The Kid

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Chapter Fifteen

The trip from Boston to Des Moines took a very long time, especially as every passing minute was longer than the one before it. Jason stared out the train window, only half seeing the countryside slicing past.

He felt as miserable as he could remember, worse even than when his mother had died. He didn’t know why that was...how things could be more awful.

Yet they were. Thirty-plus hours spent sitting in a train berth, no possessions but the clothes on his back and five dollars in his wallet, praying nobody would recognize him and wonder what he was doing fleeing Massachusetts in the middle of the World Series--and no assurances that any light was at the end of his journey’s tunnel.

The inside of his own mind was the worst part, as thoughts upon thoughts surrounded on all sides by more thoughts drove him mad with worry, threatening to make him physically ill.

Had he played his last baseball game ever? If he did what he knew was the wrong thing, and cheated, would it be worth it to have all his dreams come true? Could he really throw a World Series?

Would Raven ever speak to him again? Despite her father’s insistence, she had made it plain that without Jesus he wasn’t right for her...was there any way to make up that deficit? Did he even want to? Could he ever get her out of his head?

And worst of all, the questions that bothered him on the deepest levels...had Bob told the truth?

Had his father really done such a thing for him?

Jason spent a lot of time thinking about his father. He spent a lot of time wondering what answers waited for him.

Crossing into Indiana early Thursday evening, Jason heard the fourth game of the World Series playing in the berth across from his. He could have moved away, could have walked to the other end of the train...but something wouldn’t let him. He sat and listened with his eyes closed, listened to the Braves, his Braves, Phil Brice and Sammy Washington and Bud Tripplehorne, lose by two runs to the New York Mets.

He listened to the announcer commenting on the absence of one Jason “The Kid” Stiller, how it had affected the evening’s game, joining all of his fellow broadcasters in wishing the young man a swift recovery.

So that was how Bob was going to play it. He was out sick. Jason spent a minute or two wondering how Germane was taking things--his being gone would alter the precious gambling figures, wouldn’t they?

Probably not by too much. Probably not enough to really matter. He could try and run away from the decision, just be gone for the rest of the week and things would be decided without him...

Except--that was no solution and Jason knew it. He had to go back, and pretty quickly at that.

But even if he only stopped over in Gillett Grove for ten minutes, just long enough to ask his father maybe three questions--he’d come too far to simply turn around.

Willing the train to go faster, wishing to just get there and get it all over with, The Kid found himself praying before he realized it--and once he realized it he kept praying.

Maybe God would forgive him for welching on their agreement. Jason needed all the help he could get.

* * *

Nobody knew he was coming, so nobody was waiting at the train station for him. Jason managed to hitch his way the sixty miles to Gillett Grove--and being five in the morning, nobody that he rode with was awake enough to recognize him. He was thankful.

The town was just like he’d left it, seven months and a lifetime before. General store, the feed shop, Stuckey’s hardware...for a while Jason wondered which of his old friends had played in the garage league that summer. He kept trying on old memories to see how they fit, as he wandered through his hometown feeling like a stranger.

Having arrived at an odd time of day--too late to catch the farmers and too early for everybody else--Jason had Gillett Grove to himself as he walked up Main Street, turned a right past the fire station, and finally stood in the middle of 3rd St., looking at the front of the drugstore.

He was sitting on the steps leading into the store when his father walked up a few minutes before seven o’ clock.

* * *

The sun was just dawning, the darkness running to hide away, and they recognized one another instantly.

Fred Stiller stopped in his tracks, surprised and delighted and confused and anxious all at once. “Is that you?”

The young man sitting on his drugstore steps didn’t say anything, and as the growing light revealed his face, the look in his son’s eyes was very troubling.

His eyes...plus the fact that he was here, and not in Boston. “Jason?”

“Good morning...dad.”

They looked at one another, neither knowing what to say next.

Fred tried first. “Are you okay? The radio--they said you were sick.” He was as confused as he knew he probably looked.

“I’m fine.”

Nothing more than that? “I--I don’t know what to say, Jason. No calls or letters or anything in the past seven months. If it weren’t for Sonny Barger and KKWA, I wouldn’t know anything about you at all.”

Now his son appeared surprised. “You listen to my games?”

Well of course--why wouldn’t he? “Every one, Kid.” They both smiled just a bit at the use of his son’s nickname. “I’ve been...I am very proud of you.” Would he never be able to talk to the boy?

