Negotiated Tea Bags
This was supposed to be the Christmas story for 2002, but it didn't come around until February 2003.
The actual sad event that prompted all this occurred early in November.
Well, Thanksgiving was a little different this year, what with the Mayflower being closed on Thanksgiving Day. Of course, the Mayflower is closed every Thanksgiving, but this year people noticed. When Mrs. Wilkes passed on early in the month, a few folks thought the restaurant would have to close down, but like Ms. Brenda told that smart-alec reporter from the city paper, “It’s not like we don’t know the recipes!”.
Actually, Mrs. Wilkes had been pretty much in the background the last few years, but it was still her restaurant. And it’s such an important part of our town, it seemed only right to keep it running while things settled out. Even the funeral came after closing time, so nobody had to make any decisions.
But Thanksgiving did allow for a break. I know there are lots of places where going out to a restaurant for Thanksgiving is perfectly acceptable, but around here that would be like admitting you didn’t have either family or friends, so it just isn’t done.
Mr. Henry took the loss pretty hard. He stood across the street from the church during the memorial service, and watched the graveside service from the hill behind the cemetery. Nobody thought ill of him for this, we all know he’s a bit of a loner when he’s not performing.
Of course, after the grieving was most done, Mr. Henry had some practical worries. After all, he lived in the room over Mrs. Wilkes’ garage, and nobody knew what was going to happen with the house. Her son Danny had come up with his family for the funeral, but left the next day without saying anything about it.
When I made my annual turkey sandwich delivery to Mr. Henry’s special place on Thanksgiving, he was more agitated than I’d ever seen him. His usual confidence and bravado seemed to have deserted him.
“I’m too old to move!”, he said. “I been livin’ there since ’62, an’ I don’t want to look for another place! I should have some rights!”
Then he recovered a bit, and went on the attack.
“But I ain’t beggin’. Danny needs me to look after the place, to keep it up an’ lookin’ nice. He oughta pay me! And I ain’t payin’ no more rent!”
Then Mr. Henry looked right at me.
“You gotta help me. Danny’s in town this weekend. I know he’s a grown man, with a family and a good education and that big job down in Florida. I know he thinks I’m just a crazy old man, an' I guess he’s entitled to that. But you grew up with him, you can talk to him, you can talk him into makin’ a deal with me. ”
“I’ll try, Mr. Henry, I’ll try”, I stammered, “But I can’t guarantee anything.”
“I can’t ask no more than that”, said Mr. Henry.
So Friday I went by the Wilkes house, and sure enough Danny was there.
“Come on in”, he said. “I was hoping you'd come by.”
We talked while he worked at cleaning out his Mom's desk. He held up a package of papers, carefully wrapped in rubber bands. "Want to know what the light bill was in April of 1972? Seventy two dollars and sixty five cents! How about an oil change? Twelve dollars in March of 1981."
Just then one of the rubber bands reached the end of its long and useful life, and shot over Danny's left shoulder. "She just never learned how to get rid of things, kept everything around forever."
That was not the sort of thing I wanted to hear from Danny, given my mission.
"Except of course for that Enron stock!," he said with a laugh.
He saw the puzzled look on my face and explained.
"Mom had some money saved up, from the restaurant and my Dad's life insurance, and she asked my advice. I thought I was an investment genius back then, and I talked her into buying Enron stock. I was real proud of myself, since it just kept going up and up."
"But then early in the baseball season last year she called me all agitated. She'd been watching the Braves game, and the announcers said they were playing in Enron field in Houston. Mom was upset, and said she didn't want to own stock in anybody who played against her Braves! I tried to explain advertising and naming rights to her, but it was no use. She sold it all the next day."
I was trying to remember the history of it all. "So that was early 2001?"
"You got it," sighed Danny. "Buy low, sell high. She got out almost at the top. I wish I'd been that big a Braves fan! I hung on to mine."
Danny went back to puttering around the desk. With all this high finance talk, I was afraid Mr. Henry's situation wouldn't sound very important to Danny. I was trying to think of a way to bring up the subject.
But before I could, Danny put down the papers and got a real serious look on his face. He turned toward me and started talking again, sounding like he was giving a speech he’d rehearsed all week.
“I need your help. I’m afraid Mr. Henry might want to move out, now that my Mom’s gone. I know she wanted him to stay here to live out his days, and I want to honor her wishes. And anyway, Mr. Henry has always been one of my heroes."
"I certainly don’t want to charge him rent anymore, and I’d be happy to pay him to look after the place and keep the yard fixed up, " he went on.
"I know he just thinks of me as that dumb little kid that used to live here, but I know you’re good friends with him. Maybe you can talk him into staying.”
Well, things did seem to get a little brighter about then.
“I’ll try, Danny, I’ll try,” I said, trying to keep a straight face.
“That’s all I can ask”, said Danny.
After a little more conversation, I got ready to leave.
“One more thing,” said Danny. "Mr. Henry doesn’t know it, but my Mom set up a trust fund for him years ago. She put all his rent payments in it, and left him some more money in her will. She and I were the trustees, but with her gone we need another person on the account. I need somebody local, who knows what he needs. After all, I have to go back home tomorrow, and I won’t get back here that often.”
I guess I took a little too much time thinking about this bit of news, since Danny said, “Well, get on over here and sign the papers, I already got your name typed in!”
As I left, I saw a flash of white hair in the windows over the garage. I gave a thumbs up sign, and went on back to my house.
Saturday morning, Mr. Henry came to visit me at home, and I told him things were all set.
“You’re a good negotiator,” said Mr. Henry. “You must have really wrung him out!”
“Not really,” I said, “It wasn’t all that hard.”
“Oh, don’t be so modest,” said Mr. Henry. “And anyway, I appreciate it.”
Sunday afternoon it warmed up some, and I made a trip down to the special place. Mr. Henry was wearing a big heavy coat, and a Russian style fur hat bigger than his head.
“It’s amazing,” he said, “what people will throw out. I found this coat and hat right at the end of the trail. This stuff looks brand new!”
“Well, Mr. Henry,” I said, “People do tend to act a little
strange this time of year.”