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Bells and Wings

“Every time a bell rings,” Jess said.  “An angel gets its wings.”

“And if I hear you say that one more time,” Ruth responded.  “I’m gonna rip those bells from over the door.”

The door closed, the bells tinkling with the motion.  For years, those same bells had rang as the store front door opened.  For years, Jess had said the same phrase during a slow day of business.  For years, Ruth had swore that she’d tear them down if she ever heard that phrase again.  But still, they hung, filling the small store with it’s high pitched chimes.  The store itself had been in the town since the beginning.  At one time, it was the general store – part post office, grocery store, and ‘catch all for your needs’.  It was the center of information for the small bustling town, but that was then.  Today, it was J&R Grocery, the center of Jess and Ruth’s world.

“Merry Christmas,” Jess said, a wide smile forming on his face, increasing the lines from a lifetime of smiling at customers.  A young man, no older than thirty, quickly walked up to the counter, hugging his coat close to him.  “You’re new arou- -”

“Excuse me,” the young man interrupted, walking up to the counter.  “I’m looking for the quickest way to the interstate.”

“Caught in the detour, huh?”  Jess asked.  The young man, his thick eyebrows furrowing together, took a deep breath.  Jess’ smile dropped, his eyes focusing on the man’s coat.  “Which one you wanting?” Interstate 82 was the most common that people looked for, but Interstate 51 was within reach as well.  They actually connected about 20 minutes away, at least on a good day with no tractors on the road and the bridge not being repaired.

“I-51.”  The man said, his voice short and to the point.

“Well, I tell you what.”  Jess said, starting to gesture with his hands toward Main street.  “I’m not sure we have any quick way there, with the bridge being out and all.  Wouldn’t you know they pick the busiest time of the year to work on the bridge.”  The young man rubbed his forehead, making it clear he wasn’t interested in the reason, only the result.  “Anyway, if you follow main street south, you’ll come to County Road 622.  It’s a windy one, but all the bridges work there.”  Jess said, snorting at his own joke.  He thought it was funny.  The young man wasn’t laughing.

“Thanks.”  The young man said before turning and heading back to the door.  The bells rang again, but Jess didn’t have much to say.  He turned from the counter and walked over to his padded folding chair.  He sat down and picked up his newspaper, flipping to the obituary section.

“Anything new in the world?”  Ruth asked him.

“Just reading old man Simpson’s obituary,” Jess said.  “I wish I would’ve visited him more in Green Hills.  He was always a good customer.”

“And a good man,” Ruth responded, eyeing her husband of 41 years.  She had seen him like this, especially around this time of year.  They had spent almost every year of their marriage here, minus the war and a short stint in Buffalo, and most of that time was happy.  At least until they lost her.  She was just old enough to be excited about the tree and the lights and the presents.  Ruth bit her bottom lip.

“I guess things won’t ever be the same, huh?”  Ruth said.  “I mean, Simpson has always been here.  I think he lived here from birth, except he did say once that he went to France for the War.”

“Uh-huh.  Says here he was a World War I vet, fought in the third battle of Aisne and earned a purple heart.”  Jess said, still reading the paper.  “You’d think that injury would’ve slowed him down.”

“Not that old codger,” Ruth said with a smile.  “I don’t even know what his injury was or how he got it.”

“Probably trying to talk to the enemy.” Jess said, laughing and this time getting Ruth to smile at his joke.

“He certainly could tell quite the story,”  Ruth said, remembering the punchline to one of Simpson’s stories.  “And God used him mightily.  Why… I remember 24 people getting saved at a tent revival he preached.”

“Must’ve been half the town.”  Jess said, and then his eyes changed.  “But that was then…”  What once was bright with memories was now lost in thought, glazed over and focused on nothing.  Ruth remembered the revival.  They dressed their daughter up in her Sunday best.  She was just a babe then, barely able to hold her head up.  She had Jess’ nose, everyone said that, and her mama’s eyes.  They were visiting their parents for the holidays, just in from Buffalo, and the first visit after having her.

“We should’ve stayed.”  Jess said, his voice weak.  “It’s not like anyone needs us here.  What do we got?  Five or Ten regular customers and the occasional person heading to the Interstate.”  He was right.  Times had been rough, financially speaking.

“I know, but Buffalo wasn’t for us.”

“If we weren’t here… she might’ve survived.”  Jess said, and he might have been correct.  There, they had closer hospitals and expressways and all the things that kept life moving.  Ruth walked over to him, putting her hands on his shoulders and squeezing them.

 The bell rang, announcing another person in the store.  Ruth walked over to the cash register, pretending to be cleaning it, while Jess stood to his feet, walking to the counter.

 “Can I help you?”  Jess asked the young woman.  She was taller than average, and a bit plump around the face.

 “I’m looking for Jessie & Ruth Parker.”  She said, a smile on her face.  Jessie’s eyebrows furrowed, unsure of who this was and what she wanted.

 “I’m him.”

 “I was asked to stop by and thank you.”  She said.

 “O…K.”

 “Thirty-five years ago, you gave food and a blanket to a young woman with child so she could make it through the winter.”  She said.  Jessie’s face became lined with wrinkles, trying to remember.  “Twenty-two years ago, you helped tow a car and paid for a night in the motel for a family trying to go to their family home for Christmas.”  She continued, Jess and Ruth’s eyes growing wide, confusion etched on their face.  “Fourteen years ago, you smiled at a woman, taking a moment to tell her the story of your own struggle with your child.  She lived through the holidays, and now, is serving your God faithfully.  And last year, you read the Bible to William Simpson when he first moved into the home.  He wanted to say thank you.”  They stared at this woman, a stranger, more strange than anyone they had ever met.

 As quickly as she entered, she turned and walked out of the store, Ruth and Jess unable to speak.  They watched her leave the store.  The door closed and the bell rang.

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