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Klarkie's Christmas by Ernest Youhouse

Of all the characters that inhabit my childhood memories, few have reached the prominence of Klark Lionel Elyon Gold. He was mute, suffering from Dysarthria from birth, but he was everywhere in the small Town of Fairfield, Connecticut, walking and pushing his souped-up shopping cart with all terrain wheels. It was often filled with discarded glass bottles and bags of whatever trash he found on the sidewalks and suburban streets. Some of the meaner people in town referred to him as “Klark the retard” or that “broken, homeless man.” I always knew him as Klarkie. He could be found in any number of locations, sweeping floors, picking up trash and doing odd jobs for businesses that appeared to tolerate his eccentricities.

He was always dressed in clothes that were clean but well-worn, garments from another era, old khaki pants, narrow club tie and an ancient blue Oxford cloth shirt with all the buttons buttoned. His shoes were well-worn “dirty bucks.” His blond hair was closely cropped in a style from the 60’s. I never knew his age, but he appeared to be in his 50's when I was young.

He lived in the old Manor Boarding House on the Old Post Road, a house that was on the historical register and appeared to be the largest house in town. I had never been inside, but from the sidewalk peering through the ancient iron fence, I imagined in its day it was the grandest house in Fairfield.

My first encounter with Klarkie was at the Fairfield Drug Store & Soda Fountain in the Grand Union Shopping Center, where he was sweeping the floor. He was not a tall man but thin and wiry with the posture of a long, compressed spring, ready to expand. He was always moving, walking, sweeping, picking up trash and righting bicycles that had fallen over in front of the library.

At the age of eleven, I was headed for a life of crime and looking for a five-finger discount in the gift section of Fairfield Drug Store & Soda Fountain where I randomly grabbed a brass statuette of a fisherman. And just before putting it in my pocket, I caught Klarkie’s eye and saw his recognition of my theft, but more than disapproval, his eyes spoke to me of knowing better and understanding. Moving slowly toward the front of the store, I veered away from the exit at the last minute and placed the item on a shelf in front of the cashier. “I don’t have enough to buy this so…“ I mumbled, and before leaving the store, I looked back where Klarkie stood, sweeping the floor and I saw what I thought might be an approving smile.

Less than a year after my first and only brush with thievery, I sat on the curb not far from my home with tear-filled eyes. While riding my brand new 10 speed bicycle, a deep pothole had collapsed the front wheel, throwing me over the handlebars onto the pavement. Not long after, I saw a strange sight through the tears. Klarkie was pushing his shopping cart in my direction.

As he wiped the blood off my cuts and scrapes and applied band aids from a medical kit that magically appeared from a bag in the cart, I noticed the strength in his arms and hands. He lifted me up and helped me climb into the shopping cart. As I sat on a trash bag filled with whatever he had collected from the streets, I watched him pick up my broken bicycle and attach it to the side of the cart with bungee cords. He pushed me home and deposited me safely at my front door only to disappear before my parents came to the door.

Afterward, Klarkie became a moving fixture in my young life. When I saw him, I always spoke or waved to him. Even when I was with kids my age who questioned my actions and made fun of this quiet and gentle man, I acknowledged him. He was a fixture in Fairfield, a living and fast-moving monument to seemingly useless activity. Up until the time I left Fairfield to attend Boston College, I would look for him in my hometown, and, years later, I sometimes missed him when I walked the littered streets of Boston or New York, expecting his shopping cart to appear around the corner like a ship to a marooned sailor.

After college, I had bounced around the broadcasting industry in the Northeast. I was working as a radio sportscaster, paid well to talk about sports and the athletes who competed for the almighty dollar. As I cast countless, often meaningless words into the cold abyss of electronic communications, I longed to talk less, to do more. When I received the news of my mother’s passing, I scheduled my bereavement PTO and headed south to Connecticut to oversee the closing and sale of my childhood home.

I drove slower than usual from Boston to Connecticut, thinking of how empty my life seemed just days before Christmas. I felt “talked out,” and in need of a change, to do something with my life beyond just talking about it. I was married to my job, with several failed relationships and no prospect for marriage. I was curious and ultimately concerned what life had in store for me next.

When I arrived in Fairfield, I was unable to find a hotel room due to a basketball tournament at the local University, so I stopped at the Manor Boarding House on the Old Post Road. A neatly painted “Vacancy” sign was displayed on the front gate. Why not, I thought. I’d love to see the inside of this historic house which had occupied my childhood imagination with images of ghosts and historical mystery.