Fred offered a quick but extremely heartfelt prayer for wisdom and understanding and above all healing.

He could ask a thousand questions. He asked one. “Come inside and have some breakfast?”

* * *

Jason ate breakfast with his father for the first time in a great many years, and for the first time in a good long while he was thankful that his father was an easygoing man.

He didn’t start right in with the hard questions. They managed to pass an hour just talking about his time with the Braves, even talked a little about Raven--the parts that didn’t hurt so much--and Jason knew that his father would let him decide when to talk about the hard stuff.

Why he had come back...and why he had left.

“I came here with a question.” It was getting on towards nine, and the shop was opening soon, and Jason knew time was fleeing from him. He had to face his fears.

“Ask away.” His father washed the breakfast dishes. Jason waited with a dishtowel.

“I heard Wednesday night that I wasn’t the only member of this family to write a letter to the Boston Braves.” He was watching his father carefully.

But Fred Stiller was not a man of guile. He was surprised, and let that show on his face. “I asked Mr. Germane not to speak to you of that.”

“Well, he didn’t, not until now.”

“Why now?”

“It’s a long story. Dad--” and Jason faced his father square on, using all the courage he had, “did you offer him that money?”

His dad honored his courage by facing him as well, letting Jason into open, honest eyes. “Yes, Jason. Offered and delivered upon request.”

“You don’t have that kind of money--we’ve never been able to afford anything like that kind of extravagance...why?" He wasn’t angry, which was in itself strange. Jason was just tired, and not sure what to believe anymore.

Raised eyebrows, and a frank grin. “It didn’t look like you were going to college, son.”

This felt true, but... “My college fund couldn’t have been that much.”

Now the grin turned into a sad smile, and to his surprise Jason actually saw sorrow in his father’s eyes. How many times had he missed it before?

How wrong had he been all this time?

“Your mother and I weren’t taking vacations anymore either. It didn’t put me in debt, not really--and I could tell how important baseball was to you.

“I figured if it would help--did it?”

His mind spinning, Jason could say nothing but, “Yes, sir.”

“And anything that would help...I spent a lot of time last year thinking about you, about where it looked like your life was going.” Jason’s father absently washed an already clean dish. “We never talked about it--or much of anything, I guess. But I don’t think I’ve been a very supportive father.

“I didn’t see how much you loved that game, and I spent much too much time thinking I knew what was best for you.” They met one another’s eyes. “Long after you were old enough to know that for yourself.”

He needed time to adjust, time to realize what his father was saying...and what was really true, now that it seemed his whole feeling and outlook about life in Gillett Grove had been a very selfish, childish thing. “I’m not sure I’m that old yet, Dad.”

A strong hand rested on his shoulder for a moment, and then was gone. His dad wasn’t going to push. “I’m just glad to see you, Jason.”

It was time to open up shop, and greet the first customer, and without being asked Jason started doing the things he had done a thousand times--things that he had sworn he’d never do again.

He began the Friday morning assisting his father in running Gillett Grove’s general store.

* * *

Later Jason would remember it as one of the strangest days of his life. Everything might have been exactly as it had been his entire young life...except that he wasn’t young anymore. Everything was just the same, except that everything was different.

The same customers came in, residents and citizens of the town that had of course known Jason since he had been knee-dandling small. To add to the strangeness was the different way he was greeted...some folks knew he had moved out, and said it was nice that he’d come back; more than a few baseball fans awkwardly congratulated him on his rookie season, at the same time silently wondering why he wasn’t in Boston doing his job; and there were several elderly ladies that had no idea he wasn’t eleven anymore, helping out his father for the first time.

And there during it all was the man he had come to see, the man he realized he didn’t know at all. Jason watched his father, feeling like it was for the first time. He saw the kindness in his face, and in his actions; he noted the gentle way Fred Stiller talked and joked and laughed with his friends and customers.

When there was time, and the shop was quiet, Jason began telling his father about being a Brave. About his time behind the plate, about the first day, and Bud Tripplehorne, and Kip and D.G. and Raven...

He got embarrassingly tongue-tied, mentioning her. Not entirely sure why, Jason figured at least part of the reason was because of some of the girls he’d had dealings with in the past. “You’d really like her, Dad.”

Gracious man that he was, Fred Stiller said only “I’m sure I would--and I hope I will,” and left things.

As the afternoon began to wane, Jason found himself describing the scene in the boss’s office two nights before. He didn’t remember everything Bob had said, but the basic message was one he couldn’t get out of his head for more than a minute at a time.

