begged him to come over to her house to comfort Robby.

It was a long time after that before we saw even the slightest hint of a smile out of Rebecca Stonehold, but we could tell she was a strong woman who was going to be there for Robby no matter how stupid the world and its wars. The whole town admired her. She kept teaching English at the high school and she kept little Robby close to her and made sure he felt as loved as a child could be. She knew what it was to lose parents as a child; and Grandma Laura had taught her a thing or two.

There were plenty of young guys who wanted to date Rebecca, but she wouldn’t have any of them. Rob had been special. He was probably as extraordinary as any young man who ever lived in this town and no grave over there in the cemetary was visited any more than was his. It would take someone very special to replace Rob Stonehold in the heart of his sweet Rebecca and, for that matter, in the heart of the town of Dublin.

So that day, when the three of them came walking across the gravel parking lot at the Methodist Church, and they were all smiling widely and laughing outloud, well, we were all just stunned that the big lug who worked for our little town could give this beautiful woman such a gift.

I mean, here’s the facts as best I can respectfully say them. Rebecca Stonehold is probably the prettiest dang woman who ever lived in the town of Dublin. My goodness, she is one of the most knock-you-down and make-you-look, pulchritudinous women we’ve ever seen in these parts. And here she was, gayly strolling across the parking lot in the company of a man who had to be the most aberrant and strangest looking fellow ever to come out of the entire state of Iowa, no less our own little community. Cole Anderson was really no ordinary human being. Here in our community we regarded him as something of a freak who we both feared for what he might surprisingly do someday and as something far less than an actual human being.

Yet, I’ll ltell you something that is as true as anything you’ll ever hear coming out of the state of Iowa. Never were there three people any more happy than that strange threesome who skipped their way into our hearts at the ice cream social in Dublin last year.

The three of them were the hit of the social. All of us watched little Robby cling to big Cole Anderson. And, we took notice of how affectionately the man held the child on his lap. We blushed a bit when Rebecca Stonehold reached across to Cole and put her hand upon his arm and laughed with him about some terribly humorous thing that Robby had said about all the doings-on.

I’m here to tell you that it brought some tears to the eyes of grown, serious and pessimistic men. What it did to the ladies and old women of the crowd is too extraordinary to describe here. There was a general buzz of happiness that is powerful enough to transform a whole community. And who among us would have thought that such a phenomenon could have been brought to us on the crooked and awkward shoulders of our town cop and works superintendent?

Now, none of this is to say that any of us thought there was an element of romance in this whole relationship between Cole Anderson and Rebecca Stonehold. No sir! Yet, we were mighty surprised one day when several trucks and a big piece of machinery were hauled into town from Davenport and they all pulled into Cole’s big yard and commenced tearing everything asunder and loading up the shards and shreds of the Anderson house and garage. In three days time there wasn’t a drop of evidence that there had ever been a shack of a house there on that property.

And it wasn’t one week later that the Larkin Homes Company, of Bettendorf, started digging out a foundation and laying the footings for a brand new house on the old and former Norman Stanley Anderson property. And a right fine and pretty house it was. My goodness, it contained the most opulent kitchen anyone in this community had ever seen. There was a splendid playroom that was designed with young Robby Stonehold in mind, as was his bedroom on the second floor at the very head of a grand and curving staircase that led up there from a grand foyer (which was in all honesty a word that none of us around here really had heard before nor did we know how to pronouce it in the proper French manner). And, on either side of Robby’s attractive bedroom were two other bedrooms of equal size and extraordinary comfort. Each of the three bedrooms had its very own bathroom.

It seemed like the big house rose up in no time at all over the summer months and, before the beginning of the school season, a landscaping company had come in here from Des Moines and laid out a lawn of several acres surrounding the house and its three-car garage and laid down a sports court that was virtually unheard of outside of city circles in our state.

It was on August 11 of that summer that we all first noticed the “For Sale” sign that went up in the yard of the house on Lefler Road where young Robby Stonehold and his mother, Rebecca, lived.

Cole Anderson, from some source of money that none of us knew the first thing about, had built a lovely house for Robby and Rebecca out there on his parents’ old farm property. All the detritus of Cole’s old life had been neatly and completely swept away and in its place had risen, like a Phoenix, the most beautiful home in all of Dublin or in all of the county for that matter.

Well, we were naturally very curious about this relationship between Cole and Rebecca and all sorts of rumors circulated around town that were always the main topics of conversation at Dooley’s Tavern and at the Perk-Up Coffee Shop over morning breakfast.