Inside, the Manor Boarding House was old, but elegant. I felt as if I had stepped back into the 1920’s. It smelled of fresh flowers, cedar paneling and Murphy’s wood soap. I wondered if Klarkie was still alive and living here. A portly older woman with thinning gray hair and a neatly pressed blue uniform greeted me immediately.

“Are you in need of a room sir?” she asked.

“Yes,” I replied. “For two nights if possible.”

“We will set you right up. You have come at the best time and will be the special guest of Mr. Gold for the Manor Christmas dinner party tonight,” she offered.

“How nice, “ I said, not knowing what to expect but thinking “Mr. Gold?” I wondered if he was related to Klarkie, and accepted the heavy brass key she held out to me. Walking up one side of the regal, double staircase with balusters and handrails of dark hardwood, I imagined the ghosts of Christmas past might appear at any moment. My room was equally charming with solid cherry antique chairs and a luxurious Brussels quilt on the four-poster bed. I thought, I just stepped back 100 years into my great grandmother’s home.

At 6pm that evening, there was a gentle knock on my door followed by “Dinner is being served in the Main Dining Room Sir, please join us.” And “Jackets are requested this evening.” Donning my sport coat, I made my way down to the dining room.

There at the head of a giant table sat Klarkie in an old dinner jacket and a narrow tie from decades past. His hair, once sandy blond, was white now, thinner, and yet his age was still undecipherable. The table was filled with people I recognized. There was the president of Fairfield Bank & Trust, the chief of police and several prominent attorneys, but also many of the Town’s so-called “broken people” all dressed up in what appeared to be borrowed clothes from years past. There was the famous “Bag Lady of Downtown Fairfield,” and several of the 'town drunks' drinking coffee and laughing at their borrowed clothes and the feast before them.

A young mother with three children was seated next to Klarkie and her eyes were as wide open as could be. Her children were eating everything they could reach and burping from gulping the ginger ale mixed with cranberry juice. Klarkie rubbed the head of the youngest boy like a grandfather who hadn’t seen him for a while. Four servers scurried about filling glasses and bringing generous plates of food to all. Everyone was acting as if this were a family gathering, there were no social boundaries here and the conversations were kind and pleasant.

The table grew quiet as Klarkie bowed his head and prayed silently. I looked around the room at the oil paintings and portraits of prominent and stern men on the dining room walls, men long dead but appearing certain of their own influence even now. There was a clear and unmistakable resemblance to the quiet man whose strong, callused hands were steepled as he prayed at the head of the table.

“I was saddened to hear of your mother’s passing,” a man to my right stated. I recognized him as the town dentist, Dr. Baine.

“Thank you, Dr. Baine, “ I responded, followed by, “I guess that makes me an orphan now,” in an attempt at humor.

“Oh nonsense, you have family here. We’re proud of our famous, native son,” he said.

We were interrupted by more plates brimming with delicious food and what I could only surmise was expensive and delicious champagne served in lead crystal glasses. After the meal, we moved through enormous oak doors that were open to an adjacent room, a magnificent ballroom with cathedral ceilings and 10-foot windows framed by red velvet curtains.

In the center of this great room there was a spectacular Christmas tree over 16 feet tall, built entirely from glass bottles, recycled bottles of all shapes, sizes and colors filled with white lights that gave the tree a living quality and a glow of warmth that overwhelmed me. It looked as if it were a permanent fixture in the room and had taken years to build and secure.

As the remaining crowd of dinner guests moved into the room, led by a dozen squealing and excited children, the servers from dinner began handing out gifts--first to the children and then to the adults. Like the bottles on the tree, the people filling the room were all different -- tall, short, rich, poor, fat and thin, bright and dull -- yet close and joined together in this special Christmas celebration.

Klarkie, shorter than I remembered and stooped over, moved slowly toward me leaning on a cane. He handed me a small box covered in torn and faded gift-wrapping paper; then he nodded with a glint in his eye that was both knowing and loving.

“I, I don’t have …” I stammered. And then, “Thank you for this,” I offered for his hospitality and kindness to me. “You are too kind.” I held out my hand which he shook warmly.

With a quick wave, as if to say, “It’s alright and my pleasure,” and then, after a gentle pat on my shoulder, he was off to see his other guests.

I opened the box carefully, unsure of what it contained. Inside was the brass figurine of the fisherman I had almost stolen so many years ago. Surprised, to say the least, I stood motionless for a long time until I felt the warmth of the room’s giant fireplace with large yule logs burning behind me.

As I turned, I noticed an intricately crafted mural hanging above the mantle of the fireplace with this embroidered message:

May your actions preach more loudly than your lips.”

And, at that moment, for once in my life, I was at a loss for words.

I wept.

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