And surprisingly, his father didn’t try to tell him what should be done.

Not even when Jason asked. “I don’t know, son.

“Well, that’s not quite the story. What I do know is that if you can, you should do what’s right.” Reaching under the counter to re-stock a penny candy jar that the newly-allowanced children of the town had nearly emptied, he chuckled softly. “Not that doing what’s right isn’t usually a lot harder than just saying you should.

“But it’s still true, and I’ll still say it.”

“But what’s right? As far as the Braves, and the Series?”

“What would be wrong?”

Well, his father had him there. Jason watched life pass outside on 3rd street for awhile before he answered. “Cheating, and lying...” he sighed, “And throwing the World Series.” He could feel when his father stopped moving around the store and came to stand behind him.

“It seems too easy, doesn’t it?”

He hadn’t noticed when, but somewhere along the line he had grown taller than his father. Jason didn’t know why that bothered him. “It’s easy to say, Dad, but Bob’s holding everything I care about hostage.”

“So you said. I wish I could help you, or make the decision for you.”

“But you can’t.”

“No, son. I can’t. I know how important dreams are--but you can make them too important as well. There’s people not a hundred yards from here that are chasing after dreams with all their might, no matter what rule or regulation or ethic they have to break to get there.

“And when they do? It’s mostly just ashes anyway.” And then his father asked a question that made Jason catch his breath to hear it.

“Are you sure you’re dreaming about the right things?”

Then the older Stiller walked into the back room, to finish tidying up for the evening. Leaving his only child almost dazed.

His dreams, his plans, the only things he had really counted on for so long...might they all be mistakes?

And behind that was another quiet thought, a remembrance of one subject that had not come up in the entire day, just about the only thing they had skipped--and Jason realized that something else was missing too, had been missing for so long that he almost didn’t realize it.

A few tears for Mary Stiller slipped past his guard. Her grave was a ten-minute walk away, just go north on 3rd and turn past the church...

But he had never walked that road before and would not that day.

Working harder than he needed to, trying to put it out of mind, Jason was surprised to see his father waiting, coat and hat in hand. “It’s time to close up shop, son.” He didn’t ask if Jason was staying. Which was fine with the youngest Stiller because he didn’t know.

He didn’t even know why he had come back, not really.

The Stiller men buttoned their windbreakers as they walked down 3rd street--away from the church and that grave, thankfully--and Jason thought hard about it in the silence.

He had known from the beginning that Bob Germane was telling the truth. It was just like his father to...

To be so kind.

Swallowing, Jason finally accepted just how wrong he had been about his father, about the warmth and goodness of the man--and he wondered if there wasn’t something else he had been very wrong about. “Where are we off to?”

“Supper, and then I have a little chore to do before it’s time for turning in.” His father looked over at him. “Tell the truth, I’m not sure why you’re here, Jason, but I’m quite glad of the company.”

“Thank you.”

* * *

Fred could see something lurking in the boy’s eyes. They had discussed so much that day...was that one subject still going to be kept under wraps?

Fred knew his son had never gotten past his mother’s death. He had watched the boy push it away time and again, growing older, growing taller without growing up.

And the older man was smart enough--wise enough, perhaps--to know that he couldn’t make Jason do anything...and he would be wrong to try.

As they walked towards the fairgrounds just to the north of Gillett Grove, Fred Stiller prayed silently and fervently for his son.

* * *

Jason remembered the fairgrounds, and remembered his father’s job.

It was a small thing, but a small thing that he had never understood. Every evening between April 27th and November 3rd, during the season the fairgrounds were open for business, his father would walk through the gates, past the midway, down to the far end where a small shed was half-hidden in the shadows.

And that night was no exception. As a gorgeous Iowan sunset faded in the distance the pair walked through the gates, his father greeting Mr. Hadley at the ticket booth, and making sure to say hello to anybody he knew--which was everybody there--as they walked together past the games and the prizes and the food.

The little shed was exactly the same, although Jason had not walked past the fairground gates in...many years. In too long. He remembered the creaking sound the door made when his father swung it open, and remembered his old job. When Dad flipped the catch and pushed the big wooden awning from the inside, Jason stood in place to catch it, keep it from shutting again, until his father could walk around to where he was.

Then they lifted it together...and Jason realized that the last time he had helped his father with that task, he had been much too little to do more than keep the awning from slamming shut.