Hamm Sullivan had done all the plumbing work at the new house and it was he who described its luxuriousness to to all of us. It appeared to him, Hamm said, that Rebecca and Cole were to have separate bedrooms on either side of Robby’s very extraordinary room. It didn’t look like any love arrangement, Hamm said, and it looked as if, to him, that Cole had invited Robby and his mother to come live in his new house.

It was on exactly 9 September that the barn builders showed up on the Anderson farm and began the construction of a handsome, but small, red barn. It was completely finished by the end of the month and, before the final splash of paint was applied, rumors drifted over from Ames that Harley Woods, the most famous quarter horse trainer in Iowa, was bringing over the cutest pony that he had ever seen or trained.

The shocker was yet to come. It was there in the county newspaper on 14 October. There was to be an open house for the entire Community at Cole Anderson’s new house on the 22nd of the month. Everyone was invited, but they were encouraged to car pool so too many cars would not be parked out on the county road. The story in the paper said that Digger Newton was going to be there with his pig roaster and Mrs. Newton was planning all the side dishes, desserts and beverages. Why the whole town buzzed with the exciting news for days, but it was only the beginning of the portentous news to come.

Postmaster Enid Coleman, only a day after the story broke in the county newspaper about the open house, said a rumor had drifted down from Nora Springs that Rebecca had introduced Cole to her Grandma Laura and that they had talked of setting a wedding date. The rumor ran rampant on the wings of the breeze and it had touched the ears of every man, woman and child in Dublin by the daylight’s end.

Pastor Hardin, at the Methodist Church, was mighty flustered about the tale and how it was growing like a monster with every retelling of it. This, he thought, needed to be nipped in the bud or whatever part of it was truth had to be substantiated and controlled. He headed out toward Cole Anderson’s new house.

Mrs. Hardin waited patiently for her husband’s return. It was considerably past her and her husband’s bed times when she finally saw the headlights of his car turning into the driveway of the parsonage. She rushed to meet her husband at the doorway from the garage and, as she always did, to take his hat and coat. She noticed immediately, even in the dim light, that the pastor was ghostly white.

“What is it dear? What is it?”

The pastor shook his head silently. His eyes glowed with wonder and excitement, but he was nearly breathless and couldn’t speak.

“Come, dear,” his wife said. “Come and sit down.”

So, from his chair in the parlor, as soon as he could speak, the pastor told his loving wife all the news about the new and spectacular house and about Robby and Rebecca and Cole. Mrs. Hardin was left speechless by the news.

Indeed, Cole had proposed to Rebecca Stonehold and the woman had agreed and allowed Cole to place on her finger a diamond ring that had been Cole’s mother’s. Rebecca had held out her hand with great excitement and joy for the pastor to examine the quaint piece of jewelry. As she did, Robby squealed with happiness and Cole beamed proudly from the large, over-sized chair that had been placed in the new home just for him.

The pastor had always thought of Cole, quite honestly, as a genuinely grotesque and awkward looking fellow, but as Cole looked over at him now, with that broad smile and sparkling eyes, the pastor realized there was something else about the man that he had always missed -- that had escaped the entire community.

Cole Anderson was a good and kind man. He had never been given the chance to love anyone -- not even his own, strange parents -- until he met little Robby. The boy had taught the giant of a man how to love and what it felt like to be loved in return. And the mother, pretty Rebecca, had been caught up in the love and drawn into its triangle. She was consumed by a love, which only a mother can understand, for her son, but she found herself unable to escape the magnetic draw toward Cole Anderson.

On the morning of the ice cream social, she explained to Pastor Hardin, as they were leaving her home and walking toward Cole’s Jeep Cherokee, she had reached up on her tippy-toes, as high as she could get, and had kissed Cole on the cheek. She told him that he was the kindest and sweetest man she had ever met. And, in that instant, she whispered to the pastor, Cole Anderson became handsome and desirable. His clumsiness seemed to float away, Rebecca said to the pastor, and a charming confidence settled over him. And his tongue relaxed and he was able to speak softly and smoothly.

“And you, Rebecca, are more beautiful than the most extraordinary of all God’s angels. You and dear Robby have taught me about happiness and love. I would never have known either had it not been for you. You so kindly shared your son and allowed me to have the first friend in my entire life. It was a gift that only an angel can give.”

Pastor Hardin’s wife sat quietly, listening to her husband’s account, and tears streamed from her eyes and slid down her cheeks. It was the grandest love story she had ever heard.

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