“Don’t pinch your fingers, scamp.” His father grinned at him, and Jason had to smile back, having thought of the same old joke at the same time.

And he knew what came next. Dad would go back inside the little shed, a former cotton-candy booth that had been converted into a miniature power plant...and flip seventeen switches one after the other.

The first would send power to the big gate lamps. The second would light the ferris wheel. The third through eighth would make the midway come alive. And on they would go, until the entire park was alive with color and movement and many sparkling lights.

Which was all well and good, Jason supposed...but why? His father didn’t even like carnival rides all that much, and would never waste his money in a midway.

Jason had never for the life of him understood why the quiet, steady general-store owner came out every evening, sixth-months-and-one-week out of the year, just to flip seventeen moronic switches that any carny could take care of without a second thought. And then walk home and go to bed. He had been doing so for years.

Stepping into the shed for the first time in ages, Jason heard the same dead leaves crunching underfoot, smelled the same combination of hot dogs and candy and approaching autumn...and for some reason he felt like crying. Because life didn’t make sense, perhaps.

His father leaned on the edge of the big window, looking out on the park, waiting for the right time to flip his seventeen switches. “I guess you’re not surprised that I’m still doing this every night?”

“No.” What else could he say?

“I guess it’s a little strange, and maybe I should just let it go.

“But--” and his father turned to face him, his eyes distant with memory in the fading light, “Do you remember how much fun we used to have, ages and ages ago, when we’d come to the carnival?”

Jason nodded, and remembered. It did indeed seem like a hundred years before, when he and his father...and his mother used to walk the midway, try out the rides, and have a wonderful time together.

And Jason understood why he had never wanted to come to the carnival after his mother died, why he had never taken part in his father’s little job after Mary Stiller had gone away. Gone to be with Jesus.

He had not been able to take the sights, the sounds, the smells and just feelings of being at the fairgrounds without being consumed with the pain--there was no escape, no way to hide from the memories of his mother. Jason wanted to fight it, wanted to run away...but he had done plenty of that, and it hadn’t helped anything.

In one of the most courageous acts of his life Jason Stiller stayed with his father in the shed, listened to the man talk about the past, and just let the pain come. Lived with it, felt around in it, faced up to it.

His father kept talking. “It might be a silly thing to do, coming all the way out here just to turn the lights on every night...but you might remember, maybe not, but when you were very small the mayor asked me to take care of this job. Course, that was when the fair was brand new and nobody wanted to help out.

“I suppose they could surely get somebody else to take this fool job now.” It was a sad smile on his father’s face, and it prompted Jason’s interest.

“So why are we here?”

“Well...” and without answering his father crossed the small shed to the electrical panel, checked the connections, and began flipping switches.

As he did so he talked, though Jason was busy watching the outside world, watching the fairgrounds spring forth out of darkness.

“The reason is pretty much for Mary, I suppose. For your mother.” The gates, and the ferris wheel, and the midway came to life. “It was just a job to me, in the beginning, coming out here and throwing switches.” The roller coaster lit up, followed by the tilt-a-whirl. “But the first time Mary came with me...she stood just where you’re standing, and was so excited to watch the park light up.

“I saw the job and the lights--in a way I hadn’t before.” The last of the switches turned, lighting the fence around the park, and then Fred Stiller moved to watch next to his son. “She just loved this part, and this place. They’ve offered to let somebody else take care of this, but I asked to keep doing it.” A very faraway tone crept into his father’s words. “Coming out here, I make sure I don’t forget her.”

The silence that accompanied this remark felt like years to Jason Stiller.

He had caught his father’s words. He had caught the sound of love inside them, and the feeling behind that.

And he understood how terribly, completely wrong he had been about his father, and felt shame that started around his ankles and ended at the roots of his hair. “You...really loved her.”

“You bet I did.” Jason felt his father’s gaze. “This is a surprise to you?”

The boy had to whisper, not trusting his voice just then. “It shouldn’t have been, but...yeah, I guess.” Before his dad could say anything Jason continued, “I’ve been wrong about a great many things.”

He felt a gentle hand on his shoulder. “I love you too, Jason.”

And finally, once and for all, the dam burst. Jason had allowed himself to start feeling, and there was no stopping it now. Though part of him felt it was foolish and silly the rest of Jason Stiller sobbed, releasing the pent-up frustrations and fears and hatred that he had carried around for so long.

Somewhere in the midst of his thunderburst Jason felt his father’s arms holding him tightly, heard a quiet, “Let it all go, Jason. It’s okay. I’m here.” And that made it worse--and better--and the tears began anew.

When his brain had moved past enough hurt to know what was going on around, Jason found himself apologizing over and over again. For not trusting, not loving, his father. For not letting his father love him.

And his father held true to his good character, accepting every apology and forgiving all.

Not that Fred Stiller was a saint, or any sort of perfect man...but as he himself said, quietly, so Jason could hear, “My son was dead, but now he’s alive, he was lost...but now I have found him.”

He also said “I love you,” many times. They both did, trying to make up in a few short minutes for eleven missed years.

Finally Jason found a more quiet place to exist in, and stepped back though not away from his father.

He felt...so different, so much better, as if weights that had been hung around his neck for years and years had suddenly been yanked away. Could it be that easy? He looked at his father, who was grinning in a way he hadn’t seen the man smile in a very long time...and thought that maybe it could.

But something wasn’t quite right, though. Besides the awful decision that still waited in Boston. There was something else missing.

Jason knew what that something was. And remembering it, suddenly, brought a fresh wave of fear over his heart.

Yet he had come much too far that night, that week, to back away. “Dad?”

* * *

Fred saw the look in his son’s tear-sparkled eyes, and knew somehow that his deepest prayer was being answered. “What is it?”

Manna. For some reason the Biblical translation of the words he had just spoken to his son came to mind. A reminder of how his Lord had provided for his son all this time? An indication of what was to come?

Jesus, Fred Stiller prayed silently, you’ve brought him this far. Don’t let him get away now.

“Dad--” and his only son had to close his eyes for a moment before he could bring himself to continue, “If a man, say, knew the truth about Jesus Christ at one point in his life, and sorta...let go, stopped being obedient, just did his own thing for a long time...” his voice choked up, and another quiet moment passed. “Do you think that somebody who walked away might just get a--a second chance?”

Let everything that has breath praise the Lord, Fred Stiller breathed silently and fervently for a quick second. “Jason, I don’t know a whole lot about this world. How things work.” He met his son’s eyes. “But I know one thing for sure--no matter how far you try to walk or run away from Jesus, He’s always standing by your side.

“And if you ever, ever, turn back to Him, He wastes no time in gathering you into His arms.” Now they were both crying. “The Bible says it well and simply, ’If you confess your sins, He is faithful and just to forgive you your sins and cleanse you from all unrighteousness.’”

* * *

If that’s what it would take, The Kid was not going to waste time. “Then I confess, I confess to being disobedient and distrustful and rebellious...and a liar and prideful and spiteful and just plain mean. I confess to hatred, of you and of God for letting Mom die.

“And I am so very sorry, Dad...for everything.” It couldn’t be that simple, it couldn’t come that easily. Jason turned away and watched the lights of the park twirl, waiting for the other shoe to drop.

He felt his father’s hand on his shoulder. “What does it feel like to be a new man?”

...Hearing this, Jason felt around in his soul, in his spirit, looking for--but no, it wasn’t there. The guilt and the shame had disappeared...they had been taken. He was free? He was free!

Father and son said little, concentrating on well-earned rejoicing.

Yet even in that special place life kept moving, and would not wait around for long.

And despite his wish to just stay in that peace for a few months, Jason knew that he had a job to do elsewhere. He allowed himself several short hours to appreciate his new life, to talk with his father about the past, the future, and anything they could think of...but in the end he had to go. “Just for a couple of days, though. The season’s over after Sunday...one way or another I’m coming back here.”

One way or another. Jason felt somehow that the decision might have been more simply laid out for him, after everything that had happened that evening...and yet it would not be any easier.

But that was in Boston. First he had to get back there.

A quick telegram, and then a final hug from his father at the train station...and then The Kid began trekking back across the countryside, every mile bringing him closer to the situation that was holding his dreams captive.

Unsure anymore just what dreams were really worth holding onto.

* * *

Raven Germane had been pretty sure where Jason had gone, wondering with the rest of America what had happened to him...though the rest of America didn’t know that her entire future was riding on The Kid’s actions.

She received his telegram just after noon on Friday, and read it over and over again through one of the worst sleepless nights she had ever known.

On my way back STOP

Jesus saves STOP

Things looking brighter STOP

Would you meet my train Boston Express nine thirty am Sat STOP

I love you STOP

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